A few years ago, I saw someone with a T-shirt that had nothing but the words “Us vs. Them” on it. It seemed both meaningful and meaningless, so I gave it some thought. Us vs. Them is, first of all, the most abstract form of all group conflicts, from the perspective of one of the parties (both of the parties). So, it’s the way everyone in every conflict sees things, but it’s also the way no one, in any conflict, sees things: no one would engage an enemy if it was just “the enemy”—the enmity has to have some “content” to it. So, the T-shirt was satirical—when you’re immersed in some struggle, this is the way you see things, even if you can’t see that you see them that way. It makes a kind of Girardian point regarding the way in which sustained struggle creates increasing symmetry between the combatants. But at the same time, in claiming a kind of satiric or ironic stance, the T-shirt creates a division, between those capable of this insight from mimetic theory, and those blind to it. The T-shirt is mocking its viewer. So it reinstates an “Us vs. Them,” and it does so on the purely formal level of the abstract antagonism itself. But one final observation is necessary: the T-shirt, or its wearer, in reinstating this division, is itself a target of the irony, which means that all of us enter the Us vs. Them frame, i.e., are subject to mimetic desire, and all of us need to have others snap us out of it by mirroring back to us in a “barer,” more formal way, our display of that mimetic attitude; and each of us has to do it for others.
This art object (why not?) is exemplary of the aesthetic. That, ultimately, is what the aesthetic is, and what art does: exhibit our resentments back to us in such a way that we can inspect and distance ourselves from them. Eric Gans locates the origin of the aesthetic on the originary scene, in the oscillation between the sign and the object on the part of each of the participants on the scene. The sign (the gesture of aborted appropriation) directs one’s attention to the desirable object at the center, but now the object is just an object, once it is no longer mediated by the sign, so the attention goes back to the sign, and so on. This consolidates the sign as an acceptable, albeit temporary, proxy for the object: it is “beautiful,” or at the very least well-formed. I think what is involved here is the creation of a potential scene within the scene: if one participant is “judging” the sign, he must be doing so under the assumption that everyone else on the scene could turn to the sign and do the same. On this scene, the sign will be judged either acceptable (well-formed) or unacceptable (unformed). In the former case, the object is approached symmetrically by all on the scene; in the latter case, the sign may work, but all approach in a state of heightened suspicion (the unaesthetic life is possible, but is a lesser life). The aesthetic on the scene, in the form of one of one’s fellow “signers,” is the entire body presenting as a more or less perfect balance between self-disarmament and deterrence. In this balance we see reflected our own resentments, and the means of curtailing them.
Within every scene, then, that is, every human event or happening, there is a potential aesthetic scene wherein we are able to withdraw somewhat and take in the signs of the scene—rather than trying to push oneself forward as a center, one can inspect the potential centrality of others. The origin of art, as distinct from ritual (where the aesthetic was always surely a contributing element), involves taking some such marginal figure and placing it at a “prepared” center. Gans sees the classical aesthetic exemplified by ancient Greek tragedy as the “degree zero” of art. Art has human figures at the center, replacing the deities of mythology, and the figures initially placed at the center are unquestionably important within the human scene. The significance of the scene is taken for granted, and so the scene itself is not represented. But it’s also the case that on this scene the artist is invested with an authority modeled on that of the Big Man who usurps the ritual scene. In classical art, the artist is fully invested in and identifies with the authority of the community. The scene of art is a supplement or direct replacement of the ritual scene, with the art object or happening at the center and the audience at the periphery. The art scene, then, enacts an oscillation between itself and the center, as a site of distribution and modeling of needed practices. So, all art works within, that is, imitates, and displaces some discourse on the center—ritual, myth, prayer, public discussion, interactions in the royal court or, in the modern age, the disciplines scientific, pedagogical, bureaucratic, journalistic, etc., along with privatized modes of self-regulation like diaries and letters.
Aesthetic history is determined by the ways in which the scene of aesthetic representation is represented within the art work or event itself; or, we could say, the way the potential or virtual scene within the scene is represented. The artist governs the art scene from its center; as such he represents a “bit” of social authority, which also means he mimics and draws upon some other authority. There is therefore a boundary between the art scene and other disciplinary scenes and between center of the art scene and its periphery (between art and audience). On one side, we can imagine maximal differentiation between the art scene and the other disciplines, along with maximal investment of artistic authority in that differentiation; on the other side, the art scene tends to dissolve the boundaries and become an aesthetic difference within the other disciplinary scenes—in the most extreme case, the artist’s authority is diffused amongst other disciplinary authorities as an aesthetic dimension “vibrating” within them. Post-classical art, which is to say art that purports to oppose the social center, has itself oscillated between these possibilities. I will say that the latter, dissolvent, diffusive tendency is most likely to win out, and should win out, because it leads the artist to be reintegrated into communal authority. I would see, then, the furthest unfolding of aesthetic possibility to be the establishment of the oscillation between the actual scene and the potential scene within the actual or world scene itself: the introduction of “switches” into everyday life that just barely upset our expectations (expectations being a concoction of desires and resentments “streaming” on the screen of the world) and so “read” them back to use in the course of our lives. The power of the artist in maintaining the boundary between art and spectator, that is, is already too crude and impossible to credit: we know too much about what goes into the production, placement, and valuation of any work. Aesthetic experience has to include that knowledge and show us how we keep nevertheless forgetting it. Much like that “Us vs. Them” T-shirt.
