It’s been quite a while now, a couple of weeks or so. I haven’t abandoned this, no no, that’s not it. I think I got stuck on a plateau, going all over the place, the highways and the byways. I’ll get to it. Currently it’s a bit on the heavy side, but I’ll see to it. That plateau is just hard to split into segments unlike the one on the postulates of linguistics that were neatly split in the book already. Anyway, something else in between then.
Earlier on I mentioned that the first university lecture course that I took was in aesthetics. Yesterday I attended the first lecture of the very same course again. Yes, it was Tuomas Tolonen, still the same lecturer as before, some … erm … over a decade ago, the one I had as a philosophy teacher in high school. Oh, and even better. It seems the course hasn’t changed one bit. Not that my memory is that good, but it seemed to be the case, with handouts given on Ghent Altarpiece and how it all works, what went into it etc. I remember this despite the dozen or so years, no, even more, in between. Also, one handout that was covered in detail, despite its sparsity of expression, was a short poem, a Tanka, by Emperor Fushimi or Fushimi-tennō. I couldn’t find an English translation of it. It could be that it has not been translated or maybe it is but I just don’t know where to look. Speaking of looking, sight and seeing, despite only being discussed in a broad introductory manner, the lecturer made it clear that seeing is one of the hardest things to do. You’d think it’s easy as surely everyone can see, except the blind of course, but that’s conflating two things. At that moment, I thought of George Perkins Marsh (10), who makes the very same … pardon the pun … observation as the lecturer in ‘Man and Nature: Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action’:
“To the natural philosopher, the descriptive poet, the painter, and the sculptor, as well as to the common observer, the power most important to cultivate, and, at the same time, hardest to acquire, is that of seeing what is before him.”
Indeed there is a distinction to be made (10):
“Sight is a faculty; seeing, an art. The eye is a physical, but not a self-acting apparatus, and in general it sees only what it seeks.”
And the same, more or less, but in different words (10):
“Like a mirror, it reflects objects presented to it; but it may be as insensible as a mirror, and it does not necessarily perceive what it reflects.”
Now, I’m sure some people might object to this distinction. During the lecture no one was up in arms about it though. Then again, the student lecturer relationship tends to be of one where people do not challenge the authority of the lecturer. Well, at least it’s rare during a lecture in Finland. You rather keep your mouth shut and let the lecturer do what lecturers do: lecture. Of course it might just be a Finnish thing. The assertion that you can see, yet you can’t is still a bold claim though, made by the lecturer and Marsh alike. It just happens to be the case that Peirce Lewis once asserted something similar. In ‘Axioms for Reading the Landscape Some Guides to the American Scene’, he (14) asserts that:
“[T]o make cultural sense of the ordinary things that constitute the workday world of things we see, most of us need help.”
So, once again it is stated that we see things, yet we don’t. To be more accurate, this is really about the distinction between seeing and perceiving. We all see. There’s that seeing. That’s common to us. We all also perceive, but we perceive differently. There is, of course, a lot that we perceive the same way as we share a lot of experience. That said, there is also a lot that we perceive differently as our backgrounds differ. I am highly perceptive of all kinds of features in the landscape, whereas others don’t, because I’ve taught myself perceive the world in such an attentive way, basically just by reading books and articles. Ayway, he (14) comments on this:
“I took a long time learning that fact. Years ago, when I started teaching cultural landscapes of the United States, I was puzzled and annoyed that students seemed obtuse. They seemed blind to all that marvellous material around them, and even worse, some of them seemed insulted when they were told to go outdoors and use their eyes and think about what they saw. Gradually, I realized that the students were not obtuse; I was.”
He (14-15) goes on to further comment that he simply didn’t even think of why that is earlier on. For him it was obvious, so it bothered him and the students seemed, well, just a bit thick or slow. He then realized that no one had ever pushed them into this direction, rather the opposite, as he (15) comments:
“[S]erious students did not deal with trivial questions about ordinary everyday things, such as … why people put pink plastic flamingos in their front yards.”
Anyway, summarizing his thought on the subject, Lewis makes note of a certain blindness or, well, blind spots. It’s not that people are factually blind, no no, but rather that things don’t appear important to them and if you go the extra mile to explain this to people, they may well get offended because they think you are asserting that they are blind fools.
What else was there on this? Well, in general, it was pointed out that … sorry for the pun again … that there is more than meets the eye when we speak of, say, art, religion, science and philosophy. It is far from self-evident that these are separate … categories. It was pointed out that these are fairly recent divisions, locating this into this or that category. If you’ve read, say, Foucault, you are already familiar with this. Back in the day, for sure pre-Renaissance, but more like pre-18th and 19th centuries, it was not at all clear that these things were separate, although I guess it should be phrased more like that such distinctions were not warranted. How to put it better? It’s sort of telling of the time, of contemporary thinking, to speak of art in whatever period in history. It’s not that it’s useless to do so, no no, but that by doing so, I’m taking it for granted that art was always or at least also way back then the same thing we take it to be now without any consideration as to how it functioned at the time. I think this was the point made by the lecturer, albeit in other words.
