Next Gen John Heinz

HomeBailey A. Sheehan

I don’t spend much time considering the causal nature of why things happen the way they do. Causality is typically obvious, like when the Eagles lost to the Seahawks in last year’s wildcard round of the NFL playoffs. When causality isn’t obvious, it becomes mystical. My habit of reconciling confounding occurrences via mysticism is a testament to my longtime interest in speculative philosophy (an obvious testament). Part of why I like the NFL is its embrace of absurdist advanced analytics vis-a-vis Next Gen Stats. Next Gen Stats is an analytics program bred between the NFL and Amazon Web Services. Using telemetry, Next Gen Stats can track 3TB worth of data per week, and can record NFL-specific stats such as “explosiveness,” juke rate, separation, “money throws,” catch probability, clean pocket completion rate, rate of pressure on quarterbacks, and so on. After each week this data is given to its respective team to analyze and consider. The amount of information collected weekly is astounding, so much so that Tony Romo can use NGS to calculate the catch probability of a pass that just happened (down to the decimal). That is just one example of the absurdist nature of NFL statistics. It is this absurdism that energizes me because I believe it is an example of how to interact with stuff that isn’t entirely obvious.

I said before that I have a longstanding interest in speculative philosophy. In art school, most of our readings were of art-adjacent theoreticians peppered by the occasional philosophical overlap: Walter Benjamin, Boris Groys, Wittgenstein, Judith Butler, Ingo Niermann all embody my compound education in both art and philosophy. Toward the end of college I became interested in Speculative Realism, a recent anti-correlationist trend in continental philosophy. I first read Graham Harman’s book Weird Realism, which chronicles his fascination with Lovecraftian sci-fi. His particular interest is in Lovecraft’s insistence on Cthulhu living beyond the representative cusp of his protagonists. This coincides with Harman’s own Object-Oriented Ontology, a contemporary philosophical movement that attempts to establish a flat-ontological mindset. OOO figures all objects exist independently of one another, and that they are not defined by their relationship with people or other things.. An example of his ideology is an anecdote from the Persian philosopher Al-Ghazali, who evidenced his religious dogma by the simple story of fire burning cotton. He noted that the fire burning cotton exists solely in an aesthetic dimension. What he believed really happened when cotton set on fire was God “occasioning” cotton’s ignition through the flame. Although this figuring seems innately archaic and premodern to us, it has been regarded as remarkably similar to the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Theory published nearly 1,000 years later in the mid-1920s. When objects don’t touch, causality must be vicarious, must happen via some imperceptible force, or else is entirely random and up to probabilistic interpretation. There are other speculative philosophers who further muddle our shallow understanding of causality by calling attention to the infinite nature of networks and our inability to perceive these networks due to our constant displacement within them (Latour, Shaviro, Bennett). Quantum theory is beyond my brain’s allotted skill-points; however, it is of interest to an English mathematician-turned-philosopher who I recently began reading up on. He has helped answer whether or not I played a part in Carson Wentz’s season-ending injury.

I’m obviously talking about Alfred Whitehead. Whitehead presents a foil to most media I digest today; his doctrine is one of radical connectedness. Everything is implicated by the world’s ecology, and implicates the world’s ecology in turn. This is so radical because it contradicts how we reflexively think; we tend to believe causal chains are relatively traceable. Whitehead is truly different from those mentioned above because he ascertains objects not only can touch, but touch and are touched by everything. So as far as causality goes, if you were to wonder why the Eagles lost to the Seahawks, you may need a bit more time to identify the effectual impact of tectonics, atmospheric pressure, migratory patterns of birds, every injury (small or big) Carson Wentz has ever had… ever, and so on. Ravens are one of the only species of bird capable of nonvocal communication; maybe that is why they were the first-ever bird team to win a Super Bowl. Maybe their dominance is linked to my strict following of superstitious fanfare. Such a causal leap shares little difference with the “consider everything” mentality of Next Gen Stats, or with Al-Ghazali’s fire burning cotton.

