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Post-analytic phenomenology vs market serfdom

Paul Crowther interviewed by Richard Marshall.

Paul Crowther bites the hands of both analytic and continental philosophical approaches to aesthetics. Whilst chewing he thinks about how post-modernism is linked to market forces and Supermodernity, about how civilising is organised round self restraint, about how Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, Deleuze have created a distorting orthodoxy, about rejecting analytic philosophical approaches to art, about White Aesthetics, about post-analytic phenomenology, about phenomenological depth, about subject-object reciprocity, about meaning in abstract art, about Kant and German Idealism. Take this one neat and then go for a walk…

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Paul Crowther: When I was fifteen and sixteen, I had a strong sense of the 1960’s as a special time that was about to be lost. This brought home the importance of the relation between human experience and the passing of time. I also began to develop an interest in modernist painting (impressionism and the like) and the songs of Bob Dylan – which seemed to be wonderfully defiant as well as beautiful. In fact, I recall reading on the sleeve notes of Dylan’s first album that, at university, he once stayed up all night ploughing through Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, rather than revising for a biology exam. This intrigued me; so in the spring or summer of 1970 I went to a second-hand bookshop at the bottom of Kirkgate in Leeds to see if they had a copy of the Kant book. They didn’t, but I looked up ‘philosophy’ in encyclopedias and the like. I wasn’t confident enough to think of doing it at university, but when I got there, I studied it as a subsidiary subject, and it got me hooked.

I recall walking round some of the mustier shelves of the John Rylands Library at Manchester University, browsing through tomes by McTaggart and Bradley, thinking how wonderful it would be to think thoughts as deep as that. Anyway as I couldn’t switch to philosophy as a single subject at Manchester, I returned to study it in my home city of Leeds.

3:AM: You once indicated that relativism was our age’s ‘special vanity’ and in the hands of Lacan, Derrida and Foucault it has regretfully become a dogma. But you also say that it doesn’t mark a break with modernist foundationalism and results in what you call ‘supermodernity’. This seems to be paradoxical. Can you say how we are to negotiate this apparent contradiction and what is at stake in this issue, in particular in the domain of values?

PC: In Philosophy After Postmodernism and other works, I show how the anti-foundationalist discourse of the poststructuralist tradition is intimately connected with the ideology of market forces. The rhetoric of the transient and relative structures of cognitive perspectives, and the idea of the ‘de-centred’ self are often presented as a basis for ‘oppositional’ thought. They are not. In fact, they are tacit expressions of the constant need for new brands and the need to ensure that the consumer exists as permanently unsettled agency (expressed through such things as shopping and ‘lifestyle choices’). The modern world in the twentieth-century and beyond has developed around consumerism and the technologies associated with it, and this has now been taken to a global level. I see the anti-foundationalism of the poststructuralism and other relativisms as key expressions of the intellectual mind-set of this ‘Supermodernity’.

The challenge to the realm of values presented by Supermodernity is colossal. As embodied beings, we exist in a world – both natural and cultural – that is rich, diverse, complex, and full of different aspects. However, Supermodernity violates this complexity. It is permeated by the cult of management that seeks to promote ‘efficiency’ by reducing everything to models of social interaction and outcomes derived from cybernetics and the advertising industry. What it is to be human, and what it is to change oneself and be encultured in a deep sense is lost. Indeed, the very notion of freedom itself is reduced to consumer choices. Of course, there has always been a difficult relation between money and civilization, but in most eras there was always a strong sense that some things were more important than money-power. Values of a moral and aesthetic nature, and such things as self-development and bettering oneself and one’s community, were acknowledged as things that had to be protected from market forces. This critical distance has been lost. And the intellectual relativisms of Supermodernity are not the slightest help in reconfiguring it, because they are complicit in the new market serfdom.

3:AM: You argue for civilization rather than the end of civilization don’t you? How do you map out your theory of civilization and does it bridge the gap between analytic philosophy and continental philosophy and social theory?

