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"Is That Helen?" Contemporary Pictorialism, Lessing, and Kant Author(s): Claudia Brodsky Lacour Reviewed work(s): Source: Comparative Literature, Vol. 45, No. 3 (Summer, 1993), pp. 230-257 Published by: Duke University Press on behalf of the University of Oregon Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1771503 . Accessed: 03/12/2012 23:32
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That Helen?" Contemporary
MARSHALL with regard to BROWN has argued persuasively W61fflin's entangled "classic" and "baroque," it is difficult to maintain purely conceptual distinctions between different moments in the development of a single medium.' Such moments can be viewed externally as consecutive stages in the evolution of style, or, less abstractly, as instances in which the practitioners of a medium perceive their own practice as a critical problem. But whatever kind of historical action these moments appear to define and whatever character one gives to that action-the face of progress, decay, or sheer insistence-media, matter made into means, bear with them their own constraints and possibilities, the physical facts which make their temporal course of development appear part of their being. Im1Rather than simply conflating W61fflin's pivotal concepts, Brown's careful reading renders forceful tribute to the thoroughly diachronic and dynamic purport of his entire theoretical project, now too often dismissed as "mere" and outmoded formalism. Most strikingly, Brown's concluding comments on the temporal duality of all aesthetic forms find confirmation in the principles of literary history set forth in Stendhal's Racine et Shakespeare. Writing ostensibly in romanticism's defense, or from an historical viewpoint obverse to W61fflin's, Stendhal argues that the difference between romanticism and classicism is purely a matter of time, both at the general level of history ("Racine was romantic" in his day) and at the .level of the individual work (the fleeting moments of romantic "illusion" experienced during the act of aesthetic reception). Cf. Stendhal, especially 57-60, 71; and Brown 401: "History is always moving toward the baroque and away from the classic. This means that each age serves as the baroque to some earlier age and as the classic to some later one ... that history is recapitulated in each individual work of art . .. that every artwork is both classic and baroque, classic in its essence and baroque in its existence, classic in its formal perfection and baroque in its expressivity." On linguistic art as the representation of temporal difference, see my discussion of Lessing and Benjamin below. See also Payot.
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who views "spatial form" as universal to the "experience and Hagstrum's discussion [17-19] of Homer and remarks on Lessing). Hagstrum's historical survey suggests that the identification of the literary with the pictorial has been ongoing since Homer. but a kind of "aestheticmemory"in which their distinctivetemporalforms are registered(57-58). His definition of literarypictorialismis "Inorder to be called 'pictorial'a descriptionor an image must be. less like logic carrying itself out than a landslide carrying bodily its own force." for fine commentaries on Greenberg's seminal view that modern abstract art ment intensifies a "'self-critical tendency that began with the philosopher Kant"' (170). I will return later to Hagstrum.168. Laude.Prazrestrictsthe validityof ut picturapoesisto the retrospectiverecognition of "likenesses among all the worksof art of a period" (54). This equation of media may always have been going on (Hagstrum 3-70. It may have inspired the romantic reaction against neoclassical poetics (Babbitt). Rosand). It may have been most important to the theory and practice of renaissance painting (Lee. "Whocan tell?" Something has been going on in our view of aesthetic media themselves-not in our view of the development of individual media but in our sense that anything individuates them at all.capable of translationinto painting or some other visual art". 2 Aimed at corroborating the poetic practices of English neoclassicism. Mitchell "Spatial"). the material identity of a medium makes its history different from either a causal sequence or predetermined entelechy.LESSING& KANT plicated in it at all times. 162. or the romantic revitalization of eighteenth-century sentimental painting (Greenberg.' or it may have been the particular aim of the modernist avant-garde (Frank. Yet the more closely one attends to the medium that dynamically links its practitioners. in turn.3 or limited in importance to mannerist aesthetics and baroque poetics (Fowlie. 3 Dec 2012 23:32:34 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . or Mitchell. suggesting that what unites mutuallycontemporaryarts is not their sensory (as Mitchell and Hagstrumargue respeccomplementarityor intertranslatability tively). reinvigorates Lessing's call for the artist's critical engagement with the particularity of his medium. IngeborgHosterey. we may ask precisely when and surveying what has become with whom this movement began. it may be "a general principle of poetics" "implicitly proclaimed" by all poetry (Krieger. straightforward: in its essentials. Praz 3-27. Hosterey cites Greenberg's observation that the modernist move- 231 This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. 3See especially Lee 200-205 on the Ars pictoriaconstrued from ancient theories of criticsof painting. esp. poetryby sixteenth-century 4 Cf. with or without reason.72. "How long has this been going on?"will be.227 on Mon. Unlike interpretationof literature"(541-42)."the art of the poet resembles the art of the painter" (xxi-xxii.4 It may have reached a peak in high modernist concrete poetry (Steiner 192-218). 297-302). Changes in empirical technique or formal conventions may seem to come suddenly. especially 480). especially 503-06). the more likely it is that the answer to the age-old question."Laokoon und Modernitit"and "DieModerneam Ende?. and in distinct.
with theory of the visual media. "metalanguage. His critique extends importantly to the collaboration between the pictorial selling of consumerism by "corporate populism" and "the emergence of the new historicism with its propagation of picturability as a mode of critical argumentation that has a political feel answerable to all ideological agendas" (465). has taken hold of the critical imagination with all the unselfconscious ubiquity of an interpretive norm. 8 Cf. and in purpose." "syntax. and "Horace's.72. The purpose of the present essay is to question that norm.168." "metaphor. Theorie42-47). of the ideologically nullifying mode of argument by readily consumable picture (Christensen). and so can (or should) be treated interchangeably. Mitchell predicts that this reaction will stem from physiological evidence for a "hemispheric theory of the brain" ("Spatial"565n). For a meticulous analysis of the larger theoretical and immediate verbal context of Horace's extended analogy. Lastly. and Lee 199-200. in academic criticism." I 232 This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192." Discrepancies between the classical text and its later appropriations are also noted by Hagstrum 9. 7 It is relevant to the "doctrine" that it bears little relation to the lines in the Ars poetica from which its slogan is taken. spearheaded by film studies.""rhetoric. or it may be a "poetic prac"Ekphrastic"124. "Meaning". Ekphrasis: tice" of "self-signification" underlying the history of painting (Damisch. In a companion piece to "Spatial Form in Literature" that argues alternately for literary form in painting. counterproductive. the force of the ut picturapoesis comparison has worked predominantly one way.8 The sense that conceptual distinctions drawn between these media are either false or. in means and manner of expression. 3 Dec 2012 23:32:34 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . but were considered almost identical in fundamental nature. "Spatial"565). work to the same end. differed.6 What it is-and still dares not speak its name in the discourse of contemporary criticism-is a distinct resurgence of the doctrine of ut picturapoesis. 59-60." and. Mitchell heralds "postmodernism" as "an explosive breaking down of the barrier between vision and language that had been rigorously maintained by modernism" ("Ut Pictura" 352). of course.227 on Mon. see Trimpi.. it may be a postmodern reaction to the "anti-iconic" "imbalance"in structuralist and post-structuralist literary theory (Mitchell. Lee 197: "The sister arts . Terms like "grammar. freely adopting the metalanguage of language. at very least. bringing to the fore some aspects of contemporary criticism that encourage the recurrent pictorialist doctrine and reinvestigating an historic movement in critical theory whose groundbreaking significance that doctrine neglects.5 or the postmodern adoption. ." seem to have folWriting slightly before the rapid proliferation of postmodern theories of the image. Scott).7 the historically controversial notion that words and pictures are like one another. Insofar as critical terminologies go. 6 Christensen's especially timely analysis focuses on "the notion of picturability on which.COMPARATIVE LITERATURE cf. in content. and most recently. increasingly. both contemporary theory and the theory of the contemporary are based" (439). 128. it was acknowledged.