The origin of aesthetics, then, is the participant on the scene imagining a potential scene focused on a fellow “signer.” That fellow signer guarantees, to a greater or lesser extent, the significance of the central object. The more the signer presents himself, or is presented on the imagined scene of the viewer, as all sign, and nothing but sign, that is, as a complete and unequivocal model of deferral, the more certain the guarantee. That is the origin of “beauty,” even if naturally desirable objects become the more readily available models of beauty in works of art. But being all sign and nothing but sign is temporary, because it depends upon the specific desire being deferred. The “artist,” or revealer of the aesthetic scene, must transform that static sign into a model for recognizing, responding to and generating aesthetic scenes. For this purpose, the static all sign and nothing but sign, which will, or always already has, become embedded in the habits of the group, must be turned into a kind of anti-model. All art begins, that is, with the exhaustion of a previous aesthetic tradition; any art begins by accelerating and accentuating that exhaustion. The same goes for the everyday aesthetics found in our “styles,” whether of dress, speech, gesture, or any mode of interaction. Something is made meaningful by distinguishing it from something that has lost its meaning (it would be equally true to say that things lose their meaning when we distinguish it from something we now find meaningful).
A good way to think about something that has taken the path from maximally meaningful to meaningless is as a puppet whose strings we have just seen. A moment ago, it was to all appearances alive, conscious, spontaneous and intentional; now, it’s dangling and jerked around by unseen hands. (I’m continuing a line of inquiry from my “Signing Up” post, only now suggesting more strongly that there is a satiric element of all aesthetics and art, an element that always highlights the difference in some repetition.) In this way aesthetics erects a potential scene within some scene we are immersed in, the complete meaningfulness of which we have taken for granted. The aesthetic scene begins by showing us that we conferred rather than simply recognized the apparent meaning on the scene, and once we realize we’re doing that, we can do it no longer—we’re the puppets, just as much as the objects we’ve been taking too literally. Any art, even the most traditional and classic, must do this insofar as it wrenches us from our ordinary forms of attention in order to initiate us into a more transcendent or “presentified” one.
In allowing our attention to thus be unraveled and rewoven, we enter the potential scene actualized by the aesthetic object or event. It’s more accurate to say that we send, or delegate, a part of us to attend the scene. This is a more specialized and attentive part of oneself, a more disciplinary self. One “peels” it off, so to speak, as a form of oneself that moves more freely among representations than we normally can or do. We can call it a “probe” we send out. It’s the part of us we train to notice small details or unremarked similarities; to poke into crevices or embed a figure in a vast tableau; to look at something as a point in time stretching backward and forward millennia, or as something that came together miraculously at that moment. As aesthetic beings, we oscillate between being puppets dangled by and probes on behalf of the center. Puppets, or in a modern version, perhaps, robots (or crash dummies, or NPCs), can be very instructive—like small children can do, they show us what we look like considered as purely mimetic animals. We need to see that in order to initiate a counter-mimesis, one that remembers the “joints” now operating mechanically as composed and integral to gestures.
Now, we peel off and set free the probe, which examines things from inside the puppet, and the probe itself becomes puppet and peels off another probe, and so on. It’s puppets and probes all the way down. But the probes come home—you can think of them as layers of narration. Like in self-reflexive fiction, the narrator enters the story, and doubles as character and narrator—the telling of the story and the story itself interfere with each other. We can’t set a theoretical limit to scenes within scenes, to the mise en abyme, or vorticism, but there are always practical, which is to say ethical and moral limits. The narrative structure of beginning, middle and end can generally be relied upon to set the limits (which some artists will want to defy—and they may succeed). You enter the scene you have constructed, you act within it, and you exit it as the one who was both always outside and constructed it and also constructed it out of your experience within it. This should all be easy to understand today, when everyone on Twitter gets drawn into narratives of their own creation, via impersonation and pseudonymous agency, trying to craft the stories (“time-lines”) that are crafting them.