Pharrell’s fröhliche Wissenschaft

A couple of weeks ago, I learned through friends on social media that Happy, Pharrell’s latest earworm, had become a sort of current day revolutionary anthem. I reacted with surprise and skepticism. Where, in a song called “Happy,” could the catalyzing negativity so necessary for direct action be found?

I took a closer listen. “This song isn’t about happiness at all,” I thought. “It’s about imperviousness. It’s about self-empowerment, about transcendence. Boundlessness. Agency.” Perhaps these emotions can be found embedded within individual life and romantic love, but they are also crucial ingredients for collective resistance. Suddenly it made more sense that Brazilian students might want to claim the song as their own as they protest the mismanagement and misuse of national funding for World Cup preparation whilst so many of their fellow citizens live in appallingly poor conditions.

The sheer inner resolve that this pop song celebrates can be directly matched to the “joyful wisdom” that Friedrich Nietzsche wrote about:

“Joyful Wisdom” : that implies the Saturnalia of a spirit which has patiently withstood a long, frightful pressure patiently, strenuously, impassionately, without submitting, but without hope—and which is now suddenly o’erpowered with hope, the hope of health, the intoxication of convalescence.

The proof? Below. Slavoj Žižek eat your heart out!

Happy

(Pharrell Williams, 2013)

It might seem crazy what I’m about to say
Sunshine she’s here, you can take a break
I’m a hot air balloon that could go to space
With the air, like I don’t care baby by the way

[Chorus:]
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you know what happiness is to you
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do
Here come bad news talking this and that, yeah,
Well, give me all you got, and don’t hold it back, yeah,
Well, I should probably warn you I’ll be just fine, yeah,
No offense to you, don’t waste your time
Here’s why
[Chorus]

Bring me down
Can’t nothing bring me down
My level’s too high
Bring me down
Can’t nothing bring me down
I said (let me tell you now)
Bring me down
Can’t nothing bring me down
My level’s too high
Bring me down
Can’t nothing bring me down
I said

[Chorus 2x]

Bring me down… can’t nothing…
Bring me down… my level’s too high…
Bring me down… can’t nothing…
Bring me down, I said (let me tell you now)

 

Certainly this man, notwithstanding his youth, understands the improvisation of life, and astonishes even the acutest observers. For it seems that he never makes a mistake, although he constantly plays the most hazardous games. One is reminded of the improvising masters of the musical art, to whom even the listeners would fain ascribe a divine infallibility of the hand, notwithstanding that they now and then make a mistake, as every mortal is liable to do. But they are skilled and inventive, and always ready in a moment to arrange into the structure of the score the most accidental tone (where the jerk of a finger or a humour brings it about), and to animate the accident with a fine meaning and soul.

Here is quite a different man ; everything that he intends and plans fails with him in the long run. That on which he has now and again set his heart has already brought him several times to the abyss, and to the very verge of ruin ; and if he has as yet got out of the scrape, it certainly has not been merely with a “black eye.” Do you think he is unhappy over it? He resolved long ago not to regard his own wishes and plans as of so much importance. “If this does not succeed with me,” he says to himself, ” perhaps that will succeed ; and on the whole I do not know but that I am under more obligation to thank my failures than any of my successes. Am I made to be headstrong, and to wear the bull’s horns? That which constitutes the worth and the sum of life for me, lies somewhere else ; I know more of life, because I have been so often on the point of losing it ; and just on that account I have more of life than any of you!” (The Joyful Wisdom, Part IV, Sanctus Januarius, Thesis 303.)

No ! Life has not deceived me ! On the contrary, from year to year I find it richer, more desirable and more mysterious—from the day on which the great liberator broke my fetters, the thought that life may be an experiment of the thinker—and not a duty, not a fatality, not a deceit !—And knowledge itself may be for others something different ; for example, a bed of ease, or the path to a bed of ease, or an entertainment, or a course of idling,—for me it is a world of dangers and victories, in which even the heroic sentiments have their arena and dancing-floor.

“Life as a means to knowledge”—with this principle in one’s heart, one can not only be brave, but can even live joyfully and laugh joyfully ! And who could know how to laugh well and live well, who did not first understand the full significance of war and victory ? (The Joyful Wisdom, Part IV, Sanctus Januarius, Thesis 324.)

Dance, oh ! dance on all the edges.
Wave-crests, cliffs and mountain ledges,
Ever finding dances new!
Let our knowledge be our gladness,
Let our art be sport and madness.
All that’s joyful shall be true! (The Joyful Wisdom, Appendix, “A Dancing Song to the Mistral Wind.”)

 

 

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Giorgio Agamben on the Contemporary

Dwarf "ghost galaxies" Leo IV, Ursa Major and Hercules as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope, 2012.

Dwarf “ghost galaxies” Leo IV, Ursa Major and Hercules as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope, 2012.

Two selections from Giorgio Agamben’s “What Is the Contemporary?” published in Nudities, translated by David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), pages 13-15.

3. The poet–the contemporary–must firmly hold his gaze on his own time. But what does he who sees his time actually see? What is this demented grin on the face of his century? I would like at this point to propose a second definition of contemporariness. The contemporary is he who firmly holds his gaze on his own time so as to perceive not its light but rather its darkness. All eras, for those who experience contemporariness, are obscure. The contemporary is precisely the person who knows how to see this obscurity, who is able to write by dipping his pen in the obscurity of the present. But what does it mean “to see an obscurity,” “to perceive the darkness”?

