Monthly Archives: September 2013

TORSO / TORSION: AISTHESIS II

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Dresden, 1764: Rancière’s first aesthetic scene presents Winckelmann’s elevation ‘above nature’ of the headless and limbless Belvedere Torso as the scene within which a new configuration is performed of art and its relations to thought and to notions of social freedom. Rancière reads a lot into, and out of, Winckelmann’s elevating description of the Torso. Art history, in its modern form, becomes possible, thinkable, in this elevation; ‘Art’ invents a new category of creativity distinct from the old separation of the aesthetic and the artisanal; and the Torso’s aesthetic redefinition repudiates the key elements of classical conceptions of the aesthetic – namely the harmonious relations of parts and whole, and the expressive relation between ‘a visible form and a character’ (4).

‘Beauty’, Rancière declares, is henceforth ‘defined by indeterminacy and the absence of expressivity’ (6). Lines are drawn here, to be subsequently blurred: it’s the ‘melting’ of the Torso’s muscles into each other, ‘like waves in the sea’ (8), that embodies (literally) its perfection, a perfection emblematised in notions the fixing in sculptural form of flow and movement and metamorphosis. Rancière characterizes this shift of aesthetic-perception as, again, a redefinition of the beautiful: ‘The tension of many surfaces on one surface, of many kinds of corporality in one body’ (9) – or, the insistent presence of the experience and thought of the many, the multitude, in the illusion (the construction, the valorisation) of the one.

This is Rancière’s key point in this opening chapter: the new, post-Winckelmann conception of ‘Art’ enacts a series of shifts in political consciousness characterized in part by the term ‘movements’, enabling ‘an art of the plural compositions of movements freed by the dissociation of form, function and expression’ (9). The notion of the ‘scene’ (which is distinct from, but haunted by, Baudrillardian or Derridean or Lacanian connotations) comes into play here – it’s figured in the ‘Prelude’ to Aisthesis as the ‘little optical machine’ (another echo, now of Deleuze) that momentarily captures connections between sensations, perceptions, concepts, names, and the communities of thought they combine to create. The ‘scene’ offers intellectual and ideological processes in a moment of fixity. If movement (motion, and tendency, and political drift – Rancière’s project is, after all, a contemporary politicisation of aesthetics) redefines and ‘frees’ art, this redefinition occurs most significantly in the consequences for thought of the new perception of the given object – such as a mutilated statue – now invested, within and by the operation of the ‘scene’ Rancière seeks to sketch out, with the values of the ‘work’. The lines of such movements of thought, perception, and intellectual apprehension delineate, and, like ‘nature’s sinuous lines that were opposed to the right angles imposed by the minds of artists and princes’ (9), insinuate their ways into, Rancière’s argument. They mark points of torsion and distortion – like the distortional relation, with all its political implications, between ‘opposition’ and ‘imposition’ – around which he develops his elaborate and sinuous critical history of concepts.

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AISTHESIS I

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Jacques Rancière’s Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art (Verso, 2013; translated by Zakir Paul) presents fourteen scenes through which to map new configurations of the history of modernism, understood as the variety of cultural responses to the various experiences of modernity.

Locating these responses idiosyncratically (no mention here, for example, of hitherto paradigmatic modernist artifacts like Manet’s Olympia, except to note in the ‘Prelude’ their absence), Rancière aims to reinvigorate conceptions of modernism. We might initially query quantity and selection here, as, for example, Barthes was critiqued for selecting five codes to examine in S/Z: why fourteen, and why these fourteen? But Ranciere is more concerned with ‘a number of overlapping points and elaborations’ (xiii) between his fourteen scenes, without any encyclopedic or teleological object.

Each scene offers, and all combine to effect, he argues, ‘a moving constellation in which modes of perception and affect, and forms of interpretation defining a paradigm of art, take shape’ (xi). These are the recurrent and central terms of Rancière’s argument: movement (pace Baudelaire and Simmel – who is later cited by Rancière in discussing ‘ornamentalization of style’ [149]), constellatory combinations and their reflective and refractive effects, and the intersections of perception, emotional affect, and interpretive strategies working together to construct the possibility of modernity’s notions of ‘art’ and the discursive, ideological, and institutional spaces in which they can be discerned.

