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Buck-Morss on Anaesthethics

In “Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin’s Artwork Essay Reconsidered” (1992) Susan Buck-Morss situates herself as politically aligned with cultural analyst Walter Benjamin and politically opposed to Kant and Freud. Using Benjamin’s claims about the relationship between politics and aesthetics, Buck-Morse understands herself to side with Benjamin against the anaesthetics that characterize the work of Kant and Freud. Buck-Morss believes aesthetic frameworks are politically enfranchising whereas anaesthetic frameworks are politically alienating, it is “alienation of the senses that makes it possible for humanity to view its own destruction with enjoyment” (37). Buck-Morss’ analysis is complicit with the War on Drugs, believing anaesthetic to be fascist. Thus Buck-Morss would say that my analysis of WWI newsreels as formally anaesthetic/traumatic reinforces rather than challenges Whissel’s analysis of WWI films as nationalist, since for Buck-Morss anaesthesia is fascism, or national socialism. However, I argue that such a conclusion is a mistake because Buck-Morss too harshly defines anaesthetics as beyond sensibility altogether rather than as a limit of sensibility, which we can recognize if we take a careful look at Buck-Morss’ analyses of Kant and Freud.

Buck-Morss grounds her faulty polemic in an analysis of “Kant on the sublime” (8). Buck-Morss rightly acknowledges the status of the Kantian subject as a being distinct from the empirical body. For Kant the conditions of possibility of experience do not include a brain. For Buck-Morss such theory of the subject displays an anxiety about having total control over one’s self, “If it [the Kantian subject] has any body at all, it must be one impervious to the senses, hence safe from external control. Its potency is in its lack of corporeal response” (8). Thus for Buck-Morss the Kantian subject is a neutral subject, uninterrupted by the body. However, Buck-Morss’ analysis makes a misstep when moving from Kant’s affirmation of “an ability to judge ourselves independent of nature” (quoted on 8) to the conclusion that “in the Third Critique the ‘aesthetic’ in judgments is robbed of its senses” (9). For Kant there is no robbery because when the sublime takes our senses we are still left with our senses. Aesthetics, for Kant, refer to a distribution of the sensible and distribution of the insensible. On one hand numbness means ‘no feeling,’ on the other hand we know what it is like to feel numb in various ways; there is no incompatibility between aesthetics and anaesthetics on account of their ability to be distinguished from one another, because one is the limit of the other. The camera framing of WWI newsreels is a distinguishable form from the content of WWI newsreels, but the camera framing does not thereby rob the content of its aesthetic so much as the camera framing marks the momentum of the content beyond itself. As an unstable repetition the form of WWI newsreels is undoubtedly categorizable as mathematically sublime, or the sublime as an infinity which proceeds one by one by one, again and again, more and more and more, forever outwards to an unreachable destination - as opposed to a dynamical sublime, like a close-up shot which jumps to its infinite point all at once. This split between the mathematical and dynamical sublime marks Kant’s ability to separate the limits of experience which are otherwise functioning synaesthetically, together. If we were to ignore this Kantian insight, we would agree with Buck-Morss that the “separation of the elements of synaesthetic experience would have been inconceivable in a text by Kant” (31). Buck-Morss believes that if Kant could have conceived of “such perceptual splitting,” the Kantian subject would end up with an “uncanny sense of self-alienation” (31). In fact the Kantian subject does have an uncanny sense of self-alienation, not the totally in-control subject that Buck-Morss imposes upon Kant’s theory; Kant stands out as the foundational German idealist who insists on the inability of the subject to have absolute knowledge because he will never accept the possibility of a neutral view, a view of things in themselves.

Buck-Morss’ misinterpretation of the Kantian subject’s relationship with neutrality leads to an unfortunate account of Kant’s mature aesthetics as sexist or otherwise heteronormative. On Buck-Morss’ account of the Kantian subject, “In abandoning its senses, it, of course, gives up sex. Curiously, it is precisely in this castrated form that the being is gendered male - as if, having nothing so embarrassingly unpredictable or rationally controllable as the sense-sensitive penis, it can then confidently claim to be the phallus. Such an asensual, anaesthetic protuberance is this artifact: modern man” (8). Even if Kant initiated a male-centered, modern philosophical anthropology principled on anaesthetics, Kant’s queer theory of representation (i.e. things in themselves stay in the closet) can only situate the anaesthetic phallus as the ideal object which signifies the subject’s lack of comprehensive knowledge/experience. Really, such a “phallus” is the closeted thing in itself, refusing to satisfy the reach of the imperialist, disrobing gaze. Thus we cannot with Buck-Morss completely follow Ernst Cassirer’s analysis of Kant’s aesthetics as departing from a “sensibility, influenced enormously by Johann Winckelmann’s conception of Hellenism, [that] was homophilic. It affirmed the aesthetic beauty, first and foremost, of the male body. Indeed, homoerotic sensuality may have been even more threatening to the emerging modernist psyche than the reproductive sexuality of women. Kant’s transcendental subject purges himself of the senses which endanger autonomy not only because they unavoidably entangle him in the world, but specifically, because they make him passive” rather than active (9). It might be more correct to say that Kant was moonwalking away from “passive” homophilia, since Kant simultaneously foreswore the search for phallic satisfaction (knowing things in themselves) and yet could not escape the search for phallic satisfaction (for Kant transcendental illusion, or the momentum of thought beyond things as we know them, is fundamental). Again, for Kant the aesthetic (first Critique) and the anaesthetic (third Critique) are able to be distinguished but cannot thereby escape one another because they are limits of one another. This is a lesson which would also correct Buck-Morss’ engagement with Freud.


