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Interpreting Visual Culture

Interpreting Visual Culture

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12/07/2012

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1
1
THE
 
HERMENEUTICS
OF
SEEING
 
Nicholas Davey 
 Vision is always a task, a task of promise.David M. Levin,
The Opening of Vision
 
On hermeneutics and seeing
With its roots stretching deep into biblical and literary interpretation, what does hermeneutics have to do with thequestion of 
seeing
and with the experience of coming to see what is in a work of art? In response to this question,we will argue that hermeneutical aesthetics does not entail a 'philosophy of art' but a philosophical meditation uponwhat
happens
to us in our experience of art. Our argument will be presented in six stages. The first will proposethat rather than dwelling on the 'subjectivity' of our experience of art, hermeneutical aesthetics seeks to illuminatewhat philosophical and existential determinants shape our perceptions of art. Rather tellingly, the German word forperceive is
wahrnehmen,
to take or receive as true. Hermeneutic aesthetics focuses on how our experiences of artoccasion the appearance of certain
truths
. A major leitmotif of hermeneutic thought is that certain truths can onlybe experienced subjectively but that fact does not render them subjective. That what we come to see in art cannotbe reduced to mere subjectivity depends upon historical and cultural ideas which transcend the subjective and yetachieve personal perceptual instanciations within aesthetic experience. We shall argue that both art and aestheticsreside in the generative tension between sight and in-sight. The second part is devoted to 'Hermeneutics,Language and Visual Understanding'. Hermeneutics' deep concern with language does not subordinate image toword but applies the sensitivities we acquire from linguistic exchange to reveal how our experience of art is noisolated monologue on personal pleasure but a complex dialogical achievement involving the fusion of the horizonssurrounding artist, subject-matter and viewer. Part three engages the theme of 'Perception, Meaning and Art'. Foraesthetic experience to have a content which can lay claim to being (in part) objective, it must have an ideationalcontent which transcends the subjective limitations of the circumstance and scope of individual perception.Hermeneutics insists that in any reflection upon our experience of art, we mustfocus on the question of meaning. Part four approaches the question of 'Art and Its Subject-Matters'. What does awork of art direct us to? Though it might be seen by the mind's eye, what we come to
see
in a work is notnecessarily an object which is visually present. Hermeneutic aesthetics emphasises that art works do not merelyre-interpret and re-present subject-matters but extend and alter their being. It is in the notion of subject-matterthat hermeneutic thought gains an insight into how an art work can transcend the temporal restriction of itshistorical origin and affect the contemporary world. Part five attends to the question of 'Hermeneutics, Art andEventuality'. One of the most important contributions which hermeneutics makes to aesthetics involves theargument that in the experience of art, seeing and understanding are not merely passive. To the contrary, thespectator is a condition of what is held within a work coming forth and, furthermore, that revelation can effectivelychange the subject-matter it discloses. This permits hermeneutic thought to draw a crucial distinction between anartistic representation
(Vorstellung)
and an artistic presentation
(Darstellung),
a distinction which, in turn,completely radicalises traditional conceptions of the relationship between art and reality. To initiate our case, then,let us consider what is held in the two words which mark out our terrain; namely,
hermeneutics
and seeing.The history of hermeneutics may be divided into three distinct phases. Prior to the late eighteenth century,hermeneutics was primarily concerned with matters of biblical and theological interpretation. Chladenius's worksrepresent the high-water mark of this tradition and its endeavours are far from redundant as the works of Louthand Pannenberg show.
1
 Terms which have a critical role in hermeneutic aesthetics-the transcendent andepiphanic-have their derivation in biblical interpretation. Theological hermeneutics still underwrites the basicconcerns of contemporary hermeneutics. How does one breathe life back into an ancient text? How is the livingspirit to be released from the dead letter? It is perhaps not merely coincidental that Alexander Baumgarten, thefather of modern philosophical aesthetics, was also practised in theological hermeneutics.
2
 Hermeneutics enteredits second phase when Schleiermacher and Wilhelm Dilthey guided it towards a universal method of cultural andsocial understanding. Schleiermacher's 'technical' and 'psychological' theories of understanding were directedtowards grasping a text's meaning both in terms of its formal structures and as an expression of the author'sspecific intentionality. Dilthey developed Schleiermacher's work into a general theory of cultural understandingwhich viewed all social acts as the outward expression of a distinctive inner
Weltanschauung
which, once identified,would provide the key to rebuilding and re-experiencing an artist's outlook. Although the psychologistic elements of Dilthey's empathetic theory of understanding are largely discredited, his work continues to be enormouslyinfluential. The writings of Anthony Giddens and William Outhwaite still express Dilthey's basic philosophical
 
