Gadamer, Art, and Play
Gadamer's notion of art as a representational play whose purpose is to be what it is, represent what it does, outside the subjectivity of its participants (either actors or audience) evolves into a discussion of mimesis. He rejects the Platonic notion that mimesis is some sort of copying. As transformed into structure, art as play, or specifically, "the action of a drama .....no longer permits of any comparison with reality as the secret measure of all copied similarity." The pleasure it elicits "is the joy of knowledge." It does not operate as an enchantment but "a transformation into the true." Art, then, would seem to be an essentializing agent insofar as it reveals what is essential. Gadamer asks us to see reality as a horizon of "still undecided possibilities," of unfulfilled expectations, of contingency. If, in a particular case, however, "a meaningful whole completes and fulfills itself in reality," it is like a drama. If someone sees the whole of reality as a closed circle of meaning" he will be able to speak "of the comedy and tragedy of life" (genres becoming ways of conceiving reality). In such cases where reality "is understood as a play, there emerges the reality of what play is, which we call the play of art." As such, art is a realization: "By means of it everyone recognizes that that is how things are." Reality, in this veiwpoint, is what has not been transformed. Art is defined as "the raising up of this reality to its truth."
Recognition is involved, therefore, in this imitation. What one recognizes in the play of art is not technique, which is only of secondary interest; our attention is directed towards "how true it is and to what extent one knows and recognizes it and oneself." But this recognition is no mere certification of previous knowledge. Rather, "more becomes known than is already known." As such, recognition involves new knowledge, gained through the illuminating agency of art. Again, what we're getting here is a gloss on Aristotle's dictum that poetry is more universal than history, not an unfamiliar gloss, which reads this dictum as strongly as it can in order to secure poetry a cognitive status. Moreover, Gadamer's notion of recognition links up with Plato's notion of knowledge as a recovery or remembrance. What we're getting, then, is a working out of the relationship between immanence and transcendance, where the transcendent forms are arrived at, via a logos or dialectic which delivers them, as a midwife would. The pretence, then, of the Platonic dialectic to carving the unessentials away to reveal essences is now transformed to the province of art which serves a similar essentializing or discovering function, enabling us to truly recognize what is essential. Art, for Gadamer, has truly become philosophy.
What is marvelous to watch is Gadamer's own play with Platonic and Aristotelian ideas. Plato's mimesis becomes Aristotle's delivery of universals which are recognized in a Platonic epistemology. Thus the kind of representation given in a play is precisely the kind that Plato wants, for it has all the powers of a dialectic which "leaves behind it everything which is accidental or unessential." This is not only true of the private being of the actor who, like the member of the Platonic dialogue, effaces himself before the movement of the revealing dialectic, but also, it seems, for the spectator who, herself a participant, gains a "recognition of the true" insofar as the being of the representation, the Achilles of Homer, for example, "is superior to the being of the .....original Achilles." In a sense, "imitation and representation are not merely a second version, a copy, but a recognition of the essence. Because they are not merely repetition, but a 'bringing forth,' the spectator is also involved with them." And now, the Platonic criticism, leveled at imitation in the Ion, meets this new view of it involving recognition "which has the character of genuine knowledge of essence, and since Plato considers all knowledge of being recognition, this is the ground for Aristotle's remark that poetry is more philosophical than history."
(If this a correct reading, then I think I have picked up on the central motif
in Gadamer's thinking at its point of origin.) If art is conceived this
way, as a mode of philosophic understanding, as, in fact, possessing
the power of Platonic dialectic, then it follows that the mode of understanding
appropriate to art should be one modeled after Platonic dialogue. What
Gadamer does is make the work of art and the reader partners in a dialogue
whereby art, as play, mediates a subject, i.e., represents something.
It is what the art is about which informs the dialogue between reader
and text even as what the dialogue was about in Plato directed the participants
in the dialogue. As Gadamer sees it, the logos in the dialogue engenders
truth, i.e., enables its recovery or recognition, insofar as its participants
submit themselves to the play of question and answer. So those who participate
in the play of an artwork also have the truth of it delivered to them
through its agency--not because they have imposed such truth, but rather
because they have let it emerge. This idea of the submission to the
play of the work, letting the work work, is analogous to submitting
oneself to the flow of dialectic from which truth emerges. In the last
pages of Truth and Method, Gadamer says (446) that the attitude
of the player or participant in such a game is not one of subjectivity--of
trying to overcome or destroy another position--"since it is, rather,
the game itself that plays, in that it draws the player into itself
and thus itself becomes the actual subjectum of playing." Again, we
have the notion of the medial function of play insofar as it functions
as a self-representation. We get a sense here that Gadamer has a real
belief in the Platonic myth of recovery or delivery of knowledge out
of ourselves. This is extremely important, for what it points to is
a certain basic faith in one's already being in truth which we have
forgotten and yet is recoverable by a teacher who can reawaken, or,
better, awaken the memory of the hope of its recovery. Recognition means
some sort of shock of illumination whereby what is recognized seems,
somehow, familiar. But this recognition has an aspect of immediacy--almost
as if we were carried out of ourselves, losing our ordinary attachment
to appearance, in order to obtain even greater insight into truth. One,
in a sense, must lose oneself in order to find oneself.
