The Aesthetic has yet to be Thought

There is a blindspot in the contemporary debate about the notion of the aesthetic, which is the aesthetic itself, assuming that it makes any sense to refer to the aesthetic itself, when it appears always more or less as a cipher for other things – for ethics, for politics, for all manner of contradictions within our experience of the social world. And this sense of blindness is not a recent phenomenon. The aesthetic always seems to withdraw, appearing reticently and last. It is the substance of Kant’s third critique, and then again not even that. The actual theme of judgement only takes aesthetics as an example. Of what? Of a dimension of agreement that cannot be explained – a moment of imaginary, felt reconciliation that has no basis in any specific, neatly delineated order of experience, but rather in something that from the outset mediates, and thus that is in this sense cast in terms of what it is not. It is not rational thought, but somehow resembles it. It is not ethical law, but somehow mimics aspects of the universal. The aesthetic is never simply itself. It always that only makes sense in terms of its relationship to other modes of being. It appears at the tail end of things. It appears to mend holes and fill gaps. It is an afterthought that represents the ultimate incomprehensibility and untenability of the whole. And that is also its value – its capacity to represent the limitations of that which makes it necessary.

Despite its untenability, the challenge is not demonstrate the inadequacy of the aesthetic or to dismiss its furtive identity altogether, but rather to search for that impossible horizon of the in itself – not to make the aesthetic properly coherent and adequate, but rather to enable a lucidity that we have no means of speaking. Because I also have no idea what the aesthetic is, but I am confident that it is more than a mirror of the social, that it has, at the very least, some kind of philosophical identity, which plays out not only in ethical terms, but also epistemologically and ontologically. Baumgarten associated aesthetics with sensible experience, but what precisely is the sensible? How does it relate to the problem of the soul? Of animated life? How does the sphere of sensibility relate to matter? How does it relate to form? Clearly the aesthetic does not fall neatly Into this ancient space of distinction. Rather it emerges from it as another aspect of mystery – a kind of complication, a scene in a play – perhaps a tragedy, perhaps a comedy, perhaps something that escapes Aristotelian categorisation. There is a scenography of the aesthetic, a play of light and dark, action and reflection, knowledge and its opposite. The aesthetic is an apparatus in which these things appear, drift apart, clash and are briefly reconciled. In this sense the aesthetic is a form of theatre more than anything else. It plays out, resolves and leaves unresolved various compelling antagonisms.

But in order to discover this sense of the aesthetic there is a need to do something very crude and direct – to differentiate the aesthetic from art. It not that aesthetics and art are not closely entwined, but the aesthetic is not limited to art. So if there is a rhetoric of autonomy within the aesthetic, this is not simply reducible to the problem of the social autonomy of art. No doubt the notion of the non-instrumental is socially legible, but that it not to say that the notion is entirely exhausted by it social legibility. At the very least this notion also needs to be taken seriously philosophically, in terms, for instance, of various ways of conceiving the relationship between the rational and the aesthetic and the ethical and the aesthetic.

There is a circularity in the way that contemporary art criticism addresses the relationship between art and the aesthetic. Ranciere argues that contemporary art takes shape in terms of an aesthetic regime, but also that the aesthetic regime is charged specifically with the task of identifying the proper contours of contemporary art. Both terms are thus defined in terms of the other. There is no sense of their slippage or the potential gap between them. This is evident for instance in Grant Kester’s defence of socially engaged art (SEA), in which he expounds a notion of dialogical aesthetic that it radically different to ordinary notions of art, and yet that somehow at the end must always be recuperated to the interests of art. Despite lacking any clear disciplinary identity, despite no longer being about making, despite reaching out to the other to the point that any sense of work becomes indeterminable, Kester still insists on the notions of art and artist. When you could just as easily argue that SEA is a limit discourse that can ultimately leave art behind, that has an aesthetic aspect that is inexplicable in terms of our ordinary understanding of art. Why not, for instance, discuss dimensions of conversation – of dialogical practice, of opening to the other – within ordinary species of social activism; activism that makes no claims to art? Why not tease out the aesthetic dimensions of non-art practice? It is as though ultimately, despite his claims to the contrary, Kester remains focused on the field of art. If not narrowly enforcing its accepted limits, he is at least working to accommodate its notional expansion within the compass of an expanded aesthetic paradigm. But perhaps the real point is to take the aesthetics more seriously and seek it our wherever it appears. Beyond the field of art, so be it.

I am afraid to think the aesthetic in universal terms. All my critical reflexes resist this thought. Yet perhaps the aesthetic is more than simply a pre-modern, Enlightenment invention? Perhaps it has a more general currency? Perhaps it exceeds the constellation in which it emerged? I know there are risks in even thinking this way, but perhaps it also enables a more general concept of the aesthetic that has current critical value? There is, if nothing else, the need to acknowledge other strands of aesthetic thought and being beyond the Western paradigm of contradiction and reconciliation. I have no way of convincingly arguing this, but sense its importance.

I can walk along a path slightly to the left or slightly to the right. I choose one way or the other. Where does this decision come from, especially if it makes no difference which way I choose, if they are both equally effective and equally distracted and distracting. There is in any particular choice an element beyond simply instrumental interests. There is a kind of indeterminable play that renders the experience of time and space vivid and poetic. It need not be anything profound or elevated – just the most ordinary, everyday decision and way of being. Somewhere in this for me is the basis of the aesthetic – a certain freedom that no manner of constraint can every fully constrain. But it its also not just freedom or play. It is something else. It is linked to the fatality of time and the suspension of that fatality in imagination. The aesthetic has yet to be thought.

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Aesthetics and Astronomy

Aesthetics as a single star.

Then the awareness of its place in a conceptual constellation.

And the sense of this constellation’s place in the wider night sky.

But it would have to be noted that there is not a single star, or a single constellation, or a single night sky. There are multiple stars, constellations and skies. And there is no single point to discern each of these properly. The complexity can be recognised, but never adequately resolved. The matter is more of a practical orientation, of trying to find some way through the mix of dark and bright elements.

This work is intended as a rough map of the aesthetic night sky drawn by an amateur astronomer.

This framing metaphors of star, constellation and night sky are not only a metaphors. They also relate directly and substantitvely to the issue of aesthetics. Aesthetics appears literally as the luminal space in which the relation between darkness and light are partially, imaginatively reconciled. There is the ignorance (darkness) of appearance as well as its vivid experience (light). Aesthetic engages with the paradox of appearance – brightly manifest and yet somehow also obscure. This obscurity relates to the whole problem of how the senses and imagination are conceived and positioned in relation to that other realm of apparent brightness, rational understanding.

The first of the Pre-Socratic philosophers, Thales, obtained initial fame by predicting a solar eclipse. He also wrote of water as the fundamental arche of the universe, but it is the eclipse, the nature of a solar eclipse, that interests me here. At one level an eclipse obscures the sun and renders the world dark. At another level, it renders the brightness of the sun even more apparent, in that an eclipse cannot safely be viewed with the naked eye. To gaze directly at a solar eclipse is to risk blindness. An eclipse can only be safely viewed as a cast projection via a pin-hole device. Although apparently dark then, the phenomena itself has a blinding brightness. It summons representation as a necessity so that the nature of its brightness, which is constituted precisely as moment of obscurity (the occlusion of the sun), can be made visible. It is also worth noting the place of the moon in all this. The moon does not positively appear itself. Rather it only appears in negative terms as a ball of darkness that moves across the sun. We only see the shadow side of the moon in a solar eclipse, which works to gradually obscure and occlude the sun and then equally gradually reveal it. There is then here a complex interaction of darkness and light. Moreover the limits of each reveal aspects of the other. The limits of brightness is blindness. The limit of obscurity is a curious moment of alignment between the sun and the moon.

All of this sets the scene for the aesthetic – for a mode of appearance and uncertain knowledge that has its basis in the darkness of sense and the darkness of a mode of formality that cannot be adequately rationally characterised, that appears in an instant, as a whole, or in fragments. Moreover, instead of infusing all aspects of experience, the aesthetic takes shape as a special and liminal field; and as a complex one, which, like an eclipse, coordinates aspects of visibility and obscurity, which renders these two coincident and undecidable. The aesthetic represents the theatrical scene in which the key dichotomies that ground our understanding of the world are played out both as a form of reconciliation and as an irresolvable (and thus animating) enigma.

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Limit of Aesthetics

I argue that field of aesthetic practice is broader than art, that it relates to wider dimensions of experience. Unlike art, which takes shape as a particular and idiosyncratic social institution and form of cultural practice, aesthetics characterises a qualitative layer of experience that is associated with a wide range of social phenomena and modes of being. But here’s the dilemma: in imagining some distinctly aesthetic layer of experience, I run into a similar problem that art encounters. Just as art at once gains and loses critical value in its autonomy – just as it affects everyday life and then is rendered radically separate from it – so too aesthetics both discovers and abandons critical value the more it obtains distinct identity. In conceiving a specifically aesthetic layer of experience, I cannot avoid reconfirming a whole range of distinctions that critical aesthetics primarily questions. So, for instance, if one aim is to undermine the difference between work and play, then the notion of aesthetic practice seems critically useful. It offers a means of rethinking the relationship between labour and leisure, between the negative character of instrumental being and the field of impractical, imaginative action. Yet as a distinctly identifiable notion, aesthetics still only makes sense as that which is other to work. If it represents a layer of experience then it is not both work and play at once, rather it appears as the playful dimension of work. This leaves us ultimately within the initial conceptual framework in which work and play are meaningful in terms of their fundamental difference. If we are to think beyond this opposition then the notions of both work and play, and the conventional relationship between these two, must be questioned. This also entails questioning the nature of the aesthetic – the nature of its difference from any other layer of experience.

The point then is perhaps not to resolve the identity of the aesthetic, but to tease out its contradictions, which exemplify precisely the nature of the problem: the difficulty of imagining some other way of being that is not framed in terms of the difference between work and play, the gap between sensibility and rationality, the antagonism between ends and means. The notion of the aesthetic assists in thinking to the limit and tentatively beyond, but always ultimately in metaphoric terms, in terms of the existing conceptual repertoire. Finally, assuming that any reflection whatsoever is possible in this limit space, we would have to shift beyond the notion of the aesthetic. The ultimate success of the term would depend upon it disappearing.

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Aesthetic preconceptions

What is the aesthetic? I continue to pose this question to myself. It tends to summon all kinds of qualifications. For instance, in line with a mainstream view, I remind myself that the notion of the aesthetic as a distinct sphere of experience, is historically specific. It emerged within the Enlightenment philosophy as a means of designating (and re-designating) the problem of sense – and more particularly modes of thinking that are affected by sense, that are not entirely reducible to logic. We encounter then within the specific question of the aesthetic the whole problem of how thought is conceived in Western philosophy, of how the field of bodily experience, imagination and understanding relates to and is distinguished from the logos – the field of rational, logically articulated cognition and knowledge. While this historically and philosophically nuanced view of the aesthetic is important, it can also mean that any effort to more straightforwardly describe the concept is endlessly postponed. So while we preserve some rough sense of what the term means, this meaning never quite becomes explicit. It is subject to critical bracketing at any moment that it might risk being expressed.

