Articles Issue #1
BY Walter Benn MichaelsJanuary 25, 2011
BY Walter Benn MichaelsJanuary 25, 2011
Works of art enchant us not because they are so natural but because they have been made so natural.
Absorption and Intentionality
In his seminal text, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (1980), Michael Fried devotes several pages to a discussion of why Diderot didn’t value still-life painting more highly than (with the exception of Chardin’s) he did. The salience of the question is clear to anyone who knows Fried’s basic argument: that Diderot articulated an aesthetic committed to denying what Fried calls the “primordial convention that paintings are made to be beheld”1 and thus to valuing above all paintings of figures so deeply absorbed in their own activities — sometimes solitary (like Chardin’s Young Draftsman), often in groups organized (as in Greuze’s Filial Piety) around some central action or figure — that they seem to be completely unaware of, oblivious to, the possibility of being observed. The great achievement of such paintings, according to Fried, was that, representing subjects who had no “consciousness of being beheld” (102), they established for themselves “a mode of pictorial unity” (76) (a removal from the world outside the painting) that sought to overcome what would otherwise seem the irreducible theatricality of painting — the fact that all paintings actually are made to be beheld. And from this standpoint, the attraction of the still-life would seem to be obvious. No bowl of fruit runs the risk of looking self-conscious; no vase of flowers can be understood as posing for its audience. The subjects of still-life paintings are, as Fried puts it, “literally incapable of evincing awareness of the beholder” (102). So why didn’t Diderot like them?
Fried gives two answers. The first is that precisely because the subjects of still-life cannot be aware of the beholder, they could not function “to deny his presence, to establish positively insofar as that could be done that he had not been taken into account.” Only paintings of “conscious agents….fully capable of evincing awareness of the beholder” (103) could count as denying the presence of the beholder, which is to say as acknowledging the problem of the beholder and then overcoming it. The still-life cannot overcome it because it cannot acknowledge it.
The second answer is that in a still-life, the elimination, or anyway the rendering irrelevant, of any question about whether the subjects are posing or performing or soliciting a certain attention (since they are inanimate) puts all the pressure on the painting itself, which is to say, on the artist: “inanimate subject matter,” Fried says, made “the artistic and presentational aspects of the painting itself all the more obtrusive by imposing almost desperate demands on technique and by calling attention to the fact that the objects depicted by the painter were chosen by him, arranged by him, illuminated by him, and in general exhibited by him to the beholder” (102). There is a sense, of course, in which this is equally true of all painting — how, without being chosen and depicted by the painter does anything ever get into a painting? — but the still-life, displacing attention from the figures in the painting to the painter himself, raises this question in an almost unanswerable way. It takes absorption’s “supreme fiction” — the denial of the “primordial convention that paintings were made to be beheld” — and reproduces it as the demand for a slightly different (but entirely compatible and even more dramatically counter-factual) fiction — the denial that paintings were made at all. It’s as if for the still-life to overcome its display of the way in which the painter is performing for an audience, it would have to replace the unawareness of the painted subjects (the girl reading, the family gathered around the dying man) with the unawareness of the painter himself. And it’s this demand — the demand that the painter be as unconcerned with producing an effect on the beholder as the young girl reading is — that seems too desperate.
But, desperate though it may be, and whether or not it can ever be met, it’s this demand — articulated not just as an aesthetic preference but as a theoretical requirement — that has, for the last half century been at the heart of aesthetic theory and a great deal of the most advanced aesthetic production. We can see its immediate pre-history in Fried’s account of the great formalist critic Roger Fry and in particular of Fry’s enthusiasm for El Greco who, “as a singularly pure artist…expressed his idea with perfect sincerity, with complete indifference to what effect the right expression might have on the public.”2 What Fry means to emphasize, Fried argues, is that El Greco was concerned only “with the complete realization of an artistic idea and not at all with exerting an effect on an audience” (9). This is, of course, as Fried argues, a deeply Diderotian or absorptive aesthetic, and the point of the essay is to argue that Fry’s formalism is an effort to understand and value paintings “owing to the play of forces internal to the work rather than because of a desire to appeal to the beholder” (16). The argument, in other words, is that the insistence on the unity of the painting and the insistence on the irrelevance of the beholder — and especially the opposition between the unity of the painting and the effort to affect the beholder — are all hallmarks of the formalist or absorptive critic, despite the fact that, as Fried reminds us, the effort to establish the unity of the painting must itself be understood as nothing but an effort to affect the beholder. “Needless to say,” he says (but he says it in parentheses), “the conviction of unity and necessity…is itself the product of an attempt to affect the beholder in a certain way” (19).
If, however, this goes without saying for Fried, it’s not obvious that it does so for Fry. Indeed, what Fried immediately goes on to remark in Fry is his “characteristic and recurrent” (24) use of phrases like “almost unconscious” and “half-conscious” in his descriptions of the activities of the artists he most admires.3 And the point, as Fried puts it, is that Fry’s appeal to the unconsciousness of his artists is “both a displacement and a radicalization of Diderot; to the extent that an artist is imagined as having been unaware of doing a particular thing, it cannot be claimed that he did it in order to make a particular impression on the viewer” (25).
But if he didn’t do it to make some particular impression on the viewer, why then did he do it? This is a difficult question because the kinds of answers that come immediately to mind — the kind that Fried himself has already suggested in his discussion of establishing the unity of the painting — cannot really function as alternatives to the effort to make a particular impression on the viewer. You can’t, in other words, say that the artist is trying to establish the unity of the painting as opposed to trying to make an impression on the beholder since, as we have already seen Fried say, “the conviction of unity” is itself “a product of the attempt to affect the beholder in a certain way.” It looks, in other words, like once the absorptive commitment to ignoring the beholder is understood as the demand that the artist make no effort at all to produce any kind of effect, it becomes impossible to fulfil. It’s no longer enough for the painter not to appear to be trying to produce an effect; it’s no longer enough for the painter (“almost unconscious”) not to be aware of trying to produce an effect– now the painter must really not try to produce an effect. But how can you make a painting at all — how can you make something that looks the way you want it to look — without seeking to produce an effect? The radicalization (or literalization) of the commitment to absorption thus produces an antinomy — the works of art we value are those which seek to produce no effect on the beholder, but without the effort to produce an effect on the beholder (without the effort, as we might say, to make something that can be seen), there would be no works of art.
