(The gallery for this text is Roadtrips. The footnotes for the text are in the pdf).
Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity. Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment
I started making photographic road trips in South Australia and Victoria during the recession of the 1990s. Despite Frank Hurley’s Australia: A Camera Study (1959), Wesley Stacey’s conceptual art orientated The Road (1973-75) and Trent Parke’s Minutes to Midnight (2003), a sustained and developed tradition of road photography remains dormant and lacks a significant presence in Australia. My picture-making was topographical in orientation — a mapping of the present to explore the effects of the way that industrial capitalism had reshaped the physical form of the land or particular places.
Wittgenstein’s remarks below seem appropriate to, or resonate with, the topographical conception of photography:
‘I am trying to conduct you on tours in a certain country. I will try to show that the philosophical difficulties … arise because we find ourselves in a strange town and do not know our way about. So we must learn the topography by going from one place in the town to another, and from there to another, and so on. And one must do this so often that one knows one’s way, either immediately or pretty soon after looking around a bit, wherever one may be set down.’
My roadtrip highlighted the narrowness of South Australia’s industrialisation and how its land had been produced by the cultural and economic practices of industrial agriculture.
The Bicentennial, Mabo and Henry Reynold’s frontier histories made explicit the dark side of colonial settlement. It was premised on the dispossession of the Aboriginal people from their land, with the land depicted as barren waste awaiting conversion into productive land by the white settlers. These colonial power relations of the landscape underpinned the formation of the colonial, regional and national identity in Australia’s pre-industrial modernity. This pastoral culture colonized the field of vision — it determined who is visible, who is invisible, who is “allowed” to see, and what visibility, invisibility, and vision signify. The visual categories of the colonial, white landscape were still in place in the vastly different country of the post-Fordist, neo-liberal world of the 1990s.
An emerging postindustrial Australia in the 1990s was quite different. Healthcare and education were run as a business whilst university degrees were a market transaction for private benefit. An ‘affirmative’ culture of complicity in the ills of neo-liberalism placed the emphasis on desire, individual responsibility and the consumer life. Neo-conservatism’s culture wars attacked the public value of the creative arts whilst the humanities were downsized, hastily reshaped, or cut altogether by the instrumental reason of the corporatised universities. The amalgam of neo-conservatism and neo-liberalism both privileged the unequal present with an excessive nostalgia and the perpetual change of fashion, style and media image. Art photography, like cinema, was being incorporated into the commodity sphere where its exchange value mattered more than its use value. The aestheticisation of commodities (ie., advertising photography restoring a sensuous particularity to the abstract status of the commodity) was dominate, the market was the major determinant of art’s meaning and value, and its imprimatur now counted for more than any critical interpretation.
In the 1990s a post-historical art was no longer governed by art history’s sequence of developmental narratives (eg., the realist one following Vasari, or Greenberg’s modernist one) that tried to explain everything from a single point of view. This post-historical era is characterized by freedom and plurality, the coexistence of all currents absent any hierarchy, and multiple alternatives to painting and museum photography. The relation between the physical art object and its creator was a contingent one in this postmodern world in which reality is really just cultural signs with subjects imagining the signs as natural. Art operated with a permanent eclecticism of theoretical context and style and so there were just different ways of doing art. If art and truth had become divorced from one another they nonetheless remain intertwined. This eclecticism opened up possibilities for a large format realist photography to interpret regional landscapes in a topographic manner.
The default view of the genre of landscape is that it represents a detached way of seeing a territory that has its own history within the wider history of economy and society. Simon Schama says that landscape is formed in memory, in poetry, and in the stories we tell ourselves about who we think we are. Landscapes are culture; constructs of the imagination projected onto wood, water and rock that become part of the scenery; nature transformed into human use. Photographing landscapes presupposes our presence and the cultural backpacks that we carry with us.
There is a long standing division in art history between landscape as art and topographics as forms of picture-making. Topographics is traditionally understood as a mapping of the surface features of a region and it is seen as an inferior form of picture-making because it was interpreted as real views of the geography of place that lacked imagination. The pastoral imagery of colonial landscape photography, which depicted the domestication of an unfamiliar land, was interpreted to strip the aesthetic appeal from landscapes as a genre. Real views means accurate representation of the land or region, and prior to photography it was drawing that precisely recorded what one saw in specific places. Topography’s real views are in contrast to painters representing the intensity of individual experiences in the Australian landscape. In Australia nineteenth century photography was understood to be part of this topographic tradition, which was coded as connected to positivist science, to observation, fact-gathering, documentation rather than being a part of the fine arts.
