Contemplating a Crackpot

Say you find yourself staring at an old pot. Your brain, being an incredibly sophisticated computer, immediately assesses that it’s an old pot, and that old pots are boring. It’s not going to dance, or sing heartbreaking songs of yesteryear. It won’t even rock gently in the breeze. It’s just going to sit there being a pot. Probably a broken one at that. If it was on television, they’d at least have the decency to back it with some upbeat techno while zooming in and out, and even then you’d immediately switch over. But instead, because you’ve got the misfortune of actually being there in front of it, surrounded by other people, you have to stand and look at the poxy thing for a minimum of 30 seconds before moving on to gawp at the next bit of old shit, or everyone’s going to think you’re a philistine. The same principle applies in art galleries and museums. They’re full of secretly bored people pulling falsely contemplative faces. It’s a weird mass public mime.

Even though it is depressing to watch, I like the TV show Nathan Barley, co-created as an adaptation from a a fake TV guide listing (TV Go Home) for a fake TV show called Cunt. (Here is a link to one of my more infamous blog posts, it is probably NWS if you live behind a coarse language firewall, but if you did, then why are you reading my blog?:)

The above block quote comes from the regular Guardian column of one of the co-creators of Nathan Barley and TV Go Home, Charlie Brooker. I was introduced to Charlie Brooker’s column by a friend with whom I share many similar tastes in popular culture consumption. Brooker is a funny bastard, I certainly grant him that. His column from the 22 June 2009 is about having an ‘interest’ (ie hobby) and the relation between this ‘interest’ and the practices of ‘interested’ people and the way Brooker has always turned his ‘interest’ into a job.

Brooker’s column makes fun of what he perceives to be the contemplative mode of engagement expressed through the practices of visitors to archaeological ruins as they pause and consider a broken pot. There is a rhythm to this practice, of walking, having one’s interest caught, gazing upon this object of interest and all the while contemplating something about it. The capacity to contemplate an object reminds me of the way Bourdieu wrote about the capacity of certain upper-class consumers of cultural artefacts. There is a pleasure in the nitty gritty of seeking these objects out, but the point is to index their particular significance. (See Hilary Geoghegan’s essay in the ‘Enthuse‘ special eissue of M/C Journal on Being Enthusiastic about Industrial Archaeology.) To realise their significance requires an informal (for amateurs) or formal (for scholars or professionals) inculcuration of these practices into the enthusiast habitus. At stake is a subcultural assessment of beauty. For Brooker there is no utility in a this kind of Kantian reflection on the ‘beauty’ of the broken pot. The Bourdieuian would simply retort Brooker is not properly equipped to contemplate the broken pot’s beauty nor have the cultural capital to realise its significance.

I am not a Bourdieuian, however. I appreciate Bourdieu’s work and what he has given to the social sciences. I prefer to take another position, one that incorporates what, following Deleuze, is the virtual dimension of the cracked pot. Think about an amatuer archeologist’s practice. They come across several if not dozens of such artefacts similar to the cracked pot in their leisure-time labour. The great joy of such amateurs, just as it is for any subcultural practice organised around the indexing and cataloguing of significant cultural artefacts, is when something that might be an artefact does not fit into the schema of the established typology.

Bourdieu went to great pains to point out the class bias in Kant’s philosophy of aesthetic judgement. But what if Bourdieu was wrong to focus on aesthetic judgement and instead should have engaged with Kant’s notion of enthusiasm to describe the cultural practices of his research subjects? Participating in a cultural formation does not only require a cultural competence, it also requires one to be mobilised. The mobilisation was assumed in Bourdieu’s account; it is a variable he took out of his analysis of formations of cultural consumption and their intersection with class-based social stratifcations. Surely everyone has met people who belong to a particular social milieu but who choose not to particpate in the practices of cultural consumption ‘expected’ of such a social positioning?

