- MMC940 2023 Lectures January 8, 2023
- Antarctic Futures July 20, 2022
- Kant’s Examples: brief thoughts on the empirical conditions of aesthetic experience October 28, 2021
- Squid Game October 3, 2021
- Form August 14, 2021
For the past few months I have been helping develop Antarctic Futures – an exhibition, public seminar series and program of children’s learning workshops. The event is a collaboration between artists and scientists that aims to mobilise public reflection about the future of Antarctica in the light of anthropogenic climate change.
Antarctic Futures runs from 15 August – 23 October 2022 across the University of Wollongong Gallery and Early Start facilities. More information here.
I am showing some of my own work in the exhibition. The mixture of code-based drawings and 3D visualisations aim to imagine a changed Antarctica – at once collapsing/disintegrating and growing warmer/more green. Despite its digital status, this work does not really lend itself to web display. The intricate details of the algorithmic drawings are only visible at greater scale in print, but still, here are some sample images (click to see a bit larger versions).
What if we were to approach Kant’s theory of the beautiful empirically rather than philosophically? What if we were to consider his concrete examples rather than his categorical distinctions and logic? This would enable us to recognise the beautiful as a mode of experience, with specific conditions and features. It would also us enable us to consider the notion of the beautiful not simply as an hermetically sealed philosophical concept but also as a heuristic means of indicating dimensions of experience that are at once evident and indefinable. It takes shape not only as something composed and integral, but also as a question. It both delineates an aspect of experience and emerges in response to the aporia of whatever it is that experience represents. It suggests as well that the experiential field is not simply circumscribed by any given social-historically shaped conceptual system. It includes a surplus, which demonstrates an interplay of underlying constraints and affordances with particular and constantly changing historical conditions.
Before looking at the examples, it is worth noting that the particular problem that Kant addresses is that of common sense – and the common availability of such a sense. What is common in the experience of the beautiful? How can it provide a basis for commonality? How particularly is human commonality to discover a meaningful basis in experience that is cast as disengaged and reflective, that has its basis in contemplative subjective pleasure? And how does this paradoxically oriented sense relate to wider commonality, to our sense of integral relation to the wider world of nature and unthinking things? Kant conceives a form of experience that links the interiority of affective, reflective response to an open, curious relation to being. He discovers this experience not as an exotic elsewhere or as a distant, evolved prospect, but as something already there and available within the texture of ordinary life. But this self-presence is hardly, as we have seen, simple. It is founded on a dynamic relation to things that renders an uncertain relationship between inside and outside, activity and passivity, the sensible and the formal, particularity and universality, and appearance and loss.
Here is a brief summary of the specific examples Kant mentions in the ‘Analytic of the Beautiful’:
• Art (‘the concert we hear, the poem submitted to our judgement’ (CJ, p.44), musical ‘fantasias (without a theme), and, indeed, all music that is not set to words’ (CJ, p.60))
• Abstract patterns (‘free patterns, lines aimlessly intertwining’ (CJ, p.39))
• Architecture, furniture and gardens (‘building’ (CJ, p.35) (CJ, p.44), ‘the palace I see
before me’ (CJ, p.36), ‘house’ (CJ, p.47), ‘a building that would immediately please the eye’ (CJ, p.61), ‘a beautiful garden,’ (CJ, p.63), ‘a beautiful suite of furniture’, ‘a beautiful residence’ (CJ, p.63), ‘in ornamental gardens, in the decoration of rooms, in all kinds of tasteful implements’ (CJ, p.73))
• Clothing and personal decoration (‘the dress that person has on’ (CJ, p.44), ‘dress’ (CJ, p.47), ‘New Zealanders with their tattooing’ (CJ, p.61))
• Colour (‘A mere colour, such as the green of a plot of grass’ (CJ, p.55), ‘all simple colours are regarded as beautiful inasmuch as they are pure’ (CJ, p.56) but more relevant to taste at the level of ‘design) (CJ, p.56))
• General (‘a beautiful view’ (CJ, p.63))
• Nature (‘flowers’ (CJ, p.39), ‘the rose at which I am looking’ (CJ, p.35), ‘flower’ (CJ, p.47), ‘If in forest I light upon a plot of grass, round which trees stand in a circle’ (CJ, p.58), ‘Flowers’, ‘Many birds (the parrot, the hummingbird, the bird of paradise) and a number of crustacea’ (CJ, p.60), ‘beautiful flowers’, ‘a beautiful tree’ (CJ, p.63), ‘the free beauties of nature’, ‘nature subject to no constraint of artificial rules, and lavish, as it there Sumatra is, in its luxuriant variety’, ‘a bird’s song’ (CJ, p.73))
• Ornamentation (‘the frames of pictures or the drapery on statues, or the colonnades of palaces’, regarded as ‘adjuncts’, ‘but can enter into the composition of the beautiful form’, as long as not merely and extraneously charming ‘finery’ (CJ, p.57) – the complexities and paradoxes here are of course the focus of Jacques Derrida’s The Truth in Painting, ‘designs a la grecque, foliage for framework or on wall-papers’ (CJ, p.60))
• Sound (‘a mere tone (as distinguished from sound or noise), like that of violin’ (CJ, p.55) but really only properly subject to the judgement of pure taste at the formal level of ‘composition’ (CJ, p.56))
This organisation of the examples is not rigorous. If we were attempting a stricter grouping then it may distinguish between those examples which relate to general features of sensation (vision, colour, sound, abstraction) and those which are more vividly particular (‘Many birds (the parrot, the hummingbird, the bird of paradise) and a number of crustacea’), or place a greater emphasis on the difference between the naturally encountered and the deliberately manufactured, or perhaps between the domestic and the wild. But my aim here is less to categorise Kant’s examples than to emphasise that they draw from wide-ranging aspects of life – from art to the everyday, wild nature to ordinary garden flowers and decorative household things. There is, in this sense, a democratic quality to Kant’s conception. It is not something only available to the wealthy and aesthetically refined. It is generally accessible and everywhere encountered. Nonetheless, it clearly does assume scope for reflection. The experience of the beautiful involves, however briefly, a suspension of ordinary activity – the small luxury of sensitively attending to the world without any aim other than reflective pleasure. In this manner, it plainly inscribes aspects of social difference – between those who have the leisure to observe and take pleasure and those who have no scope to do so. Yet, regarded in less instantly critical terms, this can also be regarded as an effort to acknowledge the general possibility of untoward, distracted and absorbed experience, even for those not permitted this freedom. Aesthetic experience is less an entirely removed thing only available to the special view than something that crops up in the midst of experience – within and against the grain of however experience is organised. Kant sketches a dimension of human freedom that in some respects not even slavery or imprisonment can compromise. While this can be regarded as poor consolation, more positively it can represent an alternative basis of general human value with the capacity to unsettle the oppressive systems that render wider freedom untenable.
What emerges most distinctly from Kant’s examples is a specific affective attitude – a lack of motivated attention and intention. It is not as though Kant’s seeks out the experience of the beautiful or even conceives a straightforward path toward that experience. It is something that simply happens and that almost any aspect of life can summon. The experience of the beautiful entails a lucid passivity, an open, sensible and formally susceptible relation to things. Beauty suddenly, almost unexpectedly appears. Kant writes of ‘the palace I see before me’. There is no account of actively seeking out the palace, of deliberately discovering it, rather the experience of beauty is simply manifest beyond the ordinary exigencies of practical life. The phrase particularly de-emphasises any sense of Kant’s agency. He does not write, ‘I see a palace before me’. Instead he is subject to the palace, although in a relation that entails no determination, that depends at once upon his inner subjectivity and an attentive relation to the world. As though anticipating Heidegger’s notion of the clearing (2010, p.129), Kant writes, ‘If in forest I light upon a plot of grass, round which trees stand in a circle’. The light of the clearing is intimately linked to it being lighted upon – to it framing no specific demand and involving an unpredictable alignment of inner experience and the natural configuration of things. This congruence can never be precisely coordinated, only ever encountered.
The question emerges then whether this mode of experience exists – exists empirically and beyond Kant’s philosophical scheme. Or is it simply a projection of that scheme on to the contours of experience? Could it also have a genesis that extends beyond philosophy, relating somehow to the conditions of modern identity? Does it provide, for instance, a plane of dynamic, diffident reassurance within the context of wider conditions of rapid societal change? Or, more simply, as Bourdieu argues, does it provide a new means of social distinction within a society that is no longer shaped by feudal hierarchy and blood relations? Doubtless the experience of the beautiful has both a philosophical and social-historical genesis, but is that all there is to it? Can it have no other basis whatsoever? I’m wondering whether its broad relevance across different periods and cultural contexts indicates that some aspect of aesthetic experience relates to human consciousness generally? However historically inflected, however differently cast in different circumstance, there may also be something more universal that hinges on the complex human relation between seeing and seen, action and reflection, the distracted immediacy of pleasure and the durational mechanics of survival. Possibly, this may not contribute much to understanding the experience. It may naturalise a mode of experience that more usefully reflects very specific conceptions, values and historically legible orderings of experience,. Yet we need not conceive any hard line between the plane of general human affordance and its historically variable systems of realisation. Allowing some aspect of universality enables us to keep the key issue of commonality central – and to consider continuities and commonalties alongside differences. It also permits the aesthetic to remain an open question – not only philosophically and within the flux of social and historical conditions but also as an unknowable empirical experiential field; as something that constantly prompts us to consider the question of the aesthetic – of its existence or otherwise.
What I’m suggesting is roughly similar to Jacques Ranciere’s insistence on a fundamental human equality that has its basis in a common human intelligence. This equality is not something that can be measured. It is verified only through its constant political reassertion. It has value then less as anything strictly determinable than as an underlying ethical assumption and imperative. In a similar manner, the complex nature of human perception and imagination, with its varied affective and cognitive dimensions, provides a common set of human affordances that can give rise to the aesthetic not only as a named philosophical category and a delineated sphere of experience, but also as something more generally relevant across historical, social and cultural contexts. It can indicate an alternative basis of value that can have critical usefulness in terms of suggesting other ways of organising human identity and social and material relations. This never exists in its simply universality but can still provide a means of conceiving, mobilising and realising worthwhile currents of resistance.
Squid Game is a Netflix Korean television series about a perverse organisation that runs deadly versions of kids games. The participants are financially struggling Koreans who sign their rights away to the organisation in the faint hope of winning the competition. The players are drugged, ferried to remote island, allotted numbers, housed in a common dormitory space and subjected to strict regimes and constant surveillance. They are entirely cut off from the outside world in a huge artificial space that is part prison, part brightly coloured maze, part grim factory, part crematorium and part sunny children’s playground. Masked workers supervise the ‘play’, dispatch ‘eliminated contestants’, dispose of their remains and follow their own dehumanising protocols. A mysterious ‘Leader’ coordinates events, watches every aspect of the game and dispenses justice as required. The players alternate between attitudes of fear, resignation, craven survival and glimmers of humanity. Overall, the work is a tragic-comic reflection on global capitalism and the social conditions of democracy. More than this, its bold dystopian vision has a transcendental clarity, addressing the basis of political community.
At one point, for instance, in the fourth episode, the Leader confronts a worker who has been secretly advising a player on what game will be played the next day. Prior to executing the worker, the Leader explains that he has breached the most important principle of the game – equality. All players must compete equally. This despite the fact that the game is a massive expression of inequality and the organisation itself is thoroughly hierarchical. Despite the fact also that equality depends precisely upon the loss of identity (positioning players as numbers who have ceded all their rights to the organisation, and the members of the organisation themselves as faceless masks). Equality here then is an entirely empty quality, bound by many layers of contradiction. From a Marxist standpoint, a key contradiction is that the players willingly acquiesce to this model because it accords with their lived experience – they have interiorised the market conditions of society and regard themselves in terms of the arithmetic of exchange value. They are struggling for their share of the global sum – struggling towards a financial measurable equality.