However, topographics is broader than this. Firstly, real places like the Flinders Ranges are contested sites, places over which different interests assert incompatible claims, where the past and present compete for attention, and where the local is often at odds with the national. Secondly, a central figure of topographics as a mapping of a known place in the history of photography is Eugène Atget’s photographs of old Paris. We interpret his photos as images of a home-place that Atget was familiar with. These photos show that the value of topography is that it is a way of knowing and understanding a place; not as it would have appeared to a visitor, tourist or traveller, but as it would have been known and understood, as a place where people live. His photography is premised on an understanding that human beings stand in an essential relation to place, and are constituted in and through that relation.
Thirdly, topographics was not limited to the 19th century. In the US photography of the 1970s topographics meant picture making in a documentary style about the changes in the outer suburbs of the cities in the American West, as well as the architectural phenomenon of industrial parks and the newly built tract house estates. This referred back to the documentary underpinnings of 19th-century topographical survey photography in the service of the Pacific Railroad and US Geological Surveys. 19th-century topographic photographers as Carleon Watkins, William Henry Jackson and Timothy O’Sullivan claimed objectivity but drew upon the 18th century landscape paintings’ pictorial conventions of the sublime and picturesque. The style and approach of new topographics was a turning away from the traditional depictions of the landscape as wilderness (eg., Ansel Adams) to that of industrial landscapes, suburban sprawl and everyday scenes in the American West.
This new topographics was medium specific in its modernist orientation; its objectivity displaced the emphasis on subjectivity through keeping authorial input to a minimum; and it placed an emphasis on the straightforwardness or matter-of-factness of the photo-document to understand the world we find ourselves in. The lighter more even-tone prints matched the formal style of the straightforward, everyday subject matter. In his Beauty in Photography: Essays in Defence of Traditional Values Robert Adams, a member of the New Topographics, situated topographics in an aesthetic tradition that distinguished photography form the objectifying representation and instrumentality of economics.
To unpack this Adams returned to Plato’s two world philosophical tradition and he held that the proper goal of art is Beauty, Beauty is Form, and Form is the structure underlying life understood as harmonious totality. This revives Plato’s ideas about beauty as the symbol of the good, and his view that true and reliable knowledge rests only with those who can comprehend the true reality of the Forms behind the chaotic world of everyday experience. For Adams art is the reconciliation of the sensual and the intelligible worlds.
The strength of Adam’s neo-Platonism is that it avoids beauty being solely a matter of subjective feeling, of ‘taste’, and artworks consequently being reduced to the subjective contingencies of their reception. An aesthetics based on subjectivity has no way of articulating the truth in works of art as it concentrates on sensibility, remains stuck in subjectivity, and fails to make claims about the work itself. A weakness of this Platonic tradition is that is very skeptical about art’s capacity to contribute insights to the workings of our world: it devalued art in its epistemic potential, that is, the possibility to ground any kind of insight, and it was suspicious of art’s claim to knowledge. Plato charged artworks with being ontological flawed representations of ideas of Forms, even further removed from the eternal essence of the object than their partially existing counterparts. Mimesis, for Plato, is merely the reduplication of material objects that were, in turn, already flawed approximations to their ideas or Forms.
So the problem with neo-Platonism is its wariness of the world of sensuous particularity and it tries to transcend it by gaining access to an intelligible world of general essences or unchanging Forms. Since art imitates physical things, which in turn imitate the Forms, art is always a copy of a copy, an imitation of the visual display of Eternal Forms such as Beauty. Art represents the appearance of the object not the objects that surrounds the photographer. In turning away from the appearances of the visible world to imitate the idea of the object or the Form art lifts the object out of the flow of history. Forms, not people do things.
In contrast, the German aesthetic tradition differentiates art from economics and the market whilst avoiding the neo-Platonism’s two worlds. This aesthetic tradition offers an account of art in modernity where the natural and social sciences provide the dominant account of truth and that aesthetics can be understood as exploring the implications of the special status of art works. This special status, was defined by Kant as the autonomy of art from science and morality. Kant held that aesthetic judgement being on a par with those of a cognitive and moral nature, that it is the artist’s purpose that distinguishes the work of art from the effects of natural processes, and that what distinguishes art from handicraft is that the former is free while the latter is remunerative and a matter of business. Aesthetic judgment is premised on disinterest, autonomy and universality. If art inhabits its own realm Kant’s price is high: he rejects the pleasures of body sensation and the satisfactions of charm and sentimentality in favour of the rigour of form. The autonomy of art is one that is freed from history and the aesthetic experience is divorced from the object and grounded in the subject.
