Tuesday, June 26, 2012

More Liberal Militarization of UCPD

This is how UC and president Obama's homeland security department protect our freedom of protest: http://reclaimuc.blogspot.com/2012/06/ucpds-getting-tank-from-homeland.html.
      To re-quote Foucault on liberal govermentality: "everywhere you see this simulation of the fear of danger which is, as it were, the condition, the internal psychological and cultural correlative of liberalism. There is no liberalism without a culture of danger." Simply: liberal, free-market, capitalist governments (legislative, executive, juridical, economic, etc.) demand a culture of fear -- fear over the interruption of the flow of capital, be it financial capital or bodily capital. Thus: fear occupy, fear protests where the flow of money-bodies is interupted. Hence the Davis Dozen prosecutions, and hence the militarization of police. At all costs, Katehi, Yudof, Obama, arm yourselves against our insurrection against capital and its circulation. Villainize and criminalize and brutalize lawful protest. After all, that's how you constitute liberal power. Agamben is right: we live in a state of exception.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Walter Pater's Speculative Aesthetics and Microbiopolitics

In defining the aesthetic experience as hazarding oneself within a desubjectifying aesthetic-object relation, Walter Pater’s speculative aesthetic criticism short circuits the Ruskinian liberal subject (predicated on art’s near-sublime ability to convey the greatest number of great ideas) and its condition of possibility (the mastered/mastering human-world correlate) by overwhelming it with a field of bipolar tensions. Pater, having worked Kantian aesthetics backwards from the “subject” to the aesthetic object, confronts the material conditions of possibility for pure aesthetic experience. While the lineage of Victorian Kantians (Coleridge, Carlyle, Ruskin, Arnold) had pursued the transcendental dimension of aesthetic experience as a way to construct an autonomous, self-willed, distanced, and disinterested liberal subject, Pater sought to strip the aesthetic experience of all external relations or ends. Scandalous to 1870’s England and blasé to post-New Criticism literary scholars, Pater’s peculiar rootstock of “art for art’s sake” deserves reappraisal on ontological and ethical grounds. Rather than reading Pater as a historical anomaly, I propose an approach treating his aesthetic criticism as a speculative philosophy capable of providing a model for how contemporary microbiopolitical apparatuses operate upon living beings and how an efficacious subjecthood can be constructed vis-à-vis those very apparatuses.
            Pater’s sketch of the aesthetic experience, which maps the force field stretched between the aesthetic object and the critic’s imaginative reason, not only inverts then-conventional Kantian criticism, but also pushes aesthetics to its ontological and epistemological horizon: the pure aesthetic object. If the aesthetic object and aesthetic critic enter into intimacy through the aesthetic encounter, and if this intimacy short circuits the production of a liberal subject (a harnessing of the material autonomy of art for immaterial, human ends – meaning, ideation, morality), then the danger lies in the aesthetic object’s indifference to the critic’s comportment. The horizon between matter (or content) and form becomes for Pater the primary locus of the aesthetic encounter, the site where the aesthetic object withdraws from access and the site to which the critic is irresistibly drawn. Such a fissure, I argue, becomes a site of mastery – the object over the viewer or the viewer over the object – motivating Pater’s insistence that “it is the constant effort of art to obliterate it” (90). Matter and form must, for Pater, operate through a curious immanence within which “this form, this mode of handling, should become an end in itself, should penetrate every part of the matter.” Resolutely non-Platonic (or non-Kantian?), Paterian form remains grounded in materiality as the trace of the artistic gesture or signature. Form’s penetration of matter is that which subverts Ruskinian subject-formation by suspending the force of external relations manipulating the aesthetic object for other ends.
