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March|April 2003
Identity Crisis By Dashka Slater
Battle Of The Bands By Joshua David Mann
Trial By Prosecutor By Hiroshi Matsubara
Guanxi In Guangzhou By Katherine A. Mason
For Credit By Avi Schick
In Defense of the Slippery Slope By Eugene Volokh & David Newman

Identity Crisis

Turning Aristotle into Law.

By Dashka Slater

JONATHON KEATS IS A CONCEPTUAL ARTIST WHO, BY HIS own admission, has no talent other than an eye for the absurd. Which may explain why his latest art installation takes the form of a law.

As part of an arts festival last August, Keats began gathering signatures in support of writing Aristotle's seemingly unassailable proposition that A = A into the City of Berkeley's municipal code. Aristotle's law of identity is a cornerstone of formal logic, and Keats would like it to be a cornerstone of municipal life as well. "Every entity in the City of Berkeley shall be identical to itself," reads the key provision of the proposed law. A leaf would be required to be a leaf, a kiss would be a kiss, and a sigh would be a sigh.

"What we'll finally have," Keats said on launching his initiative, "is a law that can't be broken." Like many of his fellow artists, including the kind who paint and sculpt, the 31-year-old isn't eager to spell out the meaning of his work. "I think the best possible thing you can do with an art project is have as much confusion as possible, because then you sound more profound than you actually are," he says.

Still, Keats is happy to suggest some of the things his artwork-cum-law might mean. He's interested, he says, in examining the nature of law in its purest form, a law as law, unencumbered by questions of content, practicality, or enforcement. "If this law passed," he reasons, "then that would establish the fact that Berkeley has the authority to pass it. And if Berkeley has the authority to pass it, then it would have the authority to pass any other law of logic—or any law that was inherently illogical." If Berkeley can pass a law stating that A = A, in other words, what's to stop it from passing a law that says A = Z?

The opportunity to push for an unbreakable law came last summer when the Berkeley Arts Festival invited Keats to stage one of his pieces. He thought first of lobbying for a speed limit on light, but since scientific opinion on the speed of light continues to be in flux, he worried that the law might end up being broken after all. "It would be a terrible thing if suddenly we had to send the police after every single photon to ticket it for going above the speed of light as we had understood it," he says.

This kind of flight of fancy is typical of Keats, a guy for whom reductio ad absurdum seems to be a kind of guiding principle. In college he double-majored in art and philosophy (although he admits to getting a C-minus in formal logic), and he loves cerebral puzzles and paradoxes. He usually appears in a three-piece tweed suit, a starched white shirt, a bowtie, and bookish glasses—a get-up that, like his artwork, would be easy to mock if it didn't mock itself.

His previous projects include "Twenty Four Hour Cogito"—Keats sat in a San Francisco gallery for 24 hours and thought, punching a time card for every completed contemplation—and the somewhat confusingly named "242 Anonymous Self Portraits By Jonathon Keats," in which Keats took the fingerprints of art gallery patrons and then hung the resulting "portraits" on the walls. It's never clear whether Keats is satirizing the art world, the world at large, or himself. What is clear is that it would be a mistake either to take Keats too seriously or to dismiss him as a prankster.

A novelist and critic as well as a conceptual artist, Keats knows how to attract ink. His Berkeley proposal has generated stories in places like The Wall Street Journal and The Boston Globe as well as endorsements from colleagues at Art & Auction, Wired, and Fortune magazines.

The good people of Berkeley, however, are a little more skeptical. You might think that the citizenry would be interested in giving their municipal code a philosophical spin, given that the city is named after the 18th-century philosopher George Berkeley. But thus far Keats has been able to gather only 65 signatures in support of his ordinance, of which 42 were from Berkeley residents. (Keats couldn't sign because he lives across the bay in San Francisco, an irony he relishes.) He hasn't found a single backer on the nine-member City Council, some of whom seem less in tune with Aristotle than with Bishop Berkeley, who contended that all entities are an immaterial projection of consciousness (or A = ?).

The lack of enthusiasm strikes Keats as unsporting. "I see it as an art installation that I'm donating to the City of Berkeley, and Berkeley is being very stubborn thus far in not having yet accepted my installation," he says, adding that he may try to get it on an upcoming ballot. He's also continuing to seek endorsements and lobby members of the city council, however, and hopes that a recently elected progressive majority will back his plan.

It's true that Berkeley's progressives have an affinity for creative lawmaking. The city has passed resolutions in support of Teletubby Tinky Winky and a free Tibet and has banned the use within its borders of Styrofoam, nuclear weapons, and wood-fired pizza ovens. Councilmember Kriss Worthington said he's willing to consider Keats's law (after more pressing city business has been dealt with), but he doubts whether A does equal A. "If you really think about it philosophically and deeply, since every entity is changing, no identity is identical to itself ever," he said. "Within seven years, every cell in your body has died and been replaced."
The city's paid staff is less interested in wrestling with these or any other questions raised by Keats's proposal. Berkeley City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque declined to comment. But John Russo, the city attorney for neighboring Oakland and the president of the League of California Cities, took a shot, once he'd stopped giggling.

"From a legal perspective this is just mischief," Russo began, and he then went on to deconstruct the law's penalty provision, which would exact a fine of no more than one-tenth of one cent from all entities found guilty of being unidentical to themselves. The law would authorize the city manager, or a designated representative, to "apply logical reasoning" to determine if a violation has occurred. (Caterpillars who turn into butterflies and Republicans who become independents would presumably be subject to rigorous bouts of logical inspection.)

Setting up the city manager to arbitrate what is and isn't identical to itself, Russo said, is out of step with this country's democratic principles. "Bottom line, we're an anti-authoritarian culture. What this law proposes to do is to vest in an appointed authority the right to determine people's essence. We don't give over questions of religion and philosophy to government."

Keats suggests that enforcement be delegated to trained philosophers, pointing out that Berkeley is home to a fine university that must be full of them. But he thinks that potential violators should have plenty of warning. "I think there should be signage up, you know, ‘Berkeley is a logical identity zone,' because you don't want people from out of town coming in and breaking the law inadvertently," he says. So is the law breakable after all? Could be. One of the people who signed Keats's petition claimed to be former Berkeley mayor Shirley Dean but wasn't. If A = A becomes law, that kind of dissembling could cost you.

Dashka Slater, a writer in Oakland, Calif., last wrote for Legal Affairs about patenting chimeras.

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