Something new to the Cabinet (you can find it here), an exploration of Sontag's "Against Interpretation," as well an indirect presentation of some of the ideas underlying the aesthetic modality. This was not my first engagement with Sontag's essay; but it is the fullest. (I will grant, it get's a bit confusing toward the end.)
As an essay, I have always enjoyed reading it – for the ideas, yes; but as much for the panache and bravado of the rhetoric, as well as for the pleasure of its structure of a layered expansion closed with a sudden contraction. But let there be no mistake: I would be the first to admit that Susan Sontag's "Against Interpretation" carries with it certain difficulties. Because of its rhetoric, it can only ever have something of a disadvantageous existence within a dialogue on aesthetics: its rhetoric is, after all, that of a manifesto, of something intent more toward proclamation, declamation and mustering than toward a subtle or cooperative engagement of ideas. As Sohnya Sayres speaks of it: "To ears trained in the nuances of literary goodfellowship, this is sophomoric, rebel talk, written as if the critical mind itself held no fathomless ambiguities. [. . .] The aroused march of Sontag's essay is drummed along by her instinct for the essence of a polemic."
Which is not to say that reading, enjoying, or the value of "Against Interpretation" can never be more than rambunctious and inspiriting yowling. The essay does operate well as a kick in the backside in prompting the interested or obliged – if naïve – reader of literature to the possibility that there are other ways of engaging a literary text than as autobiography or as personal or cultural history. Yet, even as such there is an inescapable sense of its own limitations: "If she had an antiprogram in mind, she has lost" (82): all passage from the essay out into the greater discourse of literary aesthetics is cut short by the arm waiving and table pounding. It plays and winds through its own mechanics, spends the energy it has to spend, and hopefully prompts the reader toward possibilities not before considered, or charges the reader for whom the possibilities are already beyond considerations; then, after its flamboyant final gesture, the essay is left with nothing more to say, nowhere else to go, and no means to move beyond the momentary performance. What is there is what is there, and for all it is worth. To move beyond would require the addition to or substitution of the polemic with less a monologic and more openly dialogic text, a text less proclamatory and more participatory within in the greater discourse of art and the aesthetic.
"Or," as Sayres writes, "perhaps not."
And there, abruptly, I will end my use of Sayres's study, essentially ignoring the substance of her book while keeping (and mimicking) only one, minor rhetorical game, a not-that-unexpected and (on her part) pleasantly humorous bait and switch. Yet I now sit and ponder the moral aftermath of ignoring the fabric in favor of the weaving thereof. It reminds me of the quarrels and contentions Salomé and I have – Salomé, the name I give to that ambiguous and unspecifiable creature, engagement, idea, that I here symbolically embody within the material image of a woman marked by her diurnally settling into and rising from the same bed in which I sleep – and how, by whatever strategic ploy (conscious or unconscious), I am not infrequently bumped out of the matter-at-hand and find myself unwittingly wandering through devices worked from out her distinctly feminine understanding of and singularly Salomeian maneuvering through the ebb and flow, the moment by moment flux of the debating – a thing in itself both frustrating and wondrous, for the various veiled mysteries being presented. Of course, the result of the straying is an immediate loss of the contest on my part; as well as a partial forfeiture of gains and a momentary vulnerability to whatever emotional penalties she might wish to subject upon me. But such are the uncodable rules of engagement (within such fields of play): uncodable in that they exist only in the moment in which they are invoked; rules in that they are, immanently, the very engagement between us.
For in such an engagement there lies a reversal of functions: rhetoric does not serve as helpmeet to fact, to persuading the listener of the merits of validity of fact. Rather, rhetoric is pre-eminent and purposed, receptive and desiring, intent and volatile. The facts are placed wholly in and within its service. More correctly, the facts themselves exist only as rhetoric, their very factuality a rhetorical action. The contention is not one of content: it is of its own purpose. It is engagement, nothing more; and yet everything that can be.
