Novelty, Non-Conceptuality, and Aesthetic Experience
This essay describes and proposes a solution to the problems that result from the contemporary tendency to knot together novelty, non-conceptuality, and aesthetic experience. It does so principally through a reading of the relationship between discursive and non-discursive experience in Kant's Third Critique, as well as through a reading of a few examples of the Kantian legacy in contemporary art (e.g., the work of the post-conceptual artist Bruce Nauman) and art theory (e.g., the affect-theoretical work of Brian Massumi and Steven Shaviro). It concludes by identifying the resources for an alternative notion of aesthetic experience in Kant's writings, one for which the irreducibility of aesthetic representations to discursive thought does not depend on the former's being temporally or epistemically prior to the latter but on the manner in which aesthetic representations are themselves discursively constructed.
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To your question No. 12: The proposition of offering an alternative to modern art seems to me quite out of the question. I wonder how serious men can make such a proposition. How would it be if you would make the same proposition to a scientist? That he should look for an alternate discovery in chemistry or physics. I mean one which has already been made, or to ask a chess player to make exactly the same moves as another master has done a hundred years ago. To me art is: new art. That which has never been said or done before—only that can be art, though it need not yet be art because there are still a number of other qualities which have to be present at the same time; but this is the minimum requirement—to be new in every respect.1
The preceding lines are part of Arnold Schoenberg's written response to a series of questions sent to him by the San Francisco Chronicle's music critic Alfred Frankenstein. They were presented—in absentia, alas, as the seventy-four-year-old composer was ill—as part of "The Western Round Table on Modern Art," an event held April 8–10, 1949, at the San Francisco Museum of Art; counting among its participants Gregory Bateson, George Boas (who served as the moderator), Kenneth Burke, Marcel Duchamp, Robert Goldwater, Darius Milhaud, Andrew Ritchie, Mark Tobey, and Frank Lloyd Wright; and dedicated, according to its organizer, Douglas MacAgy, "to [bringing] a representation of the best informed opinion of the time to bear on questions about art today."2 A singular occurrence, then, made up of singular (if homogeneously white and male) minds.
Schoenberg's response to Frankenstein's question—that an alternative to the modernist striving after the new is "quite out of the question"—is just about what we would expect from one of the twentieth century's most uncompromising artists. And Schoenberg's commitment to the new would be endorsed, more or less, by the round table's other participants, who tended to translate it into the claim that the modern artist must break with (or at least disregard) the expectations of the audience, with what Duchamp calls the perspective of the "domineering onlooker" or with what others associate with a stultifying demand for "communication."3 If I begin this essay with Schoenberg's remarks, then, the reason is not that they are so very singular. They fit neatly into a familiar discourse on modern art, one characterized by variations on the incitement to make it new. This conception of art, for which, in Schoenberg's words, "art is: new art" and unoriginal art is not deserving of the name, is hardly unique to modernism. It gets going with the romantics' upsetting of the (neo)classical suppositions shared by earlier artists and critics.4 As a result, by the early nineteenth century, a claim such as the one we encounter in book 4 of Aristotle's Poetics—"Arising from improvisatory beginnings . . . tragedy grew little by little as [the poets] developed whatever new part of it had appeared; and, passing through many changes, tragedy came to a halt, since it had attained its own nature"5—which had for millennia appeared eminently sound, begins to seem implausible. For what could it mean to suggest that a particular artistic form should halt?6 And even when the absolute valorization of the new is questioned, as it is in different ways by T. S. Eliot or Andy Warhol, Kathy Acker or Kenneth Goldsmith, this questioning occurs against a background for which the value of new ideas and new works remains secure. [End Page 55]
In what follows, I want to describe a problem that results, not so much from our valorization of the new, as from the way in which the position voiced by Schoenberg, that "art is: new art," has gotten knotted together with our understanding of aesthetic experience. I mean here the assumption that if we encounter the new before we have a concept in place to describe it—or else, so the argument goes, it would not really be new—then the new has a natural affinity with aesthetic experience, for the latter is, emphatically, non-conceptual experience. The problem is that, in identifying the non-conceptuality of aesthetic experience with the non-conceptuality of an experience that is wholly unprecedented, we end up conceiving of aesthetic experience as a sequential process, in which art (or whatever occasions an aesthetic experience) is taken up by the subject as a sort of sensory primitive—an affect or a "raw feel"—which is enjoyed or acknowledged prior to its being conceptualized. Aesthetic experience is, therefore, non-conceptual to the degree that it is pre-conceptual. But this characterization of aesthetic experience—this will be my argument—is untenable.
In describing (and proposing a solution to) the problem that results from the knotting together of novelty, non-conceptuality, and aesthetic experience, I shall limit myself to a handful of contemporary examples that build on Immanuel Kant's foundational work on the aesthetic.7 Why I choose to focus on Kant and the Kantian legacy will become clearer as my argument progresses. For now, I just want to note that if we inherit from the romantics our readiness to valorize the new, we do so only insofar as the romantics inherit from a certain version of Kant a conception of the aesthetic "freed from the domain of the concept, from rational calculation, [and] from the telos of perfection."8 On the one hand, then, Kant prepares us for our celebration of the new (even if this celebration appears infrequently in Kant's own writings), as well as for our association of novelty with aesthetic non-conceptuality. On the other hand, and more importantly, Kant also provides resources for a different conception of aesthetic experience, one for which the irreducibility of aesthetic representations to discursive thought does not depend on the former's being prior to the latter but on the manner in which aesthetic representations are themselves discursively constructed.