The broad post-Kantian pathway in German aesthetics starts from the position that what makes an art object of value has nothing to do with its usefulness or its exchange value. Even though artworks clearly do become commodities, neither their use-value nor their value as commodities can constitute them as works of art. Schelling was adamant on this: to look for a use value in art reflects the spirit of the age in which economic principles reign supreme. The conception of art in the German Jena aesthetic tradition is that if an autonomous art is to be sustained as a source of truth, beauty and meaning, then it must employ forms of articulation that establish an independence from the demands involved in the sciences, whilst not losing the immediate particularity essential to art. It links art to the immediacy of the individual’s sensuous relationship to the world, which is part of aesthetic pleasure, but accords art a truth claim. If an autonomous art lives from its particularity, which is not reducible to conceptual generalisation, then it depends on philosophy to interpret the artworks.The emphasis on the truth of art is central to Schelling’s romantic aesthetics. The central argument that art can offer uniquely valuable and revealing non-conceptual forms of experience is one of the central claims of German Idealism’s challenge to the sovereignty of Enlightenment’s scientific rationality. Art is the source of a kind of truth inaccessible to other forms of articulation, as opposed to being merely a means of rendering a post-theological world more tolerable for those with the resources to have access to art.
With Hegel art is the realization of a radical principle of freedom and subjectivity, which is specific to modernity, and it can be seen as the signature of modernity. With Hegel an autonomous art as an immediate sensuous knowing becomes historical in that the concrete forms of art depend upon specific historical constellations; and that art transcends history insofar as the work of art allows the past to be present again. Far from being of mere historical interest, the art of the past speaks to the present no less than the contemporary artwork. The artwork not only pleases our senses but it also allows us to comprehend the concept as realized in the material object. Art’s relation to philosophy is both cooperative and dependent as art requires a superior kind of philosophical account-giving. In modernity art is necessarily partial since it can no longer address all of our most important concerns and its local character means that it has something of a niche status in modernity. Artworks speak concretely, addressing themselves to the senses. They are meaningful but they are, in Hegel’s terms, forms of “embodied meaning” in a sensuous form. Art has a double character: it is both autonomous and social and this is responsible for the artwork’s paradoxical character. In this tradition artworks can provide a critique of the concepts of our habitual ways of thinking.
From the perspective of this aesthetic tradition one problem with the assumed concepts of the US New Topographics is that place by and large was reduced to space.The movement was blind to the assumption of the topographical approach to picture making in which the topos in topographical refers to a mapping of real places in the present, and that these representations are based on knowing and understanding a particular place. This mapping represents human situatedness through attachment to place with its set of interconnections or relationships. The New Topographics movement assumed that the tract housing mode of existence and industrial architecture was flawed architecture, yet what they missed was the questionability of place, of dwelling and identity.
This blindness is significant, as the people who lived in this tract housing belonged to this place, as their identity was linked to this mode of existence with its sense of belonging-together. Place remained in the background disconnected from the tract architecture of the space of the mid-west, even though this kind of estranged dwelling was the way people ordinarily lived: it was a relation to home, and people’s identity is bound up with this mode of living. This kind of environing world shaped people’s memories, feelings and thoughts and this indicates that human identity is in some deep way tied to locality or the places they inhabit. There is a close connection between the human being-in-the-world, and spatiality, locality and embodiment.
A second criticism of the concepts of New Topographics is that if the urban sprawl in 20th century industrial modernity is a subject of photography’s topographic explorations, then so was its effects on the adjacent environment. From this perspective the original label ‘Newn the US neglected the immanent references to the environment made by photographers starting in the 1980s. These include: Richard Misrach’s Bravo 20, The Bombing of the American West and Petrochemical America; Lewis Baltz’s San Quentin Point; Martin Manz and Reinhard Matz’s Unsere Landschaften (Our Landscapes); Wout Berger’s Poisoned Landscape. These helped to establish a body of critical environmental representations in the canon of artistic photography though a reworking of the existing forms of articulation into an ‘environmental photography’; one that adapted the 1970s New Topographics exhibition’s subtitle of a ‘man-made landscape’, to point out the negative influence of humans on the Earth. This reworking became a transnational tradition of critical photographic landscape depiction in urban centres in France, Germany and the Netherlands that was shaped by different photographers who were independent of each other, and with various time-lags between their works.
The topographic photographic tradition in Australia is usually consigned to 19th century colonial photography with its existence in the twentieth century a fragmentary, underground and unrecognised, one. David Stephenson’s idea of the ‘technological sublime’, his drowned landscapes in Tasmania and industrial infrastructure of the sugar industry in Queensland in the 1980s were critical representations of a ‘man-made landscape’. Wesley Stacey’s Topographical Delights, which was based on several photographic journeys with Narelle Perroux in the 1980s, incorporated three bodies of work in a folio/album format of 20 back and white panoramic photos. These were entitled Western Waterways, From the Mountains to the Sea and From Bermagui to Broome.