influenced precisely by the rise of nineteenth-century historical linguistics. for example. and in the other. The limitless range of objects of investigation implied by these last two alone makes the metaphoricity. by contrast. 167. of much of the critical discourse so generated seem a minor consideration. The renewed influence of the Frankfurt School and recent canonization of Benjamin's writings on pictorial images and tactile objects (emphasizing. specific dialectical involvement in history. Svetlana and Paul Alpers have suggested that the "uniquely concrete presence [of imitation] in the visual arts" makes the practice of art history inhospitable to critical or analytic methods (see especially 443. While remaining eccentric to the methods and aims of traditional art history. 444n). also admitted the metaphoric nature of their schematization. Even worse.1' although his ElMments de semiologie(1964) soon suggested that semiotics might turn out to be a branch of linguistics. or.12 retical reflection is circumstance and the very pretense of self9 The adoption in visual studies of the Saussurian conceptualization of language as a system. a sinister backpeddling whose only net result. 437-39. Saussure 33-34). See. thereby reversing Saussure's founding subordination of linguistic forms to a larger science of signs (80-81.72. should be distinguished from earlier attributions of linguistic models to art which.LESSING& KANT lowed naturally from-though they are not necessarily implied bythe general semiotic paradigm of differential signification. to recall one of the more unforgettable phrases of Stanley Fish-Henry Ford (and sometimes Henny be "no jobs" Youngman) of the humanities profession-might Fish's one and that all theoOne need share not belief. the comparison between poetry and painting has been practically replaced by an identity in the works of such successful renovators of the doctrine as Barbara Kruger andJenny Holzer." this tendency has invigorated the concept of the visual image and virtually insured the institutionalization of popular and general cultural studies. only (204). 11The reason for this may be referred to the material differences between the media. modern reproducibility. with the effect of suggesting a political dimension to Riegl's "optic" and "haptic" [Spdtromische 32-36. Riegl's explanation of his use of the term "historical grammar" (instead of the more literal "theory of elements") in developing a "scientific" approach to art history (Historische 210-11). Cf. especially 373. with its necessary bracketing of historical linguistics. 3 Dec 2012 23:32:34 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . it makes such considerations appear like anti-"professionalist" niggling. 233 This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192.168.9 Barthes's (1957) offers a handy reference point for plotting the rise Mythologies of contemporary interest in the "poetics" of visual images. In the art world. Youngman. 10Predating Barthes by nearly a decade is Spitzer's iconographic and poetic analysis of a Sunkist orange juice ad (see "American"). the technical imprecision. Cf. at very least. Holly. 248]) have served to complement this general thrust towards a critique of the visual via the poetic. in the one case. 12 In "Anti-Professionalism" (215-46) Fish counter-argues that the disposition against professionalism is intrinsic to professional well-being.227 on Mon.
More specifically. Their definition and analysis of distinct modes or moments of the aesthetic"4-categorical attempts at understanding the dynamic power of art whose critical acumen had attracted translation in the first place-also seem to have gone the way of all conceptual limits. By a telling irony of conceptual history. Lessing's endeavor to identify the distinct modalities of word and picture in Laokoon. however. Brodsky Lacour). the nonmimetic understanding of language advanced in Laokooncontradicts a view of the conception of language in Lessing's entire century most Naturally.COMPARATIVE LITERATURE criticism deluded. classic. is also undergoing substantial change (cf. In part because it appears doubly futile to attempt to identify just when this second moment in the return of ut pictura poesis began-to ask how long the practical pictorialization of language. to cite only the most central. 3 Dec 2012 23:32:34 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . Maintaining that ground may well prove critical to our understanding of current interpretive tendencies. among others. this belief is most forcefully 13Expounded throughout Doing What Comes articulated in "Consequences" (315-41) and "Critical Self-Consciousness. relinquishing it surely has direct effects on our larger conception of history. or poetry tout court) had never been written. has been going on-it seems appropriate to examine instead a conscious attempt to undo the doctrine. it is as if many of their most significant observations on the specific nature of linguistic art (whether rhetoric. appear fully transposed from the confines of the history of speculative philosophy to a more general theoretical landscape. A particularly incisive. its interpretive designification. or translation. Now that Nietzsche. and romantic. 234 This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. Or Can We Know What We're Doing" (436-467). and of historiographical concepts and methods.168. the doctrine of pictures as words does not offer symmetrical rewards. the beautiful and the sublime. threatens to usurp the very ground of reception. Translations of theory of language seem to work very much the same way. so Lessing's Laokoonseeks to defend the identity of the arts by questioning the equation of verb and image which.72. Like most proposed similitudes. or the symbolic. riposte to Fish is offered by Brooks. not coincidentally. and Kant. 14Such as the Apollonian and Dionysian.'3 to feel that the proliferation of linguistic models into pictorial fields is a gift horse one should not look in the mouth. As Laokoon sought to defend Troy. Contemporary adherence to the doctrine of ut pictura poesis has arisen. seeming to bestow riches. Hegel. once the metaphoric exchange between media becomes the methodological everyday. at a time when our view of history.227 on Mon. the very properties of language that make its analysis appear infinitely and profitably transportable seem to vanish from language once that transportation. as well as appreciative and good-humored. ancient and romantic poetry. is taken for granted.
see Les mots 19-31 for Foucault's discussion of Las Meninas)." see Les mots12-15. ship of fools. they go far in indicating an appreciable irony of Foucault's own discursive method: that his descriptions of techniques for organizing reason are purely symbolic gestures. by way of pictures.72. visual examples which exercise their own seductive power in prose. Foucault's historiography effectively cancels these conflictual relationships by equating their terms. the body itself). Foucault himself rightly lays no claim to any diachronic rendering of history. 3 Dec 2012 23:32:34 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . is represented by Foucault in spatial configurations. language intersects with space" (Les mots 9). in very broad strokes (433. language and history. On "discursive" "order" as a "grid" superimposed on language. it can be argued-and here one uses painterly metaphors advisedly-that the very persuasiveness of the picture of the power of "discursive""reason" Foucault draws has more to do with the immediate attraction of the visual over the verbal than with the accuracy of Foucault's own depictions. as it were. and. and. and history are one thing after all-a desire for power disguised as reason. by identifying the actual point of view and corresponding vanishing point of Las Meninas.168. drawn. organized spaces of containment. 235 This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. and other physical forms (Las Meninas.16 Describing discourse in markedly visual terms and casting cognitive themes as scenes. Indeed. For Foucault's theory of discourse as history proceeds. see note 25 below. 437. the lowest common denominator of that theory. theory. power.LESSING& KANT widely promoted in our own time by the schematic historicism of Foucault.'5 Attending to Lessing's argument will not keep the attractions of Foucauldian revisionism or other versions of the gifts of Greeks at bay. and fraught. and language and power are foregrounded. oddly enough. Such a globalizing theory presents an additional reason for turning to Laokoononce again. On Foucault's influence on interpretation of eighteenth-century linguistic theory. the panopticon.and on "language" as the "spontaneous picture and original compartmentalizing of things. h6pital gendral. asylum. 15Foucault's conceptualization of "discourse" as a mode of taxonomic "order" rests on a profound identification of discursivity with graphic and pictorial disposition-"there where. divided. 16 Cf. A theory of discourse that dovetails with a history of discourse so as to dovetail ultimately with both a theory and history of power is bound to appear attractive-whatever misrepresentation of earlier theory it entailsduring a critical period in which the relationships between theory and history. but it can help explain the appeal as well as indicate the conceptual limits of much new historical theory. providing a kind of comfort in the notion that discourse. on "knowledge" as "space". Snyder and Cohen's thoroughly enlightening technical refutation of Foucault's nonanalytical assertions regarding Las Meninas.227 on Mon. ultimately. Snyder and Cohen correct Foucault's inaccurate description of the point of view from which the painting is projected. theory and power.penal institution. since the foundation of time. His self-contained historical epochs are explicitly modeled instead on painting.