To put the problem in this way, however, is also to begin to see a kind of solution, one already suggested by Fried’s addition of Roland Barthes (in particular in Camera Lucida, his book on photography) to the canon of Diderotian critics. Barthes’ attachment to what he calls the punctum and his dislike of what he calls the studium, are as Fried convincingly shows, entirely “anti-theatrical” since where the studium is what the photographer tries to show you, the punctum is what the photograph makes it possible for you to see, independent of or even in opposition to what the photographer tries to show you. The very concept of the punctum thus depends upon the Diderotian distinction “between ‘seeing’ and ‘being shown’”4 and its attraction consists precisely in its being by definition something that is in the photograph despite the fact that the photographer has not himself meant to put it there. Indeed, from the standpoint of this problem about the agency of the artist, photography looks like an exemplary medium — a way to resolve the antinomy described above. On the one hand, it does not dispense altogether with the artist — no photographs without the photographer; on the other hand, the fact that it characteristically displays images over which the photographer does not have complete control and thus makes it possible to value just those images (the punctum) means that what the photographer has tried to do — the effect s/he has sought to produce — may have nothing to do with the beauty, value or meaning of the photograph. The difficulty of imagining an artist who isn’t trying to create a work of art is resolved by imagining instead an artist whose efforts to create the work are irrelevant to its meaning.
The photograph thus presents itself as a kind of theoretical antithesis to the Diderotian still life and, of course, this view is by no means limited to Barthes. On the contrary, from the very start, the claims photographers have made to be artists have been contested by critics denying that the photograph has enough “intentional meaning” “to be considered fine art. ”5 And Barthes is by no means the only recent writer to maintain some version of this position. But it’s a crucial fact about Barthes that (unlike, say, the notoriously sceptical Roger Scruton) his interest is not primarily in debunking photography’s claims to art, and not at all in claiming that because the photograph is not fully or adequately intended it cannot count as art. For, in Barthes’ own writing, art itself — with literature as the exemplary case — had already been disconnected from the question of intentional meaning.6 That is, starting at least in the mid 1960s and emerging more fully in “The Death of the Author” (1968) and “From Work to Text” (1971), there is a crucial sense in which for Barthes the irrelevance of “the author’s declared intentions” and the “removal of the Author”7 more generally had come to be seen as constitutive at the very least of modern aesthetic production and at the most of the idea of aesthetic production as such. “Writing begins,” Barthes says, when “the voice loses it origin” and “the author enters his own death.”8
Furthermore, as every student of literary theory knows very well — you learn it the minute you first read “The Intentional Fallacy” — this position was hardly unique to Barthes, or, for that matter, to Barthes and the others (Foucault, Derrida) who held some version of it. Beginning in the mid-1940s, the idea that the meaning of a literary work was not determined by its author’s intentions was foundational for American literary criticism, providing the material (although this was by no means what it was designed to do) for a potential theoretical solution to an aesthetic problem. The aesthetic problem was how to create anti-theatrical works of art at the moment when the very effort to do so (indeed, any effort at all) had begun to register as theatrical. The theoretical solution was to deny not that those efforts took place but that they were in any way constitutive of the meaning of the work of art. It was the syntactic and semantic rules of the language, not the author’s consciousness that determined the meaning of the work. Thus Fry’s strenuous but not very compelling attempt to imagine a kind of psychology for the painter’s desire not to produce an effect on the beholder (“half-conscious,” “almost unconscious,” “perfect sincerity,” “complete indifference”) is rendered supererogatory. The new theoretical anti-intentionalism rescues the critic from a psychological anti-intentionalism that, still committed to some account of the artist’s agency, can only register the artist’s actions as unconscious (and hence not fully actions) or as completely disconnected from all possible consequences (and hence, again, not fully actions). Now, the ontological irrelevance of the artist’s intentions, whatever they are, makes it unnecessary to deny that he actually had any.9
For our purposes, however, Barthes’s version of anti-intentionalism is more crucial than Wimsatt’s and Beardsley’s, and for two reasons. The first is that Barthes’s is theoretical and aesthetic (in effect, the anti-theatrical aesthetic creates the necessity for the anti-intentional — i.e. theatrical — theory) whereas Wimsatt’s and Beardsley’s is theoretical and methodological. Barthes is defending certain aesthetic values; Wimsatt and Beardsley were seeking to establish the “public” and “objective” character of literary meaning. Their concern was with professional literary criticism.10 And the second, which really follows from the first, is that insofar as Wimsatt and Beardsley were interested in establishing the public meaning of the text, they were just as opposed to considering the reader as they were to the writer; the companion to “The Intentional Fallacy” was “The Affective Fallacy.” Whereas Barthes is just the opposite; he explicitly links “The Death of the Author” to “the birth of the reader” and he explicitly celebrates the refusal of what he calls an “ultimate” meaning, the refusal to “fix meaning” that the shift from writer to reader makes inevitable.
