Saturday, March 17, 2012

Subject and World in Conversation, Despite Sprachkrise: Burton Pike's "Literature as Experience"

Egon Schiele's "The Bridge"
I read today Burton Pike's wonderful essay, "Literature as Experience" in Robert Musil's The Man without Qualities, edited by Harold Bloom, 2005. Pike clearly and powerfully argues that Musil and his modernist contemporaries were exorcised by the problem of finding a bridge between subject and world, but that they did not see this problem to be as insurmountable as many contemporary theorists do. Pike asks, along with the novelists of modernity: 

“How can a bridge  (a utopian, hence idealistic bridge) be built from this isolated subjective mind to the social, moral, and ethical concerns of society at large? Does not [the Modernist ] approach to perception and experience, so radically centered on the subjective mind, commit a writer to a mode of fiction centered on solipsistic characters? (Virginia Woolf’s an D.H. Lawrence’s fiction, Rilke’s novel Malte Laurids Brigge, and Joyce’s two major novels also raise the question)” (87-8). And his answer is:  “There would seem to have been in the early phenomenologists and in Musil an underlying idealism that has since been lost, a belief that in spite of the increasing solipsism and dehumanizing specialization of modern life there is some sphere or level—one hardly knows what to call it—in or on which all the conflicting and apparently unrelated fragments, self and world, feeling and intellect, science and society, skepticism and belief, could somehow be melded into a coherent, ethical whole..” (88).   

While Pike writes here that one hardly knows what to call the sphere or level upon which this coherent whole might be sought, I submit that the sphere might be called art, with the qualification that the desideratum might, in that case, better be characterized as a realm of dialogue between self and world or self and other, rather than a total merging or melding or unity. This would be a form of ethics, somewhat coherent, if not whole in the sense of fixed or without contradictions. Earlier in the essay Pike notes that the modernists' idea of language was not characterized by the same skepticism plaguing today's structuralist or post-structuralist language critiques:

"My general argument is that writers of the early modernist generation, and certainly Musil, were not blocked by language’s presumed inability to represent experience, but on the contrary were struggling to develop a new kind of literary language that would adequately represent experience as a cognitive process as it was then coming to be understood. ..[Musil] was a writer of fiction who was attempting to forge with the greatest possible precision a language of images that would portray the inexact process by which a character proceeds through life within the envelope of his individual perceptions, sensations, thoughts, and experiences.  In The Man without Qualities, Musil pushed this further, attempting to reconcile this process of individual perception with the utopian goal of a world in which social institutions would be morally and ethically revitalized. The work of art was to point the way to this revitalization” (77).  

I certainly learned this idea from Burton Pike when I was lucky enough to study with him, and it has influenced all my subsequent thinking about the possible worldly "uses"of modernist experimentations.  While there is a general view of the Sprachkrise as a nihilistic choice between silence and hypocritical clichéd use of old worn-out forms, Pike's argument is that the modernist experiment was characterized by an attempt to reinvigorate these old forms. And this constitutes a less cynical view of art's potential to invigorate the forms of society. Pike continues:

“This argument implicitly rejects the idea that what literature conveys is graspable only through an  analytic procedure that reduces it to rational or rationalized elements of language such as narrative and discourse.  A writer, even an analytic writer like Musil, might be interested in pursuing other goals” (77-8).  “It might also be said of modernist literature generally that it resists the attempts of theory to reduce literary expression to the problem of language alone. This kind of literature uses language to project images that incorporate action in an envelope of sensory experience rather than using it descriptively or discursively. The senses, emotions, affects, moods, and subliminal effects involved in perception and experience are considered essential. It is too reductive , as some critics would have it, to consider literary language as merely a doomed attempt at some kind of rational discourse that eludes both writer and reader, a fruitless butting of one’s head against the walls of the ‘prison-house of language’”(78).

And now we must come back to the subject, the individual person who is so often, nowadays, considered either a complete and outdated social construct (see Stefan Jonsson's Subject without Nation, which I will discuss later when I am less exhausted) or a dangerous and persistent cipher for contemporary self-directed solipsism. Pike writes: 

"Phenomenology conceived experience as the experience of an individual person, but underlying the phenomenological enterprise was the intention of bringing about moral and ethical reform on the level of the larger community, and the belief that this could be done through an awakened subjectivity that would somehow expand outwards from the individual to the social and cultural world. Our time, however—as Musil himself trenchantly observed many times in his essays and in The Man without Qualities—has moved instead to a collectivist mode of thinking in which political, ideological, ethnic, tribal thought and behavior rather than the individual’s subjectivity have become the framework for social thought..In collectivist fashion the contemporary human sciences..approach the individual only as a statistical manifestation of generalized and abstracted characteristics. (Thus the disease is more important than the patient, who represents for the medical profession only a manifestation of it, a 'case’)” (88).