2"it was Lessing who spelled the beginning of the end of neoclassical literary norms in his time. 6:457). On Foucault and Port-Royal. As no less a skeptic in matters of theoretical and literary-historical change than Goethe would later attest. see Foucault's "Preface" to Arnauld and Lancelot. whether or not one feels drawn by the use of graphic imagesto represent a supposed semiotic"transparency" of reason. which Kant more aptly called the "Age of Criticism" (KrVA 11. Gombrich 141: "the point is. the barely disguised irony with which he describes this youthful experience of apparently irreversible change. or Madame de Lafayette. Les mots 80) might be too uniform even for an aesthetic theory of self-signifying painterly signs." or Age of Reason. are my own). Foucault. enforces a concept of historical and cultural homogeneity where there is none. in Foucault's terms." 20 Goethe's comments on Laokoon arise in the context of his own distinction between the modalities of "vision" [Anschauung] and "concept" [Begrifj]: "[Vision] demands a worthy object. Foucault's age of semiotic transparency extends to the literature and theory of the French eighteenth century only at the cost of their erasure. Lessing was not a Platonist. 3 Dec 2012 23:32:34 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . or. See Dichtung und Wahrheit9:316 (all translations in this essay. that Beauty is not Truth.'9 the illusion of vision produced by language from the illusions of optical representation. 236 This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. Grammaireg&neraleet raisonnie iii-xxvii. 75. see also Damisch. Thdorie84-90. Inspired by the French seventeenth century. 80). Few texts make this critical point more effectively than Laokoon. and are themselves the tools of formation. provided just such tools. That Foucault's characterization of the discursive sign as a self-imaging similitude. see 59-80. transparent visual medium. they bring their content with them. unless otherwise indicated. 3:13. precisely on the basis of the absence in verbal art of a self-identical. Racine.168.72. I believe. 18 In addition to Les mots 78-79.which distinguished truth in poetry from beauty in painting. only require receptivity. all suggest that Goethe thinks the work of Laokoon is actually never done." Lessing. LogikA 40. which he defines as extending to the onset of "modernity" in the early nineteenth century (Les mots13-14). 90. which is not always available. in which "semiology and hermeneutics are superimposed and confused as one" (85-86. The contemporary resurgence of those norms. and in that century more by Port-Royal"8than by Pascal.LITERATURE COMPARATIVE Still. 19Cf. Foucault's central portrait of the "ClassicalAge. on the other hand. which one has not just attained.'" is best kept at a distance from actual texts.227 on Mon. Concepts. and its further extension to the German Enlightenment. and a formation [Bildung] in proportion with it. Goethe next indicates. But the highly visual imagery and dramatic temporal structure of his account of Lessing's formative effect. is briefly suggested by Damisch (89-90). in historical and interpretive theories explicitly opposed to the idealization of history 7 For Foucault's description of this "archaeological" section of time as a "space" of "pure representation" (31) or linguistic "transparency" (71. cf.
23 If the modernist aesthetic now appears increasingly irrelevant. was "a 22 A psycho-biographical account of Lessing's tendentiousness-he Pyrrhonist at heart"-is offered by Gombrich 145-52. "a turn backward". 3 Dec 2012 23:32:34 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions .24we should note that Laokoon. since the view that the media reflect each other may be used to reflect any point of view or moral cause. any contemporary encounter with Laokoon cannot be too late (this in the context of the first French edition of Laokoon to be published in this century ["Avant-propos" 7-10]). Trimpi's fine definition of this recurring pattern: "By'neoclassic' attitudes in art and literature I have meant simply that attempt to verify principles of artistic representation by referring them to history and tojustify aesthetic responses to the work of art by reference to its verisimilar truth. Lessing's criticism of such assimilations on analytic grounds: he redefines those differences (which the temporal course of interpretation seems bound to obviate) between the media he equates conceptually again and again. Hosterey's examples include the modern novel (Faulkner. neoclassicism refers not to an intention characteristic of a period or movement but an ever-present effort of the mind to seek empirical consolation in the face of uncertainty about the objects which it experiences" ("Meaning" 27n30). Obviously. But. Defined so generally. Joyce. while "Heideggerian criticism" has remained mute on the subject of Lessing's writing. can only remain a matter of speculation. and Broch) and the contemporary essay form of "deconstructivist criticism" (176-77). the desire to overcome distinctions between media can cut both ways. in analytic terms. Finally. by a kind of "eternal return" making Goethe's salad days our own. has been the object of historical and interpretive revision. 23 Whether or not the "time" that prompted Lessing's critical observations is indeed repeating itself. and. and Spence. that its view of poetry is modeled on painting 21The idealization of the purposes and influence of art goes hand in hand with an idealization of classical models and of mimesis. before turning directly to Lessing as if to an uncontestable authority. Indeed.227 on Mon. Recent interpretations have argued that Laokoonsubscribes to the very doctrine it seems to refute.168. as Damisch has argued." for an astute appraisal of the continuing relevance of Lessing to any "art form" engaged in "critical reflection upon its specificity as a medium" (169). on occasion.72. Cf.21 makes Lessing. even Nietzsche's conception of a step beyond Laokoon was. it may be no less the case that the new didacticism championed in an academy and art world shaped by postmodern theory and aesthetic practices also recalls the shift to moral illustration by which neoclassicism assimilated the pictorial excesses of the baroque. a naive formalism or latter-day classicism.22 a theorist whose time may have. returned. who suspected all doctrinal norms. Hosterey.LESSING& KANT and art that characterized neoclassicism. "Die Laokoon-Faktor. one index of the seriousness and scope of contemporary pictorialism is that it has. Cf.too. by contrast. in a sense. 237 This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. 24See Jacobs's argument that Laokoon is Lessing's own polemical attempt to wrest the power of authority from Winckelmann. it may be useful to reconsider. gone back to question Lessing's influential text. Caylus.
168. all theory of specifically linguistic signification. "Politics"). 238 This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. 3 Dec 2012 23:32:34 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . "only by suggestion [nur andeutungsweise] through bodies. Wellbery argues that it is not "painting per se. the sense of unmediated presence suggested by transparent or self-effacing signs (235-38). Wellbery's idea of narrative." Wellbery scrupulously attempts to overcome this difficulty by arguing that. 42. Such argument at the level of implication can lead to surprising if not contradictory results. 72. by certain kinds of signs.. and the model of poetry as nonsemiotic. of gender (Mitchell. 30. for in both cases the question is whether the difference between direct and indirect.. see also 2-3.227 on Mon. 227). but vision is also the sense traditionally associated (at least since Plato) with cognition. At once a theoretical forerunner and the methodological antithesis of Kant. but one of degree" (102). This idea he defines in phenomenological terms as "the intuitive presence of an ideal content. whose Critiquegave new philo25 More precisely. with the superior hierarchical position of men. 191-203). as for all "aesthetic theory in the Enlightenment. cf. 84. for Lessing. 228. 91.5 and that its differentiation of media rests on no cognitive distinction but rather on an historically conditioned hierarchy of the arts that reinforces certain hierarchical relations of power and. To argue that Lessing views "poetry as a transparent discourse" (241. 26 Mitchell prints a table of political and gendered oppositions which he claims are implied. presentational and abstract signification." is a provocatively questionable notion to which I will return." Mitchell concludes: "[ft]he distinction between 'direct' and 'indirect' is therefore not a difference of kind. and Wellbery clearly states his adherence to Foucault's thesis: "The entire philosophy of the sign-and 'classical thought. implicitly." but what he calls "the idea" or "paradigm of painting" that Lessing equates with poetry (236. The description is not an unfamiliar one." "but. the direct apprehension of our mental representations" (241. but its application to Lessing is. To argue that it is not. rests on the primacy of intuition.COMPARATIVE LITERATURE (Wellbery) ." the visually and acoustically transmissible signs of words. direct and indirect expression" (102)-Mitchell cites Lessing's observation (sec. is to argue also that such "kinds of signs" as brushstrokes or even mimicking gestures are categorically indistinguishable from the noniconic "kind. 16) that "painting can also imitate actions" and "poetry also depicts bodies. Mitchell aligns Lessing's assumedly pejorative view of women with the (lowly) sense of vision. 9). at least since Augustine." "the experience of presence [which] communicates its contents immediately to intuition"-in other words."in the former case. see also 7. Mitchell helpfully clarifies the broader thrust of the ut pictura poesis doctrine. however. 95." it is also the same thread on which has hung. on the slender thread of the difference between primary and secondary representation. and so one may suppose. In joining the issue of "indirect" signification or "suggestion" to the decisive difference between pictorial and verbal signs (which he denies).. 237. If that difference seems "a slender thread. "Intuition" and immediate "presence" are. In support of his main thesis-that the "whole distinction [between poetry and painting] hangs . 7. however." and in the latter. 137) is to conform to Foucault's notion of the "myth of the sign" in the Classical Age.72. is a difference in kind. Arguing further that painting represents bodies "bymeans of shapes and colors-that is. in Laokoon. "only by suggestion through actions" (Lessing 9:95).2 The nonsystematic approach to aesthetics announced in Laokoonmay account in part for this revisionary reception. not Lessing's terms. Once again owing most directly to Foucault.. analogous to his "idea of painting." "the poem as a whole attains to the status of a natural sign" (233. iconic art which Wellbery attributes to Laokoonobviously runs contrary to Lessing's explicit definition of narrative poetry as composed of sequential "arbitrary signs. while not actually stated.' according to Foucault .
