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In "The Berlin Key," Latour discusses the way in which simple objects can acquire suddenly "the dignity of a mediator, a social actor, an agent, an active being" through use. This is a version of aesthetics which imagines the artwork as automatically playing a role as a sort of symbolic token whose exchange value exists in transfer between artist and viewer, or between one viewer and another. Locks and keys, in Latour's view, are a construction of a social relationship rather than an expression of one. It is worth asking whether or not this new view of aesthetics -- in which what is emphasized is not so much the lone creative authority of the artist as the sociable presence of that artist, and how the art work is completed (rather than judged, apprehended, or "appreciated") by the viewer.
We can relate Latour's insight to the critique of pedagogy offered by Ranciere. In the fable Ranciere tells in An Intellectual Adventure, the schoolmaster Jacotot is obliged to teach a roomful of students most of whom speak no French, when he speaks no Flemish. By placing a bilingual edition of Fenelon's "Telemaque" lucky-Pierre-style between master and pupil, Jacotot discovers that "in short, the essential act of the master was to explicate: to disengage from the simple elements of learning, and to reconcile their simplicity in principle with the factual simplicity that characterizes young and ignorant minds." (3) Yet the basic functional procedure of Jacotot's teaching is one in which he is teaching something he does not actually know. To some degree, the philosophical and aesthetic conundrum described by both Ranciere and Latour is something that derives originally from Plato -- unsurprisingly, for the intellectual climate they inhabit was to a certain extent determined by Jacques Derrida, who began his critique of Western philosophy with Plato, and an inquiry into why Plato chose the dialectical form of his dialogues rather than a simple expository form like Aristotle. The "logocentric" Platonism that, in Derrida's view, rejects written communication for its susceptibility to misinterpretation or deconstruction is, of course, hinged upon a theory of "forms," in which any existing object actually reflects a sort of eternal and essential version. The existence of the perfect form in Plato is to be intuited or understood from the proliferation of actual (and imperfect) expressions of it. But in essence, this suggests that two Platonists staring at the same chair will have, in some way, different visions of the essential nature of the object, and that their two mental conceptions themselves must be jointly beheld in order to approximate any sense of the "transcendent" meaning Plato promises. By the early twentieth century, artists are no longer in the business of providing "transcendent" meanings -- instead, they are in the position of asking whether such meaning in an object is fixed, stable, or indeed present at all. In a sense what hovers above Jacotot's bilingual text is not a Platonic ideal so much as the ultimate "meaning" of a text which, when it can be demonstrated to possess identical meanings in seemingly incommensurable manifestations (here, two mutually unintelligible languages), clearly offers access to some sort of meaning that is by no means inherent in the actual words on the page.
In a sense, we can imagine the text placed between two rival explications as being a form of parody, or a response to the renewed valorization of the artist at various strategic points in the twentieth century: the Cubism of Picasso which snatched representation from the jaws of photography, or the later Abstract Expressionism of Pollock which posited a "heroic" (and heavily masculine) artist who leaves the painting as a record of some "action." In this sense, it begins to seem like "artistic originality," and large-scale artistic movements, are best considered as a marketing tool rather than a genuine conception. The view of meaning offered by Latour after all turns the painting into an object with social exchange value and meaning -- pushing onward from Pollock's megalomaniacal effort to equate the action of painting with the value of the art, we now find the action of interpretation (at least between artist and viewer, if not between critic and rival critic) to be the meaning itself, and not the source of "right" and "wrong" meanings inherent in itself. This shift is illustrated…[continue]
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