Aesthetics in Dialogue

Applying Philosophy of Art in a Global World

by Zoltan Somhegyi (Volume editor) Max Ryynänen (Volume editor)
Edited Collection 344 Pages

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • I: Past, Contemporary, Future
  • 1 Collective Memorials in the Face of Loss: The Multiple Roles of the Aesthetic (Kathleen Higgins)
  • 2 The Rhythm of Time in Everyday Aesthetics (Elisabetta Di Stefano)
  • 3 Contemporaneity, a Sublime Experience? (Jacob Lund)
  • 4 Uchronia and Somaesthetics: Somaesthetics as Uchronia (András Czeglédi)
  • II: Urban and Popular Culture
  • 5 Archipelagal Thinking: The Geofilosofia of Massimo Cacciari (Tyrus Miller)
  • 6 The Varieties of Kitsch: Ethical, Artistic and Political Dimensions (Katya Mandoki)
  • 7 Rasa Industry: (Notes on) Classical Indian Aesthetics and Contemporary TV Series (Max Ryynänen)
  • 8 Social-Aesthetic Constructs: Peripheral Cultural Phenomena in a New Key (Rodrigo Duarte)
  • III: Aesthetic Approaches to Aesthetic Practices
  • 9 Questions not Answers: The Usefulness of the Philosophy of Art to Artistic Practice & Education (Matthew Rowe)
  • 10 Studio Practice as Aesthetic Experience (Izmer Bin Ahmad)
  • 11 From Worth to Algorithms: The Role and Dimensions of Authorship in the Field(s) of Fashion Design (Natalia Särmäkari)
  • 12 Material Events, Vibrant Essences and Resonant Atmospheres: An Approach to Perfumery in the Light of Contemporary Aesthetics (Mădălina Diaconu)
  • IV: Care, Restoration and Environment
  • 13 Aesthetics of Care (Yuriko Saito)
  • 14 For the Sake of Authenticity: Philosophical Concerns in Art Conservation (Lisa Giombini)
  • 15 Buildings as Objects of Care in the Urban Environment (Sanna Lehtinen)
  • 16 Aesthetics of the Past and the Future: Human Life within Changing Environments (Yvonne Förster)
  • 17 Towards a Media Ecology of Sense Acts (Ksenia Fedorova)
  • V: Reframing the Tradition
  • 18 What Kind of Aesthetics Are We Looking for and Why? (Adrián Kvokačka)
  • 19 Towards a Topology of Aesthetic Immersion (Harri Mäcklin)
  • 20 Aesthetic Prospects and Prospects of the Aesthetic: Variations on the Sublime in Natural and Altered Environments (Zoltán Somhegyi)
  • 21 A Philosophico-Aesthetical Dilemma? Assessing Abhinavagupta’s Chapter-Invocatory Verses in His Commentary to Bharata’s Nāṭyaśāstra (S. Bhuvaneshwari)
  • 22 Autonomy and Society with Hito Steyerl and Ryoji Ikeda: How to Use Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory Now? (Petteri Enroth)
  • Index
  • About the Authors


Bibliographic Information published by the
Deutsche Nationalbibliothek

The Deutsche Nationalbibliothek lists this publication in the Deutsche
Nationalbibliografie; detailed bibliographic data is available online at

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
A CIP catalog record for this book has been applied for at the
Library of Congress.

About the author

Zoltán Somhegyi is a Hungarian art historian and Chair of the Department of Fine Arts at the College of Fine Arts and Design of the University of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, and from September 2020 he will continue as Associate Professor of Art History at the Károli Gáspár University of the Reformed Church in Hungary.

Max Ryynänen is a senior lecturer of theory of visual culture at Aalto University in Finland and editor-in-chief of The Journal of Somaesthetics and of Popular Inquiry.

About the book

Zoltán Somhegyi / Max Ryynänen (eds.)

Aesthetics in Dialogue

The impact of aesthetics is increasing again. For today’s scholars, aesthetic theories are a significant companion and contribution in studying and analysing cultural phenomena and production. Today’s scene of aesthetics is more global than what it is in most disciplines, as it does not just include scholars from all over the world, but also keeps on applying philosophical traditions globally.

This eBook can be cited

This edition of the eBook can be cited. To enable this we have marked the start and end of a page. In cases where a word straddles a page break, the marker is placed inside the word at exactly the same position as in the physical book. This means that occasionally a word might be bifurcated by this marker.



I:Past, Contemporary, Future

Kathleen Higgins

1 Collective Memorials in the Face of Loss: The Multiple Roles of the Aesthetic

Elisabetta Di Stefano

2 The Rhythm of Time in Everyday Aesthetics

Jacob Lund

3 Contemporaneity, a Sublime Experience?

András Czeglédi

4 Uchronia and Somaesthetics: Somaesthetics as Uchronia

II:Urban and Popular Culture

Tyrus Miller

5 Archipelagal Thinking: The Geofilosofia of Massimo Cacciari

Katya Mandoki

6 The Varieties of Kitsch: Ethical, Artistic and Political Dimensions

Max Ryynänen

7 Rasa Industry: (Notes on) Classical Indian Aesthetics and Contemporary TV Series

Rodrigo Duarte

8 Social-Aesthetic Constructs: Peripheral Cultural Phenomena in a New Key

III:Aesthetic Approaches to Aesthetic Practices

Matthew Rowe

9 Questions not Answers: The Usefulness of the Philosophy of Art to Artistic Practice & Education

Izmer Bin Ahmad

10 Studio Practice as Aesthetic Experience

Natalia Särmäkari

11 From Worth to Algorithms: The Role and Dimensions of Authorship in the Field(s) of Fashion Design

Mădălina Diaconu

12 Material Events, Vibrant Essences and Resonant Atmospheres: An Approach to Perfumery in the Light of Contemporary Aesthetics

IV:Care, Restoration and Environment

Yuriko Saito

13 Aesthetics of Care

Lisa Giombini

14 For the Sake of Authenticity: Philosophical Concerns in Art Conservation

Sanna Lehtinen

15 Buildings as Objects of Care in the Urban Environment

Yvonne Förster

16 Aesthetics of the Past and the Future: Human Life within Changing Environments

Ksenia Fedorova

17 Towards a Media Ecology of Sense Acts

V:Reframing the Tradition

Adrián Kvokačka

18 What Kind of Aesthetics Are We Looking for and Why?

Harri Mäcklin

19 Towards a Topology of Aesthetic Immersion

Zoltán Somhegyi

20 Aesthetic Prospects and Prospects of the Aesthetic: Variations on the Sublime in Natural and Altered Environments

S. Bhuvaneshwari

21 A Philosophico-Aesthetical Dilemma? Assessing Abhinavagupta’s Chapter-Invocatory Verses in His Commentary to Bharata’s Nāṭyaśāstra

Petteri Enroth

22 Autonomy and Society with Hito Steyerl and Ryoji Ikeda: How to Use Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory Now?


About the Authors

←8x | 9→


Since its seminal role in the European humanities of the 18th and 19th centuries – when the modern system of arts was established, and great minds like Kant and Hegel focused on questions of art and beauty – the impact of aesthetics as a discipline has somewhat declined, both within academia and outside it. The brand of aesthetics is – or at least for many it looks – antiquarian (for us aestheticians sometimes surprisingly), and the discipline arouses associations of marginality and of weak impact. The image of someone who problematises every concept and talks as if everyone should read Hegel or some other historical thinker is of course not far-fetched. A little self-critically and simplifying we could say this is what aesthetics and being an aesthetician has sometimes of course been about, having a merely exegetic and/or an overtly analytical approach and personality originating in the library, having little or no real connection to either actual art production or to the art infrastructure, and perhaps even a bit hard to handle for other scholars – although one must remember that there have been and still are major geographical differences in the role and the academic importance of aestheticians.

The “antiquarian aesthetician” is not the only reason for this marginalisation, though. One reason for the decline is found in academic competition between disciplines. Examples from the history of this competition may include semiotics in the 1960s and cultural studies in the 1980s, which claimed a strong role in the field where aesthetics once was the discipline, i.e. in arts and culture. If Kant and Hegel were specialists in multiplying the given problems, the leading authorities in cultural studies aspired to do the exact opposite. They wanted to create low-threshold readings, which were easy to access with any basic education.

Aesthetics continued on its own path. Whatever branch, approach and method of philosophy one follows, the discipline has become increasingly professional in the 20th–21st centuries, and harder to grasp from the outside.

Another reason for the – hopefully only temporary – marginalisation of aesthetics is that with the rapid multiplication of approaches, movements and thus also interpretations of the concept and role of art, the discipline that was primarily destined to theorise it also had a more and more difficult task in defining its own role. Since contemporary art itself is also often self-referential, aesthetics as philosophy of art also had to re-invent itself and its role with regard to the novel concepts, roles, functions and functioning of art and its infrastructure ←9 | 10→in the 20th and 21st centuries. As a consequence, aestheticians have often found themselves oscillating between practicing a form of “deeper” explanation of artworks or “expanded” or “upgraded” art criticism and – at the other extreme – losing their connection to the production of art and design, i.e. philosophising about art or beauty without any reference to an or any actual piece of art. This latter self-referentiality of contemporary art theoretical discourse may explain such perhaps surprising affirmations by philosophers who claim that they find contemporary artworks more interesting than recent theories of aesthetics.

We would like, though, to shed some new light on this “scene.” Conferences, journals, many new websites and blogs, just like university curricula, all lead to the same conclusion: that aesthetics today is again widely practised and that we can observe a growing interest in its still not entirely discovered potentials. It is just that a major part of the discipline, as well as its applicability, have changed shape. If aesthetics in the modern world was a Eurocentric discourse practised in departments of philosophy, art history, literature, and musicology, today it is widely applied in new areas including fashion, urban studies, sociology and popular culture studies, to name just a few. One may thus complain that aesthetics does not have such a central role as it used to have, but at the same time we need to acknowledge and welcome that for today’s young scholars, aesthetic theories are often a significant companion and contribution in studying and analysing other cultural phenomena and production. In other words, it is not exclusively the philosophy of art itself that can be at the centre of attention, but just as much focus can be given to how aesthetics can help in better understanding particular issues emerging in other areas of culture, broadly construed and more importantly including those areas that have not had previously been scrutinised with the tools and methodologies of aesthetics research. Philosophical disciplines aim to develop the important questions, not to find the easy answers. But this questioning, this making of complicated analyses, has everywhere, as we see it, managed to not only survive but also to find new forms.

For this volume, we have aspired to find texts that mix aesthetics with other forms of investigating cultural phenomena and texts that may seem to be rooted more in cultural studies than in classical aesthetics and that nevertheless seek to reframe thinking with the help of aesthetics – and on this we have added some which just rethink the discipline of aesthetics as well as its current state. The selection is thus not only about finding issues and problematics to share, but also to map out what we could call the new wave, the new ways of thinking and doing research that are now marking the come-back of aesthetics. We have asked scholars who we have been following in this respect to contribute to our volume. The texts are thus illustrating the rising wave where aesthetics is both influencing ←10 | 11→and is getting mixed with other disciplines, therefore one of the unifying points between the texts that investigate otherwise completely different phenomena is exactly the demonstration of the applicability of the approach. The book is in this sense not just about the attempt to grab the variety of approaches and traditions at stake in the scene of contemporary aesthetics. It is about documenting a current scene, and it also explains the anthology-like nature of the book. For those who are interested in what aesthetics in dialogue could mean, this seemed to be the best mode to show the variety of paths one can take.

One aspiration behind the book is to map out a new, lighter relationship to the tradition. Aesthetics has also sneakily become more global in its theoretical base. It might actually even show the way for others: although many fields of humanistic and social research have opened their doors to intercultural communication, the nature of aesthetics, its very interest in the grounds of theory, make its use in the investigation of different theoretical traditions, for example Indian philosophy and Middle Eastern thinking, more sensitive. The authors of this book build on a variety of different approaches, practices and theories, and so we hope that their work gives a broad overview of the many new directions that may grow out of the contemporary re-interpretation of the possibilities of aesthetics. This is also what motivated us in our selection of texts.

When summarising some of the important spearheads of this book, we should start by affirming that the volume introduces quite a global gaze on and interest in philosophies of art and their possible applications, without marginalising non-Western approaches and side paths as “other” ways of thinking, or even underlining this. We take seriously the idea that, for example, Far Eastern classics can shade the way for us as much as “Western” ones, and see no need to separate them, not to push them into a “ghetto,” something which is very typical for example of Sanskrit philosophy, which seldom becomes discussed as a philosophy on its own. The book has a strong accent on contemporaneity, the future of culture and discussing how to rethink classics today, all in one package. As we see it, the rethinking of classics – without forgetting to expand what we call classics – is a key issue for a new start, and this is what many scholars writing for this book are doing. There is also an urge and need for textbooks illustrating (for both students and researchers) how aesthetics is and can be applied today in the investigation of contemporary issues in art and culture. We have here aspired to produce one so that readers from any academic background can start swimming in the currents of aesthetics today. Many of the subjects examined in the chapters, including for example the themes of care, restoration and contemporaneity in aesthetics or applying aesthetics to TV series, artists’ studio practice, memory research, environmental studies and “digital flesh” are still very new, as ←11 | 12→is the use of non-European classics in analysing contemporary culture, and this book definitely reinforces their role. The texts are inspiring and forward-looking examples of the novel and broader application of aesthetics, and their selection was also motivated by offering a glimpse to the broad variety of areas of which investigation through the lens of contemporary aesthetics can bring to further discoveries and understandings.

The future of aesthetics might easily be that it continues, with a globally expanded nature, to offer a hard-core theoretical base for thinking about any aspects of art and culture. At the same time it needs to further open up to more dialogue. Disciplines and areas like fashion design, investigations of olfactory experiences, theorising immersion, uchronia studies and the examination of artists’ practice – all investigated in the chapters of this book – are not very philosophical at the moment, and we are sure that these and many other areas of investigation in culture would be very happy with more and stronger philosophical involvement from scholars who have one foot in aesthetics. Aesthetics in Dialogue is an attempt to reinforce this twofold movement, which we think is needed in our situation. We need to both get back to the classics and embrace the newest of the new. And we need to look at practices alongside theory and use them to look back at theory, to develop both of them. We hope this book will open many paths in redirecting both theory and practice, to see aesthetics in a new expanded way. This vision is more in the heart of this book project than densely shared topics or strictly followed uniform methodologies, and we, so, wish that the reader can forgive us the in this sense anthology-like nature of the work. In other words, in our hopes it is exactly the broad thematic and geographical variety, as well as the multiple inspiring approaches growing out of pairing aesthetics with other disciplines is what demonstrate in this book not only the applicability, but also the benefits of engaging in new dialogues of and about the novel subjects and forms of aesthetics. If many of us at some point used tags like “philosophy” and/or “cultural studies” to explain what we do, feeling uncomfortable with not just the common misunderstanding that aesthetics is about cosmetic surgery, but also about the associations other scholars might have with the word, the comeback of “aesthetics” marks – especially through its multiple ways of dialogue – we believe, a new start for the professional identity and future of the discipline.

Zoltán Somhegyi and Max Ryynänen
Helsinki, 6 December, 2019

←14 | 15→

Kathleen Higgins

1 Collective Memorials in the Face of Loss:
The Multiple Roles of the Aesthetic

Memorializing (whether through monuments or through performance) is as important for collectives as for individuals in the wake of loss. I will argue that one of the reasons memorials are so important is that they are inherently aesthetic, and their aesthetic means are conducive to healing and to integrating elements in tension. They help the community to absorb loss that may be barely imaginable and conjoin its awareness of this loss with a sense that it remains a community still, integral enough to face the future intact. In this respect, memorials serve communities much as commemorative practices serve individuals.

However, the diversity of perspectives within collectives can make it difficult to structure memorials that are perceived as speaking for everyone. The motivations for memorializing themselves can provoke disagreement. The desire to defy the loss, in the sense of not giving it the last word, can operate in tension with the need to make some peace with it, and a certain amount of contention may occur because different people give different weights to these respective goals. Those most moved by the former motivation, for example, might favour commemorations that stress indomitability in the face of suffering and resist gestures that encourage calm and offer consolation.

There are limits to how much a community can experience unity when it is beset with disagreement over how a loss should be remembered. However, because the aesthetic has the capacity to absorb tendencies that conflict, at least in the abstract, and to keep them intact even as it gathers them into a coherent presentation, aesthetic means can be utilized to resist the danger that public memorials will exacerbate fragmentation within the community. The phenomenon of using aesthetic means to accomplish the goals of memorials shows the power of aesthetics in mitigating political conflict over how to move forward after loss. It also reveals possibilities for simultaneously honouring diverse perspectives and asserting in the wake of catastrophe that community members must, in some fashion, move forward together.

Keywords: conflict resolution, consolation, loss, memorials, monuments, mourning, public art

Grief in response to loss is extremely painful and often very difficult to process, particularly when the loss is due to death. Unlike many emotions, which motivate actions that are functional for dealing with the situations that gave rise to them, grief often leaves a person in doubt as to what behaviour could possibly be functional. Indeed, this may partially explain the frequency with which ←15 | 16→those who experience loss feel angry, for anger involves directing blame, and targeting a supposedly culpable person seems a concrete step in the direction of putting things right. Grief is draining, but like other emotions, it motivates action – the problem is that it is hard to say what, precisely, one should do, a fact that aggravates the upset grief inherently involves.

Often what we term “grief” is actually a complicated mixture of emotions, each motivating action with somewhat different aims. Because aesthetic efforts often seek to integrate elements that are in tension with each other, aesthetic activities such as memorial events and artworks can function to provide focus and outlet for these diffuse action tendencies. I will concentrate on memorial works of art here, particularly those that commemorate deceased members of a community. Memorial works can serve the needs of collectives as they respond to loss, but the diverse needs and emotional priorities experienced within the community can make such works prone to controversy. Such controversies often play out on the aesthetic front, revealing the extent to which audiences interpret basic attitudinal perspectives on the basis of such presentations’ aesthetic character and the extent to which aesthetic indicators are primary means through which we show respect.

I will proceed to consider several types of aesthetic controversies that are sparked by memorial art, indicating how they reveal conflicted motives and emotional priorities, and conclude that aesthetic means of resolving conflict are sometimes available though difficult to achieve. Although controversial memorials appear in many places, I will restrict my scope to monuments in the United States, both because of my own greater familiarity with controversies surrounding them and because these controversies have been significantly discussed in journalistic and scholarly quarters.1 The three categories of aesthetic controversies I have in mind regard size, representational character (or lack thereof), and aim (whether consolation or political resolve/heroic edification).