Friday, March 16, 2012

Individualism and Ethics

Dürer's Melancholia, an example of decadent capitalist individualist unethical art?
Continuing my rather annoying confrontation with the critique of  this something called "Modernism," I have been reading Suzi Gaplik's interesting book Has Modernism Failed in order to, in a way, figure out what is making these criticisms tick. What is motivating them? What do they want and why? It seems that Gaplik wants to bring spirit back into art, even spirituality, and above all a communal spirituality in response to the commodification of the art world. She is largely writing about visual art and when she says "Modernism" her conception of it travels much further into the present than where I would imagine it in literary (high) Modernism to go. But anyway, while I share her concern about what Thoreau called bringing one's God to market (see post below on the transcendentalists and the continental philosophers), I simply do not understand the total attack on individualism that exorcises her and many other critics of aesthetics. It feels to me that they have the wrong enemy in their hands. Is culture really the enemy? Beauty? Song? Art? the Individual?

 Why would individualism be less ethical than collectivism? Sure, I can see the value of community. I even feel it as a New Yorker living in Vermont. I understand that it is beneficial to work together and to be altruistic. But these values were not born with collectivism and the critique of capitalism. Spinoza specifically enjoins people to be other-regarding, for example, as does most of the philosophy and art of the Western canon. Kant is famous for suggesting that we should not use people as means, but to see human relation as an end in itself. Certainly one could argue that the spirit of capitalism and its dog-eat-dog laissez faire attitude is the result (or cause) of the kind of selfishness, greed, and xenophobia that characterize a certain species of individualistic thinking (every man for himself). But collectivism doesn't really have clean hands either.

Allen Tiher, in his Understanding Robert Musil, writes that ethics for Musil, was differentiated from morals by its "personal and almost unsocial" character (194).  Morality, which Musil equated with rationality and systematic thinking in his essay "Der 'Untergang' des Theaters" (The 'Fall' of the Theater, 1924) demanded a: 

"univocal thinking with concepts whose purchase on meaning demands that they can be repeatedly used. This kind of moral thinking is analogous to scientific discourse in that it proposes recurrence as part of its criteria for verification and hence is a product of the understanding (8:1093). However, for Musil real ethical thinking does not share these properties since it is in part of the 'non-ratioid' domain of knowledge" (194).

Tiher continues, noting that "like Wittgenstein Musil came to believe that true ethical thinking or feeling is scarcely amenable of the kind of rational demonstration that philosophers often undertake when systematically setting out the principles of morality. A system of ethics is impossible".  Ethical experience then, far from being limited to the communal realm is considered to be only possible  on an individual basis. Ethical experience is "a kind of unique experience in which one individual encounters an individual moment that cannot be directly mediated simply by abstract concepts....and presumably it can be found in art"," and in the realm Musil designates as the "Other Condition," a "unique domain in which the aesthetic experience of the ethical occurs" (196).  Morality has ever been a system of control, while ethics is personal, an existential self-responsibility, choice, conscience, which is born within the individual in relation to others rather than imposed upon him by force or punishment or censure.

While Suzi Gaplik describes early Modernism as being motivated by a  "double process of aesthetic innovation and social revolt" in response to "the artists' spiritual discomfort in capitalistic and totalitarian societies alike" (31), she goes on to malign this "inward turn" as the art world of the 1960's and 70's "began to cast up increasing instances of self-referring formalism which denies to abstract art any kind of dissident role or meaning within the social framework"...(32).  This decline in social commitment or ethical consciousness, however, seems impugned by her from the start, despite the distinction made between early and late Modernism,  by the dangerous idea of individualism. "The overarching principle of modernity has been autonomy. Its touchstone is individual freedom, not social authority" (34).