(Cf..."27 Lessing describes his observations in Laokoon as following no particular order. called an "accidental" approach.168. What Lessing.") 27 On the specifically architectural. and they thanked him for everything that happy circumstance carried into their hands" (14: 290nl). Far from implying the representational incompatibility of space and time. an engagement with texts taking the form of philological criticism in an active. interpretive sense.LESSING & KANT sophical meaning to the term "architectonic. 239 This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. the categories of time and space cannot exclude each other: "[o]f course bodies don't only exist in space. Lessing's gloss of the title (Hermda) he gave to a collection of "critical and antiquarian essays" whose projected composition (1762-63) was subsequently interrupted and absorbed by his work on Laokoon: "Everything that the Greeks accidentally found on their path. see my "Architecture.227 on Mon. stating in its "Preface" that the individual "essays" (Aufsdtze) composing the work "arose in an accidental manner" and so constituted "more a disorderly collection of notes for a book than a book" (9:5). as has become familiar from the spatialform-and-literature debate. like the voice of Blake's Bard. metaphoric creation. some systematic principles regarding different aesthetic media inform the analyses of texts and pictorial objects that are It should also be noted that Lessing's comments on "indirect" imitation directly follow the commonsensical remark. Lessing's distinction between the objects represented by verbal and nonverbal signs remains tied to a differentiation of their cognitive forms. Still. 3 Dec 2012 23:32:34 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . and the criticism which reveals this form becomes itself a literary. whose poetry depends upon his having hearda word and sensed the presence of its living. incarnate form. but rather an enduring theoretical problem related to the accidents of language Lessing recognized and addressed. With considerable understatement. for Hermes was the God of the path. even as it may invite revisionist readings.72. which Mitchell might welcome. that in painting. a distinction Kant will repeat some fifteen years later when criticizing the insubstantial systems of dogmatic metaphysics (111:36).28 we might instead call empirical. Still. Mitchell. as much as in poetry. The same can be said for the conceptual vocabulary in which Lessing's so-called "accidental" observations are expressed. displays neither simple inadvertence. "actions cannot exist in themselves. aesthetic dimension of Kant's Critique. but must be attached to bodies" (9:95). "We Germans are not lacking in systematic books" (9:5). any basis for differentiation may appear too slender and any recognition of difference too great when a neoplatonic or apostolic unity of image and word is fundamentally desired. the "arbitrary"or abstract references of discourse and "natural" or imaged references of painting. Lessing distinguishes the act of criticism from its mannered imitation. The occasionally striking disorder of that critical language. the gratuitous elaboration of conceptual systems. "Spatial"560: "the spatial form of literature becomes the logos or incarnate word. they named Hermia . following Diderot. but also in time". nor bad faith. nor an historically determined semiotic consciousness on Lessing's part." 28 Cf.
they define "the limits of painting and poetry"--like Kant's negative limitation of to knowledge to the form of mental representations-according which an understanding of the mediation of cognition. See also Todorov.31 The visually life-like imitations of plastic art 29In this emphasis Lessing differed even from his closest theoretical correspondent. practically and conceptually nonidentical as well. in Lessing. one that Hegel would make into a method for narrating the history of the spirit. my "Lessing. 30is confined in Laokoon to the plastic arts alone. can be approached. 87. "Esth6tique. is that the empirical limitations within which art forms operate are also the only means through which they gain a critical edge. see also Mendelssohn's annotations of Lessing's early drafts of Laokoon. "Imitation" 40-42. 14:344-48.168." see Rudowski 59. Lessing locates the cognitive potential of the arts not in what unites them but in what makes them materially non-identical." especially 38." a view she bases on Abrams's The Mirror and the Lamp (13-14). and Wimsatt 69 on Lessing's opposition to the notion of mimetic resemblance in poetry. 240 This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. "Poetic" 107-09. 30 On Lessing's view that even dramatic imitation involved neither sensory "illusion" nor the "realistic representation of nature. See Mendelssohn's "Betrachtungen fiber die Quellen und Verbindungen der sch6nen Wissenschaften und Kfinste" ["Considerations on the sources and relations of the beautiful sciences and arts"] 1:165-90 (especially 17480). 3 Dec 2012 23:32:34 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions .227 on Mon.COMPARATIVE LITERATURE dispersed throughout Laokoon. Unlike the doctrine whose aesthetic products he criticizes. 144.29His focus on the material differences of the arts does not aim merely to maintain their integrity (a mute integrity being as useless as a garrulous and indistinct union). Departing from Aristotle. and so of the larger relation between aesthetics and epistemology. that for Lessing "both [poetry and painting] are iconic of reality. whose definition of "natural"and "arbitrary" signs as the respective "limits" of pictorial and discursive art doubled back to reaffirm a mimetic overlap between the arts. the feature that most defines the media as critically different from one another is the presence or absence of mimetic representation. Lessing uses the term Nachahmung ("imitation") in Laokoonto describe the works of both painters and poets. Yet the conception of imitation as objective visual illusion or verisimilitude. Lessing's real philosophical insight into the aesthetic. 31 Cf. following the fact of material difference. see Todorov. cf." On Lessing's theory of literary "imitation" as preromantic. Integrally related to these material conditions.72. and. Steiner argues. by contrast. Mendelssohn.Linking these analyses. Gombrich 142. to whom he claimed allegiance in his writings on drama. whose formal observance in French classical drama Lessing criticized in his Hamburgische Dramaturgie as non-Aristotelian. for a similar argument regarding Lessing's alignment of visual art with French drama. but rather-and with greater theoretical significance-to bring the critical dimension of aesthetic forms into relief.
but in their shared reference.. a primary characteristic of postmodern aesthetics and a major factor in Foucauldian theory of history. locating the cause of its misleading effect not in any natural similarity between the different arts referred to. the ancients named phantasiae. object-representation and diachronic narration are opposed terms.] I strongly wish that modern manuals of poetry had used this designation [poetischephantasiae] and refrained entirely from using the word painting [Gemdihlde]. Lessing states: There are paintable and unpaintablefacts. an "arbitrary name": [n] 96. as one recalls from Longinus. whose 241 the most painterly in as unpainterly a fashion as the poet can represent the most This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. asserting that "every trait. in a footnote that. just as his critique of identifications of the arts seems to falter in the very corner where it lays blame-describing painting as a model for poetic languagethat Lessing notes that the question he has been addressing. every combination of traits" through which the poet makes his subject perceptible "is called painterly. they called enargeia [." is a question he has been misled to by the "ambiguity of the word.LESSING & KANT are contrasted throughout Laokoon to the imitations of linguistic art. has gone virtually unnoted in both traditional and revisionist readings of his text. is not. . the deceiving aspect of these paintings. The confusion of the visual with the verbal. on what basis poetic imaging can be called "a painting.e. i. To viewthis matterotherwiseis to let oneself simplybe misledby the ambiguityof the word. easily avoided. (9:91-92) between poetic and material Having pointed to a discontinuity "painting.227 on Mon. he also encounters difficulties in keeping the arts separated. whose purpose is not to represent objectivelybut to render diachronically. difficulties articulated in descriptive language itself. Following a discussion of the absence of pictorial imagery in Milton and the New Testament. however. heisst ein Gemihlde") brings us closer to that degree of illusion which "material pictures" induce most easily (9:92). What we call poetic paintings. perhaps because it indicates a conflict Lessing also admits he cannot resolve. ." He analyzes that "Zweideutigkeit" philologically. They would have spared us a multitude of half-true rules. is called a because it painting" ("heisst mahlerisch. While Lessing's rethinking of aesthetics and aesthetic theory with regard to the properties of language represents precisely a rejection of this noncritical leveling. At the close of section 14 of Laokoon Lessing admits these difficulties openly. and the writerof historycan narrate unpainterlyin a painterlyfashion. A poetic painting is not necessarilysomething that can be transformed into a materialpainting.72." Lessing nonetheless proceeds to describe the "ambiguity" ("Zweideutigkeit") of their designation as rationally continuous. 3 Dec 2012 23:32:34 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions .168. It is at this moment. And what we call illusion. for Lessing.
