Odysseus as Artist

By Paul ChanDecember 21, 2017

Odysseus as Artist

This piece appears in the LARB Print Quarterly Journal: No. 16,  Art

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“Echo reconciles.” This is the shortest sentence Theodor Adorno wrote in his magnum opus, Aesthetic Theory. Perhaps this is why it is so memorable. In two words he illuminates a constellation of ideas and relationships that take dense and unforgiving blocks of texts to describe everywhere else in the book. It shows up on the page like a life raft drifting in a sea of words.

What I think Adorno is suggesting in the sentence is the power of the indeterminate nature of concepts within an artwork. A paragraph before, he writes, “no concept that enters into an artwork remains what it is.” A concept is created when ideas and intuitions are brought into a relationship that evokes a particular way of judging or understanding. It is, in short, an intelligible perspective on what is seen and felt. Adorno claims that when a concept finds expression in material form, the work that results changes it. The concept can no longer claim to be conceptual in the same way as before, he suggests. It is refracted and is made indeterminate by the very form that enables it to be experienced as something sensuous and real. This is because a concept is merely one element among others that make up a work. And it cannot claim to be more salient than what else appears, like the rendering of shapes and colors, or the choreography of movement and light that gives a work duration and dimension. If the intent is for a concept to attain a more experiential form of meaning by becoming art, what is gained by it entering a composition is paid for by that concept losing a semblance of its own discursive authority.


For Adorno, the interior of an artwork is like an echo chamber, where a concept is deprived of its social bearings and becomes unmoored from the historical determinations that ground it in an intelligible reality. Understood in this way, the notion of form turns into something radically dynamic. Form fractures whatever enters into its fold and, in Adorno’s words, “negates its fatefulness.”

This is how echo reconciles. By turning elements into echoes of themselves within the matrix of its composition, a work loosens the grip social reality holds over those elements and frees them from their fate, or their pre-existing uses and meanings. They lose, in other words, their place in the order of things, which enables them to relate and belong in ways neither wholly predictable nor predetermined. This is what Adorno believes is one of the most emancipatory aspects of art. It is able to create new relationships out of what already exists to remind us what is still possible with what is given.

As an artist, it seems to me that echoes also resound in how a work appears to us and how it can alter our perceptions of what seems most natural and fated to be — about a historical situation, or a contemporary moment, or a way of being. If art possesses the capacity to cheat what fate has in store for the elements that enter into it, as Adorno speculated, can it also help cheat what fate has in store for us?

This is the notion I want to develop here; I’d like to see whether it can hold its weight in reality, and whether it can provide a different story about what art is to us now. It is the notion that art is the cipher for what it means to cheat fate.

“That endlessly cunning man”

If, as Simone Weil suggests in War and the Iliad, the true hero and subject of the Iliad is force, it is arguable that by the same token the true hero, the true center of gravity in the Odyssey, is cunning. Cunning is the character the gods respect and fear. Cunning is what animates the bold and daring feats that constitute the epic. Cunning is the spirit that endows men and women with the power to cheat fate. In the Odyssey humankind is portrayed as being capable —through cunning — of altering the course of their own lives, which before had been largely at the mercy of more powerful forces.

But this way of being and acting could also bring suffering and misfortune, or worse. Cunning is what emblematizes the growing awareness the Greeks had that particular manifestations of human intelligence had the potential to make men and women as dangerous as nature or the gods.

In fact, the Odyssey begins like this:

Sing to me, Muse, of that endlessly cunning man
who was blown off course to the ends of the earth, in the years
after he plundered Troy. He passed through the cities
of many people and learned how they thought, and he suffered
many bitter hardships upon the high seas
as he tried to save his own life and bring his companions
back to their home. But however bravely he struggled,
he could not rescue them, fools that they were — their own recklessness brought disaster upon them all.

Writer Stephen Mitchell, who recently did a new translation of the Odyssey had this to say about how Odysseus is first described: “Many of the formulaic adjectives that the poet attaches to his name emphasizes these qualities and mean more or less the same thing: polutropos, in the first line of the poem, literally means ‘many-turning, versatile, wily, ingenious’ (I have translated it as infinitely cunning).” Variations of polutropos denote “many-counseled,” “crafty,” “shrewd,” as well as, “many-deviced,” “resourceful,” “inventive,” and “never at a loss.”

The Odyssey constantly reminds us of this quality Odysseus embodies. When he washes ashore and is approached by a young woman, Odysseus ponders his situation and “he began to address her in a speech both gracious and cunning.” He even boasts about it, introducing himself to Alcínoüs the king by saying, “I am Odysseus, son of Laértes, renowned among all mankind for my stratagems, and my fame reaches the very heavens.” He is exaggerating only a bit. When the sorceress Circe tries to drug him and turn him into a pig, it doesn’t work. Circe exclaims:

How can it be that my drug has no power to change you? You weren’t affected at all. Never before have I known a man who drank it and didn’t succumb. You must have a mind impervious to enchantment. I am sure that you are Odysseus, that endlessly cunning fellow whom Hermes has told me about.