Nevertheless, the zone of indistinction rendered by form’s penetration of matter also serves as generative force for meaning – and the liberal subject’s formation via art. The form-and-matter zone of indistinction is, therefore, a particularly fraught region for Pater wherein “meaning reaches us through ways not distinctly traceable by the understanding” (91). Meaning serves as a sieve through which living being is captured and passed along into other fields of force – an ideological terrain of Victorian liberalism, for instance. Meaning, arising out of form-and-matter, is an apparatus – a “thing” capturing, orienting, modeling, controlling, intercepting, securing the behaviors, gestures, opinions, discourses of living beings for ends outside themselves. And yet if meaning, as an apparatus capturing and jettisoning some capacity of the viewer into another field (a process Agamben calls sacredization), arises out of form and matter’s indistinction, then form-and-matter also holds the potential to subvert that process. An over-penetration of form into matter could render inoperative meaning’s capturing force. For Pater, art inherently tends to this suspension: “Art, then, is thus always striving to be independent of the mere intelligence, to become a matter of pure perception, to get rid of its responsibilities to its subject” (92). As an aesthetic object withdraws into its constitutive zone of form-and-matter, it simultaneously severs itself from ends outside itself, while still retaining its force of capture. As The Picture of Dorian Grey warns, the pure aesthetic object never ceases to exert capturing, modeling, control, or orienting force over its viewer. Rather, in the aesthetic object Pater discerned the bare condition of an apparatus’s possibility, its unceasing force of capture independent of ends – the aesthetic object as black hole.
            The horizon marking the aesthetic object’s force is useful in thinking through the operations of what Nigel Thrift defines as microbiopolitics: practices and techniques of power operating “in the half-second delay between action and cognition” (71). This microbiopolitical domain teems with apparatuses capturing living beings at an ontological level indifferent to thought. If biopolitics could be thought through a correlationist lens (Foucauldian power-knowledge), microbiopolitics demands a speculative philosophy because it operates entirely independent of thought. Certainly the “operators” of such apparatuses can and should be thought; nevertheless the very operations of microbiopolitics demands approach other than the Foucauldian. Pater’s aesthetic object offers such an approach. By mapping the domain generating an object’s capacity to capture (its condition of possibility as an apparatus), Pater’s criticism concerns itself with the ontological conditions of capture indifferent to thought: the half-second delay between action and cognition.
This isn’t to argue that Pater’s aesthetic objects are microbiopolitical apparatuses (which would be to stretch the definition too far, as if all art were microbiopolitical because it works on the senses), although the incense-laden procession opening his Marius the Epicurean could gesture towards contemporary pheromone apparatuses. Rather, Pater’s aesthetic criticism, if read as speculative philosophy, not only offers a way to think the ontological conditions of microbiopolitics, but also provides a form-of-life constituted by the reparative or profaning appropriation of apparatuses: Hellenic subjectivity. Explicitly a renunciation of Ruskin’s valorization of the Gothic, Hellenic subjectivity profanes the liberal subject’s constitutive characteristics and puts them to new use. Like the liberal subject, the Hellenic subject is self-willed (“They are ideal artists of themselves” [143]), autonomous (“that Hellenic ideal, in which man is at unity with himself” [145]), and disinterested (“the absence of any sense of want” [144]). However, such a subject arises out of an entirely different relation to the world. Whereas the liberal subject attains its self-will, autonomy, and disinterestedness from a detachment or transcendence from the world (from sensation into mind, for instance), the Hellenic subject emerges from a radical immersion into the world: the “Hellenic ideal, in which man is at unity with himself, his physical nature, with the outward world.” As Johann Winckelmann’s life (Pater’s prototype Hellenic subject) indicates, the Hellenic subject is constituted through an intimacy with the aesthetic object, a being “in touch with it; it penetrates him, and becomes a part of his temperament” (127). It is in connection with the aesthetic object, understood as a pure apparatus, that we should read Pater’s (in)famous definition of success in life. “To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy” of “that strange, perpetual, weaving and unweaving of ourselves” is to profane the apparatuses of “the modern world, with its conflicting claims, its entangled interests, distracted by so many sorrows, with many preoccupations” (148), severing their external ends (claims, interests, sorrows, preoccupations) and repurposing their force of capture for new ends. Pater’s “speculative culture” (154) offers a model for Thrift’s microbiopolitical counter-conduct – an art or cultivation of the self attuned to “the kind of biological-cum-cultural gymnastics that take place in this realm which is increasingly susceptible to new and sometimes threatening knowledges and technologies” (71).

