Roots_by_cesarpbOver at Jacob Russell’s Barking Dog– what a marvelous blog title so full of rich resonances! –I came across a little enigmatic aphorism that I found somewhat jarring. In response to my post on realism and speculative realism, Russell, like the Oracle at Delphi, intones that “aesthetics is lost without ontology.” This is a gorgeous and mysterious little statement that appeals even to the object-oriented ontologist– or, to try on some new “clothes” the ontographist (certainly a more appealing term than “onticology”. Steven Shaviro, for instance, has recently shown brilliantly– and I’m still pissed at him for not contributing to The Speculative Turn as he absolutely belongs there –how aesthetics is deeply ontological in the realist, non-correlationist, sense. He does this through an imbrication of the aesthetic ontology of Whitehead, the aesthetics of Kant (in a reading that can only be described as “Harmanian” in its daring misinterpretation that redeems), and of Deleuze, showing that aesthetics is not simply a human affair.

However, I suppose I find Jacob’s aphorism so jarring because I’m inclined to invert it. This for both philosophical reasons and personal reasons. A few years ago I had the pleasure of teaching an Aesthetics course here at Collin. This was a rare treat as, while I have the freedom to assign whatever texts I might like, it gave me the opportunity to teach a theme based course and work with an eclectic body of students coming from both the fine arts and philosophy. One of the things I discovered is the manner in which throughout the history of philosophy questions of knowledge, reality, truth, and ethics are so tightly interwoven with questions of aesthetics. Although aesthetics is often portrayed as a marginal branch of philosophy– with ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics being the “big three” –I am willing to wager that the aesthetic theory of a philosopher contains, in fractal form, the inner kernel and truth of any philosopher. I haven’t yet developed a theory as to why this is the case, but what I found again and again as we explored the aesthetic theories of the tradition was that the ontological, epistemological, and ethical questions of whatever philosophy we were studying converged on aesthetic issues. Indeed, I’m even willing to suggest that we can distinguish philosophy from non-philosophy in terms of whether a thinkers body of thought contains an aesthetic theory. In this respect, I’m led to wonder whether it is indeed the case that aesthetics is nothing without ontology. Might it instead be the reverse, that ontology (and epistemology) is nothing without aesthetics? Here, of course, aesthetics would have to be understood as a trifecta: a theory of sensibility (aesthesis) or better yet “appearing” or “manifestation”, a theory of art as of central ontological concern an revelation, and a theory of creation.

Of course, all of this is very well a bias on my part. In many respects, I think we all dream of being something other than we are. For me, I always dreamed of being an artist. I remember the awed wonder I experienced when I watched another child draw for the very first time. There, in the first or second grade, I watched, full of envy, as that child inscribed images on paper, bringing another world into existence. It was a simple depiction of the space shuttle, but nonetheless I was hooked at that very moment. What could be better, more miraculous, more powerful, more valuable, than this power to bring worlds into being? Oh how deeply I ached to draw, to paint, to write stories, to create poetry. I was hooked. And sadly, I just didn’t seem to be wired in that way. It could even be said that I first pursued philosophy out of a desire to do art… Philosophy, I thought, would allow me to thematize worlds, to create worlds, to create. Unfortunately it didn’t turn out that way, but it could be said that a red thread linking all the philosophers I identify with and work on is aesthetics. My compensation for this creative impotence is ontological: the only universe worth living in and affirming is a creative universe.

In this respect, I always find it curious how different intellectual practices encounter one another. One of the things I constantly encounter among my friends engaged in other practices and disciplines is a sort of “philosophy envy” or “philosophy insecurity”. How many times have I heard someone in literary studies, a social science, or engaged in an artistic practice say “what you do is rigorous and actually does something!” I’m always surprised by this and by this anxiety in the face of philosophy. If that’s the case, then it is because I believe, above all, that philosophy is a parasitic discourse aimed at thinking our present. I do not mean this in a pejorative sense at all. There is nothing to disparage in meta-theory. Rather, what I mean is that the philosopher is always a becoming-other, carried along by those who are not so much attempting to think the present, as by those who are making the present: activists, scientists, painters, poets, musicians, mathematicians, and so on. Philosophy needs all these makers as the datums that course through them, giving them the material for what is to be thought, for what provokes thought. And hopefully, in turn, philosophy can add concepts that assist these others in their making, and can help to resituate questions and problems, assisting in the birth of new possibilities for practice and engagement. I suppose I’m still that first grader gazing in awe at those who make.