Hacking Humanities

McGill’s very cool, very innovative, very cutely-named Institute for the Public Life of Art and Ideas (IPLAI, i.e. “I play”)  is running a fascinating workshop this Saturday on Thinking Art, which I was lucky to grab a spot in. The session seems akin to the participatory, open-ended unconferences of the barcamp model, displacing the “talking-head parade” which provides the skeleton for most academic conferences. In inviting working artists to interact with university-based scholars, it also promises to draw on the creative possibilities of bringing together different professional communities, much like the very successful launch of HackingHealth last fall (with a shout-out here to fellow Sauvé Scholar Jeeshan Chowdhury, a lead on this project).

In its format, then, the event opens a wide door on the possibilities for productive meetings in a university setting and, more importantly from my perspective, on the relationship between academia and the public. While there was an application process, the sessions – which are animated by such well-knowns as dancer Margie Gillis – are open to anyone who thinks they have something to learn and to teach about the interaction between the arts and the humanities as ways of interacting with and understanding the world.

Which also indicates that nothing is lost in the content, either. When people think of innovation, they often think about tech; the session is built on the idea that imaginative thinking is an important element of responding to our changing world. That theme seems to be integrated into the entire design of the session. The day’s activities include art-making, performance and discussion, but the theme of what art-making and humanities research can offer each other provides an orienting principle. The push against tired, repetitive thinking was at the forefront of the application process, which asked potential participants “In what ways does art think?”

Working through my answer was both intellectually invigorating and painfully humbling:

The difficulty of such a question is that we do not usually understand concepts or categories as themselves capable of thinking. Rather, the metaphor works this way: we think using conceptual objects; thinking is the manipulation of the boxes and bags of thought; it is the climbing on the net of ideas, not the net itself; certainly neither the net nor the nodes can do the thinking; the box cannot unpack itself.

However: when Winston Churchill (of all people!) remarked that “first we shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us” he pointed to the possibilities of art as artifact. The making of art in the world gives ideas substance, and while architecture or painting leaves a concrete residue, all art makes its mark on us. And we are thus manipulated. Put before us, we cannot control how art, too, shifts around the bags and boxes of thought; how it adjusts its weight upon the net. We can hardly avoid it. Even those standing guard against the risk that art  might change them, inevitably adapt in response to each experience of art – and thereby change.

We might say, then, that art thinks by placing our own thought outside us, or before us. It thinks not only by acting as a distorted mirror but forcing us to act as mirrors ourselves. It shapes us just as we shape it. What we put of ourselves into us, it unpacks of itself in us, transformed.

Given that even the application was able to force me to think obliquely to my own habits makes me very optimistic about Saturday’s outcomes. The question, however, is what value such a session could have to a lawyer, or to someone studying legal institutions. They asked me that question, too. Here’s what I said:

I am interested in parallels between the ways that art creates artifacts of thought in the world, which then constrain and shapes our actions, and the way in which law does the same thing. Obviously there are differences. Our experience of law is inherently normative; it not only pushes upon our thoughts, but also places its weight on our conscience. What concerns me more is the dynamic relationship which exists between art as a reflection of our regularities of thought and action, and vice versa. The two obviously exist in an imperfect correspondence, and there is much of ‘culture’ as artifacts of shared, persistent belief which may not fall under the sweep of ‘art.’ Yet I think there is some parallel between art and law, in the factor of deliberate shaping, in the understanding that we can somehow have an impact on thoughts and behaviours which is determinate, or at least delimited. In particular, I am interested in how artists and lawmakers may think of their craft not as forcing us to think or act a certain way, but as providing tools to help others live well.



How are we supposed to go on and keep trying at anything when there are things in the world that are so much better than anything we will ever be able to do? And how are we supposed to keep going on, with all the terrible things that we do to each other and the sense of loss that comes with trying to make it better?