Thus we have both an aesthetic solution to the problem of the artist’s agency — How do you avoid seeming to seek to produce an effect on the reader/beholder? Do nothing — and a theoretical answer to the question of the author’s agency — How do the artist’s actions determine the meaning of the work? They don’t. And just as, in Barthes, the theoretical answer immediately and (as I shall show) necessarily produces an appeal to the reader, so too does the aesthetic solution. That is, the theoretical solution to absorption’s aesthetic problem (the invention of an artist who could not be understood as performing for an audience because his intentions to produce certain effects were now understood as in principle irrelevant to the effects his work in fact produced) is simultaneously the transformation of absorption’s aesthetic indifference to the reader or beholder into a total — indeed (as I will also show), programmatic — appeal to the reader or beholder. In Camera Lucida, this is the whole point of the punctum, which is nothing but an accidental and unintended effect of the photograph on the beholder — the “detail” that can “‘prick’ me” only if the photographer has not put it there “intentionally” and that can prick me but may not prick you.11 That’s why Barthes famously doesn’t reproduce the Winter Garden photograph of his mother; it cannot have the effect on us (she’s not our mother) that it does on him — for us, no punctum, for us, “no wound.” The punctum, in other words, functions as an absorptive reproach to the “artifice” of the photographer, resisting and reproaching his inevitably theatrical efforts to produce a particular effect on the beholder while at the same time (and for the same reason) it transforms the photograph into a work dependent entirely on the beholder — a purely theatrical object. The absorptive demand of indifference to the reader/beholder becomes an insistence on the absolute primacy of the reader/beholder.
Theatricality is, from this standpoint, not exactly — or not only — the opposite of absorption; it is the inevitable outcome of the radicalization of the logic of absorption. Which is to say that the developments in the history of art that Fried would (in “Art and Objecthood”) identify with theatricality — literalism, minimalism, more generally, postmodernism — are the dialectical working through of the logic of absorption. We can get a concrete sense of this claim by thinking about another major figure of Barthes’s generation. Probably no one would think to call John Cage an absorptive artist (in fact, in “Art and Objecthood” he’s the first example of the proposition that “Art degenerates as it approaches the condition of theatre”12) but his description of his ambition for his music and especially in regard to his “silent” piece, 4’33” — “I was intent upon making something that didn’t tell people what to do”13 — can only make sense in the context of the radicalization of the anti-theatrical. “Why would anyone write music in which nothing is performed?” asks the critic and artist Larry Solomon.14 And although Solomon himself is not at all concerned with the Diderotian problem of performance, the relevance of a Diderotian answer is obvious: you write precisely in order to avoid performance, in order to avoid the effort to produce an effect on the listener, in order, that is, to avoid telling “people what to do.”15 In Camera Lucida, Barthes, illustrating what Fried rightly calls, the “extremity” of his “antitheatricalism,” proclaims that “to see a photograph well, it is best to look away or close one’s eyes” and goes on to insist that “the photograph must be silent,” not “blustering,” not, in other words, trying to get the beholder to respond the way the photographer wants him to respond. This “is not a question of discretion,” Barthes says, but “of music” (53-55). And 4’33” is, of course, the “silent piece,” or at least, since, as is well known, Cage denied there was any such thing as silence, it is, as he said, a piece in which the only sounds were “accidental”; “there are no (intentional) sounds” (Conversing, 65).
Here the parallel with Barthes’s hostility to the photographer’s intentions is complete. “The essential meaning of silence,” Cage says is not the absence of sound, but “the giving up of intention” (Conversing, 189). That is, the point of 4’33”’s silence is not that the performance should actually be silent but rather that whatever sounds there are should not be controlled by or in any way come from the composer. Hence, as with Barthes, we have on the one hand the characteristically absorptive refusal of the effort to produce an effect on the listener — no intentional sounds. And, on the other hand, we have the inevitable primacy of the listener, since whatever sounds s/he happens to hear (during the famous first performance, the “wind stirring,” “raindrops pattering on the roof,” and, in the third movement “all kinds of interesting sounds” made by the listeners themselves “as they talked or walked out” [Conversing, 65-66]) are the sounds that make up the piece. And just as this absorptive repudiation of intention involved in Barthes a repudiation also of the idea that a work could have a single or “final signified” (the “multiplicity of writing” required the refusal to “fix meaning” [Image, 147]), so in Cage the abdication of the composer’s agency is necessarily accompanied by an insistence on multiplicity: no two performances of 4’33” can ever sound the same. Indeed, no one performance will produce the same effect on its audience. When Cage hears the rain falling, it suggests to him “the love binding heaven and earth,” but he does not imagine that this response will “necessarily correspond with another’s.” “Emotion,” he says, “takes place in the person who has it.”16 Emotion, like the punctum, is the response the artist cannot control.
4’33” can thus be understood as an exemplary case of the way in which a radicalized absorption — produced by the commitment to not impose one’s intentions on the listener/beholder/reader, to not perform for an audience — becomes indistinguishable from an account of the work of art in which it is theatricality that’s radicalized — the only thing that matters is the audience’s response. The piece consists no longer in the sounds the composer or performer produce but in the sounds, whatever they happen to be, that the listener hears. The way Cage puts this is to say that for him and other composers “who have accepted the sounds they do not intend” (Silence, 11), the tendency is toward musical performance as “theatre,” which he values because it is the art that most “resembles nature” (12) and which he imagines would in its ideal form be indistinguishable from “everyday life,” so you could then “view everyday life as theatre” (Conversing, 101); art would, in effect, become indistinguishable from nature. The artist who begins with the fiction that his work is not made for the world (not made to be seen, not made to be listened to) ends by collapsing the work into the world — it’s whatever you see, whatever you hear.
