The question of an artwork that evokes “all worldly knowledge,” the theme of the 2013 Venice Biennale, initially sends us in search of one as encompassing as possible, able to embrace the multitude of knowledges and the multitude of worlds in which all these knowledges occur. Skeptical of this totalizing possibility, indeed shipwrecked against the very idea of it, in a second attempt we’d go in the opposite direction, in search of something which evoked the “non-all,” the unrepresentable, the Real, or which addressed the inconsistency of every established knowledge, the impossibility of coherent discourse. However, approaching knowledge through the negative, we find only a reversal of the initial desire for positivity and absoluteness. Our confidence broken in both directions—by the genuine futility of knowledge and by the sham utility of non-knowledge—, we are forced to go in search of an artwork that would express only this brokenness, an artwork that would embody our despair at knowledge, positive or negative, and at its abuse of power in this world.
Mark Manders’ “Short Sad Thoughts” embraces this despair with simplicity. It consists of two unobtrusive copper wires in the shape of down-ward facing, open-ended parabolas, each suspended on the wall by a nail. Only 22 cm by 3 cm, they are barely visible among the other huge sculptures in the Dutch exhibit. This serves as a metaphor for the impasse confronting humble thinking in a world sick with cravings for effective, elegant, assured knowledge-constructions: even if it is more sincere, more honest than them, a broken thought will always be dwarfed by the countless towering rants surrounding it—and so further broken. As for the composition of the work, the wires appear as if they are being pulled to the ground by the massive force of gravity, but in fact the artist himself bent them “with great effort.” This serves as a metaphor for the work of the thinker, rendered “invisible” by the stomachs of nature, language, and culture: no matter how much he puts into his work, no one will ever be able to see, or even approach, the real animating nexus of it. By the end, it will have been utterly distorted by the society confronting it, dissolved into the matter it was obliged to patiently work. Each thinker circles around a black hole that consumes him. His light drowns in an abyss which leaves no evidence of “him,” but only the accidents of a development without cause and without place. Such is the case with these copper wires: they could have been found in a scrap yard; anyone could have made them, even a machine. Anyone could have hung them there and anyone could take them down—but no matter: lacking all sales appeal, no one is even looking…
“Short Sad Thoughts” exposes the lie of the allure of assured knowledge. It focuses our attention instead on the emotional and “ineffective” dimension of thought—the sad and the short-lived, the breaking and the broken. It expresses the loneliness of a humble, abandoned, fragmented thought. —And yet there are two wires, not one; and though similar, they are not identical, even if both are consigned to the same fate, to hang. As a pairing, the wires evokes a kind of degree-zero of love: not signifying anything, not saving anything, all they have is the space they share. In addition, this twoness could be extended to three or more similar wires; these wires could symbolize the many thoughts of one thinker, or the many thinking beings of the world. This simple proximity of thought to thought, of thinker to thinker, shows that while a multiplicity of miseries do not overcome it—and are, each in their own way, equally miserable—there is at least an “art” to their being there together, sharing this misery no knowledge can overcome. It would be the emotion of this thinking, and not its content, that would be left for us to share. A question of space, distance, proximity, and love.
Perhaps we could say that each one of us, in our own right, in our own lives, is a kind of “short sad thought.” But as the exhibit suggests, none of us would be alone in that. We’re in this sad situation together with other sad thinkers—which makes a world of difference, the only difference between meaningless suffering and a meaningful world. This, to my mind, is the only possible meaning behind “all worldly knowledge”: no effectiveness, no assurances, no grand promises or sturdy knowledges, but only the “knowledge” of this: that we share thoughts and feelings hanging here on the same blank wall. Perhaps we are outweighed and oppressed by those who overlook their sadness and overestimate the importance of their own thoughts, but ultimately, they are still hanging there, just like us. To extend our generosity to all these despairing thinkers, all these weary persons—recognizing above all else that we share this world and the predicament of misery it throws us into—is to respond to that world, to love it, and, perhaps, to know everything there is to know about it.
Addendum: Of course, it all depends on how we construe knowledge. The general view on knowledge is that we know “about” something. It is a representation which makes grasping possible, and this grasp makes control possible– knowledge is power. There’s nothing inherently bad about this, since without a certain grasp on things, we would not even be able to talk. Not many things are more natural to us than this effort of reduction, circumscription, and definition whereby we make the world manageable and open to our designs. However, it’s also clear that management tends to manipulation and design to domination. How can we think a knowledge that, without giving up its “grasp on things,” refuses to impose its grasp? Can we find worldly definition, without defining it?
Nancy sometimes quotes Benjamin, who wrote early on that, “Truth is the death of intention.” The suspension of intentionality is something we have great difficulty thinking and acting on, especially if we try to bring this suspension into every moment, without abstracting it away or assuring ourselves of any kind of purity of intention. The impact of this suspension on knowledge and especially its usage is apparent (Nancy: Truth is the syncope of knowledge). How to construe knowledge “blacked out,” without intentionality– without motive, project, or completion? A knowledge whose source lies in an experience of the other? No doubt, philosophy begins here, in wonder. In the past, I’ve tried to call it “open knowing” (and, for the most part, I’m lost in this: study without purpose). Relinquishing the normal use of knowledge does not readily provide new norms of usage; on the contrary, what we have is a form of life constantly on the edge of itself, unable to know what it is and, what’s more, unable to even consciously invent itself– because it means holding knowledge to what, in every present, can’t be known: the opening itself is inaccessible even to the most open knowing…
Can there be a knowing access to the open? Would it really look like knowledge, if there were? All I’ve said here would fall under the umbrella of non-knowledge, the second option entertained in the piece. The third option only shifts the focus from not-knowing to sharing not-knowing. In truth, sharing not-knowing is all we ever do, in spite of the hubris of knowledge ruling the world! To share in not-knowing is basically love: friendship, conversation, etc. Furthermore, the suspension of knowledge and intention is not an operation added to the multiplicity of operations already at work, but an interruption constantly present, the immanence of night in all that is day. Sharing misery simply means not the exorcising night, nor death from life, nor error from knowledge, but loving it– loving the complexity of the play we can’t master or control– cherishing the unknowability of each existence, each instant. A savoir-faire of exposure…
Liberating knowledge from effectiveness is the task of the coming philosophy. Nancy writes, “Existence… can only be destroyed or shared,” summing up its program and its challenge. It implies forms of life we can’t be sure of, unique as we are, unique as the sharing that moves us. I believe that’s the essence of what’s at stake here: learning how to be moved by the sharing, to share the depth of this movement.
When I read your opening–
“The question of an artwork that evokes “all worldly knowledge” initially sends us in search of one as encompassing as possible, …. in a second attempt we’d go in the opposite direction, in search of something which evoked the “non-all,” the unrepresentable, the Real, or which addressed the inconsistency of every established knowledge, the impossibility of coherent discourse.”
Immediately I thought of this — as I am guessing you were too:
” I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way.”