May 14, 2019

The Paradoxical Telos of the Aesthetic

Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:11 am

The origin of the aesthetic lies in the oscillation of the participant on the originary scene’s attention between the sign (the aborted gesture of appropriation) put forth by the other, on the one hand, and the central object, on the other. The sign barring access to the object enhances the desirability of that object, while the object, lacking meaning without the sign, directs the attention back to the “well formed” sign. So, wherein lies the aesthetic, then? In the object, which is turned into something like an image of itself; or, in the sign, which presents deferral as an attractive model, and constitutes the first body image? It must be in the oscillation itself—in some object of desire as seen through the gesture, which is to say the constitution of the scene, which makes it an “formal” rather than “material” object. So, historically, works of art have mostly been of potentially desirable, or even potentially repellent, things in the world, rather than (directly) of the others who mediate our relation to it—but the work of art presents this object as so mediated—i.e., as socially protected and inaccessible in some way, as opposed to the object it might be representing.


Eric Gans speaks of the history of aesthetics as the history of the incorporation of the scene of representation within the work of art itself. This history commences once aesthetics is distinguished from ritual. So, the earliest secular artworks, like Greek tragedy, do not represent the scene of representation at all—in a manner minimally (but very importantly) distinguished from ritual, the audience participates in the resentment toward the central figure, a resentment that is “purged” by identification with that figure’s suffering. What interests me here is that art, as an immersive experience is, like ritual, institutionally separated from the rest of life. This is because the social hierarchy that makes one, but not others, of intrinsic interest, is taken for granted. Once other centers emerge in a post-sacrificial order, the work of art must include peripheral figures within the work, even if the focus remains, as in Shakespeare’s tragedies, on the “Big Men.” This involves obvious forms of self-references like the play-within-the-play, but also figures and scenes within the play (like plebeians expressing resentment towards their superiors) that comment on the events involving the Big Men.


I think we can see this as a broader process of undoing the ontological separation between the work of art and the social world of the audience experiencing it. Once the voices of those similar to the audience are represented within the play, why not the audience itself? Why shouldn’t the participation of the audience be the play? It may be considered an astonishing testament to the institutional power of artistic representation that not only did it take so long for the idea to emerge that the creative primacy of the artist is ultimately a mere adjunct to the experience of the “recipient,” but that this idea has still not moved much beyond the artistic “avant-garde” margins to more mainstream or officially sanctioned works. The pleasure of transcending resentment by subordinating ourselves to the “domination” of the artist is certainly part of the resistance to an aesthetics that would be nothing more than minimal shifts in attention producing maximum oscillation between the created scene and other scenes.


The broader problem, though, is that trying to undo the life/art boundary requires that the practices of “life” that resist participation in “art” must be represented; and those artistic conventions that “segregate” the audience from the work must also be represented. Otherwise, how would we know we were transgressing a boundary? But these must be critical representations, of conventional “complacency” that wishes to be “spoon-fed” artistic pleasure, on the one hand, and traditions of representation that “condescend” to and “manipulate” a “passive” audience. Taking on the art/life boundary is asymmetrical warfare, i.e., terrorism, which is always snuffed out in the end. This has always been the dilemma of the avant-garde which always, amusingly enough, saw itself as bringing art to the “people.” Even with much more pacific and patient approaches, moves towards abolishing the art/life boundary will always involve moves that reconstitute it.


That just means, though, that this paradoxical relation between the institutionalized scene of art and the other scenes that art scene must itself stage would be transferred to the domain of everyday practices. The paradoxical telos of the aesthetic is to make all of life aesthetic. Or, rather, since all of our practices already have an aesthetic dimension, this telos is to open up “everyday life” to artistic creativity. The romantic and modernist utopian vision was that everyone would become an artist, once freed of inhibiting conventions; an absolutist approach, more modest, is that everyone would take an interest in noticing and enhancing the aesthetic dimension of those conventions. It follows from the formalist maxim that all relations of power and authority be made explicit and named that the norms and conventions governing all areas of life would likewise be made explicit and named, and naming is best embedded in a memorable act—and, making acts memorable is part of what art is for.


Such daily aesthetic activity would be intensely interactive: just like on the originary scene itself, we would all be imitating and “inflecting” one another’s signs. Now, if the aesthetic includes the oscillation between sign and object, the recognition of the formality of the sign (which is to say, its iterability and therefore imitability) must take place on the periphery itself, horizontally between the participants on the scene. If we ask, how would the sign “coalesce” into a final shape in the reciprocal gazes cast around on the scene, I think the answer is that it would emerge out of another oscillation which each participant would see in the others: an oscillation between vulnerability and threat. The tension between these opposing attitudes on the scene is what would paralyze everyone sufficiently to arrest the progress towards the central object. This pre-aesthetic oscillation is what would break down the pecking order and require some new means of preventing conflict.


