Friday, November 15, 2019

Gyorgy Lukacs "The Ideology of Modernism" and everyday aesthetics

This work, first published in 1962, is often anthologized in books about continental aesthetics.  I will be working from the version in Continental Aesthetics:  Romanticism to Postmodernism:  An Anthology.  ed. Richard Kearney and David Rasmussen.  This piece could just be seen as a rant against the modernist novel, particularly Joyce, Beckett, Musil, Faulkner, and Kafka.  It might seem simply a matter of taste:  Lukács preferring "realist writers" such as Mann to these others.  But of course there are deeper issues of competing ideologies here.  And then there are issues of competing Marxist ideologies too! Lukács' Marxism is very different from that of Marcuse and Adorno.  As I do not label myself a Marxist I see no need to determine who among the Marxist aestheticians are truly Marxist.  What really interests me about Lukács is relevance to my leitmotif of everyday aesthetics. 

The issue of everyday aesthetics for Marxists is pretty straightforward.  In capitalist conditions everyday life is alienated.  This alienation is based, of course, on exploitation both in the workplace and via manipulation of needs through advertising and marketing.  Everyday life, especially for the working class, is aesthetically deprived.  In an ideal, communist, society everyone would produce in a non-alienated way according to "laws of beauty" as Marx put it in the 1844 Manuscripts.  

For Lukács the issue of the everyday comes up in two contexts, first in reference to life in a capitalist society and second in relation to Freud's notion of the psychopathology of everyday life.  Although he is mainly interested in criticizing a certain type of novel he is also interested in the main problems of Marxism, i.e. in how to explain the world in materialist terms and how to promote socialist revolution, and he situates his critique within that other interest.  

So the modernist text is based, he argues, on an ideology that stresses a static notion of human nature over a dynamic one.  It does not allow for a portrayal of human development in conditions of a dialectic between the subjective self and objective conditions.  In particular, Modernism (the name I will use here for the ideology of modernist literature) argues, implicitly, that humans have an unchanging human nature, and this human nature is that which is described as thrownness or being "thrown-into-being" by Heidegger.  It is the experience of being ontologically alone:  our essential and existential solitariness.  Of course the view is not only that one is alone in relation to others but also that one is abandoned by God (since there is no God).   (I would note that although I often enjoy modernist literature and find Heidegger intriguing, I join Lukács in rejecting this view of human nature.)

This view is also combined with a view of the nature of possibility.  For the Modernist, possibility is only abstract:  it is never concrete.  But the realist novelist (and also Lukács) wishes to stress the need for both abstract possibility and concrete possibility.  Concrete possibility is based on the historical conditions of our being.  Abstract possibility seems infinite, concrete possibility much more limited.  So, for the Realist (we will use this term here as referring to the theory that competes with the Modernist:  interestingly, the Realist does not have to be a Marxist), man and human culture are both historically situated.  The realist novel then stresses not subjective time alone (unlike the Modernist) but a dialectic of subjective and objective time.  Similarly the Realist stresses a dialectic of the subjective and the objective in general.  We should avoid the mistake, a form of vulgar Marxism, that would reduce the subjective to the objective.  Retaining subjectivity allows for the possibility of human choice:  Lukács is no determinist.  

One of the problems Lukács finds with Modernism is that it offers as a solution to alienation a retreat into psychopathology.  Psychopathology is no solution to the problems posed by capitalist society.  For a Modernist like Musil, if you do not "run with the pack," i.e. join in the capitalist rat race, your only alternative is becoming a neurotic.  Modernism, Lukács thinks, naturally leads to naturalism, i.e. a literary style that stresses sordid details of everyday life.  As Alfred Kerr put it, "what is poetic in everyday life?  Neurotic aberration, escape from life's dreary routing." And, as Lukács observes, this implies "the poetic necessity of the pathological [deriving] from the prosaic quality of life under capitalism."  Lukács sees a continuity between this older naturalism and contemporary modernism: "Kerr's description suggests that in naturalism the interest in psychopathology sprang from an esthetic need, it was an attempt to escape from the dreariness of life under capitalism."  (227)  Lukács sees this as evolving from "merely decorative function, bringing color into the greyness of reality" into a "moral protest of capitalism."  (227)  

The second point of contact with the everyday comes up a couple paragraphs later.  There, Lukács turns to Freud, whose psychoanalysis he sees as an obvious expression of this obsession with the pathological.  He sees Modernism and psychoanalysis as essentially the same.  And Freud's starting point was 'everyday life.'  Freud explains slips of the tongue, daydreams (and dreams as well) in terms of psychopathology.  Lukács thinks rather that one should see mental abnormality as a "deviation from a norm."  

So, on his view, "this is not strictly a scientific or literary-critical problem.  It is an ideological problem, deriving from the ontological dogma of the solitariness of man." (228)  Lukács contrasts Modernism to Realism which is based on Aristotle's idea of man as a political animal, and which produces a new typology of humans "for each new phase in the evolution of society."  The value of Realism is that it sees contradictions both within society and within the individual in terms of dialectic.  In the realist literature of Shakespeare, Balzac, and Stendhal "the average man is simply a dimmer reflection of the contradictions always existing in man and society."  (228)  And this is made impossible if you believe man is thrown into Being. 

