princeton english grad students prepare for generals

Friday, October 9, 2009

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

"'The Peace which passeth understanding' is a feeble translation of the content of this word."
- T.S. Eliot
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Monday, October 5, 2009

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Concept of Aura in Benjamin's Artwork Essay

In Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility,” the second, less censored version of which I will primarily deal with here (1936), the concept of “aura” seems to thread its way in and out of multiple schools of media studies: aura becomes an index of diachronic shifts in “symbolic forms,” a synchronic marker of modern perceptual modes, and a key term in locating medium-specificity. What seems missing from the often one-dimensional treatment of Benjamin’s use of aura (it’s destroyed!) is the presence of a paradoxical investment in its positive potentialities. Tracking some of the modulations in the concept within the Artwork essay will more fully allow us speculate on the potential of aura within the mass media––the presence of which is much more apparent in the recently translated second version of the essay, as opposed to the now famous third version published in Illuminations ed. Arendt. What is accomplished in what Benjamin calls the liberation from industrial drudgery into a fantastic “playspace?” How much stress can we put on his depiction of the cinematic spectator going on “journeys of adventure” (117)? And, a question that I seem to be very personally invested in, can it be possible that vegging out can serve a revolutionary function?

Both Miriam Hansen, in her recent essay “Benjamin’s Aura” (2008) and Samuel Weber use as a common jumping off point the formulation of “aura” that has become most prevalent in critical discussions on Benjamin’s work. In the Artwork essay’s third and fourth sections, Benjamin refers to aura as “the unique appearance of a distance, however near it may be.” In a strange spatiotemporal convergence, spatial proximity to work of art entails a certain apprehension of the temporal distance or historicity, what Benjamin variously calls its “authenticity,” “historical testimony,” “the mark of history,” all of which must be encountered in the presence of “the here and now of the work of art—its unique existence in a particular place” (103). In this configuration of aura as a kind of uniqueness or authenticity, the profusion of reproductive technologies places the aura of the work of art in decline, a decline which Benjamin argues can be said to register new modes of perception in modernity. This is more or less the story we all know about the Artwork essay.

In Samuel Weber’s “Art, Aura, and Media in the Work of Walter Benjamin” (1992), he argues that the indexical relationship between aura’s decline and ephemeral shifts in sense perception sets up a series of binaries that are too often taken at face value, and that often do not hold up within the text: distance and nearness, ritual and politics, painting and cinematography, distraction and concentration, uniqueness and multiplicity, and so on. Weber’s essay performs a tactical collapse of these binaries when he calls into question the differentiation between the uniqueness of an auratic art object and the mass-like existence of a disseminated reproduction. Weber argues that aura is never itself, but always constituted in a process of self-detachment as demarcation of the self. The mountain scene, described by Benjamin in the third version of the essay as an “illustration,” and in both versions as illuminating the concept of aura, shows that distance and separation are already marked in the aura of the mountain scene by its shadows. (p.105 of Benjamin) “To follow with the eye—while resting on a summer afternoon—a mountain range on the horizon or a branch that casts its shadow on the beholder is to breathe the aura of those mountains, of that branch.” Weber argues that these shadows can be read as “marking the space within which the relation of subject to object takes place” (86). And, as Weber postulates, the decline of aura is then somewhat of a necessary condition of perception. The narrative of aura’s decline as a detachment from the authentic original “might well turn out to be part and parcel of [aura’s] mode of being. So understood, aura would name the undepictable de-piction of distancing and separation” (87). In this sense, the technological media reveal not a break in aesthetics, but rather an estrangement of a process that was always a necessary condition of aesthetic perception.

Similarly, if we look at the seemingly definitive line on p. 103: “The whole sphere of authenticity eludes technological—and of course not only technological—reproduction.” The problem is that, this section begins by explicitly saying that the work of art has always been reproducible, and towards the middle, that authenticity is itself defined by technological means: “chemical or physical analyses.” Further, after this line that authenticity eludes reproduction, in a footnote that is only included in the third version of the essay, Benjamin writes: “To be sure, a medieval picture of the Madonna at the time it was created could not yet be said to be ‘authentic.’ It became ‘authentic’ only during the succeeding centuries, and perhaps most strikingly so during the nineteenth” (as if aura is something cultivated). The diachronic narrative of auratic decline particular to modernity ends up functioning as a natural element of aesthetic perception, a separation of the object from itself.

