Saturday, 13 September 2008

call for re/transvaluation

The old aesthetic values fall into what Nietzsche speaks of as “higher values.” Authenticity and uniqueness are called into crisis (via reproduction) and are shown to be “categories that refer to a purely fictitious world” (WP §12b). But it is not enough to stop here, with the death of aura. A nihilism that merely destroys the old values constitutes a weak, reactive nihilism. It is like a petulant child, denying anything put in front of it. “If the tyranny of former values is broken in this way”, Nietzsche writes, “then a new order of values must follow of its own accord” (WP §461). Creation and destruction are inextricably linked within the Dionysian affirmation. Creation is only possible via destruction. In his description of the Nietzschean operation within Deleuze’s philosophy, Peter Hallward says, “an active or masterful force is one that creates values rather than extinguishes them.” This is slightly misleading, for it implies that the extinguishing of values is outside the creative realm. A more accurate statement would be: “an active force is one that creates values as it extinguishes them.” The only complete nihilism for Nietzsche is one that overcomes itself.

It is not enough to say “that nothing formerly held true is true” (WP §459). Nihilism demands more than just a new set of rules. Art has changed its rules before. Even when the explicitly religious valuations were discarded, the same structures of value led to the secularized “cult of beauty” (SW 4:256). The task Benjamin accomplishes in this work is the exposition of all these various forms of valuation as having the same basis: ritual, which in turn is based on uniqueness and authenticity. In order to achieve true change in the theory of art, the concept of aura must be liquidated, for, as Deleuze states, “it is only by changing the element of values that the values that depend on the old element are destroyed.” It is a weak nihilism that engages in mere revaluation, attacking the symptoms of values but not the underlying disease. Active nihilism, on the other hand, culminates in transvaluation: “not a change of values, not an abstract transposition … but a change and reversal in the element from which the value of values derives.” However, in order for this to truly be the completed form of nihilism, the element of value has to be that which itself constitutes change. For Nietzsche, that element is becoming: “becoming has no value at all, for anything against which to measure it, and in relation to which the ‘value’ would have meaning, is lacking” (WP §708). There is no standard by which to judge becoming, nothing to compare it to. It can form the element of valuation, though, in that things can be judged by their relation to becoming. That is to say, to what degree does it facilitate or deny becoming. In this way, transvaluation achieves an overcoming of nihilism, in that it turns nihilism itself into constant transvaluation.

Benjamin says that once emancipated from the strictures of the rule of aura, art finds a new social function: “Instead of being founded on ritual, it is based on a different practice: politics” (SW 4:257). Politics serves as the new element of valuation for art. Like becoming, politics is beyond value in and of itself. There is no measure to which we can judge politics. There are ways of judging political formations and organizations, but these are not evaluations of politics as such. Whereas before, basing value in terms of ritual, artworks’ use-value was cultic. Cultic value represents the values of inaccessibility, of higher values. But the affirmation of their demise leads to something different, for “to affirm is to unburden: not to load life with the weight of higher values, but to create new values which are those of life, which make life light and active.” The political valuation links politics to becoming, that is to say, to life itself. The use-value facilitated by political valuation of art is what Benjamin terms “exhibition value.” The exhibition value is related to politics in that it is derived from the way it associates becoming and living to the work. This of course, changes the functions of art, and leads to “a qualitative transformation in its nature” (SW 4:257).

One of these transformations, Benjamin tells us, is that “the artistic function may subsequently be seen as incidental” (SW 4:257). The political valuation of art certainly changes the value of artistic function, but we misread Benjamin if we see this as a negation of artistry. That would be to misunderstand the nature of the change in values. A properly nihilistic transvaluation means that no destruction goes unaccompanied by a new creation. In The Disenchantment of Art, Rochlitz writes: “the technically reproducible work of art, as Benjamin had described it, no longer contained any properly artistic value; desacralization has left in its wake only instrumental and therapeutic functions.” It is true that Benjamin does not account for a “properly artistic value”, but those artistic values were based in the old system of valuation. In the wake of transvaluation, artistry, too, must be rethought. “Art as was can no longer be in the face of reproduction,” says Esther Leslie, “and artistry moves from isolated and unique production to a sort of scientific production in front of a number of production experts.” That is to say, that the death of traditional art means the death of traditional artistry. Technological reproduction creates new forms of art, forms that are reproduced by virtue of their very production. Film, for example, presents itself as a form which can be exhibited in ways never before possible for traditional forms. If art is to be judged on its political basis, than artistry becomes a measure to which the political value is effectuated within the exhibition of the work. Granted, as Benjamin states, artistry does become increasingly incidental. This is due to the fact much of this effectuation occurs via the reproductive process. Still, it is up to the artist to produce works that facilitate this process to a certain degree of success. Furthermore, the artist himself takes a completely different role, as the effect of exhibition takes precedence over the effect of the artist. The artwork is no longer dependent on its status as created by an artist for its value. Still, this is not to say that artistry is dead, but that it has merely been transmuted.

