THE EXPERIENCE OF THE WORK OF ART

 

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The experience of the work of art contains two double-genitive dimensions rarely attended to in the philosophy of art.

The first double genitive concerns the experience of the work of art. Experience in is this sense is both something the work of art has—as its own material capacity for sensory receptivity—and something the work of art makes possible in the form of an experience for something or someone else.

In the first sense, works of art, as material processes, have an experience defined by their sensitivity to light, sound, temperature, and so on. Insofar as they are defined by a field of images, those images are, like the ship of Theseus, constantly breaking down and being disjoined while also being supported by new flows of matter. At the level of the activity of matter itself, we can and should therefore speak of a kind of agency, activity, or subjectivity of matter and the work of art itself. It is affected by matters.

In the second sense, the work of art is something experienced by another aesthetic field. Insofar as another field of images (no matter what that field is, whether rock, plant, animal, or human) is composed of ordered affects receptive to and capable of being changed by a work of art, then it also has an experience of the work. Taking together both senses of this first double genitive, it becomes clear that it is the kinetic process and flow of matter that is, in fact, primary in the work of art; it is simply circulated differently into different but entangled subjective and objective structures. On the one hand, the work of art and the sensorium that experience the work of art both have their own sensitive (subjective) experiences. On the other hand, insofar as both rely on the other as their material condition of experience, both act as the object for the other. The double genitive shows us that subject and object are simply two sides of the same material kinetic process of distributed images.

This leads to exposure of a second double genitive in the work of art itself. A work is the product of artistic creation. The work is the delimited region of affective composition—although to some degree it also recedes and exceeds these limits through degeneration and expansion. The work of art is a receptive object of creation insofar as it is capable of being contracted through destruction and expanded through further creation. The work of art is created.

In another sense, however, the work of art refers to the active agency of the work itself to affect others outside its limited field. A work of art is not a merely passive object; it affects the light, sound, texture, and smell of the world around it. The spectator is then affected and changed by this work. This is not a metaphor. The world around and the body of the spectator are literally and materially changed, no matter how slight, by the introduction of this new distribution of images into the world by the work of art. New flows of matter (light waves, sound waves, scent waves, and so on) are introduced. The work of art creates.

In these two double genitives—“experience of” and “work of”—we can see two dimensions of the same material kinetic process. The subject and object are two dimensions of the same distribution of images. It is strange to say, but insofar as the work of art becomes both subjective and objective, so too does the experience of the work of art. The division between subject and object and the theory of representation is exposed for what it is: an arbitrary historical creation desperately in need of a new theoretical framework that takes seriously the primacy and activity of the image itself.

The kinesthetic theory of art proposed here is substantially more expansive than most, but it is not absolute or ontological. It is both historically situated in the present (since it is focused on the primacy of motion in the image) and excludes a number of things from being art. For example, relatively insensible flows of matter are not art. Fragmented affects are not art. Works of art require an aesthetic field.

The kinesthetic theory of the experience of the work of art proposed here is based on the idea that the image is nothing other than matter in motion. When one field becomes materially entangled with another, both undergo a change that must be taken seriously in any philosophy of art.

From Theory of the Image (Oxford University Press, 2019), pages 86-87.

 

Marx in Motion: A New Materialist Marxism (OUP, 2020)

MarxInMotion_r2 (OUP version)

Available for Preorders now at OUP here (ASFLYQ6 to save 30%: $21) and Amazon here.

“It is rare to find a genuinely novel reading of Marx and yet that is exactly what Thomas Nail provides in this remarkable book. In an ambitious, pathbreaking, and admirably lucid analysis, Nail offers us a ‘new materialist’ Marx that both resonates with ecological, feminist, and postcolonial Marxisms and suggests answers to some of the central political problems of our age.” — Simon Choat, author of Marx Through Post-Structuralism: Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze

“Thomas Nail’s Marx in Motion is the most penetrating account of the origins of Marx’s overall philosophical outlook to appear this century. Relying on his extensive background in Epicurean philosophy, Nail explores the emergence of Marx’s materialist dialectics and his ecological-metabolic views as these first appeared in nascent form in Marx’s 1841 doctoral thesis on Epicurus. The result is a revolutionary understanding of Marx’s historical ontology of motion, a whole new starting point for the philosophy of praxis.” — John Bellamy Foster, author of The Return of Nature: Socialism and Ecology

“Why does Marx return in such a lively way after being banned from philosophical and political debate? Nail, who is an excellent reader of Lucretius, reminds us that Marxian thought finds its basis in the powerful ancient materialism. It is of that light that it shines. Beyond the positivist folklore of the Soviet Diamat, beyond the anthropocentric universalism of Marxist humanism after World War II, beyond the surrealist drift of post-structuralism, this book invites us to let ourselves be taken by the ancient materialist rhythm of Marxian concepts, and thus to accompany that philosophical return to political action.” — Antonio Negri, co-author of Empire

 

“Karl Marx is the most historically foundational and systematic critic of capitalism to date, and the years since the 2008 financial crisis have witnessed a rebirth of his popular appeal. In a world of rising income inequality, right-wing nationalisms, and global climate change, people are again looking to the father of modern socialism for answers. 

As this book argues, every era since Marx’s death has reinvented him to fit its needs. There is not one Marx forever and for all time. There are a thousand Marxes. As Thomas Nail contends, one of the most significant contributions of Marx’s work is that it treats theory itself as a historical practice. Reading Marx is not just an interpretative activity but a creative one. As our historical conditions change, so do the kinds of questions we pose and the kinds of answers we find in Marx’s writing. 

This book is a return to the writings of Karl Marx, including his under-appreciated dissertation, through the lens of the pressing philosophical and political problems of our time: ecological crisis, gender inequality, colonialism, and global mobility. However, the aim of this book is not to make Marxism relevant by “applying” it to contemporary issues. Instead, Marx in Motion, the first new materialist interpretation of Marx’s work, treats Capital as if it were already a response to the present. 

Thomas Nail argues that Marx was a new materialist avant la lettre. He argues that Marx did not believe history was determined, or that matter was passive, or that humans were separate or superior to nature. Marx did not even have a labor theory of value. Marxists argue that new materialists lack a sufficient political and economic theory, and new materialists argue that Marx’s materialism is human-centric and mechanistic. This book aims to solve both problems by proposing a new materialist Marxism.”

 

Introduction

A rebirth of Marxism is occurring today. For many people Marx never faded away, but for the rest of the world Marx made his most recent return to the public eye during the financial collapse of 2008. After the financial meltdown, international book sales of Capital exploded for the first time in decades. Marx’s face and ideas appeared all over the world, in newspapers, on television, and on the internet. Universities and occupa- tion teach-ins hosted public events in which Marxists were asked, for the first time in a long time, to speak out widely on capitalist crisis and “the idea of communism.”1 Everyone, it seems, was reading Capital again.

The reason for the return to Marx is obvious: taxpayer bailouts of banks “too big to fail,” government austerity, student-loan debt, millions displaced from their homes by the collapse of subprime mortgages, his- torically large income inequalities between the 99 percent and the 1 per- cent, record-breaking migration, and human-induced climate change all appeared to be inextricably connected to global capitalism. As the most his- torically foundational and systematic critic of capitalism to date, Karl Marx remains our contemporary. “Marxism,” as Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote, “re- mains the philosophy of our time because we have not gone beyond the circumstances which engendered it.”2

Every era after Marx has reinvented his ideas to fit its needs. The pre- sent era, inaugurated by the 2008 financial crisis, is no exception. There is not one Marx forever and for all time, just as there is not one theory of capitalism, materialism, or communism for all time.3 There are a thousand Marxes. In fact, one of the greatest insights and contributions of Marx’s work is that it treats theory itself as a historical practice. Marxism is not just an interpretive activity but a creative one. As our historical conditions, including new knowledge in physics, economics, ecology, culture, and so on, change, so do the kinds of questions we pose and the kinds of answers we find. Marx in Motion is a contribution to a twenty-first-century return to Marx.

Read the rest of the Introduction here.