The Aesthetic Contingency Of Life – Narrating The Finite In A Time Of Images, Part 5 (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 fifth and final installment an article, for which the first can be found here, the second here, the third here, the fourth here.

Aesthetics and Rehabilitation of Time

Today, the aestheticization of the lifeworld clearly expresses the fact that aesthetics plays a fundamental role in our world interaction. Therefore, the question of aesthetics here should assume a fundamental anthropological and even ontological character.

The paradox is that only a rehabilitation of the aesthetics, namely, a new perception of reality and a living sensitivity to the meaning of life can redeem the one-dimensional virtuality and the timeless nihilism of the aestheticization of our lifeworld and form a new humanism.

A vague appeal to the classical ideal of beauty can only nourish the aestheticizing and playful “drive” that this appeal seeks to call into question. This “solution” does not seem to be able to confront the most important question facing the aestheticization of the lifeworld. It is therefore important to emphasize that it is no longer possible to strive for a pure ideal of beauty that has experienced no contradictions, no failures, no defeats. This abstract and unhistorical beauty has become unbearable in our time insofar as it knows no singularity and contingency and therefore no human experience. This kind of beauty, too, creates an aestheticization of life by bringing about an anesthetization of feeling.

The aesthetic judgment of the beautiful is always both a taste judgment and a sense judgment, namely, it is essentially expresses as special expediency. Kant writes: “The judgment of taste is therefore not a judgment of knowledge, and therefore not logical, but aesthetic, by which one understands the one whose purpose can not be other than subjective.”[1] But this subjective ground of determination claims universal validity, inasmuch as the judgment of taste “pleases an object everyone’s mind.”[2]

Where can one experience, find or invent a new subjective universality today? I believe that the various present experiences that the subject makes in the imaginary world-current today always lack something important, and indeed a real experience of time. In the digital media world, the deep human need to stay in touch, to live in a world shared and shared with each other (the World Wide Web), and to relate (to each other), to communicate in a common language,

However, this virtual area lacks a real aesthetic of time and the word. The rehabilitation of aesthetics calls for a special recovery of the temporal dimension of life through a deepening of the aesthetics of the word (instead of the image). It is about the taste for the “grammar”, the desire for connections, the interest in the distinction and the organization of reality, which can only be produced by narrativity. In order to create the connection between the special and the general, the “time of narration” seems necessary today.  

Today it seems necessary to give the subjective experience of narrativity a new meaning and centrality. The judgment of taste is also for Kant the effect of a view, an operation of the sense, which reaches from the particulate to the general without concept. The judgement of taste is looking for a rule, a law, because these rules and laws are not natural. One could also say that this aesthetic power of taste judgment, which can give meaning to life, can be realized through the discovery of the logic of time. In the output of

Lacan, one could say that past, present, future and memory are of linguistic order. For Lacan, that means that the experience of temporality and its effects is an effect of the language itself. Historical continuity depends on the acceptance of paternal authority, as Lacan says. In this sense he speaks of the “name of the father” as a linguistic (but ultimately as an ontological) function. When this gentleman significant breaks down, the human being is threatened with sliding into a psychosis, in which even time no longer remains as an identity-structuring moment. Schizophrenia is based on the failure to enter this symbolic order.  It stands for a collapse of language that brings with it a break in time experience. This means that only the logic of the narrative can unfold the meaning of experience and bring to light its (subsequent) truth.

In our social configuration, however, it is important to overcome the tendency of the pure contradiction of image and word. It therefore seems necessary to give the syntax a new meaning, or a new differentiated structure, namely, to arrive at an aesthetics of language and time, which, with the aesthetics of the image and the space, realizes a kind of connection that may enable us to break out of the imaginary closed circle of virtual reality.

It is no coincidence that in contemporary art there is a return to graphs, to inscriptions, to words in pictures, which manifests itself as enjoyment of the text, as the aesthetic enjoyment of a kind of readability of the world. It is a position of the words in the picture, the aesthetic search for an original semantic.  Abstract art wanted to achieve this pure semantic by overcoming the representations and the figures, in which the words should remain only as titles of the works. But it has become increasingly clear that no signifier-emancipated signification can exist without the meaning of a fundamental order, a basic syntax, that is, the meaning of the word, namely, without a divided symbolic order, beyond the bad infinity of (digital) combinatorics.

