Conscientious inhabitants of art-spaces – makers, collectors, readers, and so on – respond to an intersection between expressive position and functional affect. This is a fancy way of saying that we care about the other people involved in artistic processes. But since, according to our common senses, it’s not what you say but how you say it that most affects art’s significance, what does it matter who or where you are when you say it? An ancient question. If it strikes one as frustratingly abstract, consider physically where you are as you read this, and my refusal to tell you where I am outside of web domains as I write this, and you will come to the grounds on which we will travel together.
Definitions, and then Assumptions
Function: an expression which defines the relationship between other expressions, that is, a way of saying how something is done. Process: activity, in this case, of giving or changing the form of an expression. See also: Expressive activity: specifically creative, critical, imaginative, and/or communicative, inter-subjective, material processes. Form: cf. medium; e.g. language. Subject: I’m not unpacking this one. If you need a shorthand, go with “person.” Procedure: a specific instance of process that involves practiced, skilled, talented, or otherwise conditioned activity. Poetics: well, rather than define this and be castigated, I’ll defer to my assumptions.
One: poetics, as opposed to something-else-in-language-as-expressive-activity (call it communication, if you must), begins from the problematic (even paradoxical) grounds of its affective function. You may note the recursion implicit alongside the paradox here – that is, poetics can be recognized in terms of the poetic. Here we have creative work, the fruits of intellectual, manual, and inspired labor. We set this neatly, implicitly, heuristically, against phatic, informative, and critical deployments of expressive activity. I shy from lumping language in here, as the conditions of relation, since communion takes place in a broader plane than syntax/paradigm tuples. Go look it up, if you have to, and then we’ll continue to try to think a little deeper than structure. For structure and interpretation both depend on function.
Two: the flow of uninterrupted genius holds little, if any, place in the construction of a poem, so defined. Highschoolslammers and veryseriousacademics might as well caw incoherent all together, swarm in murder flushed from lakeside groves by smoggy thunderstorming pain, drop raven feathers and the milky excrement of neverlookbackdotcom on the parking lot of canon. But our human teeth have been gritted, our labor has been concentrated on the revision and the purpose. DJC calls us back to browsing. DFH seeks intention and voice. TB lays waste and retrieves substance. This is not a question of style. This is not a matter of ideology. This is the function of labor, of labor, of labor.
Three: not everything can be counted, and not everything can be controlled. Our situation – the envelopment of all things, all processes, all declarations, into the rubrics and the logics and the structures of feeling of neoliberalglobalizedcapitalistechnological society, especially the incommensurably excluded locations and people therefrom – remains mythical. The abstraction of the equivalence of all things remains abstract. Concerned, as we are, with material realities, above ethics or aesthetics, we crash against the material implications of that myth at every moment.
The measure of creativity is fraught with rules and codes, none higher or weightier than those that bind labor. Neither subversive nor cravenly passive, we acknowledge the depth of this association, and its failings. Insofar as we undertake expressive activity (writing or otherwise) from some real place in some real world, we understand and challenge the limits of our rules, our forms, our media. We look to the invisible because we do not always wish to be measured, controlled, counted. Yet even this looking manifests somehow in this same world. Even before a politics inheres in our work, its status as work demands that we walk between negation, transcendence, mundanity, and distractable hustle: razors’ edges.
Expressive position corresponds, in language, to the place from which one speaks. In more general terms, it indicates a reprisal of themes developed from the bottomless expansion of articulation, the well of points of contact with movement of elements around those points. Our impossible abstraction, the position from which expression generates, fails to correlate smoothly to a sovereign subject, but we can loosely (quite problematically) hold the thought of aesthetic subjects in play. Subjects, we know, join sacrifices to imagination. At this juncture (this joint), subjects undertake expressive, privileged, articulation. Even in delusion, expressive activity is founded on its own manifestation. If, in materializing, its objects hug the ground to lick dust; if they float in gloam and nimbus; if they stride confidently ignorant of impending erasure, if they break bricks – in any of these cases the aesthetic object shares an active element, a function of functionality.
Functional affect is one kind of this recursion. Where expressive activity concerns us, its products elicit affective reaction. This can take us by surprise. It can extricate us from fantasy or from mundanity. It can follow all the instrumental rules that we’re so sick of following in the first place. Consider a colloquial cognate of affective function, the converse of functional affect: the thing that makes you feel. Or find that affective function defines and sets the conditions for the feeling reaction to the product of expressive activity. Either way, the line has us dogging it for miles and millennia, unavailed. The attempt to specify or give examples tests our impulses to call on biological, physiological, psychological, and otherwise ontologically reductive saviors. But we know that those offer no deliverance.
