Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Matter of Culture: Aesthetic Experience and Corporeal Being

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Matter of Culture: Aesthetic Experience and Corporeal Being

Article excerpt

This essay considers the critical role of art in the actualization of embodied subjectivity. Drawing on the work of Paul Ricoeur, Felix Guattari, and Mikhail Bakhtin, the author argues that an active engagement with art is intrinsic to both the generation of meaning and the process of subjective becoming.

Even if literature is considered nothing but make-believe, it nevertheless has a significant substratum--that of human plasticity which manifests itself in a continual repatterning of the culturally conditioned shapes human beings have assumed. [ ... ] lf, through its multiple culture-bound patternings, the plasticity of human nature allows for limitless self-cultivation, literature becomes a panorama of what is possible, because it is not hedged in by the limitations or the considerations that determine the institutionalized organizations within which human life takes its course.--Wolfgang Iser, "Do I Write for an Audience?"

If the institutionalization of the literary profession has shown one thing, it would be that theoretical trends are as subject to change as the objects of analysis themselves. In 1982, Paul de Man denounced Wolfgang Iser's Rezeptionsaesthetik for its commitment to "hermeneutic models that do not allow for the problematization of the phenomenalism of reading." Remaining "uncritically confined within a theory of literature rooted in aesthetics," Iser's work, he maintained, should be seen as no more than a "rigorous and theoretically elaborated form" of a more general "resistance to theory" (287). Today, in these so-called post-ideology, post-theory times, the question of the aesthetic, after a longtime exile in the cultural margins, has prominently resurfaced within the critical arena. De Man, thus, may well have too readly dismissed aesthetics from the theoretical scene, and therewith from the wider epistemological field in which reading occurs. Still, it would be infeasible to pretend that one could simply return to the "naive" notion of the aesthetic that de Man, in the early 1980s--rightly or wrongly-attributed to the "traditional" literary critics he reproached for their overall "avoidance of rhetoric." However far "beyond theory" critical thought has since moved, any inquiry into the question of the aesthetic today must take into account the teachings of precisely those schools of thought in which de Man has played such an important role: poststructuralist linguistics and deconstruction.

My purpose in this essay, then, is to explore the aesthetic from a perspective That allows for a "problematization of the phenomenalism of reading" while, at the same time, pace de Man, adhering to the "traditional" assumption that reading is critically bound up with processes of meaning and understanding. Rather than opposing the semiotic to the semantic dimensions of literary or artistic experience, and thus separating off the rhetorical from the hermeneutic aspects of a text, I follow Mario J. Valdes in his suggestion that both have a place in post-structuralist analysis (25). While regarding language as a system of signification that calls into being the world(s) to which it ostensibly refers, I do not believe that such relative freedom from referential constraints necessarily leads to the endless deferral of meaning. On the contrary, even if the linguistic (or rhetorical) aspects of a text, especially a literary one, entail a radical semantic indeterminacy, such indeterminacy can only find its realization in, to recall Roland Barthes, the "writerly" activity of the reader. And the event of reading necessarily takes place within the heterogeneous frames of reference that, however contradictorily or indeterminately, make up a reader's world, a world in which the (mis)communication of meaning is an ontological necessity. Taking the existential condition of any subject's being-in-the-world as my starting point, I approach the practice of reading as, in Rosi Braidotti's words, an "embodied" and "embedded" practice of becoming, that is to say, as an ongoing process of making and doing that is indispensable to the continual co-production of both human beings and their variously interconnected material and socio-symbolic "outsides. …

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