“Air” for Mallarmé suggests not only atmosphere or ambient space and the instantaneity and fleetingness of appearance and visibility, but also nothingness, silence, and a sous-texte rhythm or spacing, the “air or song” beneath the “text” of the painting. Invisibility, non-signification, and the not-now are also key to Mallarmé’s understanding of the “truth” of Impressionism. How might this “truth” manifest itself in particular Impressionist paintings?
We need to look more specifically at the kinds of formal effects typical of photography at mid-century in order to see Manet’s profound engagement with this new image paradigm. We also need to think about the photograph as an image whose source was not human, but optical and mechanical, and thus mysterious. Like Balzac, Manet was primarily concerned with the human, social world, but in Manet’s case, the ommatophore of the camera—the automatism of an eye on a stalk—has a greater presence than we have previously acknowledged.
It is, typically, an aesthetic intuition. Aesthetic intuitions are first of all intuitions, in the everyday sense of hunch, in the psychological sense of an act of perception, and in the philosophical sense of an act of the imagination. What characterizes them not just as intuitions but as aesthetic is that they share with aesthetic experience their subjective, affective, non-conceptual nature, and with aesthetic judgments their reflexivity and their claim to universal validity, most often expressed as a claim to reflect factual truth.
As I try to make this out I may find myself hesitating among several possibilities: that Manet simply took advantage of the earlier painting’s meaninglessness; that he was in some way actively interested in the palpable discontinuity within the painting between artist’s intention and unrealized meaning; that his own painting stands as a reading of Velázquez’s, where reading means something distinct from but not without relation to interpretation.
The dimension of a free life that Hegel is interested in has not, by virtue of these critiques, been superseded or gone away, unless we have some way of understanding what it would be to actually acknowledge such a departure in life. The postmodernist critique of subjectivity is “overdone” to the extent that it leaves us with no concrete way to understand what the actual position of subjectivity should look like to an agent.