A key focus is on metamorphosis – both ‘the multiple metamorphoses of the ancient that the modern feeds upon’ (xiv) and the metamorphic ‘fragmentation of gestures’ (xiv) Rancière traces in Vertov and elsewhere – but not, interestingly, in the grotesque corps morceles caused by the First Word War, as traced with horrific honesty in the writings of Sassoon, for example, or, more pertinently, as we’ll see, in lines like Pound’s ‘There died a myriad’ for ‘two gross of broken statues’. Sassoon, Pound, and, indeed, the War, are all absent from Aisthesis.

The selection and number of scenes work to develop Rancière’s wider theses (his Aisthesis-theses, one might say) about art and aesthetics: that the plurality of arts is (wrongly) subsumed in modernity to a singular or generalising conception of  ‘(great) art’ – ‘there is’, he insists in 2009’s Aesthetics and its Discontents, ‘no such thing as art in general’ (6); and that aesthetics functions to frame the thinking of how art is understood, constructed, and identified – what he calls (also in Aesthetics and its Discontents) ‘the name of a specific regime for the identification of art’ (8).

Rancière’s first scene of the experience of modernity is the Belvedere Torso (which might be one of Pound’s ‘broken statues’). More specifically, Rancière examines Winckelmann’s 1764 evaluation of the Torso. 1764 is also the year of publication of Kant’s early Romantic analysis of the aesthetic in Beobachtungen über das Gefühl des Schönen und Erhabenen, and of Walpole’s inauguration of a new Gothic aesthetic in The Castle of Otranto. A key year, then, in the development of Western theories of aesthetics of feeling and experience.

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Unliving

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A bit later in The Rainbow, Tom and Lydia are about to be married. Their relationship in these last pre-marital days is unsurprisingly presented by Lawrence as one of elemental struggle – between male and female ‘principles’, of course, but also as an intense wrestling of words (as the text struggles to express its meaning), and between the conditions of living and‘unliving’ (p. 55). An odd word: not ‘dead’, but perhaps working in relation to ‘living’ (and to ‘the blue, steady, livingness’ of Tom’s eyes, p. 54) as ‘undead’ does to ‘dead’.

It’s one of several ‘un-‘ words in this section of the novel: Lydia has ‘lapsed into the old unconsciousness, indifference’, while Tom is ‘held back by ‘uncouth fear’. She (in a typical Lawrence image) ‘was as new as a flower that unsheathes itself’, and is, later, ‘unfolded, ready to receive him’. He, held back by ‘honour’ (the Penguin edition Americanises this to ‘honor’), fails to respond, and, Lawrence writes, ‘went about unliving’. The ambiguity here is telling; he goes about in the condition of ‘unlivingness’, and he sets about the process of ‘unliving’, of undoing his life. Condition and process collide; Tom lost his ‘understanding’ and becomes ‘Inarticulate’ in a ‘wordless passion’; mirroring him, she ‘did not understand’ her foreignness to him. These intricate negations bind Tom to Lydia and to a conception of human intimacy that Lawrence presents as constrictive: ‘he was tied up as with cords, and could not move to her’, he writes, and, at the wedding, ‘The suspense only tightened at his heart. The jesting and joviality and jolly, broad insinuation of the guests only coiled him more. […] He could not get free’ (pp. 54-5).

