Post Road Magazine #20

Rebuilding Aesthetics from the Ground Up

by Lindsay Waters
"I've got a twelve-year old son, and he's always bored, and so am I." - Thelonius Monster (aka Bob Forrest)
"Irony and ridicule are entertaining and effective, and. . . at the same time they are agents of a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture. . ." - David Foster Wallace

I am concerned about my ability to feel things. Artworks are contraptions manufactured and designed to trigger feeling. So many now claim they have difficulty feeling art—so many, I had not thought anomie had undone so many. Didn't Dr. Johnson say that "when people tire of Beijing, they have become tired of living"? So what is going on? Many of us appear to have grown to be anaesthetized to life. One main idea running through elite discourse in the 20th century in Europe shortly after E.M. Forster announced his mantra to the world, "Only Connect," was the rise of the fashion for disconnecting things, everything. Atomism, incommensurability, was the rule from Bertrand Russell in the first decades of the century to Paul de Man when we reached the last decades. Holism was trashed for being so 19th century!

We are suffering from a shortage of feelings. And it's not just Wall Street bankers, but even noted American novelists like Don DeLillo who seem to be stuck in the doldrums, revealing, as the New York Review of Books puts it, only a sort of "studied numbness" that seems to be designed to convey "existential bafflement and dismay."

Where and how exactly do we start to reverse direction so we can begin to create the links to build a future? If there is to be an anthropology of the future, humans have to be inserted back into the whole equation, and the equation has to have some ability to give a total explanation. We airbrushed humans out of the picture in the 20th century. Airbrushing them out was the nicest thing we did to them in that time period. As you remember, we were massively successful killing them, maiming them, and burning them up in heaps like the underbrush of the forest that needs to be removed. What is the nature of this process of eliminating humans on the intellectual level or of emptying them out? How might it be reversed? What does it really look and feel like, this aesthetic lassitude?

We live in a time not of elation, but dejection. Human emotional history as it works for groups goes in waves that carry thousands, if not millions, in their tides. Humans were "up" during the Renaissance in Europe, during the Romantic period, and during the 60s. All you have to do is read a bit of Renaissance literature to get the sense that many people then were feeling up about themselves and the world. We are down now, many of us (which is not to deny that there are always lots of us working at cross purposes with the times).

One form our negativism takes is the resistance to art. What is the contemporary history of the resistance to art and to the feelings art provokes? I now have a sense of awakening aesthetic enjoyment, but just a few years ago I strongly resisted engagement with new art. Before it was as if all the feelings with which I might have engaged art—the bright colors, the rousing rhythms, the upbeats—were cauterized. If medical treatment is not an option and supplies are unavailable, sometimes cauterizing the wound is the best option. You take a fire-heated piece of metal to cauterize a wound in order to stop the bleeding and close it. Cauterizing a wound is a dangerous and painful way to treat an injury. In some extreme cases, however, it might be the best option.

When I was very young, my feelings were cauterized. I was raised in a Roman Catholic community, one that was largely Irish Catholic, but Belgian as well. Everyone knows about the priests who abused little boys, but I had kept my distance from the priests by not becoming an altar boy. My desensitization had nothing to do with suspecting them, and everything to do with my general negativism and also with the fatalism that is so dominant in that culture. Many have a sense of this life from reading the Irish writers, James Joyce first of all, and then Flann O'Brien and John McGahern. When I first read Joyce's Portrait, I thought it was an autobiography—mine. More recently I had that story re-inscribed in my flesh by reading an anthropologist's account of her two years of research into the life of a West Irish farm community. My family has been gone from those parts since the 1850s, but it was as if we still lived there in terms of what's central to my aesthetic life, the cultivation of the feelings: not really their education, but their suppression. When I read Nancy Scheper-Hughes's description of "this apparent state of lovelessness, lack of tenderness, and consequent feelings of psychological abandonment and loss" and "the basic emotional cast of the 'Irish personality,'" it all rang true, down to the last detail, to the very language of it all, words the people there in the West use now and words my mother used. This includes the idea that anyone who wants to live a different sort of life is a "traitor." I have found myself holding back, engulfed by what Durkheim calls "anomie," and motivated by a moralistic feeling that it is best to keep my family secrets hidden, because I did not want to betray my clan by telling their secrets.

