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Archive for the ‘aesthetics’ Category

backwards from the end

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Not sure whether it is a five paragraph essay, depends how you count the first line, but this from Jane is brilliant and brilliantly concise.

(I’d like to quote it, but it would have to be in full, which isn’t good blog form, so go look and maybe come back…)

Now, I haven’t much to add except this: the trick of course is to figure out what to do with the symmetry. What does it matter that poetry imitates price or price poetry or that there’s an inadvertent or atmospherically determined correlation between the two. I ask because this is exactly the sort of thing that I am trying to clarify in my own stuff right now. And in fact, a clarification of this would be a clarification perhaps of the point of the study of literature today (as broadly or narrowly as you’d like to think “today”). And perhaps further (and more importantly) it might also be a clarification of the point of literary creation when aimed toward any end other than airballing polemical delivery or obsolescent content provision. Hmmm…. Art as social heiroglyphic where we can read what can’t be read (or can it) elsewhere, but if we can read it elsewhere, why bother with the detour? Or form appears in the art more clearly than elsewhere – because everywhere else the seamstitches are hidden and the statues seem to be balanced, free-standing?

I’d love to hear what Jane thinks, but it’s perhaps not a conversation that one has in a comment box.

I think if I could figure this out, or at least feel as though I’m on my way to figuring something out about this, I could work again as I used to…

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January 8, 2009 at 2:08 pm

Posted in aesthetics, economics, form

the secret life of investment bankers

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Somehow, accidentally, the movie Boarding Gate snuck from the bottom to the top of my mail rental list, and it’s been sitting on top of the DVD player for quite some time. With great anxiety and embarrassment I talked my wife into watching it with me last night – this despite the fact that it is, there is no doubt, mostly a vehicle designed to get Asia Argento on screen as many times as possible in a black bra and not much else. Awkward that.

But anyway… I actually enjoyed it quite a lot. Despite the fact it was only released in 2007, it is well on its way already to the status of period piece, as it does the good old sexed-up globalization bit. Let’s see, the checklist: stacks of cargo containers, freelancing incredibly rich people, wild shifts in venue (Paris to Hong Kong), lots of Asians (especially Asian bad guys), fantastic mostly-empty high-rise apartments, subtitling of more that one non-English language, interesting cellphone sounds, phonecalls taken with a laptop open, and last but not least a scene that takes place is a ridiculous karaoke bar. Check, check, check, check, check, check, check. It’s all there. I’ll freely admit that I’ll miss the genre if it – as it promises to – fades away under the pressures of backscaling and collapse.

For chrissake, look at the title of the film! I don’t remember an actual boarding gate appearing in the film – but, to hell with it, someone knew that the smart decision would be to attach the movie to one of the privileged locales of our period, whether it makes sense or not.

So I enjoyed it. I’m not sure it made all that much sense in the end, but it was very pretty to look at. And it ignited (I admit it) a desire that seems increasingly absurd nowadays. You know the one…. It goes something like shit, I wish, without wanting to actually do anything that makes that sort of money, that I could be the kind of person who lives out of my mobile phone and a overnight bag, dripping myself from exotic locale to exotic locale, spending time in the best of airport executive lounges and having multiple passports. I’d order in, stay at the second best places, and always read the Financial Times, especially on Saturday. It won’t ever happen, but a boy can dream. Or could. If I became a moderately famous academic, maybe someone, once in my career, would pay for me to fly business class, right? Nevermind – this is all shameful. Don’t take any of it seriously.

But. OK. I’ve been thinking about starting up work on a new project, one that helps me to shift from being a modernist to a proper contemporaryist (erk) – basically, I will have soon said all that I really want to say about the period 1890 – 1945. So maybe something on the aesthetics and politics of 1973 – 2008, the aesthetics of financialization, etc. Who knows. But if I did do this, I’d spend a chapter on the following subject, a chapter that would feature a bit of discussion of Boarding Gate, I think:

What I want to write on is a bit counterintuitive, at least to my mind. The first-thought thing to say about films like this, that wrap financial activity in sex and violence, is that they are allegories of the violence that works off-stage in the real world to keep the business running. A simple furniture import-export business is really a front for murder-for-hire and heroin dealing etc etc etc. But this is not that, well, interesting. We’ve done this – and perhaps culture is basically insensitive at this point to that sort of allegory. (We already know, down to our bones, that the tea and crumpets are bought with money from the Jamaican sugar plantations or whatever….)

