February 07, 2005

The Man Without Content

At the weekend I attended a symposium bringing together writers, artists and philosophers together ostensibly around “The Man Without Content” by Giorgio Agamben, but ranging into a more general analysis of aesthetic philosophy. The Live Artist Hester Reeve, whom I have commissioned to do two pieces for the Text Festival (of which more another time) has been working around issues raised by the Agamben’s writing and organised the symposium primarily drawing together a group of associated thinkers.

I approached the event highly critical of the Agamben I have read, and can’t say I changed my mind at the symposium. The first point of dispute then is

Agamben has a strange and decidedly unphilosophical approach to arguing a philosophy. I don’t think I have ever read a philosopher whose method so stands on the shoulders of sources. In comparison, a philosopher such as Sartre will start from a position of rigorous analysis of previous thinking, and in drawing out weaknesses or missed opportunities develop an argument that (re)directs ideas in a new direction. Agamben starts with a writer of whom he approves and extends the logic their ideas, introducing his own brand of irrationality. This would not necessarily be a flawed approach if there was some investment in demonstrating that earlier thinking retained its validity. The beginning of …Content is a case in point. It starts with quotation of Nietzsche’s critique of Kant’s definition of the beautiful (“That is beautiful which gives us pleasure without interest”), backs this up with reference to Plato’s eviction of the Poet from the Ideal City, a meander through Romantic literature to accept its own conclusion and ask the question ‘if we really want to engage the problem of art in our time then nothing would be more urgent than a destruction of aesthetics that would …allow us to bring into question the very meaning of aesthetics as the science of the work of art.’ A truly jaw dropping example is in the chapter entitled “The Original Structure of the Work of Art. He starts with a quotation from Hölderlin “Everything is rhythm, the entire destiny of man is one heavenly rhythm, just as every work of art is one rhythm, and everything swings from the poetizing lips of god”. Further information tells us that Hölderlin didn’t actually write it, it was transcribed by a visitor… during the period of his insanity. Despite the serious credibility question that therefore hangs over this source (is it Hölderlin? Did the visitor transcribe it correctly? Is it gibberish?), Agamben proceeds to construct an aesthetic theory where in Rhythm is the defining structure of art. Agamben’s writing gives the strong impression throughout of a syllogistic technique based on invalid initial statements which are followed by equally invalid conclusions. In this regard Agamben may be aware of the weakness of the arguments he strings together hinting at each key step “If this is true…then”.

A response to his theories of art and history another time…

Suffice it to say - all based on an outdated notions of art, 19th Century philosophy exemplified by 19th Century art – ignorant of Modernist or even post-modernist thinking.

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