Before addressing Kant's writings directly, I want to say something more about how the ostensibly Kantian coupling of aesthetic non-conceptuality with novelty has come to influence our contemporary understanding of what aesthetic experience is and what art ought to be. To this end, I shall look first at some representative work in affect theory, work that attaches itself (whether implicitly or explicitly) to those tendencies in Kantian aesthetics that seem to me the least defensible and the most in need of emendation. [End Page 56]
In his very enjoyable book Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics, Steven Shaviro sets out to "imagine a world in which [the process philosopher Alfred North] Whitehead takes the place of Heidegger" as a touchstone for contemporary critical theory, in that, unlike Heidegger, "Whitehead . . . is interested in creation rather than rectification, Becoming rather than Being, the New rather than the immemorially old."9 In constructing this "philosophical fantasy," Shaviro notes, he has "found it necessary, again and again, to revert to Kant—or at least to a certain dimension of Kant," discernible "in the margins of Kant's texts, which overflow with suggestions and possibilities that still await their proper elaboration."10 Shaviro singles out for praise the resources he has found in "Kant's aesthetics (above all, his 'Analytic of the Beautiful' in the Third Critique), [in] his transcendental argument in the First Critique (with what Whitehead calls its 'conception of an act of experience as a constructive functioning'), and [in] his Transcendental Dialectic in the second half of the First Critique (which offers an alternative to, and an anticipatory criticism of, the Hegelian dialectic)."11 Of the three, the "Analytic of the Beautiful" looms largest in Shaviro's argument, for it is there that Kant's aims dovetail with what Whitehead projected in his 1929 Process and Reality as a "critique of pure feeling." The Kant of the Third Critique reveals himself as a precursor to, rather than an enemy of, Whitehead, Shaviro avers, once we recognize that, for Kant, "each encounter with beauty is something entirely new," that Kant's theory of the beautiful "is really a theory of affect and of singularity," and that, against his prohibition in the First Critique on intuitions without concepts—that is, on raw sensory encounters—"in the Third Critique, [Kant] discovers the actuality of . . . blind intuitions."12
In Without Criteria, Shaviro reimagines Kant (or at least the Kant of the Third Critique) as a theorist of "affect and singularity." He does so, however, by moving between the Third Critique and the First, equating what Kant describes in the Third Critique as the pleasure we experience when we judge a representation beautiful with what Kant invokes (but only to deny) in the First Critique as "blind" intuitions, a reference to one of the First Critique's best-known passages: "Thoughts without content are empty; intuitions without concepts are blind" (Gedanken ohne Inhalt sind leer, Anschauungen ohne Begriffe sind blind).13 There, Kant is explaining the connection within any cognition between intuitions—the immediate data of sensory experience—and concepts—the rules according to which this data is synthesized. Robert Hanna has dubbed this connection—that is, has dubbed the "necessary cognitive complementarity and semantic interdependence of intuitions and concepts"—Kant's "togetherness principle."14 But on Shaviro's reading, this principle is violated by the non-conceptual character of aesthetic judgment, by Kant's claim that aesthetic judgment "is not based on any concept we have of the object, nor does it provide such a concept."15 When we take up a sunset or a painting in an aesthetic judgment, Shaviro argues, we take it up as an intuition without a concept, as a blind intuition. And this changes everything. While the First and Second Critiques suffer from an "excess of subjectivity," an overemphasis on the role played in cognition by the [End Page 57] cognizing subject, the Third Critique sees both the subject and the object disappear into a pre-subjective "event, a process."16
An affect, an event, a process, a singularity, something non-conceptual, blind, and entirely new . . . In Shaviro's text, the experience of something beautiful is an affective or bodily state, but it is also the time in which this state unfolds—hence Shaviro's insistence that beauty is an "event." Now, there is a precedent in Kant for this characterization of the aesthetic in terms of the time of its occurrence, inasmuch as Kant limits the experience of the beautiful to the time spent "lingering" over the representation that occasions it (CJ, 68; 5:222). But Shaviro seems to have something else in mind. In "Beauty Lies in the Eye," an essay published a decade before Without Criteria and which he describes as the "starting point" for the "readings and speculations" in the later work,17 Shaviro closes with an analysis of "Beauty Lies in the Eye," a 1987 song by the noise-rock band Sonic Youth. What he says about the song, and about the music video based on it, holds as well for his understanding of (Kantian) beauty; and it sheds some light on what he takes to be the latter's peculiar mode of inhabiting time. Beauty, he explains, "inhabits an empty time, a time that never passes"; and yet, beauty "cannot be preserved. It vanishes in the very act by which I apprehend it."18
Shaviro's formulation sounds (maybe intentionally) paradoxical, for what could it mean to say that a representation or an experience both inhabits a time that never passes and vanishes in the instant of its apprehension? Here, we can usefully compare to Shaviro's remarks Brian Massumi's discussion of a set of related matters in "The Autonomy of Affect," one of the foundational texts of "affect studies" (and it is worth noting that Shaviro's Without Criteria is published in the Technologies of Lived Abstraction series at MIT Press, edited by Massumi and Erin Manning; while a version of "Beauty Lies in the Eye" was published in A Shock to Thought, also edited by Massumi). Massumi equates affect with "intensity," with the overfull "incipience" of a present that "[passes] too quickly to be perceived, too quickly, actually, to have happened"; it exists only "virtually," in a state of "lived paradox," where "what cannot be experienced cannot but be felt."19 An affect—or, after Shaviro, a blind intuition—exists, then, prior to any conceptual structuring, in a timeless state of pure potentiality.20 If it were to be perceived, if it were to pass from virtual feeling to actual experience, it would, qua affect, cease to be—which is what I take Massumi to mean when he claims that the time of affect is the time of a present that "passes too quickly" for us to be able to say that it has happened at all, and what I take Shaviro to mean when he claims that the beautiful "vanishes in the very act by which I apprehend it." In each case, at stake is not really some measurable speed or time but the fact that something "happens" in a time (eternal or instantaneous) orthogonal to the time of lived experience (which is characterized not by feeling but by conceptual recognition).21 At stake, then, is something not just unfamiliar but just unfamiliar, constitutively unrecognizable, and therefore blind (in the sense that we can speak of a blind alley). None of this means that there can be no relationship between blind intuitions or singular affects, on the one hand, and concepts, on the other, but it does prescribe a particular understanding of this relationship: "We should say," writes [End Page 58] Shaviro in a recent essay, "that intuition is always blind, first of all; it is only afterwards that it gets conceptualized."22
So we arrive at the formula for a certain notion of aesthetic experience, one for which aesthetic representations (or, following Shaviro, blind intuitions) are both distinct from and prior to concepts. And in this way Shaviro and Massumi help us to see how a claim such as Schoenberg's—that "art is: new art"—might find some philosophical support in a certain reading of Kantian aesthetics. To wit: Kant's Third Critique reveals itself as a philosophy of novelty (or of beauty-as-novelty) once we agree that, under the heading of the aesthetic, Kant is interested in how we might conceptualize an experience that exists prior to conceptualization (an undertaking that is bound to result in a suggestive but probably irreducibly obscure text, one in need of the sort of affect-theoretical transcoding that Shaviro carries out). Before I address the problems with this formula (both with the reading of Kant that it depends on and with its claim to provide a theory of aesthetic experience), I want to say something more about its pervasiveness, to stress that beyond its prominence in some strains of contemporary critical theory, it informs current artistic practice as well.
Consider the following statement by the post-minimalist artist Bruce Nauman, in response to the question, "What do you think of when you're working on a piece?"
I think about Lenny [sic] Tristano a lot. Do you know who he was? Lenny Tristano was a blind pianist, one of the original—or maybe second generation—bebop guys. He's on a lot of the best early bebop records. When Lenny played well, he hit you hard and he kept going until he finished. Then he just quit. You didn't get any introduction, you didn't get any tail—you just got full intensity for two minutes or twenty minutes or whatever. It would be like taking the middle out of [John] Coltrane—just the hardest, toughest part of it. That was all you got.
From the beginning I was trying to see if I could make art that did that. Art that was just there all at once. Like getting hit in the face with a baseball bat. Or better, like getting hit in the back of the neck. You never see it coming; it just knocks you down. I like that idea very much: the kind of intensity that doesn't give you any trace of whether you're going to like it or not.23
Nauman's characterization of what the experience of his art should be—like getting hit in the back of the neck with a bat—has become a favorite among his critics. Indeed, it has become so familiar that in a recent article Simon Critchley is able to refer without explanation to "the Naumanian blow to the back of the neck" as paradigmatic of a certain sort of aesthetic encounter: "Examples proliferate here, from Artaud's Theater of Cruelty, to Bataille's holy disgust, to Hermann Nitsch's blood orgies and the theatre of Heiner Müller, even through to that most jaded and overworked of academic tropes: the abject."24 And we might add to Critchley's list artists less obviously committed to shock or disgust—Henri Matisse, for example, who wrote of his fascination with the possibility that simple colors could "[act] upon the feelings like a sharp blow on a gong."25 [End Page 59]
When he describes his art, Nauman has no use for the language of affective singularity or blind intuition or even beauty: "I know there are artists who function in relation to beauty—who try to make beautiful things. They are moved by beautiful things and they see that as their role: to provide or make beautiful things for other people. I don't work that way."26 Nauman's is intended to be (to cite the title of a recent work of philosophical aesthetics) an art "after the beautiful."27 It is, however, striking how many of Nauman's claims about what the experience of his art ought to be resonate with the affect-theoretical accounts that I have been sketching. There is, first, the same odd juxtaposition of a kind of timelessness—the analogy with a jazz performance that neither comes into nor passes out of being, that exists, for however long it exists, in the fullness of its presence—and instantaneity—the punctuality of a blow to the neck that you never see coming and that leaves no trace. And there is as well the insistence on some sort of blindness—on Lennie Tristano's own blindness (which Nauman takes care to note) as well as on the fact that one must be blindsided by the artistic bat (which Nauman prefers to one's being "hit in the face" with it).