So here I would like to adopt a different strategy. Dropping my critical guard, here I will simply list a set of terms that seem pertinent to my understanding of what the aesthetic means. At this stage, I will not even make an effort to properly organise this list or to eliminate any redundant terms. It is intended as an unfiltered brain dump that exposes my behind the scenes, preconceived notion of the aesthetic.

  • Play
  • Reflection
  • Recollection/projection
  • Fancy/dream/imagination
  • Rhythm
  • Melody
  • Harmony
  • Timbre
  • Syncopation
  • Counterpoint
  • Variety/multiple voicing
  • Tracing/invention
  • Vision/invisibility (limits of vision/sense/experience/comprehension/imagination)
  • Continuity/discontinuity
  • Pattern/irregularity/variation
  • Simplicity/complexity
  • Raw/refined
  • Resolved/open
  • General/particular
  • Abstract/actual (immanence)
  • Generative
  • Beauty
  • Style
  • Appearance (as mystery and conceived as superfluous to function)
  • Wonder
  • Thrill
  • Sensitivity
  • Observation
  • Intoxication
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Critical Aesthetics

I would like to hold on to a notion of critical aesthetics. It provides an underlying motivation for this work, which aims to consider alternatives to current material and social relations. This has traditionally involved drawing perverse value from Kant’s social marginalisation of aesthetics – his insistence that it is separate from the conceptual, the ethical and the instrumental, that it occupies its own distinct sphere. The institution of art appears as the embodiment of this separate, marginal identity – at once compromised and yet preserving a vestige of negatively conceived hope. This is a minimal sketch of Adorno’s conception of art and aesthetics, which he employs to clarify and designate values that are not entirely under the thrall of instrumental rationality. The aesthetic, for instance, suggests a relation to thought, experience and material interactions that is not entirely characterised by Hegelian sublation – that imagines and models other less destructive options. Even if art cannot properly realise this more sensitive alternative, even if it is driven to exacerbate the crisis of our everyday being, it nonetheless , in its autonomy, uselessness and partial silence, preserves a vital critical role.

So a great deal of weight is placed on the institution of art – on its capacity to represent and maintain the critical capacity of aesthetics. All other aspects of culture that could potentially be conceived in terms of their aesthetic characteristics appear as components within the overall regime of instrumental rationality, and as literal products of that regime. The issue with this is it places far too much weight on art, while at the same time denying any potential for art to intervene more broadly. Within this schema, the power of art lies in its marginalisation, so that if it ceases to be marginalised it loses its identity and influence. In this manner, art is trapped in double-bind, preserving hope, but only on the condition that it is never realised. The other possibility, which the aesthetic philosophy of Dewey may represent, is to seek out a qualitative, critical aesthetic layer within social practice generally. This is based upon a fundamental critique of the Kantian delineation of separate spheres of rationality, ethics and aesthetics. It is to insist that these spheres are mutually implicated in any given moment of experience. While Dewey may not quite adequately represent this alternative, while he is prone to conceiving an overall harmony between the spheres, there are nonetheless key aspects of his conception of aesthetics that entail a critical dimension – a questioning, for instance, of the nature of labour and of the implications of modern industrialised modes of production. This approach is also in line with key aspects of contemporary artistic practice that work at the limits or beyond the limits of the institution of art in order to forge new opportunities for social engagement, intervention and relevance.

Ranciere regards both of these strategies – either to withdraw into an autonomous and sublime space of critique or to reach outwards and encourage new relations to the social – as characteristic of the modern ‘aesthetic regime’ of art. But in my view, the latter strategy is not simply reducible to the internal machinations of avant-garde art. It entails an engagement with other disciplines, discourses and social spheres that themselves have a positive character and are not reducible to specifically art-based strategies. I would also argue that the notion of the aesthetic is broader than art. Rather than simply extending the influence of art, new forms of socially engaged art practice very often involve the recognition of fields of aesthetic practice that extend beyond art and that are imbricated within strands of activity that may not ordinarily be artistically (or aesthetically) conceived. Just to further clarify my position, Ranciere objects to postmodernism on the basis that efforts to shift beyond art – particularly to open up new relations to forms of popular culture and the like – are nothing new. They are a feature of modern art itself, which regularly resists any sense of hermetic autonomy. Yet in this manner, the field beyond art is devalued. It loses its particular qualities and is represented simply in terms of its relation to the interior contradictions of the institution of autonomous art. Ranciere is correct to object that artistic modernism also revealed a fascination with the popular and the everyday, but only a caricature of postmodernism suggest otherwise. Harvey, for instance, argues that postmodernism simply foregrounds tendencies that were already present within modernism. So he acknowledges the playful relation to the popular within DADA, collage traditions, etc., but also argues that this strand of practice gains increased emphasis within the context of postmodernism. And then it would be a matter of looking closely at the specific relations to the popular that are entailed, rather than assuming that DADA’s relation to the popular is necessarily the primary basis for postmodern and contemporary efforts to engage with popular cultural forms.

But in any case, returning to my main point, I am less convinced that aesthetics is necessarily neatly aligned with a well-meaning critical orientation. Thinking the aesthetic more generally and in less Kantian and more Dewey-ian terms also entails recognising that the aesthetic is more broadly implicated within currents of instrumental and everyday practice that may be in various ways destructive. Take something as simple as hunting (the classical Hegelian model of a material dialectic), this can be conceived not only as a matter of obtaining sustenance, but also of play and erotics. Or torture, which is never simply a means of acquiring information, but also a gruesome, sadistic theatre. Or climate change, with its aesthetic of sublime collapse – of glaciers crashing into the sea and fires burning through forests and suburbs. There is the terrible imaginary of Earth’s collapse, of geological time suddenly becoming humanly perceptible. Aesthetics then does not simply stand back, withdraw, obliquely reflect. It is implicated within everything. This is the problem then with shifting beyond the Kantian conception, of not remaining within the critical moment and impasse that Adorno describes. Once we define a broader aesthetics that is disentangled from the institution of art then we risk losing any critical purchase for aesthetics. The issue then is how we can maintain a critical aesthetics while acknowledging its much wider relevance. And here, I guess it is a matter of not drawing neat lines – of instead recognising areas of qualitative tension, as well as tendencies that could go either way, that are not instantly and simply aligned. In short, there is a need to pass beyond political and ethical naivety, to recognise that there is no pure space of resistance, that the critical is always a complex space of implication and negotiation.

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On the Historicity of Aesthetics

It is a critical commonplace to insist that the notion of the aesthetic is a properly modern phenomenon, emerging as a means of reconciling tensions between aspects of identity, community and socio-economic reality that are the product of post-Enlightenment regimes of instrumental rationality and the like. From this standpoint, it appears misguided to conceive the notion more generally and trans-historically – to imagine for instance that Plato’s exclusion of poets from his ideal republic represents a rejection of aesthetics. We are reminded that no such sphere existed in Ancient Greece. Plato had no conception of the autonomous realm of disinterested pleasure that Kant describes. Plato’s prohibition gains sense within a profoundly different network of conceptual and historical relations. While there is clearly a need to attend to these differences and to acknowledge the necessary patterns of recognition and mis-recognition that affect any effort to think between distinct historical constellations, this need not imply that a concern to think the aesthetic more generally is wrong-headed or mistaken. Firstly, it can simply represent a shift in historical focus from synchronic to diachronic relations; a concern, for instance, to clarify the philosophical preconditions and evolution of the notion of the aesthetic. In this sense, as much as Plato does not engage with the modern conception of aesthetics, he arguably contributes to its pre-history in his insistence that poetry does not provide genuine knowledge, but only beguiling appearances, and that it be excluded from proper public life. Secondly, conceiving a more general possibility of the aesthetic can involve recognising precedents and analogies in other historical and cultural contexts. For instance, how are we to explain the imperial court culture of Heian period Japan (794-1185) without reference to a notion of aesthetics? The privileging of surface appearances, literary references and precisely observed meditations on the ephemeral natural world in Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji (11th century) suggest a profoundly aesthetic worldview and mode of social interaction. This is not to suggest that we are dealing with precisely the same conception of the aesthetic in the Heian context, but there are sufficient similarities to indicate the wider relevance of the term. This need not entail conceiving aesthetics in primarily metaphysical terms as an abstractly universal human capacity and sphere of practice, but may instead serve as a heuristic means of determining patterns and resemblances relating to cultural phenomena that inevitably take historically specific forms. Thirdly and finally, concepts and conceptual complexes are not hermetically sealed absolutes. The nature of their historical identity is not only a matter of everything that history can adequately explain, but also by ambiguities, gaps and aporia that are constitutive of any network of meaning whatsoever. The notion of the aesthetic is imperfect and ambiguous. It has been defined in all kinds of ways, but remains elusive. If it is used so often, if its meaning has been extended in so many different and often contradictory ways, this is indicative not only of a fundamental dynamic of clarity and confusion that governs the thinking of the aesthetic, but also the the term has an important deictic status – it points to aspects of context that are dynamic, malleable and only awkwardly and imperfectly resolved. It is not then that historical particularity provides a potential for clarity and certainty. Significantly the notion of the aesthetic is opaque even within the here and now. This suggests the value of thinking the term more generally, even at the occasional risk of a loss of historical specificity. It is about trying to think the here and now of aesthetics differently and searching for appropriate models to do so and creative points of philosophical purchase.

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Art and Aesthetics

What is wrong with art? Why prefer the term ‘aesthetics’ to ‘art’?

What is meant by these two terms? More importantly, what meaning can we make of these two terms?

Any talk of ‘making’ instantly brings to mind the thought of art, because art is form of skilful making – or at least this is what art has traditionally meant. So if we are making meaning, we are doing something that involves at least an aspect of art. Although this is clearly also the work of philosophy, which is distinguished from art precisely in its impractical, conceptual focus. It seems that we must distinguish then within making between that which occurs theoretically and that which is applied.

And this is how the relationship between aesthetics and art is normally portrayed. Aesthetics appears as a supplementary and tediously abstract philosophical space that can never quite account for the mysterious reality of art and art-making. Art, in contrast, adopts the role of mute seer – doing and communicating a great deal, but saying very little.

But aesthetics is not simply a philosophical discipline. The term also refers to modes of experience that are characterised, for instance, by beauty, sublimity, disinterested engagement, etc. Notably, aesthetic experience tends to be conceived in reflective terms. It is not about doing so much as perceiving and experiencing. So while art is associated more with the artist and their active work of making, aesthetics is associated with the reflectively disposed ’viewer’ who somehow finds the means to experiences nature, art or whatever in aesthetic terms – in other words, beyond the ordinary contours of practical interaction with the world.

