File spoon-archives/bhaskar.archive/bhaskar_1998/bhaskar.9803, message 1

Subject: BHA: Aesthetics/Ascetics
Date: Sun, 1 Mar 1998 09:20:27 +0200


Thanks for the discussion of the relevance of absence for the development of
a critical realist aesthetics.  I won't pretend I follow it all, but let me
toss out a few responses anyway, trusting you'll understand that these
thoughts are far from fully worked-out and I might merrily abandon every one
of them tomorrow.

What struck me most was the (at least apparent) absence of the body in your
analysis.  Maybe this is just a hobbyhorse of mine (albeit one which I
sometimes fall off of myself), but it seems to me that the "problem" of the
body ties together quite a number of themes you raise.  For Western (and I
think some versions of Eastern) philosophy has generally been riven by
mind/body dualism, which is precisely a detotalization.  And in most cases,
an absenting of the body.  "Aesthetics," however, literally concerns modes
of embodiment and sensation; its opposite, it's fair to say, is anesthesia.
Nevertheless aesthetics is not hedonism or sensualism.  An education of the
senses is at least part of its operation--though by "senses" I mean more
than the physical five: all sorts of perception and perceptivenesses can be
developed.  What this suggests, however, is that art (or aesthetic
experience generally) operates as a *retotalization* of the human--
intentional and embodied--agent.  Therein lies its utopian moment, a utopian
retotalization which I think the "Owl Creek" film exemplifies nicely.  That
retotalization funds the potential for hostility between art and philosophy,
and between art and positivism, since those depend on detotalized agency
dividing mind and body.  At the same time, therein lie art's antipolitical
or pseudopolitical possibilities, since that mode of retotalization is
characteristically individualist.  (I think exceptions are possible, but the
aestheticism of fascism is not one of them, since fascism depends crucially
on the massification of *deracinated* individuals.)

This brings me to another quasi-absence in your discussion, that of class
(or more broadly, power).  I fully concur with your rejection of reductive
readings of art into class ideologies.  Nevertheless class enters the
picture (if I may use that phrase while talking about aesthetics) because it
too involves relationships to the body.  (Strictly speaking, I should say
"to bodies," since sex, race, etc are certainly involved; please forgive
simplification for the sake of brevity.)  Where the issue of class is marked
most strongly in your discussion is in your selection of examples, which
strongly tends toward elite and avantgarde forms.  --I should quickly say
that I do *not* intend a personal criticism here: nearly all education in
and discussion of the arts is mesmerized by the Siren of the elite and the
avantgarde, and it's hard to avoid.  In any case, social hierarchies involve
the mind/body division, most notably in the social division between "mental"
and "manual" labor, and it is no coincidence that the upper social echelons
tend toward "refinement," "classical style," "formal purity," etc:
essentially a renunciation of the body.  Thus the production of the ascetic
aesthetics you trace in Rainer, Beckett, etc.  What is involved is not
necessarily artists' acceptance of bourgeoise values, but rather their
rejection of lower-class corporeality.  Of course an ascetic aesthetics is
in one sense a contradiction in terms, but this probably adds emphasis and
pathos to its quests for transcendence, and a preoccupation with suffering
could hardly hurt.  Perhaps I should add that Bakhtinian carnivalesques are
no panacea, but their problems are different.

(Incidentally, I'd like to draw attention to the notion of the art object as
monadic, which you draw upon but which I think must be vigorously
questioned.  If the notion is valid *at all*, it is only so within specific
geohistorical limitations.  Medieval art, for example, simply cannot be
understood this way.)

Speaking of contradictions, it might be suggestive to compare the passage
from Lao Tzu ("The five colours blind the eyes of man" etc) to Bottom's
account of his dream in *A Midsummer Night's Dream*.  Unfortunately I don't
have a copy of the latter available, but in it Bottom says something along
the lines of "the tongue cannot see, the eye cannot hear, the ear cannot
speak the wonder of my dream."  (A *very* rough recollection!)  Basically
Shakespeare uses synesthesia to suggest the depth of what was, in more ways
than one, a powerful and multiple transformative experience for Bottom
(which by the way involved his embodiment, since he had a bout of
ass-headedness and made love with the faery queen that night).  Bottom may
be a goofus, but he's no donkey.  He does get at alethia (again, in more
ways than one).

So your near-aside in your discussion of the LeGuin story is on the mark.
The imaginary relationship between person and pet can express a valid truth.
The participants may be imaginary, but their relationship--that sort of
relationship--is real.  A bit like dividing the square root of negative one
by the square root of negative one, a relationship between imaginaries which
results in a real number.

Tobin Nellhaus *or*
"Faith requires us to be materialists without flinching": C.S. Peirce

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