Because aura is never attached to the unique existence of an art object, its existence in the age of technological reproducibility is not precluded, but rather, comes to take on greater political significance with the possibility of its synthetic production. This leads us to a second modulation in the concept of aura that must be tracked: In addition to these false polarizations, the revolutionary or utopian potential of “aura” that Benjamin gives more solid and confident treatment elsewhere (and masterfully tracked in Hansen’s essay) is shot through by reservations and caution throughout the Artwork essay. Hansen argues that this false polarization and attenuation of aura’s potentialities is “deliberately restrictive,” a sort of “sleight-of-hand” in order to protect them from what Benjamin calls the “aestheticizing of political life” under national socialism. Hansen writes: “one strategy of preserving the potentiality of aura, of being able to introduce the concept in the first place, was to place it under erasure, to mark it as constitutively belated and irreversibly moribund.” It was “a fetishistic deflection that would protect, as it were, the vital parts of the concept inasmuch as they were indispensable to the project of reconceptualizing experience in modernity” (356-7).

In an attempt to recover some of Benjamin’s investment in the potentialities of aura in mass media, Hansen complicates this first definition of aura with a perhaps more intuitive understanding of the term “as an elusive phenomenal substance, ether, or halo that surrounds a person or object of perception, encapsulating their individuality and authenticity” (340). Through a long archaeology of Benjamin’s work, Hansen amasses under the heading of this third category many different instances of the term aura that show it not as “an inherent property of persons or objects, but pertaining to the medium of perception, naming a particular structure of vision” (342). These include: aura as the logic of the trace in the clothing seen on subjects in photographic portraits, a sense that is reminiscent of Kracauer’s early essay on “Photography” wherein time uses the raw material of clothing to make an image of itself. Other instances in Benjamin’s work that Hansen aligns under this definition of aura as a perceptual mode include: the aura of the habitual or the everyday (358, 341), aura as resembling Roland Barthes’s notion of the “punctum” or the singular element in a photograph that one finds inexplicably fascinating, that “which pricks me but also bruises me, is poignant to me” (Camera Lucida 27), and aura as a sense of futurity, or a “spark that leaps across time” that “emerges in the field of the beholder’s compulsively searching gaze” (341). Benjamin himself refers to aura as a medium of perception in section IV of the Artwork essay when citing Alois Riegl’s research on the late Roman art industry as a methodological precursor to his own project: “Just as the entire mode of existence of human collectives changes over long historical periods, so too does their mode of perception. The way in which human perception is organized—the medium in which it occurs—is conditioned not only by nature but by history” (104).

But Hansen’s essay makes the crucial distinction that a medium of perception cannot be conflated with a technological medium—any interpretation of the Artwork essay must keep this division consistently in view. Benjamin’s sense of a medium in which human perception is organized, Hansen writes, “proceeds from an older philosophical usage referring to an in-between substance or agency—such as language, writing, thinking, memory—that mediates and constitutes meaning.” The artwork essay seeks to use historical shifts in “aura” in order to define the perceptual modes specific to modernity. And yet paradoxically, Hansen argues, it is the technological media—film, photography, radio, and so on—that serve for Benjamin to crystallize what he refers to as “changes in the medium of present-day perception” (104). Herein lies one of the main difficulties in interpreting Benjamin’s Artwork essay. Aura, which is supposed to serve as the index against which the condition of modern sense perception can be registered, is simultaneously used in medium specific definitions of film and photography.

Thus, Benjamin’s synchronic formulation of aura in the mass media places the technological apparatus and modes of perception in a causally ambiguous situation. If genuine aura, as Hansen writes, “contained structural elements that were indispensable to reimagining experience in a collective, secularized and technologically mediated form,” (357) are these potentialities to be located in the formal analysis of film’s physical support or in the social structures that organize themselves around these media?