Buck-Morss engages Walter Benjamin’s work at its intersection with Freud’s work on trauma, “Benjamin relies on a specific Freudian insight, the idea that consciousness is a shield protecting the organism against stimuli - ‘excessive energies’ from without, by preventing their retention, their impress as memory. Benjamin writes: ‘The threat from these energies is one of shocks. The more readily consciousness registers these shocks, the less likely they are to have a traumatic effect.’ Under extreme stress, the ego employs consciousness as a buffer, blocking the openness of the synaesthetic system” (16). To clarify Freud describes the stimulus shield as a kind of callous which ultimately facilitates reception of stimuli by allowing stimuli to fall into time-proven patterns of reception. When stimuli deviates from time-worn patterns of reception, either the stimuli falls below traumatic threshold and makes a (stressful) calcifying impression on the stimulus shield, creating new patterns or thresholds of receptivity over time, or the stimuli meets the traumatic threshold and makes a (traumatic) break in the stimulus shield, sending the subject into shock or reboot mode. So it turns out for Freud that the inorganic, the an-aesthetic, is primary and formative for the aesthetic, sensibility. Now Buck-Morss appropriately understands Benjamin to characterize our modernity as a reversal of the role of consciousness from aesthetic to anaesthetic, “the synaesthetic system is marshaled to parry technological stimuli in order to protect both the body from the trauma of accident and the psyche from the trauma of perceptual shock. As a result, the system reverses its role. Its goal is to numb the organism, to deaden the senses, to repress memory: the cognitive system of synaestehtics has become, rather, one of anaesthetics” (18). For Benjamin the state of shock has become the norm in our over-stimulated modernity, and for Buck-Morss this situation is politically disastrous, “they see too much - and register nothing. Thus the simultaneity of overstimulation and numbness is characteristic of the new synaesthetic organization as anaesthetics. The dialectical reversal, whereby aesthetics changes from a cognitive mode of being ‘in touch’ with reality to a way of blocking out reality, destroys the human organism’s power to respond politically” (18). Our modernity is understood to be not just neurotic but narcotic, “Beginning in the nineteenth century, a narcotic was made out of reality itself” (22). We are seeing an academic War on Drugs that demonizes drugs as the fundamental disturbance or trauma of the modern political field, “Drug addiction is characteristic of modernity. It is the correlate and counterpart of shock” (21). Apparently “fascism thrived on the representation of the body-as-armor” among other aesthetics (38). Even further, speaking of “the cinema screen” Buck-Morse claims, “The aesthetics allows an anaesthetization of reception, a viewing of the ‘scene’ with disinterested pleasure, even when that scene is the preparation through ritual of a whole society for unquestioning sacrifice and ultimately, destruction, murder, and death” (39). This is exactly the kind of quote Whissel might use from Buck-Morse to counter my analysis of WWI newsreels; the anaesthetics of WWI newsreels, as beyond the pleasure principle, reinforces the films’ fatal nationalism with a formal representation of the death drive. However, such a cynical view of popular film confuses the call of the real with the sacrificial alter of the Other; here it is Buck-Morss, not Kant, who is confusing the synaesthetic constituents of the sublime, being disinterested and being over-invested. Thus Buck-Morss falls to her own complaint about our modernity as unable to dissect the character of our modernity as “the effect of anaesthetizing the organism, not through numbing, but through flooding the senses” (22).

Moreover I find it implausible that Walter Benjamin, the hashish smoking and hashish studying academic, can be fairly situated as politically opposed to anaesthesia. Benjamin immersed himself in the very environments that he considered intoxicating. Thus we might appeal to the anaesthetic analysis of WWI newsreels to elaborate Benjamin’s aesthetics. We can establish an anaesthetic approach to what Benjamin refers to as ‘unconscious optics.’ In Benjamin’s “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936) we are told that the effect of film is like the effect of “Freudian theory,” since each produces a “deepening of apperception” that reclaims meaning from apparently ephemeral and chance events (235). Now Benjamin seems solely focused on content, but with an anaesthetic framework we can draw more out of Benjamin’s claim that “The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses” (237). The camera of WWI newsreels does not (only) capture unconscious aesthetics or pleasures, but captures unconscious anaesthetics or traumatic sites of stability. This unconscious capture of anaesthetics, I argue, is how we should understand the important move made by Benjamin in “Little History of Photography” (1931). In “Little History” Benjamin identifies a set of photos that he claims inaugurates our photographic modernity. These photos are not photos of celebrities or spectacles as we might expect to find in an aesthetic analysis, but these photos are David Octavius Hill’s “anonymous images” of Newhaven fishwives (510). Here the principle of analysis is not identity but the impasse of identification, a banal, off-beat series of substitutable figures. Thus Benjamin performs not an aesthetic analysis per se but an anaesthetic analysis, and we know Benjamin is referencing the stability principle when telling us, “it is another nature which speaks to the camera rather than to the eye... a space informed by the unconscious,” an “optical unconscious” (emphasis added 510, 512). For Benjamin the anonymous, like the endless anonymous figures in the WWI, King Tut newsreel, is one way of effecting a close-up of the stimulus shield, the real limits of the anaesthetic subject, “milieu and landscape, too, reveal themselves most readily to those photographers who succeed in capturing their anonymous physiognomy, as it were presenting them at face value” (523). Finally Benjamin initiates for us here an anaesthetic ethics when we learn from an anonymous figure, “The illiteracy of the future will be ignorance not of reading or writing, but of photography,” or of the desire which Benjamin reads into photography (527)..
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