Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Aesthetics versus Literary Theory



In email conversation with Joe Hughes recently, check out his two books on Deleuze they are excellent by the way, I tried to explain a long-term project I am working on regarding a new aesthetics.

It has struck me many times that in the history of aesthetics, let's say it starts with Kant's Third Critique, there are few if any works on aesthetics that do not subordinate the aesthetic to a wider philosophical system.  This is why Nietzsche is so important to aesthetics and moden theory, in that he is possibly the first to convincingly suggest a philosophy that emanates from art.  And again why Heidegger's so-called kehre (his turn to poetry) retains such a grip on us for all its limitations and questionable motivations. 

If aesthetics as works are not the application of an already established system to the arts so as to use arts to bolster up a tottering critical philosophy or found an overly ambitious narrative (Kant and Hegel respectively), then the thinker gets mired in inductive reasoning, specifically the categorising of the different kinds of arts or different kinds of the different kinds of the arts and so on (Kant and Hegel do both of course).  In this light Jean-Luc Nancy's reading of Hegel in The Muses, which I have just written on for the excellent collection of essays from SUNY Jean-Luc Nancy and Plural Thinking, is especially important.

Hegel eventually choses poetry as the art of arts because poetry is the one art form whose essence it is to negate itself.  Poetry is better than any other art because it can combine sensual being with abstract thought to such a degree that the abstract element of poetry radically attenuates the material and sensible side.  This self-withering self-negation means that poetry becomes more itself the more it resembles philosophy, and less itself at the same time the more it denies that which differentiates it from philosophy, namely its material singularity.  Naturally Hegel appreciates this sacrifice for one of his prime concerns in the aesthetics is to wrest power back into the hands of philosophy during the period of high German Romantic irony where art threatened to eclipse the dialectic.  And of course it is also a perfect example of self-alienation for a wider cause, typical of the early elements of the logic of the dialectic.

This aside the point is that aesthetics is caught in this apotropaic bind.  The more one pursues the abstraction of philosophical consistency of which one makes art a part, the more one denies the thing that defines art's essence, a combination of unity plus singularity.  Instead if one decides to delineate artistic singularity for its own sake, the more it becomes obvious, as Nancy has me arguing, that this promiscuity of the arts means the concept of an art as such, an aesthetic, becomes impossible to sustain. 

As I cannot think of another concept that does this, I must name art as this apotropaic dynamism that exists between the conceptual possibility of a unity that is philosophically valid, Art with a capital A or Aesthetics with a capital A, and the reality of the multiplicity of singular, material diversity that consitutes the essence of the art work.  Thus it is that Nancy kind of explains why we tend to speak of the arts, and not art in general, because we cannot reconcile aesthetic commonality with artistic mutiple singularity.

And so everyone latches on to singularity as equal to art because it is a philosophical unified concept for the existence of absolute particularities.  Yet it is never easy to say that art alone has singularity.  In Deleuze, in Badiou, in Agamben, and so on, art may possess singularity but it is not singularity per se.  Again, supporting my view that art is the apotropaic problem of singularity, but not simply singularity as such. 

This is Agamben's point in fact.  The poem, more widely the presumed work of art as thing, is the suspension of clear differentiation between prose (immaterial philosophical language usage) and poetry (semiotic singularity).  The work of art in this sense is the constant suspension of clarity between common language (philosophy) and singular language (poetry) that reveals that this presupposed split is a historical mythologeme, to use Zartaluodis' term for this process.  There is no difference between philosophy and the arts as regards their attitude towards the materiality of language.  This is one of the oldest fictions we still currently abide by as some kind of truth.

The end point of this is literary theory, my home for two decades I suppose.  I now see that literary theory effectively negotiates between Art as unified concept and every work of art ever produced as multiple, sensual singilarity.  Like the false idea of the Arts, the false division of theory into different approaches was the necessary result of the bad-faith at the heart of theory.  Theory is nothing other, in the end, and I speak from experience and rabid participation, than a fix combining partiality of thinking, using only some of philosophy or formal thought, and selectiveness of reading, using examples that best fit the theory or reducing all multiplicity down to a limited stable of possible significances. 

It was in a way the worst of both words.  If you were a marxist or materialist thinker, in reality Marx and Althusser pre-dated any work of art which could only be a manifestation of their ideas.  In that sense any literary sigularity was negated.  On the other hand if you were a Marxist theorist your empirical evidence was the diversity of literary texts, and so modifications to the source idea had to be imposed to facilitate the singularity of the literary.  So we would say art is ideology but not all art is reducible to slavish ideology.

To sum up then literary theory has been a bridge between unified aesthetics and radical material singularity and in this sense was a valuable first step.  But now a single theoretical approach is needed that does not simply replicate the problem of common and proper, universal and singular, in relation to the work of art.  This can only be a theory of art that accepts the necessity to suspend this false division that we blame Plato for so blithely: either a geometer or a poet.  An aesthetics of indifference, therefore, that emerges out of the inoperativity of a theory caught between an incomplete identity on one side, and a reductionist view of singularity on the other. 

This is the project I am working on called Logopoiesis, neither and aeshethics nor a theory of the arts but a suspension of this age-old atagonism by first of all negating that there is such a thing in the world as a work of art aside from what it makes communicable to our culture: primarily the unity of singularity.
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