A Speculative Abstract Sublime

The following text is an excerpt from a longer text which attempts to provide a theoretical map of the objects and processes that emerge from the hybridisation of philosophy and painting within the context of 21st century visual culture. While the dominant trends in philosophy have been based on the subject – mind correlate, whether through phenomenology or post-modernism, so too has painting had its own dominating format, through representation filtered by performed allusions to the real. As philosophy has retreated from any attempt to conceive of a world outside of its relation with human thought, so too has representational painting neglected the possibility of a ‘reality’ untainted by new systems of visual technology. Instead of these dominant forms within philosophy and painting, this theoretical map will draw on new formulations from the topography of ‘speculative realism’ and ‘painting through abstraction’. It is my belief that the objects and processes defined within the speculative turn in realist philosophy can be seen to exist within recent objects and processes of painting through abstraction. It is also my belief that these objects and processes enable the hybridisation of philosophy and painting to evolve towards a speculative form of aesthetics where autopoietic assemblages engage in relations and agency outside of human consciousness and intentionality. The aesthetic experience that flows from these emergent systems is ultimately a mapping of the contours of ‘a speculative abstract sublime’.

Philosophical realism and the legacies of modernist abstraction both have historical resonance and have taken on many varied forms throughout their development. I will define the specific versions of these historical, epistemological systems shortly. Firstly, however, it will be important to outline why these breeds of philosophy and art history have a valid relation for investigation in the context of contemporary abstract painting practice. At the core of philosophical realism and within the legacy of modernist abstraction as well as within the relation formed by the two, there is the formation of a dialectically connected, dynamic yet contradictory set of qualities. As we will see below, philosophical realism posits a non-human world outside of the familiar anthropomorphizing at work in the human minds construction of the world. Central to the claim of the existence of a non-human world outside the human – world relation, we encounter the obstacle that if we think of a world, outside our thought we automatically generate human subjectivity as the basis of this non-human place we originally imagined. Presumably we cannot escape the automatic humanizing procedures of thought, and as a result to claim the existence of a world beyond the man-made, we must employ a dialectical method of investigation (Harman, 2005). With this dialectical realism in mind, we can also explore the dialectical nature of the ‘legacies of modernist abstraction’. Modernist Abstraction claimed a world of art objects that re-presented a purity of expression that was autonomous from historical conditions, that tapped into the underlying order of nature and that favored form over content (Shapiro, 2011, p.2). However, as these symptoms of abstract modernism evolved, they became understood more for their own failure rather than their enduring success.

Capturing pure form in painting and seeing it as outside of historical time were rejected on the same basis as the rejection of philosophical realism. The legacies of modernist abstraction became associated with the impossibilities of its claims to escape classical representation, just as realism had failed to escape the ball and chain of subjective access. Furthermore, if realism has the focus of delving into ‘reality’ separate from human consciousness and understanding processes or things in the world, then why is it appropriate for understanding or creating contemporary art? Why do we not look at mountains or frogs, instead of painting and sculpture in order to further our realist objectives? Why are objects that are clearly generated by human consciousness relevant for a philosophy where the emphasis is on avoiding the presence of that same human mind?

My response to this concern arises from within the specificity of the ‘legacy of modernist abstraction’. As we have seen this legacy provides an inherent dialectical quality that can be seen as equally appropriate to the aims of philosophical realism. This dialectic is the inability to represent absolutes – because to represent is to make relative, to place in context with the conditions of representation (Lyotard, 1982, p.6). This inability to represent absolutes will re-occur, in later posts, as I attempt to unpack speculative realism in Quentin Meillassoux’s idea of correlationism and the ontologies Manuel DeLanda and Graham Harman. However, in the context of abstract art, we can turn to Jean Francois Lyotard, who points out, that even though we cannot represent any absolute, we can still demonstrate that the absolute exists. We can demonstrate this through negative representation (Lyotard, 1982, p.6). This ‘negative representation’ emerges from the Kantian notion of the sublime and transformed into  ‘abstraction’ by Lyotard where in its legacy it continues to grasp at the allusions to the invisible within the visual (Lyotard,1982, p.7). Abstraction in painting is seen as an attempt to re-present something that is ultimately unrepresentable. We can never grasp the absolutes.  Likewise, within philosophy, the dominant schools of thought are represented within the correlationist mindset, but as Meillassoux will show we can still pursue the processes, objects and systems outside subjectivity, given his arguments of ancestrality and absolute contingency. We may not be close to grasping the full meaning of objects or the underlining structure of emergent systems, but we can continue to pursue them through the revealing of historically accumulated strata that create the withdrawn objects we encounter today. The attempted grasping at the ‘unknowingness of being’ or ‘abstract sublime’ is primarily mediated by metaphoric speculation. It is this ‘metaphoric speculation’ towards the sublime that I believe is present in contemporary painting through abstraction as well as within the speculative turn in realist philosophy. The power of metaphor is also bolstered when placed within a context of aesthetic experience, which, as we will encounter in Graham Harman’s object-oriented philosophy, is a potential avenue to the real.

Within the context of legacies of abstraction, the unknowingness of being is referred to as ‘an abstract sublime’. This is a term coined in the mid twentieth century by art critic Robert Rosenblum. It represents an abstract visual language in modernism in relation to the concept of the sublime in philosophy. For Rosenblum the ‘Abstract Sublime’ is the evocation in painting of the personal feelings and emotions of abstract expressionists such as Rothko, Newman and Pollock. ‘The awesomely simple mysteries’ evoked by works that spoke through a new vocabulary of geometry, was for Rosenblum and Newman, who also wrote on the sublime, a new revised version of the ‘sublime’ as abstract. Coupled with the collapse of modernist representation and the desire of the abstract expressionists to destroy beauty, the abstract sublime evokes the awareness of the historical notion of the sublime but also the inability of the systems of representation to truly capture that, which exceeds our comprehension. The legacies of modernist abstraction also encapsulate, as representation did before it, a failed project. The abstract has become the aesthetic frame through which we envision the sublime, however impossible this actually is.

As Tim Morton has pointed out in an article entitled ‘Sublime Objects’, historical notions of the sublime are firmly situated within the human conception of being and are not an attempt to formulate a non-human abstract sublime. Instead, Morton refers to the sublime of Longinus, a very early text, ‘On The Sublime’ which equates the sublime with ‘the physical intrusion of an alien presence’ (Morton, 2011, p.220). For Longinus, this alien presence would have been God, however for Morton the idea of an unknown alien presence as oppose to the presence of God is more fitting for a contemporary realist theory of the sublime. Morton’s Longinian sublime, is a ‘speculative sublime’ that grants a kind of intimacy with real entities (Morton, 2011, p.219) and as we will see later on, this type of sublime is the basis for the context of relations from which emerges the aesthetic experience (Morton, 2011, p.217).

This interpretation of the sublime as both abstract and speculative – incorporating systems that far exceed human understanding, and which are ultimately unreadable but yet allow us a strange kind of intimacy mediated by some non-human presence is a sublime that may account for an overlap between abstraction in painting and realism in philosophy. However it is only through a step back into the correlation, through the appropriation of metaphor that we can hope to propel our conception of the abstract sublime toward the non-human.


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