She then rather outrageously suggests that capitalism "cannot hope to produce art equal to that of certain earlier forms of society---since capitalistic production, because it stresses the profit-making value of art and turns it into a form of merchandise, is hostile to the spiritual production of art"(39).  It is unclear to me here which art is being compared to which art. If she marks the beginning of capitalism in the 1600's, or from the protestant reformation and the "spirit of capitalism" as many do, she is claiming that any art created before this time of "decadence" is of greater spiritual value than what was created after and that, after the fall of capitalism, art will be better. Capitalism, however, and its insidious individualism may be dated to the earliest instance of land or business ownership. I think she does mean to date capitalism from the Renaissance however, since she compares the Holy Grail with the stock exchange and further argues that medieval art was more spiritual than capitalist art, ignoring completely the economic aspects of religious patronage and power. If individualism, as is argued in Ernst Cassirer's Individualism and Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy, was born in the Renaissance, then Gaplik would have to argue that Renaissance art and philosophy marked the beginning of a decline in the spiritual dimensions of art and the ethical concerns of mankind. An obviously absurd conclusion, unless one is a reactionary Catholic.  I'm sure she does not mean to argue this, but one must take the unexamined assumptions to their conclusions to see how faulty they are.

Gaplik laments that "not only have we been living for some time without any shared ideal, we have largely been living without any ideals at all...our common belief at this point seems to be that no one can be made accountable:  any form of limitation is experienced as a prison"(40). I quote this line because I agree heartily with Gaplik that this is a serious problem. But I do not think that individualism or aestheticism are the culprits in this "void of ethics".   Certainly, modernism has been a grappling with the loss of communal values and, yes, a return to community and a retreat from the marketplace of art makes a lot of good sense as a response to this widespread crisis of meaning and the pervasive simulacrum of the mall and its constant projections of hollow images. But with Musil in mind, I would insist that it is not individual intellect and culture that is the enemy, but rather the drive toward collective conformity and sameness inherent in the strange mixture of democracy and capitalism. Why should the individual be suspect? Why should the individual be unethical? Why should beauty be an escape from reality and responsibility? Perhaps these are consciously naive or disingenuous questions, but I think that someone needs to ask them.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Ranciere's Aesthetics and its Discontents & Adorno's "Extorted Reconciliation"

Adorno at the Beach!
I just read Ranciére's Aesthetics and its Discontents, along with Adorno's essay "Extorted Reconciliation: On Georg Lukács' Realism in Our Time" in an effort to parse out the complicated strands of politics, aesthetics, and the general critique of Modernism.  Lukács famously and obtusely criticized  Musil's Ulrich for his "worldlessness," as a bad example of the "decadent" tendencies of Modernist art; and Adorno defended both Musil and Modernist art from Lukács' charge on the grounds that Lukács was attempting an "extorted reconciliation" between reality and ideal which Modernist art emphatically resists. This resistance, inherent in Adorno's "negative dialectics," amounts to a form of political art which maintains its autonomy from affiliation and party program. Ranciére, compared to Adorno, is less critical of the realm of didactically political art (which he calls in one chapter "critical art" and which he divides up into the critical art of the earlier, supposedly more effective period of the 1920's to the 1970's roughly, and the current state of rather despair-driven works which Ranciére seems to see as more part of the problem than part of the solution, to borrow a phrase from the 60's). Yet he does mount a sort of defense of aesthetics and the Modernist program in Adorno's wake, arguing that the real issue is not about comparing postmodernism to modernism but, rather, realizing that Modernism itself has always been conscious of the necessary contradictions within it.  Ranciére writes:

“Modernism itself has only ever been a long contradiction between two opposed aesthetic politics, two politics that are opposed but on the basis of a common core linking the autonomy of art to the anticipation of a community to come, and therefore linking this autonomy to the promise of its own suppression” (128).

I just read in Allen Tiher's Understanding Robert Musil that Musil, of course (of course?), rejected any idea of salvation (aesthetic redemption included?), including, presumably, the "anticipation of a community to come" that would entail, according to Ranciére, the demise of art's autonomy (because, presumably, alienation would be at an end, the millennium would arrive and everyone would be too happy making love to need to make art at all?!). Tiher, who doesn't mention anything about aesthetic redemption, the millennium, or the sort of complex intrinsically-destructing motion suggested by Ranciére at all (lest my association of the two suggest that he does), writes: 

"It can be argued that Musil's failure to find a conclusion to his novel demonstrates the difficulty characterizing the modernist project of transforming or, indeed, saving culture through literary discourse. On making this observation, however, we should recall that he mocks the idea of salvation and saving culture as much as any other idea circulating in Vienna before the First World War---if this is not an idea taken from Weimar and projected back on Vienna...At some point during the writing of the novel saving culture became a cliché. ..From this perspective, if the novel's lack of completion illustrates a failure, it is the failure to create a discourse of salvation, a very modernist failure to create a viable myth" (230).