When I was in second grade, the forty or fifty of us packed into the classroom had a tender, young, vulnerable nun who held us captive for many days by telling us the story of Maria Goretti. Today, you can Google Maria Goretti and find out that she lived, that her life was so sensational that movies have been made about her, and that the Catholic Church made her a saint since I first heard her life graphically recounted to me. She was murdered by age eleven. For me, for decades, her story was a lurid wound burned into my soul by a seemingly sweet, beautiful nun who had probably never been kissed, who probably lived in fear of being touched by a boy, and it made me afraid of being touched by people and art.

In those days I was terrified by the story of the big, bad wolf who disguised himself as a lamb, and for good reason: I was getting to know the truth of that fairy tale myself in St. Pat's grade school in St. Charles, Illinois. This story of sexual abuse in fact was in its telling to our group of eight-year olds an act of abuse. Did I tell my parents what happened at school those days? Of course not. Fifty little children huddled alone in that room listening to the sweet voice of the nun tell them a story so terrible they had to dig deeper inside the dark space in the closet of their mind to hide. The feeling of inchoate fury that lodged itself in my body beneath the level of cognition convinced me of one thing: don't let this happen to you. Don't be like the little nun. Stay away. Young, dimpled, and wimpled as she was, she was my Ancient Mariner whose tale of horror spooked me for life, and made my heart "as dry as dust."

I learned as a child that there were many things that were so painful that I did not want to know about them. A different way to do things would be to do what Emerson did when his son Waldo died: he faced it. He wrote about it. I suppressed my experience. I did not face it in its horror. I was shocked by what the "kind, sweet nun" told me. She told me that Maria Goretti was threatened by a neighbor boy. He wanted to have sex with her. She wanted to preserve her virginity. As I remember the story, Maria carved a piece of wood into a knife and killed herself rather than have sex with the boy. What I took from the story was the lesson that sexual pleasure is bad and is to be resisted at all costs, even suicide. God would prefer I kill myself rather than have unwanted sex. The years I heard that story were the years that the line "better dead than red" were popular among rightists in America. Better the A-bomb than Communist socialism. You see how the lesson the child is told in school is connected to the biggest international, sociohistorical, geopolitical questions. There truly was no place to hide from the big historical questions, even for an 8 year-old. The nun who beat us with ping-pong paddles in third grade only seemed to be more violent. (No wonder I've always been a little reluctant to play ping-pong.)

We spent so much time in class with the nun trying to help us imagine our souls concretely as a milk bottle that could be filled with milk or emptied because of our sins. We never considered that our milk bottles could be emptied out by our parents and nuns and priests. But the culture of guilt-ridden American Irish Catholicism, whose agent this nun was, all worked to snuff our souls out by torture. Torture is used to cause the tortured person to suffer a loss of autonomy and to revert to an earlier behavioral level. 1 For an eight-year-old that means reverting to a level lower than the age of reason when one could exercise self-consciousness. It means the eradication of self-consciousness. In my life I have only recently, that is within the last ten years—to be clear that is after the age of fifty—come to a sense of my self as having a self. I am not blaming this one nun. The whole cultural system of which I was a part conspired to cause me to not develop self-consciousness of the sort most humans possess. "Regressing the subject, destroying its capacity to be complex within itself, that is the effect of torture." 2

I will grant you that it is paradoxical that a culture that encourages the sensual enjoyment of incense, stained-glass windows, bread and wine, and song is simultaneously trying to terrify its members out of enjoying the material world. The pop star Madonna got a lot of her edge because she knew how to dance right on the knife's edge that separates the two sides of this paradox. 3 I have mentioned the paradox of puritanism in Irish Catholicism. It is also paradoxical that a society such as the U.S. that portrays itself as the leading promoter of the individual and his or her rights should be a champion promoter of conformism, guilt, and repression, but Nathaniel Hawthorne's Hester Prynne gets her edge because she also dances on the edge of that paradox. She makes salient the hypocrisy of Americans who champion the right to individual selfexpression and make it virtually impossible, excruciatingly painful to exercise. No human could dare be as bold as Hester. She was a fiction.

