Joseph North Five—The Aesthetic (Interactive Version)

My first stab at characterizing the aesthetic gave us a weak version of pluralism.  The aesthetic viewed things in a particular dimension, it “saw them as” meaningful, where that term covered their import and their importance.  Significance in both senses of the term: what some thing meant or conveyed and how (why?) that thing was of significance or value, worth caring about and for.

Such an understanding leaves the thing itself untroubled.  In Nicholas Rescher’s book Pluralism (Oxford UP, 1995), he accepts that there are multiple possible descriptions of a thing, what Wittgenstein calls its “aspects,” but insists there is still only one “reality.”  You and I are both seeing the same thing when I marvel at the color patterns in the fire and you worry about the people who might be trapped inside the building.  We are both responding to the fire.

I think (I’d have to go back and check the relevant texts carefully) that Richard Rorty, the most notorious anti-realist of late 20th century philosophy, would still hew to Rescher’s position.  Rorty focuses on “redescriptions” as a site of creativity, and as proof that “reality” under-determines the ways that human understand it, utilize it, and can creatively re-script their relations to it.  As Nick Gaskill points out in his essay on Rorty, one particularly dominant theme is Rorty’s work is anti-authoritarianism.  And that theme extends to “reality.”  Rorty writes against the authority that “reality” acquires in more traditional philosophical metaphysics.  He denies to “reality” the last word; humans can always—and are constantly—saying new things about the world.  And, following Kenneth Burke, we can claim that new things said open up new possible courses of action.

But what if we take a more radically interactive approach?  Such an approach is certainly suggested in the pragmatism of James and Dewey.  Debates about the “two pragmatisms” (H. O. Mounce’s term) in fact often center around the extent to which pragmatism is “realist.”  For Mounce, Rorty is the enemy, and we must return pragmatism to Charles Sanders Peirce’s metaphysical realism. [Howard Mounce, The Two Pragmatisms (Routledge, 1997).]  (Peirce, by the end of his life, was very close to a Platonic realist.)  This battle then gets fought over the body of Dewey; was Rorty’s radical reading of Dewey accurate or not?  And in most of these debate, James (and his radical empiricism) barely figures at all.  He is not taken seriously as an epistemologist or an ontologist.

Today, however, James’s radical empiricism has come to seem a fruitful approach to a variety of writers, none more prominent than Bruno Latour.  In his recent major tome, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (Harvard UP, 2018), Latour offers what we might call radical pluralism.  “Modes” is, in fact, a slippery term—and Latour himself often seems unsure just how far he wants to push his ontological claims.  There are mountains of books trying to figure out what Spinoza meant by “modes,” although I think it fair to say there is general agreement that his “modes” are secondary to, dependent upon, “substance.”

Latour quite clearly wants to jettison the notion of “substance” altogether.  But still the term “mode” is never in and of itself sufficient.  It must be a mode of something.  And what we get is “an inquiry into modes of existence.”  But to what does “existence” refer?  The general metaphysical condition (i.e just another name for “reality,” even if that reality is more inchoate, more open to various manipulations, multiple shapings than some other versions of “reality.” It is unclear, since despite the prominence of the term in the title, Latour never explains to us what he means by “existence.”) But he does rely heavily on the term “existents,” and its meaning is quite clear.  Latour wants to substitute “subsistence” for “substance”—and refers throughout his book to “existents” (y which he appears to  mean “things that subsist.”) There are identifiable things (existents) that subsist.  (It seems to me, although Latour only mentions this term once, that he has his own version of Spinoza’s conatus.  Latour seems to posit a fundamental drive to subsist, a fundamental energy devoted to subsisting.)  In this framework, “a mode of existence [is] a way of being that cannot be substituted for any other and that no other can replace” (268).  “A way of being” for what?–presumably for “an existent.”

Where Latour moves toward a more radical, ontological pluralism is in his insistence that to subsist requires change.  If there is a fundamental reality in Latour’s recent work, it is the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of ceaseless “flux,” a Jamesian conceit if there ever was one. [“in fact, there is neither real continuity of courses of action nor stability of subjects” (370).]  Against the relentless tide of time passing, an existent must exert itself to maintain itself.  It must be ever adapting to the novelties that time’s passage throws at it.  So are “modes” different strategies of subsistence?  Latour doesn’t go that way.

