Thursday, May 17, 2012

Walter Pater's Theory of the Dispositif: Countering Liberal Pastorship with the Aesthetic Object

In this paper, recently given at the "Phases of Thought" scholar symposium at UCD, I attempted to provide a sketch of an emerging larger (dissertation) project and then a possible segment of that project.
Overall, I am concerned with how in late-Victorian England the conduct of the groups or populations was conducted through localized configurations of liberal pastorship or governmentality – that is, how the conduct of purportedly “free” subjects was (potentially) conducted in certain locations. The lack of attention to the space of pastorship has limited other approaches to nineteenth-century British liberalism, pastorship, conduct, and counter-conduct such as those of Lauren Goodlad, Amanda Anderson, and Elaine Hadley. I argue that “milieu” provides one way of historicizing specific, localized struggles over liberal pastorship. The milieu, Foucault tells us in Security, Territory, Population, consists of a configuration of artificial elements and natural givens – a potential model for reading the composition and operation of pastorship and counter-pastorship, conduct and counter-conduct in spaces as disparate as Walter Pater’s Brasenose College (Oxford), the virtual middle-class home of Mary Haweis’ interior decoration guides, or the socialist utopia of William Morris’ News from Nowhere. The milieu’s artificial elements are those “objects” constructed by a regime of pastorship, while the natural givens are everything present in a location but not constructed by that regime. According to this understanding multiple milieux can operate and contest each other within a single location. The milieu’s conducting artificial elements are what Foucault and later Agamben define as the “dispositif” (apparatus): anything coupling living beings with a larger field by orienting, intercepting, or securing their behaviors, thoughts, or discourses. Although only one node through which conduct is conducted and by which that desired conduct is resisted, the dispositif is useful for understanding localized liberal pastorship because it is a medium for “free” contact, exchange, and circulation between individual bodies and regimes of power. Walter Pater’s The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry offers not only what I argue is a late-Victorian theory of the dispositif, but also a program of counter-conduct: Hellenic subjectivity. 
Pater’s aesthetic criticism 1) locates the aesthetic object’s medium-specific “sensual element” and 2) estimates “the degree to which a given work of art fulfills its responsibilities to its special material.” Rather than focusing on art’s intellectual content as does Ruskin (great art provides the greatest number of great ideas, therein orienting the proper conduct/morality they imply – think reading “The Definition of Greatness in Art” coupled with “Of Queen’s Gardens”), instead Pater’s aesthetic critic focuses on a work’s sensual element in order to understand its operations upon the individual at a sensual and affective level – “How is my nature modified by its presence.” Art, Pater argues, operates through its proper materiality in order to reach the viewer’s “imaginative reason” via the senses. The gap between art’s materiality and imaginative reason’s immateriality is bridged by the sensuous element, the artist’s “mode of handling” proper a given medium. Although rooted in art’s materiality, the sensuous element is irreducible to materiality and is instead a sort of spectrality hovering between the two. According to Pater, an aesthetic object’s sensuous element delights the senses in part to “become the vehicle of whatever poetry or science may lie beyond the intention of the composer.” Pater locates in the sensuous element the medium through which an individual comes into “contact” with a regime of liberal pastorship – again, think Ruskin’s criticism its attendant conduct: the sensuous element is that medium or condition of possibility for art’s greatness, its ability to conduct “free” conduct.
            Yet, this contact with liberal pastorship worries Pater, who wishes to theorize the ideal aesthetic object, which should be an end in itself: “Art, then, is thus always striving to be independent of the mere intelligence, to become a matter of pure perception.” That is: if the aesthetic object via its sensuous element threatens to place the viewer into relation with some regime of liberal pastorship, it becomes more efficacious the more independent of that pastorship it can get.
Of course this tendency is an idealization. As Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey tells us, all aesthetic objects partake in a milieu and therefore serve to conduct conduct for better or worse. Nevertheless, we see in Pater’s schematization of the aesthetic object’s operations a model of the dispositif as a one mechanism of pastorship. Insofar as it tends towards autonomy, the aesthetic object serves as the node with which a certain counter-conduct, Hellenic subjectivity, orients itself. The proper comportment demanded by the pure aesthetic object is one of suspension of content/pastoral baggage and attunement with the autopoietic sensuous element – a two step counter conduct (im)famously promoted in The Renaissance’s conclusion, one that renounces the hallmark “disinterestedness” of the classic liberal subject. Supine reflection “suspends” one’s comportment to the “cohesive forces” and “the action of those forces extending beyond us” in order to experience the ecstatic “weaving and unweaving of ourselves.” The Hellenic subject, constituted by its blithe repose and its concentrating breadth/attunement, names the counter-conduct seeking only “to burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy” – opened by the suspending or profaning dispositif, the aesthetic object indifferent to everything but its own sensuous element.
            The intersection of dispositif, Hellenic subjectivity, and pastorship offers an opportunity for a series of “strategic” displacements: from object of analysis to field of truth engulfing it, from institution to general order, from function to general economy of power – all ways to consider the class, race, and gender exclusions making Hellenic subjectivity possible.