Nature and Theatricality
In the recent history of theory, as opposed to the history of art and music, the site on which this collapse is most vividly either embraced or refused is in the structure of all the thought experiments comparing marks produced by chance (which is to say, by nature, by the world) with identical marks produced on purpose (by somebody who means something by them). Richard Rorty’s response to the Knapp and Michaels “Against Theory” wave-poem example (marks that look like they spell out Wordsworth’s “A Slumber did my spirit seal” produced not by some poet but by waves on a beach) was exemplary. “Anything,” he wrote in 1985, “a wave pattern, an arrangement of stars, the spots on a rock” can be “treated like” a sentence.17 The question of whether they were meant to be a sentence is irrelevant. Furthermore — and here Rorty was much more radical than Wimsatt and Beardsley or than philosophers like John Searle, who argued that such marks meant what they meant in English regardless of what they were or weren’t intended to mean — Rorty imposed no requirement that the marks actually look like a sentence in some actually existing language. Any set of marks for which you could work out some set of semantic and syntactic rules that would give them meaning could count as a sentence. “‘Linguisticality,’” he famously observed, is “cheap. You can impute it to anything simply by working out a translation scheme” (133).
The central idea here is that the question of whether a sentence is a sentence (or whether a work of art is a work of art) cannot be answered by an account of how or why or by whom the marks that make up the sentence were produced. Nature — the wave patterns and the spots on a rock — is just a name for the irrelevance of that account. Thus when, deploying a parallel example (monkeys on typewriters), Goodman and Elgin (1986) claim (contra Borges) that if the monkeys eventually produce a text identical to Don Quixote, it is in fact “the same text” open to the same “same interpretations” as the one “consciously inscribed by Cervantes,”18 their nature is just a more mechanized one than Rorty’s or Cage’s. As is Barthes’s photograph. The point each time is to insist that the way in which the marks were produced has nothing to do with what they are and that the question of whether the marks were intended to mean something has nothing to do with the question of whether or what they actually mean.
But Barthes and especially Rorty understand the force of this point a lot better than Goodman and Elgin (or Searle) do. Elgin and Goodman think that it’s not the author’s intentions but the marks themselves that determine the correct translation scheme; it’s what “En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme…” means in Spanish, not what Cervantes meant by it that matters. But Rorty sees that if we’re not interested in what Cervantes meant, there’s no principled reason for us to be interested in the rules of Spanish either. The reader who invents a different translation scheme (call it Spanish prime) for the marks made by the monkeys is just involved in a more labor-intensive version of the task performed by the speaker of Spanish: they’re both applying some translation scheme to random marks, and there’s no more reason to say that the marks are really in Spanish rather than in Spanish prime than there is to say (what Knapp and Michaels said) that the spots on the rock are not really in any language at all.
Thus, Elgin and Goodman’s idea that the monkey marks are subject to all the same interpretations as the text of Don Quixote is true (insofar as it is true) only if some reader finds it desirable to treat them, arbitrarily, as if they were 17th century Spanish. They are also and equally subject to any meaning they might have in Spanish prime or in any other translation scheme a reader might come up with. More generally, the theoretical indifference to the author (Cervantes may have spoken Spanish but the monkeys don’t) requires the transformation of all marks into the equivalents of spots on a rock, intentional acts reconceived as natural events.19 Which is what makes the decision to treat them as any particular language, or as language at all, arbitrary. And which thus turns what they are — because what they are is what they’re treated as — into what they are for the reader.20 The emotions evoked in me by “nature,” Cage wrote are, of course, evoked “unintentionally” (nature has no intentions)21 and, because “Emotion takes place in the person who has it” (because one person’s spots on a stone are another person’s Don Quixote), my “responses to nature are mine” (Silence, 10). The goal for Cage was an art that, rivalling nature in its refusal of intentionality, would therefore exist as an art only insofar as it existed for the viewer. It would be, in Fried’s terms, essentially theatrical, and since, Cage thought, theatre (more than music) is “the art” that most “resembles nature,” it would in fact be “theatre.”
In the event, however, for reasons that our discussion of Barthes has already begun to suggest, photography would be as crucial as performance (and much more crucial than painting or literature) in the effort to imagine an art that, as unintended as nature, would belong to the world and to the beholder (rather than to the artist) and would thus undo what Jacques Rancière has characterized as the “modernist project of separation” — the project of separating the artwork from the world by separating it both from the things it represents and from the spectator to whom it represents them.22 Literature and painting can only achieve what Rancière calls “this inclusion of non-art,” he says, “by artistic means” (13). That is, a painting “can only imitate” non-art; it cannot actually be non-art. But a photograph can — in fact, must.
Why? Because a photograph is more like an object in the world than it is like a representation of an object in the world. This is what Barthes means when he begins Camera Obscura by saying that in looking at an 1852 photograph of Napoleon’s youngest brother he “was looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor” (3). His point is not, of course, that the photograph is somehow a person — it is instead that looking at Jerome Bonaparte in the photograph is more like seeing him, say, reflected in a mirror than it is like seeing him depicted by a painter. Neither the reflection nor the photograph is a representation; they have a causal connection to Jerome that, unlike the painting, does not depend on the beliefs, desires or intentions of some other person.
And this is true even though in the case of the photograph (as opposed to the reflection), the photographer almost certainly did have relevant beliefs, desires and intentions. Often, of course (especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries), this structural limitation on the photographer — the fact that every photograph is causally tied to the thing it’s a photograph of in a way that almost no painting is23 — was produced as an accusation. And more recently, when Roger Scruton writes that “in an ideal photograph it is neither necessary nor even possible that the photographer’s intention should enter as a serious factor in determining how the picture is seen,”24 he still means it as criticism. His idea is that our interest in a painting, even in a painted portrait is an interest in how the artist saw the subject and in how he or she intended the beholder to see the subject. Whereas in a photograph, no matter what the photographer’s intentions, we see the subject for ourselves. And although one way of responding to such criticism has naturally been to point out the ways in which the photographer is, after all, able to assert some control over the picture, that defense is obviously not one that Barthes or Rancière is interested in making. Just the opposite. It’s precisely because the indexicality of the photograph (its causal connection to the thing it’s a photograph of) counts as an obstacle to the aesthetic intentions of the photographer (who, because of that causal connection, cannot and (more strikingly) need not infuse the photograph with his or her intentionality) that photography assumes its contemporary importance.