But it is not just artistry that is transformed in this new relation. The nature of experience finds itself in crisis. Benjamin tells us that the “The crisis of artistic reproduction that emerges in this way can be seen as an integral part of a crisis of perception itself” (SW 4:338). Or, put another way, “the issue of what constitutes a work of art is symptomatic of the broader question of how to respond to the change in the character of experience provoked by technological progress.” Our ways of perception, our experience of the artwork were based on a certain type of experience. For example, in Kantian aesthetics, the aesthetic judgment “cannot be other than subjective.” That is to say, it has to be based on what “the subject feels himself, [namely] how he is affected” by the artwork. The beautiful was derived as a use-value from the effect. This experience is based around the old experience of the artwork, a reflection on a unique object in a unique space and time. The beautiful takes a different role in the realm of mechanical reproducibility. The nature of the reflection changes, as “technology has subjected the human sensorium to a complex kind of training” (SW 4:328). The feeling of pleasure is based around the political exhibition value of the object of reproduction. The beautiful in the classic sense no longer applies. Rather, beauty must now be conceived as a qualification of the politicality of the work. This change in the relation of experience is embodied by Baudelaire: “He named the price for which the sensation of modernity could be had: the disintegration of the aura in immediate shock experience. He paid dearly for consenting to this disintegration – but it is the law of his poetry” (SW 4:343).

Let us consider this in another way. Benjamin defines the aura of natural objects as “the unique apparition of distance, however near it may be” (SW 4:255). The power of the auratic lies in its unattainability. When applied to art objects, it means that no matter how close one gets to the object, it can never get grasp the source of its power. The apparition of distance means that the true distance to the source of the aura is an illusion. It can never be fully grasped; one cannot touch a ghost. This is to say that there is something outside of experience. Or rather, that which we experience is not the real thing. In destroying aura, Benjamin also destroys the “other”, “unachievable” world from which it draws its power. For Nietzsche, there is no such thing as a “real world”. All valuations which place the existence of a realm outside our own are condemnations of this world: “to imagine another, more valuable world is an expression of hatred for a world that makes us suffer” (WP §579). If suffering is a part of experience, then it is no means to devalue the world; the concept of suffering has to be included within experience. In the auratic mode, in which that which we perceived was not included in the real world. Like Benjamin, Nietzsche rejects and destroys the realm beyond perception. He writes: “We have abolished the real world: what world is left? The apparent world perhaps? … But no! With the real world we have also abolished the apparent world!” (TI, 51). The distinction between real and apparent is no longer intelligible. In the affirmation of the destruction of the “real” and “apparent” worlds, we create something new. For Nietzsche, there is just “the world, as it is, without subtraction, exception or selection” (WP §1041). We have to redefine experience to fit this understanding of the world. Esther Leslie describes the process: “in a sense all experience for Benjamin is technological, since the term technology designates the artificial organization of perception; as such, experience changes with the development of technology.” This changed in experience is still experience. It invokes new experiences, while at the same time it degrades or eliminates old ones. Baudelaire saw the perceived decline in the quality of experience as part of modernity. “The law of his poetry” is such that he has to “[transform] a degraded lived experience into an experience in the full sense of the term.” But it becomes more than revaluating experience. Against a sort of bizarre lament of the decay of experience, experience undergoes a transvaluation in Baudelaire. If this is what we experience, then that must be experience. We misunderstand this to say that this experience is degraded. Following Nietzsche, it demands that we abolish any idea of a realm of experience beyond that which we actually experience.

Under this definition, the experience of the artwork takes precedence over the artwork itself. More than that, experience itself is linked to becoming. Art is valued by politics, but this is based in an experience which is dependent on becoming. What follows from this is a redefinition of not just art, but of everything along these lines as a mode of passing and becoming. The auratic work denies becoming. Its basis lies in its unique existence in space and time. As such, it sees itself as fixed within that space and time. According to say, the Catholic Church, the Madonna means the same thing now that it did in the fifth century. However, this denies the true nature of the world as a product of becoming. The world is always in flux, Nietzsche says, and as such, “it has a different aspect from every point; its being is essentially different from every point” (WP §568). As the artworks persist through time, they become subject to the same form of change. The artwork, like the origin, reveals different facets of itself over time. It then comes down to a choice: affirmation or reaction. Either deny becoming and cling to the auratic, or affirm becoming and the new political valuation of art. In the affirmation of the flux of becoming, art becomes emancipated and open: “if [the borders of a work] are permeable and open, then the work is constantly in a process of transformation, becoming other than itself.” Meaning is not fixed in time. Given the new standard of aesthetics as political, as a form of use value, then it is foolish to think that usage might not change over time. As such, I myself, as a creature of becoming, am not fixed in time. In affirming myself in recurrence, I also affirm all other selves that I pass through to get to myself. The moment I affirm, I no longer am: “I deactualize my present self in order to will myself in all other selves whose entire series I must be passed through” in order to recur. The same is the case with art. In affirming the artwork as an emergence of becoming, I deny all the past formulations of meaning that it took as no longer relevant in this particular moment. The artwork is open at every moment, but this opening means the closing of the preceding ones. This is not to say that history has no bearing on an object, but rather that this bearing is itself no longer fixed. Everything now becomes dependent on its mode of becoming and passing away. The value giving element is becoming itself.

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