All of this inevitably reminds me of French philosopher Jacques Ranciere’s notion that equality is not a goal to struggle towards, but rather an axiomatic presupposition. Drawing upon the model of Ancient Greece, and more specifically Solon’s injunction that no Greek citizen shall be a slave, Ranciere argues that equality involves allocating an abstractly conceived part of the demos to those who have no part. It has its basis then in inequality. The aim of radical politics is to insist upon an equality that is both empty and actual. Many layers of paradox are evident in Ranciere’s conception, just as many layers of contradiction shape the Leader’s allegiance to equality. While the Leader’s conception involves no thinking of resistance, while it adheres to the overall conditions of inequality, he nonetheless shares Ranciere’s formal, axiomatic focus. The basis of human society is conceived in terms of the abstraction of equality. Here, there is a need to insist otherwise. There is and can be no adequate measure of equality. Equality is not the point. What matters more is a commonality that hinges on ties of necessity, sociality and care. Equal rights, equal before the law, equity at the level of opportunity, wealth, education, etc. – all of this, yes, but not an abstract equality that conceives, at least notionally, the possibility of some adequate measure of human worth; as though this measure and its implementation provides the basis for social being when it does nothing of the sort.
Many years ago when I was around 15 year old and trying to make a head start with my HSC art studies, I found myself sitting beneath a North Queensland house reading Erle Loran’s Cezanne’s Composition (1943). It may have been my mother’s idea. She was a painter and particularly loved Cezanne. It was summer and I was staying at a school friend’s place in Townsville. Hiding from the heat, I struggled to make sense of the formal principles underlying Cezanne’s paintings. I can recall that Loran linked close textual analysis of particular paintings with detailed schematic illustrations. Greyed out images of the works were overlaid with geometrical shapes to highlight features of formal compositional structure. I hoped that this arcane analysis would reveal the secrets of painterly composition, but the book left me persistently mystified. Thinking back now, it was less the notion of formal analysis that confused me than the idea that it could be so precisely represented. While I was prepared to bracket all the tangible detail of Cezanne’s paintings, it seemed odd to conceive the formal aesthetic dimension of his work in terms of a neatly delineated set of static shapes.
This personal anecdote of formal-aesthetic initiation and misgiving exemplifies the priority of aesthetic form within modern art and its fundamental ambiguity. I recognised that formal awareness and literacy were the vital conditions of aesthetic sensibility and intelligence, and looked to Loran’s book to provide an effective shortcut to this elusive layer of aesthetic truth. Confusingly, this awareness was represented as both amenable to training and grounded in natural intuition. I felt lacking on both counts. Yet, what is it that I didn’t know precisely? And what is it that I was unable to adequately perceive? What is aesthetic form? Is it an objective feature of the art work or a consequence of aesthetic perception? Is it a universally legible quantity or a dynamic and ineffable potential linked to particular experiences of viewing? Loran’s analysis aimed to render aesthetic form as visibly available as possible but ended up demonstrating for me the strangeness and uncertainty of whatever it is that form represents.
Of course the notion of form extends beyond simply aesthetic consideration. Within the Western philosophical tradition, form obtains meaning in terms of its opposite, matter. Matter, in its essence, is mute and unformed. It appears as the neutral stuff of being. Form lends matter coherence and shapes the possibility of particular things. Matter can be likened to a lumpy, malleable mass of clay that only becomes a pot, a cup or a figurine when it is affected by form. It is constitutive of being but is not being itself. However, form is not to be confused with any statically conceived aspect of visible identity. Plato specifically criticises the mimetic practice of artists as focusing mistakenly (and dangerously) on the visible surface of the world. This shallow relation to being engages a dimension of illusion and untruth. Genuine engagement with things, for Plato, involves a more comprehensive understanding. It involves an understanding of how something comes to be, as well as its nature, operations and ends. In this sense, the layer of form represents a sphere of rational understanding. The light of truth is not the light of the actual Sun, which is apprehended materially and sensibly, but rather an inner light – the metaphoric light of reason, which illuminates the formal-explanatory basis of things.
Plato’s formalist idealism has often been conceived more literally as the apprehension of a metaphysical reality composed of an array of fundamental geometrical shapes. Plato does describe a set of constitutive geometric elements, but they are aligned with an effort to understand the underlying physical-mathematical composition of the world rather than with visibility per se. Arguably, the modern concern with formal aesthetic essence reflects a de-rationalised and hypostasised conception of form, in which explanation and understanding are supplanted by a mystified, phenomenological immediacy. Form ceases to explain the genesis, functioning or future of things and instead links to a mode of experience that seeks immediate sites of alignment between the particular and an ambivalently subjective and abstractly objective universality.
The modernist conception of form, evident for instance in the work of Clement Greenberg, has a thorough ambiguity. At one level it highlights the material and sensible features of artworks but only as a means of then abstracting them, of rendering them subject to disengaged formal recognition. Greenberg conceives the essence of painting in terms of its material conditions (the flat canvas, the qualities of paint), however this truth is instantly lifted to another level. It is dematerialised and conceived as immanently and ineffably formal. The aim of aesthetic sensibility is to recognise within the accidental features of the immediate visual field (and the accidental features of immediate sensible perception) the contours of something universal, pure and permanent. Baudelaire’s famous definition of modernity is relevant here: ‘Modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immovable.’ The tense alignment between flux and permanence in modern art aligns with the longstanding tension between matter (dark, amorphous, protean) and form (bright, coherent and resolved) in Western thought. The complexity of the dyadic relation between matter and form hinges on how quickly and flexibly we can shift between poles – how readily materialism can translate into idealism and vice versa.
Plato’s transcendental conception of form provides the paradigm for idealism. Formal being is projected as primary and material reality – in its sensible manifestations – as secondary and illusory. This informs everything from Descartes’ suspicion of sensibly given knowledge to Hegel’s argument that the dialectical unfolding of being leads inexorably to the Absolute Idea. It certainly informs the tendency to privilege the formal dimension of art and to instantly formalise its sensible, material qualities. But there are other conceptions. There is Marx’s reversal of the Hegelian dialectic – his insistence that material relations determine the realm of ideas. There is Aristotle’s hylomorphism, with its conception of the compound nature of reality, in which there is always at once an intimate correspondence between matter and form. There is also the complex, negotiated relationship that Kant determines between the a priori realm of formal understanding and the unknowable character of the material world. For Kant, we never have access to matter per se, instead we encounter our own internal resources of cognition that inevitably anticipate and enable the experience of space, time and anything in particular. This conception informs contemporary cognitive science, which stresses precisely the formative, constructive character of perception and cognition. The crux is that we never encounter the world in its alterity but always in terms of given modes of experience, apperception and understanding. If we recognise anything like aesthetic form it is in the context of our capacity to comprehend the world via hypotheses and schematic patterns. In this manner, form is cast less as intrinsically opposed to matter – as though we can experience matter directly and as such – rather it is the only means by which anything can become apparent. Form is conceived not as an objective external quantity but as an emergent quality linked to our engaged interaction with things. Any formal features we recognise are less things in the world than products of our processes of perception and cognition.
Within this context, the key dilemma of traditional aesthetics (as paradigmatically represented in Kant’s Critique of Judgement) is that it envisages a mode of seeing and experience that suspends action, that renders the ‘viewer’ immobile and detached. Our formal capacities are rendered as a self-reflexive process of ‘seeing ourselves seeing’. We take pleasure in our capacity to dynamically, fluidly and playfully entertain and project formal patterns. Yet this can only happen on the basis of suspending all aspects of practically inclined perception and cognition. Formal aesthetic engagement projects a distilled and hypostasised notion of form that entails deliberately bracketing everything that characterises our ordinary, interested interaction with things.
This conception of a necessary distance also enables formal awareness to represent something more than the recognition of existing formal patterns. Formal aesthetic awareness involves a contemplation of the flux prior to any coherent moment of apprehension. Formal aesthetic engagement specifically represents a disruption and renewal of ordinary perception and cognition. To recognise the formal aesthetic identity of something is to cease to see it as a recognisable thing and instead to attend to its malleable formal possibility – its capacity to be regarded differently and in other terms. This is evident in the Russian formalist notion of ‘making strange’, in which the experience of form represents a dislocation and an opening. It also relates to Heidegger’s conception of how a tool – his example is a hammer – can pass from ‘ready at hand’ (practically useful, taken for granted, scarcely seen or reflected upon) to ‘present at hand’ (subject to contemplation and revealing a fluid and alien space of possibility). The key mechanism here is the suspension of ordinary interaction. This is what enables form to transition from static, conventional determination to become a key for unveiling the dynamic potential and alterity of the world. Kant conceives this potential in terms of a pleasure arising from self-reflection. Aesthetic experience hinges on recognising our own formal constructive capacities, which is also to recognise our internal mirroring of the fecund, generative-formal capacities of nature. For Heidegger, it involves an open encounter with the fundamental mystery of being. However conceived, this scene of disinterested and disruptive separation signals at once the promise of aesthetically enabled social transformation as well as its tenuousness and uncertainty. Clearly, if transformation depends upon contemplative immobility and inaction then it has little capacity to intervene effectively within lived relations. The flux of formal comprehension opens up the promise of transformation but can offer no means of realising it.
Within this context, a more integral conception is needed, involving not only a rethinking of the relation between matter and form (a recognition, for instance, that features of matter and form are co-imbricated and indeed intrinsically unstable and confused), but also a reconsideration of the antagonism between practical and aesthetically reflective being. In relation to the latter, there is the risk of nostalgia – of imagining the possibility of a return to an organically whole conception that precedes the modern disintegration into different categories of being. There is the wish, for instance, to somehow resurrect Ancient Greek or Indigenous peoples’ perspectives in which there is a less firm distinction between practical and cultural dimensions of survival. While these cultural references can provide worthwhile alternative models, they can never erase the divisions that structure our contemporary experience. So we are compelled to work through these divisions, to conceive and elaborate them differently. This clearly has much wider implications that extend well beyond aesthetic experience per se. If we are to imagine modes of practical activity that incorporate dimensions of aesthetic play and that adopt a custodial and celebratory relation to materials (rather than a narrowly exploitative and instrumental one) then there is need to reimagine and reinvent the material and formal conditions of contemporary life, which are not simple, which are not singular, which extend beyond the sphere of human relations to involve every aspect of the planet. Yet, just as we cannot return to some earlier historical mode of experience, neither can we wait for some horizon of total cultural transformation. Our only option is to work within the messy contours of the present. This entails discovering the means to think and act differently without assuming that existing concepts and modes of social existence can be simply set aside and superseded. Very briefly and inadequately, this would seem to involve a recognition that the relationship between contemplation and engagement is complex and interleaved. There is no pure moment of the aesthetic, just as there is no pure moment of practical activity. The vital value of the aesthetic lies not in its notional separation and disinterestedness but in its attentive, curious and caring relation to alterity. Very importantly, however, this attitude is not peculiar to the aesthetic. It is also a feature of practical, interested activity (work), but only on the basis of pursuing a different set of social, cultural, economic and ecological priorities and circumstances. The aesthetic then, for all its leaky imprecision, provides a vital nexus of alternative value. While it was traditionally cast as a supplementary dimension of contemplative mediation between thought and action, it also provides a means of re-evaluating the relations between the categories of matter, sense, imagination, ethics and rationality.