In this case we call affect the conditions of feeling-reaction, and function the result of those conditions. The value of the product of expressive activity need not be measured or controlled simply in terms of capital. Beyond pleasure/catharsis/use value or market/artworld/exchange value, aesthetic objects enter into function. Functional patterns describe a particular deployment of affect itself, in terms of rules and conditions for expression. We ask the question of how something is said (or otherwise expressed) again. We seek out general characteristics of expressive activity. Circularity upon the razors.
Launching a shibboleth against a myth, any outline of the process by which aesthetic objects and aesthetic subjects interact promises frustration. I have already laid claim to expressive activity as a particular form of labor. As labor, though, expressive activity denies the totalizing elements of capital – its tendency to measure and control all things in terms of value, development, and so on – because it produces a functional affect, irreducible (we think) to an economy of language. No circuitry, no architecture, no coherent logic, in short, can encompass what process portends. Its ambulatory means, its inconsolable wandering, its bittersweet drift between stasis and chaos threaten to spin off into the metaphorical. To keep this thought tighter, to hold ourselves to its rigor and depth, we must confront proceeding in the realm of the professional.
JW’s lament (“The professional has triumphed. God fucking help us”) seems less, in these terms, for a disappeared community, of gods or any others, than for a truncation of affective conditions. The connection to my own momentary question: which “us” matters here, and why?
We do not all seek out impotence, anonymity, submission. Some of us grind. Some of us grind on our writing or our music or our painting or our performance because we have been marked professional and doomed to show up every day in the habit and the habitus of art. We cannot thereby claim to represent a way of life, so weighted with terms of older capitals long since crisis-transformed, but we see genre or form subside in the face of the intensification of labor. The professional (whom I admire (and emulate insofar as art requires my labor (and I will accept payment for my labor))) names no single stable figure. Here too we have mirages and ideals. But it does name a realm, a set of conditions, an environment. We can shun accolades, awards, and the slush pile, even in such a situation. We can malign the mediocre, the inauthentic, the preprocessed results of careerist pandering. But we are not, ourselves, excused from our work.
We can find calling in this work. We need not weep at the limits to professional company – our admittedly pitiful and often intransigently insufficient excuse for community. We need not dwell on the disappointing products of incompetence, rewarded for charm more than for functional affect. It is enough to mark the shift from amateur/professional oppositions towards an uglier truth: the proletarianization of the production of Content.
The justification for aesthetic education need not adhere to instrumental logic – teaching critical thinking and the like in preparation for professional careers – and it need not swoon over an impossible vision of outsider credibility. A classroom-master can wield their sceptre gracefully. The subsumption of expressive activity and creative identity into a totalizing market has another correlate: the subsumption of poetics and of politics into praxis.
The post-industrial extends beyond the neighborhood now, to all corners of our cities – and it does not follow straightforward paths of gentrification. If we assent to the rent of our creative labor-power to an abstract owner – be it a market or The People – what do we keep for ourselves? And if we embrace the self, the self-mediation of our work, the self-distribution of the products of our labor – and its cognates in recognition, motivation, even power – then do we willingly forego authenticity for artifice? The opposition there weakens at every stroke of our keyboards, pens, brushes, arc-torches. One disappearance does remain, even if we affirm contemporary creative life as imbricated in some markets: our blood need not be sacrificed this instant.
Yet when we concentrate on the functions of expressive activity, we must (at least temporarily) sacrifice our companions and be alone. Further, a willingness to aspire to the cold logic of labor betrays an equally frigid desire to make something, to make something happen. Specifically, to make subjects feel something. This desire drives functional affect, and marks its triggers that surround our daily life and our mediated existences. Aesthetic subjects need not seek individualized or socialized pleasure from the products of expressive activity. Community re-erupts when subjects surround themselves with such products without entering into exchange, theft, or other implicit contracts or obligations. In the factory-modeled Content Production paradigm, creativity is of course annulled by anaesthetic habits. And before some readers suggest that it’s not function at stake, but form as the locus of expressive activity, here is our strongest reminder that it’s about labor – deskilled, devalued, denuded of its mystery, for worse or worser.
Now, what does it matter who says it when they say it? It matters in so far as our positions delineate the rules for activity. Are we breaking them, making them, or following them? These are the relational questions that target, define, and otherwise reductively map out the impact of our positions on our expressions. If function and form converge on position, they do so through procedures. Let this sound cold, if it must. But keep your blood in your veins and come create in the face of death. An ancient solution.
lewis levenbergTags: abstract, aesthetics, affect, circus book, ethics, expression, Form, function, idea, lewis levenberg, poetics, position, subject