The Egoist

Conversation with Charles Avery In Drawing-Room Confessions #1.

RM: One of the things that interests me about The Islanders as a project is its dual nature: on the one hand, there is an abstract, structural, point of view on it, according to which the whole project would be a conceptual work that asks questions about the work of art (no one drawing or sculpture any longer exists as a work in its own right; they are all part of the constellation of The Islanders), about closure (the project as a never-complete entity), about parts and wholes (the Island as more than the sum of its parts), and so on. And, from this point of view, all of your wonderful draughtsmanship and witty ideas would be of no essential import, except as a way to explore those conceptual problems. On the other hand, I venture to suggest that what most people appreciate first of all about your work (even those who might claim to be taking a more sophisticated view) are precisely those somewhat traditional qualities of the particular content of the works: they love the depiction of this imaginary world. The two points of view seem inextricable, however. The successful creation of “a world”—and thus the posing of those conceptual problems mentioned above—depends upon your imagination and skill in rendering all the details of the world consistent and compelling. How do you see the relation between these two ways of looking at the work – the relation, that is, between structure and storytelling?1

CA: When I embarked on this project, I did so somewhat recklessly. I envisaged it as a vehicle for the imagination, for drawing, and for thinking without conclusion. I pictured myself in endless days and years rambling on, amassing this body of drawings and texts, no end in sight, none needed. As I had noted even before this project, the unique privilege of the artist is solitude and the opportunity to think, and given this privilege, all species of idea should be expected.

Naturally, this thinking time led to reflections on the project itself, and I rapidly became embroiled in issues of structure, to which I had hitherto been more or less oblivious.

RM: So after the freedom you’d given yourself, the project began to solicit some sort of systematic constraint?

CA: Yes, I became dissatisfied with the programme of gratuitous invention, and felt the need for the fiction to have a form. I didn’t want it to be a romp from A to Z, and I understood that its structure was analogous to its essential meaning. So then I went right the other way, and became very concerned with structure. No more was this a quaint encyclopedia, but I became all about creating a systematic whole. Blunt logic was the name of the game, as I sought to establish this world on a set of axioms. For example, and most importantly, the perceiver is introduced to this fiction by the figure of the Hunter, an ambitious if slightly effete young “man” who comes to the Island “with a view to being its discoverer”. However, the Hunter has come to these shores, not by a blind leap of faith, setting out towards the horizon in the hope that he will hit land, but confident in his logical deduction that there must be something beyond that horizon. He infers its existence. This coming of the Hunter posed the logical problem of where he came from, and indeed from where all of the other travellers, day-trippers and inhabitants of the Island originated. I had to make a decision about whether this other country, the “old country”, was to be represented at all within the systematic whole or not. I was aware that this idea of coming to the Island represented the coming of the perceiver into the fiction, that the system stood for the realm of all ideas, and that the idea of the outside or “real” world needed to be symbolized within. Therefore, I brought about the alternative state of Triangleland, which is alluded to only in name.2

RM: Trianglelanders are presented as being rather bourgeois and unimaginative, representative, perhaps, of a life lived “without ideas”, or in which ideas are regarded as something like obligatory tourist attractions, perused in desultory manner before catching the boat back home. Is it his somewhat arrogant and colonial attitude alone that differentiates the Hunter from the Trianglelanders?

CA: That would be a good generalization of their character. Trianglelanders know the names of ideas but do not understand them, or perhaps I should say feel them. This is what differentiates them from the Islanders, who have a feeling for ideas. This is a contradiction to a Trianglelander, for whom ideas are concrete, and to know is to possess them. And they are complacent about their claims to knowledge: constantly on the verge of a unifying theory of everything, they would seek to capture the Noumenon and do so by attrition, by covering every square mile of territory leaving no habitat for it. They have no tolerance for enigma.

This is not to say that the Islanders are totally intuitive in their understanding of phenomena; they are, after all, a Creole race, born of the early Triangleland colonists, but whose culture has been influenced as much by the indigenous If’en. They retain to some degree many of the traits of the colonists: the need to reckon, to characterize, to possess. There are pure forms of Islander: for instance, the tribes called the Riders of the Invisible Reigns,3 a nomadic people, seemingly without morals, who subsist by hunting and gathering in the remotest plains of the Island. They are rarely encountered, except by types such as our Hunter who have ventured up there in search of the Noumenon.4

The character of the Hunter is somewhere in between. He comes in the name of, and for the glory of, Triangleland, determined and inspired to succeed where previous generations have failed. The Hunter, although spending his life on the Island, in its most esoteric regions, is somehow insulated from the magic of the place by his colonial sense of entitlement, and his Quixotic belief in the justness of his order. He will always see the Riders of the Invisible Reigns as savages.

