Monday, October 14, 2013

Triteness is all (selections from the LRB)

The typical knee-jerk reaction I get when explaining to people (that is, colleagues) that my interest for years has been to apply the findings of the cognitive sciences and evolutionary psychology to the study of literature is: "Oh, but that sounds so ... reductive."

In response I tend to smirk: "Read any post-structuralist criticism lately?"

Such facetiousness has resulted in some colleagues ceasing to speak to me. Honestly, if you ever want to feel like an intellectual leper, just say "Steven Pinker" at a humanities conference. Or confront people who think that their fantasies about texts qualify them to also fantasise about the world with something as banal, trite and ... reductive as "facts."

The current LRB provides facts supporting the point for which I have been ostracised so often: Hal Foster's review of Jacques Rancière's Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art. Foster summarises:

The key, for Rancière, is the notion of different ‘regimes’ of the seeable and the sayable, or, as he puts it in The Future of the Image (2003), ‘different articulations between [artistic] practices, forms of visibility and modes of intelligibility’. In his view the Western tradition has experienced only three regimes on this grand scale, which he calls ‘ethical’, ‘representative’ and ‘aesthetic’ respectively. The ethical regime, first articulated by Plato in The Republic, aimed to ensure that all images (this was an age before art was considered a distinct order) were properly founded and appropriately directed, that is, that they were concerned with ideal forms and served the ethical development of the community. In the representative regime, outlined by Aristotle but codified only in the 17th and 18th centuries, ‘the intelligibility of human actions’ became the central criterion of art, which made the refinement of mimesis its essential task. To this end the liberal arts were separated from the mechanical, the fine arts from the applied, and representations were ordered in a strict hierarchy of subjects and genres, with epic poetry and history painting at the top. The aesthetic regime then emerged as the representative order broke down in the revolutionary transformations of the late 18th century. In the aesthetic regime, Rancière writes in The Future of the Image, ‘the image is no longer the codified expression of a thought or feeling’; ‘words no longer prescribe, as story or doctrine, what images should be.’ There developed a new equality among the subjects that could be represented, and a new freedom in the styles that could be used. As a result, the hierarchy of subjects and genres was overthrown, and even the division between fine and applied arts was challenged. Art as a privileged category of its own was finally secured.

Millenia (and more) of human cultural production and only three 'regimes' of the seeable and the sayble? Now if that isn't a wee bit ... reductive? Foster thinks so, too, though he manages to phrase the peanut-buttered ire I splattered across the breakfast table after reading the above in much more hygienic terms:

How useful is the notion of regime in any case? Although Rancière broke with Althusser, he retained an Althusserian fascination with epistemological orders. Like Althusser, Rancière wants to avoid a grand Hegelian arc to history, and opts for the category of regimes in resistance to the ‘teleologies inherent in temporal markers’, as he puts it in The Future of the Image. This approach does help him to taxonomise the artistic discourses of the modern period, but it also makes it difficult to understand how they are determined. It is an old complaint about this method – often made against Foucault – that it turns discourse not only into its own cause but also into an agent in its own right. A related complaint is that it does not grasp historical change very well: epistemes, regimes and the like seem to come from nowhere, and to vanish just as suddenly, as if catastrophically. Finally, they can have the odd effect of explaining a lot and a little at the same time, which is to say that the insights are often so general as to appear at once momentous and obvious.

A good man, Hal Foster, but maybe a bit careful. Rancière seems to deserve more of a metaphorical thrashing. Something like Adam Phillips' comment on The Hamlet Doctrine by Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster (in the same issue of the LRB):

[Critchley and Webster] introduce their book by telling us that it is ‘the late-flowering fruit of a shared obsession … we are married and Shakespeare’s play, its interpretation, and philosophical interpreters have been a goodly share of our connubial back and forth over the last couple of years.’ We can sort of imagine what that might be like. Later on, by way of qualification, they make it as clear as they can that even though, in their view, Goethe and Coleridge saw themselves as Hamlet, ‘We do not see any aspect of ourselves or each other in Hamlet.’ Any? This is not, I think, quite as clear as they might want it to be. By the very end of the book they have something to confess, and as in all confessions something is claimed and something apparently regretted. ‘We write as outsiders, for shame, about Shakespeare, with the added shame of doing so as husband and wife with the implicit intent of writing about love. Perhaps we have completely betrayed ourselves. Perhaps this book will be the undoing of our marriage.’ ‘Completely’? ‘Perhaps’? The outsider thing can be a bit wearing; real outsiders don’t keep telling you that they are outsiders: they just do something unusual and other people call them outsiders. Shame, by contrast, is something the book is unusually interesting about (‘At its deepest,’ they write, ‘this is a play about shame, the nothing that is the experience of shame’). Still, we are left wondering, as perhaps we are supposed to be, what this marriage, their marriage, really has to do with the Hamlet Doctrine.

Wonderful: "The outsider thing can be a bit wearing; real outsiders don’t keep telling you that they are outsiders: they just do something unusual and other people call them outsiders." Of course, as a well-heeled American academic you are about as far as it gets from outsiderdom, which is probably why the concept must become your mantra.

Both reviews well worth reading, which is unusual for the LRB.

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