rivista on-­-line del Seminario Permanente di Estetica Endless touching: Herder and sculpture

Andrew Benjamin
Pour s'assurer, par le toucher, de l'existence et de la fi-gure des objets, il n'est pas nécessaire de voir, pourquoi faudrait--il toucher, pour s'assurer des mêmes choses par la vue?» Diderot, Lettre sur les aveugles The relationship between the hand and the eye and thus between touch and sight is the mark of a founding instability; an instability, it can be argued that accompanies the his-tory of aesthetics. Integral to that history is the attempt to control, or at the very least to assert
more » ... least to assert control over that which is inherently unstable namely the domain of sensa-tion 1 . This is a state of affairs that accompanies the emergence of aesthetics and which finds its most exact formulation in the distinction between sensation and cognition. The relationship between hands and eyes needs to be situated, in the first instance, within that history. Here, however, by using Herder's Plastik as a point of orientation, eyes and hands will have a different presence, one which while acknowledging that history then attempts to reposition the distinction between the hand and the eye such that it is no longer held by the inherent structure at work within the differing versions of its found-ing formulation 2 . Hence, another argument is needed. More is wanted than would have emerged from a simple counter positioning of eye and hand. The traditional hold on the way that opposition is understood must be loosened. The hand, though this will be equally true for the eye, can be opened up. The opening and the loosening will allow both the hand and the eye another possibility in which neither hand nor eye are defined 1 Poulakos (2007) has provided an excellent survey on the relationship between aesthetics and rhetoric that indicates that what is at stake within the emergence of the aesthetic can be charac-terised in terms of an engagement with a founding instability. 2 For a recent discussion of Herder's writings on sculpture within the history of a more general concern with sculpture see Goslee (1978): 201--203. Andrew Benjamin, Endless touching: Herder and scuplture pag. 74 © Aisthesis -pratiche, linguaggi e saperi dell'estetico • 1/2011 • www.aisthesisonline.it by their literal presence. The instability that characterises the aesthetic results, in the first instance, from the equation of sight and touch with their literal presence and then from the subsequent "need" to control sensation by repositioning the eye (and sight) beyond the literal whilst leaving sensation identical with its literal presence. Reworking both touch and sight involves a break with their original positioning 3 . Sight and touch therefore will always need to be more than their literal presence 4 . Only within such a setting can touch become another modality of seeing. What is needed is the douceur of the lover. A positioning arrived at for Diderot, in the Lettre sur les aveugles when the lo-ver can «promener ses mains sur des charmes qu'il reconnaitrait» (Diderot [1749 (Diderot [ (1992 ]: 116). This recognition, of course, belongs to the hand. Hence, its intensity may be greater if the lover were actually blind. Even though the literal may have exerted a controlling influence, allowing for its abeyance, it can be argued, is to open up the pos-sibility of an aesthetics - perhaps even an erotics - of the blind hand and hence a blind hand seeing; i.e. touching. As a beginning it is vital to stay with the hand. What is it that the hand does? If the answer lies in touch, then there needs to be an additional question. When does the hand stop touching? The force of the question is found firstly in the evocation of the ob-ject. The material object, matter as skin or stone, for example, is that on which the hand alights. In addition to the centrality of matter there is the structure within which touch is to be understood. Asking the question -when does the touching stop? -is to locate matter, the work of materiality and the placing of the hand within time. In addition, it al-lows matter to become a locus of activity. In the move from the literal there is an ac-companying transformation in how the object is understood. Touching takes place over time. Touching is timed. And yet, it should not be thought that seeing is other than ti-med. There is however another sense of time that is already at work in the way seeing is classically portrayed and thus touching, as a consequence of this portrayal, is under-stood. Within that formulation seeing becomes linked to a specific conception both of 3 There is therefore an affinity between this project and work of John Sallis. Sallis is also con-cerned rethink the project of a philosophy of art beyond the structures of the opposition be-tween the sensible and the intelligible. See in this regard Sallis (2008): 74--105. Nonetheless, the argument developed in this interpretation of Herder goes in a different direction. 