He even has the audacity to try to pull one over Athena, who happens to be his divine protector. After he tries to con her, Athena smiles and says,

Cunning, subtle, and tricky beyond all bounds would a man have to be who hoped to outwit you; even a god couldn’t do it. Swindler, daredevil, cheat, king of the liars, remorseless in your deceptions — even in your own country you are unwilling to drop the tricks and tales that you love from the bottom of your treacherous heart. But no more of this for now. We are both clever enough — you are the greatest of mortals in judgment and eloquence, and among the gods I am renowned for my subtlety and my wisdom.

Do you hear the echo? Athena recognizes human cunning as a reflection of divine wisdom. She respects it and enjoys its use even when Odysseus tries his tricks on her. But it is equally as crucial to point out that cunning was not always so admired by Greek gods or men. For as you probably know, the Odyssey is the second time Odysseus appears in Greek literature. The first was of course in the Iliad, written some 40 to 60 years before the Odyssey. In the Iliad, Odysseus’ cunning is what sets him apart from other characters like Achilles or Hector. The Trojan horse, as you will recall, was his invention. Nevertheless, the cunning Odysseus exhibits is not viewed as something worthy of the best of men. It is not the quality that suits a hero, at least according to the terms of the Iliad. And what are those terms, exactly?

They begin and end with the notion of honor. It was honor that motivated the Homeric hero in the Iliad; to wage war, to kill, to sacrifice, to die. But what is honor? It is, I think, a kind of justice among equals. For Achilles and Hector, qualities that make them heroic like valor and courage express more than who they are, but more importantly, where in the social standing of the ancient world they belonged. Codes of conduct on and off the battlefield were followed as if they were laws of nature by those recognized as heroes because they represented what the Greeks called themis, which roughly translates as orderly procedure, custom, tradition, of what was fitting and proper. And it is no coincidence that these codes signify the aristocratic military culture of Greece. In a sense, Homer was a poet who told stories about the adventures and exploits of a particular class of people whom Homer understood as embodying what constituted the highest good.

Aristoi in Greek literally means “the best people” and designated the hereditary nobles who held the most wealth and power, in peace and in war. The line separating the haves and have-nots is as bright and clear in Greek society in Homer’s time as it was in his stories. Eumaeus, the swineherd, the old nurse Eurycleia, the countless sailors and slaves, are by and large generic stock types in Homer’s world. To get some idea of how peasants and commoners felt or thought, we would have to go to the poems of Hesiod, and his Works and Days. For Homer, these kinds of people were not important enough to render into poetic reality. And the chasm that divided the aristocracy from common people was so wide it was rarely crossed. If there was a semblance of what we would call a public administration of justice in Homer’s world, it was in maintaining this division, so that everyone understood and respected their so-called proper place.

Honor, then, is a kind of informal justice among equals, insofar as equals designated those who belonged to the aristoi. The pursuit of honor, which depends on an array of attributes like valor, courage, wealth, and physical prowess, signifies a chain of associations that is ultimately used to justify the glory and rightness of rule by the aristoi. As E.R. Dodds explains in his book, The Greeks and the Irrational, this is why Homeric men are more or less obsessed with what they called timē, or public esteem, and aidos, which roughly corresponds to the notion of public opinion. It is in the public — like battlefields or arenas of political struggle, where one’s proper place in society is verified and maintained. Achilles and Agamemnon seek a public for their heroic deeds to remind the demos, or the people, why the class of nobles they represent deserves to rule. And public respect, once it is gained, serves as a form of acclamation, where the people consent to being ruled. The Greeks were arguably the first to understand that fame is the product of an aesthetic that naturalizes and enforces social divisions.

As one of the Homeric men who matter, Odysseus is no different. But he is not quite the same either. He already stands out for his craftiness. This, in the Iliad, was portrayed as a negative characteristic, and not fitting for a real hero. After a lengthy speech by Odysseus, Achilles replies, “I’m going to speak plain words and tell you exactly what I am thinking and what I am going to do, so that you won’t sit here cooing and trying to coax me into agreement. I hate like the gates of Hades the man who says one thing and hides another inside him.”

But contrary to the Iliad, the cunning Odysseus embodies in the Odyssey is both celebrated and admired, by both men and gods.

What changed? Perhaps a more fitting question is, what keeps changing? Moses Finley and other classical scholars speculated that during the intervening period between the two epics, Greek society flourished beyond their original settlements in the Eastern Mediterranean region. Finley identified three distinct but overlapping spheres of influence that had defined the lives of men and women in ancient Greece before and during the expansion: clan, kin, and what they called oikos, which translates as “the administration of the house.” These three spheres established a person’s status and function in society. But their power began to wane as new forms of sociality emerged as a result of growing populations dealing in more robust forms of trade, which led to more contact with other cultures in the region. Non-kinship institutions — though fundamentally based on the image of the household and the family — nevertheless opened the way toward new kinds of social interchange that were more diverse and not as rigidly defined by which family one was born into and how much land one owned. In short, a concept began to take shape in the emerging social imagination. It was what we now know as community.