So when the young and very improper hillbilly girl who was my babysitter turned me on to radio stations WLS and WJJD and Elvis, it's a wonder I opened up to her and them, but I did. The only force that could prevail against such an insidious force as what was unleashed on us children is a force that also works on as many levels, a full-body force: art. Music won my heart and showed there was an alternative to repression. Music has ways to overcome the censor inside us that nothing else in life does, because it is the art that is non-verbal and non-conceptual.

When we repressed our feelings, we also repressed any sense of ourselves as subjects, souls that connected the fragments of our world into wholes. We gloried in the disarray. We developed an ideal for ourselves of the person who did not and would not connect things. I admired de Man when he said in his essay "Shelley Disfigured" that no thing can be connected to any other thing, thinking it right to reverse all the shoddy linkages people had touted. But I now question what he said and see it in the context of Bertrand Russell's Logical Atomism and the willful disintegration of the world into bits in line with a brutal reductionism that became the default position of the elite in the West from the onset of World War I to the financial crisis of 2008, a willful refusal to connect the dots fueled by greed. "Bitsiness as Usual," I call it. What Benjamin called the "mimetic faculty," the ability to see analogies and use them to build connections, gave way to the slide into belief in a doctrine of incommensurability. The ability to imagine similarities and to mimic other creatures and things has been one of the highest abilities of humans, but like the ability to have experiences it has been on the wane especially in the 20th century. 4

But some of the supposed advances of the twentieth century are being reversed. The fact/value distinction has collapsed, as Hilary Putnam argued in his 2002 book. It is time to leave the philosophies of the twentieth century behind us. This philosophical triumph of facts as they can be established by science over the messy realm of feeling is, in fact, much older than the one century. It did not begin thirty years ago with the triumph of the science and technology faculties over the humanities faculty in the wake of Heidegger-gate and de Man-gate. No, the triumph of the scientistic world view with its emphasis on logic and method over the irrationality of the arts goes back to the rise of the Royal Society in the 1680s after the disaster of the wars of religion. It is from this moment on that the emotions have been shamed into silence. It's been a dominant view for centuries.

I am really interested when people talk about renouncing selfhood as if it were some sort of great human achievement like climbing Mont Blanc. Rich people do the darndest things!! They light their cigars with hundred dollar bills because they can. In my America, we imagined that Europeans did sophisticated things like that, like glorying in the death of the subject. Well, think about this: In China, as Wang Hui shows, all those celebrating postmodernism are pro-business Neoliberals. In America they are, too, but they don't know it, and no one has sent them the message that Bob Dylan was ridiculing those who celebrated life on Maggie's Farm. Ignorance is bliss. This was and is our poverty. This is the situation from which I believe we can rise up, not perhaps in splendor, but in dignity. We are Eliot's Prufrock, his Tiresias, and we are Benjamin's collector (as sadly described by Ackbar Abbas), the "impotent individual." We are Adam and Eve the way they look in Masaccio's fresco after they've been cast out of the garden.

We have suffered a fatal loss of the ability to absorb new historical occurrences, Walter Benjamin argued. Men and now women go off to war and come back unable to say anything coherent about what happened to them. So he said in his essay on Leskov, and he says it also in his 1933 essay "Experience and Poverty." My father went AWOL after he was assigned to do desk work in the Quartermaster's Corp in the Pacific in World War II and told to travel up to Cheyenne, Wyoming, and catch a troop train to California to join the war in progress in 1942. He went home to Denver and sat there listlessly until the Military Police came and took him away and put him on a train. By then he'd been reassigned to work on a landing craft—essentially, a death sentence. But two Purple Hearts later the war was over and he went home, and we, his nine kids, did not get a word out of him about how it had been in New Guinea and Borneo. Given a death sentence, he ended up as silent as Bartleby about what it had been like. There'd been a change in the structure of experience, Benjamin claimed; that sounds right to me. (My father was perhaps a little ahead of the game in being unable to share experiences before the war as well as after it.)