One possible way we could talk about this coupling of technological apparatus with modes of perception is that it places Benjamin in a difficult relationship with Riegl, who frequently railed against aesthetic materialisms (such as those of Gottfried Semper). Riegl critiques the emphasis on raw materials and technics as asserting an overly deterministic role in the creation of art objects, allowing “‘technique’ to become interchangeable with ‘art’ itself and eventually to replace it. Only the naïve talked about ‘art’; experts spoke in terms of ‘technique’” (Problems of Style p. 4). But of course, Benjamin’s evocation of technological material or objects is hardly deterministic: as Hansen points out, for Benjamin the medium-specific difference between photography and film is less one of technological difference, than one of purely aesthetic choice (p. 349). ((that still frames can be sped up, cropped, and so on)) What I mean to say here is that it is not as simple as saying, for example, the personal computer has been invented and our perceptual faculties are now fundamentally altered as a result. Such a schema would leave no room for the political agency or subjective will that is indispensable to Benjamin’s project as a whole.

But, at the other end of the spectrum, I don’t think it’s possible to say that Benjamin’s investment in a revolutionary aura lies solely in the fact of technology’s mass scale. Benjamin does cite a “quantitative shift between the two poles” of production and reception, a sort of democratization of aesthetic production. In section 13 he writes: “Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its axiomatic character. The difference becomes functional. At any moment, the reader is ready to become a writer. As an expert—which he has had to become in any case in a highly specialized work process, even if only in some minor capacity—the reader gains access to authorship” (114). The mass-scale of the media opens up a space for release, from the apparatus of industrial production into that of the film. However, what Benjamin calls the space-for-play or Spielraum that technology opens up is already, from the moment this essay was written, a space colonized by “film capital” and “fascism”. If aura has always named the endowment of an object with a value not its own, then the concept immediately offers itself up to violent mass mobilization and deadening commodity spectacle.

If you’ll permit me to apply some of Benjamin’s ambiguously subjective language, the question that wants desperately to be answered in the Artwork essay is, what is the nature of aura’s potentiality in the mass media that Benjamin places under erasure? The benefit of how the term is deployed here is that through some deep synthesis of the materials and the mode of perception, “aura” is able to name that which is “completely useless for the purposes of fascism,” and that which is “useful for the formation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art” (102). But at the same time, this leaves us with a set of incredibly difficult questions—because the space for play or Spielraum that the media opens up for us has almost always been a space that fundamentally does not belong to us. And here I can’t help citing Sony’s motto for the Playstation: “live in your world, play in ours.” Benjamin is fundamentally not talking about the technological domination of nature, or a dumbing down of culture, or an opiate for the masses, and I think this is something very difficult to fully wrap our heads around. So, the difficult question remains: at what point were the mass media utopian, and under what conditions could they still be?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

review: Jonathan Sterne's The Audible Past (2003)

