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).

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