As for this exploration of "Against Interpretation" – and I will be concentrating on the central argument presented in the first few pages –, it will be a classic "there and back again" journey, and one not without a taste of a sentimental "you can never go home again." I will let Sontag's discussion lead us from her own offered beginning to her own intended end as though she offered us a map to follow. And as with any map, it is a poor substitute for the journey itself: it is but a simple architecture by which anyone may get from point A to point B; a means, not an end. So with Sontag's argument itself: its end is not an end. For once it is gained, I will turn and, in a way, retrace our steps: though, again, "retracing" only in the sense of lines on a map: the journey itself will continue forward.
The beginning: Sontag's beginning: her first sentences. From here it's four more steps out, followed by the turn, and four steps back/beyond.
|The earliest experience of art must have been that it was incantatory, magical; art was an instrument of ritual. (Cf. The paintings in the caves at Lascaux, Altamira, Niaux, La Pasiega, etc.) The earliest theory of art, that of the Greek philosophers, proposed that art was mimesis, imitation of reality. (3, emphasis hers)|
This is the essay in a nutshell – or perhaps it's more appropriate to say in an onion core. What is presented here is the primary opposition: that of experience versus theory. In conjunction, there is offered a brief description of the terms: experience as in the magical, the incantatory, the ritual; theory as in, particularly, the notion that art is imitation of reality. Simple statements, but different statements. Notice the shift in modality: experience is an engagement, theory is an explanation. The terms magical, incantatory are given no rationale, no origin that might lie behind the chosen description outside of an appeal to example: and they are as much offered as synonyms than not, examples that you either understand or don't. In contrast, theory demands and provides a cause to the effect, demands an argument to the conclusion. It is in a sense solipsistic: but that is the point. There is a theory because art is seen as mimetic; theory provides the explanation of why art is seen as mimetic. The self-provided basis of art, that of being experienced, is fully supplanted; art is to be understood on a rational basis; art now has a rubric that art itself does not naturally carry with it; as such that rubric, and consequently art understood through it, must be warranted.
Art, in idea and practice, needs defenders; or why bother with it at all? The second step:
|Is at this point that the peculiar question of the value of art arose. For mimetic theory, by its very terms, challenges art to justify itself. (3)|
We must be careful of Sontag's terminology, both because of the time of her writing (1964), and because of the effects of the rhetoric.[FN1] The term theory obviously – and to the chagrin of those creative writers who disdain the term – does not mean "theory" in the sense of that large body of work that has blossomed out of the post-structural revolution. It refers to that type of artistic study and evaluation whose history stems from the beginnings of Socratic rationalism. Specifically, Sontag would be referring to the criticism (and its philosophies) of the first half of the twentieth century: New Criticism, Formalism, etc. – which, ironically, is much closer to what said creative writers would themselves defend.
[FN1] It should also be said that while within this chapter our own terminological use is somewhat compromised: to choose a single and straightforward example, Sontag’s use of the word art will be the given use of the word throughout the chapter – though in subsequent chapters this will change.
It might be argued that the modes of criticism that were birthed by the Modernists would be a movement that steps away from that greater rationalist history; that in its relation to the rising currents of Structuralism, and to art works that were in themselves breaking away from the critical and aesthetic ideas that were direct extensions of eighteenth-century rationalism, early-twentieth century critique would likewise carry within its energies the ir-rational, a-mimetic nature that runs through the greater notion of Modernism (in the sense that includes pre-Modernist currents like Symbolism). However, such is not the case. The criticism and theory that arose with and out of Modernism was not, ultimately, all that Modernist. James McFarlane, in "The Mind of Modernism," describes the general trend as such: "It was nevertheless a characteristic of this spate of new inquiry that, whilst asserting the validity of a whole range of 'non-scientific', 'non-positivist', irrational and even mystic phenomena, it turned to the traditional 'scientific method' for the conduct of its investigations" (76). While the being of Modernist art rises out of the primeval waters of the unconscious, the study and critique of it remained anchored in the rational conscious.
