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?

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