How are these aims—timelessness and instantaneity, a novelty both brutal and blind—translated into an artistic practice? In Nauman's case, much of it works through a coupling of violence and repetition, a strategy on display across Nauman's video pieces—in the repeated bodily movements of Pinchneck (1968) and Pulling Mouth (1969), the looped escalations of brutality of Violent Incident (1986), and the incantatory demands of Clown Torture (1987) and Anthro/Socio (Rinde Spinning) (1992)—as well as in the endless rotations of the taxidermy mobile, Carousel (1988).28 As such, Nauman's art amounts to an ongoing practice of experimentation with what it would mean to prolong in all its intensity an instant of (violent) novelty rather than having it vanish in the very act by which it is apprehended, to prolong it as instantaneous rather than seeing it pass over into familiarity or conceptuality (the fate of so many beautiful things): "Verweile doch, du bist so schön," as we find in Faust's negative declaration.29 This desire to make an instant of affective intensity linger is a desire for something that is, finally, impossible from the perspective of Shaviro or Massumi. It is, nonetheless, a controlling desire of Nauman's (and not only of Nauman's) art.30
In reading Nauman alongside Shaviro and Massumi, we can see how a certain conception of beauty is translated across the centuries into a notion of self-consciously un-beautiful violence. In sum, beauty—for Shaviro, or for Massumi, or even for Nauman (despite his rejection of this hoary term in favor of something more up to date: intensity, for example, or shock)—lies in the eye. It lies in the eye not because the most beautiful things are given to us through the sense of sight, but because beauty does not lie in the mind, the mind that knows and, so, the mind that truly "sees" (in the sense established by Descartes, when he observed that "it is the mind which sees, not the eye").31 Beauty lies in the eye, then, not because the eye recognizes beauty—essentially new, beauty is unrecognizable; its coming is never foreseen; it leaves behind no trace—but because beauty collides with the eye, blindsides it (like a bat hitting the back of a neck). [End Page 60]
This conception of beauty (beauty-as-intensity, beauty-as-novelty, beauty-as-shock) originates (and here, I guess, I am in agreement with Shaviro) with a certain version of Kant. It is, then, to the arguments of Kant's Third Critique, to those moments in the text when Kant seems to equate beauty with something entirely new, something more or less blind, that we can now turn.
We can approach Kant's text first by way of a question: do the claims of affect theorists such as Shaviro and Massumi, which concern not just the structure of aesthetic experience but the structure of experience überhaupt, line up with Kant's claims in the Third Critique about aesthetic non-conceptuality? In other words, is Kantian beauty, in its resolute non-conceptuality, something like a singular affect or a blind intuition or a blow from a bat, something that exists prior to the concept and "vanishes" at the same time as the latter appears?
When we turn to the Third Critique, it quickly becomes clear that we cannot easily accept the equation of aesthetic representations with blind intuitions, at least not in the sense that Shaviro apparently intends it. Failing to distinguish between them, we lose, first, the ability to separate judgments of the agreeable (which, for Kant, concern an interested liking based on the matter of a sensation) from judgments of the beautiful (which concern a disinterested pleasure in the "mere form" of a representation). This distinction is so central to the Third Critique that it reappears in each of the four moments of the "Analytic of the Beautiful," where it is marshalled to prevent Kant's own critical aesthetics from reenacting the empirical-physiological reduction of the aesthetic that characterizes the projects of Burke and Hume. Second, and more notably, if we follow Shaviro in equating aesthetic representations with blind intuitions in the specific sense that Kant uses "blind intuitions" in the First Critique, we lose the ability to distinguish aesthetic judgments from mere deliverances of the senses. Consequently, it becomes unclear why Kant should refer to the aesthetic as a matter of judgment at all.32 As Kant explains in the First Critique, the senses (the source of the blind intuitions that fascinate Shaviro) "do not err . . . not because they always judge rightly but because they do not judge at all" (CPR, 347; A293/B350; my emphasis). But aesthetic judgments are judgments, and while they are judgments of a rather unusual type—judgments of the beautiful are characterized by disinterested pleasure, universality apart from concepts, finality without the ascription of an end, and normativity without a norm—their being judgments must [End Page 61] nevertheless be acknowledged. Neglecting to do so, we invite the same criticism that Kant levelled against "the illustrious Locke" and his epigones: in confusing the normative with the causal, quid juris with quid facti, Lockean empiricism, Kant writes, can only provide a "physiology of the understanding" (CPR, 7; Ax), one lacking any purchase on the normative question of judgment.
When Kant says that aesthetic judgment is neither based on nor delivers a concept of an object, he cannot mean that aesthetic judgment concerns only singular affects or blind intuitions. Why, then, does Shaviro suppose that Kant has, in the Third Critique, finally admitted to the actuality of blind intuitions? Why does he see in the Third Critique, and in the relationship between the Third Critique and the First, something that is simply not there (and, indeed, that Kant takes some care to exclude)? My suspicion is that Kant himself deserves at least some of the blame. For there are certainly passages in the Third Critique where Kant sounds very much like an affect theorist avant la lettre, where he seems to afford aesthetic judgment both a temporal priority (it comes before conceptualization) and an epistemic priority (it can exist independently of a conceptualization that can never really be independent of it). I want to focus on two such passages from the Third Critique where Kant not only insists on the non-conceptual character of aesthetic judgment—this insistence is a constant throughout the Critique of Judgment, though its meaning varies a bit according to context—but also presents this non-conceptuality as the first in a series of mental events that will eventuate in full-fledged cognition. In these passages, aesthetic judgment seems to function as what Eli Friedlander has termed "a reduced cognitive judgment";33 or, perhaps better, as the degree-zero of cognitive judgment, the non-conceptual foundation on which cognition will ultimately be built.
The first passage appears in a "General Comment" appended to the "Analytic of the Beautiful." Here, Kant refers to the English ethnologist William Marsden's History of Sumatra (1783), wherein Marsden claims that, in Sumatra, he found himself so surrounded by the "free beauties of nature," so accustomed to their presence that, with time, there was "little left in them to attract him; whereas, when in the midst of a forest he came upon a pepper garden, with the stakes that supported the climbing plants forming paths between them along parallel lines, it charmed him greatly" (CJ, 94; 5:243). When the experience of nature's wild beauty has become something routine, an unanticipated encounter with a pepper garden, small and carefully arranged, proves the more pleasurable. Kant responds to Marsden's claim with suspicion, and he suggests that Marsden "need only have made the experiment of spending one day with his pepper garden to realize that, once regularity has [prompted] the understanding to put itself into attunement with order which it requires everywhere, the object would cease to entertain him [End Page 62] and instead inflict on his imagination an irksome constraint" (CJ, 94; 5:243). In other words, whatever Marsden may believe, the free beauties of nature are better able to "nourish our taste" than is the regular beauty of a pepper garden (and, indeed, Kant elsewhere rejects the notion that simple geometrical figures are especially beautiful—to assume that they are is to confuse beauty with formal perfection, a confusion characteristic of dogmatic-rationalist aesthetics [CJ, 73–75; 5:226–29]). And yet, more interesting for our purposes than this elevation of free over orderly beauty is Kant's claim that the pepper garden, at first a source of pleasure, becomes "irksome" once the understanding, the faculty of conceptual knowledge, has "put itself into attunement" with it. At least here, Kant seems to have taken Marsden's point. For Marsden, the encounter with the pepper garden provides pleasure not because it is, finally, more beautiful than wild Sumatran nature but because it interrupts an experience that has become routinized. Similarly, for Kant, the inexorable movement from one's felicitous first encounter with the pepper garden to one's irritation at its simple regularity ends up driving one back to wild nature. In each case, familiarity, glossed by Kant as a conceptual attunement to what was initially a source of aesthetic pleasure, ruins pleasure and impels the observer to search for something new.