Thus when Rancière praises the ability of the photograph to include “non-art” by non-artistic means, and when he insists on the inscrutability of the photographer’s intentions (“We don’t know what was going through Walker Evans’s mind,” he says of a famous photograph from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, “in framing his photo as he did” and “the photo does not say whether it is art or not” ), he is preferring photography to painting in terms that echo even if they invert Scruton’s. It’s precisely its “poverty” as an art — not only the difficulty in deciding what some particular photographer’s intentions were but the photograph’s structural openness to the possibility that the photographer “simply photographed what was in front of him without any particular intention” — that makes photography valuable in simultaneously postmodern and what Rancière characterizes as Kantian terms. Postmodern because it refuses what, in The Originality of the Avant-Garde, Rosalind Krauss called the claim to “Art” characteristic of the “aesthetic intention.”25 And Kantian for essentially the same reasons: “It is the order of the natural world that imprints itself on the photographic emulsion and subsequently on the photographic print.”26 So even when the photograph is made by someone who means something by it (even when, as Rancière says, it is “an intentional production of art which seeks an end”), what it gives you is nonetheless what the Kantian appeal to an art like nature requires: “the sensible experience of beauty without end.”
Put in these terms, we can say that the internal crisis of absorption — the transformation of the refusal of theatricality into the refusal of intentionality, the refusal, that is, of the effort to produce any effect on the beholder/listener/reader at all — was already in a certain sense prefigured in the pride of place assigned to natural beauty in the Critique of Judgment. Because the appeal to nature is both the refusal of the artist’s intentions and the embrace of the beholder’s response (in the absence or irrelevance of the writer, it’s the beholder who makes the spots on the rock linguistic), it undoes what Rancière calls the project of separation. The “big question of artistic modernity,” he says (explicitly following Fried), is the question of how “a work” can “be made coherent,” and the answer (again following Fried) is “by excluding the spectator” (14). The work that counts as unintended necessarily includes the spectator and thus cannot be made coherent. The invocation of Kant is thus in the service of the critique of modernity, which is to say, of intentionality, which is to say, unity.
But it’s Hegel who, in Rancière is called upon to provide an alternative (Rancière calls it a “reply in advance”) to a Fried-style account of modernist severing. And it’s Hegel’s reading of Murillo’s Beggar Boys Eating Grapes and Melons that Rancière offers as a model for (or, at least, an instance of) the social or political project that he approvingly identifies with the refusal of modernist “severing.” What makes the Beggar Boys relevant is that, on the one hand, Hegel is struck by what Rancière paraphrases as the boys’ “total” “disregard towards the exterior” (in effect, what Fried would call their absorption) while, on the other hand, that disregard is not, he thinks, the kind designed to separate the painting from the world, to establish its coherence. Just the opposite. The Friedian “project of separation” is committed, Rancière thinks, to the representation of “characters absorbed by their task” (as in Fried’s reading of Greuze or in Jeff Wall’s Morning Cleaning) and what’s crucial to this project is not their activity but the way that activity produces their “passive absorption into the space of the painting” or the photograph. The characters are thus converted into a kind of formal device for establishing the coherence of the work: “What they are or do matters little, but what is important is that they are put in their place” (14). But the “disregard towards the exterior” of Hegel’s beggar boys, Rancière says, is very different since what “shines forth” through their “poverty and semi-nakedness” is a “complete absence of care and concern.” Thus, calling our attention to the “one notion in particular” in Hegel’s description that, he says, most “grabs our attention” — “that of being carefree” — Rancière says that, far from being absorbed in some task, the boys are “doing nothing and not worrying about anything.” And this doing nothing not only saves them from passive absorption, it aligns them with an art understood not in terms of the “project of separation” from the world (from nature) but in terms of its non-instrumentality, an art that is thus identified with the world (with nature, which has no projects at all) and with the refusal to be put into place — whether that place is the formal space of the painting or the social space to which their position would seem to consign them.
Thus the carefreeness of the Beggar Boys becomes for Rancière a kind of allegory of the refusal of art, an allegory that photography endorses by making supererogatory. For just as the photograph requires no “artistic means” to include non-art (it doesn’t need to “imitate” non-art; it already is non-art), the photograph also makes it possible for “the characters themselves” to escape the (already-diminished — we don’t know and needn’t care what the photographer intended or whether, for that matter, he intended anything — it’s “possible,” for example, that Evans “simply photographed what was in front of him without any particular intention”) “art of the photographer” and “to play with the image of their being” (15) — to refuse to be put in their place. After all, the “inner freedom” that Hegel sees in Murillo’s beggar boys is there only because Murillo put it there; the photograph — insofar as it’s open to every photographer to rid himself of the “attributes of the artist style” — makes it possible for the subjects of the photograph to themselves become its makers, “to introduce art into their sensible life,” to display their inner freedom on their own.
And it’s not just inner. Even, or especially, when the subjects are “obscure beings,” the photograph’s inclusion of “non-art” makes it possible for them to “appropriate the aesthetic capacities that subtract them from a social identification” (13), to assert their freedom precisely in a way that “their social condition is supposed to forbid” (15). Thus this “neutralization” of the “aesthetic hierarchy” functions also as a neutralization of the “social hierarchy” (14). That is, the photographer’s (structural and hence more-or-less inevitable) sacrifice of his own position in the “artistic hierarchy” liberates both the beholder and the subject, making it possible for us to begin to give up our “hierarchical vision of the world,” to stop seeing Evans’s “poor peasants” as if they had no capacity to make their own art and to begin looking at beggar boys as if they were Olympian gods. Thus the aesthetic refusal of the modernist effort to establish the coherence of the photograph is also a social refusal of the vision that devalues peasants and beggars. Where the modernist project of separation puts people “in their place,” Rancière’s critique of that project frees them from it, or, more precisely, makes it possible for us to recognize and acknowledge that they are already free.