The Hunters testify that these nomads claim to see the Noumenon often and close up – that it has been known to wander through their encampments. But they will not describe its form, or the texture of its skin, or its patterns of movement, because it is a changeling – no two accounts are the same.

This is perhaps where the Hunters go wrong, with their residual obsession with continuity.

RM: Although (or perhaps because) they have made a profession of systematically exploring and charting the Island, they can’t know it as a native does; the indigenous Islanders, on the other hand, do not thematise their spontaneous and immanent relation to the Island. It’s this tension, I guess, that, for the Hunter, makes exotic, challenging and confusing what for “insiders” is quite mundane and handled with nonchalance. All the frustration and despair of the neurotic colonialist trying to find and/or instill order can be found in the Hunter’s fruitless dream of “settling” with finality, of mapping, all of the questions raised by the sophisticated but non-pedantic circulation of concepts in the Islanders’ culture, which is essentially a culture of “nonsense” (in the sense of Lewis Carroll, with the special relation to logic that implies). Speaking psychoanalytically, it is perhaps a neurotic misunderstanding of the nature of the Noumenon, the empty space whose continual pursuit re-motivates and re-configures desire (even the desire to know), as being itself a quarry that can be captured.

The Trianglelander, meanwhile, has renounced the earnestness of the Hunter, and is content with picking over the exotica and then going home for tea. Although the story of The Islanders is told by the Hunter, your identification with him is ambivalent, as he is gently lampooned throughout. And in your continuing construction of the Island and its culture, you certainly side with the Islanders’ disinclination to resolve its paradoxes.

CA: After Triangleland I started to think about the symbiosis of Inside and Outside, Real and Unreal. Rather than outside encompassing inside, the real being transcendentally superior to the unreal, I wanted to assert the interdependence of these dualities. This led to the idea of the world having two identical sides. The first real postulate of the project is: “The world does or does not have two sides”. Each side of the world would be the outside to the other’s inside, one moment and the next, etc.

RM: Does the same also apply to the question of the two sides of the project we were discussing – structure vs. storytelling?

CA: I would go further than saying these two sides to the project are inextricable; I would say they are implicit in one another.

As for the drawings, my strategy is to do what comes naturally, and what seems most natural is to try one’s hardest. I don’t see any other option. One could develop a shorthand, with symbols for people, but people without expression aren’t really people. And then, if one were to choose a style, a manner in which to acquit these drawings, that required maybe less guile than I invest, what style would that be? One would be posed with a choice, and it would be impossible to justify one way above another. I think if the drawings are compelling, it is because of the sheer effort I go to and my earnest attempt to portray a place to the best of my abilities. It’s as though I have an intense conviction about how this place and its people look.

RM: This comes down to consistency. And I see no problem in reconciling the “death of the author” with the importance of concentrated individual work of this kind, because, without needing to endow it with any romantic genius, the individual mind is undoubtedly a singular nexus of influences and forces which have come to consistently cohabit with each other through a slow, long process. This complex multiplicity, with sufficient effort, can be slowly unfolded, externalized, and will bear all the marks of a consistent reality. For me, this is at least part of the definition of what an artist (in an appropriately wide sense of the word) does.

One of my favourite stories is the one David Lynch tells of how, taking a coffee break in a car park, he touched the hot roof of a car and suddenly had the idea, a complete and comprehensive idea, for the Red Room in Twin Peaks.5 Then he describes a process of self-questioning: the room must have a floor, what kind of a floor must it be? Once the floor is in place, it suggests the curtains. And so on. The point being that it was all already there, in that one moment, complete and consistent, but it takes a special kind of dedication to draw it out, without falling back on some cliché to complete the image too easily.

So, whereas the structural elements are not “yours” but are universals discovered in a somewhat analytical way, the narrative and the look and feel of the work belong to this slow excavation of the compacted strata of the artist’s individual memory and experience.

CA: For me, the combination of structure and storytelling are embodied by the character of the Hunter. In his pure form he is the narrative voice, the thread that leads you into the cluster of entities that amount to the Island, but his structural role is heavily disguised by the fact that his character is one of a hapless and affable buffoon.

Those entities which comprise the Island have no order and are non-linear except when experienced; so, the Hunter represents both the author and the viewer, simultaneously inventing and discovering the world, giving it a sense. The idea of authorship, of ownership of ideas, is constantly called into question. Ideas are like beautiful shells lying on a shore: somebody happens to wander by and pick them up, but they didn’t create them, they simply found them.

