Aesthetics and Tao:
Reflections on Asger Jorn's Luck & Chance[1]

Intent and Accident, Controller and Controlled may be Bogus Gods
no prime agent, no secondary automaton, no norm, no freak

Suppose there were four other principles operating in the universe which, in an interpenetrating dance, eliminated the dialectic argument of the mover and the moved altogether, where the distinction between "I grabbed the stone" and "The stone grabbed me" was nothing? That the language used was merely an acknowledged simplification of a bazilion events coming together in a single moment of mutual grabbing, the sense of which was owned by no one but the meaning or intensity grasped by all?

Where Everything is contingent, there is no longer cause and effect, stimulus and response. There is only interest (and that is aesthetics) and choice (and that is movement). The abstraction is a game of eight-ball or the simultaneous strum of the first and fifth note, ignorant of the perspiration on the sawyer's brow over the same tree which became the cue stick and the guitar's slim neck.

The guitar should be a dead give-away or no-brainer, to use two aptly dead metaphors, revived with expended potlatch and renewed with play, or simply admiration. When one can admire (enjoy) the play of the other, the distinction between performer and spectator is also reduced to nothing beyond the sharing of gifts, which in this case are the mutually perceived movements of the vibrating instrument. If the sawyer and luthier are also among the "audience", where does one place primary agency? The tree or the the fertilised soil upon which it fed? Certainly it is the nature of the grain still living in the resonating soundboard which produced the sting in the player's heart when s/he chose that instrument over another! Certainly as well, it is the nature of the grain in the gut of the sheep who shat upon the soil from which sprouted the spruce. Something of that very entrail was entailed in the gut of the sheep which later became the "catgut" string setting the board to vibrating.

The circle of interest

Aesthetics is the ceaseless hunt of the universe, nature and humanity to prove that nothing supernatural exists, for the truth of aesthetics is namely nothing other than the naturalness of the unnatural, the humanity of the inhuman, the health of the anomalous and sick, the clarity of the darkness, the good-fortune of misfortune, the competence and power of the incompetent and powerless, the significance of the insignificant, the track of the trackless, the reality of the unreal, the rightness and the truth of the intolerable, of dislike, nastiness, faithlessness, lack of respect, disobedience, injustice, recklessness, cynicism, distrust, insincerity, falseness, immorality, irresponsibility, crime and lawlessness, the order and utility of the capricious, the ephemeral, the terrible, the awful, the doubtful, the uneven, the unusual and misplaced as well as the unusable, useless, inept, disordered and impractical, in short, all that is not interesting except in its immediate effect, the new, the radical, the original and experimental, the fertility of the earthquake.
– Asger Jorn

Both dialectic analysis and existentialist phenomenology have a profound aesthetic value to us most precisely when they reflect our alienation. The first resonates with the day-to-day friction we wish to overcome – the hypocrisy of everyday life – struggle. The second resonates with the fact that we have no concept of just what our life should rather be. We did not come into the world separated and alienated. We come into the world moving, unfolding, becoming. But the world we find ourselves in once we discover that we are selves, prohibits us. What we have can be taken away, and usually is. What we need or want can be withheld, and usually is. We are told what we want, what we need, who we are. We no longer unfold, we are folded, spindled, mutilated. We are told "Stop! You've arrived! This is where it's at!" We acquiesce all too readily because it is all we can know once we've stopped to face (this) reality and decide to "settle down".

Asger Jorn suggested all learning comes from struggle. Is this necessary? If struggle is the correspondent of friction, of dialectic conflict, of alienation, the assumption would be that revolution as "conflict resolution" is impossible in any age or condition of "humanity", lest we stop learning altogether. This is the ultimate in depressive ontology. Having been through major depression, I refuse to believe in this pessimistic presumption of "human nature". Life itself becomes a perpetual condition of struggle and survival. Madness is guaranteed, as there is no other 'reason' for our discontent (ala Freud) than our own nature. There is contained a certain paradoxical demand: "Life is struggle, so quit your griping, acquiesce!". In a state of constant friction, all one can do is scrape and resist! The widest question becomes, "Can't we end struggle?"