While it may be true that Musil mocks the idea of saving culture within the novel, it is important that we note Ulrich's proviso, referring, I believe, to the idea of the millennium or some other equally wild dream: “I only make fun of it because I love it" (II,817). Also, we must temper any of Musil's satirical comments on the possibility of creating a literary discourse of salvation in the novel with reference to his essays and addresses, particularly his notes for addresses during the reign of totalitarianism, where we see him engaged in a rather earnest "defense of culture" with the weapons of art. Which is not to imply that he meant that political battles could be fought by or with art. On the contrary, he maintained  explicitly that the defense of culture meant that one could not fight political battles with pens and brushes; the best one could do was maintain the free non-affiliated voice of the artist as the last bastion of critical and non-conscripted thought,  and encourage those whose job it was to use other kinds of weapons to understand that a large part of their job entailed protecting the autonomy of culture. Tiher's analysis suggests that the defense of culture was to be somehow better and more successfully waged with some other weapons than the tools the Modernists had at hand (maybe more up-to-date postmodernist weapons like the death of the author or the utter lack of differentiation between simulacrum and sense, or by a return to Social Realism perhaps?) and that the "failure" of Musil's novel is indicative of the generally agreed-upon consensus about the failure of Modernism to successfully negotiate the problems of engagement, politics, society, collectivism, culture.  I do not mean to suggest that Tiher is advocating for a politicized art or even criticizing Musil and his project for their affiliation with discredited Modernism. Tiher is doing no such thing and his discussion of Musil is actually very nuanced and enlightening. It is just that it reveals that even in cases when a critic is not explicitly setting out to argue against Modernism or its aesthetic aims, there seems to be a somewhat unexamined assumption about the failure and misguidedness of the project, as if that were a given.

While the critique of aesthetic Modernism assumes already that a response and a resolution of political problems is, necessarily, the role of art, one might ask (as Musil did, albeit coming to no absolute conclusion) if such a task need be taken on by art at all.  That being said, Tiher's analysis of the "failure" of Musil's novel to conclude as evidence of the failure of Modernism to come to a satisfactory conclusion, neglects a different reading of this lack of conclusion, one which I am sure Adorno would agree sees the lack of closure as much more active or proactive than passive. While Musil once wrote "Down with cultural optimism!" in a note about the attempts of his contemporaries to celebrate the coming salvation of the new Soviet era, he was not quite as pessimistic about the role and requirement of the artist to speak to, about, above, beyond the problems at hand; but this discussion was to be carried out with the tools of art, not those of demagoguery or party politics or didacticism or "extorted reconciliation". And he used the tools of art to resist the call to closure, to partisanship, to Gleichschaltung, by continuing to write, by refusing to come to final solution, by providing endless perspectives. Ranciére, looking out from the center at the two political positions he sees as inherent even in the so-called un-political aims of Modernism, writes:

“On the one hand, the avant-garde movement aimed to transform the forms of art, and to make them identical with the forms for constructing a new world in which art would no longer exist as a separate reality. On the other, the avant-garde preserved the autonomy of the artistic sphere from forms of compromise with practices of power and political struggle, or with forms of aestheticization of life in the capitalist world. ..This was not at all to preserve it for the pure enjoyment of art for its own sake but, on the contrary , as the inscription of the unresolved contradictions between the aesthetic promise and the realities of oppression in the world” (129). 