Art also steps back from the world, but at the same time is grounded in a key aspect of the world – the field of making. Art originally referred to all kinds of skilful making, with no effort to distinguish between instrumentally geared skill and more reflective and aesthetically cast approaches. And this is, of course, what allies art to aesthetics. Contemporary art involves processes of making that are detached from ordinary instrumental ends. Even, for instance, when they are explicitly couched in instrumental terms – say within the context of a socially engaged art project – they represent a play upon the instrumental, a reassertion of possible relations between the instrumental and the ethical and political, that represent exemplary and evocative instants, rather than simply meeting taken for granted, efficient ends. In this sense, art represents a reflection on – and very often a critique – of processes of instrumental making. Yet, even at its most critical, this can entail dimensions of blindness, elements of exploitative making that reproduce wider social and environmental conditions and relations. There is nothing wrong with this as such. Efforts of pure autonomy are untenable and most likely less valuable than art that risks more complex positioning and articulation. However, the latter demands a sense of self-awareness – a lucid reflection on the dilemmas of making.

If I have an issue with art in this context, it is that aspects of tension and contradiction too often pass unnoticed. For all of the efforts to link art to other disciplines and to break up its integral space, there is still the sense that there are these specialised makers called artists who are competing to establish an identity for themselves. They adopt the role of the hyper-active agent – the mini, wayward entrepreneur, who wheels and deals to get things done and to be noticed. All of this is good no doubt. More is being produced. The best and most innovative works and ideas obtain wider social circulation, contribute to cultural dialogue, etc. But at the same time this play of production, novelty and competition is also necessarily aligned with the wider productive system and set of cultural and social relations. It may set forth different models of making and consumption, but is still interpretable in these more extensive structural terms.

And this is why I cannot help conceiving – however naively, however misguidedly – another option. Let us call it simply aesthetic practice without the necessity for art – without the necessity for the institution of art (including the art market), without the necessity for artists and without the necessity for an audience for art. Now I realise that this is a dumb and impractical option, and that it reproduces all kinds of revolutionary, egalitarian dreams of the early 20th century avant-garde, but let me explain its appeal. Instead of a specialised set of artists, we can envisage a more fluid and democratic field, in which art loses some of its status as a distinct specialised activity and cultural space. Art still exists, but relates to a broader field of activity (and experience) that is aesthetically conceived. Now I realise that nobody is going to want to speak about ‘aesthetics’ per se. It is not a better term than art. It is not a replacement for art, rather it is the imperfect means of imagining a dissolution and altered trajectory that affects not just art, but society generally. Aesthetics, however awkward and inadequate, provides a means of thinking the social and the social-environmental in other terms – of conceiving options beyond ordinary paradigms of exploitative and unsustainable production.

It is within this context that I am interested in exploring not only the history of aesthetic thought but also forms of contemporary life that involve an aesthetic dimension without being intimately bound to the paroxysms of contemporary art (its tendency to either retreat into a sublime interior space or theatrically and interminably nullify itself). I am interested, for instance, in amateur folk and popular music cultures that are focused more on participation than creative production and consumption. Strands of playful physical activity provide another example. I am thinking of something like the niche sport of rock-climbing and bouldering that project complex, intimate and ambiguous aesthetic relations to nature. The value of the notion of the aesthetic is that it broadens my focus. It allows me to think more widely than the tortured and paradoxical space of art.

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Aesthetics and Systems

Systems are articulated things. They represent a set of differentiations. At the same time they are also whole things. The problem is that as systems get more complex, the sense of their wholeness becomes more and more obscure. Increasing lower level clarity (distinct articulation) makes macro level coherence harder to see. Aesthetics plays a curious role here – marginalised within the system, cut off from ordinary practical life, and opposed to any form of conceptually informed understanding, it somehow has to gesture to a unity that its very articulation has obscured.

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Aesthetics: System and Afterthought

Aesthetics emerges as a distinct field within the context of European Enlightenment efforts to develop a coherent overall philosophical system that can account for all aspects of existence and human experience. It is conceived initially, in the work of German philosopher Alexandre Baumgarten, as an afterthought, and partial corrective, to the excesses of Leibnizian rationalism. While very much subscribing to Leibniz’s overall metaphysical scheme, Baumgarten describes a lower level space of sensibly situated experience and thought. It is cast ostensibly as the inferior double of properly logical, abstract thought. Yet, precisely due to its sensuous character and rich and confused materiality, the aesthetic begins to appear less as simply inferior than as something other and valuable in itself.

This thinking of aesthetics as an afterthought – as a remainder that is only considered once everything else in the system is in place – persists through Enlightenment thought. Kant, for example, deals with aesthetics only once he has already characterised the relationship between the phenomenal and noumenal worlds, and the gulf between the mechanically determined sphere of mute matter and the freedom of the human subject. The aesthetic appears as a sphere of mediation and reconciliation once the ground of philosophy and its various fissures and rifts have been described. In this sense, the aesthetic represents a doubling of the initial impulse towards system – ensuring, in a belated manner, the latter’s coherence and holistic integrity.

It is worth saying a bit more about this overall effort towards system, before addressing the realm of the aesthetic more specifically. Although, I should note as a qualification that the notion of the aesthetic almost always forces a thinking beyond its notional specialisation. As as an apparently secondary feature and mediating factor it enters into complex relation with every other element in the system. Lacking any integral sphere of its own, conceived entirely in terms of motions of transition, play and exchange, it cannot be thought apart from the overall system, even as it is portrayed, at least partly, as a marginal afterthought.

The thinking of systems represents an effort not only to distinguish particular features, but also to see everything all at once. It follows a tricky double course of logical differentiation and global explication and integration. Nobody any longer envisages writing a whole philosophy of metaphysics, psychology, nature, morality and aesthetics. This has been replaced by the fatalistic recognition that knowledge advances in specialised fields through minor increments that will never be adequately and integrally conceived. We have, in short, given up on systems, or at least the global character of systems, while still permitting systems to become indefinitely further differentiated. The rational play of systems persists, if not their capacity to make us wise – to see things as a whole. In this sense, our systems, the motion of our systems, has become a work of unconsciousness and loss.

Perhaps the continuing relevance of the aesthetic lies in this rejection of systemic blindness and disintegration – this insistent effort to discover, even within the tissue of the unrecoverable and the particular, dimensions of the whole?

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Thinking Aesthetics More Generally: How and for What Purpose?

There have been numerous contemporary efforts to decouple aesthetics from art – both within modern art itself and in strands of philosophy that focus on specialised topics such as environmental aesthetics or the aesthetics of everyday life. The latter fields often draw inspiration from early conceptions of the aesthetic, where the focus was less on developing a philosophy of art than considering wider problems of sensible cognition (Baumgarten) or the experience of the beautiful and sublime in nature (Kant). In all of this, there is the recognition that aesthetics can be thought more generally, and applied to forms of experience that extend beyond the conventional institutional space and self-identity of art.

My aim in this short paper is to convey firstly the relevance of thinking aesthetics more broadly. I do this by teasing out the aesthetic implications of two accounts of contemporary leisure experience – road cycling and rock climbing. My second aim is then to pose some questions about the value of extending the scope of aesthetics. What does it offer not only in terms of reconceiving the category of the aesthetic itself, but in terms of rethinking aspects of contemporary experience?

Cycling and Climbing

I freakin’ love squeezing into my Lycra and heading off in the early hours on my road bike. Actually, any time of day will do, but I particularly love creaking out of my flat, cleats clicking down the stairs, carbon road bike in hand (it lives in my lounge room), just as my neighbour is coming up them.

I turn Strava on, clip in, hit the bike path and feel as light as the coming dawn. It’s my freedom machine, for sure. I often head off on a solo 30-kilometre loop of the city, speeding along bike paths to Southbank where I dodge the sad and sorry. I take energy from the city as it starts for the day.

(Jayne D’Arcy, ‘Dear Male Cyclists, Lose the Attitude’, Sydney Morning Herald, 11/12/2018)

A simple account of the pleasure of road cycling. This relates to the field of fitness based leisure, but it also has aesthetic features. The author describes an integral experience, with memorable kinaesthetic details and an overall sense of self-realisation and freedom. It is aesthetic not only in terms of its experiential dimensions, but also in terms of its capacity to be reflected upon and communicated. It is experience noticed and considered. It is experience that gestures to a potential for identification. The reader may never cycle themselves, but they will recognise something of what it is to be essentially human in this activity. The aesthetic character of this experience and this space of reflective common feeling obtains poignant form in terms of the backdrop of dully instrumental experience. Road cycling here provides a counter image to the world of work, obligation, etc. If other aspects of activity are less intimately felt and described, it is because they lack this aesthetic dimension – this capacity to reconcile, authenticate and console.

As a structural complement to ordinary life and as a form of limited consolation, we could regard this aesthetic aspect as entirely compromised, doing little more that to affirm the status quo via a small gesture of cathartic release. This release is compromised again by its dimensions of commodification and consumerism. That sense of lightness at dawn, that sense of drawing energy from the awakening city, is shaped by the inevitable need to work many days to pay for the cleats and the carbon fibre. But this represents an old school critical theoretical response. These days, rather than conceiving a monolithic system where any instant or resistance is instantly subsumed within the interests of the whole, and is conceived simply as negative after image of that system, more recent criticism envisages a multiplicity, a complex assemblage of forces that must be positively as well as negatively conceived.

Another example – the description of the moves on a particularly difficult rock climb:

You leave the ‘rest’ with your right hand, moving to a small slot that wants to be crimped but won’t let you as there’s too much cliff in the way for your knuckles to get much elevation. Your left foot now comes up to a heel-toe cam on the rest jug next to your left hand. Keeping your core ultra tight you have to punch to a pod with your left hand. The pod is junk. It’s basically vertical and has a tendency to feel like a recently-microwaved bowl of porridge that has too much milk in it. Now comes the tricky bit – squeeze the three points on the wall together, bring the right foot up into a drop-knee on the rest jug in front of your face, release the left heel-toe and stab the toe into the roof to a small ripple. The jump position is now engaged and set for blast off. Throw your chest and hips high into the roof in the direction of the next right-hand hold, your hand will know what to do and follow. The hold you throw for is about 1.5m away and it’s a good letterbox ‘jug’ when used in opposition with the left-hand pod. Your feet cut and do all sorts of helicopter-break- dancing and you try your absolute hardest to hold the compression between the two hands and slow the momentum of your lower half. Once you hold the swing and have somewhat stabilised yourself, you need to pull up into a front lever, stab your left foot out at full extension to a rampy foot, right foot flags out right to balance yourself and you now dive with your left hand across yourself to a thin, letterbox slot. Your feet swoop off again and fly around and around. You’re now just under the lip of the roof and you can swing a right heel up around the lip to a good rail and bring your hands up to two good edges. This is another ‘rest’.