No photobooks were published until Martin Mischkulnig and Tim Winton’s Smalltown (2009); then Greg Wayn’s industrial photographs of western Melbourne in 2017. Their topographical images drew attention to the negative influence of humans on the earth. Mandy Martin’s landscape paintings of north-west NSW in Tracts: Back O’ Bourke (1996) and Queensland in Watersheds: The Paroo and the Warrego (1999) were informed by the aesthetics of topography that fused the habits of scientific observation of the explorers with art history and the factual portrait of an actual place.
These assemblages of topographics are a marginal and dissonant art practice positioned outside the gallery. They can be considered as becoming a minor photography within the major landscape one, using the major’s vocabulary and tools in a different manner to create a new language. Its stuttering and stammering creates a new movement within the major. This mode of becoming with its multiple flows, streams and lines of flight is a deterritorialisation of the major landscape photographic tradition.
In Australia it was philosophy that articulated the environmental undercurrent of topography’s ’contested places’ of the human altered landscape in the present. An influential account of the environmental undercurrent in the human altered landscape of the present was that by Richard and Val Routley’s The Fight for the Forests (1975); the subtitle of which was The takeover of Australian forests for pines, wood chips and intensive forestry. The Routleys identified a ‘wood production ideology’ of the forest industries and the state forest services; an ideology focused on providing cheap wood for private industry and with a determination for Australia to become a large woodchip exporter. They highlighted the clearing of “useless” native forests to plant the pine trees, and the clear-felling of native forests in order to export woodchips. The old growth native forests were framed as available for our unconstrained use and reduced to being a mere resource to be exploited by industry. Humans, or people come first and everything else a bad last. The Routleys asked: Is there a need for a new, an environmental, ethic, an ethic of nature? They argued this would be one in which non-human nature can have intrinsic value and create obligations not reducible (in any way) to human interests. Intrinsic value in a world, while depending conceptually on valuers, nonetheless does not reduce to valuers in that world in any way.
This emphasis on preserving the intrinsic value of old growth native forests provides a way to look at how the land had been transformed in South Australia after European colonisation: — the land was cleared of trees to make away for agriculture. The growing domination of capitalist forms of exchange in modernity lead to nature being regarded in terms of the profit which can be extracted from it. If the ills of modernity are rooted in the attempt by the subject to dominate and control the world of objects, then the emergence of the dissatisfaction of modernity expressed in the familiar schism or duality between subject and object, mind/body, individual and society, reason and its other, shape the culture and our experience of modernity. These ills deepen with an awareness of the epochal change driven by human activity becoming dominant in the Anthropocene.
Brian Medlin, who travelled widely and camped widely in South Australia and Victoria, wrote about the regional fora and fauna, addressed the destruction of nature. In Human Nature, Human Survival he reminded us of Australia’s terrible past with its destruction of land, its flora and fauna and aboriginal civilization. If the tragedy of modernity is one where the earth becomes so damaged that human beings are no longer capable of inhabiting it, then ours is a civilization in crisis. He poses a question: if we are enmeshed with all other beings in a fragile world where global heating engulfs us, can we face the darkness of ecological collapse head on?
Medlin argues that to save our civilization from this crises we must get our philosophy right. Philosophy is the commitment to thinking about the whole of life and a way of life. In his ‘Ecological Crisis and Social Order’ essay in the Level-headed Revolutionary, Medlin’s ecological politics argues that humans need to recognise their place in the natural world, embracing all of nature:
“We shall never be safe in the world for as long as we think only of our own safety in it, that we shall never properly cherish our resources while we think of them only as resources. Amongst the many bad features of this limited perception of the world, the worst is that it readily goes over into an adversarial attitude to non-human nature … The non-human world is to be valued, but not simply because it may serve humankind. Nor is it to be valued as an extension of ourselves. Not even as a means of self-realisation. It is to be valued for itself, because it has value in itself. Until we win our way back to a proper reverence for non-human nature, we shall remain lost in a world growing ever more hostile to us. We shall remain lost in the world because subjectively we are not really in it at all, but apart from it. Lost, not in being mis-placed, but in having no place. Our resources are mere resources, external to us.”
This is a shift away from regarding nature just as a system of causal laws to seeing nature as historical in the sense that it constantly changes and because it has been profoundly – often negatively – affected by human history. Capitalism has a destructive and self-destructive relation to nature. The damage we have inflicted on non-human nature has been extensive; it could assume catastrophic proportions, if we continue to behave as we do now.
