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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Wednesday, June 16, 2004


What is an elite, and how does it differ from, say, any group?

This is the question that any artist has to ask himself about his audience. There is a disconcerting habit, in this country, to confuse the scale of one’s audience with the issue of elitism, as though only those works of art that extend to the largest scale – the movie Titanic, for instance – are truly “popular.” In one sense, this idea is sheer nonsense – we know that the manipulation of the audience actually produces less popular art, insofar as that art then gets run through a bureaucracy of ‘experts’ in public taste. The result is that a smaller set of themes and variations, and a smaller set of makers, gets chosen to produce the supposedly more ‘popular’ works or art. This leads, too, to thinner and thinner responses – art that doesn’t please immediately is selected out, in favor of art that does. The immediacy of effect and the popularity of the artwork are malignly coupled – deadending in the MTV video, the 30 second advertisement, the celebrity. In fact, as that immediacy becomes more compulsive, it becomes more “mine-able” by the artist – which is why, for instance, Andy Warhol’s Jackie Kennedys and Elvis Presleys still have an undeniable power.

In another sense, however, this idea, grotesque from the viewpoint in the above paragraph, is, from another viewpoint, absolutely correct. The audience for an artwork is not contingent to the artwork, but necessary to its internal structure. The audience is inseparable, in other words, from the making. The process of selection is already encoded in the artwork, exists there rather like Mephistopheles in Faust – as the necessary demon of art. And insofar as elitism is about some process of selection, there is no getting away from the question on the aesthetic plane. While morality is burdened down with the Universal – there is no process of selection going on, ideally, in, say, speaking the truth or not killing – the aesthetic only exists by way of various processes of selection. Which is why the ethical so often stands in a relation of envy to the aesthetic.

Chaouli’s essay about Schlegel displays the confusions surrounding the notion of elitism. Before, much to my friend T.’s chagrin, we quoted Chaouli’s thesis that the romantic art might be taken to found, not a political art, but art as an autonomous structure. Art for art’s sake, T. says. Here’s Chaouli talking about Schlegel’s lectures about Greek tragedy, given in Paris around 1805. First, we have to understand that Schlegel is moving from an earlier, much more revolutionary stance, which Chaouli claims for a perhaps unacknowledged predecessor of certain leading themes in Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory:

“Such a judgment would find corroboration in the young Schlegel's sympathetic view of the French Revolution, his engagement for the emancipation of women, and his violation of erotic taboos (for example in Lucinde), which have led some readers to celebrate his kind of romanticism as "a continuation of the bourgeois revolution in the field of ideology." (16) That Schlegel at this point supports the French Revolution is well-documented (17): when reflecting on letters from Caroline Bohmer, a fierce supporter of both the Revolution and the short-lived Mainz Republic (who would marry, first, Schlegel's older brother, August Wilhelm, and later Schelling), the twenty-one-year-old Friedrich Schlegel confesses to be "drunk" with "this enthusiasm for a great public matter." (18) A few years later, in 1796, he writes the deeply anti-republican August Wilhelm: "I don't want to deny that republicanism is still a bit closer to my heart than divine criticism and the most divine poetry."

In that state of drunkenness, appropriately enough, Schegel formulated a ‘republican’ theory of Greek tragedy against which Nietzsche reacted later:

“One important element of what he calls the "republicanism of tragedy" (28) is the fact that the chorus constitutes the "representation of the people." (29) But crossing the barrier of the proscenium and placing the people on both its sides--as members of the audience, as members of the chorus--can become problematic in unfavorable political conditions:
“ The boundaries of the dramatic sphere are determined by the
strongest will of the mass of the audience which necessarily dominates and
guides dramatic representation. When for example higher estates or
the will of the Few rules, then they will establish as law their
conventional and accidental concepts; their pettiness becomes the boundary
of art. Limits of this kind would then be decency etc. These limits
disturb the freedom of art. But if the will were really public and if there
were only the law that the representations should be civil,
republican, public: that really imposes no limits on the poet. (30)”
So much for Chaouli, who has selected some very key citations. Schlegel’s last sentence has been repeated, with little variation, since Schlegel’s time by every artistic movement that has tried to move away from some, as it perceived it, hegemonic and sterile predecessor. Interestingly, this gesture parallels one spotted by Strauss in Hobbes as the characteristic move of the modern era – the move towards a Politics of Will. Just as the politician represents, somehow, the will of the people, so, too, the new artwork, the new way of making art, represents the will of the people in its own way – infinitely explained in the various manifestos that have marked art movements since 1900.
We will end this post with a long quote from Chaouli, and return to the theme of elitism and irony later.
“Schlegel provides us--or, more precisely, the four lone members of his audience at his lectures on The History of European Literature--with his own derivation of the trope of parabasis, which is worth attending to:
The only difference [between Greek comedy and tragedy]
consists in parabasis, a speech that in the midst of the play was held by
the chorus in the name of the poet to the people. Yes, it was a complete
interruption and dissolution of the play, during which (just as in the
play itself) the greatest licentiousness reigned and the chorus, which had
stepped out to the outer limits of the proscenium, said the grossest
vulgarities to the people. The name is derived from this stepping out
(ekbasis) (39)
Schlegel does not consider this "complete interruption and dissolution" of the performance to have harmed the unity of the comedy. It lies in the very form of comedy, as "pure comedy," to "dissolve in itself all ends and all intention"; in comedy "nonform itself is ... the highest art."
… Chaouli goes on to quote the rest of Schlegel’s passage:
“…then wit must be boundlessly free. This freedom is to be permitted
when it is meant for a small audience which has the right to take
part in such freedom. Under no circumstances is this for the mixed
crowd which is entirely unworthy of this freedom, where the most
unpleasant, the most pernicious consequences could be feared. (42)”
About which, Chaouli gives us a dense and stimulating reading. LI fears we are quoting too much of his essay, but this passage is absolutely crucial, so please excuse us.
“Athens, where the highest form of comedy was available, is an example of such abuse. "The magistrate was really forced," Schlegel notes, "to ban both the personal satire and the chorus with parabasis. But this coincides with the decline of republicanism and democracy." (43) The point is not whether at the time and place that he utters these sentences--Paris, 1803-04--Schlegel supports or condemns republicanism. What is crucial is that this line of reasoning reproduces the logic of the arguments from 1795 about the dependence of poetry for its freedom on democracy that I quoted earlier. While its evaluation may have changed, the basic point remains that a tight, indeed causal, link is assumed between political freedom (promoted by republicanism and democracy) and the boundless freedom required for the operations of parabasis and Witz, required, in short, for unrestrained irony.
To understand its exact political consequences, we need to look more closely at the trope of parabasis. Elsewhere I have proposed reading Schlegel's experimental poetics together with the language of late eighteenth-century chemistry, which furnishes Schlegel with countless metaphors and images. (44) I have argued that the very precariousness of chemistry--a field perched between the phlogiston and oxygen theories, between magical and rational explanations, between the machine-like logic of combinatorics and the anthropomorphic theory of affinity--makes it into a particularly fitting allegory of the poetical model Schlegel develops. The chemical model has the further virtue of allowing him--and us--to think about poetic entities without immediately pinning them to particular psychic or historical referents. We can thus avoid the temptation to think of the textual irony in mental terms, which would provide us with a second, "higher" consciousness "staging" the irony (even if permanent irony) for our benefit. Permanent parabasis is, so to speak, the inverse of the process of combinatorial coupling that yields poetic forms, for a recombination is only thinkable if we assume a momentary state of pure potential in which all valences are open and anything can happen. This chaotic state, in which substances are thrown into disarray (recall, in the Elective Affinities, the Captain's talk of A "flinging" itself at D) needs to occur before a new combination can form. Interruption is not an intrusion from outside (not a second voice), but rather a defining feature of the progression of the process itself. As Blanchot puts it, "[i]nterupted, it goes on." (45)
In such a state, distinguishing process from interruption is no trivial task. We could turn the usual understanding on its head and say that the chemical process consists of a long series of fluctuating states interrupted by the occasional stable compound. As in Wittgenstein's and Escher's famous drawings of Gestalt switches, we can flip the interruptions from the foreground into the background. In this precise sense, they are permanent, a series of uninterrupted interruptions.
When Schlegel writes that the poetry of Witz is "meant for a small audience" worthy of such boundless freedom, we are likely to frown upon such elitism. This gesture would certainly have the advantage of permitting us to congratulate ourselves on our great courage in standing on the side of republicanism and democracy and against the limitations of freedom. It may, however, have the disadvantage of obscuring our view to the pitfalls of transferring the poetic project to the political realm, and hence of missing the most advanced features of the poetic theory.”

Which brings us around again to the vexing question of what art is for. To which we will return in another post.

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