in conversation with Aude Launay
For him, philosophy acquires a practical utility the moment it disengages from its endless search for fundamentals and takes up residence in the interstices of the real, construing itself as a critical experience of the world. Faced with a contemporary culture which makes the body suffer through the return of bikini weather (diets, jogging…) or digitalizes it almost to the point of effacement (Facebook…) and a philosophical pragmatism which, by way of the linguistic turn, has managed to assimilate the “I” into its own language, Richard Shusterman proposes a concrete way of thinking about our prison of skin —at once theoretical orientation and practical tool, as close to the Hellenistic philosophers as it is to the thinkers of the 20th century. And since there would be no aesthetics without soma —without, that is, a body at once living and feeling— the release of his most recent book in English and French provided the occasion for a return to the bases aesthetics.
Reading your written works and, especially, the last one, Body Consciousness, we easily get an idea of the predominance of aesthetics in your work, hence the discipline you created: somaesthetics. According to you, aesthetics, in its broadest sense, as it deals with that which might be the most universal for us, that is to say, our ability to perceive the world with our senses, could really influence politics. Somaesthetics is thus both an attention to our feelings and the development of sociocultural behaviour; it is an activity, a use of the world that generally operates through pleasure (wheter it be sports, dining, meditation, etc.) So it goes beyond the distinction John Dewey drew between the aesthetic and the artistic (1), combining both meanings in a single process. You recommend some kind of a “moderate action” to counter the inherent passivity of aesthetics. Is aesthetics, strictly speaking, now obsolete?
Before responding to your specific question, I should clarify that somaesthetics is not really my own discipline in the sense of sole ownership. Though I initiated the concept of this field or discipline of theory and practice, there are now many others (philosophers and theorists in the arts, in design, in education and other fields) who deploy the term and work in its framework. Somaesthetics is not limited to the study and pursuit of gentle movements or actions; there is also value and need for hard or violent actions to be explored in both theory and life —and of course in art, whose violent dimensions I have defended in some of my writings, especially in my texts on rap in Pragmatist Aesthetics (Blackwell, 1992) and Practicing Philosophy (Routledge, 1997). Styles of action need to be evaluated always in terms of a context. You are right, however, that my new book, Body Consciousness: A Philosophy of Mindfulness and Somaesthetics emphasizes the importance of attuning or training one’s soma (by which I mean one’s living, sentient, perceptive and active body-mind) to appreciate the values and pleasures of very subtle qualities, sensations, and action. This is in contrast to our culture’s emphasis on escalating the intensities of sensory stimuli to often violent proportions which result (as we know from basic principles of psychology and neurophysiology) in a general dulling of our sensibilities and capacities for pleasure. It is much easier to distinguish such subtleties of perceptions and pleasures, when one is engaged in gentle and slow-moving action —or indeed when one is in a relative state of rest. That is one reason why I have found zazen meditation or the very slow movements of Feldenkrais Method and tai chi chuan very useful in developing my own capacities of perception and pleasure. This may seem remote from aesthetics as conventionally understood in philosophy departments or in the traditional artworld, but as you know, I regard aesthetics as including the broad aim of exploring and enlarging our capacities of perception. And it is impossible for there to be perception without action. We turn our head and open our eyes to see; perception always involves our active muscles, not an immaterial unmoving mind. If this view of aesthetics seems radical, it only goes back to the roots of this concept which derives from the Greek term for sensory perception. This does not mean that aesthetics in the more narrow, conventional, sense of beauty in nature and art will become obsolete. But I do hope that my arguments will undermine the idea that aesthetic perception is inherently passive, an idea that John Dewey also strongly challenged.
“Strictly speaking” meant for me this Greek sense of sense perception… This idea of an active perception has long been developed since the sixties, especially in theatre and contemporary art. We might then think that such a concept, which has underlain what we call relational aesthetics, would definitely change the way artists make art, and the way the audience receive it. Unfortunately, nowadays there are fewer artists whose work could pertain to such a way of thinking than at the time when Nicolas Bourriaud theorized this. Reading Pragmatist Aesthetics: Living Beauty, Rethinking Art, as well as your recent writings and interviews, it seems that relational aesthetics, in its basic points is an obvious fact: “If one does not get anything out of a work, it is because he or she is not working hard enough” (2), “No one writes, paints or creates alone, but we have to pretend that we do” (3), “(…) stretch(ed) and compress(ed) time to provide a new matrix of interactions—among people who are normally forced to remain focused on a simple relationship between ‘viewer’ and ‘producer’ (4)”, “It is hard to know when the ‘moment of art’ starts or ends” (5). In this way, it could be like an extention, in the field of art, of John Dewey’s continuist conception… You even say that “the mind had never been an external observer of the natural world, but a part of it that separated from it.” (6) How do you feel about these theories of relational aesthetics that have now been sort of pushed to the side?