When we try, we feel not a sense of satisfaction, but of having done too little. Raoul Wallenberg hands out passports to Jews in Budapest and it is 1944 and it is 1945 and maybe he was a spy for the Americans and he dies in a soviet prison and these thousands of Jewish lives were saved and he hid them in buildings rented out, 20 of them, 30 of them, and they had names like ‘the Swedish Library’ and ‘the Swedish Research Institute’ and they all had giant, oversized Swedish flags hanging out front and it was just this open secret, 10, 20, 25 000 jews with Swedish passports living inside these buildings in Budapest until the Soviet army showed up 6 months later.

He climbs on top of a train, and the police are shooting at him and maybe they are trying to miss. They don’t hit him and he hands out dozens, hundreds of passports to their upstretched hands and then the Germans let them out because you don’t shoot the Swedes, because they are neutral and it just doesn’t make any sense. But if you close your eyes you can kind of imagine it happening, like it says here on wikipedia ‘the Germans and the Arrow Cross were so dumbfounded they let him get away with it.’

And you just kind of realize that you can try all you want to be that good and to make a difference like that and then and then and then.

It’s just not reasonable to be the kind of breathless, sensitive young person who at 14 watches Schindler’s List and then just sits in the kitchen crying  and just kind of chokes through sobbing breaths while his parents stare at him somewhat dumbfounded because maybe you remember that Schindler at the end says ‘I could have done more’ and I, this 14 year old, can’t even talk to them and then my sobbing turns to weeping and I look up at them. It’s awful because I have a hard time even believing it myself, and it’s not that I love who I am now, but I do love who I was then because the whole world was open to him and he could have done anything, he could have ridden a mule across the Andes, become a champion kick boxer, sailed to China and he, I just never thought seriously about anything other than this at the time, says through the tears ‘I should be doing something. I should be doing something and I just don’t know what to do. What if I don’t do enough?’

As if there was some measure. Here is Howard Zinn reminding us that the world is backward, because the wrong people are in jail, and the wrong people are out of it. The United States has almost 3 million people under incarceration, had in 2008 almost 1.5 million adults in prison and 100 000 youth in prison and here’s the other thing – they execute children who’ve probably done terrible things and in many ways they’re not children anymore by the time they get sentenced but the government puts them under sedation and then they give them painkillers and then they put poison into their blood streams and they never wake up. And people say ‘they should have known better’ but that’s just it, they didn’t know better. If they had known better they wouldn’t have done it. And the government poisons these young men and they are broken and we have failed them, even if it’s not your country or mine exactly.

They execute men who grew up sexually abused and burned and ignored and mistreated who have grown up crazy and twisted and dissociated and they do terrible things. But if they are monsters did we make them that way and what’s our duty to them now and if they aren’t monsters then how can we kill them when they are defenceless? And now 62% of Canadians say that they think we should have the death penalty for murder and people think there should be the death penalty for rapists, just for good measure. So in this old video, Michael Ignatieff says in this clinical and detached way that we shouldn’t have the death penalty in Canada because it’s irrevocable like we might make a mistake and how can he be so cold? What makes it so that he can have talked to these people in Iraq and in Kosovo and in Croatia and all he can say is with like, surgical precision as you would say to someone who suggests that maybe the engine needs replacing that ‘well, that seems a pretty rash measure.’ Why can’t he just say with his head tilted that we can’t take it upon ourselves to kill people, to purposefully snuff out their life when they want to live, we can’t do it, because it’s wrong, because it’s wrong, because it’s wrong?

And I know that the answer is the same as the answer to why there are now almost 1 in 100 Americans incarcerated and yet none of them are George Bush or Dick Cheney. Because those of us who engage ourselves in politics just have to accept the political expediency of if you kill 600 000 people in an unnecessary war and hold people without trial and then empower people to torture them, then you get paid $400 a ticket to speak but in California if you shoplift three times you go to jail for life. Thousands and thousands of people are in prison for minor drug-related offences and yes, drugs are horrible for a lot of people, but then how is Tony Blair is a free man?

