Monday, November 20, 2017

Suzanne Langer and the virtual space of everyday aesthetics

Suzanne Langer might not be the first person one would associate with everyday aesthetics.  Her fundamental ideas are all associated with the word “virtual”:  virtual object, virtual space, and virtual time.  But the virtual is deliberately disassociated from the everyday.  Unlike Dewey, (and she is like Dewey in many respects) the virtual is not continuous with everyday life.  In this respect she is more like Clive Bell.  One could say that her overall position combines Bell and Tolstoy:  significant form and art as expression (she uses both terms) although unlike Tolstoy and more like Collingwood, Langer favors a cognitive approach to the expression of emotion.  More on this later.  In any case, she clearly believes that art is autonomous, and this would seem to exclude everyday aesthetics.  In fact, the autonomy position insofar as it radically separates everyday life from art, makes everyday aesthetics difficult.  It is thus not surprising that Langer is dismissive of everyday aesthetics.  She considers music, for example, radically distinct from pleasurable non-musical sound,  and associates the later with the pleasures of the senses of touch, taste and smell.  She says, for example, that sound “as a sheer sensory factor in experience, may be soothing or exciting, pleasing or torturing;  but so are the factors of taste, smell, and touch.” (Ross 233)  She sees all these as “somatic influences” and believes that exploiting them is “self-indulgence.”  This approach would not be friendly, for instance, to the ideas of Sherri Irwin.  Langer strictly separates people who work in these areas, whom she calls “mere epicures,” from artists whom, she believes, are “torchbearers of culture” and “inspired creators.”  So, “If music, patterned sound, had no other office than to stimulate and soothe our nerves, pleasing our ears as well-combined foods please our palates, it might be highly popular, but never culturally important.”  (223)   Cooking schools should not be rated as highly as music conservatories. 
However, although Langer constantly stresses the discontinuities between art and everyday life.  Consider how she sees a picture:  “a picture …is an image, created for the first time out of things that are not imagined, but quite realistic – canvas and paper…”  (226)  Here we see how Langer is naïve about the phenomenological space of the studio, where canvas and paper are seen by the artist phenomenologically as having potential for creation and hence as part of a virtual space, the virtual space of the working studio.  The image in the painting, to be sure, is created from this things which can be very easily seen as without meaning content.  They can have a double reality, can be seen in one way or the other.  They could not however be used in creation if they did not have this phenomenological side.  Langer herself admits that the distinction between image and actuality is functional:  “real objects, functioning in a way that is normal for images, may assume a purely imaginal status.”  (227)

So what then is an image.  She says that a building “becomes an image when it presents itself purely to our vision, i.e. as a sheer visual form instead of a locally and practically related object.”  (227)  “We abstract its appearance from its material existence” and then it becomes “simply a thing of vision” and “acquires a different context.”  There is some truth in this, and yet it is more complicated than she makes out.   One can say that its practical relations for example are themselves transformed and carried up into the aesthetic realm and so it is a mistake to think that material existence is always completely distinct from imaginative experience, since material existence can be imaginatively perceived and worked,  and acquiring a different context does not mean entirely losing the original context.  So there is something problematic when Langer says that the painted canvas is not a new thing among the things of the studio:  it is indeed a new thing, but let us not think of the other things of the studio as themselves merely the objects of scientific or mathematical analysis.  They too are not mere things.  To be sure, imagination is more evidence in the image:  there is a kind of intensification of imagination in the area of the image.  The mistake can be seen in this quote:  “even the forms are not phenomena in the order of actual things, as spots on a tablecloth are;  the forms in a design – no matter how abstract – have a life that does not belong to mere spots.”  (227)  What is deeply wrong here is that the spots on the tablecloth are not at all mere spots.  They are pot there as part of a design, and so they too have a life, although no doubt not as pronounced as the version of them we see in a painting by Matisse.   So of course Langer is right that “something arises in the process of arranging colors on a surface, something that is created, not just gathered and set in new order:  that is the image” but yet the new image in a Matisse piggybacks on the new image on a less scale in the designs he uses as subject matter.  There is a continuity between everyday life and art.  Langer is right that the painter is not just taking an arranging elements, that she/he is creating a virtual space, and even that there is bracketing from the realm of the practical, but not complete isolation or discontinuity. 
