GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

October 4, 2020

The Aesthetic as Liminally Scenic

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:26 am

The “classical” understanding of the aesthetic in GA is that it derives from the oscillation on the originary scene between attention paid to the sign pointing to the central object, on the one hand, and the object itself, on the other. I’ve addressed some of the implications of this understanding in various places (including Anthropomorphics), but what I’d like to focus on here is the fact that the aesthetic is located prior to the establishment of the sacred center—the aesthetic, that is, is pre-sacral, or perhaps preliminarily sacral. Moreover, while the aesthetic, up until the displacement of the shared sacred center, would have been assimilated to the sacred (amplifying it, contributing to the intentionality of sacred being, providing access to it by congregants, etc.) the aesthetic, in the form of art, only emerges after the sacred center has lost its monopoly on the community’s attention. The aesthetic, in that case, supplements the center, first of all by providing something “like” a rite both in its own structure and for those participating as spectators (the purgative effect of tragedy, with its own sacrificial conclusion, is the obvious example here)—while at the same time enacting the transition out of a ritualistic order.

So, we could say that the aesthetic uses the study of the practices that might culminate in the construction of a shared center to demonstrate the provisionality of that center. This allows us to follow up on the periodization of artistic practices laid out by Eric Gans in his Originary Thinking, along with my own revisions of it in a way that might help us think about aesthetics and artistic possibilities today. Gans first of all distinguishes between the “classical” and the “neo-classical” aesthetic. In the classic aesthetic (associated with Greek tragedy), the audience is essentially an extension of the theatrical scene, responding directly to the central figure, who is unquestionably “central.” We don’t need to be reminded why Oedipus or Agamemnon is worthy of our undivided attention—it’s a cultural given presupposed by the performance. (Of course, ancient comedy, which placed an “unworthy” figure at the center, would presumably have already reminded theatergoers of the “de-sacralizable” nature of the scene.) In neoclassical Shakespearean tragedy, for example, the scene itself is represented within the work, in the sense that ruling is seen to take place on a kind of stage of which the “actors” are aware, which also means the occupancy of the center by this particular individual is always questionable. This also means (although I don’t think this is part of Gans’s point) that, although the audience is not directly responsive to the scene, it is represented within the scene, as we see in the various kinds of explicit and implicit commentaries on the central scene in Shakespeare’s plays.

We can already see the possibility of discussing the history of aesthetics as the history of revisions of the boundary between art work and audience or public. And this history parallels the history of the increasing uncertainty regarding who and what can be placed at the center. If art is a practice of deritualization by exposing the preliminary practices of ritualization (showing what leads or inclines us to put something in the center, and then aborting that effort), then it makes sense that the boundary between art work and public would itself become more visible and permeable. The relation between artist, work and public becomes a shared inquiry into the consequences of placing this or that object or figure at the center in this or that way, under these or those conditions. The resistance to figural art and straightforward representations of beauty—the reason such representations get denounced as “kitsch”—is that they are cynical attempts to simulate the sacral scene, which is precisely what art does not and cannot do.

So, the Romantic artist sets himself off against the community, mimicking the scapegoated Jesus, while also inviting other “rebels” to cross over that boundary and join in rediscovering the forms of natural and transcendent beauty occluded by the market, which reduces everything to its price. For various reasons, Romantic poetry became central to the literary criticism branch of deconstruction, and one of the important contributions of critics like Paul de Man and J. Hillis Miller was to show that the Romantic “quest” contradicted and undermined itself—its discourse of authenticity, self-centrality, and unmediated relation to a pre-social nature was undermined by the inability of “expressive” language to do anything more than reiterate the fraudulent centrality it tried to define itself against. Gans refers to the “constituent hypocrisy” of Romanticism in this connection, as self-aggrandizement (and market value) is enabled by a performance of self-expulsion from the community. The later work of some important Romantics like Wordsworth and Byron is aware of this. The Romantic individual is finally ground up once and for all in literary realism, which almost invariably centers on some Romantic individual having his or her dreams contradicted at every point by the institutions and disciplines of the modern world to the point of an essentially meaningless destruction or death. We could see realism as mimicking human sacrifice, as we derive meaning from the immolation of the figure placed at the center, but, since that figure has been exposed as alienated from his own intentions, the sacred has been emptied out, making it more of an anti-sacrifice.