Rather, what is more interesting about films like this to me is the fact that we can see plainly just what it takes to narrativize a period whose interest is actively hostile to narrative. Michael Masden’s character is basically an investor, but an investor who practices shooting a gun and who has had, to date, an interesting (if mostly impotent) sex life. A really interesting sex life, actually. Argento’s character ridicules him for the failure of his enterprises – a failure that crosses the bridge from the financial to the narratological. A couple that runs a business, a boring one, just as boring as those that at least one friend went into when he decided academia wasn’t for him, is actually tangled up with roofie-attempted-murder. And every sexual act is tinged with the aftertaste of violence and ill-gotten gains.

I’m sure that some “investors” had interesting sex-lives back during 1973-2008, but probably not as interesting as they hoped. And I’m sure some carried a piece, but it was mostly for kicks and paranoid aura. Mostly the hours spent expensively in airport lounges are boring – boring drinks in a boring place.

Think again of The Sopranos, and the perfectly-tuned demographic fantasy that it massaged. Your next door neighbor, the fat ethnic guy next door, could well not just be in waste management, but could rather be clipping guys down on the Newark esplanade and taking the girl he wants at the ‘Bing. The show was a tailor-fitted fantasy about professionalism and the lifestyle that should justly accompany such difficult and morally-compromising work.

Somehow the world wants investment banking to be a task populated by the feral, the oversexed, the trigger-pullers. But it is not. Somehow the world wants something, something with ripped panties and shell casings, to be going on behind the hedges of the hedge funds. But I guarantee you – it is not. We lived – though may live no more – where all of us, deeply and darkly and perhaps with significant embarrassment, wish that our betters – the winners of the meritocratic game – live fuller and more interesting lives than they do.

Because if not them, then whom, exactly?

(Too tired to go on – but for a better read of Boarding Gate you could always take a look at Shaviro’s read, which is very helpful indeed….)

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October 6, 2008 at 12:26 am

wtf? where’s my gmail?

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So there seems to be some sort of massive gmail outage going on. Tomorrow we’ll perhaps hear about the billions and trillions of dollars worth of damage this has done. But of course, the financial figures miss so much, as they always do. All the bitchy gossip that will go unsaid. Lovers aiming to chat across oceans will have to take the night off or find another way. Baby pictures will rest on hard drives, unable to travel for another night. Think of the lost hours of trying and trying to open the millions of accounts.

I’ve been meaning to write a post for awhile about the increasingly significant role played by entities that we might call quasi-utilities. Mostly web-based, these free or almost free services come to seem like a kind of human right, an automatic endowment that we receive simply for being alive. We feel entitled to decent email access (once we’re on the web in the first place of course), free chat, free books (albeit not in paper form). We feels ourselves to possess the right to look at the photographs of friends and family. Maps, likewise, guide us from place to place without apparent cost. Of late, even scaled down versions of expensive programs like Microsoft Word have been added to Google’s pseudo-public empire.

We don’t notice the advertisements, though we do see them. We are familiar with the model from television which was perhaps the first of the quasi-utilities.

In a sense – and much to their dismay, from a profit-making angle, newspapers have evolved in this direction as well. I pay for a subscription to the IHT, because I like newsprint and it’s page for page probably one of the better papers in the world, but I don’t really need it to keep up with the NYT, which is right there waiting for me anytime I like and for free. Reading the papers for anyone who came of age just after I did has perhaps always seemed like something that you ought to be able to do for free, if you want to do it in the first place. When you scroll through the news on your computer or your phone it is easy to have the sense that you live in a world in which content is below and beyond value at once, something there for the taking. And of course the entire sector of media capitalists have never been panicked by anything like they have been by the dawning sense that music and tv programs and films too exist as non-commodities, items to be freely shared rather than bought and sold.

Now, there’s lots to be said about this. It is important to remind ourselves at the getgo that the publicness of the services and information provided by google and similar corporations only appears to be a public utility rather than a private business. Administrators at some libraries, thankfully, are beginning to catch on to the fact that google’s book scanning business is in fact a business – is not a frictionless gift to the world in the utopian form of “every book, every page, any time or way you like.”