Nowadays it seems that different contemporary artists (eg William Xerra, Johanes Zechner, Marco Nereo Rotelli, Hannes Priesch, Maurizio Nannucci, Leo Zogmayer, Werner Hofmeister, Fritz Ganser, Markus Wilfling, Helga Chibidziura, etc.) feel compelled to to incorporate the insurmountable experience of the word into their own works in order to bring the effectiveness of Scripture back into play.  The ways of the Kabbalah, as well as the artistically designed initials of the Missal and the Breviary are the prehistory of this religious possibility of a combination of words and images, so to speak a new religious calligraphy. It is about a new appearance of bonds as the texture of signifiers capable of representing a new syntactic order.

While the images express the constant flow of goods, the narrative embodies the transmission of meaning. While the imaginary order of the “time of the imaginary” offers timeless objects, the gift of narrative instigates the subject in its historical singularity (or subjective universality). The narrative generates new worlds, but no interchangeable products, insofar as it invents the meaning of the event and does not simply represent something useful.

This is a non-utilitarian expediency (“purpose without purpose”) as a critical instance of the current shift of aesthetics into the market system of Western society.

What would be the meaning of the syntax here, which should not only be understood as a purely technical sentence theory of grammar, but as linguistic comprehensibility and readability of the world? The task of the words is not only that they should reflect something, but also an experience that we have made can name. We need words, not only to make ourselves understandable to others, but also to make ourselves clear to ourselves.

The task of the syntax is to work out and structure the human experience reflexively in the time of the narrative. So it’s not just an arrangement of words and sentences, but also the order of affects and the logic of meaning. The expediency of the narrative is not the production of a world, but an aesthetic reflexivity that finds meaning and introduces it to the subject, who dresses meaning into a sensual phenomenon.

The narrative could be the “second skin” of the subject, which can act as a protection against the aestheticizing nihilism. It is not about the pure reflexivity of the mind or reason, but about a sensual reflexivity without a concept, which, however, has its own syntax and logic that represents time in a special way. It is about the past, the present and the future (and the past future) of life, which always needs a syntax. To paraphrase Kant: “The language must be able to accompany all my ideas”.

Could one attempt to call this sensual reflexivity in connection with the narrative a “temporal spatiality”? – a “temporal spatiality” beyond the dualism of sensuality and reason, which not only gives the art objects an “aura” but reveals a higher purposefulness? The logical order of the narrative is not a static or abstract arrangement of events and words, but a temporal development that does not take place against the background of a logic of the “space-picture” but of a “time-picture”[3].  If sensuality achieves a particular temporality through narrative, this narrated sensory experience could represent the place of that particular universality where the subject could find a possible sign, a singular call, and some orientation for his life.

It is said that Kafka had the habit of taking a walk with Dora Dymant in the park from Steglitz to Berlin. One morning in the early summer of 1923, just a few months before his death, now withdrawn from the world because of his tuberculosis, he met a little girl who was desperate and completely distraught. This grabbed his attention and compassion. Kafka did not hesitate to approach her and ask her the reason for her sadness. The girl named Elsi replied that she had lost her doll.

As a result, compassionately, Kafka invented a story to ease the suffering of the loss. The doll, the writer said, was not lost, but simply set out on a long journey to get to know the world.  Kafka spontaneously replied to the girl’s skeptical  reaction that he had received a letter from her. The girl was convinced  and Kafka took the trouble to create the letter between the girl and doll with maximum seriousness and creativity. The reading of each letter was like a pact with a exalted voice every day in the park and found an astonished and attentive listener.

In her stories, the puppet explained that it would have been necessary for her to gain new experiences, to get to know the world and to meet new people, without wanting to cause her the pain she had left behind in Berlin. According to Dora’s statement, Kafka had executed the scripts with the utmost care, in a lively and precise prose, in the alchemy of an encounter full of secrets that took place with reliable regularity for three weeks.   The last letters were like an epilogue designed to gently prepare the girl to say goodbye to the moment when the doll would disappear forever from the girl’s life without leaving trauma. In fact, the final split did not produce any imbalance.