Warfare in the age of large-scale industrialism was alienating. Newspaper accounts of the war reinforced the drive to alienate humans from experience offering up tons and tons of information totally lacking in connections between the individual news items. Freud had argued that our consciousness was supposed to protect us against the bombardment of stimuli: "For a living organism, protection against stimuli is almost more important than the reception of stimuli," he wrote. Benjamin, in "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire," comments that "the threat posed by these energies [of the stimuli] is the threat of shocks." How then, asks Benjamin, can these stimuli be a fertile breeding ground for poetry? Baudelaire "made it his business to parry the shocks, no matter what the source, with his spiritual and physical self." Baudelaire noted that the exemplary writer of modern life, Constantine Guys, stood at his desk like a soldier at combat. And he believed that the shock experience of the person walking in the big city was like the "isolated 'experiences' of the worker at his machine." All these modern people have been "cheated out of" experience (196). They have been anaesthetized, and their lives and the poetry written about it, like that of Baudelaire's, "imparts a sense of boundless desolation." For "it is this very inability to experience that explains the true nature of rage" (200). Time in the modern mood of spleen is history-less because spleen "exposes the isolated experience in all its nakedness" (202). What Benjamin says corresponds with what Sianne Ngai says in her book Ugly Feelings. She quotes approvingly Adorno's comments on the "social ineffectuality" of the autonomous high modernist art work. She is not saying she loves this situation, but she's saying this analysis fits the modernist situation best, which is one when it is as much as we can expect of art that it conveys to us matters of "interest"—information, not inspiration. We have undergone, and the art we produce has undergone a change, and what has occurred, as she says, is "a certain vitiation of aesthetic experience in general." In our engagements with art now it seems as if there has come about "the extinction of a certain specific capacity for aesthetic perception caused by it." When Benjamin wrote his "Work of Art" essay, his friends like Adorno seemed to have thought it was their job to wrangle with him and argue him out of the views he was expressing. "'You certainly don't mean that, Wally,' said Teddy. 'You're making a grand mistake getting all tangled up in your emotions, and you have failed to deal with things properly, which is to say, conceptually. Let me tell you what you mean to say. It is exactly what I wrote in the essay I sent to you two months ago, which you have obviously been having some trouble getting to or understanding.'" They made a mistake, I think, that I am tempted to make with Ngai's work, which is to say she is wrong, because I don't like the situation she is analyzing. Benjamin's friends terrorized him and delayed publication of his work for years. I don't want to repeat their shameful performance; I want to reflect on what Ngai says, because it makes me realize the degree to which things have shifted in art-making and art-receiving. Did art lose the capacity to shock or did we lose the capacity to feel? My sense that I do have aesthetic experiences happens in a context that has been well analyzed by Baudelaire, Benjamin, and Ngai. In any case, I do not think the new indifference to art is really so new. In fact, it has a noble lineage in the West, and one that is so paradoxical it can confuse the innocent and the learned. In the parish of the West where I was brought up, as I said before, we were taught to give ourselves over to stained-glass windows and forbidden to assent to much else that gave pleasure.

If I want to argue that things can happen otherwise, as I do, it is with an understanding that it is not any longer a foregone conclusion that I or anyone else can have an aesthetic experience that bears any resemblance to the experience of the sublime that Wordsworth had crossing the Alps. No one can take it for granted that they simply experience things as an independent subject. Consciousness itself is contested. Perhaps, I would argue, it always was, even back in those centuries when people took it for granted.

