Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Performances Of State, Commerce, And Art

Ngugi, in his essay “Power in Performance,” discusses the performance of power by the state and the performance of power by the artist, and how they are often in direct conflict. On my way to my second visit to 2001, I found myself in a strange netherworld between the two.

Normally, Occam’s law of direct travel (the quickest route is the one most likely to be taken; an adaptation of Occam’s Razor) would have me getting off the N or R train at W 60th Street, literally within sight of the sculpture I was after. But for a second visit, I decided to shake things up, to listen to a little Robert Frost and take “The Road Not Taken.” In this case, the road not taken was not “the road less traveled by”; in fact, the road I was walking along was 5th Avenue, one of the world’s largest shopping districts.

5th Avenue proper extends the length of Manhattan, but the average American referring to 5th Avenue is referring to the strip of 5th Avenue through Midtown, which ends roughly at 60th Street (my destination). This is the 5th Avenue known for its pricey clothing stores. Window displays line the streets, aiming to draw in the unwary passersby into an abyss of merchandise.

I am not a materialist. I haven’t gone shopping for clothes since last year, and then I didn’t buy anything because I didn’t want to. But I have a personal vice: I enjoy watching television ads. Not all of them, of course: just the good ones. I will frequently turn to my roommate after certain ads and discuss to him why it was a well constructed work: sometimes I prize the simplicity, or a particularly striking moment. Television has the potential to be either art, entertainment, or commerce. Television ads, usually, fall fairly under the ‘commerce’ heading: thirty seconds of someone trying to sell you something. As a result, the average advertisement has the same effect on the watcher as a street vendor barking his goods—at best, ignored, and at worst, hated. Some ads, however, add in the entertainment element, drawing in the viewer with a joke and a punchline. A very precious few (most notably, of late, the viewer generated internet video ads for the Microsoft Zune) cross the threshold into being artistic. It is no small feat to sell a product, entertain, and be artistic in thirty seconds. Ad images on billboards have the same challenge. Perhaps it is a fascination with that often overlooked potential art space that led to Andy Warhol and the Pop Art movement: to tell society that the barrier between artist-generated public art and commercial-generated public art is not as wide as one seems.

I’m standing on 5th Avenue now. For most of my way, I have tuned out the stores. Lifeless mannequins fill shop windows, bedecked in fashionable clothes that will never seem to look as good on you as they did on the mannequin. There is something mute, blank, and alienating about the mannequins—they try to appeal to the everyman, but the lack of identity portrayed by the blank-faced (or worse yet, headless) dolls lends a creepy post-industrial feeling to the streets. I don’t like to look at them. I wouldn’t have stopped, but one storefront has caught my eyes.

I had almost reached 2001, unenlightened by the eerie capitalism of 5th Avenue, but now I was confronted with one of 5th Ave’s newest stores, and one which looks like the future in many ways. It is the Apple Store. The store itself is not visible—consumers go downstairs, below 5th Ave, as though descending into its core. But what is visible above-ground is a huge glass cube broken up into individual panes. Despite its fairly straightforward design, its elegance and glasswork recall the cathedrals of the 1600s; it strikes the eye impressively and stands out from the buildings around it, from all of the buildings in Manhattan. In the middle, a large Apple Corp. logo is suspended, glowing white in the sunlight. It would not look any more impressive if it had been a cross.

Just across the street is 2001, a piece which Ngugi would call a performance of power by the artist, and General Sherman, a piece which Ngugi would call a performance of power by the state. What is so striking to me about the Apple Store, and its latticed window cathedral? It seems to be, to adapt Ngugi’s vocabulary somewhat, a performance of power by the corporation. In the way that television advertisements can be either artistic (breeding thought), entertaining (breeding contentment), or commercial (breeding desire), public performances can be by the artist (breeding thought), the state (breeding contentment), or the commercial (breeding desire).

