Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Friday, March 11, 2011

AVE ATQUE VALE

Or, more accurately, vale atque ave. Tomorrow morning, Susie and I leave for South Africa, where I shall be awarded an honorary degree by the University of the Western Cape. Four days on a plane, there and back, and three days actually in Cape Town. Then it is back to teaching, and to blogging. I shall post a report of the trip when I return, and then continue with my thoughts on education.


Let me take this opportunity to reply briefly to several comments I have received, either by email or in the Comments section of the blog.


One of my readers interpreted today's post as a complaint about the unfairness of the way in which research monies are distributed to different segments of the higher educational community. I am afraid I must have failed to make myself clear. I do not think it is unfair for the sciences to receive so much more external funding than the Humanities. I simply think this fact poses a challenge to those of us in the Humanities, one that I shall address later in my series of posts, with some practical suggestions, based in part on my own experience in raising somewhat more than two million dollars for programs run by, and in some cases for the benefit, of Humanities programs.


Another reader [with the handle EnglishJerk] asks: "Is there any inconsistency between the claim that the Conversation serves as a spur to reflection and that it holds out the hope of total gratification? For me, the experience of literature is an experience of affective power necessarily combined with a feeling of perplexity, of bafflement; and my interpretive impulse arises from that combination. The experience of literature thus seems to me rather remote from gratification, not least because the powerful affects involved almost never amount of unalloyed pleasure."


This is, I think, a very good description of the experience many of us have when struggling with great literature, or indeed great philosophy, etc. I did not mean to suggest otherwise. The key to my argument in yesterday's post is Marcuse's phrase "reconciliation is by grace of the oeuvre as form." The seeming effortlessness with which the great artist [or philosopher or political economist or anthropologist or sociologist, for that matter] surmounts the formal constraints of his or her undertaking to produce something of great beauty, while at the same time completely conforming to those constraints, is a model, an instance, a paradigm [in the correct sense of that much misused word] of the infantile desire for instantaneous and effortless gratification that lies repressed but never forgotten in each of us. Perhaps I am relying too heavily on my own experience, but I have no other guide. When Bach composes a perfect fugue that seems to flow free-form from his infinite imagination; when Matisse, with a handful of lines conjures with such ease the face of a young woman; when Kant extracts the validity of the Causal maxim from the elementary unity of subjective consciousness -- it takes my breath away. It may take me years to reach the point at which I can appreciate the fugue, the face, the philosophical argument, but once I do, it is as though I have, by a gift of grace, been vouchsafed a vision of omnipotence. And in that moment, I can, fleetingly, imagine liberation.

Well, off to South Africa.

6 comments:

English Jerk said...

Thanks for the reply, Dr. Wolff. And I'm completely sympathetic with the notion that the experience of great art has a utopian dimension. My quibble is just with the unqualified positivity of these descriptions of art. It would be simply false, of course, to say that an artwork actually effects a "reconciliation" in this world, and equally odd, I think, to say that the artwork internally embodies such a "reconciliation" (e.g., both "surmount[ing]" and "conforming" to its formal constraints, thus doing the impossible). The problem with the latter description is that it seems to depend on a very strong claim to aesthetic autonomy, but I'd say that, much as artworks create a world of their own, in doing so they create a world other than this world--and they thereby bind themselves to this world precisely insofar as they negate it. Even the most affirmative artwork (Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," say) is saturated with this negativity (e.g., in Wordsworth's poem the affirmation of the "spirit" in nature and the rejection of life in the city nevertheless depends on living in the city, where nature can be recollected in a way that enables one to "become a living soul").

So it seems to me that the only way to make sense of this "reconciliation" claim is to say that artworks embody a promise of reconciliation, which is therefore not actually present (though, as promised, not quite absent). I think that we register this promise as a combination of affective intensity and intellectual perplexity. Your pulse races and your skin tingles, but if asked to explain what you're feeling you find you can't quite put it into words--you are something you cannot wholly master. Which is just to say that the experience of beauty is the experience of exceeding yourself. That's enough, in Hegel's view, to make you infinite, but it surely is something more fraught and fragmentary than "a vision of omnipotence." Its fragmentary nature is why it leads to thought (rather than, say, celebration).

