Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Anti-Aesthetics: Or, Towards a Spinozist Theory of Cultural Production

In all of the various attempts to produce and reproduce Spinozism, creating a Spinozist account of society, economy, and politics, little attention has been paid to Spinoza's aesthetics, or really anti-aesthetics. This Anti-Aesthetics is sketched between a few scattered propositions, scholium, and other remarks that address the basis of judgements of taste and value, at every point it shows that any aesthetics is at best an inadequate idea, making effects into causes, and at worst a kind of alienation. 

First, there is Spinoza's reversal of the fundamental nature of value in judgement. As Spinoza writes in the Scholium to Proposition Nine of Part Three of the Ethics.

“From all this, then, it is clear that we neither strive for, nor will, neither want, nor desire anything because we judge it to be good; on the contrary we judge something to be good because we strive for it, will it, want it, and desire it.”

As I have written about elsewhere, this particular Proposition, and Scholium, has taken on central importance in the neo-spinozisms of Lordon and Citton. For them it displaces any remnant of methodological individualism, the idea that individual desires have some kind of autonomy or primacy. Desire is as much an effect, a product of other affects and relations, as it is a cause, a fundamental aspect of striving. Or, put in terms related to aesthetics and aesthetic judgement, how and what we judge must be considered an effect not an autonomous origin.

To open a parentheses on Marx and Spinoza (yet again) it is possible to consider this passage on the production of desire, the production of consumption, along with Marx's formulation in the Grundrisse. As Marx writes,

"Hunger is hunger, but the hunger gratified by cooked meat eaten with a knife and fork is a different hunger from that which bolts down raw meat with the aid of hand, nail and tooth. Production thus produces not only the object but also the manner of consumption, not only objectively but also subjectively. Production thus creates the consumer."

Returning to Ethics IIIP9 and the reversal of desire and judgement is worth noting that this reversal follows a proposition that asserts that the mind's striving is radically indifferent to the distinction between adequate and inadequate ideas. Spinoza would agree with Aristotle that we all strive for something we call good, but disagree in the sense that "good" for Spinoza is just an effect of previous encounters and relations. As Spinoza writes in the Preface to Part IV, “What is called a final cause is nothing but a human appetite insofar as it is considered as a principle , or primary cause, of some thing.”

That Proposition does not begin the "anti-aesthetics" that runs throughout the Ethics. It actually begins in the Appendix of Part One where Spinoza argues that the fundamental categories of order/disorder, beautiful/ugly, etc. reveal nothing about what we perceive, but reflect the confused desires of the one who judges. 

“And because those who do not understand the nature of things, but only imagine them, affirm nothing concerning things, and take the imagination for the intellect, they firmly believe, in their ignorance of things, and of their own nature, that there is an order in things.”

This argument is resumed in the Preface to Part IV, where Spinoza foregrounds the pragmatic dimension of all judgments of value. All judgements of good or bad, order and disorder, perfect and imperfect stem from a a model that is either openly asserted or implied.

“But after men began to form universal ideas, and devise models of houses, buildings, towers, and the like, and to prefer some models of things to others, it came about that each one called perfect what he saw agreed with the universal idea he formed of this kind of thing, and imperfect, what he saw he agreed less with the model he had conceived, even though its maker thought he had entirely finished it.”

Pierre Macherey's overlooked (and poorly translated) Pour une théorie de la production littéraire takes up Spinoza's Anti-Aesthetics, explicitly citing Spinoza's critique of the model as the basis for aesthetic judgement. As Macherey writes, 

"In this sense, all criticism can be summed up as a value judgment in the margin of the book: "could do better." Glimpsing but never attaining this "better," it looks beyond the real work to its dream image. There can be no doubt that this legality is merely reactive, valuable only as a defense, affirming this hypothetical distance between the fact and the law, the work and its norm, solely in order to secure and maintain its own function. But this is only a temporary defeat for empiricism. Both the 'taste' which acts no questions and the 'judgement' which dispenses with scruples are closely related. The naive consumer and the harsh judge are finally collaborators in a single action.

There is only one true difference between them, and this will appear later: the empiricist critic wants to be the author's accomplice, he believes that the work can only emerge under the pressure of participation; the judge on the other hand, would set himself up to instruct the writer, claiming a clearer vision of his intention, pointing out his carelessness, evading the delays of a real production in his impatience for the essential."

I was led to these thoughts by three different causal relations: first, I am teaching Spinoza this semester, second, I picked up Macherey's book off my shelf and started rereading some passages, and lastly, and more aleatory, Black Panther. I am not going to blog about Black Panther, everything I would say has already been said (and then some), and the last thing the world needs is another white dude's opinion on the film. However, it did strike me that many of the criticisms of the film, and appreciations, were framed in response to a model (an ideal) that it did not live up to. A point made clearly and succinctly by the following tweet.

There are of course reasons, which is to say multiple causes, as to why Black Panther in particular elicits so many competing models, so many ways it ought to be. First of all there is a kind of narrative scarcity; white superheroes come in multiple modes from the dark and gritty, Logan, to the light and family friendly, Ant-Man, but Black Panther is not only the only film about a black superhero, but one that situates its narrative firmly within multiple aspects of the black diaspora. The film intersects with so many liberatory desires from the reformist ideals of inclusion and diversity to the more radical possibilities disclosed by its afrofuturistic design and the character's more radical namesake. Given this plurality of desires and ideals it is no wonder that the film has been alternately lambasted and celebrated. Many of the debates and discussions about the film were less about the film as a film than its failure to correspond to some ideal. Which is not to simply criticize all these idealizations, these longings and expectations, they are real strivings even if they inadequately expect to glean utopian content from part of the every expanding Marvel universe.

The question remains, however, is there some other way to think about this film. Macherey's response, and I am simplifying greatly, is to shift from consumption to production, to focus not on the right way to consume a cultural product but how it was produced. Not production in the literal and limited sense of the term, as in film production. Which is not to say that it wouldn't be interesting to learn more about those conditions, finding out if the studio insisted on a bigger role for T'Challa's CIA sidekick, Everett Ross, or if Ryan Coogler had planned to end the film with T'Challa and Killmonger teaming up to overthrow colonialism before the studio panicked. Unfortunately, we do not really have access to those details. We can however think its production more broadly as both determined and detourning (to use the situationist word) of the larger political, economic, and social environment. It is hard not to see Black Panther as not so much failing to realize some utopian dream but accurately reworking the ideological constraints of the present. On this point it is interesting to compare it to the recent run of Black Panther and the Crew which dealt with the same question (Wakanda's role in the larger struggle for black liberation) in a much less neoliberal vein but also with smaller sales (Marvel cancelled it after two issues). To cite Macherey once again (perhaps all I am doing is make an argument to reread A Theory of Literary Production), "The literary work must be studied in a double perspective: in relation to history, and in relation to an ideological version of that history, " a point that would apply to film as well.

My point is not to simply acquiesce to the way of the world, to state cynically "what did you expect," but to assert that it might be more useful to grasp the real constraints underlying cinematic production rather than the failure to correspond to imagined models, or at the very least consider the two together. 

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