Aesthetic Subjectivity: glimpsing the shared soul

A North American review of this book has appeared here:

A notice here:

Once again a beautiful cover painting by Lina Kazan.

Here is a gracious commentary by Professor Daniel Regnier:

In his new book “Aesthetic Subjectivity: glimpsing the shared soul” Gregory Loewen explores the nature of aesthetic experience. As the title indicates, the basic method of his investigation is phenomenological although the discourse is nourished both by a reading of a number of mostly twentieth century philosophers on art and some reflections collected from a group of people referred to as “research participants”. The properly sociological element in this study is in fact quite nominal. Indeed the discourse unfolds almost as an interpretive commentary upon the passages cited from what have become classic texts in aesthetics authored by the likes of Schiller, Lukacs, Dewey, Merleau-Ponty, Bachelard and Gadamer amongst others. Loewen does not enter into the secondary literature on these thinkers, however, preferring rather to focus exclusively on his particular hermeneutic project. The entire book is an attempt to understand the ambiguities involved in subjects’ experience of art as an ‘increase of being.’

Many insights are to be found in this text, as well as a novel model of aesthetic experience. Of particular interest is Loewen’s coining of the term “artism” on the model of the concept of “scientism”. Just as scientism designates inauthentic appropriate of the insights and values of science, if not even a veritable fetishism distorting the more fundamental phenomenon of science, so artism refers to the contrived and ultimately shallow “variants of calculated projects which have as their finite end the imitation of art and of aesthetic experience with the absolute value of borrowing status and thence the possession of Culture” (chapter one).

Loewen, pursuing interests that had occupied him in one of his earlier works, also discusses the intimate connection between art and memory. In this context he very clearly exposes the constructive element in aesthetic experience, which is signaled in the title of the book. Not only does one experience a increase in being in the aesthetic experience but one also attempts to fix the aesthetic experience in such a way as to create some kind of permanence and continuity of self in the face of a temporality which seems to undermine the very being which becomes manifest in time itself. Loewen uncovers this process which he refers to as “memorialization” in various contexts including collection and exhibiting. But in a remarkably illuminating section he explores the very subtle and slightly disturbing point at which the biological self and the aesthetic self meet and in some sense coincide. Indeed, his reading of the recent exhibitions of Bodyworks is one of the most memorable aspects of Loewen’s book.

Towards the end of the text, Loewen concentrates on reconciling the problem created by “the tension that exists between the reality of art and art as an alternative reality” (chapter six). Ultimately, Loewen does not provide any facile ways of circumventing the aporia which he examines so carefully in this work. Rather, having very gently deconstructed the various models of aesthetic experience which he had examined throughout the body of the text, he suggests that the work of art coincides with the work of life in a way of which we are not normally aware. In spite of the deconstructive element in his methodology – a methodology which we might expect should be accompanied by the currently very popular but unfortunately often unexamined insistence on an absolute priority of “difference” over the various forms of “unity” – Loewen concludes that art in all of its ambiguity “has always and already shown us the meaning of the human condition” (chapter six). And according to Loewen we must take the task of understanding how art does this even more seriously than we currently do, as we have remained largely ignorant of the fact that “we are one world and participate in the existential envelope of one being in the world” (ibid). Gregory Loewen’s “Aesthetic Subjectivity: glimpsing the shared soul” shall be of great interest to those working in many areas including Art theory, Philosophy, Sociology and Psychology.

Another generous commentary appeared for the publisher by Professor Michel Desjardins:

Once in a while a book appears which opens a set of seventh seals and finds it has been engulfed by their respective contents. Yet we may well be also content that what we attempted to find has instead found us, and not found us wanting, but rather as desiring and desirable beings. G.V. Loewen, a professor of sociology, has travelled far beyond the usual confines of the human sciences in constructing what could be a new model of the inner life of aesthetic experience; its trajectories, mirrors, and reliquaries. In so doing, he marshals a fair representation of many branches of twentieth century philosophy, psychology and sociology under the working rubric of a phenomenology of the aesthetic imagination. This kind of phenomenology is also a vehicle for a hermeneutics of an important part of the human universe, that consisting of our relationship to the aspect of culture which seems to float above culture, and to which we have bent our energies in oddly elite ways in order to test its veracity as against the apparently more mundane truths of the world around us. Immediately, Loewen prepares us for a lengthy journey by letting us know that art itself, as a set of quasi-subjects in its guise as the aesthetic object, will not allow itself to be taken for granted. Its presence is that of both a shadow and a critic. Indeed, we must approach the experience of art with some caution, given that its presence is not necessarily there to provide an affirmation of how we have lived up this point. Rather, Loewen suggests throughout the text that art is a prime source of the ‘increase of being’, making us ‘more than we were’, without suggesting that this necessarily makes us better or even more wise. Yet an analysis of the kind Loewen provides is precisely the patient and polysemous dissection of not only major discourses on art and art theory, but an entire modernist aesthetics, where the competing claims of neo-Romanticism, Dadaism and the postmodern all yearn for some kind of meta-cultural satisfaction.