Homer, I want to suggest, understood this. Like any artist worthy of his or her name, he recognized the changing social, cultural, and economic currents that were slowly but surely reconstituting his world. And he made work using what was available at the time, anticipating the contours of what the changes were bringing about. The Odyssey, in other words, was a harbinger. It foretold in poetic form the emergence of a new spirit of thinking and doing that led to one of the crowning achievements of the ancient world: the development of Greek rationalism, which found its greatest expression in the creation of the Athenian democracy in the early fourth century, some hundred years after the appearance of the Odyssey.

This poet could see that the qualities that made Achilles and Hector heroic in The Iliad were either not worth aspiring to or were perhaps not suited to the new sensibilities that this coming community would bring to the people of Greece. A new aesthetic had to be forged that could grasp the changing nature of a world that was beginning to feel more fluid and flexible, and not as beholden to the “fatefulness” established by forms of social and political authority.

This new aesthetic, I want to suggest, is manifest in Odysseus.


On Calypso’s Island

In Book Five of the Odyssey, fate appears as a goddess on an island living in a luxurious cave. She is Calypso, a nymph and daughter of Atlas. She is described as being more beautiful than any mortal woman. And here is what her cave looks like:

In front of the entrance
a luxuriant wood grew: alders, poplars, and fragrant
cypresses, where many large birds made their nests —
horned owls and falcons and loud-screeching cormorants,
who fly to the sea for their living; and all around
the mouth of the cavern, a vine trailed, heavy with grapes.
Four clear springs bubbled up there, near one another,
and flowed with clear water, then turned off in four directions,
and in meadows on either side of them violets bloomed
and wild parsley. Even a god who came to that place
would marvel.

Odysseus is stranded on Calypso’s island of luxury. She rescued him after Zeus destroyed his ship, leaving him floating alone on the dark sea. She nursed him back to health and then chose him as her husband. She even offered to make him immortal, like her. She loves him, the story goes.

So it is surprising that when Calypso looks for Odysseus and finds him on the shore, he is weeping. Being with a nymph goddess no longer pleases him. Or perhaps what pleases him was not enough to make him forget what he felt most emphatically: that he did not belong there. When asked by Calypso how he could turn down being made immortal, and if only he understood how difficult his life would be if he left the island, Odysseus replies, “I can’t help longing for home.”

Calypso says, “Poor fellow, don’t grieve anymore. Don’t weep your heart out; I am ready at last to send you away.” She then tells him to cut down some trees and make a boat with the lumber. What happens next is a first in either the Iliad or the Odyssey. Odysseus responds:

Goddess, how can you tell me
to cross the vast gulf of waters in a small boat?
The sea is fearful and dangerous; even the largest
and fastest ships are not always able to cross it.
You must have some other purpose here, not my homecoming.
I will not set out on boat unless I am sure
of your good intentions — unless you give me your oath
that you aren’t plotting some further mischief against me.

Besides the fact that this is the first time Odysseus actually speaks in the story, there is nothing particularly remarkable about what he said. It sounds to me like a reasonable reply, perhaps even a banal one to contemporary ears. Calypso is letting him go after seven years without any further explanation. Only a fool would not be suspicious of the motives behind this sudden change of fortune. And Odysseus is no fool. Why would he — or in truth any rational thinking person — not question what is going on?

But this is why the exchange is unique. It marks the first time a mortal in Greek literature openly and directly argues with a divine being. A human character — no matter how heroic — had never before questioned what a god or goddess was up to, and whether it was right or wrong. There are many instances in both the Iliad and the Odyssey where men and women debate about the gods, but they only do so with other mortals. And when people did dispute with a god, it was only because the god was magically disguised as someone else — typically a relative or loved one. What Odysseus did was radical within the cultural ferment of ancient Greece. It was tantamount to questioning the legitimacy of divine authority itself, and one’s fate in the established order of things.

But question Odysseus did. And Calypso’s response is just as remarkable. Here it is in its entirety:

What a great rascal you are! No one with a mind
less cunning than yours would ever have thought such a thing.
All right, let Earth be my witness and heaven above
and the downward-flowing waters of Styx — the greatest,
most terrible oath that we immortals can swear —
that I am not plotting the slightest mischief against you.
I am only considering what I would do myself
if I were in your situation. I really do
feel for you; my heart isn’t made of iron.

It is a tender scene, and also a revelatory one. For what Calypso suggests is that Odysseus is cunning because he employs the rather commonsensical practice of inferring what is happening by questioning the acts and intentions of others who play a part in that situation. She recognizes that for Odysseus, there exists a profound relationship between exploiting something and understanding it. And in doing so she acknowledges a crucial aspect of cunning in general: that it is dialectically bound to the notion of reason.

This is also consistent in concept with why Athena is so fond of Odysseus, and protects him at every turn. Athena sees a resemblance between divine wisdom, which she embodies, and human cunning, which Odysseus exemplifies. They are also similar insofar as they both represent forms of practical reasoning.

