«Thesis presented to the Faculty of Arts of the University of Zurich for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy by Mark Staff Brandl of USA and ...»
The effect Julia Kristeva has had on my deliberation can be summed up in four words:
the possibility of resistance. As I searched the field, it appeared to me that the dominant forms of contemporary theorizing such as Deconstructionism were pathographic, seeing art as simply a symptom, forever doomed to morbidly mirror the diseases of the society surrounding it. It had not perhaps been originally so conceived, but in art critical practice, that is what the followers of Jacques Derrida had made of his theories. Reading Kristeva's works encouraged me in my search for a location in the creative practice itself where an "opening" could occur, where dominant tropes might be disrupted as well as expressed. This effort was an integral engine behind the origination of my exploration of theory. In Kristeva I saw the first glimmer of hope. Her form of feminism privileges opposition through a "dispersed" subject/speaker.
The inherent contradiction of the process of likening one thing to another in tropes is central to my thinking. Creators may thus be seen as those who anarchistically answer the
domineering assertion of rules as the Other, as the perennial foreigner. Kristeva's philosophy can be used in this way to supplement the Bakhtinian notion of liberating alternative voices.
What would those voices say? Within the often fatalistic confines of poststructuralist theory, she contrarily traces the necessity of an outlet. John Lechte describes Kristeva's rich estimation of poetics: "It is precisely one of the features of poetic language, for example, that it embodies contradiction."26 Syntax, order and rules of form are turned topsy-turvy by pleasure, laughter and poetry. In this aspect of Kristeva's thought one can see that type of incorrigible play which occurs in metaphor-making — especially in those creative tropes which question, invert or criticize metaphors which are taken for granted in our culture. As I roamed through the various thinkers ideas, my thoughts increasingly crystallized around the individual creation of tropes as a potential avenue of resistance.
Acknowledging the historic and social situation in which any cultural entity is embedded must be an integral aspect of any useful theory of art. One school of literary theorists who accentuate this is termed either New Historicism or, alternately, Cultural Materialism. These thinkers remind us of the social contextuality of all thought, including their own. This is something which has not often been focused on in the discussions of various formalist and even deconstructivist critics, from the exclusively object-oriented theorists who dominated in the 70s when I was first studying art and art history through the solipsistic denials of meaning and agency in Postmodernism of the early 21st century. New Historicists assert that history is of primary importance, yet it is discontinuous and contradictory. It is in fact not an it at all — rather a they. History consists of multiple histories. As I develop my own theories, I feel it crucial to propose the necessity of multiple personal and social histories. Each person's history is invented. It cannot be viewed in a detached fashion, as it is rooted in desire. Furthermore, every individual history is actually an interwoven cable of multiple histories, each representing a contextual role or relationship of that human (class, gender, profession, geographical origin, social position, and so on). The strands twist about one another under the tension of the agon of that specific individual. By person I mean here creator, perceiver, critic, historian and more, even though I am emphasizing artists in this dissertation, for each of us is all of these and much else at one time or another. In Chapter Nine I delve further into this at the level of art history survey classes.
In New Historicism, cultural objects such as literature and art are studied in context in order to recover as many contextual relationships as possible. Basing their thought heavily on the late works of Michel Foucault, these theorists in the U.S. tend to view the situation pessimistically. However, I would concur with their British counterparts, the Cultural Materialists, in interpreting it more positively. Each context itself is a precarious human construct, not just the discreet objects situated therein. This is manipulable material, too. As both New Historicists and Cultural Materialists have pointed out, there are three possible responses to every authoritarian demand. There is not only the "yes, yes" of the good subject or vassal, but also the "no, no" of the bad subject or dissenter, and most importantly the third modality, the "not in that way" answer of the heretic. In a similar modality, one may see all three such responses in the development of creators' tropes. There is the good subject who reiterates the accepted metaphors of a time and place, pasting together available tropes.
Depending on the circumstances, this can be culturally affirming or it can lead to academic doggerel or kitsch. Second, there is the trope created by the bad subject, which actively denies or negates metaphors generally taken for granted. Such a rebuttal also may lead in two John Lechte, Julia Kristeva, Critics of the Twentieth Century Series (London: Routledge, 1990), p. 95.
Wandering and Surveying 30 directions. Either it is a stirring criticism suggesting new options of thought, or it results in a clichéd expression of simplistic nihilism. Finally, there is the third modality, which I seek to emphasize in my theory. This creator repudiates the unacceptable metaphors by questioning and bending them into surprises of new insight. Such authors tell us "not in the way commanded" and then carry on, showing us a new way to conceive of the experience under discussion.