We could see much of artistic modernism as an intensification of this struggle against the community, with the fantasy of a new mass revolutionary subject (or, for the modernist reactionaries, the restoration of some version of antiquity) that would abolish the boundary between art work and public once and for all. One could say this made modern art far more esoteric and exclusive than Romantic art, which didn’t really question traditional genres, modes of representation, or the autonomy of art. But modernist antagonism to social institutions included an antagonism to the institutions of art themselves, which in turn facilitated the more radical questioning of the boundary between art and non-art. Duchamp’s “Fountain” stunt is the convenient starting point for those narrating this line of development. This makes art explicitly social and historical, as art has to address the question of what is to count as art under contemporary conditions. Postmodernism’s destabilizing of boundaries between genres, between artist and audience, between “mass culture” and “art” is all part of this bringing to the center the boundary between what is art and what is not art. I think that Joseph Beuy’s notion of “social sculpture,” in which art openly models the remaking social reality and, especially, Allan Kaprow’s “Happenings,” which introduce subtle modifications into everyday practices so as reveal boundaries between habit and innovation, mimisms and modeling, represent the endpoints of explicitly formalizing the boundary between art and non-art: art becomes a question of drawing attention to shifts in attention.

I have previously developed this argument in the direction of what I’ve called “originary satire,” which would be aimed at identifying and enacting a minimal difference with established centering practices so as to reveal unthought layers of mimesis (“mimisms”) implicit in disciplinary practices of centering—for example, the very notion of “modeling,” with its ambiguity between using another practice to shape your own, on the one hand, and shaping other practices so as install your own, is generative of originary satire. Whoever you claim to be is how you are enacting yourself so as draw others into the projection of a world that ensures that you are who you are. The practice of exposing these paradoxes draws us into the paradox of the center, which produces us as we construct spaces conducive to our production.

I’d like to explore another aesthetic possibility here, though. The pre- and extra-,  or, let’s say, liminally scenic dimension of the aesthetic, once separated from increasingly desperate attempts to sacralize mundane centers, suggests the aesthetic power of forms of incompletion, obsolescence and ruin. What is aesthetically compelling, that is, what places and keeps us in an oscillatory relation to the center, are incomplete gestures and gestures that linger after the object they pointed to is no longer there. An abandoned construction site, for example; or an abandoned old mill. In these abandoned, left aside buildings, we see concentrated purposes that collided with other, ultimately even more concentrated purposes: in the case of the construction site, perhaps a transfer of investment funds to other projects midway, or conflicts with regulatory bodies; with the mill, new modes of production that could find no further use for this structure, perhaps because it was too perfectly fitted for its own purposes.

Now, the abandoned mill is already a romantic cliché, and the removal of a useful object from its context of use and turning it into an object of contemplation already a well-worn artistic exercise. The construction site much less so, though. Completed purposes that have been left off much better fit the Kantian aesthetic ideal of “purposeful purposelessness”—the abandoned construction site might be purposeless, but not very purposeful. So, let’s say that instead of the abandoned mill, or, more generally, identifiable ruins, we pair the construction site with indeterminate ruins, in which possible patterns could be detected and various possible former uses hypothesized. In this case, we can’t imaginatively complete or supplement the original intention in any way that could compel consensus. The point is not a work of art before which you stand, stupefied, but which helps you sustain the oscillation necessary for the further generation of hypotheses.

I’m going to suggest that an effectively oscillatory aesthetic should articulate the incomplete and the indeterminate ruins in one. I suppose that originary satire applies more to the verbal, dramatic and narrative arts, while what maybe we could call “archi-texture” applies to the plastic arts, but more especially architecture itself. When we build something, we are aware of all the unfinished construction sites that made it possible, that were negated or incorporated in revised form in the finished product; we can also be aware that sometime, in the future, whatever we build will be in ruins, with some future archaeologist left to figure out what it might have been, and how it might have fit into a form of life that can now only be hypothetically reconstructed. The artistic principle here is that the structure must include its proleptic “remainsness” along with its negated false starts. And, for that matter, this principle can apply to linguistically based arts as well.

This would incorporate oscillation around the present in what we build and implicate the participants in such structures in the now visible choices that have been made, and future ruinous states now to be deferred. If you can think in terms of how what you have built might be made intelligible, even in fragments, to some future civilization, it might help you to think of how to delay that eventuality, because it requires you to accentuate what is meaningful in everything you do. Similarly, incorporating the false starts keeps faith with the workers and thinkers of the past, recognizing intentions and efforts that, through no fault of their own, couldn’t be fulfilled—also a helpful way to think of your relation to some future inquirer. Participation and pedagogy are thereby maximized.

What, exactly, would such structures look like? We don’t want grotesques, after all. First of all, I imagine buildings would leave in place some of its scaffolding, including scaffolding that ended up scaffolding something that didn’t end up being part of the building. The leftover scaffolding itself would be become an object of attention, as it gets in the way and ends up getting used in unanticipated ways. It could even get, inevitably ironically, “beautified.” And buildings should incorporate elements, not necessarily completely integrated, that point to structures or land uses that preceded their construction, and others which refer to its surroundings—clues for future archaeologists. It should include, not too ostentatiously, what will be taken to be “futuristic” elements, so the archaeologists of the future can see what the future looked like back then. But there should be enough proleptic remainsness to “sufficiently” increase the possibility that there will be heterogeneous pieces for that future archaeologist to assemble, and to prevent too easy conclusions from being drawn. Perhaps this can all be compressed in futuristic scaffolding. None of this need interfere with the functions of the building, and might even suggest new functions.

