Thursday, October 09, 2008

From Hegel to Lessing

Imagine a graph. This graph traces the historical trajectory of a particular art form. The y-axis could be a measure of something arbitrary, something like height, weight, volume, square footage, page length .... the list can go on for ever. The x-axis is time. And somewhere at the top right-hand corner of this matrix, the trajectory plateaus. It ceases to oscillate up and down. It just continues to move forward with no qualitative change.

This is an overtly simplistic historical model, a thumbnail sketch of a thumbnail sketch. It does, however, begin to capture a controversial and provocative idea brought to light in G.W.F. Hegel's Lectures on Aesthetics (1832): that art has reached its end. Hegel's so-called "End of Art" thesis does not postulate an end to the making of art, but it does suggest that art has ceased to develop. The reason for this is complicated. It is related to Hegel's idea that as art develops from material to conceptual manifestations, it grows and declines. Like the graph mentioned above, it captures the idea that art not only has a history, but it is part of a historical process.

Modern architecture has often been cast as a strawman, a volitional agent that erased all sense of historical development of the art form. It was Norman Mailer, of all people, who cast the problem in such terms for a 1964 issue of The Architecture Forum. It is an idea that still resonates. Historian Mark Jarzombek problematizes this view in a 2007 article for Footprint, where he subjects architecture's modernity to a Hegelian crucible. Jarzombek writes:
Architecture begins its life as a modern philosophical project by a series of alienations and forced detachments from its presumptive disciplinary realities, realities that have enclosed and trapped it, according to Hegel, in the narrow discourse of scholarship and ideology. Though freed to engage the philosophical, architecture is denied an ongoing role in the advancement of metaphysics, has its origins in a competing artistic medium, has a philosophical history that is not related to its empirical history, and, finally, becomes architecture at the very moment it becomes no longer relevant in the dialectic of History, namely in the shift from work to miracle. In other words, Hegel makes architecture into something one can call "not-architecture": not a real building, but an "enclosure", not an ancient building, but a "sculpture"; not a free standing production, but the appearance of one, and not a miracle of representation, but a labour that ends in a mere simulacrum (2007:35).
Though Jarzombek readily admits that his statements are about "architecture in general", much remains to be said about the role of the architect in this scheme. But I wonder if it helps to generalize the topic in another direction. Specifically, I want to table a discussion about architects in favor of another question: how to fit the author in Hegel's crucible? In other words, what about "authors in general"? A starting point is "The Author as Producer", the 1934 lecture where Walter Benjamin implored artists to intervene in the production of artistic works. The urging is wholly political, a clarion call reminding artists of their social responsibility. This responsibility eschews the label "intellectual" in favor of a recognition of an author's place in the "process of production." It is a vision of an author in power.

Is there another way to think about this power? Can the above-mentioned graph's trajectory be altered. In short, the answer would be .... yes. But only if we think about another type of agency residing within the author. If Hegel thinks that there is no possibility for art, or that art has ceased to be meaningful, then there is room to consider a post-historical art. And there could be a situation where a post-historical art "erases" previous history. This is basically a reformulation of Mailer's above-mentioned critique, but the example I am thinking of specifically is much more recent, and decidedly non-architectural.

This year, Nobel laureate Doris Lessing finished her most recent book, called Alfred and Emily. Part biography, and part alternative fiction, the novel takes place on a farm in Rhodesia, the very farm where Lessing's parents lived. The biographical part of the story is well-known -- Lessing had already written about her childhood in Africa. But it is the the latter aspect, the alternative-fictional mode of Alfred and Emily that becomes especially interesting. In this part of the book, the First World War never happens, and Lessing's parents never meet, both having separate idyllic lives in a peaceful England.

In this alternative history mode, Lessing has basically erased her own existence. The world she imagines is one where she does not exist. It is a world where works like The Golden Notebook, Canopus in Argos, or Briefing for a Descent into Hell do not exist. Depicting a world where one's creative output is nonexistent may read as an utterly selfish act. One could measure the power of a particular work of art by imagining a world with out it. But Lessing seems to be operating in a different mode in "Alfred and Emily". In evoking a world where her parents live happier lives, Lessing's own work is subsumed in service of a greater narrative.

In undoing her own history, Lessing presents us with an interesting premise. There are plenty of works where authors write themselves out of historical narratives, give themselves different names, genders, etc. But what strikes me as particularly poignant is that Lessing has declared Alfred and Emily as her final book. Her last act as an author is to erase herself from the record. I can't explain precisely why, but this act carries a transcendent power.