the verb Lessing uses most often to describe the act of poetic articulation is mahlen. "to paint.32 main justification is the agreement of an arbitrary name. this dilemma is written into the language of aesthetic theory. through such a gallery-can only be read coherently as a conceptual play on words taking place in the context of already misleading usage. 242 This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. After briefly setting out the differences be"painting" critically tween the arts systematically. Lessing's note also indicates the involvement of sensory or aesthetic images in linguistic theory. Hegel's poetische Vorstellung ("poetic representation").168. Lexical difficulties along the same lines were noted with historic consequences by Saussure. if it were not Homer's praxis itself that had brought me to it" (9:95). then Lessing's metaphor of the poem as rather. indeed. cited above. but in section 14.72." Such metaphoric crossings occur frequently in Laokoon. Lessing's ambiguous response to the ongoing circulation of an "ambiguous. 33 Cf. No one would have subordinated poetic phantasiae to the limits of a material painting. other qualified but still ambiguous expressions having arisen to take its place-his note on the arbitrary verbal origin of theoretical error sheds light on the crux and dilemma of aesthetic theory generally. who substituted the formal terms "signified" and "signifier" for "concept" and "acoustic image" on grounds of a semantic "ambiguity" arising in the customary use of the word "sign" directly comparable to those Lessing gives for replacing Gemdhlde(see Saussure 26."33 Far from being hypothetical. 3 Dec 2012 23:32:34 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions .the basisfor being misledwasestablished(9:92b). the first such exchanges Lessing's note illuminates arise directly in Laokoon. Lessing had described narrative poets as leading us "through a whole gallery of paintings" (9:89). and dynamically diachronically. 99-100).227 on Mon. rather.COMPARATIVE LITERATURE were namedpoetic paintings. of the narrative poet as one who leads us. It is as a consequence of Homer's narrative praxis that Lessing expli32 In the only discussion I have found of this passage." But in section 16. Holly 372. starting "from first principles. that of the act of textual study. the structural exchange of vision and words. or. Lessing makes the nonmimetic clear." "arbitrary name. he uses the same turn of phrase to praise Milton by default: "Admittedly. the central section of basis of so-called verbal Laokoon. Milton can fill no picture galleries" (9:91). stating: "I would put little trust in this dry chain of reasoning. for example. if I didn't find it fully confirmed by Homer's praxis. but as soon as phantasiae Granted that Lessing's wish to ban Gemdhlde ("painting") from "manuals of poetry" is wishful thinking-poetisches Bild ("poetic imand age"). Hagstrum (156) literally reverses its terms. If it is Milton's inability to fill a gallery that makes him for Lessing a second Homer." Lessing returns immediately to his own first principle. and far from being limited to the past history of that language. claiming that enargeiawas the word Lessing wanted to substitute for Gemiihlde (picture) and leaving aside any consideration of phantasia. picture gallery-or. In section 13.
" "The thing itself' which these predicative attributes "signify" (9:74) is thus not their own objectivity but the object of poetic imitation. and that he paints all bodies. the inability to sculpt folds of cloth-Lessing argues that the representation of the figure rests instead on intellectual grounds (the human body is worthier of imitation than clothing) and that to deny the artist this motive "debases" plastic art. the substitution of a general principle of illusion for meaning: "Do our eyes only want to be deceived. and does it make no difference to them with what they are deceived?" Poetic imitation."and representation plays no part in the accidents of power it designates. but "tools" which take material part in ongoing narrative action: "instruments without which these beings could not produce the effects we ascribe to them. but whose movement from subject to subject makes action conceivable as a series of discrete predicates. he argues by inversion. . Instead. because it "paints" "progressive actions.34 what he says in section 5 the verbal "imagina- tion sees through" to (9:43). Lessing specifies that 243 This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. our imagination sees through everywhere. all individual things. etc. The passage of the scepters is what Lessing calls "history. however. 31 Parting company with both sides of a debate over the appearance of the Laokoon statue-whether its indecorous nudity may be excused on a technicality. how far behind him he leaves the painter? Instead of an illustration he gives us the history of the scepter: first it is worked on by Vulcan. next it glitters in the hands ofJupiter. Nowhere is this specifically verbal nature of narrative poetic art better demonstrated than in Lessing's discussion of the scepters of Agamemnon and Achilles. only by way of their contribution to these actions. nor in our knowledge of those bare traits that link names like verbs: What does it matter to Homer." 9:95). or rather a single trait of an object. 3 Dec 2012 23:32:34 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . nothing in themselves. are not images strung together like "letters. symbols of power which are. That such a debate might even arise signifies for Lessing the reductioad absurdumof the neoclassical illusionist aesthetic." much as an arbitrary name provides the subject and complement of a verb: "Ifind that Homer paints nothing other than progressive actions. objectively. now it marks the dignity of Mercury." does not represent bodily objects.227 on Mon. (9:98) In "knowing" the scepter better than if he had it in his hands. remains unaffected by questions of literal proper dress. now it is the shepherd's staff of the peaceful Atreus." and "sees" 34 Here Lessing is distinguishing the "allegorical images" necessarily used to identify "personified abstractions" in plastic art from the nonallegorical "attributes" by which they are identified in poetry.LESSING & KANT cates the critical thrust of Laokoon:that poetry." Once again. just as do words.or a secondVulcanto deliverit into myhands. action. ." codified iconic substitutes for linguistic signs. by contrast. in knowing what Lessing calls in section 10 "the thing itself' ("die Sache selbst") (9:74). usually only by means of a single trait" (9:95-96). So finally I know this scepter better than if a painter were to layit before my eyes.168.35 Lessing knows no "thing. now it is the commander's staff of the warlike Pelops. to delineate its "real" or "actual object" ("eigentliche[r] Gegenstand.72. The latter. . for already in poetry clothing "covers nothing. poetry uses objects. "action.
Homer's epic narrative is not a drama.72. wo es ihm um das blosse Bild zu thun ist")-he "disperses this image over a kind of history" ("wird er dieses Bild in eine Art von Geschichte verstreuen"). this notion is remarkable in Laokoonnot only because of its own timing. into her reading of the scepter passage as allegorical for any continuous allegory of the transmission of power: "The allegorical reading is therefore allegorical in turn for the power (or failure) of language to 'express' its 'object. She incorporates it. this word is more like an unvisualizable sign. the scepter in this passage works as a narrative token. see also 110). the "flow of discourse" ("Fluss der Rede. abstract noun or adjective ("dignity.36 Homer's poem. Moreover. with appropriate awkwardness. more precisely. according to Lessing (and Homerists tend to agree ).168." "warlike")and proper noun. "progressive imitations" ("fortschreitende Nachahmungen. and rather than emphasize the formal unity of its plot. at the sources of modernity. from one accident of history to the next." 9:100)."or. Instead of serving as a synchronic device of representation (a painting). Each of the clauses narrating this history is limited to a constative minimum: pronoun. when. but to a word. 36There is no mention in Laokoon of a "single moment" in which the diachronic narrative appears "a contentual (sic) whole. a purely syntactic element. subordinating it to the tempo. motion verbalized in what Lessing called. such as is suggested by Wellbery's phenomenalist notion of the "whole" poem functioning as a "formally natural sign. verb." "the form of intuitive presence" (237).227 on Mon. passed along from sentence to sentence.COMPARATIVE LITERATURE no object but its "history. Wellbery's historical interpretation of Lessing tends to accede to "a higher level of generality" regarding the arts than did Lessing (7. but also because it refers not to a visual image. the history of hands through which it has passed." and no basis on which to entertain "ideal" rather than "material" suppositions regarding narrative signs. or suggest that it somehow be viewed synchronically. 3 Dec 2012 23:32:34 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . it is upon the differentiation of these terms that the very possibility of aesthetic theory depends. Treating "idea" and "representation" interchangeably. it can be argued. however. 9. the preferred vehicle of postmodern theory. and less like a representational painting than any concrete noun one might think of-exwhat the discursive imagination "sees"is not the body as a whole but its part in representing action: "Whether or not Virgil's Laokoon is clothed. 244 This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. a kind of Baudrillardism avant la lettre. represents historical action as the unqualified act of forward motion. his suffering is as visible in one part of his body as in another" (9:42-43). 37 To my knowledge.37 If the discursive flow of postmodernism has made the idea of imaging as dispersal now seem familiar.that even when Homer does not use an image to a specific narrative "end" ("Absicht")-when "he is concerned merely with the image" ("auch da. Jacobs is alone in citing this observation even in part (516)." 9:95 et passim).""peaceful.' to strengthen its power by means of 'eine Art von geschichte'" (518). This is what Lessing indicates in the astonishing observation.
