Blogging through Truth and Method post 5: Aesthetic and Hermeneutic Consequences (134-169)

When Michial and I read Being and Time back in 2009, the best thing about that book was that, through careful phenomenological examination, Heidegger gave me occasion to think carefully about the everyday, the acts that I undertake unreflectively, and to try out some actual philosophical theories on them.  This section of Truth and Method does the same with some objects that are so close to given that they’re nearly transparent.  Any given picture or copy or symbol might deserve some attention, but what makes a picture a picture is not something that usually occurs to me.

Thus phenomenology.

Copy, Presentation, and Pictures

It’s the frame that makes the picture.

That seems counter-intuitive at first.  After all, there’s something a bit off about the person who, beholding a Baroque masterpiece or even an Impressionist study (you can see where my preferences lie), focuses not on the paint but on the rectangle that sets off the “work” from the “wall,” but nonetheless Gadamer’s point stands.  To be a picture does not always entail a wooden or metal rectangle, but it always involves certain boundaries, and the ontology of a picture is thus: it starts here and ends there (135).  Just in case someone wants to contest this early point, even a post-Gadmerian and post-modern example like Christo’s city-sized conceptual art fits here: the times that such a piece begins and ends mark a frame of sorts, and just about anyone could note the boundaries of the piece, even if they’re city blocks rather than meters apart.

Gadamer sets up the bounded picture, and more specifically the portrait, as his test case to examine a related but not identical phenomenon, the copy.  A copy, for Gadamer, differs from the picture because the copy’s existence is by definition self-effacing, whereas the picture has being of its own (138).  So a passport photograph exists only to point away from itself, for the purposes of verifying the identity of the passport holder, and a copy of a birth certificate is not presented for the purposes of beholding the copy or for illuminating the world but simply so that the information on the original can be in more than one place at once.

By contrast, the picture actually makes the world what it is through mimesis (137).  Invoking the neo-Platonic doctrine of emanation of being, Gadamer notes that the reality of the framed picture is other than the thing-being-pictured, but the thing itself gains a new reality, one not prior to the picture, when the picture presents the thing artistically (140).  Such a relationship, Gadamer argues, is behind the Orthodox church’s innovations in iconography, a practice unintelligible in Judaism but brought to its artistic and intellectual moment precisely as neo-Platonic Christian theologians develop the doctrine of Christ as the image of God and thus the icon of Christ or of a saint not as a substitute for the “real” body but as an overflow of the body’s reality (141).  Thus the image is not a secondary and inferior reality, as Plato suspected, but the generous and joyful overflow of being: “…the original acquires an image only by being imaged, and yet the image is nothing but the appearance of the original” (142).

This ontology departs both from the Platonic metaphysics, with its suspicion of visual arts, and from Enlightenment epistemology, with its Baconian suspicion of rhetoric.  The ontological relationship that Gadamer suggests is one in which the hierarchy of primary “reality” and secondary “appearance” give way to a dialectic, a relationship in which each simultaneously defines the other: “Word and image are not mere imitative illustrations, but allow what they present to be for the first time fully what it is” (143).  The Hegelian flavor of Gadamer’s project once more surfaces here: the world of causes and effects, of mechanical and technologic manipulation of nature, does not lose its existence, but the pragmatic relationships between idea and act invert so that the useful exists for the sake of the true, and not vice versa.

Hermeneutics and Visual Arts

Gadamer notes early on that the way one approaches artistic works will yield different sorts of truth.  To approach a picture as inherently allusive is to make a claim about its inherent meaning, to judge the work as a moment in philosophical history.  Such is not the same as historical mining, in which the interpreter, disregarding the big-picture meaning of the piece, simply interrogates the artifact to discern any echoes of historical phenomena, whether they be incidental to or inherent in the picture’s meaning (146).  Such a move, in terms of hermeneutics, is not insignificant: for Gadamer, the historian’s interrogation is neither absolutely right nor absolutely wrong but simply different.  And the difference between inherent allusiveness and incidental allusion is also not to be ignored.  In other words, a commissioned portrait’s reference is not accidental to the art but inherent (147).

For that reason, when a viewer approaches a work separated from its world and network of reference, that latter-day viewer is doing something different in kind from what a contemporary of the work’s composition is doing: “The viewer of today not only sees things in a different way, he sees different things” (148).  On the other hand, even when a picture (or a literary text) depicts events that are common knowledge, part of the being of a work of art is that it goes beyond the common accounts of the event or person (149).  That going-beyond is what differentiates the picture from the second category of being, namely the memento or the sign.  The memento only makes sense to someone who was at one point present to the reality remembered, and the sign does not exist for its own sake but only to direct the viewer’s eyes away from itself and towards the object to which it points (153).  But a picture has its own presence, something whose existence is for-the-sake-of-seeing.  These fine distinctions, though on their own esoteric, contribute to a philosophical environment where literature will come to make sense on its own terms, as its own sort of being.

Taking a step back for a moment, all of these distinctions also help to illuminate the inadequacy of aesthetic theories that too readily simplify the category “art,” whether to make it too narrow a phenomenon (only those artifacts which reflect “experience”) or too broad (any artifact which is made, not found).  This sort of careful thought reminds me why Gadamer remains important not only for philosophers and literary critics but for Biblical scholars as well.  Treating the actual narrative of David and Goliath, or of Elijah at Mount Carmel, or even Pentecost, as allusive but not merely referential, opens up the sort of literary-critical Bible reading that I’ve found so helpful in my own studies and teaching.

Architecture and Literature

Architecture, for Gadamer, is the supreme argument against an aesthetics that defines art too narrowly as that-which-expresses-individual-experience.  Architecture, in fact, presents the spaces inside of which Erlebnis is even intelligible (156).  In the cases of homes and civic structures and churches and museums, architecture is the art form that frames other art forms, be they painting or sculpture or public recitations of literary texts (157).  Given these things, Gadamer argues, the Romantic disdain for the “merely decorative” loses some of its punch: because the ontology of art encompasses more than the museum piece, because aesthetics extends to the architecture of the museum itself, the Erlebnis-piece is merely one manifestation of the much larger (but bounded) category (159).  Architecture thus sets up a context within which literary art, in both its cultic and its individualistic forms, comes into its own.

“World literature,” Gadamer insists, only becomes so in certain historical moments, those in which editors and compilers realize that the self is to be found in a broad range of textual “others” (162).  Historicism, in other words, makes possible the category “world literature.”  Before a culture develops an awareness that consciousness shifts with historical change, literature is simply literature because everyone who produces literary text is basically the same sort of soul.  When philosophy comes to grasp the reality of radical difference across temporal spans, then the science of interpretation takes on a central importance (165).  Thus two basic approaches to hermeneutics develop in the early nineteenth century, as historicism comes into its own.  For the tradition rooted in Schleirmacher’s philosophy of religion, the hermeneutic task is to reconstruct the past so that the modern reader can project the self into an alien moment, visiting a foreign country by means of historical imagination (166).  For the Hegelian, on the other hand, reconstruction is also always a negation, an attempt at reconstruction always done in the knowledge that reconstruction is always done in terms of not-us and not-now, never positing but always differing (168).

In the next section of the book, which Michial will treat, Gadamer will expand on that sense of history in Biblical hermeneutics specifically.

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