GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

December 4, 2018

Esthetic Oscillations

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:05 am

I’m going to follow up here on what have been prominent, but subordinate reflections on aesthetics in some recent posts. It’s always good to go back to the beginning: in this case, Eric Gans’s location of the aesthetic on the originary scene in the oscillation, in the attention of the participant, between the sign put forth by another participant, and the central object itself. This right away distinguishes between the sacred, focused on the being of the central object, on the one hand, and the aesthetic, focused on a fellow member, on the other. This distinction is confirmed by Gans’s discussions, especially in Originary Thinking, but elsewhere as well, on the origins of secular narrative and art, which always involves a shift from sacred to human agents.

Gans focuses on the well-formed sign, the gesture itself, that presents the object as especially desirable, because desired and prohibited by the gesture itself, and which in turn sends the attention back to the object, which loses its “aura” separate from the sign, leading the attention back to the sign. The gesture is formal—indeed, this is the origin of “form” in human existence, and by “form” we can mean a part of an act or object we can single out and identify as something we see in another act or object. The other’s gesture is well-formed insofar as it is the “same” gesture we see another perform—differences between them can be seen as differences between better and worse formed signs, or, later, at a higher level of sophistication, different types of signs or gesture, but this is a way of recognizing they are the same kind of (repeatable) thing.

On the originary scene itself, the esthetic and sacred are interdependent, with the esthetic subordinate to the sacred, confirming the transcendence of the object—again, as confirmed by a very long history of sacred representation before the esthetic is ever separated and made autonomous as “art.” It is also confirmed by the fact that Gans always talks about art, and esthetic criteria like “beauty,” as concerning the representation of the central object, even if now from the standpoint of the humans on the scene. (“Beauty,” it seems, emerges as the sacred withdraws.) But it must have always been possible to assess the aesthetic component of representations, even if only to point out that something about the representation was not worthy of the majesty or dignity of the deity, and this is clearly true on the originary scene, where the “form” of the sign becomes an object of attention.

Gans, to my knowledge, never refers to anything but the sign itself, by which we mean the aborted gesture of appropriation—the means by which each participant makes it clear to the others that he will not advance further towards the central object. What counts as this gesture must then be distinguished from what is not “of” the gesture in one’s fellow participant. We ordinarily think about the gesture as a pointing, an assumption which has become increasingly entrenched in originary thinking as we have incorporated the social psychology of Michael Tomasello, with his notion of “joint attention.” I don’t dispute the centrality of pointing at all: it is very easy to understand how a grasping would become, through minor modification which need not even be deliberately introduced, a pointing (it’s odd that we don’t have a good noun here: “a pointing” is awkward). At the same time, the pointing is a tiny part of the human figure, the rest of which must at least be providing “background” setting of the “point.” The rest of the body must be in some kind of equipoise: certainly not moving, but not even leaning too much toward the object; certainly not retreating, which would indicate concession to the more Alpha, but also not leaning too far back. This equipoise is probably novel as well, indicating a new mode of self-control. Equipoise suggests balance, in this case between the other as threatening, on the one hand, and as vulnerable, on the other. This articulation of fearfulness/fearsomeness is, then, embedded in the gesture as esthetic form.

This has been the basis for my saying that the most originary esthetic mode is satire—it is satire that captures the grotesqueness of the human figure bare, stripped of any transcendence, simultaneously harmful and harmless, passively aggressive. The implication, then, is that all aesthetic representation, and all art, has a satiric dimension to it. This seems to be me confirmed by the fact that the esthetic scene, to draw the spectator’s imagination into it, must at the very least distinguish itself from some generic scene of “normal” life—to suggest that the scene that conforms to all our expectations is in fact other than how it appears is implicitly satiric. But there is clearly much more to the esthetic, and to art, than the satiric; the beautiful, most obviously. I think we can integrate all the different elements of the esthetic by identifying an oscillation within the sign-giving participant on the scene between the sign itself and the elements, evident in the entire posture of the figure, that are less formed, warring, but ultimately articulated in the sign: that fearsomeness/fearfulness balance. The conversion of that balance into a formed sign wherein it can be forgotten, and our attention directed back to the central object, is where the relation between the satiric and the rest of esthetic form resides. What is beautiful is seeing warring, i.e., potentially violent, elements, brought together in a whole that eliminates the possibility of violence while allowing for the expression of all of those elements in relation to each other. And it does seem to me that effective satire can never really be beautiful.

