Thursday, September 30, 2010

Deafman Glance

Wilson's theater is called a "theater of images", part of a history of abstract non-representational art made in the context of representational means; think the formalism of Eliot going back through James, through the decadence of Huysmans and the aestheticism of Pater (as always I repeat myself). This modernism is distinct from the modernism of the abstract ideal; it's the formalism of stifled desire, of representation sought, denied and affirmed in an absence that the form itself is constructed to describe. It's the bowl and the water that dare not speak its name.

The distinction between the two is ignored by much modern criticism, at least in English. Even those who've tried to bring Surrealism into the discussion argue from idealism if not regarding form than intellect, and the second formalism is transformed into a critical and philosophic art. In the language of critics the first formalism replaced conversation with silent and ideal form, while for critical supporters of the second, grammar itself or ideal politics are central. The actions of the speaker speaking are elided, communication is depersonalized, seemingly disembodied. But in criticism the shadows are removed, and later in the hybrid Critical Theory they're replaced by ideology.

In a perverse way, James and Eliot, through Duchamp, all conservative formalists of sex, have been devolved from poets into critics. In the minds of theorists of speech acts, acts themselves are secondary. The primacy of form has become the primacy of "content". The first modernism is performative and silent; the second, once loquacious and evasive, diffident, coy, ironic, but deeply emotive, has become talkative and anti-social. Conceptualism renders practice functionalism and results, output; the heuristics of the physical and of performance are denied. The ironic distance from, not denial of, emotion has become the defense of bureaucracy; the mass-singular noun "individual" replaces the description of individual experience. And rationalist idealism ignores history (see the second note here on the history of the European anti-bourgeois). It's interesting to see the faux-aristocratic high bourgeois critique of vulgarity transformed into the moral philosophy of the super technocrat in the age of instrumental reason, to see how Henry James became Max Weber.

I've rarely been so simply struck by all this as I was yesterday. The formalism of Deafman Glance is the reenactment of trauma transposed, overlapping the before and after into the timelessness of an eternal present. It's the poetry of formalism as pathology. And yet it's moving. It evokes and denies as Eliot does. It makes sense that Louis Aragon would recognize this: "[Wilson] is what we, from whom Surrealism was born, dreamed would come after us and go beyond us.” (see the top link)

The relation of abstraction to representation in art begins in the relation of abstraction to representation in language, which in politics and government is the relation of the letter to the spirit of the law. To argue from the spirit in law or language is subjectivism and subjectivism is inarticulate, in-formal, isolate: the end of the social. But to argue only from the letter can be cold, inhuman: unjust:

"He's just a boy! He didn't mean it! He's my son!"
"It doesn't matter. It's the law."

To communicate is to translate emotion into form: the description of a scream is not a scream. Our emotions themselves are locked in: truth is private. Our audience reads only performance, as courts of law refer only to "facts". Articulated communication is possible only through the use of an indifferent medium manipulated in performance towards a desired response from others, either an intellectual agreement or a seemingly parallel but independent expression of emotion. We argue on a case by case basis the relation of formal language to the private truths of interior life, and of law to the informal truths of "Justice". This begs the question of whether a society can have an interior life or whether justice is a category with a reality outside of language, outside of what society decides that it should mean.

"It is now time to ask why Pippin thinks that his discussion of these films actually amount to doing political philosophy."

Imagine an economics professor asking if studying the actions of businessmen is doing economics.

Apparently, studying off the cuff "intuitions" regarding philosophical questions is philosophy while studying complex but indirect intellectual activity based on the same questions might not be. That even though there are more "ideas" in John Ford's movies than in anything written "about" them.
updated and expanded, 3/15/15

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