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Creative Production Inspirations and Lessons from BTS in Kpop, Pt. 1

BTS, a seven-man K-Pop hip hop group, has been a creative inspiration to me in ways that I didn’t believe would be possible for my cynical-of-mainstream heart and mind. With their recent win of Mnet’s Asian Music Awards (MAMA)’s Artist of the Year Daesang, they have literally started from the bottom to win the most prestigious award for Korean musical acts. Thus I found myself writing about why this phenomenal group resonates with me and my creative development, and why I think it transcends borders for so may fans.

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BTS is the English name based on their Korean name, Bangtan Sonyeondan, which translates to “Bulletproof Boy Scouts”. It’s quite a high-flown title and reminded me of something like “Fullmetal Alchemist” at first. As they’ve explained in a few interviews, they chose this name because their music is meant to reflect the issues that teenagers and youth in their 20s in society, and use their songs as a shield against prejudice.

And I’ve been delighted to find BTS’s name and motto remains true, in their musical production as well as their visual direction that engage with social consciousness themes for a youth age group. They have done this in an unpretentious way that allows young fans to have open conversations about difficult topics on family, mental health, inequality, sexuality, and more. As someone who has enjoyed Cinema Studies in university, some have called my cultural media interests esoteric and niche and out of touch with what’s “popular”, but BTS has shown that you can have it both ways; Their strength lies in their simultaneous presentation that is both accessible and self-reflexive, with both breadth and depth.

Throughout the rest of this winding article, I will present what ingredients in their oeuvre makes them such a creative and commercial success, and key points that I believe any commercial artists of any medium who strive to talk about social consciousness in their work can learn from.

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The Sensate Intelligence: The teleology of humanity’s successive bio-technological revolutions

The Sensate Intelligence:

The teleology of humanity’s successive bio-technological revolutions

By Tanya Kan

POL381H1

2010-02-08

 


Ned (to Ray): You’re missing something. Biological is what we are. I think most people would agree that being biological is the quintessential attribute of being human… and I plan to keep it that way.[1]

Single Whip Singularitarian, artwork by James Post

How can it be proven that future technological revolutions in genetics, nanotechnology and robotics can benefit the social totality and realize humankind’s teleology? Ray Kurzweil contends that future technology shall inevitably prevail against even slow institutional change to extend the evolution of human intelligence beyond their biological capacity. Although there is no disputing that the augmentation of human intelligence is a worthwhile purpose, Kurzweil presupposes that technology will be able to innovate at a steady exponential rate because of the economic imperative of the capitalist system.[2] I contend that Kurzweil’s privileging of the modern rational subject as the self-referential position that subsumes natural orientations have caused two problematic inclinations: First, that he has neglected to describe intelligence as informed by the intercommunication of bodily senses and rational thought, and secondly, his reliance on the unproven value of the capitalist system. My overarching political argument is that a phenomenological approach to technical devices would enable more progressive and humanistic technology to flourish in differentiated cultures with more ease because of its consideration for the ambiguity of human subjectivities and positions.

One of the unique attributes of a human being is his mimetic faculty[3] that influences his peers and his surroundings to a higher degree of consciousness than any other species. This supposes that he is also a “porous being” in Heidegger’s terms, where his perception is the moment of decision that differentiates and mentally designates the ambiguous sensate inhabitants of his surroundings.[4] Similarly, the output from informational technologies stimulates his rational capacity and simultaneously “the material layers of the human being: his nerves, his senses, his entire physiological substance”.[5] Our reactions to the products of new media, travel, medicine, military, and so on cannot be understood as based on technical knowledge, but also as a carnal response at the point of perception. What I am referring to is what Shaviro calls “the primordial forms of raw sensation: affect, excitation, stimulation, and repression, pleasure and pain, shock and habit.”[6] It is a kinetic relationship between the subjective intelligence that comprises of the reciprocal interaction of rational thought and sensate reflexes and takes in the tactility of the world outside of the body.[7] That Kurzweil neglects this aspect of intelligence would weaken his value-based justifications that his technological vision truly augments the collective human potential.