For all the revolutionary actions of the artistic avant-garde, for all the paradigmatic moments occurring in philosophy and the sciences (e.g., Nietszsche, Einstein, Freud and Jung), contemporary criticism (and perhaps I should specify criticism not by the artists themselves) remained remarkably Victorian, remarkably uninfluenced by that which it was studying – and for the most part it still is, as evidenced (in a small part) by the profound aversion to all things 'theory' frequently seen in creative writing circles, as well as in the amazing ability of 'theory' to re-sediment itself under more formalist, more rational terms the farther away it gets from its post-structural roots, as it expands through the academic ranks from (what could be called) high theory out into its midrash and beyond, to criticism, and review.
What is being posited here is not an opposition, but the possibility of parallel currents. I wish to step out of the limited idea that everything artistic in the twentieth century flows directly out of the Modernist period (whether in extension, generation, opposition, reaction, or counter-reaction) and permit other possibilities: including, primarily, the one where many of the currents of the twentieth-century discourse on art were not Modernist at all, but continue directly out of pre-Modernist – which perhaps is to say Enlightenment – sentiments, philosophies, methodologies. The fact that early twentieth-century criticism existed in relationship with Modernist art does not requisitely mean that that criticism was in itself 'Modernist.' Recognizing this possibility permits the consequent that the history of perception and criticism of art and aesthetics as engaged and explored by the Modernists may be presenting a concept of Modernism that was not in fact shared by the Modernist artists, but which is more an interpretation of Modernism in nineteenth-century terms, methods, and understanding.
Theory is not the only term that presents difficulties; we must also consider the term value. If value was not an issue of art before the advent of theory, does that mean that experiential art has no value? Art received experientially would need no justification for its existence: the experience of the work validates the artwork's existence. There would be no more need to justify it than there would be need to justify trees, orlaughter, or dusk. Instead of justification, there need only be the case that someone experiences the artwork, and desires to experience it. Likewise, experiential art needs no defense: either the viewer – the participant in the 'ritual' – experiences something, or they do not. They have an experience with the tree they stand before, or they do not. Yet even in the absence of justification and defense there is a notion of value: all experiential art is obviously not identical in experience. A ritual that may be profoundly moving to an individual from one culture may seem banal or absurd to an individual in another. There is value, but a different economy of value: in experiential art the value lies wholly within the viewer: either the experience provided has value to them, or it does not.That value can not be transferred; it can only be shared, discussed, explored. One viewer can not make another viewer have the same experience, they can only speak about their own experience, the details, the nuances, the various aspects of their engagement with the art work, they can only share their experience in hopes that the second viewer will gain as much pleasure from the work – albeit pleasure according to their own being – as they do.
As already stated, the difference here is one of modality: these two concepts (experience vs. theory) are not two different labels that are being applied to art, as in a coffehouse debate between whether great art is 'shocking' or whether great art is 'beautiful.' The two terms have different functions, different syntactical and semantic operations. And they place the idea of art within two wholly differing structures: one where art is considered only in its own functioning, its own being, its own reception; one where art is considered only through external and applied justifications, rationales and defenses.