A contemporary artist, then, or, we could even say, a contemporary ethical aestheticist, would be interested, first of all, in whatever his contemporaries desire to put at the center, to worship or to simply forget regarding the practices by which things are placed at centers. He would then be interested in revealing those practices of centering, and enhancing the hesitations and oscillations that defer the completion of the “installation” of that object (which could be a social or political narrative or fantasy) indefinitely. This involves, third, creating new practices in which versions of prospective centers are shown to be products of the imaginary input to them by the spectators (who become participants) of the work itself. There is already enough of a history of internet and internet-dependent art, along with critical and theoretical discussions of such art, to think in terms of deploying contemporary media for these purposes. Ultimately, art of all kinds would best be free of mediators like museums, galleries and publishers. Warhol’s dictum that “art is what you can get away with” would be realized in less trivializing (or smug) terms insofar as aesthetic practices would involve disguising yourself as who you are and infiltrating where you are so as to make more explicit the centralizing expectations of the “who” and the “where”—to turn your fellow participants in whatever discipline into “oscillators” between what you are doing and what you “should” or “might” be doing.

The approach I’m proposing displaces any intention to use art for sacralizing purposes—to restore old or create new sacred centers. Only an uncontested sacred center would make that possible. The real power of aesthetics today lies in the revelation of the mimetic contagions that are systematically disavowed in the most frenzied attempts at resacralization. For the foreseeable future, anyone not performing rage at this or that “tyranny” will be “undercover” in some sense, so the cover should be designed so as to introduce new patterns into the environment. Such aesthetic practices can be ennobling insofar as they demonstrate what might be done with what we have—while you’re busy putting these unworthy figures at the center, such art might say, here’s what the present level of your mediated mimetic practices would make possible. Here is where there might be a practice while you’re stuck in ritual and myth. Any move toward the center reminiscent of a direct appropriation of a shared sacrifice needs to be aborted by deflecting that move toward possible and provisional signs across the media and at all layers of the Stack—you can show how a particular demand for justice or remediation gets registered across bureaucracies and technologies and thereby becomes something completely different than what it purports to be. Such a practice is deritualizing and demythicizing and reminds us of the occupied center liberals are so desperate to forget, while at the same time reminding us of how our perceptions and attentions might change if all of the powers not exactly at our disposal were to be deployed coherently.

Every practice reveals a boundary—first of all between what are the means and expected effect of the practice and what are not—and so if we’re thinking in terms of practices we assume that all boundaries are the results of practices. Reality produces itself by constructing and revising boundaries distinguishing parts of itself, and we are parts of reality. In any thing you say or do you can locate a whole series of boundaries that you had to presuppose or hold constant in order to say or do that thing. The distinction between yourself and others presupposes a boundary, as does the distinction between yourself now and yourself a moment ago. You don’t construct these boundaries yourself—indeed, you play very little part in their construction. That you are the “same” person you are now a year ago, 5 years ago, 10 years ago and so one could be attributed to some immaterial entity projected onto the continuity of practices that keep you the same you—a “soul,” a “self,” a “personality,” a “character,” a set of “beliefs” or “principles,” and so on. All these are products of disciplines, from theology to psychology, and these and other disciplines are now data-driven and you can find proof of your “identity” in your credit-rating, your on-line presence and the mountain of data you generate just by being you. Here is where the boundaries between yourself and others, and between your various selves lie. We could conduct a similar discussion of boundaries between what is human and what is not human.

The point of aesthetico-ethical and aesthetic-moral practices is not to undo boundaries—which, like their construction, is mostly out of our control—but to help make them the materials and results of practices. Articulated boundaries are signs of a post-sacral, what we might call an “ex-orbital” (“other-worldly” in a new sense) center—a center that takes the most perfected practices as the means for organizing the rest of them. Distinguishing more from less perfected practices is the aesthetic-ethical and moral practice of government. The more perfected the practice, the more it presupposes and posits a center that provides for the perpetuation of other practices that could intersect with and supply the perfected one. We don’t need to project a “backstory” with an array of “qualities” to identify practitioners—we can let the romantic individual and his modernist successor wither on the vine. By our practices we shall know each other. The perfection of aesthetic practices is the shared inquiry into the constitution of boundaries between possible centers and possible congregants.

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