Kermit Snelson on Wed, 14 Aug 2002 07:37:19 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> art as law in Berkeley, USA

Identity politics reaches a whole new level..


Aristotle's law in Berkeley
Petition confounds blase city

San Francisco Chronicle
Meredith May, Chronicle Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 13, 2002

Berkeley, the first city to ban Styrofoam and wood-fired pizza ovens,
could become the first to enact Aristotle's ancient law of logic -- that
every entity is equal to itself.

In a philosophical effort to come up with a city law that no one could
ever break, conceptual artist Jonathon Keats wants Berkeley to legally
acknowledge Aristotle's law, commonly expressed as A=A.

More plainly put, it means a table is a table. A blade of grass is a blade
of grass.  The mayor is the mayor.

Mayor Shirley Dean was dumbfounded.

"I haven't a clue what that means," Dean said of Keats' proposition.

Few others did either as Keats tried to get them to sign his sidewalk
petition Saturday near the downtown Berkeley BART station.

"Why do you need a law to say that?" asked one passer-by.

Sweating in a three-piece wool suit, bow tie and penny loafers, Keats
explained that a simplistic law challenges society's notion of what laws
are, why they are made, and why we follow them.

It makes perfect sense to Keats, who is the kind of guy who likes to do
things like sit in an art gallery for 24 hours and sell his thoughts to
museumgoers.  The San Francisco Arts Commission once paid him to do
portraits, and because he can't paint, draw or take good photographs, he
took fingerprints instead.

His latest A=A idea, timed to coincide with the annual Berkeley Arts
Festival, was a harder sell.  His six-hour effort netted 65 signatures, 42
of which belonged to actual Berkeley residents.

There were many head-shakers, a couple of yellers, and a handful of people
who signed just to get away from Keats' long discourses on tautology --
which is a fancy word for A=A theory.  One guy shouted that Keats needed

Keats offered to do sidewalk therapy with the man, who stomped away in

"I see the law I've proposed as an (art) installation, one which has the
potential to operate in infinite space while occupying no space," said the
30-year-old performance artist, who lives in San Francisco.

"I offer it as a donation to the people of Berkeley," Keats said.

Michelle Grisat, who has a doctorate in philosophy, signed.

"I think A=A is a basic truism, and it's interesting to have him out here
arguing with people."

Keats plans to present his petition to the City Council when it reconvenes
in September.  He wants the council to place the proposal on the November
ballot for a vote.

Although his law can't be broken, a misdemeanor fine of up to one-tenth of
a cent would be imposed on anyone or anything caught being unidentical to
itself within city limits.

"All laws have rules, so mine needs them, too," he said.

Myrna Sokolinksy listened, trying to bend her brain around his logic.

"It's silly, but I'll sign anyway," she said.

She signed, she said, because she was spending her day outside in the
lovely Saturday weather, and she simply wants to have a good time without

As with any philosophical question, A=A is already generating scholarly
debate.  The proposed law has been vetted by Yale philosophy scholar
Matthew D. Walker, and noted Amherst College logician Alexander George has
praised A=A as "the simplest of identity's properties."

But a philosophy professor at UC Berkeley isn't even sure A=A is the
brainchild of Aristotle.

"It's a bit of a stretch to attribute it to Aristotle," said John

MacFarlane also took issue with Point C in the proposed law which defines
identical as "exactly alike."  He said two people could be wearing shirts
that are "exactly alike" but not identical.

"A does not equal A, and I can prove it!" shouted Elliot Clayton, who
rushed to Keats' card table.

"Look at your own petition!  There's a capital A and a small case a, all
throughout it.  See?  A is sometimes a, not A."

2002 San Francisco Chronicle

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