We can draw some lessons from the traditional conception of form. As we have seen, the Platonic and Aristotelian conceptions are not focused on immediate formal apprehension. Form is associated instead with a dimension of implicit narrative. It explains and contextualises. In this manner, we can envisage a mode of aesthetic awareness that emerges iteratively and ‘dialogically’ within the texture of experience and social relations (see Kester, Conversations Pieces). It is not imposed on matter – as superior, antecedent or as an ultimate goal – but rather develops in intimate relation to material tendencies (the latter regarded as at once material and formal, substantive and ineffable). This is to shift away from the conventional avant-garde and sublime scene of sudden, disruptive aesthetic unveiling (or, more precisely, the notion that aesthetic form is only genuine and tenable in these terms), and to acknowledge modes of aesthetic engagement that occur gradually and progressively in a wide variety of aesthetically marked and unmarked contexts. This also provides a means of thinking the aesthetic beyond simple notions of disruption (as a tear in our ossified forms of thinking, acting and imagining). Instead, the aesthetic can be conceived as involving all manner of relations to tradition. Dimensions of tracing, negotiation and following appear just as relevant as any work of critique or ‘making strange’. This is to recognise the vital role that aesthetic practice (conceived very generally) plays in cultural custodianship and continuity. It is not just about novelty and cultural transformation. There is an equally significant concern with maintenance and preservation. These are all things that depend upon continuing commitment, work and effort. Once we acknowledge the possibility of the slow, social unfolding of aesthetic experience then these other possibilities become more apparent. This also provides a means of contextualising aesthetic practice – of recognising, for instance, the illuminating relation to participatory oral cultural traditions that are profoundly durational and that foster a nuanced relation between the interests of conservation and renewal.
Aesthetics with a capital ‘A’ refers to a slightly marginal field of philosophy – one that has seen better days, but that prattles along regardless and may even be making some kind of return. It sits forlornly alongside the major fields of Ontology, Epistemology, Logic and Ethics, hoping to be taken more seriously, fantasising about its wider relevance. Extending beyond philosophy proper, there is also aesthetics with a little ‘a’ that denotes a more general space of critical and cultural debate.
Continuing with the little ‘a’ and dropping the trailing ’s’, aesthetics shifts from a noun to an adjective. It describes a particular category of experience. With characteristic ambivalence, this category is both regularly restricted to the contexts of art and literature while also stubbornly preserving a sense of wider scope and purpose. How are we to recognise it? Visit any major civic art gallery. Gallery visitors contemplate but do not touch. They are idle and yet engaged. They experience things inwardly, yet in a socially licensed and legible manner. They manifest an anxious, affective interiority that, for Kant, also provides the basis for community.
More informally, aesthetics also refers to a manner of composing things that motivates an aesthetic response. We refer to to an artist’s ‘aesthetic’ to indicate the strategies they employ to organise their work. This involves dimensions of both form and sensory, experiential composition, and is always distinguished from ‘content’. Aesthetics relates to the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what’ of an artistic work. It is associated with aspects of appearance and surface – with parameters of manifestation and style rather than the invisible field of whatever it is that manifestation contains.
So we have roughly three meanings:
- Aesthetics denotes a field of philosophical (and more general critical) discourse.
- Aesthetic experience indicates a distinctive modality separate from biological, appetitive being and rational, purposive activity. According to Kant, it represents a sphere of pleasure, play and freedom that is reflective and specifically and characteristically human.
- An artist’s aesthetic refers to their stylistic approach to dimensions of presentation and manifestation – how they compose works to facilitate aesthetic delectation.
At one level aesthetics is all about a specific, but ill-defined, mode of experience. Yet this necessarily involves something else as well – the recognition within the complex contours of beauty, sublimity, etc. that we are subject to an aesthetic experience. So the aesthetic is never simply the experience itself, but also entails a current of self-reflective awareness. We recognise that particular contemplative activities are pressing identifiably aesthetic buttons. In this respect, the aesthetic can never simply lie altogether outside ordinary processes of cognition. Some aspect of cognition is necessary for aesthetic experience to ever distinctly appear. The notion of the aesthetic involves then a double sense of distance: firstly, the Kantian notion of a distance from ordinary appetitive or rational-instrumental-ethical engagement; and secondly, a distance from the putatively intimate texture of aesthetic experience itself. The immediate field of reflective contemplation is evident only via another level of contemplative regard. This second field of distance bears an uncertain relation to the first. It can scarcely be straightforwardly aesthetic because it employs a conceptual lens. It works to identify and categorise experience. But it can only do this by recognising, at the lower level, a suspension of conceptual resolution. Beauty, as it is immediately experienced appears not so much as a neat reconciliation of the faculties as an exacerbation of their differences – a curious, unresolved prolongation. It is only at the subsequent stage when the experience obtains focused resolution that any sense of an overall context of reconciliation can become evident.
Stated very simply, is aesthetics a ‘thing’?
Is aesthetics a distinct category of experience (as Kant envisions), or is it only ever a means of addressing contradictions at the level of lived experience? If the latter, this entails thinking of aesethetics as a retro-fitted part – not so much something independently existing or determinable, but rather an aspect of ethos, of the problem of ways of life. This would suggest that it is only ever a fond wish to imagine that aesthetics can be distinguished from ethics. At every level they partake of the problem of value, being and identity, as well as of community and politics.
Where aesthetics does not exist – in the Ancient world, for instance – it is not that no one thought about beauty, form, play or pleasure, it is rather that there was no urgent need to elaborate these as such, as something categorically distinct. They were qualitative features of life generally.
Dark Eden, The Sixth International Conference on Transdisciplinary Imaging at the Intersection Between Art, Science and Culture
6 – 8 November 2020
Draft of my paper, ‘Imagining a Dead Hare‘.
If we are to discover effective means of imagining a new ecology of the image and of the event that considers wider environmental consequences then we would do well to consider the complex play of repetition and transformation in popular cultural forms.
PCI 2020 Symposium, 5-10 October
Performance in the Time of Halting and Transformation
This paper represents a very preliminary effort to consider some of the implications of linking performance and curation. My particular interest is in conceiving the relationship between art as a form of action and reflection, and any associated potential for art to intervene within dimensions of the social – working to fulfil its tacit cultural promise.
These are some rough reflections on aspects of middle management filtered through the lens of current university crises. What crises? Let’s see: COVID-19 and the sudden shift to remote delivery, loss of international income and associated job losses; confusion in the wake of the end of the demand-driven system; federal bias against humanities style ‘non-vocational’ degrees; endless structural change within our institution; casualisation of the academic workforce; etc.
I am Head of the School of The Arts, English and Media in the Faculty of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Wollongong, with roughly 35 academic staff (it keeps declining) and 12 professional and technical staff.
I’m afraid that I can offer nothing like a coherent overall perspective on my role. I offer instead a few observations, first in relation to middle management generally, then in terms of the contemporary enthusiasm for institutional ‘agility’ and finally upon reading spreadsheets.
On being a middle manager
The middle manager strategises in between.
At the top are the senior managers. They think most generally. They are concerned with wider contexts and are responsible to the key stakeholders (the University Council).
Then there are the middle managers, who follow senior management direction, but also are expected to behave strategically and to develop and implement local ‘visions’. We are in a semi-executive position. Our responsibilities are technical, HR and strategic.
Beneath us are the line managers , who deal with the performance of local workers and local level implementation processes. Line managers have duties, whereas middle managers have targets and goals (KPIs).
Middle managers are expected to manage upwards and downwards. Their loyalties are not only to senior management but also to their areas and teams. They are criticised for being superfluous, for slowing down change, for over-complicating things, for blocking flows of information/ communication. So there are the various caricatures of the HOS: the scheming and ambitious entrepreneur, the apparatchik who just passes messages up and down the line, the micro-manager, etc.
The middle manager experiences a curious paradox. Management assumes action. For the middle manager, however, while action is expected, it must always be limited, subsumed beneath higher strategic interests and not altogether compromising lower level autonomy and scope for individual action. The challenge is to conceive at once a space for meaningful activity and inactivity – for agency and non-agency. None of this is clearly defined, so everything depends upon judgement, estimation, feel – alongside the grudging recourse to policy, etc. There is a mix of involvement and distance. There is a stress on balance, discretion and judgement (more than procedure). The key issue is to determine precisely how much and how little to do.
Picking it up
I should stress that I was not trained in any of this. I’ve just picked it up along the way. I spent most of my academic career as a teacher, but in the last decade I have done very little teaching. I have found myself instead in all kinds of higher and lower middle management roles.
Of course always hard to identify the middle. Everything is relative. Somebody below me sees me as a senior manager, but I’m acutely aware of the limitation to my powers – and indeed of all the drudge work that I do that is scarcely at all strategic.
Middle management is a blurry, uncertain space. VCs probably also recognise all kinds of limitations to their powers – all kinds of more senior layers of management, but they tend to fall outside the institution itself. Everything depends upon reference to the hierarchies within a particular institution.
I always try to remember that it is just a role. Mumbling to myself: humility; don’t wreck things; don’t think you always know better; listen rather than proclaim; we are always expendable. Believe it or not, I don’t actually find keeping this in mind all that hard. If I have survived for so long, it is because I have lived by this perspective.
In this context, I can’t help referring to some quotes from Chinese philosophy that mingle Taoist reserve and disengagement with Confucian concern to properly serve society:
‘Cut off knowledge, abandon argumentation, and the people will benefit a hundredfold. Cut off cleverness, abandon “benefit”, and there will be no more thieves or bandits. Cut off activity and abandon purposefulness, and the people will again be filial…. Exhibit the unadorned and embrace the simple. Have little thought of self and few desires.’ (Henricks 2000: 28; cp. ch. 19 of received version DDJ)
‘Rulers succeed by allowing nature to take its course: by “not acting (wuwei)”’.
‘“Clarity (ming)” comes when one realizes the perspectival nature of all affirmations and denials. Having attained this kind of clarity, it makes no sense to put oneself on the line for any one set of evaluations, like “our state must triumph” or even “it is better for humans to flourish than plants”’. (Zhuangzi: Rejecting Governance)
‘… which merely establishes equilibrium, itself doing nothing; yet the mere fact that it remains in balance causes lightness and heaviness to discover themselves. (Shen Buhai: Bureaucratic “Non-Action”’ , SBH p. 352)
And so we move to action itself and the privileging of agility.
We think of a cat. The capacity to move flexibly and precisely, even in response to unforeseen circumstances.
A battleship is not agile. It is slow and lumbering. It must stop, turn or speed up well in advance of any immediate signals.
In any case, the notion of agility is easily extended from the level of the individual organism to that of the institution. The latter is also some kind of living thing, at least inasmuch as it has inputs and outputs, produces and consumes, responds to the environment and makes strategic choices and decisions.
Yet we can stretch the notion of agility to the point that the organism itself is in question – that is, the nature of its life, its integral sense of being. We learn now, in our current adverse financial circumstances, that an agile organisation is one that can expand and contract as needed. More specifically, it can rapidly gain and shed staff to respond to current exigencies. This is not by swiftly increasing or decreasing actual staff positions, but instead by defining a very restricted core of permanent and contract staff and drawing upon a large pool of tenuously employed casual staff. Agility here then is obtained by dividing the organism in two, or possibly regarding it in minimal skeletal terms, or more likely as an abstraction that has little relation to the actual cultural life of the institution. Agility is obtained by re-conceiving the nature of the organism, which is now less a coherent living thing than a disassembled, disembodied phantom thing, which responds by growing or hacking off limbs that were never even limbs in the first place, that were simply agile and non-living resources.
