2018-2019 HTDTWT Seminar Anselm Franke: Frontiers and Mediality: The S/O Function - from month to month
Seminar 4 February
Is there a way of defending what is specific to the aesthetic without affirming the capitalist-colonial functions of its disciplined forms? How do we practice, describe and defend that specificity while resisting its reification and/or symptomatic compensation and displacement? When, for instance, does narrative form betray the very "aesthetic destabilization of the subject’s hermeneutic access"? In the February seminar, we will continue to explore the SO-nexus and its institutional exposition through the juxtaposition of its technological framing and genesis, its ideological configuration and the ontological insecurity of aesthetic experiences. Reading material for this discussion will be Spivak’s Aesthetic Education in the Age of Globalization, Felix Guattari’s Chaosmosis and Erich Hörl’s “The Technological Condition”.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. An Aesthetic Education in the Age of Globalization. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013. READ: "Introduction" (page 1-34).
Guattari, Felix. Chaosmosis: An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm. Indiana: University Press, 1995. READ: "The New Aestic Paradigm" (page 98-139).
Hörl, Erich. "The Technological Condition." Parrhesia 22 (2015): 1-15. READ: whole Essay.
Seminar 3 January
Do we have historical accounts of technology, and their function in reorganizing the subject/object nexus, that are not linear, cumulative and progressive? The January 2019 seminar discusses how media technologies reorganize the senses and how accounts of the history of technology remain largely within the framework of the teleological narratives of progress underpinning colonial modernity. How is the reorganized relationship between body and technology symbolized within a technology?
Using Ken Jacobs’ cinematic renderings of stereoscopic photographs of 19th century cotton plantations as a starting point, we look at examples of how the historical paradigms associated with technologies of production and representation becomes both embodied, enacted and reflexively thematic in specific works of art. What concepts of time and productivity are contemplated and exposed in such reflections, what image of history is thus projected? And how do we account for the relation between the technological and capitalist-colonial reorganization of this "SO-nexus" in relation to the fields and institutions of modern culture and art? What are the continuities of colonial frontiers operating within media technologies today, in relation to abstraction, measurement and quantification? What in the Western world is referred to as the postwar era marks a period in which these questions were both confronted and deferred in the realm of art.
We will discuss the central position that overcoming the subject-object dichotomy has held in aesthetic debates of postwar “ high” modernism, specifically referring to Juliane Rebentisch’s Aesthetics of Installation Art, and her critique of what she calls the objectivist misunderstanding of autonomous art in high modernism, and her defense of a concept of aesthetic autonomy that upholds an aesthetic difference while accommodating for the transgressive and “impure” medialities produced by installation art. We will survey the stakes at play in assessing the ideological and exploitative subject-object asymmetries in High Modernist-debates on theatricality, the critique of the commodity form, of voyerism, reification and spectacle, of alienation, empathy and ethical response, of the false collapse and appropriate distance between subjects and objects and subjects and subjects.
Rebentisch’s attempt at a normative description of aesthetic autonomy and aesthetic difference as being grounded instead in an event between subject and object, and her account of the doubling into thing and sign as inherent to every encounter with an artwork - and the political potential of that doubling - ends up suggesting that the major function of works of art today is to progressively render the material conditions and social conventions, implicit interpretative schemes and background assumptions applied by viewers to works of art, reflexively thematic - a process that she qualifies as an "aesthetic destabilization of the subject’s hermeneutic access to the aesthetic object.”
But at what point does her - Eurocentric - account of the discursive currency and institutional status of such destabilization and progressive explication of the previously implicit undermine its own viability, because that which ought to become thematic as scheme and assumption - the ontological, disciplinary divides of capitalist modernity - undermines the possibility of upholding a normative, stabilizing distinction between the (arguably historically recent) institutionalization of art - and of aesthetic autonomy - and its others/outside?
Seminar 2 December
Seminar 2 will then leap forward into the present, and engage with theories of aesthetic experience in relation to installation art. Juliane Rebentisch’s reconfiguration of autonomy in relation to aesthetic experience, and her account of how the problem of the subject-object distinction has informed postwar art history will provide a useful counterpoint to the material dealt with in Seminar 1. Seminar 3 will then introduce anthropological theories of art, mimesis and mediality.
Rebentisch, Juliane. Aesthetics of Installation Art. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2003.
Seminar 1 November
S/O Function and “Medialgebiet”
The beginning of the twentieth century ushered in a sustained, widespread crisis of ideas concerning representation, identity, and perception which were founded on a dualistic conception of subject and object. Time and space became dynamized and fragmented, reality was increasingly experienced as relational, processual, and unrepresentable. The triggers for this transformation included the theory of relativity, quantum physics, the mathematical formalizations of logic, and the development of an electromagnetic transmission culture. Presaged by the “impossible” mathematical operations with imaginary numbers, a new understanding of radically autonomous signs and symbolic functions—beyond meaning, interpretability, and perception—emerged. The downfall of the order of representation, however, did not simply result in an “anti-mimetic” character of modernist avant-garde works, as mainstream theories and histories of art often assert. In this seminar, we attempt to unearth a counter-narrative, focussing on mimesis and mediality as anthropological faculties rather than mere artistic techniques, as embodied processes rather than as copy or imitation. The colonial encounter, and the questions raised by ethnology, in which mimetic, non-dualist (and hence “irrational”) approaches to the world were foregrounded, had an impact that was comparable and at least complementary to those of the natural sciences. Focussing on an anthropological understanding of mimesis furthermore helps shed light on an often neglected dimension of what was at stake in the notorious “primitivism” of the avant-gardes: the primal mediality of being, our originary conditioning by our milieus, the non-dualistic dimension that emerges when the orientation toward substance, thing, or genus, which organize being in discrete entities, is suspended. This dimension enforces a “cosmotechnological” reconceptualization of participation, agency, and subjectivity and that we will discuss in the seminar under the rubric of a “general mimesis”. For this reconceptualization, which is crucial to our contemporary understanding of the cultural transformations and precarious subjectivations in the digital era, the relationship between autonomous signs, meaning and the mimetic, between symbolic functions and the non-dualist approaches to the world found in ritual, myth and magic needs to be examined.
