It is the ghost of ourselves
that stands still in the midst of the tumult
and watches, detached in eye and detached in body,
as the struggles and joys of our fellow passengers float across the protective screen we have blown up around ourselves.
Let’s kick off with a quick flash-back.
If you remember Gadamer’s thoughts on the Kierkegaardian model of contemporaneity, concerning Christ’s redemptive act, and the sway it holds over us with its sheer presence in our lives, you’ll find Gerald Bruns’ recapitulation sharp, precise and to the point. If you don’t remember, you might want to check out Chapter VI Past, present and Mozart. But let us not meander unnecessarily, here is Bruns’ summary:
“In Gadamer’s aesthetics the event of the work of art is not a museum event in which we simply gape at the thing, or regard it knowingly from a disinterested standpoint; it is an event in which the work claims a place in the world we inhabit – indeed, it is right to say that the work claims a piece of us and insists on belonging to our lives.”1
This “claim” or insistence on being part of our lives, Bruns is quick to address, does not just emanate from the work towards the spectator. Instead, the consummation of one’s understanding in Gadamer’s oeuvre arises when one realises that reciprocation is required, i.e. when the spectator accepts the “claim”. Which, when it occurs, means that the spectator enters into a relationship with the work. And, a relationship, of course, is a two-way street, with both parties giving to each other.
As Bruns goes on to state:
“The work is not simply a cultural product available for consumption in the marketplace of the art world that one can pick up or not as one chooses. Nor is it simply a philosophical problem of aesthetics that one can work out through conceptualisation and theory.”2
The claim of the artwork involves us and addresses us. We become engaged at a level beyond the aesthetic or philosophically detached. The claim of the work, Bruns tries to explain, is personal to the extent that it addresses us “as a Thou, that is, as an Other whose approach to us is transcendent in the way that Emmanuel Levinas uses the term.”3
The easiest way to unpack Bruns’ use of “transcendent”, as employed by Levinas, is for us to know that Levinas was completely absorbed by the need to get beyond the self. The self, for Levinas, had taken up too much territory in philosophy and it was something he determined we should put in its proper place. If we give Levinas some latitude here, we can begin to understand that his use of “transcendent” denoted that which exists beyond the self and also that which can be said to be, whether we exist or not. The point being that any such thing, which is termed “transcendent,” cannot be traced back to our self as its creator. The work of art or person, with which we are trying to have a relationship, is completely unreliant upon our existence for its own existence. This is what Levinas, and in turn Bruns, meant by transcendence. Consequently, we should now be able to understand the term “transcendent” as that which refers to something other than ourselves: an ‘Other’, to give it the correct philosophical grammar. So, if we are following Bruns and Levinas attentively, we should also be able to see that Gadamer’s work reveals our true quest to be one that seeks a personal relationship.
Now, at this stage, it is possibly prudent to stay with art rather than jump too far into Levinas’ intriguing promise of other people. Trust me, we will go there, but not before we have finished learning from Gadamer.
So, a personal relationship with an artwork is to be sought. Ok, what does that look like and where can I buy one? Well, let’s follow Bruns and see if he can show us.
In Music Discomposed, Stanley Cavell set himself the task of grappling with the problem of avant-garde composition in the 1960s where, according to Bruns, “what young composers are trying to compose proves unintelligible not only to audiences but also to one’s fellow composers, so that no one can say who legitimately belongs to the music world and who does not.”4 Cavell named this problem “the burden of modernism”5 and stated that if there is uncertainty within the music world as to who is a composer or not, then it should not be considered remarkable “that we outsiders do not know”6 either. The rationale being that if all criteria for judging whether something counts as music, let alone good or otherwise, has been stripped away in the process of composition, then one can no longer judge at all.
Continuing on from this critical impasse, if one is not Cavell, could appear impossible because the road seems to vanish along with the traditional elements of composition. Cavell, however, understood that if all criteria, in terms of reason and aesthetics, are removed then the one who is left willing to listen must listen not with an aesthetic ear but with an ethical one.
The spectator can no longer rely upon aesthetics, because these values have been ripped asunder, and they must now turn to that most uncertain of governing principles: trust. This shift happens, as Cavell stated, because
“The possibility of fraudulence, and the experience of fraudulence, is endemic [to] the experience of contemporary music [so] that it’s full impact, even its immediate relevance, depends upon a willingness to trust the object, knowing that time spent with its difficulties may be betrayed.”7
Consequently, by only having recourse to trust, in that the art work might be rewarding and maybe truthful, the spectator has to assume responsibility for their own experience and enter into the relationship as a genuine participant. No longer will the experience be given by the artwork alone, and no longer will the spectator be able to hover above the work observing its aesthetic charms. The “burden of modernism” grounds the spectator in an ethical relationship with the work where intimacy, and not critical authority, is the only potential avenue for achieving understanding. This means the relationship, which is now based on trust and intimacy rather than critical observation or aesthetic consciousness, turns upon our treating the art work, as Cavell understood, “in ways normally reserved for treating persons.”8 The importance of this realisation rests upon the word ‘treating’ because, as Bruns reminds us, “the work is not a person or any sort of subjective communication. The point is rather how we are with the work.”9 If we treat the work in ways ‘normally reserved’ for other persons then it is our attitude, our intention, our responsibility as spectators that has altered, not the work of art itself. This is because we own how we treat it.
