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date: 28 April 2017

Aisthēsis and Literature

Summary and Keywords

Etymologically and conceptually linked with sense perception (as opposed to, in the Platonic tradition, noēsis or intellection) in ancient, medieval, and early-modern thought, aisthēsis formed part of theorizing not only questions surrounding beauty and art, but also perception, epistemology, and even ontology (in, for instance, the work of Plato, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas). During the Enlightenment and its project of subdivision and categorization of the “humanities,” aisthēsis became subsumed, in the work of Alexander Baumgarten, by “aesthetics,” the study of beauty in the narrower sense. However, by the beginning of the 20th century and the Marxist/Freudian/Saussurean revolution in humanist inquiry and the “avant-garde” revolution in the arts, aisthēsis resumed its place and function as a central node in a vast network of concerns: for the Marxists, the history of aisthēsis follows the pattern of social development of progressive mastery over nature by humankind, described as a process of rationalization (the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory); in psychoanalysis and phenomenology, artistic activity is regarded as the “sublimated” expression of socially objectionable energies, taking place in a world conceived of as indefinite and open multiplicity (John Dewey, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, et al.); in poststructuralist theory, the image not simply “acquires” a politico-aesthetic function by way of an act of judgement, but rather accedes in its very technological condition to a political imaginary, to an aesthetics as such (Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, et al.). In the second half of the 20th century, with the progressive technologization of society, aisthēsis formed the backbone of media studies, which examines how technological innovation overthrows a settled political and aesthetic order, with special attention paid to the effects of electronic media and the hypertext: non-linearity, repetitiveness, discontinuity, intuition (e.g., Marshall McLuhan and Jay David Bolter). At the dawn of the 21st century, in the aesthetico-mimetic doubling of the mediasphere, from teletext and satellite TV to the World Wide Web and GPS, a critical, ecological mode of thinking aisthēsis assumes the ideal function of an “avant-gardism” in affecting the structure of how things come to mean, how meaning is virtualized, and how the virtual is lived.

Keywords: aesthetics, perception, philosophy, art, psychology, beauty, avant-garde, structuralism, phenomenology, media studies


  1. a) sensation, perception; perception from the senses: feeling, hearing, seeing

  2. b) that which is perceived: scent; ability to perceive: discernment

  3. c) cognition or discernment of moral discernment in ethical matters

In early Greek philosophy, αἴσθησισ‎ (aisthēsis) or sense perception—derived from αἰσθάνομαι‎ (aisthanomai: “I perceive, feel, sense”)—referred not so much to the constitution and status of the beautiful as to a complex set of problems to do with sentience, perception, and the thing perceived (the αισθητον‎). Furthermore, there is no specific ancient usage, nor any explicit branch of ancient thought, that corresponds to the modern sense of the term aesthetics. As F.E. Peters’s Greek Philosophical Terms: A Historical Lexicon explains, aisthēsis “enters philosophy modestly enough as an attempt on the part of the early physikoi to explain the physiological processes involved in perceiving an object […] mostly in terms of the contact, mixture, or penetration of the bodies involved.”1 The sense of vision, in this respect, was always something of an anomaly, for here, direct contact between the perceiver and the perceived was apparently absent. Still, the first crisis only occurred in Plato’s elaboration of the various grades of knowledge. Plato separated sense perception from another, more evolved and reliable type of perception, independent from sensible realities or sensible processes, and consequently, shows Peters, “aisthēsis found itself involved in the epistemological doubts raised by Heraclitus and Parmenides and debarred from any genuine access to truth.”2

Ancient to Pre-Modern Aisthēsis

Ever since the 4th century bce, and the crucial works of Plato and Aristotle, aisthēsis had been in a complementary opposition to noēsis (intellection), forming together what reality is: not only intellectual activity, but also other perceptions. The foundational texts of this tradition are Plato’s dialogues Theaetetus and Timaeus. The former presents a theory of sensation hinging on the point (frequently reiterated by Heraclitus and other atomists) that among the aisthēta, or sensations perceived, the only reality is change, although some aisthēta do have names (sights, sounds, smells, pleasures, worries, etc.) and thus form part of the power of sense-based judgement. The crucial question of whether aisthēsis is a judgemental or cognitive capacity is resolved in Timaeus, where a clearer identification of aisthēsis as “non-cognitive capacity of the irrational soul” whose objects are “limited to the so-called special sensibles, e.g. colours, tastes, sounds” is presented.3

A less hierarchical (and more favorable) picture of aisthēsis is presented in Aristotle’s Physics and Metaphysics. Aisthēsis is the reception of a sensible eidos (“form”) without the hylē (“matter”). Typically for Aristotle, the whole issue of cognition is presented within two crucial frameworks: act (energeīa) and potency (dynamis). For Aristotle, to perceive something means chiefly two things: to be able to perceive (whether one does or not), and actually to perceive. This takes place via opposites such as far-near, large-small, hot-cold, moist-dry, et cetera. As corporeal, the perceiving subject possesses these opposite qualities as well, and if it is to perceive them in an object or another subject, the appropriate organ of perception (organon) must be in a state of balance with regard to these extremes. The capacity to perceive, ultimately, entails a sort of middle or proportional state between extreme opposites, so that it is “actually neither, but potentially both.”4 Following the earliest atomists, Aristotle also constructs a whole metaphorics of consciousness, comprehension, knowing, truth, and skepticism linked to the paradigm of the visible and the act of seeing (ὁπᾱν‎).5 In the very first sentence of Metaphysics we find: Σημεῑον δ´ ἡ τῶν αἰσθήσεων ἀγάπησις …‎ (“All human beings have an inherent striving to see. A sign of this is the predilection we have for looking, for sense perception”).6 Until the 20th-century phenomenology, aisthēsis was inherently linked to visuality. Aristotle’s Poetics, the oldest surviving work devoted wholly to the description of ancient Greek theatrical tradition, bequeathed to the following millennia the most comprehensive account of common Greek theatrical practice, as well as some thorny issues (regarding the so-called three unities and the notion of catharsis) that each of the subsequent eras revisited and refashioned for itself (see discussion of Corneille and Nietzsche in “Early Modern to Post-Romantic Aisthēsis”).

Aristotle’s revision of the aisthēsis/noēsis binary notwithstanding, the earliest Christian thinkers were quick to adapt Plato’s model into their hierarchical frameworks. Thus, in 1st century ce, Philo of Alexandria’s epistemology draws a distinction between three faculties of cognition: aisthēsis (directed toward the concrete and sensible); logos (the reasoning faculty); and nous (immediate contemplation of intellectual truths). For Philo, nous is source of supreme knowledge and, unlike reason and sense, it is independent of the natural powers of the mind—in fact, it is of divine origin, God-given in response to prayer. This crude schematic triad, relegating aisthēsis to a role subservient to higher intellection, would become a standard theme on which the many during following centuries played variations. Exceptionally more complex is Plotinus’s (2nd-century-ce) synthesis of Aristotelism and Platonism. In his Enneads, Plotinus identifies aisthēsis with the “soul’s power of perception” which “cannot act by the immediate grasping of sensible objects, but only by the discerning of impressions printed upon the Animate by sensation: these impressions are already Intelligibles.”7 From this account, two kinds of aisthēsis emerge: the soul’s perception and that of the living being, and there are ample instances in Plotinus of aisthēsis referring to non-sensory apprehension as well as sense perception. The Aristotelian organon is the material thing that is affected (pathein), and the pathos of the organ represents a proportional mean between the sensible object and the noetic subject. As Peters shows in detail, “the language smacks of Aristotle but the concept clearly owes something […] to the Platonic notion of limit.”8 Crucial for present-day aesthetics is Plotinus’s emphasis on the importance of aesthetic experience in advancing from miserable ignorance to mystical transcendence.

When some two thousand years later, in the early 18th century, Alexander Baumgarten coined the word aesthetics narrowly as the sensory cognition of beauty, he was aware of this ancient philosophical contrast between the “aesthetic” or perceptual and the “noetic” or intellectual. But, as many commentators concur, throughout antiquity that contrast was employed without any necessary reference either to beauty or to the group of arts central to modern aesthetics.

Equal caution is necessary when dealing with medieval aesthetics. The so-called standard approach claims that an aesthetic system of sorts can be deduced from the numerous medieval writings on the arts and perception; the “revisionists” object that such deduction is a modern-day anachronism and would have been inconceivable to the Middle Ages. Thus, for instance, Erwin Panofsky’s Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism (1957) constructs a comprehensive, clear, and highly articulated synthesis of medieval philosophy and religion, which is paralleled in architecture by the achievement in the Gothic cathedral of a unified space combined with a clear differentiation of elements. The Revisionists (e.g., Paul Oskar Kristeller, Jan Aertsen, and Olivier Boulnois) fault Panofsky’s work for not only intruding aesthetics—a theoretical consideration of beauty in art—into a period where it was not practiced, but for treating medieval artifacts as works of art, a type of entity entirely alien to the categories of medieval culture.9 Either way, the fact remains that whereas various branches of contemporary philosophy (metaphysics, ethics, and logic) did exist as separate and acknowledged subjects in the Middle Ages, aesthetics simply did not, even under some other name.

