Friday, July 11, 2014

Kant, ornaments and the concept of representation, an answer to a Phd student query.

Dear Professor Leddy,

My name is Pavle Pavlovic. I am a Phd student from the Philological faculty of Belgrade. Currently, I am working on a paper, which deals with the problem of mimesis in the w19 century literature. Incidentally, my interest deflected into the field of Kant's aesthetics. As I am not much of an expert in Kant's aesthetics, I would ask you one very brief question – I am quite aware that the concept of representation is not identical to the concept of referentiality, but I am not quite clear about it So I would like to have a simple clue or example leading to that. For example, Kant says in his Third Critique: "Even what we call ornaments [parerga'], i.e. those things which do not belong to the complete representation of the object internally as elements but- only externally as complements, and which augment the satisfaction of taste, do so only by their form ; as for example [the frames of pictures,' or] the draperies of statues or the colonnades of palaces. But if the ornament does not itself consist in beautiful form, and if it is used as a golden frame is used, merely to recommend the painting by its charm, it is then called finery and injures genuine beauty."

So, I don’t think Kant means by complete representation to suggest referentiality, but would like to be clearer about it –just need a clue to disambiguate the two terms, perhaps both from Kant’s or a modern view. I would be very glad if you could give me any sort of suggestion,


From: pavle pavlović>

Dear Mr. Pavlovic:

Thanks for your interesting question. Let me start by saying something about interpretation of concepts such as reference and representation. The best way to think about these terms is as largely gaining their meaning from their immediate context (i.e. the book or article in which they are found, and also, more broadly, the state of discussion concerning that term at that time). When asking what Kant means by "representation" bear in mind first that this is an English translation of a German term which may be translated differently in other parts of the book. We cannot bring very many assumptions from our understanding of English (or whatever language you are using other than German) to understand this term, except that the translator thought they were a good match. This is not such a great problem, however. Usually if the translator tends to use the same English terms to represent the same German terms we can determine what the original author means by the term simply by looking at all of his uses of it in that text or the part of that text we are concerned with. This quickly gets subtle and complex, but also fascinating. As for "reference," this term has different meanings and uses for different philosophers in English and in the languages which use that term and very similar ones in similar contexts. There is no single accepted definition of "reference" in philosophy, although there may be some common agreement on basics. To get to details would involve looking at a specific philosopher's views on reference. There are many theories of reference. Comparison with Kant on representation would be another level of discussion, and a hard one. To ask how Quine's use of "reference," for example, may compare to Kant's use of "representation" would be difficult since these terms serve very different purposes in the two projects.

As for the passage quoted, I have two recommendations. First, go to Paul Guyer Claims of Taste or to his new history of aesthetics. He will probably give you the clearest account of Kant on "representation." You should also go to Derrida's book on painting where he discusses this passage at length in a chapter called "Parerga": the style is extremely different from Guyer's, much less clear but very interesting. If you have never encountered Derrida before you will need to read a secondary source like Christopher Norris's books, something that attempts to explain Derrida clearly.

Now for the passage. It is interesting that Kant thinks that ornamented frames belong in any way to the representation. In our ordinary use of "representation" this would not be the case. Perhaps this is one reason why Derrida found this passage fascinating. How can picture frames belong externally to the complete representation as complements? Of course there are many paintings in which the frame was chosen or even made explicitly for the painting by the artist (Gauguin for example) An art appreciator or critic should take in the frame as well as the painting in these instances. But what of paintings where it is considered the choice of the curator or owner what frame, if any, to use? In this case does the ornament actually form an external complement to the complete representation? Does this mean that in some sense it is part of the complete representation? I would be interested in knowing whether Guyer has an answer to this in his interpretation of Kant. And what does Kant mean by draperies of statues being external: is he referring to the clothes on the figures' bodies or is he referring to some fabric that someone might place on a statue? The represented draperies would seem to me to be internal to the work, not external. However, Kant also argues, in a famous footnote on tattoos (which I have commented on...available online) that they would be beautiful but for the fact that they decorate a human body. So perhaps he thinks that even representations of draperies as part of a sculpture are external to the true subject, which is the human body, and that the complete representation is the sculpture with represented clothes included. This would certainly be the case for the columns on buildings. Here, we do not normally think of buildings as representations, but Kant seems to, and seems to think of columns as external, whereas most of us would not. But this is interesting. Finally, of course, Kant makes the important distinction between external ornamentation that adds to the representation and ornamentation that does not but merely produces charm, and thereby advertises the work. This seems to me a good insight on his part. Scruton in his Aesthetics of Architecture makes a similar point, and this is important in the central debates over modernism in architecture. Of course Scruton is strongly influenced by Kant.

So, to return to your question: a "complete representation" is not the same as something that merely refers. The word "temple" refers to a temple but does not represent it in the sense a picture of it does. But, as we have seen, his idea of complete representation may also include "external things" such as ornaments, when they are formally appropriate and not just there for charm or finery, and this is interesting, although also puzzling. How does such ornamentation enhance the representational character of the representation? Perhaps it does so by encouraging the power of the representation as "aesthetic idea." I think that to fully understand what Kant means by "complete representation" you need to go into what he means by "aesthetic" or "aesthetical" ideas. Also of interest in this regard would be Edward Bullough's idea of "distance" and some of Nietzsche's thinking on the relation between the audience and the actors in his Birth of Tragedy. It may be that the framing devices in the theater contribute to "distance" and to the "tragic effect" in much the way that a frame contributes to the experience and meaning of a painting. A frame is both part of the representation and not part of it. (This is a contradiction, or rather, a paradox.) In terms of my own theory of aura as developed in my book they would enhance aura.

Hope this helps!


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