File spoon-archives/bhaskar.archive/bhaskar_1998/bhaskar.9803, message 4

Date: Wed, 04 Mar 1998 10:51:35 +1000
Subject: BHA: responding to Tobin

Hi Tobin,

Thanks for taking the time to comment. I will change that whack I owe you
to a beer when we next meet.  What follows is not so much a reply to your
post as a response provoked by your comments.

Now you point out that I have neglected to mention class.  That is true and
it hurts an old Trot like me who preaches the primacy of class everyday.  I
have been on this list too long.  It is hanging around all these ex-Maoists
that has made me put "Aesthetics in command".

But seriously there is an element of the stick being bent here.  Marxist
and Left inspired aesthetics have done the class thing to death. What we
have not succeeded in doing is meeting the right on their own territory.
There is something about the aesthetic experience which cannot be captured
within a class model.  Art as Trotsky once argued has its own laws etc.

Your remark on class struck home so partly because I have just finished
reading Li Zehou's "The Path of Beauty- A study of Chinese aesthetics".
(1988, Morning Glory Publishers: Beijing) His reading of the significance
of the Buddhist statues of the Northern Wei Dynasty is excellent.  He
appreciates the statues as art-works but he also locates them within their
cultural and historical period. He also has the imaginative ability to
recreate for himself something of the experience of the monks who spent
long arduous hours in prayer and devotion before these same statues.

I particularly liked the way he says that the figures 

"displayed grace, and wisdom amid the miserable world of terror, and
chilling brutality, portrayed in the surrounding murals." (:148)

However the same Li Zehou can write of A Dream of Red Mansions that its
aesthetic value lies "not in its expressions of sorrow but in its realistic
descriptions, exposure, and criticisms of social life." (:249)

Both the Buddhas of the Northern Wei Dynasty and The Dream Of Red Mansions
mark a turn to the ascetic and this can be partly explained in terms of the
social and political context.
But for me there is something more to asceticism in art than this and it
this that I was trying to get at.

The Dream Of Red Mansions is an especially complex instance.  It begins and
ends with gestures of renunciation, but in between we have the most
complete celebration of the aesthetic plenitude that marked the life of the
Qing nobility.  What is difficult for a traditional Marxist theorist like
Li Zehou, who is committed to reading class into everything, is to explain
how in a period of 'degeneration' such as the Qing Dynasty a brilliant
novel like the Dream Of Red Mansions is at all possible.

Nor does the point I am making alter significantly if you substitute power
for class.  I think BTW that in this context one of Bhaskar's great
contributions to cultural studies has been to make the distinction between
Power1 and Power2.

You mentioned the body.  This part of your post was very interesting and
telling.  The truth is that I have a twitch which post-structuralist and
postmodernist thought brings to a fine fever pitch.  Mention 'body' and
'spaces' and I will begin to produce smoke from out my ears.  But you have
a very serious point, in that the body is intimately involved with the
aesthetic. This is especially so if we think in terms of music. It is
intriguing in this context to think of Nietzsche's remarks, in his
Anti-Wagner polemic, about the physiological basis of the aesthetic.

You also mentioned Bottom's great awakening speech.  

"I  have had a dream, past the wit of man, to say, what dream it was.  Man
is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream.  Methought I was,-
there is no man can tell what.   Methought I was-and methought I had-But
man is but a patch'd fool if he will offer to say, what methought I had.
The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is
not able to taste, this tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what
my dream was.  I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream, it
shall be called Bottom's Dream, because it hath no bottom..." (Act IV Sc 1)

This captures perfectly the inability of language to convey the aesthetic.
Again what is for me particularly interesting are the echoes in Bottom's
speech of 1 Corinthians 2:9:_

"But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have
entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them
that love him."  

I was reminded of Armstrong's accounts of the experiences of the mystics.
They went into these incredible trances, had amazing experiences and yet
when they reported them they sounded so banal.  

It is also significant for me that some of the Jewish mystics attempted to
get into their trances by the deliberate and systematic disordering of
language.  Bottom seems to have been there before them.