That said, that said – what is perhaps the point to take away from these for-profit services is that they bring to the public a taste of the free and easy that comes of efficient public provisioning. They are, that is to say, advertisements in and of themselves for a healthy public sphere. Learning to get something for nothing (even if it’s not nothing, in the end, for now) is exactly the mentality that we’d be best served to foster. The web makes it easy, but perhaps it might best be visualized as what they called a “gateway drug” when I was a kid. (I don’t know if the phrase is still current – but the idea was that the true danger of pot, in its happy non-dangerousness, was that it readied kids to try more dangerous, destructive “hard” drugs.) It’s not a long leap from free and well-designed email to free and smoothly working public wifi. And from public wifi, it’s a longer leap, though not all that long, to nationalized health care. A bit further yet to media, housing stock, and all the rest. After all, who today would pay for an email account?

Two points to be addressed in future posts. One: the pernicious lies that are told about GDP destruction through the market dominance of public, not-for-profit entities. (The BBC comes to mind on this point… All those ads that could be run but aren’t – the international page views that the fucking Guardian could be garnering if not for the BBC’s site….) Yes, public entities do in fact reduce GDP – the takeaway from this fact is that there is something wrong with GDP as a yardstick of civic health, not that cash should be sliced away from the “public monopoly.” Two: It wouldn’t take much effort for us to offer the argument that any sort of user tax on ISP customers for downloads would, sure, be a fine idea but only if the proceeds were pooled into some sort of state support for artists rather than bottom-line fattener for media companies. We download free; the artists are paid by the state; Sony finds a way to fuck itself for trying. Nuff said. Three: and this is more complicated. I’d like to take a long look at the functionalist design aesthetic of google and its many sites as an impersonation of the aesthetic practices of an as-yet-impossible regime of use-value centered provisioning. The design of the google sites, despite the occassional burst of disneyland coloring, is rather amazing… The blandest thing there is on the internet is also the most popular thing. Something there to think about, don’t you think?

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August 11, 2008 at 11:13 pm

eggs from art

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From the International Herald Tribune months ago:

The monuments on the square are bearing the brunt of the invasion. Pigeons usually do not sleep where they eat, but the certainty of a 24/7 feeding frenzy has induced many to make St. Mark’s their year-round home, setting up nests among elegant cornices or in other fragile spots. As a result, the statues on the facades are now cobwebbed with dozens of fine scratch marks from where the pigeons try to grip onto the statues to roost.

And pigeons, like chickens, seek calcium carbonate for their eggs.

“They peck at the most exposed parts of the marble,” as well as the stucco that restorers use in their work, said Renata Codello, the state art official charged with preserving the square. She flipped through a series of photographs of pockmarked statuary.

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July 31, 2008 at 11:41 am

Posted in aesthetics


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Last thing I did on my trip to Edinburgh this week was visit the Canongate Tolbooth, that is, the “People’s Story Museum,” which was a lucky find, as it is a rather crusty but generously socialist museum of the vie quotidian in the Scottish capital. Placards describing the role of “Marxist radicals” in opening education to the working class, Neurathian maps of social housing in the city (sadly, the timeline index of course ends in 1984 or thereabouts), leftover banners from long-ago marches and the like. Lovely. And makes me think that I should probably do some work on this sort of museum, as it fills a hole between a hole bunch of my interests so very well.

One thing that I’m thinking about, was thinking about when I was there. What’s with all the wax guys, the dioramas? You know what I mean, this sort of thing:

Basically, the two staples of the left museum – the “people’s museum” – have long been the quanty graph or map and the “slice of life” diorama. I’ve done a lot of thinking about the former, and will continue to think about it, but the later is pretty interesting too. I know the form has a history, one that’s been well-covered over the last decade or so (think visual entertainments of the late 19th and early 20th etc…)

Now, of course they make a low-tech and relatively cheap effort at “breaking the frame” that would come of, say, stocking your everyday life museum with a series of period photographs or even pictures of contemporary restagings of scenes. We’re not talking Madame Tussauds, here, but there is at least a momentary and slight sense that you’re looking at “real people” rather than shadowy after-images, easily dismissable in a world chocked full of photos. Not that interesting, I don’t think, nor is the fact that by contextualizing the real fake people in rooms full of period objects you emerge with some sort of materialist notion of the subject, straw people who effectively are the things that are in their kitchens or bedrooms or prison cells. There’s something else to these things that I’m straining to say…

Lucky for me, the only two images of scenes from the Tolbooth that are available on-line are the two that affected my daughter (who’s three) the most. The prison people she was fascinated with, even more so after I explained (I know, I coulda done better) that prison is sort of like the poopie chair that we make her sit in when she’s bad, except that people end up in prison unfairly sometimes. (The people above, according to the caption at the museum, include a thief, a deserter, and a debtor). The other one she was most interested in was the one immediately above this paragraph. If memory serves, it’s a mother and her three children, living under the rafters somewhere, immiserated because the husband / father was taken during a dysentery outbreak sometime in the 19th century.

