Blesok no. 87, November-December, 2012
Monet's Haystacks: Situated Knowledge, Creation, and Revolution
Between 1890 and 1891 Claude Monet painted a series of twenty five paintings depicting haystacks near his home in Giverny. In it, he explored the interplay of different light effects, seasons, and weather. Different pallettes of colors, brushstrokes, and foci were needed in order to capture the atmosphere of each of the situations.
While teaching at the Bauhaus, Wassily Kandinsky used to assemble a still life from plans and strips of wood and ask the students to translate it into lines of tension or structure and record heavy or light characteristics rather than copy the still life. We can note Monet's influence in this assignment. Painting thus becomes less of a mimetic exercise, and more of a way of engaging the world in order to interpret and depict it, much like the theoretical engagement in science.
In Monet's painting titled “Haystacks on a Foggy Morning”, the center of the picture is dominated by the dark contour of the haystack blocking the sun and creating a shadow. Around the haystack a halo of golden light explodes thus obfuscating the mountains in the background. In the foreground, a series of aggressive brushstrokes depicts the grass around the haystack illuminated by the golden light, while flowing brushstrokes portray the patch of grass in the shade of the haystack.
As opposed to it, the painting “Grainstacks, Snow Effect” provides a sharp contrast between the dark shape of two haystacks and the surroundings covered with snow. However, both the mountains and the clouds are present as a constitutive and important part of the painting. Although the difference between the sky covered with clouds and mountains and fields covered with snow is barely noticeable, it is achieved with the use of brushstrokes to produce different textures. Here and there we see hues of blue to portray the shades, hues of yellow to indicate the grass, and hues of gold to denote the sun hidden by the clouds.
Different from both is the painting named “Wheatstacks, End of Summer”. Here, every part of the painting calles for attention. Thin clouds and the sunlight in the sky, green pastures on the tops of the mountaints and lush forests at the foot of the mountains, green and brown haystacks breaking the symmetry and defining the compostition, patches of green and yellow grass, illuminated or in the shade of the haystacks. An element of surprise in this painting are the parts covered in white. Thus both the space around the haystacks as well as the haystacks themselves represent pure potentiality.
The contingency of the landscape emphasizes the position of the painter – he is always positioned in the same way, with the horizon at the same level and the mountains in the same distance. The unobtrusive painter becomes the subject of the paintings, the way he is positioned spatiotemporally is called into attention if the viewer considers this series in its totality.
The importance of the location of the cognizant subject has been debated extensively throughout the history of philosophy. The duality, and furthermore, the fundamental separation of subject and object of knowledge had long been a starting point of any talk about objectivity. Postmodern and poststructural theorists provided a strong critique of this idea of objectivity. The solution for most of them was the notion of radical social constructedness of all knowledge. However, as Donna Haraway notes, this idea only replaced the idea of all-pervasive objective knowledge with the all-pervasive critique applicable to all knowledge. As she puts it, “relativism is a way of being nowhere while claiming to be of everywhere equally” (Haraway 1988: 584). She proposes a metaphor of vision to resolve the problem. Thus: “I would like to insist on the embodied nature of all vision and so reclaim the sensory system that has been used to signify a leap out of the marked body and into a conquering gaze from nowhere” (ibid: 581)
For Haraway, feminist objectivity is nothing else than situated knowledge, knowledge from a limited location. She is interested neither in transcendence nor splitting of subject and object. Objects of knowledge should be viewed as actors and agents in order to avoid construing them as resource to the subjects of knowledge.