PC: I follow Elias in his theory that the civilizing process is organized around the development of self-restraint. What makes this possible is its emergence from various cognitive capacities, the most central of which are language, empathic identification, aesthetic experience, and imagination in general. These are the foundational to embodied subjectivity. However, this is perhaps better described as ‘refoundational’ because the cognitive capacities just described are exercised differently and have different effects under different historical conditions. By definition we are self-conscious beings but the structure and pattern of self-consciousness changes, and can be developed to higher stages. As well as the need to satisfy physiological needs and procure the means of subsistence and security, humans develop needs related to self-consciousness itself. They need to know who they are as individuals and members of a collective, as well as their relation to the universe as a whole.

Self-consciousness and self-restraint develop around this through various symbolic practices that refine the scope of language and imagination. This refinement also leads to technological development and a greater ability to adapt the world to human needs. It allows also for increasing complexity in modes of social organization and religious ritual. The civilizing process just is the generation of these changes. It is self-consciousness regarded from the viewpoint of its diachronic development.

This theory is based on the view that there are necessary structures in human experience which can be shown through systematic structures of discursive argument. In this respect, I relate closely to the tradition of Analytic philosophy. Unfortunately, Analytic philosophy – with the exception of figures such as Charles Taylor, who, like myself, cross its boundaries – has little or no sense of the constitutive role of historical understanding in all aspects of cognition. The Continental tradition, in contrast, (as I noted earlier) has emphasized the perspectivalist basis of knowledge and the de-centred self, an approach that emphasizes transient relationality and change. They take this too far, but their approach at least points towards the historical dimension in cognition. My theory goes further. By arguing that the civilizing process refines functional constants in experience through different historical realizations of them, I am, in effect, integrating the Analytic approach with the Continental emphasis on change and relationality, and , in so doing, offer a normative social theory.

3:AM: Derrida, Foucault and Lacan are important to you aren’t they in that they set the terms of the contemporary landscape whereby art historians and theorists who thought art was a unique form of meaning has been subjected to sustained critique. What is the challenge that these three thinkers raise?

PC: In conjunction, Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, Deleuze, and others create the perspectivalist/de-centred emphasis that I’ve already described. As I’ve also said, this has some importance in drawing attention to the more transient dimensions of cognition. However, I now think that in the context of studying the arts, this has had a very distorting effect. These relativist approaches underline heterogeneities, aporias, rhizomatics, divergences, dis-affinities, and anything else that can make art and its history seem unstable – nothing more than a network of ‘discursive practices’ driven by power relations. However, this approach is no longer a challenge, it has become something of an orthodoxy.

The real challenge consists in resisting the imperial scope of the orthodoxy. There is one vital issue, in particular. On the basis of the orthodoxy, art and the aesthetic are regarded as no more than historically specific expressions of dominant power relations. But this raises a question, namely what is it about certain varieties of representation that allow them to be invested with such cultural kudos? You can map out all the different uses to which representations are put, historically, and the different ideological attitudes that inform them, but why does making pictures, writing stories and poems, and making music lend themselves to such uses, in so many different times and places? My point is that these activities have an intrinsic fascination, they have the power to make the world of ideas exist sensuously at the level of the real. Over and above how images are used, it is what is done through creating them that is to say, their aesthetic significance, that is compelling.

3:AM: You worry however that the approach [ of the poststructuralists] is too reductionist don’t you, and avoids detailed descriptions of aesthetic and phenomenal structures. Despite this, you seem very interested in Heidegger’s approaches to art so why do you think you’re describing a post-analytic turn rather than developing a line of research of the continental camp?

PC: This relates to the previous question. There is a tradition in Continental thinking that retains a proper regard for the artistic/aesthetic dimension of art – its sensuous presentation of ideas. It comprises thinkers such as Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Dufrenne, Gadamer, Deleuze, and even Lacan (though this aspect of his thought is rarely discussed). However, all these thinkers approach art very strongly from the viewpoint of their own philosophies. This presents a very one-sided approach that does no justice to the importance of what is involved in the making of art. Artists change how the world appears and to recognize this transformation you not only have to look at the work in relation to how it represents things, you also have to understand the individual way it achieves this. Such understanding centres on how the artist uses the medium of which he or she is a practitioner, and this, in turn, entails knowledge of the comparative history of the medium.