In talking about traditional realists Lukács is not necessarily talking about the kind of novel he would like to see today or the kind of ideology he most favors. (Isn't it odd that someone who considers himself part of the wave of the future is going to hold up much older writers as his ideal?  Wouldn't those writers, from a Marxist perspective, reflect Bourgeois ideology of their own time?)  Indeed he sees these writers as producing an "abstract polarity of the eccentric and the socially average" and he believes that this "leads in modernism to a fascination with morbid eccentricity" which becomes "the necessary complement of the average." Further, this polarity "is held to exhaust human potentiality," which of course he would reject.  What is puzzling is how a realism he favors can lead into the modernism he does not.  

Another issue is one of competing approaches to sensuous details.  Although, in discussing naturalism, Lukács tends to focus on the ugly details of daily life under capitalism (especially for the worker), the naturalist can also be concerned about the aesthetics of everyday life in a positive way.   Tom Huhn quotes from Zola's Nana in connection with this issue:  "The company went upstairs to take coffee in the little drawing room, where a couple of lamps shed a soft glow over the pink hangings and the lacquer and old gold of the knick-knacks.  At that hour of the evening the light played discreetly over coffers, bronzes and china..." and so forth.  Huhn, Tom (2000), "A Modern Critique of Modernism: Lukács, Greenberg, and Ideology." Constellations, 7: 178-196.  

Huhn suggests that for Lukács what is absent is cohesion, whicyh  is compensated by a "surfeit of stimulation...a smorgasbord of sensation"   (Huhn's essay is excellent on Lukács's Hegelianism:  I cannot do justice to that here.)  Huhn interprets Lukács as seeing naturalism in terms of mere sensation as opposed to rich experience.  But it seems to me that there is something redemptive in a positive everyday aesthetic as found in this naturalist description.

At the end of his essay Lukács says of Kafka (as paradigmatic modernist) that "He has emptied everyday life of meaning by using the allegorical method; he has allowed detail to be annihilated by his transcendental nothingness" and this "prevents him from investing observed detail with typical significance."  In short, Kafka cannot "achieve that fusion of the particular and the general which is the essence of realistic art" since his aim is to raise the individual detail to the level of abstraction.  (234)

What are the implications of this for an aesthetics of everyday life.  Consider Modernism and Realism as competing approaches to that aesthetics (and not just towards the aesthetic valuation of novels that portray life).  Much of what Lukács says is true and yet one cannot follow him in outright condemning Modernist approaches to the everyday.  Modernism does seem to shed light on experience by focusing even more on the details of the everyday (only thinking in terms of the "typical" can blind us to the sensuousness of the particular).  If, as Huhn suggests, Lukács would reject the passage from Zola, it is because he would reject an approach to everyday life that is sometimes light, sometimes legitimately concerned with sensuous surfaces.  

Ultimately Lukács distinction between abstract and concrete possibility hides something more fundamental. Lukács is, finally, a moralist and a moralist requires that the concrete possibility be understood in a moralist way, and thus label any other approach to concrete possibility as "abstract."  There is a sense in Lukács that a novel cannot be good unless it in some way promotes a socialist revolution, and this seems severely limiting to the novel.  Similarly, he would no doubt require that we approach everyday life in a moralistic way as well.  I cannot join him there.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The god and its relation to Heidegger's theory of art

I have posted before on The Origin of the Work of Art here and here.  So this can be taken as an addendum.  I am mainly interested in this quote:  "We believe we are at home in the immediate circle of beings.  That which is, is familiar, reliable, ordinary.  Nevertheless, the clearing is pervaded by a constant concealment in the double form of refusal and dissembling.  At bottom, the ordinary is not ordinary; it is extra-ordinary, uncanny." (197 in Richard Kearney and David Rasmussen  Continental Aesthetics:  An Antology, 2001)  So it seems, for what it is worth, that Heidegger is on my side in the debate between the what I have called those who stress the ordinariness of the ordinary and those who do not.  But I do not want to appeal to authority here.  I just find Heidegger useful.

A key issue is the role of "the god."  Here is my admittedly crude take on this.  For the world/earth dynamic to work a god must be projected.  The god provides a center for the holy precinct.  But the god does not have to be an ancient Greek god.  The god is whatever makes Being shine.  I hypothesize that the god in the Van Gogh shoes example is the peasant woman, although a case could be made for the shoes as belonging to a peasant woman.   "The god" on this account is very much like what Kant calls an "aesthetic idea."  The shoes in Van Gogh's painting are an aesthetic idea.  The god also plays a similar role to Nietzsche's description of Dionysus on stage in ancient Greek tragedy. 

Something like this can happen in everyday life.  In everyday life sometimes a thing makes the surrounding world uncanny.  If that happens, the thing is "the god." 

This happens in thinking too. A concept that symbolizes everything and seems to focus one's ideas:  that can be the god for a thinker. 

Of course this analysis is not inconsistent with atheism.  "God" can be replaced by some other term and does not imply literal belief.  If you are somewhat successful in finding "the god" you make the world shine again in the same way that the surroundings of the temple when it is set up takes on Being.  When Heidegger says we have not been listening to Being.

