File spoon-archives/bhaskar.archive/bhaskar_1998/bhaskar.9802, message 13

Date: Mon, 09 Feb 1998 16:00:09 +1000
Subject: BHA: Aesthetics 2 of 3

1. Introduction.

This post deals with *some* aspects of normative aesthetics. I seek to give
these a specifically Critical Realist perspective by addressing the problem
of asceticism versus aesthetic plenitude that I touched upon in my first
post. This is followed by an attempt to consider in greater detail what
Critical Realism has to offer art criticism. I then deal with the use of
the concept of absence and offer some analyses which exemplify both the
notion of absence and ideology. 

Here I have decided to re-post part of an earlier post which death with
poems by Sylvia Plath and John Clare. Hopefully this will not side track us
into another discussion of who on this list is crazier than anyone else.

The section on ideology is accompanied by a brief consideration of Roberto
Enrico's film -Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge_ (1962).

My third and final (!) post will deal as I have promised with Adorno's
truth content and Bhaskar's alethia.  I will also reconsider the role of
the philosopher in art criticism through an account of the clash in 1937
between Rene Wellek and F.R. Leavis.  I will then wind up with some
conclusions about the contribution of CR to aesthetics. After that we can
all get back to something simple like reading DPF.

2. Normative aesthetics or art criticism.

Terse Purity

Solidity depends not on volume; spareness has no need to mince.
Like night broken by day is this truth,
To achieve simplicity, begin with the complex;
To achieve purity, exclude petty decor.
Let others squander effort; get all in one stroke.
Suggest in minimum the mighty; find freedom in mediums.
Who sets the gauge? The birds of no-song. 
(Huang Yueh (1750-1841) in Tseng Yo-ho, 1963: 14)

When reading the judgements of theorists and critics such as Zeami Motokiyo
(1363-1443) (in Toshihiko & Toyo Izutsu, 1981: 35-44) or Huang Yueh (in
Tseng Yo-ho, 1963) or Britain's very own, F. R. Leavis, one is struck by
the certainty behind their judgements of what constitutes great art.  That
sense of assurance has of course been lost to us - probably forever.  The
old certainties gave way of course before the hammer blows of feminism,
ethnic and race studies, Marxism and Queer Theory. 

Beech & Roberts are correct to hail this fracturing of the "grand humanist
categories and canonic distinctions of dominant culture" as a political
achievement and one we should not surrender before the current advance of
the New Aesthetics. (Beech & Roberts, 1997: 116)  However there has also
been a great loss.  We now have no standards by which to accomplish one of
the most important tasks of our time and that is the education of desire.

I will return to this point when I consider Rene Wellek's characterisation
of Marxist aesthetics but here I wish to suggest that, although the
greatest gain by left inspired aesthetics has been to develop critiques
deploying the concept of ideology, we need to somehow go beyond the focus
on the ideological and participate in debates around which art is great and
why.  Nor is it enough to reduce the question of taste to that of class.
No one doubts the role that cultural taste plays in the construction and
perpetuation of the class system but there is something more to art than

However I cannot hope in this post to do much more than express this
discontent.  As I noted in an earlier post to the list, it seems to me that
having destroyed the canon of great books etc we are now in the situation
described in Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons: -

"When a man takes an oath, Meg, he's holding his own self in his own hands.
 Like water...and if he opens his fingers then - he needn't hope to find
himself again."

3. The value of absence - Asceticism versus Aesthetic plenitude

"The meaninglessness of suffering, *not* suffering itself, was the curse
that lay over mankind so far - *and the ascetic ideal offered man meaning!*
 It was the only meaning offered so far; any meaning is better than none at
all; the ascetic ideal was in every sense the *"faute de Mieux" par
excellence* so far.  In it, suffering was *interpreted*; the tremendous
void seemed to have been filled...Man would rather will nothingness than
not will." (Nietzsche, 1969: 162-3, original emphasis)

The logic of turning to non-western aesthetics has led me seemingly
inevitably to a dualism - aesthetic plenitude versus asceticism; the
endless search for presence or the embrace of absence as a value in itself. 

