Fantastic Aesthetics

Fantastic Aesthetics: A Report on the International Conference “Aesthetics in the 21st Century” 

On September 13-15, 2012, an illustrious group of both established and upcoming international scholars gathered at the University of Basel to discuss the status of “Aesthetics in the 21st Century”1. The conference’s frame of reference was the recent speculative turn in continental philosophy2 with the explicit aim to elaborate on its repercussions for aesthetics, in both the philosophical and art theoretical senses of the term, and literary and cultural studies. From the original four founding members of what has become known as speculative realism3 – the first genuine philosophical movement of the 21st century—Graham Harman is arguably most amenable to questions of aesthetics going even so far as to claim “aesthetics as 1st philosophy” (“Aesthetics” 21; “Vicarious Causation” 221).4 It should come as no surprise, then, that Graham Harman was one of the conference’s three keynote speakers effectively opening the conference with his talk on “The Next Avant-Garde”. In his keynote, Harman traced what he took to be the basically synonymous relations of surface vs. depth, form vs. content and figure vs. ground in Greenberg, McLuhan and Heidegger and argued for a notion of the avant-garde as denoting art that combines depth with anti-holism, where depth (or ground or content) needs to be incarnated in surface (or figure or form). While maintaining that avant-garde art is thus described adequately in ontological terms, Harman also made clear that this ontological set-up takes on different manifestations historically. The next avant-garde will thus invariably display this surface – depth (or figure – ground or form – content) relation, but it remains to be seen how exactly this relation will be manifested.

Harman’s talk thus introduced one of the key problematics to which many of the conference’s contributions should return in one form or other, namely precisely the ontological and epistemological implications of the surface – depth relation: If what is given to us is surface as it manifests depth, how do we access depth? Can we legitimately speculate about depth? Do we have any access at all? What does this depth or ground look like? Do the arts have a specific position vis à vis these questions? Is it the privilege of art to make depth tangible? Is the discipline of aesthetics the appropriate domain for asking and answering these questions? If so, does aesthetics name a particular kind of cognition, as in its original definition as “scientia cognitionis sensitivae” (sensuous cognition) and “gnoseologia inferior” (lesser epistemology) by Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (10)? Or should we conceive of aesthetics as non-cognitive altogether? And if so, if aesthetics names non-cognitive processes or relations, does it have any epistemological value at all?

The problem of the surface – depth relation and its attendant questions was traversed by another problematic relation, namely that between the human and the nonhuman. In the wake of the critique of anthropocentrism forcefully mounted in the last two decades within humanities fields such as posthuman studies, digital humanities, animal studies and the new (feminist) materialisms, and the philosophical debunking of the centrality of the human subject by speculative realists the notion of the nonhuman has garnered much attention recently.5 This shift of attention towards the nonhuman produces yet another set of important questions which were, explicitly or implicitly, at the center of the discussions at the conference: How do we humans discourse about the nonhuman if not in distinctly human terms? Thus, what is the role of anthropomorphism in these discussions, and how does anthropomorphism relate to anthropocentrism? Is the human a mere surface effect engendered by fundamentally nonhuman forces? If so, does the aesthetico-metaphysical surface – depth relation correlate with the human – nonhuman relation? In her keynote “Speculative Aesthetics and the Human Imagination” N. Katherine Hayles explicitly took up these questions.6 Her discussion of Vilém Flusser’s Brazilian Vampyroteuthis Infernalis focused on the anthropomorphic rhetoric in discoursing about the “vampire squid from hell” already manifest in the creature’s very name. Living in the utter darkness of the deep sea, vampyrotheutis infernalis presents a perfect foil for the nonhuman other accordingly imagined as a giant, bloodsucking monster before the advances of technology made it possible to actually depict the creature (which turned out to be quite small indeed). It is no coincidence that the literal surface – depth relation between humans (living on the earth’s surface) and the vampyrotheutis (living in the depth of the sea) and its scientific and technological ramifications seem to perfectly map on to the metaphysical and aesthetic problems: depth as dark and unfathomable (un)ground populated by all sorts of nonhuman (monstrous) entities and forces. The questions insist: is this depth knowable? Will science eventually illuminate this darkness? Or will there always be a darkness that eludes the light of science? If so, do we have other means of access? Or do we ever merely find what (monsters) we have put there in the first place?