Note how also Heidegger and Danto are opposed.  Danto's Artworld is cut off from the world.  The main disadvantage of that is that there is no earth/world dynamic.  There is no wonder that beauty is lost since beauty arises along with Truth and Being in the earth/world dynamic.  I side with Heidegger on this one.


Thursday, November 7, 2019

Marcuse's The Aesthetic Dimension, and everyday aesthetics

The key passage in Marcuse’s The Aesthetic Dimension (originally 1977 in German, 1978 in English…Marcuse’s first work in aesthetics, a response to Adorno and Benjamin) for everyday aesthetics is:  “In  this sense art is ‘art for art’s sake’ inasmuch as the aesthetic form reveals tabooed and repressed dimensions of reality:  aspects of liberation.  The poetry of Mallarmé is an extreme example; his poems conjure up modes of perception, imagination, gestures – a feast of sensuousness which shatters everyday experience and anticipates a different reality principle.”  (239)   Mallarmé of course represents Modernism and he is precisely the person attacked by Lukacs.  The passage for me is key in that art for art’s sake becomes something a bit different from what we might see in Clive Bell.  It is a liberation, a new reality principle, and also a feast of sensuousness.  So the shattering of the everyday is directed to a new liberated sensuous everyday.  I am not so much interested here in fine art as in what the art does to life:  it reveals something repressed and points to a new reality principle.  This is the bohemian revolt, the hippie revolt which was formed in the early seventies.  (1977 is really 1969-74 here.)   So, “a pleasure in decay, in destruction, in the beauty of evil; a celebration of the asocial, of the anomic” is itself the “secret revolution of the bourgeois against his own class.”  This is Kerouac's On the Road, Ginsberg, Burroughs.   Marcuse also describes this as “ingression of the primary erotic-destructive forces which explode the normal universe of communication and behavior.”  (240)  This “rebellion against the social order” reveals Eros and Thanatos as “beyond all social control” and “invokes needs and gratifications which are essentially destructive….even death and the devil are enlisted as allies in the refusal to abide by the law and order of repression.”  And Marcuse believes this is “one of the historical forms of critical aesthetic transcendence.”  If we grant some of the Marxist fundamentals, i.e. that our capitalist system is one of exploitation and repression as well as alienation and false consciousness, then it is absurd to construct a theory of everyday aesthetics where the dominant model of the everyday is simply accepted.  Avant-garde art shows the way, i.e. material (not spiritual) transcendence.  What is the everyday?  It is the experience of what is conditioned by the social.  So if art transcends the specific social content and form it does so by breaking the ordinary everyday.  The ordinary everyday tells us (i.e. those in my culture) that driving a car is inevitable:  but at the same time we need to be broken out of this to survive the onslaught of global warming.  Art can help by revealing libidinous energies that are repressed by a culture of conformity.  “Art is committed to that perception of the world which alienates individuals from their functional existence and performance in society – it is committed to an emancipation of sensibility, imagination, and reason in all spheres of subjectivity and objectivity.”  (237)  So art is committed to transformation of the everyday.   

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Walter Benjamin The Everyday in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Walter Benjamin's famous "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" is mainly about art.  But it can also relate to everyday aesthetics.  After all, if perception changes with historical conditions so too will perception of the everyday.  There seem to be the following changes on his account.  First, the authenticity of the landscape changes.  The aura of landscape may be reduced as film takes over our representation of landscape.  Second, magazine illustrations and advertisements, common objects in everyday experience, change not only our perception of artworks but also our lived phenomenological space.  In the age of mechanical reproduction these things take more prominence.   They also influence the way we perceive the things they represent.  In the subsequent age of digital reproduction the images we see on our screens play an important new role in our everyday experience.  Third, the very reduction of cult, ritual and aura in the age of mechanical reproduction means that this also plays less a role in everyday experience.  Fourth, Benjamin's account of the architectural, taken as a matter not of contemplation but of distraction, changes (or describes a change in) our perception of architectural space on an everyday basis.

However these are almost random matters:  perhaps the most significant is just the reduction of aura generally speaking (and not just the aura of art).  Of course aura is mainly associated with cult experience or experience in an artworld context.  But let's say that aura occurs in everyday life outside of cult experience.  Benjamin himself discusses what he calls natural aura, i.e. "the unique phenomenon of a distance" which happens for example when you follow a mountain range with your eyes.  So, if there is less contemplation, less aura, and less distance, then this is true not simply in the art gallery or museum but in everyday life.  Benjamin speaks of the urge of the masses to get hold of things at close range, including picture magazines and newsreels.  (He seems to revel in this, finding it a good thing.) If there is now a "sense of the universal equality of things" and aura is destroyed everywhere then even the natural aura is destroyed.  Uniqueness and permanence are abandoned for the transitory.  Tradition is "liquidated."  Ritual is going to be replaced by politics, although there is a deep ambiguity here since later in the essay it is clear that fascism as much as socialism is the politics that replaces ritual....and fascism really just introduces another sort of ritual...and isn't there a fascism of socialism as well?  The emancipation of the everyday from aura, cult and ritual into politics seems dubious in this regard.  