Unlike how it is typically practiced today, philosophy was understood during the classical age of Greece as something more concrete and practical. Having wisdom did not mean merely attaining knowledge, but of having a particular know-how about carrying oneself in the world. Wisdom, in other words, was knowledge gained from, and shaped with, experience that engenders a certain and exemplary form of life.

I think it is reasonable to suggest that Homer was also describing, through characters, plots, and rhymes, the shape of the kind of life worth living most. What can we learn from this shape? Or at the least, what are the discursive contours that define it?

It begins with the spirit of inquiry. What Calypso sees as Odysseus’ cunning and what we recognize as his use of reason was rarely portrayed at that stage in the history of Greek literature, and certainly not valorized in the manner that it was in the Odyssey. It is nowhere to be found in the Iliad. But in the Odyssey, Odysseus habitually reflects on his various troubles. When a goddess advises him that the best way home was by leaving his boat behind, he says, “What should I do? Is this goddess trying to lure me to ruin by saying that I should abandon my boat? I will not obey; [I] think I will do something else; it seems the best of my choices.” He is self-reflective, even in the direst situations. He even questions Athena about whether she is lying to him. She answers, “What a shrewd mind you have, always doubting and testing! I couldn’t abandon a man like you.” She never does. And she offers him something to endure all that fate has in store. In a telling scene in Book Five, it reads, “Then Odysseus would surely have perished, beyond his fate, if Athena had not given him presence of mind.”

It is this mindfulness that distinguishes Odysseus. His capacity to reflect and be aware of the situation around him is what makes him so prudent and dangerous. He thinks in order to see what he is able to get away with, and to find (or create) choices where none are evident or given.



At its essence the Odyssey is a story about someone trying to get home. And it is generally understood that for Odysseus this means Ithaca. But home is as much an idea as it is any particular place. Hegel, for instance, used the metaphor of home to characterize one of his key philosophical concepts: reconciliation. It is almost impossible to explain in detail but fairly easy to describe. Reconciliation is the state where one feels at home in the world.

Odysseus certainly does not feel at home on Calypso’s island. As Homer describes it, “his sweet life was ebbing away as he mourned for Ithaca.” But what is not so obvious, but just as plain to see within the framework of the story is another, and perhaps greater burden he is bearing. He does not feel at home with himself. He was losing a sense of his own identity, “his sweet life” ebbing away the longer he stayed on Fantasy Island. The luxuries that Calypso offered him has ironically made his life less of what it was. The terms that he understands himself through have been narrowed, and whatever stakes he uses to claim his full potential as a human being no longer seem to matter.

Odysseus’ homesickness is really then twofold and dialectical. The dreadful intuition that he is alienated from himself is inextricably bound to his feeling that he doesn’t belong on Calypso’s island. Remember, she’s a goddess. She concocts ambrosia. She makes love passionately. Violets and wild parsley bloom everywhere. She offered him immortality. It is the image of the good life.

Yet he won’t stay. “I can’t help longing for home,” Odysseus says. He goes on: “And if some god does wreck me during the voyage, I will endure it. My heart knows how to endure great hardships. Before now I have suffered many, both on the sea and in war, and if I must suffer another hardship, so be it.”

The question is, why? Why is Odysseus willing to endure new and formidable hardships and leave behind such luxuries and offers of divinity? The answer is clear: it is in the book. He is homesick. He wants to see his father, and his wife Penelope, and his son Telemachus, and return to where he belongs more than he wants to sleep with a goddess all day. And frankly, the Odyssey would not have been much of an epic if Odysseus decided to stay. Not only this, but Homer most likely needed to valorize certain moral codes that the Greeks held as sacred and right to ensure that his work found sympathetic ears. E.R. Dodds quotes Aristotle: “Poets tell this kind of story to gratify the desire of the audiences.” So why the why? Why wonder about the motivations of a character in an ancient epic poem?

It’s the echo. The situation Odysseus finds himself in bears a striking resemblance to contemporary art’s situation in society today. The echo resounds with the same undertones: the seduction of material luxuries, notions of what constitutes a good life, and how these notions entrap ways of thinking and doing. Above all, there is an indescribable homesickness.

A multitude of socialities comprise the artistic enterprise today. The endeavor to comprehend what art is and can be in settings like this one is something I am familiar with, having lectured at my fair share of universities. But this zone of engagement is certainly not the only one, as we all know. Other zones engage and understand art using different terms. And although there are certainly terms that various zones share, the zones themselves nevertheless tend to remain distinct, which reflects the different competing claims they make about how best to understand and experience art in light of what interests these zones uphold and maintain, socially speaking.