The effects Monet was trying to paint often wouldn't last long, so he would paint simultaneously several paintings for short periods of time during one painting session. He carried as many canvases as he could fit in a wheelbarrow every time he left his house to paint. Upon his first attempt at painting haystacks, he planned only two canvases. However, soon he realized that he could not capture all the differences that one landscape holds with only two paintings. In other words, an omniscient position was not attainable. He needed to embrace the contingencies that were enabled by the complexity of the landscape itself. The realization of this complexity arises from the engagement with it and the idea of one's locatedness comes from the coming to terms with the notion of one's limitedness. To put it differently, it requires acceptance that objective knowledge is impossible. However, this is a critical kind of reflexivity. Thus Haraway: “We are not immediately present to ourselves. Self-knowledge requires a semiotic-material technology to link meanings and bodies” (ibid: 585)
Schopenhauer thought that “genius consists in the capacity for cognizance independent of the Principle of Sufficient Ground and therefore not of individual things, which have their existence only in relations, but of their Ideas – and the capacity for being oneself, in the face of the latter, the correlate, of Ideas, thus no longer individual, but pure subject of cognition” (Schopenhauer 2008). Ideas, for Schopenhauer lie in the domain of Will. We are aware of Will by identifying it within ourselves and then, by communicating with other people, identifying it wintin them. This allows us to extrapolate it for the whole world. Thus, reading Kant, Shopenhauer thinks knowledge of the world is subjective. However, he affirms the Cartesian notion of a subject as detached from the world. What is required is a Heideggerian turn which would allow for the notion of being in the world, of the subject that is always already engaged with the world and other subjects.
There is a story that Monet annoyed the villagers of Giverny with his painting. When they learned that it takes time for him to finish each painting, they, the story goes, went about moving the heystacks while he painted in order to frustrate his efforts. If the story is to be believed, what Monet failed to do was to engage with the villagers as well as with the landscape. Haraway writes: “We seek those ruled by partial sight and limited voice – not partiality for its own sake but, rather, for the sake of the connections and unexpected openings situated knowledges make possible. Situated knowledges are about communities, not about isolated individuals. The only way to find a larger vision is to be somewhere in particular” (Haraway 1988: 590). And: “The alternative to relativism is partial, locatable, critical knowledges [sic] sustaining the possibility of webs of connections called solidarity in politics and shared conversations in epistemology” (ibid: 584).
The people he failed to acknowledge were the people who shaped the landscape he was trying to depict. In a way, he was committing what Haraway claims to be “violence implicit in our visualizing practices” (ibid: 585). The agency of people is able to transform the project of producing theory, and part of the reflexive positioning is to acknowledge the partial connections with other people, the interlocutors in our knowledge process. Connecting with “those points of view, which can never be known in advance, that promise something quite extraordinary, that is, knowledge potent for constructing worlds less organized by axes of domination” (ibid: 585).
In other words, what is needed is to be aware of one's position vis-a-vis those with less power or outright powerless. Some people today have the ability to write, learn and create art which is still a privilege. The others can at best be interlocutors, and at worst be able only to employ the “weapons of the weak” (Scott 1985) to aggravate those more powerful than them. The active work to change the situation is needed. In his book length essay “The Rebel”, Camus notes that work has become completely subordinated to production, thus losing its creative aspect. To conclude with his words:
Industrial society will open the way to a new civilization only by restoring to the worker the dignity of a creator; in other words, by making him apply his interest and his intelligence as much to the work itself as to what it produces. The type of civilization that is inevitable will not be able to separate, among classes as well as among individuals, the worker from the creator; any more than artistic creation dreams of separating form and substance, history and the mind. In this way it will bestow on everyone the dignity that rebellion affirms. It would be unjust, and moreover Utopian, for Shakespeare to direct the shoemakers' union. But it would be equally disasterous for the shoemakers' union to ignore Shakespeare. Shakespeare without the shoemaker serves as an excuse for tyranny. The shoemaker without Shakespeare is absorbed by tyranny when he does not contribute to its propagation. Every act of creation, by its mere existence, denies the world of master and slave. The appalling society of tyrants and slaves in which we survive will find its death and transfiguration only on the level of creation.
(Camus 1956: 273-274)
Camus, Albert. 1956. The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt. New York: Vintage Books.
Haraway, Donna. 1988. Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies, 14 (3), 575-599 .
Schopenhauer, Arthur. 2008. The World as Will and Presentation. Volume One. New York: Pearson
Scott, James. 1985. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Monet, Claude. 1890-1891. Heystacks.