Medlin’s argument for seeing the natural world differently and valuing the natural world for itself is premised on a:
scientific appreciation of our place in nature. An appreciation that will eventually engender a direct experience of ourselves as part of the world. An appreciation of our ignorance and dependence ….as animals in the universe. Of our dependence as a species woven by time into the one world whose fabric we unravel at our peril.
Medlin critiques the dominant form of reason that confuses rationality with ratiocination and does not allow for poetry and literature opening a path to intuition as a road to truth. In his essay “On the Nature of Philosophy” he says that philosophy at its best:
will teach us how best to act when we cannot know what is the best thing to do… Philosophy is about the texture of human life. Philosophy is about getting life right and about making life right.
This reference to practical philosophy connects with Adorno’s insight in Minima Moralia that wrong life cannot be lived rightly, that the true field of philosophy is the teaching of the good life, and that philosophical practice consists in the systematic refusal of consolation and the justification of what exists.
Philosophy has explicitly articulated the environmental undercurrent of topography’s ’contested places’ of the human altered landscape of the present. Climate heating spells the collapse of the age-old humanist distinction between natural history and human history. What was once regarded as a necessary, natural condition, underlying the contingent changes of history, now appears to be an effect of human history. During this time of mass extinction in the Anthropocene we are now destroying not just what we are trying to preserve but what we need to survive. Avoiding this requires a shift to caring for country instead of using the land as a resource for our prosperity and a basic respect for all life.
There are three issues with Medlin’s philosophical sketch. The first is that if we are a part of nature and interconnected, then our situatedness as animals in the natural world remains obscure. Which science is Medlin appealing to: physics, evolutionary biology or ecology? Medlin’s reference to the Eskimo’s conception of country implies that our place in nature is not founded on subjectivity, nor is it a physical location or position — ie., the where-ness of things. The First Nation people’s deep relationship and interconnectedness with the land requires philosophy to distinguish place as an abode within which someone resides or dwells from a simple physical location and from space as physical extension. This distinguishing is needed since analytic philosophy’s normal position is that space is primarily a feature of the physical universe, with place a human or subjective construct.
Heidegger articulated the distinction between space and place, and argued that place with its centrality of boundedness, local attachments and interconnections is a necessary element of the structure of human existence. In Australia caring for country as a way to develop a proper reverence for non-human nature implies tying a person to place to which he or she belongs. Country is a bounded, open region, a nourishing terrain and a place in which things are gathered and disclosed. First Nation’s people, who were dispossessed from their land, have highlighted how place mattered to them in both colonial and postcolonial Australia. If place is as much about bounding and enclosing as it is about opening and connecting, then caring for country also implies being ecologically informed.
The second issue is Medlin’s silence about how poetry, literature and visual art can open up a path to intuition as a road to truth in a world where an instrumental, economic reason has turned everything into a resource to be exploited. Both natural science and an analytic philosophy aligned with science say that human beings are physical, natural beings and a part of nature —- as animals in the universe. However, the natural sciences are limited in providing a sense of the existential meaning nature can have for the individual subject. The point of science is the production of general laws which subsume individual cases and enable the manipulation and control of nature. Medlin’s suggestion is that art can help us find our way back to a proper reverence for a non-human nature by disclosing and valuing nature differently to controlling and exploiting it for human purposes. If art opens up a path to intuition, which then provides us with an ecological mode of thinking, then this needs to be spelt out.
What, for instance, is intuition? Is intuition a poetic mode of thinking? Is it a mode of thinking that would help to turn us back to particular places, as in Wordsworth, Hölderlin, Namatjira, Colin McCahon or John Wolseley, or Emily Kane Kngwarreye where the poetics of art, poetry and literature work within and through specific places? Medlin’s silence indicates that his philosophical sketch lacks an aesthetics akin to the German aesthetic tradition, which held that the problem with the natural sciences is that they exclude most of the content of what Edmund Husserl later termed the ‘life-world’, the untheorised horizon of our everyday experience, from any kind of truth. Philosophy as aesthetics can help to make sense of the immediacy of the individual’s sensuous relationship to nature and the world. It held that poetics referred to a form of cognition without concepts that was contrasted with a form of cognition based on fully developed conceptual knowledge? Aesthetics is crucial.
A third issue with Medlin’s philosophical sketch is the absence of an account of the relationship between philosophy, which is about getting life right and about making life right, and an art that facilitates the reorientation of our thinking towards nature and the environment. What is left unsaid is how philosophy connects to individual art works that are bound to the life of particulars, which celebrate the claims of sensuousness and embodiment and hold to a poetic conception of representation. Mandy Martin’s paintings of the ecologically fragile arid country in NSW and the Channel Country are made as a collaborative project with writers and ecologists that combines forms of environmental knowledge about a particular place with visual interpretations of that place. An account of this artwork implies and requires a philosophy of art or an aesthetics.