2
 
ambition-to outline what is distinctive about artistic, literary and aesthetic modes of understanding.
3
 The third andmost contemporary phase of hermeneutics concerns theexistential hermeneutics of Martin Heidegger and the closely related philosophical hermeneutics of Hans-GeorgGadamer, idioms of thought which are reflected in the more recent works of Manfred Frank and Odo Marquard.
4
 Heidegger insists that hermeneutics is not a matter of interpreting pre-given works. Understanding is not what weaim at, it is what we do. Its categories define what we are: creatures who have a sense of who and what we arebecause of what we understand. Thus, only because we implicitly understand what it means to be placed in aworld, can we come to interpret a work being placed in its world. For Dilthey, a general theory of interpretation ledto understanding the specifics of a work. For Heidegger it is the reverse. It is understanding (the categories of ourbeing) which is the precondition of interpretation. In
B
eing and Time
he argues,In interpretation, understanding does not become something different. It becomes itself« Nor is interpretation theacquiring of information about what is understood: it is rather the working out of possibilities
 projected inunderstanding
.
5
 The essential dynamic of Heidegger's early hermeneutic thinking moves from an analysis of the objectivities of existence (facticity) through to how we subjectively respond to our ontological condition. Partly because of hisadmiration of Hegel, Gadamer reverses, but by no means refutes, the direction of Heidegger's thinking. Whereas inan almost Kantian manner, Heidegger constructs an existential analytic before considering matters of subjectivity,Gadamer starts from the immediacies of experience in order to ascertain the 'substantiality' behind them:All self-knowledge arises from what is historically pre-given, with what we call with Hegel substance becausesubstance underlies all subjective intentions and actions« This almost defines the aim of philosophicalhermeneutics«to discover in all that is subjective the substantiality that determines it.
6
 As we shall see, Gadamer becomes intensely preoccupied with understanding how that historical and culturalsubstantiality makes itself visible in an art work. What underwrites both Heidegger's and Gadamer's concern withart is its ability to disclose an understanding of both ourselves and of our being in the world in an immediate,unique and revelatory manner altogether distinct from, but as defensible as, propositional knowledge. How seeingbrings us to the intensities of such insights is a leading motif of this chapter.Nevertheless, rarely do the formalities of historical detail nurture a feeling for what lies within a word. Theetymological endeavour so characteristic of Heidegger and Gadamer strives to reaquaint us with the feelings anddispositions a word can contain. Heidegger's conceptual archaeology seeks to recover thepre-Christian meaning to metaphysical categories in order that we might 'think' anew about the nature of ourexistence. Gadamer's etymological talents remind us that embedded within words are world-views capable of supplementing and extending our own. Yet whatever particular nuance these thinkers give to the etymologicalstratagem, its general value is plain. Against the subtler residues of previous speech-created worlds, anycontemporary language horizon is advantaged by the force of immediacy and thereby possesses the distortingcapacity of ideology. That force can not only blind us to the possibility of alternative meanings (and hence toalternative modes of feeling and being) which flow from the past into our contemporary world but it can alsoshroud us in the illusion that the world contained within our speech-world is
the
world and not one of many otherpossible speech-worlds which, as etymology reveals, we are demonstrably connected to. Once we develop an earfor what lies within words, the spell of immediacy's force can be broken. The importance of the philological tactic isnot merely that it attempts to retrieve past meanings but that in so doing it frees us from the restriction of havingto feel and think solely in terms of our present speech-world. The potentially liberating aspect of this tactic is therecovery or uncovering of other logically possible ways of thinking, of looking at and, hence, of feeling about anissue. What then does the term 'hermeneutic' connect us to?The word 'hermeneutic' clearly invokes Hermes, the messenger of the Greek gods whose allotted task was tointerpret what the gods wished to convey and to translate it into terms mortals could understand.
7
 Hermes'predicament addresses all who work with expression, for what is given to us through insight, intuition or revelationhas to be understood and then translated into forms permitting others to grasp what we have come to understand.
8
 Hermes presides over the tension between the 'seeing' of a truth and the task of communicating it. It is notinappropriate then that he was also the god of those who travel dark and difficult roads.
9
 He frequently appearedin the form of modestly phallic stone wayside markers
(herms)
which portrayed him in the company of Aphroditewho had evidently aroused his interest. Hermes was revered for disclosing things at night. How argues that night isindeed his proper provenance, for it is darkness that reveals our need for guidance and thereby allows 'things [to]be seen in a new light'.
10
 
