Interview with Dena Shottenkirk
Dena Shottenkirk is an assistant professor at Brooklyn College, specializing in aesthetics and epistemology, as well as a practicing artist. Before beginning this prestigious position, Shottenkirk came from a background of art criticism, having held staff positions at both Artforum and Art in America. Her philosophical slant towards art criticism is evident in her 2009 publication “Cover Up the Dirty Parts! Funding, Fighting and the First Amendment,” which speaks critically about the epistemological and political roles art plays. For this issue of the Gadfly, we spoke to her about William James, “jist,” and Facebook (among other things) to better understand the tiny ruptures which constitute our perception and restructure our world.
GEORGE MENZ FOR THE GADFLY: So, Dena, tell us a little bit about yourself and your work.
DENA SHOTTENKIRK: I'm both a practicing artist and a philosopher. I was also previously a critic for Artforum and Art in America, so I've written a lot about art, and I've also written a lot about philosophy. I run a nonprofit called Philosophers' Ontological Party Club which is sort of an art-philosophy project, and what it consists in is sitting down and having conversations with people. I started it because it occurred to me that what both philosophers and artists do is articulate their own voice in the world, and figure out who they are in their body, and how they experience the world. I started this project as a way to put my voice next to everybody else's voice and to collate everybody's thoughts on something. I think there's too much narcissism in both art and philosophy. Everyone's too focused on trying to figure out what they say, and dominating the conversation, and not really understanding this incredibly, wonderfully complex relationship between my view and your view, and how my view affects the construction of your view, and how your view affects my construction of my own thought. I wanted to focus on the interface between those two processes.
Could you delve a little bit into the idea of rupture?
I was recently reading William James, who I think is kind of a really wonderful person to read, and who rambles a lot and kind of doesn't get to the point. In one of his ramblings he was talking about how we don't really hear thunder on its own: we hear it as a contrast to the silence before. And how all perception, in that way, is a bunch of discontinuous moments, and those are ruptures, right? So, attention, in that way—some people think of attention as either exogenous or endogenous. The exogenous attention is always something from the outside that startles it. But what all of that is, both that distinction and what William James was talking about, was the constant ruptures in all perceptual experience. I don't think you could understand perceptual experience if you don't see it as a bunch of ruptures. It's these discontinuous moments from second to second. We're constantly looking around and switching our attention and it's these uncountable number of ruptures that constitute our perceptual experience and our brains are constantly having to sort through them, edit them out, compile them, make a new thing, then remake a new thing after that. It's numerically interesting to look at, because if you look at those ruptures as kind of atomic units and how we slice one second from another second and one—content, I guess you could say—from another second's content, we have this mysterious process of putting it all together and then going, “Oh, that's perceptual experience.” That's the content of it. But the constituents of that perceptual experience are in many ways those tiny little ruptures that come from second to second. I recently did an interview with a gallery dealer, James Cohan, for this book that I just finished editing. In it, he talked about the kind of art that he likes to deal with, art that he says provides "slippages" into other experiences. It's just another word for ruptures. But when you look at the visual work, it provides you with a kind of tunnel into another conceptual-cognitive world. So instead of just sitting there, flat on the surface, as decorative, it's opening in to not just anecdotes, but a conceptual framework that one might look at. I think that's the basic drive behind a lot of conceptual work: it's opening up a whole labyrinth—a whole world—that is a point of view, and not just a visual thing in front of you.
Do you think that idea of rupture expands not only from an instant-to-instant basis—collecting a continuous experience from what's basically a constant disruption of the manifold—but to a time in a person's life? I feel like there are these kinds of ruptures, where it seems like the way you think about something and the way you perceive something is changed, and you can never see it the same way again. Do you think that's the same kind of thing on a larger scale, or do you think it's the result of something completely different?
The picture that I was giving you is that what perception is: a whole bunch of tiny ruptures. I just wrote something on "jist"—we get an unbelievable amount of information in the first 100, 200, 300 milliseconds of our perception. Then, we look again, and compare what we see later on with that first "jist" experience. We do that all the time. And those are ruptures, in that way, and it's also a constant act of compilation. I think that what you were talking about was that within a very small temporal framework, there are those ruptures, and there is that compilation. And with a larger temporal framework, over years, we almost, in a meta way, look back on those other experiences, but now we're compiling them differently. And because we compile them differently they seem essentially different, because they have a different character.
