W. H. Auden said he had two questions when reading a poem: ‘The first is technical: “Here is a verbal contraption. How does it work?”. The second is: “What kind of guy inhabits this poem?”.’footnote1 Disarmingly—and deceptively—simple, Auden’s questions, jointly, take us to all manner of places, many of which have long since been vacated, most notably by those on indefinite postmodernist leave in the playground of ‘forms’. In particular, the second question—addressed to the quality of the human presence in the verbal machine and thus to the poem’s ethical significance—might well be viewed by some representatives of contemporary critical persuasions (for example, followers of Paul de Man) as the residue of a naive and sentimental humanism. Yet what happens when this second question is liquidated by the first, when the human leaves the contraption to its own devices—in various senses of the term, including the Russian Formalist one—is an issue of considerable importance. The following—a collection of strictly provisional thoughts inspired, in part, by T. J. Clark’s recent book on Modernist painting, Farewell to an Idea—engages with what is most uncomfortable in that issue, by way of a reflection on a modern view of art as, fundamentally, the application of technique to matter.footnote2

Put in this way, of course, my topic could be said to implicate the whole of art, since this, by at least one definition, is what art is, in the history of aesthetic thought that flows from, and variously modifies, the Greek notion of techne. However, consciousness of what such a definition might ultimately entail when we press it to the point of saying, not just that art is the application of technique to matter, but that art is only the application of technique to matter, is a relatively recent historical phenomenon. According to Clark in Farewell to an Idea, there is a particular emphasis on both technique and matter, in the period we call modernity and the movements we call Modernism, whose implications and consequences we have still not yet fully thought through. These implications and consequences are grim, and I should make immediately clear that what follows is very far from being good news. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the all-too-easy, complacent celebrations that have so often accompanied what we like to call the materiality of art and the associated moves of the so-called reflexive turn in contemporary literary theory.

From the Frankfurt School to the moment of Tel Quel, mise en abyme, the self-conscious display by the art work of its own procedures, was hailed as liberating, even revolutionary, in so far as it was held to extricate us from the grip of ideology and its naturalizing habits. Positing representations as self-consciously made artefacts meant that the meanings these encoded could also be unmade, and remade, in the perspective of a permanent revolution. But, as we tumble into the abyss of the reflexive turn, there is, alas, a far more dispiriting conclusion that can be drawn, close to the paradoxical outcomes of the scientific revolution. At the moment of its birth and early development, science was supposed to free us from the dead weight of authority and superstition; but, in so doing, its ultimate lesson may be to deny the very foundations of freedom, by teaching us that we are caught in the blind determinisms and mechanisms of a purely material world. This is the thought that would come to haunt, amongst others, Nietzsche, Mallarmé, Conrad and Walter Pater, in the nineteenth century.footnote3

References to matter, material world and materiality take us to the threshold of the various doctrines known as materialism. I want to start by discriminating some of the relevant meanings and contexts involved here, as well as gesturing towards a history which might encompass them. In the study of art and literature, these meanings and contexts are essentially threefold: for shorthand purposes, I shall call them the Romantic, the positivist and the semiotic. The first discrimination concerns materialism in the senses evoked by modern science and modern economy: the place and role of art in the age of industrialization. This first context yields what is of course a familiar story—basically, one of opposition. In late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Romanticism, scientific method was perceived as resting on a deadly atomism, an analytics of matter that drained it of meaning and destroyed the intuitive sense of connexion with the living presences and processes of Nature—in whose name Goethe and Wordsworth attacked the modern scientific spirit. Relatedly, economic materialism—the new forces of production and the culture of secular techno-rationality that accompanied them—was held to have installed the rule of instrumental reason, which marked the emergence of the disenchanted world of modernity. In this moment, art and literature—or, more generally, the category of the aesthetic—are commonly seen as a rearguard action against this hegemony. Counterposed to mechanical materialism is the organicist materialism which underpins a redemptive view of the nature of art: of aesthetic experience as the royal road to the reunion of matter and spirit, sundered by modernity. In this conception, matter is redeemed through its infusion by spirit; as for example, in the quasi-Spinozist aesthetic pantheism of the Romantics and the accompanying artistic doctrine of correspondances, whereby the materiality of the poetic word was held to embody or, literally, incorporate, the sphere of the transcendental—a theory of poetry as onomatopœia married to metaphysics; one term for which, in Romantic aesthetic thought, was the ‘symbol’.footnote4

The two other moments that I have listed as the historical successors to the Romantic—the positivist and the semiotic—are quite different in their respective ways with the category of materiality. Positivism applies rather than resists the application of science to the understanding of art and literature, broadly as the analysis of the material and social conditions of literary production, with a corresponding demystification of the Romantic–organicist view. Marxism expands this approach, with its stress on the materiality of signifying practices, or what Clark calls ‘the historical, material place and determination of the whole language-game’. Clark however also takes this to mean ‘not just the phenomenal “stuff” of any one token within it’, but rather a set of practices, saturated with historically realized human meanings and values; a whole phenomenology of the making of lived meanings, articulated through the body and work on the world.footnote5

The notion of materiality as ‘phenomenal stuff’, or what we have come to call the materiality of the signifier, is rather the theme of the third moment, the semiotic, and the related cluster of labels that go with it: formalism, structuralism, deconstruction. In this third moment, the sign is material in the literal sense of physical matter (phonic or graphic) and is decisively recast in the association with the Saussurian notion of arbitrariness. As arbitrary physical mark or sound, the sign is characterized by thickness and opacity rather than transparency. Unlike the organic integrations of Romantic ideology, or the dense weave of social meanings foregrounded by Marxist materialism, what is here emphasized is rather the sign as the site of a resistance to meaning: the pull of the material is a pull away from (the fiction of) embodied meaning. This, famously, is the approach of Paul de Man, who deploys the idea of the linguistic and literary sign as brute matter with the express intention of wrecking all possible groundings of art as humanly meaningful, under the general heading of the illusions of Romantic anthropomorphism—described, in the essay on Rousseau in Allegories of Reading, as ‘the loss of the illusion of meaning’.footnote6 Another way of putting this is to equate materiality with mechanism, the work of literary art as ‘verbal contraption’.

Over the course of 150 years or so, we thus encounter a remarkable shift: from the Romantic way with matter as an attempt to rescue it from the purely mechanical, passing by way of the organic, to a radically anti-Romantic conception, which restores the materiality of art and language to the realm of the mechanism. Behind, or accompanying this shift, lies a massive cultural and political history. For the Romantics, the aesthetic was at once a term of resistance and redemption, saving us from submission to the meaninglessness of material determinations. In Schiller’s theoretical writings, for example, the Aesthetic State (where ‘state’ signifies both subjective condition and political form) is one in which wholeness of being is recovered from the atomistic fragmentations inflicted by modern science and political economy. The Aesthetic State is at once the ground and guarantee of what Schiller understands by freedom, where freedom is to be grasped partly in the Kantian sense of freedom from the blind determinations of material nature. Art, in the Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Mankind, offers the escape route from that potential or actual submission.