Sunday, 6 July 2014

The terrors we've learnt to tame

All is good and worthy in the land of beauty. Dealing with the terrible truth of Being is something we've grown used to after so many millennia of representation, since Lascaux and well before it, as it may be presumed.

Source: Wikipedia

The nerve to do

Painting something on the wall of a cave, writing down a story that wouldn't settle otherwise, turning the noises of nature into harmony, all this is humans’ meddling with Being. Calling this great Being anything at all, giving it the name God (for instance) is in itself a form of human presence. What makes it human is the courage to use the meager tools at our disposal to face, interpret, and often cheat on what goes by the name of Being.
The courage to face the unknown is exactly what human creativity is about. Had we stopped at the threshold of existence for fear of the terror of all things beautiful, we would have missed a lot of literature to-come, a lot of would-be painting, of music, of sculpture, and so on.
Even when it’s pure terror, the presence of Being is capable of causing an aesthetic tickle in us. Call it the Romantic Awe, the Astonishment, the Horror of the Great Sublime, there should be no shortage of phrases to put it into words – all that’s needed is a little imagination; the courage of imagination. And that’s it, isn't it? That’s the ingredient that makes the soup boil. Imagination. In the absence of certitude, which would have made the world boringly similar, awfully foreknown, we get to employ this little function of our mind (not even the only one, not even the greatest one): imagination. Imagining means recognition (if only poetically at times) of the immensity and frightfulness of Being; but recognition that’s not a paralysis. We don’t stop being and acting just because there’s no way we could know everything there is to know. It does come, indeed, as a frustration, as an anxiety, as an internal revolt – but in the end we don’t turn dumb and do nothing.
So this recognition of Being appears in a way that already promises to deliver the representations  that we are capable of (okay: truncated, as they may be, fragmentary, incomplete, mere shards).
I may have just summarized here the major point of Existentialism: that the shake we receive from the encounter with Being is the thing that puts us in motion. We need a shock, like a car battery that requires a jumpstart. That’s us, humans, simply put.

An aside on humankind

In any case, courageous or not, it seems to be the job of the entire species to tame this cruel Nature, this terrible Being, this frightful God, this immense Grand Signifier, this whatever-it-is that’s incommensurable to us, yet representable. It’s amazing how we can mobilize our kind to fight this battle, when we are so little attuned to other major commonalities of our species (see politics, economy, philosophy etc.).
Looking from a different angle, there must be something in the way myths spring up at huge distances from one another, how the very need for religion, for narratives, for arts in various shapes and forms, coincides across the Globe. Evolutionary theories have attempted to explain this by reference to the way our species has evolved as a species; as a conglomerate, that is: like all languages prior to the Babel split.
Evolutionarily or otherwise, what we seem to be coming back to again and again is our ability to represent. And also the representability of the world as well, the fact that it is always already prepared to be disturbed and distorted by voracious subjectivity, to be dethroned from the kingdom of pure objectivity.


This forces us into wondering what representation means. Ceci n’est pas une pipe comes to mind again, because it offers the surest shortcut to the understanding of the concept. Whenever, due to our courage and the victories made possible by it, we grow so bold as to veer into arrogance, we need to be reminded of this: of the fact of the incompleteness that reigns over the empire of our representations. No pipe is the pipe, no matter how hard we try. We may fool a viewer into believing we’re Nature itself, as in the case of the ancient painter whose painted curtain fooled the viewer into believing it was the real thing. (And we laughed!) But sooner or later the true face of our exercise (The Treachery of Images) will become apparent. The problem migrates even into the more contemporary issue of serialization. See Walter Benjamin on the fate of the Original in the age of endless Reproduction, when every single copy claims to be an original in itself. But even there, even in the region of unbroken identicalness, there is – there must be – a beginning, a point of origin. Nothing is a copy unless it is a copy of something. And that’s, to Benjamin, the aura of the original. This aura cannot be removed, forgotten, ignored, hidden behind an unaccountable mass of copies. The Pipe Itself is the pipe itself!

The First

This Original, with its warming, comforting aura, is, if you like, the reminder of the glory of our first encounter. That’s what we are always followed by, that’s what we always follow, as in a continuous Möbius strip: the re-enactment of the taste of the first victory, of the first successful representation. And that’s, I believe, when discussing the issue of Being in relation to creation and creativity becomes necessary: when we, for one reason or another, forget. When our vision is cluttered by the signs we have created. Signification, if we take it at its most fundamental (without really turning everything into a professional, jargon-ridden, semiotic-laden discussion), is the production of signs that stand between us and the thing we are trying to represent. Us and the Thing. Here’s where the tension lies: in between. The pipe we paint is not the pipe.

Source: Wikipedia
This one here, Magritte’s pipe, the one we know is not the pipe, is truly a shorthand version of the thing-in-itself (the big problem of all Western philosophy, the awful barrier to our plenitude as things in an ocean of other things). The pipe in the painting is a copy of the actual pipe (if that thing really existed, in fact, since the very act of representation requires a premeditation, a thinking of the thing, i.e. a translation of it into human terms); a version of the actual pipe that is created not in order to be lit but in order to enlighten.