Thursday, June 14, 2012

How Art Kills: Pater's Speculative Aesthetics

The recent speculative turn in continental philosophy offers not merely a return to philosophical realism, but also a reparative resurrection of dormant thought designed to push philosophy outside a correlationist shadow cast since, arguably, Kant. While most efforts have focused on revising of the contours of the Western philosophical canon, attention could also be paid to marginalized figures in England’s literary history, figures that, like Walter Pater, offer a speculative genealogy confronting issues of realism from within certain strands of Kantianism. While no means speculatively realist avant la lettre, Pater’s aesthetic criticism warrants reappraisal within the emergent discourse of the speculative turn primarily because of his curious reformulation and development of a realist tendency present but unthought within Kant’s Critique of Judgment.
            Pater’s The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry begins with a polemical warning not to define “beauty in the abstract, to express it in the most general terms, to find some universal formula for it” – a warning against, in other words, an English tradition of Kantian aesthetics (1). Without naming names, Pater gently chides the practitioners of this dominant aesthetic paradigm by quoting without citation Matthew Arnold’s famous 1861 aesthetic dictum, “To see the object as in itself it really is”  (64) – a line consistent with that other grandee of Victorian aesthetics, John Ruskin, whose criticism centers on sight, “the most important thing to be taught in the whole range of teaching” (“Inaugural Address” 94-95). But what type of sight, Pater cautions, does Arnoldian or Ruskinian criticism demand, and, more to the point, for what end? For Ruskin the greatest art is “that which conveys to the mind of the spectator the greatest number of the greatest ideas” (“Definition of Greatness in Art” 12); great art, which presumably moves the viewer through such greatness, is eminently transcendental, transporting the viewer outside himself (there are so few “herselves” in Ruskin’s mind) and into communication with universal truths whose efficacy is proportional to their capacity to resonate with “a higher faculty of the mind.” Beautiful greatness, in this sense, is akin to the Kantian sublime, the experience of reason’s infinite scope seemingly independent of natural or aesthetic objects: “Sublimity, therefore, does not reside in any of the things in nature, but only in our own mind, in so far as we may become conscious of our superiority over nature within, and thus over nature without us” (Judgment 94). Ruskin and Arnold are heirs to the idealist-tendency of Kant’s analytic of the sublime via a genealogy that runs through Coleridge and Carlyle.
            Pater, however, resists the analytic program’s privileging of art’s capacity to elevate reason at the expense of its subtending haecceity: “To define beauty, not in the most abstract but in the most concrete terms possible, to find, not its universal formula, but the formula which expresses most adequately this or that special manifestations of it, is the aim of the true student of aesthetics” (1). Whereas the dominant line of Kantian aesthetic criticism takes Kant at his word – sever sublime art from its materiality – in an effort to examine the synthetic a priori conditions making aesthetic experience possible, Pater turns his attention in the opposite direction and towards the historical a posteriori conditions of aesthetic pleasure’s possibility as arising from contact with the aesthetic object in-itself. With his four central aesthetic inquiries (What is aesthetic object to me? What is its effect on me? How does object give me pleasure? How does it modify my nature? [1]), Pater effectively snubs his nose at English Kantianism while ingeniously resurrecting a latency in Kant’s critique of judgment. Without denying the operations of the sublime, Pater asks the painfully obvious question raised by Kant’s correlation of the aesthetic object and the sublime: if the sublime “must be thought only in the mind of the judging subject” (Critique 86) and if that subject’s disposition towards the sublime is triggered by yet irreducible to aesthetic or natural objects, what are the conditions of possibility for the sublime’s arising out of a judging subject’s relation to a given type of object? To address this impasse in Kant’s analytic of the sublime Pater turns away from the a priori conditions so fascinating for English aesthetic criticism, and instead focuses on the “relative” experience of aesthetics (1).
            Contra Ruskin, Pater defines beauty as “relative,” a term embracing both the critic’s subjective pleasure and the critic’s relation to the aesthetic object; the stress ultimately falls on the later dimension: “the definition of [beauty] becomes unmeaning and useless in proportion to its abstraction” (1). And while critic and aesthetic object arise in their modalities (Pater-as-critic, canvas-as-aesthetic-object), Pater’s repeated prepositional phrases (to me, for me, etc.) indicate an irreducibility that subtends both critic and aesthetic object and gives rise to the particular pleasure of the aesthetic encounter. Provocatively, Pater defines the pleasure-producing operations of aesthetics as “the stir” (3).