This idea fascinates me. I have long sought a meaningful definition for the term “artist”, or rather sought to define what I do, in terms not related to “creation” or “genesis”. I thought about what the defining characteristics of the artist could be and came to the conclusion that they were three:

1. Agency: the belief that one acts upon the world and that those actions are meaningful.

2. Subjectivity: the unerring (Quixotic) belief in the righteousness of one’s cause, that the value of one’s output is essential, self-evident, and that you may self-assert as an artist, without any anointment from an authority.

3. Professionalism: that from this Subjective immaterial realm the artist brings into the Objective realm (Triangleland) bounty and souvenirs precisely with a view to selling them, to fund the next adventure.

The reason I concocted this was that I wanted to understand what I did, not at the margins of “art history” but central to a new and different order more akin to philosophy, but not philosophy in its archest sense, with its aspiration to knowledge. This seems to me an issue central to your cause, and I would like to know your response to this definition. How well do you feel these describe the attributes of the philosopher. How would you refine them, or add to them? I am particularly interested in your response to the third point regarding professionalism and the market.

RM: As a philosopher the moment I respond to with instant recognition is the moment when the Hunter, having landed on the Island and, believing he is alone, claimed it as his own discovery, comes across Miss Miss,6 who casually disabuses him of any notion that he is treading on virgin soil. Because, since Hegel at least, philosophy has been constrained to include its own history in its subject matter; so that to become a philosopher is, most of all, to locate oneself within a pre-existing constellation of thought. And this inevitably means that you discover that your thoughts are not your own, that your mind is pre-populated. This is what Deleuze says in relation to Francis Bacon’s painting—that the artist never faces an empty canvas, rather he faces the dreadful prospect of a canvas that is absolutely full of clichés waiting to capture him.7 It is only in the process of this co-ordination with what comes before one that it is even possible, I suspect, to “find oneself” as a philosopher, as a singular voice, and to begin that unfolding of one’s own consistency.

As you say, one also doesn’t—unless one has a superlative teacher—encounter these pre-existing entities of thought in perfect order (whether the “order of reasons” or the “order of history”). Ideas are picked up in a contingent and fortuitous manner, and thus the world of ideas is different for each explorer. But a part of the task is to understand how they fit together, or how they might be fitted together; and I suspect that every important philosopher has done this in a slightly different, more or less idiosyncratic way. (Deleuze, again, describes it as a “collage”, and in his case it often involves the most wonderfully audacious anachronisms and slippages). This piecing-together allows them to redefine an all-over picture of what philosophy might be. Therefore, taking ownership of ideas for oneself demands a lengthy and onerous apprenticeship, in fact an apprenticeship which never ends—except in rare, exalted moments when you at least sense that your “masters” were themselves only ever fellow apprentices.

This raises the question of the escape route you constructed for yourself out of a similar predicament as an artist. I take you to be saying that you didn’t want to exclusively dedicate your time to locating yourself within the officially sanctioned narratives of art history. I wonder whether it’s really possible to make good this escape. The danger is that of becoming what Hegel called a “beautiful soul”—that is, of believing oneself to be a spontaneous and original mind before, outside, or despite, the distributed background of language, society and history.8 The beautiful soul is the most dangerous and deluded character of all —truly, a kind of sociopath!9

However, your claim is clearly not that you are some kind of exceptional solitary creative genius, but, in effect, that you see what you do as being located in a different constellation to that of art history. And it’s true that one need not choose to be either a philosophical apprentice, or an art-historical apprentice, or some other kind, unless one constrains oneself to a disciplinary canon, ignoring the lateral pathways that lead from one discipline to another and, ultimately, make them indiscernible from each other.

CA: It seems to me that there is a great hierarchy of fictions that divide and subdivide into various disciplines. I would hate to attempt a taxonomy of this hierarchy; however, I could say that an orthodox reckoning would have Reality, (being the account of what is the case) as the arch-set, and what is not real, Unreality, being a real thing itself, would be a vast subordinate member of this set, its contents the totality of propositions that are not members of all the real fictions, such as history, which is another occupant.

Battles are always being fought at the margins of these fictions.

RM: One has to be somewhat bloody-minded to disregard the borders, but something rather special happens when you do: what you are reaching for in your “professional” life becomes life itself; you become a professional “apprentice in everything”, which is to say that you take on as a professional task the very condition of being a human being! That’s a heady route to take, when you could have satisfied yourself with belonging to one school or other, one discipline or other. Ultimately, this is what makes truly great philosophers—they locate themselves within the co-ordinates of philosophy in order to go elsewhere (again, Deleuze: “sortir de la philosophie par la philosophie”, to escape from philosophy through philosophy).