Tom O’Halloran’s describes the moves in almost impossible detail; just the level of detail needed to get through this impossible sequence. Here it is the sense of utter focus, of heightened experience and awareness that enables not only the performance of the moves themselves, but also their very precise description. The climb is at once abstracted into a set of discrete moves and engaged with in its particularity (the details of each hold). There is this sense of strange alignment between abstract will-comprehension and embodied experience. The aesthetic here has a microscopic aspect. It discovers a view of everything by turning away from everything and engaging only with just this focused space of action. Almost ironically, the sequence is described more or less as a set of instructions, as though the reader has only to pay close attention and they can complete the same sequence of moves. When, of course, this is plainly not the case. The route is far beyond the difficulty of most people – even most elite climbers. In this sense, the rhetorical ‘you’ is less about literally opening up the climb to others than about projecting O’Halloran’s experience as something more general. The commonality lies in the experience of extremity, which all climbers can recognise.

Kant describes four characteristics of the aesthetic:

  • Disinterested pleasure
  • Non-Conceptual
  • Purposiveness without purpose
  • Universality

Both examples display these characteristics. Although less distant and contemplative than Kant’s aesthetic regard for nature, road cycling and rock climbing are disinterested in as much as they involve perverse pleasure, demanding a level of physical effort that is equally pleasurable and arduous. In this manner, they provide artificial contexts for the experience of extreme necessity. This aspect of artifice enables a complex, finely determined play between experiential engagement and reflective distance. The activities can be regarded as ‘non-conceptual’ in that are less the product of underlying conceptual principles than emergent phenomena marked by the interaction between affective dispositions, regimes and things. In terms of Kant’s third aesthetic characteristic, road cycling and rock climbing are utterly pointless activities that nonetheless reveal a deeper purpose (an experience of freedom and heightened awareness). Finally, the two spheres of activity display a universal, normative dimension. Especially as descriptions, they trace possibilities of commonality and identification. The activities are pursued with such intensity that, even if we would never attempt them ourselves, their significance is unquestionable.

But what of beauty and the sublime? Without pursuing this question properly or in detail, we may simply suggest that the modern world shapes both endless prospects of beautiful and sublime images, but also – more or less as an antidote – all kinds of novel forms of immersive engagement and movement. Road cycling and rock climbing relate more closely to the latter. If there is beauty here it relates to a dynamic harmony in motion. If there is the sublime then it is discovered less as dramatic external thing than in the microscopic texture of extreme effort. In these moments human activity appears both intensely realised and estranged. This paradox of engagement and disengagement lies at the heart of the aesthetic.


While I can recognise aspects of the aesthetic in cultural fields beyond art, what is the point of extending the notion of the aesthetic, of discovering its wider relevance? After all, as Rancierre argues, contemporary art is pointedly defined in terms of it play of limits – tending either to portray a sublime and autonomous interior/exterior or pushing beyond the iconography, scenography and institutional configuration of art to render non-art art and art non-art. In this sense contemporary art will have already long anticipated all of our efforts to conceive wider cultural fields in terms of their aesthetic potential. In this respect, art will have also pushed things to a further point – to a critique of the aesthetic itself. Its own efforts at self-negation (always also a form of self-aggrandisement) deliberately seek out and summon the non-aesthetic as an alternative to the compromises and paradoxes of the aesthetic. It is not clear that this same sense of discomfort and critique is evident in the various efforts to extend the aesthetic more broadly, to position it as a general category of experience – a qualitative register of experience – that can be applied in all kinds of contexts, and certainly beyond the narrow space of art. For example, I have drawn on Kant’s very traditional conception of aesthetics. I have accepted it as a model for evaluating the aesthetic features on non-art phenomena. In this respect, I have not attempted anything very ambitious. I have not attempted to rethink the nature and potential of the aesthetic beyond its conventional definition. I have simply applied the notion more generally, but with what aim precisely?

Thinking carefully, It would seem that I am trying to discern some vital layer of cultural potential within road cycling and rock climbing – and possibly within all manner of everyday experiences and activities – that somehow connects with strands of aesthetic speculation, and that enables the aesthetic to gain a relevance that it can never have within the awkward, self-annulling autonomy of contemporary art. But as I have suggested, this involves more than simply extending the aesthetic, it involves rethinking it. Kant’s four conditions are not sufficient and in any case do not engage with his more thorough holistic rationale for conceiving a category of aesthetic judgement that operates alongside logically governed cognition and ethically geared social interaction. It is only within the context of this wider system of relations that the aesthetic makes coherent sense as a space of mediation and reconciliation. But even more than this, Kant’s conception of aesthetics, however important and influential, is not the only relevant model. The aesthetic takes shape as a complex permutational space involving a rich set of of ontological, epistemological and ethico-political elements. At one level it dutifully functions within larger metaphysical systems. At another level, without even necessarily saying this specifically, it works to disturb them. In this sense, the history of aesthetic speculation reveals both an affirmative and a critical, deconstructive aspect. The risk in so many effort to apply the aesthetic more broadly, is that the aesthetic is reduced and flattened, rendered in very conventional terms as, for instance, a dimension of qualitative sensibility or a vaguely determined realm of appearance and play. The problem, it seems to me, is to somehow recover and develop a sense of the aesthetic that works to disrupt existing relations, yet not necessarily always via the conventional means of making strange or shaping the new, but also by speaking of very old things – of discovering continuities where least expected.

For example, road cycling and rock-climbing, even though plainly a product of modernity and structurally meaningful in their relation to systems of leisure and consumption, also provide an experience that connects people to their bodies and the wider environment, engaging with dimensions of experience that recall possibilities that may appear under threat or lost. However problematic, however compromised, they summon a memory of old ways of being within new visceral frameworks. This may simply be regarded as a sphere of consolation, in which the larger system persists precisely by enabling ever diminishing contexts of hope, yet this falls into the trap that I discussed earlier of envisaging an entirely monolithic system. The small gestures of compromised hope are also the signs of the impossibility of the closure of the overall system – and also the signs that system itself somehow retains these memories, fictions and hopes as an assembled multiplicity.

But there is still a need for something more, some effort to think through the contours of the aesthetic more carefully, to reconfigure and redistribute our sense of the real itself. This involves both describing the permutational space of the aesthetic (in terms of variety of philosophical and historical backgrounds) and engaging critically with current forms of life. The aim is less to impose a conventional model of the aesthetic than to foster new conceptions and modes of practice that draw upon the nascent potential inscribed within present forms of life.

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The Promiscuity of Aesthetics

Almost anything can be regarded in aesthetic terms. Any experience, any material or immaterial thing, can be regarded in terms of sensible or insensible (formal) qualities that somehow engage us. I realise that ‘engage us’ is terribly vague, but how are we to precisely limit the aesthetic? It is variously conceived as involving dimensions of sensibility, affect, play, reflection, immersion, distraction, freedom, everyday experience, interaction with art and or nature, etc. There is arguably an aesthetic aspect to totalitarian rule, walking in the country, reclining on the couch, sweeping a factory or throwing a bottle out of car. None of these things have to be conceived in aesthetic terms, but there is equally nothing that prevents them being conceived in this way.

So does this render the notion of the aesthetic utterly useless? Perhaps in terms of trying to determine something very specific, but not if the lack of clarity and the semantic promiscuity of ‘aesthetics’ become the focus of interest. In that case it is a matter of considering how the obscure multiplicity of the term my itself be meaningful. It is the imperfect, unclear means of conceiving things that we have no means of adequately expressing, things that we envisage as somehow significant, but cannot adequately determine and name.

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Aesthetics is less a mode of experience as such than an effort to conceive features of experience that have proved awkward to conceive within the philosophical tradition. So if, for instance, Descartes, in line with a great deal of ancient philosophy, questions the capacity of the senses to provide access to truth, if he insists instead upon a pure space of cognition, this is bound to pose a rich set of enduring questions. What is the role of the senses? How is mind to be conceived in relation to body? What is the relation between sensible appearance and the space of philosophically guaranteed truth? Leibniz questions the notion of positing an absolute gulf between mind and body, suggesting a more nuanced relation between the austere heights of logical thought and the obscurity, confusion and clarity of the senses. Baumgarten goes further, conceiving a science of aesthetics that can make sense of sensible experience and thinking as an analogue of higher level abstract thought and also as something with its own intrinsic complexity, richness and value. Aesthetics is posited initially then as a philosophical response to the Cartesian dichotomy between mind and body, and the absolute devaluation of the latter. In this sense, aesthetics is also bound to the Cartesian space. Although far less binary, it still subscribes to the sense of higher and lower fields of thought and to the notion of the sensible as a discrete space. What if we were to suggest, in effort to think differently, that the relation between the sensible and the abstract is less determined and much more fluid? What if instead of conceiving a continuous but still separate space of sensible thought we were to think logic sensibly and the sensible logically? Inevitably this would still represent a predictable response to the initial challenge that Descartes makes. Any effort to specify dimensions of paradox and indeterminancy still draws upon binary metaphors of mind and body. In any case, my point is that aesthetics emerges philosophically in terms of problems of conceiving dimensions of experience and knowledge, not as a straightforwardly apparent and unambiguous category of experience.

I should acknowledge that the distinction that I make here between the terrain of philosophical discourse and the apparent silence of experience is itself bound to the Cartesian paradigm. It repeats it even as it struggles to conceive another sense of things. As soon as experience and thought are specified and discussed they cannot step outside the philosophical universe in which they obtain meaning. All one can do is painstakingly confuse the terms until something gives.

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Why am I so focused on the term ‘aesthetics’? It is not as though I can make it mean whatever I like, yet it seems to represents a more open field of possibility than the notion of art.

I’m not regarding aesthetics as simply a supplementary reflection on art. Since Hegel, aesthetics is typically regarded as the philosophy of art. This remains evident in Ranciere’s sense that aesthetics represents a mode of thinking the paradoxes of contemporary art – for example, art’s notional autonomy and its dissolution into everyday life. For Ranciere, the role of aesthetics is to render this space of confusion lucid and to tease out its underlying politics. While I can see the logic of Ranciere’s conception, and certainly its relevance to making sense of the tradition of philosophical aesthetics, I am drawing upon a less historically determinate conception.

