Sunday, February 14, 2010


My title echoes ironically Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction”--ironically, because whereas Benjamin celebrated the democratizing aspect of mechanically reproduced art, and did not mourn the loss of “aura” associated with individual art objects, I believe something important is being lost to culture, both with 20th century technologizing of art--one thinks of Andy Warhol--and perhaps even more ominously with the 21st century technologizing of communication--the handheld, which Andy would have loved.

I did not say ‘art’ of dialogue, because dialogue partakes of three elements, each of which encompasses more than even the level of mastery implied by art: (i) philosophy, as the questioning pursuit of that at which we wonder, the uncanniness of life in whatever form it opens to us; (ii) friendship, the openness of human beings to mutual discovery, concern and even love; and (iii) courage, or perhaps better put virtue in general, though the willingness to expose one’s faiths to refutation and rejection, if not scorn, i.e. to suffer a kind of death of identity, is the first virtue we need for intellectual life, all life (and all love) arising out of and amidst the dying and the threatened.

I do not think of dialogue as mere conversation either, e.g. "My Dinner with Andre"; however dazzling the verbal performance, dialogue in my view must go to the heart; must seek the essence of things; must test and be tested for truth, whether the dialogue takes us into our beliefs and values about works of art, about religion, about ethics, about personal relationships, about personal decisions, about science or politics, whatever. You have to put yourself out there, say what you think--and you have to think, not just opine. And to be dialogue, you have to both think, and think together, which may involve open contestation, but cannot be driven simply by the will to win, or again it is not dialogue. And with this, you leave the world of mere life behind.

This is so unlike telegraphy, which approximates to the signalling communication of birds or other "communicative" animals. Text“: “I’m doing X. Want to join me?” “I feel Y. How about you?” Much of what we call "art" also falls into this signalling type of communication, and most of it is manipulative, an attempt to push your button to do X or Y.

Can dialogue exist, in a non-literary culture? I think perhaps not. There is conversation there, and music--bards of art forms in which the people sway and find themselves, but as a mass, as a herd, and that can be a powerful rhythm of natural life--but can there be a human life of reading and reflection without a world of books? And if there is no dialogue, are there really individual persons, or just ego-bodies on the run?

To rise up to the stage of dialogue, I have to put myself forth, potentially fully present, 'naked' to the other person. There is a kind of suspension of practical life, not unlike the suspension of disbelief (or perhaps more accurately, of belief) in viewing dramatic art. I enter one of those quasi-sacred spaces, a “kingdom of ends,” a cultural and intellectual place in which what I do is its own end, is for its own sake, not utility, not commerce, not ‘gain.’ And we have to work our way together into dialogue, which emerges slowly, as trust and commitment emerge, as we step foot by foot into the ring of personal exchange, opening ourselves to thought and wonder, seeking always the edge, the metaphysical boundaries we can reach, but not go beyond, as we are reflected back upon our human condition. Dialogue takes us out of our busyness into the presence of the gods, the realization of their death, and our solitude--but also, somehow, miraculously our redemption in the contact, two minds in inter-action, the revelation of us as individuals in our freedom together.

But such worlds of refuge are disrupted, and the intellectual life of a society in which such practices are still cultivated, such communities of discourse, by the tweets and twitters of hand-held devices, vibrating or emitting their whistles and bells. Constantly on call, we cannot 'give ourselves' to the kingdom of ends that is dialogue. It is an "act" of human agents and thinkers, a work of disclosure which itself interrupts the techno-world in which we are constantly in motion, dealing and trading in feelings, bodies, money, opinion.

We in this global Chinese-American 21st century derempt ourselves of nature, of the second nature of culture born of gods, and even of that human nature, in which logos -- the disclosing word -- exists for dialogue. Is this what postmodernists mean by the death of man?