Jay (1973) stresses repeatedly the opposition of the Frankfurt School to
the ascetic.  Yet a turn to asceticism would seem to be the inevitable
consequence of Adorno's emphasis on art "as the language of suffering."
(Adorno, 1984: 27) How else can one account for his endorsement of
Beckett's Endgame - in itself the epitome of asceticism?

The task of the underlabourer weighs heavily upon me here.  Which vision of
the role of art is endorsed by Critical Realism?  I suppose a vulgar
materialist response would be that it all depends on one's serotonin
levels. However I would rather hedge my bets as Socrates did when condemned
to death. He claimed at his trial that such a fate was a good one because
death could have only two meanings.  It might involve total cessation of
all sensation, ie. Absence. Socrates' analogy here was a good night's sleep
uninterrupted by dreams.  Who would not consider this a gain?   

The alternative view of death was that it led to an after life which meant
a trip to another place where the tyranny of time was overcome and one got
the chance to have a good chat with the likes of Orpheus and Homer.
(Socrates in Dickinson, 1950:36)  This was Socrates' personal preference. I
do not begrudge the optimism, and I hope he made it, but I suspect that
Socrates would have been much less sanguine about his fate if had been born
into that geo-historical space, which would have enabled him to have heard
an Irish priest expound on the delights of hell!

Whatever the case I choose not to choose between an aesthetics which views
absence in terms of its absenting of ills and an aesthetics which
acknowledges that only the total absence of presence can absent ills. It
seems to me that the urge to shuffle off this mortal coil is the equal of
the desire to chant the praises of dappled things. Though I will add that
both the "reverence for life" approach of a Leavis and the "revolutionary
utilitarianism" of a Mao can all too easily become the worst kind of
cover-up.  For me if the purpose of art is to reveal the truth of human
suffering then Adorno is correct to insist that there is much more truth
about our contemporary world in Samuel Beckett's Endgame with Clov's
tortured compassion and Hamm's blind spiteful groping around his room.

Yet frankly my refusal of a choice is basically due to a realisation that
whichever direction we go, always we are mocked by capitalism's ability to
outflank us by commodifying the oppositional.  There can be no doubting the
artistic integrity of Yvonne Rainer and Samuel Beckett but Damien Hirst has
shown that asceticism in the form of minimalist rigour can be expressed by
a few sliced cows.  Add a dash of Hammer schlock and one has the
ingredients of a very successful artistic career. (Stallabras, 1997)

3. Art Criticism - The joys of absence  (Pause...)

Hamm: This is deadly.
Enter Clov with telescope. He goes towards ladder.
Clov: Things are livening up. (He gets up on ladder, raises the
telescope...turns it on auditorium.) I see...a
transports...of joy. (Pause) That's what I call a magnifier.

(I have called this section the joys of absence as an acknowledgment of
Bhaskar's celebration of absence in DPF pp 38-49.) The glossary of
Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom defines absence as

	Understood to include non-existence anywhere anywhen.  It is
systematically bipolar, designating (distanciating and/or transforming)
process as well as simple absence in a more or less determinate
level-/context-specific region of space-time; and in fact reveals a
fourfold polysemy: product, process, process-in-product and
product-in-process - which may be recursively embedded and systematically
intermingled.  It includes, but is far from exhausted by, the past and
outside.  It is the central category of dialectic, whether conceived as
argument, change or the augmentation of (or aspiration to) freedom, which
depend upon the identification and elimination of mistakes, states of
affairs and constraints, or more generally ills - argued to be absences
alike. (Bhaskar, 1993: 393) 

Absence is one of the Atwo discoveries-AT- that Bhaskar explicitly claims
credit for in DPF.  There has been of course some questioning on the list
of exactly how original Bhaskar's treatment of absence is.  I am not
qualified to judge here, but my best guess is that if we take the concept
of absence in its full polysemic intent then it is very original indeed.

We have already considered very briefly on the list the linkage between
Bloch's "not-yet-conscious" and absence.  There was the feeling that the
two concepts were similar but I have argued that there is a partial
connection only and that is in the sense of the desire to absent ills.

Adorno's use of the "non-identical" or the "other" is also interesting
especially in that it is an ontological category.  It is hard of course to
work out exactly what Adorno means by the non-identical because he refuses
to define it other than negatively. It helps me to think of it in
Bhaskarian terms as the intransitive dimension.  I feel again however that
Bhaskar's concept of absence is richer and in terms of art criticism much
more suggestive.