I am interested, for example, in the tension between two different definitions of the aesthetic that are evident in Kant’s critical philosophy. In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant, drawing upon Baumgarten, regards aesthetics as the philosophy of sensible perception and experience. Less than a decade later, however, in his Critique of Judgement, he defines it in terms of a philosophy of the beautiful and the sublime. He relates these qualities less to art than to nature. It is Hegel who makes the decisive shift away from nature towards the philosophy of art (yet of course art is also conceived as a form of nature, of the uplifting of nature into a more properly spiritual realm). So I am interested in these tensions within the early notion of aesthetics. As a philosophy of sensible perception and experience, aesthetics has wide-ranging epistemological and ontological implications. Conceived more narrowly as the philosophy of art, aesthetics nonetheles refuses to obtain clear resolution – constantly bleeding out beyond the sphere of art per se (assuming this per se has any meaning whatsoever).

As a dimension of experience – sensible, but also tending into the conceptual, however much this is resisted – the aesthetic takes shape as something that is more than a mode of thinking. It is also a mode of practice. My interest is less in the philosophy of aesthetics than the possibility of aesthetic practice.

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Aesthetic Practice 2

The aim is to propose a notion of aesthetic practice. My argument is that aesthetic practice is a broader field than artistic practice. For a start, it involves more than simply making things (the etymology of the term ‘art’ relates to the skillful making of things, even if this is less relevant to the field of contemporary art). Aesthetic practice can involve making things, but it can also involve doing nothing especially skillful or constructive. It links to dimensions of experience that can relate to any number of particular practices. In this sense, aesthetic practice is less a species of practice per se than an aspect of practice – and here practice is not restricted to active modalities of being. There is also the practice of doing nothing, of being inattentive, of letting life and time slide away. Practice, in this very loose sense, simply refers to a coherent form of experience, rather than to anything that demands especially active ‘doing’.

So permitting this loose, counter-intuitive definition of practice, what does it mean to speak of a specifically aesthetic practice? We know it need not involve making things, then what does it involve? For my purposes, it links crucially to an aspect of play and reflection. Here I am using the word ‘play’ in the very general sense that Caillois defines it as meaningful activity that is not directed towards achieving narrowly intrumental goals. This is not to say that instrumental activity cannot have an aesthetic dimension, it is just that the aesthetic portion of it is not reducible to the accomplishment of teleologically conceived ends. There is always something else there – something linked to a choreography of time, space and motion. It need not be beautiful, it need not take particular distinctive shape. It is a tracing out of possibility. It can leave a mark. It can be ephemeral. It can register as a moment of experience or it can instantly dissolve into other things. Futhermore, if not immediately instrumental (in the Kantian sense), it is a least purposive. It repeats, distills and exaggerates. It plays with experience. It represents it as a space of possibility. In this sense, even if not especially cognizant of what it is doing, it reflects upon the conditions of experience. It opens them up. It has the capacity to maintain and redirect currents of both ordinary and extraordinary being.

Why choose the term ‘aesthetic’? We typically associate aesthetics with the philosophy of art and beauty. While it can suggest aspects of radical promise (for instance in the writings of Schiller, Heidegger, Adorno, Ranciere, etc.), very often, in more everyday contexts, it appears as an antiquated and anachronistic field. It seems precious and faintly absurd. Similar to the philosophy of jokes, it is dismissed as something that adopts a very serious demeanour to talk about things it knows nothing about and can never adequately conceive or appreciate. Aesthetics, from this perspective, appears inevitably tardy and irrelevant. It finds long-winded means to miss the point at every turn. My aim is to argue against this view and to elaborate a broader notion of what aesthetics can mean. I do this for two reasons: firstly, in order to describe an aspect of experience that is aligned with, but not reducible to art; and secondly to demonstrate how the philosphical tradition suggests a richer thinking of aesthetics. Do I expect the term to obtain a new currency? Not really, but inasmuch as there is no other term with quite the same capacity to delineate what concerns me, I am determined to use it. My hope is that my non-specialist and most likely wayward reading of the philosophical tradition will have positive value in thinking beyond contemporary impasses and dilemmas.

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Aesthetic Practice

It occurs to me that there may be some value in conceiving a notion of aesthetic practice. Aesthetics typically appears as a field that is secondary to the primary phenomenon of art (and art practice), but I wish to argue otherwise: both that aesthetics precedes the contemporary notion of art; and also that aesthetic practice is broader than art practice. The value of this conception is not only that it acknowledges the philosophical breadth of aesthetics, but also that it enables a reflection beyond the dilemmas of art – its awkward cultural and institutional positioning. Art practice, in my view, is an aspect of aesthetic practice, but it does not exhaust it. Aesthetic practice is not limited to the field of art. This is not simply a matter of conceptual definition and redefinition. It gets to the heart of the scope and the potential of aesthetics as form of rich and at time incisive cultural practice. It may seem strange to associate ‘aesthetics’ as a realm of philosophical reflection with ‘practice’ as a realm of social action. My notion of aesthetics will suggest a critique of the perceived gap between reflection and action, which can, of course, be related to the social and economic distinction between consumption and production. I am suggesting a soft notion of practice that questions and unsettles this binary schema. Practice need not be restricted to the realm of the conventionally productive – of making. It can, for instance, also be about repetition and maintenance. It can also represent a lived relation to the existent.

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On the Numerical Education of Art and Aesthetics

This paper considers the implications of conceiving contemporary tertiary art education in terms of models of logical-mathematical being and understanding. While art and aesthetics have always borne a relation to the field of systematic abstraction that numbers represent, something new is afoot, and it affects precisely a conception of education. Art education is increasingly conceived in terms of sets of discrete and equivalent competencies and transferable capacities (project development, imagination, communication, teamwork, etc.) that can be clearly mapped to the requirements of the workplace. The value of an art education is becoming cast in terms of its equivalence – its capacity to be applied elsewhere. While these changes are affecting education generally, they have particular implications for the traditional self-understanding of art education as a critical, qualitatively particular and holistic space.

Signal Flow
Below is a diagram that I encountered in my very first lecture of a degree in Communication and Media at the University of Canberra (then Canberra College of Advanced Education) in 1981.

This is US mathematician and electronic engineer Claude Shannon’s very influential diagram of the communication process from his Mathematical Theory of Communication (1948). Shannon is a key figure in the invention of digital computation, having demonstrated how the abstract system of Boolean algebra can be represented in the material interaction of binary electrical circuits.

As a humanities oriented student, this diagram made little sense to me. The whole idea of breaking the communication process up into discrete mechanical aspects, of suggesting that it flows in a single direction and of positing a key relationship (and antagonism) between system noise and instrumental signal, seemed a vast oversimplification of properly human processes of social interaction and negotiated meaning. It was only much later that I came to recognise that it was a profoundly novel and creative way of thinking about how an ordinarily qualitatively conceived process can be represented in quantitative terms, but at the time it seemed simply daft, and indeed the course never really properly reflected upon the deeper implications of this model. We quickly passed on to other more apparently sophisticated models that included dimensions of feedback, cultural context and meaning. Then very swiftly we shifted away from diagrams altogether towards the difficult textuality of semiotics, cultural studies and post-modernism, leaving Shannon’s initial diagram as an anomalous and reductive joke.

I wonder now, however, who is getting the last laugh, particularly as more and more aspects of qualitative experience are rendered in logical-quantitative terms. This is probably less a factor of logical-mathematical thinking per se than of a specific neoliberal application of logical quantification, but for the purposes of this paper I will risk speaking more generally. I take this risk partly with the sense that the functional perspective that Shannon’s model demonstrates cannot be reduced to the space of contemporary higher education managerialism. It is something that has a longer history and broader implications. It represents a particular ontological and epistemological framework for making sense of the world that has its basis in the mechanisms of logical and mathematical abstraction.

The issue obtained clarity for me while attending a whole day seminar on current higher education micro-credentialing initiatives. Micro-credentialing involves conceiving whole qualification programs as discrete portions of attainment that are mapped to national and international curriculum frameworks and standards. So rather than receiving a single overall testamur for a three or four year degree, students undertake any number of micro-credentialed courses from one or more providers that individually demonstrate specific transferable aspects of experience, skill and understanding. These can be subsequently combined to represent an overall level of qualification attainment. I have no objections to this per se. It would seem to provide an effective way of addressing the complex educational needs of contemporary learners, who very often lack either the financial means or the time to commit to longer and sustained degree studies. Just as we currently divide up our curriculum into discrete subjects, why not decompose whole degrees into a set of modular units? After all, this is becoming the norm in all kinds of informal online educational contexts. Yet linked to this, particularly within tertiary education, is a call for standards that can render one micro-credentialed qualification comparable to another. This involves combining a conception of small and discrete educational components with one that envisages effective means to map these components in terms of features of equivalence and transferability. It is this structural association of the discrete and discontinuous with the equivalent and transferable that represents a more thorough form of logical-systemic representation.

The overall purpose of micro-credentialing is to foster a more direct and transparent relationship between tertiary qualifications and employer needs. Students no longer receive an opaque overall qualification with a large number of individual results for particular subjects. Instead, they receive a set of micro-credentials that explicitly indicate particular areas of employer relevant expertise. Micro-credentials represent the attainment of key learning outcomes. They are less discipline and curriculum focused than outwardly oriented towards areas of general competence and capacity. In this sense, they reflect a broad effort to establish a better alignment between tertiary education and the employment market.

I should note that, beyond these straightforward aims, micro-credentialing is linked to efforts to coordinate aspects of the qualification and employment market via block-chain technologies. It is regarded as one component in establishing a universally recognized ledger of individuated labour capacity. This depends upon establishing associated layers of abstract data representation that I lack the scope to adequately consider here, but that are clearly aligned with an overall logical-mathematical systems logic and that are very evidently worth examination in terms of their implications for traditional mechanisms of qualitative evaluation of job applicants and the like.

In an effort to explain the particular value of micro-credentialing, Jon Mott, Chief Learning Officer for Learning Objects (a major US based micro-credentialing provider) gave a keynote lecture for the seminar that drew upon Shannon’s technically focused model of the communication process.

While he never mentioned Shannon directly, there is the same sense of a signal passing from one place to another within an ever-present context of potential signal disruption (noise). In this case the signal is cast as education, and more specifically the educational capacities of graduates, which must pass through the noisy vagaries of current diplomas and transcripts to be imperfectly decoded by employers. Micro-credentialing, in Mott’s view, provides a means of reducing this noise and making levels of attainment more legible for employers. I felt a spark of recognition when I saw this slide. It not only demonstrated how tertiary education is increasingly perceived in very directly functional terms – in terms of instrumental system integration – but also the wider sense of how education is now regarded in fundamentally logical-mathematical terms.

Identity and Equivalence
What do I mean by this precisely? According to Leibniz, logic begins with the thinking of identity: X = X. Something exists as itself. In the midst of this, the thing also obtains the strange potential to be doubled, to be thought not just as one thing but as two things on either side of an equation that are identical. Other philosophers conceive the matter differently. Hegel, for instance, insists that identity is not a pre-existing state, but only emerges through difference – the same encounters its other in order to dialectically establish for its own distinct identity. So the formula becomes something more along the lines of, X = (X ≠NOT X).