The phrase "unresolved contradictions" is reminiscent of both Musil and Adorno, and should remind us that aesthetics does not necessarily mean wholeness, completeness, or harmony, but can just as easily be an awareness of discord, dissonance, what Ranciére calls "dissensus" in contradiction to our beloved contemporary "consensus".  As Adorno writes:
"The postulate of a reality that must be represented without a breach between subject and object and which must be 'reflected'---the term Lukács stubbornly adheres to---for the sake of that lack of a breach:  that postulate, which is the supreme criterion of his aesthetics, implies that that reconciliation has been achieved, that society has been set right, that the subject has come into its own in its world. ...But the division, the antagonism, continues, and to say that it has been overcome in the nations of the Eastern Bloc, as they call it, is simply a lie [Adorno's essay was written in the 1960s]. The spell that holds Lukács in its power and bars his longed-for return to the utopia of his youth reenacts the extorted reconciliation he himself detected in absolute idealism" (240 Notes to Literature, Volume I).
While few people still believe today in the promises of the Soviet utopia, there are other utopias of reconciliation in the air, and the attempt to make the ever-shifting nature of truth fit in to a narrowly defined concept of good and right is probably always an anti-aesthetic attitude. It comes back to Carson's  imperative to "keep the difference visible," or to Nietzsche's warning that we should not forget that the metaphoric unions that we make into meanings and truths are fictions and should be continually refreshed and reevaluated, since no two things are ever really the same, and never can really be fully reconciled. The “extorted reconciliation,” in contrast, is the forced happy ending of the isolated subject’s reunion with world and society, progress, success.

But why the need to justify art at all, this defensive stance. From where this need to argue that aesthetics has political and social value, that aesthetics is ethics, that there is a link between aesthetics and conduct of life?  Of course in so far the way we see the world determines our ethics, aesthetics is inherently connected to ethics, and Musil certainly saw it that way. If aesthetics made us callow craven indifferent cruel sadists (Zizek  suggests as much in an essay comparing de Sade and Kant!), if it made us Dorian Grays with hidden atrocities in our closets, if aesthetics were merely a way to cover up ugly truths, then perhaps the attack would be justified. But if aesthetics is, as I believe,  a conscious attention, concern and value applied to surfaces, shapes, arrangements, techniques, dynamics, movement, suspensions, densities, repetition and their expressive powers, as opposed to a limited focus only on ideas, ideologies, content, message, political program, action, expediency, utility, practicality, materialism, then a defense of aesthetics amounts to a defense of the imagination, of pleasure, of human sensual and intellectual freedom, curiosity, play (defined by Kant and Schiller), essay, experimentation, openness.  

While the anti-aesthetic privileging of content over form seems on the surface to be a favoring of the transcendental Platonic Idea over vulgar materialism of the flesh, in fact it amounts to just the opposite, since the formal games of art are respites from the materiality of the world of profit, loss, purpose, use, they are (as Lukács complains) “worldless” in the sense that they (contrary to his intent) imagine new and other worlds, in that they cannot be commodified, in that they are of no earthly use, and thus confound the philistine, the ideologue, the agitator and the capitalist merchant, who do not know how to sell what is most valuable about them. That they are free. Wilde wrote that the "cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing".  This is, in fact, a critique of materialism by one of the most extreme aesthetes of literary history, a proponent of the truth of masks and the depths of surfaces. The shape of a poem, its cadences, surprises, sounds, spaces, cannot be commodified, and cannot be taken as booty by either side, cannot be turned into slogan or party program.

Musil's  defense of culture amounted to a defense of Geist as realm of aesthetic play, critical non-affiliation, subjunctive and, yes, subjective perspectivism (why should the individual’s perspective be suspect?). When infinite and defracted perspective is simplified down to the common denominator (the lowest common denominator, by the way), it is by definition less complex, less comprehensive, less, to use a word with some value for some people who attack aesthetics for its supposed escapism, less  “real”.  Reality is not some ideal of good or right or moral, but, rather, a constantly changing, shifting complexity of values, desires, choices, imaginings and perspectives. Something we make together, out of our differences. Which is not to say that nothing matters or that there is no way to approach truth or attempt right action, but, rather,  that to do so is far more interesting and complex and challenging than communally establishing (from above, by the way, despite claims of populism) what is right or wrong or correct or incorrect and then attempting, rigidly, to make artists and other creative individuals adhere to that system.

The activity of the free realm of aesthetics turns out, despite itself,  to be political, social, ethical; and this not by virtue of its supposed attempt to conceal the reality of suffering or to maintain the entrenched values of the people in power, but because it is intrinsically a realm which cannot breathe when constricted by dogma, coercion, or “extorted reconciliation”.  The aesthetic is not only anathema to oppression, not only political thus in negativity or non-collaboration with programs or systems, but also positively, affirmatively, in its natural generation of new ideas, forms, desires, possibilities, its active proliferation of human energies…and, gasp, its love of existing in the world. As Nietzsche would remind us: Amor fati. Love of fate! In all its unreconciled beauty and horror!