Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Expression, Representation, Adaptation

If fiction is not, and cannot be, either mirror or lamp to reality, than what is it? What is the relationship of art to reality? I've written any number of posts on the problematic character of the idea of 'realist fiction.' (HERE  HERE HERE).
Let's take a another look at the idea of the mirror and the lamp. For M. H. Abrams, the mirror was how art was conceived before the Romantics, as reflection of nature, mimesis, while the Romantics thought of the soul of the artist as a lamp,  illuminating nature and revealing its truth. Both these metaphors share a common problem: they posit a division between reality and the conscious subject, between culture and nature--a problem because neither is able to account for the intersecting reality of culture and nature and lead to misleading attempts to harmonize the contradiction by totalizing one at the expense of the other.  Either culture is nature, or nature is entirely subsumed in our conceptualizations, and hence, unknowable in itself; there is no relationship here because either nature or the human subject loses its identity in the other--how then can one speak of any sort of 'realist' art? If all is nature, all is equally real--forms of expressions which must share the reality of the natural subject. Totalizing culture, on the other hand, leaves us stuck with all the epistemological conundrums of Kantian transcendentalism and makes nonsense of any claims we might make for art as representation... representation of what?
If the dissolution of subject in object or object in subject is our problem, than to get past that we need to find a way to think of reality in terms that allow for a meaningful difference, the difference makes possible a relationship between fabricating consciousness, the symbolic reality of the fabrication, that which stands over against both.
The ideas Paul Levi Bryant has been working through on Larval Subjects, in as much as I understand them, have powerful implications for aesthetics, and seem to offer an elegant way past the problems inherent in totalizing either nature/reality, or mind/culture.  Let me cite two passages from the post linked above and see what you make of them, in how they profoundly alter the ways we might think about aesthetic theory.

If I’m interested in fictions and the ontological status of fictions then this is not out of any sort of perverse wish to say that fictions are real, but rather because fictions provide a sort of exemplary case of a purely symbolic entity that is not a representation of something else. As a consequence, fictions shed light on what symbolic entities are in general.

In another post Nature and its Discontents (please, go to Larval Subjects and read this in full), I find the missing link, as it were: adaptation. As a species does not assimilate itself to nature, only imperfectly reacting and adapting itself to a nature which is both larger, and other, each maintaining a difference, as Bryant likes to put it, a difference that makes a difference, so the fabricating work of the artist is a continuous adaptation to another aspect of reality, a different kind  of real. This leaves us open to a different ground for criticism--one that has no need to compare or test for verisimilitude in a work of fiction, nor to shift to the equally problematic tactic of treating the aesthetic object as autonomous: it is both and neither, no more autonomous from nature than the evolving organism, no more an indistinguishable conformity with nature than the always imperfectly adapting organism--the relationship endures, and finding and describing the imperfection of adaptation in the work of art,  in the artist's encounter, in the occasion that engenders it, provides the outline for a more useful critical method, as it is there that the distinction becomes visible and the character of the reality of each may be given its due.   

One of the narratives we find in Lacanian psychoanalysis is this idea that man is a fundamental rupture within nature that is perpetually alienated from, and out of step with, nature. This thesis is only plausible on the assumption that 1) nature independent of man is a harmonious whole, and 2) that other organisms, unlike the human, possess a harmonious relationship with nature. Working on this premise we get books like van Haute’s Against Adaptation that argue against evolutionary theory on the grounds that humans are fundamentally out of step with nature such that adaptation to nature is impossible for us.

The problem here is not with the thesis that humans are out of step with their environment (or, in Latour’s terms, the network of actants among which we dwell). The problem here is with the implied interpretation of evolutionary biology suggesting that any organism is in step or phase with their environment or the network of actants within which it dwells. What this cereal box understanding of evolutionary theory misses is that “adaptation” as understood in evolutionary theory does not mean “well-fitted”, but rather refers to a wager or gamble on the part of an organism. An adaptation is a gamble that certain features of the environment will remain stable and consistent. In this respect there is nothing unique about humans in their lack of perfect phase relations between innenwelt and umwelt. Insofar as any environment is always more complex than the manner in which the organism “represents” the environment, every organism is more or less out of phase with its environment. This lack of fit between environment and organism has all sorts of consequences for the life of each and every organism as it navigates its world. Psychoanalysis is right to critique the ideological conception of nature as a harmonious, self-regulating whole. However, it goes astray in believing that somehow the fissures and antagonisms of “nature” are unique to humans.


  1. descending assent down non-0 some ladder

    Thank you for links. Permacuture... something new to explore

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