Rancière’s critique of photographic form (the photograph’s critique of form itself) thus embodies an egalitarian social vision, one that is central not merely to Rancière’s own writing (see, for example, The Ignorant Schoolmaster [1987, 1991]) but also to the most successful social justice programs of the last half century. That is, it is anti-hierarchical, and the hierarchies it’s concerned to oppose are precisely hierarchies of vision, hierarchies produced by the way people see and treat each other. In The Ignorant Schoolmaster, Rancière’s particular target is the assumption by teachers of their own superiority; the pedagogical program articulated through his reading of Jacotot begins by recognizing “the principle of the equality of intelligence” and by describing the failures of mass education as a consequence of the “society of contempt’s” refusal to recognize that principle, its insistence on imposing a (mistakenly) hierarchical vision of the distribution of intelligence.27 And in The Philosopher and his Poor, it was the way in which philosophy (above all, in the form of Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology) reinforced even as it seemed to question the hierarchies of culture. But, especially in the U.S. and the U.K., the structure of such a critique is even more familiar (and more uncontroversially compelling) in the areas of sex and race.28 Feminism, for example, begins with the insight that women’s supposed inferiority to men is a product of the ways in which they have been systematically seen as and therefore treated as if they were inferior to men. Women are inferior, in other words, only insofar as they are treated as inferior and so the way to eliminate their inferiority is to begin by recognizing that it never existed in the first place — and thus undo the hierarchy the vision created. The point is not, of course, that women have not been bound by real material conditions of inequality; it’s that those conditions are themselves the product of a falsely hierarchical vision.
Thus the problem that feminism seeks to solve is sexism — a way of looking at the world and of women’s place in it — and the same thing is true of anti-racism, which seeks to undo the hierarchies produced primarily by white people’s mistaken sense of their superiority to people of other races. The idea that “blacks are an inferior race” is what the philosopher Tommie Shelby calls a “social illusion,” an illusion that has subordinated blacks and that needs to be dispelled.29 More generally, anti-sexism, anti-racism, anti-homophobia (all the civil rights movements of the last half century) argue for the replacement of one way of seeing the group in question (as inferior) with another way of seeing it (as equal). Thus the core commitment of these projects is to the recognition of an equality that already exists but that our falsely hierarchical vision has kept us from seeing. And the increased centrality of the rise of anti-discrimination law is an effort to guarantee that even if we fail to get rid of our false vision, we cannot continue to act on it: I may still see you as inferior but the law requires me to act as if I see you as equal.
Indeed, even more radical pluralist efforts to extend the range of anti-discrimination beyond the perception of inferiority to the perception of difference as such (perhaps one should say to uncover and disallow the perception of inferiority hidden in the perception of difference as such) work the same way. Here the offense is not anchored in a mistaken judgment (women can’t do that job) but in the effort to impose a normativizing vision (she shouldn’t look or dress like that).30 The problem is different (it’s otherness, not perceived inferiority) but its source is the same — how we see people. And its solution is also the same: to get us to see them differently or, failing that, to make it illegal for us to act on the way we continue to see them. Rancière’s imagination of photography’s potential to disrupt our “hierarchical vision of the world” thus participates in a larger political and juridical movement.31 And this movement has been sufficiently successful that even those who think it hasn’t gone or even tried to go far enough (like Robert Post, the lead author of the tellingly entitled Prejudicial Appearances) are nonetheless prepared to characterize its first anti-discriminatory phase as having produced a “revolution in gender and racial relations” of which we should be “justifiably” proud and to hope that a refocusing and intensification of anti-discriminatory efforts will produce even greater results in the future.32
Which makes sense. But the limitations of this revolution and of the conception of equality that has accompanied it can be suggested, just to begin with, by noting the difference between Rancière’s understanding of the “poor peasants” in Agee and Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Agee’s and Evans’s own understanding of them. In Rancière, what the photographs of the poor enable them to do is “appropriate the aesthetic capacities” they’re usually thought not to possess and thus to escape their “social identification.” Whereas in Agee and Evans, what becomes central is the idea that they really don’t possess the aesthetic capacities they’re thought not to possess, and that the fact they don’t is a consequence of their social identification.33 There is “almost no such thing” as a “sense of beauty” among the three families, Agee writes, and he goes on to confess to “a strong feeling that the ‘sense of beauty,’ like nearly everything else, is a class privilege.”34 Where for Rancière the photographs are an occasion for the peasants to assert their aesthetic capacities, for Agee they are a kind of demonstration of what it is to be so “appallingly damaged”35 that you no longer have any such capacities, and the beauty of the photographs themselves makes its political statement precisely insofar as and because it presents itself as art, as a beauty that their subjects could neither contribute to nor recognize.
The crucial difference here is just the difference between seeing the beggar boys and peasants as damaged by our falsely hierarchical vision of them and seeing them as damaged by conditions that our vision may sanction or critique but that it did not produce. In other words, it’s one thing to insist that social hierarchies are illusory and therefore unjust; it’s a very different thing to think that, although unjust, they are very real. Or rather, it’s one thing to think that certain hierarchies are illusory and therefore unjust, it’s another to treat all hierarchies on this model. This is the point of Agee’s invocation of “class,” and it’s made vivid by the fact that his subjects are white farmers, not black. The distinctive damage to black tenant farmers is a function of the “illusion” of racism; the remainder, the damage common to black farmers and to white, is a function of capitalism. No illusion is required. More precisely, the damage done to the poor is produced by an economy not a vision.
