Posthuman Figuration/-human

From Gerald R. Lucas
intro post/human figuration RL/VR blasphemy

Like Johnson-Eilola’s nostalgic angels, the posthuman still defines itself partially in terms of foundational paradigms. Haraway suggests that the fictions that define our social reality remains the most important political construction of humanity.[2]

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Leonardo’s Modernism

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Ezra Pound, in his essay “The Renaissance,” writes: “The first step in a renaissance, or awakening, is the importation of models for painting, sculpture or writing.”[3] Pound suggests that an artist needs to develop an individual “table of values” from great the great artistic predecessors—values that he likens to a painter’s palette of pure colors which an artist can “make out [his] own spectrum or table.”[4] While Pound was hoping to foster a twentieth-century renaissance, his words seem equally as applicable to the artists of the Italian Renaissance. Renaissance artists renewed the work of the classical, pagan tradition of Greece and Rome and combined it with what they learned from the Christian Middle Ages, and with a syncretism unique to the Renaissance, made something new that was supported and validated by tradition. What came out of this tradition during the Renaissance may be illuminated by the great “renaissance men” of the time like Leonardo, who, in his Notebooks, suggests a new art based on the pragmatic and verifiable, i.e., “true science” away from the religion and superstition of the Christian middle ages to observable, empirical truth and a trust in the capacities of humanity.

In a long conceit, Leonardo compares the cycle of life to a candle in “Life of the Body”:

The light, then, could represent a consuming and illuminating element: the artist and his expression; what Pound calls the palette of pure colors, Leonardo sees the candle of molded wax representing the rich aestheticism of Greek and Roman tradition. Finally, the artist consumes his colors or nourishment of the past, leaving both the brilliance (traveling all around) and the smoke, lifting up its murkiness.

Pound might see the smoke as a negative image for his particular time, for he asks, in his Guide to Kulchur, “No man can contemplate the point of a candle flame for how long is it?? [sic].”[6] This question may be interpreted in this context as: how long can this influence last before a new one must be found? He suggests that the inspiration of the Greek and Roman traditions has been used up, but that “it is possible that this century may find a new Greece in China.”[7]

The candle metaphor also imparts a sense of consumption and immediacy, as if the art of the Renaissance enlightens for only a limited time, yet carries the residue of its light into subsequent ages. The artist must represent a particular time, incorporating a subjective creativity with that accrued knowledge of the ages. Pound suggests that “Knowledge is to know man.”[8] Here, I think Leonardo would agree. To know man,[a] one must have a strong knowledge of tradition and the ability to synthesize that knowledge with modern concerns. T.S. Eliot, in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” likens the artist (in this case the poet) to a catalyst: i.e., the artist’s presence produces something new by the mingling of tradition and the current zeitgeist “in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways.”[9] While Eliot’s metaphor might not entirely equate with Leonardo’s, both have a similar language: that of science and observable fact.

The modernist project—here I represent in some of Pound’s work—seeks “an Anschauung or disposition toward nature and man and a system for dealing with both.”[10] Pound recognizes that ideas which “go into action” engender an order in society and give us a system of rules for which to “preserve some of the values that make life worth living.”[11] He, like many modernists, no longer have faith in the beliefs of Christian ideology and philosophy, likening them to impractical ideas that exist in a vacuum; they are only toys for the intellect and do nothing to help guide or order humanity. He makes this position clear in Canto XIII:

Pound believed that order could be achieved through a concern for individual order, fraternity, and pragmatic action. The Christian concern with “life after death” amounts to insecurity and passive speculation and does not address aspects of human life that can be controlled through positive action. Pound advocates a pragmatic approach to life—one that addresses societal order based on the guidance of art and the artist:

So art seems to replace the moral guidance of Christian dogma with a culture that advocates a truth in what can be perceived. This perception can be honed by an appreciation of the light. Leonardo’s Notebooks seems to confirm that Pound’s notion that “Knowledge is to know man,”[8] but expands it to encompass observable nature as well. Leonardo finds two integral ingredients in collecting this knowledge: the sensus communis and light—both of which must be intimately understood by the artist. The eyes, then, represent the most important sense for Leonardo, for they are the windows for which the soul looks out into the world.[14] Without the eye, the soul would be bound in the prison of the body “without hope of ever seeing the sun, light of all the world.”[15]

Here we begin to understand the importance of the eye is directly related to the perception of light and, by implication, darkness. These archetypal symbols remain suggestive in the Notebooks, but Leonardo uses them both together as integral components of human perception. In Hebrew, and subsequent Christian mythology, God created all that we know:

What God separated, Leonardo combined. Since the beginning of artistic expression, light, as a symbol, suggested understanding, illumination, and goodness, while darkness meant ignorance, the abyss, and evil. Leonardo, by his words and teachings, attempted to revise that perception of these archetypes—not necessarily attempting to overturn their symbolic meanings—but to join together what God has pushed apart, thereby creating something new in Renaissance art. For Leonardo, light and shadow are each supremely important in the rendering of images in paint. He states that “Light is the chaser away of darkness. Shade is the obstruction of light.”[16] Yet, in order to achieve a scientific depiction of perspective, one must combine the light and shadow so that one denotes and suggests the other. While “among the various studies of natural processes that of light gives most pleasure to those who contemplate it,” Leonardo also writes that “shadows appear to me to be of supreme importance in perspective, because without them opaque and solid bodies will be ill defined.”[17] In these two quotations, we could almost juxtapose “light” in the first with “shadows” in the second and achieve the same effect. Indeed, even light and shadow share similar properties: from primary shadows “there issue certain dark rays, which are diffused through the air and vary in intensity according to the density of the primary shadows from which they are derived.”[18] Here shadow acts much in the same way as its counterpart. We cannot help but think of Leonardo’s candle metaphor; it continues to shine while surrounded by encroaching “dark rays.”