Neurath wanted his graphical museums to be equally legible to the child and the adult, the lettered and the illiterate, and it must be said that kids get the dioramas too, maybe more than the adults – at least mine did. I’m quite sure that she was far more interested in them than she’d be in most pictures – at least those that don’t feature “a monster that eats people” or “the queen.” (I know. Look, it’s not my homeland’s fault, the queen business…)

So what is it I want to say about them? Simply that dummies inspire empathy in a way that 2-D images do not, because children understand them?

No, not quite. I think what I want to say is that there’s something about this low-tech form, left behind in a world of MegaArt and BisectedCows and DisneyAnamatronicalism, that itself is a signal of something in its low-tech-ness and cheapitude. The flea-bitten displays, the care of construction of the individual and its life space, the art effort of the thing, seems to me an allegory of at least two things at once. First, the meagre means that the constructors of the People’s Museum, wherever it is, work with today. There are no funds for the retrofit – yesterday’s technology will have to do. There is a deep pathos in this. Second, yes, the care for the individual, the shit statue of an irrelevant person – there’s something to that too. Pretense or whatever it is, taking the time to fit out an Edinburgh fishwoman, the abandoned poor mother, the guy who lives in the rooming house with his other suit hanging on the wall, even if they’re plastic or wax, paper mache or cardboard – the care of production, the art of making them visible, is in itself a performance of our politics, and as such, bring tears and feeling faster even than the contents of the scenes themselves.

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July 3, 2008 at 11:58 pm

Posted in aesthetics, socialism

“profitable without necessarily being crass”

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I.A. Richards in Principles of Literary Criticism (1924/1926):

The critic and the Sales Manager are not ordinarily regarded as of the same craft, nor are the poet and the advertising agent. It is true that some serious artists are occassionally tempted into poster designing. It is, however, doubtful whether their work pays. But the written appeals which have the soundest financial prospects as estimated by the most able American advertisers are such that no critic can safely ignore them. For they do undoubtedly represent the literary ideals present and future of the people to whom they are addressed. They are tested in a way which few other forms of literature are tested, their effects are watched by adepts whose livelihood depends upon the accuracy of their judgement, and they are among the best indicies available of what is happening to taste. Criticism will justify itself as an applied science when it is able to indicate how an advertisement may be profitable without necessarily being crass. We shall see later under what conditions popularity and possible high value are compatible.

And the very next paragraph blurs the logic of poetry itself into the logic that has to be that of the less cynical ad writer, who fancies himself or herself to simply an engineer constructing the conduits that facilitate the efficient meeting and mating of individual choice and the offerings of the market.

The strongest objection to, let us say, the sonnet we have quoted, is that a person who enjoys it, through the very organization of his responses which enables him to enjoy it, is debarred from appreciating many things which, if he could appreciate them, he would prefer.

The bad poem, then, is bad because it at once erodes the capability to receive a better poem, and with a better poem, better attitudes and expectations about life and the world. Lots to say about this, but for now, see the relevance in light of this?

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June 9, 2008 at 10:33 am

Posted in ads, aesthetics

ads denied the product (hdtv)

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The task before us, it has just occurred to me, is deeply analogous to the problem faced by those who make ads for high definition television sets and services – ads that will be seen on the very low definition sets that they wish to replace… The problem, of course, is that you can’t really show the virtues of the product that you’re trying to sell – the high d become low d on the viewer’s set.

They try metaphor, jokes and metaphor…

Denied the ability to present the thing itself, at other times they present instead the viewer, the viewer’s engrossed apparatus of sight. Didn’t Deleuze, in his work on the cinema, call shots like this “affect images”? If we cannot see what they are seeing, we can at least see them seeing what they are seeing, and feeling what they see….