There is a striking difference between the liminality of those poor and rich in their access to traditional cultural icons. One may even say that they are the reverse of one another, in that the avidity resources can provide those who are full with them will sabotage the uncanny displacement that the aesthetic object at once forces upon us. Those who are resourceful, however, do not know the discourses which attempt to possess art – the coining and analysis of the term ‘artism’ by Loewen, based on the fetishism of the sciences, speaks to this – and may be able to approach the event of ‘aesthesis’ in a manner that allows them to be made into the quasi-objects of a humanity confronting itself. Though many scientific endeavors attempt the implementation of goals which descend to them from dominant ideologies, the sacred character of art can resist this imposition. This is why both ‘artism’ and the ‘autist’ – another neologism associated with Loewen’s intense and yet still introductory discussion of his model – cannot bear true witness to the subterranean features of the uncanny aesthetic object, which is also a quasi-subject in the world of experience. Yet Loewen does not trace an exegetical arc from the texts which try to comprehend the sacred in its cultural envelope, Turner’s ritual symbolism for instance, or the history of the middle age’s ‘prose of the world’ and the autodidactic but also introspective narratives it created. Instead, the text both brings into play and hermeneutically queries the subjectivity of experience turned to only pragmatic ends. In spite of there being an instrumental call that animates his discussion of four major tropes of aesthetic subjectivity – art used to aid the projection of a larger self into the public eye of the world, art used as aides-memoires in the work of both mourning and monumentalizing, art used as a vehicle for the uncanny (the ‘full presence of non-presence’, as the text enigmatically puts it), and finally, art used as a means of identifying the hoped for true self – Loewen ultimately turns away from a purely pragmatist approach by way of a phenomenology of the imagination. The artful juxtaposition of disparate texts in modern thought – Dewey and Bachelard, Gadamer and Merleau-Ponty, Dufrenne and Becker, to name a few distinctive and original combinations – cannot in the end lend complete sanction to any one perspective, especially one that attempts to harness the being of art as a gloss or a metonym for other kinds of being in the world.

If art, especially in its uncanniness, represences the liminal in a society which has forgotten its power through rationalization and disenchantment, it does so by taking ourselves into its confidences. We are thus made more confident, not of our immortality, but of the fact that others like ourselves have sought successively to portray our common lot without the idealization of either life or art. The surprising potentiality of art is reprised in a number of ways in Loewen’s book, including, beginning in chapter two and continuing through four ‘substantive’ chapters, the advent of actual transcripts from qualitative research undertaken in the service of trying to secure a variety of persons’ actual experiences with art, both as encounters, confrontations and archives. This properly sociological material extends the philosophical palette of the major analyses without becoming a distraction. Indeed, one finds fascinating experiences recounted during these pages, which jibe well with the ongoing and often sudden insights the text itself issues. I think the depth of philosophical analysis, the knowledge of different aesthetic realms accounted, and the relevance of personal material from ‘both artists and non-artists alike’, makes for a unique journey, though one that can never be completed. Loewen addresses, though only in one of the final end-notes, the potential arbitrariness of choosing such a set of texts rather than another perhaps equally up to the task as defined, but it is ultimately up to the reader to make a judgement on whether or not there is a sufficient representation of the life of contemporary aesthetic discourses to validate the boldness of the book’s findings and thus also its claims.

This reviewer finds it to be so: this book is no less than an hermeneutic exposition of aesthetic subjectivity as we can know it today, through the philosophical conceptions down to the experiences of ordinary persons such as ourselves. Its style is intense, sometimes dramatic and even poetic, and bears little resemblance to a social science case study. Yet Loewen explicitly deters us from taking the text as a work of art in itself, though he also plays with the reader along those lines. He ends with what might be considered a volte face, in that after celebrating the sacred interests of extended being, he reminds us that we have not yet taken the task presented to us by art seriously enough, a proposal evidenced each day by the state of the world around us.

Aesthetic Subjectivity: glimpsing the shared soul” will be of interest to art theorists, philosophers, sociologists and psychologists alike, and may be of equal interest to students in advanced seminars in aesthetics and the sociology of art.