of course.72. introduces the letter as a kind of dramatic proof that Lessing viewed all signs as natural (226). a pure cept. by contrast. by which signs attain natural status and the things they signify are denaturalized. instead of "action. Rudowski's study is primarily devoted to the letter in its bearing on the problem of dramatic mimesis.38This is the form of "poetic description" (9:50 etpassim) Lessing chooses to describe. See Muncker's edition of the Laokoonpapiere. 380.LESSING & KANT Like a baton. and without ever representing itself.e. Jacobs 516-21). to the object of poetic imitation (including imitation that is "indirect. Todorov cites the remark as Lessing's indication of an instance of semiosis in which linguistic "motivation is complete. as he subsequently remarks (9:98-99.39 Lessing's understanding of poetic description offers a theoretical context for interpreting an observation he made in correspondence with Nicolai (letter of May 26. "motion" (or "movement. 4o Wellek first called attention to it. 14:334-440 (especially 372. on the way in which the remark may be used to identify Lessing with just such a theory of "natural" (or unambiguous) linguistic signification. interpreting Lessing's statement to mean that in drama "language is natural because it is spoken by characters and in character. that "things" signified 38 In the drafts of Laokoon that Lessing circulated to Mendelssohn and Friedrich Nicolai for their comments. with gestures and expression of the face as in real life. which is a sign. without representing why. the assertion. 414-15). 39Cf. Jacobs 513n." Bewegung)is the name given. and thus it loses the fatal quality of conventionality which inheres in all other uses of language" (164-65). To say that the scep- ter is not the sign of a thing but a thing which is a sign is to come close to the chiasmus Lessing sets up here.40 Reacting to a review of Laokoon by Garve.227 on Mon. extraordinary for Lessing or for any secular theorist. interested in a larger theory of illusion in drama. Homer's verbal image points to what is next. It is a differential lexical token easily endowed with allegorical meaning. for that false sign. 245 This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. marker of movement. in other words. Burke's seminal "Whatare the Signs of What?"in which the inversion of sign and thing signified is offered as a means of conceiving the linguistic mediation of cognition generally. Cf. 1769) whose significance in recent critical literature has sometimes overshadowed that of Laokoon itself. Gemdhlde. Wellbery." Handlung." i. Lessing apparently retreats from his appreciation of Homeric narrative and commends drama as that form of poetry most capable of making "arbitrary signs" into "natural signs of arbitrary things" (17:291). 3 Dec 2012 23:32:34 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . when "words designate words" rather than things ("Esthetique" 37). cf. a sign that does not represent a thing. Rudowski takes exception to Wellek's implication that "the preeminence of the dramatic genre" for Lessing was "a function of theatrical performance" (49-50).168." andeutungsweise). I know of no discussion of this passage which focuses on the literal wording of the latter and stranger portion of its inversion. but gives the occurrence of action-otherwise as invisible as the gods-verbal form: a thing..
LITERATURE COMPARATIVE could be "arbitrary." and. to the arbitrariness of semiotic relations at any given moment of time. Lessing's description of verbal images as necessarily dispersed over history. 145. also recalls Benjamin's treatment of the ends of history as the artifactual givens of each successive "allegorical perspective." i. 105). this phrase reverses the order of semiosis."reading the second half of the inversion as follows: "words thus designate words . Wellbery follows Todorov's interpretation of "'arbitrary things"' as meaning "words. In this respect it recalls another highly unconventional notion with which Lessing is not commonly associated: Benjamin's view that. the motivation [of the sign] is complete" ("Esth6tique" 37. calling attention. according to Laokoon.e. but discourse itself" (227). as conjoined with history. 3 Dec 2012 23:32:34 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . results only from the already circular logic of reading language naturally. however. Lessing's comments earlier in the same letter that the painting of "costume" and "even of a large part of bodily expression" are also "natural signs of arbitrary things." carried over from DuBos. by their own displacement. Lessing's analytic observation that pictorial images of events are carefully constructed so as to represent the context of "a fruitful moment" directed new critical attention to the conscious selection and composition of signs involved in making plastic art. The signs of painting are natural in semiotic aesthetic theory not because they are not artifactual but because they are not arbitrary with respect to their object: "1As cited in the preceding note. as represented by baroque drama. Lessing's definition of the "signs"of painting as "natural.227 on Mon." Cf. 246 This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192.. The referential tautology Wellbery indicates." "emblems" or indices of the passage of time (161-62)."but views this instead as the "point where [the naturalness of signification] loses all meaning. "Imitation" 41). Indeed. Their then explicitly arbitrary relation to the dramatic allegorical context not only "fixes" these "images" but makes them into "fixing signs.168. similarly rendering arbitrary the thing imaged." "objects of knowledge in their own right. The only referent which discourse can perfectly imitate turns out to be not a real or imaginary object or action. 160).. visual images of conventions [17:290]. however. What is not and cannot be arbitrary. subject to temporality (see esp. as conventionally conceived." images that become objects of knowledge once their original (we might say "natural") temporal context has been eradicated (159-63. Mendelssohn.72. "nature" itself was "allegorical. The image-signs of Benjamin's allegory become "natural"in Lessing's terms. insofar as they signify not a natural history but the fact that nature is historical.. implies no naturalization of their artifactual status. A noniconic reading which distinguished between arbitrary signs and natural things would similarly distinguish between "natural signs" and "arbitrary things. Todorov equates the designation "arbitrary things" with "words. and others.is painting."4'Rather than indicating the overcoming of semiotic relations.
note 26. it is the thing which. is built. except that of denying the possibility of a relation between the pictorial arts and 42Lessing's insight here is recalled in Damisch's "theory of the/cloud/. and rapture.LESSING& KANT through ongoing technical and conceptual permutations of its medium. the aesthetic object itself. This can lead to the difficulty of showing the invisible. by contrast. and so avoids the act of making visible that is its own historical action. that is why one should not see the ground" (14:348). furthermore.168. the poet "transforms beauty" itself into the dynamic quality of "charm. Painting cannot declare this difference. memorably analyzed in Lessing's discussion of the painterly combination of two visible objects-clouds and gods-to connote the invisibility of the latter (sec. 43Cf. 247 This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. love.72. then. 9:132-34. is to commit no action as far as imaging is concerned. nonetheless.43 painting gives up its claim to cognitive power when. To take Helen out of the picture. Homer narrates her active effect on those who saw her. dedication. Lee 215n84). 9:85-88). operating as a sign. Like a scepter of power. does not show what it gives to be seen. Helen's beauty is a token of action in Homer.44 But a painting of Helen that showed her effect on others while hiding its cause would negate even the action it "suggested" (andeutungsweise)45 by withdrawing the body.42 But when it comes to visibility. it shirks its own means. 12. 3 Dec 2012 23:32:34 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . Any "Helen" a painter images will be a token of beauty."freshly defined by Lessing as "beauty in motion" (9:130). the experiences of "pleasure. passing from Greek to Trojan.227 on Mon. 255). rather than describing Helen. cf. the fundamental condition of pictorial as of all plastic art. which beauty causes". Lessing in the Laokoon drafts: "Caylusdid not consider that the poet works in a double genre of beings and actions. 44Lessing's observation that Homer never "portrays"the beauty "upon which the whole poem. in it everything is visible and visible in the same way" (14:363). visible and invisible. the history of art. It has been objected that the limits of Lessing's own understanding of painting are most evident in his criticism of Caylus's proposed painting of Helen as veiled (sec. painting shows what it gives the viewer to know. 45 Cf. ostensibly links the series of ambiguous and often discontinuous effects and actions known as the Trojan War. 22. like pictorial poetry. an image dispersed over history." led to Nicolai's semiotically insightful comment: "The poem was built on Helen's beauty. part of an ongoing series of acts constituting not Homer's narrative but that of another "progressive action": the history of bringing images into being." in which the ambivalent pictorial sign of the cloud serves as a kind of metaphor for painting (see especially 215. Lessing remarked that.