The second passage appears in the introduction to the Third Critique. It concerns the same process as the first passage, the movement from pleasure to familiarity, but from the perspective of the theoretical philosopher or the natural scientist rather than that of the subject of an aesthetic judgment. After having again noted the aesthetic pleasure occasioned by an unexpected encounter with the orderliness of nature, and after having concluded that this pleasure results from nature's seeming to have been prepared for our understanding of it, Kant considers the fact that we do not feel the same pleasure in every instance of our ability to take conceptual hold of the natural world. And he offers the following explanation:
It is true that we no longer feel any noticeable pleasure resulting from our being able to grasp nature and the unity in its division into genera and species that alone makes possible the empirical concepts by means of which we cognize nature in terms of its particular laws. But this pleasure was no doubt there at one time, and it is only because even the commonest experience would be impossible without it that we have gradually come to mix it in with mere cognition and no longer take any special notice of it.(CJ, 27; 5:187)
Sounding a little like Emerson (who described all of our conceptual language as a kind of "fossil poetry"),34 Kant finds sedimented in our conceptualizations of nature a primordial aesthetic pleasure. This pleasure, which once attended the very fact of our ability to grasp nature as a lawful unity, is now unnoticed because mixed in with our "mere cognition." But it was "no doubt there at one time."
In presenting aesthetic judgment as a first moment in a larger cognitive process, Kant finds himself in unexpected company. The two great aesthetic philosophies of the modern period—Kant's and Hegel's—are usually distinguished on the basis of their respective answers to the very old question of beauty's relationship to truth; or, in an updated [End Page 63] formulation, of art's relationship to conceptuality. Kant is said to deny this relationship, while Hegel—with his characterization of artistic beauty as the "appearance of the Idea to sense" (das sinnliche Scheinen der Idee)35—is said to affirm it. And yet, at least at those moments in the Third Critique when he discusses the lustration of aesthetic pleasure that results from our becoming familiar with the object that occasions it, Kant does not really seem so far from Hegel, insofar as Kant's aesthetic-experiential ontogeny (in which a non-conceptual encounter with beauty, once grown familiar, gives way to conceptual knowledge) anticipates Hegel's art-historical phylogeny (in which "art . . . transcends itself . . . and passes over from the poetry of imagination to the prose of thought").36 In each case, beauty (whether in art or nature, for here the distinction is unimportant) is tied, apparently, to the moment of its first appearing, after which it is doomed to age more or less rapidly. It is not, then, that the best art is the most innovative or the most modern but that to be art in the emphatic sense is to be new, et tout le reste est conceptualité.
I have thus far recounted a story about the aesthetic that is also a story about the place of the aesthetic in cognition. Sometimes this story is specific to an individual—it concerns William Marsden before his beloved (but soon to be irksome) pepper garden or the visitor to a museum who happens upon Nauman's suffering clowns; sometimes the story is developed through a kind of speculative anthropology—it concerns those primitive humans who have, we must imagine, sacrificed their aesthetic pleasure to gain conceptual mastery of nature. In each case, though, the story describes a (happy or sad) movement from aesthetic experience to conceptual knowledge as a movement from blindness to insight. In this story, what is beautiful is not only historically but also necessarily, epistemically, new.
I now want to shift registers from the descriptive to the critical, to explain why this story about the relationship between aesthetic experience and conceptual knowledge ought to be rejected. The reason is that it places on the aesthetic impossible demands for purity, demands that no particular aesthetic experience can hope to fulfill. And in doing so it threatens to lead us into skepticism as to whether anything like the aesthetic exists at all. In the examples that I have provided, the purity of the aesthetic is figured as the temporal and epistemic priority of the aesthetic vis-à-vis conceptually mediated knowledge. But it can also be figured, less abstractly, as a freedom from all of those linguistic, historical, and institutional practices that will have organized the context in which an aesthetic experience occurs. Concept and context, then: it is the felt need to preserve the purity of the aesthetic from their encroachments that leads, finally, to skepticism.
Before approaching this matter in general terms, let me recall some of the statements that were made about the aesthetic and its cognates by Shaviro, Massumi, and Nauman. Shaviro: beauty "cannot be preserved. It vanishes in the very act by which I apprehend it"; Massumi: the present of affect "[passes] too quickly to be perceived, too quickly, actually, to have happened"; and Nauman: the experience of art should be like "getting [End Page 64] hit in the back of the neck [with a bat]. You never see it coming; it just knocks you down. I like that idea very much: the kind of intensity that doesn't give you any trace of whether you're going to like it or not." The point for each is not only that the aesthetic comes from nowhere, but also that it disappears without leaving anything of itself behind: neither an apprehension (Shaviro), nor a perception (Massumi), nor a trace (Nauman). Or, at least, it should so disappear. For, as Nauman explains, in leaving nothing behind an aesthetic experience proves its intensity, proves that it exists or has existed apart from any situation in which the old question of whether one likes it or not could arise. Conversely, the presence of a trace (an apprehension or a perception) ought to make us doubt that anything of real intensity was ever there to begin with. Thus, an aesthetic experience should disappear so completely that one cannot really say that it was there at all; moreover, it should, in disappearing, take with it its viewer-victim. The latter can be dissolved into a pre-subjective process or, less mysteriously, beaten senseless—whatever it takes to ensure that no trace of the aesthetic experience remains.
Now, an experience that cannot be grasped in a perception or preserved as a trace, an experience that both blindsides you and leaves you blind, is a very strange experience indeed. It can be described as excessive with respect to the situation in which it occurs (thanks to its greater "intensity"). But it seems more correct to say that aesthetic experience is, finally, a matter of less rather than more. In leaving no trace, it should lack even the spectral afterlife that is supposed to accompany traumatic events, which are at least known through their returns. One knows the aesthetic, rather, not by its fruits but by their absence; that is, one knows it only by the absence of actually existing works, and by the absence of the evaluations or interpretations that works inevitably occasion. Evaluations and interpretations do no good. They occur where the aesthetic is not and likely never was. When one searches for the aesthetic, then, one should hope to find nothing, for only the absence of an apprehension, or a perception, or a trace, is beyond suspicion. Or, what amounts to the same thing: anything but nothing means that nothing has happened at all.
Here we arrive at a conclusion in which the story about the aesthetic that I have been sketching—first aesthetic experience, then conceptuality—undergoes a transformation, as it comes to imply not the healthy transition from the (unprecedented) first moment to the second but the second's falsification of the first. Perhaps this conclusion seems extravagant, likely more so the claim that it reveals an impasse in our contemporary thinking about the aesthetic. And yet, when we turn our attention to recent debates over the autonomy, the relative autonomy, or even the existence of the aesthetic, we are apt to encounter a version of the very same difficulties on which the immoderate claims of Shaviro et alia have shed light. The substance of these debates tends to concern the degree to which it is possible to separate the aesthetic from extra-aesthetic determinations. So, for example, in a recent exchange between the literary critics Pascale Casanova and Jerome McGann, occasioned by the translation into English of the former's World Republic of Letters, wherein she sets out to "show how literature . . . managed, through a gradual acquisition of autonomy, to escape the ordinary laws of history,"37 McGann responds [End Page 65] that "the category of 'the aesthetic,' the secular sacred" that Casanova is determined to preserve, "is a commercial function and, for the past 200 years, of capitalist economics in particular."38 On the one hand, Casanova emphasizes the alterity of the aesthetic; on the other, McGann emphasizes those determinations that will always have succeeded in revealing the aesthetic as impure. Both, however, depend on the assumption that the aesthetic can only be saved through the demonstration that the aesthetic is somehow before or beyond the world as we know it—before or beyond the laws of history, the laws of genre, and so on.
