The Aesthetic Contingency Of Life – Narrating The Finite In A Time Of Images, Part 4 (Isabella Guanzini)

Below is a continuation of a series of articles corresponding to chapters of the book Preis der Sterblichkeit: Christentum und Neuer Humanismus (Freiburg im Bresgau: Verlag Herder, 2015), edited by Kurt Appel, translated by Rachel Thomas.  English editor, Carl Raschke.  This volume of essays represents one of the major works in the new Catholic “cultural humanism” from Central Europe. 

The following is the second installment an article, for which the first can be found here, the second here, the third here.

The “fine art” of humanistic tradition and romantic aesthetics has at present been massively broken out of its demarcated domain and transferred to the world of digital technology and the system of commercial products that make up the aesthetic “skin”; it forms the omnipresent mediator of contemporary consciousness. As a result, a new aesthetic “dispositive” has emerged that distinguishes itself in all these technological and economic developments and replaces the high arts. The critic and theoretician Gillo Dorfles[1] wrote in 1965:

It is wrong to continue to believe that “art” is only the one worshiped in museums or in concert halls, while at the moment it is … being broadcast by the media and produced by industrial systems.[2]

Nearly 50 years after this claim, the consumption of images has clearly become the core of the economic system[3].  The quoted citation therefore has a prophetic meaning. It indicates a direction that should be pursued today. The current aestheticization of the lifeworld is connected with the mechanization of thinking and everyday life.  Today, beauty is located in digital technology, in the videos and in the performance of the media industry. The nymphs or graces of Botticelli, the warmth of Dürer’s living nature or Turner’s landscape poetics are multiplied and repeated in fashion photo reports and in the reports of the contemporary “society of the spectacle” (Guy Debord).

Even the nightmares of Bosch or the surrealistic distortions of Dalì transform in the context of this aestheticization in the special effects of science fiction films, video games and advertisements. Although the art works seem to lose their “aura” in the age of technical reproducibility (Benjamin), digital culture reproduces the same aura in a strong collective enchanting effect. Roberto Diodato writes:

The categories of modern aesthetics, the concepts of beauty, taste, genius, originality, creativity, and feeling, are today introduced into the action with extraordinary social effects: they are the soul of the economic of the so-called advanced Western world … of the post – industrial capitalism; they are the laws governing the behavior of our common home.[4]

In his book Il feticcio quotidiano (The Daily Fetish) Gillo Dorfles examines the new tendencies of contemporary Western sensuality or the rituals, the practice, the changes in the use of symbols and the rapid change of taste (e.g in fashion trends) that modify our aesthetic perception. He claims that our so-called rational, secularized and enlightened society is still shaped by mythical currents: “The veneration for the singer Madonna instead of the religious figure” – Dorfles writes – “is of course a form of idolatry”[5].  This represents a dangerous (post-modern) use of symbols and myths. For while the symbols have always structured the social bonds of the community, the new idols serve the timeless narcissistic aspirations of the subject for self-realization.

The key words of this configuration are the dominance of the surface, the excess, the meaning of the scene. Victor, the protagonist of Glamorama (1999) by Brett Easton Ellis, has the motto: “The surface is a promise”[6].  His life is a display of surfaces and a sum of missed opportunities. In the novel, one encounters great metaphors of the mercantile and immaterial heart of the contemporary world, starting with the blending of reality and Reality Show to the confusion of roles and identities, from the subject of the doppelgänger to the fascination of ambiguity. 

This fictionality is the ability to invent and communicate experiences and achievements that stand beyond the dichotomy of false-true, apparent-being, subject-object, surface-depth. It is important that these services participate in the economic value processes. Fulvio Carmagnola writes: 

The aesthetic appearance of the commodity is the place of appearance of an oxymoron, a relation of opposites that would have been impossible for the enlightened and romantic modern age: the false, the appearance, the body, the surface, the glamor are signs of themselves and of the truth[7].

The hypothesis here is that the symbolic order, namely the world of symbols, values, principles, meanings, the written and unwritten laws of our collective life, has become an image and an imaginary, and in this form constitutes the aesthetic element of our economy. “Today, most of the creativity is focused on marketing products rather than products themselves, be they sports, shoes, or feature films”[8]. Therefore, our current economic form can be described as fictional and imaginary[9].