Your mention of Bottom made me think of Caliban's famous speech.
Christopher Caudwell regarded Caliban as the prototype of the "bestial
serf" while Ariel who served only for a time was the "free-wage labourer"
of modernity.  Rene Wellek dismisses Caudwell as "crude and insensitive"
and adds a rather patronising compliment about the "wide-ranging reading of
this young man." 

Caudwell's then is supposed to be the kind of Marxist criticism that one
should avoid but if one actually reads Caudwell then one finds that he is
not so crude at all. Thus of the world of The Tempest he says

"This heaven cannot endure.  The actors return to the real world.  The
magic wand is broken.  And yet, in its purity and childlike wisdom, there
is a bewitching quality about The Tempest and its magic world, in which the
forces of Nature are harnessed to men's service in a bizarre forecast of

For Caudwell The Tempest is full of Blochian Not-Yet-Conscious and
Forward-Dawning.  I would like to retain these insights and then add to them.

Thus for me Caliban's speech speaks of the pain of awakening from the
achievement of subject-object identity, of a direct and unmediated
communion with nature, of a world beyond the cool web of language. There is
also here a real sense of the loss of an enchanted world, of the grim
legacy of modernity and progress.

Be not afeard: the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices,
That, if I then had wak'd after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me; that, when I wak'd
I cried to dream again.

It is a mark of Shakespeare's genius that he would give this experience to
the "savage and deformed slave."  Ariel may be freer than Caliban but he is
not more poetical.

Now you mentioned that my examples were primarily from elite and avantgarde
forms.  True again, but Leguin would hardly be recognised as elite although
she is a great writer for all that.  What can I say to this?  I was a
working-class boy born into a big (11 children) and dirt poor Irish
Catholic family and I won a scholarship to a grammar school and there I
studied The Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar, Midsummer's Night Dream,
Henry IV Part One and MacBeth.

I actually received a good education in the classics and it has left me
with an absolute contempt for middle class fools like John Docker and John
Fiske who celebrate every inanity that comes on television. I, on the other
hand, support the democratisation of the reception of the High Culture and
I am not about to apologise to anyone for that.

Now what was I trying to do in my posts?  Well fundamentally I wanted to
create a space for those of us who are interested in cultural studies
(broadly defined). It seems to me that the lawyers, economists and the
sociologists have held sway within CR for too long.  The talk of taking on
Postmodernism has brought the matter to a head for me.  We have hardly
begun the kind of work in cultural studies that will be needed to bring off
that sort of challenge.  

I would be the first to admit that my posts on aesthetics are not up to the
task.  But having said that I would repeat that the central insight that I
tried to build on, namely the importance of absence to an aesthetics, is
very worthwhile pursuing. Partly because it gives us a different critical
angle.  If we ask what is absent from the text we have to bring in the
social context.  If we ask what the text is trying to absent then we have
to pay attention to the inner workings of the text. Similarly for the
process-in-product and product-in process dimensions of absence. To
paraphrase Puck, if we examine the text and see an 'absence toward' we can
be auditors and actors.

But more important than this for me is the step we take once we accept
Bhaskar's invitation to see the "positive as a tiny, but important ripple
on the surface of a sea of negativity".  The subsequent breaks with
ontological monovalence and with the aesthetics predicated on it have
profound implications. These point I think to an overcoming of the gap
between Eastern and Western Aesthetics, and to a way of linking up with all
the great thinkers of the negative. I have only left scratch marks here.

As for the Adorno bits in my post, well again they need a lot more work.
But his thesis on the absenting of schein in modern art and his suspicion
of poetry and beauty after Auschwitz are very interesting.  I have been
struck here by the example of Damien Hirst.  He has appropriated the
modernist gestures of renunciation and produced what can only be thought of
as paradoxically slick anti-art.  

For those in despair, however, there is the work of the great Aboriginal
artist Emily Kngwarry now on display here in Brisbane.  You enter the
gallery room and are overwhelmed with the triumphant return of schein.  Yet
Australian Aborigines have had their own Auschwitz.  If anyone is entitled
to poetry it is them.

Warm regards


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