Why Write About Art? (II)
Every so often, I encounter a philosopher who provokes reflection on how to healthfully relate to works of art. I don’t need such provocation to reflect, generally speaking; what sets these philosophers apart is that they force me to reconsider the very idea of writing what I write here, usually with the result of imposing a bit of modesty. (There is no faster way for a philosopher to earn my respect than to reveal an understanding of and appreciation for the arts.) My previous post on this topic reflected an encounter with Hans-Georg Gadamer. In it, I attempted to come to grips with the motivation for writing about art when interpretive efforts necessarily fall short. This post reflects my more recent encounter with Gilles Deleuze (and, I somewhat shamefacedly admit, with an excellent essay on Deleuze by Daniel Smith, ch. 6), whose distinction between recognition and signs again calls into question the very act of writing about art in the way I do here, in an attempt to interpret, to lay hold of stable themes in a work and elucidate them. This may seem like a strange thing to take from Deleuze, who after all wrote a great deal about literature and other arts (a small portion of which I discussed here). Yet I think the challenge is there.
According to Smith’s essay, Deleuze follows Plato in drawing a distinction between two types of sensation. The first sort involves recognition (“this is a finger”), and in having such a sensation “there is nothing here which invites or excites intelligence” (Deleuze, quoted in Smith). The second sort of sensation Deleuze calls “signs” that cannot be recognized, but only encountered. In Deleuzian terms, they are “caught up in unlimited becoming” (Smith). It is this second sort of sensation that lies at the root of aesthetics.
When we encounter a sign, the natural inclination is to search for its meaning. Deleuze interprets Proust as having identified two temptations in this search. The first temptation is the objectivist temptation, in which one “seeks for the meaning of the sign in the object emitting it” (Smith). The second is the subjectivist temptation, in which one “seeks their meaning in a subjective association of ideas.” Both are misleading, are temptations to a sort of “sin”. It is the job of the work of art, for Deleuze, to reveal to us the nature of signs, to make their truth manifest.
So far, this seems in deep accord with the general viewpoint I’ve developed (on this blog and privately) on how we ought to relate to works of art. This includes my attempts to navigate between objectivity and subjectivity in the realm of aesthetics, as well as my earlier “Why Write About Art?” post that stressed the encounter with a work of art. And yet I find in this distinction between sensations that can be recognized and sensations that can only be encountered a deep challenge to the very idea of interpreting art in the way I frequently do here.
Smith gives a useful summation of the two primary characteristics of a sign: “The first is that the sign riots the soul, renders it perplexed, as if the encountered sign were the bearer of a problem. The second is that the sign is something that can only be felt or sensed” (emphasis in original). Against this, the recognized object can, indeed, be felt, but it “can also be remembered, imagined, conceived, and so on.” Deleuze conceives “the most general aim of art” (Smith) as producing sensations (signs, specifically). But this means that a work of art can only be experienced: it cannot be remembered, imagined, conceived, etc.
What is an interpretation but just such an attempt to remember, imagine, conceive, etc.? In my earlier post I worried that interpretation always falls short of the work itself—with Deleuze’s ideas in view this worry intensifies: interpretation may do violence to the work of art, not by being a bad interpretation, but by being an interpretation at all. In trying to recognize aspects of the work of art (e.g. X is a symbol for Y), the experience of art as a sign is necessarily lost. Even interpretation that explicitly sets out to respect the status of art as a sign seems to be violent in this way: in tracing out the way a work forces certain sorts of experiences on those who encounter it, the interpretation functions as a recollection, a remembrance, and in that way does injustice to just what it proposes to respect. (An example of this sort of interpretation is Ray Carney’s work on the films of John Cassavetes.)
At their best, my interpretations might achieve something like this second sort of interpretation, tracing out the ways that particular works force the viewer to have uncomfortable, because new, experiences. But many of them are firmly in the first camp, based around finding themes. Perhaps they are not so egregious as that dreadfully dull sort of interpretation that delineates how symbol X stands for Y—I hope to write a post soon critiquing an interpretation of Tarkovsky’s Stalker on just such grounds—but nonetheless they are interpretations that still find themselves purely in the recognition camp.
Perhaps this seems like an abstract philosophical issue, and nothing more. But there is a real worry that in trying to interpret works of art we will approach them in different ways than we would otherwise. Because interpretation of the sort I’ve discussed is so wedded to recognition, it carries with it the threat that the function of the work of art as a sign will be lost. I can speak for no one but myself on this point, but this threat materializes when I watch films or read books with an eye to interpreting. Instead of experiencing the movements of a work, I latch onto those aspects I can recognize and thereby kill the experience.
What justification can there be, then, for the work I do on this blog? My self-defense will perhaps be meager. It is true that interpretation does violence to the work interpreted, but this may be done in service of experiencing the work. I write these blog posts primarily for myself, but by putting them in public I offer them up to others as well, and my hope is that they may feed back into my own and others’ experiences of works of art. No one is born knowing how to read, and even in the purportedly literate world the number of people who are able to really read a book—which means: follow its movements, experience what it offers—is low. (And the same goes for looking at paintings, watching films, and so forth.) I do not count myself among this group, except on rare happy occasions. To follow a work takes strenuous work on the part of the subject experiencing it—the work is not just done by the artist crafting the work (I recently wrote on this topic). My hope is that such blog posts as I write may be helpful to those seeking to follow the works I discuss. This can only happen if my posts are not taken as guided tours (which remains in the recognition model), but rather as signposts: look closely here, notice this connection, but know it is only one among many. Ultimately, they exist to be forgotten: they do not matter if you are able to go to the work and experience it yourself.
I have been presenting an ultimately very negative view of interpretation: it is a Wittgensteinian ladder to be kicked away once you have climbed over the wall. But I think Deleuze’s view also makes room for a positive view of interpretation, which Deleuze’s work, at its best, realizes. (The essays discussed in my post, Deleuze’s American Dream, exemplify this realization.) In the introduction to A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari make the following remark: “We will never ask what a book means, as signified or signifier; we will not look for anything to understand in it. We will ask what it functions with, in connection with what other things it does or does not transmit intensities.” This quote encapsulates what happens when a sign is encountered: the sign transmits an intensity to the one who encounters it. Interpretation that is truly vital, that is not simply an aid to the experience of art, to be kicked away and forgotten when no longer needed, is interpretation that itself transmits intensities, just as a work of art would. In a sense, it should not be dependent on the work of art. Deleuze’s interpretation of Melville, though fascinating as an interpretation, and useful for those who would experience Melville, ultimately relies on concepts that have a life independent of the work of Melville, that have their own intensity. It is an electric work in its own right, albeit a work of philosophy rather than a work of art.
There is, then, a place for interpretations that hunt down the meaning of a work of art—but only if such interpretations are recognized to be severely limited, mere useful tools and not ends in themselves. If not recognized to be such, then they ultimately serve to prevent any experience of the signs they discuss. The same goes for interpretations that trace out the contours of the experience of encountering a particular work. But while interpretation of this sort has utility, we can aspire to a form of interpretation that is self-sufficient, that is attached to a particular work in name only, but which transmits its own intensities.