Date: February 27, 2015

Response to Aesthetic Theory

Take this down!

We were prompted to have a discussion about the nature of aesthetics in literature, and in particular the subject/object relationship. More specifically, G.. – well I can’t name her, that won’t do… let’s call her X1 – specifically, X1 brought up the desire to plant aesthetic judgements in some form of objective discursive terrain. What is it about literature that we can describe independently of the reader? Form, the line, the science of the page. But more than that – more? my brain! – the question became one of whether or not the text (which we agreed (in fairness) does exist (materially) independently of the reader) can be said to have certain characteristics, the affects of which can be uncontroversially derived from some objective description of that text. Tricky stuff, we realised. Frustratingly simple, nonetheless!

X1’s project seemed to have this interesting conundrum at the heart of it; the end-goal of the wish for an objective discourse about literature was related to the affect on the reader that such an objectively existing thing could be said/predicted to have. At least that was my reading, which could be wrong because I’m mostly water. (Incidentally, am blind now too. Developed a vascular disease in my optic nerves after exposing myself to x-rays and magazines. It was just after Gerald and Barbara had that falling out at the barbecue. So sad, they were great. Well. She was great. That pig treated her like nonsense and… well if I could look him in the eye I’d tell him just what I think of him. I can’t, obviously, so he’ll live on unchecked.)

Two other things came up. Is Batman & Robin a “good” film? Evidently, it’s not…. BUT! (Pow! Blam!) BUT it’s lauded for it’s awfulness – it’s still an extremely enjoyable watch, if, perhaps, ‘ironically’. But what is ironic watching? Is this just some zone of reception that crops up when we get ‘pleasure’ from something, while deeming the form that pleasure takes to be unintended? (What if a bit of Barbara’s ice-cream falls off her cone and onto my sunburned leg? Was that ironic? If you’re reading this, Barbara, the vascular disease has done nothing to my heart but enlarge it. Literally). Jumping on from this, we thought of whether or not there is a piece of ‘art’ (culture, pop, etc.) that we could agree was straightforwardly ‘bad’. Needless to say, this was tough going – someone would mention something that we could all agree was ‘objectively’ awful, and yet there was always someone there to make an argument for enjoying it nonetheless. So it seemed (to me at least, I could very well be mangling X1’s ideas here! Where am I?) that the idea always sort of came back to an authorial/intentionality fallacy of some kind. Is the ‘pleasure’ we get from the unintentionally ‘bad’ thing substantively different from the pleasure we get from the intentionally ‘good’ thing? It seems to me there must be a dialectic at play, because we can only judge the misfire and botched execution of the bad thing by deference to the instances where intention and execution line up. It’s all so tricky!

X1 and Ru – no! that won’t do… let’s call her ‘X1’? Yes, that’ll do – X1 and X1 also mentioned a group of Medieval/Middle Age nun-types, who spent the majority of their time in a sort of solitary confinement, reading in such a way as to bring to life beside them the body of Jesus; an extremely internalised relationship with Christ with a sort of ongoing hallucinatory, sexualised aspect to it. They’d lie in bed and imagine he was next to them.



Excuse me. I have to admit I got a little confused during this part of the conversation (hunger; idiocy; I may have not been there), but my impression was that it concerned the affective properties of the texts that these women had to read (and the ways in which they read them). Analysing these original texts (and the accounts of the nun-types), are there objective schema we could build to explain what seemed to be their quite uniform effect? And what would this tell us about reading texts more generally? X1 and X1 each made a very good case for why this would be a fruitful area to look into, with X1 in particular suggesting that the subject/object/affect triangle might be especially well mapped out with recourse to Medieval devotional literature.

Thank you for listening. I’ve needs must find my dog. He’s also blind and he gets terribly agitated when we don’t spend at least an hour in a room together waiting for each other to take the lead. Peace and love.


Aesthetic Theory

From Aesthetic Theory, Theodor Adorno, (1970)

Contemporary aesthetics is dominated by the controversy over whether it is subjective or objective. These terms, however, are equivocal. Variously the controversy may focus on the conclusion drawn from subjective relations to artworks, in contrast to the intentio recta toward them, the intentio recta being considered precritical according to the current schema of epistemology. Or the two concepts could refer to the primacy of objective or subjective elements in the artworks themselves, in keeping, for instance, with the distinction made in the history of ideas between classical and romantic. Or, lastly, the issue may be the objectivity of the aesthetic judgment of taste… Still, the starting point of Critique of Judgment was not simply inimical to an objective aesthetics… Kant envisioned a subjectively mediated but objective aesthetics. The Kantian concept of the judgment of taste, by its subjectively directed query, concerns the core of objective aesthetics: the question of quality—good and bad, true and false—in the artwork… Kant achieves his goal of the objectivity of aesthetics, just as he does that of the objectivity of ethics, by way of universally conceptual formalization. This formalization is, however, contrary to aesthetic phenomena as what is constitutively particular. What each artwork would need to be according to its pure concept is essential to none. Formalization, an act of subjective reason, forces art back into precisely that merely subject sphere—ultimately that of contingency—from which Kant wanted to wrest it and which art itself resists… In the artwork the subject is neither the observer nor the creator nor absolute spirit but rather spirit bound up with, preformed and mediated by the object.

For artwork and thus for its theory, subject and object are its own proper elements and they are dialectical in such a fashion that whatever the work is composed of—material, expression, and form—is always both. The materials are shaped by the hand from which the artwork received them; expression, objectivated in the artwork and objective in itself, enters as a subjective impulse; form, if it is not to have a mechanical relationship to what is formed, must be produced subjectively according to the demands of the object…

By entrusting itself fully to its material, production results in something universal born out of the utmost individuation. The force with which the private I is externalized in the work is the I’s collective essence; it constitutes the linguistic quality of works. The labor in the artwork becomes social by way of the individual, though the individual need not be conscious of society; perhaps this is all the more true the less the individual is conscious of society. The intervening individual subject is scarcely more than a limiting value, something minimal required by the artwork for its crystallization. The emancipation of the artwork from the artist is no l’art pour l’art delusion of grandeur but the simplest expression of the work’s constitution as the expression of a social relation that bears in itself the law of its own reification…

Inasmuch as subject and object have become disjoint in historical reality, art is possible only in that it passed through the subject. For mimesis of what is not administered by the subject has no other locus than in the living subject. The objectivation of art through its immanent execution requires the historical subject… Subjectivity, however, though a necessary condition of the artwork is not the aesthetic quality as such but becomes it only through objectivation; to this extent subjectivity in the artwork is self-alienated and concealed.

Adorno, Theodor W. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. London: Bloomsburg Academic, 1997. Print.
The excerpt is from the “chapter” on Subject-Object.

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