Rancière’s insistence on the peasants and beggar boys as victimized by the false hierarchies of vision should thus be understood as part and parcel of what Slavoj Zizek has called the “degradation of the sphere of the economy” characteristic of all “the new French (or French oriented) theories of the Political,” a degradation that these theories share with their “great opponent, Anglo-Saxon Cultural Studies,” which focus on the “struggle for recognition.”36 But, of course, it’s not just (or even primarily) Cultural Studies that has privileged a commitment to equality that can happily co-exist with economic inequality. The New Social Movements hailed in the 80s by Laclau and Mouffe and, in the U.S., the revolution described above by Post — the elaboration and extension of anti-discrimination law — have proven to be entirely compatible with the evolution in capitalism that has matched the increased intolerance of discrimination in all its forms not just with an increased tolerance of but with an actual and spectacular increase in the gap between the rich and the poor. Or rather (since it’s no longer just Agee’s peasants who are falling behind), an increased gap between the rich and everyone else.
Charts like this one (http://www.stateofworkingamerica.org/pages/interactive#/) and graphs like the ones below — the first charting out the path to the second — present an increasingly familiar picture37:
Their particular relevance for our purposes – that is, for the purpose of understanding the relatively recent history of theory — is not just the simultaneity of the rise in economic inequality and of the theoretical relegation38 of the economy to a secondary role. Or even, though this is obviously of the greatest social importance, the emergence of the critique of discrimination (and, of course, the celebration of diversity) and the deployment of that critique as a technology for legitimating all those inequalities that are not the consequence of racism and sexism.39 It is rather the relation between both the rise in economic inequality and the hegemony of anti-discrimination on the one hand and the crisis of absorption and the emergence of a theory of the work of art which, imagining the escape from the artist’s intention, insists on the primacy of the beholder and (especially in the photograph) of the subject, on the other. If, in other words, Rancière is right to see a certain egalitarian ambition in a photography that seeks to embrace its “poverty” (embrace the limitations on the photographer’s intentionality, embrace the indexicality that links the photograph irreducibly to its subject), it’s an egalitarianism of a very particular kind – the kind that’s critical of hierarchies of vision but has no purchase on the hierarchies embodied in rising Gini coefficients and the redistribution of wealth upwards that is at the heart of neoliberalism. The political meaning of the refusal of form (the political meaning of the critique of the work’s “coherence”) is the indifference to those social structures that, not produced by how we see, cannot be overcome by seeing differently. It’s this refusal of form that is thus as the heart of neoliberal aesthetics.
Absorption and Invisibility
The above triptych — it’s called Das große Medieninteresse and is made up of three photographs in the Spektakel series by the German photographer Viktoria Binschtok — is obviously in some sense an absorptive one. What we see in each of the photos are photographers, cameramen and the boom mics of sound men, most prominently the one with a windshield (a mop-like cover that keeps wind from getting into the audio). We can’t, of course, see exactly what they’re all focusing on but it’s clearly some celebrity or celebrities, and it’s clear also that the photographers’ absorption is serving to model photography itself as an absorptive activity.
Thematically then, we might say, this photograph suggests a certain reservation about the identification of photography with vision — since its focal point is something that can’t be seen. And it also identifies photography not with the structural critique of absorption but with a kind of hyperbolic version of the absorptive — every figure in the photographs is intensely involved in some form of the recording process. Furthermore, the mere fact that it’s a triptych at least gestures toward a version of the severing (an assertion of the work’s form) that Rancière criticizes. In other words, Das große Medieninteresse begins to suggest a photographic practice that not only looks very different from the one imagined in “Notes on the Photographic Image” but that could almost stand as a systematic critique of all the values associated with the primacy of vision.
Almost, but only almost, since no one would think of identifying this picture — which so beautifully offers so much to look at — with a critique of vision. Indeed, as the other pictures in the Spektakel series make clear, Das große Medieninteresse functions in the series as the emblem of a merely thematic invisibility. These pictures, extracted from videos (again of celebrities in a crowd of paparazzi), are (as the installation shot above suggests) themselves extremely difficult to see. That is, it’s hard to see what they’re pictures of and it’s hard even to see them as pictures. Furthermore the cause of this difficulty is photography itself. These pictures have been extracted from videos at moments when the apparatus required to make the celebrities visible — the camera flash– makes then almost invisible instead. That is, the people taking the pictures and especially the lights that make their pictures possible here function as an obstacle to rather than a technology of visibility. Although their subjects are, in effect, performing for the camera, here, the camera functions both to efface the performance it has solicited and not exactly to efface but to jeopardise its own performance, its own production of a picture to be seen.
This project is clearly an absorptive one — the harder the picture is to see, the greater its distance from the idea that it was made to be beheld. And if you were to make an object that was literally impossible to see as a picture, you would, of course, reproduce the crisis of absorption I described in the first section of this essay: you would produce an object without any form, only this time by hypostasizing intentionality instead of refusing it. In fact, as the example of 4’33” once again illustrates, the two go together. On the one hand, the idea of 4’33” was to refuse to impose the composer’s intentions on the listeners; on the other hand, the problem with the first audience for the piece, which started walking out when the pianist didn’t play, was that that they “missed the point,” they “didn’t know how to listen” to the “accidental sounds” (the wind, the rain, their own talking) that took the place of the piano music they expected. When the crisis of absorption requires you to refuse intention and valorize accident, the thing you weren’t supposed to care about — the beholder’s or listener’s experience — becomes the only thing that matters. But when you seek to create a work in which only the accidents matter, then not only is the recognition of your intention to do just that crucial but also the audience’s actual experience becomes irrelevant — all that that matters is that they recognize your intention. Indeed, insofar as no performance of 4’33” ever sounds like other performances of 4’33”, we might say that the identity of the work consists in nothing but its “point.”