So Gadamer affirms that "someone who understands is always already drawn into an event through which meaning asserts itself." The "already" here is what I'm interested in. What it suggests is that latent knowledge which Plato sought to make patent through dialectic. Gadamer says such knowledge also emeges in the experience of the beautiful. "When we understand a text, what is meaningful in it claims us just as the beautiful claims us. It has asserted itself and claimed us before we can come to ourselves and be in a position to test the claim of meaning it makes." Again, one senses that, for Gadamer, one is already a player and that what the work of art does is actually show the truth of this preconscious, call it tacit, knowledge. So it is that the work of art is not an empty container into which we pour meaning. Rather, there is a meaning in it which, at the outset, begins to claim us. The moment of encounter is thus not a bringing something to the work but a realization that the work elicits something from us; it calls us, strikes us as significant and this significance is not so much a meaning-giving activity on our part as it is the result of some sort of initial primal tuning or recognition that subsequent dialogue serves to bring forth into a sharable intersubjective realm.
What this suggests is a deep commitment to an initial feeling, claim, intuition, hunch, about a work, a sense of its significance which serves to impel us toward dialogue which enables us to articulate and so, in a sense, discover in language of our own the discovery we feel the original language is. When that happens, the original language is understood as the truth it is inseperable from, and so the explanatory language we used can, in effect, be put aside the way tools are after a house is built.
One can, if one wishes, call Gadamer's stance subjective.That, it seems to me, would be a great injustice. For what Gadamer is is objective in the strictest sense insofar as his goal is to try to take the fullest account of what happens when we understand. His task might be seen as an impossible one. Who, after all, trusts so much of this initial response to a work? Who is not suspicious of first impressions? Who is not nervous about being "right" about what one is reading? Who does not deliver platitudinous remarks about the dangers of impressionism? And yet, despite, and even because of all these fears, Gadamer insists upon our retaining, in some essential way, the force of that first insight or feel for a work's significance. It is wrong to think of ourselves as players outside the field of play, hesitiating to make entry into the game for fear of not playing correctly. For we are already (and this is crucial) in play insofar as we speak a language which contains within it not only our own culture but access to the past which is not discontinuous with us in the present. "In understanding we are drawn into an event of truth and arrive, as it were, too late, if we want to know what we ought to believe." This is why Gadamer places so much emphasis on pre-understanding, on some form of given. What this given is involves, as in the Platonic myth of knowledge, the delivery out of forgetfulness: "It is time" says Gadamer," to rescue the phenomenon of memory from being regarded merely as a psychological faculty and to see it as an essential element in the finite historical being of man." Is it not this finite historical being of man, which memory is, constituted by literature? Is not then the study of literature the study of history? "A written tradition....is not this document, as coming from the past, that is, the bearer of tradition, but the continuity of memory. Through memory, tradition becomes a part of our own world, and so what is communicated can be directly experienced."
We are, in this sort of talk, not only feeling the pressure of the Platonic
myth, but also are pushed towards a religious context. The whole idea
of the players, whether actors or audience, being taken out of themselves,
for the purpose of finding themselves, hints at the departure and return
motif lying behind the Christian faith that self-abandonment leads to
self-discovery. Gadamer is quite frank in admitting that a similar sort
of self-renunciation and resultant self-discovery is operative in the
encounter with a work. This analogy between aesthetic experience and
religious experience is fundamental to understanding what he is up to;
it gives us insight into what is meant by terms like "revelation," "event,"
and "claim." Let us turn to this analogy and see how Gadamer's thinking
presses it to reveal what, for him, is the work's ontological status.
In working out the ontological status of a work, Gadamer turns to a discussion of its identity. We must remember that he resists the temptation to see an aesthetic experience as differentiated from experience as such. He insists that it is not discontinuous with our experience of the world but, in fact, a cognition of what is essential in our experience. But the question arises: does art then exist in an atemporal or sacred time of pure being above the flux of becoming? Does its self-identity rest on our positing a supratemporal realm to which the differentiated or specialized aesthetic conscious is privy? Gadamer does not like this notion of art, this whole way of placing it in a sacred time-zone. To think this way is to think from the point of view of a "biblical theology of time" which justifies the "timelessness of the work of art" by appealing to this "sacred time." What Gadamer wants to do is say that the being of the work of art is not atemporality thusly conceived, but in its temporality. And he asks- "What kind of temporality is this?" (In saying that a work of art is temporal he also wants to avoid the opposite tendendcy of historicism which embeds the work in its own time zone, for then its meaning becomes topical or, as he says, "occasional" and thereby "relative" to its original context.