Medieval treatment of aisthēsis and aesthetic concerns continued the work of classical thought, following Plotinus in his employment of theological terminology. Thus, for instance, Saint Bonaventure’s “Retracing the Arts to Theology” (mid-13th century) discusses the skills of the artisan as gifts bestowed by God for the purpose of disclosing God to mankind, which purpose is achieved through four lights: the light of skill in mechanical arts, which discloses the world of artifacts; this light is guided by the light of sense perception, which discloses the world of natural forms; this light, consequently, is guided by the light of philosophy, which discloses the world of intellectual truth; finally, this light is guided by the light of divine wisdom, which discloses the world of saving truth. Other medieval thinkers (Albert the Great, Ulrich von Strasbourg) are even less consistent when systematizing ideas concerning the beautiful, including the most famous and influential of them.

Thomas Aquinas’s remarks on the subject are chiefly located in two sources: Commentary on the Divine Names and Summa Theologiae. Aquinas departs from the conviction that beauty consists in the relationship between form and matter (“Beauty is the compatibility of parts in accordance with the nature of a thing”10) and specifies this relationship as threefold: “First, integrity or perfection [integritas sive perfectio], for what is defective is thereby ugly; second, proper proportion or consonance [proportio sive consonantia]; and third, clarity [claritas].”11 Evidently, this passage deals with the beautiful in the context of aisthēsis as a process of perception—beauty only emerges in the context of contemplation of the form of a thing by the subject of the perceiver. The thing in question must be organized by elements in the relevant form (integritas), these elements must be related to each other (proportio), and these relations must manifest themselves when the entity is perceived or contemplated (claritas). Beauty, then, for Aquinas (just as later for Immanuel Kant), is an experience: a kind of intellectual satisfaction arising from the contemplation of elements apt for cognition. Despite its markedly Aristotelian (integritas and proportio) and neo-Platonic (claritas) components, Aquinas’s aesthetic remains the singularly influential theory of beauty among medieval thinkers, continually attracting attention until as late as the modernist period, even receiving the approbation of the celebrated modernist James Joyce (1882–1941).

Early-Modern to Post-Romantic Aisthēsis

During the Renaissance and the onset of the early modern period, a further attenuation of interest in topics linked to aesthetics becomes apparent: where the medieval philosophy was invested in questions of language, meaning, and the human apprehension thereof, the usual focus of 16th- and 17th-century philosophers lay in epistemology and the new scientific understanding of the physical world. However, these explorations did yield one departure from the medieval distinction between divine creation and human production of artifacts: the new emphasis on fabrication. Pioneering in this aspect was Marsilio Ficino’s Platonic Theology (written between 1469 and 1474), putting forth the argument that the soul dominates over the body identically to how humans fashion “all the world’s materials […] elements, stones, metals, plants and animals”12 into many forms and figures, which include not just fabrics and buildings, but also pictures and sculptures. Moreover, it becomes increasingly common to associate poetry, painting, sculpture, and music, and to pit them against the work of craftsmen as far nobler activities. In addition, attempts are made to show how poetry can be redeemed as beneficial to the state, despite Plato’s infamous banishment of the poets from his ideal state.

Writing a hundred years after Ficino, Sir Philip Sidney, not only a poet but also a soldier and statesman, revised, in his Apology for Poetry (c. 1582), Plato’s mimesis to suggest that the value of poetry lies not so much in imitation of as in improvement on nature, and in invention. “Only the poet,” claims Sidney, “disdaining to be tied to any such subjection [of nature], lifted up with the vigour of his own invention, doth grow historical overviews in effect into another nature, in making things either better than Nature bringeth forth, or quite anew, forms such as never were in Nature.”13 Following a strategy of eclecticism typical of Renaissance thinking, Sidney’s definition of poetry as “an art of imitation, […] that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth with this end, to teach and delight,” is Aristotelian only to a limited degree, as it rather seamlessly combines Aristotle’s formalism with the pragmatic stress of Horace’s famous formula of dolce et utile.

By the mid-17th century, as the Renaissance gives way to classicism in France, the conceptualization of the new theater became Aristotelian to a fault, and his notorious three unities (of which he explicitly deals with just that of the plot, and none of which he prescribes) emerge as a doctrine to be observed. This despite Pierre Corneille’s Discourse on Tragedy (1660), where Aristotle comes in for a bashing on account of his conception of catharsis, defined in his Poetics as achieving, “through the representation of pitiable and fearful incidents, the purgation of such pitiable and fearful incidents.”14 Departing from this, Corneille maintains that pity is felt toward the person regarded as suffering, and fear with respect to ourselves. This inter-subjective emotion only takes place under Aristotle’s condition of having a hero who is neither evil nor wholly innocent—but, claims Corneille, “I do not know that it produces fear in us, or purges us of this excess, and I greatly fear that Aristotle’s reasoning on this matter is no more than a beautiful idea, which is never brought to effect in reality.”15 Ancient theory, however influential after its two-millennia tradition, slowly but steadily became incompatible with modern experiences and practices of aisthēsis.

The Age of Enlightenment finally saw, in 1735, the birth of the term aesthetics in Alexander Baumgarten’s master’s thesis, Philosophical Meditations on Some Matters Pertaining to Poetry (1714–1762), understood as the “science that guides the lower faculty of knowledge” or “the science of how something is to be cognised sensitively.”16 But Baumgarten’s fortunate coinage came less as a solitary or pioneering insight than part of a huge wave of extensive publication in aesthetics across the whole of Western Europe, particularly in Germany, France, and Britain. Whether conceived of as the theoretical response to the revival of the arts after their suppression in the 17th century by the Puritans, or associated with the rise of a prosperous bourgeoisie, whose wealth and leisure created the opportunity for indulgence in both the fine arts and in nature, and together with it also a demand for the theorization of these new pleasures, the boom of the 18th-century involvement with aesthetics was quite unprecedented. In his huge uncompleted treatise Aesthetica (two volumes, 1750–1758), Baumgarten equated aesthetics with the science of sensitive cognition and defined the “goal of aesthetics as the perfection of sensitive cognition as such,” which he in turn analyzed as consisting in the (clearly Aquinas-indebted) threefold process of consensus: “the consensus of thoughts among themselves insofar as we abstract from their order and significance,” the “consensus of the order in which we reflect upon beautifully thought things,” and the “internal consensus of the signs with the order and the things.”17

Writing around the same time as Baumgarten, Edmund Burke (1729–1797), in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), divided the sources of aesthetic appreciation into two main groups, those of the beautiful and the sublime, the latter concept having been popularized by translations of the ancient treatise On the Sublime by Pseudo-Longinus (into French by Nicolas Boileau in 1674 and English by William Smith in 1743). Burke based his division on the empirical psychology of the day, defining the sublime as “[w]hatever is fitted to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible”18 but does not actually harm the individual perceiver, and the beautiful is whatever suggests the pleasures of society.

Following Burke’s cue while dismissing his “empirical” and “physiological” exposition, Immanuel Kant’s (1724–1804) work on aesthetics offered an a priori and “transcendental” explanation of our aesthetic responses and judgements, aiming to show how these arise from the same faculties of mind used in ordinary theoretical and practical judgement, but—and this is an important Kantian dichotomy—not from the ordinary, determinate use of these faculties to satisfy specific theoretical or practical goals. The “disinterested” pleasure of beauty is thereby contrasted with the interested pleasures of the agreeable and the good, and the pleasure of beauty is the effect of the “free play” between the cognitive faculties of imagination (the ability to have and recall particular images of objects) and understanding (the ability to connect and unify such objects).19 The “purposiveness of form” thus elicits an experience of “purposiveness without purpose,” which satisfies our general cognitive aim of finding unity in the manifold of our experience of any object without subsuming it under a concept. Further refining Burke, Kant distinguished two kinds of the sublime. Faced with the “mathematical” sublime, the imagination’s attempt at apprehending all of some vast natural vista in a single image is initially thwarted, only to be gratified by the notion that it is the perceiver’s own capacious faculty of (theoretical) reason that has set the imagination this impossible task.20 When experiencing the “dynamical” sublime, the imagination is at first jeopardized at the sight of some potent and destructive natural object, but the perceiver is subsequently given satisfaction by the sense that even the threat of physical injury or destruction cannot determine or constrain their capacity to make moral choices on the basis of (practical) reason alone.21 Finally, paralleling Burke’s addition of poetry to his scheme through the mechanism of the association of ideas, Kant adds an account of the beauty of fine art to his accounts of natural beauty and sublimity, postulating that a work of art always “ventures to make sensible rational ideas,” such as moral ideas, but does so by means of a “representation of the imagination […] which by itself stimulates so much thinking that it can never be grasped in a determinate concept, hence which aesthetically enlarges the concept itself in an unbounded way.”22 A work of art accomplishing this is one that contains an “aesthetic idea”; that is, makes an idea aesthetic by stimulating the free play of the imagination with an idea of reason rather than constraining the imagination by a rule-like concept—aisthēsis finally a full-fledged complement of, and not the first modest step toward, noēsis.

