Monday, May 17, 2010

Giorgio Agamben's The Man Without Content: A Review, Cont'd

It makes me very happy that the first part of my review of Agamben's The Man Without Content (Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics) has provoked such an intense interest on the part of my readers. This has become the most popular post in the past 6 weeks. I have to warn my readers, though, that a significant chunk of Agamben's book is dedicated to a very painstaking analysis of the Ancient Greek terms central to his analysis. As a result of reading the book, I now understand some Greek words. In a way, this analysis of terminology employed by Greek philosophers becomes quite redundant, which in my opinion, is the main weakness of The Man Without Content.

As some of my readers observed correctly, you cannot discuss aesthetics without addressing the issues of class. Agamben dedicates quite a lot of time to analyzing whether Marxist theory is helpful to the clarification of the issues surrounding aesthetic enjoyment. Agamben rejects the Marxist-based perception of artistic production:

The privileged status of art in the aesthetic sphere is artificially interpreted as the survival of a condition in which manual and intellectual labor are not yet divided and in which, therefore, the productive act maintains all its integrity and uniqueness; by contrast, technical production, which takes place starting from a condition of extreme division of labor, remains essentially fungible and reproducible.
This attitude to art is, however, fairly new in historical terms. For Agamben, it is based on a decidedly incorrect and artificial approach. He reminds us that the Ancient Greek philosophers had a completely different view of differences between art and labor:

The Greeks, to whom we owe all the categories through which we judge ourselves and the reality around us, made a clear distinction between poiesis (poiein, "to pro-duce" in the sense of bringing into being) and praxis (prattein, "to do" in the sense of acting). As we shall see, central to praxis was the idea of the will that finds its immediate expression in an act, while, by contrast, central to poiesis was the experience of pro-duction into presence, the fact that something passed from nonbeing to being.
The real difference between art and a non-artistic result of our productivity lies in art's central capacity to bring into being something radically new. Art's privileged status, says Agamben, is a result of art's power to create something out of nothing. Today, we have unfortunately forgot about this crucial ability of art to create something out of nothing. Agamben points out that the tradition of storing art in museums and art collections of private individuals robs art of its role as an act of creation. The moment you attempt to contain art in a museum or a collection, you transform it into an occasion for aesthetic enjoyment or, as happens more and more often, an opportunity for the spectators to practice their aesthetic judgement. Thus, art stops being a subject and becomes an object. It is only valuable as long as we can turn it to our use as a trigger to our critical analysis.

The reason why this new attitude to art was formed lies in the changing attitude towards work. We all know that the Greeks did not hold working in a very high regard (to say the very least):
The Greeks were prevented from considering work thematically, as one of the fundamental modes of human activity besides poiesis and praxis, by the fact that the physical work necessary for life's needs was performed by slaves. However, this does not mean that they were unaware of its existence or had not understood its nature. To work meant to submit to necessity, and submission to necessity, which made man the equal of the animal, with its perpetual and forced search for means of sustenance, was thought incompatible with the condition of the free man. As Hannah Arendt rightly points out, to affirm that work was an object of contempt in antiquity because it was reserved to slaves is a prejudice: the ancients reasoned about it in the opposite direction, deeming necessary the existence of slaves because of the slavish nature of the activities that provided for life's sustenance. In other words, they had understood one of the essential characteristics of work, namely, its immediate relation to the biological process of life. 
According to the Greeks' way of thinking, one had to deserve the right to be considered a human being. The way to achieve that was by making oneself as different as possible from an animal. While animals are ruled by their biology, human beings can attempt to free themselves from this enslavement to physiological processes. (In my view, this is the central idea behind the origins of feminism - see Beauvoir's The Second Sex - which allows feminism to claim as its origin such an unlikely place as the Ancient Greek philosophy.)As we can see, for Agamben this understanding of the reasons behind the privileged status of art is completely artificial. The philosopher reminds us that the way in which the thinkers of Ancient Greece understood art did not allow for such facile and reductive understanding of art and production:

This vision of work vs art is completely transformed in subsequent historic periods, claims Agamben:

Work, which used to occupy the lowest rank in the hierarchy of active life, climbs to the rank of central value and common denominator of every human activity. This ascent begins at the moment when Locke discovers in work the origin of property, continues when Adam Smith elevates it to the source of all wealth, and reaches its peak with Marx, who makes of it the expression of man's very humanity.
We can see how true this analysis is if we observe the way artists relate to their own creative tasks. The legend of Balzac who asked to be tied to an armchair in order to remain as productive as possible continues today in the perennial efforts of artists to keep producing regularly and always achieving higher quality of their product. As a result, the role of art in our lives is transformed in the ways outlined previously. This is, of course, a very dangerous thing to happen:
In the work of art man risks losing not simply a piece of cultural wealth, however precious, and not even the privileged expression of his creative energy: it is the very space of his world, in which and only in which he can find himself as man and as being capable of action and knowledge.
This is, in my opinion, the central part of Agamben's message. What we have lost as a result of our approach to art is a place where we can truly come to existence as human beings.

Food for thought:

I would love to know how my readers would answer the following questions:
  1. What are the reasons behind the privileged status of art, in your opinion? Do you agree with Marx or with Agamben in this respect?
  2. Do you agree with the Ancient Greek philosophers in that being human requires a break with the dependence on "the biological cycle of the organism"?
  3. Does work make us human (as Marx maintained) or does it make us less human (as the Greeks would have it)?

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