A Brief Non-Steampug-Related Interlude

I just completed this:

Intrusion #1

With this painting (and those that will follow it), I’m trying to get back to some basic aesthetic experimentation.  In this case, the test-subject is the interaction of organic and inorganic elements, particularly the intrusion of organic elements into inorganic spaces, and vice versa.

The resulting confrontation is to be approached in an animistic spirit, with both object and space invested with intentionality- that is to say, the object exists actively; it regards its surroundings and, by the same token, its surroundings regard it.  This remains however an essentially aesthetic project, and so a secondary concern emerges: intentionality as an aesthetic quality.

In Defense of Absurd Cosmologies

Animism- the idea that every entity, even inanimate ones such as stones and buildings, has a soul (or to use less weighted language, a mind) – is about as unfashionable is at gets.  It is hardly ever brought into discussion outside of new age circles, and when it is, it is usually referenced as a humorous reductio ad absurdum to some other idea.  Indeed, the very word “inanimate” seems to function within our language as a built-in rejection of animism.

It has been traditional to attribute animism to the supposed infantile tendency to view all entities/phenomena as possessing minds comparable to one’s own, a tendency that is gradually outgrown as one’s perceptual faculties mature.  What arises from this view is a sort of theological hierarchy, with each successive stage corresponding to ever higher levels of cognitive development: animism -> polytheism-> monotheism-> atheism (this last step may be skipped depending on which state you live in).  Modern-day anthropology has mostly shed this narrative, but it lingers in the background of popular understandings of cultural development.

The biological analogue to this model is the now-discredited idea that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny- basically, that the historical development of forms mirrors the development of individual beings.  So, in its maturation, the human body passes through phases mirroring the evolution of the human species.  The only real defense of this model lies in the fact that human embryos possess gills and a tail- never mind that human children never pass through phases wherein they resemble lizards or lemurs.  Regardless, there is a sort of superficial elegance to this model, and it was very much in vogue about a hundred years ago.

Applied to the development of cultural forms, this idea dives into even more dangerous waters.  We are, after all, not just talking about a sequence of extinct ideas that ultimately gave rise to our current models.  Animism, polytheism, monotheism, and atheism (as well as any number of less easily-categorized models) all persist to this day.  To prefer any one of these as the inevitable evolutionary endpoint depends upon a fairly obvious ethnocentric assumption.  It goes without saying that one’s own culture would possess the most advanced understanding, and other cultures would be viewed as more or less primitive (“infantile”) in proportion to their similarity thereto.

I mention all of this here because what is at issue is ultimately an aesthetic conflict.  There is of course absolutely no rational or empirical defense for animism, and as a model it has no explanatory or predictive power.  It is not so much a means of understanding the world as encountering it.  Just as we would perceive other humans differently if we believed them to be mindless automatons, so do animism and related models offer the potential for a radically divergent experience of the world at large.  This alone makes them worth engaging with on their own terms, and not to be rejected solely on the basis of their presumed absurdity.

Discussing the Sublime

The Sublime is of course a difficult thing to discuss in any medium.  It is by definition that which dwells beyond discourse, and so tends to evaporate when pinned down.

(We should not however make the mistake of equating the Sublime solely with the unexplained.  A perfectly explicable phenomenon- a mountain, for example, or a vast empty space wherein there is nothing to be explained- may yet be sublime.  The Sublime dwells not in our knowledge of the thing (or lack thereof) but in our encounter with it.  Its nature, that is, is phenomenological rather than epistemological.)

To return- the Sublime occurs where experience outstrips discourse, or at least that discourse where we are at home.  Hence, attempts at description/depiction tend to be flowery and not especially enlightening, and analyses of the Sublime, while periodically interesting, remain ultimately unsatisfying.  They can show us where it lives, but cannot deliver it to us, or us to it.

Most satisfying would be a discourse aimed at evoking the Sublime … but what is meant by this?  Literally, to evoke is to call out, to call forth.  It is speech as a potent act capable of manifesting something beyond itself, separate from the speech and the speaker, a third process that was not at work before the speaking.  The “out” is relevant here, because what it evoked remains outside of us, present before us and undigested.  It must remain so for its sublimity to persist.

Such a discourse would be presented with a paradoxical task- its success would depend upon the language/depiction/whathaveyou sabotaging itself at a certain point.  Such a discourse would resemble an inviting road that ended abruptly at the edge of an impassable canyon, or better still, a boat designed to bear its passengers some distance into the ocean before breaking apart without warning.  To arrive at such destination would not be the same as having never embarked to begin with.