Indeed, there is no other blueprint for augmenting human intelligence than on researching into the continuum of our own species, and it would be a fundamental error in scientific practice to see the mind as disconnected from the body. However, this is exactly the historical basis by which we understand the place of the technical within the human society. Peter Woelert contends that, since the work of Descartes, the modern technical dominant is characterized by a gap “between a disembodied, rational subject on the one hand and a rationalized, objective material world on the other”.[8] As nature becomes mechanistically rationalized, human body follows suit because it is derived from natural causes.[9] The modern technical subject thus has ascended all previous notions of natural orientation and becoming, and it has become self-referential and an end in itself.[10] The exponentially increasing vitalization of technologies since World War II has assimilated the conceptual position of both nature and the subject into its Symbolic auto-functions.[11] In other words, the bodily subject is no longer thought of as free from technology and able to reflect itself autonomously. Woelert implies that modernity has been a consistent cultural dominant that has deprecated the evolution of the subject, even so far as to say that technology has totalized the capacity for man to know himself as only through the production of his technical apparatuses.[12] Under such formulations, there is nothing ‘post-’ humanity about Kurzweil’s political project, because it is part of a trajectory of technical rationalization that repudiates the function of nature and subject, and humanity the subject is foreshortened of its depth.

According to Marcuse, technology is always a historical-social project of specific coded values, and that its apparent neutrality is ideological.[13] Technology is not something that enables a direct perception of the world, but that it re-conceptualizes how we see the world.[14] Vivian Sobchack sees that expressive technologies are also historically constituted in altering previous forms of temporal and spatial consciousness and the bodily sense of subjective existentialism.[15] With technology of the everyday manifesting an “objective” Symbolic familiarity into the body, technology compels a loss of its own history.[16] Pushing for the attraction of the new,[17] the old is denied of its immediate precursor to the current. In other words, the multiple technical transformations of the body privilege certain perceptual dispositions while concealing other possibilities.[18]

There is without a doubt a sense of excitement and play involved with current technologies,[19] and the spectacular with the prospect of the promises of future technologies. The implications of having carnal interest with the dominant disembodied technical rationality is that a subject is simultaneously invested in both being “inside” the body and “outside” mapped onto the object of tactile desire. As such, “there remains no basis for preserving the mutual exclusivity of the categories subject and object, inner and outer, I and world.”[20] Thus in the labour of the body, there is an ambiguity and inconclusiveness to the routine authorship[21] that the capitalist system is predicated on. The senses and each part of the body autonomously have its own memories that are pre-reflective, perceived from a non-authored, uncategorized world, as it engages with work that is artistic, philosophical, and scientific.

Kurzweil claims that the free market functions as an equivalent to natural evolutionary competition,[22] but this statement only reveals his mechanistic bias that overtakes the orientation of nature as I have stated above. It is not a claim that is true by necessity. Moreover, it is problematic to see economic emancipation as the fundamental basis for social freedom[23] that is the unarticulated basis for the worldwide dissemination of such technologies. Race and gender theory has shown that social oppression can only be alleviated by equality rather than economic emancipation.[24] This is a project better taken up by phenomenological considerations that influence the technical because of the natural equality between humans on the basis of their senses and their intelligence unconditioned by social opportunity.[25] The sensorium is necessarily acculturated and situated in history[26] to enable sites of difference, a prerequisite for alternative narratives for the cultural being. Furthermore, Kurzweil’s concept of transcendence[27] is problematic because it does not offer an alternative to calculative thinking, nor does it offer the space for resistance, such as with the pre-reflective cultivation of practices that are not produced under the dominant mode of efficiency.[28] Correspondingly, Kurzweil misunderstands the function of art, which generates dialogue through affective means, rather than necessarily demanding a rational response.[29] Altogether, Kurzweil has reduced human teleology to its objective rationalism, scraping the means of play and curiosity and the imperfection of metaphoric language that is wholly engaged with the sensate body.

I have maintained in the interest of the human sensorium in the consideration of prospective bio-revolutionary technologies because of its teleological interests to the human subject. As such, threats to sensate experiences should be factored in as part of the fine-grained relinquishment of potentially dangerous innovations.  I have also contended the age-old expression that “money can’t buy everything” by privileging the complexity of the sensate body. This is because the capitalist mode of reproduction together with technical rationalism has on the whole forsaken critical exploration for marginal and “inefficient” sensate narratives. Our capacity to have meaningful experiences is not divorced from our carnal accesses through technical perception, where we “proprioceptively feel our weight, dimension, gravity and movement in the world.”[30] As technology is an ethically and politically coded phenomenon, there are many possibilities to its realization for the value of mankind that have yet to be fully determined.[31]

 

Cited Sources

 

Barry, James Jr. “The Technical Body: Incorporating Technology and Flesh.” Philosophy Today 35.4 (1991 Winter): 390-401.

Belu, Dana S. “Thinking Technology, Thinking Nature.” Inquiry 48.6 (Dec 2005): 572-591.

Kurzweil, Ray. The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.

Sobchack, Vivian. Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

Woelert, Peter. ““Man” and His Technological Doubles.” Philosophy Today 52.2 (Summer 2008): 157-164.

