[Reader-list] Styles of radical will

renu renu at mail.sarai.net
Tue Dec 17 11:38:24 IST 2002

  Styles of Radical Will

Styles of Radical Will, Susan Sontag's second collection of essays, 
extends the investigations she undertook in Against Interpretation 
with essays on film, literature, politics and a ground-breaking study 
of pornography.

Her first essay, 'The Aesthetics of Silence,' is a brilliant and 
important account of the Western tradition of artistic revolt against 
language, against thinking, against consciousness.

The Aesthetics of Silence 

Every era has to reinvent the project of "spirituality" for itself. 
(Spirituality = plans, terminologies, ideas of deportment aimed at 
resolving the painful structural contradictions inherent in the human 
situation, at the completion of human consciousness, at 

In the modern era, one of the most active metaphors for the spiritual 
project is "art." The activities of the painter, the musician, the 
poet, the dancer, once they were grouped together under that generic 
name (a relatively recent move), have proved a particularly adaptable 
site on which to stage the formal dramas besetting consciousness, 
each individual work of art being a more or less astute paradigm for 
regulating or reconciling these contradictions. Of course, the site 
needs continual refurbishing. Whatever goal is set for art eventually 
proves restrictive, matched against the widest goals of 
consciousness. Art, itself a form of mystification, endures a 
succession of crises of demystification; older artistic goals are 
assailed and, ostensibly, replaced; outworn maps of consciousness are 
redrawn. But what supplies all these crises with their energy -- an 
energy held in common, so to speak -- is the very unification of 
numerous, quite disparate activities into a single genus. At the 
moment when "art" comes into being, the modem period of art begins. 
From then on, any of the activities therein subsumed becomes a 
profoundly problematic activity, all of whose procedures and, 
ultimately, whose very right to exist can be called into question.

From the promotion of the arts into "art" comes the leading myth 
about art, that of the absoluteness of the artist's activity. In its 
first, more unreflective version, the myth treated art as an 
expression of human consciousness, consciousness seeking to know 
itself. (The evaluative standards generated by this version of the 
myth were fairly easily arrived at: some expressions were more 
complete, more ennobling, more informative, richer than others.) The 
later version of the myth posits a more complex, tragic relation of 
art to consciousness. Denying that art is mere expression, the later 
myth rather relates art to the mind's need or capacity for 
self-estrangement. Art is no longer understood as consciousness 
expressing and therefore, implicitly, affirming itself. Art is not 
consciousness per se, but rather its antidote -- evolved from within 
consciousness itself. (The evaluative standards generated by this 
version of the myth proved much harder to get at.)

The newer myth, derived from a post-psychological conception of 
consciousness, installs within the activity of art many of the 
paradoxes involved in attaining an absolute state of being described 
by the great religious mystics. As the activity of the mystic must 
end in a via negativa, a theology of God's absence, a craving for the 
cloud of unknowing beyond knowledge and for the silence beyond 
speech, so art must tend toward anti-art, the elimination of the 
"subject" (the "object," the "image"), the substitution of chance for 
intention, and the pursuit of silence.

In the early, linear version of art's relation to consciousness, a 
struggle was discerned between the "spiritual" integrity of the 
creative impulses and the distracting "materiality" of ordinary life, 
which throws up so many obstacles in the path of authentic 
sublimation. But the newer version, in which art is part of a 
dialectical transaction with consciousness, poses a deeper, more 
frustrating conflict. The "spirit" seeking embodiment in art clashes 
with the "material" character of art itself. Art is unmasked as 
gratuitous, and the very concreteness of the artist's tools (and, 
particularly in the case of language, their historicity) appears as a 
trap. Practiced in a world furnished with second-hand perceptions, 
and specifically confounded by the treachery of words, the artist's 
activity is cursed with mediacy. Art becomes the enemy of the artist, 
for it denies him the realization -- the transcendence -- he desires.

Therefore, art comes to be considered something to be overthrown. A 
new element enters the individual artwork and becomes constitutive of 
it: the appeal (tacit or overt) for its own abolition -- and, 
ultimately, for the abolition of art itself. 

The scene changes to an empty room. 

Rimbaud has gone to Abyssinia to make his fortune in the slave trade. 
Wittgenstein, after a period as a village school-teacher, has chosen 
menial work as a hospital orderly. Duchamp has turned to chess. 
Accompanying these exemplary renunciations of a vocation, each man 
has declared that he regards his previous achievements in poetry, 
philosophy, or art as trifling, of no importance. 

But the choice of permanent silence doesn't negate their work. On the 
contrary, it imparts retroactively an added power and authority to 
what was broken off -- disavowal of the work becoming a new source of 
its validity, a certificate of unchallengeable seriousness. That 
seriousness consists in not regarding art (or philosophy practiced as 
an art form: Wittgenstein) as something whose seriousness lasts 
forever, an "end," a permanent vehicle for spiritual ambition. The 
truly serious attitude is one that regards art as a "means" to 
something that can perhaps be achieved only by abandoning art; judged 
more impatiently, art is a false way or (the word of the Dada artist 
Jacques Vaché) a stupidity. 

Though no longer a confession, art is more than ever a deliverance, 
an exercise in asceticism. Through it, the artist becomes purified -- 
of himself and, eventually, of his art. The artist (if not art 
itself) is still engaged in a progress toward "the good." But whereas 
formerly the artist's good was mastery of and fulfillment in his art, 
now the highest good for the artist is to reach the point where those 
goals of excellence become insignificant to him, emotionally and 
ethically, and he is more satisfied by being silent than by finding a 
voice in art. Silence in this sense, as termination, proposes a mood 
of ultimacy antithetical to the mood informing the self-conscious 
artist's traditional serious use of silence (beautifully described by 
Valéry and Rilke): as a zone of meditation, preparation for spiritual 
ripening, an ordeal that ends in gaining the right to speak.

So far as he is serious, the artist is continually tempted to sever 
the dialogue he has with an audience. Silence is the furthest 
extension of that reluctance to communicate, that ambivalence about 
making contact with the audience which is a leading motif of modern 
art, with its tireless commitment to the "new" and/or the "esoteric." 
Silence is the artist's ultimate other-worldly gesture: by silence, 
he frees himself from servile bondage to the world, which appears as 
patron, client, consumer, antagonist, arbiter, and distorter of his 

Still, one cannot fail to perceive in this renunciation of "society" 
a highly social gesture. The cues for the artist's eventual 
liberation from the need to practice his vocation come from observing 
his fellow artists and measuring himself against them. An exemplary 
decision of this sort can be made only after the artist has 
demonstrated that he possesses genius and exercised that genius 
authoritatively. Once he has surpassed his peers by the standards 
which he acknowledges, his pride has only one place left to go. For, 
to be a victim of the craving for silence is to be, in still a 
further sense, superior to everyone else. It suggests that the artist 
has had the wit to ask more questions than other people, and that he 
possesses stronger nerves and higher standards of excellence. (That 
the artist can persevere in the interrogation of his art until he or 
it is exhausted scarcely needs proving. As René Char has written, "No 
bird has the heart to sing in a thicket of questions.")
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: http://mail.sarai.net/pipermail/reader-list/attachments/20021217/91c881ec/attachment.html 

More information about the reader-list mailing list