Sunday, 6 May 2012

One understands that the very progress of technology -- and here I am taking up a commonplace -- which relates everyone in the world to everyone else, is inseparable from a necessity which leaves all men anonymous.

 - Emmanuel Levinas

The “aura”,1 as we have seen in the previous article, gives us the inevitable and cumulative ‘more’ than the object itself. The object is, always and everywhere - without exception - mediated by the human mind. If the ‘copy’ is indeed the original, and there is no other ‘original’ form - such as envisaged by Plato’s “Ideal Form”2 - then the object could refer only to itself. But the object, to the human mind, is always a sign of something. The ‘copy’ without any aura would then be - in effect - a sign that signified itself. As we already know from post-structuralism, there is no such thing: the sign always refers to something else, namely another sign.3

By consciously giving the appearance of referring only to itself rather than unconsciously acting as the sign of another sign, the artwork is therefore either the sign of itself - an impossibility, and the illusion of sameness - or the sign of itself as something other than itself. Art is able to deny the former by affirming the latter, which explains perhaps why authentic art and artists always seem to be more or less in antagonism to normality, conformity, uniformity, anonymity, and fascism.

But at the same time it offers us something more than simply a social, political, or philosophical position - something to which access would be denied just as much by a Marxist state as a fascist one. Plato was right to observe the existence of Ideal Form, the epekeina tes ousias, the “beyond-being”4 which the post-structuralist critique of philosophy has shown to be not the invisible transcendentally signified entity supporting the tradition of ‘Platonism’ (which anticipated and still informs modern scientific, technological, and economic thought construed through the paradigm of logo-centrism), but both beyond and within all conceptual ‘being’ and only barely open to expression as a ‘trace’.

Through presenting form as signifying only itself, but obliquely, so as to refer not to a duplicate, nor merely to identity through representation, nor yet even to something else outside of itself such as aesthetics or beauty or even ‘art’, art by claiming its overarching “identity with itself” forces us to pay attention, and gives us the “more than”5 itself: self-transcendence.

Crucially, the object is then not and can never be an automaton or a multiple, even if it looks and behaves like one (as with the VW)6. It is individual and in an essential relation with the other - with difference - which it relates to as itself, but “more than” itself at the same time. In people, this is the basis of an ethical relationship.7 And this describes - after all - the goal of humanity if we believe in such a thing. Technology, then, is not bad: but it is not - and cannot be - good in itself. That illusion would make it perilous to humanity, not beneficial. But it can be good for us (goodness is the quality par excellence of the epekeina tes ousias) as long as we remain true to the ethical. And this means being mindful of the “more” than material reality.

Art, by its very nature, is a step towards that realisation.



1 Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in Illuminations.

2 Plato’s Republic.

3 Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology and other works.

4 Plato op.cit.

5 Art’s “identity with itself” and the “more” are phrases given special significance by Adorno in his Aesthetic Theory.

6 See the previous article “Originality and Creativity”.

7 As in the work of Emmanuel Levinas.

Copyright © 2012 Brian Grassom

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