Instead—and here is where a Latour inspired version of “the aesthetic” would dovetail with North’s desire that the aesthetic provide us with images of and models for collectivity—Latour focuses on what “assemblage” of participants (“actants”) must work together to allow an existent to subsist. [The “malign inversion” that elevates a persistent “substance” over the struggle for “subsistence” is malign because it “loses the thread of the means that could have ensured subsistence” (279)] In the case of science, concentrating on “the means of subsistence” requires attention to the procedures, the instruments, the experiments—in short, the whole range of interactions between the scientist and both the “thing” studied and the scientific community.  Some existent is only “known” and only continues as an object of scientific discourse when it can be discerned by the procedures/instruments, fit into a causal story that the community (the peer reviewers in the first instance) buys, and remain an object of interest for subsequent inquiries.

Science, in Latour’s terms, grants us “access” to various existents—and it takes a village to secure such access.  But it remains unclear (at least to me) to what extent the “existents” pre-exist these interactions with them.  There seems to be some raw material out there, even if Latour is very specific that he wants to banish the reification called Matter (with a capital M).  Latour’s commitment to the primary flux is such that he battles against all reifications: Matter, Society, Truth, the Economy.  In their stead, he offers processes of assemblage in which “gatherings” (interactions) produce things. It would be better to say “produce states of affairs” (rather than produce things) because things always and only exist in relations. (That’s a major lesson of James’s radical empiricism.)

Thus, things emerge out of the flux, take on solidity as a result of interaction–and gain subsistence, plus any identity they might temporarily possess, in and through their relation to others.  Latour is insistent that the path to being is through the detour of otherness; I only become myself through my relations–which are never stable, always unfolding–to others.  But (here’s my nagging worry when it comes to science—and I think Latour actually is inconsistent on this score) what then are these existents, with their will to subsist?  It seems as if he posits not just an originary flux, but also some existents lurking within the flux.  Now we might say those existents are inchoate; he does at times use the term “articulation.”  So we could say that existents are articulated, take a specific form, through specific processes of assemblage.  And then we could say those specific forms are “modes.”  But that would still mean they are “modes of” something more primitive—of a non-solid stuff (substance?) that needs a lot of help to keep subsisting.  And that non-solid stuff has a will to subsist.  Specific objects emerge from communal processes, but those processes work upon some mysterious stuff called “existents.”

But the aesthetic (to get there at last) may not have science’s handicap.  There is little reason to think the aesthetic object pre-exists the act of artistic creation.  Certainly, in the kind of common sense view that Latour is at pains to validate against the wrong-headed metaphysics of “the moderns,” that artist works upon her material (words, musical sounds, marble etc.) and shapes it into her art work.  The interactive model works perfectly here.  The material offers various affordances and resistances.  It is hardly, as every artist knows, a passive participant, supine before the artist’s vision.  It has its own contributions to make, its own ways of frustrating or enabling the artist’s desires.  So this is not the Wittgensteinian interpreter who is seeing or highlighting “an aspect” of the finished thing he contemplates.  Rather, it is the very creation of that thing through an interactive process.  And it is not just the creation of the art work, but also the creation of this person as “an artist.”  You don’t get to assume the identity of artist until you have done the act of making.  It is not a pre-existent identity, but an emergent one–and it depends not just on the act of making but also on the community’s recognition of what you have made as a “work of art.”

Such a description immediately raises the question of whether or not there is a strong distinction between the aesthetic as experienced/practiced by the creating artist and the aesthetic as experienced/practiced by the audience.  I am going to leave exploring that question to my next post.

Today I just want to finish up by expanding (as Latour would certainly urge us to do) our account of the interactions that characterize the aesthetic.  In order for even that basic act of artistic creation to occur, there needs to be much more in place than simply the artist sitting down to work.  That act hardly takes place in a vacuum.  The artist has been trained in her craft, has received feedback and encouragement (or discouragement) of various forms, has learned something of the tradition of that craft, and has some idea of the possible places for display of her work.  Once the work has been created, its subsistence is radically dependent on practices of display—and institutions (museums, schools, theaters etc.) for “showing” works.  Roland Barthes, in an epigram I love, said “Literature is what gets taught.”  The canon is one way works of written art subsist.  A poem is dead, has not succeeded in subsisting, if it never gets read.  Similarly, “the art world” is a subject of so much fear and loathing precisely because an art work lives or dies by its ability to negotiate the various intricacies, procedures, and institutions that characterize that “world.”

