Arthur Danto wrote a very interesting book, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace–whose title he’d most respectfully borrowed from a Muriel Spark novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie–in which he argued, by means of pithy examples, that art-objects or art-performances are intentional entities, in the sense that anything whatsoever in the world, no matter how commonplace or even vulgar, can count as a work of art and a target for serious aesthetic appreciation, provided that we supply an appropriate intentional act-context and/or social-institutional context for it.
Consider, e.g., as commonplace or even vulgar objects or performances, Brillo boxes piled on top of one another, a urinal, or a photograph of a plastic crucifix submerged in a glass container filled with urine, that are magically transformed into art by Warhol’s, Duchamp’s, or Serrano’s artistic intentional acts of assembling them and/or their display in art museums, together with our willing, self-conscious reception of these–even if some other unwilling, moralistic people were or are offended by them.
Here I’m going to argue the same thing for philosophy, mutatis mutandis.
That is, I’m going to argue, by means of equally pithy examples, that philosophical topics are intentional entities, in the sense that anything whatsoever in the world, no matter how commonplace or vulgar, can count as a philosophical topic and a target for serious philosophical reflection, provided that we supply an appropriate intentional act-context and/or social-institutional context for it.
Consider, e.g., as commonplace or even vulgar objects or performances, cleaning a toilet, sponges, pores, or having a drink in a topless bar in New Jersey, that will be magically transformed into philosophical topics by my philosophical acts of thinking-and-writing about them and/or publishing this essay on APP, together with your willing, self-conscious reception of these–even if some other unwilling, moralistic people might be offended by them.
Whatever I am doing I try considering the possible universals involved. Well, I was cleaning around the toilet the other day and decided there must be something important in this common, lowly, and somewhat vulgar act.
I began to muse about sponges. Sponges and water and sopping and squeezing– thoughts about moving liquids, and the means by which we sop and squeeze. From this came the thought of porosity.
Pores are important. Especially if you don’t have the right ones…if they’re not big enough, or somehow misaligned. Ever take a look inside your femur? This was an important business after Chernobyl. So important are the right pores, in fact, that the makers of the Strategic Defense Initiative brought us new pores–reticulated carbon foam with rhenium – for better batteries, rocket nozzles, and helicopter blades.
The porosity of thought is simply astounding, isn’t it? Just consider the winding and converging surfaces surrounding all those pores! You can quickly find yourself at the crossroads of biotechnology, superconductors, space research and riddles for the greatest of our real and artificial intelligences. In fact, this is that topology which is the sexiest of sciences–a very mathematical study of knots, pores, donuts, and topless dancing.
That was the segue to my next example.
Sitting at a North Jersey bar a few years ago when I was a typical North Jersey salesman, watching a girl who attacked her go-go job with zest and humor I suddenly saw life as an un-knotting, a denouement of paths, goals and complex energies. For my life had become a topology of knots, cutting straight paths over strange surfaces. I was sitting there thinking that the same way that science studies pores, twists, knots, and complex surfaces for better fabrics, and stronger more durable materials for engineering–we philosopher-artists study the topology of society, and the strange routes we create to navigate through it. Especially we philosopher-artists who are down-and-out salesmen in go‑go bars.
You may wonder that I should be thinking such a thing as this while ogling this girl with a beer in hand. Well, while ruminating over this quite philosophical figure of hers, I came to realize that I had for a very long time been sitting on my foot. There was a wing-tip shoe sticking out sideways under my leg. “Wingtip” shoes are the one with those little ornamental spirals of holes around the tops, and this one felt like it had pins and knitting needles stuck in all the little holes.
Now the feeling of pins and needles–the high and empty feeling in your limb as the numbness slowly recedes–overtaking you quite inescapably, is quite like nothing else. Except maybe an orgasm. But there’s no way you can make pins and needles erotic – even with the desire for eroticism staring in your face.
But come to think of it, since orgasms and everything that leads up to orgasms have merited manifolds of song and story, how come pins and needles have gotten such a bad shaft?
Numbness slowly tingling out–vibrating of your nerves, senses coursing up your spine– a nervous excitement you revel in, yet can’t wait to come to an end. And no one ever talks about it. Every one of us knows the feeling. It takes an eternity for each sensation to pass to the next, with a joy and confusion and horror that makes us want to scream. Why don’t we talk about pins and needles more? They seem to lie close to the existential core of life, to its philosophical center, and we let them pass by without a comment. If only a sexual climax could be made to take so long (and I think I need to take a rain-check on that thought….).
And why, I also asked, is the sexual climax alluded to but rarely carefully, objectively described?
Let’s face it, pins-and-needles are to orgasms what hiccups are to sneezing. But there are no blessings to be said for pins-and-needles, however relevant they are to grasping life. Or for coughs and yawns for that matter. Hiccups, if anything, deserve a blessing, and pins-and-needles deserve more than an old song by Sonny Bono.
To get back to my story, I’m sitting there in a go-go bar (an old-timers’ name for a strip-club) and finally got that refreshing warm wave as the pins-and-needles subsided. I breathed a sigh of relief and found myself in a ticklish spot, for everyone knows that ticklish spots are erotic spots–which flip from one meaning to another as the Rubik’s Cube of intention changes. And vice versa. I was there.
Here I was, nursing a beer and watching a girl whom I readily saw as a person–a little girl with uncles and brothers, grown up. She was probably fighting to support a 2-year old, going to community college for an Associates Degree, and dancing as a way to assert her individual free will against mediocre and listless circumstances of life in North Jersey. Yet at the same time I am saying this, I am toying with her definition as an object; for I’m a salesman trying to objectify frustrations with many worthless weary roads in a go-go economy coming to an end. A wasted day of sales calls and rejections isn’t the problem: she is my frustration now, this kitten smiling and strumming my senses til they’re as taut and vibrating as she is.
In a way there is a handy tacit agreement of both our definitions. Both of us were trying to be somewhere else, but using an unacceptable cultural loop to get there. I should add that one doesn’t play this topological game without great risks. For topologically as well as psychologically you can define any two-edged path as having only one edge, if the manifold is given the proper twist.
In point of fact, nature makes leaps of this sort constantly and with ease. Yet I dare say, to play with nature this way may get knottier, and you may not be able to untangle yourself from complex and worthless dynamics. Knots which only stop a simpler, more natural circulation, and end in pins and needles of empty unpleasurable pleasures.
Yes, by contemplating how to clean the toilets of this world, one may be led to some unexpected conclusions that philosophically transfigure the world.
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