Production – consumption – media communication: these are the main features of the new political economy of aesthetic phenomena. Mario Perniola asserts that “this tendency absorbs the aesthetic instances by de-designing the world of work … In this way creativity is promoted at all levels and one gets the impression of participating in an exciting and avant-garde act. The creative manager presents himself as the heir to bohemian artists[10].  

This expresses the twofold movement of the commercialization of the aesthetic and the aestheticization of the commodity world, in the indifferent praise of diverse Lifestyles or Status Symbols. The economy is aesthetic insofar as it produces goods whose appearance is decisive for their value, producing pleasure, or rather enjoyment. In any case, it seems that beauty has become more widespread and weaker in this process of aestheticization. Their increasing penetration of the world causes more and more the melancholy feeling of emptiness

Law and Lust of the Word

The problem is not primarily that the “grand narratives” that could give us a guiding thought have come to an end (so Lyotard), but rather that the post-industrial western society is making new great narratives available. The Neo-Enlightenment epic of science and technology, the ideology of the neo-liberal market economy, and the neo-romantic epic of eros and prosperity.

The model of Western development is based on these three models of freedom and the will with which it tries to tell its history through digital language. The epic of the great narratives shifts into the medial little short stories of the commercials, the talk shows, television series and the creativity of the design and the fashion, which still have a strong and influencing effect.

It could be said that postmodernity is the end or crisis of the symbolic, or rather, that it represents the shift from the symbolic to the imaginary. In this shift, the experiences, the narratives, the meanings, the discourses/ speeches become “easier” and “weaker”. They become without gravitation. The symbols in front of modern and modern communities had a crucial force to structure, the collective and shared reality through written and unwritten norms, rules, laws, rituals and myths.

The prevailing images today are chaotic fragments of the imaginary that have interrupted their affiliation to the symbolic system of shared meanings and values. Even more radical is the fundamental problem that the “epidemic of the imaginary” is not only reflected in the “particles” of melancholy and confusion, but also produces a monotony of excess, which subjects without protection, without “dress of grace” and leaves them subject to the intolerable closeness of the real. Our age is referred to as the “age of fear,” because exceeding is made the norm by the absence of prohibition.

This lack leads us to the oppressive proximity of the object-cause of desire, the real of desire. We lack the space to breathe created by the prohibition. The symbolic prohibition no longer works, because the unwritten rules of enjoyment are not considered “symbolic castration”, through which the symbolic order is used, but as a regulation of transgression itself. The price for this lack of guilt is fear as the only emotion, that does not mislead us.[11]  When the symbolic order wavers and its organization of the real decays, the fear comes up.

Without the protection of the symbolic, namely,  of the “father” or of the “word” installed by him, the real becomes unbearable and the fear remains as the only possible answer of the subject to reality or, better said, to the destruction of the reality left without symbolic protection. Therefore, anxiety does not correspond to a situation of separation from, but rather to the excessive presence of the real.

“If the symbolic efficacy is suspended, then the imaginary falls into the real”[12]. This means that what is repressed with the symbolic returns in a hallucinatory form, so that the connection between the imaginary and the real becomes threatening. It produces a grinning and ghostly double of the traditional authority – Hitchcock and Lynch are masters of depicting it – superegoist and cruel characters that replace the lack of a prohibition on symbolic order.

The crisis of the symbolic order is a crisis of the law of the word, namely, the absence of the words that shape the instincts, humanizing their chaotic and speechless core, thus allowing them to distance themselves from their aggressive aberrations. This often just leaves the gesture of violence. For desire is capable of orienting and structuring existence around its inexhaustible mystery by inserting it into the language. Life becomes humanized thanks to the blessing of the word of the Other.

Lacan thus remains in a horizon already outlined by Hegel in the Phenomenology of Mind, showing that humanity demands to be recognized in the particular value of the other. The value of my word depends on the hearing of the other, and the word finds its meaning only when the other gives it an answer. There is no word for Lacan that finds its fulfillment without the other:

Because every speech appeals to an answer. We will show that, as long as there is a listener, there is no speaking without response, even if it is only a silence, and that this is the central meaning of the function of speech in the analysis.[13]

Herein lies the dialectical dimension of the word, which finds its realization only through the hearing of the Other. In a similar sense, M. Recalcati writes: “No word is merely the word of the subject, since its structure constitutively involves the other, the answer of the other, the response of the human community in which the dialectic of recognition actually takes place.”[14]

The word addresses itself to the place of the other, so that the discourse gains its meaning in a retroactive temporality, après coup. The one who speaks never really knows what he is saying, because he sends to the one who listens, a message that only completes itself in the moment of the answer of the other, who in turn sends the message in a retroactive movement.