There are other points in the essay that glance off of the everyday but which are worth considering.  In section VII the dispute of painting vs. photography is discussed as also the question of whether film is art.  Benjamin stresses that various theorists who have tried to make film out to be art have done so in a forced way, for example in holding it to be a kind of hieroglyph or a kind of prayer.  Most interesting for our purposes, at the end of the section Werfel is mentioned as saying that (in Benjamin's words) "it was the sterile copying of the external world with its streets, interiors, stations, restaurants, motorcars, and beaches which until now had obstructed the elevation of the film to the realm of art."  Werfel then says that the true meaning of film is to express "all that is fairylike, marvelous, supernatural."  Benjamin mocks this.  But perhaps what film does in such a meaningful way (take Badlands as an example) is to film the everyday in such a way as to make it marvelous and supernatural-like.  This is what Benjamin misses, that mechanical reproduction can actually assist in the aestheticization of the everyday.  Heidegger speaks of us with disapproval as no longer listening to Being and not allowing the reliability of equipment to shine through in truth, something that great art helps us to remedy.  Perhaps a way out of our current alienation (an alienation that is markedly of the 21st century sort) is to open ourselves up to the aura in the everyday.  

One place where the everyday is explicitly mentioned in in section XIII where Benjamin takes an interested in Freud, especially in his Psychopathology of Everyday Life, a book which he sees as isolating and making analyzable "things which had heretofore floated along unnoticed in the broad stream of perception."  Benjamin observes that this kind of analysis leads to a "deepening of apperception."  Through Freud we see the everyday differently.  And film does something similar on Benjamin's account:  "behavior items shown in a movie can be analyzed much more precisely and from more points of view..." Further, "[b]y close-ups of the things around us, by focusing on hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring commonplace milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera, the film... extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives..."  And then, "[o]ur taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly" until film burst this prison-world open. With the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended and new forms are revealed with photographic enlargement.  Thus, "an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explored by man."  And then we get a different view even of walking or of reaching for a lighter:  "[t]he act of reaching for a lighter or a spoon is familiar routine, yet we hardly know what really goes on between hand and metal..."   Film reveals this.  In short, "the camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses" and we see the world differently. 

We also learn in section X that film can break down the distinction between art and life:  "Some of the players whom we meet in Russian films are not actors in our sense but people who portray themselves - and primarily in their work process."  I want to return however to a strange thing in Section VI.  First we see that there is some cult value in photography, it is in the photograph of the human face:  there is an aura which emanates from early photographs, and these have "an incomparable beauty."  Benjamin insist that exhibition value is superior to such ritual value, although this seems strange since exhibition value is value of a commodity, exhibitions being capitalist market places mainly.  There is no surprise that aura is lost in such a market-place, but is this an improvement over the aura of the photograph.  Benjamin speaks of the "incomparable significance of Atget."  But I think he gets Atget wrong.  He likens Atget's photographs of deserted city streets to crime scene photographs.  But there are no dead bodies in these photographs.  This is not Weegee.  "With Atget, photographs become standard evidence for historical occurrences, and acquire a hidden political significance."  They demand not "free-floating contemplation" but stir the viewer in a new way.  I frankly do not see the crime scene or the politics.  Atget gives us something for contemplation, the deserted city streets.  Now, so many years later, they are also nostalgic...a Paris that no longer exists.  They have an aura.  They do challenge the viewer in a unique way but not a way so different from the way we look at early photographs of human faces, which Benjamin takes to have cult value.   More importantly, they train us for experiencing the everyday.  

The last section is about architecture, but in a way that brings in the everyday.  Benjamin wants to make the complaint that the masses demand distraction (whereas art demands concentration) into something more positive.  Whereas the man who concentrates is absorbed by a work of art the "distracted mass absorbs the work of art" and this happens in architecture whose reception "is consummated by a collectivity in a state of distraction."  This seems, at least on the face of it obviously false.  If you are distracted you are not paying attention, and yet to enjoy the fine aspects of a work of architecture even if you are a member of "the masses" you still need to pay attention.  No one will appreciate a work of Frank Lloyd Wright if they are all the time distracted by their Facebook activity.  But Benjamin goes on to say that "[b]uildings are appropriated in a twofold manner:  by use and by perception - or rather, by touch and sight.  Such appropriation cannot be understood in terms of the attentive concentration of a tourist before a famous building."  There may be some truth in this;  the tourist experience is only one way to appreciate architecture.  "On the tactile side there is no counterpart to contemplation on the optical side.  Tactile appropriation is accomplished not so much by attention as by habit" and in architecture habit also determines optical reception, i.e. "less through rapt attention than by noticing the object in incidental fashion."  To bring back in distraction:  the distracted person can also form habits.  His conclusion is that this also happens in film where the "public is an examiner, but an absent minded one." 

I find nothing helpful in this idea:  perhaps the English word "distraction" is a hindrance here.  However it is certainly the case that our experience is architecture is just one of rapt attention but also in the incidental and habitual may only be in the back of our consciousness that this building we walk by is well proportioned.  There are in between states as well:  today I noticed an architectural element on my campus, a winding pathway, I had never noticed before, and this was delightful even though neither a matter for rapt attention or for incidental and habitual awareness.  Indeed, I think that this sort of awareness is more important architecturally in terms of everyday life than the other two.  