Langer does not go as far in the direction of artistic autonomy as, Clive Bell and the formalists however.  Bell argues that art has nothing to do with our everyday emotions.  It only has to do with that special aesthetic experience that we get from appropriately apprehending something with significant form.  Art expresses emotion, not just the aesthetic emotion, but emotion in general.  But, unlike Tolstoy, art does not express the particular emotion of the particular artist:  it is  “not the symptomatic expression of feelings that beset the composer but a symbolic expression of the forms of sentience as he understands them.”  So the composer is not interested in expressing his/her own feelings but rather what he/she “knows about” the inner life.   The idea is to make a statement about human sensibility in general through music (and art in general) as a symbol.  Now that point I want to make here is that Langer, in discussing individual art forms, begins to deconstruct the radical discontinuity between art and life.  She already begins to move away from the formalists like Bell simply by observing that art has to do with emotion.   Keep this summary in mind as we proceed:  “music is ‘significant form,’ and its significance is that of a symbol, a highly articulated sensuous object, which by its dynamic structure can express the forms of vital experience which language is peculiarly unfit to convey.”   (226)  So “significant form” is not here tied to the special “ecstatic” aesthetic experience in the way it is in Bell’s formalism.  Bell says that this experience is like that of a mathematical discovery, or like religious experience.  It is transcendent in a Platonic-like way.  But for Langer significant form is tied to the actual structures of our emotions.  She is more like Aristotle:  it captures and expresses universals, not Platonic Forms.  But she is very unlike Dewey.  Whereas Dewey stresses continuity, she, again, stresses discontinuity.   Now for my deconstruction.  But please do not think of deconstruction as a negative thing.  I believe that Langer provides us with help in solving problems in everyday aesthetics by way of this deconstruction.  Heidegger does something similar, especially when he talks about the Greek temple, but Langer’s formulation has the advantage of not being saddled with the Nazi baggage that unfortunately Heidegger carries.  Also, she is not given to the often off-putting mystification we find in Heidegger.  I am beginning to reveal my hand.  My argument in short will be that Langer, through her discussions first of Sculpture and then, even more so, when she discusses Architecture, re-establishes continuity at least on one level.   And again she does so in a way that can help us with what has been called the dilemma of everyday aesthetics.   Sculpture as with painting creates what Langer calls virtual space, however unlike with painting, the virtual space does not stop at the physical boundaries of the art object.  The volume created “is more than the bulk of the figure;  it is a space made visible, and is more than the area which the figure actually occupies.”  (229)  In emphasizing the negative spaces and the spaces around the sculpture Langer essentially expands the virtual space that she seeks to keep separate from everyday life.  Interestingly she is willing to use the word “continuity” here, where she would not earlier:  “The figure itself seems to have a sort of continuity with the emptiness around it, however much its solid masses may assert themselves as such.”  (299)  And further “the void enfolds it, and the enfolding space has vital form as a continuation of the figure.”  (299)  My point here is going to be related with an ongoing debate I have been having with other everyday aesthetics.  My stress has been on the close relation between art aesthetics and everyday aesthetics.  What happens to the space around the sculpture:  it is brought into the world of the work of art.  This is a problem in a way since the space then can be constituted in two ways, for Langer, one as physical space of everyday life and one as virtual space.  But her understanding of physical space is actually discursive, logical, scientific, and really not the space in which we live.  Whereas her virtual space is the phenomenological (using Husserl’s sense of that term) space in which we live:  one that has emotional import.  It is here I want to say something about Langer’s actual closeness to Dewey, and this is by way of her notion of “vital form.”  One could say, in defense of Langer, that the sculpture does not really move into the realm of the everyday even though it goes beyond the physical object:  the empty space it “commands” is “part of the sculptural volume.”  Let’s grant this.  But things will be different when we come to architecture.  Here is an aside, related to Dewey.  Previously we observed that Langer is closer to life than Bell in that she is committed to significant form as having to do with the actual structure of our emotions, which surely are tied to our lives.  Further, she emphasizes the “semblance of organism.”  Dewey stresses that we are live creatures interacting with our environments.  Langer tries to keep the two radically separate, but interestingly the value of art is that it reflects us by resembling ourselves as live organisms.  “Living organisms maintain themselves, resist change, strive to restore their structure when it has been forcibly interfered with….organisms, performing characteristic functions must have certain general forms, or perish.” (229)  Following Aristotle, once again, she stresses that life has necessity, that only life “exhibits any telos” and that the acorn strives to become the oak.  Now she stresses that there is “nothing actually organic about a work of sculpture” (230) and yet is gives us “semblance of living form.” 