An explanation for Medlin’s eco-philosophical sketch lacking an aesthetics is that the discourse of aesthetics in Australia was notable by its absence in the 1980s The widespread marginalization of aesthetics in postmodern art theory may be attributed to the success of the art critic and theorist Clement Greenberg, who co-opted a sense-dead Kantian aesthetics to underwrite modernist theory. The postmodern rejection of Greenberg also involved the rejection of Kantian aesthetics and the aesthetic tradition with postmodernism being an anti-aesthetics. Aesthetic autonomy was caricatured as holding that art is a privileged realm which exists at a non-cognitive remove from history, politics and society. Artists, curators, academics and public opinion were indifferent to aesthetic theory; they viewed an aesthetic philosophy as the over theorisation of art works at the expense of the sensuous and material particularity of the art. For cultural studies, with its orientation to popular culture, aesthetics covered up the repressive discourses of race, gender and class in the name of an illusory harmony. Aesthetics and its crypto-theology was seen as a deadweight and outmoded.
The poststructuralism that swept through the humanities in the 1980s and 1990s all but swept aesthetics from the map, leaving us with the opposition of an anti-aesthetic postmodernism and a late modernist aestheticism with little in-between. The in-between was the transgressive, leaky and permeable space of a poetics of the body since the roots of aesthetics as aisthitikos is the sensory experience of perception. Rather than aesthetics being seen as a discourse of the body — a form of cognition, achieved through taste, touch, smell, hearing seeing — it was reduced to the aesthetic feeling of a subject.
We can start to fill in the aesthetic gaps in Medlin’s philosophical sketch by turning to Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, which though largely unknown in Australia, sits in the space between a formalist modernism and an anti-aesthetic postmodernism that rejects aesthetics as the residual metaphysics of a bygone era. Though its uncompromising style is alien, forbidding and remote from us, whilst its notion of a philosophical aesthetics seemed awfully antiquated, Aesthetic Theory works within and revises the German aesthetic tradition to suggest a role for art to help the reorientation of our thinking in relation to nature in modernity.
Intuition in the German aesthetic tradition refers to the sense of immediate givenness or contemplation which apprehends the object without first seeing it in terms of defining concepts. The representations of intuition refer to the sense of the particular, immediate relation to the world which concepts cannot capture. In the wake of Kant’s Critique of Judgement, Schelling presented aesthetic production as a way of overcoming the limits of the understanding, thereby opening up a relationship to nature that is lacking when nature is seen solely in terms of an objectifying empirical science.
Adorno develops this insight through the concept of mimesis. He held that the dominant form of reason in industrial capitalism has two strands: that of instrumentalization –- coming to recognize and experience objects only insofar as they further our practical project, such as economic growth; and secondly, the intensification of socially expressed self-preservation – that is, only relating to objects insofar as they have economic value. The thesis of the Dialectic of Enlightenment is that rationality develops from human self-preservation, but that through the course of history, human conceptuality becomes deformed, leading to a form of life that is deformed in its organization and in how it produces subjects. Horkheimer and Adorno argue that nature in this sense of simply being there to be dominated, means that such domination leads to domination of ourselves as part of nature. History regresses because progress, as the progress of domination, is sacriﬁcal. The current state of affairs is that history-as-progress delivers capitalism and capitalism cannot deliver a reasonable organization of society.
Adorno argued that it is crucial – for aesthetic, normative, and epistemic reasons – that a modernist art resist this social form of reason, in which objects only appear in relation to their economic fungibility and instrumental value. This entails that the artwork must be radically autonomous as it is only autonomy which lends art the power to realize and express our needs; and to stand against the conceptual network of an instrumentalized model of reason. Art becomes social through its opposition to society, and it occupies this position only as an autonomous art.
Modernist art, for Adorno, is the art practice that criticizes the abstract rationality of the instrumental reason modelled on the mathematical and natural sciences that adjudicates questions of value in terms of quantiﬁability and usefulness. Art is a repository for an alternative, poetic rationality that underpins aesthetic modernism’s opposition and resistance to the commodity world of exchange value in modernity. Adorno argued that the truth content of art is inseparable from the sensuous particularity of an art work, because the kind of knowledge implicit in art works is different from the knowledge of objects given by the natural or social sciences. An instrumental rationality in the theoretical and conceptual ways of knowing the world for self-preservation, and the control of nature, needs to get rid of sensuous materiality, concreteness, and the experience of those things. For Adorno it was the radical afunctionality of the works of art that confers upon them the capacity to embody and articulate resistance against the contemporary world of universal exchange in modernity.