In the context of theory, the artwork itself – the artwork qua artwork, the artwork in its own being – is replaced with the artwork as defined by theory. Step three:
|[I]t is the defense of art which gives birth to the odd vision by which something we have learned to call "form" is separated off from something we have learned call "content," and to the well-intentioned move which makes content essential and form accessory. [. . .] Or, as it's usually put today, that work of art by definition says something. (4, emphasis hers)|
The post-Socratic idea of art is based upon its verisimilitude, its representational function, on the function of content. The more import carried by content, the more it must stand as the quality of art exclusive of all other qualities: content becomes separated from form, separated from the very work of art itself. The idea of art is no longer concerned with the art object, but with what the art object says. Art is to be understood as a hermeneutic transmission from the author to the reader by way of a message-bearing text. Put graphically,
A → T → R
This concept of art carries with it a number of assumptions, which are mostly out of the scope of this exploration, but which include the necessity that the message being communicated must be understandable and that it must therefore have an interpretable meaning. The communicative pathway is understood in terms of the message being first conceived, then successfully carried and received within acceptable limits of information loss. (And, it might be said, with a requisite degree of veiling, of complexity, and of historically stylistic context so as to give critics something to do.) As such, the graphic should be written as
A(M) → T(M) → R(M)
Yet in that the purpose of the artwork is the message itself, and all other elements are secondary to the content, to the message, perhaps it is even more appropriate to construct the graph in this way:
M(A) → M(T) → M(R)
where the pathway is understood as the transference of a single message which originates in the artist, is carried by the text, and is deposited upon the reader. In such a conception of art the message is all important; the message becomes the very definition of art. To take it to its logical conclusion, that of the optimum situation of minimal information loss, we can write graph as
M(A → T → R)
This is the situation of Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels's version of pragmatism as described in their essay "Against Theory."(And in the title is yet more humor –perhaps intentional? – created by the word theory.) For example:
How, after all, could a message with meaning appear on the infamous sandy shore but that it carries with it, inherently and in identity, an author and a reader? It cannot, because there is only message. The presence of author, reader and text – both collectively and in that they may be distinguished from each other – becomes, essentially, irrelevant. This is the limit case, where the graphic and the concept borders on absurdity:
Yet, as will be seen, that may not be quite as absurd as it may seem.
The fourth step brings the idea into the now:
|Even in modern times, when most artists and critics have discarded the theory of art as representation of an outer reality in favor of the theory of art as subjective expression, the main feature of the mimetic theory persists. Whether we conceive of the work of art on the model of the picture (art as a picture of reality) or on the model of the statement (art as the statement of the artist), content still comes first.The content may have changed. It may now be less figurative, less lucidly realistic. But it is still assumed that a work of art is its content. (4)|
It is a rather straight forward statement, but one with energies that run throughout both this chapter and this book: though objets d'art have changed radically in the last century-plus in form, in permissibility, in limits, in matter, and in the many aspects of content itself, one thing does for the most part remain yet constant within the exceeding majority of artistic currents (especially, it seems, within the literary): content still comes first. The Modernists, after all, were (and in their contemporary manifestations still are) a minority, as Allen Bullock points out:
|the activities of [the Modernists] represented only a minority, even within that minority which is ever interested in the arts and ideas. The dominant literary, musical and artistic taste, not speak of the scientific outlook, of the 1900s was founded upon nineteenth-century, not twentieth-century, models, a cultural time-lag which is characteristic of every age of innovation. (68)|
It is my contention that it is not until the post-structuralists that criticism and theory (in the contemporary sense of the word) catches up with the Modernists. In the time between, creative discourse has become astonishingly distanced from all that the Modernists brought to the arts; criticism was never not dominated by the centering function of content (though, at times, certain critics may not have believed themselves so centered); and the majority of the extant body of literary and artistic theory can be genetically analyzed by the degree that content has crept logocentrically back into (or failed to have been removed from) its ideational methods, modes and assumptions. Even for the radical breaks of the avant-garde and post-structuralism, art is yet primarily perceived through the single lens of content; is still primarily received, perceived, and understood in its essential functions through pre-Modernist conceptions of art and aesthetics.
But my purpose here is not to dwell on the opposition of the two trends; nor to position one trend over the other as the only legitimate trend. Rather, this is simply to continue expanding and expounding the idea that there are two currents, not one; two currents that run side by side, not against each other; though two currents that contend continuously for dominance (though, the exceeding majority of that conflict seems waged by the interpretive). And, here, that those two currents, as they concern the arts, are marked by two differing underlying actions: one, the far minority opinion, embodies a fundamental change in the idea of art; the other, the overwhelming majority opinion, is embodied by the continuation (and one not necessarily readily apparent or cognized) of earlier, conventional ideas of art.