The answer that he wants to give involves our seeing the being of a work of art as its becoming. "This means that however much it may be changed and distorted in its representation, it still remains itself." Its being is, then, not atemporal, but historical. "The representation has, in an indissoluble, indelible way the character of the repetition." He insists that this repetition of a work, say an interpretive understanding, is not an original restorative reproduction, a mere mimic of what it was originally. Rather, such understanding is, in time, a further realization of the work. Its essence, existentially speaking, is the existence it has acquired through various temporally achieved understandings. (It is, of course, precisely this which raises Hirsch's objections and forces his distinction between meaning and significance.)
Elaborating the existential or temporal quality of the work, Gadamer asks us to think in terms of a festival or celebration. The repetition involved in such celebrations is not of original invention, but is, itself, re-creative. The essence of the festival is such that "its historical connections are secondary." There is no real festival existing apart from its various celebrations. Paradoxically, it is its own original essence to be something different (even when celebrated in exactly the same way.)" Gadamer concludes that a festival is not of the character of frozen meaning: "It has its being only in becoming and return." We are prepared for the Christian dialectic. But before seeing its full emergence we will follow Gadamer's argument that the festival, because of this, is not of a subjective character--i.e., does not exist in the subjective experience of those celebrating it. Why not?
The answer Gadamer gives again invokes the idea of play as participation and the notions of presence, claim, and event come into play, though the last is only adumbrated at this point. The drama, like the festival, despite its being represented for the spectator, does not have its being at "just the point of intersection of the experiences the spectators have." Just why this is so is expressed this way- "Rather the contrary is true, that the being of the spectator is determined by his being there present." I take this to mean that it is the drama which confers the being of the spectator, not the other way around. Gadamer wants the idea of communion and participation to exclude the tendency to think of the participants as primary. (It is, one might say, the game of baseball that enables the baseball player's being to emerge. This is the central point; a submission to a certain play in order that a certain presentation of the self might obtain.)
This does not mean a derogation of the subjectivity of the participants, but a placement of it. Plato errs in the Phaedrus, says Gadamer, in seeing exstasis as a kind of madness outside the bounds of reason. Rather, "being outside oneself is the positive possibility of being wholly with saomething else." Thus the spectator in what we might call a "suspension of disbelief," and what Gadamer calls "self-forgetfulness," gives himself, as participant, "to what he is watching." So Gadamer wants to purge this state of its negative connotations measured by Platonic reasons; rather, such submissiveness involves a turning away from the self, a self-forgetfulness in favor of "attention to the object." It involves, then, not blinding madness, but, and here we are anticipating, illuminating insight.
Gadamer's analysis continues, relentlessly, to pursue this quality of submission and the positive fruits it yields. Contrastive analogues set in. Thus the kind of attention he is talking about is not curiosity, for curiosity about an object has something negatory about it. As such, the object of curiosity and the attention given it exhaust one another. There is, quite simply, no lasting impression involved in attention to mere novelty. One merely becomes bored after awhile. In the play of art, on the contrary, the spectator's attention is not momentary, but has a ripple effect-- "the claim to permanence and the permanence of a claim." We are on the edges of a train of thought which again will see departure as return, a losing as a finding.
We move beyond the edges and deep into the recognizably Christian terrain; more specifically, a Protestant Christian terrain. For in talking about the sort of claim artistic play has on us, we move briefly through the outskirts of a legal metaphor, which tells us "a claim is a legal basis for an unspecified demand," and then emerge into an openly Christian territory. Thus, in Lutheran theology we get an emphasis on "the claim of the call to faith" which demands "the proclamation of the Gospel and and is made afresh in preaching." The sermon replaces the Mass as a way of gaining participatory involvement. The sermon mediates the gospel to the contemporary audience. This being present of the Word in a sermon is not unlike the being present achieved through a work of art. (The work of art must acquire the contemporaneity that the Gospel achieves through the help of the interpreter-minister.)
We turn with Gadamer to Kierkegaard, who formulates the task of the minister as heading the call of faith. Or simply, the believer's heading. This call places the claim which is the demand to experience "the redeeming act of Christ....as something present....and....taken seriously." The work of art thus places a claim which demands participation in its play in order to gain its truth, not as a datum of past experience, but as a continually operative aspect of the participant's being or present experiences. In short, the work of art is, like Christ's act, to be appropriated in such a way that it does not exist as an object of curiosity but as an integral part of one's being. It must, to put the matter crudely, have a ripple effect; to put the matter not so crudely, it must continue to work.