We need to consider then what agility means for the university – for its capacity to have cultural life. And what it means for a me as a middle manager attending to both the rhetoric of sustainability and processes of agile decomposition.
Email and spreadsheets – these are my new forms of literature.
Damn, a spreadsheet. There is this initial panic as I struggle to find my bearings. I have to slow down. I have to forget about understanding things all at once. I have to very deliberately make sense of the columns and rows. I have to get a feel for the scale of the numbers and the play of quantities, percentages and logical relationships. Often this can take me some time – often much longer than I have available. Somebody is speaking, they display a spreadsheet and then identify some key features (‘take homes’), while I’m still stuck trying to make sense of the overall representation. This can mean that I end up accepting all kinds of arguments and strategies that I might ordinarily resist, or find the means to resist, if only I were a bit clearer about what the numbers mean and the underlying logic that informs their relevance.
Despite this, I have grown used to spreadsheets, even to the point of regularly employing them myself. This is partly, perversely, because they pose an intellectual challenge for me. I don’t read them quickly and intuitively, so I am interested in overcoming my immediate experience of opacity, difficulty and illegibility. Beyond this, I’m aware that they represent particular managerial perspectives and priorities, so that it is vital that I find the means both to understand them and to recognise the assumptions, values and strategies that underlie them.
So while spreadsheets may not be my go to way of representing aspects of the world, I am not opposed to them. Nor, more importantly, do I wish to insist upon a binary division between a quantified managerial mindset and a more holistic and value-based academic perspective. There are differences here and they do link to modes of representation, but this is not based simply upon a difference between the abstraction of numbers and the human nuance of language. There is a continuum between abstraction and lived complexity and both can usefully inform one another.
My more significant dilemma relates to the issue of disputing the kinds of arguments that tend to be made on the basis of spreadsheet information. A typical financial spreadsheet will represent the relationship between income and expenditure. Our survival, it is evident, depends upon appropriately balancing the relationship between these two. I can object that this informs an inadequate and reductive conception of higher education – one that is myopically focused on financial growth and sustainability, that loses sight of the intangible public value of education and that misconceives education in narrowly financial terms. This is true enough, but it scarcely effectively resists the managerial perspectives and priorities represented in spreadsheets. A key issue is that the priorities themselves and the conception of higher education that frames them is not explicitly declared. It is embodied in the spreadsheet, but in a way that tends to obscure any sense of explicit value. The spreadsheet provides apparently neutral quantitative evidence. It displays dimensions of apparently unquestionable organisational being. It subtly and less subtly chides us: as much as we may like to think of ourselves pursuing some worthwhile public role, this is predicated upon our capacity to balance our budgets – to be frugal and careful homemakers. In this manner, the spreadsheet seems to reach beneath the surface of what we do – and our convenient self-image as a community of scholars, artists and educators – to the awkward material basis of our existence. Everything we say in defence of our current culture, largesse and inefficient practice, is exposed for its demonstrable ‘un- sustainability’. Within this context, spreadsheets become the mechanism for establishing a dimension of being and truth that appears irrefutable.
How can we resist this sense of pragmatic realism? It is not, I suspect, by resisting spreadsheets altogether, but instead by developing our critical literacy and our own practices of spreadsheet making that allied with explicit value-based arguments present different perspectives of things, different indices of what we do and of what matters.
One aspect of critical literacy involves unpicking the assumptions that underlie management spreadsheets. For instance, managing my school is regularly likened to managing a household budget. If my income drops then I must make whatever sacrifices are needed to get things back on track. This makes sense to some extent, but the notion of household suggests an overall context of equilibrium. I live in my nice little home. I earn a predictable income. I pay a predictable level of tax. I pay roughly predictable prices for the all the things that I need. I am cautious with my spending and set aside an appropriate sum for my retirement or a rainy day. But what if everything falls apart? What if I lose my job? What if tax rates massively increase? What if the economy goes into depression? What if I cannot afford even necessities? Then I am subject to these wider calamities and all my ordinary, responsible strategies fall apart. The world becomes suddenly dangerous and the household is no longer something that can be tweaked into economic health. Things need changing before anything can be made to adequately work, and as long as I continue to make survival focused local adjustments in response to the surrounding crisis I am only likely to make matters worse. But this is not the kind of household management that the spreadsheets tend to embody. Instead, as I say, they assume a more predictable and stable world where there is scope for responsible local level agency and action.
It seems to me, however, that we are in a different time, a time of crisis rather than predictable domestic economy. For instance, COVID-19 has exposed that international student income is not at all secure. Even domestic income is uncertain within the context of the legacy of the demand-driven system and ruthless competition between providers. So the income side of things is unpredictable and currently in free fall. It can scarcely be managed within the analogy of a relatively stable home environment. If we have any control it is only in terms of constraining expenditure, and this is what the university is constantly pressing us to do, but somehow without compromising our teaching and research, and somehow while still maintaining a positive, agile mind set. While it is worth knowing how we sit vis a vis income and expenditure, there can be no hope of equilibrium at present (especially as we are still paying upwards of 55% contribution margin). What’s actually needed is an acknowledgement that balance is currently impossible. This should provide the basis for a discussion about what we value and wish to maintain in these conditions. And this has to look beyond any simple bottom-line, any simple calculation of profit margin and delivery efficiency. We have to consider the fundamental value of what we do and its continuing value for society.
The problem, however, is how to frame a wider discussion like this within the context of immediately pressing constraints. How will staff wages be paid if our income radically drops? What options are available other than shedding staff? Unlike government, we have no scope to print money. We have no scope to sustain ourselves ex nihilo. So we confront spreadsheets that demonstrate our plight and offer no other solution than massive expenditure cuts involving reduction in our activities/offerings and significant associated job losses. Here, once again, the point is not so much to dispute the figures, or to shoot the managerial messenger, as to insist upon dimensions of identity, culture and value. Rather than being positioned as secondary considerations or inevitable casualties, these need to provide the basis for how we conceive our on-going existence in precisely the same way – and now I will employ a domestic metaphor – that a household is primarily a family rather than a financial ledger. If everything around them collapses a family of people tend not to abandon this relationship since it is a primary source of identity and value. They will abandon living standards, the house, all manner of things, but less commonly the family itself. While the university is not a family as such, while we are bound by contractual relationships, still, even as a ‘corporate’ institutional entity, we must consider what it is that makes this thing worth continuing. Financial sustainability is ultimately secondary to this. It should serve our underlying sense of purpose rather than supplanting any consideration of value via the ostensibly inarguable logic of a financial spreadsheet.
A final and less crisis focused point. Counting things in spreadsheets is no doubt very useful and can often prove illuminating, but there is also the real risk that if you only recognise what can be counted then you miss a great deal and encourage activities that provide the illusion of relevant activity only because they are straightforwardly measurable. Take the example of research culture. Our standard measures of research activity involve adding up grant income, HDR completions, scholarly publications and non-traditional research outputs. On this basis assessments are made about how active we are as researchers and the overall success of our research culture (as assessed by ERA or various external rankings agencies). This is all very well and academic staff have largely taken on board this metrics focused conception of research activity and performance. Yet it is hard not to be suspicious. Are we all doing such great research? Is our research culture vibrantly alive because we have scored a 4 or a 5 in ERA, or has an entire industry arisen around enabling our research to be counted – a proliferation of publishing contexts and measurable outcomes that provide visible evidence of research activity but a much more restricted sense that research is actually happening around us, informing the life of the institution and affecting the world generally. There is the strange awareness of a closed and circular system that counts instead of genuinely evaluating and only evaluates by counting. Who for instance measures the research life of academic corridors or the unpublished thoughts of an extraordinary teacher? Too little of the genuine research life of the university is recognised and represented, only abstract indices that would be fine as general indicators if they didn’t quickly become hypostasised proxies for research activity itself.
In this sense then, spreadsheets can both clarify and distort. They are not simply tables of evidence, but instead particular quantitatively focused visions of the world. While we must learn to read them better, must expose their assumptions, must identify their underlying conceptual and evaluative frameworks and must develop our own spreadsheets as a counter to official ones, we must also continue to speak of particular things in ways that are meaningful. Alongside identifying quantitative trends, we must also make arguments and tell stories so that the richness, complexity and evaluative context of real circumstances is not lost.
Mimesis is perhaps the best known of the traditional aesthetic principles. Of course it is never precisely, or simply, an aesthetic principle. This is not only because aesthetics itself is a more recent invention. It is also because mimesis represents less a straightforwardly positive principle in Ancient Greek thought than a relation to knowledge, truth and being that is subject to ambivalent evaluation. Whereas Plato rejects it in terms of its distance from truth – its simulation of surface details that involves no genuine understanding of things, and more particularly of the abstract forms that underlie them – Aristotle, more pragmatically, regards mimesis as a natural inclination and as a means of learning about the world. It should be noted that Plato’s concern is with the epistemological claims of representations, whereas Aristotle focuses on the performative dimension of imitation. The one entails a relation between an image and an underlying formal model, while the other entails a play of repetition in time. For Aristotle, we learn (or can learn) via imitation, while Plato’s concern is with the distance between simulation and truth. Plato’s concern has a spatial, logical emphasis, while Aristotle’s more positive conception of mimesis has a temporal and social reproductive emphasis. Plato’s critique hinges on the substance of knowledge, while Aristotle’s focuses on the process of learning.
We have become too attached to a narrowly Platonic and spatial conception of mimesis. We think of distance and doubling, as though the model and the representation (a surfeit of representations) exist simultaneously, as there is no sense of displacement and loss within this scenario – no sense that the model may have no substantial existence, that it may constantly be threatening to disappear, and only a work of imitation can make it persist. We think of mimesis in terms of simulation – the immoral creation of doubles – rather than in terms of necessity. Mimesis is not simply a playful luxury in oral societies, it is absolutely needed if anything is to be maintained and persist. For this reason, there is a need to reconsider mimesis – and the motivation for mimesis – not only in terms of the metaphor of relatively static images, and of the play of mirroring and epistemological confusion this entails, but also to consider mimesis as a form of repetition that is fundamentally concerned with conservation through time.
So if modernism rejects mimesis, it is not simply to prefer abstraction. It is also to forget the traditional, pre-literate relation to time and its fundamental relation to the problem of cultural reproduction and survival. Yet paradoxically, modernism can only celebrate the new and resist the spectre of repetition by incorporating repetition more closely within itself. Everything can exist at once since everything is infinitely reproduced.
At one level I am tempted to describe aesthetics as a form of value. Very briefly, aesthetics provides an alternative to systems of value that reduce, consume and dispense with the world. It projects a non-exploitative relation to things that is engaged but not destructive, ordered but open, and oriented equally towards preservation and change. Clearly, this is hardly an altogether novel proposition. It aligns with a conventional conception of aesthetics as a space of experience and evaluation that stands outside and resists the field of instrumental reason.
It is worth noting here a level of contradiction. Aesthetics gains identity and value in terms of its ethical implications – in terms of how it can provide a basis for re-evaluating and transforming the world. In this sense, aesthetics manifests a meta-level use value. It is conceived in ultimately instrumental terms.