 
3
 
The experiences which the myth of Hermes relates concern that strange relation between understanding the natureof our engagement with art and coming to understand the character of our predicament as human beings: ourperpetual need for understanding and guidance, our sense of trying to find, follow and keep to a path, theexperience of 'being-drawn-on', of 'being-excited-by' the anticipation of where a dedicated route might take usand, finally, the realisation that as human beings we too are not unlike Hermes who is always on the waysomewhere but with no place of his own to finally dwell in.It is not inappropriate that in order to convey his message to mortals, Hermes used words which, like the gods, arenotoriously difficult to define. Both extendand change their meaning through time and, for some, that ambiguousness is the precondition of literary accuracy.Pannenberg's comment that 'it is only because the words of a language are incompletely defined that propositionscan be formulated with precise definition' encapsulates a potential philosophy of poetry.
11
 The realms of visionoffer analogous instances of this fertile relationship between the clear and the opaque.Alexander Baumgarten, a poet as well as a philosopher, demonstrated how the clarity of a foreground image isdependent upon a
confusion,
a bringing together, of ambiguous background elements.
12
 Understanding or comingto 'see' what a work addresses is for Baumgarten a hermeneutical phenomenon in that such 'seeing' is madepossible by a secondary field of pre-given understandings or contexts. Nietzsche and Gadamer, respectively, usethe optical terms 'perspective'
(Perspektiv)
and 'horizon'
(Horizont)
when speaking of such fields. Optical scienceeven refers to the capacities of peripheral vision to sharply delimit an object of attention. Indeed, Merleau-Pontyencapsulates the point eloquently when he comments, 'The horizon«is what guarantees the identity of the objectthroughout the exploration [of the gaze].'
13
 The analogous relationship between a word and its semantic field and a seen object and its visual horizon reflectsthe astounding double valence of words which describe perception and cognition. We see an object and yet
see
ordo not see what a person is getting at. We strive to be as
clear 
as we can. If an argument is
dark 
and somewhat
opaque,
we might endeavour to throw some
light 
upon it, hoping to achieve an
illuminating
or
enlightening
insight.A surface may offer a cloudy reflection whilst our
reflections
might be
clouded 
by
blind 
prejudice. We even speak of having our
eyes opened 
to a problem so that we might subsequently arrive at another
 perspective
or
viewpoint 
.Yet, it might be objected, are we not confusing visually related metaphors with the reality of the visual? Should wenot distinguish more rigorously between the speech-created world and the visual world which begins where theword breaks off?There are certain elementary differentiations between sensible and mental phenomena. The seen physical object isa spatial phenomenon whilst that which I might visualise as a spatial object is not itself a spatial object. Beyondthis, however, it is very difficult to demarcate visual-oriented language from that which is purely mental inreference. Though we might speak loosely of the seen-image, the image is never in fact the visually observedobject. Canvasses may be destroyed but not images. Seeing an image is more an instance of 
recognising
what isevoked by an art work, of having something brought to the mind's eye. Ludwig Wittgenstein insists that perceptioncontains a thought-element (we see something as) whilst thinking contains a perception-element (we imagineinstances).
14
 Indeed, Wittgenstein's remark reflects an ancient ambiguity.In his analysis of Plato's views of perception
(aisthesis)
and reflection
(theoria),
Waterfield argues that ClassicalGreek thought contains no definitive evidence to suggest that terms such as
eidos
(that which the mind sees) and
theoria
(reflection) were exclusively cognitive or perceptual in reference.
15
 Matters areno clearer in Latin. The term 'vision' is related to the verb
videre
(to see), but to see meant not just to follow withthe eyes but also the seeing of something that becomes visible other than by ordinary sight-hence the terms'visionary' and 'seer'.The impossibility of a strict division between perceptual and conceptual terminology might be anathema to thosewho seek the security of precise distinctions. However, in the case of aesthetics, as Baumgarten reminds us,
confusion
is of the essence not because aesthetic experience is a tiresome muddle but because it is a productivebringing together, a confusion of thought and perception which enables us to
see
the idea embodied in a work andto
see
the work as an instance of that idea. Without such a fusing-with, metaphoric transfer would be impossible.To see a set of scales as the symbolic presence of justice requires a capacity to see a given object as an instance of something that in itself it is not (i.e., a general notion). What damage would the illuminating capacity of art thenincur if a strict demarcation between sight and insight were to be imposed?Two things are clear. Art can neither be a matter of merely producing and looking at tactile sensible objects norcan it be turned into the science of ideas which the Cartesians dreamt of. If art were the former, it would be

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