The logic of identity has its basis in the determination of discrete entities – and more particularly the identification of the discrete as a fundamental property of things. It also suggests that these discrete things, which may have originally been simply variable and multiple, can now be drawn into delineated relationships of equality and difference that are embodied not only in unique characteristics, but also in shared amenability to abstraction, a shared capacity to be represented as quantities.

Mathematics draws upon this logical foundation. Abstracting from the rich diversity of things, it finds means to represent aspects of the world in terms of relationships between discrete quantities. So, in this case, the blurry complexity of actual real world educational experience and attainment, which is currently embodied in the opaque features of the traditional testamur, obtains clearly identifiable shape in a set of discretely characterised micro-credentials. This is one aspect of logically and mathematically inspired conception of education. The other represents an extension of this orientation to the discrete. It involves searching for mechanisms to make elements of discrete attainment equivalent. So holistic aspects of study become discrete entities that are then mapped to qualification frameworks and standards to ensure that they are properly quantifiable and equivalent. Of course this work of conceiving the equivalent dimensions of educational experience has a much longer history than micro-credentialing. It is embedded, for instance, in the principles of the Australian Qualifications Framework, but micro-credentialing lends this notion of educational equivalence much greater and more rigorously defined force.

If education is increasingly conceived in systemic mathematical terms, in terms particularly of the discrete, the equivalent and the logically articulable, then what are the implications for notions of art education? In my view there are significant tensions that require acknowledgement and consideration.

A Transformed Space
Since the Dawkins reforms, Australian art schools no longer subsist at the margins of tertiary education initiatives and agendas. They are integrated within this larger and rapidly developing space. Arguably, this is less because of any sense of natural fit than because of a pressing need to adhere to the requirements of the enframing system.

Here are just a few ways in which art education seems to have changed through its absorption within the university education system:

  • Shift from atelier style training to university lecture and seminar style delivery.
  • Incorporation of dedicated strands of humanities style history and theory alongside studio theory. This represents, at least partly, a greater emphasis on the development of generic tertiary level critical and conceptual skills and a reduced emphasis on more traditional art based technical and creative skills.
  • Integration of creative art practice within university based research paradigms via the notion of non-traditional research outputs. This involves positioning art practice as research that produces new knowledge.
  • Increasingly confused sense of purpose – shifting from either a consolatory or resistant activist conception of the value of an art school education to one that is framed in terms of an alignment with wider dimensions of neoliberal being – creativity, entrepreneurial capacity, initiative, collaboration, communication, problem solving, etc. In this latter conception, art education appears to model and develop the agile skills needed to survive and thrive in the modern economic world.

I should stress that art education was never specifically considered at the micro-credentialing event, yet there are some obvious implications. The potential restructuring of art education into discrete modules of transferable attainment, and the mapping of these modules to wider qualification frameworks in order to facilitate dimensions of cross-institutional equivalence, may seem relatively minor and incremental developments, but we are reaching a point in which art education – and perhaps the thinking of art more broadly – is fundamentally altered.

This change hinges on how art education is conceived. It involves the consequences of thinking of art education as something that it not just susceptible to quantification and algorithmic calculation, but as something that is fundamentally cast in these terms. Stated in strong terms, art education risks becoming reified into a state of being in which all relation to the particular is lost, in which it is little more than a cypher for everything that it may traditionally have placed in suspension or resisted.

No doubt this sounds naïve, indicative of an anachronistic sense of art education’s critical possibility, so let me attempt to explain in different terms. In the remainder of this essay I want to briefly describe three areas of apparent tension. I consider firstly the relationship of art and aesthetics to what Shannon describes as ‘noise’. My interest is in the ontology of art – its particular way of conceiving its being in the world, which involves precisely an openness and attentiveness to the sphere of noise. Secondly, I consider the issue of multiplicity – how art relates to dimensions of multiplicity and number. This is about the epistemology of art – how art conceives multiplicity without ever completely passing into reified logical mathematical abstraction. Thirdly, I consider art’s capacity to serve as a social model and agent. This addresses the ethical status of art – particularly how art conceives its social identity as a form of mediation. Once again, I am taking the risk here of speaking very generally. I acknowledge that there is no single notion of the nature of art, aesthetics and art education, but there are key features in the Western aesthetic tradition that rub up against how art and art education is currently being positioned. My aim is try to clarify key aspects of this friction.


While the notion of signal to noise ratio is a modern invention, linked to characteristics of electronic communication, the underlying interest in considering the relationship between a multitude of impressions and the distinct identity of rationally articulated phenomena has a much longer history. It can be found, for instance, as the very basis of Western aesthetic philosophy. In his founding work Aesthetica (1750), the German philosopher, Alexandre Baumgarten, posits the field of aesthetics as a means of acknowledging the realm of sensible experience, which affects us intimately and yet which resists neat logical delineation. Drawing upon Leibniz, who envisages a continuity between the mingled clarity and opacity of sense and the abstraction of logically articulated being, Baumgarten is keen to embrace sensible experience, to value its richness and to find means to trace the features of its hidden, intuitive logic in terms that are properly philosophical. The noisy space of the lived is portrayed as a precondition and presentiment for the emergence of logical differentiation and analysis, but also as space with its own elusive characteristics. It appears ambivalently as both the ground for philosophical thought and as another way of thinking altogether.

In my view aesthetics, art and art education are fundamentally shaped by this orientation – this effort to engage with the rich uncertainly of the sensible manifold, and within this, the complexity, clarity and obscurity of the particular. To try to dispel the noise, to render only the clarity of signal, is precisely what art characteristically avoids. Instead it plays on the relation between clarity and opacity, between motions of clear delineation and intractable specificity.

Within this context of performing a role of maintaining, renewing and transforming the relationship to lived experience, art can never form an adequately predictable communication mechanism. Because it interrogates the conditions of communication – its grounds and modalities – it can never comfortably side with the signal. This is another way of thinking the conventional Kantian notion of the non-instrumental nature of art and aesthetics. It is not that art lacks social value, it is rather that its value lies in disrupting the instrumental relationship as an automatic circuit of abstracted interaction.

In these terms, conceiving art education as a straightforward cypher for flexible and creative engagement in the new economy seems misguided. Art education does not provide this form of equivalence. It is implicitly critical of the whole idea of rendering things equivalent, of imagining that one thing neatly maps to another. This is not to say that the skills and capacities of an art school graduate lack substance (or wider applicability), but to insist that this substance has a rich and noisy particularity that extends beyond, and ultimately questions, any efforts to chart dimensions of transferable equivalence.

Of course equivalence is not only about charting the instrumental transferability of an art school education to wider employment contexts, it is also about envisaging an equivalence between the variety of offerings at different institutions. This depends upon adherence to common qualification standards, which must now arguably inform the character of all specific courses. In this manner, once again, emphasis shifts from the holistically cast particularity of specific institutional curricula, cultures and experiences towards generic and abstractly determined curriculum features. No doubt some kind of balance of imperatives is possible here, but there is a clear risk of a diminution of diversity, with consistency and equivalence gaining priority over varied and idiosyncratically differentiated identity.


The first volume of Elizabeth Holt’s A Documentary History of Art begins with selection from the Benedictine monk Theophilus’ medieval treatise on artistic practice, Schedula. Theophilus explains in his preface that ‘[a]ll arts are taught by degrees.’ Leaving aside the unlikely possibility that he is referring to university degrees, this suggests that learning to become an artist involves a set of clearly determinate steps.

At one level this may appear to undermine my argument that there is a necessary tension between traditional art education and the mathematical-systemic conceptions evident, for instance, in micro-credentialing. I certainly do not wish to insist upon an essential antagonism between mathematical and logically sequenced procedural thinking and art practice. While they may be in tension – and for all sorts of good reasons often are – there are many points of commonality, intersection and exchange. Both art and mathematics incorporate aspects of abstraction. Both also incorporate aspects of systemic procedure (most obviously evident within contemporary art in the tradition of Conceptualism). They can also both be poetically inspired and oriented towards aesthetic beauty. Nonetheless, logic and mathematics operate more consistently at the level of the general. Although art may regularly attempt a similarly symbolic rigour, it can never quite achieve adequate distance from the noisy texture of the real.

A later section from Schedula suggests this difference between a logical-mathematical and artistic-aesthetic conception. It describes how to apply gold leaf to parchment.

Of Gold Leaf. Take Greek parchment [that is paper], which is made from linen cloth, and you will rub it on both sides with a red colour which is burned from sinoper, that is ochre, very finely ground and dry, and polish it with a beaver’s tooth, or that of a bear or a wild boar, very carefully, until it becomes shining, and that the colour may adhere through friction.

The emphasis here is upon the interaction between a set of materials with particular qualities. What stands out is the diversity of materials and the sense of nuanced intimate engagement; the rubbing, fine grinding and polishing of the gold leaf on the parchment. The process is described step by step, but this is indicative of a human, temporal relation to the materials rather than of a discretely determined, mathematical conception. Overall, there is a narrative of drawing elements of multiple organically and sensibly articulated elements together rather than of elaborating them in specifically abstract and systemic terms. This is signals a difference between the notion of multiplicity and number. Multiplicity suggests an irresolvable sensible plenitude and diversity, whereas number suggests linear order and dimensions of equivalence.

None of this necessarily implies that micro-credentialing cannot accomplish something similar, that it cannot be directed to the development of organically related and particular skills. The sense of potential tension is more contextual and political. The issue is that the fragmentation of education that micro-credentialing entails takes place within a context in which the traditional holistic experiential conception of art education is already affected by the disruption of subjects, lectures, tutorials – by all the various discrete and systemic ways in which university educational experience is divided up and organized. Within this context, micro-credentialing appears as a force that potentially exacerbates this trend. Everything holistic that the atelier model represented risks being further eroded by yet another motion of logical subdivision. This need not be the case, but only by reflecting upon how subdivision can be effectively linked to dimensions of holistic experience – only by reflecting upon an obvious area of tension – can we find the means to sensibly incorporate or reject whatever it is that something like micro-credentialing involves. Perhaps it will even permit some thinking beyond the conventional sense of difference between number and multiplicity, but all of this depends upon some critical work.

Despite, or perhaps precisely because of its focus on the particular, art and aesthetics have regularly been positioned in terms of their capacity to model other things. For Kant, aesthetics serves as a means of indicating an open and intuitive alignment between the apriori features of rational understanding and the endlessly elusive realm of the thing-in-itself (the world as it exists beyond human sense-making). The aesthetic experience of the beauty of a flower, for instance, which is often expressed in terms of its symmetry, etc. is pleasurable precisely because it suggests that the apriori sphere of mathematically logical form can have an existence that exceeds the mind itself, that can appear literally and sensibly before us, but without any need to be decomposed into logical, symbolic terms. Aesthetics serves then as an intimation of an ultimately never verifiable whole in which world and mind align.