One of the more sophisticated tricks is simply to suggest that you actually are seeing the new image – to hyperbolize what is already possible in order to give a sense that the change has momentarily arrived…

…but of course, this can lead to conceptual distortion and the problematic suggestion that it’s not the set that needs changing but simply the programming available for it. If we stuck with what we have no, but filled it with neon-piping and just the right sort of chiaroscuro, perhaps we might save ourselves a trip to the electronics store after all.

It is odd. Obviously, I’ve not seen every hdtv ad ever made. But one would think that someone would figure out that it would be far easier (wouldn’t it?) simply to demonstrate the deficiency of the screen that the viewer has rather than to suggest, indirectly, what the viewer does not yet have. Hold a page of text in the middle distance, and ask them to read it. Fill the screen with a painting, and ask the viewer to examine the brush strokes. But, on the other hand, it is also easy to understand that the promise of the new and better, even if it remains invisible, only promised but not yet delivered, would have more hold that the exposure of what’s missing now.

It is our problem as well – how to relate to the apparatuses of communication and representation, how to deal with the fact that they may well be ill-equipped to represent what needs representing.

More to come…

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May 22, 2008 at 1:07 am

Posted in ads, aesthetics, teevee

why bother with art?

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In his Principles of Literary Criticism of 1924, I.A. Richards is invested, among other things, in describing “a morality which will change its values as circumstances alter, a morality free of occultism, absolutes and arbitrariness, a morality which will explain, as no morality has yet explained, the place and value of the arts in human affairs” (52). And in putting the project this way, we find evidence of a problem that is at once understandable, familiar, and frustrating. In short, what is the last clause – the bit about the arts – doing in the sentence? The establishment of a morality attuned to the modern situation is a noble task, no doubt, but why must it also be one that can explain the value of the arts? What if one was to come up with a morality that fulfilled all the other conditions, but simply didn’t have room for the arts?

The answer, in part, has to be that the shape of Richards’s project is determined by his line of work. It is an English professor’s sort of morality – and perhaps, moral social organization – that he is working towards.

For those of us who work via the humanities, particularly the artistic humanities, it is an uncannily familiar situation. The development of a politics from and in support of artistic production, along with all of the other great things that we’d like included – it’s a very strange task. It explains why we tend to love those political thinkers who made space for art, or who kept art at the center of their politics. William Morris, the Constructivists, the various auto-poeisis types like the late-Foucault and Deleuze. For obvious reasons, it’s difficult for us to deal with a vision of society that didn’t make room for the production of good novels and poems, good pictures and films. But of course, backed against the wall, we’d also admit that these things really aren’t of central importance to the project of social amelioration. They are tools or supplements, garnishes or indirect manifestations of social health. For the fact of the matter is that it may well be that a more perfect society could be an unfavorable location for the production of the sort of art we are used to esteeming as great or even worthwhile.

But on the other hand, we are all familiar with the specter of the rationalized society in which there is no room for art, artistic pleasure, or perhaps even pleasure itself. Art can serve as a metonym for the color of life; where there is no art, we imagine, there is only faceless gray, the utterly minimum dwelling. This vision of rational society, even if it is only a spectral scapegoat, is something that we are obliged to negotiate with, for it is a powerful counter advertisement to the ad without products that solicits buyers for the thing we are trying to sell.

Beyond all the ambiguities, the question that Richards’s statement forces upon us – a question about means and ends, and which are paramount to us – is a question that we must deal with if those who for through and for aesthetic production are to frame a politics more effective than symptomatic.

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May 8, 2008 at 7:31 pm

Posted in aesthetics, criticism

systemic fallacy

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The following paragraph is from an essay by WJT Mitchell in The Life and Death of Images, a new collection of essays published here by the Tate itself, in the US by Cornell.

Although the Abu Ghraib image is generally reproduced as a singular, isolated, iconic form, it implies an address to and relation to other that is a central feature of the tortured and dying imago dei in Christian iconography. We know that the torturers are not far away, and we know from the pornographic images that they were having a good time, giving the ‘thumbs-up’ sign to the camera as they gloated over their victims. But this, too, is a central feature of the photographs, which, like the canonical scenes of the passion of Christ, incorporate the torturers as an essential part of their iconography. Did Lynndie Englund know that a frequent motif in scenes of the mocking of Christ is the leading of him on a leash? Certainly not. These tableaux are not to be taken as expressions of the intentions of the torturers, but symptoms of the ‘system behind the system’ that brought them into the world.