Linked to this dilemma is another one. The notion of ‘aesthetics as value’ works to conceive the aesthetic in extra-aesthetic terms. Aesthetics is positioned as a constitutive and immediate form of ethics. This risks oversimplifying and displacing both fields. Nonetheless, as French philosopher Jacques Ranciere argues in a different context, aesthetics characteristically and constitutively confuses issues. It refuses to remain within ordinary boundaries. It is conceived at the outset in terms of processes of categorical mediation. The uncertain relation between aesthetics and ethics can scarcely be resisted altogether. Instead it is arguably integral to the knotted identity and non-identity of the aesthetic (Ranciere, J., 2009, Aesthetics and its Discontents, p.14).
Of course, one could just easily argue that aesthetics is associated with notions of epistemological ‘truth’ as with ethical ‘value’. It links to a notion of non-conceptual truth. This truth can be framed in both rational and sublime terms. In relation to the former it can be conceived, for instance, in terms of a felt sense of organic proportion and symmetry, which aligns with more abstract processes of cognition. So, from Alexandre Baumgarten’s perspective (drawing upon Leibniz), mathematical equivalence and difference have their basis in the approximate and confused conditions of ordinary sensible (aesthetic) experience. Kant does not quite take this view. He distinguishes aesthetics from any particular conceptually lucid notion of truth, but nonetheless proposes a space of agreement (reconciliation) between the apriori conditions of rational cognition and our immediate experience of the world. Despite their differences, both of these attitudes suggest the relevance of aesthetics to questions of epistemology. Even if they do not propose a notion of ‘aesthetic truth’ per se, they indicate the relevance of aesthetics to rational conceptions of truth and its scope to serve as an alien epistemological ground and as an unlikely field of authentication.
We are more accustomed, however, in the contemporary context to regard ‘the truth of aesthetics’ in sublime and existential terms. The Romantic philosopher Friedrich Schelling famously argues that aesthetics engages with a higher sphere of truth. It enables a recognition of features of being that can never adequately be translated into abstractly rational terms. Many strands of modern aesthetics (including the work of Heidegger and Lyotard) draw upon this romantic conception of ‘aesthetic truth’.
The key issue is that aesthetics gains epistemological relevance in both the rational and sublime conceptions. Aesthetics projects a different model of knowledge in which the known and the unknown correspond, in which knowledge is at once elusive and immediately manifest.
I will add briefly that alongside relating to both ‘value’ and ‘truth’, aesthetics not only mediates between the different main fields of philosophy – ontology, epistemology and ethics – but also between different orders of experience and being. It mediates between sense and rational cognition, feeling and abstraction, contemplation and engagement, activity and passivity, and seriousness and play. This is potentially liberating, but also makes the concept profoundly elusive. Almost anything you can say about aesthetics can be contradicted and must, at the very least, be carefully qualified.
In summary, the shifting, medial status of aesthetics entails vital aspects of value and can be regarded as having particular critical value, but also demonstrates that it is reductive to describe aesthetics as ‘a form of value’. In any case, there is an allied need to unpick the notion of value. I must acknowledge, for instance, that I am using the term ‘value’ in multiple senses – to refer to an ethics, a mode of judgement and an orientation towards ‘good’ ends. Here aesthetics variously appears as a form of value, a mode of evaluation and in terms of its broader cultural and critical value (efficacy). Aesthetics is structured within and infused by vital questions of value. Yet at the same time it is never simply ‘a form of value’. There is no single point of alignment or essential feature ethical or otherwise that can adequately encompass the aesthetic. The notion tends to be lost when it is glibly defined and only in its motions of loss does it flicker into view. Nonetheless, we have to have means of introducing and briefly defining the term. Following Hegel, we regularly say that it is the philosophy of beauty and art, but that hardly adequately accounts for its strange ‘value’.
But let me return to the question of value. Forgive me for turning on this question, but I’m wondering what value aesthetics has just now. What can aesthetics offer as an alternative basis for value, and for making evaluations and accomplishing beneficial things in the world. Why pose this question just now? It could be posed at any time (we are always in crisis), but the current COVID-19 pandemic conditions and the broader economic, political and social consequences make the question of value particularly pressing.
Value, yes, but the question of aesthetics, perhaps less so. After all, almost everything that we associate with aesthetic activity – the visual and performing arts, for example – are shut down, or can only exist via largely remote and on-line forms. Within this context, ordinary aesthetic activity, except in the context of private practices, can appear effectively irrelevant, or at least less publicly visible and significant. How can they obtain wider public value if they cannot even properly exist?
Now I should stress that I don’t hold to the view that art and aesthetics are necessarily twinned – that one cannot exist without the other. I am increasingly interested in non-public aspects of aesthetic experience and activity – spheres of everyday aesthetic practice and engagement that fall outside the iconic field of the visual and performing arts.
Nonetheless, the suspension of public arts, as well as the privileging of dimensions of broader social and economic necessity at both the domestic and public level, raise questions about the relevance of aesthetics in this period of pressing, socially distanced crisis. Aesthetics can appear relevant perhaps in terms of practices of privatised distraction and psychological survival, but hardly at all in terms of notions of cultural and political transformation. Arguably, the values we need now are less those linked to notions of play and pleasure than to care and responsibility. Once again, in very characteristic terms, aesthetics appears as a sphere of excess that only properly obtains relevance when all the other conditions of life are in place – once we have addressed primary problems of survival and equity.
And this is what prompts what I am writing at here. I am trying to get at how aesthetics links to questions of fundamental value. Friedrich Schiller poses this question famously in his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794), which is written in response to the ‘reign of terror’ during the French Revolution. Schiller considers how a revolution that began with declarations of ‘egalite fraternity liberty’ could dissolve into the systemic injustice and barbarity of the guillotine. He suggests that what is missing – and what is needed – is a more fundamental ground of value that prepares the way for enlightened human identity and community. The model of idle play is positioned as the foundation for then establishing a society that is genuinely equal, fraternal and free. At the same time, however, Schiller has no means of conceiving where this foundation occurs or how it actually exists. Instead it appears as a foundation myth and a vision for the future. It reveals a general human capacity but is something only available to a societal elite. All of this simply demonstrates the contradictions of the aesthetic – the difficulties of making sense of it not only conceptually, but also actually and historically.
I can only offer, the most minimal, poorly delineated suggestions here. There is a need to think beyond the autonomy of the aesthetic and beyond the special conditions of the aesthetic. Rather than an uncertain ground and epiphenomenal field, the aesthetic must be somehow thought in terms of its integral relevance to the problems at hand – to survival, equity, common effort, etc. This can hardly take place within the conventional space of art or even in some notion of a dimension of play within the contours of everyday life. Instead it needs to find a way into the thinking of societal priorities, how things are organised and why they are organised in that way. It needs to find its way into the tissue of survival and labour so that these things are not quite the same again – so that their space of necessity and alienation can be re-examined and re-experienced.
This indicates the deeper relation to value that concerns me. My aims is not to represent aesthetics as entirely ethical, but to displace ethics in manner that retains a sense of care and responsibility – that renders the practical in terms that include the aesthetic, which is itself displaced from its ordinary imaginary, practices and frames of reference. A more integral and holistic conception is needed, but we cannot get there with the current set of categories and categorical distinctions. While these cannot be simply swept aside they need to be thought through and pushed into novel relations.
My motto from posting this song: ‘If at first you seriously suck then try, try again till you don’t seriously suck so much.’ 91 listens, not a single like. Must persevere!
Fear and spending all we have/On nothing very much
Fragile lives, empty days/Dumb pandemic luck
Still stocking up on food/And mowing the god damn lawn
Tracing exponential curves/Waiting for the storm
Happy New Year from Wuhan China/No quarantine in Qom Iran
True believers in South Korea/All alone in the Vatican
CV-19 in Barcelona/CV-19 on Bondi Beach
CV-19 in Boris Johnston/CV-19 on New York streets
Can we stay home for now?/Can we stay apart?
Can we sleep for twenty weeks?/Then make a different start?
Doesn’t matter anymore/About what mattered once
Flying around the world/Small governments
Happy New Year from Wuhan China/No quarantine in Qom Iran
True believers in South Korea/All alone in the Vatican
CV-19 keep your distance/CV-19 join a queue for the dole
CV-19 what’s on Netflix?/CV-19 dig a deep, deep hole
Fear and spending all we have/On nothing very much
Fragile lives, empty days/Dumb pandemic luck
And all of those who die/Are all of us always
And all of those who live/Are all who die today
Aesthetics must enable a revaluation of the world.
But how is this possible? Especially if aesthetics is conceived narrowly as a form of pleasure? We must either re-conceive aesthetics or abandon it for something else – some other notion that incorporates a more extensive and inclusive sense of value. This study pursues the first option. It argues that aesthetics is already loosely defined and already has the potential to be more broadly conceived. This is not to say that it may not be better that we invent another term at some stage, but for now there is scope to mobilise the notion of aesthetics differently. The field of aesthetics is shaped at the outset as one of mediation. It is less substantive than a force that mediates between existing human faculties and philosophical categories. It strays between sense, imagination and understanding and between being, knowledge and ethics. If it defines a positive existence this is precisely in terms of conceiving a curious space of radical difference from ordinary modes of existence, feeling and thought. This interplay between the positive and the negative and between integral clarity and straying is what enable aesthetics to have wider relevance and to serve an alternative basis for human value.
More simply, the aesthetic is not simply about liking something. It is not simply about appreciating something from a distance. It defines here not only a species of pleasure but also an ontology, an ethics and a mode of comprehension. It suggests a mode of being that is not entirely active, that incorporates a vital dimension of passivity. This active passivity also entails a relationship to the world that is at once dialectical and non-dialectical – that responds to the world without destroying it. This response is irreducible. It motions away from the thing while also holding closely to it – not allowing its existence and difference to be entirely subsumed, while still necessarily articulating a distinct space (of contemplation, representation and invention). Beyond this, the aesthetic response is associated with freedom, human identity and community. In this sense, it provides a complex ground for the possibility of enlightened society, with all the ethical and epistemological implications this entails.
The aesthetic only becomes meaningful then as it slips free of its narrow association with beauty and the philosophy of fine art. It is not that beauty and fine art are not relevant to the aesthetics, but rather that they are aesthetic symptoms rather than the aesthetic itself – in its complexity, in its contradictions, in its promiscuity.
Schiller’s aesthetic theory is closely concerned with the issue of time. What is the time of aesthetic experience? When does it happen? When is it needed?
Like Plato, Schiller adopts a broadly pedagogical perspective. He is concerned with how aesthetics can contribute to the development of human beings and society. Within this context, there is a vital need to consider when an aesthetic education is required. The key question is, must it precede all other forms of education or is its something that necessarily can only appear once certain lessons of survival and political necessity are already learnt?
This links closely to the problem of excess. Is aesthetic experience something in excess to ordinary experience – which would also position it as a posterior supplement to ordinary experience – or is it a primary field that must be passed through prior to any possibility of enlightened general existence?
And it is precisely here that a confusion is evident in Schiller’s thought. A confusion of timing and of strategic intervention. On the one hand Schiller holds to the idea that aesthetic experience is required at the outset – that no enlightened humanity or social organisation is possible without a grounding in aesthetic experience. At the same time, however, from a broadly anthropological perspective, Schiller argues that human beings and society can only turn their minds to aesthetic concerns once immediate needs are met. He envisages a pre-aesthetic state of nature that is concerned simply with survival, that has no time or scope for anything else. This is also linked to a conception of immediate historical time – time that cannot think beyond itself, that cannot recognise the outline of timeless time, of absolute time, of truth and the ultimate transcendental foundations of being.