If we truly understand Gadamer, Cavell and Bruns then have we not learned something vital by the example of art in how we need to approach other people? The over-riding lesson of Gadamer’s aesthetic manoeuvres is to steer us away from the disinterested, self-involved or critical individuals of old and make us realise that we are the owners of our own experiences and that artworks or other people are not there to serve our pleasures by being observed from a ‘god’s eye’ position, they are there to be engaged with, given to, and respected. We need to give our time, effort, and trust. A considerable requirement, but necessary, if we genuinely want to have any new experiences. Just as the artist invested in their work so we, as the audience, need equally to invest. And, this of course applies directly to our encounters with other people, because an investment is needed to acknowledge their existence, worth, and value to us. Just because there are over seven billion people on the planet this doesn’t mean we should adopt an arrogant attitude of ‘who cares’ regarding the person in the street asking us for spare change. That person’s relevance and personal impact can only be restricted by our self-involved and pre-occupied ignorance.
We need to learn how to play with one another, not as toys, but as Gadamer identified by eliminating the attitude that experiences should be something we have and opening ourselves up to experiences as something we undergo. Openness to the other, whether to art or to another person, is our goal because we now know that openness will yield growth by enhancing the wealth of our experiences. However, achieving openness is also our challenge because there are so many obstacles to overcome, from memory and desire, as highlighted by Wilfred Bion, to the limits we place on our personal horizons and the trust issues we face daily regarding new people, artworks and opportunities as shown by Gadamer. We have to make the effort, though, because the individual and social consequences of not doing so bring us to the brink of moral bankruptcy and oblivion.
To stand, or sit, aloof and watch the world pass by without ever reaching out our hand to try and connect leaves us in an unworldly position. It is the ghost of ourselves that stands still in the midst of the tumult and watches, detached in eye and detached in body, as the struggles and joys of our fellow passengers float across the protective screen we have blown up around ourselves.
Definitions of being human start with discussions around the species Homo Sapiens, and that we can be distinguished from other apes by walking upright, having a large brain and the capacity for speech. Tool use, socialising and the formation of language and symbol swiftly follow. And, then there is the relatively short period of time, from an evolutionary point of view, that we have inhabited the earth; two hundred thousand years, with the last twelve thousand being particularly intense as we developed rudimentary agriculture, cave drawings, textiles and gourd containers for liquids and food. Our journey through those twelve thousand years, as we know, is also a long list of exponential advancement in all fields of human endeavour such as transport, communications, architecture and philosophy. The list is infinite. However, are we better than our ancient ancestors? Are we better at spending time with each other and absorbing lessons from each other? Or, do we often stand aloof in a self-protective bubble that just wants to act as demi-god observing disinterestedly?
We undoubtedly know far more than our ancestors did those twelve thousand years past, but one thing they did automatically, that we are most certainly struggling with today, is connect with each other, the environment and the things around them. There is a distinct loss of innocence, humility and curiosity when we hide behind façades of disinterest or critical self-serving knowledge bases. We limit ourselves with our knowledge. We think we know what needs to be known and what we want. We think the small amount of learning we have crammed into our miniscule life-spans is sufficient, nay immense. We even suffer the delusion of believing that we are masters of our surroundings and in control of any new piece of information that can set up home in our minds. Such arrogance and ignorance, though, is not how genuine learning and growth works. It is how one stagnates and absorbs trite outpourings from social media, politicians and advertisers.
Instead, real learning and growth happens when we commit to having a relationship with an author, an artwork, or another human being. As long as we enter into that relationship with commitment, even if it only lasts a few minutes, it can stay with us for years. We need to stop being aloof and watching disinterestedly or critically. We need to jump in with both feet and trust to that or whom which we stand before. By so doing we will discover some of our lost humanity. One of the most defining aspects of being human, surely, is the ability and desire to form relationships.
As Gadamer knew, it is in the giving of time and thought to something beyond ourselves which gives back to ourselves. Each artwork or person carries with them the possibility to carve out space within us for new thoughts and feelings to emerge if we only reciprocate and let that possibility happen. This is because we are not finite or finished, as human individuals. Ours is a life to be continually shaped by experiences undergone. Otherwise ours is the pure and banal existence of a once beautiful, but now quite deceased, oak tree that continues to stand and loom across the same field its life once protected. We need to relate to the world around us and each other so that we can actually live rather than merely exist, such as an ethereal spirit that occupies space but is, to all intents and purposes, hollow, pointless and dead.
2,160 of 4,895 words in Chapter VIII
- Bruns, G. ‘The Hermeneutical Anarchist: Phronesis, Rhetoric, and the Experience of Art’ included in Gadamer’s Century: Essays in Honour of Hans-Georg Gadamer. Edited by Jeff Malpas, Ulrich Arnswald, and Jens Kertscher, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2002, 65.
- Ibid., 68.
- Ibid. 69.
- Cavell, S. ‘Music Discomposed’ included in Must we mean what we say?, Cambridge University Press, 1976, 187.
- Ibid. 188.
- Ibid., 189.
- Bruns, G. ‘The Hermeneutical Anarchist: Phronesis, Rhetoric, and the Experience of Art’ included in Gadamer’s Century: Essays in Honour of Hans-Georg Gadamer. Edited by Jeff Malpas, Ulrich Arnswald, and Jens Kertscher, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2002, 70.