Together with the rise of nationalism and individualism, the early 19th-century romantic aesthetics tended toward reconciling and integrating individual concerns and the society as a whole, which, in G.W.F. Hegel’s (1770–1831) philosophical system, were coupled with a wider quest to organize all knowledge into a single, rational, and living totality. Hegel was one of the first philosophers of history and culture to set each time period’s main ideas next to those of their predecessors and successors to comprise a whole. Hegel uses the bud–blossom–fruit parallel to convey this teleology, with his contemporaneity featuring the most mature, self-aware beings history has yet produced. Following Kant and Friedrich Schiller, Hegel arranged art, religion, and philosophy in a developmental sequence that begins with the sensuous sphere and ascends gradually in an increasingly reflective, conceptually abstract and non-sensory path. Ancient Greek culture was the embodiment of art’s realization; Christian medieval Europe was the prime soil for religion; philosophy’s era dawns after the French Revolution. With the decline of ancient Greek civilization, the human spirit became more reflective and the culture of art gave way to a more inward Christian worldview. Hegel speaks of an “end of art,” not in the sense that artistic production had ceased or was to cease, but that art’s cultural significance has been overshadowed by religious and philosophical modes of expression. Vis-à-vis aisthēsis, Hegel’s historicizing perspective is revolutionary in two further aspects: revisiting Horace’s tenet of ut pictura poesis, Hegel was among the first thinkers to posit that beauty is not only medium-related (following Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s famous thesis put forth in Laocoon), but also that it should be reserved only for human artifacts (no talk henceforth of beautiful landscapes, only of beautiful landscape paintings, etc.). Second, he was also the first to recognize that for all its seeming timelessness, artistic beauty is a product of its day and age, and so to understand a work from an alien or bygone culture, the perceiver must familiarize herself with the social, economic, and ideological context in which the work was produced.

The idea that the art of each historical time period expresses the social and economic realities of its time, either complicit with or subversive of them, thereby either reinforcing them or pointing beyond them, is where Hegel’s aesthetic thought is picked up and advanced by his most famous (and self-proclaimed) revisionist, Karl Marx (1818–1883). Marx’s model of history, though also governed by the ideas of growth, developmental stages, ascending and descending patterns, organic unity, and dialectical development, “stands Hegel on his head” by turning the idealist dialectic into a materialist one. Marx developed a social theory based on material activity and economic relationships, claiming that after society passes through feudal and capitalist stages, a future communal social stage will emerge from class struggle overcoming capitalist exploitation and profiteering. Marx’s theory of art follows from his theory of the relation of superstructure and base. In general terms, art together with all higher activities belongs to the cultural superstructure and is determined by socio-historical conditions, in particular economic ones—art, in one way or another, is in some sense, in the last instance, always a reflection of social reality. Concerned with describing its functions, Marx regarded art as arising out of the economic interests of groups of individuals—classes—within the economy, convinced that art expresses and helps reinforce various economic interests within the economic “base” of the society. Marx, via the various strands of 20th-century neo-Marxism, would exert a huge influence over subsequent aesthetic thought, which continues to the present.

A revaluation similar to Marx’s treatment of Hegel is noticeable in the other major German thinker of the latter half of the 19th century, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), a major source of inspiration for various 20th-century philosophical and artistic movements, such as existentialism and postmodernism. Nietzsche picked up Arthur Schopenhauer’s metaphysical Will (conceptualized in The World as Will and Representation, 1818) by venerating and embracing—rather than deprecating and renouncing, as Schopenhauer did—the feral, creative, and destructive energies that surge through the human psyche, claiming that these energies can be artistically tempered, sublimated, and civilized through our rational powers. In The Birth of Tragedy (1872), he states that ancient Greek art—especially by virtue of the productive strife between its “Dionysian” and “Apollonian” tendencies—perfectly achieved this balance. For the Greeks, claims Nietzsche, art was no mere diversion or pastime, but the very means of survival—a remedy for the essentially “absurd,” finite experience of life. Nietzsche describes Apollonian art as a “radiant glorification” of everyday reality whereby the Greeks “overcame […] or at any rate veiled” from themselves the horrors of life. The Apollonian, for Nietzsche, is a beautiful illusion that is still somehow true to life—as he adds in the same breath, in Apollonian art “all things, whether good or evil are deified.”23 The Dionysian principle in art responds to Aristotle’s question about the character of the “tragic effect.” Following Schopenhauer and Kant, Nietzsche locates the Aristotelian tragic effect within the category of the sublime: the feeling of fearless exultation that the perceiver experiences when confronting the normally fearful. What Schopenhauer explains as a becoming alive to the “supersensible,” supra-individual aspect of one’s being, Nietzsche relates to “the primordial being itself”: “we are not to become rigid with fear: a metaphysical comfort tears us momentarily from the bustle of changing figures. We really are, for a brief moment, the primordial being itself.”24

Aisthēsis in the 20th Century and 21st Century

Apart from the Marxist materialist dialectics and Nietzschean voluntarism, two other crucial scientific/theoretical developments—Freudian psychoanalysis and Saussurean linguistics—had impact on the early-to-mid-20th-century theory and practice of aisthēsis. Sigmund Freud’s (1856–1939) ideas on art depart from Nietzsche’s, even as Freud translated them into a more clinical, psychologically oriented framework. Freud similarly identified an instinctual source of life energy—later (c. 1920) referred to as the “it” (das Es) or id—and maintained that artistic activity, like metaphor- (displacement) and metonymy- (condensation) filled dreams, is the refined (what he calls “sublimated”) and morally digestible expression of aggressive, reproductive, frightening, repulsive, and socially objectionable energies—a position conveyed in Freud’s 1908 essay “The Relation of the Poet to Daydreaming.” In artworks as in dreams, the surface or “manifest content” is regarded as a deceptive encryption hiding “latent” meanings, and the formal determinants of an artwork are typically traced in the artist’s personal biography (cf. his 1910 essay, “Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood,” or “The Moses of Michelangelo,” from 1914). The famous digression, in Interpretation of Dreams (1900), on Hamlet’s Oedipus complex also brings home Freud’s repeated point that he not so much invented or discovered the unconscious, but rather found and recognized it in the tradition of aesthetic thinking and making that stretched from Aristotle to Shakespeare and well into the Romantic period.

It is in the later “Note upon the ‘Mystic Writing-Pad’” (1925), however, that Freud most fully elaborates a model of perception as such. Freud’s model—which can be generalized to account, in a certain sense, for the operations and organization of the psyche around inscription—links writing to a broadly conceived form of pictorial representation, or hieroglyphs, characterized by a structure of iterability (memory traces) and what Freud terms “repression,” such that this metaphorics of writing always presupposes an image. Freud’s “Mystic Writing-Pad” or Wunderblock adopts the idea of a commonplace child’s plaything, comprised of a plain surface overlaid with a transparent film, such that when marks are made upon the film by a type of stylus, these marks remain visible for as long as the film “adheres” to the surface beneath, but is immediately “erased” once the sheet is separated from it. In its suggestion of the accretive form of a palimpsest, the metaphor of the Wunderblock implies “an unlimited receptive capacity and a retention of permanent traces”25 in which the inscriptive function is literalized as the base register of all subsequent reflexive discourse. Freud himself described consciousness as “the surface of the mental apparatus; that is, we have ascribed it as a function to a system which is spatially the first one reached by the outside world—and spatially not only in the functional sense but … also in the sense of anatomical dissection.”26 Yet, as regards the organization of the psyche for which the Wunderblock acts as a metaphor or schematization, consciousness describes this assumption of an image in the mediation of perception. Here, what is “perceived” is thereby inscribed upon the psychic film in the form of (descriptively unconscious) mnemonic traces, and the (dynamically unconscious) technē of inscription behind these traces gives inscription in the form of an image whose assumption remains “imaginary” and unlocated other than in the illusion of consciousness. Writing in a letter to Wilhelm Fliess on December 6, 1896, Freud outlined his notion of an iterative, topological signifying mechanism as the basis of psychical organization, above all “memory”:

As you know, I am working on the assumption that our psychical mechanism has come about by a process of stratification: the material present in the shape of memory-traces is from time to time subjected to a rearrangement in accordance with fresh circumstances—is, as it were, transcribed. Thus what is essentially new in my theory is the thesis that memory is present not once but several times over, that it is registered in various species of “signs.”27

