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.

 

What is the Philosophy of Movement? V: Art and Objects

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This is a short excerpt on the philosophy of movement from a recent interview I did with Nico Buitendag for Undisciplined Podcast.

Nico: I can imagine and I take my hat off to you. So I also want to move on to some of your other work but still within this broader theme. I believe it’s your newest book, called Theory of the Image, where you do a philosophy of art or aesthetics that naturally focuses on the mobile aspect of images, which is something I’ve never thought of before. So kind of like my first, earlier question about what does mobility or movement reveal, but more specifically this time, in the case of the image, what avenue or what point of view is opened up to us when we look at the image as a moving image?

Thomas: Yeah so the Theory of the Image book, that research also came out of migration and border stuff. I was already kind of collecting little bits from history toward that book because I started to see some of the same problems, which is that there are two main ways of thinking about aesthetics and what an image is.

One of those is, you could say, is the classical model where if you think of Plato and the Forms, art represents the Forms. So it’s a copy of an original, and that’s what an image is, is it’s supposed to be a duplicate, but the duplicate is always inferior to the original model for Plato and that’s why philosophical knowledge is about the Forms and art and aesthetics are about being in a cave just looking at shadows. When you think about the Great Chain of Being, Being, stasis, and Form are at the top of that, and matter and motion are at the bottom. And that’s certainly what’s going on in Plato.

Then, on the other hand, you have the other major tradition, the Kantian one, which is where the image and sensation are understood hermeneutically, or by what does it mean for humans—“what does art mean? What is the meaning of art? What is the experience of a work of art?”—and that’s more Kant and Dewey. And then you have more social dimensions of that, which are the Frankfurt School and so on, kind of a more social hermeneutics that has to do with what the meaning of a work of art is for society or what it tells us about society. On that one, my problem is that we’re still—in both of these cases, in the Platonic, classical and in the more modern one—we’re not really talking about the image, we’re not really talking about art. What we’re talking about is the Forms which are more important—that’s the real thing that we care about—and then in the case of the human version, we’re interested in what humans think. We’re really studying ourselves more than we’re actually caring about the image itself.

So my orientation in Theory of the Image was to do basically what I did for Theory of the Border and Figure of the Migrant which was to sort of flip it upside-down and start with the mobility and movement of the image, track it from a kinetic systems approach, and think about the patterns of motion that the image does. So instead of thinking about what art means, or what it represents, just looking at what it does materially, practically, historically, and then looking at these different regimes and the way in which art and images are shaped and circulated; not how they’re represented or what their meanings are.

So it’s a very different approach to thinking about aesthetics that’s materialist and that is non-anthropocentric. It doesn’t focus on human interpretation of art and that’s mostly what art theory is about. So this is a very weird book to think about if we’re not interested in what humans think art means or what it makes them feel. Not that those are not relevant, it’s just that they’re not the primary focus, those are just a part of it. So human experience is part of a larger circulation, but that larger circulation is what we’re looking at, and humans are just one aspect of that larger process.

Nico: I’m wondering if you talk about getting rid of the anthropocentrism and the movement and real effect that art or images have, and also in the same way we’re talking about the border as almost a concrete thing—do you see any relation between kinopolitics and, for example, object-oriented ontology (OOO), or do you think there are important differences or distinctions that you would want to keep between the two? Do you think there is some overlap or link between these two?

Thomas: That’s a good question. I’m just going to give what my definition of what I think OOO is and then say what I think the differences are. OOO is looking at objects, and what an object is something (and here I’m just reading Graham Harman’s definition) that is discrete, vacuum-sealed, and separate from one another. Tristin Garcia Form and Object has a very similar definition where the objects are completely extensive and by definition, they are not what the other object is.

There are objects that contain and objects that are contained, and that’s what defines an object. So they’re discrete, they’re vacuum-sealed, and at the center of them has an essence which Harman says does not change, it does not move, it is not material, and it withdraws any attempt to empirically identify it. So whether that’s right or wrong that’s at least my understanding of what that tradition is doing.

The philosophy of movement is really about process, it’s not about objects as primary. In many ways, the philosophy of movement is the opposite of OOO where it doesn’t start with discreet, separate objects. It starts with processes and it starts with objects as metastable states, like a whirlpool or eddy. They’re there, but they don’t have any discreetness, they don’t have any isolation. Graham Harman emphasizes very strongly that the essence of the object is non-relational, it doesn’t relate to anything else. And for me that’s very much the opposite. Objects are metastable states and it’s not that there are relations before there are objects, it’s that relations and objects are completely immanent to one another, they’re not separate, they’re just two different ways of talking about the same thing. And of course, the static, unchanging, withdrawn essence to me is just metaphysics.

The philosophy of movement is a materialist philosophy that’s interested in thinking about things that move. And that’s the thing about matter—it’s a shape-changer. It’s always moving and changing shapes so there’s nothing that withdraws, nothing that doesn’t change—everything is in motion and movement. On that point this is not a metaphysical claim this is where we’re at, this is what we know in physics at this point in history, is that there is nothing in the universe that doesn’t move. So stasis is not a real thing. It’s always relative down to quantum field fluctuations: they are moving, and they’re active; nothing is a static, withdrawn essence. So Harman’s OOO is not consistent with what we know in physics. Maybe physics could be wrong and I’m open to that, but for the moment I’m not going to speculate metaphysically about things that we have no idea about.

 

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.