Immanuel Kant observes that size can be “aesthetically” (and thus subjectively) appraised, when it is assessed without precision. He points out that whenever we consider the magnitude of appearances, we do not have an absolute concept of the magnitude of appearances, but only a comparative one. Even when we are measuring, we are comparing the appearance with a standard unit.2

←16 | 17→

Comparative appraisals of scale can be a basis for objections to a memorial. A case in point is the statue of African American civil rights activist and tennis star Arthur Ashe, located in Richmond, Virginia, on Monument Avenue. Several objections have been made this monument, among them the fact that Ashe’s statue is among others honouring Confederate heroes from the U.S. Civil War, who defended the South, which had institutionalized slavery. Another problem is that the statue presents Ashe, holding a raised tennis racket, surrounded by admiring children who seem to be targeted by Ashe’s swing. But scale is also an issue, for Ashe’s statue is more diminutive than the statues of the nearby Confederates, which many see as offensive.3 Literal size is taken to symbolize metaphorical stature, critics interpreting the size differential as implying that Confederate heroes should be held in higher regard than Ashe.

Similarly, scale is among the many grounds on which New York’s 9/11 Memorial Museum has been criticized.4 Philip Kennicott, for instance, complains, “Sprawling over 110,000-square feet, with vast, cavernous spaces that reach down to the depths of the original footings of the old World Trade Center, this is the great, subterranean cathedral of America Militant, Suffering, and Exceptional.” In short, the museum is “a monster of cultural self-indulgence.”5 Kennicott interprets size as a metaphorical barometer of significance and given the museum’s efforts to make the events of September 11, 2001 experientially real for the museumgoer, Kennicott argues that, “We suffer trauma again and again in a way that inflates our sense of participation in it.”

The scale of the museum also seems to be an aspect of a critique by Charles B. Strozier and Scott Gabriel Knowles. Writing for Slate, they comment, “The memorial is a wildly abstract, massively expensive and grandiose tribute to the lost buildings more than to the dead.”6 The choice to construct the museum on a space that more or less coincides with the footprints of New York’s original ←17 | 18→World Trade Center references the loss of the buildings, and these critics think that this emphasis overshadows the loss of the people who died there, many of whose remains are located at that very site.

Obviously, large size can connote many things, but it is hard to ignore. Thus, size is relevant to the condemnation in Kirk Savage’s description of “Paul Manship’s disastrously awkward and oversize statue of Theodore Roosevelt on Roosevelt Island in the Potomac [River, in Washington D.C.] (dedicated in 1969),” though his primary point is that it exemplifies an unsuccessful effort “to update a dying sculptural tradition.”7 One gathers that the statue is more ungainly for being oversized.

Drawing attention to the diversity and evanescence of sculpture styles, Savage’s remark points to another basis for controversy in memorial art. In contemporary practice, a broad distinction can be made between representational and non-representational memorials. To some extent, stylistic preferences may be class driven, with the affluent and well-educated favouring more fashionable and avant-garde styles than do others and perhaps thus preferring contemporary monuments of non-representational sorts.8 Representational works risk being interpreted as kitsch more obviously than non-representation works do (although non-representational works can be kitsch). If they are designed to represent a multitude of people, representational works can be attacked as insufficiently representative of those involved. On the other hand, non-representational works may be less straightforward in what they attempt to communicate, at least to some members of their audience, hardly a virtue in a memorial.

Both representational and non-representational works may make references to earlier artistic traditions, but many representational collective memorials in the United States stand in a long historical line of heroic monuments. Such monuments quite obviously serve one of the functions that Noël Carroll picks out as particularly important for memorial art, that of transmitting the ethos of ←18 | 19→a culture and encouraging later generations to model themselves on those who are memorialized.9

The monument to the fallen Confederate soldiers on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol, dedicated in 1903, is this type of memorial. Jefferson Davis is in an active stance at the top of a rectangular pedestal, with four soldiers on lower pedestals at the four corners of Davis’s plinth. Such monuments commonly involve inscriptions that promote a certain attitude toward the persons memorialized. Thus, the ethos-transmitting character of the sculptural presentation is reinforced or given further specificity by a direct linguistic message. The message of the monument at the Texas State Capitol is defiant. Not only does it list the states that joined the Confederacy (and the years when they respectively seceded from the United States); it presents its case against the north in the inscription on the front:






CONFEDERATE, 437,000; FEDERAL, 485,216.

Recently the Confederate flag and other Confederate memorials have been removed from various sites around the United States because of their association with the nation’s history of slavery. In this context, the monument’s interpretation of the Confederacy (as being premised entirely on the states’ rights) is offensive to many, as constitutional scholar Sanford Levinson has argued.10

The monument’s heroic representation of Davis and the soldiers, reinforced with this explicit message, places this monument on the other end of the spectrum from another memorial to the Confederate War Dead, one that is not to my knowledge a focus of controversy. This is the Memorial to the Confederate ←19 | 20→War Dead, designed by Henry Dimmock (a civil engineer and a Confederate veteran) and erected in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia, where many Confederate soldiers are buried. This non-representational monument conveys a different message than the Texas one, both stylistically and with its inscriptions. It is a 90-foot pyramid of granite bricks that are not held together with mortar. It references a different artistic tradition than does the Texas memorial – it is modelled on the pyramids of ancient Egypt, which were memorials to the dead. Incorporated into the pyramid, though not seen by visitors, are Confederate memorabilia, including a button from the jacket of General Stonewall Jackson, a Confederate flag, and a lock of hair from President Jefferson Davis. The content of the inscriptions is less confrontational than those on the Texas memorial. Inscribed panels read “To the Confederate Dead,” “Memoria in Aeterna” [Eternal memory], and “Numini et Patriae Asto” [stood for God and country], and “Erected by the Hollywood Memorial Association, A. D. 1869.” The patriotism of the soldiers is honoured, but no explicit statement is made about the righteousness of the southern cause, or even whom they opposed.

One might see this monument as obliquely suggesting that the South will live again, for its echo of Egyptian pyramids hints that the Southerners are the legitimate heirs and conservators of Western civilization. Indeed, slavery might even be seen as a part of this, in that the Egyptian pyramids were built by slave labour.11 But this is not the message that Karsten Harries finds in the pyramid. He describes it as “especially moving” and “a worthy precursor of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial” (about which I will say more directly). He sees it, placed amidst the many “modest, almost identical grave markers in the surrounding cemetery,” as quietly expressing deep sorrow, affecting precisely because it does not insist on an interpretation of the war that was lost. “… what meaning can we give to so many sacrifices to a questionable cause?” Harries asks. “It is far easier to build memorials to the dead of what is felt to be a just war, especially when it ended in victory.” A monument such as this says something important, but by way of our own reflective effort to make sense of things. “… by awakening us to a humanity deeper than regional or national allegiance, just such monuments that call into question and force us to struggle with the meaning of the death they commemorate bless the living.”12 The aesthetic of the pyramid stirs up something akin to controversy within us as we try to find a coherent and meaningful ←20 | 21→way of thinking of the deaths commemorated. It is easy to believe that the non-representational character of the pyramid (which, despite its inscriptions, confronts the viewer as a mass of mute rock) helps the monument to provoke reflection, providing a space for contemplation instead of making an exhortatory statement of its own.

One might consider the contrast between the two Confederate memorials from another angle, one that relates to a third kind of controversy that memorials can prompt: over whether the aim of the monument should be consolation or political resolve. The Richmond memorial, while not acquiescing in the status quo, is nevertheless focused on honouring the departed and consoling survivors with the message that these dead still live in memory. The Texas memorial disputes the history told by the winners, insisting on the injustice of their victory. The stance of unwillingness to accept the status quo on the other side’s terms is a political gesture (if not a call to specific political action). Consolation is not the aim; the monument expresses adamant anger.

Examples of political resolve are evident in memorials whose message is less politically dubious. “Never again!” is a widely used slogan at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The point is that memorializing the victims of the Nazi Holocaust is necessary not to console the families of the dead, but to ensure future generations’ commitment to ensuring that genocide and similar atrocities never happen again.13 This message is not compatible with the aim of offering consolation. Mara Miller makes the point that consolation should be refused in some cases, for example, in her discussion of the trauma suffered by those victimized by the atom bombs dropped by the United States on Japan in World War II: “ ‘Closure’…. is not always the goal. Some things should not be moved past or forgotten, even if we do need to continue to live. Not all trauma should be or ←21 | 22→is intended to be overcome; some must be kept alive if we are to mature and/or grow as individuals or as a society. In such cases, arts and aesthetics must not offer consolation. As with the Holocaust and other genocides, consolation must be refused.”14 This is to insist that the community’s absorption of loss should take place, one might say, under erasure, with the action tendencies prompted by grief kept alive so that they might become politically effective.15

In certain instances, there may be blends in which these conflicting motives are both expressed. Arguably, the pyramid to the Confederate dead in the Hollywood cemetery does something to satisfy both impulses. While it expresses genuine sadness and professes the somewhat consoling claim that these dead will not be forgotten, this monument forces us to consider the meaning of their sacrifice, as Harries suggests. However, the latter motive was probably not the aim of those who erected the pyramid. The pyramid may be more a manifestation of their own struggle and efforts to contain their sense of loss than it is a political message.

Efforts to accommodate multiple memorializing impulses were made evident in the memorial to which Harries compared the Virginia pyramid, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D. C. This memorial was controversial long before it was built. The design’s abstract character and its stylistic departure from traditional monument styles struck some as being insufficiently respectful to the deceased, in keeping with the widespread disrespect shown to many returning veterans after the Vietnam War. This memorial manifests each of the various kinds of controversy I have so far been discussing, and the way they were dealt with suggests the possibility (but also the peril) of attempting aesthetic means of dealing with these controversies.

The Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial designed by Maya Lin takes up considerable space, but the controversy had to do more with its height above the ground than with its extent. In fact, the memorial, a black wall listing the names of members of the American military killed in Vietnam, is built into the side of a hill, and thus below the ground. It is non-representational, and so not in the tradition of heroic sculpture. It does not rally American visitors to heights of patriotic dedication in the spirit of the heroic dead. Instead, it offers the quiet consolation that ←22 | 23→their names are being honoured as those of the casualties of a war that many would rather forget. The accumulation of names one sees as one walks the long distance of the wall is overwhelming, prompting the question, “What was all this worth?”

Kirk Savage summarizes the way critics interpreted the aesthetics of the wall: it was “quite simply an inversion of the usual honorifics of Washington’s public monuments: below ground rather than above, black rather than white, and so forth… Black meant ‘shame,’ underground walls meant ‘dishonour.’ The very absence of positive messages about the soldiers had to be a negative message: the monument was antiwar and antiveteran.”16 But the wall had very different aims than those of the critics, Savage contends. “The critics were stumbling into the realization that Lin’s work was a victim monument, not meant to glorify the deeds of the soldiers but to console and reconcile the survivors who had experienced the tragedy of their loss.”17 What the critics wanted was a variant of political resolve as the message, a display of heroism. This, in keeping with Carroll’s account, amounts to a kind of edification aimed at the younger members of the society, urging them to commit themselves to living in accordance with the heroic example set by their memorialized predecessors.

Eventually, in response to those who desired a more traditional and heroic memorial, a flagpole and a sculpture of three soldiers sculpted by Frederick Hart were added to the site at some distance from the wall of names. Kirk Savage points out that this addition “satisfied neither Lin nor her critics.” The soldiers are depicted realistically, and they are “not heroically active.”18 Also, against Lin’s objection, the following words were added at the beginning and end of the wall: “In honour of the men and women of the armed forces of the United States who served in the Vietnam War. The names of those who gave their lives and those who remain missing are inscribed in the order they were taken from us.” “Our nation honors the courage, sacrifice and devotion to duty and country of its Vietnam veterans. This memorial was built with private contributions from the American people.”19

Do the additions to the site work to honour the alternative perspective of those who criticized Lin’s wall? I think they do to some extent. The sculpture shows a collection of the (male) military personnel who fought on the U.S. side ←23 | 24→in the war. They are members of different races, and they are noticeably young. Those who wanted heroic role models are no doubt disappointed, in that these rather bemused looking young people do not look the part of military action men, disposed to respond to any challenge. Their uncertainty reflects that of most viewers as they consider the war in retrospect. But precisely for this reason, and because the figures gaze in the direction of the wall, the positioning of the sculpture puts it in dialogue with Lin’s memorial. It hangs together aesthetically, honouring the warriors (many of whom were teenagers) in a realistic way and acknowledging different ways of focusing one’s reflections on the war.

At the same time, it is easy to see why Lin was dissatisfied by the sculpture, the flag, and the added inscriptions. Obviously, the sculpture and the flag interfere with the stylistic integrity of the work, making the experience of the complete memorial multi-part and tacked together. All three added elements pull one out of the reflective experience that the wall invites, perhaps especially the added inscription at the end, which reads a bit like the beginning of screen credits at the end of a film. Taking the four aspects of the memorial together, one sees the consequences of aesthetics “by committee,” aesthetics determined by political compromise, and not on the basis of what best produces a concentrated effect.

Another instance in which a statue has been a later addition to a memorial is at the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum, constructed to honour those killed by the domestic terrorist bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995. This memorial is presented as “a place of quiet reflection,” honouring “those who were killed, those who survived and those changed forever” by this event.20 The memorial is outdoors, with two bronze gates on either side of reflecting pools, one inscribed with the time 9:01, the minute before the time of the bombing, and 9:03, the first minute after the blast. In front of the pools stand 168 empty chairs, one for each of those killed, with a name on each one. Among them are nineteen smaller chairs, one for each of the children killed in the blast. Original portions of walls from the building, a tree that survived the blast, a fence that is covered with tokens left by visitors, and a children’s area decorated by tiles sent by children from elsewhere are also part of the memorial.

The sculptural addition, aesthetically contrasting in style, is the white “And Jesus Wept” statue erected by a Catholic Church across the street from the Murrah Federal Building. It depicts Jesus weeping. His back is to one of the walls of the national monument, but he is facing a wall that has 168 gaps in it ←24 | 25→to commemorate the deceased. This statue is not a part of the official national memorial, but it is visible from certain points within it. It seems not to be particularly controversial, perhaps because it is on church property and because Christianity is the majority religion in the U.S.21 “And Jesus Wept” is a line from the New Testament story of Jesus being taken to the place where his friend Lazarus had been buried (John 11:35). However, in the context, the reference is clearly to the bombing, as the 168 gaps make clear. In this case, again, a statue that can be seen as a work in itself nonetheless references a larger memorial in its vicinity.

I’m not sure that the differences in style between the statue and the larger memorial stand in contrast as much as they do in the case of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The empty chairs are representational if stylized, so there seems no fundamental clash between the imagistic and the purely abstract. Reflective sorrow seems the aim of both memorials. One could conceivably object to inserting a specific religion’s icon into a scene that is meant to be a monument much more broadly addressed. Or one could object on generally iconoclastic grounds, or one might take the general view that images of Jesus are often kitschy in character (a version of an iconoclastic argument). These are possible grounds for controversy, but they do not in fact seem to have been taken up. I think this case bears some similarities to the contrast of views seen at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, however, in that the statue inserts a religiously identified element into a memorial landscape that is secular and non-sectarian.

The attempts made in such cases to integrate aesthetic elements that are driven by disparate motives within collectives that experience loss are, I think, important. They make use of the power of aesthetic means to bring together elements in tension, even when the elements in tension are themselves aesthetically defined. In both cases, to the extent that they are effective in allowing multiple voices to ←25 | 26→speak, they do so by means of some encapsulation, the sculptures in both cases serving as works on their own, but also as gesturing toward another work, with its own alternative message. However, as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial makes clear, aesthetic efforts to integrate perspectives or points of view may themselves be cause for aesthetic consternation. So they are not the miracle cure for controversy.

Savage suggests that we need a break from the status quo regarding monuments on the National Mall in Washington D.C. (an extensive park extending from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol, the site of numerous memorials). After reviewing the history of power plays and battles over monuments on the Mall, he proposes a ten-year moratorium on all new monuments, with only “ephemeral memorials” being allowed during that time. This would provide the time to think through what policies should guide public memorializing, ideally toward more humanizing ends than hitherto.22 Savage’s point is largely moral, but the difficulty of achieving aesthetic effectiveness in memorials where multiple motives are in play suggests an aesthetic reason for considering his proposal as well. This is particularly the case if some of the more successful efforts at aesthetically adjudicating conflicting visions involve encapsulated conjunctions. Following this lead, we might end up with endlessly growing memorial webs whose messages are lost in their convolutions.

There are limits to what can be achieved when the public is fractured and disagrees over how a loss should be remembered. However, the need for public healing in the wake of collective loss makes memorials particularly important in such cases. The aesthetic, with its capacity (at least in the abstract) to absorb tendencies that conflict and keep them intact even as it gathers them into a coherent presentation, makes the aesthetic character of public memorials an important vehicle for addressing emotional needs in cases of collective loss. Although the challenges of attempting to satisfy a diverse and variously motivated public may not be surmountable in practice, aesthetic means for honouring diverse perspectives hold promise for alleviating conflict among well-meaning people who prioritize different values. They may also be somewhat effective in bringing the community together to the extent that its members recognize their common loss and acknowledge that they must, in some fashion, move forward together.

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Carroll, Noël. “Art and Recollection.” In Art in Three Dimensions. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010, 163–174.

Carter, Jimmy. President’s Commission on the Holocaust Remarks on Receiving the Final Report of the Commission. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/248475 (accessed: November 3, 2019).

Danto, Arthur C. The Abuse of Beauty. Chicago, IL: Open Court, 2003.

Harries, Karsten. The Ethical Function of Architecture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. Translated by Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987.

Kennicott, Philip. “The 9/11 Memorial Museum Doesn’t Just Display Artifacts: It Ritualizes Grief on a Loop; Inside the September 11 Memorial Museum.” Washington Post. June 7, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/museums/the-911-memorial-museum-doesnt-just-display-artifacts-it-ritualizes-grief-on-a-loop/2014/06/05/66bd88e8-ea8b-11e3-9f5c-9075d5508f0a_story.html (accessed: June 28, 2016).

Leddy, Thomas. “Sparkle and Shine.” British Journal of Aesthetics 73:3 (1997), 259–273.

Levinson, Sanford. Written in Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societies. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1998.

Miller, Mara. “Beauty, Religion and Tradition in Post-Nuclear Japanese Arts and Aesthetics.” In Artistic Visions and the Promise of Beauty: Cross-Cultural Perspectives. Edited by Kathleen Higgins, Shakti Maira and Sonia Sikka (Dordrecht: Springer, 2017), 57–75.

Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum. “Plan Your Visit.” Oklahomacitynationalmemorial. https://oklahomacitynationalmemorial.org. (accessed: November 3, 2019).

Pied Type. “More on the Mosque.” Piedtype.com. Posted August 18, 2010. https://piedtype.com/2010/08/18/more-on-the-mosque/ (accessed: June 29, 2016).

Savage, Kirk. Monument Wars: Washington, D. C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

Strozier, Charles B., and Scott Gabriel Knowles, “How to Honor the Dead We Cannot Name: The Problems with the September 11 Memorial Museum.” ←27 | 28→Slate. May 12, 2014. https://slate.com/technology/2014/05/september-11-memorial-museum-controversy-unidentified-remains-and-lessons-from-hiroshima-and-auschwitz.html (accessed: June 28, 2016).

Zamarriego, Carey Reed. “World’s Most Controversial Monuments.” Travel and Leisure, November 4, 2011. http://www.travelandleisure.com/slideshows/worlds-most-controversial-monuments/13 (accessed: June 26, 2016).

1 See Carey Reed Zamarriego, “World’s Most Controversial Monuments,” Travel and Leisure. November 4, 2011, http://www.travelandleisure.com/slideshows/worlds-most-controversial-monuments/13.

2 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987), 104.

3 See Zamarriego, “World’s Most Controversial Monuments.”

4 My thanks to Garret Sokoloff for first pointing out this line of criticism to me.

5 Philip Kennicott, “The 9/11 Memorial Museum Doesn’t Just Display Artifacts: It Ritualizes Grief on a Loop; Inside the September 11 Memorial Museum,” The Washington Post, June 7, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/museums/the-911-memorial-museum-doesnt-just-display-artifacts-it-ritualizes-grief-on-a-loop/2014/06/05/66bd88e8-ea8b-11e3-9f5c-9075d5508f0a_story.html.

6 Charles B. Strozier and Scott Gabriel Knowles, “How to Honor the Dead We Cannot Name: The Problems with the September 11 Memorial Museum,” Slate, May 12, 2014, https://slate.com/technology/2014/05/september-11-memorial-museum-controversy-unidentified-remains-and-lessons-from-hiroshima-and-auschwitz.html.

7 Kirk Savage, Monument Wars: Washington, D. C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 262.

8 Tom Leddy suggests that certain aesthetic tastes among middle-class and wealthy people may reflect efforts to distinguish themselves from working-class and poor people. See his “Sparkle and Shine,” British Journal of Aesthetics 73:3 (1997), 260. Self-identifications of various sorts might motivate a preference for what is viewed as contemporary as opposed to what is taken to be traditional.

9 Noël Carroll, “Art and Recollection,” in Art in Three Dimensions (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 167.

10 Sanford Levinson, Written in Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societies (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1998), 53–61.

11 My thanks to John Deigh for drawing my attention to this point.

12 Karsten Harries, The Ethical Function of Architecture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997), 310.

13 The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has enshrined the following statement by President Jimmy Carter, on the occasion of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust being presented, September 27, 1979. It well summarizes this position: “Out of our memory…of the Holocaust we must forge an unshakable oath with all civilized people that never again will the world stand silent, never again will the world…fail to act in time to prevent this terrible crime of genocide…. we must harness the outrage of our own memories to stamp out oppression wherever it exists. We must understand that human rights and human dignity are indivisible.”

Jimmy Carter, President’s Commission on the Holocaust Remarks on Receiving the Final Report of the Commission. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/248475 (accessed: November 3, 2019).

14 Mara Miller, “Beauty, Religion and Tradition in Post-Nuclear Japanese Arts and Aesthetics,” in Artistic Visions and the Promise of Beauty: Cross-Cultural Perspectives, ed. Kathleen Higgins, Shakti Maira and Sonia Sikka (Dordrecht: Springer, 2017), 61.

15 Indeed, this is the view that Danto takes with respect to beauty in many contexts, though he does see a place for it in healing from grief. Cf. Arthur C. Danto, The Abuse of Beauty (Chicago: Open Court, 2003), 114–118 and 123–124.

16 Kirk Savage, Monument Wars, 276.

17 Ibid., 276–277.

18 Ibid., 277.

19 See ibid., pp. 261–281.

20 Website of the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum. https://oklahomacitynationalmemorial.org. Accessed: November 3, 2019.

21 While representational, it shows Jesus covering his face with his hand, so his looks are somewhat ambiguous, though he seems depicted in a conventional manner as a robed, bearded white man. Even if one wanted to raise questions about the Nordic European ethnic appearance of Jesus in many depictions, this would not be a clear exemplification. A nice point, however, is raised by the author of a posting on Pied Type blog, who notes that the presence of the statue has not caused controversy, though the planned building of a Muslim community centre in lower Manhattan was: “It’s not an exact parallel, since the church was there before the bombing. But it’s something to think about. Why is it okay to have a Catholic church across the street from a Catholic bombing site, but not okay to have a Muslim mosque two blocks from a Muslim bombing site?” Posted August 18, 2010. URL: https://piedtype.com/2010/08/18/more-on-the-mosque/

22 Savage, Monument Wars, 312.

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Elisabetta Di Stefano

2 The Rhythm of Time in Everyday Aesthetics

Anglo-American research on aesthetics as well as that being carried out in continental Europe are increasingly interested in the topics pertaining to everyday life. However, the label “Everyday Aesthetics” apparently conveys a surprising oxymoron. After exploring the relation between Everyday and Philosophy, I shall analyse the principal theories on Everyday Aesthetics. Then, by means of sociological interpretative tools, such as those offered by Henri Lefebvre, I will bring to the fore the concept of rhythm, as what can shed light on the fundamental value of daily life and its cyclical alternation of ordinary and extraordinary moments. According to Lefebvre, there’s no rhythm without repetition in time and space. Referring also to Ellen Dissanayake’s theory, I focus on the concept of “making special” and the positiveness of repetition. As Lefebvre employs the notion of rhythm in order to explain the alternation of celebration and daily life within a cyclical understanding of time, he provides an interpretative tool to discover inner richness under the seeming poverty of everyday life and to reach the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Keywords: everyday aesthetics, rhythm, aesthetics of familiar, extraordinary in the ordinary, Henri Lefebvre, Ellen Dissanayake

Daily life and philosophy

In Western cultural tradition daily life has been attached by philosophy to the realm of what is irrelevant. The very adjective quotidianus – from the Latin adverb cotidie – stands for a repeated temporality, one day after the other, with no distinction. It is no coincidence that grey and greyness are the colour of routine. That’s why in Latin culture the opposite of quotidianus is festivus, the extra-ordinary time of celebration, which interrupts the incessant repeating of what is always the same.

The negative connotation invariably attached to everyday life belongs to the same depreciation of worldly life and production activities going back to the very early stages of Western culture. This philosophical tradition starts with Plato, seeps through Christian culture and its mortification of flesh as the path to salvation, sets a milestone with Descartes, who anchors existence to rational thinking (cogito ergo sum) and finally enters modernity. Based on such premises two levels exist: the inauthentic one of worldly life, of work, of what is low, bodily and material, and the authentic and transcendent one, expressed by the highest forms of spiritual life, such as art, where man retrieves truth in inner-withdrawal. This ←29 | 30→false and misleading theoretical perspective is based upon an abstract understanding of subjectivity and forgets that man is matter and spirituality together and that life is ordinarily made of a mix of both levels. The reconciliation of such dualism is notably the aim of philosophical anthropology1 (Max Scheler, Helmut Plessner, Arnold Gehlen). And when it comes to aesthetics the reconciliation of dualisms has been embraced by the anthropological approach outlined, among others, by Jean-Marie Schaeffer.2

Despite reserving little consideration to everyday life, it would be a mistake to think that all philosophers have banned daily life objects or activities from their inquiries. One could refer here to Sigmund Freud, who derails traditional hierarchies (normal/abnormal; healthy/sick; familiar/uncanny) and sheds light on the typical contamination of elements defining daily life.3 Along this line stands also Martin Heidegger with whom daily life officially enters the philosophy of the 20th century.4 In Being and Time he employs one of daily life’s distinctive categories, that of “repetition,” while depriving it of its low-level meaning of uniform and daily sequence. Finally, Marxist philosophers, from György Lukács to Ágnes Heller, have taken an interest in daily life, unfortunately confining it to the domain of inauthenticity and alienation.

However, the sociologist Henri Lefebvre departs from this trend. Despite his early Marxist position, he introduces a few original interpretative notions – such as that of rhythm – which are a real game changer in the assessment of daily life and can also provide valuable input in aesthetics. In the development of his stance, Lefebvre embraces an anthropological perspective which leads every ←30 | 31→human activity – even those on the highest-level – back to the human striving to escape the “state of nature.” In this regard the ability to invent and create is also a way to fulfil one’s needs and desires while compensating for one’s original shortcomings.5 According to Lefebvre all human activity, be it ordinary or high-level, is anchored in daily life. This latter defines therefore all levels of existence, from the biological (i.e. nourishment, sexuality) to the symbolic (i.e. festivities, special moments, religious rituals). Daily life is then responsible for piecing together different existential levels and values, previously kept in opposition by the philosophical tradition, thus healing the gap between body and soul and bringing mankind back to wholeness.

Lefebvre’s theories also have the merit of positively assessing the repeated temporality which is the signature mark of everyday life. Hand in hand with booming metropolises and industrial labour, Modernity has set forth a linear idea of time – where each day is like any other – in opposition to the cyclic time of natural constraints (i.e. night, seasons, climate) which instead defines rural societies. Charlie Chaplin in the film Modern Times (1936) brilliantly depicts the alienation produced by factory work, where repetition becomes the exact same operation, repeated again and again. On the contrary, according to Lefebvre, the cyclic time of seasonal rhythms allows a connection between repetition and creation, since no natural cycle goes back exactly to the same point. It’s not a coincidence, for instance, that these cycles (i.e. sowing, harvest, etc.) have been signposted by celebrations and symbolisms regularly charged with renewed meaning.

Today Lefebvre’s theory of cyclic time is able to provide a new insight on the usually disregarded or disdained repetitive features of daily life, and thus introduces a radical shift in perspective. According to Lefebvre what is new springs out of what repeats itself: “Every cycle is born from another cycle and becomes absorbed in other circular movements. Cyclic time does not exclude repetitive action. The cycle is itself a repetition,”6 as novelty is in relation to something already given which comes back transformed. In so doing he establishes the ground for a newly understood rhythm resulting from the alternating of extraordinary time and ordinary time. The same alternation is also the key element in the theory of Everyday Aesthetics.7

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The rhythm of time: The extraordinary in the ordinary

While bringing into focus the notion of the natural cycle and the resulting rhythmic alternation of extraordinary time and ordinary time, Lefebvre finally pours positive value on that element of repetitiveness that the European philosophical culture of the 19th and 20th centuries found at the core of daily life.

The notion of repetitiveness is further investigated by the theorists of Everyday Aesthetics marking the entrance of daily life into aesthetics. Kevin Melchionne8 focuses on the regularity of commonly performed activities, hence excluding all occasional or desultory ones. However, as Ossi Naukkarinen9 points out, such activities can vary, based on individuals, circumstances and stages in life; furthermore daily routines differ greatly depending on local customs and geographical contexts. Melchionne and Naukkarinen’s approach, however, falls rather short in accounting for the complexity of the events of our daily life. Even Yuriko Saito’s contribution ends up unveiling a few basic contradictions. According to Saito, the main goal of Everyday Aesthetics is to retrieve the “gem-like” aesthetic value of usually disregarded daily and trivial things.10 However, such an objective leads to a paradox. The unveiling of this aesthetic potential, increasing the meaning of what previously appeared as totally ordinary, jeopardises its very ordinary nature. Despite wishing to find a paradigm of interpretation within everyday life, Saito realises that even Dewey’s theory does not offer much light in this direction. Dewey distinguishes in fact “having an experience” – as something particularly intense, significant and capable of enriching the sense of life – from daily trivial experiences, deprived of special connotation. It’s clear that, if one “experience” was constantly repeated, it would lose that specific element which sets it apart from routine.

A way out of this impasse is offered, in my opinion, by the theory of rhythm outlined by Henri Lefebvre.11 Rhythm operates, according to Lefebvre, at a biological level, regulating life for organisms through breathing, blood circulation, ←32 | 33→feeding, and the alternation of sleeping and being awake; but also, at a psychological level, with the alternation of emotional responses; and at a social level in the rotation of work time and leisure time. As a consequence, the investigation of rhythm provides a useful interpretative framework to understand everyday life and its relation with repetition. This latter is in fact the basic feature of rhythm. According to Lefebvre, there’s no rhythm without repetition in time and space. However, repetition is never identical so the cycle of time always produces something different.12 In this respect, Lefebvre introduces in the account on time and space an element of creativity and renewal which is rooted in sensibility. The body turns into a metronome which perceives colours, sounds, the movements of seemingly motionless objects, allowing us to appreciate the beauty of small things: trees, flowers, birds, insects.13 Furthermore, differently from sequentially organized time, measured by clocks, the time that is lived can be perceived according to our mood.

Similarly to rhythm, the notion of “moment” is also a key to the inquiry on daily life. As it stands, on the one hand, for the interruption of the “time continuum,” by isolating and focussing on one given experience, it also serves, on the other hand, as a basic element within the progression of time, where the present is anchored in the past while being loaded with expectations for the future. By adopting the notion of moment as a pivotal element in the cyclic understanding of time, one could finally apply Lefebvre’s theory to the reinforcing of the interpretative tools of Everyday Aesthetics. The moment is the partial and circumscribed achieving of a possibility which is lived in as totality: “We will call «Moment» the attempt to achieve the total realization of a possibility.”14 And: “The moment is a higher forms of repetition.”15 As an “experience” for Dewey, a “moment,” according to Lefebvre, is the pivoting element around which the dialectics of ordinary and extraordinary revolves, defining the essence of everyday life.

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Clearly, there is no outright opposition between what is extraordinary and what is ordinary in general. According to Thomas Leddy, opposition lies between “the things of everyday life that are made special through activity or in perception, and those that are not.”16 This Leddy’s statement falls surprisingly close to the theories of the ethologist Ellen Dissanayake.

“Making special”

According to Dissanayake, the distinction between ordinary and extraordinary (often taken as the result of modern civilized societies) can instead be presented as a natural and universal predisposition of animal behaviour – in particular human behaviour – and as the fundamental ground for the evolutionary process leading to the production of art. In Homo Aestheticus she argues that “Art is a normal and necessary behaviour of human beings”17 and it appeared when humans invented ceremonial rituals. “Ritual ceremonies are meant to affect biologically-important states of affairs that humans necessarily care about— assuring food, safety, health, fertility, prosperity, and so forth. These occasions are times of uncertainty when circumstances can become better or worse.”18 For this reason, the repetition acquires relevance also in Dissanayake’s theory, giving relief to people from anxiety and reinforcing the social bonds. The repetition is one of way in which ordinary movements and sounds are made conspicuous and distinctive in the “ritualized” behaviours. During the process that ethologists call ritualization “head and body movements and/or vocalizations that are ordinarily used in an instrumental context (say, pecking for food, preening, plucking grass for a nest, making a sound that attracts parental attention) become altered in special ways. They are formalized (simplified or stereotyped), repeated, exaggerated, elaborated, and used in a new context to communicate a different, non-ordinary message.”19

According to Dissanayake, human nature tends intrinsically to make a behaviour, or the context in which this latter comes about, into something different, ←34 | 35→more eye-catching, in other words “special,” as to attract the bystanders’ attention and involve other individuals.20 Such behaviours can be found in everyday life whenever people try to modify the ordinary, for instance, when skin is tattooed, painted and decorated with piercings. In some archaic societies these signs marked the transition toward adulthood or indicated women’s marital status. Also now, when hair is coloured, cut, braided or coiffed in distinctive ways, it becomes the indicator of social hierarchies, group membership and ethnical belonging.

The notion of “making special” is linked to everything humans take very care like garnished utensils, weapons or objects that they use in a protective and effective way during cerimonies or particular events. Dissanayake roots this notion to the early and original affective relationship, the mother-infant interaction, where simple daily action, when repeated, exaggerated, and elaborated, aim to express intense affection and communicate attentive reassurance and delighted regard: “In mother-infant interaction, the instrumental context for, say, touching is grooming and tending; for smiling it is showing relaxed pleasure. The other signals similarly also communicate friendliness or affiliation.”21

By attaching this idea of “making special,” originally developed in an evolutionary perspective, to our everyday life, some convivial situations with family or friends turn into “special moments” if intensively experienced together with our companions, by taking care of details or the mise-en-scène – for instance the mise en place and the presentation of food – or by paying attention to perceptive features, i.e. sound, smell, touch-related features, etc.

In this way some striking affinities can be detected between Dissanayake’s positions and those of the theorists of Everyday Aesthetics; specially with Thomas Leddy who envisaged to grasp the extraordinary in the ordinary. Although some have tried to limit his aesthetic theory to the realm of special moments, Leddy is well aware that what is out of the ordinary cannot be separated from the ordinary without losing most of its meaning. Similarly, it would be misleading to tie Everyday Aesthetics to routine practices and exclude exceptional or rare events, since these are what enrich the value of life allowing us to go back to daily business feeling rejuvenated. The dialectics of ordinary and extraordinary is, in Leddy’s view, the core of daily life and the main object of Everyday Aesthetics. Although he refers to special moments of a mundane kind – i.e. weddings, ←35 | 36→birthday celebrations, anniversaries, trips, special events, etc. – his account never excludes more generally anthropological keys apt to encompass the dimension of the sacred.22

In this respect, we can refer to another French sociologist, ignored in contemporary debate on Everyday Aesthetics, Michel Leiris.23 He points out some peculiar objects or daily activities which are elevated to the status of symbols for affective relation: his father’s hat and wallet, the master bedroom, the stove that gathers the family around in the dining room and yet scares the children because of its red-hot coal. All of those objects acquired a sacred value in his own imagination when he was a child. By mixing scatology and eschatology, Leiris also dwells on the bathroom where every evening he would gather with his brothers to exchange secrets and plot small schemes. Thus, the toilet turns into a space-time shared with brothers, a “sacred moment” serving both low bodily functions and the noble needs of imagination. The notion of sacred finds its place in the cyclic time of positive repetition and in the daily lived space where routine behaviours produce the pleasure of feeling well and safe at home. It’s true, we often overlook our daily practices, as well as the places and people we regularly see, but one small change is enough to enable us to see the ordinary in a new way.24 That sounds not too far from the Dissanayake’s idea of making special.