It is often remarked that history is written by the victors. This is true regardless of the intentions of the writers or the characters in their plays. How often we view in our ancestors only those details which can be said to resemble ourselves. It is the nature of ancestor worship under constraint to create heroes, villains and messiahs. How often the messiah is depicted as the farm-hand who conquers the city or the civil magistrate who's moved to the country (slash "desert"). History is the art of justification, blame and hope. In an older age, an heroic ancestor was merely an attraction, a model of someone venturing out on a desireable path leading to ourselves, someone to emulate.

Jorn suggests the arts are tools to achieve aesthetic effects. If we can approach the sublime, or merely appreciate beauty, is this not an end, if only a temporary putting-off of friction? A tradition from Dante to Poe to Jarry and Artaud illustrates an equally powerful aesthetic corresponding to the grotesque, macabre, and dark. Aesthetics is not found in the object, is more than a matter of subjective judgment, but is found in our experiencing itself. Obviously there are ways to experience a reprieve from struggle without resort to sublimation or ethical/moral/legal imposition – certainly themselves provocateurs of stress. Aesthetics is a matter of subjective value, yes, but also a value which only inflates when shared. It is an emotional attachment, but to "own" the aesthetic experience is only a private joke unexpressed. Language, art and the revolutionary moment are kindred spirits. Wouldn't the revolutionary moment be a matter of escalating the sublime, increasing the moment, opening up a space, a tear in the anti-social fabric, a stitch in the social, a "ceaseless hunt" for the novel which might captivate us? Is this why Emma Goldman demanded to dance to the revolution?

If the individual judgment necessary to construct an aesthetic doctrine is to be coordinated with the aesthetic judgments of other individuals, then this can only happen by getting behind these judgments in order to analyze the common preconditions reflected in the internal psycho-physiological similarities and the bio-sociological dependence of the individuals, as is done, for example, in medical science, to discover the common human subjectivity or the community of inter-humane interest which is a bio-physiological, sociological and cultural fact.

The wider question then becomes whether this organic community of interests extends out over the human into the vegetable and animal kingdoms, whether the whole biological world can be perceived as a collective interdependence, a fellowship of interests, an organic subjectivity and mutual necessity, and historically as an evolutionary unity, or, in short, whether we can make aesthetics relate to the natural sciences.

However, to achieve a real objective aesthetics it is necessary to demonstrate a casual unity between the forms of reaction of the organic and the inorganic worlds which reaches from the macrocosmic aesthetics of the universe itself to the atom's microcosmic relations of an aesthetic character. If this is not possible, then the results of both subjective and objective aesthetics are worthless and the establishment of a scientific aesthetics impossible.

The synthesis for which I am here the spokesman definitively breaks with the intermixing of aesthetics and art theory, a break which is based upon new experiences and arguments, the most weighty of which is perhaps the recognition, derived from the development of modern art, of the value of so-called primitive art and the consequent understanding that aesthetic recognition and any acquaintanceship with the idea of beauty, the understanding even of the difference between the thing and its depiction, is quite meaningless for elemental artistic creation. As, into the bargain, it is apparent that modern aesthetic education, as known from the art academies, is directly restrictive to creative ability in art, these facts demonstrate that not only is the aesthetic knowledge of our time worthless but also directly damaging and thus, in other words, false.

... aesthetics should not be understood as a phenomenon exclusively connected with the fine arts. On the contrary, it represents one of our forms of existential experience
– Asger Jorn

If there is anything to Asger Jorn's "objective synthesis", it would seem struggle need not be a given in nature. Aesthetics is not merely experiential effect, but motivating "impulse" of inquisitive learning itself: aesthetics relates to the unknown, unexpected and novel. A word I've used elsewhere to describe this value, or rather, valuation is "humour", reflecting Einstein's least famous dictum: "when all is said and done, the only sense left is nonsense". Like the raised eyebrow, a chuckle is the world trying to tell us "Look! I'm here! Wanna play?" From this perspective, art and empirical science are indistinguishable. Aesthetics is an invitation to get a little dirt under our fingernails in the process, letting us know that living is a participatory event and not just a figment of the imagination or what goes on on the other side of a double-pane storm window.

It will be very hard indeed to find a higher animal that does not play and joke in a way incomprehensible to us. Notice the monkeys at the zoo, or domestic animals - dogs, cats, horses, pigs, goats, cattle - how they enjoy fun and games. This playing cannot be seen as a training or preparation for the struggle for existence. It involves something that in itself has the effect of life; indeed, perhaps its most intense and inspiring nature, renewal. Can we call this aesthetic?