While we may attempt to eschew shadow in philosophy, religion, and literature, Leonardo keeps shadow in a dual godhead with light; he states that “shadow partakes of the nature of universal matter.”[19] This universal matter is the interest of the artist, for this matter relates to humans and their relation with the universe. By an understanding of this nature, we can better orient ourselves in our surroundings and establish the order necessary not only to survive, but to embrace those values that Pound suggests make life worth living. In order to do that, however, we must have an understanding of the nature, and here is where Leonardo’s ideas began the quest for a greater understanding science and how it relates to art.


Machiavelli’s (Post)Modernism

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Roger D. Masters, in Machiavelli, Leonardo, and the Science of Power, displays evidence that link Leonardo’s scientific method with Machiavelli’s political writings, especially The Prince. Masters ostensibly picks up Leonardo’s idea of the dual nature of humans in Machiavelli’s work; he suggests that “the necessities of human nature are such that, at the critical moment, promises of good behavior evaporate in the face of natural desire.”[20] The prince must understand this “nature of the people” in order, as Fiore suggests, to exercise “those qualities of virtù which assure effective reign over the people.”[21] In other words, the prince must use both light and shadow if he is to effectively fulfill his “hero-task” and “regenerate Italian civil life.”[22]

The prince, however, must appear to be only a “glimmer of light ” and not any shadow if he, like a doctor, is to “heal [Italy ’s] wounds and put an end to the plundering of Lombardy, the ransoms in the Kingdom of Naples and in Tuscany, and who can cure her of those sores which have been festering for so long.”[23] Therefore, with scientific precision, the prince must not only know both sides of human nature—i.e., man and beast—but must use these natures in order to remain in power: “he should choose from among the beasts the fox and the lion; for the lion cannot defend itself from trap and the fox cannot protect itself from wolves.”[24] The prince, like Achilles, must take his lesson from both men and beast in order to survive and prosper: “He is trained and equipped in the two ways of fighting: by law and the ways of man, and by force and the ways of beasts.”[22] Masters states that the prince must choose these metaphorical natures in order to avoid conflict: the lion represents the threat of power—enough to keep the wolves away—and the fox is the intelligence that avoids conflict.[25] In any case, only by accepting, studying, and acting upon humanity’s dual nature can the prince endure.

Machiavelli warns that the prince must not flaunt his dual nature, but that “it is necessary to know how to disguise this nature well and to be a great hypocrite and liar: and men are so simpleminded and so controlled by their present necessities that one who deceives will always find another who will allow himself to be deceived.”[24] Because “ordinary people are always deceived by appearances,” the prince must take care to protect them from their natures by disguising his, like those successful ancient leaders that Machiavelli cites: “Moses, Cyrus, Romulus, Theseus, and the like.”[26] Not only did these princes appear righteous, but they supported their appearance through the strength of the lion and the cunning of the fox. The success of these appearances and adopted natures, Machiavelli writes, also depend on a third factor: Fortune.

Machiavelli suggests that skill is not enough to make a successful prince; continuing his discussion about the great ancient leaders mentioned above, Machiavelli states that they “received nothing but the opportunity from Fortune, which then gave them the material they could mold into whatever they desired.”[27] Masters links Machiavelli’s idea of “Fortune” with Darwin’s later theory of “adaptation” by suggesting that human behaviors are their most crucial adaptive trait. The knowledge of these behaviors is not enough; the prince must adopt the necessary behaviors (fox and lion) that respond directly to the specific environment because “even the most rational human cannot escape what Machiavelli everywhere calls ‘necessity.[28] Part of ruling people is understanding that environment dictates necessity, and that, as cited above, any pretense to good behavior dissipates when confronted with a crisis of necessity.[29]

The prince cannot rely on the goodness of humans taught by Christianity, for Christianity eschews evil and teaches only virtue, or a life of moral goodness. Fiore writes that Machiavelli advocates virtù, courage or valor in action, above the contemplative Christian notion.[30] Virtù requires action, but an action based on an understanding of human nature and the adoption of critical traits. Machiavelli upholds Moses as a great leader—not because of his Christian virtue, but because of his pragmatic virtù:

Machiavelli’s obvious satire does not diminish his point: that Moses’ ability, knowledge, and action won him his kingdom, not the contemplative passivity of holy virtue. Machiavelli also adds that the unarmed prophet will end up dead (too much fox and not enough lion), while the armed prophet has a better chance of victory: “affairs should be handled in such a way that when [the people] no longer believe, they can be made to believe by force. Moses, Cyrus, Theseus, and Romulus could not have made their institutions long respected if they had been unarmed.”[31] Machiavelli does not just dismiss Christian virtue (in fact he condemns successful rulers that have discarded all virtue and ruled with wickedness, see chapter eight), but suggests that it has, in a practical sense, nothing to do with the political health of the state.