It is arguable that the quality and depth of the engagement here — as elsewhere — are interdependent on the ways this zone finds enrichment from other artistic socialities; in other words, in terms that come from outside of what is typically used here. When I first wrote this essay, I was working on my exhibition at the Schaulager, in Basel, Switzerland. And even though the Schaulager is utterly unique as an art institution, it is an institution nevertheless, and it bears a family resemblance to other places that exhibit art without selling it, like museums and kunsthalles. Galleries, art fairs, and auction houses that make up the commercial sector of contemporary art is yet another zone. One of my other lives is that of a publisher. My press, Badlands Unlimited, publishes paper books and ebooks by artists, poets, and thinkers. So for the past several years, I have been privy to the zone of the art publishing industry. I have been exposed to all the peculiar ways and means by which books are published and distributed by universities, museums, galleries, and others.

I can go on. The point is that these different zones of engagement connect us — as artists, scholars, students, curators, dealers, auctioneers, collectors, editors, and readers — to a multitude of interdependencies that enable ways of understanding what art is and ought to be today. And the capability to comprehend what it takes for an artwork to matter in these great times is proportional to just how diverse those interdependencies are. The more diverse and varied the relationships, the more far-reaching the terms of the conversations tend to be. These conversations — which can lead to new forms of judgment and understanding — become more nimble and daring. For they are more willing to take into account the myriad contradictions art manifests, which are themselves echoes of antagonisms that both constitute and confound the experience of living today. The stakes involved in why art matters become enriched as a result.

In one of the stranger convergences of mind, Adorno in Aesthetic Theory comes very close to what Duchamp declared in the late 1960s: that the onlooker has as much say about what a work of art means as the artist who made it. Duchamp believed art’s import is defined socially. And it is society, as represented by the various zones of engagement, that ultimately determines how art looks to us as it relates to our understanding of who we are, who we can be, and where we come from.

Insofar as Duchamp’s insight is right, I think it is possible to ask what art in general looks like today, socially speaking. And it seems pretty clear to me: it looks luxurious. When art makes news, it is usually because of the staggering amounts of money it fetches at auctions. When art is an event, it is typically now at fairs like the one in Basel, or the one in New York or London, or Dubai. When art brings people together, it is by way of glamorously choreographed dinners, parties, and galas like the ones you have not been invited to.

As an artist, I have been a part of all this. I enjoy it as far as it goes, and understand it as an element within a wider field of relationships that make contemporary art what it is today. But it also seems to me that this particular impression of art dominates the public consciousness in ways that exclude other interests and stakes, as if what is most important about art today is how it embodies the notion of “the good life” as it is expressed in material wealth and economic power. What is interesting is that the more this understanding of art propagates in the public sphere, the more natural it feels to imagine art’s import being exclusively about how it largely serves the interests of those who benefit most from reducing the whole of the artistic enterprise into an elite service industry. As if this was how things work. As if it was fated to be. This is why the public discourse about art seems to me so impoverished: the terms are narrow and the stakes so very low.

Is it possible to broaden the terms for contemporary art by thinking through the notion of cunning as manifest in Odysseus? And can cunning be redescribed as a way or thinking and doing that raises the stakes for why art ought to matter today?

Reason against cunning

If reason can be described as the means by which mental representations are used to conceptualize and produce insights that further enhance what one knows, what one does, and what one may hope to gain in the future, then in the Odyssey it is nearly impossible to differentiate between cunning and reason, and to define them on their own terms. Homer certainly made this the case, by portraying Odysseus as cunning precisely because he uses reason to his advantage. For Odysseus, cunning is reason as exploit.

This is perhaps why Greek philosophers, at least since Socrates, never embraced Odysseus as a thinking man’s hero. For how he used reason was precisely what Socrates was philosophizing against. It is worth remembering that in the late fifth century BCE, Socrates was not only a philosopher, but also a trenchant critic of a certain other kind of philosophy with which he was once associated. It was Sophistry. Before Socrates, there were philosophers who acted like merchants of knowledge, or Sophists. For large sums of money, sophists taught methods of rhetoric and a variety of philosophical discourses to help one reach a higher station in Greek society. In other words, philosophy was a tool used largely for social and political advancement.

Socrates represented a new paradigm. He gave away his philosophy to anyone willing to listen in the style of informal conversations and understood philosophy not as knowing this or that, but of being this way or that way. Socrates’s famous proposition that “Virtue is knowledge” reflects his insistence that what is most worth knowing is a particular know-how or practice about what it means to carry oneself in the world. His thinking was a rebuke to the intellectual formalism in vogue at the time. Rhetorical skill and tricks of persuasion were taught and prized as if they were magical formulas for acquiring — if not wisdom — then at least a better seat at the banquet. In this regard, Socrates is similar to Achilles, who berated Odysseus as someone who speaks one thing and thinks another. In fact, it is arguable that the philosophical lineage that began with Socrates, and continued in the form of Platonism, Aristotelianism, and Stoicism, all essentially echo, in different fashion, the Socratic claim that philosophy is a form of thinking about how to live in adherence to reason insofar as a life is the truest manifestation of a real philosophy. And in this storied tradition, there is no place for the kind of thinking embodied by Odysseus. It may be clever, even rational, but it wasn’t reason, for those who seriously considered themselves philosophers.