... Men have wondered how man learnt to walk on two legs and have tried to give to the phenomenon a practical explanation. Far more sensible is the assertion that the first real anthropoid apes were "singing" apes; having developed jaws allowed good room for the tongue. Singing encourages dancing, and this entertaining occupation separated man from animals and gradually trained dancing and singing apes to move lithely on their hind legs. This is the story of the genesis of homo ludens.

It is said that man wants to be fooled. This is a lie. Man wants to play. Play with or be played with or play for. The opposition between play and seriousness is false. Play seems to be the only thing taken really seriously. This is denied because one can thereby play unobstructed with people without their knowing it
– Asger Jorn, Addendum 1963

I don't see that struggle need be invoked at all. The ultimate dialectic we face, the basic (and only essential) mathematical equation, the source of balance is between desire and compassion. This should not be a struggle, but where it is so, we find the birth of property, authority to administer it, and ethics to regulate it. Stirner was able to, at least theoretically resolve the dialectic with an egoism which derives pleasure from compassion for the other:

Am I perchance to have no lively interest in the person of another, are his joy and his weal not to lie at my heart, is the enjoyment that I furnish him not to be more to me than other enjoyments of my own? On the contrary, I can with joy sacrifice to him numberless enjoyments, I can deny myself numberless things for the enhancement of his pleasure, and I can hazard for him what without him was the dearest to me, my life, my welfare, my freedom. Why, it constitutes my pleasure and my happiness to refresh myself with his happiness and his pleasure. But myself, my own self, I do not sacrifice to him, but remain an egoist and - enjoy him.
– Max Stirner
Swedenborg, via Asger Jorn, resolves the dialectic with "love":
Did you not see recently how eagerly the dove there over the treetops beat the air with its wings? He had seen his mate and the nest with the young: that was the reason for his quick flight. It appeared to him that it was under his own power that he moved his wings and took the shortest way, but it was love, his downy young and his beloved that awakened his soul, and this that thereafter moved his wings. Love is like the coachman who looks after the reins and controls us as the rider controls his horse. He obscures our soul and convinces us that we sit as chiefs or coachmen.

"The circle of interest dominates the cycle of materials and life", says Jorn, where interest, that is, aesthetics is always in the different and unknown. One could say that life itself is "drawn" to as well as "motivated" (or "driven") by diversity. Without opposition, desire and compassion merge. From the standpoint of capital as the van guard of civilization, this is clearly impossible as struggle is the preferential condition. It is the precondition of property and the state. Desire and compassion must remain separated – "detachment is the key to objectivity". Can this phrase be inverted to "immersion is the key to aesthetics"?

Aesthetics is the praxis for living. That is lief, a word once residing in the semantic territory between live and love. It is the driving motivation for knowledge. One interpretation of Genesis states that the search for knowledge (the ownership of ideas, or intellectual property) and the forsaking of life originated the first sin, giving birth to civilization and its alienating force (property & its authority – its administrators – certainty and truth), spawning Engel's "dialectics of nature", metamorphosing life into survival, living to struggle, will to an adeptness with dagger, love to a relation of friction or political maneuver. Can a new-found or 'authentic' passion for aesthetics, replacing disgust for the novel with wonderment and amusement, put things aright? This was supposed to be the project of "arts & sciences", not the construction of planet killing machines with euphamistic designs to save labour – "labour-saving devices"!

Stirner might say the normal is represented by "I". Jorn tells us "No one shows wonder at the normal. But where does the abnormal come from?" Might that be "The Other"?

It may be true that change can be ugly and in fact, scary. But this is only true until we have "constructed" and then experienced it. "Where's your sense of adventure?" we are asked. For the already detached, when "home" is a sense of security found in a situation of precarity, the symptoms of culture shock never appear until one returns from an adventure into the unknown, no matter how unwillingly that adventure was initiated or whether "home" is always considered the final destination. Odysseus & Ulysses were no Huck Fin! When one spends much time on the edge, out past two or three standard deviations, the mean, median and mode, that bulge constrained by cops and public opinion, looks absurd. If infinity was stretched out on a line, the normal curve would be an imperceptable perturbation somewhere along its length.

