In response to my recent post on love, Jacob Russell writes:

An outsider question… not only aesthetics, but ontology, you say at some point in this fascinating post (now I’m going to have to read Harman as well as Deleuze) … what is the difference? Are artists and poets not concerned… when push comes to shove (think Twyla Tharp)… with ontology… in a different register?)?

Given the centrality of the problematics of mimesis in aesthetic theory going back to Plato –defining that difference would seem to be of more than incidental interest to both sides.

It sure is to me…

I honestly don’t have a fully worked out response to this question yet, but I’m inclined to say that art is not concerned with ontology. Now when I say this I do not at all intend to impugn artistic practices or suggest that they are less than philosophical practices. Rather, my sole point is that art does not, per se, aim at developing a theory of being or at taking being as the object of a discourse. Art rather, everywhere and always, concerns itself with beings.

read on!

With that said, both philosophy and art engage with being, just in different ways. Good art, I believe, operates in the split between qualitative manifestations and withdrawn being. Indeed, good art, I think, suspends or defamiliarizes the domain of the actual or qualitative beings. Compare Orwell’s 1984 with The Trial by Kafka. At the level of the theoretical— and specifically at the level of political theory —1984 is a very fine novel. One would be hard put not to find key claims of Marx, Althusser, Zizek, and Foucault not exemplified in this novel.

However, while it is a fine novel at the level of critical political theory, I would not call it a fine work of art. And if this is the case, then it is because, for lack of a better word, too thematic. 1984 is the sort of novel you could really replace with a series of theoretical claims without losing much of anything. Its characters, plot, and universe are deployed to represent certain ideas or claims. For Orwell, what’s clearly important is that the reader grasp the ideas revolving around the distopia he describes. And in this respect, 1984 is a lot like a parable which is essentially a pedagogical device. 1984 aims to teach.

Great art, I believe, instead operates at the split between the actual and the virtual, suspending the reign of the actual and alluding to that which is withdrawn at the level of the virtual. Great art alludes to another world rumbling beneath the familiar actualities and thereby defamiliarizes the domain of the qualitative or of sensuous manifestations. Where Orwell gives us determinate answers as to why the distopia is organized as it is, for Kafka the principle of this organization is always withdrawn and in doubt. Likewise, Monet reveals an event of the lily pads, their status as verbs, their difference between fixed qualities and the power of lily pads, such that the lily pads become a force to be reckoned with.

This calls for both a new concept of mimesis and realism in the domain of the arts. Mimesis here can no longer mean the representation of the world as it actually appears. Rather, mimesis, if we are to insist that it is imitation, is an imitation of being. Ordinarily we think of the mimetic on the model of the photograph, treating it as a likeness of that which it depicts. Yet true mimesis is not likeness, but is instead an imitation of withdrawal. It is precisely that artistic practice that produces effects of withdrawal in the work, thereby enacting the split between real objects and their qualitative manifestations. Such is the difference between art and kitsch. Kitsch is pornographic. It wants to deploy everything before the gaze, restricting beings to the level of qualitative actuality, eradicating any dimension of excess or withdrawal in being. And here, alluding to my last post, I would argue that the relationists perpetually confuse objects with kitsch and the pornographic, for nowhere have they adequately addressed the status of objects as split between the sensuous and the real, but rather they perpetually treat objects as bundles of fixed and static sensuous qualities.

Likewise, realism here has to be understood in entirely different terms. Just as mimesis is not likeness, realism is not representation or adequation between a sensuous qualitative state-of-affairs out there in the world and a representation. Realism is not mirroring. In this respect, Ben Marcus is far more of a realist in The Age of Wire and String than Marat. In “Intercourse With a Resuscitated Wife”, Ben Marcus writes:

Intercourse with a resuscitated wife for particular number of days, superstitious act designed to insure safe operation of household machinery. Electricity mourns the absence of the energy form (wife) within the household’s walls by stalling its flow to the outlets. As such, an impoverished friction needs to take the place of electricity, to goad the natural currents back to their proper levels. This is achieved with the dead wife. She must be found, revived, and then penetrated until heat fills the room, until the toaster is shooting bread onto the floor, until she is smiling beneath you with black teeth and grabbing your bottom. Then the vacuum rides by and no one is pushing it, it is on full steam. Days flip past in chunks of fake light, and the intercourse is placed in the back of the mind. But it is always there, that moving into static-ridden corpse that once spoke familiar messages in the morning when the sun was new. (7)

The greatness of Marcus’ realism lies precisely in the manner in which it enacts or operates on a split at the heart of the domestic setting, defamiliarizing it, separating it from its familiar qualities, and thereby alluding to the rumbling powers that dwell within this most familiar of settings. Marcus’ realism is not a realism of narcissus, the mirror, presence, or adequation, but is, precisely, a realism of the split or gap at the heart of all objects. And if this superior realism operates on the gap or split at the heart of being, then this is because it enacts a strive between local manifestations or qualities and virtual proper being, allowing for a fecund genesis of all sorts of new qualitative actualizations. It is an art that cracks what Latour, in Science in Action, calls “black boxes”, or those objects that have become sealed into themselves such that they have become unobtrusive and invisible. As such, great realist art installs us within the strife of being or the struggle between actualized qualities or pornographic kitsch and the rumblings of virtual proper being.

Here, I believe, we get the beginnings of a new rationale for the suspicion of art enjoyed by all totalitarian regimes throughout history. The standard story, which perhaps originates with Plato’s Republic, runs that art is suspect by totalitarian regimes and paranoid styles of thought (yet another charge Vitale did not hesitate to level at OOO) because it is a false copy or simulacrum of the real. Plato worries, for example, that consumers of art will confuse true heroism with Homer’s depictions of the hero. Onticology suggests another theory. The totalitarian suspicion of art arises not from its status as a false simulacrum of true reality, but rather from the proximity of art to the split within being. As Lacan suggests, paranoia is characterized by certainty, which is another way of underlining the manner in which the totalitarian is inherently pornographic. The totalitarian dreams of a world laid bare before the gaze, mastered through a reduction to complete actualization in sensuous qualities and objects, such that there is no remainder, withdrawal, or excess of the object over its manifestations. Yet what great art does in all of its instances is split objects between their sensuous local manifestations, their being-for-relation, and the rumbling powers that dwell within them. As such, great art is among the threats to all paranoid and totalitarian forms of pornographic mastery, premised on the scopic drive, animated as it is on an operation at the gap or split between objects and their local manifestations or being-for-relation.

Consequently, the difference would be that philosophy seeks to theorize the split, to think the split, whereas art operates on the split, enacts it, and seeks to ignite it. Yet as I said, I am still working through these issues, so I’m not committed to these positions in a hard and fast fashion.