Yes, I do think it’s obvious that art is an essentially relational enterprise, especially due to its fundamentally communicative dimension. But, of course, all thought and action are relational through their basic intentionality, and indeed all life is relational, since it is always a matter of the organism’s ability to maintain satisfactory relationships with the environment from which it draws its energies. Coming back to art, isn’t it obvious by now —after so many theories (even as far back as T.S. Eliot’s) emphasizing that an artwork’s meaning and value are always a function of its relations with other works in the artistic tradition or artworld— that the artist or artwork cannot generate meaning in a purely autonomous manner but that the very possibilities of creation depend on a relational matrix that is both synchronic and diachronic. If I have been critical of my friend Arthur Danto’s notion of the artworld, it is because he tends to treat it as an autonomous world of art history and theory, while I see it as more deeply conditioned and shaped by the larger world into which it is socially embedded. I also like to see artworks reciprocally impacting and reshaping that larger social world, though this influence is not always very clear or prominent, since the forces of art’s compartmentalization from life are very strong. Perhaps this impulse in my work is why you, like some other European art critics, associate my theories with what is called relational aesthetics. I’m not very familiar with the theorists you mention, who haven’t had a real echo among philosophers of art in America, but I surmise that their ideas relate to some of the open-ended art of the past decade that emphasized blurring the lines between artist and audience while emphasizing the creation of real-life community, however provisional. Observing the links between such art and my theories of aesthetic experience beyond the sacralized museum and gallery space, an Italian art critic, Maurizio Bartolotti organized an Art Experience event in Venice (2004), to which I was invited along with some European artists of such « relational » orientation: Rirkrit Tiravanija, Philippe Parreno, Pierre Huyghe and Maurizio Nannucci. Though I have clear sympathies with the artistic and social aims of such approaches, my aesthetic theory does not regard them as essentially superior to other ways of artmaking. My theoretical position is more pluralistic. There are many ways that art can express its inescapably relational condition and our essentially social existence. Lately I’ve had an instructive conversation with Tatiana Trouvé about her intriguing work, which, though apparently very different in style from the relational artists I mentioned, succeeds in highlighting our sense of the social and spacial relations that govern our experience of life and art.
You conclude your essay Sous l’interprétation, with the idea of an insertion of nondiscursive practices, like somatic disciplines, into philosophy, to “grant the quality of immediate experience the status of a practical aim and of an appropriate instrument”. What consequences can we draw from this in aesthetics?
There is a long and complex answer to this question, which I expect to be working on for some time as part of my continuing project of somaesthetics. Some of the answer can be found in my recent book, Body Consciousness. I am always worried about simplifying complex arguments into interview sound-bites. But consider the point that the soma —the living, sentient body— is the basic, indispensable medium of our perception and the fundamental instrument of all our action, including artistic creation and appreciation. If disciplines of somaesthetics can refine our perceptive acuity and sensory appreciation in general, then they can surely improve our skills of perception and capacities for experience in aesthetic contexts— creative and critical. Think of how better sensorimotor awareness can enable performers (musicians, actors, dancers, and others) to improve their postures and movements so as to perform with greater ease and less pain and fatigue movement. Think of how installation artists can productively play with subtle feelings of experienced space that are grasped proprioceptively or kinaesthetically and not just visually or conceptually. Think of how little traditional aesthetics deals with such kinds of perceptions. Somaesthetics thus can suggest some new directions of aesthetic exploration, in theory and practice.
1 John Dewey, Art as experience, (1934), Perigee Books, New York, 1980, p. 46
2 Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, 2002.
4 Liam Gillick, Proxemics, Selected Writings (1988-2006), JRP Ringier & Les Presses du réel, 2006, p. 268.
5 Ibid, p. 265.
6 Richard Shusterman, Sous l’interprétation, l’éclat, 1994, p.82.
7 This interview will be published in Tatiana Trouvé monograph, Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, Köln 2008 (texts by Tatiana Trouvé, Catherine Millet, Robert Storr, interview with the artist by Richard Shusterman).
8 Richard Shusterman, Sous l’interprétation, p.93.
Richard Shusterman, Body Consciousness. A Philosophy of Mindfulness and Somaesthetics, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2008.
Richard Shusterman, D.Phil., Director, Center for Body, Mind, and Culture, Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters, Florida Atlantic University, www.fau.edu/bodymindculture