 

 

 

 


[1] Kurzweil 226.

[2] Kurzweil 94.

[3] Sobchack 55.

[4] Barry 390.

[5] Kracauer, as qtd. in Sobchack 55.

[6] Shaviro, as qtd. in Sobchack 59.

[7] Merleau-Ponty’s elaboration on the intercommunication of the senses, in Sobchack 71.

[8] Woelert 157.

[9] Woelert 158.

[10] Woelert 158.

[11] Woelert 159.

[12] Woelert 160.

[13] Belu 579.

[14] Barry 394, on an interpretation of Merleau-Ponty’s and Heidegger’s physis and techne. 374: “modern technology, in its essence a historical decision, is the decision concerning modern perception, because it is the determination of the “how” of our perception and the “what” of appearance of it.”

[15] Sobchack 136.

[16] Barry 396.

[17] In the sense of Tom Gunning’s notion of attractions, understood in this sense for consumer culture.

[18] Barry 398 on Merleau-Ponty.

[19] Kurzweil 341.

[20] Iris Marion Young, as qtd. in Sobchack 66.

[21] Barry 398 on Merleau-Ponty.

[22] Kurzweil 94.

[23] Belu 583.

[24] Belu 583.

[25] I am evoking the state of nature as understood through Hobbesian terms, where each man is equal in their bodily dispositions (includes the brain) that they each have the equal opportunity to each other’s mortality.

[26] Sobchack, 63 and 139.

[27] Kurzweil 387-389.

[28] Belu 583-585.

[29] Belu 585.

[30] Sobchack 60.

[31] Belu 574.

[5-page essay, University of Toronto B.A. Hon, political science department]

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Moving sideways from cultural hegemony?

This post is part of an intricate conversation centring on the question of whether there is a unified and narrowed message presented dominantly through corporate media, and whether or not it inherently socializes subservience from top-down towards an ever highly-media saturated group of entertainment consumers. Very quickly, we find that we cannot escape from certain conceptions of hegemonic ideology. The difficulty, first, then, is in how to define a hegemonic ideology, whether it exists and in what forms and contexts, such as if there are fissures in its structure.

To start, Antonio Gramsci gives a salient Marxist perspective by maintaining that the entrenchment of the capitalist system maintains what he calls a ‘cultural hegemony’. The important details for our purposes are in his emphasis that cultural hegemony is not distributed as monolithic, but as layered into the complexities of cultural society. In other words, capitalist cultural values has become the norm, crafting expectations, priorities, and sensitivities, making certain things in the cultural sphere gain an exchange value that is exponentially higher than its use value. Where the working class have to develop culture of their own in response to the ‘norm’, the bourgeoisie culture is closely tied to the political institutions, civil culture and engagement and legal constitutional structures. In this sense, the naturalization of social constructions and institutions have aided in the emergence of self-reproducing ideologies.

There is some validity here in thinking of artistic production as necessarily always interacting and responding to types and experiences of cultural hegemony in the Gramscian sense (capitalist values as not monolithic and unified but as multi-layered and labyrinthine). Artists will often push themselves to see their work as producing not just a cultural experience, but a cultural experience which has a certain exchange value. I use exchange value in this sense to distinguish from use value (the value of something based on its utility) but take it to mean that it is the value as comparative to everything else on the marketplace. According to Marx, the exchange value of a commodity implies the ability to command limited labour, which is implicitly confrontational in a materialist sense. However, the messy part of this is that artists ought to reasonably emerge from all parts of society, from all walks of life; So too, their audiences (who should be likewise invited to produce, in the form of responses and conversations). They necessarily articulate perceptions that are not articulated by bourgeoisie culture persay, which I have previously defined as the norm, the reified, the law. The very definition of art (and even entertainment) is to move away from previous subsistence of the mundane. However, the very articulation of the mundane is at least greatly framed by a cultural hegemony. Thus, exchange value, in this sense, is often outside of the control of the living labour of the artist, leading to what I would contend is a divisiveness between pleasure derived from succeeding at a creative endeavour (self-fulfilment), and pleasure because the external value based on the appraisal of the market system “approves” of the artwork (positive alienation).

