25 May 2004

Review: The Man Without Content, Giorgio Agamben (3/5)

I picked up The Man Without Content in San Francisco on a whim. I had never heard of the author, but part of the blurb on the back got my attention:

In this book, [Agamben] considers the status of art in the modern era ... [H]e argues that the birth of modern aesthetics is the result of a series of schisms that are manifestations of the deeper, self-negating yet self-perpetuating movement of irony.

The contained collection of essays provided an inventive, scholarly analysis of the state of art and aesthetics in the present day.

The book was at times accessible, but very often drifted into a land of Hegel, Heidegger, Kant, and Greek such that his intent was lost without a good undergraduate degree in philosophy. Most of the Greek I understood, or could derive from my Pharr book, and he often discussed the subtle colloquial intent of the translations. For example, in chapter 7 he discusses the meaning of Poiesis (poetry) as an act of bringing into existence. This association colors the remaining discussion as he interprets sections from Plato's Symposium.

However, the philosophical references were a little dense with unspoken assumptions. Here's a quick summary of the characters involved:

  • Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
  • Defined the concept of transcendental idealism. From Wikipedia:

    Everything known by humans within the limits of time and space is nothing but representations of beings or forms that are ideals within our minds. All of these forms are within our minds from the first moment, meaning we do not have to experience the object to know its form.

  • Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831)
  • Developed the Hegelian dialectic consisting of a thesis, a contradictory antithesis, and the resulting sythesis that resolves the differences of the two.

  • Martin Heidegger (1886-1976)
  • Heidegger dealt with the study of being (ontology) and influenced existentialism. He contrasts Kant's universe of ideal forms with one defined by action and behavior.

Now, what does Agamben have to say?

His main point begins with the premise that art prior to the 20th century had a greater influence on individuals that it does today. The theios phobos (divine terror) that came over spectators in Plato's Greece (400s BCE) has been transferred to the artists themselves in the modern world. Spectators are no longer impassioned but are instead passive aesthetic consumers. Agamben pinpoints the source of this reversal when the concept of "good taste" appeared in Western society.

... even in the sixteenth century there was no clear boundary between good and bad taste, and the experience of standing before a work of art and wondering about the correct way to understand it was [not] familiar even to the refined art lovers ...

The false genius of taste then altered both the spectators and the artists with a tyranny. From this tyranny, an impulsive attraction to bad taste appeared. From the letters of a lady of the 1600s:

I often wonder where the fancy I have for such ridiculous stuff [as poor literature] could come from ... if I did not have [friends] to comfort me, I would hang myself for being guilty of such a weakness.

Hegel is quoted at length to synthesize (to the point of relativism or even nihilism) the two extremes:

What is learnt in this world is that neither the actuality of power and wealth, nor their specific Notions, "good" and "bad," ... possess truth; on the contrary, all these moments become inverted, one changing into the other, and each is the opposite of itself...

Agamben goes on to discuss the effect of early museums on the separation of art from spectator (cf. the passion instigated by Medieval church art), and to examine conceptual changes over time in society's understanding of our creation of artifacts (here Agamben gets into the philosophical world of intentionality and how the internal directs itself to the external).

The essays were overall very satisfying, and ones which I will need to return to.

[ posted by sstrader on 25 May 2004 at 9:28:27 PM in Language & Literature ]