Francis Bacon: The Visual Existentialist

According to Gilles Deleuze, painting is hysteria (45-6). Painting in the throes of hysterics attempts to go “beyond representation,” morphing “cerebral pessimism into nervous optimism,” and Bacon is an extemporary case of a hysteric painter because he clings neither to organic representation or complete abstraction, instead occupying a grey area between the two (Deleuze 45). Bacon exemplifies hysteria and is thus masterful at capturing a presence beneath appearances. This hysteria is being channeled by anxieties linked to the human condition not only in the sense of dealing with one’s inner self (see the vast quantity of fleshy imagery in Bacon’s works, such as Figure With Meat (1954), below), but one’s relation to the world. Freeland sees Bacon as an example of the cognitive theory — art as a language, blurring boundaries between representation and abstraction (154).

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In this essay, I will argue that art can indeed convey philosophical messages by viewing the paintings of Francis Bacon through an existentialist lens. By “existentialist” I am referring to the system of thought that came into being in 20th century Europe stressing the actions of the individual (as a being-in-the-world who is distinguished by the fact they make an issue of their own being) as being the central means by which to interpret life’s significance. Existentialism stressed the tension between the individual and the society which he inhabited, as well recognition of the bountiful absurdity ruling the universe. Moreover, existentialists rebutted an essentialist viewpoint by asserting that existence preceded essence, or, that individuals weren’t defined by inherent properties, but instead their actions, which framed the way they were related to the external world. Bacon expresses his existential concerns using the ‘language’ of painting through a number of ways: emphasizing figure-ground relations, individual identity loss, confinement, and man as a physical organism. Moreover, Bacon’s art is of the category of non-mimetic realism, with surrealist influences, thus countering Plato’s idea of art as mimetic and unable to express philosophical thought because Bacon is able to convey such potent — if sometimes ambiguous — messages through his grotesque imagery. Continue reading

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Recently perused articles

  • A detailed article in Aeon on the coming of age of Chinese urban youth and the cultural values separating them from their prior generations. The generation gap can be bizarrely pronounced due to the older generations growing up under the harsh Maoist regime and being surrounded by famine and government-enforced cultural shifts, while the younger generation is in the process of being Westernized, which for the upper classes means embracing luxury goods and the other tenants of a post-subsistence, consumption based economy.
  • Keeping with the China theme, here’s a rather strange Vice article on China’s genetic engineering program, the goal of which is to engineer higher intelligence babies, leading to

embryo screening [that] will allow parents to pick their brightest zygote and potentially bump up every generation’s intelligence by five to 15 IQ points. Within a couple of generations, competing with the Chinese on an intellectual level will be like challenging Lena Dunham to a getting-naked-on-TV contest.

taking computing into the strange, subatomic realm of quantum mechanics. In that infinitesimal neighborhood, common sense logic no longer seems to apply. A one can be a one, or it can be a one and a zero and everything in between — all at the same time.

  • Is social media leading to a narcissism epidemic? Wait, give me a minute, I need to update my profile picture.

How China’s Pollution Crisis Relates to Global Sustainability, and the Possibility of a Solution

Cancer villages. A major city’s water supply strewn with thousands of pig carcasses. These may sound like plot developments from some Hollywood environmental apocalypse thriller, but they’re real. China’s environmental problems have been front and center in the news media lately. The government actively denies most reports of environmental mayhem as air and water pollution skyrockets. China’s rapid expansion, rarely checked by government oversight (although granted government support), has resulted in a myriad of public-private enterprises, primarily in the area of industrial manufacturing, as anyone who has ever checked the “Made in” label on most any of their possessions knows. With more capital accruing, the Chinese can then themselves afford to spend money: on house and road construction and various goods of their own. When hundreds of millions of people move to the cities in the largest mass migration in history — with a population the size of the United States’ moving to cities in recent years — the construction efforts are amplified all the more, as are other associated environmental impacts.