Coming back to Lefebvre, his notion of celebration falls very closely to Leddy’s idea of sacred. The French sociologist, in fact, explains that a celebration is certainly an “extra-ordinary” event, but also a cyclic one. Every festivity can be periodically repeated and every time it carries a renewed sense. As a result, it is ultimately able to instil new vital lymph into the same ordinary life. In the past although festivals used to interrupt everyday life, they were not separate from it. They were like everyday life, but more intense; and the moments of that life – the practical community, the relation with nature, food and work – were amplified and magnified in the festival. In line with anthropological studies, Lefebvre recalls the function of rural festivals in the strengthening of social bonds, and simultaneously in the expression of “all the desires which had been pent up by collective discipline and the necessities of everyday work. In celebrating, each member of the community went beyond himself, so to speak, and in one fell ←36 | 37→swoop drew all that was energetic, pleasurable and possible from nature, food, social life and his own body and mind», thus «Festival differed from everyday life only in the explosion of forces which had been slowly accumulated in and via everyday life itself.”25

As Lefebvre employs the notion of rhythm in order to explain the alternation of celebration and daily life within a cyclical understanding of time, he provides an interpretative tool to discover inner richness under the seeming poverty of everyday life, unveil depth under triviality, reach the extraordinary in the ordinary.26

Conclusive remarks

Following Lefebvre, we settle into the rhythm of time in its cyclic alternation of ordinary and extraordinary moments. We then understand the creative value of repetition and we finally appreciate simple and familiar things: the aroma of good coffee, Sunday lunch with our family, the scent of flowers, a smile. These are certainly small things, but even with all their imperfections they help brighten up the often disdained ordinary. Nevertheless, if we embrace the anthropological perspective shown by Dissanayake, we rediscover the “gem-like” aesthetic value in the everyday objects, which are elevated to the status of symbols for affective relationships. By making simple things “special,” we enhance the aesthetic potential of everyday life and fulfil one of the objectives of Everyday Aesthetics.


Dissanayake, Ellen. “Aesthetic Incunabula.” Philosophy and Literature, 25, n. 2 (2001): 335–346. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed August 23, 2018).

Dissanayake, Ellen. “The Artification Hypothesis and Its Relevance to Cognitive Science, Evolutionary Aesthetics, and Neuroaesthetics.” Cognitive Semiotics, 5 (2009): 148–173.

Dissanayake, Ellen. Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Came From and Why. New York: Free Press, 1992.

←37 | 38→

Freud, Sigmund. Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901). New York: The Macmillan Company, 1914. https://openlibrary.org/books/OL6571886M/Psychopathology_of_everyday_life (accessed April 25, 2020)

Gehlen, Arnold. Der Mensch: Seine Natur und seine Stellung in der Welt. Berlin: Junker und Dünnhaupt, 1940.

Haapala, Arto. “On the Aesthetics of Everyday: Familiarity, Strangeness and Meaning of Place”. In The Aesthetics of Everyday Life, edited by Andrew Light e Jonathan M. Smith, 39–55. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Oxford, UK – Cambridge, USA: Blackwell, 1962.

Leddy, Thomas. The Extraordinary in the Ordinary: The Aesthetics of Everyday Life. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2012.

Lefebvre, Henri. Critique of Everyday Life, I, translated by John Moore. London-New York: Verso, 1991.

Lefebvre, Henri. Critique of Everyday Life, II, translated by John Moore. London-New York: Verso, 2002.

Lefebvre, Henri. Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life (1992), translated by Stuart Elden and Gerald Moore. London- New York: Continuum, 2004.

Leiris, Michel. Le Sacré dans la vie quotidienne, edited by Denis Hollier. Paris: Allia, 2016.

Melchionne, Kevin. “The Definition of Everyday Aesthetics.” Contemporary Aesthetics, n. 11, (January 7, 2013). http://www.contempaesthetics.org/newvolume/pages/article.php?articleID=663.

Naukkarinen, Ossi. “What Is ‘Everyday’ in Everyday Aesthetics?.” Contemporary Aesthetics, n. 11, (September 16, 2013) http://www.contempaesthetics.org/newvolume/pages/article.php?articleID=675.

Plessner, Helmut. Die Stufen des Organischen und der Mensch: Einleitung in die philosophische Anthropologie, (1928). Berlin: Walter de Gruyter GmbH, 1975.

Saito, Yuriko. Aesthetics of the Familiar. Everyday Life and World-Making. Oxford: University Press, 2017.

Saito, Yuriko. Everyday Aesthetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Schaeffer, Jean-Marie. Adieu à l’esthétique. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2000.

Scheler, Max. Die Stellung des Menschen im Kosmos (1928). Bonn: Bouvier Verlag, 2010.

1 Max Scheler, Die Stellung des Menschen im Kosmos (1928), (Bonn: Bouvier Verlag, 2010); Helmut Plessner, Die Stufen des Organischen und der Mensch: Einleitung in die philosophische Anthropologie, (1928) (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter GmbH, 1975); Arnold Gehlen, Der Mensch: Seine Natur und seine Stellung in der Welt, (Berlin: Junker und Dünnhaupt, 1940).

2 Jean-Marie Schaeffer, Adieu à l’esthétique, (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2000), 37. In consideration of the fact that the variety of aesthetic facts entering the realm of human cognitive attention is part of our biology, Schaeffer embraces an anthropological perspective aimed at overcoming traditional philosophical dualisms (such as body vs soul, material vs spiritual, nature vs culture). Thus, with an eye on evolutionary continuity, the aesthetic inquiry opens up to new fields pertaining to life.

3 Sigmund Freud, Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901), (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1914) https://openlibrary.org/books/OL6571886M/Psychopathology_of_everyday_life. (accessed April 25, 2020)

4 Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, (Oxford, UK – Cambridge, USA: Blackwell, 1962), 383–421 and 456–486.

5 Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, II, trans. John Moore, (London-New York: Verso, 2002), 47–55.

6 Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, 48.

7 Thomas Leddy, The Extraordinary in the Ordinary: The Aesthetics of Everyday Life, (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2012).

8 Kevin Melchionne, “The Definition of Everyday Aesthetics”, Contemporary Aesthetics, n. 11, (January 7, 2013). http://www.contempaesthetics.org/newvolume/pages/article.php?articleID=663.

9 Ossi Naukkarinen, “What Is ‘Everyday’ in Everyday Aesthetics?”, Contemporary Aesthetics, n. 11, (September 16, 2013) http://www.contempaesthetics.org/newvolume/pages/article.php?articleID=675.

10 Yuriko Saito, Everyday aesthetics, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 50.

11 Henri Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life (1992), trans. Stuart Elden and Gerald Moore (London – New York: Continuum, 2004).

12 Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis, 6.

13 Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis, 17: «The sensible, this scandal of philosophers from Plato to Hegel, (re)takes primacy, transformed without magic (without metaphysics). Nothing inert in the world, no things: very diverse rhythms, slow or lively (in relation to us). (This garden that I have before my eyes appears differently to me now from a moment ago. I have understood the rhythms: trees, flowers, birds and insects. They form a polyrhythmia with the surroundings: the simultaneity of the present (therefore of presence), the apparent immobility that contains one thousand and one movements, etc…)» (bold in the text).

14 Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, 348. Italics in the text.

15 Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, 344.

16 Thomas Leddy, The Extraordinary in the Ordinary: The Aesthetics of Everyday Life, (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2012), 76.

17 Ellen Dissanayake, Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Came From and Why, (New York: Free Press, 1992), 225.

18 Dissanayake, “The Artification Hypothesis and Its Relevance to Cognitive Science, Evolutionary Aesthetics, and Neuroaesthetics”, Cognitive Semiotics, 5 (2009): 148–173, 156.

19 Dissanayake, “The Artification Hypothesis”, 154.

20 Dissanayake, “Aesthetic Incunabula”, Philosophy and Literature, 25, n. 2 (2001): 335–346, 343. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed August 23, 2018).

21 Dissanayake, “The Artification Hypothesis”, 155.

22 Leddy, The Extraordinary in the Ordinary, 73–77.

23 Michel Leiris, Le Sacré dans la vie quotidienne, ed. Denis Hollier, (Paris: Allia, 2016), 16–17.

24 Arto Haapala, “On the Aesthetics of Everyday: Familiarity, Strangeness and Meaning of Place”, in The Aesthetics of Everyday Life, eds. Andrew Light e Jonathan M. Smith, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 50.

25 Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, I, trans. John Moore, (London-New York: Verso, 1991), 202.

26 In this direction see also Henri Lefebvre, Everyday Life in the Modern World, (1968), trans. Sacha Rabinovitch, (New York, Evanston, San Francisco, London: Harper & Row, 1971), 37.

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Jacob Lund

3 Contemporaneity, a Sublime Experience?

The purpose of this chapter is to try to relate the notion of contemporaneity to the discussion of the sublime, or at least to a few aspects of this discussion. Contemporaneity has to do with the temporality of globality, of the globalized world in which we live today. “Contemporaneity” designates the bringing together of a multitude of different co-existing temporalities in the same historical present; it is an intensified planetary interconnectedness of different times and experiences of time. On a global macro-level, contemporaneity therefore refers to the temporal complexity that follows from the coming together in the same cultural space of heterogeneous cultural clusters generated along different historical trajectories, across different scales, and in different localities, which also – on a micro-level – affects the time-experience of the individuals and groups inhabiting these clusters. This interconnection and bringing together of different times and experiences of time at a global or planetary scale, and their taking part in the same historical present, is what characterizes our present, what constitutes what I propose to call the contemporary contemporary.

Thus, the contemporary contemporary is about a changing temporal quality of our or, perhaps more objectively, the historical present and how something like the present and presence is perceived. It is about changes in what sociologist Helga Nowotny calls our Eigenzeit, self-time or proper time, understood as ‘the totality of a person’s or group’s ideas and experiences of time.’ In this chapter I try to investigate whether aspects of these changes in our experience of time itself might find resonance in the Kantian analysis of the sublime. Thus, I try to focus on the experiential aspect of contemporaneity and how this historical coming together of times on a global scale might be experienced by the human subjects for whom it has become a condition.

Keywords: contemporaneity, the Sublime, Now-Time, globality, Immanuel Kant, Walter Benjamin

1. Contemporaneity

The purpose of this chapter is to try to relate the notion of contemporaneity to the discussion of the sublime, or at least to a few aspects of this discussion. Contemporaneity is a relatively technical term and has to do with the temporality of globality, of the globalized world in which we live today. “Contemporaneity” designates the bringing together of a multitude of different co-existing temporalities in the same historical present; it is an intensified planetary interconnectedness of different times and experiences of time. On a global macro-level, contemporaneity therefore refers to the temporal complexity that follows from ←39 | 40→the coming together in the same cultural space of heterogeneous cultural clusters generated along different historical trajectories, across different scales, and in different localities, which also – on a micro-level – affects the time-experience of the individuals and groups inhabiting these clusters. This interconnection and bringing together of different times and experiences of time at a global or planetary scale, and their taking part in the same historical present, is what characterizes our present, what constitutes what I propose to call the contemporary contemporary.1

Climate change and our entering into the geological era of the Anthropocene in which the human species begins to face its own extinction in a certain sense forces contemporaneity or a shared present – and potential absence – upon us. Another factor in the production of contemporaneity is the development of planetary-scale computation, theorized by sociologist and architectural theorist Benjamin Bratton as ‘the Stack’, which interconnects a number of different layers and facilitates interpenetration between digital and analogue times, and between computational, material and human times2 – bringing into being a kind of planetary instantaneity in which everyone and everything takes part.

Thus, the contemporary contemporary is about a changing temporal quality of our or, perhaps more objectively, the historical present and how something like the present and presence is perceived. It is about changes in what sociologist Helga Nowotny calls our Eigenzeit, self-time or proper time, understood as ‘the totality of a person’s or group’s ideas and experiences of time.’3 In this chapter I will try to investigate whether aspects of these changes in our experience of time itself might find resonance in the Kantian analysis of the sublime. Thus, I will try to focus on the experiential aspect of contemporaneity and how this ←40 | 41→historical coming together of times on a global scale might be experienced by the human subjects for whom it has become a condition.

The experiential aspect of contemporariness has been theorized by Giorgio Agamben, to whom – in the often-cited text “What is the Contemporary?” from 2008 – the contemporary is an untimely person who is able to establish a particular relationship with time:

Those who are truly contemporary, who truly belong to their time, are those who neither perfectly coincide with it nor adjust themselves to its demands. They are thus in this sense irrelevant. But precisely because of this condition, precisely through this disconnection and this anachronism, they are more capable than others of perceiving and grasping their own time. […] Contemporariness is, then, a singular relationship with one’s own time, which adheres to it and, at the same time, keeps a distance from it. More precisely, it is that relationship with time that adheres to it through a disjunction and an anachronism. Those who coincide too well with the epoch, those who are perfectly tied to it in every respect, are not contemporaries, precisely because they do not manage to see it; they are not able to firmly hold their gaze on it.4

In parenthesis remarked this anachronism and disjunctive relational aspect of contemporaneity also finds resonance in Georges Didi-Huberman’s notion of anachronism, which is present in all works, he claims: “in each historical object, all times encounter one another, collide, or base themselves plastically on one another, bifurcate, or even become entangled with each other.”5 The access to these stratified temporalities – or “layers of time” (what historian Reinhart Koselleck calls Zeitschichten) and their interweaving with the present of the spectator or contemporary historian is gained through a “shock, a tearing of the veil, an irruption or appearance of time, what Proust and Benjamin have described so eloquently under the category of ‘involuntary memory’.”6

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Agamben’s understanding of the contemporary as a non-coincidence with one’s own time, however, is not adequate to account for contemporaneity as the coexistence of a multiplicity of traditions and histories in the same here and now. Agamben operates with an identifiable time with which one can establish a disjunctive relationship and thus become untimely but, the problem with the contemporary condition is that it becomes increasingly difficult to identify a dominant, hegemonic time and history from which to distance oneself. It is rather a number of different, but equally present, interconnected times that constitute the historical present in which we live.

As I indicated to begin with, the internet in particular has produced an extreme spatial and temporal compression marked by a perpetual sense of dislocation – at the same time, we take part in a bodily, physical present and a more formless, expanded and omnipresent present brought into being by computational technologies – which gives rise to new forms of experience of what media archaeologist Wolfgang Ernst calls “pseudo-presence” and “pseudo-co-presence.”7 In the World Wide Web all times of the world are present at the same time in a state of global interactivity. This alters the ways in which we remember and experience places, events and time itself, as everything appears to be happening as if contemporaneously.8

2. Contemporaneity and the sublime, a first glance

How might this idea of an expanded present, a planetary instantaneity in which everyone and everything take part, relate to the notion of the sublime?

On a first glance, there seem to be two ways in which contemporaneity can be seen to resonate with the sublime: Firstly, and most obviously, because it can be regarded as an ungraspable magnitude that exceeds any individual subjective experience or perception, and secondly, because of its partly similar temporal ←42 | 43→structure where unifying succession and progression is replaced or challenged by instantaneity and temporal co-existence.

As is well-known, the feeling of sublimity arises when we are confronted with something that is so large or powerful that it exceeds our imagination’s capacity to comprehend it. The experience of the sublime consists in a feeling of the superiority of our own power of reason, as a supersensible faculty, over nature. Thus, the experience of the sublime is occasioned by a breakdown in the capacity of the imagination and an inability to find a means to present the idea, which in the experiencing subject produces a painful split between what can be conceived and what can actually be imagined or presented as an object of experience.

The experience of contemporaneity might be regarded as a sublime experience in the sense that it seems impossible to produce an object that corresponds to the idea of contemporaneity, which therefore may be said to surpass our understanding and be related to our power of reason – we have a sense or intuition of contemporaneity as something that conditions our lives, but it is very difficult to exemplify it in its entirety. Perhaps I should here remark in another parenthesis that in Jean-François Lyotard’s formulation, in The Postmodern Condition from 1979, the sublime takes place “when the imagination fails to present an object which might, if only in principle, come to match a concept,”9 and that for Lyotard the modern or postmodern ‘art of the sublime’ becomes a matter of presenting this very un-presentability, of testifying to its own lack of ability to present the concept through a graspable object – whereas I would argue that contemporary art is a matter of articulating contemporaneity, that is, of articulating the temporal complexity that follows from the bringing together of different times in the same historical present (but not of turning it into a question of the impossibility of representation in itself). Contemporary art may even be said to take part in the very production of the idea or concept of contemporaneity – at least through the most widespread formats of its exhibition: immense biennials and mega-shows, “dedicated,” in the words of Peter Osborne, “to the exploration through art of similarities and differences between geopolitically diverse forms of social experience that have only recently begun to be represented within the parameters of a common world.”10

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3. The temporal nature of contemporaneity and the sublime

It becomes, however, a bit more complicated when we take the temporal nature of contemporaneity into closer consideration. Contemporaneity is not only an idea of the present as constituted by globally interconnected temporalities, an unimaginable magnitude for which no matching object can be presented, it is also about changes in the quality of time itself; about the changing temporal quality of the historical present and how something like the present and presence is experienced.

In the Critique of Pure Reason, time – alongside space – forms part of Kant’s transcendental aesthetics: these two entities are necessary for cognition. They are required in order for anything to appear before us, thereby being sensed, perceived and known.11 Time is a basic precondition for the realization of any phenomenon, but whereas those phenomena may well disappear again, time itself cannot. Kant famously claims that time “is not an empirical conception,” but necessarily “exist[s]; as a foundation a priori,” which makes possible axioms of time in general, such as “time has only one dimension” and “different times are not coexistent but successive.”12 Time is an a priori given, independent of our sensory perception.

