- Saving Philosophy in Cultural Studies: The Case of Mother Wit
In an attempt to ground the metaphysical nature of humans in form, Immanuel Kant pursues the possibility of a framed image without content. He calls this postulated state or mental product “purposiveness of representation.” What he means by this is that when you are faced with the beautiful what happens in your mind is the process of forming an image with the crucial exception that this image never achieves completion, you can never quite grasp in a conscious, representional image what the beautiful is. It is in a way like the story of Sisyphus, who rolls his rock up the mountain only to have it roll back downhill just as he reaches the summit—and so on, over and over again. This kind of repeated, and uncompleted, effort is the same activity as the mind games of imagination. The power of imagination is responsible for creating the image of the beautiful, and it has to start forever afresh in its attempt to build a new image whenever the previous is aborted just before it reaches closure—or, as Kant says “form” or “schema.” Full form would turn a complex and fragmented image or figure into a conscious representation of a concept. But this is precisely what does not happen in the aesthetic experience. (Kant asserts in the third Critique that imagination, when in reflexive play, “schematizes without concepts.”) What happens instead, is the production of vague images which, in my interpretation of Kant as the first postmodern thinker, I will call intuitions rather than images.
Kant’s postmodern status pertains to the difference between representative image and figure that figures according to internal, unconscious laws. It is in Jean-Luc Nancy’s words “not a world nor the world that takes on figure, but the figure that makes world.”1 Nancy compares this indeterminate figure to dream of a Narcissus who does not know the surface he is looking at, who is oblivious to the matter and composition of the sign he interprets. It was the merit of Kant to associate affect with the judgment of the beautiful. The aesthetic sign that elicits a feeling of pleasure, in this case also a libidinal affect, is first of all a presentation. And as Nancy elaborates, nothing plays itself out but the play of presentation in the absence of a concrete, represented object. The imagination is only encouraged to fill in the void of the object and, as I will show in the following, to associate memories from the subject’s unconscious history. These memories, as they are fleetingly touched by the play of imagination, are not subject to the general logic of representation; they do not have to appear as a reconstructed image of a concrete experience as if to be communicated to another person. Rather, they contribute to the primarily affective state of the present aesthetic experience where concepts and logic are banned. It is here that psychoanalysis has completed Kant’s struggle with imagination as a non-representative power of thinking and with the status of feeling as judgment. Since in my argument feelings are memories and therefore insert history into the process of thinking, Kant’s apparent formalism can be ammeliorated by his unacknowledged contingency on history and experience when it comes to the matter of imagination, or, as Kant himself suggests, to “mother wit” in the question of taste.
Kant’s treatise on the aesthetic judgment tries to reformulate the question of the beautiful as a question of formality: How can beautiful form be reflected or be constituted in the mind so that its subjective judgment can find universal consensus? Kant’s analysis of aesthetic judgment gradually funnels into an analysis of the “power of imagination”(Einbildungskraft) rather than imagination as sensuous representation, as concrete image content: How can imagination produce form if it does not work with concepts? It does not come as a surprise that Kant needs to abandon an empirical, body-bound concept of imagination for a so-called “transcendental” power of imagination that will not be contaminated by a sensuality through which the body would enter into representation. The putative power...