And you struggle every day with the question ‘what am I supposed to do’ and then you read too much and you watch too many movies and you listen to too much music and you find that you can talk about anything and you can talk at length about the qualities of any of this litany of things. You learn from Bourdieu that taste is a product of class and privilege, and yet you believe that the art, the literature, the music matters – that it is right, that you haven’t just soaked up the preferences of your parents. And yet…

There are these moments in books, where Gatsby’s boat beats on against the current ceaselessly into the past and now, here, in Helen DeWitt, we have this just incredible tour de force, a book that starts strong and almost every page is better and better and reading it makes you want to be better. Because her candidates are not better at, they are simply one after the other better. The hero is the hero by becoming, not by being already.

And next I visit Rod, who’s is really no slouch himself when it comes to just being impressive and prolific and thoughtful, and I am only 90% of the way through her (DeWitt’s) book and – take a breath – it’s called The Last Samurai and I ask Rod ‘what should I read?’ I want to know about the law, I want to understand what it is I am supposed to do and what it has to do with the law and how we can be good and how we can make this place we live better. I am complicit in its shortcomings and we are all complicit in them and we could do so much better than all of this suffering. I am breathless and I am weak. I want to try again. Fail again. Fail better. My question to him is about the law and it is not about the law. It is about practice, what we do, the terrible things that we can do to each other and that we do to each other and the small kindnesses and insights and braveries that can overcome it. I tell him that I have decided to spend some time thinking and I tell him some of the things that I have been thinking about and some of the things that I have been reading. He puts his hands behind his head for a moment and then he chuckles and then he screws up his forehead. He says Hmm and he says this is like a desert island book and he says. I say it’s not like a desert island book, because I have time, and he says before I finish Beethoven’s sonatas. And I say I don’t read music and he says the full collection of Walker Evans and I say I don’t know who that is and he tells me about Walker Evans, who narrated by photograph the death of the American farm. And he says you want something with words. And I say well and he says Paradise Lost and well, I guess I was hoping he would say Kelsen, who could tell me how they pretend the law is supposed to work. Or Bourdieu, who would tell me where the law sits inside everything else. Or some political theorist or legal theorist I hadn’t heard of or some other one that I know about but don’t really know about.

And now I am downloading 33 sonatas on 9 cds and I am looking at Walker Evans and then I finished the Last Samurai and now instead of writing a book about Burma, which is a story that someone else is telling already, I have to write about Job and how we can’t know God’s will and so we can’t presume to know whether anyone deserves what they get, and I have to write about humanitarian intervention because if we are going to demand the impossible then we should demand an impossible that doesn’t require us to drop bombs on people’s heads and I am going to have to write an essay in which I ask and try to answer ‘what makes Dan Deacon work?’ and then I am going to have to spend 33 hours or so trying to listen to Beethoven and I am going to have to read Paradise Lost and I am going to have to try to tie it all together because that’s what being honest about the question ‘what am I supposed to do’ means. It means that I can’t presuppose that any of this stuff doesn’t matter to that question.

I tell Rod about Wallenberg, or that I plan to use Wallenberg in something and he says ‘or who they say he was’. And I say but I don’t want to use Wallenberg, I just want to use what they say about Wallenberg. And he says well, but we should celebrate the story and not the person and I say yes exactly because for me, it is the story that matters, it’s a good story and he says well yes but what if so was Mein Kampf’?

And I think for a tiny second that maybe we need to be sure, that I need to be more sure than just it’s a good story. But then I can’t think of any way to be more sure than that so I say ‘but my story is better’ and he says yes and then he says that’s the right answer.

So I try and commit to writing better stories but I know they’ll never be good enough and it’s almost as if you could die. But you can’t, because, well, then why bother with all that blue and gold?

Swedish Institute for Practical Ethics and Breathlessness and then