‘Insinuation’ again: the creeping / thrown experience of intrusion and invasion. The ‘un-‘s and ‘in-‘s of unconsciousness and intimacy are veiled figures of the creeping movement of insinuation. Marianna Torgovnick writes, in 1980, of another kind of ‘insinuation’ in discussing pictorial imagery in Lawrence’s Women in Love:

‘Insinuation’ refers to conscious or unconscious dwelling upon an art object or pictorial image over a period of time, with a gradual clarification of meaning. Art objects and pictorial images insinuate themselves into the minds of characters in the novel and into the consciousness of the reader as well. Examples of such objects or images in Women in Love include the African statues in Halliday’s flat, Lawrence’s descriptions of women’s clothing, and certain moments in the text, such as Gudrun and Ursula’s sketching trip to Willey Water. One can usefully appropriate Lawrence’s own words to define the process: insinuation is the life of ‘the image as it lives in the consciousness, alive like a bird, but unknown’. At the moment when the visual image becomes ‘known’, its meaning crystallizes and is rendered in words. We know that insinuation has occurred when the process is essentially over. In its essence, then, insinuation is a form of visual memory or visual contemplation; as such, the process of insinuation proper is absent from the novel. Insinuation enters the novel directly only as the visual yields to the verbal, though its presence may be assumed for much of the novel.

(‘Pictorial Elements in Women in Love: The Uses of Insinuation and Visual Rhyme’, Marianna Torgovnick, Contemporary Literature, Vol. 21, No. 3, (Summer, 1980), pp. 420-434: pp. 421-2)

‘Insinuation’, in The Rainbow, seems an altogether different process to this elaboration of what I think is effectively an intense kind of ‘contemplation’. Lydia and Tom repeatedly experience insinuation as a ‘joining-together’, a commingling – to be either desired or resisted in a kind of rhythmic pulsing cycle as the narrative progresses – that exploits the word’s etymological links to related terms like ‘sinuous’, and even to homophonic and semantically suggestive but unconnected words like ‘sinister’. There is, after all, something faintly sinister about the ‘jolly insinuations’ of the wedding guests: a lewd implication, something implicitly debasing (like the simplistic alliteration and disordered incremento of ‘jesting / joviality / jolly’) of the spiritual and physical intensities Tom and Lydia experience, whether ‘unliving’ or in their full ‘livingness’.

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Lawrence’s insinuations

Re-reading Lawrence’s The Rainbow, I’m struck by the complexity of his prose movements between the historical and natural worlds, and between those crucial Lawrentian coordinates, the external perceptions and internal emotions of his characters. A passage early in the novel – where Tom Brangwen has proposed marriage to Lydia Lensky – exemplifies something of what strikes me:

‘Yes I want to,’ she said, impersonally, looking at him with wide, candid, newly-opened eyes, opened now with supreme truth. He went very white as he stood, and did not move, only his eyes were held by hers, and he suffered. She seemed to see him with her newly-opened, wide eyes, almost of a child, and with a strange movement, that was agony to him, she reached slowly forward her dark face and her breast to him, with a slow insinuation of a kiss that made something break in his brain, and it was darkness over him for a few moments.

He had her in his arms, and, obliterated, was kissing her. And it was sheer, blenched agony to him, to break away from himself. She was there so small and light and accepting in his arms, like a child, and yet with such an insinuation of embrace, of infinite embrace, that he could not bear it, he could not stand.

(DH Lawrence, The Rainbow, London: Penguin 2000, p. 44)

He is proposing to her; she is, with some momentary confusion, accepting. Lawrence constructs the process and the experience mainly from Tom’s perspective, offering us Lydia’s acceptance as a kind of  ‘insinuation’ into Tom’s life-space. The word ‘insinuation’ is one of many repetitions in this oddly circular passage, working, along with echoing words and phrases like ‘newly-opened’, ‘kiss’ / ‘kissing’, ‘agony to him’, ‘slow’ / ‘slowly’, ‘dark’ / ‘darkened’, ‘like a child’ / ‘of a child’, ‘embrace’, to develop and intensify the emotional closeness – even claustrophobia – of the moment, its physical intimacy.

What does Lawrence mean by ‘insinuation’? The online etymological dictionary gives us some clues:

insinuate (v.)

1520s, from Latin insinuatus, past participle of insinuare “to throw in, push in, make a way; creep in, intrude, bring in by windings and curvings, wind one’s way into,” from in- “in” + sinuare “to wind, bend, curve,” from sinus “a curve, winding.” Sense of “to introduce tortuously or indirectly” is from 1640s. Related: Insinuated; insinuating; insinuatingly.

