Saturday, February 16, 2013

Ecopoetics Brief on Aesthetic Decision

There is no time to be brief.  -Nancy Shaw & Catriona Strang

Before I withdraw to talk to myself about Stengers, a not-so-brief conclusion, borrowed as it may be:

I’m interested in an aesthetics of decision that takes innovation and change as primary processes rather than “adaptive reactions to environmental pressures.”  I don’t think we’re writing poetry (or at least I’m not) out of some need for self-preservation (or Spinozan conatus) or self-reproduction, in search of some homeostatic equilibrium.  That is, I’m interested less in continuity than in novelty (& I’d prefer a relevant, not blind novelty, please) – a kind of continual redefinition, “becoming other than I am.”  Perhaps as our private thoughts become public, we are arguably becoming other.

When I use “aesthetics” here I mean an affective aesthetics that is very much in synch with Tim Morton’s notion of aesthetics as causality, except I think aesthetics goes all the way down – there is no distinction between appearance and essence, no distinction between a surface sensual realm and a deep substantial one.  The truth of appearances is that there are only appearances.

Steve Shaviro relates this affective flavor of aesthetics to Kant’s description of feelings or aesthetic experience as “intuitions without concepts.” The cause of a decision can never be reduced to some human production.  Decisions are made but we’re not exactly their author.  This is aesthetics as a first philosophy – before ethics, before political economics.

In the grooves of daily habit, we travel familiar paths without consciously thinking about what we’re doing. Wittgenstein quips somewhere that you “can pretend to be unconscious; but conscious?”  But LW wasn’t thinking about the predominance of what the brain registers, that is, the mass of data that never make it to conscious thought, i.e., consciousness is the rare exception not the norm.

Here is Shaviro on Whitehead: “Decision is what makes consciousness, cognition and public relationality possible in the first place. “Feelings” or movements of “appetition” are the basic elements of mentality (or “inwardness”…). Cognition, consciousness, and responsibility are consequences of this basic mentality, rather than preconditions for it. An aesthetic of decision precedes and grounds cognition and consciousness – rather than either of these being the grounds or preconditions for any process of decision. (PT, #763)

We need to think slime molds and bacteria here – they make their own decisions, or rather decisions happen to them, just like they happen to humans.

My idea is that poetic decision is an occasion for an actual aesthetic contact with the outside.  Poetic decision occurs at the threshold between inner feeling (or “movement of appetition”) and the outside (or public) realm.  We live with the results of decisions that happen to us. Stengers suggests “decisions take place in the presence of those who will bear their consequences.”

Decision is an act of selection.  Etymologically, a decision is a cutting off, it cuts off alternate possibilities.  But you can’t account for them, decisions are beyond that.

“We don’t make decisions because we are free and responsible; rather, we are free and responsible because – and precisely to the extent that – we make decisions.” (Shaviro WC, 94)

The decisions that happen to us, like the thoughts that happen to us, may be expressions of aesthetic causality.  While I think I agree with Tim Morton that poetry tampers directly with causality, I also want to emphasize that poetic process involves decision that takes place in our presence, in the present, and this matters to us.

For Whitehead decision is the culmination of private experience, an event that punctuates a process.  It is Stengers and Whitehead’s embrace of process and relationality – which implies a present – which is incompatible with OOO.  Morton argues that “presence is an optical illusion.”  It is OOO’s emphasis on essence that is incompatible with Stengers’s thought.  Perhaps my difference with Morton is that he seems to emphasize the poem as object, at the expense of poetic process, as if there were only entities or objects, no occasions.

I want to say that poetic decision* as an aesthetic contact provides political hope, i.e., if the goal is to change (rather than to merely interpret) the world.  To believe that another world is possible is important.  It helps that there is a ready source of contact outside the circuits of Capital, outside the commodification of everything in the human world. Aesthetic decision is an event (a very plural event) that is happening all the fucking time, all over the place, uncontrollably, outside the circuits of capital.  Unfortunately while this provides hope, it won’t get us home free, since the poetic decision instantly perishes – it is lost and/or commodified, immediately subsumed in the wake of its event.

Shaviro contrasts the optimism of aesthetic contact (in the form of Hardt/Negri’s living labor and general intellect) to Adorno’s pessimism of the impossibility of avoiding subsumption:

Hardt/Negri and Lazzarato are right, as against Adorno, in asserting the ontological priority of “living labor” or “general intellect” over capital’s recuperation or appropriation of this labor and intellect. But they are willfully naive to think that this ontologically primary process is accessible without passing through the circuits of capital – the necessity of this passage… is what Adorno’s pessimism correctly apprehends, and it is also what fuels Zizek’s criticism of Hardt/Negri. (Shaviro, Pinocchio Theory blog, post #499)

The fact that we can touch the outside should be celebrated; it is the basis of collective creation, the basis of hope for resistance and change.  But after publication (which is the consequence of decision, the culmination of private experience), these creations cannot be accessed outside the circuits of capital, where everything is subsumed and complicitous.

I can relate this antinomy or paradox to Stengers and Shaviro more easily than I can to Morton and Harman.  The point is to have contact with the outside as much as possible and to try to negotiate the political economic circuits as best we can, possibly by following Leibniz dictum 'dic cur hic' – to say why you chose to say this, or to do that, on this precise occasion.  It is to pay attention as best you can to who & where you are. To pay attention to the decisions that are happening to you, e.g., as you write.

Stengers’ difference with OOO is perhaps demonstrated by her insistence (viz Capitalist Sorcery especially) that we must resist all mobilization, all denunciation, and the temptation to turn a theory into a conquest. Force and/or weakness comes before truth and/or justice. Don't look into the distance. The metaphor Stengers uses is that: the job is to sound the depths – as if on a boat calling out the dangers that lurk below the surface.

But for OOO, it is impossible to sound the deepest depths of an object, the emphasis is on the primacy of how objects withdraw from access.

Stengers emphasizes that ‘another world is possible,’ Morton wants the notion of ecology without nature to infect us, to force us to live in the world more ethically.  Both find the current world intolerable.

One question for OOO might be to ask whether it is resisting mobilization - or disentangling itself from notions of ‘progress.’ Morton makes brilliant arguments, and is trying to make the most persuasive case, to make an OOO ecopoetic light come on for us.  Stengers on the other hand is doing immanent critique, trying to dream with us poet practitioners.

*Note that I hope this notion of aesthetic decision is distinct from Laruelle’s notion of philosophical decision as some primordial or transhistorical syntax or structure underlying philosophical practice.  Syntax and structure can’t really precondition or apply to (aesthetic) intuitions without concepts.  Laruelle is claiming non-philosophy, or its syntax, is outside, or hierarchically above.  But I think aesthetics-all-the-way-down as a proposition is only claiming a contact with an outside.