That's why I said at the beginning, I think we're constantly compiling and recompiling and structuring and restructuring, and it's this constant almost liquid-fluid way of building our perceptual experience of the world and at the same time our self-identity. It's a constant reshuffling of those experiences, and a reordering. You think of perception itself. Perception itself is always hugely edited. I don't take everything in, I only take small things in. What is it, like three percent of our eyeballs foveate? Most of it is peripheral. We take things in in very sporadic, partial, incomplete ways. Then, over time, we're doing an almost identical process where we hierarchize what we see, we edit it out, we forget, we remember, we obsessively remember, we remember things more than other things. Probably on the meta/macro level what we're doing is that same kind of editing and that same kind of restructuring and recombining all the time. Which is why it seems different. How you remember something five years ago is hugely different than what it was at the time, because you've got the intervening five years which are now part of that constituent experience, so you're editing, changing. Probably rupture plays a role there, because the discontinuities that appear over time are not the discontinuities that were there originally.
Obviously that implies kind of a secondary rupture. Primary to the kind of rupture that you're describing, there's a rupture between yourself and the external world or the source of sensation, and there's also a rupture between one thinker, one perceiver, and another perceiver. That raises the question: how do you communicate? How do you have any kind of shared frame of reference?
It's really weird, right? You don't want to entirely be the British empiricist, where you think that perception is a matching in your head with the external world in some way. You don't want to think of the external world as existing completely antecedently to your experience of it. On the other hand you don't want to think that it's completely mind-dependent, you don't want to go Berkeley's route, necessarily. You want to think that there's some objective world out there, and in some way we ascertain it. But if we do think that our perception of things is editing, which I think it is, and that there is a lot of constructionalism that goes on, you have to have some kind of foot in both worlds. There has to be some parts of your perception that constitute an ascertaining of the objective world, and then some parts of your experience that are just ineluctably private—your third-person, first-person experience. And you're trying to sort out which is which. Which foot do you have in which world? I think that's how the conversation between us comes in. I think that's the wonderful thing about social epistemology. You're not just thinking about epistemology from an individual point of view and trying to make sense of it. You're sort of recognizing, actually, that we construct this world together. When I want to know the veracity of my perceptual experience, I, in part, look over to you and say, “Hey, did you see that too?” And then when I get that confirmation, I know that my editing process was kind of right and I have more confidence in it. What I remember is that editing process that now agrees with you, and I discard all that stuff that I don’t think anyone else saw. In the same way that we're constantly reconstituting our experience, we are constantly reconstituting our experience in terms of what the guy next to us said. I think that's the only way I can make sense of it.
Let’s talk more about the idea of social epistemology. In a sense, it seems that right now, in the current social/political climate, there's no consensus. It seems like it's impossible to have that kind of reaction where you can talk to someone else and expect to have a confirmation of your beliefs. Or, at the very least, if you can find someone who will confirm your beliefs, you can find someone who will deny them, and they both seem equally certain.
I think we haven't really settled into the age of the internet. Everyone knows this: the internet, so evilly, almost, democratized all voices. It used to be that we had gatekeepers for the "public voice." We had editors, we had a whole structure of things that kept the incoherent voices out, the marginal voices out. Some voices counted for a whole lot more than other voices. It was easier to, at least, believe that there was a consensus in terms of who was allowed to speak, and who got that attention. Now there's so much competition for that, because everybody's voice counts more or less the same as everybody else's voice. I don't think we've worked through, yet, a system where we figure out how to prioritize and hierarchize those voices. I think one of the sad consequences of this is that people don't value argument in terms of a method to get to the truth in the way that people always did in the past. Argument, now, is just a way to spin my position so that I get people on my side to support me more.
So rather than social epistemology, it's a kind of social maneuvering?
I think so, yeah. But I'm very optimistic about things in general. I think it'll work out, I just think that the internet is a huge technological change in people's lives. I think in terms of how we get information and how people sort out their opinions vis a vis others' opinions, it's now very difficult, because people don't know now where to go to sort their opinions out. They don't know who the guy next to them is that they can legitimately turn to and go, “Do you think that's right?”