And in such we reach Sontag's terminus, the consequence of this development of theory: the "hegemony" of content and the interpretation thereof:
|What the overemphasis on the idea of content entails is the perennial, never consummated project of interpretation. And, conversely, it is the habit of approaching works of art in order to interpret them that sustains the fancy that there really is such a thing as the content of a work of art. (5)|
Let me dwell briefly on this self-replicating cycle (or, it could be said, self-fulfilling prophecy) inherent to the "project of interpretation." This idea goes hand in hand with the opposing actions stated just previously, in that it reveals aspects of the two modalities being explored. In the art world defined by experience, the primary energies are created in the engagement between the artwork and viewer (or artist). In the interpretive system, however, there is only 'message' (and one continuous through the communicative path, A → T → R), so no such energies can or need be initiated. The energies that maintain the interpretive system occur not in the meeting of artwork and individual, but in the meeting of artwork and interpretation-of-message – an action which is established at the creation of the artwork.
All systems of energy require the meeting of two opposed forces: e.g., "It has become abundantly clear to me that life can flow forward only along the path of the gradient. But there is no energy unless there is a tension of opposites" (Jung, OPU 53). In the experiential work – in experiential reading – that opposition is between the individual psyche and that quality of the "unknown" put forward by the artwork that permits every experience of the work to be an full experience, not the empty or shallow experience of that which is already defined.[FN2] In the interpretive system, however, the opposition is between the work and the need/want to interpret the work itself. As seen in the discussion above – and presented visually in the graph used to represent the interpretive exercise, M(A → T → R) – the art object as an object independent of the message it carries (that is, independent of what it says) is for the most part irrelevant to the interpretive act, and the art object as an independent object must ultimately be subsumed within the act of interpretation. The art object must be made to submit to its being identified wholly by its content. All elements of the work of art that are not part of the work's content (or, that are part of the content that transmits the 'intended' meaning) must be sublated for the act of interpretation to be successful. As Sontag writes, "Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, comfortable" (8).
[FN2] We can see in the discussion of myth (as through Cassirer and Eliade) how even though art is considered by Sontag ritualistic, and thus something repeated, the repetition is, in the mythic, in the erotic, always yet the first occurrence of the event.
As such, the energies that drive the interpretive endeavor is somewhat more complicated, and twofold in nature.
First, there is the underlying opposition between the want to interpret the art object and the resistance of the art object to interpretation, resistance created through the existence of that "unknown-ness" that invites the experiential engagement with the art object. That energy, in originating in an engagement with the unknown, with that which can not be interpreted because it exists within experience, reveals to the reader the external nature of the act of interpretation, creating a new opposition between the truth-value of the interpretation and the arbitrariness of its application. That energy also must be sublated for the interpretive act to be successful. Though, if that secondary conflict can be eliminated, the primary energies, the primary invitation to engagement, is successfully avoided. As such, it can be said that the primary energies of interpretation lie not in the addressing of the object of interpretation but within the conflict of the (cultural) truth-value of the interpretation. Thus the circular nature of interpretation: the act of interpreting an object is the act of erasing the presence of the object and replacing it with its interpretation; the primary drive of the act lies not in the engagement with the object but with the avoidance of any engagement, thus avoiding the question of the truth-value of the interpretation. In essence, the viewer 'gives' the art object the interpretation they will then 'find' through the act of interpreting. In that the interpretive act carries within its own acting the very message to be found through interpretation, the act can not but be a success – to replay Knapp and Michaels's words:
It is here that the two modalities meet and conflict: on one hand, interpretation demands the sublation of the material, experiential reality of the art object; on the other, the object can not be interpreted if it is being experienced because interpreting an object means replacing the object with an interpretation.Experiencing an object brings the object back into engagement, which clashes the suppressing action of interpretation. Essentially, the interpretation of an artwork is successful to the degree that the artwork can be silenced by the act of interpreting. Yet it must be kept in mind – and this is critical in taking the idea anywhere beyond its first stating – the modalities of "experience" and "theory" are not opposing poles of a single axis, not two opposing elements of a single modality of engagement (in the sense that a psychoanalytic interpretation of a text may find itself in conflict with a socio-historic interpretation of the same text). They are two modalities that are in perpetual conflict with each other: one (the experiential) which by its nature utilizes the other (the interpretive), at the same time revealing the transitive nature of the other; and the other (the interpretive) which can exist as a cultural or theoretic truth only insofar as it can suppress the one. As will be seen, in every engagement both modalities are always present. What becomes the issue in exploring art – and that means the art object, the artist, and the art viewer each – the degree of dominance of one over the other.[FN3]
[FN3] It is worth pointing out that Sontag takes a moment to clarify her own terms and make it explicitly known that by “interpretation” she means not “interpretation of the broadest sense, the sense in which Nietzsche (rightly) says, ‘there are no facts, only interpretation.’”
By this point in the essay, however, the clarification is mostly formal (and, perhaps, an opportunity to bring Nietzsche into the mix as a thinker on the side opposed to the interpretive): the idea of interpretation that Sontag is critiquing – “a conscious act of the mind which illustrates a certain code, certain ‘rules’ of interpretation” (5) –has already been made apparent within the opposition of “experience” to “theory.”*******************************
The outbound leg of the journey through Sontag's argument was toward an understanding of the idea of interpretation. The return leg moves onward by backing through the argument with aim to expand the growing understanding of the originary point, that which was first called the "experience" of art and, in the famous last line of the essay (an ending that echoes the opening of the essay in making the same basic statement, only now with the emphasis and momentum on the "experience" side of the debate), finds its encompassing term:
|"In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art." (14)|
We followed by Sontag's roadmap how "theory" leads to interpretation and hermeneutics. Now we retrace our steps to develop that which is not directly mapped out, how "experience" leads to "an erotics of art." Much of the work has already been done: as I said, the way beyond is found by following the journey back.
The motion of the journey out began with theory's positioning of content rather than experience as the necessary and central aspect to art. Everything that followed was an expansion of the initial positing. Yet Sontag's basic argument is that contemporary understanding of art is one based upon content, upon interpretation. Sontag has been explaining not the alternative, but the de facto. Thus, the first steps of the journey back are simple reversals of ideas. First, we reverse the motion: knowing what art is as defined by theory, we posit, instead, the question "If my understanding of art is naturally interpretive, what then was art when it was understood not through interpretation, but through 'experience'?"
Second, we reverse the first action of the outbound journey: if theory positioned content as the defining element of art, then to understand art as erotic we must undo that positioning and remove the emphasis upon content and the impetus that maintains it as the defining center of art. This means ending the self-replicating cycle of the interpretive process: the art object must be confronted on its own; content, and its interpretation, can not be permitted to stand in substitute for the art object.
The third step is to reverse the means by which content was made capable of sublating the art object as a thing unto itself. That reversal is accomplished by refusing the fragmentation of the art object into those separate qualities of which content became the all defining: which is to say, it is accomplished by ending the distinction between content and form. The advent of "theories" of art was the artificial dividing of content out from form; ergo, before theories of art, in the "experience" of art, the two are unified, at most two aspects of one and the same function.
