Echoes of the Future: Apprehensive Aesthetics for a Bygone World, #4–Apprehension.
By Otto Paans
APP EDITORS’ NOTE:
The essay below, Otto Paans’s “Echoes of the Future: Apprehensive Aesthetics for a Bygone World,” will appear here in serial form, and then be published in full, in a slightly revised version, in Borderless Philosophy 3 (2020).
This is the fourth and final installment.
But you can read or download a .pdf of the complete current version of the essay, HERE.
And you can also read more about Otto Paans and his work HERE.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
The music of Silvestrov and the narrative of Area X are both suffused with a sense of apprehension. The word has a double meaning: first, one can look forward in apprehension and open oneself towards what is coming one’s way. Second, the term in its Kantian sense describes the way that we grasp objects.[i] For Kant, the term is technical; in the case of the artistic worlds we discussed, the term is deeply existential.
It is existential because the way that we apprehend our world is closely related to our Weltbild (world-picture).[ii] This representation of the world we inhabit determines how we view the cosmos and our own place in it. The presence of foreboding, however, forms a dark and threatening sky above the entire picture. As Beck notes, global warming and climate change make us truly cosmopolitan: we are united on a planet with nowhere else to go. And while Beck asks the worthwhile question “how can we think of climate change as an opportunity?”, is it clear that for many people, the presence of global warming has immediate consequences that cannot be escaped or turned into opportunities. The “slow violence” that eats away at their existence is hardly visible, as it is distributed in time and space.
Silvestrov’s artistic world makes a world-picture of resignation audible. In this reality, the debris of the past constitutes a painful and tragic presence. The listener must deal with the echoes that are essential building blocks of the world he finds himself in. When we transpose this vision onto our world, we see that the echoes we inherited will linger for a long time and will possibly never fade away. Modern consumer society generated a lasting echo of resource depletion, ecosystem destruction, and elevated CO2 levels. Modern medicine increased the lifespan of individuals and has ironically contributed to overpopulation by being extremely effective. Modern mass media actively alter our perception of the world on an unprecedented scale. Digitalization will alter the face of humanity beyond recognition once more and more digital technologies are linked to our cognitive apparatus.
In such a world, Silvestrov’s approach provides an attitudinal alternative: to be able to start over by confronting the only choice we have: artfully repurposing the structures of the past. Where “high modernity” conceived of the road to the future as an overcoming and erasure of the past, Silvestrov starts over by reconfiguring the past in new constellations.[iii] Doing away with the past is not possible — its echoes still resound.
This vision shies away from the modernist vision of a technology-driven highway to paradise. It also avoids reactionary pessimism or a naive “back to nature” approach. There is no nature to go back to, or at least, it is not what it used to be. Our world-picture has metamorphosed, and some of the old categories for thinking about our role as a species have changed or have disappeared altogether. Thus, maybe our new attitude ought not to be characterized by technocratic optimism or reactionary pessimism, but by what Schopenhauer described as “denying the Will” — a self-imposed asceticism in the face of desire. However, this is not the voluntary asceticism of a monk or hermit, but an unwavering acceptance of the predicament we find ourselves in. This existential attitude shies away from consumerism that will guarantee abundance in perpetuity. We must reject to it in order to peek beyond our illusionary world-picture.[iv]
The old world-picture is increasingly irrelevant for contemporary ecological circumstances. Its reliance on economic growth, profit and the ceaseless transformation of natural resources into consumer products cannot last forever. Clinging to this vision is the reason that we will enter a new world far quicker than we foresaw. Nevertheless, some of the accomplishments of the old order may be sorely needed to make choices that allow new generations to sustain themselves. Humanity has to live with some of its most promising accomplishments and with the consequences of its worst excesses. Therefore, we may need to look at the world with a renewed sense of apprehension, but not with a sense of unbridled joy. Presently, we do not know exactly what mechanisms we have set in motion through our global existence as a species. We have no idea what the long-term consequences of our growing societies will be. The tragic note here is that our failures and accomplishments accompany any conceivable future, and we need to apprehend them with a combined sense of awe and agency.
Aesthetically, adopting an “attitude of apprehension” may well lead to a renewed interesting in agency as such. The core premise of the Southern Reach trilogy is that humans start to recognize that there are different types of agency in the universe, some of which actually work on them. In realizing this, our finitude forces itself onto us: the type of subjectivity that defines us is the very cause that we can foresee our own demise. Self-consciousness enables us to recognize the enormous potential of another, alien force for which we are mere substance. In Vandermeer’s novels, this premise leads to an atmosphere of ominous foreboding.
But there is redemption to be found here — if we are able to recognize the agency of other actors in the world in which we are embedded, we may peek beyond a self-imposed “veil of Maya”: our subjectivity will not be the pinnacle of evolution, although we may be the authors of its inevitable demise. We may continue to exist, but in a different form than we could imagine.