CA: Firstly, I admit one cannot exist outside of the Canon, any more than one can exist outside of the World. As for being a patient and diligent apprentice, I cannot make that claim. That in itself is a risky course, requiring a great deal of commitment, with no guarantee of finding a place to hang your hat. Whereas one will inevitably be allotted a position within the Canon (or not), I don’t think that one can determine this position oneself. So, there seems little point in this course of action.

RM: Given this fact, it has been suggested to me that we shouldn’t trust, or even be interested in, what artists say about themselves and their work. If their place in the scheme of things can only be determined retrospectively—at a time when their work begins to make sense in the context of a historical perspective—then their own reading of themselves is incidental and irrelevant.

CA : I certainly don’t think an artist’s opinion about his or her work should be accorded any particular authority; nevertheless, the artist is a variable so cannot be totally discounted. On further reflection I would also say this: that although one cannot escape the Canon, the substance of one’s attempt at escape can be regarded as part of it. Even so-called Outsider Art made by the insane or otherwise culturally isolated has been allotted a ghetto within its walls.

It is no bad thing to walk the paths that others have trodden, albeit unwittingly, as it gives one an understanding of the anatomy of ideas. How many people do you encounter who are more concerned about knowing the names of the great thinkers and the names of their ideas, but have no insight whatsoever? I think one may be deterred from this thoroughness, discouraged, if one were to obtain too much education. What one can do, though, is make a declaration of independence. This is not tantamount to an autonomy, for there is still trade. But one can create a system whereby familiar objects, signs, etc., are given a new meaning relevant to that system. So, a hare on the Island means something different from what it does to Joseph Beuys, a hunter, or a fifteenth-century witch. All may visit the Island and bring their own belief systems with them, but on the Island they are tourists.

There is no actual escape being attempted, but the creation of, and adherence to, a new system that exists within the world. I cannot tolerate the hegemony of Art History, which is built on principles that are illogical to me; nevertheless, that is the state into which I appear to have been born, and a defection to the canon of philosophy seemed unlikely given the predilection for proof. I can see just as much dogma there too. The infrastructure of the Art World, however, is a sympathetic and tolerant one, and provides the means, spatial and financial, to bring about projects.

RM: In order to distinguish what you are saying here from the claim that one can take figures and images and make them mean whatever you want them to (Humpty Dumpty as beautiful soul?), I would like to make a more definite link with the notion of the axiomatic. An axiomatic system makes no claims to truth or authenticity, only to consistency. An axiomatic system does not even have to have application to anything, although part of what makes an axiomatic interesting is its application, as a model, to one or more realities.

CA: An Islander would say that consistency is local truth, that authenticity is a place, an old ruin, somewhere off the old road out of town. I also don’t think a system needs to be pure. The axioms at its centre (I prefer to say centre rather than base) are essentially pure, but towards its margins the system is indistinct, as it mingles with other systems. I am for a revolution that puts Reality and Fiction as two equal sets which are both members of one other.

RM: But you were asking whether a philosopher answers to the several attributes you have isolated as characteristic of the artist. I confess I like to call myself “a philosopher” for more frivolous reasons, and without feeling I have any particular authority to do so—firstly because I think it’s amusing when people ask what you do, secondly because I have no official position (philosophy lecturer, professor, CEO), and thirdly, to demonstrate to others that in fact there is no authority to appeal to here, and that if I want to call myself a philosopher, I damn well will! So, aside from a few of the aforementioned exalted moments, I don’t make any great claims for myself. But I do believe that you are right, that I and the people I choose to work with are on the search for “a new and different order”, a new way of thinking where thinking creates dialogues across disciplines, and where “thinking” isn’t defined in distinction to “doing” or “making”—some things can only be thought by making or doing. And by this I mean not only that the artist’s exploratory process of working through an idea is irreducible to a purely mental process, but also that philosophy itself is a material practice. In the end, whether philosophers want to ignore the fact or not, we are involved in shuffling words about on pages (If you want to be pedantic: most of us are involved with shuffling electrical charges on hard disks, but we present them to ourselves as words!), producing books, which are then distributed in trucks and vans on motorways, getting on planes to attend conferences in buildings made of brick and concrete, and so on. Part of what I’ve tried to do with the journal Collapse,10 and with other projects I’m involved in, is not to ignore all of these supposedly “extraneous” material parts of the process. Depending on your opinion, they may devalue or they may deepen the abstract thoughts whose vehicle they are, but in any case I want the products to insist on this: that the form, the design, the mode of communication, the presentation, are all part of the thinking. Thinking is material, and it is distributed—it happens in-between people, other people, and objects, not in an individual’s head. An individual can be a focus, like a camera lens, but there needs to be something complex which comes in and is transformed and passed on.

Going back to your earlier point about the art world, there is indeed a sense that, on whatever basis it does so, the radical openness of contemporary art offers an opportunity for thinking. All the artists I know seem to use it as a “perfect excuse” that gives them the leisure slowly to unfold the non-disciplinary and “useless” thought processes that obsess them.