It seems as if the same thing has been true with every great advance in technology—going from monks illuminating manuscripts painstakingly by hand over years and years, to the printing press, to the availability of cheap paper and writing materials, now to computers and finally the internet. Think about in your lifetime, say 20 years ago, or when you were a university student. I think about what I have to do when I write a paper, I'll sit down with my laptop maybe with a couple class materials or my notebook, and I'll write it very quickly without really looking back until the entire thing is done. And I wonder how the experience of that differs from having to sit in front of a typewriter, which is much harder to use, and if you mess up a word you can't just delete it immediately—you have to stop what you're doing entirely, white it out, and then finagle some mechanical process to put it back the way it was. It seems as if there's much less of a disjunction between our ability to put our thoughts into words on a computer than there was with a typewriter. Maybe not so much as with handwriting, but handwriting has other discontinuities, especially in terms of comprehension—if you want to look back on it later, if you want to give it to someone else to read—depending on how good your draftsmanship is, obviously.
You know what I think—I've never thought this before, so I'm not 100% sure about this, but I'm going to jump—I think that, I used a typewriter, but I think in order to do that because it was so linear and so word-by-word you had to have mapped out the structure of your thought better. You had to have an outline, you had to know exactly where you were going. I think one thing that maybe is bad about working on a computer is that you can move whole chunks of it around more easily and import it, and so I think you're not forced always to figure out the structure of it. And that's kind of the way the world works now. Data comes in large chunks to us. I think that we are less responsible for figuring out the structure of our own thought because such large things can be imported. It's wholesale, it's like going into a store and just grabbing things off the shelf. You can get chunks of thought, now.
It seems that so much of it is pushed off onto other things. Like Facebook's newsfeed—there are algorithms they use so that you'll see exactly what you want, you don't have to search it out. So it seems like our ability to go in search of information—we've let that go on to other services, which may do it well or may do it poorly, but at the same time as if we want everything presented to us very quickly.
I think that's sort of the wholesale thing. This is kind of one of the reasons that I started this organization—I think that a lot of people don't really examine the contents of their own thought very well, and just go: “What do I think?” We've gotten so in the habit of regurgitating the popular opinion, or the one you just read about, or the one that somebody else holds that people don't spend as much time critically thinking about. It's the same point. I think the bad thing about that is then you lose that sense of the mechanism of connecting one thought to the next, and figuring out the argument, and figuring out the logic, when you're grabbing wholesale other people's thoughts. You don't really work through that process, and that cognitive process of 'this leads to this'—they're tiny little atomistic moments that you go through which I think mirror more closely the perceptual phenomenon of experience. When I perceive, it's a whole bunch of constantly moving, discontinuous moments. And thought is, in its best form, the same thing. What's bad about paint-by-numbers is that the whole thing is figured out for you. Then you don't really see. One of the things that you have to teach students to do when they're first painting and first drawing is actually to see, not to paint what they think they should be seeing, but to actually paint what they in fact see. It's a training. You have to retrain them to actually see all those discontinuous things between the blade of grass and dirt—not just to do the blade of grass and the dirt, but to look at all the little moments in between. So it's all of those little fissures in between the objects that really count as seeing. It's those slippages, those ruptures. The more you look, the more there are. To do it in the details between all of the moments is the really wonderful, profound visual and cognitive experience, and so I think the bad thing about lazily going out there and just grabbing a chunk of words from somebody else is that you didn't go through that wonderfully ruptured process. Seeing and thinking must be alike, right?
Let's return to that idea of perception that we started out with. If we could discuss a bit more of what you think that process is rooted in, if it's based on this a priori conceptions of temporality or spatial order or something like that, if it's something more fundamental, something just biological, how we receive information—do you think it's more in the mind or in the organs of sense themselves?
I think your disjunct there, so Cartesian, is evil. Because it doesn't really make sense that we are mental and that we are physical. The hard problem isn't really consciousness, the hard problem is somehow the interface between our physical bodies and our abstractions of that physical data: how do we bring all this data in perceptually and then make it into something useful for us. That's the really interesting problem. Perception is such an important thing to think about because it's perception that's fodder for thought. It's not one or the other. Somehow, we bring things in in this way, that we're editing it on the basis of our very pragmatist needs of the moment. I see what's useful to see, I see what I need to see. Attention can alter that a little bit, we can sort of force ourselves to pay attention to something other than what we were originally going to pay attention to, but on the whole we edit for reasons. So it's not a priori.