So, from a purely esthetic perspective, we have, on the scene, an oscillation between the “formative” (but not formed) posture, on the one hand, and the (formed) sign on the other. The oscillation is not static, though, because each “swing” back to the sign also directs our attention to the object, which leads to greater preponderance of gesture over posture. By the time the group actually advances on the object (these specifically intra-esthetic oscillation accounts, then, for how one “snaps out of” the oscillation between sign and object itself and actually proceed to appropriation), posture has become a “component” of gesture. What was once jarring satire becomes harmonious in the beautiful. And the beautiful clearly is much more helpful in enabling us to get along with each other than satire would be; moreover, it’s not clear that the reformist purposes often attributed to satire (pointing out and ridiculing bad behavior so as to induce better behavior) has ever been effective, or ever could be (if you’re the target of satire, it’s  “unfair”—which no doubt it must be—if you’re not, or need not include yourself among its targets, it confirms your superior virtue)—so, the significance of satire must lie elsewhere.

The moralizing intentions attributed to satire may very well be a way of evading the possibility that satire is both, to draw upon Kant’s definition of the aesthetic, purposeful and purposeless. After all, if we’re really Yahoos, as Swift’s satire would presumably have it, what can we do about it? Somehow, it’s true both that we are Yahoos, and that it’s horrifying to imagine ourselves as Yahoos—unlike some modern materialist encouraging us to accept that we, too, are just animals, Swift is certainly not suggesting that we “reconcile” ourselves to our essential Yahooness. It is also interesting that satire gets seen as both extremely reactionary, insofar as it seems to target the new and pretentious in particular, and revolutionary, insofar as it disrupts all authority and leaves no perspective, however sacred or privileged, unsatirized. Meanwhile, while I’m not sure about this, and there are no doubt exceptions, it seems to me that devoted satirists are the least inclined of all artists to assert a political stance. The know that anything can be satirized, even the genuinely virtuous, even if they’re not sure why. The idea that there must always be some “standard” that the satirist is holding up in examining “transgressions” from it is dubious, even if satire can be used in such a way. The more basic foundation of satire is that all human action can be presented as absurd, with some shift in perspective.

That satire neither possesses not recognizes any authority makes it apparently “anarchic”; meanwhile, more favored aesthetic categories (most would probably dispute placing satire on the same level as them) like the beautiful and the sublime are very authoritative, both in themselves (one is gently subordinated to the beautiful, cowed by the sublime) and in their integration into institutions (perhaps some of the attention-seeking modern structures aim at satire, while falling into partisan ugliness, but architecture, the most unavoidable and political form of art, generally aims at beauty and/or sublimity). A ruler certainly wants his dwelling to signify vigor and harmony, not evoke laughter. But in disclaiming authority, satire also makes no claim upon it: it simply accepts that authority will be authority. Rulers really have nothing to fear from a genuine satirist (even if the satirist, like Brecht, believes otherwise). It is beauty and sublimity that can be readily mobilized for propagandistic purposes to discredit one authority in the name of another. Beauty’s assertion of disinterest makes it especially vulnerable to appropriation; satire’s more genuine disinterest lies in it being interested in anything. We couldn’t do away with beauty and sublimity even if we wanted to, and no one would really want to; but, it is still the case that satire will and should have the last word.

We can see satire as making visible the distinction between posture and gesture. This would distinguish it from, for example, irony, since the distinction between posture and gesture can be presented extremely forcefully in a non-ironic way. Nor is parody interested in the posture/gesture distinction: parody repeats the entire “move” until it is set on a different scene: the move is discredited on the new scene (it’s worn out) but left intact in its original “habitat.” Satire is imitating the ways others imitate others which, if you remove the center from consideration, is what the use of language involves. So, satire “brackets” the center, that is, proceeds as if it’s not there while knowing it is; it knows the beautiful must eventually guide us through the established mode of distribution, while simply ignoring this. Satire is not really interested in being realistic, or in improvement—it just wants to show us what inevitably gets forgotten in more acceptable forms of representation. It must be extremely difficult to be an uncompromising satirist, and it is difficult to make sense of an uncompromising satire: we want to think imitation comes to an end at some point, and it’s dizzying to think that it doesn’t. But the implication of this analysis is that satire is the enemy of all imperia in imperio, especially the source of all really important “implicit” forms of sovereignty today: the disciplines (what distinguishes the [easily satirized, implicitly satirical] “populist” is that he makes a claim to legitimacy that doesn’t depend upon economics, sociology, political science, etc.). I think that a lot of artists and writers, once promoted by the left, like, to take just one example, William S. Burroughs, whose work is really an unrelenting satire on the medical, scientific and social scientific disciplines, will become a resource for the absolutist-informed right. Disciplinary spaces (revolutionary, fractal science) aiming at clarifying the chains of command will be generated through satires of established disciplines (normal, grant-seeking, influence peddling, usurpationist science).

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