The point is that, in aesthetics, attention has to be shifted from the conditions of spectatorship to those of how art is created. This does not mean fantasizing about what the artist’s intentions were, but in looking or reading the work itself in relation to what it represents and how it represents it. This requires detailed discussion of particular artworks, and relating them to those transformative powers that produce effects distinctive to the individual media. These effects often have far-reaching ontological/aesthetic significance that is elided by more global terms such as Heidegger’s and Gadamer’s notions of ‘Truth’ or Merleau-Ponty’s ‘visible/invisible’ pairing, or Deleuze’s notion of the ‘Figure’.

In order to bring out this ontological/aesthetic significance, the Continental approaches have to be conceptually unpacked, clarified, and extended by reference to historical and conceptual factors bound up with the relevant media. This latter feature takes us far beyond what the Continental tradition itself has attempted (with the problematic exception of Deleuze), and marks my major problem with it. True, the relativist approaches draw attention to the way things change , but in the context of the arts, we need to combine phenomenological attention to the works, with a proper critical analysis of the traditions of making within a medium. This why I advocate a post-analytic phenomenology rather than just working in the Continental tradition. The ontology of artistic media requires close analysis rather than immersion in an atmosphere of jargon and/or ill-defined terms. It’s true that Adorno’s paratactical method – where artworks are approached from different cognitive directions in order not to do violence to the their sensuous particularity – offers many insights about the relation between artistic meaning and society. However, even he scarcely touches the question of what is special and distinctive about the individual art media.

3:AM: The analytic tradition is not much good either for aesthetics is it? Do you see Richard Wollheim as part of this tradition? What’s so wrong that we need to take a post-analytic turn?

PC: In terms of clarifying the centrality of art and the aesthetic, the Analytic tradition is now more or less useless. It has recently tried to re-brand itself as ‘Anglo-American’ but is better described as White Aesthetics. Instead of regarding the Duchampian tradition of ready-mades as secondary and parasitic upon traditions of sensuously embodied art-making – as (in other words) something whose artistic status has to be justified, Analytic philosophers have now made this tradition, dogmatically, into the very focus of artistic meaning. In this way, over thirty thousand years of artistic practices in different parts of the world and different historical periods, are made subservient to the marginal idiosyncracies of a white Euromerican avant-garde elite. I regard this as a tacit form of racism.

The narrowness of White Aesthetics is shown by the fact that it appears to be of no significance to anyone except its own practitioners. Contemporary art and criticism, and historical studies rarely make reference to it. White Aesthetics is very interested in the semantic and syntactic structures of art media, but not in what makes art matter to those involved in its creation or appreciation. Insofar as it does wrestle with these issues, it tends to do so through the clumsy notions of ‘expressive qualities’ or the artist’s intentions. However, these are not concepts that solve problems but ones that have to be explained in more fundamental terms. OK, art is expressive, and artists have intentions, but these are only significant if we can link them to how the artist transforms the medium so as to achieve distinct communicative effects.

Wollheim offered some brilliant phenomenological analyses of the arts, notably painting, but, as well as tying himself mainly to the spectatorial viewpoint, he also falls back on the weak mainstays of ‘expressive qualities’ and the ‘artists intentions’ – terms that have no explanatory value. (I justify this claim in detail in my book on Phenomenologies of Art and Vision… .)

As far as I can see, the only way to overcome White Aesthetics is by clarifying the cognitive uniqueness of the individual arts, and the complex varieties of aesthetic experience. The post-analytic phenomenology described earlier has great promise in this respect.

3:AM: So how does your approach of ‘post-analytic phenomenology’ attempt to overcome the shortcomings of the Analytic and Continental traditions?

PC: I’ve already explained this in relation to my work in aesthetics, so I’ll now explain it in more general philosophical terms.

