Kondylian Combinations

1 Μαΐου, 2013 § Σχολιάστε

By Ch. Van Eecke

A light introduction to Kondylian mass democracy by an artistically minded author

Kondylian Combinations

[…] Bürger’s history of the avant-garde is corroborated in an interesting way in Panajotis Kondylis’ history of the decay of the bourgeois way of life and the emergence of mass democracy. Kondylis argues that every culture looks at reality from a specific perspective or worldview. Such a worldview is created to cope with the world: it is a means of survival in a hostile environment. By imposing a certain view upon the world, a culture establishes an identity that allows it to control the world. Through this control a culture and its inhabitants are able to keep themselves alive.

This means that every worldview is designed in relation to whatever may threaten a culture’s survival. These threats are the culture’s enemies. In primitive cultures the enemy may be wild animals or poisonous plants, but in our more developed societies the worldview is usually designed to identify and do battle with ideological enemies, namely groups of people or cultures that live by another and usually conflicting worldview. This means that for Kondylis ‘es gibt keinen anderen methodischen Zugang zur Erfassung des Charakters einer Epoche oder einer Gesellschaftsformation als ihre Abgrenzung gegen eine frühere oder eine andere’. To understand a culture or epoch one must understand against what or whom it was constructed. For instance, the worldview of the Enlightenment was developed as a strategic answer to the Christian worldview of the Middle ages. The Christian worldview saw everything from the perspective of religion and salvation, with the main focus of attention lying in the afterworld. It was a world of disembodiment and spirituality. The Enlightenment was a strategic answer to the challenge of gaining victory over this worldview by trying to rethink the relationship between mind and body.

A specific way in which this strategic answer took form can be seen in modern aesthetics, notably in the works of Schiller and Kant. As we saw before, Kant’s aesthetic theory was an attempt to bridge the gap between body and mind. This means that he was trying to undo the bifurcation of body and mind that was at the heart of Christianity, where the body had to be mortified and only the immortal soul would be saved. A similar tactic is at work in Schiller’s work, where the arts, and notably the theatre, are engaged in a didactic process: the theatre can be used as a stage for attractively packaged moral messages. However, Schiller argued for the autonomy of art: whatever moral message a work of art may present, it could only be successfully conveyed if the work of art was not subservient to morality. There had to be harmony of form and content and neither of the two should dominate the other. Kondylis has called the mechanism at work in modern aesthetics ‘the rehabilitation of the sensual’ (‘die Rehabilitation der Sinnlichkeit’): Both Kant’s and Schiller’s works (but the works of many others too, and not merely in aesthetics) can be seen as attempts to re-enfranchise the physical realm in view of the traditional hostility towards it. One way of doing this was to stress the moral potential of art: aesthetic enjoyment (which is sinful in a Christian perspective) could serve higher moral ends. But both Kant and Schiller stress the autonomy of art in this process, which chimes with Bürger’s claim that bourgeois culture evolved towards an emancipation of the aesthetic into an autonomous realm. In Kant this trend towards autonomy of the aesthetic is most clear in the element of disinterestedness which we have already discussed.

Kondylis has sketched bourgeois culture as ‘synthetic-harmonising’ (‘synthetisch-harmonisierend’): it is a worldview that is well-ordered and scientific and aims at a harmonic synthesis of opposites. It tries to bring everything together in what can be called le juste milieu. This term is borrowed from the arts, but we find it equally at work in the other aspects of culture. For example, deism seeks to harmonise the existence of a superior being with the findings of modern science, thus saving both traditional morality and modern science from mutual embarrassment (and philosophical writers from possible prosecution by church or state). In the case of Kant, the harmonising middle ground lies in his attempt to bridge the gap between body and mind, whereas Schiller epitomised the rehabilitation of the sensual in his moral mission for the theatre. But apart from harmonising, the modern bourgeois worldview is also organic in structure. This is expressed in the idea of Bildung: man has an essential nature which must be nurtured to bring it to fruition. The prime metaphor to understand modern culture, according to Kondylis, is therefore time: there is a trend towards harmony that develops through time. Modernity is the culture of perfectibility. History is a process of progress. In the arts bourgeois culture is expressed in Classicism, where there is a symmetrical relation between the whole and its parts and a perfect union of form and content, as in Schiller’s proposals for the theatre. In the modern view, art is included in the history of organic progress for it is usually seen as the highest triumph of nature: it is in art that mankind achieves the highest expression of himself. It is no coincidence that this idea was also at the heart of schiller’s aesthetics, where it is art that allows man to bind together his sensual and his moral self (Kant’s body and mind) in a greater harmony that is his highest human calling.