"I realized either I was crazy or the world was crazy; and I picked on the world. And of course I was right... We were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one and noble function of the time, (to) 'move'... We were a generation of crazy, illuminated hipsters, suddenly rising and roaming America: serious, curious, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere. It never meant 'juvenile delinquents.' 'Beat,' doesn't mean tired or bushed, so much as it means beato the Italian for beatific, to be in a state of beatitude, like Saint Francis: trying to love all life, trying to be utterly sincere with everyone, practicing endurance, kindness, cultivating joy of heart - the subterranean heroes who were taking drugs, digging bop, having flashes of insight, experiencing the derangement of the senses, talking strange, being poor and glad."[2]
– Jack Kerouac

Is it a contradiction to suggest movement to those only interested in conservative stasis? No. The problem is not found in conservation or stasis but rather, in the sedentary, the fear of movement, the apathetic (without feeling) rejection of the novel or different. There can only be a stasis of movement when objective destinations (destined objects, commodities?), fated arrivals also cut and run. We should be afraid of the isolation chambers, of prisons! Pathos (with or without its standard negative implications) annihilates apathy. Compassion is pathos shared – collaboration outside of institutional discipline, movement neither toward nor away from prearranged situations like "employment", but wielding between them an ability to put all prearrangements into disarray.

"It is impossible to go on indefinitely saying: “I am proud to be a delinquent,” without destroying all civilized values". – Rexroth

I'd like to take non-objectivity out of hiding in the worlds of "fine art" and quantum physics so we could see that art (Heidegger's poiesis) truly is the world trying to reveal itself to us between the lines, unfolding before our eyes. Our grandiosity (born of sedentary objective detachment) prevents the aesthetic experience. This is why I attach so compellingly to the idea of autopoiesis: our character is created by the world around us, we create our character by our own experience in the world around us, the mutual interaction either creates or recreates the world around us. To take a chance from between the lines is to dissolve the caricature of the wold. "Weal" loses the character of a swollen patch of skin we are forbidden to scratch and becomes a condition of "well-being", that itch or urge Kropotkin demanded be scratched by revolution.

... But we have to move about from time to time for all this to work.

When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.

Throw out holiness and wisdom,
and people will be a hundred times happier.
Throw out morality and justice,
and people will do the right thing.
Throw out industry and profit,
and there won't be any thieves.
– Lao-tse
Laughter and tears belong in the same bag.
From children and drunken folk shall one hear the truth.
– Asger Jorn

 


Notes:

[1] Asger Jorn's Luck and Chance: Dagger and Guitar

[2] "Beat" has always carried multiple entendré:
"The origins of the word 'beat' are obscure, but the meaning is only too clear to most Americans. More than mere weariness, it implies the feeling of having been used, of being raw. It involves a sort of nakedness of mind, and, ultimately, of soul; a feeling of being reduced to the bedrock of consciousness. In short, it means being undramatically pushed up against the wall of oneself. A man is beat whenever he goes for broke and wagers the sum of his resources on a single number; and the young generation has done that continually from early youth."
– Clellon Holmes, 'This Is The Beat Generation',1952

This can be increasingly said of every age, every "post-war generation" where nothing means anything anymore, when romance is found in mutual disillusionment which is immediately renamed "curiosity". When we name our own generation, our own movement, we forget history and think we've discovered something new. Our difference is only a matter of style and its preponderence. On the other hand, there is as well an unfortunate, unrevolutionary quality going along, as Rexroth says,

"because all life has become an amorphous simile of nothing else. Where if you can’t make it, you split, and where everybody splits, like, all the time.

It is a real art to convey this wistful terror of those for whom there is not, and never can be, any I and Thou at all, ever, and where God is the last, craziest Kick of all, and when you’ve dug, like, you cut, dig? For those people, whom Allen Ginsberg pathetically called “the best minds of my generation,” there has been a complete breakdown of the organs of reciprocity. There is nobody out there at all — nobody. The unpeopled night is not “cool.” It is empty and at the temperature of absolute zero."
– bopsecrets.org

Today's Hipster is merely yesterday's delinquent Hippie, beaten and reformed.

"The hipster is the Bloom who offers himself to the world as a bearable form of life, and in order to do so forces himself into a strict discipline of lies"
– Tiqqun, Theoy of The Bloom

 


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