The third resonance, which I think is actually more important than either
the Blochian or the Adornoian categories, is the Zen notion of "Nothingness
as the ultimate goal to be reached". (Toshihiko & Toyo, 1981: 34)  We
should also consider here those Islamic, Jewish and Christian mystics who
regarded God as Nothingness or the Unknowable. (Armstrong, 1993) Thus it is
intriguing to think of the struggle between the God of the mystics and the
God of the philosophers as one between absence and ontological monovalence.
Compare Erigena's (810-877) declaration "God is Nothing" with Thomas
Aquinas' (1225-74) definition of God as "He who is." (Qui est).

Buddhist and Daoist thought have been at the centre of a whole alternative
aesthetic tradition and of course all this needs much more careful working
through than I have given it but at this stage I would like to venture a
few preliminary remarks.   It seems to me that an aesthetics, which is
built around the value of Nothingness, is inevitably drawn towards the
ascetic and away from aesthetic plenitude and utopian prefiguration.  I
will return to this question when I consider aesthetic value but I would
like to say that again in this instance the notion of Nothingness could be
grouped constellationally within the Bhaskarian concept of absence.

There can be little doubt about Bhaskar's personal preference for the
aesthetic in the mode of plenitude but the concept of absence also
legitimates, I believe an alternative artistic practice namely that of the
ascetic.  In other words absence can incorporate both the Blochian notion
of the "not-yet-conscious" and Nothingness.

Now it should be acknowledged here that semiotics and structuralism also
make use of the concept of absence. Here it refers

	To the significant exclusion of a sign or element in a syntagm that it
might potentially occupy.  The result is that the elements, which are
selected (present), mean what they do only in contrast to the absent
possibilities from which they have been selected. Hence absence is a major
determinant of meaning at all levels of signification. (O'Sullivan et al,

Barthes also uses a parallel concept - "ex-nomination" to describe the
process by which the bourgeoisie disguises its power by becoming the
"class, which does not want to be named". (1983: 138).

But once again I do not think that absence or ex-nomination as they are
employed in structuralism have the range and depth that the concept of
absence has within Bhaskar's DCR.

4. Absence - the texts

Consider the following poem by Sylvia Plath

	Sheep in Fog

	The hills step off into whiteness.
	People or stars
	Regard me sadly, I disappoint them.

	The train leaves a line of breath.
	O slow
	Horse the colour of rust,

	Hooves, dolorous bells---
	All morning the
	Morning has been blackening,

	A flower left out.
	My bones hold a stillness, the far
	Fields melt my heart.

	They threaten
	To let me through to a heaven
	Starless and fatherless, a dark water.

There is much here that is familiar in terms of Plath's thematic concerns
and the stock of images she employs.  The train and horses seem to signify
for her the male principle. She also works with the contrast of white and
black.  The black and the process of darkening seem to be associated for
her with the developing of mental illness, or the onset of an episode.

Stars are sources of light hence whiteness but theirs is a fragile
existence.  The darkness appears to threaten to overwhelm them.  Other
aspects of this poem that resonate throughout Plath's work is the
preoccupation with the body.  At one level this is a common and necessary
theme for women.  But there is also the delusional element that is
specifically schizophrenic.  I am convinced that when she writes -  "my
bones hold a stillness", these words have to be given their full delusional

How then can the category of absence deepen our understanding of this poem?
 The answer lies particularly in the last stanza when the author/Plath both
desires and fears a utopian/dystopian transcendence of her reality.  But
this is more of dissolution than an assumption into some 'heaven'.   Here
'heaven' is defined in terms of absences -stars and most significantly -

Plath's father died when she was 8.  But if ever an absence was real this
was it.  Her poetry continually acknowledges the effectivity of her
father's absence.  It is indeed this absence which she wants absented.  But
how?  There is no solution to this tragedy except through the embrace of
the "dark water".