CA: True, although unless you are state sponsored—and those who are good at ticking boxes are not necessarily the most interesting or charismatic artists—you need some tangible product that is deemed to fulfill the function of being art. There do seem, however, to be a small group of interesting individuals who are able to operate without any visible means of support, internationally, relying on their intelligence, charm, purity and friends to subsist. I have had a couple of these wander through my life, whom I have happily tolerated like holy men.

But I am sympathetic with your approach to the materials of thought. So much thinking in art history has been predicated on a very casual quotidian definition of “object” as a tangible lump of matter, and in philosophy on the duality of mind and matter.

The conceptual artists of the 1960s were working on ideas based on the axiom that the essence of art or “artness” was an idea, and could exist independently of morphological characteristics. Even if you were to sustain this duality—which I vehemently refute—you still have the problem of which ideas you regard as “Art”. This is still based on the Essentialist ideas of form, a corollary of which is Aesthetics. I do not deal in form; I deal in ideas, which, as you suggest, inevitably have form.

The only workable definition of “object”, as far as I can see, is as the opposite of “subject”. There is no escape from the material world in this or any discussion. Any idea we know of has been communicated via the physical (outside) world, and has form. No idea can be communicated independently of these inscriptions, utterances, or other gestures. I will say this: there is the World, and there is the World of all ideas, of which the World is one.

RM: Ouroboros11 looms large here!

CA: I invented the One-armed snake12 to circumvent that! Incidentally, did you see that about a year after the One-armed snake made his debut at the Baltic and then at the Hayward, a similar specimen—alleged to be real—showed up in China! Bit of a coincidence. Could this be a case of the fiction actually informing reality? As a professional I guess I missed a trick not marketing my creation in China.

RM: To answer in a roundabout way your original question: the old model of the philosopher is of an academic, a public servant (or in former days, a favourite of the King) who is given a salary in order that they can be free from material worries and can devote themselves to pure thinking. In the current economic situation we should be more aware than ever—with the slow dismantling of the humanities in the universities, and the demand that they must accountably measure their “impact” on the world—that this separation was always a fiction, an artefact of particular economic circumstances. The question right now is not to bemoan and protest and wail about education cuts, but to look for ways in which thinking can happen and thrive in the new situation. So, yes, it involves “professionalism”, in the sense that you defined before; it involves (as in the problematic case of the music industry and mp3s) disabusing people of the idea that philosophical thought and practice is some pure, ethereal stuff that they can expect to always exist and to be free to access. Everyone is implicated in the market. Maybe ideas can change that—but for the time being, ideas, too, are implicated in the market! But those illusions are pervasive. For example, there is a burgeoning “open access” movement where texts are placed online, free, by people who can afford to do so because they are salaried academics. Those people can then guilt-trip others about selling books, and set themselves up as gatekeepers, effectively censors, of this new “open” realm. There is always trade; it is just convenient for some to conduct it under the counter.

CA: Well, that sounds like command economics13 to me, and I’m sure that corruption is rife. This is where you feel one needs to invest in the ideas, the physicality of expression that makes an intimate encounter with them essential, in the same way that live music has become so important again in the face of internet publishing. Perhaps this is an argument for the hybrid discipline we are talking around.

I don’t use the word “market” pejoratively. The market is a place of exchange; money is simply the medium. The art market has no will—although I will admit that, because of its size, it is susceptible to manipulation by individual high rollers. But it’s only wealth, so let them have their games. The thinkers will still carry on thinking regardless. It is the artists who have the choice not to churn out formulaic work simply because it is demanded. They won’t get their heads chopped off.

Everyone is implicated, even the guy who signs a document to say he will never make another “work of art”; for this idea, in whatever form of expression it takes, becomes an article to reckon.

RM: In The Islanders we often visit the market; it’s in many ways the real centre of activity on the Island. But your new work, The Port, centered on Penrose Trading Company and the giant vessel Utility, addresses all the elements of an economic system.14

CA: Not all, but I plan to expand the work into a triptych which will be more encompassing. The ideas I have been conjuring with, in no logical order, are Utility, Labour, Natural Resources, Homogeneity, Control, Currency (as medium of exchange), Duty, Trade (Import/Export), Subsistence, Distribution, Retail, and the dreaded Secondary Market. This is a good example of using the project as a way of thinking my way through what an economic system amounts to, considering it at an elemental level, and understanding it in a spatial way.

Of course, thinking about these ideas takes one dangerously close to ideas of government, which I’ve hitherto avoided.