Since its publication in 2003, Jonathan Sterne's The Audible Past has become a staple in the growing field of sound studies. A story about the development of sound-reproduction technologies, Sterne's book was one of the first in a now well-populated list of scholarship across many different disciplines that aims to rigorously examine sound as an historical, analytic, and philosophical category. Recently referencing The Audible Past on his blog, Sterne writes,
I guess the main thing to say is that the book was written at a time where there wasn’t a whole pile of other contemporary scholarship on sound that was aware of OTHER scholarship on sound. So there is a lot of effort to think through what it means to talk about sound in the humanities and why that matters. I’m not sure someone starting a sonic project today has to do that kind of work or deal with that kind of problem.
The foundational status of this book may account for some of its slightly awkward moments. Neologisms such as the “Ensoniment” (as opposed to Enlightenment) take some getting used to, and continuous polemics against the “visual bias” in the humanities at times become redundant (and not always because the field of sound studies has since gained so much traction). But the conceptual trajectory of the book as a whole is so well organized, one which makes such a pointed intervention not only in the historiography of sound, but of technology in general, that the reader can easily overlook these faults.
The Audible Past surveys the history of––to name only a sample of the devices Sterne deals with in this book––the stethoscope, sound telegraphy, telephone, phonograph, graphophone, gramophone, headsets, recording studios, wax cylinders, and hearing aids. However, Sterne is careful to characterize the scope of his study as “a deliberately speculative history” (27). In the book's introduction, entitled “Hello!”, Sterne acknowledges the massive task facing the historian of sound-reproduction technologies. Rather than aspiring to any claims of exhaustiveness or finality, Sterne writes, “this book uses history as a kind of philosophical laboratory” (27), an approach that requires the book to “continually move between the immediate and the general, the concrete and the abstract” (29). From long forgotten aberrancies such as the ear phonautograph (constructed out of an actual cadaver ear) to modern telephone networks, Sterne seeks to locate amid these various devices a unifying set of cultural practices and beliefs.
This is not at all to say that Sterne's account is a reductive one. Indeed, it is his central set of theoretical concerns or “speculations” that allows this wide range of technologies to serve as a good object of analysis in a cultural history of listening. Sterne writes in the introduction, “This book turns away from attempts to recover and describe people's interior experience of listening––an auditory past––toward the social and cultural grounds of sonic experience. The 'exteriority' of sound is this book's primary object of study” (13). To historicize sound through an account focusing on technology seems, if not all too obvious, then at least problematically determined––wasn't sound a culturally mediated object before sound-reproduction technologies? The Audible Past works in full view of these problems. To say that Sterne's book is too speculative to be a rigorous history, dealing with too great a number of technologies in too singular a manner, is to neglect the problematic placed rightfully at its core. Sterne's account problematizes technology's ability to frame our historically embedded techniques of hearing things, arguing instead for the cultural roots of technology. One must rigorously work through the assumptions of a history of the senses that begins with the advent of a technological incursion into that physiological process if it is to be a good history. Sterne's book does this, and succeeds.
The book's first chapter, “Machines to Hear for Them,” sets up one of the central points that allows Sterne's book to proceed analytically rather than chronologically: the social construction of “transducers, which turn sound into something else and that something else back into sound” (22). Sterne's emphasis on “transducers” falls not only on the technical function of inscribing sound waves or transforming them into electrical current, but also on the development of a physiological theory of hearing. “The objectification and abstraction of hearing and sound, their construction as bounded and coherent objects, was a prior condition for the reconstruction of sound-reproduction technologies” (23). Moving through the history of modern physiology and otology more specifically, as well as Alexander Graham Bell and his colleagues' interaction with these fields, Sterne argues that “the history of sound reproduction is the history of the transformation of the human body as an object of knowledge and practice” (50-51). By the middle of the 19th century, physiologists were conceiving of sound primarily as “the effect of a set of nerves with determinate, instrumental functions.” (61) This is not to rehash an old claim that a tree falling in the woods makes no sound without anyone to hear it, but rather to emphasize that the human ear defines a certain section of physical reverberations in space, and that sound as we know it is necessarily “anthropocentrically defined” (12). With this conceptual apparatus in place by the 19th century, “hearing, in other words is already an instrument” (61).
In the book's second and third chapters, Sterne charts the development of listening practices that grow out of these physiologically-based notions of sound. If sound reproduction required a concept of sound as the effect of a set of nerves and membranes, then it also required a set of specialized practices or techniques that shaped and perfected this instrument of hearing in various social contexts. Sterne argues that specialized listening practices such as stethoscopy and telegraphy helped develop the “audile technique” that will become instrumental in practices that are later disseminated on a mass scale by developing technologies. “From roughly 1810 on, audile technique existed in niches at either end of the growing middle class. It would not become a more general feature of middle-class life until the end of the nineteenth century, when sound reproduction became a mechanical possibility and the middle class itself exploded in size and changed in outlook and orientation” (98-99). Chapter 2 deals with the use of the stethoscope by physicians, and Chapter 3, whose subject matter bleeds into the two sections surrounding it, surveys the practices of telegraph operators and the gradual dissemination of these practices through growing public telephone networks.
By Chapters 4 and 5, Sterne has accumulated enough historical and conceptual material to make his central argument about the evolution of technologies and the development of media, one that is, in my view, extremely valuable for the study of culture and technology beyond the specificity of sound studies. Sterne writes, “techniques of listening do not simply turn sound technologies into media” (177). Rather, it is through a combined network of economic institutions and individual practices that media are constructed. Chapter 4 centers in on Sterne's useful definition of developing media as it took place in sound-reproduction technologies between the 1870s and 1920s:
A medium is a recurring set of contingent social relations and social practices, and contingency is key here. As the larger fields of economic and cultural relations around a technology or technique extend, repeat, and mutate, they become recognizable to users as a medium. A medium is therefore the social basis that allows a set of technologies to stand out as a unified thing with clearly defined functions. (182)
While the book's first sections dealt with the development of social practices, in Chapter 5 Sterne focuses on a specific instance of the industrial or economic side of this dynamic with the commercial rhetoric of sound “fidelity” surrounding reproduction technologies: “Manufacturers and marketers of sound-reproduction technologies felt that they had to convince audiences that the new sound media belonged to the same class of communication as face-to-face speech” (25).
The Audible Past is painstakingly organized––each of the book's sections is condensed into a series of focused arguments in the introduction which itself could serve as a standalone essay. Additionally, Sterne shows an almost overwhelming penchant for categorization: the three effects of mediate auscultation, the six elements common to medical, telegraphic, and popular listening practices, the four critiques of acousmatic theories of sound, etc. This mania for organization is what makes the book's last two sections somewhat surprising. In the overall conceptual trajectory of the book, which traces actual technosocial practices, a discussion of the Victorian “culture of death and dying” and the aura of “voices form the dead” surrounding the phonograph and graphophone seem a bit out of place, especially when Sterne tells us that ideas bubbling up about permanent archival and perfect technological memory were fundamentally inaccurate: “The first recordings were essentially unplayable after they were removed from the machine. […] If anything, permanence was less a description of the power of a medium than a program for its development” (288-9). Similarly, in the book's conclusion, Sterne launches a wide ranging discussion of the contemporary mania over digital technologies and the hopes invested in the possible futures supposedly enabled by them. Sterne's interest in these two sections seems to be taking him beyond the scope of this book in a way that renders his previously solid conclusions about the evolution of technology more problematic than this book has the space to resolve. While we have surveyed several causal agents––including physiological theories, advertising rhetoric, and social relations––here we move into the utopian imagination of technology's possible futures as itself a causal agent of technological change. This new interest seems to exceed the otherwise rigorous theoretical trajectory of the book.