In short, as Latour is always trying to get us to see, the number of actants involved in the subsistence of any activity and its products is almost always more numerous than we first suppose.  And thus the outcome—the artistic work that emerges from this activity—is always shaped by inputs from all of these actants.  No wonder artists continually dream of “artistic freedom.”  Images of heroic individualism push back against the inevitable entanglement in complicated webs (networks) of relationships that defeat any idea of mastery, of sovereignty over, the field.

The aesthetic, precisely because it entails the creation of new objects, seems particularly suited to serve as an instance of radical pluralism.  Its conditions for creation can be specified—and can be seen as distinct from the conditions of existence in other fields (such as science or, to cite some of Latour’s other examples, politics, law, and economics.)  Those conditions can be described (Howard Becker’s work is exemplary here, but we can also think of Bourdieu as well).  And we can even take a stab at trying to describe the factors that contribute to making judgments about the quality, importance, and/or significance (in all its senses) of aesthetic works.  That’s where I want to start in my next post.

 

 

 

Today I just want to finish up by expanding (as Latour would certainly urge us to do) our account of the interactions that characterize the aesthetic.  In order for even that basic act of artistic creation to occur, there needs to be much more in place than simply the artist sitting down to work.  That act hardly takes place in a vacuum.  The artist has been trained in her craft, has received feedback and encouragement (or discouragement) of various forms, has learned something of the tradition of that craft, and has some idea of the possible places for display of her work.  Once the work has bene created, its subsistence is radically dependent on practices of display—and institutions (museums, schools, theaters etc.) for “showing” works.  Roland Barthes, in  a epigram I love, said “Literature is what gets taught.”  The canon is one way works of written art subsist.  A poem is dead, has not succeeded in subsisting, if it never gets read.  Similarly, “the art world” is a subject of so much fear and loathing precisely because an art work lives or dies by its ability to negotiate the various intricacies, procedures, and institutions that characterize that “world.”

 

In short, as Latour is always trying to get us to see, the number of actants involved in the subsistence of any activity and its products is almost always more numerous than we first suppose.  And thus the outcome—the artistic work that emerges from this activity—is always shaped by inputs from all of these actants.  No wonder artists continually dream of “artistic freedom.”  Images of heroic individualism push back against the inevitable entanglement in complicated webs (networks) of relationships that defeat any idea of mastery, of sovereignty over, the field.

 

The aesthetic, precisely because it entails the creation of new objects, seems particularly suited to serve as an instance of radical pluralism.  Its conditions for creation can be specified—and can be seen as distinct from the conditions of existence in other fields (such as science or, to cite some of Latour’s other examples, politics, law, and economics.)  Those conditions can be described (Howard Becker’s work is exemplary here, but we can also think of Bourdieu as well).  And we can even take a stab at trying to describe the factors that contribute to making judgments about the quality, importance, and/or significance (in all its senses) of aesthetic works.  That’s where I want to start in my next post.

 

’t go that way.

 

Instead—and here is where a Latour inspired version of “the aesthetic” would dovetail with North’s desire that the aesthetic provide us with images of and models for collectivity—Latour focuses on what “assemblage” of participants (“actants”) must work together to allow an existent to subsist.  In the case of science, that means thinking about the procedures, the instruments, the experiments—in short, the whole range of interactions between the scientist and both the “thing” studied and the scientific community.  Some existent is only “known” and only continues as an object of scientific discourse when it can be discerned by the procedures/instruments, fit into a causal story that the community (the peer reviewers in the first instance) buys, and remain an object of interest for subsequent inquiries.  Science, in Latour’s terms, grants us “access” to various existents—and it takes a village to secure such access.  But it remains unclear (at least to me) to what extent the “existents” pre-exist these interactions with them.  There seems to be some raw material out there, even if Latour is very specific that he wants to banish the reification: Matter (with a capital M).  Latour’s commitment to the primary flux is such that he battles against all reifications: Matter, Society, Truth, the Economy.  In their stead, he offers processes of assemblage in which “gatherings” (interactions) produce things (probably saying “produce states of affairs” would be better).

