Unreal Nature

June 17, 2017


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:34 am

… The world and life in it get an aesthetic meaning from the emotion-rich play of gesticulation.

This is from Gestures by Vilêm Flusser (2014):

As a matter of courtesy, as well as for other reasons, a writer should define his concepts. In this essay, I will do this for the concept of “gesture” but not for that of “affect.” I hope that the reader will excuse this impropriety. My plan is to feign ignorance of the meaning of affect and, by observing gestures, try to discover what people mean by this word. It is a kind of phenomenological effort, through the observation of gestures, to take affect by surprise.

I will start by attempting, for the remainder of this essay, to define the word gesture. I believe that many people will agree that gestures are to be considered movements of the body and, in a broader sense, movements of tools attached to the body. But many would also agree that the term does not apply to all such movements.

… I am sure that I raise my arm because I want to, and that despite all the indubitably real causes, I would not raise it if I didn’t want to. This is why raising my arm is a gesture. Here, then, is the definition I suggest: “a gesture is a movement of the body or of a tool connected to the body for which there is no satisfactory causal explanation.” And I define satisfactory as that point in a discourse after which any further discussion is superfluous.

This definition should suggest that the discourse of gestures cannot end with causal explanations, because such explanations do not account for the specificity of gestures. Of course, causal (“scientific,” in the strong sense of the word) explanations are needed to understand gestures, but they don’t produce such understanding. To understand gestures, these specific physical movements that we perform and that we observe around us, causal explanations are not enough. Gestures have to be properly interpreted, too.

… we have no criteria for the validity of our readings. We must remember this as we try, in what follows, to read gestures, to discover the affect in them.

… whether I agree, in something approaching a romantic manner, that art and affect blend into one another, or deny it in something approaching a classical manner, there is no doubt that the question is not an ethical, still less an epistemological, but rather an aesthetic one.

The question is not whether the representation of a state of mind is false, still less whether a represented state of mind has the capacity to be true. Rather, it concerns whether the observer is touched.

… affect “intellectualizes” states of mind by formalizing them into symbolic gestures. In this sense, it is to be understood that as affect, states of mind have become constructs.

The “artificiality” of represented states of mind is first of all an aesthetic problem. The world and life in it get an aesthetic meaning from the emotion-rich play of gesticulation. If we want to criticize affect, we must do it using aesthetic criteria. The scale of values we use to evaluate may not oscillate between truth and error or between truth and lies but must move between truth (authenticity) and kitsch. I believe that this distinction is critical.

[line break added] When I see a gesture emphasizing feeling, for example, that of a bad actor in the bad play who wants to convey the emotion of fatherly love, I would call it “false.” But it would not be right to call it an “error” or a “lie.” It is “false” in the sense of “in poor taste,” and it would remain inauthentic even if the actor really were a loving father. I consider the distinction important because of the ambiguity embedded in the word truth.

[line break added] In epistemology, truth means agreement with the real; in ethics and politics, it refers to an internal consistency (loyalty); whereas in art, it becomes a “truth” to the materials at hand. It is very obviously no accident that the same word has these three meanings: all of them participate in what is called “honesty.” But it is entirely possible for a gesture indicating feeling to be epistemologically and morally honest but aesthetically dishonest, like the gesture of the bad actor.

[line break added] And it is entirely possible for an emotionally powerful gesture to be epistemologically and morally dishonest and aesthetically honest, as in the case of the gesture that resulted in a Renaissance sculpture that retrospectively engaged that of the ancient Greeks. In this case, one must judge the gesture to be “true.” On the scale of affect, Michelangelo must be located near the “truth,” and an actor in a Hollywood potboiler at a point close to the border of “kitsch,” quite apart from any consideration of whether the affect they express is real or whether they believe in it.

… The more information a gesture contains, the more difficult it apparently is for a receiver to read it. The more information, the less communication. Therefore, the less a gesture informs (the better it communicates), the more empty it is, and so the more pleasant and “pretty,” for it can be read without very much effort. So information theory gives us a more or less objective gauge for the fact that the emotion-laden gestures in television series move the “masses” deeply.

[line break added] Yet it is important to note that information theory works much better for kitsch than it does for real affect. It can measure the banality of kitsch, but faced with the originality of true art, it appears to be as empirical as our “intuition.” It can in no sense replace the intuition of art criticism, and still less can it obviate the need for a theory of interpretation.

And yet, on one point this theory can help us: that of the “empty” and the “full.” I have maintained that affect is a method of lending states of mind meaning by symbolizing them. What information theory suggests (and the step it actually takes toward a theory of interpretation) is that a symbol expressing a state of mind can be more or less empty and that the gauge of affect runs between fullness and emptiness, from inexhaustible meaning to empty gesture. At one end of the scale are majestic and rare gestures, whose meaning is still not exhausted after millennia.

[line break added] At the other end are the infinitely many empty gestures we make and see all around us that try to exhaust the “original” meaning our gestures retain by formal reference to the majestic ones. The affect of friendship, for example, is expressed through the gesture of Castor and Pollux and through the handshake, the one a full existence, the other by contrast emptied of almost all meaning.




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