If a suffering is fortunate enough to be part of a story, it may lose its unfortunate power to participate in a common cause. It is not a mere imaginary and fantastic transformation, but the power of the divided Word, which gives things their name by leading them out of the ominous burden of a silent silence. The Law of the Word and the Grace of the History give the feeling of life continuity and horizon in a way that does not simply dissolve it in the fuzziness of the emotion, but gives it the perspective of believable and understandable meaning.

This is possible because the narrative produces a spatiotemporal delay, namely,  the necessary “displacement of the side” which – as in the anamorphosis – reconfigures the experience beyond the illusion of a direct and frontal encounter with the events. The “technical mediator” is not aiming at an immediate emphasis on real time (ie. the time zero of the simultaneity between action and reaction), replacing the infinite A-Chronicle of the babble with the narrative syntax”[4].

In contrast, the narrative gives the subject time to enter and exit the stories, gaining a relaxed and patient look at one’s own life and another life. The time of the narrative is like a “gown of grace”, a “second skin” that protects and collects in its drama the scattered pieces of human desolation, freeing them from their fossilization and weaving them back into the time of care and closeness. The question that should be asked both in the narratives and in the analysis is the question of the effectiveness of the word. In the analysis, it becomes increasingly clear that the word is handled and the body speaks. Lacan exemplifies this question in his interrupted seminar on The Names of the Father:

Man does not seem to be particularly astonished at the efficacy of this experience, which happens quite in words (paroles), and basically he is right, because, in fact, it is in progress, and to explain that would have to we, it seems, only show off the movement that is in progress. Speaking (parler), that is already entering the subject of the analytic experience. That’s exactly where the question really is – what is the word (parole), that is, the symbol?[5]

The meaning of the word’s effectiveness implies, but transcends, the performative meaning of language insofar as it is a question of the possibility of the word and the symbolization of saving human life. This concerns not only the therapeutic process of analysis, but also the meaning of a divine revelation in words as it occurs in the Bible.

For centuries, the Bible represented the immense lexical, cultural and iconic wealth of the West. According to William Blake, the Old and New Testaments are “the great code of art”[6]. Erich Auerbach recognizes the Bible and the Odyssey in his Mimesis (1946)[7] as the defining models of our culture, and Northrop Frye looks at the Scriptures in his The Great Code,  the Bible and Literature (1981)[8] as the universe in which Western literature and art up to the XVIII Century and still work beyond.

The biblical word in its entirety can also be understood as the narrative of the word’s efficacy in the people of Israel, as the place where various figures of the human experience a possible everyday encounter with the “full word” that is a real change in human life can bring about. In the biblical stories, in fact, the various incarnations, inscriptions, injuries, and imprints of the word are narrated on the body of the believer, expressing ever new locations of the symbolic.

Today it seems necessary to ask whether Christianity can still be understood in this tradition as a narrative of these incarnations of the word, in which the mortality and the vulnerability of the human can be discussed. As in Kafka’s encounter with the doll, in which a childish pain could be treated by a charming correspondence, so the “big code”, namely, the Bible can be read as that religious and cultural deposit in which every wound, every yearning, every cry, every suffering search for meaning and every word of discouragement can find a symbol, a narrative, a metaphor and a hospitable answer. It is a linguistic “seam” in which the special and contingent fractures and wounds in a saving texture can be reversed and thereby a universal Humanum is clarified.

In the works of the Italian artist Giovanni Bonaldi, a possible combination of images and words is manifested in which this effect of the sacred text manifests itself in its urgency and truth. They are about the appearance of sacred manuscripts[9], of mysterious letters as temporal tables of an alliance between Judaism and Christianity, as hospitable arks of the lost, fighting against disappearing and forgetting. The Torah is portrayed by the artist as a shrine or chalice, capable of receiving human injuries and incisions.