            In the supplemental 1877 chapter “The School of Giorgione” Pater maps the “stir” through a sly translation of The Renaissance’s by then infamous and retracted conclusion. Here we no longer have the simplicity of the aesthetic object–critic relation, but rather a bipolar force field traversed by waypoints  – aesthetic object’s materiality <> sensation <> sensual element <> imaginative reason – that momentarily check and relay the unidirectional “delight of the sense,” which is the “vehicle of whatever poetry or science may lie beyond them in the intention of the composer” (88). Pater warns against focusing on art’s ideational content and instead points his readers towards the condition of that content’s possibility: “the sensuous material of each art . . . is the beginning of all true aesthetic criticism” (87). By attending to this special materiality, the critic enters into an undue intimacy not directly with the aesthetic object, but rather vicariously with an artifact’s “special mode of handling its material” (89). Because the aesthetic object and the critic never enter direct contact, but remain instead suspended within a force field, Pater’s privileged sensuous element, which marks the historical a priori (to take a phrase from Foucault) of the aesthetic encounter, is located within the critic as the sensuous object within which imaginative reason vicariously connects to the aesthetic object. The sensuous element, spectrally arising from art’s special material, separates the critic’s imaginative reason and sensation from within in order to plunge him/her into the uncanny aesthetic encounter – a desubjectification subverting the Ruskinian and Arnoldian liberal subject’s the desire for transcendence. What remained disturbingly opaque in The Renaissance’s conclusion – “To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life” (154) – Pater here gives operational clarity. To burn with such a gem-like flame is to hazard oneself within a relation that dissolves the fantasy of a transcendental subject and leaves behind the margin of an individual’s irreducible gem-like haecceity. For Pater art kills by obliterating the phantom liberal subject. The question is, then, what remains?

Keats and Flat Ontology

            Voltaire, Alexander Pope, Socrates, Hazlitt, a cat, Junius Brutus Booth, lusty flowers, a knife, heifers, pipes, libations, mariners, an Enchanted Castle, Urganda the Unknown, doors, windows: in “To J.H. Reynolds, Esq,” Keats’ sleeping quarters at Devon teem with objects, the very profusion of which blur the lines between poem and referent, art and kitsch, fantasy and reality. Lulled into a suspension between wake and dream, it is as if the poet cannot keep separate that which full cognizance could easily, albeit falsely, demarcate – not only kitsch from art (a reproduction of Claude Gellée’s The Enchanted Castle from the original), but art from referent. While “To J.H. Reynolds”’s objects seemingly float in a poststructuralist fantasy of unending signifier chains without a signified, wherein nothing exists outside human signification and its self-recursion, a kitsch bust of Voltaire nevertheless is Voltaire, a print of Alexander Pope becomes the poet. But by what magic-like process does the sleepy poet’s gaze not only transubstantiate the objects around him but also open onto what he calls the “material sublime” (69)? If instead of reading Keats’ poem as a poststructural, correlationist celebration of decentered signification, can we see in Keats’ catalogue of the uncanny material sublime what Ian Bogost calls flat ontology?
            In “To J.H. Reynolds,” as in other poems, Keats plays Bogost’s ontographer avant la lettre. Ontography, Bogost claims, follows a two-step process: first, it suspends and isolates a field of units (or objects) within a catalogue; second, it accounts for the coupling and withdrawing of these autonomous units from each other (Alien Phenomenology 50). Ontography serves as the tool for sketching a given milieu’s mereology according to the premise of flat ontology, which “makes no distinction between the types of things that exist” and instead “treats all equally” (17). As a subset of Object-oriented Ontology, the flat ontology of Bogost and Levi Bryant takes an object’s facticity and its intentional qualities as equally real, much as Keats treats the bust of Voltaire, his perception of that bust, and Voltaire himself as equally and simultaneously real.