Beyond this dimension of epistemological reconciliation, aesthetics also regularly serves as an ethical and political model. In response to the French Revolution, the German writer and philosopher Freidrich Schiller wrote a series of letters entitled On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794). Appalled by how the high-minded political values of liberty, fraternity and equality had degenerated into the violence of the Reign of Terror (1993-4), Schiller argued that any political education of citizens needed to be preceded by something more basic – an education into the realm of feeling and sensibility that would provide the true basis for any genuine lived community. Aesthetics was positioned then as a vital educative force that prepared an essential ground for ethical action.

More recently the French philosopher Jacques Rancierre positions art and aesthetics not simply as a model for enlightened social interaction, but more forcefully as an intrinsically political phenomenon. Art and aesthetics inform a particular ‘distribution of the sensible’ – a particular conformation of the nature, affordances and possibilities of lived experience, with the capacity to both articulate and, in genuine political moments, transform existing social and material relations. Yet even here there is a sense that art and aesthetics are positioned as exemplary, as a dimension of culture and lived experience that attains broader currency and significance when something telling happens. In very typical terms, this at once attaches too much weight to art and aesthetics (expecting them to transform sensible experience generally) while also neglecting what art can be if it is not simply political.

It is always difficult then to regard art and aesthetics in their own terms. They are always signaling something else, always serving as a sign of phenomenological reconciliation or of political ethical being, and always acting as a mediator for other things. This awkward sense of identity is also, of course, linked to the marginalisation of art and aesthetics, which appear at once as hugely significant and utterly insignificant. In this sense – in terms of their complex positioning, inflated egos and lingering sense of irrelevance – art and aesthetics do obtain a distinct self-identity, but one which is characterised precisely by questions of being, status and social purpose.

Beyond this there is the realisation that art and aesthetics, which have always served as models, are now themselves subject to modeling. Shannon’s model provides an example, especially in terms of its underlying faith in the potential to reconceive qualitative processes in quantitative terms – to represent the continuous as discrete, the open as finite and the multiple as numbered. Art and aesthetics may resist this conception, but hardly adequately or convincingly. The contemporary dilemmas of tertiary art education provide an example. It often appears as losing a sense of effective agency – regularly compelled to compromise in order to secure any strands of continuing existence. If now it divides itself up into discrete micro-credential modules, or if it conceives national and international art education qualification standards, or if it presents itself in the most glowingly employable terms, this is less to articulate its own space of modeling than to be modeled by wider tertiary education agendas and initiatives. How can we conceive our scope for agency? How can we link whatever becomes of art education to the tradition of whatever it once was and once imagined itself to be?

This account may seem alarmist. Arguably, none of this really affects art education, which just goes on in roughly the same form as it always has, occasionally better supported, more often worse. All the rhetoric of transferable skills, all the talk of creative industries, all the sense of art education as a cypher for agile existence within the entrepreneurial, portfolio and gig economy, is precisely that, rhetoric; it does not really get to the heart of what we do. We compromise to survive, but without really compromising – or that is the story that we tell ourselves. The key thing that we risk losing in all of this is the capacity to recognise what is happening – to speak clearly of the implications of new models. This need not involve a nostalgic return to the qualitative. It need not demand an unviable insistence on studio-based holistically experiential art education. It need not even require an avoidance of standards of course equivalence or the pursuit of instrumental, socially and economically geared models of art. What is needed, however, if nothing else, is a historically informed reflection on implications – some kind of value focused understanding of what an art education represents and can do.

My fear when I attended the recent micro-credentialing event was of changes that are occurring by stealth, in terms an unreflective logic of system optimisation that undermines all potential for criticism – that positions criticism as something impertinent, or at best as something that can happen later or elsewhere. It is this above all that needs to be questioned. I am not opposed to logically and mathematically inspired models of contemporary education. I can even recognise their provocative value, but we must find the means to respond lucidly and effectively to this provocation if anything worthwhile is to emerge.

I’d rather not conclude, however, with the standard admonition that ‘critical reflection is required.’ It seems to me that something more positive is needed. There is little use in just lamenting the loss of a particular idealised notion of art education, or of lamenting that that this loss is scarcely recognised or reflected upon, we need pursue options that provide us with greater proactive agency.

Within this context, and leaving aside the much bigger issue of how to engage with and reorient a narrowly logical-mathematical conception of the nature and value of tertiary art education, permit me to conclude with three quick, counter-intuitive and very sketchily described suggestions for responding to the (not quite immediate) prospect of micro-credentialing:

  • Explore and embrace new online modular and distributed educational forms. Question the need for the traditional studio experience, with its face-to-face teaching and actual student cohorts. Explicitly engage with this space of apparent loss. Or look for ways that micro-credentialed modularity can establish new experiential contexts and communities that extend the nature and scope of conventional art education and art practice generally.
  • Devise associated qualification standards that explicitly acknowledge and provide scope for a diversity of pedagogical approaches and institutional cultures. Celebrate the potential for abstract description. Allow the standards to be entirely general and to have only minimal implications for specific aspects of curriculum, teaching delivery and learning experience.
  • Pursue ways of conceiving art education in directly useful (equivalent, transferable and adaptable) terms. Insist that artists belong in banks, in the public service, running businesses, etc., but couch this usefulness in terms of engaging with and drawing value from dimensions of noise. Position art practice as a means of creatively thinking through the interaction between signal, medium and context – less to eliminate noise than to acknowledge its necessity and more open, critical-productive potential.
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Loom 91b

Loom June 2018

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Mountain (literal)

Loom June 2018

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Mountain (Agnes Martin)

At first glance it is difficult to detect a relationship between Agnes Martin’s 1960s minimalist (or possibly abstract expressionist) paintings and the titles of the works, which often reference conventionally picturesque aspects of the natural world – ‘flower’, ‘mountain’, etc.  The works take shape as meticulously crafted grids, notable more for their subtle and curiously embodied relation to abstraction than any sense of reference to particular beautiful or sublime natural things.  Yet somehow – by both playing at and avoiding reference – the works establish a complex and evocative dialogue between minimal grid and ostensibly alien referent.

My focus is on her ‘mountain’ works particularly, and less with the details of these works, or what Martin may have meant by them, than with the questions they pose about the nature of mountain experience.  While there is a self-evident link between a minimalist aesthetic sublime and the sublimity of mountains, my interest is in layers of correspondence that are less iconic than phenomenological – related to features of indirection, pattern and performance.  I argue that the interplay of repetition and subtle, almost imperceptible differentiation in the paintings engages with intimate aspects of mountain experience – the iterative inhalation of breath, the search for lines, the recognition of space as a macro and micro level field of affordance.

Agnes Martin, Mountain, 1960

The paintings provide a means of thinking mountains differently – not as exterior realms of otherness, but as profoundly lived and imagined spaces, always already covered in real and virtual infrastructure – roads, data trails, and lines of least resistance.  I argue that long before the mountain is abstracted into a grid, it is already abstracted, it is already subject to a work of repetition and projection.  It is always already more than it appears to be.  I link this multi-modal conception of mountains and mountain experience to aspects of Martin’s ‘mountain’ paintings and to my own experience as a rock-climber, walker and artist.  I consider particularly how my own work alternates between literal interaction with outdoor spaces (mainly mountains) and gestures of apparent distanciation, involving indoor practices of writing and computer programming.  Rather than regard these as entirely separate fields of activity, I argue that close engagement with mountain environments summons abstraction in the same manner that the computational line summons the lived step.


In response to the first wave of British Alpine mountaineering, the British art critic John Ruskin famously argued that the Alps were better appreciated from the valleys than the peaks, suggesting that climbing represented a desecration of the ‘cathedrals of the earth’.  Since then, the scope and scale of leisure based engagement with mountain environments has vastly increased.  The world’s mountain regions are more and more characterised by complex networks of routes, trails and trajectories and are increasingly integrated within wider data and communication systems.  Via these means, mountain experience has changed for us.  It is no longer so remote and separate.  It is no longer exclusively informed by a rhetoric of sublimity.  Mountain experience has become more intense and immersive and mountains themselves have become less neatly separable from features of the modern world.


  • it is not actually a binary choice between sublimity and immersion, they are linked in complex ways.  There is an interplay between them – a capacity both to make externally visible and experiential.
  • I was lost early morning on the Larapinta trail.  I had a headtorch that normally worked to follow the track, but crossing a dry creek I missed a less visible exit and became lost.  Usually crossing creeks there were yellow metal trail markers.  I struggled to see them.  So I had to sit for several hours until it became light before I could re-find the trail.  The whole place changed when there was no longer a track.  Every boulder and stunted tree had a new resonance as I tried to read clues into an obscure landscape.  Before I sat down and waited, I made a number of efforts to walk 50m or so in particular directions in the hope that I’d stumble across the track or a trail marker.  I had only my footprints in the sand and rough memory of dark clumps of bush and lines of boulders to find my around – and everything became increasingly obscure.  I imagined that I could see the lights of Alice Springs glowing in the distance, but not sure what I was seeing.  Dawn eventually rose from that direction… What was apparent here, was the attempt to recognise signs – to follow the concrete abstractions that make navigation possible, but instead there was this amorphous and confusing darkness.  In some ways this was one of my most intense and memorable experience on the trail – when I lost it altogether and when time, and my predictable motion across the landscape – was suspended.  Confused space, suspended time.
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Descartes (again)

I think therefore I am.

I know that this has been considered innumerable times, I know that I need to read much more on this inexhaustible topic, but still can’t avoid making a minor, ill-educated comment.  The statement adopts the form of a logical deduction.  The experience of thinking demonstrates the necessity of existence.  Yet it seems to me that existence is less something to be logically deduced than a predicament that immediately affects us.  It is a constitutive condition rather than something that either requires or has the capacity to be logically deduced. Whichever way one decides on the relationship between thought and being, being and thinking persist.

Actually more to the point is the strangeness of what is constitutive for us – thinking being, being that is living and self-aware.  All manner of existence is inanimate.  Thinking less establishes the necessity of being than represents a curious addition.  As thinking beings we have no sense of simple existence – of existence without thought.  And yet ultimately everything that we think and do is shaped by inanimate forces that exceed us.  The hardest thing for us to think is that a dimension of unthinking objectivity ultimately provides the basis for our subjective experience.

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Following (recalled)

A few years ago I wrote a brief manifesto defending the value of processes of following:

What are the implications of following? Where does following lead?
Instead of trying at every instant to do something new.
Instead of commenting wryly on the past.
Instead of feeling stuck.
Instead of lamenting the disappearance of the future.
Instead of attending to a restrictive past.
Instead of strictly following.
Instead of deliberately going astray.
Instead of imagining that following is a simple process.
Instead of imagining that following is especially hard.
We follow. We follow following. We follow following wherever it leads.