This pre-representation of the other as equally and alternately vulnerable and threatening is what I have called “originary satire,” and posited as the initial moment of the aesthetic. Think of what would be involved in representing everyone this way—in drawing out everything monstrous, dangerous, vicious and menacing about them, while simultaneously finding everything pathetic, impotent, desperate and cowardly. Some rather remarkable, if ultimately static, characterizations would be possible, especially since presenting oneself as a threat can be seen as a way of concealing or compensating for vulnerability, while at times there can be nothing more threatening than a vulnerable, “cornered” animal. If we all saw each other exclusively like this, human life together would be impossible, and an art work that stopped at this pre-moral satire would be incapable of any real closure—I wonder if that is why Wyndham Lewis’s satires often seem awkward, somewhat arbitrary and unfinished, as he claimed to be aiming at such a non-moral satire. So, aesthetic practice must proceed from what is really the most egalitarian practice of representation imaginable back to the center, and the “asymmetry” of placing someone or something at the center and projecting the oscillation of threat and vulnerability onto that individual. Eventually, the figure’s vulnerability is concentrated in high culture, and its threatening character in popular, and then mass, culture where we identify, as Gans says somewhere, with one or a few good guys killing lots of bad guys.


But originary satire would need to become part of the telos of the aesthetic in the kind of formalist integration of art into life I proposed above. It takes very little to frame another as vulnerable or threatening—in fact, we do it all the time, when we calculate advantages and try to neutralize the aggression of others. Representations in daily life that construct the oscillation between the two would institute a genuine model of deferral, though. “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” and “what is hateful to you do not unto another” were revolutionary moral advances at the time of their invention, but if you look at them took carefully they are thin, inconsistent, and capable of all kinds of cynical applications. What if others like what is hateful to me? I suppose we could move to the meta level and say, well, in that case, treat the maxim in a more complex manner and figure out is analogous, for the other, to what is hateful to you. At that point, though, we need another maxim. “When you see the other as threatening, imagine how he might be vulnerable; when he seems vulnerable, look for what might make him a threat” would be a much better source of moral reflection, as it would enable us to identify the role we play in constituting the other as victim or victimizer.


If originary satire is to provide our preliminary aesthetic framing of the other, we would then construct ourselves and others as centers so as to elicit signs of threat and vulnerability in the other, and continue our construction of these modes of centeredness so as to have what is threatening and vulnerable in us “match” that which we find in others. The other might be threatening physically, emotionally, or intellectually, which means that I present a vulnerability to that particular threat along with a threat of my targeting what I perceive as the other’s vulnerability, should he or she in fact prove a threat. It’s in both sides mutual interest to proceed in this way, which preserves the symmetry needed for interaction along with the difference needed for the generation of new signs. It would be a learning process, involving trial and error and constant revision. As we proceed in our interaction, we build trust by coming to constitute one another’s centrality primarily in terms of the other’s vulnerability, and to satirize one another less. Relapses are always possible, of course. (By the way, I don’t see this reciprocity exclusively in terms of modern social orders—I think that egalitarian hunting and gathering communities are probably extremely satirical in their dealings with each other.)


The aesthetic practice of everyday life involves, to use that phrase from Gans’s The Origin of Language, “lowering the threshold of significance.” We can always uncover new layers of threateningness and vulnerability, and potential layers, hypothetical layers, and so on. The aesthetic practices of everyday life would provide representations with at least a trace of this pre-aesthetic representation, resolving the oscillation into a center based on one pole or the other—resolving the oscillation this way more or less, depending upon how much originary satire can be borne in a given setting. The practice of non-moral satire, which aims at an elemental humanness, not simply to hurt and ridicule the other (because, if done right, the practitioner doesn’t escape either), but to represent the most basic materials of any moral order, would be an extremely important thing to teach children at an early age. It would discipline some of the cruelty and terrors to which children are liable and vulnerable; even more important, it would inoculate them strongly against taking their resentments in a socially transformative direction, since bred into them would be the knowledge that these human fundaments can’t be transformed.


The relation between “art” and “life,” then, would be bridged by the reciprocal satire of artist and audience. Any scene becomes an artistic scene insofar as it includes another scene as audience and co-creator, and which turns the artist into a sometime spectator as well—in the end, maybe we can’t tell the difference between one and the other, leaving us with pure oscillation. Social media and “meme-ing” already enact this kind of satirical oscillation, as bits and pieces of language are constantly taken out of their context and used to create other contexts in which anyone might have uttered those words. Imagine B, C, D, E and so on saying this X which A just said—this is an infinitely replicable form, which reveals something threatening/vulnerable about those we can’t imagine saying just as much as it does about those we can. Of course, the lack of any need for start-up funding is crucial here; and, of course, this also makes the “memers” highly vulnerable to the vagaries of leftist political ratcheting within the various platforms. But the “dial” on boundary abolishing originary satire can be turned up or down. If we think about artistic practices as shaping cultural participants, providing them with language and making them better language learners within the disciplines, originary satire should provide us with ways of thinking about dissemination and infiltration, which requires working just below the threshold at which the cultural censors are programmed to detect transgression.

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