Louis A. Montrose in "Professing the Renaissance," has described the New Historicism as the "poetics and politics of culture," and shown how this quickly leads to questions of political power and its effects on literature and art.27 The Marxist Fredric Jameson is the theorist most rigorously analyzing the political aspects of culture, and he has originated an especially astute form of dialectical criticism. He attempts to view the individual, whether author or reader, within a larger context, particularly within social structures, while keeping an eye on the present and his own ideological position. Jameson has suggested that positions taken in postmodernism "can be shown to articulate visions of history, in which the evaluation of the social moment in which we live today is the object of an essentially political affirmation or repudiation." 28 According to Jameson, perceivers as well as creators of art works are clearly subjective, even fragmented and suppressed. Nevertheless, works of art and literature express the alienated condition of our time and yet also compensate for certain aspects of this loss through alternative offerings of fullness. This can be interpolated to be true of reception and interpretation as well. It is impossible to completely step outside the fact of our subjective perception, but works of art can assist us in rupturing the casings which continuously threaten to surround us — formed from the incrustations of our unquestioned assumptions. This action can bring about a widening of our subjective experience, an idea which meshes well with the philosophical theory of interpretation of Hans-Georg Gadamer, which is discussed below. It is also the aspect of Jameson's theories which I find most fecund.
Jameson has a strong sense of the urgency of concrete experience, however subjectively encountered it must always be. The form of literary works is always profoundly intertwined with the tangible. What is important is what a technique or structure can or cannot do, as engaged with the dominant cultural imperatives of its time and place. This is a fine observation that can be applied to visual art, especially painting, and the formation of individual tropes. The strength of a trope resides in what it can say or not say about lived experience. I agree with Jameson that reality is more than just a text. I feel his insight can be used to clarify one aspect of the confrontational interaction between artworks — the "text" — and subjective, yet not solipsistic, perceptions of palpable reality. As I studied Jameson's works, although I am inherently anti-formalist, I began to see that the concrete formal qualities of an artwork could be the site at which this clash transforms itself into a testing — in the service of meaning, that is in the service of usefulness. Furthermore, the playfulness of a new trope helps rupture encrusted thought, and when it is broadly applied, supplies an example of a possible new fullness.
Jameson finds his ideas true of our understanding of narratives in general, as well as of the creation and formal presence of literature. Stories require interpretations and often our
experiences are present in our mind as stories. Interpretation is thus one of our chief activities in life. Works of visual art likewise bring this to the fore by being necessarily open to various levels of reading, of construal. For Jameson, each interpretation is in some way true. Each explanation discloses a particular feature of the aesthetic object while evidencing a characteristic of society. I would add that it also reveals an attitude of acceptance, denial, or resistance to given interpretations. I realized that in my theory, I would attempt to describe how the elements of creative form in artworks are intertwined with material reality, as maintained by Jameson.
Various concepts derived from feminist literary theory have been partially surfacing in other contexts in this chapter up to this point. Feminist theory contains a wide, exhilarating rang of approaches and concerns. Three specific considerations I find most valuable. First, many feminists concentrate on strategies of action. Although the majority of feminist literary critics also wield grand theories, they prefer to treat these as instruments applied to attain very specific goals. This is a pointed admonition for the recent artworld, especially for those of us who hypothesize gladly. Don't take your ideology for the very reality it seeks to describe or change! This reminds me that my interest is in constructing a theory, yet not an absolute one.
Rather, one that grows from an appreciation of the nuts-and-bolts of production, and thereby endeavors to avoid too much abstracted absolutism. Second, the feminist concept of the located self is one of the great tools of thought in history. This is the elucidation of the fact that gender and the rest of one's personality are largely socially constructed, not solely biological givens. Each person consists of a web of locational connections. Returning us to my surveying metaphor, this idea shapes this chapter and my thought as a whole. Third, an appreciation made by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar is a key idea. They assert throughout their historic book The Madwoman in the Attic, that it is imperative for feminists to both partially comply with and yet contravene patriarchal literary standards. 29 There has been a backlash by those calling themselves post-feminists against certain elements of feminism they claim are misandrist and divisive. Nevertheless, the qualities I find useful and have described are being constructively continued in the so-called third-wave feminists. As discussed in the section on Kristeva above, taken more broadly such strategies disclose the loophole through which resistance can come into existence. I find this loophole to be the play with tropes.
What still remains unrealized in criticism and theory, sadly, is Susan Sonntag's farsighted feminist call for an "erotics" of appreciation in place of a dry aesthetics. A philosophical wooing in this direction can be found in renowned art critic, art historian and psychologist Donald Kuspit's writings. In his book Idiosyncratic Identities, he formulated three vital necessities for rejuvenating art in our postmodern times, when "the avant-garde [has died] from entropic pursuit of novelty." 30 These requirements are: to find the heart of creativity in desire, to embrace idiosyncrasy, and to nourish one's yearning for healthiness.
Kuspit has continued to promote and expand on these ideas in his recent works, including his critical essays on-line at artnet.com.31 I have learned from Sonntag and Kuspit about the necessity of including desire as an integral element. Desire clearly plays a role in antithetical strife, which is a form of competitive yearning. However, this struggle can be interpreted more broadly. Interaction with foundational tropes, as I discuss below, can be fertile ground Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1979).
Donald Kuspit, Idiosyncratic Identities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 2.
Artnet.com, http://www.artnet.com/; archives at http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/authors/kuspit.asp.
Wandering and Surveying 32 for personal, idiosyncratic development, especially when questioning them, combining them in unique ways, or extending and elaborating them. I seek to develop a theory which in practice encourages unconventionality and manifests a desire for maturation on the part of the creator. Even if that maturity itself is not reached, the desire and will to achieve it is drive enough. The struggle to mature is a synecdoche of the will to reach psychological healthiness.