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CAPITOL LETTERS (Ep. 5): The Antinomies of the Universe

CAPITOL LETTERS (Ep. 5): The Antinomies of the Universe Humaneness’s case

Philosophers, scientists, theologians, all appear to live with a somehow implicit and inbuilt mindset that the physical/metaphysical Universe is, despite its obvious oneness, a binary being. This mind-dazzling hallmark seems to apply to each and every part(icle) of the mighty whole, in that they do partake, on different levels of aggregation, in a grand dual design, in a great symmetrical scheme, with even the fundamental units, unbreakable as they might be, having a pair. But this is not about the geometrical, tranquil sense of symmetry, it is about a rather tensed one. This kind of symmetry is responsible for igniting or extinguishing motions (in matter) and emotions (in spirit), whether speaking of electrons dancing around protons, of neutrons and antineutrons vanishing reciprocally, or of the good trying to outlive the evil and vice versa, as well as of beauty- and ugliness-fomented envious repulsion and sordid seduction. It is the “can’t live with it, can’t live without it” symmetry, as in coincidentia oppositorum, of coexisting contradictory essences within (human) reality. It is an imbalanced and unbalancing symmetry, an… antinomy.

The binomial “cultures” (plural) - “civilization” (singular) is one of the most substantial and subtle antinomies, defined as the contradiction, real or apparent, between two principles, processes, properties, both of which seem equally justified and that, more often than not, feel a dearth of each other and are fecund together. “Cultures confer identities, civilization is the strength of the human species”, M. Malița once said in his essay-book Ten Thousand Cultures, A Single Civilization. Man, a biologically vulnerable animal, found two relatively solid points of support. Lacking predetermined behaviors and certain genetically encoded responses, he created a symbolic, flexible, open combinatory apparatus as the foundation of his culture; lacking formidable muscular strength, he created the tool and the machine as an energetic peripheral of his own body and which helped him to master nature (or to have this illusion) as a distinctive sign of civilization. Some also speak of the two cerebral hemispheres with different functions. Should one be allocated to culture and the other to civilization? Do we have an antinomic brain?

There are notorious the hermeneutical convulsions on culture and civilization. In so many cases they were propelled by (geo)political combustions. T. Mann saw Kultur as what is German – music, morality and mentality – while civilisation is what is French – political thought and social concern. For the author of The Magic Mountain, national Kultur craves for protection against the civilizational siege of democratic enlightenment and bourgeois rhetoric. Likewise, O. Spengler pinpoints the difference between “inward-looking cultural energies” and “outward-directed exposure of civilization”, revering culture as depository of ancestral social balances eroded by waves of modernization, perceived as mechanical, imperialist, alienating, decadent. If E.B. Tylor (the creator of the holistic definition of the “culture-as-civilization”, in stark contrast to Herder’s synthesis that melts the concepts into that of Kultur) was a follower of a civilizing evolutionary optimism, for Spengler civilizations are the most remote and rough footing of which a developed humankind is capable. Yet, it is civilization’s tools that ease such parochial texting.

A critical subset of culture-civilization alleged “cannibalistic concubinage” is the (fertile!) antinomy art-technology. The still-unfolding “industrially/technologically-revolutionized” capitalistic open economy (and State-adjusted for market failures, in an antinomic manner) exposed arts to objectively superior chances for unleashing subjectiveness, as well as to the “Caudine Forks” of money-infused snobbery or tastelessness. Still, as W.J. Baumol, the pioneer arts-economist, had noticed, the “new economy”, even if not being an automatic trigger for creatorship, it brings the antidote for the associated “cost-disease” of sluggishly productive artistry relative to industry. And this is not little for culture. In addition, while taking note of the four “mediamorphoses” (the graphical-writable, then printable, then electrically-chemically storable and then digitally-manageable outlets for artistic expression) surveyed by A. Smudits, it seems that technology is more of a friend than a foe for arts. Art is not of tech class conflicts, for “there’s place and means for every man alive” (says W. Shakespeare). Unevenly endowed, while free to act.

Flipping through some key histories of art (here I may mention Ernst Hans Gombrich’s The Story of Art and Robert Hughes’s The Shock of the New, yet my favorites remain Paul Johnson’s Art: A New History and Will Gompertz’s What Are You Looking At?), with the lenses of an economist, you may find some very provocative phenomena at the byroad of arts and tech: substitution (e.g., cheaper transportation allowed the Pre-/Post-/Impressionists to paint nature en plein air freed from workshop confinement) and revenue (e.g., bourgeois enrichment created the premises for middle class consumption of arts served by an elite of dealers/patrons such as the Steins for Parisian Fauvists and Cubists) effects; trade-offs (e.g., between Suprematism abstraction and Constructivism assertiveness in early-Communist Russia) and spill-overs (e.g., Futurism’s machinery infusion/invasion of arts’ both poesis and politics); crowding-ins (e.g., IT&C mediatization of art shows and sales, of the virtual participation genre that Christie’s or Sotheby’s reported) and crowding-outs (e.g., new digital skills expelling old analogic ones – or not?!). We’ll see.

P.S. The FUTURES exhibition/festival, hosted by the Smithsonian Institution, just ending when I arrived in the US, is a good follow-up starting point for a reflection on arts-tech antinomy 4.0. 

(August 1, 2022 – Washington, D.C.)

Photo source: author’s snapshot at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.



CAPITOL LETTERS is a series of articles occasioned by the author’s presence in Washington, D.C. as Romanian Cultural Institute Fellow, studying industrial revolutions’ imprint on the cultural sector.
The opinions hereby expressed by the author remain his exclusive responsibility and do not engage, in any manner or measure, the organizations to which he is affiliated or with which he collaborates.




The Market For Ideas Association

The Romanian-American Foundation for the Promotion of Education and Culture (RAFPEC)

Amfiteatru Economic