Thursday, October 17, 2019

Roland Barthes' Death of the Author

In a way the original question about a sentence from Balzac's Sarrasine is the most interesting part of "The Death of the Author."  Barthes asks who is speaking the sentence: the hero, Balzac as expressing his philosophy of Woman, Balzac as expressing literary ideas on femininity, universal wisdom, or Romantic psychology.  It is not surprising that he next says that we will never know.  But then he tells us that "writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin."  There is no real support for this throughout the essay.  Certainly the Sarrasine example by itself is not sufficient.  Mainly he tells us that some modernist writers (Mallarme, Valery, Proust, Brecht, all notable authors) are suspicious of the author, that the author is somehow associated with capitalism, that linguistic theory somehow compels us to accept the thesis (although there is nothing about the idea of performatives that excludes authors who do the performing), and so forth.  

Barthes replaces the author with the scriptor, and then says "the modern scriptor is born simultaneously with the text, is in no way equipped with a being preceding or exceeding the writing" and further "there is no other time than that of the enunciation and every text is eternally written here and now."  This is just mythology.  The scriptor has no empirical or phenomenological presence.  We cannot find him.  To be fair, though, one can take the text as standing on its own without any causal roots or history.  This is a methodology that can be useful.  But note that the scriptor is not even needed metaphysically.  If all there is is the text eternally already written then why posit a scriptor WHO DOES NOTHING? But if Barthes is just trying to convince us that writers should never complain that their hands "are too slow for [their] thought" and that they shouldn't bother to polish their productions, this just doesn't seem like good advice.

One can agree that the text does not have "a single 'theological' meaning" without accepting the rest of what Barthes says.  Why should anyone accept that the text is "a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash."  Surely originality is common.  It is only great originality that is rare.  Sure, there are passages in any text that refer back to earlier times or have been used before in other contexts.  The idea of many writings blending and clashing in one writing is a pretty idea, but how can it be spelled out?  Similarly, to say that, "the text is a tissue of quotations" is just to make a clever metaphor.  Some texts probably are tissues of quotations.  Most are not.  To say that they all are is hard to translate into something that makes sense.  One might say that when Barthes says these quotations are "drawn from the innumerable centres of culture" this explains it.  To be sure, we can trace many influences.

Is that all that is being said here?  Not at all, since Barthes actually cuts off the text from its history.  If the writer's "only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them" then how do we distinguish a writer who really does this (i.e. a typical plagiarist) and one who does not, who really does, for example, rest on one idea, i.e. defends a thesis.  Barthes rejects the idea that the writer expresses himself, for "the inner 'thing' he thinks to 'translate' is itself only a ready-formed dictionary, in words only explainable through other words, and so on indefinitely..."  I agree that it is naive to speak of expression in terms of translating something inner.  It seems unfounded however just to assume that whatever is expressed is just some internal dictionary.  

Barthes replaces the author with the scriptor.  This being "no longer bears within him passions, humours, feelings, impressions, but rather this immense dictionary from which he draws a writing that can know no halt..."  Why should we believe that?  Why throw out my entire internal life and replace it with a dictionary that, by its nature, only consists of words?  What is that motive for this erasure?  We often think of Barthes as a kind of humanist, but he seems more intent on making us into language machines without souls.  

Again, why should we believe that "life never does more than imitate the book, and the book itself is only a tissue of signs, an imitation that is lost, infinitely deferred"?  How can we be serious that events of life are just imitations of an internal dictionary?  I can understand, again, that Barthes thinks it a myth to believe that we can arrive at a final answer to the question "what is the meaning of X" and yet we do find answers to that question, ones that work well, have elegance, fit the data, and so forth.  

Barthes' motive may be clearer when he says, "To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish a final signified, to close the writing."  But what if it isn't?  To say that a text has an author (no need for the sly capital A) is to impose a limit on the text (it does not have another author, for example) but it is not necessarily to impose a final signification since there are many possible interpretations for whatever an author might say.  This leads me to believe that Barthes is just laboring under a false dichotomy, or committing the black or white fallacy.  

He goes on to attack criticism.  Of course, if there were a final meaning or explanation for every text then criticism would be a science, and that cannot be so.  And of course if criticism were just a matter of "discovering the Author ....beneath the work" then it would be overly limited.  Gadamer also opposes this idea, although his replacement, the fusion of horizons, makes much more sense than Barthes.  I agree that it is naive to believe that when the Author has been found the text has been explained.  But explanation is a complicated thing and, at the very least, one cannot leave out the author when explaining a text.  Nor can one leave out "society, history, psyche" or the historical search for liberty and justice, as Barthes does when he incorporates these into his idea of Author.  The best one can say for Barthes is that he suggests one methodology.  For example, when he says, "everything is to be disentangled, nothing deciphered" this is a rule one could follow with some possible success.