I’m interested in the last line. That is, I’m interestedly resistant to the last line. What do you think? I’m not going to show the images again – they’ve been shown enough, and those are human beings that we’re seeing, the purpose of the photos was to humiliate, and that’s that. But, remembering back, are they “symptoms of the ‘system behind the system’ that brought them into the world”? And what does that have to do with traditional Christian iconography?

I am nervous about a quasi-Jungianism that’s slipping back into the game. I guess I don’t believe in any “system behind the system,” at least not one that looks like the one Mitchell seems to be leaning on here. But then again, I’m definitely not an intentionalist either, in the Hirsch / Michaels mode…

I’ll put it this way. Unless the complex history of Christian representation is bracketed as “what I, and I alone because of my training, can find in this image,” I am not sure what the top of the paragraph is up to, especially given what happens at its end.

What does it matter? We dance over the particularities of the thing. We lose sight of the beam in our own eye, the suffering human being in the shot, as we paranoiacally speculate about the sprinkler systems that run under the image’s lawn.

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May 8, 2008 at 1:21 am

Posted in aesthetics, torture, war

a way of seeing ways of seeing

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Almost hesitant to post, lest someone notices and I won’t be able to finish, um, archiving these, but all four episodes of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing are up on YouTube. Here’s the first of 16 separate slices:

I’ve never been able to get or see a full copy before. I’ve called libraries, specialists stores, trolled the distant reaches of the p2p world. And now, finally, here it is…. Happy May Day to me, and to everyone. Couldn’t have asked for more…

(via wood s lot, where you can find a link to a site with links to the rest…)

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May 1, 2008 at 12:35 pm

Posted in aesthetics, berger, teevee, video

Tagged with


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Just started reading John Roberts’s The Intangibilities of Form: Skill and Deskilling in Art After the Readymade, which is excellent from the get-go, potentially impasse-breaking, etc. More later on this book. But for now, a paragraph near the start:

What I am proposing in this book is a model of the ‘post-expressivist’ artist which actually takes on the challenges of expression and representation that now confront the artist of the new millennium. This means retheorizing what we mean by the artist as critic and representor in a world of proliferating doubles, proxies, simulations, etc. For what is increasingly clear (beyond the recent moments of the radical negation of authorship in conceptual art and critical postmodernism) is the need for a model of artistic subjectivity which refuses the bipolar model of interiority and exteriority on which modernist and anti-modernist models of the artist are usually based. (13)

Just for now: how absolutely unimaginable is that paragraph in a present-day work of literary criticism? The present tense verbs in the first sentence, the sense that a theory of art might be developed with actual application today – unthinkable. Sadly so…

Beyond disciplinary dysfunction and seemingly terminal wrong-footedness during poststructuralism’s ebb tide – and these are enough of a problem, believe me – the other thing that prevents the writing of aesthetics (rather than simply the history of aesthetics) is that we don’t know what we mean when we apply the a-word to literary works in the first place.

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May 1, 2008 at 9:42 am

Posted in aesthetics

rancière on bovary

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I’ve read just about all the Flaubert criticism there is to read that’s available in English, and lots that’s not. But Jacques Rancière’s “Why Emma Bovary Had to Be Killed,” published recently in Critical Inquiry, might just be, pound for pound, the best I’ve ever read. (I apologize if you don’t have access to the journal one way or another). I’ve got lots to say about it, but will for tonight mostly just quote a bit to give you a taste. 


The fictional definition of Emma is in keeping with the big concern of the 1850s and 60s that was encapsulated in one word: excitement. At that time in France, the diagnosis could be heard everywhere at every time; society suered from a fatal disease that aected the social order and individ- ual behaviors as well. It had become an unrelenting turmoil of thoughts and desires, appetites and frustrations. In the good old times of monarchy, religion, and aristocracy, there had been a clear, long-standing hierarchy that put every group and every individual in its right place. It gave them a firm footing and limited horizons, which are the conditions of happiness for poor people. Unfortunately that order had been shattered, first by the French Revolution, second by the rise of industrialism, third by the new media—the newspapers, lithographs, and so on, which made words and images, dreams and aspirations, available everywhere to anybody. Society had become a hustle and bustle of free and equal individuals that were dragged together into a ceaseless whirl in search of an excitement that was nothing but the mere internalization of the endless and purposeless agitation of the whole social body.