Bourgeois culture in its pure form only existed for a very brief period of time. It soon started to erode from within. This process becomes especially visible in the second half of the nineteenth century, when the emancipation of the several spheres of action becomes clearly visible. The decline of bourgeois culture is in many ways a parallel process to the division of labour, as Bürger also claimed. the nineteenth century saw the gradual emancipation of the labourer in the emergence of social movements. This started a process of atomisation of society: as the twentieth century progresses, the individual comes more and more to the fore and egalitarian ideals gain ground. This is an effect of the process of emancipation of bourgeois culture. Artistically, this process came to an end with aestheticism, art for art’s sake. This means that the autonomy of art, which we saw emerge in Kant’s idea of disinterestedness, had finally run its course. On this point, Kondylis’ analysis merges with Bürger’s: the avant-garde (or what Bürger calls the historical avant-garde) demands the end of art in the sense that art and life must merge. On a more general level, the synthetic-harmonising culture of bourgeois modernity makes way for a new culture that will evolve into the postmodern. The postmodern is no longer aimed at synthesis or harmony and is described by Kondylis as ‘analytical-combinatory’ (‘analytisch-kombinatorisch’). Society is no longer harmonised but analysed into its constituent parts. This means that the process of emancipation started in bourgeois culture is taken to its logical extreme: every individual becomes important in its unique individuality. This is the emergence of the atomised society that we call mass democracy. In a 1961 lecture Langer has referred to this as a process of individuation; a process that she felt had ‘all but reached its limit. Society is breaking up into its ultimate units – single individuals, persons’. Langer looked at this process with some concern because ‘the fact is that in our Western culture […] each individual really stands alone’ and many people ‘feel, but cannot understand, their loss of the sense of involvement, which makes the world seem like a meaningless rat race in which they are reduced to nothingness, alone in life and in death’. A parallel process can be seen in the arts of what we now call Modernism: artists seek the primary elements of art, be it pure colours or shapes, basic forms, or the basic elements of perception (Kondylis points out that modernism in history and Modernism in the arts do not coincide: artistic Modernism is in fact the kind of art developed in the postmodern era). This is what Danto calls the age of Manifestos. The guiding metaphor of postmodernity is not time but space. Mass democracy can be represented as a huge plane or space in which all individuals, lifestyles, values, or objects are simply at hand. There is no hierarchy. There is no individual more valuable than any other, no lifestyle more favourable than any other. Everything is equal. Which means that things are simply at hand in space as in a huge window display or on a counter. This is the analytical aspect: everything is broken down into its most basic constituents. The combinatory aspect next says that all these elements can be combined in whatever combinations we please. This means that personality is no longer seen as a temporal thing, as in the ideal of Bildung. People construct their personality: they make choices, identify themselves as belonging to specific subcultures, they choose their gender roles, their jobs, their dress, everything. And no choice is ever final: there are no essences and every choice can always be traded for another styling of the self and its mercurial identities. We no longer accumulate our personality through time but assemble it as a work of art. For the arts this means that artists can use whatever they want in whatever combination they want. The prime example of postmodern or analytical-combinatory art is the collage, or the collection of perspectives in a Cubist painting. In fact, Bürger maintains that montage should be considered ‘the basic principle of avant-garde art’, partly because its explicitly constructed nature is the exact opposite of the organic concept of art found in bourgeois culture (Robert Rauschenberg tellingly referred to some of his works as “combines”). This again means that what Danto has called the Post-Historical condition in art, namely the fact that anything can become art or be integrated in art, is in fact a feature of artistic Modernism. Both Bürger and Kondylis show that Danto is at least fifty years behind when he defines 1964 as the point in time where the Post-Historical era emerges […]

Source: Christophe Van Eecke, ONLY CONNECT – five exercises in aesthetics (2011)



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