January 18, 2006

Levinas, Deleuze & Guattari and the Materiality of Art

Eric Alliez in his book on What is Philosophy, The Signature of the World, draws a fascinating parallel between Levinas and Deleuze & Guattari on the work of art. In Levinas’s early philosophical work, most notably Existence and Existents, there is a quite striking discussion of the materiality of art with a stress placed upon the being of sensation involved there. Levinas talks here of the artworks’ impersonal instantiation of a sensation beyond worldly perception – a sensation detached from worldly (meaningful) perception. Through art sensation attains a radically impersonal order – beyond the human as it were.

‘The movement of art consists in leaving the level of perception so as to reinstate sensation, in detaching the quality from this object reference…In art, sensation figures as a new element. Or better, it returns to the impersonality of elements…In art the sensible qualities which constitute an object do not lead to an object and are in themselves as the very event of sensation qua sensation, the aesthetic event. We can also call it the musicality of sensation, for in music this way a quality can divest itself of all objectivity – and consequently of all subjectivity – seems completely natural.’ (Levinas, Existence and Existents)

Levinas explains that the essential ‘exoticism’ of the work of art coupled with the elaboration of an impersonal order of sensation enables us to understand the specificity of the modern arts, which are attempting to preserve the fundamental exoticism and impersonality in artistic reality. Levinas writes – ‘There is the common intention to present reality as it is in itself, after the world has come to an end’. This aesthetic evocation of the end of the world, a world without existents is extremely significant for Levinas. Abstract artistic representation extracts things from the unity of an interested subjectivity and makes us see objects (insofar as they can still be named ‘objects’ at all) in their independence from our projects and intentions. It forces us to confront the apparently useless, obstructive and a-typical, the impersonal, not as a negative excess to be excluded, but as a significant part of experience. Levinas tells us that this is achieved by – ‘… furnish(ing) an image of an object in place of the object itself—what Bergson called a view of the object, an abstraction, and which he considers to be something less than the object, instead of seeing in it the more of what is aesthetic. Even photography functions in this way. This way of interposing an image of the things between us and the thing has the effect of extracting the thing from the perspective of the world.’ (Levinas, Existence and Existents)

For Levinas the value of art lies in the fact that it allows us to step back and see things outside of their worldly context. The worldlessness of such works of art is deeply disturbing and transports us back to an impersonal and undifferentiated field of pure materiality – without meaning or sense. Thus the work of art forces us to recollect the forgotten, untypified, deeply disturbing and fearful materiality of existence – the bare feeling of the ‘there is’ (il y a):

‘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 and are cast toward us like chunks that have weight in themselves, blocks, cubes , planes, triangles, without transitions 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 ads material objects, even reach a paroxysm of materiality. Despite the rationality and 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…Here materiality is thickness, coarseness, massivity, wretchedness. It is what has consistency, weight, is absurd, is a brute but impassive presence; it is also what is humble, bare and ugly. A material object, in being destined for a use, in forming part of a setting, is thereby clothed with a form which conceals its nakedness. 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 (il y a)…’ (Levinas, Existence and Existents)

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