September 21st, 2008


Excessively universal

There's been a particularly good series of The Essay running this week on BBC Radio 3. Psychotherapist Adam Phillips, author of books like On Flirtation, On Monogamy, On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored (which I devoured in the 90s, and recommended from my website) has been thinking about excess.

The programmes, in 15 minute chunks, remain on the clunky Radio 3 website for a few more days, but, to spare you the classical music overruns, the ads for other programmes, the expiry dates and the fiddling with RealPlayer windows every fifteen minutes, I've put the whole thing into an mp3 file, because I think this was an exceptionally interesting series of ruminations. The file contains all five chapters, In Excess, Enough is Enough, Sex Mad, On Being Too Much for Ourselves, The Rule of Not Too Much:

Adam Phillips On Excess (mono mp3 file, 31.5MB, 68 mins 47 secs)

I couldn't possibly do commentary on everything Phillips raises here, so I want to focus on one rather narrow thing that troubles me slightly: his use of the first person plural. I want to know who Adam Phillips' "we" is, and I want to know why he leaves the category so vague. This question is in my mind, undoubtedly, because I'm writing The Book of Scotlands, and my technique is to write about Scotland by not-writing about Scotland; to write about other places then pretend they're Scotland, and observe the oddities and absurdities that result, and learn something about Scotland by that observation, or get a fresh glimpse of what Scotland might be by lying about what it is.

Phillips is also very interested in fresh glimpses, and to achieve them he climbs inside the machinery of socialisation -- one of the things that "we" is short for is the machinery of Western, or British, or English, or modern, socialisation -- and dismantles bits of it. Phillips uses a voice which reminds me of poetry (think of late Auden, which always had something of the anglican sermon about it), but which also shades into therapy speak, ethics, religious broadcasting, the cultural essay, philosophy, radical psychoanalysis...

I think what disturbs me about the "we" is its universalizing ambition, and although Phillips picks apart a lot, he never picks that universality apart. It's essential to his effects.

I certainly don't feel addressed by every one of his "we"s, but I do feel addressed by some of them, and I find his questions provocative enough that I'll let the others go. His style is slightly soft-focus and poetic; "It is as though we have two choices," he says, hedging reductiveness with metaphor. If I want to ask who he's talking about, and where, and when, I have to make do with answers like "we", and "in our world of weights and measures" and "in the age of diagnosis".

I can see what tradition he's in (Freud, R.D. Laing, Liam Hudson, Lacan, with a bit of Adam Curtis in there too -- the men are sure to be either friends or small-differences enemies) and I can see the emotional effect he produces (for some reason I feel that his ideal listener is a woman). But I think I'm more comfortable with a traditional which universalises and sermonises rather less. With sociology, and with cultural histories of ideas which show ideologies as something more mutable, local and mortal.

In the sex episode of his talk, Phillips quotes Robert Stoller: "The construction of erotic excitement -- the way each of us gets sexually excited -- is every bit as subtle, complex, inspired, profound, tidal, fascinating, awesome, problematic, unconscious-soaked and genius-haunted as the creation of dreams or art." Phillips -- rather cautiously, since he's being very English and avoiding excesses -- agrees. We should talk about people's erotic life the way art critics talk about art, he tells us.

But when you listen to art critics talking about art, they tend to do much less humanist universalizing -- certainly these days. I've been listening to a podcast on the Frieze website, Cultural Cartography: Does Art Travel?, a panel discussion chaired by Philippe Vergne at last year's Frieze Art Fair. I found something Russian curator Ekaterina Degot said an interesting counterpoint to Adam Phillips' perspective. She's talking about the limits of inclusiveness.

Soviet art, Degot says, is rarely included in exhibitions and rarely travels. Because it's considered propaganda, because it's realistic, and realism is not included in our current picture of diversity, which has mostly an ethnic character. (Degot's "our" means the art world's picture of the world, so this is a critique by a curator of curators' habits.)
Realism, she says, like Marx's proletariat, has no fatherland. In other words, it aspires to universality (just as psychoanalysis did). Degot calls Soviet art "differently different", because it's not ethnically different but economically different; its difference is rooted in a different economy, one which we don't have in our interconnected globalised world any more. Its non-ethnic, generalising character makes Soviet art threatening to a curatorial model of diversity and inclusiveness which has its own arrangement of the particular (the ethnic local) and the universal (the capitalistic global). Nevertheless -- or for this very reason -- Degot says Soviet art's "rusted critical machine is still working, and maybe we should still use it".

When Phillips says we should look at sexual desire the way art critics look at art, I think he means that we should dignify it with a humanistic analysis of how it produces meaning, and perhaps how the universality of sexual desire unites the human spirit just as the universality of art does. This may once have been true, but when you look at what art critics are actually doing now, it tends to be rather more interesting, or perhaps just rather more meta. They tend to be looking at -- and making visible -- the specific ideological and cultural underpinnings of things, playing around with "rusted critical machines" which can generate interesting perspectives. They're not talking about "the universality of the human spirit". I think it would be a bit depressing if they were, because under that worldview lies the idea that we're at the mercy of laws. Whereas behind the curators' games with "rusted critical machines" is the idea that universality is an illusion, locally-created. That semantic systems, like the specific societies they model, aren't written on tablets of stone but are radically open, fallible, rusty, renewable, writable, rewritable. I think that's what I miss in Phillips (but do find in Adam Curtis): the subversive sense that things have specific origins and therefore can never become undefeatably universal.