And yet, can we truly say that all three of these spheres are separate? 2001 is built of space-age plastics, which were probably developed through the government research; it also relies on the production power of the corporation. The Apple Store shows the corporation as an artist; it is creating an aesthetically pleasing structure for only indirect benefit. It is attempting to benefit the passersby, and hopes that its benefit will be returned to it in the form of commerce.

As the Pop Art movement showed, or the development of the iPod, or countless other examples of the ways in which commerce becomes artistic, or art becomes commercial, or both intersect the realm of the government. In a democratic society, the interests of art, commerce, and governance are locked constantly in the give and take and negotiations that ensure that each reach the same public and provide their own unique benefits.

When we want to talk about art, mass culture, and politics, perhaps there is no more shining example than that infamous and well-worn example of poor Ché Guevara’s face, plastered on commercial t-shirts worldwide. Like the McDonald’s in Hanoi Square, the McDonald’s in Red Square, and the Starbucks that until recently was in the Forbidden Palace, the perverse irony of mass-produced images of Ché Guevara would seem at first to be the victory of Capitalism over Communism.

One of the reasons that many cite for Capitalism’s “victory” over Communism is that where Communism excludes other ideologies, Capitalism swallows them whole. China, the largest “communist” country still in existence, has long since eroded the communist underpinnings, to the point where it now lives in some economic nameless twilight between the capitalist market economy and the communist planned economy. At any rate, it has become the engine that powers America’s capitalist economy. The success of today’s most iconic American ventures, from Wal-Mart to McDonald’s, relies heavily on the cheap, mass-produced goods. Capitalism has always defeated its enemies through engagement; rather than destroying, we simply merge.

This victory is plain in the story of Ché Guevara’s t-shirt.

If we are to look at the powers of art, commercialism, and politics, it is clear that Ché’s shirt began in the realm of politics. Alberto Kordo, a loyal communist, took the photo of Ché at a memorial service of the La Coubre explosion, a ship of armaments that exploded while being unloaded (the Cuban government still alleges that this was a CIA plot). Kordo sent the photo, among others, to the editor of the paper he was on assignment for; it was returned to him. He cropped it (removing several intrusions) and decided to keep it. He distributed prints to guests and friends, for no charge—it was not, after all, a performance of commerce.

Kordo did not accept money for his photo, entitled Guerrillero Heroico. Neither did the first man to popularize it, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. Feltrinelli had been issued the rights to publish Ché’s Bolivian Diary outside of Cuba, and asked Kordo if he had a fitting photograph to put on the cover. Kordo knew instantly which one to choose: he had always been proud of the expression he had captured on Ché’s face, of which he said that it’s “A kind of mystery. His personality comes through.” Here is the performance of the power of the artist, capturing as much of Ché’s life in a photograph as Ché’s diary did in the pages within. Indeed, photographer Giorgio Mondolfo said, “I was not even slightly interested in the author. I was only fifteen, and it was the picture that had drawn us - many for the first time - to gather in the streets, crying Che lives!

The artist stands, not for a political purpose, but to record the life of a man. But the man is political, and the artist represents that faithfully, with a bit of the ideal. There is the performance of politics. In Ché’s case, both the politics and the artistic representation meet because Ché has become politics personified. Without investigating Ché’s life deliberately, our instinctual reaction to Ché is political: his every movement and action is political. His face is not just angry, it is angry at the injustices against the poor; he is not just looking up, and he is David looking into the face of the Goliath of Capitalism.

It is this deeply accessible, deeply human, and idealized expression which attracted the attention of Jim Fitzpatrick, who created the original iconic poster from the Kordo photo. Like Kordo, Fitzpatrick’s original intention was to spread the image as much as possible, because he “felt this image had to come out, or he [Guevara] would not be commemorated otherwise, he would go where heroes go, which is usually into anonymity.” He wanted the image to “breed like rabbits” so he created thousands of prints and distributed them by hand to people in London.