It is then in terms of associating aesthetics with aspects of posteriority and supplementation that Schiller’s aesthetic conception comes undone. Aesthetics cannot be both primary and supplementary at once without radically thinking through the notion of the supplementary (in the manner, for instance, of Bataille and Derrida). This means thinking its temporality differently. It involves thinking the indeterminable notion of this timing and its removal from a linear conception of time. For a start, it means re-conceiving the temporality of ordinary instrumentally geared life. This is never simply immediate. It is never simply in this time. It is full of memories and anticipations. It plays across time in complex and irreducible ways. Experience is mapped, tested and reviewed. Tendrils of experimental, hypothetical action are considered and enacted. In its fundamental shape this is indistinguishable from motions of excess. For instance, the excessive, exponential growth of a virus, is not dissimilar to the growth of the slavery industry in the 16th and 17th centuries. The patterns of instrumental existence are never simply about homeostatic survival, but involve all kinds of instances of effulgent and excessive growth. Capitalism itself is an excessive phenomena. There is no necessary gap between playful and instrumental forms. Both can be characterised by dimensions of excess.
Furthermore, contemplation – or the specialised notion of disengaged aesthetic experience – is not something posterior to ordinary life, but is imbricated within it. There is no stage of pure human immediacy, prior to the space of contemplative reflection. They are temporally coextensive. Instrumentality is excessive and aesthetic excessiveness plays within the texture of ordinary life. Neither can properly provide the ground for the other. They are both simply, and at every moment, relevant.
Ugliness would not be the simple opposite of beauty for Kant. Both the beautiful and the ugly share a subjective basis in an internal reflective sensation (an experience of pleasure or displeasure). The aesthetic moment is one of suspension. There is a pleasurable suspension of ordinary cognition that is related to the free play of the faculties of imagination and understanding. In the case of beauty this takes shape as a felt sympathy between the two. In the case of the sublime, there is a tension that pushes both further, that extends and enobles both. In the case of ugliness, there is the acute sense of a misalignment. There is still a suspension, still a prolongation of free play, but it tends away from either reconciliation or grand aporetic openings. Ugliness strikes us – and fascinates us. It is harbinger of something that we cannot speak, that escapes us, but also that represents an intimate threat. Ugliness is reminder of an externality that affects us both from without and from within. It is not the prospect of otherness, but the spectre of otherness. It is a reflection upon the mundanity of otherness. It is not simply a lack of symmetry or regularity, but rather the sense that this lack may have wider sway – that it may be just as elemental and formative as anything that accords with the self-image and the ambitions of the a priori.
Kant employs the term ‘aesthetic’ first in his Critique of Pure Reason as a means of clarifying the general conditions of experience. He develops the notion of a ‘transcendental aesthetic’ to indicate an a priori dimension of experience. There is on the one hand experience that relates specifically to our interaction with the world via our sensible organs. This is linked to the traditional Ancient Greek meaning of the term ‘aesthetic’ as relating to the senses. There is on the other hand a plane of experience that exceeds the senses. The ‘transcendental aesthetic’ has its basis not in sense as such, or in any relation to the external world, but in terms of the appearance of things to the native grounds of consciousness. It refers to the sensing of a level of generality that is unconditioned by the senses. It is an interior plane of sensation that involves the appearance of the a priori as the fundamental capacity for space-time consciousness/experience.
Key here is that the transcendental is general. It relates to no specific, contingent form of experience, but to experience generally. It is not something that is generalised from experience, or that results from experience, but rather something that shapes our capacity to experience anything whatsoever. In this sense, the transcendental character of experience cannot be based in experience per se, but pertains instead to its underlying conditions. Yet at the same time, this other, inner realm must also appear. It must somehow be represented – here not by ordinary sensibility, but instead at some meta-sensible level. This is the paradoxical conception of the ‘transcendental aesthetic’, which at once both distances the a prior character of space time consciousness from sense, but also acknowledges that it must somehow be presented to us.
As I have explained, Kant clarifies that he is employing the term ‘aesthetic’ in its traditional sense of pertaining to the senses. He distinguishes this from the modern German sense of the aesthetic as pertaining to the ‘critique of taste’ (CPR, p.60). Subsequently, in the Critique of Judgement, Kant will discover means of mediating between these two meanings, and specifically of demonstrating the transcendental character of the experience of the beautiful, which emerges not as a consequence of experience per se, but from an internal free play of the faculties of imagination and understanding. This complicates any initial sense that Kant moves from a general to a more specific and restricted use of the term. It is tempting to suggest, for instance, that the ‘transcendental aesthetic’ relates to the conditions of all consciousness, whereas the later aesthetic of the sublime and beautiful relates to a specialised form of experience separate from properly epistemological and ethical concerns. The other possibility, however, is that the two senses closely correspond. Both are concerned with the mysteries of an internal plane of appearance and intuition that establishes the core frame of human identity and freedom. From this perspective, the aesthetic of the Critique of Judgement is a more focused examination of the transcendental aesthetic of the Critique of Pure Reason. And if Kant would like to restrict the implications of the former, it is because they so deeply affect the conception of the latter. The the two notions of the aesthetic are less neatly distinct than intimately entangled.
Kant very often appears as a conservative figure, a philosopher who works at multiple levels to reconcile differences – between dogmatism and skepticism, for instance, and between dimensions of thought, morality and beauty. Yet there is potential to interpret this system differently – not simply in terms of its complex, often claustrophobic architecture and its meta-level understanding of the underlying conditions of human experience, but also in terms of its elaboration of openings. While the system seems focused, at multiple levels, on homeostasis, this is only inasmuch as it also frames an energetics – a playing at the limit within the horizon of the finite.
I cannot hope to argue this properly here, but will simply point to an alignment between four of Kant’s key notions: the determination of the negative noumena; the clarification of the self-reflexivity of aesthetic pleasure; the elaboration of the sublime as a play between finite and infinite; and the conception of nature as a protean model for human genius.
- Negative noumena
The notion of the ’noumenal’ in Ancient Greek philosophy refers specifically to objects of thought rather than sensible intuition. Plato’s ideal forms provide a famous example. They inhabit a noumenal space. Plato regards the noumenal space of mathematical ideality as true and actual, while phenomenal reality appears as a space of illusion. Kant draws upon this ancient notion of the noumenal, while subtly altering and extending it. Instead of simply and directly indicating ideality as such, the noumenal represents that which is directly, intelligibly intuited without any recourse to sensible intuition. This at once captures the sense of ideality, which Kant describes as positive noumena, as well as the sense of something that appears precisely the opposite – a negative noumena. This is the curious field of thought that signals the limits of thought. It represents within thought that which that exceeds thought altogether. How can these two understandings be related? Because both positive and negative noumena elude phenomenal experience and because they each represent terrains of thought. The positive noumena imagines directly intelligible, ideal objects, while the negative noumena conceives ‘nothing’ as such – or more precisely that which is other to and exceeds thought. The Kantian notion of the negative noumena emerges in relation to the self-reflexive concept of thought recognising its own limits and positing this beyond as a form of thought. Whereas the related notion of ‘the thing in itself’ motions outwards to the unknowable character and intrinsic excess of the world beyond thought, the negative noumena names the thinking of this space as a limit and form of negation. Kant writes of this latter sense:
The concept of a noumenon is, therefore, only a limiting concept, and intended to keep the claims of sensibility within proper bounds, and is therefore only of negative use. (CPR, p. 261)
In summary, the negative noumena emerges within thought, but is focused upon that which exceeds thought. Crucially, however, this negative and excessive potential does not simply lie outside thought, but is somehow contained within it, emerging as an aspect of its restless dynamism. It signals both a limit and also an internal relation to excess that is itself protean and infinite. This corresponds closely to how Kant conceives the general character of aesthetic cognition, as well as to his specific conception of the play of sublime thought and the notions of nature and genius.
- Self-reflexive aesthetic pleasure
Kant argues that aesthetic pleasure does not emerge from a relation to sensible phenomena as such, but rather in terms of a free play of the faculties of imagination and understanding. It is a meta-level pleasure that is linked to the prolongation of indeterminacy. Kant links the faculty of imagination to phenomenal experience. It represents a form of receptive contemplation. But this contemplation only obtains aesthetic value inasmuch as it also has an active dimension, inasmuch as it works over phenomena, inasmuch as it discovers within them a sense of curious, intransitive purpose. For this play of interpretation to genuinely become aesthetic, for it to discover a coherent formal character, it must also involve an aspect of the faculty of understanding. How is this to be conceived? If the understanding is all about applying concepts to phenomenal experience, and if aesthetics is precisely about delaying any reduction to concepts and maintaining a pleasurable energetics of irresolution, then how can we conceive the role of understanding here? Perhaps in terms of the conception of the negative noumena? Aesthetic contemplation is thought finding the means to think beyond its own limits, yet not to represent this field substantively so much as negatively; more as a self-reflexive energy than as something known. This raises the issue of how the aesthetic can be bracketed as a special form or cognition? While it certainly characterises a particular form of judgement (informing statements of the kind, ‘this apple is beautiful’), it may have more general cognitive relevance. Just possibly, aesthetic play – the meta-level awareness that it enables – provides the very ground for the division between the phenomenal and noumenal. It is what shapes the prospect and non-experience of negatively cast excess. It stages the noumenal relation as intrinsic not only to the experience of aesthetic pleasure but to cognition generally.
- Sublime limit and infinite
The sublime, for Kant, describes the intimate relation between the recognition of limits and their capacity for overcoming. Importantly, overcoming is not a consequence of destroying limits, but of playing upon and exacerbating them. The gap, for instance, between the noumenal and the phenomenal is never literally overcome, but their relation is staged in such a way that an infinite prospect is opened up within thought – within thought’s own capacity to reflect upon itself, within its own capacity to link collapse to overcoming. The vastness of huge ocean storm – its terrible chaos – becomes pleasurable inasmuch as it presses us to think beyond number and coherent form. It serves as a metaphor for our own noumenal capacity, which is the very energy of thought. Thought is not simply recognition. It is not simply a robotic work of categorisation – of applying models that are already known. It involves an endless play of the limit that has its general basis in aesthetic cognition.
- Nature and genius
At one level Kant associates nature with a field of blind determination – with material things blindly interacting with one another. This is distinguished from the realm of human identity and freedom. Yet at another level, he represents nature as the very model for the protean dynamic of human thought and being.
Nature as whole is, of course, a concept. It is something thought, but it also refers to something that structurally exceeds thought. Philosophy has a deictic category. It points. It necessarily employs concepts to point, but this is not to say that everything it points towards is reducible to these constructs. We do not encompass nature with our concept of nature. Our understanding always fall short, is always limited, and always plays on the limit.
In its dynamic, excessive, irreducible character, nature provides the model for aesthetic genius. It figures as the active principle in matter – that which animates it. This is linked to its noumenal aspect, but clearly not in the sense of self-reflexive species of thought, so much as a constant challenging of thought (and as field that is ultimately painfully and ecstatically oblivious to thought). I suppose, arguably, the notion of nature could be regarded as a projection of thought – an invention of thought’s external basis. While it may have this character, and it certainly does within romanticism, this is not to say that it may not also represent something else, something that is irreducible to these endless self-reflexive circles.
In any case, nature very explicitly provides the model for Kant’s conception of artistic genius. The genius of art is based upon harbouring the tension of the noumenal – finding phenomenal metaphors for this relation, yet less as coherent, final images than motions of opening and indetermination. Here the notion of genius describes clear links between the negative potential and excess of the noumenal and the dynamic irresolution of aesthetic contemplation and the protean purposiveness of nature.