This demonstration is, of course, impossible. If the purity of the aesthetic depends, first of all, on the possibility of its separating itself from everything that is the case—from the realm of conceptually articulated experience or from whatever does obey the ordinary laws of history—then the purity of the aesthetic depends on the possibility of its being separated from whatever could provide evidence that it exists. Should its existence be a matter of faith, then, such that the aesthetic would be a modern-day deus absconditus, or, in McGann's dismissive formulation, an instance of the "secular sacred"? This hardly seems satisfying, for the more one tries to preserve the aesthetic as something out of this world, the less one is prepared to make sense of—and the more one is likely to be troubled by—the messiness of actual aesthetic experiences. These experiences are always enabled by factors (institutional, historical, linguistic) without which it is hard to imagine their occurring at all; and these experiences are always followed by traces (works, interpretations, evaluations, debates) that give them their afterlife. Once again, for better or worse, when one goes looking for the aesthetic, one does not find nothing.
If we admit these facts, it is a small thing to then decide that an aesthetic experience, which is supposed to be practically nothing—a vanishingly brief moment of intensity, for example—is, in truth, nothing at all, while the context in which this experience occurs, which is supposed to be nothing at all, is, in truth, everything, tells us everything we need to know about this experience. This conclusion having been reached, the task of criticism changes accordingly. It is no longer a matter of establishing the aesthetic in its radical alterity but of providing for each ostensibly pure aesthetic experience its mundane etiology, of laying bare those factors that make the aesthetic appear—but only appear—to be something other than what it really is: a manifestation of false consciousness typical of modern bourgeois subjectivity, for example, or of a frustrated will to power, or of a sublimated desire. The following lines, which begin an essay dedicated to "the origins of aesthetic value," are typical of this approach:
My procedure . . . will be, first, to disclose the problem of aesthetic value within the terms of what customarily is known as the problem of unequal development; and then to historicize it by asking the following questions: What are the material—the socioeconomic and cultural—conditions under which the mental category of aesthetic value "began"? What are the alternatives to it that may be discovered by investigating those precedent material conditions under which it must have carried neither conviction nor meaning?39 [End Page 66]
That the discourse of the aesthetic has not, in the face of this sort of etiolation, entirely withered—a state of affairs by which some critics are scandalized40—is less an indication of the resilience of the concept as it is commonly used than of an unwillingness to see a whole domain of human experience reduced to the status of a lure.
My claim is that much contemporary criticism oscillates between the desire to secure aesthetic purity and the confession that the aesthetic does not exist. The latter follows naturally from the former, insofar as the former places on the aesthetic an unbearable demand: to prove its purity by establishing itself before or beyond anything that could furnish evidence of its reality. And the former perhaps follows naturally from the latter, since even the most suspicious hermeneut is not immune to the suspicion that at least her aesthetic experiences are real. This oscillation—between the aesthetic as almost nothing and the aesthetic as nothing at all—is an effect of what I described at the beginning of this essay as the regrettable knotting together of novelty, non-conceptuality, and aesthetic experience, and of the elaboration of this knotting in a now-familiar story about the place of the aesthetic in cognition. In an attempt to loosen this knot, I want to offer what seems to me a more satisfying alternative, one that approaches the aesthetic not as something before or beyond the world of lived experience, but as the result of a particular mode of comportment within it. I shall sketch this alternative by way of a reading of a particularly suggestive passage from Kant's Third Critique. I shall then, in conclusion, say a few words about what I believe to be the benefits of this alternative.
The passage from the Third Critique that interests me appears in the "General Comment on the Exposition of Aesthetic Reflective Judgments," appended to the "Analytic of the Sublime" but concerned with the status of aesthetic judgments more generally:
When we call the sight of the starry sky sublime, we must not base our judgment upon any concepts of worlds that are inhabited by rational beings, and then [conceive of] the bright dots that we see occupying the space above us as being these worlds' suns, moved in orbits prescribed for them with great purposiveness; but we must base our judgment regarding it merely on how we see it, as a vast vault encompassing everything, and merely under this presentation may we posit the sublimity that a pure aesthetic judgment attributes to this object. In the same way, when we judge the sight of the ocean we must not do so on the basis of how we think it, enriched with all sorts of knowledge which we possess (but which is not contained in the direct intuition [unmittelbaren Anschauung]), e.g., as a vast realm of aquatic creatures, or as the great reservoir supplying the water for the vapors that impregnate the air with clouds for the benefit of the land, or again as an element that, while separating continents from one another, yet makes possible the greatest communication among them; for all such judgments will be teleological. Instead we must be able to view the ocean as poets do, merely in terms of what manifests itself to the eye—e.g., if we observe it while it is calm, as a clear mirror of water bounded only by the sky; or, if it is turbulent, as being like an abyss threatening to engulf everything—and yet find it sublime.(CJ, 130; 5:270) [End Page 67]
In this passage, Kant takes care to separate an aesthetic judgment of the beautiful or the sublime from a conceptual judgment—a teleological judgment, in this case, in that the latter assumes that nature has been created with a particular purpose in mind. For, as Kant explains, "we think of a purpose if we think . . . of the object itself (its form or its existence), as an effect that is possible only through a concept of that effect" (CJ, 65; 5:220). Instead, we must view the ocean, for example, not like a natural scientist but like a poet, not as something to be reflected on by the knowing mind but as something that presents itself in an unmediated intuition (unmittelbaren Anschauung) to the open eye.