The difference between Kordo and Fitzpatrick was the difference in format. Kordo was hand-printing from photographic negatives; Fitzpatrick was using a simplified version, which was highly compatible with silk-screen transfer printing. Silk-screen transfer was extremely popular in the 1960s, especially in the realm of t-shirt making. In other words, Fitzpatrick had created a version of the Kordo photo which was ready for mass-production: the great breakthrough of the 20th Century.

Here it is easy to see how capitalism came to consume the image of Ché; in the realm of Capitalism, ideas and images are property, just as any other. And since the creator (Kordo) was not in the realm of Capitalism, the image was presumed to be in the public domain. Thus, anyone could supply a copy without having to buy the intellectual property; and Ché, through being a political and heroic symbol, created the demand. By the time that Kordo’s heirs attempted to reassert their rights over the creation of copies (the true meaning of copy-right), it was 2005, and thus was too late: Capitalism had merged with Ché’s legacy.

This is why the photo of Ché is fascinating: it is a recurring cyclical layering of performances. Layer one is Ché himself, trapped in image: a political leader’s life, embodied by Ché’s image. Layer two is Kordo’s photo, the artistic expression of Ché’s life as arranged by Kordo—a performance of the artist’s power to create Ché’s legacy. Layer three is Fitzgerald’s mass-produced, inadvertently commoditization, which is both literally and metaphorically a reduction: it flattens him to a symbol which is easily exploited. Patrick Symmes put it best when he described it as “An easy emblem of meaningless and unthreatening rebellion, a queer blending of educated violence and disheveled nobility, like Gandhi with a gun or John Lennon singing 'Give Peace a Chance.'”

The real interest in this third layers is in its relationship with the first two: although the political and the artistic are in alignment, the commercial aspect of this newly commoditzed Ché stands in blatant disregard and utter contradiction of them. This creates dialectic, a dramatic tension. And of course, this creates a new, fourth, political layer of performance: the layer of Capitalism as having bought out a hapless Communism, and the short-sightedness of a young 60s generation of liberal idealist who rails against a system they are in fact a part of.

Perhaps a parallel example to this multi-layered Ché portrait (although less iconic and emotional) is the song by Cake entitled “Rock And Roll Lifestyle.” The lyrics, set over a contemporary rock song, ask, “How do you afford your rock and roll life style?” The first chorus targets a generation of entitled children who ‘rebel’ against their parents while still depending on their parents for their money, asking, “how much did you spend on your black leather jacket? / Is it you or your parents in this income tax bracket?” The next paragraph expands into the machine the children are rebelling against:

How much did you pay for the chunk of his guitar,

The one he ruthlessly smashed at the end of the show?

And how much will he pay for a brand new guitar,

One which he'll ruthlessly smash at the end of another show?

And how long will the workers keep building him new ones?

As long as their soda cans are red, white, and blue ones.

The cycle of repetition takes away the holiness of the act of rebellion, and the invocation of ‘red white and blue’ invokes both the American Flag (and the American political hegemony it represents) and also the (presumably) Pepsi cans (and the American economic hegemony). The song ends with the answer to these rhetorical questions

Excess ain't rebellion.

You're drinking what they're selling.

Your self-destruction doesn't hurt them.

Your chaos won't convert them.

They're so happy to rebuild it.

You'll never really kill it.

Indeed, the cycle of creation, consumption, destruction, and creation again reveals the futility of this so-called ‘rebellion.’ This is further complicated when you look at the artist who is distributing this song. Who are these musicians? Are they not selling this rock-and-roll lifestyle themselves? Do they not promote consumer goods?

In truth, the artist stands apart from a pro- or anti- consumer sentiment. In the United States, it is impossible for a performance to be entirely artistic without the performance also being a performance of commerce, because art is commercial here. And both of these performances are political. We walk through the world, attempting to isolate different performances into different categories. Most movie theaters are considered to contain performances of commerce; those that do not are called “art houses,” as though they are separate and distinct. We have art galleries, and we have trade shows, and we have memorials.