If these alignments never quite achieve adequate focus within Kant – if they are to some extent repressed – this is because Kant’s overriding concern is to provide a unified account. His critical project involves a double motion of questioning previous models and recommending a meta-level model that enables things to roughly remain in place. Within this context, the aesthetic appears chiefly as a figure of reconciliation. In an Aristotelian manner, it is the moment of catharsis that ties together the dimensions of being that the wider philosophical system (as a form of tragedy) has so painstakingly torn apart and delineated. Yet this is to only recognise one aspect of the aesthetic, when the implications of the aesthetic are always profoundly double. It both rescues the system and exposes its inherent gaps. It both manifests limits and plays at them. Its structure is cyclical. It draws on a carnival logic in which social transformation occurs within the context of a staged revolution, and the theatricality of any action is constantly undermined by its seriousness. There is no sense of ever taking deliberate steps forward. They are all repeated steps, but each time utterly different.
Ranciere employs two different notions of the aesthetic: the first represents a restricted conception linked to the self-definition of contemporary art (‘the aesthetic regime of art’); while the second indicates a more general conception linked to notions of sense and the sensible (evident, for instance, in his reference to ’the asthetics of politics’).
Within the context of the restricted conception, Ranciere describes the intimate ‘knotted’ relationship between art aesthetics. Disagreeing with contemporary efforts to distinguish art from philosophical aesthetics – to either free art from the weight of dull theorising that can never approach the sublime truth of art (Lyotard) or to protect philosophy from precisely that Romantic risk, and to insist that art and philosophy represent altogether separate realms of truth-making (Badiou) – Ranciere argues, in contrast, that art and aesthetics are mutually imbricated and constitutive. Aesthetics serves as the discourse for identifying and making sense of art in an age when it lacks clearly delineated material marks – when it is no longer linked to identifiable modes of making, clear signs of craft, characteristic themes and iconography, or even standard contexts of display. Within the contemporary ‘anything goes’ context, art risks seeming an ‘emperor with no clothes’, except that it has aesthetics to furnish some level of modesty (elusive identity).
At the same time, aesthetics also benefits from its relation to art. This category that has always been itself elusive, that appears for Kant as a late addition to the philosophical system, that is more intermediary than determinate field, that is associated with the whole problem within philosophy of the je ne sais quoi (of everything that falls outside logos and ratio) comes to pinpoint a specific sphere of culture and cultural activity. It is associated with objects, practices, places, social differences and economic exchanges. So that which appeared sensible but also inchoate and separate from ordinary practical activity corresponds to a concrete space that can be confidently designated, even if the latter’s identity and boundaries are constantly changing. In this sense, the social reality of art represents the reification of aesthetics. It lends a mode of experience that is defined more negatively than actually (non-instrumental, non-conceptual, non-purposive) a slightly more positive claim to tangible existence.
So if I now envisage the notion of an aesthetic practice that extends beyond art this is only possible because the uncertain sphere of experience that aesthetics entails has already been authenticated via art. The aesthetic must first be grounded. I must first envisage that the category of the aesthetic is genuinely coherent, that it can designate a specific mode of experience.
Worth noting that is not only art and aesthetics that draw benefit from their tight association, but also the wider philosophical and cultural system, with its complex distinctions between various modes of being, feeling, knowing, etc. By positioning the aesthetic in relation to an actual sphere of cultural activity, by lending it the credence of a knotted, essential relation to art, every other category within the system more clearly recognises its own proper place and logic. The more art and aesthetics obtain delimited, mutually reinforcing identity the more their separation from other aspects of life can be demonstrated and the more that knowing can distinguished from feeling, practical activity from play and contemplative reflection, determinate relations from fragile spheres of freedom.
This is also to acknowledge that the contemporary efforts to conceive, critique and rethink the aesthetic are historically framed. This is not an argument about the essential nature of aesthetics – as it exists putatively in some timeless relation to cognition, ethics or whatever – but about the relation between philosophical discourse and modes of action, feeling and thought, in which both terms in this relation are historically constituted and subject to contestation and change.
In my view, for all the inadequacy of the aesthetic, for all the fundamental divisions that it entails, reconciles and reinforces, it cannot simply be abandoned. There are historical reasons for its emergence and these extend well beyond the aesthetic itself. In this sense the aesthetic is a kind of epiphenomenon or symptom of tensions that have much wider currency and force than is immediately apparent. Similarly I take the view that the aesthetic can exist before it is properly historically manifest, in the same way that a cheese can be affected holistically via mould long before mould spores themselves become visible. Of course, there is the risk that in looking backwards for signs of the aesthetic we can get it wrong, we can determine imaginary points of correlation and continuity when there are actually only analogies. But this is hardly a reason not to attempt to trace how the mould spreads tentacles within the cheese before the spores sufficiently coalesce to appear. Respecting history is not only a matter of insisting upon elements of difference and discontinuity, but also of tracing links and associations across time. The knot of the aesthetic did not simply take shape within modernity and is not simply based upon a relation to art per se. Indeed, art itself is not a simple ground. It is inflected by dilemmas and uncertainties that extend well beyond art and its imagined delimitation.
So for this reason – because art and aesthetics represent from the ‘outset’ unstable, epiphenomenal fields – I have no problem detecting aspects of the aesthetic – the dilemmas of the aesthetic – within Pre-Socratic thought, or within the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, or within Augustine’s conception of the relationship between music, number and the vibratory character of being. All of these are clearly enough antecedents to properly aesthetic philosophy. What is interesting is that they were written in societies that were not characterised by the ‘knot’ of the aesthetic – that recognised no neatly circumscribed space of aesthetic experience and no cultural space of alienated art. Nonetheless they experienced tensions between feeling and thought, freedom and adherence, common opinion and logos, the theatre of cultural reproduction and the emergence of truth that underlie aesthetic thought, providing its deep – and deeply historical – basis.
What is the relationship between aesthetics and knowledge?
In ordinary use, the term ‘aesthetics’ relates to theories of beauty and art. It is a field of intellectual enquiry that examines non-strictly intellectual aspects of judgement and activity. In this sense, the discipline of aesthetics aims to distill an aspect of the known from the unknown. It aims to explain a form of experience that falls outside knowledge proper.
But aesthetics is not only a critical discipline. It also refers to the order of experience that the discipline takes as its object – the viewer’s experience, for instance, when looking at an art work; their experience of pleasure, beauty, sublimity or otherwise. To what extent does this correspond to a form of knowledge? Or is it utterly distinct from anything that we may meaningfully regard in these terms? And here plainly everything hinges on our conception of knowledge. We expect knowledge to be rationally and intellectually grounded. We distinguish it from common opinion, subjective preference and merely perceptual interaction. We project a notional body and a notional mind. We project the difference between these two, with aesthetic experience associated with the body (as a space of subjectivity and potential illusion) and fields such as pure mathematics associated with the mind. The latter provide our model for proper forms of knowledge, despite its regular distance from any aspect of our lived experience.
Yet what if we loosened up our conception of knowledge? What if we thought of knowledge differently? In some ways, the notion of aesthetics can assist with this – even if in other ways it reinforces the terms of its own difference and exclusion.
The modern term ‘aesthetics’ has an etymological basis in the Ancient Greek word αἰσθάνομαι, which indicates aspects of learning, understanding and perception. There is no clear distinction made here between coming to understand something sensibly or intellectually. It was only a bit later – still within Ancient Greek – that a new associated term, αἰσθητικός, came to distinguish specifically sensible perception. This early term also has a strong process emphasis. Without specifically referring to knowledge per se, it indicates an inclusive conception of various ways of coming to be aware and know of something.
Knowledge is less objectified here – rendered as particular, tangible stuff – than positioned as a mode of experience. I am particularly interested in the prominence of learning. Learning is, of course, key to our understanding of knowledge acquisition, but it also plays a vital role in aesthetic discourse. Although aesthetics, in the iconic Kantian conception, would seem to be entirely about features of elusive subjective response (and the mysterious basis of a broader ‘common sense’), there is also a rich tradition of philosophical aesthetics that focuses on aesthetic experience as a form of learning. Most famously there is Plato’s condemnation of poetry as a proper form of learning (inasmuch as it conveys illusions more than truths) and Schiller’s conception of the educative role of aesthetics in terms of establishing modes of sensibility that enable enlightened social organisation and interaction. Even if the value of aesthetic experience is questioned, there is still the sense of its intimate relation to learning. Even if better forms of learning are envisaged, there is still a recognition that aesthetic experience contributes to our understanding of the world and our capacity to engage with it in a culturally literate manner. In this broad sense, it has a clear bearing on an overall conception of knowledge – a knowledge that is not restricted to particular rationally sanctioned forms, but is implicit within cultural experience generally.
[And particularly within the texture of practice. Not then as an accomplished quantity, but as something that is always performed – and in that sense ephemeral.]
[I would also look at the elements of aesthetic knowledge within ‘proper’ knowledge. The dependence upon memory, for instance, within complex mathematical cognition, which can never adequately represent the imagined immediacy of rational thought, but rather simply the sense that it once happened in its requisite adequacy. Rational cognition is spread out in time and is never altogether present. It relies both on past thought and future projections. These are all representations – frustratingly blank instances of appearance that can never adequately, in another instant, recover their grounds. They too are performed and perceived.]
A contemporary issue, however, is that knowledge has come to be thought very much in terms of innovation. Knowledge positions itself as endlessly new. The economy of knowledge hinges on a machinery (and rhetoric) of innovation that tends to neglect the value of knowledge that is long-standing and old. It is not only conventional forms of knowledge that are caught up in this paradigm, but also aesthetic forms of knowledge – chiefly within the context of a contemporary art that privileges novelty. Doubtless this novelty is very often ambiguous – representing itself as new when it is actually a reminder of things forgotten or neglected – but still it affects the self-image of art and aesthetics and it tends to shape a gulf between this overall field and traditions of practice and thought that are more focused on cultural maintenance, or that conceive cultural transformation in more complex and less exclusively innovative terms. I am thinking, for instance, of popular traditions that reveal continuing aspects of orality and the carnivalesque.
One final point. Although we tend to think of aesthetics in terms of beauty and art, it seems to me that the field has broader implications. As the ancient term indicates, it can also relate to the overall dilemmas of coming to awareness, of coming to know things. This may not be the sense of the term that the modern tradition has drawn upon. It may have drawn more on the later term αἰσθητικός (relating specifically to sensible perception) and then have taken its own turn to focus specifically on beauty and art, but still at the core of these concerns is a central focus on conceiving another mode of awareness; at once allowing this possibility, bracketing it as distinct and separate, and also considering its broader implications, as well as its strange unsettling relationship to knowledge ‘proper’. Aesthetics is actually centrally concerned with all that the initial etymological point of reference entails. It has always figured as a troubling space of division, mediation and reconciliation. Aesthetics manifests another form of knowledge, but also demonstrates the aporetic features of our conception of knowledge. I have drawn upon an ancient term, but there are conceptual affordances within our own modern idioms. The term ‘sensible’ plays across both the sensory and the intellectual. The term ‘sense’ can refer equally to the senses, as sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch, or to sense as an aspect of cognition. The difficulty of ‘making sense’ of aesthetics relates to this awkward and uncertain relation between body and mind – between conceiving an interaction to the world that is materially cast and one that, at least notionally, exceeds materiality. The notion of aesthetic experience engages with the fundamental divisions and dilemmas of Western thought – signalling a mode of ‘sensibility’ that plays on the boundaries between sensation and thought. It works to mediate, exacerbate and renegotiate the terms of difference between the phenomenal and the noumenal.