Analytic philosophy tends to resolve phenomena into formal component features (such as, for example, the self’s persistence through time, and occupancy of the same body) and then takes such analyses to be sufficient for understanding the unity of the phenomenon in question. However, there is a prior unity based on the correlation of embodied subject and object of experience that tends to be elided by Analytic approaches.

Continental philosophers, notably Merleau-Ponty have been aware of this, but unfortunately have imagined that one can express the unity in question by making philosophical language become more poetic and ambiguous. The assumption is that, by doing this, we touch some kind of primordial mutual inherence of subject and world, that precedes the subject-object relation. I think this is a mistake. In fact, much ‘Continental’ philosophy after Merleau-Ponty strikes me as little more than bad poetry dressed up as philosophy.

To transcend the limitations of Analytic philosophy and the Continental tradition I have tried to develop a post-analytic phenomenology that looks to Merleau-Ponty, but which goes far beyond him by restoring the primacy of the subject-object relation in knowledge of objects and the self. By emphasizing that knowledge of an objective world, and the unity of self-consciousness are correlated – the one cannot be known without knowledge of the other – I am emphasizing a relation that is epistemologically fundamental but which has a different meaning and structure according to different historical circumstances.

I have actually formalized the notion of post-analytic phenomenology in some recent papers on the concept of imagination. It strikes me that if we are to get a proper phenomenological orientation we must be clear about which aspects of the object we are most interested in. This is especially the case with imagination, which is a term used in many different ways. I propose accordingly, that phenomenological inquiry starts with an analytic reduction. This is directed by two questions.

First, given a specific linguistic term (referring to a phenomenon, concept, relation, or whatever) do any of our uses of that term identify features that are logically distinctive to it, and, second, do other features seem to constellate around these distinctive features , even if only indirectly, or associationally?

If we can answer both questions affirmatively, then, we have identified what I call the nodal core of meaning for the term. By looking at how the term is used its ‘essence’ can be identified at the level of public discourse, rather than that of introspection. In the case of imagination, the idea of mental imagery with a quasi-sensory character provides this nodal core.

This allows us to proceed to a second level of investigation – namely, phenomenological description of the nodal core features as experienced. Such investigation focusses on how things are present to perception or before the mind. In the case of imagination, this involves attending to such things as the schematic and unstable character of the image, and the way, qua subject to the will, it exemplifies the personal style of the one who is imagining.

Phenomenological description of the nodal core identifies those features that clarify the term’s broader conceptual relations and cognitive significance. The investigation of these constitutes a tertiary level of analysis. This is especially important for the concept of imagination, as the features identified through its phenomenological description are what allow it to play a necessary role in our correlated knowledge of objects and self-consciousness. It has a cognitive fundamentality – as Kant recognized – but it takes a post-analytic phenomenology with the threefold methodological structure just described, to set out the complete grounds of this fundamentality.

One other outcome of the tertiary stage of analyzing imagination is an explanation of the origins of pictorial art. With more work, indeed, it might be able to identify further links between imagination and the origins of literature, dance, and music.

The post-analytic phenomenology that I have been describing here overcomes the limitations of Analytic philosophy and the Continental tradition, by combining what is best in them through an integrated method of inquiry. Obviously, I hope to take this much further.

Interestingly, a couple of former students of mine have just finished writing a book concerning the relation between my aesthetics and Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic forms. This is some justification for this, and, admittedly, I have made some use of Cassirer in the past. However, the transcendental arguments for the correlated unity of subject and object of experience that I provide, and the extended theory of imagination, are not found in Cassirer. (He falls back on the unwarranted authority of Kant to provide these things.) It should be emphasized, also, that the threefold method of post-analytic phenomenology that I advocate does not – as far as I know – have a counterpart in Cassirer’s thought. Cassirer and I are both committed to aesthetic cognitivism, but my general philosophical position goes beyond his.

3:AM: You use the term ‘phenomenological depth’ which you take from your reading of Merleau-Ponty , Hegel and a tincture of Kant. So what does this depth amount to?