One is tempted to see the entire essay as just a symbol for the rebelliousness of the 60s, for example when he says "by refusing to assign a 'secret,' an ultimate meaning, to the text (and to the world as text), liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases - reason, science, law."  Well, first, refusing God is all fine and good, but it is not at all clear what refusing reason, science and law would even mean.  It is also fine to refuse to "fix meaning" but what exactly would it mean to fix meaning?  I go the library and see a long shelf of books on Nietzsche.  Would fixing meaning be a matter of refusing to publish any more books on Nietzsche?  Or would it be to simply accept one book on Nietzsche, one that contains all of the fixed interpretations of all of Nietzsche's writings.  Who would do that?  How would it happen?  In short, fixing meaning is not really a problem since it doesn't really happen, or only does happen in limited contexts (as when the professor insists that the meaning is this and you have to remember that for the exam).  

At the beginning of this comment I said that the first part of the essay was the most interesting.  But then the conclusion insists that no one says the sentence.  Instead the reader is held up as opposed to the writer.  It is not at all clear how that gives us anything of value since the internal life of the reader would be erased along with the internal life of the writer.  

The value of this essay must come mainly from its point of inspiration.  Before it was read, people felt oppressed by the idea that the text must be explained by going to the Author's meaning.  Now however literary writers can be inspired by the idea that "a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation" and that all of this is focused on the reader, and not the author.  I am not sure why a dialogue between the reader and the author is no longer the point at issue.  But I can see it as freeing that the reader is allowed some more flexibility in reading especially in finding significance in the work that relates to his/her life.  But it gets silly when he says "quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text's unity lies not in its origin but in its destination."  And then he admits that this is nowhere, that my talk above about relating to one's life is meaningless, since the reader is deconstructed too:  "this destination cannot any longer be personal:  the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted."  Wait!  Why do we even need a reader to do that.  The field that holds all of that together is called, guess what, "the text."  "The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author":  but of course the reader born is a nobody.       

Hegel on Architecture and Sculpture

I had previously discussed Hegel's three stages of art in this blog here.

Hegel discusses sculpture both when discussing the classical from of art and when, in a section on the arts, he specifically addresses it.  The classical form eliminates the two defects we find in the symbolic form of art, first that the idea is presented in the symbolic work indeterminately or abstractly, and therefore, second, the relation of meaning and shape is defective and merely abstract in such art.  But classical art is "the free and adequate embodiment of the Idea," the Idea being elsewhere called the Absolute.  So its shape is particularly appropriate to the Idea.  Also the Idea here comes into "free and complete harmony."  I take it that since the Absolute or the Idea evolve in history through the action of humans, this means that the Idea itself achieves harmony in the classical form of art.  The classical art-form therefore completes the Ideal of art, which is the harmonious relation of concrete sensuous form and concrete spiritual content.  Hegel notes that it is not enough to have the content correspond with form (“external configuration”) since this would mean that "every portrayal of nature, every cast of features, every neighborhood, flower, scene" would be classical because of its form/content congruity.  But the content is different in classical art since it is the concrete Idea which is concretely spiritual. 

So, he asks, what in nature "belongs to the spiritual in and for itself"?   In this case the subjective Concept, the spirit of art, has found the shape appropriate to it.  This shape is the human form.  The Idea as spiritual assumes this shape when it proceeds to "temporal manifestation."  I take this to mean that the Absolute naturally arises at this point in the course of historical dialectic.  Now Hegel is well aware that artists who represent gods have often been accused of personification and anthropomorphism, and that it is often thought that such processes degrade the spiritual.  But art has, as its goal, bringing the spiritual to the sensuous, and so must engage in anthropomorphism: "Spirit appears sensuously in a satisfying way only in its body." The idea of “transmigration of the souls” is an abstract idea, which is to say that it is stuck back at the inadequate stage of the symbolic.  Hegel goes so far as to chide physiology for not seeing life as necessarily proceeding to human form as the only possible sensuous appearance for spirit.  [Is Hegel being crafty here?  After all, he sees the romantic as higher than the classical:  and so HE would not see the charge of anthropomorphism as inapt.]

Now the human body is not merely sensuous but is "the existence and the natural shape of the spirit" and hence it must be free from deficiency of the sensuous and “contingent finitude.”  But, for the correspondence of meaning and shape to be perfect, the shape purified.  And the spirituality involved cannot tower beyond the sensuous and bodily.  It must be expressible completely in human form.  Indeed, this is a defect which leads to dissolving of the classical art-form itself.

The romantic form of art cancels this unification of Idea and reality.  It reverts to the opposition of two sides found in the symbolic.  The classical form has achieved the pinnacle for “illustration by art,” and so its defect is the defect of art itself, since art takes spirit in a sensuously concrete form, the classical finding a complete unification of the two. 

And yet spirit's true nature is "infinite subjectivity of the Idea" which is absolutely inward.  So romantic art has a content that goes beyond classical art, and this idea coincides with God (in the Christian sense) as spirit.  So, for classical art, the concrete content is implicitly the immediate and sensuous unity of the divine and the human.  The Greek god is the "object of naive intuition and sensuous imagination" and so his shape is the bodily shape of man, and his power is "individual and particular." The individual viewer's inner being is implicitly at one with this being.  And yet he does not have this oneness "as inward subjective knowledge."  So knowledge of the implicit unity is the higher state.  This going from implicit to self-conscious knowledge is what distinguishes man from animal.  Similarly the nutritionist raises the process of digestion to a self-conscious science.  When man knows he is an animal he ceases to be one.

