Speculative Aesthetics

After a four-day stint of contemplating various Speculative questions (at The Matter of Contradiction: War Against the Sun and the Speculative Aesthetics event) I thought the best method to re-group and sketch out the shapes of what emerged would be to start writing.  I haven’t blogged anything on this blog for some time now, I’ve been focusing on my research into voice more and posting on the Vocalities blog, but I haven’t actually posted anything about contemporary philosophical concerns, politics or art since, uh, like, forever…

However, Ray Brassier’s fantastic paper for Speculative Aesthetics and his talk at Matter of Contradiction bit me – in the most stimulating, exciting way. I’ve not engaged with Brassier’s work at any length previously but this weekend after hearing him speak on Friday I read through his paper twice before hearing him speak again on Sunday. Most of the questions I have arise from my understanding of Brassier’s formulation the journey (or rather the meandering ontological methodology) between concepts and signs and his detailing of (to summarise it crudely) a phenomeno-noumenal linguistics ‘working reality’ model. As I understand the concepts this is essentially a lucid tour through the ontological mechanisms that build firstly Wilfred Sellars’ manifest image, scientific image and secondly the subsequent stereoscopic image. My questions are framed in this brief and uninformed reading of Brassier’s work on Sellars but arise from thinking in this framework whilst tackling the questions brought forward by a few other particular papers that pose very contemporary, practical concerns for art and aesthetics; most notably Mark Fisher’s, Amanda Beech’s and Benedict Singleton’s.

I should also add a secondary constellation of influences that may not be directly cited in my questions but still coloured my thoughts on the subject: Robin Mackay’s presentations and questions, Alex William’s concise formulation of Negarestanian local/global imbrications in regard to global capital, Inigo Wilkin’s comments on Xenakis’ stochastic mode of music composition, Ray Brassier’s paper Genre is Obsolete, a brief but fascinating chat with Simon O’Sullivan and lastly the discussions with Jon Lindblom in his Deleuze and Cinema reading group.

One of the most powerful aspects of Brassier’s paper is the linguistically based diagrammatizing of our propositional method of knowing. A method that meanders, shifts and slips (unknown, unaddressed and problematically) between, if I can be so binary about it, objects and thoughts. The distinction of common nouns (“table”, “chair”) and proper nouns (“Dante”, “Cyprus”) is vital here (but just the first step). The argument to be taken from this is that not all the names we have for things are concretely linked to the things, but rather, that the naming, the nomination, the enviro-linguistic process, is not a meaning based activity but one which is a materially grounded activity. For proper nouns, simple signs, it is intuitive to understand: we agree on a name, we use it, it works and thus the relationship with the thing is maintained and so on. However, for categories, for common nouns the method leads to questions because the link from a category to a thing is not so sure.

Here we can bring in Brassier’s example of “”Rouge” in French is “red” in English” Which shows this problem in striking simplicity. Rouge is a sign, the shape of the letters and the sonic signature (sup Jacques) of the pronunciation are the thing/sign – so when we think about this translation we are not thinking about the colour red, rather we are thinking about the spelling or the rolled “R” and softened “g” of the correct pronunciation. In contradistinction “red” refers to a colour, a category, a thought – a quale. So in this example whilst “Rouge” is a sign that refers to phenomena (ink, sound) the sign is asked to embark upon massive transition, not from one phenomenal sign to another but to “red”. And red is not quite so tethered phenomenally testable methods. Perhaps my summary is too bold but I feel that this example performs how the thing, the object, is being re-vised into is an experience locked inside the readers subjectivity. A sign is asked to be a category, we could perhaps go as far as to say that a phenomena is asked to be a thought.

The problem, or perhaps the question to be addressed is, how propositional arguments are based in a predicative reliant shuttle between simple signs and more conceptual categories. So, if asking “what is there?” is a straightforward operation for signs, the aspect to explore here is that these signs are not used in isolation but are mixed in with predicates, metalinguistic sortals, concepts, and thoughts (which are not all the same thing, but I cannot unpack all these complexities here – for the sake of questions concerning aesthetics this summary will suffice). Brassier writes of how Sellars answer to the question of “what is a category” is that they are neither mind-independent attributes nor mind-dependent concepts but meta-linguistic functions that are nevertheless a mode of representing reality. Determining categories relies on the identification of a conceptual space. I feel here it is vital to proceed carefully; this is not a case of binary oppositions of private internal thought and coldly external phenomena – but the environmental, materially renewed dialogy between concepts and space. To quote Brassier:

“the mind is not an inner sanctum, (...) it is externalized in the world, and (...) this externalization is a consequence of its connection to linguistic activity. (…) The concept of inner-thought episodes is modeled on publicly observable ‘saying-out-loud’s. (…) Introspection is a corollary of extrospection. The ability to introspect and perceive that one is thinking X or feeling Y presupposes conceptual capacities rooted in linguistic practice”

So there is, in a sense, a bi-dynamic checking, a constant ordering protocol rooted in the material, the world. Environmentally testable vectors are constantly deployed outwards but at the same time the (smudged, shuttling, meandering) ontological method remains both conceptual and material. The internal reality is just as mediated as external stimuli. I feel there are strata, of thought/material gradients – that are constantly shifting and re-ordering as a natural process of how we engage with the world, how we think about the space we move in.