for while "Helen" would have to be seen in order for her ("Helen's") effect on others to have meaning. indeed. A painting of Helen in which Helen was not visible would be like a display of nonfigural painting in which the paintings were not visible: no part of them. selfreflexively. to an action left unstated. without visible "natural signs" to work on." Like a poem that negates itself as verba. "youknow how these things go. indeed. 3 Dec 2012 23:32:34 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . not even "empty"canvases. a site vacant of sculpture or of building. "Beauty. but shows the visible reaction of others who also do not see her-"Is that Helen?"-is no less critical than to ask of spectators gaping at galleries shorn of paintings. "Beauty"is best painted (following Damisch's comments on Cesare Ripa) with "her head in the clouds" (81-83). To inquire of a pictorial representation of Helen that does not show her.72. or narrated only by the words. It may be.168. a painting that contrives to make us imagine Helen rather than see her image must make us question whether our imaginings bear any relationship to that particular hidden figure. in Lessing's terms.46 Thus with respect to Caylus's hypothetical and hidden figure. and that something need be no more concrete than "Helen." The fact that "Helen" is not the abstract persona. the practical conception of the thing called "painting. or.227 on Mon. "Isthat art?" The things of plastic art must be visible if they are to make the conception of something known. whether the unimaged figure meant to prompt our imagining "is"Helen at all.leaving its very lexical identity to the reader's or listener's imagination. both reverses and maintains the terms of Damisch's analysis. Imagination left on its own (whatever that would be). at invisibility itself. Finally. 248 This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192.47A pictorial representation of Helen that showed no figure would be comparable. this withdrawal of the means to knowledge in its nonaesthetic assumption would hold for nonfigural painting as well." a proper noun conventionally connoting a particularly significant instance of beauty. 47"Dasist Helena? "-itself a succinct representation of the question of the relation between cognition and art-is later rephrased by Lessing in the bluntly deaestheticized terms denoting an abandonment of that relation: "Washat dieses Ding von der Helena?" ("What does this thing have of Helen?" 9:133). the beauty otherwise known to us in its function as a verbal token in a poem. Lessing may ask with genuine urgency a question which is also the most concise complete sentence in Laokoon: "Is that Helen?" (9:133). not even "empty"frames." or 46Cf.COMPARATIVE LITERATURE knowledge." but its poetic token in a narrated history. Damisch on the epistemologically related problem of representing "Beauty" by a "beautiful image": "It would only be tautological to attempt to represent an unknown thing by another which would be just as unknown. does not so much rise to the heights of ineffable vision as fall back on cliched images whose already-known quality enforces a lack of imagination and maintains the limits of ignorance.
the critic who attempts to read the difference between this verbal image and a statue. nothing to be known. The sign of this movement is the verbal image of Laokoon. as performing the critical function Laokoon performs in Virgil's narrative. the history of what the name stands for. no historical movement of conceptions. and its medium of representational knowledge is the linguistic sign. much like Lessing's scepters. Helen will always be Helen in language. or Lessing. but where. (Virgil. he asks. and. The Trojans took those deaths. 3 Dec 2012 23:32:34 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . given the revolutions in the history of the medium. will have no truck with such false transparency. as caused by their own gods. He and his offspring were materially immobilized by serpents moving toward the citadel (Aeneid 2:201-227). with the transparency of hindsight. again transparently. and one can always entertain the suspicion that. Homer's or another poet's. an arbitrary name. the desire to assimilate it is not to be trusted (especially 117-22). 249 This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192.and to Lessing's description of the things of poetry as the arbitrarysigns of history. incidentally. making history of whomever happened to stand in their way. these serpents may have merely been moving on. what happens next? We all know what happened to Laokoon. and Lessing. The absence of such visible objects in discourse makes discourse the medium of action. there is a specific way in which Lessing's endeavor can now be read as part of another passage. in turn. as Laokoon himself. of Winckelmann's Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums (9:156). "I don't dare take another step without having read this work. and we. of what progressive action is it a mere token. may be read. Asserting dramatically. at least in part48-but without the particular visible object. if we take this token into our hands." there is no conception." Lessing ends Laokoon in (one-sided) debate with Winckelmann over the dating of the Laokoon statue. and that. or rather.168.227 on Mon. What the Trojans see when they see the splendid horse is its material grandeur. never says anyone sent the serpents. but the passage of Helen. will be poetry. on "innovation" and the "image of painting. like the verbally variegated horse. Hexter's argument that Virgil's contradictory references to the precise mate- rial the horse is made of implies that one is apt to make of this image what one will. Returning for a final moment to Laokoon. take them as caused by gods friendly to the Greeks. before the completion of Laokoon. Beautiful the horse may well be. they take Sinon's story at face value.72. it probably always must be." 49Cf. does it come from: what is its history? Or rather.) What Lessing says happened to his Laokoonwas the publication. the movement of criticalhistory.49But Laokoon. Lessing's "natural sign. Damisch 46-47.LESSING & KANT "art"-indeed. It is now gener48Cf.
72. and in describing his new. but even a brief recapitulation of vations on the Critique of the three Critiques may serve to undermade in each key points score the relation between Lessing and Kant. Like Lessing before him. despite repeated remonstrances. Nor have they. impeded the progress of his Laokoon. Starting again from "first principles.LITERATURE COMPARATIVE ally agreed that Lessing's late dating of the statue was wrong. Kant criticizes Baumgarten's attempt to make aesthetic judgment a reasoned science-"to bring the judgment of the beautiful under principles of reason and to raise the rules of these principles to a science"-arguing by contrast that any formulation of rules of taste is "futile" ("vergeblich") (KrVB 36. 250 This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. the verbal perfect. Still. Lessing misdated the Laokoon statue just as he fudged the actual timing of his reading of Winckelmann." while implying relative immediacy." the first of these for Kant was the philosophically revolutionary notion of a "transcendental aesthetic. "A science of all a prioriprinciples of sensory perception I name the 'transcendental aesthetic"' (KrV B 36. the transformation of a critique of aesthetic forms into a critical epistemology. but the main interest of that debate was never empirical chronology. what makes Lessing's effort in these final sections remarkable is that the only evidence he musters and manipulates remains textual. epistemological use of the word "aesthetic"Kant refers specifically to its earlier adoption by Baumgarten. and bibliographical evidence in section 29 (the misquotations of Longinus and Pliny which demonstrate Winckelmann's failure to go back to original textual sources).For what happened in critical history to Lessing's limitation of visual representation to the plastic arts was Kant's limitation of knowledge to representation. syntactical evidence in section 28 (the function of a single comma in a description of a statue's pose). 14:378n2).227 on Mon. 3 Dec 2012 23:32:34 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . 3:70). On the contrary. on the order of philology rather than iconic history: rhetorical evidence in section 26 (the precise import of the comparative similiter). 3:70n) since such rules must come 50 Winckelmann's Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums(1763) was known to Lessing earlier than the opening sentence of section 26-"Herr Winckelmann's History of Ancient Art has appeared" ["Des Herrn Winckelmanns 'Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums' ist erschienen"]--leads one to believe (9:156.50 and neither of these facts impinges on Lessing's aesthetic theory in the slightest. sensory perception already takes place in representational form. see also Muncker's commentary.grammatical evidence in section 27 (the use of the perfect tense in an inscription). At the opening of the First Critique Kant states.168. In the context of the present discussion only some summary obserare possible." the hypothesis that all empirical. "ist erschienen. remains grammatically untied to any specific date.
.227 on Mon.. nor in terms of the cognition of objects. Yet in so considering judgment Kant also confronts what he calls the "ambiguity" of the term "aesthetic. in the Third Critique." and proceeds to resolve that ambiguity by critically reconceptualizing the activity to which its customary usage pertains. In order to understand the ability to judge what is beautiful as something other than prescribed taste. and alternatively that which only has to do with the cognitive faculty .LESSING & KANT into conflict with the empiricalcriteria on which they are based. the activity of judging which. (KU 10:3435)51 Just as Lessing's theory of poetry as the representation of action rather than objects may be viewed as his critical resolution of the historical "ambiguity"of the word "painting. sensory. instead of the logical apprehension of objects. but The expression-an aesthetic mode of representation-is entirely unambiguous. nonetheless be cancelled if one uses the expression aesthetic neither of the intuitions nor even less of the representations of understanding.e. instead.72.when whatis meant thereby is the relationship of a representation not to the cognitive faculty." 251 This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. Thus there remains an unavoidable one unambiguity in the expression-an aesthetic mode of representation-when derstands thereby that mode which excites the feeling of pleasure or displeasure. in Kant's critical project "aesthetic" signifies the a priori form of all phenomenal cognition. and this is Kant's purpose in the Third Critique. but solely of the actions of judgment" (KU 10:35). although through the naming of an aesthetic judgment of an object. the judgment of the beautiful. is no longer a representation but an action. What is "aesthetic. . Here a reconception of epistemology which names the fact of formal sense perception "aesthetic" must proceed to redefine the referent of "aesthetic"when. however.168. one must instead treatjudgment as a specific kind of mental activity."then. the experience of pleasure is meant: when whatis understood therebyis the relatingof a representationto an object-as appearance-toward the cognition of that object . but. That activity." so Kant's epistemological use of the term "aesthetic" both makes the "ambiguity"of this "expression"-in view of its long-standing use-"unavoidable. determines no object but rather a subject moved by "feeling": "Thus it will immediately be shown that.i.. is now defined neither on the basis of objective criteria. . 3 Dec 2012 23:32:34 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . as action: "This ambiguity can. But for a long time it has been also customaryto call a mode of representationaesthetic. to the feeling of pleasure and displeasure.." While the word had been used historically to denote pleasing or beautiful forms.. a given representation 5' Both this discussion of the "ambiguous" referential status of "aesthetic" and Kant's explicit redefinition of the use of the word occur in the "First Draft of the Introduction to the CritiqueofJudgment.