These reservations aside, The Audible Past is a rare thing. Not only is it a comprehensive and well-organized history, but the book is an equally smart media theoretical engagement with questions of technics, the social origins of media, and technological change that should find a wide audience in many different academic fields.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Hermeneutics and suspicion

For all you people who want to know where Eve Sedgwick's "paranoid reading" originated, as well as much of the anxiety around whether we are being too demystifying in our hermeneutics, I'm outlining Ricoeur's opening argument in De l'Interpretation (published in 1965, translated into English in 1970 as Freud and Philosophy, though they were originally given at Yale in 1961).

The book follows closely Ricoeur's work on the phenomenology of the will (in Fallible Man and especially The Symbolism of Evil, with its amazing look at confession). Ricoeur's first move is to turn to Cassier on "the symbolic" in The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. The symbolic is the "mediating function" for the subject, that is, "the common denominator of all the ways of objectivizing, of giving meaning to reality" (10), which humans need to do to understand and indeed to develop their modes of action. To act, I mediate, I therefore engage the symbolic. This would seem to be a welcome way of looking at human intention for Ricoeur: everything is an active effort to engage the world through means which symbolize. But Ricoeur has brought this up only to reject the flatness of Cassier's concept, its simplicity and reductionism. Ricoeur says (with reason), is introduced in order to conceive mediation from a "Kantian" perspective enamoured of Cassier in his various considerations of the history and object of science. Cassier sees mediation as an obstacle which we need to address, to deal with, to refine in order to get out of the subject to objects, from the subject to reality ("the symbolic, above all, indicates the nonimmediacy of our apprehension of reality," 10). From a late-phenomenological standpoint this is unacceptable, it is too simple on the one hand when compared with the precision of Husserl's early attempts at understanding intention, and it is impoverished on the other. one has to make room for the ability of this mediation itself to have reality. And so Ricoeur rejects using the term symbolic "for the signifying function in its entirety," because then we "no longer have a word to designate the group of signs whose intentional texture calls for a reading of another meaning in the first, literal, immediate meaning" (11-12).