But this movement from the implicit unity of divine and human nature to immediate and known unity is no longer a matter of the spiritual in the body of man but of "inwardness of self-consciousness." Christianity brings God not as individual particular spirit but as "absolute in spirit and truth."  It "retreats from the sensuousness of imagination into spiritual inwardness."  It makes the inwardness the medium and the existence of truth's content.  Romantic art, then, is the self-transcendence of art within art.
Hegel then says that art, at this stage, must work, not for sensuous intuition, but for “the inwardness which coalesces with its object simply as if with itself.”  It strives for freedom in itself, finding reconciliation only in inner spirit:  “The inner world constitutes the content of the romantic sphere and must therefore be represented as this inwardness” which is to say “depth of feeling.”  Inwardness triumphs over the external and manifests its victory in and on the external.  The sensuous becomes worthless.  Still it needs an external medium for expression.  The sensuous external shape is now seen as transient, as well as the finite spirit and will of the individual.  All that is contingent and is “abandoned to adventures devised by an imagination whose caprice can mirror what is present to it” as it can also jumble shapes and distort them grotesquely.  The external medium now finds its essence in the heart, and it preserves this “in every chance, in every accident that takes independent shape, in all misfortune and grief, and indeed even in crime.”  As I take it, this means that romantic art may be wildly avant-garde, as we later find in John Cage, Jackson Pollock, and  other late 20th century and early 21st century artists.  This of course is a replay of the separation of Idea and shape in symbolic art, but here the Idea “now has to appear perfected in itself as spirit and heart” and it can only seek union within itself.  This, finally, is “transcendence of the Ideal as the true Idea of beauty.”
When we turn to the specific discussion of sculpture we find it as part of an overall scene set up by the previous discussion of architecture.  Architecture exists characteristically at the symbolic level.  It involves "manipulating external inorganic nature" to express spirit.  The material of architecture is "matter itself in its immediate externality as a mechanical heavy mass" and its forms are the forms of nature in terms of symmetry, which he sees as a matter of abstract Understanding.  But architecture cannot realize the Ideal of beauty since concrete spirituality is not expressed.  That is, the material of architecture is not penetrated by the Idea.  Or to put it another way, architecture cannot express the Absolute.  Although Hegel is right about the importance of mechanical heavy mass in architecture, nothing else he says about it here can be true, and one wonders whether he ever seriously contemplated one of the great Gothic cathedrals that were readily available to him.  It is only by ignoring the masterpieces of architecture that Hegel can say that its fundamental type is the "symbolic form." 

However, he lightens up his relatively negative approach when he says "architecture is the first to open the way for the adequate actuality of the god, and in his service it slaves away with objective nature in order to work it free from the jungle of finitude and the monstrosity of chance."  Note that "adequate actuality of the god" refers to "the god" as within experience and as evolving within human consciousness: one might say it is the concept of god rather than God himself.  We are not talking about any real independently existing god. 

So the purpose of architecture is primarily spiritual and primarily a matter of creating a physical church, i.e. a place for worship.  Architecture "levels a place for the god" and builds a temple for "the inner composure of the spirit and its direction on its absolute objects."  In particular it provides a protected place of assembly for the congregation.  So architecture reveals "the wish to assemble."
But when architecture does "fashion in its forms and material an adequate artistic existence for" spiritual content it has moved beyond the symbolic form of art to the classical form, which is the higher stage.  It has transformed itself to sculpture.  Architecture is limited in that that the spiritual is only inner and is not synthesized or cognate with its external form.  Sculpture overcomes this limitation.

But when we come to sculpture we find that it needs architecture.  Architecture has prepared the place, the ground, for the activity of sculpture.  The paradigmatic sculpture is the cult sculpture within the Greek temple.  (And one could add that the statue of Jesus crucified plays a similar role in the Christian church.)  Hegel begins the discussion of sculpture noting that architecture purifies the external inorganic world, sets it in order symmetrically, and makes it into something like spirit.  Moreover it creates God's house, and that of His community. 

At this point we get a bit a mythology.  We have already seen that architecture has prepared a protective setting for the community of worshipers.  Now the god enters his temple "as the lightening flash of individuality striking and permeating the inert mass" breaking the symmetry of the symbolic form of spirit.  Sculpture's task is to spiritually shape something corporeal. 

So sculpture takes the classical art-form as its type.  In sculpture expression of the sensuous is the same as expression of spirit.   It only can represent spiritual content in bodily form.  And when this happens the spirit stands before us "in blissful tranquility," the form brought to life by the content.  So, instead of focusing on mechanical quality, mass possessing weight, and the form of the inorganic world (as in architecture), sculpture focuses on the ideal of the human figure.  Hegel picks up the idea of blissful tranquility again when he mentions the spiritual coming into appearance in "eternal peace and essential self-sufficiency."  This peace and self-sufficiency is shared both by the external shape and the spiritual content, which is shaped according to its "abstract spatiality."  He also stresses that the spirit is presented as compact and unified, not splintered.  Abstract spatiality means that variety of appearance is not emphasized, but rather unity and totality. 