the term "aesthetic" appears in the Critique ofJudgmentprincipally as a contrastive term to "teleological. on the notion of noncognitive. cognitive qualities. Kant's "transcendental aesthetic" of all possible knowledge thus seems to unite the forms Lessing divides: in making representation a cognitive category. defines the judgment of the beautiful in the Third Critique. He introduced an additional notion. Kant turns the concept of the aesthetic from a notion of the objectivity of the senses to that of their activity. Returning. the Third Critique focuses. 10:132). "purposive form. and without regard to verisimilar." the pure forms of sensibility: space and time."in order to join the invisible "internal sense" of time to our apprehension of matter. Such judgment is not a ruling arrived at either rationally or capriciously. and that no investigation would reveal that art to the eye ("unverdeckt vor Augen legen." effecting a distinction between judgments of beautiful and of purposeful forms echoing Kant's larger division between pure and practical reason." KrVB 177-85. judgment of the beautiful acts in response to the sense of purposiveness conveyed by delimited forms of which we have no conceptual knowledge. Yet." now seen in conjunction with "understanding" (KU B 29. In contrast to the pleasurable dynamism of the beautiful. to its "ancient" meaning (KrVB 36. 3:70n). Absent from its title. Experienced whether we will or no.72. its "purposiveness without a purpose" (KUB 61. But while declaring the "schemata"to be "nothing but a priori determinations of time according to rules. but similarly dynamic.168. with less conceptual difficulty. If "time"is the dynamic form of knowledge the First Critique must posit. the "free play of imagination. as is well known. as he states.227 on Mon. 3:187-92). Kant brings space and time together as the twin intuitions of the mind. with the critical difference that his new epistemological definition of an "aesthetic" that is "transcendental" refers to senses operating according to a priori"representations.COMPARATIVE LITERATURE is related to an object. Within the Third Critique Kant remains on guard against the ambiguity brought forward by his cognitive use of the aesthetic in the First Critique." or "schemata. it is not the determination of the object but of the subject and his feeling that is understood in the judgment" (KU 10:36)." Repeating Lessing's definition of the first criterion of all art (9:19). that of "intermediary representations. but cannot represent to the mind's eye. the adverse dynamic experience of the sub252 This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. 3 Dec 2012 23:32:34 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . 10:155)." Kant also admitted that their "hidden art" ("verborgene Kunst") was and would remain "in the depths of the human soul" ("in den Tiefen der menschlichen Seele"). the representation of time gave Kant the most difficulty.
" precisely by limiting systematic knowledge to representational forms and so maintaining his the possibility of nonrepresentational "freedom"-of unknown action-can "negative" Critique. representational limits. for the practical transgression of theoretical knowledge is the very action Kant ascribes to "freedom" in the Second Critique. must use to talk about language. subsequently named "the moral law. representational knowledge but the purpose against which the limits of such knowledge are aimed. 7:171-73). Kant's "freedom" of action. Kant's attempt to define "freedom" as the single mental form delimited by no phenomenal object and unrelated even to the experience of pleasure-that is. 128. Only because it makes such acts of transgression "thinkable. 307-08. "in deed" be of practical "positive use" (KrVB 2426.72. 3 Dec 2012 23:32:34 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . that the cognitive limits Kant's project defined are those which we must now overcome practically. too. Action that is entirely "free"in its movement must also be free even of the passage of lexical tokens. 7:75. in "the undefined work of freedom" (38.52 Like Lessing's attempt to define or disambiguate the material limits of poetry and painting.5"Still." is the single verbal "form"-one could say "the thing itself' (die Sacheselbst)-his whole critical endeavor must render "real"(KpVA 97-99.LESSING& KANT lime seems to destroy all formal limitations and to point to the "purpose of practical reason" (KUB 115.168. and it is this objectively unlimited. 3:293-31)." that a priorisynthetic proposition named and described as necessarily "inconceivable"in his earlier Foundation of the Metaphysics of Morals (BA 88. 253 This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. 46). see my Imposition 68-87.227 on Mon. in turn. 10:193) which neither the Third nor First Critique can demonstrate: not the systematic goal of limited. or nonnarrative "freedom" of action that Kant's Second Critique attempts to define (KprVA 53-54. once and for all to clarify theoretically the misleading descriptive language he. 102. Even as Lessing took action to be the only "real object" of verbal art. proposing.in Kant's words. as absolutely noncontingent action always critically available to the mind-results within the Second Critique in his admission that this form "imposes" itself on his critical endeavor (KpVA 54. 7:139-40). Although the purely speculative notion of a "categorical" or "moral imperative" in no way 52In "Whatis Enlightenment?" Foucault distinguishes Kant as the first philosopher to have explicitly situated his own understanding of knowledge historically. the possibility of action undertaken without cognitive." and prepared for in the Third Critique by the intermediary notion of "the actions ofjudgment. While Foucault's turn to Kant is admirable. 7:140). his argument for the specifically contemporary need to transgress cognitive limits tells only half the story. Kant's effort to conceive of the reality of "freedom" discursively has tended to be confused historically with an instrumental imposition of the "categorical imperative. emphasis in text). 53 For further discussion of this dilemma in Kant's critical project.
as crucial to the making and understanding of poetry as it is to the cause of moral action. that the historically sequential but structurally inverted critiques of Lessing and Kant meet. Lessing's criticism of the notion of representation in discursive art and Kant's limitation of discursive knowledge to representation both point theoretically to the possibility of action freed from aesthetic and cognitive-that is. from representationallimitations. the "idea"he considered the "keystone"of his Critique (KprVA4. This freedom may take the "negative" form of a dialectic whose "limits"are viewed instead as historical and ideological. the verbal. 3 Dec 2012 23:32:34 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . to action conceived as free from all representational objects. as well as 7:107). For a detailed historical and textual analysis of Kant's own transformation of the literary form of philosophical writing. Lessing's analysis of the narrative sign and critique of representational aesthetics pass from the "aesthetic" limitations of representational knowledge to the dynamic. See "Freiheit. his eternal idea. epistemology the relation between them. If historians and critics of art have frequently dismissed Lessing as simply not understanding one medium.168. the visual.54 Yet in the critical context of an unrepresentable "freedom" of action.COMPARATIVE LITERATURE freed Kant from seeking to define "freedom" in the Second Critique. Grounded in a critical purpose rather than elevated to an ideal. it is no less the case that the "critical theory" practiced by Adorno relies fundamentally on what remains a Kantian possibility of freedom. see Goetschel. that possibility is practically indispensable: as necessary to the making and understanding of art as it is to claims of knowledge. could be of historical existence. Zur Metakritik der praktischen Vernunft.227 on Mon. and historians and critics of literature have even more frequently dismissed Kant as simply not understanding another. that speculative notion and not the practical reality of "freedom" is often all that is retained of Kant's moral philosophy as a whole. nonrepresentational experiences of the beautiful and the sublime." While Kant's critical turn in philosophy makes any reproach of its method on grounds of historical context at once irrelevant and irrefutable. especially 217: "In no way did it occur to [Kant] that freedom itself." 211-94. even the traits of objects with which action is spelled out.55this may be because of the complicated history of what passed betweenthem-no verbal token of 14An exception to the rule in this respect was Adorno's Negative Dialektik. whose consideration of the concept of "freedom" in the Second Critique criticizes instead its nonhistorical foundation. With Kant. 254 This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. 55On Kant's cognitive understanding of discursivity. the dynamic "real object" necessarily described negatively by their critical theories. whole societies lacked the concept of freedom as much as the thing. Thus it is in action. see my Imposition 21-52. Whole epochs. a concept not merely as such but according to the content of experience. Kant redefines both and aesthetics. But all that prevents such limits from fully determining action and so obliterating even the notion of critical thought is the same opposition to the exhaustive logic of causality appealed to in systematic terms by Kant.72.
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