The most peculiar and powerful thing for me about the Coen Brothers' movie No Country for Old Men is the way it continually surprises the viewer, so continually that there seems no way that seeing the movie can end being an experience for the viewer. 5 It seems to preclude ever becoming what Benjamin calls "Erfahrung." It seems to embody exactly what Benjamin theorized about the dearth of experience in modern life. Also, if you have never been pistol-whipped, and want to feel what it's like vicariously, this would be an ideal opportunity. There is a neat fit between what the central character in the movie, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) says and what Benjamin wrote about how life nowadays has changed so much that a person who is traditionally minded like the Sheriff feels like he wants to retire. Crime along the Tex/Mex border has become so different in kind from what it used to be, because of the grisly violence of criminals and the scale of their crimes, that a person like himself feels shocked every day. Not so long ago war was cavalry on horseback and swords and hand-to-hand combat; now it is large numbers of men flung together using machine guns and some in airplanes dropping bombs on people they cannot even see. Everything has speeded up. A "man has to put his soul at hazard," he says, under these new conditions. The very first thing that happens in the movie is that an unsuspecting deputy is violently strangled by the exceedingly strangelooking, indeed freaky, Anton Chigurth, who then proceeds to perform one barbaric act after another, at such a pace and all so graphically presented to the audience that Chigurth seems to be literally a new mutant form of human, a monster so cold-blooded no one, not even some other near-monsters, most notably the hired gun played by Woody Harrelson, can prepare to do combat with him. The scene is rural Texas on the border with Mexico, and the cops and citizenry seem very oldfashioned walking, talking, and driving at a slow pace, sayin everythin with a drawl, dropping all their g's.

The movie, I found, constantly surprised me because I was constantly saying to myself, "OK, this Chigurth seems to be a monster, but he is certainly not going to outwit each and every single one of the people who tries to arrest him." Stupid me. Most affecting was the way when I felt, OK, he won't be able to top what he just did in terms of brutality, he did just that. The final straw was when he killed the sweet and innocent wife of the hunter who'd chanced upon the scene of carnage that took place in a drug deal that went bad on a large scale leaving six men and two dogs dead.

The effect of the movie seems to be exactly what Benjamin says: because the surprises keep coming as if fired at you by a machine gun, you cannot take them in. The movie threatens to leave the viewer wasted, spent, numb, utterly desensitized, anaesthetized to the ongoing carnage. Everything is so homely, so downhome, but what happens is so grotesque, so uncouth, so barbaric, such an outrage to the very notion of home that the movie comes in below the radar and strafes, bombs, and rapes you. It's as if there were a rape up in Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegone. Almost all the victims of Chigurth submit to him like lambs to slaughter, wide-eyed and naïve. Nice people are not prepared to protect themselves from the jackals at loose in the world today. Hitler was an outrage, but he was off the charts outrageous. Now we have Hitlers everywhere at the post offices and your own stock broker's office. Evil has mutated, and Hannah Arendt is a prophet. As Benjamin said, the human imagination for art and creation has not kept pace with the human imagination for violence and crime. One person says he is working hard "lookin for what's comin" and another comments "No one can see that."

Again and again the movie suggests that what it's presenting to us will go beyond our ability to assimilate it to our experience. What happens in the movie would certainly go beyond the experience of most people, but is it true that even the experience of watching the movie goes beyond what we can assimilate to our experience? Does the movie contribute to anaesthetizing us to what we might experience of it? Perhaps Benjamin is right that with the advances in movie technology a completely new poverty has descended on mankind. Does the artmaking of the Coen Brothers make for movies that anaesthetize their viewers?

I'd argue that the carefully arranged-for heightening of outrageous incidents in this movie does just the opposite of anaesthetizing. The key tool for anaesthetizing someone by torture is to batter them with a set of experiences that they cannot respond to as if they were a series. The key is to assault them with attacks that seem totally disconnected. The events in No Country seem to be of just that sort, but in fact they proceed—I could show—in a steady uphill progression until Carla Jean, the wife of the likeable but foolish hunter, Llewleyn Moss, gets killed. What McCarthy and the Coen Brothers do is a bit like what Shakespeare does in King Lear—kill all the good people off one by one making sure to kill Cordelia ignominiously, while all the worst bastards go scot free. King Lear, says Harold Bloom, is the most nihilistic work of literature in the Western canon. Most nihilistic and most affirmative in a bizarre way. The way the story and the movie are constructed poetically is manifest to those with eyes to see if they just stop covering them with their hands. The machinery does not clank, but it nearly does. But this is the way that the artists are preparing their audience to survive this moment in history, by showing us that the malevolent forces in our society nearly have it all under their control. The situation is nearly so bad that the only thing to do is despair the way the Sheriff is threatening to do. And yet, and yet, the movie-makers are preparing us emotionally to at least not commit suicide. If some intelligence can make this movie, perhaps there is a little bit of reason for hope. As Benjamin says, there is hope, just not for us. The movie threatens to blast and bomb our senses until we are insensate, and then it really does not do that. It has measure of a sort that the Frankenstein-like monster Chigurth, whose appetite for torturing his fellow humans knows no bounds, does not have; and that offers a small measure of relief in a world otherwise totally black. The way the movie manages light and darkness to achieve effect is worthy of the closest study. Keeping the audience alert from frame to frame as they search for what is salient is an art that many filmmakers have cast aside as too challenging to viewers used to watching the TV, and it is risky to not make it easy for the viewers, but the Coen Brothers are willing to take that risk and thereby delight some of us.