The first seminar is starting with a discussion of the “S/O Function,” a cryptic formula from art historian and critic Carl Einstein from the 1930s; and the notion of the “Medialgebiet” (medial area) by Paul Klee, found in the Pedagogical Notebooks of the 1920s. Their sketchiness and idiosyncracy notwithstanding, they are also representative and symptomatic of attempts at overcoming dualistic, and especially idealistic conceptions within the arts in the first half of the 20th century. They will serve us henceforth as a backdrop against which we want to test contemporary theoretical projects and tendencies in the arts and beyond, from theories of aesthetic experience to anthropologies of modernity and technology. Not only because it appears that the critique of the dualisms of European standard metaphysics and the ontological subject-object distinction is, despite changing circumstances, as pertinent today as it was during the foundational crisis of modernity/modernism a century ago. The question of the mediation of subject and object in the arts is arguably also a central topic of modern aesthetics. In this seminar, we will explore the relation between anthropological and aesthetic theories: Einstein’s and Klee’s concepts will allow us to move between the macro- and micro-scales corresponding to anthropology and aesthetics respectively, in order to test the formal and immanent properties of images with and against the backdrop of theoretical abstractions. The seminar’s recourse to “classical modernism” and the foundational crisis of all knowledge systems at the early 20th century will prove useful for a deeper and nuanced understanding of the status and relation between theory and art today.
What makes both Klee’s and Einstein’s concepts worthwhile is that their answer to the problem of the subject-object distinction is not an equally reductive monism which seeks to dissolve the matter/spirit and mind/body distinction into either direction - objectivism or subjectivism, etc. Rather, both concepts understand the elements of the dichotomy no longer as antecedent to relations; instead they are now understood as their (always temporary) effects. They thus undermine a fixed understanding of the subject/object split through a dynamic understanding of their relation conceived from the point of their co-constitution and practical mediation - as if from the middle. Instead of relegating the dimension of mediality into an imaginary “before” - a deep time of the primitive both in history and individual development - these concepts are insisting on its dialectic relationship to modernity. In the lens of the “S/O Function,” (subject/object function, also subobjective function), subject and object do not exist as pre-existent and fixed entities or substance, but rather are functionally related - wherein “function” is to be understood akin to the mathematical expression of a relation. For Carl Einstein, art is the trigger and catalyst of such a “functional”, that is, dynamic process mediating the real - reality is both transformed by being opened up towards metamorphic processes and temporarily fixated in works of art. This dynamic, metamorphic realm of the “subobjective” wherein the experiential encounter with works of art for Einstein takes place, is analysed in his writings on art in terms of the (mytho-)poetic, the hallucinatory, and conditions of trance - in each instance a clear division between an inner and outer reality is transgressed. Einstein’s theory of the “S/O Function,” is thus closely related, but also deviant from orthodox surrealism, wherein hallucination figured as motif of inspiriation and mediumship, the exteriorization of the unconscious and possession by external forces.
Paul Klee’s “medial area” appears in a diagram that seeks to illustrate the realm in-between “active” and “passive” formal elements - such as the bounding or debordering function of lines and surfaces in the formal structuring of the pictorial plane. It is thus not directly applicable to the subject-object distinction or its overcoming. Yet these formal considerations related to laws of visual composition were for Klee indeed also considerations on the laws and principles of cosmogony, of world-building and primordial symbolizations - and as such they are invested in a radical opening up and de-hierachization of the ontology based on the subject-object distinction. Hence his conception lends itself to a deeper understanding of the role of images in cosmographic terms, and particularily, to an interrogation of the nexus between the active and the passive, making and being-made - the “medial area” where poeisis and pathos interact in ways whose articulation is systematically foreclosed by the epistemological assumptions of dualism. Both Klee and Einstein have deviced tools that are capable to liberate art from its isolation as “autonomous” object of merely aesthetic contemplation, and open it towards anthropological speculations. Their concepts are vital for an understanding of the relation between theoretical attempts at surmounting metaphysical dualism and the shifting ontology of art throughout the 20th century.
Holert, Tom and Anselm Franke (ed.). Neolithic Childhood. Art in a False Present ca. 1930. Zürich/Berlin: Diaphanes/HKW, 2018. READ: The short glossary entries: “Formalism” by Jenny Nachtigall (p. 117) and “Function” by Tom Holert (p. 125).
Klee, Paul. Pedagocial Sketchbook. München: Albert Langen Verlag, 1925.
Quigley, David and Carl Einstein. A Defense of the Real. Wien: Schlebrügge, 2007. READ: Chapter “Hallucination, Sensation and Revolution Now,” p. 129-183.
Zeidler, Sebastian. Form as Revolt: Carl Einstein and the Ground of Modern Art. Ithaca, NY: Cornell, 2017. READ: Especially chapter 3, “Cubism’s Passion,” p. 91-157.
Hörl, Erich. “Variations on Klee's Cosmographic Method.” In Grain, Vapor, Ray. Edited by Katrin Klingan, Ashkan Sepahvand, Christoph Rosol, and Bernd M. Scherer. Cambridge/Berlin: MIT Press/HKW, 2014.