The concept of contemporaneity of course challenges such a transcendental notion of Time and the idea that time is exclusively one-dimensional and that different times cannot co-exist. But Kant’s own analysis of the sublime nine years later in the Critique of Judgment where the sublime is also a moment where simultaneity or coexistence is made intuitable constitute a challenge to the transcendental notion of time too. The intuition of coexistence involves a negation of temporality, a movement beyond the capacities of sensation and conceptual determination to the realm of reason, whereby successive apprehension is replaced by an instantaneous grasping.13 Thus, “the unstable form of the sublime is,” as Michael Wayne remarks in his book Red Kant, “inextricably linked with a new and potentially radical conception of temporality and history.”14

In the Critique of Pure Reason, the imagination is linked to time as the form of inner sense. Relative to the understanding, its function is to synthesize the progressive sequence of representations in time. In the sublime, by contrast, ←44 | 45→the imagination is related to reason and in a reversal of its normal operation institutes what Kant calls a “regression” (ein Regressus) that annihilates the condition of time and makes possible the intuition of coexistence:15

Measurement of a space (as apprehension) is at the same time a description of it, and so an objective movement in the imagination and a progression. On the other hand, the comprehension of the manifold in the unity, not of thought, but of intuition, and consequently the comprehension of the successively apprehended parts at one glance [in einen Augenblick], is a retrogression that removes the time–condition in the progression of the imagination, and renders coexistence intuitable [und das Zugleichsein anschaulich macht]. Therefore, since the time-series [die Zeitfolge] is a condition of the internal sense and of an intuition, it is a subjective movement of the imagination by which it does violence to the internal sense – a violence which must be proportionately more striking the greater the quantum which the imagination comprehends in one intuition.16

The sublime violates the model of linear temporal progression in the ordering of the manifold that Kant mapped out in the Critique of Pure Reason where he emphasized the successive apprehension of percepts in a temporal sequence. The sublime radically shifts to an instantaneous grasping of what is coexisting. Thus “comprehending in one instant what is apprehended successively, is a regression that in turn cancels the condition of time in the imagination’s progression.”17

The sublime involves a radical cancelling of ordinary temporal unfolding; a disruption of our habitual ways of perceiving and experiencing the world, but, rather than annihilating time as such, the regress of the imagination – the comprehension in an instant of what was successively apprehended – suggests a possible negation of the mathematical or linear form of time.18

4. Now-Time

In this way, Kant’s analysis of the sublime might be seen as a tacit model for Walter Benjamin’s concept of “Jetztzeit” (translated as now-time, or the presence of the now) that describes time at a standstill where the past, in a flash, enters into a constellation with the present, objectively interrupting the mechanical ←45 | 46→temporal process of historicism.19 Like the sublime interrupts the successive apprehension described in the Critique of Pure Reason, the dialectics at a standstill interrupts and opens the linear continuum of history.

In Benjamin, the dialectical convergence of past and present therefore holds a political potential. His ambition is to explode “the continuum of history” in order to make it possible to recompose it.20 This point is also emphasized by political theorist Isabell Lorey in her recent reading of Benjamin’s now-time: “It is constructive temporality, in which the slivers of history are newly composed, in which history persistently emerges. The now-time is the creative midpoint, not a transition of the past into the future.”21 Thus now-time becomes time filled with emancipatory possibilities (rather than mere probabilities): “History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogeneous empty time, but time filled by the presence of the now [Jetztzeit],”22 as Benjamin remarks in a famous passage. Time is not an empty duration unaffected by the events that fill it, and time itself has a history and politics. Time is mediated, constructed, and multiple, neither homogeneous nor a blank a priori, and there are many different co-existing ways of being in time and belonging to it.

5. Contemporaneity and the sublime, a second glance

The experience of contemporaneity is perhaps sublime in the sense that it is an interruption of the unified linearly ordered time, but the contemporary condition does not allow us any distance to that which otherwise would elicit an experience of the sublime.

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In a chapter titled “Sharing Responsibility: Farewell to the Sublime” in the recent anthology Reset Modernity! Bruno Latour remarks that it becomes increasingly difficult for the Western subject living in the Anthropocene to enjoy any feeling of the sublime – in the Anthropocene we humans have ourselves become a geological force and have realized that we are part of the overwhelming nature we used to see as a separate and remote phenomenon:

To feel the sublime you needed to remain ‘distant’ from what remained a spectacle; infinitely ‘inferior’ in physical forces to what you were witnessing; infinitely ‘superior’ in moral grandeur. Only then could you test the incommensurability between these two forms of infinity. Bad luck: there is no place where you can hide yourselves; you are now fully ‘commensurable’ with the physical forces that you have unleashed; as to moral superiority, you have lost that too!23

The difficulty – I argue – of experiencing the Kantian sublime today not only has to do with the cancellation of our distance to overwhelming natural forces, the loss of a secure position from where to experience something as a sublime spectacle. As I have tried to sketch, there is also an important temporal aspect in that the Anthropocene also implies that human history and geological time become connected and coincide for the first time in history. They now take part in the same present and we no longer enjoy the comfort of a secure position in relation to a one-dimensional time, from where to grasp time or to establish a disjunctive relationship with time, thereby becoming untimely as in Giorgio Agamben’s definition of the contemporary.

Contemporaneity may, of course, be seen as synchronization and standardization of all the world’s cultures and time-experiences, in line with a conception of the sublime as “a symptom of the supersensible totality of global capitalism,”24 but it can also – as an, in principle, shared present, a globally shared experience of co-presence – be seen to hold a potential of interrupting the mechanical progression or rather accumulation and repetition of what is with no alternatives. In that sense there is, across decisive differences, a connection between the Kantian sublime, Benjamin’s now-time, and the idea of contemporaneity.

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Agamben, Giorgio. “What Is the Contemporary?” In What Is an Apparatus? and Other Essays, 39–54. Translated by David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009.

Aranda, Julieta, Brian Kuon Wood, and Anton Vidokle. “Editorial – ‘The End of the End of History?’ Issue Two.” e-flux journal #57 (September 2014), https://www.e-flux.com/journal/57/60387/editorial-the-end-of-the-end-of-history-issue-two/ (accessed June 10, 2019).

Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2002 [1927–1940].

Benjamin, Walter. “On the Concept of History.” In Selected Writings, vol. 4, 1938–1940, edited by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, translated by Edmund Jephcott and Others, 389–400. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1992.

Bratton, Benjamin H. “The Black Stack.” e-flux journal #53 (March 2014), http://www.e-flux.com/journal/53/59883/the-black-stack/ (accessed June 10, 2019).

Cox, Geoff and Jacob Lund. “Time.now.” Forthcoming.

Didi-Huberman, Georges. “Before the Image, Before Time: The Sovereignty of Anachronism.” Translated by Peter Mason. In Compelling Visuality, edited by Claire Farago and Robert Zwijnenberg, 31–44. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

Didi-Huberman, Georges. “History and Image: Has the ‘Epistemological Transformation’ Taken Place?” Translated by Vivian Rehberg. In The Art Historian: National Traditions and Institutional Practices, edited by Michael Zimmermann, 128–146. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2003.

Ernst, Wolfgang Ernst. “Printed Letters, Acoustic Space, Real Time Internet: The Message of Current Communication Media, Deciphered with (and Beyond) McLuhan.” SITE 33 (2013): 197–212.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. Translated by James Creed Meredith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Kant, Immanuel. Kritik der Reinen Vernunft. Stuttgart: Reclam, 1986 [1781].

Koselleck, Reinhart. “Sediments of Time.” In Sediments of Time: On Possible Histories, translated and edited Sean Franzel and Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann, 3–9. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018.

Latour, Bruno. “Sharing Responsibility: Farewell to the Sublime.” In Reset Modernity!, edited by Bruno Latour, 167–183. Karlsruhe: ZKM & Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2016.

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Lorey, Isabell. “Presentist Democracy: Exodus and Tiger’s Leap.” Transversal Texts 06 (June 2014), http://transversal.at/blog/Presentist-Democracy (accessed June 10, 2019).

Lund, Jacob. Anachrony, Contemporaneity, and Historical Imagination. Berlin: Sternberg, 2019.

Lyotard, Jean-François. “An Answer to the Question: What Is the Postmodern?” In The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, 71–82. Translated by Régis Durand. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1984.

Makkreel, Rudolf. “Imagination and Temporality in Kant’s Theory of the Sublime.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 42, No. 3 (Spring, 1984): 303–316.

Nowotny, Helga. Time: The Modern and the Postmodern Experience. Translated by Neville Plaice. London: Polity Press, 1994 [1989].

Osborne, Peter. Anywhere or Not at All. Philosophy of Contemporary Art. London: Verso, 2013.

Osborne, Peter. “The Postconceptual Condition: Or the Cultural Logic of High Capitalism Today.” Radical Philosophy, No. 184 (Mar/Apr 2014): 19–27.

Wayne, Michael. Red Kant: Aesthetics, Marxism and the Third Critique. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

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1 Cf. Peter Osborne, Anywhere or Not at All. Philosophy of Contemporary Art (London: Verso, 2013), 17: “what seems distinctive and important about the changing temporal quality of the historical present over the last few decades is best expressed through the distinctive conceptual grammar of con-temporaneity, a coming together not simply ‘in’ time, but of times: we do not just live or exist together ‘in time’ with our contemporaries – as if time itself is indifferent to this existing together – but rather the present is increasingly characterised by a coming together of different but equally ‘present’ temporalities or ‘times’, a temporal unity in disjunction, or a disjunctive unity of present times.”

2 Benjamin H. Bratton, “The Black Stack,” e-flux journal #53 (March 2014), http://www.e-flux.com/journal/53/59883/the-black-stack/ (accessed June 10, 2019).

3 Helga Nowotny, Time: The Modern and the Postmodern Experience, trans. Neville Plaice (London: Polity Press, 1994 [1989]).

4 Giorgio Agamben, “What Is the Contemporary?” in What Is an Apparatus? and Other Essays, trans. David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), 41 (italics in the original).

5 Georges Didi-Huberman, “History and Image: Has the ‘Epistemological Transformation’ Taken Place?”, trans. Vivian Rehberg, in The Art Historian: National Traditions and Institutional Practices, ed. Michael Zimmermann (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2003), 131. See also my essay Anachrony, Contemporaneity, and Historical Imagination (Berlin: Sternberg, 2019).

6 Georges Didi-Huberman, “Before the Image, Before Time: The Sovereignty of Anachronism,” in Compelling Visuality, eds. Claire Farago and Robert Zwijnenberg, trans. Peter Mason (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 41. Cf. Reinhart Koselleck, “Sediments of Time,” in Sediments of Time: On Possible Histories, trans. and eds. Sean Franzel and Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018), 3–9.

7 Wolfgang Ernst, “Printed Letters, Acoustic Space, Real Time Internet: The Message of Current Communication Media, Deciphered with (and Beyond) McLuhan,” SITE 33 (2013): 197–212.

8 Cf. Julieta Aranda, Brian Kuon Wood, and Anton Vidokle, “Editorial – ‘The End of the End of History?’ Issue Two,” e-flux journal no. 57 (2014), https://www.e-flux.com/journal/57/60387/editorial-the-end-of-the-end-of-history-issue-two/ (accessed June 10, 2019).

9 Jean-François Lyotard, “An Answer to the Question: What Is the Postmodern?” in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Régis Durand (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1984), 78.

10 Osborne, Anywhere or Not at All, 27.

11 Immanuel Kant, Kritik der Reinen Vernunft (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1986 [1781]), § 4.

12 Kant, Kritik der Reinen Vernunft, § 5.

13 Cf. Michael Wayne, Red Kant: Aesthetics, Marxism and the Third Critique (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 121.

14 Wayne, Red Kant, 121.

15 Cf. Rudolf Makkreel, “Imagination and Temporality in Kant’s Theory of the Sublime,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 42, no. 3 (Spring, 1984): 303.

16 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. James Creed Meredith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), § 27, 89.

17 Wayne, Red Kant, 121.

18 Cf. Makkreel, “Imagination and Temporality in Kant’s Theory of the Sublime,” 308.

19 Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” in Selected Writings, vol. 4, 1938–1940, eds. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, trans. Edmund Jephcott and Others (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1992), 398–400, and Convolute N in The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2002 [1927–1940]), 262. Now-time works in opposition to the everyday historicist meaning of the contemporary as ‘living, existing, or occurring together’ in what Benjamin calls a ‘homogenous, empty’ historical time. See Peter Osborne, “The Postconceptual Condition: Or the Cultural Logic of High Capitalism Today,” Radical Philosophy, no. 184 (Mar/Apr 2014): 22 ff.

20 Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” 253. Cf. also Geoff Cox and Jacob Lund, “Time.now” (forthcoming).

21 Isabell Lorey, “Presentist democracy: Exodus and Tiger’s leap,” Transversal Texts 06, June 2014, http://transversal.at/blog/Presentist-Democracy (accessed June 10, 2019).

22 Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” 252–253.

23 Bruno Latour, “Sharing Responsibility: Farewell to the Sublime,” in Reset Modernity!, ed. Bruno Latour (Karlsruhe: ZKM & Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2016), 169.

24 Wayne, Red Kant, 118.

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András Czeglédi

4 Uchronia and Somaesthetics:
Somaesthetics as Uchronia

Uchronia is a modern expression taken from Greek, a neologism similar to utopia. It is as if uchronists, the authors of uchronias had Aristotle’s famous distinction between poetry and history writing in mind (Poetics51b). Uchronia attempts to amalgamate the two into a kind of poetic history writing – and thus denies the popular notion that “what if’s” in history are irrelevant.

In its vaguest form, especially prevalent in the English-speaking world, uchronia can refer to any kind of alternate history. Even though drawing a sharp border is difficult, actual uchronia is always more focused on the present and the current location than alternative history in general.

Uchronia is a lot more loosely related to the world of human history than utopia – especially modern utopia (and anti-utopia) where the old-school now-but-not-here (in the present but at an imaginary location) and its determinism meets the eschatological moment of Jewish-Christian origin and its determinism. This encounter made modern utopias and anti-utopias markedly deterministic.

All this implies that all worthy uchronias have a notable common theoretical and existential peculiarity of a certain freedom of space, which sets them apart from utopias and their kin. Instead of objectively identifying reasons that lie in the past, uchronia aims to reclaim the present.

And somaesthetics – as practice and as theory – is doing the same as well. Somaesthetics – as a discipline devoted to critical and ameliorative study of the experience and use of soma – is the omitted possibility of the emergence of aesthetics as a systematic discipline of perfecting sensory cognition during the 18th century. Now it aims to reclaim the present. Is somaesthetics a special kind of uchronia?

Keywords: uchronia, somaesthetics, Richard Shusterman, Friedrich Nietzsche

Is somaesthetics a special kind of uchronia? I will mainly focus on uchronia for shedding some light on certain features of somaesthetics.

Let’s begin with the word’s etymology. Uchronia is a modern expression taken from Greek, a neologism similar to utopia. The derivative “u” denotes the lack of something, with utopia it is the lack of topos, i.e. space, and as for uchronia, it refers to chronos, time. Utopia: neverwhere, uchronia: at no point in time.

Actual uchronia comes from a far later period than utopia – and with much fewer instances. The word was coined by Charles Renouvier in his short essay ←51 | 52→written in 1857, and in his 1876 novel that emerged from it.1 From then on, uchronia generally refers to such an instance of u-chronos, never-time, that allows the events of the past and the present to be told, not in the way it actually happened, but in a way it could have. It is as if uchronists, the authors of uchronias had Aristotle’s famous distinction between poetry and history writing in mind: in his Poetics 51b, Aristotle claims that the historian writes about unique, factual events that actually took place, while the poet writes in a more general way, about things that could have happened out of probability or necessity; therefore the Greek philosopher considers the latter, the poetic activity to be more profound and more philosophical.

Uchronia attempts to amalgamate the two into a kind of poetic history writing – and thus denies the popular notion that “what ifs” in history are irrelevant.

But perhaps an immediate and undiluted dose of Aristotle might not be the best way to demonstrate what uchronia is. Let’s look at a picture that tangibly demonstrates the roots and essential attributes of uchronia.2

What do we see in the picture?

First, of course it’s a CD cover (you can even see the serial number in the top left corner.)

Second, it is a work – actually, the reproduction of a work – by Chinese artist Chu Kar Kui.

And third, at the most basic iconographic level, we see a Chinese baby Jesus and a Chinese Virgin Mary.

The depiction is heavily iconic. Mary sits in a way a Mary usually sits, and little Jesus stands the proper way, with the obligatory halo above their heads. The rosary around Mary’s neck is almost overemphasized, at a first glance the picture bears strong characteristics of the Baroque period. (As a matter of fact, the iconic use of the rosary is a Baroque invention.) Well, it is a rather late piece of Baroque art, dating to 1997, for Chu Kar Kui is a contemporary artist.

We thus have an oil painting which is reminiscent of European Baroque patterns almost to the letter, which at the same time transfers the entire topic of ←52 | 53→the god-child and the Virgin Mary into a Chinese context (the way the people in the picture look and dress), and to top it all, it is a contemporary painting. This gives us a perfect visual example of uchronia.

The CD cover and the picture naturally come with their respective CD and music inside.

What’s on the CD?

It is “Chinese music” in a way – even though this expression makes as much sense per se as if we were to grab Mozart, Schönberg, Irish pub music and the fantastic late Soviet underground band Kino from Leningrad all together under the title of “European music.”

The important thing is that the disc contains uchronic music: experimental historic music that certainly never existed in such a form. The players, performers attempt to reconstruct the bygone musical era of 17th century Beijing, where, due to the influence of new coming Jesuits, the local neonate Christian community used to perform Mary vespers.

Everything is questionable, including what was performed, how and on what instruments; the only thing that seems to be certain is that the founding father is a Jesuit priest called Matteo Ricci, the first European who made it to Beijing in a long time, and where he established the local Jesuit community. Ricci was not a professional musician, and it is difficult to determine which of the compositions are his own, and which are the ones that he borrowed from Chinese composers. Jumping a few decades ahead, the situation is still as follows: there are a few weird scores (China was one of the rare places outside of Europe to have a traditional rhythm and melody notation), some with European notation, some with Chinese, European transcriptions of Chinese scores, and vice versa. There were some musicians among the recently converted, neophyte Chinese Christians, but they were naturally familiar with Chinese traditions. Although some eunuchs at Court did study European songs and were more or less able to perform them, they were not Christians. A few of the missionaries could sing or play an instrument (note that there was no real supply of musical instruments from Europe, Chinese instruments were available primarily) – but that was not enough for a well-organized choir.

On top of all that, they must also adopt to the environment – and that has a strong (negative) effect predominantly on the Mary vespers. Even though the Chinese elite, whom the missionaries intended to influence, was very receptive to the ethical teachings of Christianity, and had at least some interest in the ideas of the embodiment or the resurrection, they would reject the concept of the Trinity (how could three be one and one be three?), and found the idea of a virgin giving birth ridiculous. Therefore it is almost certain that ←53 | 54→Jesuits performed part of the liturgy in Latin and for themselves, or perhaps also for Chinese Christians who were very closely integrated into their community. These performances took place within the confines of their church, while they would take those parts of the liturgy that were more accessible to Chinese people outside of the church, as well. There are three, mutually exclusive scenarios on how Chinese singers interpreted European music and its melodies. They could have tried to perform it “as is,” exactly as it was notated, or they could have transformed it to their own Chinese pentatonic patterns, or perhaps they could have tried to fully adopt it to Chinese style heterophony. The music on the CD presents all three solutions, making the reconstructed musical world broader than the one that actually existed.