Let’s link this back to the notion of ideology. Ideology works in a manner to reproduce certain social relations and to give broad, normalized justifications for a given ‘-ism’. Althusser, for example, contends that capitalism socially constructs the concept of the individual as a subject, that is, an agent responsible for his motivations, preferences, and values. All ideological practices as such constitute an individual as a subject in particular ways. This is not a natural occurrence, but something that conserves and reproduces subjects in the hegemon’s image. I think that this theory is somewhat complicated by the inherent competition and non-unitary disposition of the “bourgeoisie”/ “big media players”. Here on in I will move away from the Marxist divisional class structure and strive to work in theories that pertain more to contextual, time- and space-based sociopolitical phenomena. Nonetheless, the Marxist philosophers have emphasized that exchange value is always being conserved and added to in a relationship of oppositions. This is at a tension with art production and discourses about art, which both seek to question and perceive in new and context-compassionate ways. In other words, if we are not talking about derivative crafts, art as practice much more readily takes the form of sharing and communication, than it is about the individualization of choices, competition, and managerial organization. Art – the vagrant, non-linear, nomadic kind – must be contorted and warped to fit the transformation and socially constructed time normalized by capitalist managerial structures and cultures.

So what sort of structure can we define as relating to (nomadic) arts? Here, I am quick to point to postmodern thinkers, whose works I am greatly indebted to. For brevity, I will not discuss hypermodernists such as Baudrillaud and Marc Augé, although their framing of non-spaces and the hyperreal (the inability to distinguish between the virtual and the real) are instructive to aesthetics in general. Where Marxist philosophy engages in a discussion of broader socioeconomic materialist historicities, which binds the artist/audience through socialization/education from top-down ideological producers, the sections below will look at art and leisure of the streets, as lived experiences, and as chronic, addictive responses and forums.

Barbara Kruger (1981): Your Gaze Hits the Side of my Face. Installation, and other agitpop objects. Click on the picture for more details (external link).

As Jean-Francois Lyotard declares, postmodernism is an “incredulity toward metanarratives”. To Lyotard, our current experience of history, memory, and events outside our immediacy is one where we find obsolescence in the traditional narrative functions of a great hero, a nearly impossible but ultimately assailable quest, and a direct line of motivation. Instead, we live at “intersections”, without preordained linguistic systems to stabilize or communicate prescriptively or descriptively without mis-appropriation. Indeed, an audience has become ever fluctuating, mobile, and virtual (the clearest case being that of a hyperreal audience in cyberspace), thereby creating unpredictability. Sometimes great movements and agency bursts through, whilst other times there are only near silences and social deficits.

Instead of an emphasis on ownership and the measurement of derivative and exchange value, the emphasis is on pastiche and context. By moving away from framing cultural goods as principally materialist, but instead focusing on its conditions of relations through time, spatiality, and affect, we gain a critical theorization of cultural objects as transformative and vernacular. Cultural objects, through the lens of postmodernity, are embedded and constantly being rewritten, overwritten, underwritten. Culture is performed in a manner that speaks through multiple modalities – it respects, transgresses, decries, suspects, laughs at, and so on (as postulated in de Certeau’s Walking in the City). And then the (nomadic) artist flourishes in these fragmentations, at the fringes where she feels most at home and can propel conversation from tidal waves of different identities, groups, and newfound civil spaces.

I do not believe that I am guilty of reification when I suggest that groups in support of the hegemonic ideal has sensed this threat of fragmentation. The exponential growth of overt sponsorship and product placement of Veblen goods is a great example of the capitalist response to nomadic artistry. A exchange-value laden product wholly subservient to the hegemonic ideal thus baptises itself in an isolated, spectacular vision, making hedonism seem like a naturalized Need-to-live. So far, it’s seen great successes, if one measures by the metric of its profitability. One can even say that it has gained crucial political support in the form of investment opportunities for formidable businesses. However, political and civil support may go in the other direction as well (depending on the particular place), in the form of art grants, post-secondary education, and the emergence of community governance and local autonomy. Even if counter-hegemonic praxis is jostled into the shape of capitalist packaging, it is constantly undergoing further renegotiation from below. This has happened in the form of public forums, street festivals, artists collective, localvores, buskers, farmers markets, culture jamming, protests against globalization and closed-door trade agreements, independent political campaigns, even more passive-aggressive trends such as democratic deficits and low voter turnout. As postmodern cultures become more prevalent, I believe that the artists and the artphile shall jostle back against the binds of necessitating interactions to mere currencies. In fact, I believe that they’re doing so already, slowly but surely.

My warmest thanks to Gordon Frederickson (@midmotion) and Jeff Resnik (@jeffresnik), friends and forward thinkers, who were willing to put so much great ideas and tangents into open conversation. And yes, all of the earlier part of this conversation all took place on Twitter. I am at @tonedarklights and I welcome you to join us!

References:

  • de Certeau, Michel (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. University of California Press.
  • Jay, Martin (1986). Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukacs to Habermas. University of California Press.
  • Lyotard, Jean-François (1979). Introduction to The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Online Source: Uppsala University.