I wrote this partly in terms of a creek walking project.  A small group of us were walking up local creeks.  We were following watercourses from the sea inland as far as we could manage, encountering various barriers along the way – weeds, roads, fences, drains, etc. Within this context the notion of following was linked to the affordances of urban and suburban creeks – their intermittent capacity to be walked, but I was also referring more generally to the creative potential of following.

Following involves repetition.  It involves adhering to the contours of an existing line or path.  It does not initiate something ex nihilo, but takes up with the existent – in this case not with a sense of irony, but with an attitude of humility and curiosity.  The humility is nothing self-negating.  It simply attends to what is before it without any feeling of regret – without any sense that something is missing.

Following adheres – lightly, not absolutely – to existing lines.  It waywardly follows them, that it is to say its following also creates a line  – one that no matter how one tries is never exactly identical to the line followed.  In this sense, following includes the necessity of passing (not deliberately heading) astray.

My overall point: to trace the place of the non-original within the aesthetic, to recognise it as source of movement and inspiration.

Now to become literal again, I envisage a walking project that sets out to follow every trail in a small section of local bush.  I live in the city of Wollongong, which runs in a long line between the sea and a steeply rising sandstone escarpment. The lower flanks of the escarpment are a dense mix of temperate rainforest, drier sclerophyll forest and patches of indeterminate weediness (mainly lantana).  Hardly iconic mountain landscape, but the escarpment runs to over 1000 feet in places and counts as a mountain space for we beach-hugging locals.  What would this involve?  How would I set about doing it?  What is a trail and how can it be recognised and determined?  Beyond this, how can this experience of trail discovery and walking be documented?  How can it be represented?  Does it take shape as a work, or only as the vestiges of a work?

And this represents a different relation to the mountain environment – here regarded not as an alien, sublime space, but as something already well discovered, as something thoroughly traversed from the outset.

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I think therefore I have the capacity to entertain the possibility that I may not exist.

[Every so often impressions of consciousness are construed as coherent existence. A chair does not ask itself if it exists, nor does it need to think to exist – of course then we have an argument about the nature of existence.  We distinguish between sensible and insensible souls, subjects and objects, but not going there…]

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Endless Prospect of Reading

Of course, everything I have written so far about Ranciere betrays layers of ignorance, so I have set myself a program of (constantly expanding readings):

  • Kant: must make my way through Critique of Pure Reason to get a grasp on how the aesthetic figures within Kant’s sense of the relationship between the conditions of experience and the unity of consciousness – or, in other terms, how aesthetics figures within his ontology and epistemology, rather than simply serving as an external and posterior supplement (the Critique of Judgement).
  • clarify the metaphysical aesthetic tradition – particularly stemming from Leibniz: the notion of aesthetics as representing a mediation with sensible confusion, with an intractable multiplicity (an infinite and infinitesimal excess).
  • clarify the empirical and pragmatist traditions – Hume to Dewey.
  • on this basis review strands of pre-Socratic philosophy to trace out aesthetic features that relate not to art, mimesis, beauty, etc., but instead the relationship between truth and appearance, unity and multiplicity, repetition and emergence.  Not clear on this yet, but pursue this in an effort to conceive aesthetics as closely aligned or intrinsically linked to ontology and epistemology.
  • pursue Plato’s double conception of aesthetics as both improper doubling (mimesis) and proper intoxication (music).  Memory very hazy here.
  • trace the implications of Hegel’s aesthetics, particularly its bracketing of our response to the natural world – its exclusive emphasis on art; and then Adorno’s re-emphasis on nature and Derrida’s meditation on the mediation between art and objectivity (Signeponge – Ponge’s Notes on the Pinewoods).
  • read up on the phenomenological tradition of aesthetics – particularly Heidegger and Gadamer.  Heidegger holds on to art but rejects aesthetics.  What if we attempted the reverse?  Could this prove a more effective way of rethinking the possibilities of art?  But I agree with the fundamental idea of a layer of primary experience that exceeds all efforts of reflective cognition.  How does this align with Leibniz?
  • explore the aesthetics of post-object socially engaged art as a case study of issues and dilemmas affecting attempts to think art/non-art at once.
  • and continue reading Ranciere!

The risk in all of this is that I will never find time to develop any of my own ideas, and instead make endless poor efforts to catch up with and summarise other people’s ideas.  Must accept that I will never reach the point in which I am properly across the field and just get on with writing stuff.  Some level of ignorance is an inevitable condition for thought, rather than a state that can ever be adequately superceded.  Curiosity and reading are fine, but not at the expense of endlessly forestalling the capacity to write.

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Defining Aesthetics

In a note on the tradition of modern aesthetics, Ranciere offers a definition of the field:

‘Aesthetics’ designates two things in this work: a general regime of the visibility and the intelligibility of art and a mode of interpretative discourse that itself belongs to the forms of this regime. (Aesthetics and Its Discontents, p.11)

Aesthetics then is tied to art, and to modern art particularly, in two senses: it relates to a specific historical regime of art’s sensible identity, which Ranciere delineates in semi-circular fashion as ‘aesthetic’; and it indicates a mode of discourse that emerges from within this regime and aims to make sense of it.  In more simple terms, it refers to both the sensible and intelligible forms of modern and contemporary art and also the efforts to describe and account for those forms.

Yet elsewhere Ranciere lends aesthetics a more general currency:

[A]esthetics can be understood in a Kantian sense – re-examined perhaps by Foucault – as the system of a priori forms determining what presents itself to sense experience. (The Politics of Aesthetics, p.13)

In this sense it is not limited to the Enlightenment, post-Enlightenment, modern, post-modern and contemporary world.  Here ‘aesthetics’ aligns more closely with Baumgarten’s original sense of the term, as signalling a focus on sensible experience generally (1735).  But of course Baumgarten positions sense differently – not as something that subsists at an a priori level, but rather as a terrain of confused sensible impressions that only gradually finds its way to intelligible, rational thought.  Here his model is Leibniz.  Clearly Kant’s notion of the a priori comes later.  And what are the implications of this shift.  If Leibniz conceives a complex mediation with the multiplicity of the sensible world, Kant draws mediation inward and makes it self-constituting?  Nothing is precisely experienced (intelligibly experienced or generally experienced?) that is not already there within ourselves.

And I am unsure which of these two positions that Ranciere adopts.  Does ‘the distribution of the sensible’ appear as a field of contestation, in which the sensible world, and our capacity to sense, is endlessly renegotiated and redistributed, or does it solidify into historically inculcated a priori forms that represent a given, paradigmatic and intransigent distribution?

But, in any case, the key thing here is that Ranciere employs the term aesthetics in a variety of ways – and in more ways than he acknowledges.  Most evidently, at times the term pertains to the general problem of ‘the distribution of the sensible’ and at other times to the particular dilemmas of modern art.  My particular interest is how the notion subtly expands and contracts – broadening here and there to encompass key aspects of politics and then regularly refocusing on the common sense space of art.  My sense, however, is that another possibility is available.  Instead of returning to art, there is the possibility, via the notion of aesthetics, of shifting away from the endless contradictions of art.  This involves considering the ontological and epistemological dimensions of the aesthetic, rather than, for instance, permitting Hegel’s bracketing of aesthetics original and more general meaning as an inquiry into the nature of sensible experience.

I wonder what aesthetics would look like, for example, if it also sought its basis in the debates of the Pre-Socratics about the arche (fundamental principle) and the logos (word, or true account)?  I wonder if, in reaching back to philosophical origins, aesthetics payed less exclusive attention to Plato’s exclusion of the poets and Aristotle’s conception of drama, and instead considered the words of the Muses in Hesiod’s Theogony (735BC:

Rustic shepherds, worthless reproaches, mere stomachs, we know how to say many lies like the truth, and, whenever we wish, we know how to tell the truth.

Here after all are key features of the aesthetic – base existence, sensation, appetite and the uncertainties of being and truth.

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‘The Distribution of the Sensible’

The following are a set of questions about Ranciere’s notion of ‘the distribution of the sensible’.

The term ‘distribution’ suggests a work of differential apportionment – aspects of sensibility are made available here, but not there, and to some, but not others.  The definite article ‘the’ suggests that the distribution is a definite state of affairs that has happened.  Although the origins of the distribution is not explained, the definite article suggests that an account of origins is possible.  The notion of distribution can be read both in terms of neutrality (a given statistical distribution), it can also suggest an aspect of agency (a general distributing the spoils of war among his troops).  Is the distribution of the sensible simply an emergent state of affairs or is it an expression of the machinations of power?

Why the emphasis on the ‘sensible’?  Is the term to be understood literally or metaphorically?  Ranciere regularly employs the example of disadvantaged social voices that cannot be heard.  Is it that we literally don’t hear them or, more metaphorically, that we disregard them?  It would seem to be less an issue of how sensibility is distributed (the audibility of particular voices) than whether or not we choose to acknowledge and engage with the disadvantaged.  We hear the homeless person on the streets begging for money, but walk straight by, pretending not to hear.  In any case, if some voices attain prominence it is less because they are somehow more audible, but because they are selected, recorded and broadcast.  The difference is less precisely at the level of sensibility than of selective, socially inscribed currency.

The notion of the sensible seems to point to something more materially bound than ideology, yet when Ranciere’s notion of the sensible is interrogated at a detailed material-experiential level it seems to fall apart.  Perhaps this is because I am taking the term too literally?  I am unsure.

In some ways the notion of ‘the distribution of the sensible’ appears as a more materially inclined version of linguistic determinism and/or linguistic relativism (I’m unsure which because it remains unclear the extent to which social agents can experience beyond the given sensible-experiential categories without recourse to the radical space of the political and the aesthetic).  Instead then of being unable to think beyond the conceptual constraints of a given language, we are unable to experience things beyond the frame of a given distribution of the sensible.  Yet this seems too crude.  After all, Ranciere devotes a whole book to describing how elements of the 19thc working class found the means, despite their onerous working and living conditions, to become artists and intellectuals.  They worked all day and then refused to sleep at night.  They developed other lives against the grain of the extant distribution of the sensible.  So Ranciere must conceive scope for resistance.  His view must then be more of a sensible relativism…

I guess, just to be as clear as possible, although I acknowledge culturally informed modes of sensible experience, I’d tend to avoid overstating their determining influence, particularly at the level of fundamental sense perception.  While sensible fields and affordances take culturally legible shape, there is always – and intrinsically – a potential for excess, for things to be experienced differently.  This occurs not only in privileged moments of resistance, but all the time, based upon all the complex interests and interactions that constitute sensible experience.  A gallery is a place for quietly viewing art, but it is also a place for kids on a school excursion to muck up, for lonely people to brush up against others, for people without an umbrella to escape the rain.  No sensibly distributed space is ever restricted to the given distribution.

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