Depending on how one answers these questions one will either present a narrative of (progressive) demystification that eventually explains away any monstrosity; or, if one thinks that depth as such is ultimately not cognitively accessible but apprehensible by other, aesthetic means, then one might opt for anthropomorphism as a strategy against anthropocentrism coupled with the respective “anexact” (Deleuze and Guattari 22; 405) conceptual work. If one upholds position one, then position two will be nothing else but illegitimate fantasizing; if one upholds position two, then position one will be nothing but illusory of depth and utterly reductive. The two options outlined here in very broad terms boil down to the opposition between what one might call the fantasy of aesthetics over against a genuinely fantastic aesthetics. Within contemporary speculative philosophy Ray Brassier is a perfect representative of the first camp. He made this exceptionally clear in a 2009 interview:

I am very wary of ‘aesthetics’: the term is contaminated by notions of ‘experience’ that I find deeply problematic. I have no philosophy of art worth speaking of. This is not to dismiss art’s relevance for philosophy—far from it—but merely to express reservations about the kind of philosophical aestheticism which seems to want to hold up ‘aesthetic experience’ as a new sort of cognitive paradigm wherein the Modern (post-Cartesian) ‘rift’ between knowing and feeling would be overcome. […] Some recent philosophers have evinced an interest in subjectless experiences; I am rather more interested in experience-less subjects. (“Against”)

In contrast to Brassier’s position, most of the contributions to the conference can be safely subsumed within the second camp outlined above. One notable exception was Matija Jelača’s paper on “Sellars Contra Deleuze on Sensation, Knowledge and Aesthetics” that precisely staged a Brassiero-Sellarsian argument against an “aestheticist” approach to metaphysics as exemplified by the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze. Boldly dismissing such approaches Jelača’s paper cleared the ground for a properly Sellarsian aesthetics. It remains to be seen what such an aesthetics, and, more importantly, its status within or against metaphysics, might look like. The conference’s third keynote speaker, Steven Shaviro, on the other hand, presented an excellent case for the new fantastic aesthetics. Building on earlier work (Shaviro, Without Criteria), in his talk “Non-Phenomenological Aesthetics” Shaviro forcefully argued for the Whiteheadian path of a “critique of pure feeling” (Whitehead 113) both emphasizing the importance of the speculative enterprise against the merely descriptive work of phenomenology and opposing the Meillassouxian mathematico-speculative thought of pure reason (and, by implication, Brassier’s speculative scientism). In general, the conference, veering towards elaborating a fantastic aesthetics, can be said to have focused on conceptualizing what Brassier terms subjectless experiences. It did this by precisely mining the depths of the nonhuman. The results of this mining will be presented to the public in a special issue of Speculations: A Journal of Speculative Realism edited by the conference organizers and forthcoming in 2013 (Askin et al. 2013).

Apart from the scholarly talks which will feed into this publication, the conference also hosted two rather unusual events. For one, an art event entitled “The Nonhuman” featuring local artists Walter Derungs and Oliver Minder was organized. Minder and Derungs not only exhibited their work, with Oliver Minder creating a new installation just for this occasion, but both also agreed to discuss their work with the conference participants. As the exhibit’s title already suggests, Minder and Derung’s artistic practice closely correlates with the theoretical interests of the conference and the art event thus served perfectly for staging an encounter between work, practice and theory. A detailed review of the art show is forthcoming in the open access online journal continent. (Burleigh). Continent. also published a pre-conference dialogue between the editors of the journals continent. and Speculations (Allen et al.) which served as the springboard for the other unusual conference event, namely the editors’ panel on “The Aesthetics of (Para)Academic Practice.” In this panel, the editors of the two journals discussed the future role of the university, new publishing formats and what they discern as the culture of para-academia. The conference has thus without doubt proven an exceptionally productive event. Not only has it already spawned a number of (forthcoming) publications, but it has also contributed to the creation, expansion and solidification of a number of international collaborations and networks. It will come as no surprise, then, that the next event is already in the making: with “Weaponizing Speculation” a symposium explicitly taking up the issue of para-academia in its intimate relation to the resurgence of speculative thought will be held in Dublin in early March next year.


Works Cited

Allen, Jamie, Michael Austin, Paul Boshears, Paul J. Ennis, Thomas Gokey and Robert Jackson. “Discussions Before an Encounter.” continent. 2.2 (2012): 136-147. Web.

—. “The Aesthetics of (Para)Academic Practice.” Aesthetics in the 21st Century. University of Basel. Conference Panel.