The first step in thinking of ourselves as one type of agency among others is to do away with the existing world-picture of nature. No longer is nature an external domain or an inert conglomerate of resources. Instead, it is a half-object that we can apprehend only partially, its depths inaccessible to us. Surprisingly, we are confronted on a daily basis with the unknown. We go to sleep every night, but the precise cause of sleep is unknown. We do not have a clear definition of what consciousness is (despite claims to the contrary); the precise dynamic of the chemical cycle in the oceans eludes us; we have no idea of the long-term consequences of the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters. Like Area X, our reality does not add up to a coherent picture. On the contrary, the more data we assemble, the less we seem to understand, as the resulting worldview does not add up as neatly as we expected.
It is against this background of incomplete knowledge that Morton proposes that we should opt for an object-oriented approach to nature. Instead of dissecting objects and phenomena into datasets and calculations, we should be ready to confront objects in all their traumatic directness, without prying them apart in attempt to control and direct. In other words, we should be ready to see object as irreducible units that we must deal with. As example, Morton cites Francisco López’s musical work La Selva (1998). It is a recording of rainforest sounds that is carefully looped, mixed and equalized. Out of short recordings, a composite sound-image emerges that represents the existence of the rainforest.
However, in my view, Morton misses here the mark somewhat when he says that seeing an object as object treats it as a unit. López’s La Selva is not a monolithic representation of the rainforest, but a multi-impression, or “multiple apprehension” as Kant called it.[v] For Kant, the overlaying of multiple images of the same type creates an overall average. Overlaying the images of a thousand individual human bodies creates the representation of “the average human”. In the case of hyperobjects and also La Selva, this tactic does not work any longer. We must cope with the full complexity of the object, and no matter how much representations we superimpose, the picture does not become coherent.
That being said, La Selva allows us to experience the complexity for which we fashioned the label “rainforest” in its textured and variegated richness. Its careful looping and equalizing create something new that is not faithful recording of a rainforest in action, but an impure and polished sonic representation. This representation is an echoing memory, but one that like Silvestrov’s soundscape has a certain apprehensive and strangely alive quality.
The same lively and layered qualities can be observed in the Axial Age paintings (2005–2007) of the German artist Sigmar Polke. Fascinated with the notion of “mistakes” or “printing errors”, he started to combine and overlay different resins, toxins, uranium rays and reactive compounds that resulted in spontaneous chemical reactions on the painting surface. In the Axial Age series, the pigments applied to translucent canvases will gradually change color due to their exposure to the sunlight. Through this process, the entire idea of the artist’s control over a work is turned around — the painting becomes the subject of an inevitable process of transformation that is law-bound yet spontaneous. Under the hands of the artist, the materials reveal their agency, transforming the work in something quite beyond what one can control, but that nevertheless is part of its artistic content.
Recorded sounds and painted colors function as echoes, but the technology that made the recording possible is also an echo of sorts, albeit a technological one. It is the result of a series of inventions and machines that led up to modern recording equipment and painting techniques. In the new world picture, the mode of expression is radically impure. It involves recording equipment, rainforest sounds, and digital means for sharing the artwork; technology and nature and technology again. In the case of paintings, it involves the invention of painting techniques, canvas and production of compounds. In this impure mode of being, the realm of unspoiled, untarnished nature is gone forever. At this point in time, we have to enter a new world that irrevocably bears our imprint. It is a new, metamorphosed word-picture that we must inhabit, and of which we do not know the full outline.
The implicit themes of the Southern Reach trilogy explore this thought, working out its implications. However, the estrangement sets in when human beings encounter a world that bears an imprint they cannot recognize. They look upon a world that bears someone else’s imprint — a view that is just as strange as the one that humanity must currently internalize. Nature in its Romantic, untarnished state is gone — its otherness over and against culture has disappeared, and with it the imaginative space that provides a counterweight to humanity’s influence.
Some of the strangeness that accompanies this new world-picture is visible in Philip Beesley’s installation Hylozoic Ground (2010). In collaboration with an engineer and a chemist, the artist created a fragile, intricate acrylic forest. A densely distributed network of microsensors and valves enables the installation to respond to the breathing, movement or touch of visitors. It moves with an almost imperceptible breathing motion and is able to filter basic chemical elements out of the air, synthesizing them into new compounds. The uncanny thing about encountering the installation is the awareness that it has a metabolic rhythm of its own. Its fragility and Devonian charm lures you in like the Venus flytrap. It responds to your presence, but you do not know what it wants. Its intentions are tangible, but not intelligible. The Hylozoic Ground represents a natural-technological otherness that cannot be fathomed directly. The realization that the installation is carefully engineered makes the whole experience all the more fascinating. For a moment, you step in the shoes of the characters that ventured into Area X, but fortunately with more sense of control.