But the most potent performances live where these three intersect. To work our way back towards where this essay began: the Pop Art movement was an engaging attempt to bridge these three performances. There is a strictly utilitarian reason to bridge these three movements: because the intellectual, rigorous lens we apply to art is often not applied to performances in politics or performances in commerce. Andy Warhol wanted us to look at soup cans not with the eyes of a consumer, but with the eyes of an art critic—with an emphasis on the word critic. Critical. Using our critical facilities to dig deeper into the meanings and construction of each performance. In our contemporary life, our commercials and our political events are just as carefully crafted as pottery or theater; it behooves us, if we want not to be misled, to look at them critically the way we look at art.

Let us take, for instance, one of the greats of Pop Art, Roy Lichtenstein. Lichtenstein’s format is that of the comic-book drawing. The comic-book format is most interesting because it evokes the simplicity of childhood, and the straightforwardness with which youth views the world. But there is always something faintly wrong to the adult eye in viewing his works. Take for instance, Drowning Girl. A girl, surrounded by water, eyes closed, streaming with tears, and she is thinking: “I Don’t Care! I’d Rather Sink—Than Call Brad For Help!” It calls to mind the many helpless, emotive women in the comic books, who often need strong males to help them. As a child, this is all fantasy, and we don’t think too much about it. Her peevishness will cost her life if she doesn’t get over it. It is almost surreally stubborn. And yet in a comic book, such things happen, in order to create the dramatic set-ups the child enjoys—whether they are meant to be identifying with the girl, or identifying with the hero about to rescue the girl.

Another one, entitled, Whaam! features an American pilot destroying another plane in a dogfight. The exploding plane makes the familiar comic-book noise, Whaam! and the pilot narrates in poetic language: "I pressed the fire control... and ahead of me rockets blazed through the sky..." This painting is adapted from a 1962 issue of DC Comics' All-American Men of War. In 1962, the Vietnam War had only just begun, and the tide of public opinion hadn’t truly turned against it yet—although the Bay of Pigs invasion just the year before should have chastened America that its foreign policy interference was too much.

This panel is so striking because the violence it portrays is perfectly glorified. And yet, somehow, hung in an art gallery, it seems perverse. What was okay in a children’s comic book (“boys will be boys”?) does not seem right in an art hall. Why is that? One explanation will be in the way we hold performances of commerce to a different standard than the way we hold performances of art. The comic book is marketed to boys: they like hitting things, and they like girls (even if they don’t know it yet). We don’t expect DC Comics to take into account the harsh realities of war or misogyny: they’re just making comic books. It’s “just entertainment.” On the other hand, an artist has attempted to transform this into a performance of art. In that, he has taken that glorification of violence or female helplessness to a new level: a level which is uncomfortably high. Does the artist actually ennoble those things? Is this glorification ironic? Without knowing the artist’s state of mind, we can see a performance of art which dialectically opposes the intent of the performance of commerce, but we can also see a sickening possibility that somehow we have turned violence into an art form.

So here I am, standing between General Sherman, the Apple Store, and 2001. What I have discovered, during my intellectual ramblings along 5th Avenue, along the road Ché’s face traveled, and along the path charted by Pop Art is that the three different modalities of public performance (art, commerce, state) are most interesting when they are in conversation with one another. These three prove that axiom to me deeply.

Firstly, there is 2001. The sculpture is very aesthetically pleasing, and I certainly like to look at it, but it bores my brain. I hate to be that honest, but it really does. It’s a ball, and although I have explored ideas of child’s play and child’s thinking, I do not find it actually very informative about the world we live in and the world we interact in. As a performance of art to the exclusion of commerce and state, it has reached the aesthetic dream: art for art’s sake.