This passage has enjoyed a good deal of critical attention, maybe most famously from Paul de Man, who characterizes it as a moment in which the "phenomenalist" aim of Kant's Third Critique—the attempt to find in the orderliness of the world of appearances an indication of the reciprocity of mind and nature—gives way to a "material vision," a "pure ocular vision," or (in another reading of the same passage) a "stony gaze."41 For this vision, de Man notes, "to the extent that any mind, that any judgment, intervenes" in the relationship between eye and world, "it is in error."42 He elaborates what is at stake in this vision by pointing to another description of seeing, this one in Kant's Jäsche Logic (1800):
In every cognition we must distinguish matter, i.e., the object, and form, i.e., the way in which we cognize the object. If a savage sees a house from a distance, for example, with whose use he is not acquainted, he admittedly has before him in his representation the very same object as someone else who is acquainted with it determinately as a dwelling established for men. But as to form, this cognition of one and the same object is different in the two. With the one it is mere intuition (blosse Anschauung), with the other it is intuition and concept at the same time.43
"The poet who sees the heavens as a vault is clearly like the savage," de Man concludes; for the poet "merely sees."44
In his reading of Kant's discussion of seeing as poets do, de Man is not interested in the affective response of the subject of an aesthetic judgment; rather, he is interested in the Kantian system's dependence on moments of what he elsewhere follows Roman Jakobson in calling "literariness."45 Still, the proximity of de Man's reading to what I described above as the affect-theoretical reading of Kant is noteworthy. For each, it is a matter of separating off from knowledge a moment of vision (even if that vision is essentially blind), a moment of non-knowledge, and treating that moment of non-knowledge as the truth of aesthetic experience. And while it is not clear that de Man wants to claim that this moment is in fact prior to cognition, some of his most astute readers have been keen to make this move. Thus, the editors of a collection of essays dedicated to demonstrating the continued relevance of de Man's project as it was being articulated at the time of the essay on Kant write that, insofar as we find de Man turning to materiality, we find him "turning away from preoccupations with tropological displacements [which are, for de Man, the source of cognitive meaning] to what perhaps precedes figuration itself." 46 [End Page 68]
De Man's reading of Kant is powerful. It cannot, however, be right. While de Man directs us to Kant's discussion in his Logic of the mere intuition of the so-called savage, who sees before him something but fails to recognize it as a house, Kant himself has recourse in the Third Critique to two instances of seeing as "savages" do, and, tellingly, both fall short of seeing as poets do. Thus, we are introduced to "the Iroquois sachem," who is said to have remarked that "he liked nothing better in Paris than the eating-houses" (CJ, 45; 5:204); and we meet as well "the good and otherwise sensible Savoyard peasant" who could not understand Horace-Bénédict de Saussure's need to ascend Mont Blanc, and who "did not hesitate to call anyone a fool who fancies glaciered mountains" (CJ, 124; 5:265). These examples describe, respectively, the failure of the non-European and the peasant to appreciate the beautiful and the sublime. For the Iroquois sachem, the beautiful is lost to the agreeable (to that which sates hunger); for the Savoyard peasant, the sublime is lost to the terrifying (to that which threatens the body). As such, neither the Iroquois sachem nor the Savoyard peasant is able to see as poets do. We can assume that the same is true of the savage who fails to see a house as "a dwelling established for men." In each case, an inability to move beyond the immediately sensual makes impossible a properly aesthetic judgment.
If the direct, unmediated seeing enjoyed by savages differs from the direct unmediated seeing enjoyed by poets, how does Kant want us to understand the latter? How do we come to a vision of the ocean as a clear mirror of water bounded only by the sky? How do we come to see as poets do? Now, the phrase itself—as poets do—is somewhat odd, not only because it is not immediately clear what poetic seeing should entail, but also because the poets, whom we would expect to be figures of aesthetic creation, appear here as figures of aesthetic reception, as figures whose encounters with nature are somehow similar to our encounters with poetry. Perhaps this fusion of reception and creation is to be expected in a text composed at a time when one vision of the poetic mind—the mind as a mirror of nature—was in the process of being replaced by another—the mind as a lamp capable of generating a second nature.47 I would prefer, though, to imagine Kant in his discussion of the poets looking not ahead to the romantics but back to an earlier moment, to a different complication of the relationship between direct intuition—mere seeing—and poetic creation. In his "Defense of Poetry" (1579, 1595), Sir Philip Sidney observes that, since ancient times, the poet has enjoyed two names: "among the Romans a poet was called vates, which is . . . a diviner, foreseer, or prophet," while the very name poet "cometh of this word poiein, which is 'to make.'"48 Mirror and lamp, or vates and poiētēs: more important than the choice of terms is their coming together in a single figure, one in which seeing and making are utterly entangled.49
If, through an aesthetic judgment, we arrive at a vision of the ocean as "a clear mirror of water bounded only by the sky" rather than at a concept of the ocean as "a great reservoir supplying the water for the vapors that impregnate the air with clouds for the benefit of the land," we see as poets do. But what this means is that we engage in a seeing that is also a making, or a seeing that results from a making, the construction of [End Page 69] something that manifests itself as something unconstructed, lacking purpose, given to the (blind) eye. Here, however, the ordering of moments in what is sometimes taken to be Kant's story about aesthetic judgment—wherein a wholly new and necessarily non-conceptual sense impression is passively received by an ideally naïve spectator, only to be transformed, at some later moment, into conceptual knowledge—is not so certain. Unlike savage seeing, poetic seeing is the outcome, not the antecedent, of a particular sort of cognitive operation.
In Kant's discussion of seeing as poets do, the "blindness" of the aesthetic is not what precedes conceptualization as the only moment of real novelty but what follows it.50 More exactly, an aesthetic representation, which, owing to one version of Kant, is so often treated as something non-conceptual or pre-conceptual, appears here as something post-conceptual, as the result of a cognitive process that, taking as its object something already conceptually articulated—the ocean, the sky, or this dwelling established for men—issues in something "blind." What is the nature of this blindness? How would we begin to talk about it? Though he never develops this point in much detail, I suspect that P. F. Strawson has something related in mind when he writes the following of what he understands Kant to have been after in the Third Critique:
As Kant implies, and as any sensitive person appreciates, no general concept could conceivably capture or encapsulate the essential source of one's delight in the beautiful object, whether natural scene or work of art. The point is registered in one way by those philosophers who have spoken of the "uniqueness" of the work of art; and the same is true in the sphere of natural beauty. No general concept can be adequate to the essentially individual appeal of what gives rise to the disinterested, purely contemplative, delight. . . . One could say that while no general concept can capture the unique aesthetic essence of the beautiful thing, the thing, as object of beauty, is the necessary unique instance of its own necessarily individual concept, incapable of being expounded in general terms; or even that it embodies, or is, that concept itself (cf. some idealists' talk of the "concrete universal"); so that the very faculties, whose normal and mundane function is fulfilled when they reach for and find an already existing general concept, are here engaged in free and harmonious play around, or with, the unexponible "concept" embodied in the beautiful object.51
Strawson's claim is that something beautiful is principally something singular, a "unique instance of its own necessarily individual concept," rather than a particular instance of a general concept (as when we take a sunset as a particular instance of atmospheric refraction or "If I Could Tell You" as a particular instance of the form of the villanelle). The object of an aesthetic judgment is "unexponible," then, in the sense that it does not permit reduction to any of the particular attributes that it comprises nor translation into another language.52 It cannot be exchanged for any concept (except its own), for any use to which it could be put, or for any other of its type. But, crucially, this is not because it bears no relation to conceptually articulated knowledge; rather, it exists in a kind of dialogue with the latter, correcting the latter's push to generalize or reduce by insisting that this particular representation needs to be taken on its own terms. Blindness—if we [End Page 70] want to preserve this term—would name, not pre-conceptual novelty, but a uniqueness that the judging subject is compelled to acknowledge.
No doubt the claim that an aesthetic representation is the result of (and not prior to) a conceptual process, or the claim that Kant is really interested in individual concepts rather than non-concepts, finds limited support in Kant's text—Strawson himself admits that aspects of his reading "may seem a little fanciful."53 My wager, though, is that this reading of Kant, however violent, does what it should. It preserves in Kant's theorization of the aesthetic what is, for Kant, essential: its need to elude rationalist perfectionism, for which aesthetic representations are evaluated on the basis of their success or failure at embodying a pre-given concept (in Kant's discussion of seeing as poets do, this would be the standpoint of the natural scientist, who sees in the ocean its role in a vast ecosystem), as well as its need to elude physiological reductionism, for which the enjoyment of a poem is equivalent in its essentials to the enjoyment of food or sex (in Kant's discussion of seeing as poets do, this would be the standpoint of the savage). More importantly, though, it allows us to elude our contemporary Scylla and Charybdis: the assumption that the aesthetic must be almost nothing (a blind intuition that disappears without leaving a trace) or that it must be nothing at all (a mere illusion that vanishes under sustained scrutiny). An aesthetic experience is, rather, an experience of something: it is an experience of this painting or that poem, nothing more and nothing less.
