For their debut at The New York Art Book Fair, Shifter will be publishing a special full-color, newsprint issue, Shifter 19, Part 1. Entitled “Proposals,” this issue invites a distinguished group of contributors who negotiate their dual roles as artist and educator. Each contribution tackles the notion of a proposal as a complex form, which often knots together Intention with Desire, and Negotiation with Collaboration. Their exciting line-up of contributors include: Luis Camnitzer, R.H. Quaytman, Marjetica Potrc, Raqs Media Collective, Michelle Grabner, Ulrike Muller and Doug Ashford amongst many others. Shifter 19, Part 2 will be launched in the spring of 2013 and provide a more detailed deliberation on art and education by artist-educators.
Below are two contributions from previous issues of Shifter Magazine, a topical artist-published magazine co-edited by Sreshta Rit Premnath and Matthew Metzger.
“Don’t Make Friends”, Arnold Kemp, 2011. Courtesy of Shifter Magazine
MM: So I was thinking we could begin this conversation with a rather general question…but one that has become increasingly necessary in thinking through a notion of intention and its contours. Where does intention rest in relation to consciousness? To be more specific, is intention inextricably tied to consciousness, or is there a certain distance between them? Naturally this second question suggests that we may substitute the word distance for time. So that broadly speaking, could we potentially propose that there is either a kind-of triadic relation between Intention, Consciousness, and Time or a dialectical relation where Intention could be looked at as the synthesis between the other two?
And for the sake of not doing what I find so frustrating about conversations that rely on complicated and loaded terminology, I would like to attempt to define a few of these terms merely for the provisional nature of this conversation, so here goes:
Consciousness: Ones awareness of ones own mind being alert to both internal and external stimuli, and reacting accordingly.
Time: A way to understand difference, oftentimes between what was, what is, and what could be, but always according to ones own bodily existence within a variety of contexts.
SRP: This is indeed a difficult but as you say necessary question Matt, and in response I would like to propose a fourth term to your triad. Strangely this fourth term is once again intention. What I would like to introduce into your question is whether our consciousness of intention occurs prior to or after the “intended” action or event has taken place. In other words, is “intention” that narrative instance postulated by my consciousness post-factum in order to retroactively place me (the subject) in a causal relationship to the action (or event) that has already occurred? I am suggesting that there is one notion of intention, which as you say is linked to a “will” – an impulsive agency – that converts an idea or mental image into a physical transformation of some kind, and another notion of intention that is produced by the subject, constituting the narrative consistency of selfhood through time and in space.
In this sense intention creates a loop, a self-corrective mechanism, smoothing the gap between doing and the explanation for what has been done. In most cases I write a statement for my artwork after it is done – even in cases where I have proposed a specific project I find it important to respond spontaneously to materials and procedures during its making so that the initial stated intention of the project must be edited retroactively. Do you find this to be true in your working process? If so can we also categorize those impulses, which change the nature of the project as intention?
MM: But that (the fourth term and a retro-laden meaning) suggests to me a slightly limited model for looking at the contours of intention in relation to action. This is not to say that it isn’t necessarily so, but by using that model doesn’t it primarily null ones initial will to act? Always forcing a return, a reconsideration that could be crassly phrased as “oh, because what I did ended up like this, then my intention must have been this?” But it seems to me that what is important here is the possibility that intention provides for multiple events to fold into each other like a book, where intention could maybe function simply like the index, or a collective archive of contradictory explanations. So we have the initial willed action that one undertakes, which occurs in the present. Then one reconsiders its outcome according to its initial impetus. Then, instead of having a new intention or a second intention to make sense of an action, could we not have two separate events that have occurred which fold into one another that we read linearly? So that intention itself continues to accumulate different manifestations due to our will to act according to our interest? So in a sense it never really begins or ends. This to me is why intention as a term is so squirly, albeit necessary.
SRP: I agree with your notion of a narrative un/folding of intention. That in every willed action there is simultaneously a result of an accumulation of past outcomes and a node of rupture – a narrative break. The reason I want to think of each node in this unfolding as both a beginning and an end is that it seems to me that consciousness – the subject in subjective self-awareness – would be at each instant the sum of accumulated experiences as well as the source of a relative-autonomy or agency. So each intended moment (which is every moment) is the result of a productive conflict between the two. In that sense I would argue that it is not linear at all but rather a kind of broken line, a series of deflections.