The uchronic picture and music come with an uchronic (but entirely real) story. As it happened, a Chinese Jew from Kaifeng called Ai Tian (Kaifeng Jews migrated to China centuries earlier, probably from Persia, possibly from the Indian peninsula) paid a visit to aforementioned Matteo Ricci. A comedy of errors ensued: Ai Tian visited Ricci in the first place because he heard that foreign monotheists who do not follow Mohamed’s teachings have moved to Beijing. Having never heard of Christianity, Ai naturally assumed that they must be Jewish, and he was happy that the centuries-long isolation of the Kaifeng Jewish community was coming to an end. What Ricci heard, however, was that an enthusiastic non-Muslim monotheist from Kaifeng was looking for him – and thus Ricci, the Jesuit priest became excited because when he saw Ai, who looked entirely Chinese to the European eye, he thought he found a form of Chinese Christianity, ancient, sought-after and believed to have been lost (Christianity had made its way to China before the times of Jesuit conversion, but contact was lost with these Chinese Christian communities during the Middle Ages.)

In any case, Ricci and Ai were mutually happy to see each other, and the priest made haste to show their church to Ai, who stared in awe, for he couldn’t even imagine that such a large synagogue could exist, especially in China. Even though he found it somewhat strange that Ricci knelt down and began to pray in front of a picture of a beautiful young woman and her earnest, clever child, he nonetheless thought that if this is the custom among these foreign Jews, he should follow suit (the story does not detail if there was music during the praying, and if so, what kind of music…) After praying, Ai, the Chinese Jew smiled and asked that the painting must depict Rebecca and Jacob, or – in a moralizing sense – Rebecca and Esau? Ricci, the European monk smiled and replied that they are Jesus and Mary. After a few awkward moments it all became clear, Ricci discovered that there are Chinese Jews in Kaifeng, and Ai got to know that a part Judaism has evolved into something that calls itself Christianity.

←54 |

This gave rise to intense correspondence and a close relationship between Ricci, Ai, and the Kaifeng Jews. In one of his letters, Ricci emphasized, not for the first time, that the Kaifeng Jewish community must convert, since the Messiah they had been waiting for already arrived; to which the community’s arch-rabbi responded that the Messiah, as it is common knowledge, is not going to appear for another 10,000 years, unfortunately – however, he, the rabbi, is old and sick, and surrounded by religious incompetents and/or scoundrels, and he would be happy if an educated person such as Ricci would take over his position. Apparently, the theological differences between the two did not concern the rabbi, and he had but one request, that Ricci should put an end to his dreadful habit of eating pork, entirely unworthy of a rabbi. The story concludes here: we do not know what response Ricci gave to the offer; however, we do know that he lived the rest of his life not as a Kaifeng rabbi, but as a Jesuit priest.

But regardless of how the story ends, real, actual uchronia is always embedded in a story or narrative, real, actual uchronia is a narrative type of text. This way, a picture or a piece of music in itself is merely an opportunity for uchronic elaboration.

And, of course, uchronia also has its own story.

According to some, uchronia has been existing for a long time before the expression was coined in 1857. But perhaps it was Titus Livius – or Polybius himself! – who authored the first uchronia. In The History of Rome, Livius details the possible outcome of events had Alexander the Great gone West, instead of East, to conquer – and tried to capture Rome; according to Livius he would have failed, of course.

It is worth considering the extent to which uchronia can be distinguished from other (similar) genres, what types of uchronia there are, what common characteristics uchronias share, and what medium it can appear in.

In its vaguest form, especially prevalent in the English-speaking world, uchronia can refer to any kind of alternate history.

Even though drawing a sharp distinction is difficult, actual uchronia is always more focused on the present and the current location than alternative history in general.

Uchronia is concerned with the alternative past and the alternative present, while alternative history, in spite of a strong tendency to be present-focused, at least the part of it that I am familiar with, could be concerned with anything, including the future. A real contemporary uchronia does not care about what is going to happen in 2050, but an alternative historical novel could do. Therefore, it is evident that a proper uchronia differs from science fiction and modern, temporal utopias, just as it is different from anti-utopias and dystopias. It can, ←55 | 56→therefore, paradoxically follow that something that was originally not intended to be uchronic – e.g. a negative utopia – unintentionally or in spite of the author’s intentions does (also) become an uchronia in time, such as Orwell’s 1984.

On the other hand, the Roman historian Livius (covered above), the British historian Toynbee, always happy to expand upon uchronic possibilities, although he is not going to get covered here, and István Bibó, who is and whose excellent uchronia build upon Toynbee’s idea of “What if the Synod movement had won in the 15th century?,” these three can all write beautiful literary passages but what they are doing is predominantly not literature. Bibó is not a novelist, but a sociologist and political scientist who put some of his thoughts in the form of uchronias. To put it simply, uchronia is a part of the broad spectrum of alternative history, and any piece of alternative history writing can include bits of uchronia, but not every uchronia is alternative historic literature.

An indispensable part of uchronias is the aforementioned focus on the current location: uchronias are never concerned with what happened a long, long time ago in a galaxy far away (as opposed to many classic pieces of science fiction), or in an alternative world inhabited by griffons, dragons, kobolds, hobbits and all kinds of halflings (see fantasy).3 Uchronias have relevant things to say about our current world, and they do so (to borrow an essay title from one of the leading Hungarian experts on the subject, Balázs Trencsényi) “In the Shadow of Yesterday.” The title, besides being a playful allusion to a Dutch philosopher’s work, refers to that the past could have taken a different turn, and it would “only” have required a few human decisions to be different from what they actually were.

Uchronia is therefore much more loosely related to the world of human history than utopia – especially modern utopia (and anti-utopia) where the old-school now-but-not-here (in the present but at an imaginary location) and its determinism meets the eschatological moment of Jewish-Christian origin and its determinism. This encounter made modern utopias and anti-utopias markedly deterministic.

←56 | 57→

All this implies that all worthy uchronias have a notable common theoretical and existential peculiarity of a certain freedom of space, which sets them apart from utopias and their kin. Instead of objectively identifying reasons that lie in the past, uchronia aims to reclaim the present. To quote Trencsényi’s expressive thought that is nonetheless slightly misleading out of its context, “For the uchronist, every moment, every decision carries its weight – and these moments do not even exist in utopias.”4

Another common attribute of every uchronia is that they retain actual historic figures, or, should they not exist, they take a page from Poetics, make our present world’s people the heroes of the story.

Another thing in common is what Renouvier calls a “history junction,” or what Bibó calls the “condensation of possibilities,” and what professional literature calls a “false key event.” This means the space-time of uchronia is not homogenous – of course every moment and every decision is a responsible one, but at certain moments decisions and events have heavier consequences.5 It is hardly coincidental that both Renouvier’s and Bibó’s uchronia deal with religious history and elaborate on the relationship between Christianity and power, albeit with a diametrically opposed set of values. (Also, the uchronic moment on the CD cover also has to do with religious history: the false key event here is that the embodiment of Christ took place in China during the Ming dynasty; naturally, the story’s protagonists are the easily recognizable and traditional). It is not surprising either that after World War II many uchronias chose that event as the history junction which serves as the basis for the given uchronia. And the past two decades saw the rise of Chinese/Oriental themes in uchronias, uchronic novels etc. (e.g. The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson.)

←57 | 58→

The final common trait of most, if not all, classic uchronias is what we might call a meta-level or meta-fiction: a sort of conscious, backward reflection. It was born to be staged: we might call this mousetrap-effect, after the famous scene in Hamlet. Similarly to the concept of theatre in theatre, there are, in many cases, uchronia in an uchronia. In a world based on what ifs, one character or another might raise the very same question and arrive to our own universe (or to other possible worlds, of course, a sin the case of Asimov, Borges or Philip K. Dick, for instance.

Let’s examine a few, illustrative examples for different types of uchronia, without the hope to be typologically all-inclusive, but on an increasing scale.

1. Barely uchronia, more sci-fi with uchronic elements, uchronic shorty story For instance, Ray Bradbury’s The Sound of Thunder. In short: time travel becomes possible in the near future, the protagonists travel back to the world of dinosaurs, and they leave the strictly designated path, butterfly on the sole of the shoe. Upon returning, everything has changed significantly (e.g.: someone else has won the US presidential elections). A Sound of Thunder is often regarded as the first appearance of the so-called butterfly effect in popular culture. More precisely: the formative effect, a long-time interest of scholars concerned with chaos theory, supposedly got its poetic and pertinent name (butterfly-effect) after Bradbury’s text.

2. Uchronic alternative history novel

Modern uchronia has begun its career as alternative history novel, what is more, in France – if we strictly stick to conceptual history, with Renouvier, if not, then twenty years prior, closely connected to the era’s obsession with Napoleon.6

It is worth mentioning two widely-known uchronic cult-novels from the middle and the end of the previous century: Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle and Milorad Paviĉ’s Dictionary of the Khazars. The wide, rich array of possible interpretations and the flowering international success of the latter was overshadowed by its authors plea for a possible, more anachronistic than uchronic interpretation of his own work on the eve of the Yugoslav Wars, equating Serbian and Khazar identities; the former, however, is simply the perfect negative, anti-utopian uchronia. Everything is correct: the historical figures are real, and the protagonists are relatable, average citizens, and is set at the time of the novel’s writing – with the slight difference that in Dick’s reality, the Axis powers triumphed over the Allies in World War II, and divide up the United ←58 | 59→States among themselves. There is even an uchronia within the uchronia, with alternative narratives: the fictional novel within the novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, describing what would have happened if the Nazis and Japan lost the war (and it does not conclude our actual reality).

An intriguing consequence of the “condensation of possibilities” and “historical junctions” is the phenomenon when the uchronisation of one or another historical era is so characteristic or popular that the texts produce form a distinct sub-genre. This has happened to steampunk (a genre depicting a world in which steam triumphed over other forms of energy and technologies). In the majority of cases, it is not the “quantity” of a uchronic world’s popularity that matters, but the quality with which it is able to create a secondary world – World War II, or the US Civil War can compete with the Victorian age, but the latter’s complexity simply renders it to be a subgenre.

3. Alternative historiography. What if Stalin deserts Moscow in 1941? – asks us Simon Sebag Montefiore.7 He answers, as well: the Germans would have taken Moscow, Stalin is dismissed and executed by the Politburo, which is kept a secret, but in the long run, things turn out as they had in the first place – in other words, this is a very rare, deterministic uchronia. In Montefiore’s plot, Molotov emerges as the new leader, the Allied weapons eventually arrive, the dreadful German occupation leads to widespread partisan movements, fortune turns in Stalingrad, the Red Army eventually occupies Berlin, etc. The next generations’ verdict is clear: Stalin’s bloody figure fades and becomes insignificant, compared to Molotov’s dark genius. Historians agree that Russia would never have been able to win to war with Stalin at the helm – in contrast to Stalin’ Georgian ancestry, the Russian Molotov has been able to fire up patriotism in his people, and due to his exceptional skills as a diplomat, he was able to work out an advantageous alliance with the Anglo-Saxons, and was eager to learn from his generals, primarily form Zhukov. Nevertheless, the Soviet structure remains unable to develop, infected with its familiar stagnation, Gorbachev becomes premier after Molotov’s death in 1986, and the empire eventually goes to pieces.8

←59 | 60→

4. Uchronia regarding religious, cultural and political history – the most idiosyncratic uchronia Due to Bibó, we, Hungarians, are pretty strong in this field.9 Let’s recall Bibó’s musing in a nutshell: the Synod movements are triumphant in the 15th century, which brings about the renewal and modernization of Christianity, which renders Reformation in its schismatic form unnecessary. Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, humanitarianism, democratic ideals, liberalism, socialism – this are all intact, but emerge within a religious framework. Therefore, all notable men of science bear some sort of religious title.

For instance, Father Marx is banned from every monarchy on the continent, only to find shelter in the Vatican’s library; his authorial voice is notable in the third (!) social papal encyclical published in 1848, with the title “Spectrum pervadit Europam” (A Spectre is Haunting Europe). In another case, Abbot Freud is regarded as a pioneer in modern confessional practices.

Bibó’s views on uchronia are contradictory to those of Renouvier’s: whereas in the latter’s interpretation, a fictional historical turn impels Marcus Aurelius to abdicate to Cassius, the consequence of which is that Europe never becomes Christian and enters modernity without having gone through the dark Middle Ages. Bibó sees this as impossible: those slave-holder, ancient “democracies” would never have been able to transform into a modern democracy that is based on the equal rights of human beings without the impact of Christianity. Similarly, ancient natural sciences would not have become the modern, exact sciences without monastic discipline and the interiorisation of asceticism.

If this typology is far from complete, then where else can we discover uchronia or uchronic elements? Well, in anything that has a narrative aspect to it, basically. My personal favourites are the uchronic Stirlitz jokes.10

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Once again: uchronia can appear in any sort of narrative genre or context. There are countless cinematic examples to cite here; I also explored in other papers the essential connection between theatre and uchronia, the theatrical aspect of Foucauldian heterotopia and heterochronia.

The history of modern philosophy can also provide examples of notable authors whose works are intertwined with the characteristic, uchronic strategies of inquiry. It is quite remarkable, in my opinion, how the œuvres of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard (especially their later works) reflect on each other from this perspective, as well.11

In both cases, we can observe the characteristics of uchronia, working in the background, although neither of them has ever produced a specifically uchronic work. The uchronic motivation of their work is paradoxical, and the two paradoxes appear as contradictory: the eternal return as the turning point of history (Nietzsche) versus history as the return of the turning point (Kirkegaard). Although the impossibility (Heidegger) and the necessity (Löwith) of comparison between Nietzsche and Kierkegaard resulted in debates that are still ongoing, it is certain that the uchronic aspects of these philosophies make it crystal clear that uchronia is a specifically modern product of “decay”: the inevitable and idiosyncratic consequence of the secularization of eschatological thinking.

The most significant work of Nietzsche’s uchronic thinking is certainly The Antichrist. Many uchronic elements of the late Nietzsche’s thought come together in this work. A great example for that is the Buddhist interpretation of Jesus’ figure (Jesus was a Buddha, “on a markedly not Indian ground,” and ←61 | 62→we historically missed understanding him as such, although it may still be possible); “I see Cesare Borgia as the Pope” (Nietzsche supposed that we also missed Umwertung, the reinterpretation of our values), but through Nietzsche himself, we might still be able to fulfil this goal.

The most interesting uchronic text produced by Kierkegaard can be found in his Philosophical Fragments, which may not belong to his late works, but certainly ends the first phase of his career, since this was the first work edited under his own name, and not under a pseudonym (yet still authored under a pen name). An intermission on the history of philosophy separates the fourth and fifth chapters of the work, in which Kierkegaard marvellously attacks the concept of “necessity” in Hegel’s philosophy of history. The title itself is incredibly suggestive: “Is the past more necessary than the future? Or, when the possible becomes actual, is it thereby made more necessary than it was?”

* * *

It is now necessary to reflect upon the points of connection between somaesthetics and uchronic thinking. Somaesthetics is far more known than uchronia and uchronic discourse – in sum: as a term coined by the American pragmatist philosopher Richard Shusterman and as a discipline devoted to critical and ameliorative study of the experience and use of so-called “soma.” The latter is not only a Greek expression for body; it denotes the “sentient, purposive body rather than merely a physical body,”12 so it denotes the thinking and living human body.

I do not wish to enumerate all of the connections between somaesthetics and uchronic thinking, only to highlight two of them that seem to be the most significant. I would call the first the obvious and constitutive connection in intellectual history, and the second: Nietzsche.

The first is quite obvious, as it is present, with exemplary brevity and without once mentioning uchronia, in the foundational text Somaesthetics: A Disciplinary Proposal: “If somaesthetics is radical, it is only in the sense of returning to some of the deepest roots of aesthetics and philosophy.” A few lines below, we find the application of this thought:

To show how somaesthetics is firmly grounded in aesthetic tradition, I begin by examining the philosophical text that founded modern aesthetics, Alexander Baumgarten’s ←62 | 63→Aesthetica (…). Baumgarten’s original aesthetic project will be seen to have far greater scope than what we recognize as aesthetics today (i.e. aesthetics of art – remark by A. Cz.), implying an entire program of philosophical self-perfection in the art of living.13

This is followed by a line of thought that seems to be the most convincing to me, and that bears the most uchronic potentials. It is quite exciting how Shusterman sheds light on the fact that Burke and Baumgarten are very much the precursors of somaesthetics. Despite their distance in time, they are much closer to the birth of somaesthetics than the mainstream, post-Kantian aesthetic tradition and how that era – to use an uchronic term – fulfil the requirements of nœud de l’histoire [history junction] and condensation of possibilities. Also, it is extremely interesting that all this basically points towards the most condensed form of uchronia. In other words, it points not towards the uchronic short story, nor the alternative historical novel, and not even alternative historiography, but towards uchronia regarding religious, cultural and political history. Although it could have been different – and this may very well be the liberating-affirmative aspect of uchronia, not to accept rigid determination –, it was not due to mere coincidence, but structural, well-established religious, cultural and political reasons that somaesthetics did not emerge during the 18th century. The emergence of aesthetics as a systematic discipline of perfecting sensory cognition would have been in vain, if it was still a rehabilitation of the so-called lower faculties (facultates inferiores) and of caro (a degraded body, flesh). Precisely that pietistic and rational-Cartesian heritage, and in general “the dominantly religious ideological context into which Baumgarten had to introduce aesthetics would have been very intolerant of philosophies that emphasized the body.”14

However, Nietzsche did not have to face such difficulties. But whereas Burke and Baumgarten have always been “household names” of the reductively termed Anglo-Saxon and Continental aesthetic and philosophical traditions, in other words, of “Empiricism” and “Rationalism,” Nietzsche is not, at least for a while. Nietzsche is part of a counter-tradition, or more precisely, he is the counter-tradition itself to a certain extent, because he – not without precedents and forerunners – more or less re-establishes this counter-tradition with an emphasis on embodiment (inclusive the critic of Christian resurrection), instinct and physiology.

It is worth noting that essential somatic elements of Nietzsche’s counter-tradition are easily identifiable and point straight towards somaesthetics. ←63 | 64→Heidegger is often – and not without any basis – accused of not aiming to be widely and clearly understood, but in his lectures on Nietzsche, he summarizes his somatic thoughts. “We do not »have« a body; rather, we »are« bodily” (“wir »haben« nicht einen Leib, sondern wir »sind« leiblich”), “we are not first of all »alive«, only than getting an apparatus to sustain our living which we call »the body«, but we are some body who is alive (wir leben, indem wir leiben).”15 Strongly connected to this is Heidegger’s in-depth analysis of one of the idioms in the fourth speech of Zarathrustra: the great reason of the body.

