Everything and Nothing

Jerry Seinfeld did an AMA on Reddit awhile back. Eventually someone asked him about the "show about nothing."

How did Seinfeld come to be? What obstacles did you face when pitching your idea of a show about "nothing"? Who supported you and who didn't?

The pitch for the show, the real pitch, when Larry and I went to NBC in 1988, was we want to show how a comedian gets his material. The show about nothing was just a joke in an episode many years later, and Larry and I to this day are surprised that it caught on as a way that people describe the show, because to us it's the opposite of that.

The opposite of that? So it's a show about something? Everything? Anything? Being? Of course it is. It's a show about the minutiae of daily life--those tiny things that we are so familiar with that we presume we don't need to talk about them. But Seinfeld did talk about those things: the close talker, man hands, the insecurities and neuroses that we all struggle with (double dipping, etc.). Seinfeld was a show about being.

Anyway it got me thinking about the void and nothingness, and I couldn't help remembering the "silent piece" that John Cage wrote, 4'33". Cage uses silence to point our intentionality toward the mundane sounds that surround us all the time. This is like the Sufi idea that the void points us to God. By not saying his name, or painting his picture, we are more aware of his presence. That's a powerful idea. The absence of something forces us to take notice of that thing. A shadow is the absence of light, for example, and a shadow is an immediate sign pointing to the thing that casts the shadow. When Beethoven delays the recapitulation of a symphony movement, the immediate result is the listener thinking about the recapitulation. Nothing always signals something.

The phenomenology of provocation

Recently I read the following on Shepard Fairey's website:

The OBEY sticker campaign can be explained as an experiment in Phenomenology. Heidegger describes Phenomenology as “the process of letting things manifest themselves.” Phenomenology attempts to enable people to see clearly something that is right before their eyes but obscured; things that are so taken for granted that they are muted by abstract observation.
The FIRST AIM OF PHENOMENOLOGY is to reawaken a sense of wonder about one’s environment. The OBEY sticker attempts to stimulate curiosity and bring people to question both the sticker and their relationship with their surroundings. Because people are not used to seeing advertisements or propaganda for which the product or motive is not obvious, frequent and novel encounters with the sticker provoke thought and possible frustration, nevertheless revitalizing the viewer’s perception and attention to detail. The sticker has no meaning but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the sticker. Because OBEY has no actual meaning, the various reactions and interpretations of those who view it reflect their personality and the nature of their sensibilities.

The first thing that struck me was the Heidegger reference. Because Heidegger said a lot about phenomenology (you can read a tiny bit about it here), and to reduce it down to "the process of letting things manifest themselves" seems incomplete at best and maybe downright misleading. So, I initially let my elitism get the better of me (I just took a graduate seminar in phenomenology after all), but then I remembered that I kind of like Fairey's work. So what if Fairey appropriated Heidegger for his own purposes? That's  what he does after all.

It just so happened that I read and thought all this on September 5th, which happens to be John Cage's birthday. And though Cage wasn't known for appropriating other artists, he was quite the provocateur, "reawaken[ing] a sense of wonder about one’s [sonic] environment" through works like 4'33". So I started thinking about phenomenology as a basis for provocation in art.

Personally, I've always considered phenomenology as something like the philosophy of perception, not concerned with anything specific like reawakening of a sense of wonder. It is something that seeks to explain how we perceive time and space, and by extension music and art. Frankly, I've often considered how I might wield my understanding of phenomenology to manage the listener's experience with my music, but Fairey seems to be using it to confuse the viewer (if he is actually engaging with phenomenology as he claims. How about we just bracket that question...), seeking to establish an unfamiliar situation that forces the viewer to confront Fairey's art and deal with it, not having the option of ignoring it.

It's all fine and good for an artist to provoke, but Fairey's manifesto and its invocation of phenomenology still didn't sit well with me, and I wasn't sure why until I decided to "let things manifest themselves." Let's say we're looking at a house with its visible front and hidden back, etc. (a common example in phenomenology). We can move around it in space, but we can never see more than one or two sides at a time. As we move around it we compile these isolated, moment by moment, perspective-based experiences into an idea of what the entire house is. We're letting the house manifest itself. I think that when Fairey puts a sticker somewhere on the house he is inserting himself into that manifestation. (Kind of like inception?) Sure, if we see an OBEY sticker on a sign we pass by every morning we might consider (or direct our intentionality at) the sign in a new way, but it's because there's a sticker there this morning. We see the sticker, and by extension, we see Fairey.

The main thrust to Cage's aesthetic, on the other hand, was to get himself out of the listener's experience with sound. Of course he composed 4'33", he put it on a concert, he had it performed, and so it will always be associated with him, but it is possible to hear 4'33" without thinking of Cage directly. It's hard to see an OBEY sticker without thinking of Fairey (even if the viewer doesn't know his name).

So maybe there are different kinds of artistic provocation--sometimes it's direct: the artist inserts himself, like Fairey, and sometimes it's indirect: the artist tries to get out of the way, like Cage. I think the phenomenological response of the viewer or listener, however, is ultimately always outside the control of the creative artist. It's kind of like the observer effect seen in quantum mechanics where the very act of observation will change the phenomenon being observed. In looking too directly at phenomenology, Fairey seems to alter the phenomenological process by which things manifest themselves.

©2017 Joshua Harris