The core thesis of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory is that a modernist art practice criticises an abstract, instrumental rationality as a mode of domination by remaining a repository for an alternative mimetic rationality. Modernist art becomes the voice of sensuous particularity against abstract rationality — art is a refuge for mimetic comportment. Mimesis is found in modernist art because art is a sphere which in Adorno’s time is free from the demands of self-preservation and the pursuit of profit. Mimesis is an umbrella term standing for a fuller experience of reason that is repressed and denied by the identity thinking of instrumental rationality, yet still operative within it. These sensuous particulars are the bearers of a kind of truth that is not beholden to the pre-existing and categories and concepts of neo-liberalism — what Adorno called the non-identical. The non-identical registers art’s way of demonstrating the inadequacy of the purely conceptual ways of knowing the world.
Mimesis serves as a constant ‘return of the repressed’ – it is through mimesis that we find the possibility of the irruption of these suppressed experiences, impulses, and so forth. Mimesis’ functions as a short-form reference to these non-instrumental phenomena —the non-cognitive qualities of aesthetic experience help us to make sense of the world and recall that deep within our culture are memories of the forest or salt lake (such as Lake Eyre or Kati Thanda) as a mysterious place and refuge that challenges the idea of landscape as resource. The non-identical is disclosed through a mimetic rationality, which holds the promise of resistance to a dominate order as a mode of contact and engagement: one marked by awe, respect and supplication, but also, is productive of an affective bringing-close and letting be.
An aporia arises here. If we return to Greg Wayn’s topographical photographs of industrial Melbourne we can interpret these as highlighting the domination of nature in the particular place of western Melbourne. These photos indicate that our experience of non-human nature (first nature) is mediated through a world of images, norms and conventions and concepts in our social world (second nature). The factories, bridges and freeways in our social world in late modernity present themselves as first nature, thus creating the illusion that things – i.e. social conditions and relations appear to be part of the natural order of things. This natural appearance of capitalist society is awfully hard to see through.
The problem is that if we only have our socially mediated, conceptual array with its logic of domination and identity thinking, then how can we go beyond this conceptual array of instrumental reason in order to identify what it excludes? If art is rationalized through and through, and itself a species of identity thinking, then how do we come to identify and know the non-identical in the experience of art? How do the cluster of concepts around mimesis and art’s openness to the full texture of experience entail a relation between subject and object different to an instrumental reason’s domination to ensure self-preservation?
Adorno held that art is also a product of identity thinking that harbours the illusion of a resistance to identity thinking; and the existence of that illusion within the work of art makes a difference that matters to the truth of the work of art. He suggests that aesthetic agency helps us to recognise the value of the non-human world in so far as the image of natural beauty can lead us out of simply viewing nature as an object to be dominated for the purpose of self-preservation. Nature is something we have learned to master to such an extent that its intrinsic value is repressed and almost obliterated. For Adorno, art in late modernity “stands in for” first nature: natural beauty does not appear in nature; it appears in the work of art—eg., in the landscapes. So it is only as second nature – as art – that natural beauty appears beautiful. Art beauty has replaced natural beauty. Though the closest we can get to this absent nature is art, the beauty of nature as appearance manifests itself as that which escapes instrumental reasoning and the reduction of nature as a resource for production in capitalism. It is the residue of the non-identical in things.
It is the aesthetic experience of natural beauty in art that helps to dislodge the array of our instrumental concepts, opens us to non-cognitive experience (one without instrumental concepts) and helps us to relate to the object — the land — on its own terms. We see that the world can be in certain states that are not just there for the subject’s self-preservation., There is a promise of something else that is not yet — relating to nature in a non-dominating way. This is a rationality that does not dominate nature as an adversary out of the anxiety of self-preservation and through subsumptive identity thinking. It is one based on a living bodily experience that reflectively and mindfully listens, and is responsive to, its object for its own sake. It discloses a world to us that is repressed by instrumental reason’s conceptual network.
The philosophical reasoning behind this argument is that an instrumental economic reason (an extrinsically formed capacity to produce universals) obscures the non-identical (the individual particularity of things that is supposedly lost when they are subsumed under a general term). It is mimesis that discloses the non-identical that remains in the sense that the ‘non-identical’ is what is left behind by the conceptual apparatus of instrumental reason, which presses experience and judgment within increasingly constrictive bounds. The issue is that art is equally tied to the particularity of sensuous experience (and, moreover, tied to that particularity in its affective form) and grounded in the desire for claims that would have the same universality as other concepts. Adorno’s insight is that “universality” is evident in artworks — the objective status of art — and not simply in the judgments brought to them as held by Kant. This issue is central: it is the desire to acknowledge claims that would make sensuous particulars the bearers of a kind of truth that are not beholden to preexisting categories and concepts.
