Monday, December 20, 2010

Beyond aesthetics?

In an earlier post, I suggested that Paul Fry's theory of "the ostensive moment" tends toward the aestheticism camp of literary theory. Now I'd like to try and refute that conjecture. Not because it isn't supportable, but because I think it might be missing the point.

If "the ostensive moment" refers to a pre-conceptual instance of illusory perception effected by language, it points to a writer's choice of focusing on insignificant details that somehow enact a sense of experience rather than meaning. From the perspective of the historic aesthetic movement in literature, this emphasis fits rather nicely into a creed of "art for art's sake," but differs in its focus on the insignificant - it is not particularly concerned with expressing ideals of beauty or pleasure so much as it highlights (and "brings to life") a subjective experience of "the particular."

However, this still doesn't move very far from aestheticism. Why? Because I suspect that the literary experience enacted through this particular focus is a movement toward a feeling of "the sublime." But this distinction is problematic (or at least interesting) because the sublime is generally associated with feelings of inordinate significance (as we feel for catastrophic events, the potential violence of nature, or supernatural malevolence, i.e. an ambiguous sense of awe) that we might not generally associate with the particular details of ordinary life. But I would suggest that Fry, in a sense, explores the literary impact of creating an experience of the sublime from the seeming insignificance of ordinary life, i.e. it's all in the details.

Of course, none of this refutes a conjecture that Fry's theory is allied with contemporary theories of literary aestheticism. So I'll turn to Dennis Dutton and his "seven universal signatures in human aesthetics" (as quoted from Wikipedia):
  1. Expertise or virtuosity. Technical artistic skills are cultivated, recognized, and admired.
  2. Non-utilitarian pleasure. People enjoy art for art's sake, and don't demand that it keep them warm or put food on the table.
  3. Style. Artistic objects and performances satisfy rules of composition that place them in a recognizable style.
  4. Criticism. People make a point of judging, appreciating, and interpreting works of art.
  5. Imitation. With a few important exceptions like abstract painting, works of art simulate experiences of the world.
  6. Special focus. Art is set aside from ordinary life and made a dramatic focus of experience.

These "signatures" are problematic in and of themselves (they are both Eurocentric and seemingly ignore contemporary practices of anti-aesthetics), but they do give me some criteria to which "the ostensive moment" might be compared (and possibly contrasted) from the perspective of literary aestheticism.

First, while "expertise or virtuosity" may be an inescapable aspect of a poetics that seeks to contextualize detail in such a manner that ostension effects significance out of insignificance, the curiosity of Fry's claim that "insignificance is the sole theme specific to literature" does not seem specific to formal elements of composition. In other words, it is a matter of unexpected motif, not technique.

Second is Dutton's emphasis on style: Fry asserts that as a theme "insignificance" is a universal attribute of literature and thus escapes historic limitations of style. While "the ostensive moment" may be enacted in any given style of literature, it is neither bound to nor a product of the predominant stylistic tastes of a particular era or society. In fact, he seems to suggest that the only unifying theme between these varying styles is a focus on the insignificant – for some, I suspect, a debatable assertion.

But these two differences from Dutton's "universal signatures" certainly don't separate Fry's emphasis on ostension from aestheticism. Instead, this comparison indicates only that Fry's thesis does not address formal qualities of literature but instead engages issues of 1) special focus; 2) the simulation of worldly experience; and 3) the non-utilitarian "nature" of literature as a subject for criticism and interpretation. All, according to Dutton, universal markers of human aesthetics.

So, why do I think an aesthetic analysis of "the ostensive moment" misses the point of Fry's thesis? Primarily because there are other ways of looking at this theoretical focus, and I don't think it needs to be bound, or reduced, to aesthetics alone. Fry, in my way of thinking, is identifying a phenomenon of language that "temporarily releases consciousness from its dependence on the signifying process." Further, in a defense of the problematic issues of that statement, he asserts that "the ostensive impulse realizes itself in a dialectic movement of estrangement from instrumental language which enables its reappearance within language as such."

In other words, he intimates a moment of non-significatory experience accomplished through the entirely significatory process of language, i.e. an almost perceptual experience encountered through the cognitive practice of writing and reading in which perception itself occupies an entirely different category of encounter from that which is intimated here.

But this is complicated, in a tautological sense, if you consider that the opposed counterpart of "instrumental language" (as cited above) is "literary language." And the notion of literary language is subject to a very robust critique from the perspective of post-structuralism, i.e. it is not bound to the text, but is instead a result of more complicated social forces. Which is to say, my exploration of "the ostensive moment" isn't getting any clearer.

It might be more helpful to enter a dialogue about the differences between "phenomena" and "noumena," but instead I'll finally turn toward discussing some examples of poetry in which "the ostensive moment" is presumably enacted.

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