Then, there is General Sherman. It is a grand performance by state. Not just any state, as a matter of fact, but the United States in 1903. The gaudy display of gold, the literal realism of the style, the religiosity of the Archangel guiding Sherman’s path, and of course the presence of the bloody war criminal Sherman anchor General Sherman inartistically into a moment in the past which I would prefer to reject. Sherman’s burning March to the Sea may have been in the cause of anti-slavery or in the cause of defending the Constitution, but the brutality of his acts and the brutality of his campaign against Native Americans is beyond glorification. A performance of the state is anchored in its moment of conception.

Lastly, there is the Apple Store. It may be a pinnacle of art and commerce merging, but of course, the Apple Corporation would like you to think that Apple Corporation is the pinnacle of art and commerce merging. In actuality, Apple is a designer company, charging a premium for its products in return for a sleek, beautiful design aesthetic. It may be pretty to see once, but the demographic which enjoys the Apple Store’s architecture the most are the homeless who gather around its poorly insulated glass frame at night, hoping for warmth and inadvertently casting an awkward negative spell over this idealized capitalist dream.

I leave the square, and take Occam’s Direct Line of Travel (also known as the R Train) back to my home.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Culture Future II: Absolutism versus Reducible Complexity

It is easy to believe that we cannot change culture, because it is so large. So we throw our hands up and accept it as fate. But it doesn't have to be.
When I wrote this in the first post, I was speaking mainly of our contemporary American culture. In a way, Americans are still caught in the ancient debate of free will versus predestination. Although for some it is still in the old frame of God versus human free will, there are other outlets for that way of thinking. One place where I see this schism developing, which is a very difficult place to disentangle it, is in the realm of health (mental and physical). Am I the way I am because I made certain choices? Were those choices pre-determined by a combination of my genetic code and my upbringing?

This debate is crucial today because the two different views have two different solutions. If our depression (as a for instance) is caused by a plethora of causes beyond our control--our family, our genetic predisposition--then the best solutions will be medical ones (Prozac or Zoloft or some new experimental treatment). But if it is our choices which cause our depression, then it is our choices which will liberate us from it.
Our problems are man-made, therefore they may be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable – and we believe they can do it again.
John F. Kennedy said that. He was not speaking in the realm of health, but in the realm of culture. He was speaking of American politics, of the direction which America wanted to take, of its growing fear in the face of the Soviet Union.

Our culture is man-made, therefore it can be shaped by man. Although, as I said before, we think we cannot change culture because it is so large, Man can be as big as he wants. There is both good and bad in that.

The discovery that man can be scientifically manipulated, and that governments can turn large masses this way or that as they choose, is one of the causes of our misfortunes.
That statement was written twenty years before Kennedy's speech; it was Bertrand Russell in an essay about religion entitled An Outline Of Intellectual Rubbish. 'Our misfortunes,' which he refers to, is the scourge of Nazism, which at the time was even more dangerous than the Soviet Union of Kennedy's day, purely by virtue of the fact that the Soviet Union was as wary of the United States as we were of them.

Russell is correct that scientific manipulation of societies was the well-spring of Nazism, and of the Soviet Union. It is, of course, also the well-spring of American democracy; but Russell is right to highlight the dangers of mass manipulation. Sociology and communication, for instance, are combined to create propaganda. What went wrong for Nazis and for the Soviets was not that culture cannot be controlled--it is that culture cannot be rigidly controlled.

The current model I enjoy for examining culture is that of the conversation. A good conversation requires two people who are interested in the exchange of thoughts and/or feelings. "Interested" means that they are ready to listen; "the exchange" means that they are ready to speak.

The Nazi Party and the Bolsheviks had something to say, clearly--this is clear by how much they wrote at the time. It was very fashionable for them to write tracts and to make speeches. But they were not willing to respond, not willing to interact with the rest of culture as a whole. They wished to substitute Nazi culture for German culture, to substitute Bolshevik culture for Russian culture, and thus, were not ready to listen. If writing tracts and making speeches shows how willing to speak, then the brutal censorship of tracts and speeches (and those who made them) shows how unwilling to speak they are.