In “The Ego and the Id” (1923), Freud states that: “‘Being conscious’ is in the first place a purely descriptive term, resting on perception of the most immediate and certain character,” and it is for this reason that the function of consciousness “expresses the dynamic factor of perception ambiguously.”28 The transitory state of consciousness is linked to an operational condition—being a transmissional phenomenon whose subsequent “intelligibility” devolves upon a technē of inscription (mnemonic traces) which, as in the example of the Wunderblock, functions in the separation of consciousness from “its” palimpsestic representation. The entire apparatus—as a mechanism of inscription and separation—describes a cognitive function of which consciousness is the assumed, transitory image. Parallel with, though perhaps less influential than, Freud’s psychoanalysis was the Gestalt psychology, founded and promoted by the Berlin School of Experimental Psychology, especially its head Carl Stumpf (1848–1936). Gestalt psychology examined the laws of human capability of obtaining and maintaining meaningful perceptions in a seemingly chaotic world. The fundamental principle of Gestalt psychology is the belief that the human mind forms a global whole with self-organizing and regulating tendencies (the so-called principle of totality). If Freud was to influence the artistic avant-garde of his own era, Gestalt had an impact on the philosophy of perception, especially phenomenology (Edmund Husserl, and subsequently Maurice Merleau-Ponty).

Nietzsche’s and Freud’s theories inform the 20th-century avant-garde movements, particularly the surrealists of the 1920s and 1930s. André Breton’s (1896–1966) First Surrealist Manifesto (1924) posits as the chief marker of the surrealists their interest in freedom, their intention to paint dreamscapes that arise from the unconscious, and proposes to supplement these with the psychoanalytically inspired methods of automatic writing. A crucial means of tapping the unconscious was the “free association” method. Similarly to their Dadaist predecessors, the surrealists considered rationality a hindrance to the expression of psychological truth, and a sinister force in its instrumental guise as the genius behind military weaponry. The avant-garde as a whole can be characterized by two shared impulses, oftentimes going hand in hand: the spiritual and the anti-institutional. Beginning with the early-20th-century expressionism and abstract movements, the avant-garde set out as an offshoot of Nietzsche’s and Freud’s combined interests in non-rational energies and ancient and primitive cultures. According to the famous anecdote,29 on visiting Altamira Cave, Picasso is reported to have said, “We have invented nothing in twelve thousand years,” expressing vigorously the sentiment that these cave paintings represent what European art has struggled to achieve in its painful and long path to—and beyond—pictorial realism. A case in point of this struggle is Vassily Kandinsky’s (1866–1944) essay Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1912), presenting the view that the function of painting is to express subtle emotions endowed with a metaphysical or spiritual content. Kandinsky explored the analogy between music and color, where colors substitute for a piano’s keyboard, the perceiver’s eyes, a piano’s hammers, and the soul, the piano itself that sounds with its many strings. Each color, for Kandinsky, has its symbolic and associative content. The anti-institutional impetus came to the fore with Marcel Duchamp’s (1887–1968) famous ready-mades, like Fountain (1917), the foundational artifact of conceptualism, revolting against the idea that art involves the production of beautiful or aesthetically pleasing objects. By submitting an ordinary, mass-produced urinal to the Society of Independent Artists’ exhibition held in Manhattan, Duchamp signaled that what passes for art in the 20th century is a contextual and consensual matter rather than anything essentially or ontologically given. The refusal to disclose any reasons for why the art world should decide to confer upon a ready-made object the status of the work of art entails a critique of art as an institution founded upon arbitrariness. Aisthēsis becomes a truly noetic activity in the perceiver’s endeavor to find out about the reasons behind the process of the work’s promotion and the features of the work itself that solicit it. A later offshoot of cubism, futurism and constructivism, Victor Vasarely’s (1906–1997) illusionist paintings of the 1930s and 1940s, later (in 1964) re-dubbed op art, are explicitly engaged with cognitive processes inherent in perception. The cognitive processes and phenomena explored by Vasarely (in his 1937 Zebras) included ambiguous figures and reversible perspective, the after-image, the effect of dazzle, successive color contrasts in order to create an impression of movement, or hidden images and patterns.

Duchamp’s conceptualism was already in tune with a recent development crucial for the later phase of avant-garde art: Ferdinand de Saussure’s (1857–1913) Course in General Linguistics, whose immense influence gave rise, throughout the 1920s and 1930s, to the structuralist and formalist studies of the production and reception of art. The key insight—that linguistic signs are arbitrary, and that meanings arise primarily from the interrelationships between the signs, rather than from the signs’ objective referents—meant that as long as “in language, there are only differences without positive terms,”30 linguistic meaning can itself be thought of as artificial and artifactual—a system of signs that, although arbitrary in themselves, may at times be used in a motivated fashion (a crucial insight of semiotics). The chief point of departure for French post-Saussurean structuralism and poststructuralism of the 1960s is that human consciousness and the social order are underwritten by language, and consequently there is nothing “ordinary” or “natural” about any of our social and political structures, but instead everything in the human realm is a construct produced by ideology. On the basis of the idea that a linguistic tradition entails an inherited mental framework whose parameters must both be acknowledged and broken away from, “The Structuralist Activity” (1964)—a famous essay by Roland Barthes (1915–1980)—attempts to dismantle these parameters (the first of the two practices of the structuralist activity; i.e., analysis) in order to discover the principles of their articulation (the other, synthesis). Barthes’s crucial early work in cultural semiotics, Mythologies (1957), sought to demystify the complex languages and cultural systems represented by the sundry manifestations of popular culture: wrestling matches, striptease shows, advertisements, and other such maps. In his 1968 essay the “Death of the Author,” Barthes contests the authority of a text’s author to determine its meaning, and portrays the author as an oppressive force to be resisted by the reader to a liberating end. In 1971, Barthes produced “From Work to Text,” an account of the difference in the way the object of literary study is perceived by structural versus poststructural criticism. The essay is short, terse, informal, almost a set of jottings, but Barthes manages to characterize the stance of the deconstructive critic with lucidity and accuracy—most influentially in the last section, where Barthes contrasts the emotional involvement of the reader before and after the deconstructive turn. The older, passive way of reading produced plaisir (pleasure), the consumer’s enjoyment in being immersed in another’s vision, actions, characters. The new way produces what Barthes terms jouissance, a nearly untranslatable word (“bliss” is the usual equivalent) that suggests both the joy and the sense of loss experienced in the sexual climax.31 The very title of Barthes’s essay signals one of the chief differences between the structuralist and poststructuralist activities—the movement from a self-enclosed entity of the “work” and the artifact with a clearly identified author toward a more open, intertextual, authorless notion of the “text.”

A compelling recent contribution to the debate is Jacques Rancière’s (1940–) Aisthesis, from 2011. The work follows a series of scenes from Dresden in 1764 to New York in 1941—viewing the Belvedere Torso through Johann Winckelmann’s eyes, accompanying Hegel to the museum and Stéphane Mallarmé to the Folies-Bergère, attending a lecture by Ralph Waldo Emerson, visiting exhibitions in Paris and New York, factories in Berlin, and film sets in Moscow and Hollywood—in order to pose questions about what becomes art and what comes of it. Showing how a regime of artistic perception and interpretation comes to be constituted and transformed by erasing the specificities of the different arts, as well as the borders that separate them from ordinary experience, Rancière’s study provides a history of artistic modernity far removed from the conventional postures of modernism.

Rancière’s timeline—mid-18th to mid-20th century—is by no means haphazard: for these two centuries, he maintains, “aesthetics” served as the name for the category designating the sensible fabric and intelligible form of so-called Art, which “as a notion designating a form of specific experience only existed in the West since the end of the eighteenth century,” a period giving rise to art on account of its “hierarchy of forms of life [beginning] to vacillate.”32 Accordingly, the term aisthēsis has designated the conditions under which the perceivers experience many diverse things as all belonging to art, conditions “entirely material” (performance and exhibition spaces, forms of circulation and reproduction), but also modes of perception and regimes of emotion, categories that identify them, and thought patterns that categorize and interpret them. Together, these conditions make it possible for “words, shapes, movements and rhythms to be felt and thought as art.” This process, for Rancière, is not only irreversible but also irresistible:

No matter how emphatically some may oppose the event of art and the creative work of artists to this fabric of institutions, practices, affective modes and thought patterns, the latter allow for a form, a burst of colour, an acceleration of rhythm, a pause between words, a movement, or a glimmering surface to be experienced as events and associated with the idea of artistic creation.33

