Sunday, 29 June 2014

The power of habit

“But woe unto you, O torrent of human custom! Who shall stay your course? When will you ever run dry?”
(St. Augustine, Confessions)

Vilém Flusser wrote a very enlightening essay about the power of habit, which is very much in tune with the point I made last week. Habit (remember?) is what happens to miracles when they are worn out. It is also what happens to technologies. In the essay, Flusser highlights something we know too well: that novelty is scary; it frightens us, it makes us have second thoughts.

The ugliness of beauty

We cannot function well in the company of novelty, because what is new is unknown to us. We are exposed in front of new things. Naked. Impotent. Exposed because opened-up, as is the case with miracles, which reveal to us a truth that we have never been aware of, in spite of the fact that it has always existed there, in the kingdom of miracles, indifferent to us. (Paul Valéry found it deplorable that we, humans, often attempt to count the stars; us, who count for nothing to those stars!)

Source: Gehad Elgalad
And so, goes Flusser's argument, new things don’t come to us as beautiful. They come to us as an almost unbearable tension: the tension between what we know and what we are experiencing right here, right now, as foreign to us. This tension is so high, we can’t resist its power. We lose the battle with novelty at the very moment it becomes apparent to us. That’s perhaps because any new thing is a reminder to us of how immense and yet-unknown Being is, and how threatening to our comfort its manifestations are. Jacques Derrida speaks of “the as yet unnameable,” which, not unlike Flusser’s idea of novelty, is a shock we receive at the level of existence as well as at that of language, and which catches us in a knowledge and linguistic gap. Derrida assures us that the only way this unnameable can be experienced by us, who have no experience of it, is
“in the formless, mute, infant and terrifying form of monstrosity.”
There it is, right there, the adjective that best defines the encounter with the new: terrifying. It is the very term Flusser uses to talk about novelty.
So. New things are so new to us they are terrifying. They are monstrous; they are frightening; they are ugly. And this is the paradox of beauty pointed out by Flusser: in its earliest form (in the form it takes at its birth) beauty (if we agree that, for instance, the appearance of an angel is beautiful, or the emergence of a work of art that is unprecedented is beautiful too) always appears to us as ugliness:
“Thus ‘art’ is that human activity which aims at producing hateful, ugly situations, situations that cause terror.”
No wonder we spend so much time and so much energy to reject new things. We have done so every time writing and reading were given new material support: when we moved from clay tablets to scrolls, when we moved again from scrolls to codices, when we stopped reading hand-written manuscripts and started reading printed books. Not to mention the jump to computers – which, as we know, has caused so much criticism, in which ‘ugly’ is an often-used appellation.

The terror of miracles

The crucial tension in miracles is that of their initial ugliness. No miracles were miraculous at the moment of their occurrence. Their miraculous nature was made apparent later on, when reflection became possible, when we discovered we were no longer mute, no longer incapable of creating signs to explain the “unbearable lightness of being,” to use the title of a well-known novel. When they happen, when they take place (both as in ‘happening’ and as in ‘occupying a pre-existent space’), miracles are reflection-less. The shock of their novelty impedes us from thinking about miracles, which right then, in their initial manifestation, are mere happenings: “as yet unnameable.”

Source: Kev Design
This is Flusser’s point too. Things beautiful start by being ugly, more likely to be met with rejection than acceptance. However, as soon as we get past that initial moment of shock, once we have accommodated within us the novelty of a piece of technology, we can start talking about things as beautiful. It is only now, after the shock has been processed and we acknowledge that we’ve survived the encounter, it is only now that we can truly speak of beauty as an aesthetic category. In order to move on from terror into beauty, an act of courage is necessary, since, according to Flusser,
“this is that grey zone into which those artists have climbed who have attempted, at the risk of their lives, to utter that which is unutterable, to render audible that which is ineffable, to render visible that which is hidden.”
The heroic gesture of poets (of writers, or artists, of those who have the clear-sightedness of critical perspective) is what opens for us, simpler mortals, less complicated searchers for the ineffable, the safe pathway towards admiration. Harold Bloom was right in saying that true poets always misread the poetry of their predecessors, thus creating, for their own readers, the possibility of admiration. It’s easy to understand how: a “looking-over-again,” as Bloom calls this misreading, renews the text: it presents it to the future readers as novelty. And so a miracle is enacted again, and writing can go on, miraculously, towards its completion as an art of miracles-in-the-making.
We can only admire that which we can manage, once the ground-breaking work has been done for us.

On the lowest rung

But this isn’t where the story ends, because we have an interesting tendency of repeating what we can manage. And so, the miracle that started off as a terror becomes beautiful, and then pretty. It reaches one grade lower. This is the manageable beauty of things enjoyed by the masses (and I don’t mean masses in a disparaging way, but as a collective appreciation of things that were once the object of a minority of odd perceivers, of freaks who used to enjoy ugliness perversely).
Once we’ve reached this stage, the next step comes about as little surprise: the intense use of a thing turns that thing into kitsch. This is the ultimate step in the degradation of something that was once beautiful, once terrifying, once of the order of miracles “as yet unnameable.”

Source: The Guardian
Kitsch is prettiness in excess. But most importantly, it is the result of habit. Habit wears out a shirt; it tatters our raptures; it makes something that was unbearably visible into pure invisibility, into non-presence. Pretty things are invisible things. They participate in the life of art by not participating: by remaining invisible and by turning miracles, for instance, into common occurrences.