In Lacan’s Rome lecture of 1953, one can read: “Human language thus forms a communication in which the sender receives his own message from the recipient in reverse form.”[15]  The dynamic of the word opens for another conception of time, not composed of positive sequences that follow a deterministic chronology. For the future as retroaction (aftertaste) and as anteriority (après coup) means that the event of the past only gains meaning in relation to the event of the contingent word. This brings with it the necessity of making a retroactive signification of the past, because the past can only become history if it finds a present-day history, if it touches on the word, calling the other for the future of its ear-listening.

What is realized in my story is not the finished past … of what was, because it is no more, not even the perfect of who has been in who I am, but the second future … of what I am for that would have been what I am about to become.[16]

The process of subjectivation is always a resumption, or better said, a recording of the past, of what has been, towards a future of what is not yet. So here’s an arrival as an open opportunity to give our own story an ever-new meaning. The subject of the unconscious is the place of a constant re-admission of what has arrived, in a creative and continuous subjectification of the already existing. It is a fragile and contingent process, but it has all the necessary power to change the course of our lives.

Sometimes a positive symbolization of the “already existing” is enough for the resurrection of the subject to happen. Likewise, it is sometimes enough for someone to speak your name or listen to your word, so that the discourse, which has been interrupted in the whole existence, becomes a possible narrative of the present, opening up new possible horizons of meaning within the history. 

In a time of aestheticization in the world, with its digital imaginary, every temporal codex, every historical hypothesis, and every symbolic texture seems to dissolve indefinitely. The discourses dissolve into images, into an uninterrupted repeatability of their flow. Logos and logo are exchanged. The symbol becomes the logo, the brand and its “narrative”, namely,  the advertising, the new (short) description of the postmodern, which must keep the desire alive.[17] 

This brings with it a new social constellation that transforms the temporal event of being into the imaginary flow of the light. This means that the installation of the “commercial” and the blog infects any other possible way of storytelling by inventing a new syntax and rhetoric. Even classic narrative content in the dramas or comedies on television and cinema are interrupted by advertisements, so suddenly the symbolic falls into the imaginary and we are brought back to the “reality”. The “categorical imperative” of the postmodern digital and commercial ego is to break the symbolic power of the large, detailed and touching narratives in favor of one’s own hedonistic search.

The contemporary subjects, especially the young people, are enthusiastically immersed in this technological environment that first appears as industrial design – from the new Volkswagen to the iPhone – which gives them access to reality.  But unlike classical artworks, as Camille Paglia notes, there is no spiritual dimension in it. Is that true? Although the following statement may appear very bold at first glance, I would like to point out that even the successful commercial naming of the iPhone product with the “i” (ego) contains a strong reference to the configuration of the postmodern subject.

This subject circles around his “ego” in the constant search for his (imaginary) identity, which regards the iPhone or the iPod or the iPad as a projection screen of his own self-reflection. This search for the subjective identity is without an alterity or without the necessary encounter with the real Other, who is the only one who can offer the subject a true recognition beyond the narcissistic circle around his own self-realization.

The virtual objects simulates real relationships, human experiences, real feelings in the form of fictional objects. The virtual exchange of contacts and friendships, the permanent need to always stay connected, express these ways of the subject, which requires at least one virtual icon (eg the Facebook logo, the emoticons) for the real reality. So can partially explain the success of Apple: The Apple products represent a special form and beauty, namely the surprising touchability (touch screen), a huge memory (the post-modern and digital memory) and a beautiful computer graphics – Steve Jobs once said that he owes his main inspiration to a calligraphy course.

The Italian philosopher Maurizio Ferraris claims[18] that computers, smartphones, tablets are by their very nature large storehouses in which all the contacts, the messages, the thoughts of our lives are kept. Even the things we have forgotten remain stored there as in a kind of unconscious.

This storage / memory for Ferraris is a kind of supplement of the soul, a reserve soul. The traditional idea of the soul among the Greeks was that of a wax tablet in which speeches, feelings, reflections were imprinted. The iPad is the outer prosthesis of this inner panel, and it is the most recent prosthesis of man – the archives, the books, the documents, etc. – with which mankind tries to remedy the finiteness of their memory and, above all, their lives. As long as a bit of memory remains somewhere (even in the iPad), it still seems possible to preserve a bit of soul.