As the lecture course covers different eras, currently the medieval era, religion is particularly relevant to the discussion of art, and vice versa. Christian theology got covered in passing, how time is understood, in reference to Augustine (of Hippo) and Mircea Eliade. The gist was splitting time into past, present and future in the everyday sense, how it is actually generally understood, and not having this divisioning in the sacred. Unlike space, time is not something that I’ve read a ton on, so I can’t really comment on this, perhaps in the future (haha, could avoid that one!). Anyway, the discussion of what’s what, what’s religion and what’s art, ventured into what counts in art and the lecturer pointed out that not everyone is an artist, hardly so, an assertion that reminded me of Gilles Deleuze. The point was made that there is something … particularly perceptive in works of art, I can’t remember the exact wording, but something along the lines of an intense observation, not just any this or that statement of what is out there. Once again this reminded me of Deleuze, as well as Paul Klee, to whom it’s all about rendering visible, not the visible, a matter of apparition, not of appearance, as Deleuze might characterize it. If you want to look those up, see Klee’s ‘Schöpferische Konfession’ and ‘Kant’s Critical Philosophy: The Doctrine of the Faculties’ by Deleuze. Deleuze’s lectures on Kant also useful in this regard.
The lecturer gave a biblical example, one of natural marvel, not of supernatural marvel, sort of making the case that religion is, at least in this context, to be thought of dealing with marvels of the natural kind, not supernatural kind, which probably didn’t open up to the audience, unless they are familiar with the line of thinking also presented by Klee and Deleuze. Okay, maybe it did, I can’t claim to know the audience. I think I understood, albeit I need to (re)check on it myself. Anyway, the lecturer also provided other examples of everyday marvels (intentional emphasis here on the word marvel because Lewis also uses it), how children may stare at various things and point at them as if they were somehow marvellous, as if seen for the very first time. The lecturer actually emphasized that what the deal is not just seeing something, but like seeing it for the very first time, glaring at its marvel. Maybe sensational would be another fitting word. For me, this is apparition, something becoming visible, like a sudden flash. My own memory also serves me with examples where children do that, like point at a hole in a shoe and take it to themselves to tell everyone else that there is a hole in a shoe. For me, an adult, it’s hardly marvellous, more like glaringly evident and an actual annoyance, having to get new shoes, although I get it that for a child this may well be quite marvel. If you think of it, when was it the first time that you ever saw a hole in a shoe? I can’t remember, that’s for sure. It probably takes a while to encounter, unless it’s someone else shoe in question as children outgrow their shoes in quite the rapid succession. Of course one would need to think of when does one start to think of holes and their apparition in different places, including but not limited to the random shoe. What is a hole anyway?
How is this relevant to art then? I’d say that artists, such as painters and writers, can be highly perceptive, not in the way that they render the visible, (re)producing resemblance, but render visible, express something, something more than mere resemblance, and in a way eternalize it. Of course eternalize is a bit hyperbolic. The problem with, for example, paintings is that they are hardly eternal in their materiality. Writing is less prone to this as it’s not the paper and ink that are essential, unless only one copy exists, of course. It’s in the ‘L’Abécédaire de Gilles Deleuze’ where Deleuze, interviewed by Claire Parnet, puts this way better than I can, stating artists, here painters and writers, can create, render, invent or capture percepts (I’m not sure which word to use), which he defines as an ensemble or an aggregate of perceptions and sensations, which outlive the person perceiving or sensing. Maybe immortalize is a more apt word here, considering it then outlives the artist, even if it’s still a bit … assuming much.
I reckon I forgot something, saw too much into things and/or got something mixed up, but it was time to write something and this seemed only fitting, not taking too much time or thought. These texts are supposed to be works in progress, musings if you will, so it’ll do, anyway. Next I’ll try to write something more substantial, albeit I guess a bit of a break, here and there, is good for those who wish to read some of the older texts, if someone actually reads these, that is.
- Deleuze, G. ( 1984). Kant’s Critical Philosophy: The Doctrine of the Faculties (H. Tomlinson and B. Habberjam, Trans.). London, United Kingdom: The Athlone Press.
- Deleuze, G. ([1994–1995] 2011). Gilles Deleuze from A to Z (P-A. Boutang, Dir., C. J. Stivale, Trans.). Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e).
- Klee, P. (1920). Schöpferische Konfession. In. K. Edschmid (Ed.), Tribüne der Kunst und der Zeit: Eine Schriftensammlung (pp. 28–41). Berlin, Germany: Erich Reiß Verlag.
- Lewis, P. F. (1979). Axioms for Reading the Landscape: Some Guides to the American Scene. In D. W. Meinig (Ed.), The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes: Geographical Essays (pp. 11–32). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
- Marsh, G. P. (1865). Man and Nature: Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action. New York, NY: Charles Scribner.
- Massumi, B. (1992). A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.