Now for architecture.   The actual theory is a bit more complicated:  “Architecture creates the semblance of that World which is the counterpart of Self.  It is the total environment made visible.”  It is not clear here how the environment made visible is to be distinguished from the environment.  The introduction of “Self” may indicate a phenomenological point of view:  we are talking about the world as perceived by a self.  And as she observes that the “Self is collective” which probably simply means that we perceive the world according to certain shared worldviews.  This would explain why “the World is communal.”  But if this is so then the World (ironically very like Heidegger’s concept of World) really is the world of everyday life experience.  Thus continuity is re-established.  The only world that is cut off is the world understood not phenomenologically but discursively, i.e. the world as understood by science.  That is a problem, I think, since it relies on a continued dualism which would be unacceptable to a Dewayan, but we will not address that here.  But things do get a bit confusing as when Langer says “as the actual environment of a being is a system of functional relations, so a virtual ‘environment,’ the created space of architecture, is a symbol of functional existence.”  (230)  What exactly can this mean:  isn’t the virtual environment, the symbol of functional existence, exactly the phenomenological world in which we actual live and act:  the world as we experience it?  Here is an interesting implication:  if that is so then the world surrounding architecture, basically the built environment, basically most of the world in which we live, is one that is infused with the spirit of architecture.  But if that is true then the everyday is a collection of virtual spaces constituted by various architectural entities?  Langer wants to stress the non-practical aspect of this space:  “symbolic expression is something miles removed from provident planning or good arrangement.”  (230)  This seems to me just plain false.  My architect brother, William Leddy, of Leddy, Maytum, Stacey designed the Roberts Campus for disability services in Berkeley, California.  The work is both symbolically expressive and arranged well for people with disabilities:  part of the symbolism is to accomplish this very arrangement.  But I think that Langer is right when she says that symbolic expression “embodies the feeling, the rhythm, the passion or sobriety…by which all things are done.”  Buildings create what she calls an “image of life” which is also “the visible semblance of an ‘ethnic domain’ by which I take her to mean not the domain of some ethnicity, like the Irish-Americans, but rather the domain of humanity since, for her, architecture is a “symbol of humanity to be found in the strength and interplay of forms.”  What is ironic and strange here is that what is symbolized is identical with the symbol:  for the symbol just is the virtual space created by architecture which is our space as expressive and lived.  The two are both separate and dissolved into each other: and so we have a paradox…one might call it the paradox of architecture.  Architecture, as least where we are talking about spaces constituted by architecture, is the space of everyday life.  It is designed to accommodate everyday life aesthetics.  As Langer puts it “the human environment, which is the counterpart of any human life, holds the imprint of a functional pattern; it is the complementary of organic form” which see sees in terms of the “metabolic pattern” of our both our feelings and our physical acts.  But again as opposed to Langer, it is not just complementary or a counterpart;  it is just exactly also where we live.  To put it briefly:  human life is in the human environment  I do not deny that buildings create an illusion.  In my book I described what I called the aesthetic aura.  When we perceive our surrounding environment as having an “aura of significance” this can be called an illusion, if you wish, although this implies that what is seen is somehow less real:  whereas in fact it is experienced as more real.  So “illusion” is not my preferred term here.  Instead of speaking as Langer does of creating “the illusion of an ethnic world” we should speak of creating an experience or way of experiencing the world in which there is heightened significance and in which the world, paradoxically, exemplifies itself.  (See Nelson Goodman for further discussion of this.)  Given this I agree with Langer that in architecture the place is “articulated by the imprint of human life” and that such a place “must seem organic, like a living form.” (230)   The great modernist architects she mentions:  Sullivan, Wright, Le Corbusier, all succeed in re-visioning the world through architecture in this organic way (although, to be sure, Le Corbusier, also like the machine metaphor, as when he spoke of a house as a machine for living.)   I cannot agree however that life has “no relevance..to builder’s supplies.”  As Dewey clearly showed, and also Heidegger, builder’s supplies are taken up into the virtual space of architecture and transformed by it.  Let us not forget the thingliness of the thing, as Heidegger would put it.  All of this said, I am in perfect accord with Langer’s idea that the place in this sense is destroyed when the work of architecture is destroyed.   I will end by noting some of the ways in which Langer allows the work of architecture to reach out even further into the world, in terms of continuity with everyday life, than the work of sculpture.  As she puts it:  “its virtual domain may include terraces and gardens, or rows of sphinxes…” and further “sea and sky may fill the intervals between its columns and be gathered to its space.”  This point is, of course, remarkably similar to Heidegger on the temple.   The “ethnic domain” is perhaps better described by her as an “atmosphere” created by architecture.  I just cannot accept her separation of the utility of the building from its “semblance.”  Or her conviction that hot water heaters are irrelevant to architecture. 


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