This all comes as no surprise. What’s astounding is considering the rate at which the pollution will continue, and how the government will choose to deal with it remains anyone’s guess, although this New York Times article notes China’s new prime minister is acknowledging the pollution. And remember how in January particulate pollution in Beijing broke records, charting 755 out of a supposed maximum of 500?  As an example of how the environmental woes will only grow, forecasts say the number of passenger cars will more than triple to 400 million by 2030. Vehicles already account for almost a quarter of particulate emissions, and the rapidly expanding coal power industry takes the cake for double that. As the Chinese consumers themselves become more wealthy, they’ll start to consume their own country’s goods in greater numbers, providing hundreds of millions of new costumers for manufactured goods. 3.2 million people already die each year from air pollution; one wonders where that number will be at a decade from now.  Continue reading

Review: “America” by Jean Baudrillard

I’m a big Jean Baudrillard fan: Simulacra and Simulation, which I’ll be writing an essay on soon (tying his notion of hyper-reality to our modern mass media fixated and technocentric culture), is one of my all time favorite works of modern philosophy. I’m also a big fan of travelling, so when I spied Baudrillard’s slim tome America, I figured I might as well check it out. While I didn’t especially love the book, it was an interesting (and fairly easy) read. As I sit here in very rural Northern Florida taking in yet another slice of my home country, I can’t help but view the surrounding culture as an amateur anthropologist might, and the surrounding ecosystem as an amateur biologist might. But how can I satisfy my inner philosopher? Baudrillard obviously ran into the same wall. Anyway, below is my review of America the book, which is Baurillard’s review of America the country.

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Eternal Sunshine of the Philosophical Film

Below is the edited version of an essay I wrote this year for a Philosophy of Film course at my college. The books cited are Thinking on Screen: Film As Philosophy by Thomas Wartenberg, New Philosophies of Film: Thinking Images by Robert Sinnerbrink, and the Deleuze-inspired Filmosophy by Daniel Frampton. Both offer some good perspective on the philosophy of film, albeit diverging in the fact that Wartenberg’s account takes a far more ananalytical approach, and his analysis of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind doesn’t make much sense (his chapter on The Matrix is spot on though). A few years ago, actually before I took classes on Aesthetics and Philosophy of Film from Prof. Paul Loeb, I considered movies and television to be purely within the realm of entertainment. While I’m still convinced that written texts are the best way for me to access and relay philosophical ideas, movies do offer an interesting, viscerally engaging means by which such ideas can be both probed through use of audiovisual effects, narrative plot, and objects within the film, sparking at the very least an interest, and at the most offering an argument and comprehensive exploration. Possibly the most interesting aspect of movies are their ability to capture ineffable elements of human experience language cannot describe, in a manner stripped of the phenomenological associations we generally have as the background of our direct experience, as Deleuze argues. Films are stripped down to the foreground, and in such a way provide an even purer sensory input than our real lives, though lacking integration with our senses of touch and smell.

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The Michel Gondry / Charlie Kaufman collaboration Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind provides a good example of the possibility of presenting philosophical concepts in a fictional feature film. This paper will show how Eternal Sunshine’s content supports ideas advanced by Wartenberg and Sinnerbrink that while films don’t explicitly present philosophical arguments as books do, they explore them in a unique way capturing the ineffability of human experience. Continue reading

Recently perused articles

Here are some articles that’ve captured my attention in the past few weeks:

  • A piece from The Atlantic on Finnish educational success — apparently they kick ass in international test scores. The writer, using the Fins as an example, also focuses on how the American education system may do best veering away from obsessive standardized testing, its lack of focus on individual needs / creativity, and the fixation upon excellence (for some) over equality (for all) that rests at the heart of the American ethos.
  • A fascinating and lengthy account in The New Yorker from last December on a former California DMV employee named John Quijada who created his own language, Ithkuil, from scratch. It’s even more interesting than it sounds.
  • A review in the TLS of a new biography of the late great scribe David Foster Wallace, incorporating the writers’ works.
  • A particularly encouraging article in The New York Times focusing on the connection between beer (and other lightly fermented beverages) and the start of human civilization, as early as 10,000 years ago: “With the help of the new psychopharmacological brew, humans could quell the angst of defying those herd instincts,” and expand their socio-biological boundaries.