Plath's suffering in many ways echoes John Clare's great poem  "Lines
Written in Northampton County Asylum"

	I am! Yet what I am who cares, or knows?
	My friends forsake me like a memory lost.
	I am the self-consumer of my woes;
	They rise and vanish, an oblivious host,
	Shadows of life, whose very soul is lost.
	And yet I am - I live - though I am tossed
	Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
	Into the living sea of waking dream,
	Where there is neither sense of life, nor joys,
	But the huge shipwreck of my own esteem
	And all that's dear.  Even those I loved the best
	Are strange -nay, they are stranger than the rest,

	I long for scenes where man has never trod-
	For scenes where woman never smiled or wept -
	There to abide with my Creator, God
	And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
	Full of high thoughts, unborn.  So let me lie, -
	The grass below; above the vaulted sky.

Clare conveys here not only the awful sensory overload that the psychotic
has to endure but also the absence of love and self esteem.  He too wishes
for a utopian dissolution.  This reads in some ways as less terrifying than
Plath's "dark water", but the desire for the total absence of the human.
Conveyed in the words "where woman never smiled or wept", shows that Clare
shares with Plath the longing for the ultimate absence - death.

I have no wish to reduce the aesthetic to the philosophical but both poems
bring to mind the following passages from DPF: -

...unless Sophia sees herself necessarily acting and so absenting, she
cannot reflexively situate (and hence detotalises) herself. (Bhaskar, 1993:


In the bipolarity of absence, absenting has ontological priority over the
absent and the absent has epistemic primacy in our world. (: 385)

It seems to me that both poems give voice to situations, which are the
opposite of those described by Bhaskar.  In Plath and Clare's world the
agent cannot see herself as acting and is accordingly detotalised and it is
the absent that has ontological priority over absenting.  Moreover the
process-in-product and product-in-process dimensions of absence do not
exist for the subjects of either poem.  The psychotic is doomed to a
perpetual present a condition without a history or a future.

5. Art Criticism - Ideology

An ideology critique can be both immanent in the sense that it looks for
contradictions or fault lines within the text or contextual in that it can
reveal how the text allows society to enter through the window as Leibniz
put it. 

Of central importance to a Bhaskarian analysis of ideology are the figures
of fission and fusion.   Fusion refers to the process where the interests
of a particular group are falsely presented as the interests of everyone.
In other words a group, a caste or class (or a representative of such)
presents itself as the universal, as Everyperson (most often of course as
Everyman). This is what Charles Erwin Wilson meant when he said, "For many
years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors,
and vice versa."  Wilson who was Eisenhower's Secretary of Defence had, by
a happy coincidence been head of General Motors.

Fission on the other hand takes place when what is in the interest of
everyone is presented as being only in the interest of a particular group

This definition presents, of course, the problem of how something can be in
everyone's interest in a class divided society ie. How can what is good for
the workers be good for the bosses?  To cover this problem we need a
concept such as "real" interests versus "apparent" interests and ground
this in some notion of our common core humanity. Here a wage rise for the
workers would be good for the bosses because it is in their interests as
human beings to eventually liquidate themselves.

6. Ideology - The Text

"The aristocracy, in order to rally the people to them, waved the
proletarian alms-bag in front for a banner.  But the people, as often as it
joined them, saw on their hindquarters the old feudal coat of arms and
deserted with loud and irreverent laughter." (Marx & Engels)

Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge.

Roberto Enrico made Amrose Bierce's (1842-1914) story of the American Civil
War into a short film in 1962.  My critique will concentrate on the film
but I will also refer to the written text. The film opens up with the
preparation for an execution on the bridge.  A notice warning saboteurs is
our only clue that the man who is about to hang has committed some
sabotage.  However he is dressed as a civilian and not as a combatant.  The
noose is placed around his neck. Then he appears to escape when the rope
breaks and he dives into the river. He outswims the soldiers who are
shooting at him.  He runs for his life and then appears to arrive home to
be greeted by a smiling wife.  However just when they are about to embrace
he stiffens and then suddenly we are back at the bridge and he swings
lifelessly from the rope.

We show the film here at QUT to a group of first year students. (Why should
they be happy?)  It never ceases to make an impact.  There is a cry of
shock and sorrow when the man's dream of freedom is shown to be just that -
a dream.  However in the subsequent discussion of the film we try and work
through this experience of catharsis.  We point out that the man is
presented as Everyperson.  The film asks us to identify with him.  This
effect is achieved by a detotalization of the hero/victim.  We are not
shown the source of his wealth - the reason why he and the wife are so well
dressed and live in such a beautiful home.  We are not shown his
Afro-American slaves.