My aim in this essay has been, first, diagnostic: to identify some problems with our tendency to join together novelty, non-conceptuality, and aesthetic experience; and, second, it has been therapeutic: to suggest briefly an alternative way of thinking about the relationship between aesthetic experience and conceptuality, one that approaches the aesthetic not as a realm of pre-conceptual sensations but as the effect of a particular sort of conceptual operation and, so, to dissolve the difficulties that arise from attempts to secure for the aesthetic an impossible purity. In characterizing the upshot of this operation, I have (mostly) followed Kant. That is, I have assumed that the aesthetic representation that results from this operation is something singular, something reducible neither to practical use nor to theoretical knowledge (where the latter entails a movement from a particular representation to a general concept). I have diverged from Kant, though, at all those points in the Third Critique where he attempts to locate the aesthetic before or beyond conceptual knowledge. In doing so, Kant introduces a notion of the aesthetic that is constitutively insecure, one that must leave even its defenders feeling anxious. What we need instead is a notion of the aesthetic such that an aesthetic representation can appear within a conceptually articulated experience rather than merely colliding with a blind eye.
If I had to compress my aim into a slogan, then, I would say that I would like to see our discussion of aesthetic matters shift from a paradigm of collision to one of comportment.54 The first paradigm is epitomized by some version of the claim that "art is: new [End Page 71] art," that only an unprecedented aesthetic experience is worthy of the name. The second is more modest. It says that the aesthetic is best understood as comprising an active mode of engagement with an already conceptually articulated world. Oceans and skies, paintings and poems, objects, already formed by our cognitive activity, have the potential to be taken up in an aesthetic experience and—to retain Strawson's language—individualized, conceptually constructed as singular representations that resist being translated or generalized. Moreover, the second paradigm, unlike the first, acknowledges that this activity occurs in a broadly social context (an acknowledgment that is, perhaps, helped by the word "comportment" itself, in that it bears traces of its origin in a notion of collecting together as well as in a notion of striving for agreement). In other words, it does not ask us to regard with suspicion the fact that our aesthetic experiences are always prepared by institutional, or historical, or linguistic factors—that we view the painting in a museum or enjoy the poem insofar as we are familiar with the conventions that it incorporates or challenges—and that these experiences are followed by interpretations, evaluations, and debates, which are developed in conversation with others. It only asks us to keep in mind that our engagement yields an aesthetic representation that is more than its antecedents or the discussions to which it gives rise, something singular that contradicts any attempt to reduce it to its before or its after.
What becomes of novelty in this formulation of the aesthetic? Or of the experience of the "beardless youth" of Horace's Ars Poetica, who is "pleased with what's new but pleased with nothing long"?55 I am not denying that novelty can play a role in aesthetic experience. It can, and its role may be important, as the last two hundred or so years of artistic production have demonstrated. What I want to challenge, though, is the insistence on identity embedded in the claim that "art is: new art"; and I want to treat novelty instead as a matter of context. In other words, novelty often does play a role in the situation in which an aesthetic experience occurs—in the sense that it can make an aesthetic experience more (or less) likely—but it can do so only by joining what is sure to be a Borgesian list. This list might include being displayed in an art gallery, being composed in heroic couplets, being the occasion for remembering one's childhood, and so on. The items on this list have something in common: while all of them can participate in a context in which an aesthetic experience is more or less likely to occur, none (upon pain of rationalism) can serve as a premise from which the aesthetic or its absence can be read as a conclusion. One can no more say that "art is: new art" than one can say that "art is: unified, or harmonious, or proportionate art."
I do not expect that what I have written offers an exhaustive answer to all of the questions summoned by this essay's title, and I do not want to claim that the alternative I have sketched is the only one available (though it does seem to me that other putative alternatives have tended to retain too much from the position that I have been criticizing).56 At any rate, it is enough if I have given reason to look more closely at the way in which an uncritical affirmation of novelty has come to color our conception of what an aesthetic experience is and what art ought to be. For that approach to the aesthetic is one we would do well to see beyond. [End Page 72]
Robert S. Lehman is associate professor of English literature at Boston College, as well as co-chair of the Mahindra Humanities Center's Seminar in Dialectical Thinking at Harvard University. He is the author of Impossible Modernism: T. S. Eliot, Walter Benjamin, and the Critique of Historical Reason (Stanford University Press, 2016); and he is currently completing a book on the transformation of traditional aesthetic categories—categories such as "beauty," "genius," and "pleasure"—in the context of literary and visual modernism. Email: email@example.com
. For their comments on earlier versions of these arguments, I would like to thank Jess Keiser, Toril Moi, Andrew Warren, and Audrey Wasser, as well as the two anonymous readers for Diacritics.
3. Ibid., 27. These comments more or less echo another of Schoenberg's dicta: "If it is art, it is not for all; if it is for all, it is not art" (Schoenberg, "New Music, Outmoded Music, Style and Idea," 124).
4. See, for example, Audrey Wasser's claim that "the turn away from neoclassicism that romanticism represented, and from the value neoclassicism placed on rules derived from classical texts, took the form of a . . . valorization of the modern and the interesting, and perhaps of the new as such" (The Work of Difference, 2). It is possible to locate interest in the new somewhat earlier. Ian Watt associated the rise of the novel in the early decades of the eighteenth century with the privileging of originality in all things, noting that the term itself, "'original,' which in the Middle Ages had meant 'having existed from the first' came [in the eighteenth century] to mean 'underived, independent, first-hand'; and by the time that Edward Young in his epoch-making Conjectures on Original Composition (1759) hailed Richardson as 'a genius as well moral as original,' the word could be used as a term of praise meaning 'novel or fresh in character or style'" (Watt, The Rise of the Novel, 14). For my purposes, though, it makes sense to understand the particular valorization of the new that takes hold in the modern period as a romantic invention, because only with the romantics does it become a specifically aesthetic category (rather than a category that may, contingently, be attached to works of art).
6. Compare to Aristotle's remark, Michael Fried's statement that "the essence of modernism resides in its refusal to regard a particular formal 'solution,' no matter how successful or inspired, as definitive. . . . This is tantamount to the realization that if the dialectic of modernism were to come to a halt anywhere once and for all, it would thereby betray itself" ("Three American Painters," 236).
7. My aim is not, however, to set forth a complete genealogy of the valorization of novelty. My examples demonstrate important trends in contemporary art and art criticism that look back to Kant. For a good, historically oriented discussion of the significance of novelty in both modern art and modern science, a juxtaposition at stake as well in Schoenberg's comparison of the artist to the chemist or physicist, see Michael North, Novelty. For a more specific treatment of the modernist demand for novelty, see Jed Rasula, "Make It New."
9. Shaviro, Without Criteria, ix–x. I understand this section of the essay to provide a sketch of how a certain version of Kant has come to be taken up by some advocates of affect theory. It does not offer a thorough engagement with the latter. I do, however, believe that the criticisms of affect theory developed by Ruth Leys in "The Turn to Affect" are both correct and devastating; and I believe that my own remarks in what follows are compatible with hers. See also Todd Cronan's critique of affect theory in Against Affective Formalism.
11. Ibid., xiv–xv.
12. Ibid., 141, 1, 10.
13. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 107; A51/B75 (hereafter cited in text as CPR with English pagination followed by the pagination of the A and B versions of the Gesammelte Schriften). German pagination in all references to Kant's works refers to Kants Gesammelte Schriften.
14. Hanna, Kant, Science, and Human Nature, 97. See also Kant's assertion that "the understanding cognizes everything only through concepts; consequently, however far the understanding reaches in its process of division, it cognizes never through mere intuition, but always in turn through lower concepts" (CPR, 629; A656/B684).