Humanity has to confront its imprint on the biosphere and finds itself again in a universe that is strangely incomprehensible. Natural processes, dynamics on timescales that elude our understanding, imperceptible changes in our biosphere and confrontations with cataclysmic events of the past demand a regimen of expression that — like Silvestrov’s music — probes and reflects the new intricacies of our world. There is a close kinship between these aesthetics and what Ruskin called “vital beauty” or Schopenhauer called “the better consciousness”.
Above all, it is an aesthetics that is imbued with a kind of spontaneity — whether the appearing and disappearing echoes of a Silvestrov symphony, the endless transformation of Area X, the looping sounds of La Selva, the breathing motion of the Hylozoic Ground, or the endlessly developing intricacy of Sigmar Polke’s paintings. All these works showcase a naturalistic spontaneity that overwhelms one, that invites one to “become” it. In this sense, the American composer John Luther Adams was very perceptive when he named two of his recent works Become Ocean (2013) and Become Desert (2018). In a structure of ceaseless becoming, transformation and metamorphoses, Adams created sonic immersions in which one fuses with the artworks. Its inner dynamics invite one in and encroach on one’s mind. In such works is a spontaneity at work, a life force that animates them:
Spontaneity is a beauty that is in contact with the sublime, just enough to make it a force of life rather than death.[vi]
It is spontaneity that allows us to glimpse the Sublime in all its vitality and vividness. Flower petals unfolding, sand dunes shifting, the play of reflections on the surface of a pound, the formation of a thunderstorm at the horizon, galloping zebras, the heaving of a breathing body and the endless and relentless variation produced by nature display a ceaseless life force — again a version of Schopenhauer’s Will. To recognize this is to pass the threshold into new aesthetic domains. Such domains may be tragic and foreboding, as in the music of Silvestrov; yet, there is also redemption and hope to be found. At the very end of the Area X trilogy, the remaining characters head back to the border, only to find that it has advanced beyond its original position. They find that the whole Southern Reach Facility has been overtaken by it. Literally, the old world is in ruins, and a new one has arrived:
By mutual unspoken decision, they halted at the edge of the building. From there, a gash in the side showed them three floors of empty, debris-strewn rooms, and a greater darkness within. (…) “What if there is no world out there? Not as we know it? Or no way out to the world?” Grace saying this, while existing in that moment in a world that was so rich and full.[vii]
The old world is in ruins and is “building its own ecosystem”.[viii] The new order is already here, and yet Grace fails to notice it. She simply cannot — yet — accept that reality has metamorphosed, and that old ways of thinking obfuscate the appreciation for the richness of the new. What she lacks is a sense of apprehension, of things yet to come.
Just like the remaining characters exploring Area X, we may need to accept that we are already in a new world, for which we need a new regimen of apprehensive expression: the old world ended yesterday.
[i] Kant 1999: 228–229 (A99–A100).
[ii] Beck 2016: 5–7.
[iii] Scott 1998.
[iv] Schopenhauer 1969: 386–392.
[v] Kant 2001: 117–118 (5.233–5.234).
[vi] Spuybroek 2012: 56.
[vii] Vandermeer 2014: 586–587.
[viii] Vandermeer 2014: 586.
Bauman, Z., Liquid Times. Living in an Age of Uncertainty (London: Polity Press, 2007).
Beck, U., The Metamorphosis of the World (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016).
Berman, M., All That is Solid Melts into Air. The Experience of Modernity (London: Verso, 2010).
Hegel, G.W.F., Phenomenology of Spirit, transl. A.V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977).
Kant, I., Critique of the Power of Judgment, transl. P. Guyer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
Kant, I., Critique of Pure Reason, transl. P. Guyer and A.W. Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).
Morton, T., Hyperobjects. Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).
Schmelz, P., Silvestrov and the Echoes of Music History, The Journal of Musicology 31.2 (2014): 231–271.
Schopenhauer, A., The World as Will and Representation, vol. I, transl. E.F.J. Payne (New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1969).
Scott, J.C., Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1998).
Serinus, J.V., The North American premiere of a Silvestrov symphony that might give you wings, The Seattle Times, 7 April 2016. Available at: <https://www.seattletimes.com/entertainment/classical-music/the-north-american-premiere-of-a-silvestrov-symphony-that-might-give-you-wings/>.
Spuybroek, L., Ages of Beauty: Revisiting Hartshorne’s Diagram of Aesthetic Values, in: Brouwer, J., Mulder, A., and Spuybroek, L. (eds.) Vital Beauty. Reclaiming Aesthetics in the Tangle of Technology and Nature (Rotterdam: V2_Publishing/NAi Publishers, 2012): 32–63.
Strugatsky, A. and Strugatsky, B., Roadside Picnic, transl. O. Bormashenko (London: Gollancz/Orion Publishing, 2012).
Vandermeer, J. Area X. The Southern Reach Trilogy (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014).
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