Saturday, May 15, 2010

Giorgio Agamben's The Man Without Content: A Review

The philosophy of aesthetics normally does not interest me very much. However, like everything else written by this great thinker, Giorgio Agamben's The Man Without Content (Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics) overcame my resistance to the subject of aesthetics.

For Agamben, aesthetics presents both a great impediment to the fulfillment of human destiny and the only hope of achieving it. He begins his fascinating study by discussing the relatively recent origins of the idea of good taste and aesthetic sensibility. It is not until the mid-XVIIth century, says Agamben, that the distinction between good taste and bad taste appears. It is at that same point in history that a strict boundary between art and non-art begins to be drawn. From that moment, a work of art increasingly transforms for the spectators into an opportunity to practice their good taste and exercise their aesthetic judgement.

The appearance of the notion of bad taste is, obviously, attendant on the rise of the idea of good taste. Agamben points out that

Today the existence of an art and literature whose sole purpose is entertainment is so exclusively attributed to a mass society, and we are so accustomed to seeing it through the psychological condition of the intellectuals who witnessed its first explosion in the second half of the nineteenth century, that we forget that when it first arose . . .  it was an aristocratic, not a popular, phenomenon. And the critics of mass culture would certainly be setting themselves a more useful task if they started asking, first of all, how it could have happened that precisely a refined elite should have felt the need to create vulgar objects for its sensibility.
In my opinion, this is one of the most interesting subjects Agamben discusses in The Man Without Content. For the obvious reasons, I spend a lot of time with people who are literary critics, art critics, etc. Largely, our entire profession consists of enjoying, contemplating, and analyzing works of art. Usually, the best way to distinguish a seasoned colleague from a novice in our craft is by their attitude towards mass culture. The more secure an art critic feels in his or her vocation, the easier it is for them to confess their intense enjoyment of Elizabeth George's mysteries, the music of 50 Cent, or the reality television. While the 1st year PhD students react with indignation (mostly, completely fake) to the question whether they enjoy mass entertainment, literary critics of international renown happily show you their mystery novel collections or the DVD sets of their favorite soap. Thus, it was good to see Agamben discuss how popular culture had its origins in the preferences of the intellectual elites. I would have wished to see him explore this subject further, which he, sadly, decided not to do.

Another fascinating point that Agamben makes in The Man Without Content (Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics) has to do with the radical transformation that has taken place in the very nature of the enjoyment of artworks:
The work of art does not satisfy the soul's spiritual needs as it did in earlier times, because our tendency toward reflection and toward a critical stance have become so strong that when we are before a work of art we no longer attempt to penetrate its innermost vitality, identifying ourselves with it, but rather attempt to represent it to ourselves according to the critical framework furnished by the aesthetic judgment. . . The work of art is no longer, for modern man, the concrete appearance of the divine, which causes either ecstasy or sacred terror in the soul, but a privileged occasion to exercise his critical taste, that judgment on art which, if it is not actually worth more than art itself for us, certainly addresses a need that is at least as essential.
In my experience, at least, Agamben's observations couldn't be more true. In a museum, I often find myself standing in front of a work of art, composing in my head a critical narrative about the painting I am observing. Many a play has been spoilt for me by this obsessive need to accompany the act of watching a theatrical performance with a mental composition of a review explaining its meaning to an imaginary audience.

This manner of relating to art has eventually led to a very similar approach to nature, especially since our direct experience of nature has been reduced in number and quality by the advances of civilization:
While we are no longer able to judge a work of art aesthetically, our intelligence of nature has grown so opaque, and, moreover, the presence in it of the human element has grown to such an extent, that sometimes, in front of a landscape, we spontaneously compare it to its shadow, wondering whether it is aesthetically beautiful or ugly. . . Thus we find it natural to speak today of "land conservancy" in the same way that we speak of the preservation of a work of art, both ideas that would have struck other eras as inconceivable. It is also likely that we will soon create institutes to restore natural beauty just like those for the restoration of works of art, without recognizing that such an idea presupposes a radical transformation of our relationship to nature. What used to present itself to aesthetic judgment as absolute otherness has now become something familiar and natural, while natural beauty, which was, for our judgment, a familiar reality, has become something radically alien: art has become nature, and nature, art.
What distinguishes Agamben from most contemporary philosophers is his reluctance to accompany such beautiful insights by obnoxious moralizing. Too many thinkers would have grasped this line of reasoning as the perfect opportunity to rant against the "evils" of progress and civilization. Agamben, thankfully, avoids this trap.

[To be continued...]

Part II of this review is located here.


Khephra said...

Cheers for the review! From appearances, the author's thesis doesn't seem to get at the crux of aesthetic appreciation - there's no mention of class or culture, for instance.

Aside from Kant, perhaps my favourite study of aesthetics is James Manns's "Aesthetics"; but that's definitely not a domain of philosophy I'd claim any special insight into.

Anonymous said...

This seems far more like a work of history than one of philosophy, no? That could just be the impression I'm getting from your review.

Pagan Topologist said...

For most of our history, people have regarded nature as an adversary. It seems to me that we have made a major ethical breakthrough in that now some of us at least recognize that the biosphere must be protected. I am having trouble seeing how this moralizing you mention could work. Many people today are still caught up in the prior view and have yet to have this ethical awakening. But this is one case where the new is better than the old, I think.

Clarissa said...

Anonymous and Khephra: Thank you for your interest! THis is just the first part of the review. An analysis of Marx and Nietzche appear in the second part of the book.

Pagan Topologist: Today, some people have the luxury not to see nature as an adversary because so many people before them did. The point that I was making in the review is that many thinkers love writing about how civilization and progress are pernicious. Still, they are writing about the horrors of progress on their computers, in their safe heated or air-conditioned houses. Besides, most them are of an age that they would not have seen by far if it weren't for the progress that made such a long life-span available. They also live very comfortably by the products of their intellectual labor. Progress again. Not recognizing just how much they owe to progress is extremely ungrateful.