It was Plato who elevated the notion of reason to a level that rivaled the Gods after studying with Pythagorean mystics in what we now know as Sicily and Southern Italy. Plato’s theory of forms is among other things a philosophical and political hypothesis about how reason endows one with the power to comprehend what is most essential and objective about the universe. Using reason enables one to grasp the nature of how things ought to be, without petty and particular human concerns distorting how the world was supposed to really work. This is why for Plato reason was the foundation for social progress. The use of reason serves the good of a general interest, whereas cunning represents a form of thinking that benefited only particular interests; namely those cunning men and women. Cunning was beneath the dignity of real reason. It is the kind of thinking and doing that Nietzsche described, 2,200 years later, as “human, all too human.”

Philosophically speaking, the situation does not seem to have changed much. I think it is still generally the case that people believe it is reason that will unlock the potential for whatever social progress there is left for a sorry species like ours. Cunning, on the other hand, is how those who are not so broad-minded think. It is where knowledge is misused for purposes of deceit, artifice, and other secret or underhanded means.

Why reason at all?

In 2011, Dan Sperber, a social and cognitive scientist, and his then PhD student Hugo Mercier published a paper in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences that put forward a novel theory on reason. And even though Sperber and Mercier come from evolutionary biology and cognitive science, their theory bears more than a passing resemblance to the relationship between cunning and reason in Odysseus.

They call it the argumentative theory of reason, because, according to Sperber and Mercier, we don’t reason to seek and build a better society, as Plato wanted to believe, or to satisfy an insatiable hunger to confirm our own existence through our thinking, as Descartes saw it, or to reconcile with the natural and social world, as Hegel speculated. We reason, they say, simply to argue.

They accept the notion that reasoning is what enables the human mind to comprehend what exists beyond mere perceptions, habits, and instincts. But they do not regard it as a mental capacity so unique to humankind that it is what distinguishes us from mere animals, or the more extreme idea, that reason is a gift from the divine that justifies our special place on Earth and sanctions our dominion over it.

Instead, Sperber and Mercier characterize reason as one among many capacities, or traits, humans have developed over time. In others words, our ability to reason, like how we can walk upright or extract nutrients from digesting certain animal and vegetable matter, is a result of evolution. It is a trait we have acquired and have continued to maintain and develop as members of what Marx called our species being.

This trait we call reason is capable of handling many different tasks, or functions. Sperber and Mercier understand the notion of function in a biological sense. A trait can have a number of different functions. For instance, the trait known as our feet allows us to both walk and run. But it is possible to discern — from an evolutionary perspective — which function serves the interest of that trait most, insofar as how that trait contributes to the overall flourishing of whoever or whatever possesses it. And there is strong evidence to suggest that given the nature of human feet, they are primarily shaped for walking. Likewise, Sperber and Mercier contend that despite the myriad ways in which reason is employed in our lives, the main function of reasoning is argumentative. That is to say, it has evolved and persisted largely because “it makes human communication more effective and advantageous.”

It is within the framework of communication that Sperber and Mercier stake their claim about why we reason. Insofar as knowledge acquires currency only when it is sent or received, reason works best and is most adapted to ensuring that what is being communicated is stable and reliable, meaning that it is beneficial to both the sender and the receiver. This is also why reasoning is predominantly a social act which connect us outwardly, toward others, since the need to understand what is worth accepting as true and reliable information is what has pushed reason to evolve and persist as part of an array of human mental capacities. For Sperber and Mercier, reasoning can be employed in solitude to enhance understanding for oneself. But it has evolved to work best and most proficiently when used in the midst of social interactions.

It is not difficult to imagine reasoning at work in figuring out whether what someone says should be accepted as true. To avoid being misled by unreliable information, we exercise what Sperber calls “epistemic vigilance.” This is where one evaluates both the sender of the information and the information itself to gauge whether what is heard or seen should be believed. You are, if I were to guess, doing this right now. You are reading this essay, trying to figure out whether any of this is worth knowing. One way you are doing this is what cognitive scientists call “trust calibration.” This is where you gauge the level of trust you are willing to grant me based on what you understand as my competence and intentions as a speaker or writer. If you think I cannot be trusted, maybe because what I am saying sounds dimwitted, or perhaps because you have learned not to trust anyone from New York (which is perfectly understandable), you will have less reason to take in what I am saying for further reflection.

Even if you are taking in what I am saying, you are, if I were to guess again, not doing so passively. You are instead actively and perhaps even unconsciously engaging in what is called “coherence checking.” This is where you are interpreting what I am saying against a context of your previously held beliefs in order to try to integrate what I am saying with what you already understand as true. If incoherence is uncovered during this process, you face at the least two choices: either reject what I am saying because it does not cohere with what you already know, or go through what is called “believe revision,” a term from the wonky world of social science, otherwise known as learning.

Epistemic vigilance is how the receiver of the information exercises reasoning. But how is reason used for the sender of the information, the one who is making a claim about what is true and reliable? What is remarkable is that the same mechanisms like coherence checking and trust calibration are also being used, but in a contrasting way. They become resources that one draws upon to make the most compelling argument possible about why the claim being made ought to be true. In other words, those mechanisms that act as epistemological standards we use during reflection to assess the worthiness of the information are also the very same ones we rely on to help us craft arguments that strive to be persuasive and pleasing enough to pass those same epistemological standards we hold as barometers for judging what constitutes real knowledge.