To note, here Sontag stumbles in her explication, in that instead of speaking of a reunification of content and form, she speaks of what can be considered either an inversion of the binary or an equaling of the playing field: e.g., "What is needed, first, is more attention to form in art" and "What is needed is a vocabulary – a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, vocabulary – for forms" (12). In using in her defense of the erotic terms that in her essay arise out of the hermeneutic she can not but avoid maintaining the division of form and content. What is needed is not a vocabulary "descriptive of forms," but one that does not recognize an idea of form exclusive of the idea of content and vice versa. I appeal back to the question of terminology and the distinction of the modalities of the hermeneutic and the erotic. The idea of content as it would be understood in an erotics of art is not that idea of content as it is understood in hermeneutics: the two ideas exist and function in two different modalities. In a sense, speaking of an art object erotically can only entail speaking of the experience of the art object. And it is no more possible to isolate the experience of the content of an art object than it is possible to experience only the red in a painting utterly divorced from the other colors present. (In fact, the thought experiment of cutting a hole in a paper so only the red in the painting shows through goes to prove the point: the painting is no longer being experienced, a color is, in isolation from the painting; the limited viewing is an entirely new event, not a percentage cut of the experience of the painting as a whole. In a painting the red only exists as it is presented among and influenced by the presences of the other colors, forms, textures, etc.)
To make sense of this we take the next step, which is to recognize that when form and content are reunified the idea of art as "saying something" falls by the wayside: no longer can we conceive of art . . . or, to be far more correct, no longer need we (nor, consequently, should we) conceive of art as the bearer of a message containing an interpretable meaning. The graphs created to give visuals to the interpretive project,
M(A) → M(T) → M(R)
and its logical conclusions,
M(A → T → R)
need to be inverted. How to do this? The graphs of the two modalities – the erotic and the hermeneutic – will obviously be opposed in what they favor, in what they privilege in the graph. But also, they will be opposed in the functioning of the elements. So, as said early in the essay, "experience is an engagement, theory is an explanation." The former is an active event, the latter an identification. In the purely hermeneutic, there is only 'M.' The interpretation does not require active participation; it is the re-establishment of a meaning that pre-existed the encounter with (and, even, creation of) the art object. In graphing the purely erotic, it is thus not enough to flip around the variables and place 'A,' 'R' and 'T' in the privileged position. That represents a shift in dominance, but not one of modality. To change the modality the participants we must move from the participants to the active engagement between the participants. Instead of the three elements 'A,' 'R' and 'T,' the primary elements become the engagements between each possible pairing:
A ↔ T T ↔ R A ↔ R
To make it even more clear in its emphasis upon the engagement itself it can be written this way:
↔(A, T) ↔(R, T) ↔(A, R)
Thus, we have three separate graphs for three separate engagements. And there are only the engagements: the terms 'A,' 'R' and 'T,' serve only to identify the participants in each particular engagement (recognizing that the third 'engagement,' that between reader and author, is indirect). Notice that the idea of message is removed from the graph altogether, and with it the necessity to unify the three graphs into a single (communicative) pathway. Which is not to say that 'meaning' is not part of the engagement: a written text, after all, is language, which is unavoidably communal. Meaning, however, does not supplant the engagement but becomes part of it. Nor is it to say that a unified graph can not be crafted. In that the concern of the erotic is, ultimately, the experience of the art object by an individual, in that any engagement is a moot point but that there is a mind in the engagement, it is the individual that can be set as the anchor, and I can construct a simpler, single graph:
T ↔ R|A ↔ T
In the hermeneutic the reader and author are unified in their both being identified by the common message. Here, in the erotic, they are unified in that the engagement, lacking any notion of message, can not be considered transitive in nature: one element does not act upon another element, in turn upon a third. Rather than action on, the erotic engagement is recognized as action between: a person's reading/writing ability engaging the text's ever changing and never terminal potentiality for experience and meaning-production.[FN4] Pragmatically, placing 'text' at both ends of the equation removes all visual notions of the transmission of a message. The graph places the emphasis of the aesthetic engagement upon the person involved, not on the text. The absence of content and any subordination of the author, reader and text to message removes the necessity of the brackets and subscripting.As well, two texts are put in the graph to recognize that while creating and perceiving are tightly interwoven, they are nonetheless different activities. (E.g. [and in somewhat simplified terms], possessing the ability to read Paterson does not mean the possession of the ability to create Paterson specifically; though the ability to read Paterson does, I would say, carry within itself an 'ability to create' that would not exist had Paterson never been read. Which is to say, a body's reading sophistication is related to and developed by [and develops] their creative sophistication, and vice versa.)