The book however proves to be a metaphor with certain over-determinations. As editors we know that the index is always written last. Although it serves as a key for the reader, in it’s writing it follows the inscription of the book itself. I will go even farther to say that most essayists revisit their introductory paragraph to make it better suit the essay that has just been written. There is therefore not only a distinction to be made between stated and unstated (that eludes consciousness) intentions; but also the future-anteriority of intention. The willed action does not take place spontaneously in a vacuum but must be coupled with a reflexive glance – a glancing back as one moves forward.
I am however drawn to your phrasing: “archive of contradictory explanations.” It seems to imply that each object in tshe archive is a kind of node in this folding, and that multiple constellations of conscious intentions can be drawn from this archive. As you know I have a fascination with murder mysteries for this very reason. The detective must create a particular constellation of intentions from this archive of nodes by choosing those that seem relevant and discarding others that are white noise. Every conscious moment is therefore sparked by one aspect of this node of intention – will, agency – while simultaneously constrained by, or coupled with, the backward glance, conscious intention.
MM: So first of all I would like to refer back to a particular sentence of yours as a means with which to further clarify the difference between intention and action in general: “each intended moment (which is every moment) is the result of a productive conflict between the two. In that sense I would argue that it is not linear at all but rather a kind of broken line, a series of deflections”. Could we then say that any and all actions willed from a moment when one’s ‘sensitivity’ to one’s own social/historical constraints (meaning one’s accumulated & collective experience prior to the considered moment) is operating in tandem with personal freedom (that is, having the opportunity to “glance backwards” before moving forward), could then trace the contours of intentionality? I bring this up because it seems important in order to see the necessary dependence each has on the other: without freedom one cannot glance backwards and without a certain ‘sensitivity’ in how one glances, intention becomes distorted, obfuscated into a realm of arbitrariness. To take it a step further there are situations where locating the nexus of a particular intention becomes nearly impossible, for example pleading insanity in a trial or ascribing guilt to a minor’s actions. Thus, the problem with locating one’s intention from an exterior point of view proves to be quite complicated and problematic as the criteria diminish by a kind of growing generalization/corruption of systematic methods (by generalization/corruption I mean a culturally accepted criteria for ethical judgment that is not contingent and does not rely on subjective historical experience) for how one may “solve the murder mystery”.
SRP: I agree with you that the metaphor of the murder mystery is limited in that the detective resides outside the subject whose intentions s/he attempts to map – and furthermore the subject is passive (dead, to be precise). However, if we somewhat agree that individual intention resides somewhere in the dialectic knot between will/freedom and socio-biological constraints, then I would like to discuss how intention functions interpersonally – between people, between organisms.
A fundamental part of communication – especially face-to-face communication – has to do with the way in which we interpret the most subtle of affects in each others gestures and body language. We must interpret the attitude of a person even before a word has been uttered. In a sense we constantly interpret the intentions of others even before they have stated their intent. This interpretation is not always correct and sometimes leads to miscommunication and misrecognition. What I am driving at is an ethics of intention. While intention functions in a future-anterior sense within the individual, it seems to also create a fabric of interpersonal recognitions and misrecognitions that precede communication proper. If communication, or worse a choice to not communicate, is predicated upon what we intuit another person intends to do, and furthermore the actions of the other are co-constituted by this misrecognition, then where do we interrupt this process with an ethics of intention? It seems that it is also an ethics of imagination, even if only an imagination that projects an instant into the future, as the future itself comes into being. How does one cultivate a “sensitivity” (to extend your word) that responds in an instant before consciousness?
MM: I am reminded of Ray Birdwhistell’s text on Kinesics where he speaks of the very process you’re bringing up. He suggests that in a sense, kinesic communication is always a process of refinement, withwhich, in regards to intention, I am inclined to agree. This would then bring us back to the importance of time, or to be more specific, timing. One eventually settles into a nuanced mode of recognition and response when communicating with others that is tweaked over time to become more and more refined to ones own desired results. This to me raises the question of whether intentionality is ever capable of moving beyond the self, beyond subjective desire. One crafts reactions and gestures from interpersonal communication that will produce the greatest satisfactory result. In turn, leading to a deeper and more internal language for decision-making. This in part is what I mean by a “growing generalization/corruption of systematic methods”. That through such internalization our social ethical code is broken down, emphasis on our. This is all to say that I think intention, locked in the individual, becomes the praxis for ethical contradictions between let’s say the Kantian ought – or the categorical imperative – and the subjective will.
