AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone


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WHAT MAKES KAFKA PHILOSOPHICAL?

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What follows is a guest post by Espen Hammer on his recent edited volume Kafka’s The Trial: Philosophical Perspectives.

When reading works of literature, philosophers often look for very general assertions of a quasi-theoretical nature. Thus, Camus’s The Stranger – to pick an obvious example  ̶  is supposed to demonstrate the absurdity of human existence. Or, if that doesn’t satisfy them, they typically start discussing entirely abstract questions of meaning, representation, and reference – of interest to academics steeped in Frege, Russell, and Davidson yet devoid of any concrete relation to actual texts of literary significance.

Kafka, however, on which a recent edited volume of mine entitled Kafka’s The Trial: Philosophical Perspectives (OUP, 2018) focuses, is peculiar in that his texts so vigorously seem to resist such general accounts. To be sure, many philosophers have tried to see in Kafka a kind of visionary thinker either of human existence as such or under specific circumstances, in particular those of modernity. Classical accounts of The Trial have focused on theology (“this is what the human condition looks like without God”), psychoanalysis (“this is what guilt and paranoia looks like”), and sociology (“this is the fate of the individual in a society integrated through anonymous, bureaucratic measures”). The list, of course, could be made very long. Note, though, that all the suggested interpretive keys stand in danger of violating our sense of Kafka’s mystery and ineffability. They all do what philosophers too often do: they reduce the text to a unified set of graspable, general meanings.

What is it that, in the absence of thesis-mongering, might make The Trial a philosophical novel? The answer I would propose is two-fold. First, qua philosophical, The Trial is a work of literary modernism. By that I do not mean “experimental” in the loose sense we assign to poetry by Apollinaire or collages by Kurt Schwitters. This novel contains no literary experimentation in the narrow sense. On the contrary, Kafka, being influenced by such master narrators as Goethe and Dostoevsky, aimed for clarity and articulation, writing stories that stand out by their extraordinary display of narrative economy as well as attention to significant detail. Rather, by literary modernism I mean a form of literary discourse that pays sustained attention to its own conditions of existence. The literary modernist dreams of a text that is fully self-authorizing – one that reflectively questions itself and its very capacity for making sense.

The modernism of The Trial is as radical as it gets. Kafka may indeed have been deeply versed in theology and able to translate this interest into his writings. He may perhaps have felt the suffering involved in Freud’s accounts of early childhood trauma. Writing in a turbulent Eastern European location at the outset of the First World War, and being employed in the insurance industry, he cannot have been oblivious to the kinds of experiences associated at the time with notions of alienation and reification. Yet the truly important thing – and this is the second part of how I would account for its philosophical implications – going on in The Trial is its questioning of the very capacity we have, as linguistic beings, to make sense.

In the Wittgensteinian view of language on which I would base such a claim, humans make sense when they manage to insert their words into the right kinds of contexts (or “language games”). The sentence “This is a robin” makes sense in contexts in which the question whether something is a robin can meaningfully be asked. We know what a pupil struggling to learn the names of birds means when he or she says such a thing. However, it makes little or no sense when no such context is provided. The philosopher G. E. Moore, who in front of a tree claimed to know that “this is a tree” when no issues of epistemic failure may be raised, produced little more than emptiness. Why would someone in perfect viewing conditions, faced with such an object and with their cognitive faculties unimpaired, say such a thing? “Language,” Wittgenstein would famously write, “has gone on holiday.”

The Trial abounds with strange, puzzling assertions verging on this kind of emptiness. The information being passed on may at first glance seem clear and comprehensible. However, its frequent elusiveness and obscurity cannot help escaping us. Words float around, failing to be fully intelligible and to make a point. Why, for example, is the painter Titorelli telling K. that he will only help him if the trial goes well? (If the trial goes well, K. doesn’t need his help.) Indeed, what is actually the court before which K. stands, and which slowly yet persistently destroys him? To what kind of order is it answerable? To what might K. appeal in order to demonstrate his presumed innocence? Also, throughout the novel various characters talk of arrests and court proceedings. Yet no clarity is provided about what exactly these procedures involve, or why anyone would instigate them. Of what crime is K. supposed to be guilty? No one seems ready to stand behind his or her words by making them matter. At stake is our very capacity to achieve intelligibility. The characters in The Trial experience each other as foreign not because they are unaware of each other’s identities, but, rather, because they seem utterly incapable of revealing themselves to their fellow human beings.