Adorno can also help us to fill the gap in Medlin’s silence about the relationship between philosophy and art. Adorno shifts us away from an analytic philosophy of art that sees its job to conceptually determine what the object ‘art’ or ‘photography’ is towards a philosophy that emerges from an art that knows something that the propositions, arguments, andyllogisms of Anglo-American philosophy as yet doesn’t. Adorno shows the relevance of the humanities through addressing the problem of how an art work’s meaning can be interpreted in the sedimented content of sensuous forms of a post-historical art. Adorno like Benjamin held that the image or artwork needs to be interpreted. The image’s temporal link to the past needs to be turned into a language that brings the historical image into the present. This is the work of the critic/philosopher who recognizes that past things existing in the present have futurity, and who situates the particular patterning of the work within a broader experimental context of modernity with its destruction of tradition.
Adorno held that this involves passing from commentary to aesthetics, since only philosophy can find the truth content of art. It is here that art and aesthetics converge.Art requires philosophy to interpret it in order say what art is unable to say; but art’s form of expression can never be reduced to, or translated into, the conceptual language of philosophy. Both engage with historical experience in order to become aware of the forces that have shaped and damaged our subjectivity, art and social totality is a crucially important one. Art and philosophy interpret and understand the fragmentation of experiences; whilst philosophy deciphers the art’s hieroglyphs of modernity in the everyday life in a neo-liberal modernity. A topographical photography’s fragmentary pictures of industrial modernity makes visible those marks of an industrial capitalism in particular places that have become invisible in the historical present of neo-liberalism’s business ontology. Philosophy interprets these fragments as evidence of past lives, failures and destruction, and its interpretation helps to make visible the darker side of industrial modernity.
This turn to Aesthetic Theory to put some flesh on Medlin’s philosophical sketch, highlights how Adorno re-asserts the significance of art in the tragic aftermath of the Enlightenment’s domination of nature. Its insight is the value of art for making sense of life; that the sense art makes of the world is not primarily cognitive; that this involves participation in the world; and that our motivations are different to wanting to conceptually know what things are and how they work to ensure our self-preservation. Artworks disclose the non-conceptual medium of experience, have a truth content that is aimed against the falsity of our way of thinking, and open up ways to see the landscape differently. It holds open the perceptual “open,” helping us recognize what we might otherwise foreclose.
In the emerging postindustrial world of the 1990s the end of the cold war, globalization, the global artworld and visual studies meant the anti-aesthetic avant-garde was obsolete and art was no longer a stable, continuous region or privileged domain with an interior meaning. Adorno’s high modernist art as a form of resistance to capitalism, instrumental reason and the crisis of meaningful experience was a historical style.
Yet Aesthetic Theory is still significant in that its idea of aesthetic sensibility — artworks disclosing the non-conceptual medium of experience —- highlights the aesthetic as a specific mode of experience with a critical capacity. Foregrounding the arts as a form of sensuous cognition with a critical potential in the conditions of neo-liberal capitalism gives art a unique significance. Despite its waning significance the arts as sensuous cognition opens a space where the embodied meanings of the artwork are a mode of knowing and valuing the world differently; where photography’s truth about place is disclosive rather than just evidentiary; one where a contemporary topographic photography’s making becomes the world’s way of disclosing itself to us.
If art’s capacity to counter the values of neo-liberalism’s instrumental and calculative relation to beings overburdens the arts, then they are still a significant way in which meaning or sense emerges from the active involvement of the senses/bodies in the world. A topographical photography’s fragmentary pictures of industrial modernity makes visible those marks of an industrial capitalism in particular places that have become invisible in the historical present of neo-liberalism’s business ontology. Philosophy interprets the fragments of the ordinary as traces of past lives, failures and destruction and its interpretation helps to make visible the darker side of operations of capital in industrial modernity.
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Adorno’s Theory of Philosophical and Aesthetic Truth, Owen Hullat, Columbia University Press, New York, 2016.
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Aesthetic Theory, T.W. Adorno, trans. C Lenhardt, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1984
Anywhere or Not at All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art, Peter Osborne, Verso, London, 2013.
Beauty in Photography: Essays in Defence of Traditional Values, Robert Adams, Aperture, New York, 2005.
Dialectic of Enlightenment, Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer, translated John Cumming, Verso, London, 1979.
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The Level-headed Revolutionary: Essays, Stories and Poems, Brian Medlin, (ed.) Gillian Dooley, Wallace McKitrick, and Susan Petrelli, Wakefield Press, Mile End, 2021.
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