To show this possibility on the threshold of images and words, object and subject, I would like to refer to another artist, Emilio Isgrò, who invented the “Theory of Delineation”. He developed his poetics in Milan and Venice, which cancels any redundancy while protecting (almost) a fragment of the miracle of the word. In his paintings, he does not produce cuts in the canvas painting (like Lucio Fontana), but a crossing of the words. 

This not only means that a (crossed-out) language should be received in the images. With his erasure, Isgrò wants to show much more that the language has almost gone into the strangeness, but still remains something of it. “There is a time to sweep through the words and there is a time to regain them,” the artist writes in his book La cancellatura e altre soluzioni (The Transition and Other Solutions)[10]. This eradication is thus not intended to reject the word, but rather to unearth its lost dimensions beyond any artificial “special effect”. 

Without suppressing the despondency, the fears and the suffering, it knows how to inscribe it into a wonderful texture in which the imaginary, the symbolic and the real seem to unite in a precarious and wonderful equilibrium and the variations of the pulsating common human shine, if only for the contingent act of reading. These are indeed “tangible narratives”[11] that generate those joyful encounters that, as Spinoza said, reveal the meaning of the whole and life in the intensity of a momentary and fleeting vision.

They are like those “moonbeams by daylight” (Musil), which spread over what is most sensitive and precarious and illuminate the invisible interweaving of the fabric of the world. It is not for nothing that Spinoza defines that “bagging” as amor Dei intellectualis, which is able to understand the natural connection of modes and attributes, translating into an affective relationship with the existing one. In the uncertain time of the aestheticization of the world, namely, in the contingency and inconsistency of the temporal figures, which offer no ultimate meaning,  the “face of time becomes cunning, and shining from within through a single thought! For what if it was God himself who devalued the world? Would she not suddenly gain meaning and pleasure? And would not he have to devalue it if he came even closer to it? And would not it be the only real adventure to even perceive the shadow of it?! “[12]

The reciprocal gift of the narratives could (precisely because of their “untimely”) represent a contemporary subjective experience of the “sad affects” in the post-secular epoch and bring them into it. This aesthetic “invention of the everyday” or “art of action”, which is narrative, could be an opportunity to overcome today’s aestheticization of the lifeworld. It represents an attempt to find narrative antibodies against the “excessive minimalism” of digital communication in order to free oneself from the time- and syntax-less placenta of images and to experience a new shared historical language

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] I. Kant, Critique of Judgment. Analytic of Aesthetic Judgment, § 1 The judgment of taste is aesthetic, works in six volumes, volume 5, Stuttgart 1986, 279.

[2] Ibid, 291.

[3] See G. Deleuze, The Movement Picture: Cinema 1, Frankfurt a. M. 1996; ders., Die Zeit-Bild: Cinema 2, Frankfurt a. M. 1996.

[4] F. Stoppa, La restituzione, Milano 2011, 216. Der Satz lautet im italienischen Original: „Il mediatore tecnologico, non per caso, mira ad enfatizzare l’immedia- tezza, il tempo reale (ossia il tempo zero della simultaneità fra azione e reazione), sostituendo l’infinita sequenza a-cronica di cinguettii alla sintassi del  racconto“.

[5] J. Lacan, Names of the Father, 17f.

[6] „Jesus and his apostles and disciples were all artists, and the Old and New Testaments are the great code of art.“(W. Blake, Complete Writings. With Variant Readings, Oxford 1972, 777).

[7] E. Auerbach, mimesis. Represented Reality in Western Literature, Bern 2001.

[8] N. Frye, The Big Code. The Bible and Literature, Salzburg 2007.

[9] G. Bonaldi, L’origine tesa – The Tension of Origin, Milano 2003; G. Bonaldi, L’ospitalità dell’Arca, Milano 2006.

[10] E. Isgrò, La cancellatura e altre soluzioni, Milano 2007, 78.

[11] K. Appel, God – man – time. Second Transition – From the Contingency of Existence to the Body of God, 60.

[12] R. Musil, The Man Without Qualities II. From the estate, Reinbek near Hamburg 1994, 1093.

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