Joseph North Seven—Two Problems

I see two substantial problems with the line of inquiry I have been pursuing in this thread.

Problem # 1:  A significant movement in the arts since at least 1860 hates tying art to “meaning.”  In various forms, the argument is made (or the position taken) that the arts should not deal in meanings, but in the creation of brute things, or an event, or an experience.  Meaning is perceived as ethereal, non-material, as something other than the work, something that gets substituted for the work.  William Gass’s “six regularly scheduled trains out of the text” is my favorite explication of this stance against meaning.  But there is Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” and the New Critics’ “heresy of paraphrase” and any number of other versions.  Jeff Nealon offers his own diatribe against meaning in his forthcoming book on the performative, wanting to shift the focus from meaning onto force, working from Austin and Derrida.

For starters, I want to endorse the pluralism of artistic practice.  So I certainly wouldn’t want to impose some kind of straight-jacket of meaning on the arts—or think that I could set up a theoretical account of “art” that would encompass everything that artists do.  Such a theoretical account would be vacuous if sufficiently general to cover the whole field.  All the interest would lie in the specifics that the theory would leave untouched.  If all works engaged meaning, that would tell us nothing about our judgments that some works are enlivening and others not.

More consequential, I think, is the question of whether there are purely perceptual objects.  That is, when I see the Ellsworth Kelly canvases, am I having a particularly intense perceptual experience that has no meaning at all?  It is just a sensual experience—thus referring back to the etymology of the word “aesthetic.”  Within my catch-phrase, “every thing is necessarily some thing,” the transcendental blackmail is to say that I judge the Kelly paintings as “art.”  I know that some things exist (and are created) to offer sensual sensations—and such things are called “art.”

That knowledge sets me up to view the Kelly paintings in the right spirit.  Art “means” sensual activation in a certain contemplative mode, without asking for anything further in the way of communication or purpose.  Without that identification of this thing as “art,” I would be disoriented, not knowing how to process or judge what I am seeing.  There must be some kind of “determination” (in Hegel’s sense of that term) in order for there to be understanding—and understanding guides perception.  This is the prison-house of language approach; no perception absent the categories supplied by language.  We must make a judgment about what something is before we can know how to view it.

Do I believe this?  I don’t know.  I certainly am attracted to the artists who want to get out from under meaning, who want to get to some kind of “innocent” or “primitive” sensual/perceptual experience.  But that effort to sidestep all mediation does also seem doomed to failure.  Modern art, especially, seems enthralled by constant efforts to do what is impossible.  As Clement Greenberg insisted and as Magritte’s “Ceci n’est pas un pipe” wittily alerts us, modern art’s moves seem to announce continually: “this is a work of art.”  The rest, how we are to judge it etc., follows from that opening declaration.  In Latour’s language (borrowed in this case from Whitehead), modern art seems to think (at least in many cases) that the first move has to be to guard against “category mistake.”  The art needs to alert us that we are in the “mode” of aesthetics so that we know how to perceive it.

In a somewhat similar fashion (at least in the ballpark of similar concerns), much modern art tries to move things from one category to another.  “Alienation” (Brecht) or “defamiliarization” (Russian formalists) point to techniques that attempt to lead the viewer to see things differently, often by shifting the category in which that thing is placed.  A thing’s significance, its relation to the viewer is altered, if it is judged as an instance of this rather than that category.  Pushing against habitual (or received) categorizations is often the explicit goal.

One might object that this is an awfully attenuated concept of meaning.  The riposte would be: to change the viewer’s relation to some thing, to have him see that thing “as” this rather than that (back to Wittgenstein), is to change the thing’s meaning, since meaning is constituted through relationships.  We don’t need the thing to be conveying an elaborate message; the thing doesn’t need to be a “sign” of something or other; we just need to the thing to be a different thing, taken up in a different mode, for “meaning” to come into play.

Still, there seems something intuitively correct about saying that the Kelly paintings have no meaning.  They just are.  In a world “where the trail of the human serpent is over all” (William James), there can be a fierce hunger for reality, for some brute facts.  Paradoxical, of course, that these brute facts would be fashioned by human hands.  But a desire to confront “the thing itself,” divested of all meaning, makes sense to me.  Even if it is impossible to actually achieve.