For claims that do not push the bounds of typically shared beliefs and intuitions, like the claim that I am known as an artist, not much work is really needed on my part, as the sender of the information, to convince you this is true. And this is because I don’t think it would take much work on your part, as the receiver, to verify the quality of this claim, given the context of this issue, and you knowing who I am from the web, or friends, and so on.

But on the other hand, what if a more radical and unorthodox claim is made that tests or goes beyond preexisting beliefs and intuitions? What if, for instance, I want to claim that I am not a human being? To start, it would take more work on my part to convince you. It would take a crafty, perhaps even ingenious argument made up of a series of interlocking premises and ideas that you can plainly follow and understand. I would also need to provide enough empirical and intelligible forms of reference to show how this claim coheres with what is generally recognized as reality in order to try to justify its trustworthiness. Lastly, it would need to be composed in such a way that the quality of the claim implicitly raises doubts about the soundness of your beliefs and intuitions, which grounds your epistemic vigilance. If that ground loosens, there is more of a chance that something new can take root. What is essentially at stake is whether the work done on my part in composing what I want you to believe is persuasive enough to lessen the work you must do in evaluating what I am claiming so that it is more likely that you will agree to it being true.

In the end, what is most compelling and radical about understanding reason this way is how it emphasizes the bindingness of the relationships that make reason what it is: between senders and receivers, between producers and evaluators, between what is claimed and what is known. Reason here is no absolute spirit, nor the inevitable calculus that rules the natural world. It is, if Sperber and Mercier are to be believed, more prosaic and unpredictable. Reason is the intellectual arena where what is known and what is expressed are justified as what is worth valuing in social interaction and development. And reasoning is what we do in this arena.

The Cunning of Reason

For the past 50 years, the growing literature on the science and psychology of reasoning has suggested that human decision-making seems to be dictated largely by irrational biases. One of the most studied and well-known biases is called confirmation bias. It consists in “the seeking or interpreting of evidence in ways that are partial to existing beliefs, expectations, or a hypothesis in hand.” In other words, we tend, in general, to justify what we believe as reason, or claims of what is reasonable, based on our preestablished intuitions and inferences, even if what we know and believe is dubious or even outright wrong. Confirmation bias is also the intelligible dynamic at work when we devalue or wholly discount evidence that runs contrary to what we claim to be true, even in cases where the evidence holds epistemological value in understanding the truth of what is being argued for.

For standard theories of reasoning, and arguably the entire tradition of philosophical thought that began in earnest with Plato, what confirmation bias represents is a flaw of reasoning. It is how not to think. According to this tradition, reasoning should be done without prejudices or irrational influences in mind so that what is thought is as objective as what we want reality ultimately to be. This, in any case, has been the wish.

But, if understood within the framework of the argumentative theory, confirmation bias becomes something else entirely. Rather than being a defect, it is what motivates reasoning in the first place, and an essential feature of reason itself, insofar as it is a cognitive activity that has evolved to increase the quantity of communication available for use in social interaction. For what Sperber and Mercier suggest is that the psychological leap of faith it takes for us to make public claims about what we want others to believe as reasonable is grounded in the unsubstantiated conviction that what we already know and believe is trustworthy by the sheer fact that we hold them.

Confirmation bias is, in essence, what empowers the will to reason. Sperber and Mercier postulate that as an inherent aspect of reasoning itself, confirmation bias enables us to be more persuasive in arguing for our claims, because we already and actually believe them to be true. It also compels us to be more speculative and inventive in how we make those claims, given that as a consequence of believing what we already know is epistemologically superior to what is out there, we will tend to use whatever means are necessary to make our claims stick in social reality.

Within this context, confirmation bias reveals ultimately not that humans reason poorly, but that the nature of reason is deeply asymmetrical. It works on one side as a producer of arguments, which is shot through with preexisting biases in favor of what the arguer believes and knows, and on the other side, the evaluator of arguments, which seeks to understand and differentiate between good arguments from bad ones, and therefore genuine information from misinformation.

I want to emphasize here the idea that reason is, in part, a production. Or, for those who are more visually and musically oriented, a composition. Reason is something we make to convince others of the worthiness of what has been made, and serves the interest of the maker as a semblance of what he or she wants others to realize as what is most real about our shared reality. And one of the consequences of understanding confirmation bias this way — along with a host of other intelligible dynamics social scientists have pinpointed — is just how crafty, ingenious, adaptable, deceitful, resourceful, and high-spirited the act of reasoning can be as it tries to justify why it ought to be trusted by others as reasonable.

What the argumentative theory recognizes is the aesthetic imperative within reason itself, insofar as aesthetics can generally be understood as a way of comprehending and making something persuasive and compelling enough that others find agreeable. And what I want to suggest is that this aesthetic imperative can be expressed by another word, one that situates aesthetics in a truly expanded field; as open and wide as social life itself. This word is, of course, cunning.

