Archive for July, 2015

Aesthetic theory and the book group

July 9, 2015

heidegger

Book group members are not infrequently confronted by the question, How does our practice measure up against the thought of Kant, Heidegger, Gadamer, Adorno, Bourdieu and Gell?

As we have seen, Kant wanted to see whether such a thing as aesthetic judgment, where we demand that others share what appears to be our purely subjective reaction, could in principle be justified.

His problem therefore can be seen as the solution to why book groups exist–why one would want to debate reactions to artistic literature and indeed convince others.  However, Kant’s contention that aesthetic pleasure is disinterested does not really seem to apply to novels in the same way as other forms of art, since they are normally thought to confer some benefit in terms of understanding what people are like and how they relate to each other or at least how to write decent English.

Kant’s insistence that there are no rules that will make something beautiful may at first sight seem to be contradicted by the practice of publishers, who seem to believe there are very definite rules for producing a book that will sell.

But selling many copies is hardly the same as being ‘beautiful’ or as one might say in this case ‘aesthetically valuable’.  That rather fits in with the thought of Adorno, who thought of the cultural product of the era of late capitalism as being something to be consumed, whereas in better times the aesthetic experience was produced by the participant.  So the book club members who seek distinctions, indeed distinctions that are not differences, in the products of the publishing industry, may be compared to his famous hobbyist listener who has an encyclopaedic recall of available recorded performances but with little understanding of the music that can be heard.

Heidegger of course  thought that art worked by selectively focusing an historical community’s tacit sense of what is and what matters and reflecting it back to that community, which thereby comes implicitly to understand itself in the light of this artwork. Artworks thus functioned as ontological paradigms, serving their communities both as “models of” and “models for” reality, which meant that artworks could variously “manifest,” “articulate,” or even “reconfigure” the historical ontologies undergirding their cultural worlds.  Or a rose is a rose is a rose, talking about its rose-ness is infantile self-indulgence and making an institution of talking about it is even worse.

On the other hand, Gadamer‘s hermeneutic approach, whereby the art-ness of the work of art resides in the dialectical transformation of our interpretations as they enter into contact and indeed conflict with the artwork does sound rather positive for the book club.  Indeed, if one thinks (as Adorno probably would) that the readers were initially only consuming or confirming prefabricated commonplaces, then it is only in the book club setting that the real aesthetic experience might arise.  On the other hand, Gadamer would not have approved of the antiquarian tenor of much book group discourse–Is it a true story?  Was the author ever married? and so on.

This seems rather reminiscent of Bourdieu, who saw this kind of naive view of the artwork as a window whose function was to admit sweetness and light as characteristic of the dominated sections of society, since nothing more rigorously distinguishes the different classes than the disposition objectively demanded by the legitimate consumption of legitimate works, the aptitude for taking a specifically aesthetic point of view on objects already constituted aesthetically.  He would certainly have been interested in the petit-bourgeois aspirationalism of the book group, showing as it does an anxiety with regard to the assimilation of high culture together with a desire to assimilate it to the comfortable and the homely.

Gell’s treatment of the artwork as a social actor amongst other social actors at first sight seems like a comfortable fit for the book group, but here as in many other cases we find that his art nexus resists facile application.

Gell's Art Nexus

Gell’s Art Nexus

First of all, we note that the ‘recipient’ here seems to be conceptualised as an individual, which is a strange kind of thing for an anthropologist to do.  If we ignore this consideration, the book group experience seems to be one of struggle between Index and Recipient as to which will be master, where victory for the Recipient is equivalent to the Index being supplanted by the Prototype.

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