17. Ibid., 1n1
18. Ibid., 18, 19.
20. This lack of structure, Massumi explains, distinguishes affect qua intensity from emotion. Emotion is qualified, fixed; it is "intensity owned and recognized" (Massumi, Parables of the Virtual, 28).
21. Compare to Massumi's remarks the definition of affect provided by Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth in their introduction to The Affect Theory Reader: "Affect . . . is the name we give to those forces—visceral forces beneath, alongside, or generally other than conscious knowing, vital forces insisting beyond emotion—that can serve to drive us toward movement, toward thought and extension, that can likewise suspend us (as if in neutral) across a barely registering accretion of force-relations, or that can even leave us overwhelmed by the world's apparent intractability." And they go on to note that "it is quite likely that affect more often transpires within and across the subtlest of shuttling intensities: all the miniscule or molecular events of the unnoticed" (Seigworth and Gregg, "An Inventory of Shimmers," 1, 2). Again, affects are essentially unrecognizable, fleeting "events of the unnoticed."
22. Shaviro, "Discognition," 58. There is some equivocation in the passages from Shaviro and Massumi that I have cited between the claim that affect occurs outside of the time of lived experience and the claim that affect occurs as the first moment (such that it can function as the ground) of lived experience. This equivocation cannot simply be attributed to differences between the two theorists' positions. Massumi, who insists most strongly on the alterity of affect, also characterizes it as "prior to action and expression" (Parables for the Virtual, 39), "prior to the distinction between activity and passivity" (41), "before objective vision" (178), and "prior to or apart from the qualitative (understood in terms of determinate properties)" (260n3). This shuttling between temporal priority and epistemic apartness is typical of what Wilfrid Sellars diagnosed in Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind as recourse to "The Myth of the Given," an ultimately incoherent foundationalism of which a privileged manifestation involves the attempt to base conceptual knowing on non-conceptual sensory encounters.
30. Michael Clune has examined how certain romantic and post-romantic literary works set themselves the task of "annulling time within time" (Writing against Time, 9); of resisting "the tendency of the brain to reduce sensory engagement with repeated exposure" (10); and, so, of maintaining in all its radiance the moment of the "first impression." In this light, Nauman's art can be read in terms of what Clune understands to be a "technology for defeating time" (6), in that, for Nauman, time threatens the moment of affective intensity by transforming it into a trace of what happened or a foreglimpse of what is to come.
32. The phrase "blind intuitions" does not (to my knowledge) ever appear in the Third Critique. Kant does, however, make a number of references in the book's second part, the "Critique of Teleological Judgment," to "the blind mechanism of nature" (den blinden Mechanism der Natur) (CJ, 256; 5:377). The latter describes a vision of nature as a system of efficient causes, a system in which the essentially normative question of judgment can never arise.
36. Ibid., 1.88.
40. See, for example, Fredric Jameson, "The Aesthetics of Singularity" and, more recently, "Gherman's Anti-Aesthetic." In the latter, Jameson begins by asking "Who will deliver us from the unexpected restoration of the reign of beauty and its disreputable ideology, aesthetic philosophy?" (95).
42. Ibid., 82.
46. Tom Cohen, J. Hillis Miller, and Barbara Cohen, "A 'Materiality without Matter'?," vii; my emphasis. For an opposed reading of de Man's aims in his late discussions of materiality in general and in his reading of Kant in particular, see Jonathan Loesberg, "Materialism and Aesthetics."
50. This apparent reversal of moments is not so unusual in Kant's text. We find something similar in §45 of the Third Critique, where Kant writes that, when we judge fine art aesthetically, "we must become conscious that [what we are judging] is art rather than nature" (CJ, 174; 5:306). Without being based on a concept, our judgment of fine art assumes a concept; for we judge fine art, not as nature, but as art. If this account of aesthetic judgment as something that follows conceptualization must, at times, come into conflict with other claims in the Third Critique—with the above-cited claim that a primordial aesthetic pleasure is concealed in every instance of the judging of nature, for instance—the reason, I suspect, is that the Third Critique does not always successfully integrate two of its principal aims: to provide a critique of taste centered on the experience of the beautiful, on the one hand, and to provide a theory of empirical concept formation centered on a notion of reflective judgment, on the other. As John Zammito has shown at length, these two different aims—aesthetic and epistemological—reflect Kant's changing vision of the Third Critique during the period of its composition between 1787 and 1790 (Genesis of Kant's Critique of Judgment, 3–8 and passim). By bringing the two aims together in the published text, and by subordinating the aesthetic to the epistemological, however, Kant may seem to want to position aesthetic judgment at a primitive stage of concept formation. For the reasons that I have suggested, this move carries with it too many risks. One response to these risks would be to experiment with decoupling reflective judgment from "merely reflective judgment"—that is, from aesthetic judgment. For a good selection of essays dealing with the relationship between Kant's aesthetics and his theoretical philosophy, see Rebecca Kukla, Aesthetics and Cognition in Kant's Critical Philosophy.
51. Strawson, review of The Cambridge Companion to Kant, 227–28. For a discussion of the degree to which Strawson's aesthetics remains recognizably Kantian, see Eckhart Förster, "Strawson on Aesthetic Judgment in Kant."
52. See also Strawson's earlier remark that "the only method of describing a work of art which is both entirely adequate for the purpose of aesthetic appraisal, and does not use evaluative language, is to say 'it goes like this'"—and then reproduce it. And, of course, this is not a method of describing at all" ("Aesthetic Appraisal and Works of Art," 204).
53. Strawson, review of The Cambridge Companion to Kant, 228. At the very least, one might wonder why I would consider (with Strawson and tendentiously) treating aesthetic representations as individual concepts (and, thus, products of the understanding) rather than following Kant himself in emphasizing the productive role of the imagination, which presents the judging subject neither with raw sense data nor with fully-formed concepts but with a minimally conditioned sensory manifold. There are two reasons for this decision: First, insofar as my concern here is to work through some problems with our understanding of aesthetic experience as it exists today, I have tried to avoid faculty talk whenever possible. Except where terms such as "the understanding" or "the imagination" admit wholly functional definitions, they should be avoided. Second, and more importantly, I do not see that recourse to the imagination solves the problems that I have been setting out. If one assumes that the imagination is a cognitive way station between blind intuition and conceptual knowledge, it is still necessary to explain what features it shares with each of these faculties such that it should mediate between them. As more than two hundred years of Kant scholarship have demonstrated, this is no easy task. By following Strawson in treating aesthetic representations as individual concepts, we might bypass this difficulty.
54. After I completed this essay, I rediscovered Richard Rorty's description of his aim in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, as seeking to replace an epistemological model of knowledge based on confrontation with sensory representations with a broadly pragmatist model, for which knowledge is grounded in ongoing human conversation (163). Though I believe that most of my claims in this essay are compatible with what Rorty has to say in Mirror, I suspect that, from Rorty's perspective, my notion of comportment would retain too much from traditional epistemology. On the other hand, I do not see how Rorty's post-epistemological pragmatism could preserve any place for the specificity of aesthetic experience (assuming that he had any interest in doing so).
56. I am thinking here of those renderings of the aesthetic that try to hold onto both the notion that the aesthetic is almost nothing and the notion that the aesthetic is, in fact, nothing at all, in the name of a dialectic of autonomy and heteronomy. We find a version of this in some readings of Theodor Adorno's aesthetics and, less often, in the writings of Adorno himself. For a brief treatment of some of the problems generated by Adorno's aesthetics, see Lehman, "Formalism, Mere Form, and Judgment," 256–58.