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  • Between Wilderness and Civilization: Bodies, Gesture, and the Aesthetics of Representational Subtraction
  • Peter Williams (bio)

This paper undertakes an investigation that is both meta-theoretical and pragmatic; meta-theoretical in that it relies upon what many refer to as “Big Theory,” 1 and pragmatic in that theory is employed to chart the points of its own exhaustion when the necessary processes of ratiocination fall back onto the bad immediacy of the art or literary object itself. We are, in that moment, returned to the body as a site for the aesthetic, as art and aesthetics are once again hooked up to social praxis in the form of gesture. According to this method, the body would be configured as inseparable from creative activity; the body is feeling felt, it is the fact of thought immersed in the world that it thinks, and it expresses this world while it thinks it. I will argue that theory is necessary for an understanding of that process, but that its articulation takes on a more powerful and pragmatic form when suffused with a vocabulary of retrieval and embodiment rather than the more commonly encountered Big theoretical vocabulary of loss and disengaged rationalist equivalences. There is then a place for dense theoretical machinery that does not reduce to local theories of identity politics, just as there are artistic and literary works that stubbornly resist the easy sorts of politicization endemic to acts of contemporary literary criticism.

I am not proposing a sentimentalized return to the body as an answer to the well-documented ills of modern rationality or as an unquestionably affirmative category. After all, the history of aesthetics is littered with the identification of the body as a site for pleasure and an antidote to reified conceptual activity set adrift from [End Page 73] sensuous practise. 2 Nor do I propose adding to the already familiar and standard Lyotardian pluralism by enabling the propogation of many more “little narratives” always and everywhere encoded in singular and bizarre bodily gestures. Instead I am interested in those moments, occasioned by the enigmatic nature of presence and the subtractive representational strategies employed in the (post)modernist works I identify, when rational responses reach their limits, and we are thrown back onto the immediacy of the object itself. Unlike postmodernists, I do not consider such moments constitute a “poetics of indeterminacy” or a “literature of silence”-affect is not yet only a quality of memory. Rather, the non-representational works I describe generate significant affect at that horizon where a consciousness oriented by their subtractive representational strategies inhabits the interpretive constraints those strategies impose. That immediacy may cause pain rather than pleasure, and any pleasure that might accrue is in the domain of a negative pleasure not well articulated in the history of aesthetic theory. In this moment, meaning and materiality are radically re-sealed and, in the pain of their recombination, we are returned to the (im)possibilities of our own material existence, as well as to the somatic foundations of speech.

I must begin by first tracing the inadequacies of existing theoretical approaches when confronting the issues of immediacy and representation in non-representational texts and artworks. Modernist critics tackled the issue of immediacy by aligning it with qualities of presence in representative modernist works. Michael Fried, for example, in 1968 claimed that “Presentness is grace” which one experiences as a “kind of instantaneousness: as though if only one were more acute, a single brief instant would be long enough to see everything, to experience the work in all its depth and fullness, to be forever convinced by it.” 3 Around the same time, Susan Sontag claimed that “transparence is the highest, most liberating value in art—and in criticism—today,” where “transparence means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are” (Against Interpretation 13). Sontag was wrong about criticism—disciples of Derrida ordained opacity over transparence, but she and Fried were right to characterize a trend in typically modernist thinking that positions immediacy and presence in conjunction with some form of “transparence” or “instantaneousness.” [End Page 74]

The neo-idealist tone of such hypotheses, however, is betrayed by the rhetorical...

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pp. 73-94
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