The media products try to recapture the spiritual experiences of life by using the elementary needs and feelings of the human being: friendship and liking (“I like it”), touching, hearing from each other, etc. However, this results in a certain loss of spiritual etiquette, because the subject on this level can not decode his intentionality, his real experience, his real desire. And the more the subject tries to communicate, to connect with the other, the more it understands that this way of establishing contact with the world substantially misses the effective embodiment of affects and feelings. The shortening of the syntax and the sentence in the digital language (Twitter, Texting) may well express exactly this unconscious disappointment.

The commercial aestheticization of the world corresponds to the immanence of beauty in consumer goods, whose seductive appearance inspires human desire. What is the task of philosophy and theology in view of the fact that philosophy has always thought about the beautiful, the pleasant and the taste? The questions I would like to ask are the following: Why is something considered beautiful?

What does the shift from the angel of the painting tradition to the angels of Fiorucci, from the oriental kilim carpet in Anatolia to the kilim carpet as an ethnic institution in Europe or from the cross of Christ to the cross necklace of Madonna mean? V.A. but is the question: how can aesthetics open up a new view of the beauty of human experience and of its symbolic nature within this present process of aestheticization, whose images and imaginative forces are in strong relation to the economic system? 

Isabella Guanzini is Professor of Fundamental Theology at the University of Graz. She is the author of Hegel e Paolo: L’amore fra Politica e Messianismo (Vita e Pensiero, 2013) and Europa mit oder ohne Religion? (Vienna University Press, 2015).


[1] G. Dorfles (born in Trieste, 1910, died 2013), critic and philosopher, professor of aesthetics at the University of Trieste and Milan and visiting professor at some American universities, is an outstanding figure in European culture. In 1948 he founded the MAC (Movimento per l’Arte Concreta). Further works on this topic are: Discorso tecnico delle arti, Nistri-Lischi 1952; Il divenire delle arti, Einaudi 1959; Nuovi Riti, nuovi miti, Einaudi 1965; Le oscillazioni del gusto, Skira 2004; Artificio e natura, Skira 2005. His most famous work may be Il Kitsch. Antologia del cattivo gusto, 1968.

[2] G. Dorfles,  Il  consumo   delle  immagini   e  la   comunicazione   artistica, in: G. Dorfles, Arte e comunicazione. Comunicazione e struttura nell’analisi di alcu- ni linguaggi artistici, Milano 2009, 10.

[3] F. Carmagnola, Il consumo delle immagini, Milano 2006, 95.

[4] Diodato, Il futuro anteriore dell’estetica, in: L. Russo (ed.), Dopo l’estetica, Pa- lermo 2010, 93.

[5] Dorfles, Il feticcio quotidiano 15.

[6] “Surface is a promise” was also the billboard advertising by the Volkswagen Group at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 2003. This ingenious advertising shows just how real the aestheticization of the lifeworld is and how it shapes our thoughts and feelings. “Innovation is the search for the form of tomorrow. The surface is not only a technological apparatus, but also a glimpse of the future and an anthropological vision. Functionality lies in the nature of man. “See Carmagnola, Il consumo delle immagini, 131-133.

[7] Carmagnola, Il consumo delle immagini, 8.

[8] W. Gibson, L’accademia dei sogni, Milano 2005, 74.

[9] See, R. Diodato, Marketing, o dell’esperienza estetizzata, in: P. Pellegrino (ed.). Estetica & Marketing, Lecce 2010, 31–36.

[10] M. Perniola, Del sentire, Torino 2002, 65.

[11] Fear is what does not deceive “(J. Lacan, The Seminar, Book XI, 41).

[12] S. Žižek, The problem of the subject, Frankfurt a. M. 2001, 522.

[13] J. Lacan, Function and Field of Speech and Speech in Psychoanalysis, in: Schriften I, Weinheim / Berlin 1991, 84f.

[14] M. Recalcati, Jacques Lacan, 78.

[15] J. Lacan, Function and Field of Speech and Speech in Psychoanalysis, 141.

[16] Ibid, 143.

[17] See,  G. Dorfles, Nuovi riti, nuovi miti, Milano 2003.

[18] M. Ferraris, Anima e iPad, Milano 2011.

, , , , , , , , , ,

About editors_religioustheory

View all posts by editors_religioustheory →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.