When looking for the English text of Zarathustra to illustrate my example above, I automatically reached for Walter Kaufmann’s translation, which certainly signals that the somatically sensitive Nietzsche, and thus the tradition of “thinking through the body” is embedded in uchronia.

As I have mentioned above, it took a long time for Nietzsche to become part of the mainstream and the establishment. I would add that during the first wave of Nietzsche-enthusiasm, many in the academic world apologized for him for being a poetic philosopher, especially in the Anglo-Saxon sphere. Of course, there were a few American pragmatists (James, most notably) who were mainly interested in Nietzsche’s moral philosophy and his concept of genealogy. Regardless, many public intellectuals – philosophers included – dismissed all aspects of his thought: “the right man in the right place” – this type of reaction to Nietzsche’s intellectual Zusammenbruch has never been more widespread anywhere as in the English-speaking parts of the world. And, as we know, this turned out to be only the beginning, since Nietzsche’s case brought about an incredible amount of instrumentalism, both on the side of his critics and on his defenders’. After the two World Wars, at the end of the era of fascism and Nazism, the rekindled debate on and criticism of Nietzsche had sound foundations in the English world. Nietzsche did not have to look towards the French for some anti-Albion sentiment: there are many French elements in his thought and the way he articulated them, although his aversions towards the English stemmed more from his concept of the “good” European’s obligatory anti-Christian and anti-moralist convictions, not from provincial roots. However, the self-proclaimed and claimed successors, “apologists” and developers of Nietzsche tend to stay quiet on his “affection” for the English.

From the 1950s, Walter Kaufmann illuminated the moral, psychological and – that is correct – the somatic aspects of Nietzsche’s thought with elementary force, which had strong influence on Danto, Rorty and Nehamas, among others, ←64 | 65→for a range of generations, in fact. Kaufmann’s translation and interpretation of Nietzsche integrate him to the present to which he now so evidently belongs. Of course, this is more telling of the present than of Kaufmann’s individual merits as a translator: the French Nietzsche-fever of the 1960s is very important, as well as the fact that from the 1980s, Nietzsche is no longer banned in certain socialist countries, but to the contrary: be becomes a fashionable author and more or less a member of the academic canon.

There are a number of intertwining thoughts foreshadowing both uchronia and somaesthetics not only in Nietzsche’s reception, but in the production of his own texts, as well. His assertions that may be considered as precedents to somaesthetics do not point towards some sort of past or already finished present, but a continuous, re-producing present that needs to be conquered constantly.

A few examples to illustrate this: in Dawn, he argued that “however far a man may go in self-knowledge, nothing (…) can be more incomplete than his image of totality of drives (Triebe) which constitute his being.”16 In the preface to the second edition of The Gay Science, Nietzsche wondered “whether taking a large view, philosophy has not been merely an interpretation of the body and a misunderstanding of the body.17 In Beyond Good and Evil, he suggested that “by far the greater part of conscious thinking must still be included among instinctive activities, and that goes even for philosophical thinking.”18 In Ecce homo, the philosopher argued that “these little things – nutriment, place, climate, recreation, the whole casuistry of selfishness – are beyond all conception of greater importance than anything that has been considered of importance hitherto,”19 and exemplified this proposition in relation to himself. It is equally true, of course, that even the latest and, in certain aspects, the most radical Nietzsche is both an adversary and a representative of the aesthetic and philosophical tradition based on anti-sexuality.20

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My personal favourite is an (in every aspect) early hero of Nietzsche: the (second) Socrates of The Birth of Tragedy, raging, dancing, playing music. First, he deconstructs Socrates to tiny little pieces, “the first theoretical man,” who – in Nietzsche’s view – is first intrigued by that overreaching, unnatural theoretical thirst for knowledge, the obscuration of tragic recognition, and the ridiculously optimistic belief in the knowability and, what is more, the changeability of our world. Afterwards, in an excursion that would be dubbed as “deconstructive” by today’s standards, we encounter a Socrates that becomes enlightened in his final days, possessing a newly found balance between theoretical thirst for knowledge and for life, pessimism, tragic art, somatic awareness, and irony. It is extremely hard not to interpret this as Nietzsche’s own self-portrait.

Finally, what might be the ultimate point of connection between somaesthetics and uchronia in Nietzsche’s philosophy? Although he does not use either of these terms, I do think that Paul Bishop’s summary exhibits fascinating clarity:

In short, in his philosophy Nietzsche rejects the Platonic-Christian dualism of the apparent and real, between the temporal and eternal; instead, the “apparent” world is revealed as the real world, and the eternal world is “abolished”: but the transformative effect of eternal recurrence operates a genuine transformation in the here-and-now, it is a “non-metaphysical transcendence” (R. J. Hollingdale) or, as one might also call it, it is a “transcendence-within-immanence”. What Nietzsche’s philosophy proposes is not a resurrection on an afterlife, but a resurrectional rebirth in the here-and-now.21


Bibó, István. “Ha a zsinati mozgalom a 15. században győzött volna…” [What if the Synod Movement Had Won in the 15th Century]. In Válogatott tanulmányok IV, 265–282. Budapest: Magvető, 1990.

Bishop, Paul. “ ‘I Don’t Believe It!’ Faith, Belief and Embodiment in Pascal, Nietzsche and Heidegger.” In Embodiment: Phenomenological, Religious and Deconstructive Views on Living and Dying, edited by Ramona Fotiade, David Jasper, and Olivier Salazar-Ferrer, 189–216. London: Routledge, 2014.

Czeglédi, András. “Kierkegaard és Nietzsche: ukronikus találkozások” [Kierkegaard and Nietzsche: uchronic Encounter]. In Søren Kierkegaard 1813–2013, edited by Zoltán Gyenge, 148–157. Budapest: L’Harmattan, 2014.

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Geoffroy-Château, Louis Napoléon. Napoléon et la conquête du monde, 1812–1832. Paris: H-L Delloye, 1836.

Heidegger, Martin. Nietzsche. Pfullingen: Neske, 1961.

Montefiore, Simon Sebag. “Stalin Flees Moscow in 1941.” In What Might Have Been: Leading Historians on Twelve “What Ifs” of History, edited by Andrew Roberts, 134–152. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Modern Library, 1968.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Random House, 1974.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality. Translated by R.J. Hollingdale. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Ecce homo. Translated by R.J. Hollingdale. Harmondworth: Penguin, 1992.

Renouvier, Charles. “Uchronie, tableau historique apocryphe des révolutions de l’empire romain et de la formation d’une federation européenne.” Revue philosophique et religieuse 8 (mai 1857): 187–208.

Renouvier, Charles. Uchronie [= Uchronie (l’utopie dans l’histoire), esquisse historique apocryphe du développement de la civilisation européenne tel qu’il n’a pas été, tel qu’il aurait pu être]. Paris: Bureau de la Critique Philosophique, 1876.

Rosenfeld, Gavriel. “Why Do We Ask »What If?« Reflections on the Function of Alternate History.” History and Theory 41, no. 4 (December 2002): 90–103.

Shusterman, Richard. “Somaesthetics: A Disciplinary Proposal.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 57, no. 3 (Summer 1999): 299–313.

Shusterman, Richard. “Asian Ars Erotica and the Question of Sexual Aesthetics.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 65, no. 1 (Winter 2007): 55–68.

Shusterman, Richard. “Somaesthetics.” Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction. Interaction Design Foundation. Retrieved 3 August 2015. https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/book/the-encyclopedia-of-human-computer-interaction-2nd-ed/somaesthetics

Trencsényi, Balázs. “A tegnap árnyékában [In the Shadow of Yesterday].” In A politika nyelvei. Eszmetörténeti tanulmányok, 227–245. Budapest: Argumentum – Bibó István Szellemi Műhely, 2007.

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1 Charles Renouvier, “Uchronie, tableau historique apocryphe des révolutions de l’empire romain et de la formation d’une federation européenne,” Revue philosophique et religieuse 8, (mai 1857): 187–208. Id., Uchronie [= Uchronie (l’utopie dans l’histoire), esquisse historique apocryphe du développement de la civilisation européenne tel qu’il n’a pas été, tel qu’il aurait pu être] (Paris: Bureau de la Critique Philosophique, 1876).

2 https://www.amazon.com/Vepres-Vierge-Chine-Christophe-Frisch/dp/B00019IC5K.

3 We should not be mistaken: dragons and similar creatures appear in medieval chronicles, as well, and those texts certainly did not aim at depicting an alternative world, but the reality of then-and-there. Only God – or maybe Hayden White – can tell the extent of this phenomenon, but it is true that the writing of history – and, hence, that of chronicles – cannot exist without rhetorical tools. This is why we should prefer the non-extended, more limited definition of uchronia that involves a knowledge of the historical precedents, but also a focus on modernity – in which case dragons are incompatible with our endeavours.

4 Balázs Trencsényi, “A tegnap árnyékában [In the Shadow of Yesterday],” in A politika nyelvei. Eszmetörténeti tanulmányok (Budapest: Argumentum – Bibó István Szellemi Műhely, 2007), 238.

5 Besides the obvious ethical implications – such moments being fundamental in Bibó’s philosophy –, the non-ethical options of historical decisionism are the ones that are important here. As an early challenge, we have to mention Machiavelli, the clash of virtu and occasio, and Gramsci in the 20th century. It is thus quite interesting that scholars of counter-factual history usually emphasize that importance of POD (point of divergence), that is, the importance of a series of events, whereas those concerned with uchronia do the same with historical manoeuvres and the decisions of human agents. For more on the comparison between Renouvier’s “nœud de l’histoire” and Bibó’s “condensation of possibilities”, see: Trencsényi, “A tegnap árnyékában,” 235.

6 See: Louis Napoléon Geoffroy-Château, Napoléon et la conquête du monde, 1812–1832 (Paris: H-L Delloye, 1836).

7 See: “Stalin Flees Moscow in 1941,” in What Might Have Been: Leading Historians on Twelve “What Ifs” of History, ed. Andrew Roberts (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004), 134–152.

8 For more on this new upsurge of alternative historiography, see: Gavriel Rosenfeld, “Why Do We Ask »What If?« Reflections on the Function of Alternate History,” History and Theory 41 (December 2002): 90–103.

9 István Bibó, “Ha a zsinati mozgalom a 15. században győzött volna…” [What if the Synod Movement Had Won in the 15th Century] in Válogatott tanulmányok IV (Budapest: Magvető, 1990), 265–282.

10 Sadly, the limitations of this paper do not allow me to introduce Standartenführer Max Otto von Stirlitz (whose real name is, of course, Maxim Maximovich Isaiev), the protagonist of the Soviet espionage novel set in World War II, The Seventeen Moments of Spring, and its cinematic adaptations. Stirlitz became a well-liked figure all around the so-called Eastern bloc, with countless jokes emerging around his figure that precisely expressed the atmosphere of Soviet life. In these jokes, Stirliz resembles more the homo sovieticus of the later Soviet era, who naturally did not disappear after the dissolution of the empire. A few examples:

Right before Berlin’s fall, Hitler gathers his closest allies in his compound.

Where is Stirlitz? – he asks Müller, a Gestapo head.

He has always been somewhat of eccentric, mein Führer. He has been building this wall in the middle of Berlin for three days now.

Müller calls Stirlitz and tells him:

Tomorrow is a Subbotnik [a communist Working Saturday]. Attendance is obligatory. Stirlitz suspects that his cover is up, so he writes a short report: “I, Standartenführer Stirlitz, am in fact a Soviet spy.” Müller reads this report, and immediately phones his boss, Schellenberg:

Walter, come over and see for yourself what some people are willing to say, just to avoid community work!

During the spring of 1945, Stirlitz enter the base of the Abwehr, and sees the next sign: The Centre of Soviet Intelligence. He thinks: Well, glasnost and perestroika.

11 Cf. András Czeglédi, “Kierkegaard és Nietzsche: ukronikus találkozások” [Kierkegaard and Nietzsche: uchronic Encounter] in Søren Kierkegaard 1813–2013, ed. Zoltán Gyenge (Budapest: L’Harmattan, 2014), 148–157.

12 Richard Shusterman, “Somaesthetics,” Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction, Interaction Design Foundation, retrieved 3 August 2015, https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/book/the-encyclopedia-of-human-computer-interaction-2nd-ed/somaesthetics.

13 Richard Shusterman, “Somaesthetics: A Disciplinary Proposal,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 57, no. 3 (Summer 1999): 299.

14 Shusterman, “Somaesthetics,” 311.

15 Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche, vol. 1 (Pfullingen: Neske, 1961), 118–119.

16 Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, § 119, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 74.

17 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, § 2, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1974), 34–35.

18 Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, § 3, in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Modern Library, 1968), 201.

19 Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce homo, § 10, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Harmondworth: Penguin, 1992), 36.

20 Cf. Richard Shusterman, “Asian Ars Erotica and the Question of Sexual Aesthetics,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 65, no. 1 (Winter 2007): 55–68.

21 Paul Bishop, “ ‘I Don’t Believe It!’ Faith, Belief and Embodiment in Pascal, Nietzsche and Heidegger,” in Embodiment: Phenomenological, Religious and Deconstructive Views on Living and Dying, eds. Ramona Fotiade, David Jasper, and Olivier Salazar-Ferrer (London: 2014, Routledge), 215.

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Tyrus Miller

5 Archipelagal Thinking
The Geofilosofia of Massimo Cacciari

In the mid-1990s, the philosopher and political activist Massimo Cacciari developed a left-wing vision of Italian and European federalism drawing upon his experience as mayor of Venice, a municipality at the juncture of land and sea and dispersed among separate but interconnected islands. This paper explores the epistemological, political, and aesthetic foundations of Cacciari’s geophilosophy, first with reference to two other moments of Cacciari’s development as a philosopher: his reflections, under the influence of the Venice School architectural historian Manfredo Tafuri, on the implications of modern architecture and the culture of the modern metropolis; and his artistic collaborations with the composer Luigi Nono, who combined a powerful commitment to emancipation with an uncompromising exploration of new musical compositional techniques and materials. In his key works of geophilosophy, Geofilosofia dell’Europa (1994) and L’arcipelago (1997), in a move that both repeats and displaces Martin Heidegger’s proto-geophilosophy, which “thinks” through such spaces of poetic dwelling as the Black Forest and Hölderlin’s Rhine and Ister (Danube) rivers, Cacciari projects the Venetian archipelago, distributed across canals and lagoons and connected with other spaces through a maritime network of trade going back to the Middle Ages, as the matrix of a new “Greece”: not only as a political and social model, but also as an ontological and epistemological paradigm.

Keywords: geofilosofia, geophilosophy, Venice, Massimo Cacciari, Manfredo Tafuri, Luigi Nono

1. Introduction

From the august heritage of Plato’s philosopher-kings, ruling over the polis, the philosopher and long-standing political activist Massimo Cacciari has taken a certain step down, to being merely a philosopher and a democratically elected mayor. As philosopher, he is the author of numerous books, ranging from early heterodox Marxist readings of German 19th and 20th century social philosophy; to various critical meditations on modernist culture such as Dallo Steinhof (on fin-de-siècle Vienna), Adolf Loos e il suo angelo (on the Viennese modernist architect and his writings), and Icone della legge (which treats figures of modern Jewish culture such as Franz Rosenzweig, Franz Kafka, and Arnold Schönberg); through works of high metaphysics and theology such as L’angelo necessario and Dell’inizio; to the works that will be my primary focus in this ←71 | 72→essay, Geofilosofia dell’Europa and L’arcipelago; to more recent works on topics ranging from metaphysics to political theology. Already as a teenager, Cacciari was involved in leftist politics, organizing in the 1960s in the contentious industrial areas of Venice and Mestre, and was a collaborator, along with such figures as Manfredo Tafuri, Alberto Asor Rosa, Francesco Dal Co, Mario Tronti, and Antonio Negri in the left Marxist journal Contropiano. In the 1970s, he was a PCI deputy to the Parliament. He was mayor of Venice from 1993–2000 at the head of an independent progressive list; he ran unsuccessfully a “Lista Cacciari” in the regional elections in the Veneto before serving a second term as Venice’s mayor in 2005–2010; he has also been a deputy to the European parliament. In his first term as mayor of Venice, during which were published both Geofilosofia dell’Europa and L’arcipelago, Cacciari was the principle architect of a proposal for a federalist reform of the Italian constitution, and he has since then been the primary theorist in Italy of a left federalism, critical of the right-wing Northern Leagues and sensitive to the new energies, ideas, and potentials that their emergence represented for Italian politics.

Despite this impressive record of achievement as both philosopher and politician, Cacciari neither embodies the Platonic dream of a philosophy that would stamp politics to the shape of the Idea, nor has he retained its latter-day Marxist translation into an ideal of the dialectical fusion of theory and practice. What Plato had conjoined in imagining the ideal republic, the city subjected to the reign of a single truth, a single logos – that of the Idea – Cacciari again disjoins, recognizing the necessary gap between philosophical reflection and political action. Indeed, in Geofilosofia he explicitly addresses this topic in Plato’s Republic, arguing that Plato’s own thought does not advance the philosopher-king as a realizable ideal, but rather dramatizes his impossibility as a measure of the real condition of the polis as it is given here and now.

In turn, however, as I will argue, Cacciari also reopens a space for art that Plato (and his statist successors) constricted to a narrow zone of political instrumentality, expelling other modes of artistic expression outside of the city’s bounds. Cacciari’s thought, in a sense, inverts the Platonic stamp of the philosophical Idea upon the life of the polis, which in turn assigns a circumscribed scope for art in the city. Instead, he explores both the political and the artistic – two key foci of his critical and philosophical writings – as relatively autonomous, open domains, yet which interact in a set of complex resonances and relationalities. Philosophy may accordingly, draw inspiration from the dissonant forces of politics and poetics, while critically guarding against reducing one to the other as it discloses the common ontological basis of their co-constitutive agon.

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2. Architecture and metropolis

The roots of Cacciari’s “geofilosofia,” along with his federalism and heterodox vision of Europe, may be sought in his earlier work, particularly that work concerned with modern architecture and its broader cultural and artistic context. Here I will recall Cacciari’s long-standing affiliation with the late Marxist historian of architecture Manfredo Tafuri, with whom he cooperated in the editing of Contropiano; Cacciari later also became a professor of aesthetics in Tafuri’s program at University of Venice.