PC: It consists of all the factors that are involved in the reciprocal correlation of subject and object of experience. These include those features of the immediate perceptual field – details, textures, relations, and the like, which are present but not noticed explicitly. (The object of present awareness emerges from this network of phenomena and relations.)

Also included is the role of imagination which – at will – allows us to project how the world not immediately present to perception might appear, and by implication, what it would be like for us to occupy different perceptual positions from the one we presently occupy, and which allows us to form playful associational chains of such imagery.

The other major feature of phenomenological depth is those switches of cognitive emphasis where we can sometimes think of our sensuous animal being and, at other times, consider ourselves primarily as rational beings. Related to this is our sense of being a part of nature and tied to physical limits, yet at the same time being able to create artifacts that can have effects far from the location we presently occupy, and which can survive long after we are dead. The most fundamental aspect of all this is our capacity to form a sense of who and what we are, and our place in relation to the universe. We are finite, but more than just finite.

All these aspects of phenomenological depth can be described explicitly through philosophical explanation, But since the artwork is a sensuous or imaginatively-intended individual, it shows phenomenological depth rather than states it. In a Cezanne still-life – of apples, say, the picture creates an appearance of these fruits that deviates from how they would appear in real life. They look more palpable because of the way they are painted, yet, at the same time, have an intenseness of being that almost transcends corporeality. Viewing the work in such terms requires that we attend to how compositionally, and texturally, Cezanne has rendered them. This means that – without being explicitly aware that we are so doing – we attend to both the way the perceived group of apples emerges from a ‘flesh’ of details, and the way it seems to be pregnant with other potential viewpoints that might be taken upon it. At the same time, however, we also know that it is an image of apples which discloses how Cezanne has understood the concept of ‘apple’ in particular sensuous terms. More than this, Cezanne’s treatment of this subject dramatically emphasizes the quiddity of the fruit. It has come to be and will pass away, but whilst here, it is fecund – not just biologically, but perceptually, and spiritually.

The above analysis resolves the picture into different aesthetic aspects. But the point is, that in the picture itself, they are present simultaneously and inseparably as a part of a whole that encompasses creator, image, subject-matter, and spectator. We intuit this complex whole on its own terms – as a phenomenon which is full of meaning that cannot be paraphrased except in terms that loose the fullness of its immediate unity. This is why aesthetic meaning – with all its phenomenological depth, is shown rather than said.

3:AM: That our perceptions and cognition has a pre-reflective character is really important to your theory isn’t it and has special relevance to the visual arts. Can you say something about this, perhaps illustrating it in terms of your discussion of a sculpture’s phenomenological depth and its relation to transcendence?

PC: Suppose you look at Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna, or Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space. You might say you see a beautiful, tender image of mother and child, or a curiously angular representation of a striding figure. However, these works speak to more intuitive pre-reflective levels of experience as well. This can involve fundamental levels of experience. For example, if something exists it must occupy space, or be the effect of something that does. Space-occupancy is basic and fundamental to us that, of course, we scarcely ever take notice of it. Now the fact that sculpture is three-dimensional means that it acts on our sense of space. The sculpture makes space transcend its usual inexplicit existence to become manifest, though not yet the kind of thing that we can put firmly into words. We are interested in how the sculpture occupies space – its way of defining shape or shapes through strong physical embodiment. There is a beauty of space giving birth to things, or things taking on form (in terms of both the sculpture itself, and that which it represents) – an emergence that is all the more powerful since we know that it has been created by a fellow human being. When a work is free-standing, this effect is all the more pronounced.

Of course, architecture will give you similar effects, but there is one factor which makes sculpture unique. It creates depth by the semantic and physical articulation of a three-dimensional medium. Meaning arises from the emergence of spatial form rather than the enclosure of space. Painting does this in virtual terms, but in sculpture, the virtual aspect has real spatial physicality as well, through being three-dimensional. In fact, there is a supreme transcendence involved in this. We know that qua finite physical beings we emerge from inert matter, and pass back into it. In sculpture, brute matter is overcome. That which appears most indifferent to, and other-than organic life, is, as it were with spirit. Life transcends the inanimate in sensuous-symbolic terms.