Seven miles away from my apartment in South Philly is the John Heinz Wildlife Refuge, America’s first urban refuge. The refuge’s website credits itself with being within ten miles of over 1.7 million people, and within a two-hour driving distance of more than 35 million Americans. I just read Whitehead’s Symbolism: its Meaning and Effect, and after visiting Heinz Refuge a few times I couldn’t help but wonder what imperceptible effects it has on my life in Philadelphia. I don’t feel an urge to try and identify any such effects, however; it feels reasonable to simply acknowledge that this park’s ecosystem affects me. This consideration is an obvious result of my reading of Whitehead. Indirect action is a huge part of Whitehead’s edifice of symbolic reference, which is the synthesis of his two named means of perception—perceptual immediacy and nonsensuous perception, or what he formally called perception in the mode of causal efficacy. Causal efficacy is closest to this mystical wonderment, except perception in the mode of causal efficacy doesn’t just have to do with things that are geographically close. That’s the whole point!

To clarify, I don’t believe in a positive juju that can affect the outcome of an NFL game. I don’t believe this because it involves an identifiable cause and effect. It lacks a certain mysticism that is only perceptible nonsensuously, or in the mode of causal efficacy. It also lacks a speculative attitude. Superstition handled wrongly is often entirely too certain. In essence, it’s way too obvious. Art’s obviousness is largely ignored, which is why I have nearly lost interest in it entirely. It is so obviously enmeshed with bad money, or compliant to the demands of bad money, or is an imperialistic LARP; just read Andrea Fraser’s L’1%, C’est Moi, it’s all very disparaging. How obvious is art, you ask? Art is so obvious that it’s tedious to even mention its obviousness. Amitav Ghosh in his book The Great Derangement so interestingly describes the frustrating nature of bringing up climate change to a disinterested friend or colleague. He notes that this collective willingness to push aside what is obvious is evident in fiction writing, namely in the unbelievability of a random event. Events that are improbable, such as a tornado in Delhi do not fit into standard fiction writing because they do not uphold the causally predictable nature of life. Ghosh cannot sew his experience of a random metropolitan tornado into his fiction, because although it did happen, it’s simply unbelievable, impolite, and obvious. I believe that once something is obvious it somehow becomes conjoined with contrivance. It has become pretty uncool to not ‘get’ the complexity of the institution of art. It’s totally fine if art is obvious. A lot of important stuff is obvious, such as the invention of Penicillin, or electricity, or space exploration. Whitehead would ascertain that art has nonsensuous impact, the same as any other thing. This admittance must be punctuated by an acknowledgment that art’s nonsensuous impact is exactly that: indiscernible.

I’m not motivated to try and discern the mystical nature of art, or any other thing. It is, however, undoubtedly entertaining to consider the mystical side of causality through the absurdism of Next Gen Stats, or a Pedro Almodóvar film, or probability, or even fate. All of these are not naive positivist attempts to grasp the beyond, rather they are negative gestures that intrinsically posit that the imperceptible is imperceptible. Next Gen Stats is a means of entertainment, which is the exact limit of what non-obvious causality can be to us perceptively-limited beings. It’s incredibly interesting, even in this bastardized form, to apply the ethos of Whitehead to art because art is canonically supposed to engage in the mystical, or the beyond. In reading Whitehead, this canonization is still true, but for entirely different reasons, and requires an entirely different approach. Philly is cool because even if I wanted to sell out I couldn’t, so now what. I feel like the answer to all this is pretty obvious. Maybe it has slipped through somewhere in this essay, which would be great. I don’t feel pressure to name it outright, or to deliver a singular idea that may endanger all that I have written up to this point. Instead, I am reminded of a critique I once received in a studio visit—that it was obvious I was trying to be “smarter than my art,” which at the time I thought was incredibly diminishing. Looking back, I have more interest in such a critique, because it is emblematic of how one should interface with art and its nonsensuous impact if you choose to ignore the obvious nature of its existence.