[And also the ethical, though I have said nothing about this here. The aesthetic represents the very form of human freedom, sitting between the material determination of sensation and the a priori dictates of the categorical and moral imperatives. It is described by Kant as a space of ‘free play’. It is not only a vision of another mode of awareness and judgement, but also of another mode of being altogether that is characteristically human, but also utterly elusive.]
Aesthetics refers to a dimension of inexplicable value.
Aesthetics involves the non-propositional communication of truth. This truth has a holistic character – looking forward (as hope) and back (for strands of vivid memory and counter-memory).
Aesthetics has no proper space whatsoever. It refers to no categorically distinct and universally grounded sphere of experience. It is a means of delineating, reconciling and exacerbating fundamental flaws and aporia in our Western philosophical, social and cultural system.
A is for art.
A is for aesthetics (because aesthetics is much larger than art – if art is conceived in miniature as contemporary art).
A is also for Adorno, for he deserves a mention and I am fundamentally shaped by his aesthetics. Adorno conceives a tortured space of contradiction, in which beauty appears only to disappear and disappears only to appear.
A is also, of course, for Aristotle. He let the poets back in, but equally qualified their particular role.
B is for beauty, the key model of aesthetic experience.
B is Baumgarten and his notion of a mode of sensible thought – a stage towards reason, but also an awkward double.
B is also for all manner of French philosophers and critics who are concerned with aesthetics (in various guises) – Badiou, Bataille, Blanchot, Barthes, Bourdieu, Baudrillard, Bourriaud, etc.
B is also for Bakhtin who so precisely describes a carnivalesque aesthetic sensibility.
C is for the carnivalesque, which for me provides a model for how art and society can be conceived, in terms particularly of representing an intimate and indeterminable relationship between continuity and change.
D is for Dewey and his sense of the intimate relation between art and everyday experience.
E is for Empedocles and his understanding of the sensible mediation of the world.
E is for Eagleton’s Ideology of the Aesthetic.
F is for forests, for becoming lost in forests – for instance, (F)rancis Ponge’s Notes on the Pinewoods.
G is for gestalt. The magic of aesthetics is to see everything at once – to perceive a specific quantity, for instance, without the need to count.
H is Hegel and Heidegger. Hegel for restricting aesthetics to the history and philosophy of art. Heidegger for envisaging the complexity of appearance and disappearance in art.
H is also for Hesiod, who conceives not only a blind, aesthetically cast basis for human experience, but also a divine accession to knowledge and truth that is framed aesthetically as the intercession of the divine.
I is for intoxication. Plato also writes of intoxication.
J is for January, the month I was born.
K is Kant and his defining conception of aesthetics.
L is for Leibniz and his crucial sense of a graduated space between rational insight and irrational blindness.
M is for Martin – Agnes Martin, one of my favourite painters, who understands the relationship between meticulous process and transcendence.
N is for Nietzsche. His sense of Greek tragedy as a reconciliation between Apollonian and Dionysian tendencies in Greek culture has proved very important for me.
O is for Ong and his account of oral techniques of memory.
P is for Parmenides, particularly his aesthetically cast transition beyond common thought.
P is for Plato’s rejection of the poets as a corrupting influence, conveying illusory truths.
Q is for quiet – the reflective quiet of aesthetics.
R is for Ranciere and his notion of art as dissensus and aesthetics as the self-understanding of art.
S is for the sublime.
S is for Schiller and his argument that aesthetics provides the only sound basis for enlightened political community.
S is for Schelling who regarded art as the highest truth because it partakes of what lies beyond the conscious, subjective and rational articulation of truth.
T is for time, the curious time of aesthetics.
U is for the underworld – as a liminal field of experience.
V is for vision, though aesthetics need not involve vision.
W is for whatever.
X is for X (according to Leibniz).
Y is for yes, yesterday and yellow.
Z is for Zeno and the impossibility of ever reaching the door.
I can recall that my first response to art was quite simply blank. As a child my parents took me regularly to major galleries. They’d walk around very slowly, far too slowly for me, and ask what I thought of particular images – did I like them? Here my sense was that they were less interested in listening to my youthful impressions than in seeking any slight glimmer of nascent aesthetic capacity. I can remember having absolutely no thoughts or feelings whatsoever. The images simply meant nothing to me. I cared for them no more and most likely much less than for all the other ordinary things around me. I felt stupid, blind and semi-ashamed, but also an acute sense of my own difference – however negatively cast. I also knew not to confess to any of this. I realised very clearly that I needed to discover the means to experience this curious field of art and to speak of it. Gradually I developed these skills, but even now I can recall that initial feeling of incomprehension – and it still returns when confronted by art that is indifferent to to me.
Hardly surprising then that I studied art in my final year of high school. I was determined to makes sense of a field that made little intimate sense to me. Yet to be honest, if I did gradually come to develop an enthusiasm for art, this happened more through language than the experience of art per se. I can remember avidly reading our textbook, Gombrich’s History of Western Art, which provided a compelling overview of western artistic traditions, and more importantly represented art as as an engrossing story of distinct periods, movements and styles. The narrative here was less simply art-historical than philosophical. It was about the evolution and struggle of philosophical ideas, which were in turn related to the formal features of particular artistic styles and works of art. So in this sense it was through the lens of aesthetics that I became captivated by art, rather than vice versa. During this time I can also recall making a studious effort to become knowledgeable about art – to recognise the work, for instance, of specific artists. Plainly a compensatory manoeuvre. What I lacked in immediate sensibility I made up for with flimsy erudition.
My real tastes lay elsewhere. I was much more genuinely absorbed in the spheres of film, television, literature and, in my teenage years, popular music. These were much more significant spaces of immediate pleasure and value for me. I didn’t really connect any of these other spheres of culture to the question of art until a bit later, and once again I suspect it was through language and the discourse surrounding art than to any special interaction with art works themselves.
When I returned in my mid-twenties to university study, the problem of art became central to the theorisation not just of art itself, but of culture and cultural meaning generally. Even just the titles of the set readings made this very evident – for example, Benjamin’s ’The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Adorno and Horkheimer’s ‘Cultural Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’, and Debord’s ’Society of the Spectacle’. All of these works and many others positioned the problem of art as central to the understanding of contemporary culture and cultural practice – whether or not the cultural forms or practices bore any ostensible relation to the sphere of art or not. So, for instance, the cultural-political dilemmas of resistance and incorporation in contemporary popular music could be precisely mapped to the contradictions of the tradition of avant-garde art, and to issues that are fundamentally aesthetic – that have their basis in critical and philosophical aesthetics.
A decade or so later, as a Communication and Media academic, I produced a series of lectures on the aestheticisation of information. This drew on currents of Frankfurt School critical theory and postmodern cultural theory to argue that the emergence of desktop publishing represented an effort to represent regimes of corporate communication and statistical data in humanly vivid terms. I was struck by the strangeness of this effort, and the notion of aesthetics seemed the best way of clarifying what was at stake. At the same time, as an active rock-climber, I was also very concerned with debates on the ethics of bolting in rock-climbing, recognising that what were portrayed as simply ethical, practical or environmental arguments had a fundamentally aesthetic character. They were about the imaginative scenography and mediation of specific features of a complex cultural form and an associated set of environmental relationships. So desktop publishing was not simply, narrowly about the enhancement of information and fixed climbing anchors (bolts) were not simply signs of ethical disregard and vandalism. Each of these spheres of cultural activity and debate revealed a fundamentally aesthetic aspect. However, neither bear any close and native relation to the field of art as such. As much as I have become increasingly concerned with dilemmas of art (partly in terms of resolving my own personal relation to whatever art means and how it affects me), I have always conceived the field of aesthetics more generally. While French philosopher Jacques Ranciere defines aesthetics in terms of the self-understanding of modern and contemporary art, my own sense is that aesthetics also has considerable relevance beyond the sphere of art per se.
So I come to aesthetics with a sense of personal ambivalence and perhaps a larger sense of categorical uncertainty. I am invested in the notion of aesthetics – and perhaps even in reimagining it – in order to make sense not only of art, but also things that extend beyond it. Ranciere would no doubt point to the paradigmatic character of this desire and conundrum within art, but I can also recognise a more general space of philosophical and cultural relevance.
Bourdieu, Eagleton, etc. are probably right – aesthetics is ultimately all about class and class difference. (Or at least I can imagine arguing this.)
For example, Plato’s prohibition of the poets is usually interpreted in epistemological terms as relating to issues of truth – of proximity to truth – with philosophy appearing as a means of genuinely attaining to an understanding of the ideality of truth (the reality of form), whereas poetry presents only copies of copies. Poetry is described as ‘thrice-removed’ from truth. But perhaps the prohibition has a less strictly philosophical tenor? Perhaps it relates to popular modalities of truth that ostensibly and inevitably partake in aspects of rhetoric and emotion, that do not yet envisage the notion of the independent and critically minded citizen? Perhaps Plato’s prohibition of the poets is indicative of the split between popular and philosophical reasoning that will always have been evident in Greek philosophy – and perhaps this is one of the real points of this philosophy; to introduce a division, a division between the lived and the thought, between body and mind, that will have, and has always had, social implications?
I think also of Hesiod’s Theogony, which begins with a vision of mankind as shepherds. This suggests an ambivalent sense of human identity. Human beings are shepherds, but also sheep. They are caught up in a common blindness of belief and action that only the Muses can relieve via their vision of truth. This reveals another layer of ambivalence – the uncertain relation between the Muses vision of truth and the forms of popular belief and imagination. What separates them? Is it only the scenography of appearing from on high, from another sphere of being? And if so, isn’t this itself a popular poetic conceit (a kind of spectacle and deus ex machina)? The theatre of truth’s revelation is caught up in the mise en abyme of the popular. It cannot stand altogether removed from and outside it (this gesture of removal being the characteristic gesture of philosophy which is always concerned to distinguish the logos and the arche from the spectre of common opinion). But returning to the metaphor of the shepherd. Shepherds spend their day with their sheep and in this sense are emblematic of the field of popular blindness. Shepherds are leaders, but only on the basis that they follow. Shepherds follows by leading. They focus on leading the flock from one pasture to the next, guarding them from wolves and settling them down for the night. This metaphor represents a reflection on the nature of popular, common being, which as oral culture focuses on maintenance and repetition, which is unconcerned with the singular and the new.
Aristotle projects a partial compromise – a reconciliation of the popular and dimensions of rational, autonomous civic identity. All the popular cultural modes are permitted, but only if they fall ultimately under the sign of philosophical differentiation and categorisation. The popular is permitted as an outlet – a safety valve – as well as something that can be calmly positioned within an overall scheme of mimetic possibilities. It has its place but is constrained by a wider truth that takes shape higher up the (social) hierarchy.
And what is Ranciere’s ‘dissensus’ if not an effort to acknowledge the energy of the popular but subsumed under the sign of critical rationality. It is the resistance that plainly opposes rather than subsisting more ambivalently as that which laughs and turns upside down. It is innovative rather than playing on archetypes. This is what Ranciere never appreciates in the post-modern – its laughter and carnivalesque aspect.
Here it would not be a matter of defending carnival against rational civic identity, but recognising that the tension between the two is marked by more than simply epistemological and aesthetic considerations – that it is also rooted in social difference, and in the play of social difference in ostensibly philosophical and aesthetic practices.