In point of fact, this shows that they had failed the 'scientific approach' to culture that many have ascribed to them. They started with the hypothesis of culture, and they performed the experiment. But by refusing to acknowledge the data which returned, and by refusing to engage in active conversation with other cultures, they were stifling that very same intellectual approach to changing society that first led them to embark. After all, Karl Marx was able to write his tracts on the economy because he was a professor at an English university, able to write what he pleased without fear.

Why were they unable to be in conversation? Because they were absolutists. They dreamed of a utopia, but it was an absolutist utopia. There was no room for non-communism in the Communist ideal; the bourgeois had to be brutally crushed. There was no room for the "impure" in the eugenics of Nazis; the impure had to be brutally crushed. It is specifically in the utopian, absolutist execution of these ideals that they were unable to be in conversation with other cultures. Nothing in the universe is perfect, so an ethos which calls for the destruction of the imperfect is by definition destructive; in fact, it targets everything in the universe. In fact, if these absolutist movements could look at themselves with objective eyes, they'd be forced to destroy themselves. How many of the leading Nazis were genetically pure? How many of the Communist leaders were truly equals to the rest of their society?

In The Rest Is Noise, Alex Ross wonders why intellectuals who formed the artistic elite in Vienna found themselves supporting Nazism during its rise. As an answer, he says,

The cultish fanaticism of modern art turns out to be unrelated to the politics of fascism: both attempt to remake the world in utopian forms.
In fact, it is the cultish absolutism of certain modern artists; many of these same artists purported to hate the support of the people because the people were inferior. Take, for instance, Schoenberg:

If it is Art, it is not for all, and if it is for all, it is not art.
This sort of bloody-minded absolute extremism is underpinned on a hatred of the imperfect. It is unfortunate, for instance, that this absolutism can sometimes arise from religion. I do not believe, like many of the New Athiests and their intellectual forebears, that everything religion touches is evil. But I do agree that absolutism is in religion is perverse and destructive. If, as some purport, we are all touched by sin and born in sin, and God hates sin, then how can God not hate everything?

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.
Jonathan Edwards, one of the earlier evangelicals in this country, spoke that in his sermon "Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God." Through the hyperbole of the text, it is clear to see that once you accept the philosophy of absolutism, everything which is not absolute is absolutely wrong; the world is black and white--and in fact, mostly black.

It has often been said of Islam that it is actually one of the most respectful religions, and that today's fundamentalists are perverting the Koran. But the Koran does have passages within it which support today's fundamentalists, just as the Bible supports today's fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Marxists can use the Manifesto to slaughter Capitalists if they so choose. Each of these ideas, when taken absolutely, are incompatible with other cultures--obviously, because absolute cultures refuse to be in conversation with other cultures.

But the hope for the world is not, as Richard Dawkins or George W. Bush might think, to set up an opposite absolutism and let them battle to the death ("Democracy" versus totalitarianism; Hitchens' anti-theism versus theism, etc.), but rather to create the forum for conversation which refuses to tolerate violence and moderates the conversation as it precedes.

The clear example for this is in the creation of the US Constitution. Reading the Federalist papers by Madison and Hamilton reveal something clear about the Constitution: although the Constitution was founded on certain ideals, the machinery of the Constitution was built not for a utopian, ideal community, but rather for the everyday. Rather than hoping that America would never elect a cruel dictator or greedy, self-serving beaurocrats, the machinery was put into place to keep such people in check. This is the center of the concepts of checks and balances. The machinery continues to need tinkering, especially considering the abuses which the Constitution has weathered over the past eight years, but the concept is still sound.