Returning to the third characteristic in my definition of an artist, maybe the notion of Professionalism would be better expressed like this: that from this Subjective immaterial realm the artist brings into the Objective realm (Triangleland) bounty and souvenirs precisely with a view to exchanging them in the marketplace, in order to find the means to make the next, more intrepid, foray into the Subjective realm.

RM: As for your first characteristic—“Agency: the belief that one acts upon the world, and that those actions are meaningful”—I don’t necessarily think the philosopher has a conviction that his or her ideas are meaningful. I think the philosopher has a conviction of the reality of the problem he or she is pursuing: that it’s not a mere mental chimera, but is a part, perhaps as yet incompletely apprehended, of that resistant underlying meshwork that makes up reality. This conviction is what makes the Hunter an absurd figure.

If we go back to the mathematical sense of the word “problem”, we see that the philosopher is basically a detective. In a problem, one is presented with several variables that somehow can be related to each other, perhaps in one unique way, perhaps in several, without remainder, just as a detective has to tie up all the “loose ends”, and hopes to find one solution that accounts for all of the scattered clues. A philosopher gets hold of several of these “clues”, tests them, turns them around, looks at them from different angles, until he or she is satisfied that they are real, substantial clues, not just unrelated parts of the contingency of everyday life; the conviction follows that these clues fit together somehow, and this is where talent in philosophy lies. I believe it is a talent in multi-dimensional conceptual rotation, in finding ways in which apparently incongruent clues can be consistently fitted together.

It’s not necessarily “meaningful”, though. It may be that one solves the crime, but that the crime was a completely senseless one, with no edifying conclusion to be drawn from it. In such a case, one’s professional life as a philosopher, solving the problems that reality presents, and one’s life as a human being, obliged to search for meaning, diverge once more—as we see in the perennial figure of the troubled detective unable to reconcile work and personal life.

Finally, then, with regard to no. 2—Subjectivity—personally I have a considerable problem in maintaining any subjective confidence in the importance of my “output”. But I’m still here, aren’t I?—and I do think that the loose ends I have hold of are attached to something real and important even if, in my lifetime, I will never be capable of following Ariadne’s thread to the centre of the labyrinth. I am no great fan of human finitude as a theme for philosophy, but I do think that philosophers have to accommodate themselves to this fact: you are essentially working in an area where you’ll never have the satisfaction of having definitively completed anything. Perhaps this makes it similar to The Islanders: you have to take satisfaction in each small addition to the consistency of the whole, without ever dreaming that the whole will ever be whole.

CA: Okay, but the first part of the proposition is that one “acts” voluntarily (surely that is implicit in the idea of agency) and meaningfulness must be in mind. The intention is to mean. You don’t write all of the above without attempting meaning.

I think the word “belief” exonerates the Hunter from the conceit that he will prevail. The archetype of the Hunter in The Islanders has conviction in the existence of the Noumenon, but he is an arch-empiricist and will not rest until he brings it back, DEAD OR ALIVE. There are other members in the order, though, who believe in the idea of the Noumenon but know it is impossible to experience it, yet they will still go about their business in the name of the Noumenon.

On a journey, in movement, one has a destination in mind, even the rambling man, however incremental.

Let’s say Truth is local.

RM: Incidentally, I’m planning a book with the artist Amanda Beech about this relation between philosophy, problems, and detectives. We are both huge fans of Sherlock Holmes, Columbo, and CSI: Miami! The premise is: if philosophy can be understood as a sort of detective work, then, inversely, the detective novel should be read as a very particular type of philosophy book. And if philosophy is above all the art of posing problems, or of distinguishing true from false problems, each fictional detective as a “philosophical persona”, along with his or her native milieu, implies both a conception of what a problem is and a characteristic method for negotiating its elements. (This would be true of the Hunter: he represents a particular detective persona.)

As I described, a problem consists of a multiplicity of elements whose common articulation remains to be determined, as in an equation, without remainder. Each type of detective presents us with a method of traversing these elements, teasing out their connections, and rejecting solutions which do not fully resolve them. However, the detective story also demands and assumes a specific model of the problem as such. The common context and regular features in the serial “cases” of the detective supplies, within a given range of variation across generic episodes, certain prerequisites that guarantee the traction of their method (“Humanity only poses problems which it can solve”—Marx). The culprit, in turn, becomes an actor in this drama, providing alternative solutions, introducing extraneous elements and concealing others, collaborating in the solution whilst trying to inflect it away from themselves by creating false problems. At the same time, in the twentieth-century genre of detective fiction, TV and film, the detective figures the shifting articulation between the individual and the state, dramatizing the conflicts and resolutions between law as institution and personal imperatives and morals. The thrill of the genre lies in the knowledge that the prescribed boundaries of law, discipline and procedure must be violated, for this is what a true fidelity to the problem—to freedom from contingent, unaccounted-for elements—demands. Just as the personal proclivities and motives of the detective alternate between being an instrument of and a frustration to the law—sometimes he has to kick against the penpushers down at city hall!