Interestingly in the original story there is an explicit reference to the
fact that the hero/victim, Peyton Fahrquhar, is a slave owner and "ardently
devoted to the Southern cause". Perhaps Bierce did not feel the same
pressure as Enrico to absent this detail. The original story also explains
how Fahrquhar came to be at the bridge.  He was the victim of a
spy/provocateur, but there is no reference to the Northern agent in the film.

This detotalization in the film works to facilitate the process of
ideological fusion.  The man's interests and ours become one. What is good
for him is good for us.

Although in the film the primary absence is the voice of the Afro-American,
the planter, Peyton Fahrquhar, is presented as the major focus for absence
- particularly that of freedom and by implication of justice.  He appears
indeed to be the victim of the arbitrary exercise of power.

Nevertheless there is a fault line running through the film. It has
carefully absented from the original story those details which would have
located Fahrquhar as a partisan in the American Civil War who "assented to
at least a part of the frankly villainous dictum that all is fair in love
and war".  It wishes to present the hero as everyperson but in showing his
dream of freedom it places him socially.  The sight of the mansion and the
wealth this testifies to exposes as a sham the claim that Peyton Fahrquhar
represents all humanity. In truth the film speaks on behalf of a class.  So
the primary absence is revealed not as that of freedom for Fahrquhar but
rather of power2 that is a continuation of his ability to oppress and

The film presents us with a utopia at the conclusion of Fahrquhar's
imaginary escape to his home.  In the story this is described as

"He stands at the gate of his own home.  All is as he left it, and all
bright and beautiful in the morning sunshine...As he pushes open the gate
and passes up the wide white walk, he sees a flutter of female garments;
his wife, looking fresh and cool and sweet, steps down from the veranda to
meet him.  At the bottom of the steps she stands waiting, with a smile of
ineffable joy, an attitude of matchless grace and dignity.  Ah, how
beautiful she is!"

In terms of time this utopian vision is not linked to the future. There is
no "forward dawning" here.  The film and the story, more so perhaps, are
redolent of a reactionary but also a deeply felt longing for the past.

I am struck in this context with the resemblance to Marx's attack on Feudal
Socialism in the Manifesto.

"In this way rose Feudal Socialism; half lamentation, half lampoon; half
echo of the past, half menace of the future; at times, by its bitter, witty
and incisive criticism, striking the bourgeoisie to the very heart's core,
but always ludicrous in its effect through total incapacity to comprehend
the march of modern history."

Nevertheless, each year when I show the film my students gasp in horror
when the plantation owner is hung.  And each time I watch the film I find
myself hoping that the poor bastard will make it.  This provides us with a
clue that will take us beyond ideological readings of the text.  For
although the central aspect of this film is that, in detotalising the main
character, it lays false claim to the notion of the universal brotherhood
and sisterhood of humanity, nevertheless the claim although spurious does
act to preserve something of the claimed notion. To that extent there is a
genuine utopian moment, a true forward dawning within the text.

7. Conclusion - Beyond Ideology?

Each of the three texts that I have considered in this post deals at some
level with suffering. My attempts to articulate a response to these texts
from within a Critical Realist framework stand I fear as testimony to the
truth of Adorno's belief that

"=85 rational cognition has one critical limit which is it inability to cope
with suffering." (Adorno, 1984: 27)

Moreover it may seem that in my recognition of a universal note within
Enrico's film I am surrendering to the impulse of the slave towards mutual
reconciliation with the master. Do I long to forgive the likes of Peyton
Fahrquhar?  Never. Not ever. Never. But I am anxious that any aesthetic
criticism, which is informed by a Critical Realist perspective, should not
be confined to the ideological. 

I have in mind here Wellek's criticism of humanist Marxism: -

"But the concept of humanism, of the universality of art, surrenders the
central doctrine of Marxism, which is essentially relativistic.