You will recognize that this is the entire problem of hermeneutics itself that gets introduced into language: the notion is that language not only structures our relationship to reality, but at some point is itself real by becoming plurivocal, or capable of more than one reading, and thus calling out for interpretation. Furthermore, this notion of reality displaces the first, which was confined to the relation to objects: what we have are two types of realities now, one which deals with objects, one which involves the use of the plurivocal. The first reality will be governed by the use of language as sign (which can then be interpreted in a Saussurian way, as signifier/signified), and symbol Ricoeur will reserve properly for the second reality:
In every sign a sensory vehicle is the bearer of a signifying function that makes it stand for something else. But I will not say that I interpret the sensory sign when I understand what it says. Interpretation has to do with a more complicated intentional structure: a first meaning is set up which intends something, but this object in turn refers to something else which is intended only through the first object (12).
The project of understanding what a sign says is still bound up with Saussure, for Ricoeur, and we cannot extend it into the second domain, which is where, not a signifier and signified, or even signifiers and signifiers are related, but where meanings themselves are related: "superimposed upon the duality of the sensory sign and signification" is "a relation of meaning to meaning" (12-13). Thus despite the structuralist and semiological bracketing of meaning which occurs when we look at the signifiers and their relationship, the problem of meaning can reintroduce itself, indeed must introduce itself, whenever we are considering relations of this "higher degree" (12). What Ricoeur does is allow us some access to a different area altogether, not beholden to the sign, an area, or indeed a reality, that
presupposes signs that already have a primary, literal, manifest meaning. Hence I deliberately restrict the notion of symbol to double- or multiple-meaning expressions whose semantic texture is correlative to the work of interpretation that explicates their second or multiple meanings (13).
Ricoeur tries to enrich this zone of the symbol with reference to The Symbolism of Evil. There, he called the realm of the symbol the realm of the experience of the "sacred," based on his analysis of how a spot would somehow designate the sinner's situation, would become a stain. Two other experiences are related to this sacred realm: the experience of dreams and the experience of poetry or the poetic image. He then reiterates what he calls a symbol:
Symbols occur when language produces signs of composite degree in which the meaning, not satisfied with designating some one thing, designates another meaning attainable only in and through the first intentionality (16).
At this point, Ricoeur is tempted by a more narrow, indeed "too narrow" definition: analogy:
It is here that we are tempted by another definition which this time risks being too narrow. The definition is suggested to us by some of our examples. It consists in characterizing the bond of meaning to meaning in a symbol as analogy (16-17).
So the stain is an analogy of the physical with the existential. But this analogy is not based on a likeness:
It is not an argument; far from lending itself to formalization, it is a relation adhering to its terms. I am carried by the first meaning, directed by it, toward the second meaning; the symbolic meaning is constituted in and through the literal meanign which achieves the analogy by giving the analogue. In contrast to a likeness that we could look at from the outside, a symbol is the very movement of the primary meaning intentionally assimilating us to the symbolized, without our being able to intellectually dominate this likeness (17).
We're dealing with something like overintentionality, if you conceive intentionality in a strictly phenomenological sense. Interpretation in reading, or as an experience, then becomes something like the reverse of the reduction: we're lead by the grasp of one essence into another, plane of essences, an "architecture of meaning" or "texture" (18). In short, a text--even Scripture. But I mentioned that this notion of analogy was too narrow:
This correction of the notion of analogy does not suffice to cover the whole field of hermeneutics. I would consider rather that analogy is but one of the relations involved between manifest and latent meaning (17).
Other relations are being invented, indeed invented precisely by... psychoanalysis. I dwell so long on the problem of symbol and analogy because the payoff is huge: we begin to see psychoanalysis--and not only that, but the Nietzschian interpretation of metaphysics and the Marxist view of capitalism--as one particular option within the larger hermeneutic problematic and alongside the simpler construal of this problematic as the analogical relation between two meanings:
Psychoanalysis, as we shall see, has uncovered a variety of processes of elaboration that are operative between the apparent and latent meaning. The dream work is singularly more complex than the classical way of analogy; so too Nietzsche and Marx have denounced a multitude of ruses and falsifications of meaning. Our entire hermeneutic problem, as we shall state in the next chapter, proceeds from this twofold possibility of an "innocent" analogical relationship or a "cunning" distortion (17).
I dwell so long on all this, because, as you see, we here have the hermeneutics of suspicion. But this all is bound up in a general difficulty that Ricoeur feels in hermeneutics itself at this moment:
The difficulty--it initiated my research in the first place--is this: there is no general hermeneutics, no universal cannon for exegesis, but only disparate and opposed theories concerning the rules of interpretation. The hermeneutic field... is at variance with itself (27).