The philosopher can ally himself with the state, with the market, with mathematicians, with artists, and so on (who are the Hunter’s allies?), but the primary relationship is with the problem; and the element to which the problem belongs is not owned by any discipline or system.

CA: Nice plug.

RM: Typically of the professionalism of philosophers, a plug for an entirely hypothetical product.

CA: You have actually given me some insights into your earnest definition of the philosopher that differs from your earlier more prankish stance. I think the analogue of the private detective is very effective.

Incidentally, have you happened upon Bored to Death yet? It’s an HBO series starring Ted Danson and Jason Schwarzman. Danson plays a NY magazine editor in the throes of a midlife crisis, and Schwarzman is a writer who is struggling to write his second novel, who decides to make ends meet by moonlighting as an unlicensed private detective. It’s hilarious.

RM: Yes, Schwarzman as the “accidental detective”. He stumbles into the job after drunkenly placing an ad, and finds that he’s actually good at it. CA: But, whereas the philosopher/private dick is looking to tie up the loose ends, there is always a professional detachment from the blood and guts and stench of the murder scene (and it is invariably murder we are talking about). For me, the facts are inseparable from the viscera—I want to depict them as one.

RM: As we see on CSI, a thorough understanding of visceral texture is a tremendous advantage in detective work! On the other hand, though, CSI presents a contemporary fantasy of the ubiquity and omnipotence of information technology, extending Conan Doyle’s fantasy of the detective who can distinguish all the different types of cigar ash and recognize the mud from every street in London. It’s pure procedure—we see the crime solved by cross-referencing the facts across a huge interlocking set of databases. The “multi-dimensional conceptual rotation” I spoke of has been entirely automated, and the detectives just tend impassively to the machines that carry it out. Perhaps that’s the future of philosophy, too! An apparent attention to visceral matter can reverse-out into a kind of idealism.

The Hunter, on the other hand, is the advocate of another form of idealism. He is like the obsessive detective on the trail of the arch-villain who holds all of the puppet strings, convinced that he is edging closer to the centre around which everything turns, despite everyone around him telling him that it’s futile to try and pursue the Noumenal kingpin. And they’re probably right: the centre, the ultimate resolution, is illusory, a fleeting shadow cast by the complex interaction of countless contingencies. From the point of view of his conception of the problem, the Hunter is an absurd anachronism, whose bumbling presence emphasizes, by contrast, the thoroughly contemporary “heterotopic”15 nature of the Island. Nevertheless, his quest creates the momentum that continually reconfigures our view of the Island, bringing us (and him) back for the next episode (We shouldn’t forget that all we have so far of The Islanders is merely ‘An Introduction’!).