Askin, Ridvan, Paul J. Ennis, Andreas Hägler and Philipp Schweighauser, eds. Aesthetics in the 21st Century. Spec. issue of Speculations: A Journal of Speculative Realism (2013): forthcoming. Web.

Baumgarten, Alexander Gottlieb. 1750-58. Ästhetik. Trans. and introd. Dagmar Mirbach. Hamburg: Meiner, 2007. Print.

Brassier, Ray. “Against an Aesthetics of Noise.” Transitzone. nY Web, 2009. Web. 3 Nov. 2012.

Brassier, Ray, Iain Hamilton Grant, Graham Harman and Quentin Meillassoux. “Speculative Realism.” Collapse 3 (2007): 306-449. Print.

Bryant, Levi, Nick Srnicek and Graham Harman, eds. The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism. Melbourne: Repress, 2011. Print.

Burleigh, Peter. Rev. of The Nonhuman, by Walter Derungs and Oliver Minder. continent., forthcoming. Web.

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. 1980. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia 2. Trans. Brian Massumi. London: Continuum, 2007. Print.

Derungs, Walter and Oliver Minder. The Nonhuman. Basel: Kaskadenkondensator. 14 Sep. 2012.

Flusser, Vilém. Brazilian Vampyroteuthis Infernalis. Ed. and trans. Rodrigo Maltez Novaes. New York: Atropos Press, 2011. Print.

Harman, Graham. Guerilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things. Chicago: Open Court, 2005. Print.

—. “Aesthetics as 1st Philosophy: Levinas and the Non-Human.” Naked Punch 9 (2007): 21-30. Print.

—. “On Vicarious Causation.” Collapse 2 (2007): 187-221. Print.

—. “The Well-Wrought Broken Hammer: Object-Oriented Literary Criticism.” New Literary History 43 (2012): 183–203. Print.

—. “The Next Avant-Garde.” Aesthetics in the 21st Century. University of Basel. 13 September 2012. Keynote Speech.

Hayles, Katherine N. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Print.

—. Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008. Print.

—. How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012. Print.

—. “Speculative Aesthetics and the Human Imagination.” Aesthetics in the 21st Century. University of Basel. 14 September 2012. Keynote Speech.

Jelača, Matija. “Sellars Contra Deleuze on Sensation, Knowledge and Aesthetics.” Aesthetics in the 21st Century. University of Basel, 2012. Conference Presentation.

“Nonhuman.” The 26th Annual Meeting of the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. 27-30 Sept. 2012.

Shaviro, Steven. Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze and Aesthetics. Cambridge: MIT, 2009. Print.

—. “Non-Phenomenological Aesthetics.” Aesthetics in the 21st Century. University of Basel. 15 Sep. 2012. Keynote Speech.

Speculative Aesthetics Working Group 2010-2011. Franklin Humanities Institute. Duke University, n.d. Web. 3 Nov. 2012.

“The Nonhuman Turn.” Center for 21st Century Studies. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. 3-5 May 2012.

“Weaponizing Speculation.” DUST: Dublin Unit for Speculative Thought. Independent Colleges Dublin. 2-3 March 2013.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology. Corrected Edition. Ed. David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne. New York: The Free Press, 1978. Print.

  1. The conference was organized by Ridvan Askin, Andreas Hägler and Philipp Schweighauser from the University of Basel and independent scholar Paul J. Ennis. The local organizational team further comprised scientific administrator Sixta Quassdorf and student assistants Daniel Allemann, Jasmin Rindlisbacher and Andrea Wüst.  back
  2. For a good introduction to and overview of the field see the already classic essay collection The Speculative Turn (Bryant et al.).  back
  3. For the movement’s “founding” document, the transcript of a conference held at Goldsmiths in 2007, see issue three of the journal Collapse (Brassier et al.).  back
  4. His 2005 book Guerilla Metaphysics is also important in this respect. It is there that he develops the concept of allure central for Harmanian aesthetics (101-144). Most recently, Harman also directly addressed questions of literary criticism (“The Well-Wrought Broken Hammer”).  back
  5. See for instance the two conferences on the theme held at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2012 (“The Nonhuman Turn”; “Nonhuman”).  back
  6. Hayles is not only one of the foremost posthumanism and digital humanities scholars having published such groundbreaking work as How we Became Posthuman (1999), Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary (2008) and How We Think (2012) but recently also co-hosted the Speculative Aesthetics Working Group at Duke University’s Franklin Humanities Institute.  back



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