How? Through its tradition, which has two poles. At one end, we have the Aristotelian problem of semantics, which understands the sentence as "saying something of something," or declaring something about a being, understood already as meaningful and needing clarification or rather elucidation, proclamation. Such a stance recognizes that "real meanings are indirect" because "I attain things only by attributing a meaning to a meaning" (23). Clarification primarily revolves around circumscribing the possibility for error, for attributing meaning in a false way. On the other end, we have the sentence as Scripture, introduced by the Christian community (there is a notable absence of the Rabbinical tradition in Ricoeur's account) and then as text (via the "book of nature"), as something articulated according to specific forms (like allegory and indeed analogy), which must be understood in themselves to allow the sentence to be understood. In this view, the truth and falsity of a sentence becomes something like lying, and the process of unfolding meaning is an attempt to get past lying and to the authoritative version of something. Eventually, this second sense gets taken up into a new sense with the introduction of the problem of representation and Kant: the lying which interposes itself between me and the text is now seen as illusion, as mystification. So:
According to the one pole, hermeneutics is understood as the manifestation and restoration of a meaning addressed to me in the manner of a message, a proclamation, or as is sometimes said, a kerygma; according to the other pole, it is understood as a demystification, as a reduction as of illusion. Psychoanalysis, at least on a first reading, aligns itself with the second understanding of hermeneutics (27).
This brings us to the problem that concerns us now, which is a mix of these two poles and an understanding of them all in terms of the concept of representation. Representation, Vorstellung, that tricky and overused German Idealist word much like "recognition," which Ricoeur will eventually come back to in another book:
The situation in which language today finds itself comprises this double possibility, this double solicitation and urgency: on the one hand, purify discourse of its excrescences, liquidate the idols, go from drunkenness to sobriety, realize our state of poverty once and for all; on the other hand, use the most "nihilistic," destructive, iconoclastic movement so as to let speak what once, what each time, was said, when meaning appeared anew, when meaning was at its fullest (27).
The distinction between a hermeneutics of suspicion and a more restorative hermeneutics then is explicitly introduced and identified with the first injunction:
Hermeneutics seems to me to be animated by this double motivation: willingness to suspect, willingness to listen; vow of rigor, vow of obedience. In our time we have not finished doing away with idols and we have barely begun to listen to symbols (27).
Ricoeur draws some powerful consequences from this: what really opposes the hermeneutics of suspicion, is faith. "The contrary of suspicion, I will say blunty is faith... faith that has undergone criticism... postcritical faith" (28). This is linked with phenomenology itself, which seeks, in respecting the object, through the reduction, a "second naivete." By disengaging the noetic from the noematic, the intention from its correlate, one recalls and restores the object, by showing it to be the implicit object that speaks to me, that responds to my thinking. One sees what Ricoeur is getting at:
Is not the expectation of being spoken to what motivates the concern for the object? Implied in this expectation is a confidence in language: the belief that language, which bears symbols, is not so much spoken by men as spoken to men (29-30).
On the other hand, the hermeneutic of suspicion,
begins by doubting whether there is an object and whether this object could be the place of transformation of intentionality into kerygma, manifestation, proclamation. This hermeneutics is not an explication of the object, but a tearing off of masks, an interpretation that reduces disguises (30).
Fundamentally, there is a belief in the restorative hermeneutics that the the word is already, to some extent, authentic, because my relationship to it is not in question. This phenomenology/faith/hermeneutics "puts the accent on the object, then underscores the fullness of the symbol" (32). We see in short, that it relies on what Ricoeur has already defined as intrinsic to the symbol: the fact that it is the articulation of a second meaning, a leading of the one into the other. Phenomenology follows this movement, because it does not see the point in thinking that the opposite maneuvers--putting the accent on the subject, and doubting the connection between the manifest and latent, or first and second meanings--are necessary to lead one to a better interpretation. For what is grasped? In fact, everything is actually the about the replacement of both the object and the subject in the act of interpreation:
[Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud] clear the horizon for a more authentic word, for a new reign of Truth, not only by means of a "destructive" critique, but by the invention of an art of interpreting... Beginning with them, understanding is hermeneutics: henceforward, to seek meaning is no longer to spell out the consciousness of meaning (33).
The way this is possible is to align the hermeneutic with the work of the authority that codes it:
What all three attempted, in different ways, was to make their "conscious" methods of decyphering coincide with the "unconscious" work of ciphering (34).
They all feel immensely the weight of the representational problematic, and take it extremely seriously. But for Ricoeur, this is questionable, because by taking it too seriously we forget representation itself is representation "of something." Thus, we begin to think that we can just change old representations with new ones, stolen from their source, their point of emergence, and decoded, and thereby produce new meaning: but this transforms hermeneutics into the mere process of destroying all that has already been said, and replacing it with something that has nothing to say, because it is too busy asserting that, in uncovering the process of the production of representation reality has been revealed:
One first finds himself a slave, he understands his slavery, he rediscovers himself free within understood necessity... does not this discipline of the real, this ascesis of the necessary lack the grace of imagination, the upsurge of the possible? (35-6).
The point is not immediately that we should endorse a restorative hermeneutics. It is rather that we should not think the willingness to listen only comes from a willingness to suspect.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Lukács and montage