Problem Number Two:  The Humanities

Here’s a definition of the humanities that I like:

The humanities study the meaning-making practices of human culture(s), past and present, focusing on interpretation and critical evaluation, with a special interest in particular instances and, thus, an ineliminable focus on the singular, the eccentric, the subjective.
–Helen Small, The Value of the Humanities (OUP, 2014), p. 6.


DIGRESSION: Small goes “meta” in her definition, which I think is a mistake.  Yes, the humanities ponder “meaning-making practices”—as these Joseph North posts do—but they also, more significantly in my view, also engage with first-order meanings per se, and aim to contribute to the stock of such meanings.  Because the real stakes, it seems to me, are always on the level of the first-order meanings.  The “meta” reflections are “academic” in the negative sense of that word if not motivated by a commitment to particular first-order commitments.  What commitment, what value, drives my speculations here?  Most generally, a refutation of individualistic models of creation, of significance, of social relations.  Our entanglement with others–our ongoing and inescapable vulnerability and precarity (to use Judith Butler’s terms or indebtedness (to use David Graeber’s terms) has direct political consequences in my view.

So what’s the problem?  I don’t know how to think about the belatedness that this definition establishes for the humanities.  “The meaning-making practices” must come first—and then the humanities study them.  The object/subject split here is too drastic.  I’d want to say something more Latour-like: meaning emerges as the humanities take up various cultural phenomena.  Or, to go back to my thoughts about close readings, the humanities “actualize” (even “realize”) their objects of study, creating meanings that were not evident before.  The idea (as with Kant’s claim that one example of “genius/orginality” spurs the originality of others) is that meanings produce meanings; of the making of meanings, there is no end.  Meanings proliferate.  No word is final—but (in fact) occasions the production of more words.  Bakhtin seems the best guide here, with his sense of how every word calls forth an answering word. That also means that we are always already immersed in a field of meanings–Kenneth Burke’s ongoing conversation.  So belatedness just comes with the territory.

Still, the problem is whether there is a distinction between the arts and the humanities.  As just described, the humanities could be seen as the same as the arts; it is just that the artist works with paint, and the humanist works with cultural meanings.

That doesn’t seem right to me: i.e. that the humanities are the same as the arts, just working with a different material.  The humanities do seem intensely meaning focused.  Their bread and butter is the elaboration of meaning—far beyond acts of mere categorization.  If the humanities entail getting you to see something “as” this rather than that, or in shifting an object from one “mode” into another, those alterations of how something is judged/understood require much more than simply changing the label from “painting” to “property.”  The relationships involved are entanglements that the humanist tries to trace in all their complexity.

Maybe that’s one place of difference.  The humanist complicates, bringing more and more things into dialogue with the object of study, almost always adding to the “context” that is deemed to constitute the meanings of the “text.”  But the arts are often (hardly always, but certainly sometimes) drawn to abstraction, to the intensification of our encounter with a thing by focusing on it, by taking it out of context in order to make it “stand out.”

The arts (again, in some instances) are interested in “singularity”—as part of that effort to get to the “thing itself,” its singular integrity, its being stripped of meanings piled onto it by its relations.  Escape from family (all those relations!) Conatus?  And maybe that’s why the humanist’s accounts of the artist’s work can so often be processed by the artist as a betrayal.  The humanist will pull the art work back into the circle of relations, will even dare to “explain” how and why the art work came to be what it is.  Those six trains out of the work that Gass deplores.  The humanist just can’t let things be.  She must pile more words on top of those things.

In short, the humanities cannot help but trade in meanings.  But it is not so obvious that the arts must do the same.  Certainly lots of modern artists have desired to side-step meaning altogether.  So an account of the arts that insists “the aesthetic” is the “mode” attuned to meaning can seem like foisting the priorities of the humanities upon the arts—or an attempt to claim the arts and the humanities are (basically) the same.  I find myself unable to untangle this knot.  I am, it seems, overly susceptible to Merleau-Ponty’s pronouncement that “we are condemned to meaning” and thus keep pulling everything back into processes that produce meaning.

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