Brassier has more to say about Sellars, but for the purpose of my questions I will move away from this ontological subject and use the framing it provides to ask what a speculative aesthetics may be like.

Mediating practically usable signs or ultimately creating new concepts or changing the viewers concepts should be the quest of contemporary art; to pierce through and change thought – this the privilege art has traded on, or presupposed a potential of such. But this is not happening. Philosophically speaking I appreciate that there is a wealth of complexity between these two poles – but for the sake of argument I will consider these poles in relation to the above comprehension of environmentally practical signs and inner thought. Art that is language based and engages in a practice of sign-centric knowingness (the sure deployment trick or short-hand for concepts problem) is obviously no good for challenging concepts, signs change all the time, differences are constantly being re-negotiated – but it is an aeon away from conceptual renegotiation. The examples of such problems are mundanely obvious; who hasn’t walked into a gallery space and read the art piece, nodded in affirmative comprehension of the semiotics scattered about the place. In short, the level of conceptual purchase that ‘readable’ works offer is somewhat akin to that of a Peanut Punch ingredients list – not much. For our porous engagement with the world so much art is depressingly weak and languishes at a saccharine safe, commodifiable, level of sign play. Of course, it is this very mode of operating that adheres to a dominant political discourse. The consistency of signs, the stasis of concepts is something that is allows an artist to easily pitch “how they are addressing the contemporary space” as much as it reinforces categories of power as Mark fisher comments: “Elements of ‘leftist’ politics not only collude in, but actively organise this rampant identitarianism, corralling groups into ’communities’ defined according to the categories of power: a Foucauldian dystopia.” Mark Fisher also observed that  “Queer theory might reign in the academy, but it has done nothing to halt the depressing return of gender normativity in popular culture and everyday life.” And this is sadly true, I personally find art works concerning the questions from the histories of Queer Theory to be amongst the most cheaply readable – and I do not specialize in this field as much as some. A (pessimistic) case in point- right?

So, how can art become more insidious? How can it permeate through to our thoughts and challenge or renegotiate concepts. Although this avenue is available it is also ordered by arts own tradition. Art always proposed this deeper potential – be it the sublime, or beauty (both very much received at a deeper level of thought that is less language-centric and more experienced activated) but these too are all too easily aligned into existing strategies of power and the capitalist channels of libidinal routing and ordering for its own propagation. To discover hope we may turn to Benedict Singleton’s application of the term metis and his research around traps, escapology, fabrication and manipulation. Singleton comments that in Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant’s Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society (1991). They describe mêtis as:

“a type of intelligence and of thought, a way of knowing; it implies a complex but very coherent body of mental attitudes and intellectual behaviour which combine flair, wisdom, forethought, subtlety of mind, deception, resourcefulness, vigilance, opportunism, various skills, and experience over the years. It is applied to situations which are transient, shifting, disconcerting and ambiguous, situations which do not lend themselves to precise measurement, exact calculation or rigorous logic.
Detienne & Vernant, 1991: 3-4”

My first reaction to the weekend was that the question of speculative aesthetics is a question of understanding where to lay a conceptually disruptive trap between the two previously outlined extremes of contemporary arts dilemma. Like Goldilocks, the trap cannot be set upon the level of language and easily communicative notions for this position does not have sufficient purchase on concepts to create any major conceptual renegotiation but cannot swing to the other extreme of arts traditional position of the sublime or beautiful as these too would adhere to the current political order and generate nothing but stasis. I felt that the question was a case of finding an opportune sweet spot to execute the trap.

However, this is not an answer. There is no possibility in this. There is no potential to be discovered in asking this question – strictly because the question of where presupposes an existing conception of various degrees of artistic practice – and it is precisely the ordering of these degrees that need to be questioned. Both Mark Fisher and Robin Mackay commented on how social media is a very powerful force for changing both concepts, thought and behavior. This lead me to ponder the possibilities of non-art or non-media – or rather those endeavors that operate across creative territories and are as insidiously powerful in changing the way we behave and think as they are impossible to categorize; isn’t the thing we cannot comfortably categorize always the most profound? I am thinking in particular of those pieces that are not really one thing or another – the chimerical practice (which is essentially what makes emerging strands of peripheral capitalism and online social media so powerful). For example, the projects that have to be awkwardly fumbled into conversation as “well, its not an art piece, its this guy who” or “I mean its not a record, there’s this website and you…”. Art needs to escape from beneath the smothering name it mistakenly pedals in the hope of affording potential. The task is for “it” to operate autonomously from the role of “Art” and become a creative project outside of traditional discourse, institutions or economies.

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