“What do we want Matter to say to Us?” Some Scattered Thoughts

I wrote this post in the middle of the night due to some neurotic insomnia. In fact, I had thought I hit the publish button, but I hit the save key instead. Anyways, what follows are some scattered thoughts, loose connections and possibilities for further interrogation all because in my insomniac state I came across this interesting article, “On Plasticity: Sound Cartographies,” by Miguel Leal via Fido the Yak, who links plasticity to the image:

There is some cause for linking the idea of the plastic with the idea of the image. The word plastic comes from the Greek πλαστῐκός which means “fit for molding” and also, when said of persons, “gifted in sculpture.” (I’m relying upon the Greek-English Lexicon of Liddell and Scott for the meaning of Greek words.) It is related to πλάσσω, which means “to form, to mold” and, in one of its senses, “to form an image of a thing in the mind, to imagine.” (Mold, btw, comes to us by way of the French mouler which means “to hug the figure.”) Another meaning of πλάσσω is “to mold or form by training or education.” A πλάσμα is, among other things, an image or figure. The Greeks thus help us think of the image as something shaped and also, perhaps, shaping. What qualities must the sculpted possess in order to sculpt the sculptor? Leal touches on the idea of a thickness necessary for any plasticity. He says that “in order for matter to show its plasticity it is above all necessary to grant it thickness.” (emphasis mine) The double movement of imagination hugs the figure and draws out the form, unfolding in a milieu the emotional thickness of Play-Doh or the temporal thickness of the plasmatic stream. It is perhaps utlimately the thickness of metaphor, which, in kindness to Leal, I will regard as a πλαστῐκή τεχνῶν.

This idea of thickness is touched upon by Emmanuel Levinas in some of his early writing so I decided to have a closer look at Existence and Existents. Here, Levinas identifies the brute formlessness often thematized by modern artists such as Rodin with the il y a

The discovery of the materiality of being is not a discovery of a new quality but of its formless proliferation. Behind the luminosity of forms by which being already relate to our inside matter is the very fact of the there is (51).

The work of art, for Levinas, becomes an imposition—a brute materiality of being—that bears down on us, as if from all sides, thus preventing escape. The experience of the work of art leads up to and into the domain of the il y a. Levinas offers Cubism as paradigmatic of the relentless density of the work of art

The breakup of continuity even on the surface of things, the preference for broken lines, the scorning of perspective and of the “real” proportions between things, indicate a revolt against the continuity of curves. From a space without horizons, things break away are cast toward us like chunks that have weight in themselves, blocks, cubes, planes, triangles without transition between them. They are naked elements, simple and absolute, swellings or abscesses of being. In this falling of things down on us objects attest their power as material objects, even reaching a paroxysm of materiality. Despite the luminosity of these forms when taken in themselves a painting makes them exist in themselves, brings about an absolute existence in the very fact there is something which is not in its turn an object or a name, which is unnamable and can only appear in poetry (50-51).

Levinas shifts the meaning of materiality. No longer does it have to do with the substance of mediation, to the contours to which being conforms, but rather conveys a thickness which is described as “a brute but incisive presence.” This type of presence, which characterizes the work of art, compels us to summon up the incomprehensible, forgotten, and atypical materiality of existence:

Matter as defined by mechanistic laws which sum up its whole essence and render it intelligible is the farthest removed from the materiality in forms of modern art. For here materiality is thickness, coarseness, massivity, wretchedness. It is what has consistency, has weight, is absurd, is brute but impassible presence, it is also what is humble, bare and ugly (51).

Such a reconfiguration of materiality is the result of what Levinas (problematically–but that’s neither here nor there for now) calls the exoticism (by which he really means something like “extracting”) of the work of art. The term exotic is not to be understood as an anthropological concept, but as an ontological one and refers to the proper mode of existence of artwork.

What shapes the shaper, what sculpts the sculptor? I think here we should look to sensation, which for Levinas has its own specific function, namely, the grip the image has on us. Again, in EE

Paradoxical as it may seem, painting is a struggle with sight. Sight seeks to draw out of the light beings integrated into a whole. (50)

This starts to hint at Levinas’s later concept of passivity, in fact, the work of art would be well, um, even more passive than passivity? As Fido asks “What do we want matter to say to us? Good question. In his 1956 essay “The Poet’s Vision,” Levinas comments,

Modern art speaks of nothing but the adventure of art itself; it strives to be pure painting, pure music. No doubt the critical and philosophical work, relating that adventure, is far below art, which is the voyage into the end of the night itself, and not merely the travel narrative. And yet Blanchot’s research brings to the philosopher a “category” and a “new way of knowing” that I would like to clarify, independently of the philosophy of art proper.”

Given what Levinas has said above regarding the extracting function of art, the experience of art is one of absolute exteriority. It seems to be an exposure to an absence that is somehow earlier than the conceptual binary of presence-absence. Levinas (reading Blanchot) tends to think the work of art as uncovering darkness, as he puts it, “an uncovering that is not truth” and “the making visible of the obscurity of the elemental through the work.” Here’s a passage from Leal

The modern concept of plasticity – which oscillates between its aesthetic origin, closely connected to the plastic characteristics of matter, and its updating, more centred on a biological signification, of a plasticity of life itself – is still today fully active in order for us to comprehend the mechanisms of artistic practice, very particularly in the field of the plastic arts. We might even say that if we wished to find a term capable of fusing these two meanings of plasticity for the territory of art we could only do so in the hybrid state of a certain bio-aesthetics, an operative mechanism that explains the relationship of the substance with its accident in the field of plasticity.

Leal continues:

We must then return to the field of aesthetics in order to observe that the idea of plasticity, even in its widest sense, is impossible to be thought of outside of this problematic relationship between art and technique, the more so because, as we have seen, the point of dissolution of art is also “the point of re-affirming of its plastic independence”, of the plurality of its sensible plasticity. But also because modernity and the path of art in its singular have taught us that artistic practice has developed, far beyond that sensible plasticity, another plasticity that we might call conceptual, and that it is in this double face of plasticity that the singular plural of art may be found. This tension between art and technique, between an art of ends and an art of means, places art once again far beyond the mere option between its ends and its means, placing it more precisely as a place of intense experimentation.

What do we want of art? Perhaps this “double face of plasticity” demands what Deleuze in The Logic of Sense calls a general view of experience which conforms to our actual experience. Deleuze argues that this exists in modern literature, where contrary sequences, unconnected stories, are not integrated but nonetheless resonate with one another. The structure of this type of art is reunited with our real experience, which does not advance through well-organized and tidy narratives, but through the concurrent reverberation of numerous different and otherwise disparate series of events. Thought together with Levinas’s comments about the extracting function of art, the absolute exteriority it opens up, to mold our experience.

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