visual pairs curated by Tonia B.
Perhaps more than any other species, human beings are builders by nature. We're all in the construction business-- but not because we signed up for it. We don't have any say in the matter: as beings equipped with few natural talents, we're forced to rely on artificial mechanisms to extend our reach in the world. These things are both physical and mental: we don't just build bridges, construct skyscrapers, and manufacture automobilites; we are equally - and perhaps more importantly - builders of an entirely different kind. We're cultural, conceptual constructers, if you will.
As artists of world-making, we're bringing new things into existence all of the time- things that require human minds for their making. Things like money, chess, the United States of America, and the Olympics. These aren't just physical objects - their objects whose existence depends on human intentions, beliefs, desires, and volitions.
This mental manufacturing, this brain-based building is somewhat miraculous - so miraculous that it can trick us into believe we - or, at least, someone - has control over the process. Unlike Picasso plotting the Guernica with meticulous precision, the built human world isn't itself subject to our caprices. Any artist will tell you that the matter - the raw stuff of the construction process - imposes constraints on the product. Stones are recalcitrant, only sculptable according to particular fault-lines.
So is the physics of culture: we all start somewhere, with some determinate material situation that is not of our own making. We're not born we're thrown - plummeting into the world against our will. And it gets worse: not only are we condemned to constantly spin cultural and symbolic webs of significance, we, too, are spun in the process. There's no "we" that stands outside the process, who could peak over our corporeal shoulders and peer down on the world below. Human beings aren't like that. There's no being behind the doing: the illusion "self" might be no more than a byproduct of a certain activity of construction.
This can be disheartening, for a lot of what we build collectively isn't all it's cracked up to be:
Glittering like gold, but with a toxic center. And, worse still, a lot of this stuff doesn't look to us to be "built" at all. Take the concepts we define our lives by, the things nearest and dearest to us, the conceptual frames in which we house our selves-- concepts like "race," "gender," "sexuality." These things exist in the world a lot more like chess does than like molecules do: their psychological frames we've read into the world - spun in to being. But they often seem as natural as can be, so close to us, we don't even notice. Like water to a fish.
And these things are toxic not because they're all bad, but because they're so deeply intertwined as corner stones of oppressive regimes. Take the concept of race. Race - historically - is a political division, not a biological one, a division born of a social and legal system intended at the outset to deny certain privileges to certain groups, and to reenforce the dominance of others. It was constructed - legally and culturally - in the literal sense of the word, and only subsequently came to seem like a self-evident matrix for understanding human difference. That doesn't mean that the concept has no positive social function (it does), or that we should forget about it (we shouldn't). But it does mean we should be note that race as a political system is far from benign.
These sorts of concepts - and the regimes to which the belong- don't only impoverish certain groups of people. Perhaps even more so- they impoverish our imaginations: the place limits on what we can think. But that's precisely the paradox: human beings are builders, and we have no option but to keep building. And we have to start with what we've got. The question remains: can we think beyond these sedimented fictions, and create new ones -- stories, concepts, and practices more attuned to living and being together.