The amateur archeologists as well as many other enthusiasts are forced to use their respective powers of imagination. The broken pot has a biography, its surface and its cracks are traces of events that have been inscribed upon it. Part of the work of the enthusiast is to decipher these material signs of its biography. For example, enthusiasts in modified-car culure can ‘read’ the material signs of a car and reconstruct the ‘amount of work that has gone into it’, which would be similar to an archeologist exclaiming to how much ‘history’ is present. ‘Amount’ here is quantitative but it is also qualitative, the biography (work/history, i.e. active/passive inculcation of events) is an index of enthusiasm, deciphered from the material signs of the object’s biography and immanently valorised within the practice of contemplating the object.

Charlie Booker seems to be mobilised by the challenge of cultural critique of those practices that he deems boring (amateur archeologists). It is an unnerving practice to simply pour scorn on other peoples’ enthusiasms and I don’t care much for it. Maybe there is some inverse cultural cringe here, but I think people should be allowed the dignity of pursuing their collective enthusiasms. For some it is the only thing they have for warding off a brutal and nihilistic ennui. Booker, and many other people I have met of my generation who are as cool as fuck, is alienated from his own enthusiasm and seems to get enthusiastic about pointing out the ‘absurdities’ of another’s enthusiasm.

7 replies on “Contemplating a Crackpot”

  1. Glen,

    i think you are partly right on what you say about Bourdieu. Though i guess that it should be also attended that the main conceptualization that preoccupied Bourdieu was centered in the notion of the field. This means that he would see in further way the case of Brooker, maybe arguing that Brooker was not equipped to contemplate the broken pot, neither with embodied skills or with the specific symbolic capital that circulates inside the field of archeology: that would mean for him nothing to accuse or to regret there, since Brooker is in fact a TV journalist, so it would be just a question of what is expected from a TV journalist. Since Bourdieu was interested in the logic of the practices and their respectively fields of action, he would address his explanation instead to the specialized occupants of the positions and their trajectory stakes that ‘play’ in such disciplinary field. If Brooker would be an archeologist and would still hold such a ironic views, then it would be a socioanalytical case to consider for Bourdieu. Anyway i have to accept that Bourdieu´s its not the panacea, but his concepts are helpful.

    oh well but i am not here to argue against your point, which is a good one. instead i want to underline the beauty implied in the broken pot example. What makes a broken pot to be a broken pot? to be broken or being a pot? The fractured object and its event, what would an archeological expert see through the fracture? is there an event previous to the fracture that is already subjected in the object? if so, what history does that object is telling us? Just to say that the broken pot example is really a good one 🙂

  2. Regarding your last point on the ‘crackness’ of the cracked pot, I like Derrida’s concept of hauntology as an attempt to think the ghostly traces of events. A cracked pot is haunted by its crack, the crack-up, when you lose it, the trace of something haunting you ala Deleuze in The Logic of Sense. Hauntology is too past-oriented however. We need a term that incorporates how we are haunted by the future as well. Maybe Hauntology can do that?

  3. Hauntology is too past-oriented however. We need a term that incorporates how we are haunted by the future as well. Maybe Hauntology can do that?

    Absolutely it can, glen. That’s what the to-come, the a-venir, is all about. Likewise, the time of the ghost is undecidable, which is as much as to say that it can’t be confined to the past any more than it can be contained within a form of the present.

    Indeed, any hauntology worthy of the name is undertaken in the name of opening a path to a future that is otherwise than a continuation of the present. Hauntology is itself haunted by a future-to-come that is irreducible to the form of the the future-present.

  4. Indeed! Thanks for correcting me. I was thinking about too much how it has been used by some of the British bloggers rather than Derrida’s original development. It was a quick comment that I wrote without really thinking about it.

    Would you agree that part of the future-oriented application of a hauntological style analysis would explore the tension between the future anterior (the future past of a presentness) and the to-come of a given event?

    Is there a term in Derrida’s philosophy to describe the element/passage of an event that is already happening (being actualised) but which from at least a human perspective hasn’t yet happened? A good example is from romantic relations (on my mind!) where one could be in a friendship with someone, which over time develops into something else, that development is happening on one level but hasn’t yet reached consciousness and is often amidst much confusion.

    My understanding is that the to-come describes something in the works, but is partially derived from an appreciation of the present. I am after a term to describe the contemporary state of a ‘future’ event that has already started happening without knowledge or conscious awareness of it happening, which I guess can only be identified in retrospect.

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