Through such windings and curvings – themselves seemingly active and passive, thrown (geworfen?) and creeping, Lawrence’s prose insinuates itself into the reader’s consciousness. Through its exaggerated, rhythmic emphasis on repetition and near-repetition, it enacts something of the intensity of the experience it describes. Lydia is rendered simultaneously passive – an object of Tom’s desire, almost literally thrown by his proposal – and, from his perspective, strangely active, an agent working her entry into his life, creeping into his physical world which is also the world of The Rainbow. This world has, from the very first words of the novel, been altogether Tom’s in terms of inheritance, possession, territory – but it’s also been one structured and destructured by other insinuations, natural ones like the action of the river that ‘twisted sluggishly’ (p. 9) in the book’s first sentence, and historical ones like the ‘invasion’ of canal and collieries (p. 13) that marks the arrival of modernity to Marsh Farm.

Lawrence’s prose insinuates as it insists – it bends and curves, reflexively folding back on itself, repeating and reiterating, folding into itself the movements of selves, worlds, contexts, and natural forces, performing repeatedly and insistently through its oddly flexible syntax the actions and emotions it seeks to represent.

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Frederik Pohl, 1919-2013.

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Frederik Pohl died yesterday, aged 93. In a 1980 interview he said: “I like to talk to people and get them to change their views when I think their views are wrong. Why else would anyone write a book?”

Here’s an extract from his 1951 collaborative novel with C M Kornbluth, The Space Merchants, a fantastic satire on American consumerism:

He explained how the government – it’s odd how we still think and talk of that clearinghouse for pressures as though it were an entity with a will of its own – how the government wanted Venus to be an American planet and how they had selected the peculiarly American talent of advertising to make it possible. As he spoke we all caught some of his fire. I envied the man who would head the Venus Section; any one of us would have been proud to take the job.

He spoke of trouble with the Senator from Du Pont Chemicals with his forty-five votes, and of an easy triumph over the Senator from Nash-Kelvinator with his six. He spoke proudly of a faked Consie demonstration against Fowler Schocken, which had lined up the fanatically anti-Consie Secretary of the Interior. Visual Aids had done a beautiful job of briefing the information, but we were there nearly an hour looking at the charts and listening to Fowler’s achievements and plans.

But finally he clicked off the projector and said: “There you have it. That’s our new campaign. And it starts right away – now. I have only one more announcement to make and then we can all get to work.”

Fowler Schocken is a good showman.

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Nietzsche: Daybreak – Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality

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Above all let us say it slowly . . . This preface is late but not too late –  what, after all, do five or six years matter? A book like this, a problem like this, is in no hurry; we both, I just as much as my book, are friends of lento. It is not for nothing that I have been a philologist, perhaps I am a philologist still, that is to say, a teacher of slow reading:  in the end I also write slowly. Nowadays it is not only my habit, it is also to my taste – a malicious taste, perhaps? – no longer to write anything which does not reduce to despair every sort of man who is ‘in a hurry’. For philology is that venerable art which demands of its votaries one thing above all: to go aside, to take time, to become still, to become slow;  it is a goldsmith’s art and connoisseurship of the word which has nothing but delicate, cautious work to do and achieves nothing if it does not achieve it lento. But for precisely this reason it is more necessary than ever today, by precisely this means does it entice and enchant us the most, in the midst of an age of ‘work’, that is to say, of hurry, of indecent and perspiring haste, which wants to ‘get everything done’ at once, including every old or new book:  this art does not so easily get anything done, it teaches to read well, that is to say, to read slowly, deeply, looking cautiously before and aft, with reservations, with doors left open, with delicate eyes and fingers . . . My patient friends, this book desires for itself only perfect readers and philologists: learn to read me well!

(1881, translation by R.J. Hollingdale, Cambridge University Press, 1982, p.5.)

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