In "Realism in the Balance" (1938) we see Lukács interpreting Bloch as elevating the mimetic factor of montage to the level of truth: for Bloch, montage mirrors--or simply, as mirroring, presents--reality. But this is simply inserting "reality" into abstraction, for Lukács, in order to believe that surrealists are realists. The true realism is going beyond empty formalism which supposedly presents, or rather just is the real (montage shows, in its form, reality), to create an experience of the real itself, or consciousness of totality by an increasing sense of the relation of independent objects. Speaking of Bloch on Joyce and Mann, Lukács says:
In the minds of the heroes of both writers we find a vivid evocation of the disintegration, the discontinuities, the ruptures and the "crevices" which Bloch very rightly thinks typical of the state of mind of many people living in the age of imperialism. Bloch's mistake lies merely in the fact that he identifies this state of mind directly and unreservedly with reality itself. He equates the highly distorted image created in this state of mind with the thing itself, instead of objectively unraveling the essence, the origins and the mediations of the distortions by comparing it with reality.
-"Realism in the Balance," in Aesthetics and Politics
Unless one reads this with Lukács readings of Hegel in the background, it will appear extremely conservative. One has to see that this "state of mind" which does so much work here is not something psychological, but rather consciousness. As such, it reflects reality, it is not itself reality: reality is the truth of consciousness, not consciousness itself. Taken as itself, it separates itself from what it reflects as well as the entire process of speculative reflection. It is therefore Bloch who, in Lukács view of things, actually relies on psychology, because he cannot see that consciousness only has a relationship to reality when it is conceived in terms of its relation to the totality, or to its truth (which includes both its reflection and its process of reflection). Thus any expression of a "state of mind" is seen as reality. Also, we must see "reality itself" here as something like "unarticulated" reality, something that has not yet been objectively unraveled but which disturbs each attempt to convert consciousness into a psychology, into a substance without spirit, that has its object only opposed to itself and reflects this object only by understanding it. Reality is not some pre-existing thing here that Lukács is saying Bloch misses, simply because a surrealist montage doesn't itself express reality. Bloch misses this because of the way he conceives this expression, this reflection--because it is for Bloch not mediated by the totality. Its relation to the totality is to present it immediately as truth that is real. Thus Lukács can go on to claim:
Great realism, therefore, does not portray an immediately obvious aspect of reality.
-"Realism in the Balance," in Aesthetics and Politics