Is this – that we may find ourselves being mutually incomprehensible, that the generalized context of significance that we call “a language” may fail us, leaving us entirely isolated – perhaps the most timeless warning of Kafka’s The Trial? The pervasive anonymity that Kafka found in the functionaries and the bureaucracy of his own day has not disappeared. Our digitalized, information-saturated, surveillance-oriented surroundings are hardly any less intransparent than the court of that novel. The question I take from my re-reading of Kafka is how our standing as concrete, irreplaceable and vulnerable human beings can be protected from this onslaught of decontextualized speech and symbolization.

If Kafka’s text is philosophical, it is because it problematizes our very capacity for sense-making. While devoid of the kinds of generalities that philosophers usually look for, it becomes an exercise in the attainment of selfhood.

Notes on the Contributor
Espen Hammer is Professor of Philosophy at Temple University, Philadelphia. He is the author of, among other books, Stanley Cavell: Skepticism, Subjectivity, and the Ordinary (Polity Press, 2002), Adorno and the Political (Routledge, 2005), Philosophy and Temporality from Kant to Critical Theory (Cambridge University Press, 2013), and Adorno’s Modernism: Art, Experience, and Catastrophe (Cambridge University Press, 2015). He is the editor of German Idealism: Contemporary Perspectives (Routledge, 2007), Theodor W. Adorno II: Critical Assessments of Leading Philosophers (Routledge, 2015), and Kafka’s The Trial: Philosophical Perspectives (Oxford University Press, 2018). He is also the co-editor with Peter E. Gordon and Axel Honneth of the Routledge Companion to the Frankfurt School (Routledge, 2019) and, with Peter E. Gordon and Max Pensky, of A Companion to Adorno (Wiley-Blackwell, 2019).


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CAN NICKI MINAJ’S “CHUN-LI” BE CULTURAL APPROPRIATION?

What follows is a guest post from Erich Hatala Matthes (Wellesley College).

Last month, Nicki Minaj released the video for her new song “Chun-Li” (along with an accompanying performance on SNL). Replete with chopsticks, conical hats, and other unimaginative Asian stereotypes, the performance quickly led to charges of cultural appropriation. I’m late to the party as far as the Internet commentary cycle is concerned, but I think this case highlights an important aspect of the debate about cultural appropriation that doesn’t always get enough attention. So here’s my ice-cold take: the fact that Minaj is herself a member of an oppressed group does not mean that those calling “Chun-Li” cultural appropriation are misguided. Continue reading


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WHY FASHION IS MORE THAN A MERE CONSUMER OBJECT

What follows is a guest post by Laura T. Di Summa.

Perhaps we can agree on the fact that philosophers have not, for the most part, taken fashion very seriously. There seems to be something wrong, specifically, about being fashionable – about trafficking in the world of glossy magazines, runways, and looks and styles that change, frequently, and at a price. There seems to be something wrong about wearing the very clothes we find in those magazines, about buying them, and about investing energy (and money) in keeping up with them. Continue reading


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PYKE’S PORTRAITS OF PHILOSOPHERS

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What follows is a guest post by Michael Newall (University of Kent). This post is a partial continuation of the earlier post about Hans Maes’ recent book, Conversations on Art and Aesthetics.

Hans Maes’ excellent book, Conversations on Art and Aesthetics (Oxford UP, 2017), features a collection of ten photographic portraits of philosophers of art by Steve Pyke. (These can also be viewed on the website for the book, where it has to be said they appear to better effect. The book also features one portrait by philosopher and artist Claire Anscomb, which appears on the website too.) Pyke, of course, is known within philosophy as a photographer of many of its leading lights. Nobody has documented philosophers in this way before, and few professions have the benefit of such a constant and accomplished portraitist. Continue reading


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ART AND MONUMENTS: THE CASE OF TRUMP’S BORDER WALL

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What follows is a guest post from K. E. Gover.

Monuments are inherently political in a way that other kinds of artworks are not. As the recent controversies surrounding the removal of civil war monuments has made painfully clear, monuments make a public statement about what citizens should value and remember. The Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel has recently proposed that Trump designate as a “national monument” the eight border wall prototypes located along the US-Mexico border, claiming that they have “significant cultural value and are significant land art.” By petitioning that the wall prototypes be preserved indefinitely as a kind of memorial to bigotry, Büchel implicates anti-immigration Trump supporters and the liberal elite art establishment under the same proposal. Continue reading


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JAAC x AFB: WHY DO WE RESIST ROUGH HEROINES?

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What follows is a post in our ongoing collaborative series with the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. This is based on a new article by Adriana Clavel-Vazquez, “Sugar and spice, and everything nice: What rough heroines tell us about imaginative resistance.

