Tragedy, relational art

by Bret Schneider

Image: Detail from Gustav
Klimt’s Tragoedie (1911)


Originally posted on Bret Schneider’s website, quaquaqua.

Apperceptive indifference

Some “minor” artworks seem especially indifferent to society. Doubtlessly, it is this affect which exclusively distinguishes them from other artworks, and the idiosyncratic reflection in which this indifference is formed determines their quality. Rather than see indifference as nihilistic, it is a form of apperceptive reflection that is especially insightful, though, towards nothing in particular. This “nothing in particular” is what rubs people the wrong way, but for what reasons? Virginia Woolf’s theory of modern fiction, as well as the essay claimed that there is no detail too insignificant to include in the totality of the work. The philosophy not explicated further in this claim is that we do not know what our values are in the modern age, as everything is free-floating and now yet to be determined. Analogous to film, which Benjamin observed was able to focus on the marginal things which are assumed as materially constitutive of subjectivity, but not recognized as such, literary inclusions of meandering thoughts focus on those things that we know that we know, but don’t know that we know yet. Apperceptive artworks propose that the way to properly perceive the world is no longer dependent on the direct act of standing in front of a painting and straining one’s eyes out the front one’s head, which is a type of muscular reflection obstructed by obsolete moralistic efforts. Rather, apperceptive modes of reflection refine this by an almost peripheral vantage point, postulating that in order to experience something properly, one must not even really look at it. It is a form of indirect experience. Certainly, there is an element of “trying” that is required to train the mind for this type of viewing, but it is a type which doesn’t try to “get it,” or to “experience it,” or “love it,” etc., but a type which is geared towards the development of a second nature of reflection that would render these bourgeois concepts as obsolete as they have truly become, if only in ideal. The development of an adequate apperceptive faculty resides in the self-understanding of one’s perception as not merely watcher, but also watched. That is, reflection imitates the particularly modern condition whereby one is both subject and object, and in which the differentiation from mere objects is in the midst of being processed, so to speak. One grows eyes on the side of one’s head, like a fish, or develops a form of cognition like a fly’s refractive eyesight that takes in ever more distracted objects. The metamorphosis from human to insect is not entirely barbaric — it is a type of second nature. Beckett’s transfiguration of human to static object is not merely a critique of passivity and so forth, but indicates a real perfectability of reflection to a state where it can take in those aspects of nature that are denied to otherwise affirmed humanistic principled. Furthermore, the ability to perceive oneself as an object is a precondition for constituting projected forms of subjectivity.

A young Virginia Woolf

A young Virginia Woolf

The grand excavation

The broad field of human life turns into a grand excavation, the means of which are brought about by a particular form of insight that is indifferent to, and a development out of, the obsolete forms of perceptive and logical thought. A vulgar analogy comes out of detective stories: the modern detective is contrasted in his peculiar attention to details that would otherwise be overlooked by traditional methods of investigation. At times, it appears that the detective isn’t even paying attention, or is indifferent to the serious matter at hand. In pop culture, this is chalked up to a merely eccentric personality, whereas in truth their indifference is at the avant-garde of distant criticism. An immersive, immediate form of investigation into the object at hand would be hindered by standard forms of perception that take grip of the one who is critiquing the situation. In an indifferent form of cognition, there is a distance from such immediacy, almost as if the indifferent thinker has never once been privy to the laws and rules which seem to apply to everyone else. This sort of character is sanctioned and developed as an anomaly — the anomaly being a result of social refinement. Continue reading

A Cruel Irony in the History of Architectural Modernism

Monument to Karl Liebkneckt and Rosa Luxemburg (1925)

It is a cruel irony in the history of architectural modernism that the Mies van der Rohe, who earlier in his career designed the monument to the fallen Communist heroes Karl Liebkneckt and Rosa Luxemburg, would (thirty years later) be the same man who designed the Seagram Building, one of the swankiest monuments to high-Fordist capitalism.  This may have been pointed out before, but it stands as a testament to the tragedy of architectural modernism in the twentieth century.

The Seagram Building (1958)

The Tragically Sublime: Schelling’s Metaphysics of Fate and Freedom in his Philosophy of Art

The discovery that man’s actions fail to produce their intended results, that the world does not bend itself to his will — this is the first instance of his spiritual alienation.[1] For herein lies the recognition that the world is not of man’s making, the understanding that nature obeys laws utterly removed from his desires. Such laws, insofar as they are intelligible, do not yet threaten mankind’s claim to freedom as such. Their necessity is only empirical. That is to say, the limitations they impose are of a merely physical character. In this respect, these laws do not jeopardize man’s moral autonomy. Rather, they are seen to possess a sort of brute factuality, an objective regularity. So long as man exempts himself from their mechanism, his freedom is preserved. His actions would thus simply be subject to material constraint.[2]

Another necessity presents itself to experience, however, of a far more sinister aspect. This necessity, by contrast, appears irreconcilable with man’s sense of free will. Its source is likewise external (heteronymous), but its precise origin remains shrouded in obscurity. As such, its machinery is wholly incomprehensible.[3] Where the one necessity persists in universality, the other exhibits itself as entirely particular.[4] In other words, the determinations of the first sort are understood to follow a consistent, uniform pattern; conversely, those which issue from the second variety seem hopelessly arbitrary, catastrophic. The apparent indeterminacy of the latter’s foundation does not alter its necessity, however. Its dictates must not, for this reason, be thought any less binding. On the contrary, the decrees of this invisible necessity govern the outcome of men’s actions with irresistible effect, deciding their fortunes without their consent.

This latter necessity is commonly referred to as fate. Qua absolute necessity, it is the essential annihilation of human freedom. Our activities are thus revealed in their impotence: we are not the masters of our destiny. It is on this account that the intuition of fate is always accompanied by a distinct feeling of horror. The moral freedom we so fervently assert as essential to our subjectivity is contradicted outright by the objective necessity of fate. Each side (subjective and objective alike) claims total sovereignty, and can scarcely tolerate its opposite. Yet both seem to contain an equal degree of reality. How can this be? To admit the one would surely be to negate the other. Are these two sides not incommensurable?

For the idealist F.W.J. Schelling, this paradox was definitive of the human condition. Indeed, it was viewed as the central problematic at work in transcendental philosophy, since the very possibility of this philosophy rests on the presumption that free will exists. In his 1800 System of Transcendental Idealism, Schelling explains the connection between freedom and fatal necessity as “a relationship whereby men through their own free action, and yet against their will, must become cause of something which they never wanted, or by which, conversely, something must go astray or come to naught which they have sought for freely and with the exertion of all their powers.”[5] Schelling here confirms much of what has been hitherto described: namely, that one’s free actions engender unimaginable consequences, regardless of intention; moreover, that the real results of his endeavors appear totally divorced from their ideal basis.

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