What Am I Looking at?

At the end of last year, Phil Ford completed a cycle of short essays on modes of academic inquiry inspired by magical practice. In a post entitled Is This Anything?, Ford explores the problem of presenting oneself as a legitimate academic while still getting away with weirdness by way of an analogy to David Letterman’s classic bit called of the same name. For the uninitiated, Ford briefly summarizes Is This Anything?: “Paul Schaffer would lead off a fanfare, the curtain would open and close on some weird act, and then Dave and Paul would decide whether it was anything. Mostly, they decided it wasn’t.”

Shortly after reading Ford’s posts, I ran across an experimental performance piece in the The Experimental Music Yearbook called “I DIDN’T REALLY PREPARE FOR THIS BUT PROBABLY THAT IS BEST” by Kara Feely. In her introduction to the piece, Feely comments:

“when it comes to making [art…] I am interested in that middle ground between incompetence and virtuosity (‘what am I looking at?’) because often when something seems wrong, it begins to get interesting.”

In my judgment, Feely’s What Am I Looking at? is related to Letterman’s Is This Anything? But what kind of relative is it?

Thinking with Ramsey Dukes, we might say that they address the same problem while facing in different directions. Dukes has written several books on magical thought and practice, including S.S.O.T.B.M.E. in which he describes with extraordinary clarity and eloquence the state of magic in the world today. Dukes argues that, throughout [capital “H”] History, the general orientation of the world cycles between the four dominant attitudes: Art, Religion, Sciences, and (of course) Magic.*

Screenshot 2016-02-09 02.49.59

In (painfully reductive) summary: Art is driven by the intuitive appeal of glamour and style; Religious orientation is based on an dogma-driven logic that appeals to the piety of rigid categories; orientation toward Science is grounded in observable data and skepticism; while Magic depends upon feeling one’s way through a world in which everything is bursting with meaning.

Feely’s What Am I Looking at? demonstrates no interest in the meaning of the performance (i.e., “what is this supposed to be?”) nor does it wish to judge aesthetic merit (i.e., “is this any good?”). On the contrary, a bit of aesthetic uncertainty is precisely what makes something “get interesting” for Feely. This suggests, in Dukes’ terminology, a quite refined Artistic (no surprise) orientation that is concerned only with “style” in an undistilled-yet-undefined sense. So, not with a style (too Religious/dogmatic) nor with aesthetics as system of valuation (a la Kant’s Religio-Scientific moral philosophy), but with an intuition that emerges from the performance itself. Feely, we might say, is facing about half-past-ten on Duke’s compass and refusing to blink.

Perhaps Letterman, by contrast, is staring down the Religious-Scientific boundary (three o’clock). Is This Anything? is a near-perfect blend of Scientific skepticism inflected by a vestigial Religious dogmatism manifesting in the need to classify everything that comes its ways as either “Anything” or “Not Anything.” The point is, while Letterman’s query definitely helps to locate the fascinating problem that Ford’s post discusses, addressing unfamiliar objects with the demand “is this anything?” is not particularly generous.

As Ford elaborates, Is This Anything? is an expected question from (for example) a dissertation committee or a teacher grading a student’s term paper. Such Evaluators have the task of systematically adjudicating the piety of an object. Questions like, “is this a dissertation?” or “is this a B paper?” are manifestations of the Is This Anything? attitude. The Evaluator’s job is to be oriented between the two o’clock and four o’clock range on Dukes’ compass… meaning that they assume any academic work is meant to be pious. As Ford argues, this presumption works to the decided disadvantage of some forms of thought that, while intellectually rigorous, look a bit unorthodox or outright impious.

And so, in addition to Ford’s rumination about how best to assert our weird projects’ “Anything-ness,” it might be wise to try to prompt a totally different question as well. That is, if our Evaluators were to ask, “what am I looking at?” instead of/in addition to, “is this anything?” perhaps things would turn out more favorably.

Of course, we probably need more than the question to shift. For the thinker with a Religious/Scientific orientation, a question is merely a means for gaining an answer upon which to pass a definitive judgment. As such, simply giving the skeptical-dogmatist a new question does not necessarily move the needle. If the set of allowable responses to “what am I looking at” is too narrow, then it simply becomes a cipher for Is This Anything? E.g.:

Senior Scholar: What am I looking at, here?
Graduate Student:
It’s a mythopoieic exploration oriented toward “oceans” instead of “fields” in a world where the gods are present, capricious, and demanding but cannot be appeased by logics of exchange or mastery.
Senior Scholar:
So, what does that mean? In other words, is that… Anything? I don’t think it is…**

For Feely, it is clear that no answer is wanted or required in response to her What Am I Looking At? She doesn’t concern herself with answers but with the “where it gets interesting” that the question generates.

At this point we also need to remember that, for Dukes, the quadrants of his compass are not “locations” so much as orientations. He says:

…the diagram is actually meant to be more of a direction indicator —
like the compass North/South/East/West in the corner of a map. In
this case the placing of specific disciplines depends upon where you
are standing. A more strictly ‘Scientific’ bias would shift the above
placings so that economics and psychology fell into the ‘mumbo
jumbo’ Magic sector, whilst mathematics would fall with philosophy
into the Religious sector. A more extreme ‘Religious’ bias would lump
a lot of Art and Science subjects in the Magic sector as ‘the Devil’s
work’. A more ‘Artistic’ bias would consider astrology and cabalistic
philosophy, for example, to be “all too frightfully Scientific, my dear.”

As such, the Is This Anything? orientation I have been characterizing as paradigmatically Scientific/Religious could just as easily lead to some squirrely results if asked while standing in a properly Magical place:

Letterman: Is this anything?
I feel like it is something. Why don’t we follow that impulse and see where it takes us!

The Magician’s equivalent to Letterman’s Is This Anything? is something like the Kids in the Hall’s recurring bit: “It’s a Fact!” In these brief interstitials, a teen in a lovely forest runs toward the camera, looks the audience in the eye, and declares “It’s a fact!” before presenting some bit of spurious information that would absolutely fail to pass skeptical-dogmatic muster (e.g., trivia about Big Foot’s singing voice and Uncle Tony’s spitting ability; observations about the neighbors’ love life; lies about the Queen’s literacy). These “facts” are then enacted for the audience, not as evidence of their facticity but as a reality that has been conjured into being by the girl’s heartfelt assertion within that enchanted Ontario forest.


But, again we shouldn’t come down too hard on Letterman and Schaffer here. While I have been using Is This Anything? as a demonstration of a repressive order driven by equal parts piety and skepticism, we ought to bear in mind that, in the context of Letterman’s The Late Show, even the acts that were deemed not to be Anything, still did appear on network television. That is, by aping a skeptical-dogmatic framework, Letterman and Schaffer got away with filling valuable (and costly) network television minutes with utterly absurd acts which, by their own judgment, were not Anything at all! By speaking the language of piety, not as devotees but as Tricksters, Letterman and Schaffer themselves present a very clever model for getting away with weirdness.

*-Note that Dukes is not really proposing a grand theory of History. Instead, in keeping with his understanding of the magical orientation, he is proposing it for us to accept, not as Truth, but simply as a thing to try on. When we take up this fanciful notion of four historical epochs, we can understand the world in new ways, see things that were perhaps hidden before. But then why the chart? Because we are in an age intoxicated by Science (with a Religious hangover) so the image of History can be best presented in those terms. At some other moment, Dukes might have selected a different image of History to better appeal to the sensibilities of his readership (e.g., in a Magical age, Dukes might have picked the Tarot as a more sensible metaphor).

**-Based on a true story.


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