[FN4] Assumed here is an understanding that reading and writing are themselves two sides of the same coin. For a more directly rhet/comp example, cf. Kathleen McCormick’s The Culture of Reading and the Teaching of English. NY: Manchester UP, 1994.
And thus we come for a second time to an end, this time pressing the expeditionary journey toward an understanding of the erotic: to reverse the opening lines of "Against Interpretation," it is only within the modality of the erotic, only within an erotic engagement between the viewer and art object, that we can understand how art may be considered as "incantatory, magical." A key point in understanding the erotic engagement is to understand that even though it is an engagement between two participants, neither of the them (particularly the art object) would be considered autonomous (an idea that stems from a mixing of erotic concepts and hermeneutic understanding). Erotics is concerned solely with the engagement of objects: the objects themselves have no existence but within the engagement. As such, the material is replaced with the ideational (which includes the sensual, and the rational); and an individual's engagement with an art object is thus with the ideational field generated by the object within the mind of the individual: which is to say within the ever-changing, ever-potential matrix[FN5] of being that is the cosmos as a whole. Just as the experience of the red in a painting can not be divorced from the experience of the painting as a whole, so the experience of the painting can not be divorced from the individual's experience of life, of being, of the cosmos. As such, we can see how the experience of art can be spoken of as "magical," as "incantatory" – or, to bring in a new term, as hermetic. For in that the erotic is engagement, not object, any object can, potentially, be erotically engaged. What would distinguish art objects from mundane objects is, as we will see, the nature, extent, depth, etc. of the experience – and here we return to the notion of value, this time focusing upon the erotic. Functionally, pure art is that art created solely to be experienced erotically, with no other purpose. Hermetically, pure art is true creation; it is bringing something new into the world, something that offers an experience that can not be found elsewhere. The experience of Paterson, of The Waste Land, of Les Damoiselles D'Avignon, of Rite of Spring, is the experience of those individual works in the time of engagement therewith. And though no two individuals would ever experience them in the same way, nor could any individual experience any other object in the same say. Powerful artwork, great artwork, valuable artwork, would then be that offers the individual a profound depth of engagement, intensity of engagement, extent of engagement. It offers a depth, an intensity, an extent of engagement with matrix of being that is the cosmos as experience and understood by the individual. And thus, it offers a depth, an intensity, an extent of engagement with the self. Thus: Magical. Incantatory. Ritualistic. Mystical. Hermetic. Erotic.
[FN4] Note: I use the word matrix consciously keeping its original meaning of “womb” in mind; it always carries with it both the connotation of creation in process and of the inchoate archetype of the feminine, which has within it all potential forms.
- Bradbury, Malcolm, and James McFarlane. Modernism: 1890-1930: A Guide to European Literature. NY: Penguin, 1991.
- Bullock, Allan. "The Double Image." Bradbury and McFarlane. 58-70.
- Jung, C. G. [OPU]. "On the Psychology of the Unconscious." Two Essays on Analytical Psychology. Trans. R. F. C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1966. 9-119.
- Knapp, Steven, and Walter Benn Michaels. "Against Theory." Against Theory. Ed. W. J. T. Mitchell. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985. 11-30.
- McFarlane, James. "The Mind of Modernism. Bradbury and McFarlane.71-93.
- Sayres, Sohnya. Susan Sontag: The Elegiac Modernist. NY: Routledge, 1990.
- Sontag, Susan. "Against Interpretation." Against Interpretation. NY: Anchor Doubleday, 1966. 3-14.