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Lyotard on Postmodernism some comments

  1. This summary and comments is based on the selection on Lyotard in Continental Aesthetics:  Romanticism to Postmodernism, Blackwell.   In his three points about "postmodern" Lyotard begins with architecture.  The first architectural theorist mentioned is Portoghesi, who takes postmodernism to be against the hegemony of Euclid, i.e. of strict classical mathematics.  Lyotard does not takes this analysis as seriously, however, as Gregotti's notion that in postmodernism there is a disappearance of the bond between architecture and progressive politics, and this goes along with disappearance of the idea of progress in rationality and freedom.  In architecture, there is no longer something universal (in terms of human freedom) to greet the eye.  Instead we have a series of quotations "from earlier styles or periods."  (One feature Lyotard thinks figures into the postmodern is "disregard for the environment." (363) The new modernism of eco-sensitive architecture, which I will represent here by the work of Leddy, Maytum, Stacey of San Francisco (Bill Leddy is my brother) would therefore not be postmodern.)  Here, the "post" simply means "after" in which each period can be identified and the "post" period is a new direction.  This "idea of a linear chronology" is itself modern, relying on the idea of something completely new.  Even the idea of modernity itself is tied to this idea of something absolutely new.  So Lyotard is suggesting that the notion of "postmodern" associated with distinct periods, some of which are completely new; and the idea of bricolage, which is combining these distinct styles from distinct periods, is naive, and not sufficiently postmodern.  He suspects the rupture with the past posited by such architects and other cultural figures is really repressing while at the same time repeating it.  The postmodern should surpass it.  So the new "postmodern" architecture with all of its quotations of earlier styles, even when done ironically, is a retreat from the ideals of modernism.   So he is really not happy with architectural postmodernism and this leads him to the second meaning of the term mentioned by Gregotti.  Modernism on this view was the notion that developments in arts etc. would benefit mankind as a whole, setting aside the debate over who needed development the most, i.e. between liberals, conservatives, "leftists" (the scare quotes indicating the true left was something else.)  The goal was emancipation of humanity.   So back to the idea of postmodernism as decline in the notion of this goal.  But a new movement arises (at least he hints at this), neither liberal nor Marxist (thus independent of their crimes against humanity, symbolized by Auschwitz) which shows how impoverished the idea of emancipation of humanity was, and this leads to a Zeitgeist of grief.  The grief is expressed in reactionary attitudes, but again a new more positive perspective is possible.  The grief or malaise is only deepened by the technoscientific development which no longer has the name of progress but is independent of us and our needs.  This development is destabilizing for humanity:  and we are reduced to "chasing after the process of accumulation of new objects."  Our destiny or destination seems increasingly complex, making our needs for security, identity and happiness seemingly irrelevant.  What we get instead is a "constraint to mediatize, quantify, synthesize, and modify the size of each and every object."  But while one side of humanity faces this challenge of complexity the other faces the challenge of survival, thus failing the modernist principle that the whole of humanity should benefit. 
  2.  The third point is that the question of postmodernism is one of expression of thought "in art, literature, philosophy, politics."  The dominant view is the great movement of the avant-garde is over, modernity outdated.  Lyotard thinks this fails to understand what the avant-garde was trying to do.  They were not just a radical military move implied in their name: "the true process of avant-gardism was in reality a kind of work, a long, obstinate, and highly responsible work concerned with investigating the assumptions implicit in modernity."  That is, it is serious work.  Lyotard is mainly thinking here of visual art, painting and sculpture.  The big figures he has in mind, first listed, are Duchamp and Newman.  He thinks what they did was something like psychoanalytic therapy.  He adds to this list Cezanne, Picasso, Delaunay, Kandinsky, Klee, Mondrian, Malevich, and Duchamp a second time.  Through them modernity performs a "working through on its own meaning" much like psychoanalysis.  And if this work is not done, the work being a responsibility, then the West's neurosis, the source of all its misfortunes for the last two hundred years, will be unchecked.  Thus the "post" does not mean going back or repetition but analysis and recollection.  
  3.   Answering the Question:  What is Postmodernism .
  4.    The first paragraph, under "A Demand" is a list of various ways in which there is "slackening" during our period.  That is, referring back to the last section, a failure to meet the responsibility of the avant-garde.   The call is to "put an end to experimentation."  So one art historian calls for a return to realism and subjectivity, one critic favors the Italian painting movement called Transavantgardism, and yet this is very different from the is mainly for making money, and then there are the postmodern architects who reject Bauhaus modernism, once again rejecting experimentation.  And then there is a philosopher who calls for a return to Judaeo-Christian piety, and those who find Deleuze and Guattari, the French philosophers, too confusing, and those who think that the avant-gardes of 1960-70 spread terror in language and that we need a new way of speaking, that of historians.  One gets the sense that Lyotard is feeling that the experimentation and questioning of the radicals of 1968 is fading away, and he feels nostalgic for that.