(There are probably more teachers who believe in this goal than would admit
to it. The whole theological context might embarass them. The language
you choose is important here; the whole matter might be couched in secular
terms to make the fundamental thrust of Gadamer's remarks more acceptable;
we say then, with Arnold, that we want to "cultivate" our students'
tastes, that we want to "humanize" them, that we want to "expand their
horizons," that we seek to "open them up to the pleasures of reading."
Art as scripture does not lie far behind these platitudes; the teacher
as minister becames a less latent metaphor. We must be careful here.
Gadamer, and Palmer with him, are taking a great risk here, a risk of
their own religious background that they have brought to bear on their
discussion of what understanding literature means. They are both extremely
vulnerable. And we can, if we choose, open an attack. I prefer to move
ahead, however, saving any criticism for a later time. Still, it is
important to see the whole view of man that lies behind--or rather--inheres
in what they say. It is old-fashioned metaphysics, or a kind of ethical
vision, that informs their work. From a positivist viewpoint we might
call their remarks so much poetry. But then we might ask, as they would
probably ask, the original question: Well, what sort of claim does such
poetry make on you? One thing is clear; the pretence of asking "what
is" has to be taken with skepticism. This description of the nature
of art is shot through with a very large "ought." Does that make it
a sham? No, not we once understand it as such; for once we do we realize
that the claims their own arguments make on us exist beyond the
particular logical rigor, philosophical acumen, and general freight
of learning they bring to bear on their subject. What they are doing,
finally, is soliciting our participation in their own play. On what
grounds, then, shall we accept or reject their vision? Perhaps the whole
question is misplaced; what they want of us is to experience their view
and, somehow, emerge from it with a fuller realization of what may
be thought when we turn to pondering what understanding art means.)
Thus we are immersed in the religious model. Take the traditional notion of a differentiated aesthetic consciousness--which Gadamer eschews. What would it be like if we talked solely about the beauty of a ritual, about the aesthetics of a sermon? It would be a sign that no real participation is involved on the part of the spectators. They have distanced themselves from a claim. "Now I maintain that the same thing must be true for the experience of art. Here also mediation must be conceived as total." It would, then, be a travesty to see art as narrowly aesthetic. It waould also be an error to see the life of the artist, or performer, or the spectator, as the essential mode of being of the work. These have no "separate legitimacy in the face of the being of the work of art."
So aesthetic distance must indeed be seen as a kind of suspension of disbelief, a lifting of oneself out of the everyday experience; that is, its negative aspects of departure or ecstatis. Its positive aspect is this: that it is a departure into a participatory act of attention, a "comprehensive sharing of what is represented before one." And now comes the return. The spectator does not regard this experience as discontinuous, specialized, a dream. "Precisely that in which he loses himself as a spectator requires his own continuity." Thus the world he finds in artistic play "is the truth of his own world in which he lives, which presents itself to him and in which he recognizes himself." Thus the kind of presence experienced here for the spectator "is at once self-forgetfulness and recognition with self. That which detaches him from everything also gives him back the whole of his being."
What shall we say to this? We might recover the original question; has
the temporality of the work revealed itself to us? Gadamer's answer is
clear: the work of art has a continuous existence as an operative agency
insofar as its play is taken up by us. The whole question of the self-identity
of the work has dissolved through Gadamer's immersion of it in time. We
have only his insistence that this is the case based on his conviction
that this is what ought to be the case. The alternatives amount to dealing
with art a) as topical history; b) as pure moments of truth existing as
facts of aesthetic history; c) as a purely subjective phenomenon whose
meaning is participant-dependent. He wants none of these alternatives because
each has the effect of objectifying art. But what of norms? What of the
correct participation? Alas, the whole conception he has dissolves the
question, doesn't it? If art is what it becomes, it has no
being independent of its various interpretations. Indeed, for him, interpretation
is an ongoing process. And yet he seems to want to have it both ways, to
have a permanence of being within the fact of historical becoming. So he
remarks that this work "does not disintegrate into the changing aspects
of itself so that it would lose all identity, but it is there in them all.
They all belong to it. They are all contemporaneous with it." Hirsch may
step in here and demand a pure permanence be identified despite the passage
of time. Gadamer's reply is contained in the word "disintegrate." The passage
of time involves the work in a life of its own which integrates it with
various historical periods and its essence is revealed in its various integrations.
This is no answer for Hirsch. Gadamer's only reply would be to say that,
even if you could isolate the absolute identity of the work, that would
be giving a narrowly inadequate account of the being that is its becoming.
We are at an impasse.
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