Machiavelli and Leonardo represent the newness of the Italian Renaissance. This rebirth of learning dismissed the superstition of the Christian Middle Ages and replaced it with a new confidence in the abilities of humanity. Both of these thinkers understood that the proper study of humanity is humans—that through an understanding of the human and its environment, humanity can shape and order the world for the benefit of all. Yet, Machiavelli saw the dangers of novelty: “And one should bear in mind that there is nothing more difficult to execute, nor more dubious of success, nor more dangerous to administer than to introduce a new system of things.”[32] A new system undermines an old system, displacing its supporters, causing animosity, and provoking that bestial nature of humanity that responds to necessity. It is the death of old systems that cause confusion and anxiety in humans—much like the modernists’ sense of alienation and loss of control. Some, like Pound and Eliot, attempted to reestablish an order based on the tradition of an ancient culture and the necessity of the modern desire for order and control. Yet, this, what I interpret as a Machiavellian attempt, led to despotic fascist regimes and the further alienation of cultures and people within cultures. I think that what one needs to take away from Machiavelli (and Leonardo) is the critical understanding environment—the time and place that dictate action. There are no geometric certainties when it comes to humans, but only an imperfect understanding of the nature of humanity (if one can say such a thing) and the cosmos in which we live. Through this synthesis of human society and nature, we might be able to—one day—no longer need the Machiavellian to guide us. Yet, until that day “those with responsibility need to learn to think on their own.”[33] Machiavelli’s system addresses an elite, as Masters points out, but this elite (it seems) remains necessary in our day in order to save us from ourselves.

Note

  1. Here we one objection to humanism by feminists: its supposed universal narrative is colored by the experience and construction of a privileged patriarchy. This issue is addressed elsewhere in the hypertext.

Citations

  1. Johnson-Eilola 1997, p. 13.
  2. Haraway 1990, p. 191.
  3. Pound 1954, p. 214.
  4. Pound 1954, p. 215.
  5. Master 1996, p. 277.
  6. Pound 1970, p. 99.
  7. Pound 1970, p. 215.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Pound 1970, p. 98.
  9. Eliot 1994, pp. 30-1.
  10. Pound 1970, p. 24.
  11. Pound 1970, pp. 34, 8.
  12. Pound 1966, ll. 52-4.
  13. Pound 1966, ll. 43-4.
  14. Richter 1952, p. 110.
  15. Richter 1952, p. 111.
  16. Richter 1952, p. 129.
  17. Richter 1952, pp. 128, 129.
  18. Richter 1952, p. 130.
  19. Richter 1952, p. 131.
  20. Masters 1996, pp. 86-7.
  21. Fiore 1982, p. 33.
  22. 22.0 22.1 Fiore 1982, p. 35.
  23. Machiavelli 1979, pp. 162, 163.
  24. 24.0 24.1 Machiavelli 1979, p. 134.
  25. Masters 1996, p. 88.
  26. Machiavelli 1979, pp. 136, 93.
  27. 27.0 27.1 Machiavelli 1979, p. 93.
  28. Masters 1996, p. 96.
  29. Masters 1996, pp. 86–7, 97.
  30. Fiore 1982, p. 37.
  31. Machiavelli 1979, p. 95.
  32. Machiavelli 1979, p. 94.
  33. Masters 1996, p. 227.

Works Cited

  • Eliot, T. S. (1994) [1919]. "Tradition and the Individual Talent". In Davis, Robert Con; Schleifer, Ronald. Contemporary Literary Criticism (3rd ed.). New York: Longman. pp. 27–33.
  • Fiore, Sylvia (1982). Niccolò Machiavelli. Boston: Twayne.
  • Haraway, Donna (1990) [1985]. "A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s". In Nicholson, Linda J. Feminism / Postmodernism. New York: Routledge. pp. 190–233.
  • Johnson-Eilola, Johndan (1997). Nostalgic Angels: Rearticulating Hypertext Writing. Norwood: Ablex.
  • Machiavelli, Niccolò (1979). "The Prince". In Bondanella, Peter E.; Musa, Mark. The Portable Machiavelli. New York: Penguin. pp. 77–166.
  • Masters, Roger D. (1996). Machiavelli, Leonardo, and the Science of Power. Notre Dame and London: U of Notre Dame P.
  • Pound, Ezra (1966). "Canto XIII". Selected Cantos. New York: New Directions.
  • — (1970). Guide to Kulchur. New York: New Directions.
  • — (1954). "The Renaissance". In Eliot, T.S. Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. London: Faber and Faber. pp. 214–26.
  • Richter, Irma, ed. (1952). The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. Oxford: Oxford UP.