            What matters to understanding Keats as a flat ontologist is not simply that he treats all objects equally, but also the manner and end of such treatment. “To J.H. Reynolds” opens with a typical Keatsian gesture: supine, the poet confronts “shapes, and shadows, and remembrances” that arise as “[t]hings all disjointed” (3;5).  Inoperativity renders the poet open to a flood of disjointed and thought-teasing objects – busts, etchings, prints, reproduction paintings. For both poet and poem, objects seem under the spell of invisible hyphens, as if each object were both itself and not itself simultaneously: a witch grins with a cherub’s mouth, the Grecian Socrates appears in a nineteenth-century cravat, Hazlitt, hater of cats, plays with Maria Edgeworth’s cat. Similarly, such disjointedness serves to suspend each object from every other object in order to catalogue them within the poem. Irreducible to themselves and each other, the poem’s numerous units clank against one another, shift shapes, enter promiscuous couplings only to recede, in the end, beyond the poet and each other: “now ‘tis hidden all” (60).
Suspended from their external relations, the poem’s units are also irreducible to their parts. The poem’s central unit – the reproduction Enchanted Castle – is broken apart into constitutive units as if composed of so many nesting objects. Keats dissects the painting into rocks, trees, lake, and its central unit, the castle, whose own units are carefully catalogued: wings, juts, doors, windows, flashes of light, galley.
            However, Keats does not offer merely a list of kitsch objects; rather, he catalogues objects such that their relations to and experiences of other objects become graspable for the poet. Keats therein constructs something like what Bogost defines as an ontograph, which “involves cataloguing things, but also drawing attention to the couplings of and chasms between them” (50). For flat ontology – a democracy of ontologically equal units that are simultaneously isolated, enclosing a system, and enclosed within a system (25) – ontography serves as a “general inscription strategy” that “uncovers the repleteness of units and their interobjectivity” (38). Keats maps the interobjectivity of units through the profusion of metaphors, or, to follow Roman Jakobson, the relentless substitution of objects with other objects.
Take for example the sliding of reproduction kitsch not only into its original iteration (a Keatsian gesture most recognizable in “Ode on a Grecian Urn”’s conflation of the Portland vase and a Wedgwood imitation), but also from artwork into lived reality. For the supine poetic gaze, referents come to life through nearly inescapable “visitings” (13), a phenomenon whose generality (“Few are there who escape these visitings”) stresses not only the anthropocentricism of such ekphrastic object relations but also the primacy of such relations. Visiting is, therefore, something like what Bogost calls a unit operation – “a process, a logic, an algorithm is you want, by which a unit attempts to make sense of another” (28) – proper to the human-world correlate, albeit one that remains primarily hidden. The uncanniness of Keats’ ontography stems from poet’s openness to such visitations, a process that Keats’ theorizes as the “negative capability” “of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” (Letter to George and John Keats, 21-27 December 1817). As the proper modality for the human-world correlate, negative capability is human ontography avant la lettre. It names, more simply, how the poet “poems” objects, a program resembling flat ontology’s metaphorism: how units “bask metaphorically in each other’s ‘notes’ by means of metaphor” (67).
            For Keats, the units composing the uncanny flat ontology opened by negative capability – the “material sublime” (69) – substitute each other in much the same manner that the poet relates to his milieu: if the substitution chain kitsch-art-referent pertains to the poet as its proper unit operation or metaphorism, the objects within a milieu like The Enchanted Castle likewise metaphorize each other as their proper unit operations. The castle castles the rock it sits upon, the rock rocks the lake it borders, the lake lakes the trees its surrounds (26-28) – all operations functioning as if “[f]rom some old magic-like Urganda’s sword” (29) much as for the poet it is  the metaphoric “Phoebus” who, in mediating the poet’s human-world correlate, animates “All which elsewhere [is] but half animate” (37). If negative capability is the unit operation proper to the poet, metaphorism names the general operation of object-relations that unit operation opens onto. What holds for Bogost also holds for Keats: “things render one another in infinite chains of weaker and weaker correlation, each altering and distorting the last such that its sense is rendered nonsense. It’s not turtles all the way down, but metaphors” (84).