One of the key arguments of Rancière’s study is that because anything whatsoever can belong to it, art exists as a separate world. In fact, this process of inclusion within art of the hitherto non-artistic, of “images, objects and performances that seemed most opposed to the idea of fine art,” presents the driving force of its development: “art, far from foundering upon these intrusions of the prose of the world, ceaselessly redefined itself—exchanging, for example, the idealities of plot, form and painting for those of movement, light and the gaze, building its own domain by blurring the specificities that define the arts and the boundaries that separate them from the prosaic world.”34

Rancière’s scope is synesthetic: his scenes taken not only from the art of writing, but also from the visual and performance arts, and cinema, which he treats, in a reprisal of the optical paradigm of Freud and Walter Benjamin, as articulations of an aesthetic unconscious. Instead of showing the transformations belonging to any given art, they demonstrate a changeable underlying logic in the paradigms of art:

Influential histories and philosophies of artistic modernity identify it with the conquest of autonomy by each art, which is expressed in exemplary works that break with the course of history, separating themselves both from the art of the past and the “aesthetic” forms of prosaic life. Fifteen years of work have brought me to the exact opposite conclusions: the movement belonging to the aesthetic regime, which supported the dream of artistic novelty and fusion between art and life subsumed under the idea of modernity, tends to erase the specificities of the arts and to blur the boundaries that separate them from each other and from ordinary experience.35

Rancière’s point of departure is the historical moment in Johann Winckelmann’s Germany when “Art begins to be named as such, not by closing itself off in some celestial autonomy, but on the contrary by giving itself a new subject, the people, and a new place, history. Rancière ends his chronological tracing of the series of vignettes at a significant crossroads: a time when the modernist dream of art “capable of lending its infinite resonance to the most minute instant of the most ordinary life”36 was declared over by the young Marxist critic Clement Greenberg and the monument of retrospective modernism was raised.

However, theorizing aisthēsis did not stop with the end—whether supposed or real—of modernism, where Rancière chose to discontinue his historical account. In the second half of the 20th century, through an uncanny recursion, the understanding of aisthēsis seems to revert to its original ancient focus on perception and cognition (here re-conceptualized as media-based and always already mediated) rather than the 18th-to-19th-century concern with the beautiful and sublime. To generalize, the ahistorical, psychologistic analysis of art and its appreciation was replaced with historically contextualized, sociological, and media-based accounts.

In tandem with the French Saussurean structuralist/poststructuralist tradition, German neo-Marxism, especially through the work of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, developed. Theodor Adorno’s (1903–1969) aesthetic theory grows out of his investigations of the commodity culture of post-industrial capitalist societies (and their culture industry) and the doubtful “autonomy” supposedly surrounding works of art. Most of Adorno’s works are concerned with aesthetic questions, comprising studies on modern classical music (Alban Berg, Gustav Mahler, and Richard Wagner); essays on literary and musical matters; an Introduction to the Sociology of Music (1962); and two central theoretical works: Philosophy of Modern Music (1948) and Aesthetic Theory (1970). As an element of the modern society to which it stands in a critical relation, aesthetic form is “sedimented” social content, because “artistic labour is social labour.”37 The history of aisthēsis follows the pattern of social development generally: that of the progressive mastery of nature by humankind, described by Adorno (following Max Weber) as a process of rationalization. However, the majority of accepted contemporary artworks (slowly but steadily including the avant-garde ones) have a strong commodity function that implicitly reinforces objectionable capitalist forces. Despite insisting that “genuine” artworks are autonomous, relatively uncommon, critical of market forces, and oppositional toward an instrumental conception of rationality, whether such autonomous artifacts can withstand the social pressure to become commodified and absorbed into the oppressive economic system remains a looming question for Adorno, but he upholds the liberating ideal of works of art that stand as unique, and that defy reductions to formulas and pre-existing linguistic categories.

In the 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility,” Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) associates an artwork’s perceived uniqueness, historically generated social authority, and aura with the exploitative capitalist forces of tradition. When an artwork is mechanically reproduced, its widespread duplication breaks down its aura of elitism, thereby making the general public or proletarian population familiar with the work and undermining its elitist pretensions. Juxtaposing Adorno’s and Benjamin’s ideas on mechanical reproduction raises the question of whether, despite Benjamin’s contention, the mechanical reproduction of artworks can also assimilate them into the prevailing culture and undermine how they stand critically against the status quo. Indeed, insofar as the media “spectacle” has come to define what was formerly referred to as the public realm, or socius, the very idea of the real has been seen to diminish and fade under the effects not of a mere dissimulation but of its subsumption within the technological sphere of “reproducibility.” This is one implication of Adorno’s critique of the “increasing commodity character’s aestheticisation” of culture and politics for the purpose of “utility,”38 and of Walter Benjamin’s more explicit critique of the “work of art” in the age of technical reproducibility, with its diminution of what Benjamin calls the “aura” of the real:

This is evidently the consummation of l’art pour l’art. Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first degree.39

Mid-20th-century theorization of aisthēsis was also crucially influenced by two major thinkers in the realms of epistemology and phenomenology: John Dewey (1859–1952) and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–1961), respectively. In Essays in Experimental Logic (1916), Dewey attempted to address the issues surrounding aisthēsis by means of a critique of the inherited Cartesian dualism of experience and reflective thought. Dewey’s particular formulation can be rendered in terms of a distinction in the relationship between grammar and semantics—here characterized as the antecedents (or situation) and datum (immediate material) of thought, and thought’s “objectives” (the progress of any thought function; i.e., its organization of material). By “datum of thought,” Dewey was referring to “a distinction made within the thought-process as a part of and for the sake of its own modus operandi,” which is, he concludes, “a status in the scheme of thinking.”40 This engagement with the notion of simultaneity represents a problem recurring particularly in philosophical discussions of thought, mind, and consciousness—especially with regard to the analytic-synthetic phenomenon of reflexivity. In Experience and Nature (1929), Dewey reframed the issue as follows: “the meanings that form mind become consciousness, or ideas, impressions, etc., when something within the meanings or their application becomes dubious, and the meaning itself needs reconstruction. This principle explains the focal and rapidly shifting traits of the objects of consciousness as such.”41 For Dewey, all “conscious perception” involves a risk, since it involves not only a venture toward the unknown limits of possibility, but also the necessity of deviating from the known in order not to be reduced to the operations of a mere automaton. Once again, the discourse of consciousness is located in the “gap” between a mechanistics of probability and the horizon of the possible, further elaborated here in Art as Experience (1934):

There is always a gap between the here and now of direct interaction and the past interactions whose funded result constitutes the meanings with which we grasp and understand what is now occurring. Because of this gap, all conscious perception involves a risk; it is a venture into the unknown, for as it assimilates the present to the past it also brings about some reconstruction of the past. When past and present fit exactly into one another, when there is only recurrence, complete uniformity, the resulting experience is routine and mechanical; it does not come to consciousness in perception. The inertia of habit overrides adaptation of the meaning of here and now with that of experiences, without which there is no consciousness, the imaginative phase of experience.42

In this formulation we can find a movement toward a concept of recurrence that is deviational because synthetic, and which informs the different grammars of the words mechanical, mechanistic, and mechanism as they have been employed in Dewey’s thinking. For Dewey, it is clear that the mechanical represents a Cartesian disavowal of the particular, variable, or contingent in the constitution of thought—or what Dewey terms “conscious perception”—the imaginative phase of experience.

In Phenomenology of Perception (1945), Merleau-Ponty argues that experience is always of “a world, that is […] an indefinite and open multiplicity in which relations are relations of reciprocal implication.”43 Such indefinite and open multiplicity entails a radical revision of the old Cartesian mind-body dualism, as well as the Kantian notion of “a priori concepts.” The adaequation or equivalence implied by such “translational” dualisms is itself contradictory: the Kantian subject is situated, in the final instance, by an intuitional faculty with regards to an a priori world view, while the Cartesian subject is already “decentered” in the assumption of reflexivity. As Merleau-Ponty observes,

the relation between subject and world are not strictly bilateral: if they were, the certainty of the world would, in Descartes, be immediately given with that of the cogito and Kant would not have talked about the “Copernican revolution.” Analytical reflection starts from our experience of the world and goes back to the subject as to a condition of possibility distinct from that experience, revealing the all-embracing synthesis as that without which there would be no world.44

This discursive, or ecological, interpretation of “experience” provides a point of conjunction between modern phenomenological theories, pragmatism, and cybernetics. For Merleau-Ponty, the experiential world defined as “an indefinite and open multiplicity in which relations are relations of reciprocal implication” likewise follows from Einsteinian relativity in positing experience as a global set of integrated and mutually affective coordinates. The logical consequence of such a definition is that we are led, according to Merleau-Ponty, to an idea of “reality” that is “intrinsically and in the last analysis a tissue of probabilities.”45 The linguistic complexion inherent to this idea of reality—one which is conditional for a semantics and not dependent upon any a priori semantic structure—is more clearly established by Merleau-Ponty in his reading of Saussure, in an essay entitled “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence”:

What we have learnt from Saussure is that, taken singly, signs do not signify anything, and that each one of them does not so much express a meaning as mark a divergence of meaning between itself and other signs. Since the same can be said of all signs, we may conclude that language is made of differences without terms; or more exactly, that the terms of language are engendered only by the differences which appear among them.46

Merleau-Ponty’s crucial insights concern the notion of aesthetic/perceptive judgement, which involves an inherent relation to a functional suspension or anaesthesia of consciousness, wherein what is called perception is transacted recursively from “intellectual action” to “motor action,” from “thinking” to “acting.” Perception is subsumed within what Merleau-Ponty calls a “corporeal or postural schema”:

A “corporeal or postural schema” gives us at every moment a global, practical, and implicit notion of the relation between our body and things, or our hold on them. A system of possible movements, or “motor projects,” radiates from us to our environment. Our body is not in space like things; it inhabits or haunts space […] For us the body is more than an instrument or a means; it is our expression in the world, the visible form of our intentions. Even our most secret affective movements, those most deeply tied to the humorial infrastructure, help to shape our perception of things.47

As with the psychoanalytic logic of Freudian dreamwork, Merleau-Ponty’s motor-affective agency implies a type of archaeology: “Digging down into the perceived world,” Merleau-Ponty writes, “we see that sensory qualities are not opaque, indivisible ‘givens,’ which are simply exhibited to a remote consciousness.”48 And if agency itself has often been treated, however metaphorically, as something representable on a perceptual register, or in any case thinkable, this would be because it remains founded upon a certain logic of the image, the spectacle, the revenance of something otherwise “automatic, mechanical.”

Building upon work by Dewey and Merleau-Ponty, and informed by the advancement of film in the pre-WWII era and the boom of TV post-WWII, the most innovative and important of post-war theoretical movements involved with aisthēsis became media studies, as is corroborated by the sweeping success of Marshall McLuhan’s (1911–1980) Understanding Media (1964). Preceded by the no less stimulating The Gutenberg Galaxy and followed by the more accessible, mostly visual The Medium is the Massage (1967), Understanding Media turned a hitherto obscure Canadian academic into a cult figure, a guru of the then-nascent discipline, coining many terms and proposing phrases (apart from the term media itself; e.g., “global village” and “Age of Information”) that have since become almost folklore—corroborated by the widespread use of the adjective McLuhanesque. Both brilliant and abstruse, McLuhan’s thought and visual arrangement of his argument meets the kind of epistemology ascribed to the electronic media: non-linear, repetitive, discontinuous, intuitive, proceeding by analogy instead of sequential argument. Beginning from the premise that “we become what we behold,” that “we shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us,”49 McLuhan investigates the two technological revolutions that overthrew a settled political and aesthetic order. First, in the mid-15th century, the invention of printing with movable type encouraged people to think in straight lines and to arrange their perceptions of the world in forms convenient to the visual order of the printed page; second, since the late 19th century, the new applications of electricity (telegraph, telephone, television, computers, etc.) taught people to rearrange their perceptions of the world in ways convenient to the protocols of cyberspace.

McLuhan’s thought, however popular in the 1960s vis-à-vis television, began to wane in the early 1970s and was only resuscitated in the two decades after his death with the ascent of the computer, hypertext, and hypermedia. A convenient yardstick against which the computer decades would measure either relative or radical newness of the “hyper-” and the “cyber-” is the famed McLuhanesque tetrad of “laws of media,”50 proceeding from four basic questions: What does the medium enhance? What does it render obsolete? What does it retrieve that was previously obsolete? What does it flip into when pushed to its extremes? Writing at the exact same time as McLuhan, in 1965, Theodor H. Nelson (1937–) coined the term “hypertext” to denote “non-sequential writing—text that branches and allows choices to the reader, best read at an interactive screen. As popularly conceived, this is a series of text chunks connected by links which offer the reader different pathways.”51 Media theorists were quick to spot the immense potential offered by the new media for not only communication and information dissemination, but also for literature and the cognitive processes entailed in the act of reading and perceiving texts in general. Especially as long as the literary canon continues to be conceived of as an archive of written texts, which according to Jay David Bolter (1951–) function as “stable record[s] of thought” whose stability resides precisely in the texts’ “physical medium: clay, papyrus or paper; tablet, scroll or book.”52 In this view, the potentially liberating instability of hypertext lies in its ontologically unstable writing space, in which “the space is the computer’s videoscreen where text is displayed as well as the electronic memory in which text is stored,” a dual emplacement of writing that Bolter terms topography, referring to “mapping or charting—that is, to a visual and mathematical rather than verbal description,” in which electronic writing is “not the writing of a place, but rather a writing with places, spatially realised topics.”53

The rapid expansion of the media environment into an immersive, “virtualized” reality, is one of the causes usually cited for the breakdown in so-called traditional assumptions about truth and its opposite, thus assisting in ushering in the epoch of the “postmodern.” Guy Debord (1931–1994) in his The Society of the Spectacle (1967), characterized the diminution of the public realm within the framework of the symbolic logic of commodification or eventness and its domination over a counter-historical “present”:

The history which is present in all the depths of society tends to be lost at the surface. The triumph of irreversible time is also its metamorphosis into the time of things, because the weapon of its victory was precisely the mass production of objects according to the laws of the commodity.54

Already in Debord, global media environments are seen as extending the field of the symbolic indefinitely, not merely representing a condition of the real, but substituting for it and indeed constituting it. Such is the society of the spectacle in its phase of what Jean Baudrillard (1929–2007) has called “pure simulation.”55 And it is this particular purchase over the real—or at least the idea of the real—that continues to haunt assumptions about the possibility of criticism as such. The apparent suspension of the historical within the discontinuous and compressed instant raises a number of important questions about what it is that we refer to when we speak of media. While we are confronted in the 21st century with the ubiquitous presence of various media technologies, we are also increasingly aware of the spectral character of the technē of “medialization” that has accompanied the recession of the materially historical. In other words, we are confronted with an emergent structure of the real that, beyond its merely artifactual aspect (comprised of particular technological forms), is not part of a temporal sequence—is no entity or series of entities arranged historically “in time,” so to speak—but rather a relation of temporality.

The formal conjunction of aesthetics, phenomenality and the critique of reason might be said to have acquired its particular ethico-political tenor with the advent of industrial capitalism in the 18th century and to have subsequently given rise to the anachronistic conception of “man” as individuated consciousness inter-operating across the immersive technosphere of the contemporary lifeworld. Likewise a powerful, if seemingly contradictory, tradition linking Platonism and Aristotelianism to the ideology of technical reproduction is revealed in an aesthetic utilitarianism of the image and of a “productive-aesthetic” as aesthetic of “pure production,” or what Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) calls—drawing attention, by way of simile, to the contradictory inherence of this dynamic—“production as mimēsis.”56 Derrida argues:

Under the cover of a controlled indeterminacy, pure morality and empirical culturalism are allied in the Kantian critique of pure judgements of taste. A politics, therefore, although it never occupies the centre of the stage, acts upon this discourse. It ought to be possible to read it. Politics and political economy, to be sure, are implicated in every discourse on art and on the beautiful.57

Within the framework, then, of a controlled indeterminacy of representation, or of a signifying event, what is called an image “acquires” not simply a politico-aesthetic function by way of an act of judgement, but rather accedes in its very technological condition to a political imaginary, to an aesthetics as such, being the so-called direct apprehension or experience of the event itself, of mimēsis “itself.” The basis of apprehension is in a quasi-translational synthesis according to which there are no sensory objects to speak of, but instead something like a transversal: a “liminal” architecture that cannot be objectified or translated (i.e., insofar as translation is taken to describe what Derrida terms an “equation of presence and representation to the truth (homoiosis or adaequation) about the thing and of the thought about the thing,” etc.).58 The transversal remains the virtual site of any translational movement—as a mechanism, a technē, of translation (and, by implication, of liminality)—and thereby describes a form of instigation or disclosure of the intelligible under the guise of intellection or apprehension. For this reason, and not for lack of a structural resolution of competing terms, it is only by way of a “generalized liminality”—conditioning the synaesthetic per se—that we can arrive at an understanding of consciousness or cognition not as an agent of an a priori determinacy, but as a technē of disclosure.