Such was the discourse of the notables and the learned persons. What must draw our attention is the synonym they gave for that excitement. That synonym was democracy. They had first met democracy in the shape of the government of the people, the government of free and equal citizens, where the rulers and the ruled people are one and the same. Needless to say, they had eciently worked during the French Second Republic (1848–51) to crush the threat of democratic anarchy, at the cost of handing over their own freedom to a new emperor. But it was not enough to crush it by force. They had to annul its political significance, make it a mere sociological phe- nomenon. Therefore a new democratic ghost was substituted for the older; political democracy, they said, had been crushed, but there was a new, far more radical uprising of democracy that no police, no army could tear down: the uprising of the multitude of aspirations and desires, cropping up everywhere in all the pores of modern society. To be sure, the idea was not exactly new; Plato had invented it two millennia before by stating that democracy, in fact, was not a form of government but the way of life of those “free” Athenians who cared for nothing except their individual pleasure. The modern antidemocrats translated it into a more dramatic version, as the uprising of the multitude of unleashed social atoms, greedy to enjoy everything that was enjoyable: gold, indeed, and all the things that gold can buy, but also, what was worse, all that gold cannot buy—passions, values, ideals, art, and literature. Such was the big trouble as they saw it. It would be a lesser evil if poor people only wanted to get rich. Poor people are sup- posed to be “practically minded.” But poor people were now taking a new view of what practical-mindedness meant. They wanted to enjoy all that was enjoyable, including ideal pleasures. But they also wanted those ideal pleasures to be practically enjoyable ideal pleasures. 

For those who come upon Flaubert’s book, Emma Bovary is the frightening incarnation of that desire. She craves ideal romance and physical love. She constantly negotiates between material and ideal sources of excitement. When she has resisted her love for Leon, she thinks that she deserves a reward. She buys a piece of furniture. And not any piece of furniture: a gothic prie-dieu. This is what respectable persons perceive as the law of democracy, the law of universal equivalence: anybody can exchange any desire for any other desire. A critic sums it up as follows: “Madame Bovary, this means the pathological overexcitement of senses and imagination in dissatisfied democracy.” That would be a good reason for sentencing her to death. But respectable persons are not asked to judge Emma; they are only asked to judge her inventor. The first person who has an interest in killing her is Flaubert. Besides the trial of the writer, there is the trial that the writer mounts against his character. Besides the evil that frightens respectable persons, there is the evil done to literature by Emma, which means the evil that he wants her to do, that he embodies in Emma.

Perhaps you can sense where he’s headed with all this… The anxious war of Art vs. the aestheticization of everyday life as the battle between Flaubert and his creation, but it’s even more complex than a reactionary defense of privileged access to the aesthetic, as the aesthetic in question, the aesthetic perhaps proposed by Flaubert in Bovary is one that itself resists hierarchy, the oldest hierarchies that define the shape of art, and not just the shape of art. 

There is one person who could have explained it to Emma. Unfortunately it is the person whom you are not supposed to meet in a convent. It is the Devil. Before writing Madame Bovary, Flaubert had written the first version of his Temptation of Saint Anthony. The devil that tempted Saint Anthony was much cleverer and much more generous than the old nuns in the convent. He gave him the explanation of “mystic languor” as he dragged him on an aerial journey through space. He made him discover what life truly is when our sensations are released from the chains of individuality. With his help, the saint could discover strange forms of preindividual or impersonal life: “inanimate existences, inert things that seem animal, vegetative souls, statues that dream and landscapes that think.”5 In such a world our mind loses all its conventional bearings. It bursts into atoms of thought that come into unity with things that have themselves burst into a dance of atoms. The Devil reminded the saint that he had already felt that experience of fusion between the inside and the outside: “Often, because of anything at all, a drop of water, a shell, a strand of hair, you have stopped short, your eyes fixed and your heart open. The object you were gazing at seemed to encroach upon you, as you bent toward, and new ties were found: you clutched each other, you touched each other by subtle innumerable embraces.”

Those “subtle innumerable embraces,” those shells, strands of hair, and drops of water, together with sunrays, breaths of air, and grains of sand or dust whipped up by the wind make up the sensory framework of Madame Bovary. They are the real events of the novel. Every time that something happens in the fiction—notably the birth of a love—they are the real content of the event, the real cause of the emotion. Let us remember what happens when Charles first falls for Emma: “The draught beneath the door blew a little dust over the flagstones, and he watched it creep along” (B, p.35). 