Marxist criticism is at its best when it exposes the implied, or latent,
social implications of a writer's work." (Wellek, 1982: 107)

It is arguable that Wellek is wrong about the relativism of Marxism and I
certainly believe he is; though a trip through some of the Spoons Marxism
lists would make one wonder.  I would still maintain however that a
Critical Realist aesthetics must build on and not reject the rich heritage
of Marxist Aesthetics.  In saying this I would like in passing to repudiate
the ill informed caricature of Marxist theorising about art that Gordon
Graham has recently perpetrated. (Graham, 1997: 109-117) Drawing on an
astonishingly narrow range of texts Graham asserts that

"Marxism, pushed to its logical conclusion, does not mean a different or
better way of doing what philosophical aesthetics has done badly, but a
total abandonment of any such enterprise." (Graham, 1997: 114)

It is my hope that these posts and our discussions on the list around
aesthetics will show, albeit in a very small way, that Graham is wrong.
Whatever the case it is my opinion that a CR aesthetics can not be reduced
to either the philosophical or to an exposure of the ideological, for our
project is nothing less than the underlabouring for human emancipation.


Adorno, T., Aesthetic Theory, RKP: London, 1984
Armstrong, K. A History Of God: The 4,000-Year Quest Of Judaism,
Christianity And Islam, Ballantine Books: New York, 1993
Barthes, R. Mythologies, London: Paladin, 1973
Beech & Roberts, Spectres of the Aesthetic, NLR 218 July/August 1996: 102-127
Benjamin, W., On Language as Such and on the Language of Man, in Benjamin,
W., Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, Schocken
Books: New York, 1986: 314-332
Bernstein, J. M., The Fate of art: Aesthetic Alienation from
Kant to Derrida and Adorno, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania Uni Press, 1992
Bhaskar, R., Scientific Realism & Human Emancipation, Verso: London, 1986
---___________, Dialectic: The Pulse Of Freedom, Verso: London, 1993
___________, Plato Etc.: The Problems of Philosophy and Their Resolution,
Verso: London, 1994
Bloch, E., The Principle of Hope, Blackwell: Oxford, 1986
Bowie, A., Confessions of a "New Aesthete": A response to the 'New
Philistines', NLR No 225, Sept/Oct 1997: 105-127
Daiches, D., God and the Poets: The Gifford Lectures, 1983, Clarendon
Press: Oxford, 1984
Daly, A., Is it Post-Postmodern?, TDR V36, No1. (T133) Spring 1992: 64-67
Dickinson, G. L., Plato and his Dialogues, Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1985
Dziemidok, B., Aesthetics, in Outhwaite, W. & Bottomore, T. (Eds) The
Blackwell Dictionary of Twentieth-century Thought, Oxford: Blackwell, 1993
Eagleton, T., The Significance of Theory, Blackwell: Oxford, 1990
Graham, G., The Marxist Theory Of Art, British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol.
37, No. 2, April 1997: 109-117
Hayman, R. Leavis, Heinemann: London, 1976
Jameson, Late Marxism: Adorno, or the Persistence of the Dialectic, London:
Verso, 1990
Jay, M., the Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and
the Institute of Social Research 1923-50, Heinemann: London, 1973
Lin Yutang, The Wisdom of Lao-tse, Random House: New York, 1948
Lovell, T. Pictures Of Reality: Aesthetics, Politics, Pleasure, London:
BFI, 1980
Nietzsche, F., On The Genealogy of Morals, Random House: New York, 1969
--___________, F., The Birth Of Tragedy, Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1993
O' Sullivan, T. Key Concepts In Communication, London: Methuen, 1983
Stallabrass, J., In and Out of Love with Damien Hirst, NLR 216 March/April
Toshihiko & Toyo Izutsu, The Theory of Beauty in the Classical Aesthetics
of Japan, Martinus Nijhoff: Boston, 1981
Tseng Yo-ho, Some Contemporary Elements in Classical Chinese Art, Uni of
Hawaii Press: Honolulu, 1963
Wellek, R. & Warren, A., Theory of Literature, Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1982
Zuidervaart, L. Adorno's Aesthetic Theory: The Redemption of Illusion,
Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991

     --- from list ---


Driftline Main Page


Display software: ArchTracker © Malgosia Askanas, 2000-2005