What does it mean, then, to assume a synaesthetic basis for apprehension that is not grounded in assumptions of translatability (or metaphoricity), yet whose operations might still be considered as translational or structurally and reciprocally inherent (such that to speak of synaesthesia would be to speak of modes of apprehension)? Such a notion of inherence also needs to be explained—and it can be done so only by taking into account the irreducibility of difference against the risk posed, under the sign of translation, by the figure of totality. For in synaesthesia, experience is not (cannot be) totalized by way of a movement of synthesis, addition, or translation. For similar reasons, it makes no sense to say that the brain, as the “seat of the mind,” has evolved in certain ways in order for thought (apprehension, language, cognition) to occur—as though by way of various objective processes of self-translation, whether in the body or “in the mind.” If an evolutionary process has taken place it can only be that this process is itself bound up with what thought is. Consequently, if we speak of thought (apprehension, language, cognition) in terms of discursivity, this is not simply a metaphor or one alternative “model” among others. Discursivity is rather a “literal” state of affairs, as it were, conditioning the possibility of thought, et cetera—and it is this conditionality, and the contours of possibility delimited by it, that describes, insofar as such a thing is possible, an objectless “locality of thought.”

Indeed, much of the contemporary theory and practice of digital poetics and cyber-aesthetics evolves around issues of locality, synaesthesia, (im)materiality, and discursivity. Sometimes harking back to George P. Landow and Paul Delaney’s 1991 anthology, Hypermedia and Literary Studies—with its rudimentary attempts to grapple with new media poetics—but more often signaling departures that are more diversely informed, volumes such as Prefiguring Cyberspace: An Intellectual History, edited by Darren Tofts, Annemarie Jonson, and Alessio Cavallaro (2002), Chris Funkhouser’s Prehistory of Digital Poetry: An Archaeology of Forms, 1959–1995 (2007), and Loss Glazier’s Digital Poetics: The Making of E-Poetries (2002) have mapped much of the terrain extending from the pioneer work of Alan Turing and later Ted Nelson, through Marshall McLuhan, to the techno-poetics of Donald Theall, tracing a literary prehistory through the work of Stéphane Mallarmé, James Joyce, and Jorge Luis Borges, and arriving at the human/machine performance interfaces of Stelarc (1946–).

Stelarc’s artistic practice reflects on the reconfiguration of the senses. In projects such as “The Extra Ear; or an ear on an arm,” he undertook an ongoing transformation of the concept of the body, during which Stelarc had an artificial (and fully functional) ear implanted into his arm, furnished with a Wi-Fi-enabled microphone for “the world,” he explained, “to be able to listen in to what my ear is hearing.”59 Stelarc’s augmentation of the body blends not only aisthēsis with mechanical prosthesis, but in its course, explain Darren Tofts, also “event and image become theatre, become spectacle”: “In this act of simultaneous disembodiment (inclusive of the metonymic reduction of the surgeons’ hands) and embodiment (the enjambment of ear and arm), the image solicits a very intimate gaze, making the viewer privy to a moment of becoming.”60 Here, the aesthetic becomes biological becomes surgical becomes machinic becomes anaesthetic. Thus, Stelarc’s extreme artistic practice presents a logical consequence and conclusion to the entire late-20th- and early-21st-century conceptualization of aisthēsis as embedded within communications technologies, from McLuhan to cyberculture, in the aesthetico-mimetic doubling of the mediasphere, from teletext and satellite TV to the World Wide Web, GPS, et cetera. A critical, ecological mode of thought—networked, transverse, topological—here assumes the ideal function of an “avant-gardism” in affecting the structure of how things come to mean, how meaning is virtualized, and how the virtual is lived.

If there is a perceived crisis in the arts and aisthēsis today it is in the reversal of the former relation of “art” to “reality”: the revolt against a mimetic paradigm, long the hallmark of avant-gardes, that loses sight of the fact that at a certain point the real itself exhibits, as Jean-François Lyotard (1924–1998) famously defined the postmodern condition, an incredulity toward precisely those metanarratives attributed to it.61 The gap between aisthēsis/perception and noiēsis/cognition is not what it has seemed, and never was.

Review of the Literature

The rapid expansion of the media environment into an immersive, “virtualised” reality, is one of the causes usually cited for the breakdown in so-called traditional assumptions about truth and falsifiability, thus assisting in ushering in the epoch of the “postmodern.” Guy Debord (1931–1994) in his The Society of the Spectacle (1967) characterised the diminution of the public realm within the framework of the symbolic logic of commodification or eventness and its domination over a counter-historical “present.” Already in Debord, global media environments are seen as extending the field of the symbolic indefinitely, not merely representing a condition of the real, but in fact substituting for it and indeed constituting it. Such is the society of the spectacle in its phase of what Jean Baudrillard (1929–2007) has called “pure simulation.”62

And it is this particular purchase over the real—or at least the idea of the real—that continues to haunt assumptions about the possibility of criticism as such. The apparent suspension of the historical within the discontinuous and compressed instant raises a number of important questions about what it is that we refer to when we speak of media. While we are confronted in the 21st century with the ubiquitous presence of various media technologies, we are also increasingly aware of the spectral character of the technē of “medialisation” that has accompanied the recession of the materially historical. In other words, we are confronted with an emergent structure of the real which, beyond its merely artifactual aspect (comprised of particular technological forms) is not part of a temporal sequence—is no entity or series of entities arranged historically “in time,” so to speak—but rather a relation of temporality.

Extending from the pioneering work of Alan Turing and later Ted Nelson, through Marshall McLuhan, to the techno-poetics of Donald Theall, and tracing a literary prehistory through the works of Stéphane Mallarmé, James Joyce and Jorge Luis Borges, much of the contemporary theory and practice of digital poetics and cyber-aesthetics evolves around issues of locality, synaesthesia, (im)materiality and discursivity. Sometimes harking back to George P. Landow and Paul Delaney’s 1991 anthology, Hypermedia and Literary Studies—with its rudimentary attempts to grapple with new media poetics—but more often than not signalling departures that are more diversely informed, volumes such as Prefiguring Cyberspace: An Intellectual History, eds. Darren Tofts, Annemarie Jonson, and Alessio Cavallaro (2002), Chris Funkhouser’s Prehistory of Digital Poetry: An Archaeology of Forms, 1959–1995 (2007) and Loss Glazier’s Digital Poetics: The Making of E-Poetries (2002) have mapped this vast terrain.

The entire late-20th- and early-21st-century conceptualisation of aisthēsis as embedded within communications technologies and the aesthetico-mimetic doubling of the mediasphere, from teletext and satellite TV, to the World Wide Web, GPS, etc. engenders a critical, ecological mode of thought. This thought is networked, transverse, topological, and assumes the ideal function of an “avant-gardism” in affecting the structure of how things come to mean, how meaning is virtualised, and how the virtual is lived. If there is a perceived crisis in the arts and aisthēsis today it is in the reversal of the former relation of “art” to “reality”: the revolt against a mimetic paradigm, long the hallmark of avant-gardes, that loses sight of the fact that at a certain point the real itself exhibits, as Jean-François Lyotard (1924–1998) famously defined the postmodern condition, an incredulity towards precisely those metanarratives attributed to it.63

Further Reading

Adorno, Theodor. Negative Dialectics. Translated by Dennis Redmond. London: Routledge, 1973.Find this resource:

Adorno, Theodor. Aesthetic Theory. Translated by R. Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa theologiae, 60 vols. Translated by Thomas Gilby. Oxford and London: Blackfriars with Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1964–1973.Find this resource:

Aristotle. Metaphysics. Translated by W. D. Ross. London: Oxford University Press, 1924.Find this resource:

Aristotle. De anima—in the Version of William of Moerbeke and the Commentary of St. Thomas Aquinas. Translated by Kenelm Foster and Silvester Humphries. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1954.Find this resource:

Aristotle. Poetics. Translated by Leon Golden. Englewood, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968.Find this resource:

Armand, Louis. Literate Technologies. Prague: Litteraria Pragensia Books, 2006.Find this resource:

Armand, Louis. Organ-Grinder’s Monkey: Culture after the Avant-Garde. Prague: Litteraria Pragensia Books, 2013.Find this resource:

Armand, Louis, Jane Lewty, and Andrew Mitchell, eds. Pornotopias—Image Apocalypse Desire. Prague: Litteraria Pragensia, 2008.Find this resource:

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Paul Foss, Paul Patton, and Philip Beitchman. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983.Find this resource:

Baumgarten, Alexander Gottlieb. Reflections on Poetry. Translated by Karl Aschenbrenner and William B. Holther. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1954.Find this resource:

Baumgarten, Alexander Gottlieb. Aesthetica. Edited and translated by Dagmar Mirbach. Hamburg, Germany: Meiner, 2007.Find this resource:

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Translated by Harry Zohn. London: Fontana, 1995.Find this resource:

Bolter, Jay D. Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing. Fairlawn, U.K.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1990.Find this resource:

Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Edited by Paul Guyer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Corneille, Pierre. Œuvres. Paris: Seuil, 1963.Find this resource:

Davies, Stephen, Kathleen Marie Higgins, Robert Hopkins, Robert Stecker, and David E. Cooper, eds. Blackwell Companion to Aesthetics. Oxford: Blackwell, 2009.Find this resource:

Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. New York: Zone Books, 1995.Find this resource:

Derrida, Jacques. Dissemination. Translated by Barbara Johnson. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981.Find this resource:

Dewey, John. Essays in Experimental Logic. New York: Dover, 1916.Find this resource:

Dewey, John. Experience and Nature. New York: Dover, 1919.Find this resource:

Dewey, John. Art as Experience. New York: Perigree, 1934.Find this resource:

Ficino, Marsilio. Platonic Theology. Translated by Michael J. B. Allen. Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Freud, Sigmund. The Origins of Psycho-Analysis. Letters to Wilhelm Fleiss, Drafts and Notes: 1887–1902. Translated by Eric Mosbacher and James Strachey. London: Imago, 1954.Find this resource:

Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Translated by James Strachey, XXII vols. London: Hogarth Press and The Institute of Psycho-analysis, 1954.Find this resource:

Freud, Sigmund. The Essentials of Psycho-Analysis. Edited by Anna Freud, translated by James Strachey. London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-analysis, 1986.Find this resource:

Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790). Edited by Paul Guyer, translated by Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Landow, George P. and Paul Delaney, eds. Hypermedia and Literary Studies. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.Find this resource:

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1964.Find this resource:

McLuhan, Marshall. Laws of Media: The New Science. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988.Find this resource:

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by Colin Smith. London: Routledge, 1962.Find this resource:

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Primacy of Perception and Other Essays. Translated by James M. Edie. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964.Find this resource:

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Signs. Translated by Richard C. McCleary. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964.Find this resource:

Nelson, Theodor H. Literary Machines. Swarthmore: Self-published, 1981.Find this resource:

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy. In Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Translated and edited by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Modern Library, 2000.Find this resource:

Peters, F. E. Greek Philosophical Terms: A Historical Lexicon. New York and London: New York University Press, 1967.Find this resource:

Plato. Timaeus and Critias. Translated by A. E. Taylor. London and New York: Routledge, 1929, 2013.Find this resource:

Plotinus. The Six Enneads, “First Tractate—The Animate and the Man.” Translated by Stephen Mackenna and B. S. Page. Available online.Find this resource:

Rancière, Jacques. Aisthesis. Translated by Zakir Paul. London and New York: Verso, 2013.Find this resource:

Richter, David H., ed. The Critical Tradition. 3d ed. London and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007.Find this resource:

Sidney, Philip. An Apology for Poetry. Edited by Geoffrey Shepherd and R. W. Maslen. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2002.Find this resource:

Vichnar, David. Subtexts. Prague: Litteraria Pragensia Books, 2015.Find this resource:


(1.) F. E. Peters, Greek Philosophical Terms: A Historical Lexicon (New York and London: New York University Press, 1967), 8.

(2.) Peters, Greek Philosophical Terms, 8.

(3.) Cf. Plato, Timaeus and Critias, trans. A. E. Taylor (London and New York: Routledge, 1929, 2013), 77b.

(4.) Aristotle, De anima—in the Version of William of Moerbeke and the Commentary of St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. Kenelm Foster and Silvester Humphries, Part 11, §545 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954), 329.

(5.) Such paradeigmata—as both contiguity and subjacency (fr. Gk. para-deiknumi: “showing side-by-side”)—represent possibilities both consequent upon the structures of cinematic discourse and conditional upon the technics of a general epistemology of the image.

(6.) Aristotle, Metaphysics, trans. W. D. Ross (London: Oxford University Press, 1924), I.1.980a1f.

(7.) Plotinus, The Six Enneads, “First Tractate—The Animate and the Man,” trans. Stephen Mackenna and B.S. Page, I.1.7. Available online.

(8.) Peters, Greek Philosophical Terms, 14–15.

(9.) Cf. e.g. John Marenbon, “Medieval and Renaissance Aesthetics,” Blackwell Companion to Aesthetics, eds. Stephen Davies et al. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2009), 22–31.

(10.) Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, 60 vols., trans. Thomas Gilby (Oxford & London: Blackfriars with Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1964–1973), vol. 1, question 54, article 1.

(11.) Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, vol. 1, question 39, article 8.

(12.) Marsilio Ficino, Platonic Theology, vol. 4, trans. Michael J. B. Allen (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 2001), 173.

(13.) Sir Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry, revised & expanded 3rd ed., eds. Geoffrey Shepherd and R.W. Maslen (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2002), 85.

(14.) Aristotle, Poetics, trans. Leon Golden (Englewood, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968), 11.

(15.) Pierre Corneille, “Trois discours sur le poème dramatique,” Œuvres (Paris: Seuil, 1963), 99–100.

(16.) Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten, Philosophische Betrachtungen über einige Bedingungen des Gedichtes (1735), §115; and Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten, Reflections on Poetry, trans. Karl Aschenbrenner and William B. Holther (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1954), 77–78.

(17.) Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten, Aesthetica-Ästhetik (1750–58), §§18–20, ed. and trans. Dagmar Mirbach (Hamburg: Meiner, 2007), 23.

(18.) Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, ed. Paul Guyer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 33.

(19.) Immanuel Kant, The Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790), ed. Paul Guyer, trans. Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 236.

(20.) Cf. Kant, The Critique of the Power of Judgment, §§25–6.

(21.) Cf. Kant, The Critique of the Power of Judgment, §28.

(22.) Kant, The Critique of the Power of Judgment, 193.

(23.) Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, trans. and ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Modern Library, 2000), 41.

(24.) Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy, 104.

(25.) Sigmund Freud, “A Note upon the ‘Mystic Writing-Pad,’” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press and The Institute of Psycho-analysis, 1954), 227.

(26.) Sigmund Freud, “The Ego and the Id,” in The Essentials of Psycho-Analysis, ed. Anna Freud, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-analysis, 1986), 445.

(27.) Sigmund Freud, The Origins of Psycho-Analysis. Letters to Wilhelm Fleiss, Drafts and Notes: 1887–1902, trans. Eric Mosbacher and James Strachey (London: Imago, 1954), 174.

(28.) Freud, “The Ego and the Id,” 440, 444.

(29.) Richard Rudgley, Lost Civilisations of the Stone Age (London: Century, 1998), 182.

(30.) Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, trans. Wade Baskin (New York: Philosophical Library, 1959), 117–18.

(31.) For more see The Critical Tradition, 3d ed., ed. David H. Richter (London and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007), 832–37.

(32.) Jacques Rancière, Aisthesis, trans. Zakir Paul (London and New York: Verso, 2013), ix.

(33.) Rancière, Aisthesis, x.

(34.) Rancière, Aisthesis, xi.

(35.) Rancière, Aisthesis, xii.

(36.) Rancière, Aisthesis, xiii.

(37.) Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. R. Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 5, 236.

(38.) Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. Dennis Redmond (London: Routledge, 1973), §9. Utilisation, 388.

(39.) Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (London: Fontana, 1995), 242.

(40.) John Dewey, “Antecedents and Stimuli of Thinking,” Essays in Experimental Logic (New York: Dover, 1916), 104.

(41.) John Dewey, Experience and Nature (New York: Dover, 1919), xv.

(42.) John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Perigree, 1934), 272.

(43.) Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962), xii.

(44.) Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, x.

(45.) Merleau-Ponty, “Einstein and the Crisis of Reason,” in Signs, trans. Richard C. McCleary (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 193.

(46.) Merleau-Ponty, “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence,” in Signs, 39.

(47.) Merleau-Ponty, “An Unpublished Text,” in The Primacy of Perception and Other Essays, trans. James M. Edie (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 5.

(48.) Merleau-Ponty, “An Unpublished Text,” 5.

(49.) Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1964), 19.

(50.) Marshall McLuhan, Laws of Media: The New Science (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988).

(51.) Theodor H. Nelson, Literary Machines (Swarthmore: Self-published, 1981), 2.

(52.) Jay D. Bolter, “Hypertext, Hypermedia and Literary Studies: The State of the Art,” in Hypermedia and Literary Studies, eds. George P. Landow and Paul Delaney (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994), 3.

(53.) Jay D. Bolter, Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing (Fairlawn, U.K.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1990), 11, 25.

(54.) Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1995), §142.

(55.) Jean Baudrillard, “The Precession of Simulacra,” Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton, and Philip Beitchman (New York: Semiotext(e), 1983 [1981]).

(56.) Jacques Derrida, “Economimesis,” Diacritics 11 (June 1981), 3.

(57.) Derrida, “Economimesis,” 3.

(58.) Jacques Derrida, “Outwork, Prefacing,” in Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), 44.

(59.) Georgia McCafferty, “The Man with an Ear on His Arm,” CNN, August 13, 2015.

(60.) Darren Tofts, “Interiors,” Pornotopias—Image Apocalypse Desire, eds. Louis Armand, Jane Lewty, and Andrew Mitchell (Prague: Litteraria Pragensia, 2008), 10.

(61.) Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), xxiv.

(62.) Baudrillard, “The Precession of Simulacra.”

(63.) Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, xxiv.