When Emma falls for Rodolphe, she perceives little gleams of gold about his pupils, smells a perfume of lemon and vanilla, and looks at the long plume of dust raised by the stagecoach. And when she first falls for Leon, “weeds streamed out in the limpid water like green wigs tossed away. Now and then some fine-legged insects alighted on the tip of a reed or crawled over a water-lily leaf. The sunshine darted its rays through the little blue bubbles on the wavelets that kept forming and breaking” (B, p.107).

This is what happens: “little blue bubbles” on wavelets in the sunshine, or swirls of dust raised by the wind. This is what the characters feel and what makes them happy: a pure flood of sensations. Much later, the Proustian narrator will evoke the message addressed by the sensation to the person that it strikes, a message that he will sum up as follows: “Try to solve the riddle of happiness which I set you.”7 But the Flaubertian characters don’t solve the riddle. They don’t even understand what kind of happiness can be enclosed in swirls of dust and bubbles on wavelets. They want those microevents to be linked together in a real plot. They want the swirls and bubbles to be turned into properties of real things that can be desired and possessed, into features of individuals that they can love and who can love them. From the point of view of the writer, they don’t mistake art for life. They mistake one art for another and one life for another. They mistake one art for another; this means that they are still trapped in the old poetics with its combinations of actions, its characters envisioning great ends, its feelings related to the qualities of persons, its noble passions opposed to everyday experience, and so on. They are out of step with the new poetics that has shattered the hierarchical poetics of action in favor of an “egaliarian” poetics of life. This also means that they mistake one life for another. They still perceive a world of subjects and predicates, things and qualities, wills, ends and means. They think that things and persons have qualities that individualize them and make them desirable and enjoyable. In short, they think that life is defined by aims and purposes. They have not listened to the lesson of the Devil: life has no purpose. It is an eternal flood of atoms that keeps doing and undoing in new configurations. 

This is brilliant stuff, but there’s one thing perhaps that I’d tweak or add or augment. These micro-events that Rancière so persuasively describes are also a matter of time – they are time images, visual manifestations of the passage of time. The blowing of the dust, the movements of the insects – these events are a matter of a new, secular temporality that, like the aesthetic involved in their encapsulation in the novel, is incompatible with standard narrative forms. (Sometimes I call these temporality the anti-ephiphanic, other times simply the everyday. I comes to the same thing, in the end…) Novels can light on these moments, but novels cannot stay – and a novel made entirely of them (of course this happened, in a sense, later, with Woolf and others) simply does not work as a novel, does not do what a novel is supposed to do.

More to be said, of course…  


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April 23, 2008 at 9:54 pm


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In the last few years, the makers of the better films and television shows have gotten in the habit of quoting from the iconic and horrible real images that circulate on our screens.

Of course I’m thinking mostly of Children of Men, but it’s elsewhere too, this tendency. And even beyond video citation, it trickles out into the other arts as well. I saw the models for the fourth plinth at the National Gallery this weekend, and couldn’t help but think that Jeremy Deller’s entry must have been YouTube inspired, perhaps even by this video, which I’ve posted on before.

At any rate, we might want to think about this citational, YouTube, recombinant aesthetic. There’s a lot to be said about dropping Guantanamo into Bexhill and dreaming of street-to-street combat outside the Time Warner Building. Perhaps there’s even the hint of a new(ish) aesthetic stance tucked in there. A new / old aesthetic stance.

But today, instead of the real clipped into the filmic, I am thinking about the filmic – in this case, the crudely genre-led filmic, B Movie-ism – clipped straight into the real. This isn’t even slick dystopianism in the next videos.

Two clips from the same movie, one might imagine without too much trouble….

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March 18, 2008 at 11:07 am

Posted in aesthetics, video

overcoming informel

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October 3, 2007 at 1:13 pm

obsolete forms

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We wait for the image, the conjunction, that will blind us or make us at last see, that will reset the operating system and let us move under a power “not our own” but all our own, just differently, newly, once and for all.

But the right image, the effective conjunction, never comes. We have flags and mothers and cheerleaders, we have the soft core and the hard core, the lynchings, the bombings, and the children.

These clips lend us access to a world that has passed. Nothing does the trick anymore; we must find another aesthetic with which to break ourselves into compliance with our baser, animalian, that is to say human, enlightened, imperatives.

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September 3, 2007 at 1:58 am