A question about method (Reflections while reading The Modernist Papers)

1. Either: form. The oldest (western) tradition in speaking of form holds that it is either the principle or product of determination. “Indeterminate form” or “formlessness” (i.e., matter) already contains a (teleological) reference to form. The genius (genie, demiruge, creator, poet) is the one who imposes form (Plato, gnosticism, Genesis, etc). In the romantic version of this thesis (up to and including Hegel), this means the sensuous unity of form and content in the aesthetic consciousness (whether this unity is prior to the work or not is irrelevant). Alternatively, the baroque and classical ideals of form were constitutive of art, and art is nothing other than a thus “purely intentional object”. None of this prevents us from speaking of a “natural history” or “social production” of form, for these kinds of notions are predicated on an idea of form either as morphe or eidos, which ultimately manifests in a geometric conception of lines (whether in painting, music, dance, and so on) and their morphology (the line is thus conceived as a limit—viz., it is not included in the content that it makes possible). Boulez helpfully reminds us that, conceived thus, it is more proper to speak of form as the structuring of local structures (i.e., content). One sees this in nature in, e.g., biological rhythms, equilibria in dissipative structures, fractal geometry, etc.

2. Or: per-form. It is a convenient accident of our language that we cannot use “perform” as a noun (instead we must say “performance”). All form is per-form; all form is performed (mutual implication of work and nature, work and subject, subject and nature). This may be equivalent to what Deleuze calls “consistency”.

3. Method. The creation of new forms (e.g., serialism), then, is co-extensive and simultaneous with the variations in their matter to which these new forms give rise (something like a “hermeneutic circle” of form or the “circle of the origin”). Modernism is not, for example, the attempt to give expression to “new ways of being-in-the-world hitherto inconceivable in human experience”. The “crisis of representation” in modernity (Simmel, Adorno, Jameson) is more than either an abstract formalism (according to which all content is flattened or reduced into the bidimensionality of the plane) or a Hegelian materialism (according to which the crisis in form results from the disaffection and dislocation of the subject in the world such that either artistic form becomes the enslavement of the subject to instrumental totality or the highest expression of an individuality stripped to its barest contingency—the nothingness at the heart of its being that is the essence of human freedom [Sartre]). The crisis of representation is the reflective moment in art where form folds back onto itself toward the form of the form (the limit case in Plato, for example), even if the form of the form is itself the product of reflection.

Yet it was not only Lyotard who thus wondered how we can say that there is anything called “post-modernism” if constitutive of modernism itself is the “rewriting” of modernity. This is not, primarily, a historical question but a methodological one: how is it that the content of the form is “dialectically presupposed” in the form of the content (ideology)? Jameson gives the name of “Utopia” to precisely this dialectical movement according to which form and content refuse to be identified with each other into either a purely abstract formalism or the totality of self-referential content (both of which are equivalent to communism in political terms). But it seems that the persistence of the Absolute in this case consists in its consistent absence, deferral, or subtraction (which is not to say a negation). Does this not point the way to the futurity of per-form(ance) instead of the presence of form? The question is: what is the temporality of form? Is the choice always that between dialectics and history on the one hand and anarchy and ana-chrony on the other?

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