I would like to point out however, that Birdwhistell’s term of refinement I think could be seen as a nice synthesis between the categorical imperative and the will. Suggesting that it is a time-based and slow transformation of ethical criteria, again built within ones personal freedom to remain sensitive to ones socio-biological constraints. Where the “cultivation of a sensitivity” becomes less about one reaching or founding ethical particularities, unconscious or otherwise, and more about maintaining a faith in the possibility of a socially recognizable form of ethical intentionality.
So to speak in cheesy but perhaps fitting metaphors, It seems as though the “fabric” that you speak of, being constructed by interpersonal recognitions and misrecognitions that precede communication proper, becomes the hanging sheet drying outside on the clothesline, waving in the wind, with you on one side and me on the other, blocked, masked, and divided.
SRP: Our conversation reminded me of two lines from T. S. Eliot’s “Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock.” It goes:
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
It made me think of how we are constantly constructing ourselves in our every encounter. Which is to say that the fabric that waves between our faces, sometimes hiding, sometimes revealing is in fact the fabric that constructs how we view ourselves as well. To extend the image of the backward glance and bring it into a relational sphere, I feel that in the face of the other we encounter our own face looking back at us. The Kantian categorical imperative (and I don’t claim to understand it in a nuanced way) seems to imply a praxis that is formed by the ethic (ought) that an individual must only do what s/he is willing to apply as a universal law. This dialectical relationship between the individual and the universal seems too broad and generalizing to me and doesn’t seem to leave space for difference.
Instead I would prefer to think of an individual seen as constantly in the process of becoming a self through encounters with others. So that each instance of becoming (I would call this intention) is made up of a coupling of will and ethics, where the ethics of intention must then be located somewhere in the projected backward glance of one’s face in that of the other.
I think I have arrived at almost the same formulation as you, except that I would rather place the notion of freedom in the social sphere rather than in the individual. I think the notions of freedom and agency cannot be separated from ethical considerations – how does one act in relation to other humans, animals and things in the world.
Likewise, I wonder how secrets and deception function socially as markers of individuality. The very idea of a private self that is different from a public self seems to complicate ethical considerations.
MM: To address your concern about difference, I am suggesting that the proposed dialectic is intentionally broad. It must be in order to have the capacity to change according to each moment of consideration. But more importantly, I want to clarify that I only see it as a way to provide a platform for judgment. How one carries out these decisions is precisely where difference is seen. The how is relative, constitutive, and laced with agency.
Also, isn’t the social or even the universal made manifest out of the individual? I understand the need to talk about freedom in relational terms, but at its core I feel as though it always comes back to the individual, and the ways in which ‘others’ (people, animals, and things) give clarity to and establish an ethical subjectivity for, the individual. Again, I hope I am not misunderstanding your point – I could refer to your words to reiterate my point that “in the face of the other we encounter our own face looking back at us”, always and already the individual, and so “intention creates a loop, a self-corrective mechanism”, thus deriving from and culminating in the individual.
I also wonder about the last sentence you bring up regarding “how secrets and deception function socially as markers of individuality”, but that seems to me to be both too large to take on here and could perhaps lend itself to another conversation in the future. I will conclude with a few words that seem fitting from Joy Division:
Surrendered to self preservation,
From others who care for themselves.
A blindness that touches perfection,
But hurts just like anything else.
Isolation, isolation, isolation.
SRP: Isolation indeed! Funny, that word is derived from the Latin insulatus, “made into an island” from insula, “island.” The island is presumably isolated from other land by the membrane that is water. In order to define the entity that is isolated we need both another entity and the fluid space in between those entities. I guess I’m wondering if the self and the other (as the semantic structuring of a dialectic) creates the very problem we are struggling with. As you say we are simultaneously separate entities – individuals – as well as relational entities. While I would resist laying the emphasis on the individual as either the source or culmination of intention, I would say that intention is each of those moments of rupture that reveal this tangled separation. To take the metaphor of the island further, while we are easily able to distinguish the island from its surrounding water, the difficulty lies in designating the cause of its shifting shape on either the land or the water.