Thus, things emerge out of the flux, take on solidity as a result of interaction.  But (here’s my nagging worry when it comes to science—and I think Latour actually is inconsistent on this score) what then are these existents, with their will to subsist?  It seems as if he posits not just an originary flux, but also some existents lurking within the flux.  Now we might say those existents are inchoate; he does at times use the term “articulation.”  So we could say that existents are articulated, take a specific form, through specific processes of assemblage.  And then we could say those specific forms are “modes.”  But that would still mean they are “modes of” something more primitive—of a non-solid stuff (substance?) that needs a lot of help to keep subsisting.  And that non-solid stuff has a will to subsist.  Specific objects emerge from communal processes, but those processes work upon some mysterious stuff called “existents.”

But the aesthetic (to get there at last) may not have science’s handicap.  There is little reason to think the aesthetic object pre-exists the act of artistic creation.  Certainly, in the kind of common sense view that Latour is at pains to validate against the wrong-headed metaphysics of “the moderns,” that artist works upon her material (words, musical sounds, marble etc.) and shapes it into her art work.  The interactive model works perfectly here.  The material offers various affordances and resistances.  It is hardly, as every artist knows, a passive participant, supine before the artist’s vision.  It has its own contributions to make, its own ways of frustrating or enabling the artist’s desires.  So this is not the Wittgensteinian interpreter who is seeing or highlighting “an aspect” of the finished thing he contemplates.  Rather, it is the very creation of that thing through an interactive process.

And it is not just the material the artist works with that is transformed in the process. So is the person doing that work.  Her identity as “an artist” only emerges through doing that work–and depends not only on what she produces, but also on how others are willing to view her.  We all know people who want to call themselves “writers,” but who do not feel entitled to claim that self-description because the community has not yet bestowed it on them.  That identity can only be achieved through the “means” of the others–the material worked on, the community to whom the work is presented.

Such a description immediately raises the question of whether or not there is a strong distinction between the aesthetic as experienced/practiced by the creating artist and the aesthetic as experienced/practiced by the audience.  I am going to leave exploring that question to my next post.

Today I just want to finish up by expanding (as Latour would certainly urge us to do) our account of the interactions that characterize the aesthetic.  In order for even that basic act of artistic creation to occur, there needs to be much more in place than simply the artist sitting down to work.  That act hardly takes place in a vacuum.  The artist has been trained in her craft, has received feedback and encouragement (or discouragement) of various forms, has learned something of the tradition of that craft, and has some idea of the possible places for display of her work.  Once the work has been created, its subsistence is radically dependent on practices of display—and institutions (museums, schools, theaters etc.) for “showing” works.  Roland Barthes, in  a epigram I love, said “Literature is what gets taught.”  The canon is one way works of written art subsist.  A poem is dead, has not succeeded in subsisting, if it never gets read.  Similarly, “the art world” is a subject of so much fear and loathing precisely because an art work lives or dies by its ability to negotiate the various intricacies, procedures, and institutions that characterize that “world.”

In short, as Latour is always trying to get us to see, the number of actants involved in the subsistence of any activity and its products is almost always more numerous than we first suppose.  And thus the outcome—the artistic work that emerges from this activity and “the artist” who also emerges from it—is always shaped by inputs from all of these actants.  No wonder artists continually dream of “artistic freedom.”  Images of heroic individualism push back against the inevitable entanglement in complicated webs (networks) of relationships that defeat any idea of mastery, of sovereignty over, the field.

The aesthetic, precisely because it entails the creation of new objects, seems particularly suited to serve as an instance of radical pluralism.  Its conditions for creation can be specified—and can be seen as distinct from the conditions of existence in other fields (such as science or, to cite some of Latour’s other examples, politics, law, and economics.)  Those conditions can be described (Howard Becker’s work is exemplary here, but we can also think of Bourdieu as well).  And we can even take a stab at trying to describe the factors that contribute to making judgments about the quality, importance, and/or significance (in all its senses) of aesthetic works.  That’s where I want to start in my next post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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