  1. The Islanders is the name of the ongoing project that Charles Avery has been working on since 2004. The Islanders: An Introduction (London: Parasol Unit/ Koenig Books, 2008) is the first publication by Avery about his project and was produced to accompany an exhibition of the same name at the Parasol Unit, London, in autumn 2008, which later toured to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, and Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam.
  2. There are two states in Avery’s world: Triangleland and the Island. Triangleland is the “old country” and the colonial power; the Island is the colonized country and the central focus of the project. “The term Triangleland refers to the character of the tourist, their apparent desire to label and classify everything and their complacency in their ability to do so. The first thing they will ask is, ‘What is the name of the island?’ This appears an absurd and irrelevant question, for it is akin to asking, ‘What is the name of everything?’ Or, ‘What is Tom’s name?’ Being the continent from which all the other islands in the archipelago are isolated it is the archetype and as such does not require a name.” Avery, The Islanders: An Introduction, 103.
  3. The Riders of the Invisible Reigns are the riders of the Ridables. They “have no interest in the Noumenon. Although if you talk to them, they claim to see it often.” Avery, The Islanders: An Introduction, 119.
  4. For Kant, a noumenon is the thing-in-itself as opposed to the phenomenon, the thing as it appears. On the Island, the Noumenon is a being that “has never been witnessed” and there is ongoing debate over whether there is more than one: “There is a great enthusiasm for the idea of it, which accounts for the hero/idiot status of the Hunters who launch their expeditions with the express purpose of bringing it back. [. . .] There is a vague form of the beast in the popular imagination based on representations from art and literature which in turn are based on the testimonies of various explorers.” Avery, The Islanders: An Introduction, 49-50.
  5. Twin Peaks was an American TV series (1990–1991) created by Mark Frost and David Lynch. It tells the story of an FBI agent who comes to the fictional town of Twin Peaks in Washington State to investigate the murder of a young woman. The Red Room is a space that appears in the dreams of the FBI agent.
  6. Miss Miss is the young woman that the Hunter meets upon his arrival on the Island: “It was a contrast of emotions I experienced when, in the form of that girl on the shore, my ambitions to discover a terra incognita were dashed. Yet simultaneously I fell in Love. [. . .] Miss Miss was to become my close companion and sponsor on the Island”. Avery, The Islanders: An Introduction, 11.
  7. Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: the Logic of Sensation, trans. Daniel W. Smith, (London, New York: Continuum, 2003). Originally published in French as Francis Bacon: Logique de la sensation (Paris: Éditions de la Différence, 1981).
  8. “You,
 having exited this world, are good. Over there is the evil object, which you 
shun or seek to eliminate. Over here is the good subject, who feels good
 precisely insofar as she or he has separated from the evil world.
    I am now describing Hegel’s beautiful soul, who claims precisely to 
have exited the evil world. Now the twist that Hegel applies here is so 
beautiful that it’s worth pausing over, and perhaps adding a remark or two
 on torture, and possibly on Dick Cheney, who seems to be preoccupying 
us all at present. Hegel does not claim that the world may or may not be
 evil—he doesn’t claim that what is wrong with the beautiful soul is that it is
 prejudiced and rigid in its thinking. The world is not some object that we
 can have different opinions about. No: the problem is far subtler than that.
 The problem is that the gaze that constitutes the world as a thing ‘over
 there’, is evil as such. This is so brilliant that it’s worth repeating. Evil is not
 in the eye of the beholder. Evil is the eye of the beholder.” Timothy Morton, “Beautiful Soul Syndrome” (lecture, UCLA, 2009), 14,
  9. “The ‘beautiful soul’, lacking an actual existence, entangled in the contradiction between its pure self and the necessity of that self to externalize itself and change itself into an actual existence, and dwelling in the immediacy of this firmly held antithesis—an immediacy which alone is the middle term reconciling the antithesis, which has been intensified to its pure abstraction, and is pure being or empty nothingness—this ‘beautiful soul’, then, being conscious of this contradiction in its unreconciled immediacy, is disordered to the point of madness, wastes itself in yearning and pines away in consumption.” Georg W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller (London: Clarendon Press, 1977): 406-407.
  10. Collapse: Journal of Philosophical Research and Development is edited by this issue’s Egoist, Robin Mackay, and published by Urbanomic. Volume VI (January 2010) dedicates a chapter, written by Mackay, to philosophers’ islands and, more particularly, to Charles Avery. It also includes a text by Avery entitled “The Islanders: Epilogue”, originally commissioned for and published as “The Fancy of the Hunter” in To Hell with Journals D: Inside, eds. Charles Arsène-Henry and Hans Ulrich Obrist (London: To Hell with Publishing, 2010).
  11. The prototypical symbol for a paradox is a serpent or a dragon that forms a vicious circle by continuously eating its own tail.
  12. The One-Armed Snake, 2009, taxidermy, has appeared in A Duck for Mr. Darwin (The Baltic, Gateshead, 2009) and Walking In My Mind (Hayward Gallery, London, 2009), and is currently part of the installation Miss Miss Finally gives in by the tree where Aeaen sought to bamboozle the One-Armed Snake by attaching himself to the tree to make himself a larger thing at the British Art Show 7, (Nottingham, October 2010 to January 2011, then touring to London, Glasgow and Plymouth in 2011).
  13. Command economy is a type of economy where prices and supply are not regulated by the market but by the government.
  14. Onomatopoeia is the name of the port on the Island, and is depicted in Untitled (View of the Port at Onomatopoeia), 2010, pencil/ink on paper, 240 x 510 cm., Tate, London. Seeing this drawing at Pilar Corrias Gallery in London in early 2010 confirmed our wish, as editors, to have Charles Avery inaugurate this journal. Onomatopoeia, part I is also the name of a solo exhibition of Avery’s work that toured to Le Plateau, Paris, the Kunstverein, Hannover, and Ex3, Florence, in autumn/winter 2010. The three venues have jointly produced an accompanying publication with Koenig Books, London.
  15. “There are also, probably in every culture, in every civilization, real places—places that do exist and that are formed in the very founding of society—which are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality. Because these places are absolutely different from all the sites that they reflect and speak about, I shall call them, by way of contrast to utopias, heterotopias.”

 Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces (1967)—Heterotopias”, trans. Jay Miskowiec (paper given at an architectural conference in Tunisia in March 1967, and later published as “Des espaces autres” in Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité, 5, October 1984, 46-49]