Something like that chiastic structure is no doubt at the heart of the emergence of conceptualism, but for our purposes the relevant point is that Spektakel involves neither the repudiation of the photographer’s intentions (one way of refusing form) nor (the other way) their hypostatization.40 Thus the difficulty in seeing the pictures in Spektakel is crucially the difficulty of seeing them as pictures, a difficult only made possible by the fact that they obviously are pictures. (As objects, they’re easy.) And thus making something hard to see emerges as a distinctively photographic practice. Which is not to deny that the ambition to produce pictures that are so hard to see as pictures puts Spektakel near the limit of a recognizably photographic practice. But it’s what the limit is a limit of that makes the ambition relevant for the present argument. If for Rancière, in other words, it’s the refusal of form and the appeal to vision that constitutes photography’s recent interest, in Spektakel we see an instance of a photography that can be understood instead as something more like the assertion of form through the refusal of vision. And just as Rancière identifies photography’s critique of form with an aesthetic “vision” that imagines the “neutralization of the social hierarchy and the artistic hierarchy,” we can begin to imagine the politics that find expression in the assertion of form.
Indeed, Rancière himself suggests what these might be in his discussion of Fried’s account of Gursky and particularly of Fried’s reading of the ways in which the human figures, the workers, in Siemens, Karlsruhe, “although by no means hidden from sight, are easy to miss…. they blend into the machinery….” (173). For Fried, Rancière says, “It would be off-key…to see here any form of representation of capitalist dehumanization.” The difficulty in seeing them matters not because it signifies their victimization and thus demands our sympathy but, just the opposite, because it is one of the ways in which Gursky “resists or indeed repudiates all identification of the viewer with the human subjects of his images” (173). For Fried, in other words, the fact that the workers are so hard to see makes it (from one standpoint) impossible for the viewer to identify with them and establishes (from another standpoint) the separation of the photograph from the viewer. That is, not only do we not imagine ourselves as being in the position of the workers, we also don’t imagine ourselves — or anyone, including the photographer — as being in the position of the photographer. The way Fried puts this is to say that Gursky’s photographs characteristically make it seem “impossible that the images are grounded in an originary perceptual experience on the part of the photographer, with which the viewer is led in turn to ‘identify’” (164). Rather, the photograph is severed from the world precisely by being turned into something that no viewer — beginning with the photographer himself — has ever seen or could ever see in the world. Of course, the photograph itself is seen, but it’s seen as an intentional object, as form. It’s not only of something (e.g. lines of workstations, sometimes with workers at them), it’s about something (perhaps the invisibility of the worker in contemporary capitalism, or whatever you think it’s about), and its aboutness is what separates it from the things it’s of. Indeed, it’s the irrelevance both of the beholder’s point of view (what it’s about is not in any way determined by how the beholder sees it) and the photographer’s view (what it’s about is not necessarily what the photographer saw) that is the mark of its intentionality.41
In Rancière’s analysis, as we have already seen, this assertion of intentionality through the refusal of vision — i.e. “the art of the photographer” — is just a way of putting “indifferent beings” like the workers “in their place,” denying their “freedom” and “interiority.” But we have also seen, the politics of that analysis — a politics in which the only objectionable hierarchies are precisely those of vision — have proven both in theory and practice to be entirely compatible with the intensification of a hierarchy of wealth that, not produced by how we see ourselves and each other, cannot be undone by how we see ourselves and each other. All of which is just to say that in neoliberal politics, as in neoliberal aesthetics, the structural difference between capital and labor (a difference that no degree of identification can alter) is imagined out of existence.
And which is also to suggest how we might begin to understand the political meaning of those theoretical positions and especially those artistic practices that seek to overcome vision with form. My idea here is not exactly that, just as the critique of form is the mark of a neoliberal politics, the assertion of form is the mark of an anti-neoliberal politics — if only because, despite the hopes raised by the recent financial catastrophes,42 political and economic alternatives to capitalism seem as hard to conceptualize, much less to come by, as they did during the boom times (and, indeed, the upper echelons of the global economy seem to be doing almost as well as they did in the boom times). So the idea instead is the more modest — almost tautological — one that the assertion of form embodies an alternative to neoliberal aesthetics and, in that alternative, the possibility and, for some, the desirability of an alternative to neoliberalism itself.
My political point, in other words, is first, that the crisis in absorption produced an aesthetics that proved to be deeply compatible with the changes in capitalism which, originating theoretically in debates of the late 30s, emerged politically in the late 70s and have flourished ever since. At the heart of these changes was a commitment to the importance of efficient markets and an egalitarianism defined as equality of access to those markets. That egalitarianism is violated by the refusal to hire workers because of their race or sex (refusal of access to the labor market) but not by the inequalities generated by the market itself — not by the exploitation of labor by capital. Indeed, the very concept of “labor” is here rendered problematic, since the worker is understood instead as a kind of capitalist — that’s the meaning of the wildly successful invention of the concept of human capital. Thus the very concept of class disappears from the analysis; as Dieter Plehwe discreetly remarks (in his introduction to The Road from Mont Pelerin): “Neoliberals usually deny the existence of social inequality rooted in the capitalist class structure and instead prefer to speak of the diversity of individuals or possibly groups.”43 And it’s this denial of class that we see embodied in the critique of “hierarchies of vision.” Which is not to say, of course, that class can’t be seen; it’s to say instead that it isn’t produced by how we see and that its inequalities cannot be ameliorated by our seeing differently.
Thus the emergence of a theory of the work of art (embodied, for our purposes, in a theory of photography) as offering above all the opportunity to see and be seen differently has its political role to play, simultaneously advertising the attractions of neoliberal equality and serving as its good conscience. And thus a photography that refuses the primacy of vision also refuses (whether it means to or not)44 to play that political role.
*In thinking about the issues discussed in this essay, I am indebted, of course, to the people actually cited but also — and in certain respects even more — to many conversations with Jennifer Ashton and Nick Brown. I am grateful also to the members of my Fall 2010 seminar at UIC for discussion especially of the Rancière.
Editor’s note: “Neoliberal Aesthetics” has generated a variety of responses. We’ve collected them in a separate posting: https://nonsite.org/feature/responses-to-neoliberal-aesthetics.