But all that is, of course, a sketch of a quibble. I'd be the last person to deny the importance of aesthetic experience to human life, or to deny its essential role in the transformation of consciousness that is (in my view) a condition of possibility for bringing a better world into being.

English Jerk said...

Blogger keeps eating my post. Let's see if it works in two parts:

Thanks for your reply, Dr. Wolff. And I agree completely that artworks have a utopian dimension. My quibble is just with the unqualified positivity of these descriptions of art. It would, of course, be absurd to suggest that artworks effect a “reconciliation” in this world, and it seems to me equally odd to say that artworks effect that “reconciliation” in themselves (e.g., by simultaneously “surmount[ing]” and “conforming” to their formal constraints, thus reconciling opposites). The problem with the latter description is that it seems to assume a strong version of the aesthetic autonomy thesis. But I’d say that, much as artworks do create a world of their own, they create a world other than this world—and they thereby bind themselves to this world precisely to the extent that they flee it. Even the most affirmative artworks (Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” say”) are shot through with this negativity (e.g., in Wordsworth’s poem the affirmation of the “spirit” in Nature and the rejection of city life necessarily depends on living in the city so that Nature can be recollected in a way that enables one to “become a living soul”). Any utopia is necessarily a critique of the world as it is, even where it makes no reference to anything but itself (as in, for example, Vergil’s Eclogues).

English Jerk said...

So it seems to me that the best way to make sense of Marcuse’s “reconciliation” claim is to say that artworks offer a promise of reconciliation, and reconciliation itself is thus not present (but also, since it is promised, not simply absent). We experience this promise, in my view, as a combination of affective intensity and intellectual perplexity. Our pulse races and our blood tingles and we feel ourselves in possession of some profound truth, but if asked to spell it out, we find that it eludes our grasp. The experience is ours, but we have become something we do not fully master. Which is just to say that the experience of beauty is the experience of exceeding oneself. And for Hegel that’s enough to make you infinite, but surely it’s something more fraught and fragmentary than a “vision of omnipotence.” Otherwise, we would expect it to inspire celebration, not thought.

But this is all a sketch of a quibble, of course. I’m the last person to question the value of aesthetic experience in human life, or to doubt its essential role in the transformation of consciousness that is a condition of possibility for bringing into being a world more worthy of human beings.

richard.bownas said...

Lovely series of posts on the humanities Prof Wolff. If I could slightly qualify Marcuse's theory of art - perhaps in a slightly Adornian direction, and perhaps agreeing with English Jerk here. When I listen, say, to Bach's staggering fugue in B flat minor from the well tempered clavier Bk 2I don't think pure gratification or omnipotence is the reason behind the thrill I get. I wonder if it isn't more the sense Bach gives us of the very limitations of form - of the multiple ways it could have gone differently, of contingency itself - I feel this in certain passages of this fugue, where the unity of the formal construction seems to collide directly with a sense of limitless possibility, of an almost absurd plenitude and variety of themes that the fugal form can only hint at or gesture at in passing. The very mastery of form is what makes the hint at its contingency all the more moving. This is all very vague - frankly you have to just listen to the fugue to see what I mean!
But pure gratification is not what I get in Bach or Shakespeare: it might be what I got as a child from a Spielberg movie like ET the Extraterrestrial when the kids soar into the air on their bikes - and I think ethically, even politically there's a difference between these types of art - the former (Bachian type) gives us a lingering sense of possibility - negative energy as you put it - the feeling that things need not be as they are, the latter (Spielbergian type) soaks us in nostalgia for the pure gratifications of early childhood and knocks any critical energy out of us.

NotHobbes said...

Safe and pleasant journey Professor.

NotHobbes said...

Safe and pleasant journey Professor