We still have a culture which allows for conversation, although the state of our conversation is still poor. We have a culture which allows for change. Even cultures which attempt to stifle change and innovation find themselves prey to the human spirit. Consider Vaclav Havel, writing in the frozen Czechoslovakia during the oppression of the Cold War.
I am unwilling to believe that this whole civilization is no moer than a blind alley of history and a fatal error of the "human spirit."
But he did not sit and wait for things to happen; nor did he preach some extremist anti-Communist revolution. Rather, he preached the idea of "living in truth," describing in his seminal essay "Power of the Powerless" of a green-grocer who does simply nothing more than stop following the ridiculous laws of the Communist regime. He is not attacking the problem at the center, not trying to topple a powerful and huge regime alone, but rather: he is eroding the ideological and absolutist foundation of the regime. The more people simply stop cooperating, the weaker the regime was. And in fact, that is how the Soviet Union collapsed: not with a bang, but with a whimper.

The problem of "solving" culture is a problem of reducible complexity. It is impossible to change all of culture overnight; that path leads to absolutism. The Soviet Union tried, in one act of revolution, to cure every problem of the Industrial Revolution which had been brewing for a full century, and further to cure every problem of the feudal, monarchal Russia which had been brewing for centuries before that.

At the same time, the Western world was addressing the problems one by one. Today, we have ensured a far higher quality of life than the Soviet Union had, and far higher than the time of the Industrial Revolution. We solved each problem slowly, over the course of the 20th Century. There was a brief period, at the beginning of the Soviet Experiment and during the Great Depression, when actually there was a higher quality of life in the Soviet Union. But because of the absolute and rigid ideology that had created it, the Soviet Union never advanced; in fact, it regressed.

Take for instance, Richard Foreman:
If you’re a big person, carrying your big, heavy, important projects and concerns with you into the theater, when you confront my play it will appear to be an amorphous cloud of molecular particles, circulating in a seemingly random pattern, like Brownian motion. Perceiving it like that, the big person that you are measures the play against the heavy projects you carry around in your head, and you think: ... I want help in resolving such weighty problems, and all this play proposes is an amorphous cloud of circulating molecules, incapable of budging those big solid shapes that fill my life. What I need from a play is a shape bigger and heavier than my own in order to reorganize my own massive shapes.

My art proposes, however, that by shifting your attention to the scale on which atomic events discover that your own solid shapes are themselves but clouds of molecules in circulation.
Richard Foreman is talking about tackling personal problems on a quantum scale; the model which he's using (metaphorical) is of reducible complexity.

Our society is having trouble doing this. We expect our President to "fix" the education system. But the problems in the education system today are myriad; problems of race, economics, educational theory, and cultural value of education are among many problems which face the education system. Others, seeing the complexity in their face, would prefer to withdraw; give everyone who can the opportunity to flee to private education.

Foreign policy is the same; on the one side, President Bush wishes to attack every problem with an Insta-Solution: democracy. Iran, Russia, North Korea, Iraq, Palestine--all of these problems could theoretically be solved by sweeping aside their leadership, and instituting 'democracy.' This ignores their complex histories, the billions of individual forces which are the swirling and pushing in every different directions. Others, currently led by Ron Paul, have a different approach: withdrawing from the foreign policy sphere. While a movement toward disengagement might be appropriate at the moment, isolationism is not how America can use its considerable position in the world to make it better--for itself as well as for everyone else.

What American politicians lack is the care, attention, and complex conversation with the rest of the world which leads to smart foreign policy. When we discuss foreign policy, we don't reduce the problem; we reduce our approach to it. We approach it in reductive terms; that is to say, reductionist. And reductionist thinking is absolute thinking because what reductionism and absolutism share is an inability to deal with complexity. Complexity is caused by different forces in different directions. Iraq is not just Sunni versus Shiite.

If we attempt to solve the problems facing our culture by reducing complexity into simplicity, and attempting to solve those 'simple' problems with absolute principles, we will fail. If we lump problems together into massive, fear-inducing entities (the War on Terror; the War on Poverty; the War on Drugs), then we will fail. But if we, as a community, break apart these problems into small, workable chunks, then each of us can play a part in solving these problems. We can only solve these many particles of problems if we're in conversation about these problems, but it will no longer be like climbing Darwin's Mount improbable.