Tafuri was engaged in a powerful critical-historical project that had two main features.1 First, he sought to understand the disciplinary ideologies internal to modern architecture, which attempted to resolve the contradictions of modern capitalism by architectural – and often, technological – means, placing the professional architect in the role of social engineer, social planner, and utopian artist of the real. Second, he showed how, within the dialectic of capitalist development, particularly between the world wars, this architectural ideology played a pivotal role in the process of techno-bureaucratic rationalization embodied by the very widespread notion of planning.

In turn, Tafuri’s response to this set of problems was three-fold.

1. He firmly rejected any view of architecture as a closed disciplinary practice. Architecture, in his view, could only be studied as a focal point of a social history of urbanism, which must account for interconnected, but irreducibly contradictory political, technological, economic, and cultural contexts. I would call this his shift from architectural history to an interdisciplinary history of urbanism.

2. He was particularly critical of the tendency of modern architects to generate social utopias, centered on technology and planning as objectified in architectural projects. As a counter-discourse, he very strongly affirmed both the work of anti-utopian architects such as Mies van der Rohe and pessimistic theoretical perspectives that refused resolution of contradiction and conflict. ←73 | 74→I will call this the “tragic” motif in Tafuri’s work, in which tragedy became positively valued as an ethic of endurance in the face of irreconcilable difference and contingency, a positive resistance of the temptation to overcome conflict in ideological and utopian discourse. (Cacciari would recode this modern, secularized sense of tragedy using Walter Benjamin’s term, Trauerspiel, to distinguish it from tragedy’s classical sense, which derives transcendence from fatal necessity.2)

3. Finally, Tafuri and his followers, including Cacciari, engaged in a detailed program of research into the genealogy of architectural and urban discourse and modern “tragic” philosophy, which led them to study, above all, German and Austrian social thought, literature, and philosophy. Hence, one of Cacciari’s early books was entitled Metropolis, which comprised essays on German urban social thought from Sombart, Simmel, and Weber to Walter Benjamin, along with an anthology of texts from these thinkers rendered into Italian. I will call this “the turn to the north” as the space in which, in Cacciari’s view, a broader European destiny had in the early decades of the 20th century been most powerfully concentrated.

In the course of the 1970s, Cacciari himself turned increasingly from Marx to Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Benjamin as his theoretical masters, but he retained the three foundational motives in Tafuri that I identified: an interdisciplinary focus on the city and its history, a tragic (or “mournful-dramatic”) anti-utopianism, and an enduring engagement with Austro-German modernism. Nor had his more specific dialogue with Tafuri come to an end. In fact, one can see as a certain acme of their relationship Cacciari’s 1980 review of Tafuri’s and Francesco Del Co’s important two-volume history of modern architecture, which rewrote the history of architecture as a series of defensive responses to a changing division of intellectual labor, due to developments in capitalist economy, urbanism, science, and technology.3

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Taking as his point of departure Paul Valéry’s 1921 dialogue “Eupalinos, or the Architect,” in which the souls of Socrates and Phaedrus in the underworld discuss the thoughts of the architect Eupalinos and Socrates expresses his regrets at having been a philosopher instead of a builder, Cacciari entitles his review “Eupalinos or Architecture.” A reading of Valéry’s dialogue of the dead and Heidegger’s essays on “dwelling,” the 1951 discourses “Bauen Wohnen Denken” and “… dichterisch wohnet der Mensch…,” which situate dwelling within the residual site of poetry while finding it in no actual place in the world, leads Cacciari to emphasize the negative implications these texts develop regarding the possibility of authentic dwelling. As works of literature and philosophy, these texts hold out an explicitly inactual and perhaps impossible measure, against which the actual impoverishment of dwelling and building can be gauged.4 This impossibility of dwelling and building for dwellers, however – the condition of modern nihilism, in which, perhaps as Hölderlin was already suggesting, there was no actual place that could be poetically occupied, no “measure on earth,” is what disciplinary architecture is so much at pains to disavow and overcome. And one could say that Cacciari rereads in such Heideggerian terms Tafuri’s and Dal Co’s Marxist critique of architectural ideology: in their activity as critical historians, they hold open and stand within the space of the absence of dwelling in the modern age, resolutely drawing the implications for architecture. As Cacciari writes:

Non-dwelling is the essential characteristic of life in the metropolis. … The ‘history’ of contemporary architecture is therefore, a phenomenology of metropolitan non-dwelling. Or it should be such, since contemporary architecture aims at restructuring itself as the possibility of dwelling within the metropolis.5

It does so insofar as urban planning becomes a disciplinary branch of architectural thought. In pursuit of recapturing the metropolis as a space of dwelling, reoccupied with “places,” urban planners seek to harmonize the variegated languages of metropolitan functions within a larger totality, a “ogic” of the city, its universal “Logos” that allows translatability between distinct realms and at all registers and levels:

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Through its very origin and nature, ‘urban planning’ creates a change in perspective: the impotence of ‘classic’ dwelling; but it also addresses the multiple languages of metropolitan functions (and the consequent destruction of the very possibility of dwelling) as languages intrinsically capable of being ‘sublimated’ into a logical system, into the very logic that ‘urban planning’ would represent or incarnate.6

Underlying the practice of urban planning, then, is the ideal of harmony: the “harmonization of metropolitan functions, of the creation of a ‘homeland’ common to all of them – and the assessment of their real conflict as a mere appearance that hides and mystifies a ‘profound,’ ‘substantial’ Gemeinschaft.”7 Critical studies such as those of Tafuri and Dal Co, but also artistic and philosophical practitioners such as Alban Berg and Ludwig Wittgenstein (both discussed in Dallo Steinhof), offer dissonant, differentiating counterdiscourses to that of “harmony,” to a universal urban Logos embodied in planning and techno-science. In the context of the rethinking of metropolitan existence by modern architects and urban planners, their rejection of “harmonization” and offering of alternative ways of thinking about relations of part and whole, methods of “composing” differences, dissonances, and multiples languages without reduction to a common measure take on a crucial epistemological and political value.

3. Venetian soundings: The dialogue with Luigi Nono

Cacciari engaged in an extraordinary series of collaborations with the politically and artistically radical new music composer Luigi Nono. For works including Nono’s Das atmende Klarsein (1981), Quando stanno morendo. Diario polacco n. 2 (1982), Guai ai gelidi mostri (1983), and his monumental “tragedy of listening” Prometeo (1984), Cacciari provided the “libretti”: montages of text fragments from several languages, including ancient Greek and Latin, Italian, and German, and drawing upon the writings of poets ranging from Endre Ady and Velimir Khlebnikov to Rainer Maria Rilke, Ezra Pound and Czesław Miłosz. Nono also dedicated his song cycle Risonanze erranti (1986), with texts by Ingeborg Bachman and Herman Melville, to Cacciari. In each of these works, and most extensively and intensively in Prometeo, Nono explores the possibility of breaking down and recomposing elements of cultural history in search of an apprehension of hope coming not from the denial of tragedy, but from listening into it and experiencing it more deeply. As Nono writes in his 1985 essay “Other Possibilities of Listening”:

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Shattering the shattered: Today there is much that is “shattered”: shattered as such or, also, shattered “to be recomposed” (thus in the thought of Massimo Cacciari). The fragments I will offer for listening are materials which, shattered, are ready to submit themselves to my attempt at recomposition.8

As Nono remarks, the idea of a composition of individual elements in a paradoxical dissonant harmony – affirmations of the condition of modernity as metropolitan non-dwelling – derives from Cacciari’s thinking.

In fact, in a letter to Luigi Pestalozza, Nono specifies that he found inspiration not solely in Cacciari’s writings in general, but rather specifically from the philosopher’s meditations on “the great Viennese” such as Wittgenstein and Musil, about whom Cacciari had written in his Dallo Steinhof (1980):

Musil: his pages are for me a treatise on composition, much more important and revealing than so many others, Musil with his sense of the real and the probable.) and in these I find and discover other formative principles that they have given rise to in me and of which I live in continuous discovery: formative of other thoughts respective to those of Rome and of Paris.9

In a conversation with Cacciari conducted in the mid-1980s, Nono returned to the influence of Musil (as interpreted by Cacciari), to indicate that he read the whole tradition of serial music from Schönberg and Berg to contemporary serialism through the lens of the Musilian-Cacciarian “possible.” The essential combinatoric art underlying serial composition is not, for Nono, important because it reduces musical relations to mathematical or even geometrical rationality; that is a false understanding of the authentic breakthrough in music that serialism represents. It is rather because it opens up, experimentally and experientially, unheard sounds and relations latent within the musical material, a sort of unsounded reserve in the midst of the sounded, extending to new reaches our apprehension of possibility: “Effectively, in them [Schönberg, Webern, Varèse, Bartok, etc.] the series is not so much only the four forms of series, and is much more the infinite relations that instantiate themselves with all the various tones and tempos that do not derive from one another mechanically, and also with ←77 | 78→the various composable elements, including spaces. These are fully governed by Musil’s ‘logic of the possible.’ ”10

4. Geophilosophy and archipelagal thinking

In Geofilosofia dell’Europa (1994) and L’arcipelago (1997), Cacciari, at the time serving as Venice’s mayor, took up again this thought-model of a dissonant harmony, an intuition of a complex, agonistic composition of differences derived from his aesthetic and philosophical readings of Musil, Loos, Wittgenstein, and Vienna School serial music, as a critical intervention into the politics of contemporary Italy and Europe. His discussion in these books allude to several concrete, contemporary frames of reference including: the problem of European identity posed so starkly by the end of the Cold War in 1989–1991; the move towards European integration and expansion to include former socialist bloc countries; the outbreak of the Yugoslavian civil war and the paralysis of “Europe” in the face of its horrors; the internal changes brought about in Italy by the reorganization of the party system and the disintegration of the once-powerful Partito Comunista Italiano; and the emergence of the bloc of the alternately federalist and secessionist Northern League, the post-fascist Alleanza Nazionale, and Berlusconi’s mediatic post-political party Forza Italia. Yet nowhere in these books does one find explicit reference to this topical context, with which Cacciari the mayor and political representative was contemporaneously deeply engaged. Instead, the points of reference are Greek historical, philosophical, and dramatic writings (Herodotus, Thucydides, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Parmenides, Plato); medieval philosophy and theology (Augustine, Nicolas of Cusa, Raymond Lull); modern political philosophy (from Hobbes to Carl Schmitt); and other philosophical writings (especially Nietzsche and Heidegger) The argument of this diptych of books is thickly interlaced with close textual readings of the sources. Since I cannot examine any of these readings in detail here, I will highlight a few key arguments.

Cacciari’s heavy concentration on Greek texts is motivated by his desire to establish an extended “geophilosophical” genealogy for European self-identification, for European distinctiveness from those it defines as others and with respect to its internally “othered” spaces, for the practice of drawing and reinforcing distinctions as a historically constitutive element of the European ←78 | 79→imaginary. At its origins lies the relation between land and sea in the archipelagal world of ancient Greece. For the Greeks, in Cacciari’s view, the sea represented a dangerous, seductive force that disrupted the primordial territorial basis of life-in-peace, the cosmic correspondence of a territory and a people: “This sea has a current that carries away and that transforms--towards no-place.”11 The logos represented by the sea-faring Greek becomes mobile, productive, expansive, powerful; but also homeless, without a proper abode, without dwelling. From the time the Greeks took to the sea, relinquishing their terrestial nomos in favor of an undetermined thalassocratic transcendence, a being-always-elsewhere, a dynamic of perpetual war, both external polemos and internal stasis, became integral to Greek political life.

But the sea is also a communicating bridge between multiple islands and insular languages. It is a medium in which the individual languages, local myths, and stories are collocated, compared, and confronted with one another. Paradoxically, this confrontation holds two tendencies together in a single moment: the implication of a more general Logos that comprehends all these insular voices and a recognition that in each this totality is always absent, not-yet or already-lost. Each insular logos appears an individual “declination” of a more global Logos that is nevertheless never accessible as such. This multiplicity of declensions of this Logos gets projected backwards as nostalgia for a lost totality that existed once before the time of separation and forward as a utopian return to wholeness. But the present is marked by division, decline.

Cacciari’s subsequent discussion of the Greeks, as well as his reading of other sources, traces out a series of responses to this predicament, successive attempts to stabilize the logic of war, dissonance, and multiplicity in favor of peace and unity. In the European intellectual heritage, these responses have focused especially upon such master concepts as sovereignty, the idea, and harmony, which in turn are the primary objects of Cacciari’s deconstruction. As with his previous arguments about urban planning and its utopian attempts to harmonize the multiplicity of metropolitan functions within a unitary logic, so too in relation to the archipelago of Europe, with its multiple logoi, the greatest danger lies precisely in the nostalgic-utopian desire to overcome multiplicity in a timeless unity. Ultimately, it is not so much defense against spatial or cultural dispersion, but rather against perishability, against the subjection of Europe to history and to the necessity of its decline, that motivates this desire. It is Europe’s inability to shake the spectre of war, especially the haunting internal dissension of civil war, ←79 | 80→that compels Europe’s desperate search for definitive pacification through the Idea and the Sovereign. Which is another way of saying that Europe has been unwilling to accept that which brought it into being, the contingent, historical, “occasional” nature of its unity that it initiated with its thalassocratic departure from a territorially grounded power.

Europe does not want that which gives it its archipelagal identity; it does not want itself, which would mean accepting its historicity, its declension into multiple logoi, the necessity of its decline (and Cacciari here plays constantly on Spengler’s title Der Untergang des Abendlands, Il tramonto dell’Occidente). He writes:

There dominates today, through all the dogmas and all the churches, the resistance to decline, or worse, a violent resentment towards those presumed to be responsible, or, further, the acadia of resignation (that represents nothing other than resentment having by now reached exhaustion). Europe does not will its own completion, and thus it does not will itself – it doesn’t want to believe in that which makes reference to its own being as occasus. It fears this, it conceives this as simple, immediate destiny, it sees it as a product of external force, instead of willing itself as that which is going down.12

Cacciari thus views Europe as unable to accept its own historicity because to do so would imply accepting its own ending. As Mircea Eliade suggested in his Myth of the Eternal Return, written in the wake of World War II, there is a powerful existential impulse to flee from history into the consolations of cosmic myth, often centered on the figure of the sovereign and a sacrally grounded political order.13 So too more recently Benedict Anderson sees the “imagined communities” of the modern nation as fulfilling a primordial need to lend meaning to the chances of life and death, as giving shape to a fraternity that is worth dying for en masse. “It is the magic of nationalism,” Anderson writes, “to turn chance into destiny.”14 The nation replaces historical contingency with the necessity of mythic time.

Cacciari, however, seeks to hold onto the occasional nature of Europe, the necessity of its decline, and resist the temptation of mythic, national, sovereign reunification and reterritorialization. In common with Jean-Luc Nancy’s projection of an inoperable community15 and Giorgio Agamben’s conception of la ←80 | 81→communitá che viene,16 Cacciari wishes to imagine an archipelagal form of community that is a contingent figure of relation traced by the “navigation” between places, between voices. He writes:

Is it possible to conceive a community of islands in perennial navigation, each one away-from and towards (contra-versus) the other? Only if each one knows itself and manifests itself to itself not as a simple individuality, as a resolved, complete, fulfilled unity, to be imposed at the center of a hierarchically oriented space. Only if each one, knowing itself, will discover in itself the same complexity, the same variable and unpredictable ‘geometries’ that make up the harmony of the archipelago. Only if each one discovers within itself, that multiplicity of forms and of lógoi that in its travels it has seen-and-heard. The islands are distinct—but also distinct are the languages that inhabit each. Truths dwell within. What we discover is a societas—a societas that ventures the whole range of possibilities, from tyranny to stasis, from servitude to parresía—and all these terms replicate themselves one after another. No “external” relation would be conceivable without this society “within.”17

What Cacciari envisions is a reciprocal movement of dispersing European sovereignty in an archipelago of federated units, at the same time as the sovereignty of the European self is dispersed into an interior aggregate of multiple logoi and insular fragments without an overriding unity. We might, accordingly, speak of a federalized European self, to be mirrored on the macrocosmic scale by a federalized, archipelagal politico-cultural space without a sovereign state:

Thus the space of the archipelago is by nature resistant to subordination and hierarchical succession; no island constitutes its fixed axis, capable of structuring its ensemble in the form of a State.18

As to the question of where one might make a practical test of dispersing sovereignty into an archipelagal space, in an interview in 2000 with the Padovan journalists Giorgio Lago and Gianni Montagni, Cacciari asserted that both the Veneto and Europe as a whole constitute that space: “There is no separation between the reflection on an archipegal Europe and my idea of the Veneto, nor could it be otherwise. In this historical moment, federalism is the sole instrument to make the Veneto function and to put it tune with Europe.”19 Unquestionably, in a move that both repeats and displaces Martin Heidegger’s proto-geophilosophy, ←81 | 82→which “thinks” through such spaces of poetic dwelling as the Black Forest and Hölderlin’s Rhine and Ister (Danube) rivers, Cacciari attempts to think the Venetian archipelago, distributed across canals and lagoons and connected with other spaces through a maritime network of trade going back to the Middle Ages, as the matrix of a new “Greece”: not only as a political and social model, but also as an ontological and epistemological paradigm.

We may not, in conclusion, that Luigi Nono, in a conversation with Cacciari about Prometeo, Tragedia del’Ascolto (1986), suggests that this new philosophico-political archipelago has its aesthetic and phenomenological underpinnings in the material life of Venice as well:

Venice is a complex system that offers precisely this pluridirectional listening of which we spoke… The sounds of the bell towers diffuse in various directions: some compound together and are transported by the waters, transmitted by the canals… others dissipate almost completely, still others relate in various ways to other signals of the lagoon and of the city itself. Venice is a multi-versal acoustic space absolutely contrary to the hegemonic sound system of transmission and listening to which we have been habituated for centuries.20


Agamben, Giorgio. The Coming Community. Translated by Michael Hardt. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.


ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2020 (July)
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 344 pp., 5 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Zoltan Somhegyi (Volume editor) Max Ryynänen (Volume editor)

Zoltán Somhegyi is a Hungarian art historian and Chair of the Department of Fine Arts at the College of Fine Arts and Design of the University of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, and from September 2020 he will continue as Associate Professor of Art History at the Károli Gáspár University of the Reformed Church in Hungary.Max Ryynänen is a senior lecturer of theory of visual culture at Aalto Uni-versity in Finland and editor-in-chief of The Journal of Somaesthetics and of Popular Inquiry


Title: Aesthetics in Dialogue