So I think we can reverse the direction we have been following toward greater and greater clamping down on feeling, but the way we get to feel again may not be exactly fun. I discovered that the forces working to squash my feelings could not exercise full dominion over me when I learned that some songs that played on my mother's radio had wormed their way into my consciousness, songs like Perry Como's "Catch a Falling Star": "Put it in your pocket, never let it fade away, for love may come and tap you on the shoulder some starless night, and just in case you think you want to hold her, you'll have a pocket full of starlight." Did I come to love the stars that shone through the trees over the No-Name Lake at Beida because of the influence of Perry Como's song? I would not be surprised. And stars are part of constellations, and constellations name a principle of linking things together poetically that militates against the atomism enforced by the eliminative materialists among the analytic philosophers. I had a notion that consciousness and soulfulness were something you had in full all your life or you did not forever. Standing up for myself, alone, and letting the world affect me: this is the transformation I am interested in encouraging. "Our souls are not given, we 'become' souls," writes Isabelle Stengers.

How does this movie get me to engage in a spiritual exercise and one that enlivens my soul? It is by throwing me back on myself. I will not find an explanation for the evil in the world in the movie. And as long as I keep lamenting with the Sheriff that we seem to have fallen as a race off the cliff and there is no continuity between now and back then when our ancestors lived, I will be looking for explanations for the situation in all the wrong places. For one thing, there is no explanation. What there might be is a transformation of my consciousness. My judgment that I like or dislike a work depends on its challenging me in a way that tests my mettle and gives me a sense of my self. This stance sounds so American, and it is, even if Americans often betray it by falling into conformism. But the stance is also not foreign to China, for it is the one embraced by Lu Xun in his 1908 essay "Po esheng lun" ("On a refutation of malevolent voices"). In this essay, according to Wang Hui, who recently performed a philological analysis of it at a conference at Harvard, Lu Xun tried to develop a new, archaic voice.6 And he is also calling for a re-enchantment of the world so that it can be experienced with deep feeling.


1 Adapted from a lecture given at the Anthropological Futures Conference, Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica, Taiwan, June 12-13, 2010, and a Conference organized by the editors of the journal Boundary 2 at the University of Hong Kong on June 16, 2010. I am grateful to the comments of Paul Carter, Allen Chun, Rob Wilson, Paul Bové, and Jonathan Arac. See quotation from CIA policy on torture in Paul Bové, Poetry against Torture (Hong Kong: University of Hong Kong Press, 2009), p. 134.

2 Bové, p. 135.

3 As Rob Wilson pointed out to me in discussion of this paper, all Catholicisms are not the same. Irish Catholicism was shaped by the divisions in Europe of the 17th century that forced men who wanted to become priests to go to France to study for the priesthood. There they absorbed a lot of what we think of as Protestant loathing of the flesh. Italian Catholicism—think of Madonna or Caravaggio—celebrates the flesh.

4 Walter Benjamin, "On the Mimetic Faculty," Selected Writings, vol. 2, pp. 720-722, p. 720.

5 On the movie, I have profited from reading the entry by David Thomson in his Have You Seen? A Personal Introduction to 1000 Films (New York: Knopf, 2008), p. 603, and his essay on Tommy Lee Jones in The Guardian.

6 Wang Hui, Harvard lecture, 6 March 2010. I have also had the chance to read the commentary on Wang Hui's paper by Theodore Huters.

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