4 Robert Hopkins has provided an important philosophical engagement with the relationship be-tween sight and touch. See Hopkins (2004). Nonetheless, despite the sensitivity of Hopkins de-tails his concerns in this regard, his analysis remains essentially limited because he fails to note that what touch opens up -once it is no longer taken as identical with literal touch --is a possible transformation of what is understood by seeing and thus touching. Andrew Benjamin, Endless touching: Herder and scuplture pag. 75 © Aisthesis -pratiche, linguaggi e saperi dell'estetico • 1/2011 • www.aisthesisonline.it the moment and the singularity of the object. The locus classicus of such a conception is of course Descartes. It is not just the Cartesian conception of «clear and distinct percep-tion» that is fundamental (Cfr Descartes [1996], vol. VIII: 21--22). Inherent within the Car-tesian argument concerning perception -not the eye's perception in any straightfor-ward sense but the perception occasioned by the attention of an inner light, a light that pierces the perennial gloom of ignorance, defining ignorance therefore in terms of glo-om and thus a type of enduring darkness that a lighting up will have overcome -is a positioning of matter in terms of timed presence. (Attesting thereby to the already pre-sent interarticulation of matter and time. Differing accounts of matter are always deplo-yed within their own accompanying conception of time.) Descartes, Diderot When Descartes turns to matter, it is to matter's problematic status. In the Second Meditation the problem posed by the ever--changing piece of wax, a piece freshly cut from within the hive, is its intrinsic capacity to change and modify; in other words, the instability within sensation's object. The link between matter and an ineliminable flu-idity, a fluidity that may allow potentiality to define substance rather than the solidity of a form defined by an empirical singularity, means that matter must overcomes its reduc-tion to mere material presence, i.e. to simple empirical presence, and be rearticulated in terms of extension (Cfr. Benjamin [2004 , 2009a ). The wax is however still seen, touched and imagined. There needs to be therefore a different approach. The truth of the wax can only emerge in the wax's differentiation from its having been identified with its empirical presence. Its identity is not the same as its empirical presence (while not denying that it is empirically present). The truth of the wax can only emerge when a dif-ferent form of "consideration" occurs. Descartes writes, «nudam considero» (Descartes [1996], Vol. VII: 32). Descartes approved French translation is more emphatic, «je la con-sidere toute nue». The emphasis coming from the addition of «toute» as an emphatic qualifier of the «nue» (Descartes [1996], vol. IX: 25). The nudity here is not the reduction to an essence. Nudity, in this context, is that which cannot be touched. Equally, it is that which is neither presented nor expressed by matter's empirical presence. The separa-tion of matter from the merely empirical allows, in the first instance, control over that which is given by sensation, what will become the aesthetic even though what will count as he aesthetic is yet to emerge at the time in which Descartes writes, and, in the sec--Andrew Benjamin, Endless touching: Herder and scuplture pag. 76 © Aisthesis -pratiche, linguaggi e saperi dell'estetico • 1/2011 • www.aisthesisonline.it ond, the truth of matter to be recovered. 5 Truth is of course linked to cognition. Matter must fall beyond the hand and yet there must be that which is nonetheless still present. The wax is present such that there is an «I» who «sees», «touches» and «imagines» (Cfr. Descartes [1996], vol. VII: 31). As a result two forms of presence are introduced. The first pertains to mere matter. i.e. the reduction of matter to the empirical. The smell of the wax, its response to moving fingers as it warms, where the warmth is linked to fragrance and then to perceptible moisture. All of this the hand both feels and knows and yet, for Descartes, what the hand can never know is the quality of matter. Equally, the hand that knows has a similar status to the eye that sees immediately. The limit of immediate vision is developed by Descartes in La Dioptrique in terms of an encounter with the blind. The limit, to reiterate the point noted above, is the mo-ment of instability and thus the need to move from sensation to cognition. The question is not just «What do the blind know?» - more exactly the central question pertains to how the blind know. In the opening treatment of light, when light is explained in terms of a movement from the exterior to the interior by means of air and other «corps trans-parent», Descartes uses the example of those who are born blind to formulate his over-all argument (Cfr. Descartes [1996], vol. VI: 84). The blind know the world via the use of a stick. The presence of objects in the world is transmitted by that encounter. Thus in Descartes' own terms, «on pourrait quasi dire qu'ils voient des mains» (Descartes [1996], vol. VI: 84) -note the addition of the «quasi». For the sighted light enters through the eyes. For the blind, on the other hand, a different relation to the world per-tains. There is access, for the blind, to the world because the latter «passe vers sa main» (Descartes [1996], vol. VI: 84). What is it that moves from the exterior to the interior? If the blind hand were to en-counter edges and points and declare that what was encountered was a triangle, what is that has been encountered? What has been touched? What can the blind's hand know? All these questions pertain to the medium of knowledge and to timed presence. The blind hand encounters the world. There can be no doubt that the encounter occurs. The 5 This of course mirrors the argument that is worked out within the Meditations concerning the identity of self as "res cogitans". The only way Descartes can solve the problem of what happens to the existence of the subject when it is not thinking- this is, after all, the problem inherent in locating the identity of the self within the formulation cogito ergo sum --is to assume that the on-tologico--temporal nature of the "I" that is positioned within specific acts of thought - acts with finite duration and content -is radically distinct from a conception of the subject that is enduring and is thus "res cogitans". It is not as though the subject as "res cogitans" could be anything other than that which