Aesthetic Time and Excess (notes)

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.

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