After five seasons of House of Cards, it was finally Claire Underwood’s turn to be a proper rough heroine. In seasons one to four we find an interesting contrast between the moral transgressions that make Claire and Frank Underwood rough heroes: she is a ruthless, selfish, and drunk-with-power woman who is uninterested in motherhood; he is a ruthless, selfish, drunk-with-power man who has murdered several people. But in season five, Claire (finally!) murders Tom Yates, her journalist lover who had been given full access to the Underwood’s in previous seasons, and who was ready to publish an incriminating tell-all book. After poisoning him, Claire gives herself a couple of minutes to spare a few tears before calmingly leaving dead Tom behind. 2017 was the year of the rough heroine in pop culture: in addition to Claire Underwood, appreciators were given Grace Marks in Netflix’s adaptation of Alias Grace, and Katherine Lester in Lady Macbeth. But why did it take so long? Rough heroes, like Walter White, Patrick Bateman, and A Clockwork Orange’s Alex, have been around since, like, forever. Continue reading


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BEAUTY IN STRANGE PLACES: ART FIRST

I met a critic, I made her shit her drawers
She said she thought hip-hop was only guns and alcohol
I said “Oh hell naw!” But yet it’s that too
You can’t discrimi-hate cause you done read a book or two
What if I looked at you in a microscope, saw all the dirty organisms
Living in your closet would I stop and would I pause it?
…Speeches only reaches those who already know about it
This is how we go about it

– André 3000, “Humble Mumble

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What follows is a guest post by Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò.

This blog recently hosted a post on country music which defended country music partly because of its interaction with the class dynamics between the working class people who listen to the style and the broader culture in which they do so. The author of this piece comes close to a trope I’ve noticed in many online discussions of art, which feature people “critiquing” the performative politics of the authors but not the aesthetics.

It seems to me like some people these days think their political judgments should lead their aesthetic judgments. In the last few years I’ve been in more conversations than I care to remember about why this or that music is good or bad based on the politics or political symbolism of the artist or their work – why we should like this music because it’s made by representatives of this or that identity group, or we should hate that music because it’s “cultural appropriation”. And, worse, I’ve gotten through many of these discussions without drums or melody or harmony so much as being mentioned, much less being the focus. Sometimes, I was myself guilty! Third and perhaps worst of all is something I think of as a predictable result of the social environment helped along by the first two things: A lot of people in various artistic mediums seem very interested in discussing and preening the social significance of their work but uninterested in developing the fundamental skills of their craft. So, in the spirit of self-criticism: I want to try to do all of these things less because I think these tendencies are bad for art. By the end of this piece I want to have explained why I think that. Continue reading


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#NOFILTER: PHILOSOPHICAL REFLECTIONS ON PHOTOGRAPHY IN THE AGE OF INSTAGRAM

What follows is a guest post by Daniel Star (Boston University). All photographs are the author’s own. (Readers are encouraged to follow the links in captions for full-size, full-resolution images.)

We’ve all seen it. Maybe we’ve done it. Maybe we’ve “liked” it. Someone takes a snapshot of a wonderful sunset with a smartphone and posts it on a social media site with the “#nofilter” hashtag. This is one of the most popular hashtags on Instagram, and it is now also used widely on Facebook and Twitter. The sunset was no doubt beautiful (sunsets tend to be beautiful), but it’s unlikely that the photograph itself was of a high quality – smartphone shots rarely are, and even a setting sun will tend to blow out highlights (bright regions in images, see below), leaving empty space in part of the photo. Perhaps this doesn’t matter, because the point of such a social media post may not be aesthetic, but rather to simply communicate that a person witnessed a beautiful sunset, and to relay to friends a substitute in the form of a snapshot. And it’s true that applying one of the filters supplied by Instagram is unlikely to have improved the snapshot from an aesthetic point of view (the original aim of using “#nofilter” may have simply been to indicate that one of these filters, in particular, has not been used, but its now much broader pattern of usage strongly suggests its meaning has expanded). Continue reading


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WHAT MAKES HEAVY METAL HEAVY?

What follows is a guest post by Jay Miller.

One of the great legends of heavy metal music history goes like this:  In the early 1990s, a little known three-piece band from San Jose, California named Sleep worked out a deal with London Records to produce their third album, Jerusalem, which included the rare luxury of maintaining full creative control. Instead, they blew most of the $75,000 advance on custom guitars, high-end amplifiers, and lots of marijuana. During two month-long recording sessions, they recorded a single, hour-long song filled with slow, churning guitars and monotonic chants having something to do with a new race of “Weedians.” Throughout the recording process, the song (which in various forms the band had played live for several years) evolved: it got longer; and, in the words of bassist Matt Pike “It got weird.” Continue reading