is defined by thinking (cognition). Andrew Benjamin, Endless touching: Herder and scuplture pag. 77 © Aisthesis -pratiche, linguaggi e saperi dell'estetico • 1/2011 • www.aisthesisonline.it blind can feel and feel again in order to secure more information. However, its having been secured - the process - is then assured. What occurs is an encounter with an ob-ject. However, as the image is not identical with the object, then the question, as al-ways, concerns how there can be movement from the reception of images, the en-counter with objects and then the possibility that l'ame (the soul) can know. In the lan-guage of the Meditations what this means is that the possibility of «mentis inspectio»; i.e. an "inspection" by the mind (Cfr. Descartes [1996], vol. VI: 31 e Descartes [1996], vol. IX: 24). This is a capacity that is directed by the methodological imperatives given by «clear and distinct perception». Nonetheless, what is of significance is the assumption the there is a separation between an encounter with the world, whether it be with baton or eye, and the operation of the soul. (The soul it should be noted is the province of a knowing subject and not the province of the object.) In La Dioptrique Descartes is explicit in regards to the limit of sensation. What has to be avoided is the supposition that «pour sentir, l'ame ait besoin de contempler quelques images qui soient envoyeés par les objets jusques au cerveau» (Descartes [1996], vol. VI: 112). To allow such a possibility would be to maintain instability as an ineliminable pres-ence. The activity of the «soul» can be located therefore beyond a domain that is given by an opposition between literal sight and literal blindness. Both are limited in relation to the form of perception identified by Descartes as part of his response to Mersenne's objections to the positions advanced by Descartes in the Second Meditation. Fundamen-tal to Descartes argument in his Response, as will be noted, is a form of immediacy. Whi-le it remains the case that «clear and distinct perception» is methodological and there-fore takes place over time there is the claim that «as soon as» («aussitôt»/«statim») truth emerges, there is the immediate move - an immediacy presented in terms of the operation of nature -to belief and thus to judgment (Cfr. Descartes [1996], vol. VII: 144 e Descartes [1996. The other, and interrelated form of immediacy, is found in the next line of the argument. Having claimed that the move to belief and thus cer-tainty takes place immediately, the knowledge that is discovered and whose expression by a sign in which signifier and signified are coextensive is, as a result, a form of a knowledge characterized as much by what can be described as epistemological exhaustion as it is a form of absolutizisation. The absolute object of knowledge having been discovered means that «il n'y rien à chercher davantage» (Cfr. Descartes [1996], vol. VII: 144 e Descartes [1996], vol. IX: 113). This absolutization is presented in Le Discours de la Méthode in terms of the singularity and completeness of the truth as it Andrew Benjamin, Endless touching: Herder and scuplture pag. 78 © Aisthesis -pratiche, linguaggi e saperi dell'estetico • 1/2011 • www.aisthesisonline.it pertains to «the thing» (la chose) (Descartes [1996], vol. VI: 21) 6 . What is identified here in terms of absolutization is linked, of necessity, to questions of representation. While time figures, it is essential to note that the time that is figured is given within the finality of the sign. Signification and knowledge both allow for the finality of enclosure and thus completion. As will emerge the hand holds open the possibility that precludes the equa-tion of judgment and completion. If there is a move, one occurring with a necessary reciprocity, between hands and signs then it involves locating a discrepancy between the potential infinite of touch, in the first instance, and the conception of finitude exacted by the structure of the sign at work in the Cartesian system and which finds one of its most exact formulations in Arnauld, Nicole (1970) in the second 7 . The finality of the sign that is the mark of knowledge stems the infinite hand that continues to move over the object, moving but without knowing. The object is sensed, one may have a sense of the object perhaps even a feel for it, however the infinitude of touch must be stopped in the name of knowledge and thus with the completion of the sign. In other words, the potential instability that would seem to be inherent in touch (thus in sensation) needs to be controlled. The coexten-sivity of the signifier and the signified reiterates the temporal structure noted above in which there is an immediacy of relation between knowledge and belief and equally knowledge and judgment. The timed hand can only ever move. Knowledge, within a Car-tesian frame of reference however, involves cessation and completion. At this precise point it becomes possible to reposition and thus rework what is taken to be a founding instability. There is another possibility for the potentiality within touch; a potentiality whose realization defers the hold of the opposition between sensation and cognition. Within such a setting what remains open, held open by the hand's potentiality, is a con-ception of touch, and therefore of matter and time that are able to resist their complete enclosure within the Cartesian system. This hand can move without knowing. There is 6 In this regards Descartes wrote that: «n'yanat qu'une verité de chaque chose, quiconque la trou-ve sait autant qu'on peut savoir». At work here is a conception of object ("thing" "la chose") that allows for its complete subordination to the projects of both epistemology and representation.