The point is – again – that what I am describing in an analytic way is experienced intuitively in the sculptural work as a whole of aesthetic meaning. It engages us pre-reflectively, but in such a way as to make us want to reflect on it.

3:AM: So is it your view that the visual arts are best understood as making basic features of experiential subject and object reciprocity exist in a heightened and enduring form? And does this set constraints on what an artist can create?

PC: The characters of visual media engage with different aspects of subject-object reciprocity. There’s one especially important aspect of this that I’m currently exploring in relation to pictorial art. I call it ‘presentness’. All our perceptual activity fixes on moments of recognition or sequences of momentary perceptions in how we attend to things. Pictorial art intervenes on the transience of these features. If a work is representational, it links the viewer and the scene viewed in a present whose immobility and self-containedness exceed the limits of ordinary perception. A contrast is useful here. Photographs snatch a moment of time, by, as it were, snatching it out of a flow of visual events. But the painter represents by accumulating the visual elements to compose the image. He or she represents a single moment that – like the moments of human experience as such, are internally complex . In life we never completely possess our passing moments – they pass in the very act of trying to fix them in place. But pictorial art does fix them in place, symbolically. It offers a kind of eternalization of the represented present. This has the profoundest aesthetic and psychological ramifications. In presentness, the artist makes a moment of visual appearance available as a permanent possibility of experience.

Of course, not all visual art is pictorial. I ‘ve done a large amount of work on meaning in abstract art. Abstract works disclose features that are usually unnoticed in direct perception, or take unusual angles on it, or posit alternative modes of perceptual reality. Conceptualism also has its own special features, but here there is a significant constraint. We can invoke it through a question. Is there something about the conceptual ‘object’ that the artist creates or assembles that demands that it be directly perceived, or is it something which can be comprehended sufficiently by mere description? If it’s the latter there is no reason to regard it as art. Some conceptual works are like this, of course, and are better regarded as adjuncts to theory than as works of art. Other conceptual idioms, however, are hugely rewarding in what they offer to direct perception – such as, for example, Duchamp’s entwined exhibits at the First Papers of Surrealism exhibition in 1942. White Aesthetics, of course, tends not to ask this test question. On its terms, if the artist says its art, then that’s what it is.

3:AM: You’re clear that Heidegger, Adorno and Merleau-Ponty are important but that their strategies of elliptical address – adapting description to the irreducible concreteness of an art object – fails to bring descriptive clarity to their analysis. However, despite the shortcomings, Heidegger’s ‘Art And Space’ and ‘The Origin of a Work of Art’ are important for you aren’t they?

PC: Yes, as I pointed out earlier, they all have important insights but are somewhat one-sided in the way they frame general problems in aesthetics from their particular philosophical positions. Elliptical strategies bring their own internal problematics in accordance with the particular philosophical method involved

3:AM: Could your theory and approach link with German Idealism and Schelling just as well as the phenomenological-existentialist tradition you identify?

PC: Yes, almost certainly. I think that my stuff has affinities with Hegel more than Schelling, but to tell you the truth, I suspect that this is because I know Hegel’s work a lot better than Schelling’s. Probably the deepest debt of all that I owe is to Kant’s theory of cognition – especially the Transcendental Deduction, and to his terribly neglected theory of art.

3:AM: Do you see yourself as providing a comprehensive aesthetic theory?

PC: As comprehensive as can be. Obviously, I’ve paid special attention to the philosophy of the visual arts – with five published monographs and many papers. However, there are also three books on more general aesthetics, and two works where I develop Kant’s aesthetics into something of more general significance.

3:AM: And finally, are there five books other than your own which would help us go further into your philosophical world?

Hegel – Lectures on Aesthetics
Cassirer – An Essay on Man
Merleau-Ponty – The Primacy of Perception (the book of that title, not just the essay)
Adorno – Aesthetic Theory
Bradley – Appearance and Reality

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy the book here to keep him biding!

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, September 26th, 2014.