Reason is, from this vantage point, the creative act par excellence.

Taking a Ride

When I was 13, I used to dumpster dive next to this clothing store to steal credit card numbers. Back then, stores used a machine that looked like a small meat slicer that would copy the card’s information onto a paper receipt with a carbon copy attached. The store then kept the paper receipts and would throw away the carbons at the end of the day. Carbons from Visa cards were useless because they were designed so that the last two digits of the credit card number didn’t copy over. But carbons from American Express cards did copy all the numbers, along with the expiration date, and the name of the cardholder. Once I found an AMEX carbon, I would skate home and call the mail order catalog to buy what I wanted, explaining that I, “Linda Wallace Stevens,” had a cold and that is why I sound like a nasally 13-year-old, and that if they could ship to another mailing address not associated with the card, because I recently moved, I would appreciate it.

It would usually arrive two weeks later. But not to my house: too risky. I would ship the goods to a neighbor on the block. After the delivery truck left, I would ring up my neighbor and explain that my friend Linda meant to send the package to me, but had the address wrong. I got all my skateboard parts this way. And my first serious tennis racket, the beautiful Yonex R-22 that Martina Navratilova used. A compound bow and arrow kit. The collected writings of Voltaire. I’m not proud of what I did. But I’m not ashamed either. It was what I thought I had to do to cheat what fate had dealt me at the time, being the son of recent immigrants, living hand to mouth in Omaha, Nebraska.

Until I started writing this, it never occurred to me that what I did then is somehow related to what I do now. Perhaps it’s nothing more than juvenilia: the thrill of doing something and getting away with it. On the other hand, there is undoubtedly a long and complex relationship between art and notions of lawlessness. The myth that, in order to make work, artists must follow their own set of rules entirely, if they follow rules at all, is as old as Homer. Plato, who championed reason over art, takes this myth and twists it to an extreme in his dialogue Ion, where Socrates essentially accuses poets of not following human laws or conventions at all, but only the will of heavenly powers. He explains that poets are good not because they are talented, but because they are literally possessed by spirits. Poets might think that they are following their own inspiration, Socrates speculates, but the law of poetic form is really dictated by divine madness.

Even those who believe art is a worthy human endeavor — perhaps even the worthiest —understand that what makes it vulnerable to accusations of being useless, irrational, fraudulent, illusionary, even criminal, is also at heart what makes it meaningful in the broadest social sense. For it is precisely in how a work evokes, in form, the spirit of an “othermindedness” that makes it radiant and enlivening. Adorno captures this idea like a firefly in a mason jar in his famous quip that “every artwork is an uncommitted crime.”

This othermindedness, or what I have called cunning, is not outside the bounds of reason at all, but is a feature of it. In truth, reason depends on cunning to be reasonable. Or so I have tried to show. This idea, which I have traced historically and philosophically through the figure of Odysseus, and in the work of Sperber and Mercier, holds interesting implications for art. One is that it makes available a different take on why art matters, socially speaking. Many arguments abound today about why art is important: it is a form that authenticates what is most human about humanity; it celebrates and affirms the diversity of cultures and identities; it upholds the value of individual freedoms; it is a good pedagogical tool for teaching values; it is a sound economic investment; it gives pleasure. And so on.

Among these competing claims, I want simply to add one more. And a fairly prosaic one at that. It is that the experience of art serves to protect us from being conned.

Being exposed to art means among other things seeing all the resourceful and ingenious ways in which someone has tried to make — using what is readily available — something more than what is there. And a work tries to do this through its formal properties. These properties, in which a work expresses itself, act like arguments a work makes to try to convince the viewer that it is worthy of being agreeable. Of being valued. Typically by any means necessary. This is the cunning of art.

In experiencing how a work tries to convince us of its worth, we come to grasp how its aesthetic qualities echo in spirit and in form all the manipulative means by which people use reason to try to convince others of the value of what they are saying, or doing, or selling. In looking at art and trying to comprehend and appreciate what it is, we are at the same time engaging in the practice of recognizing and evaluating all the traits that artwork embodies most persuasively, as a cipher for how aesthetics is deployed socially, and in general. Seen in this light, going to a gallery or a museum is a lot like spending an afternoon in a room full of grifters, all trying to con you into one thing or another. You don’t lose anything, of course, except time. What you potentially gain, however, is insight into what makes something truly, delightfully, cunning. And in the process, perhaps learn a little about the tradecraft of taking someone for a ride, so that you might realize what is happening the next time someone is taking you for one.

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Paul Chan is an American artist, writer and publisher born in Hong Kong in 1973.

LARB Contributor

Paul Chan lives and works in New York. He was the 2014 recipient of the Hugo Boss Prize, which coincided with his solo exhibition Nonprojections for New Lovers at the Guggeneheim Museum, New York, 2015. Select public collections include The Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Guggenheim Museum, New York; The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; The Art Institute of Chicago; The Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; The Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; The Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; and The Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.


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