 

The neurophysiology of vision suggests an initial answer. What happens when we find ourselves in a place deprived of light or when we close our eyes? What is the darkness that we see then? Neurophysiologists tell us that the absence of light activates a series of peripheral cells in the retina called “off-cells.” When activated, these cells produce the particular kind of vision that we call darkness. Darkness is not, therefore, a privative notion (the simple absence of light, or something like nonvision) but rather the result of the activity of the “off-cells,” a product of our own retina. This means, if we now return to our thesis on the darkness of contemporariness, that to perceive this darkness is not a form of inertia or of passivity. Rather, it implies an activity and a singular ability. In our case this ability amounts to a neutralization of the lights that come from the epoch in order to discover its obscurity, its special darkness, which is not, however, separable from those lights.

 

The ones who can call themselves contemporary are only those who do not allow themselves to be blinded by the lights of the century and so manage to get a glimpse of the shadows in those lights, of their intimate obscurity. Having said this much, we have nevertheless still not addressed our question. Why should we be at all interested in perceiving the obscurity that emanates from the epoch? Is darkness not precisely an anonymous experience that is by definition impenetrable, something that is not directed at us and thus cannot concern us? On the contrary, the contemporary is the person who perceives the darkness of his time as something that concerns him, as something that never ceases to engage him. Darkness is something that–more than any light–turns directly and singularly toward him. The contemporary is the one whose eyes are struck by the beam of darkness that comes from his own time.

 

In the firmament that we observe at night, the stars shine brightly, surrounded by a think darkness. Since the number of galaxies and luminous bodies in the universe is almost infinite, the darkness that we see in the sky is something that, according to scientists, demands an explanation. It is precisely the explanation that contemporary astrophysics gives for this darkness that I would now like to discuss. In an expanding universe the most remote galaxies move away from us at a speed so great that their light is never able to reach us. What we perceive as the darkness of the heavens is this light that, though traveling toward us, cannot reach us, since the galaxies from which the light originates move away from us at a velocity greater than the speed of light.

 

To perceive, in the darkness of the present, this light that strives to reach us but cannot–this is what it means to be contemporary. As such, contemporaries are rare. And for this reason, to be contemporary is, first and foremost, a question of courage, because it means being able not only to firmly fix one’s gaze on the darkness of the epoch but also to perceive in this darkness a light that, while directed toward us, infinitely distances itself from us. In other words it is like being on time for an appointment that one cannot but miss.

 

4. This is the reason why the present that contemporariness perceives has broken vertebrae. Our time, the present, is in fact not only the most distant: it cannot in any way reach us. Its backbone is broken and we find ourselves in the exact point of this fracture. This is why we are, despite everything, contemporaries. It is important to realize that the appointment that is in question in contemporariness does not simply take place in chronological time: it is something that, working within chronological time, urges, presses, and transforms it. And this urgency is the untimeliness, the anachronism that permits us to grasp our time in the form of a “too soon” that is also a “too late”–of an “already” that is also a “not yet.” Moreover, it allows us to recognize in the obscurity of the present the light that, without ever being able to reach us, is perpetually voyaging toward us.

Self-portrait of an unknown

I stumbled upon this documentary about Jean Cocteau (dir. Edgardo Cozarinsky, 1985) several months ago, and saved it to my bookmarks. Last weekend I re-discovered the link, and spent part of Tuesday’s April Central New York snow flurries watching it.

Nothing special, but I took pleasure in Cocteau’s repeated insistence on two contradictory artistic impulses: his ambition to know himself and become known, and his desire to keep himself hidden and obscure to himself and all others, as an unmappable and untappable source of creativity.

Some of Cocteau’s bon mots from the film:

We are the workers of a darkness that belongs to us, but eludes us. This profound man–we don’t know him well at all–is our true self. He is hidden in the shadows. He commands us. I decided to plunge down into myself, into this formidable hole, into this unknown mine, at the risk of running into explosive gas.

 

Honors–one must envision them as a sort of transcendent punishment.

 

We are the very humble servants of a force that lives in us. We are led–we are led by a force that isn’t external to us–it’s internal. We are led by this night that is our true self.

“Atmospheric speech”

To celebrate the coming of spring, an Egon Schiele watercolor and some images of his poetry (a.k.a. thought-into-word art).These are all from the Leopold Museum’s 2008 catalogue, Der Lyriker Egon Schiele: Briefe und Gedichte 1910-12. As the museum explains,

Many of Egon Schiele’s letters and poems are designed almost as graphic artworks. The themes are similar to those in his images: personal visions of massive expressive power, full of vividness and immediacy. Unusual word combinations and word creations, grammatically incomplete sentences and the graphic translation of thought dashes mark this unusual atmospheric speech. 

A modest offering during this hectic period, but a visually enjoyable one, even for non-Germanophones.

Egon Schiele, Recollection of the Green Stockings, drawing and watercolor

Egon Schiele, Recollection of the Green Stockings, drawing and watercolor

Egon Schiele, A Self-Portrait, poem

Egon Schiele, A Self-Portrait, poem

Egon Schiele, A Self-Portrait, poem

Egon Schiele, Fir Forest, poem

Egon Schiele, Fir Forest, poem

Egon Schiele, The Portrait, poem

Egon Schiele, The Portrait, poem

Egon Schiele, Country Road, poem

Egon Schiele, Country Road, poem

Egon Schiele, Two Clergymen, poem

Egon Schiele, Two Clergymen, poem

Egon Schiele, Wet Evening, poem

Egon Schiele, Wet Evening, poem

Egon Schiele, White Swan, poem

Egon Schiele, White Swan, poem

UPDATE 8/20/15: More Schiele for the viewing at Artsy.net’s Egon Schiele page.