Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Notes on Gumbrecht's Production of Presence

Jens Hauser, curator of the Still, Living show at BEAP, pointed me to Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht's formulation of "presence culture" vs "meaning culture." Hauser used those ideas in his framing of that exhibition, proposing an understanding of bio-art through an aesthetics of presence. This got my attention, to say the least, and seemed to connect with my own attempts to theorise audiovisual, generative and data practices. How does "presence culture" manifest in the new media arts? I've just now finished reading Gumbrecht's book, Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey. I certainly haven't digested it properly; these notes are part of that process, and I'll follow them up with some more detailed thoughts on presence culture and the media arts shortly.

Gumbrecht's project centres on the humanities as an academic discipline; a discipline he understands as dominated by a cluster of concepts grouped around "meaning culture":

“Metaphysics” refers to an attitude, both an everyday attitude and an academic perspective, that gives a higher value to the meaning of phenomena than to their material presence; the word thus points to a worldview that always wants to go “beyond” (or “below”) that which is “physical.” ... “Metaphysics” shares [the role of] scapegoat ... with other concepts and names, such as “hermeneutics,” “Cartesian worldview,” “subject/object paradigm” and, above all, “interpretation.” [xiv]

In this paradigm the exclusive role of the humanities is to interpret the meaning (associated with essence, truth, mind, spirit and the immaterial) of a world which the human cogito is in, but not of. Gumbrecht argues that this is a relatively modern state. In presence cultures, by comparison, humans understand themselves as bodies within a material cosmology - Gumbrecht uses Medieval culture as an example. Rather than being produced - through interpretation - beyond or below material things, knowledge in a presence culture is revealed; it occurs in "events of self-unconcealment of the world" or moments of revelation that "just happen" [81]. Through Heidegger's notion of Being, Gumbrecht asks us to imagine a form of knowledge that is "not exclusively conceptual", prior to, or not dependent on, interpretation.

For Gumbrecht the meaning/presence binary is not a simple opposition, and his argument is not conventionally "critical" in that he wants to replace one with the other. Instead the relationship between the two is exclusive but dynamic: "What this book ultimately argues for is a relation to the things of the world that could oscillate between presence effects and meaning effects." [xv] "Presence and meaning always appear together ... and are always in tension. There is no way of making them compatible or of bringing them together in one "well-balanced" phenomenal structure." [105] "Presence phenomena" become "effects of" presence, "because we can only encounter them within a culture that is predominantly a meaning culture. ... [T]hey are necessarily surrounded by, wrapped into, and perhaps even mediated by clouds and cushions of meaning." [106]

Aesthetic experience plays a significant role here, as a source for exemplary instances of presence. For Gumbrecht aesthetic experience is about "epiphanies" or moments of intensity; fleeting, visceral instants of being that might be triggered by good food as much as great art - even (for Gumbrecht) the kinetic beauty of a touchdown pass in a gridiron game. Interestingly he writes, "there is nothing edifying in such moments, no message, nothing that we could really learn from them ... what we feel is probably not more than a specifically high level in the functioning of some of our general cognitive, emotional and perhaps even physical faculties." [98] What we desire here is is "the state of being lost in focused intensity" [104] - an intensity that might be accessed through other means than art - for example, extreme physical states. We desire it, Gumbrecht suggests, because we're overfed with meaning culture - quoting Jean-Luc Nancy Gumbrecht writes: "there is nothing we find more tiresome today than the production of yet another nuance of meaning, of 'just a little more sense.'" [105] The effect of getting lost in this state of intensity, is to "prevent us from completely losing a feeling or a remembrance of the physical dimension in our lives" - to remind us of our being "part of the world of things." Gumbrecht links this to a state of extreme serenity or composure, of "being in sync with the world", which is not to say in harmony or accord, more an embodied feeling of being in, with, and of, the world.

More on Gumbrecht soon - meantime I'd welcome your thoughts and links on these ideas in relation to contemporary art, and especially media art.


Ben Byrne said...

I've just finished reading 'Productions of Presence' and one of the first issues that struck me as interesting, undoubtedly because of its role in my own research, was Gumbrecht's view of metaphysics which, as you mentioned, positions it as referring to 'an attitude, both an everyday attitude and an academic perspective, that gives a higher value to the meaning of phenomena than to their material presence'. I find it interesting because, in contrast, I think that metaphysics is a project that could benefit hugely from a developed notion of 'presence', even if that must, still involve the use of interpretation, as Gumbrecht is guilty of himself. Just lately I have been very interested in the idea that ontological approaches often emphasize the actuality of being to the expense of potentiality and I think a development of the notion of 'presence' may assist in bridging that gap.

Kyle said...

i have a really difficult time understanding these ideas, because they remind me so much of a sartrean perspective on being. specifically, the tension between meaning culture and presence culture reminds me of the tension between being-for-itself and being-in-itself, respectively. even some of the language is similar. the same way i can never remember whether i'm eating a clementine, tangerine, or just a plain old orange. i'm going to have to read this a few more times...