Thursday, June 29, 2006

Rachel Whiteread: Breaking the Chains of Form and Content

In his essay “The Present Body, the Absent Body, and the Formless,”1 Uros Cvoro provides us with a compelling analysis of Rachel Whiteread’s 1993 public sculpture House. Although it was destroyed only three months after it was constructed, Cvoro argues for its persisting relevance: “The questions that House raised about the articulation of memory as a displacement of past into present, the tracing of absence, and the dialogue between the viewer's body and the materiality of the object remain as pertinent as ever for any serious study of sculpture and memory.”2 Since we take a real interest in both sculpture (as students of art) and memory (as human beings), it would seem dangerously negligent to overlook this landmark work.

Cvoro begins by rightly criticizing “the unquestioned assumption that House either acted as a symbolic substitute for the body of the viewer--an inverted, disrupted body--or represented the absence of the domestic body.”3 As he keenly observes, “the result of such an approach to the work overlooks… the conceptual potential of House to dislocate the oppositions of work/beholder, text/reader, and object/subject.”4 In order to bring the discussion back to the realm of reasonable analysis, Cvoro sets out to “link Whiteread's work to a material operation of sign deferral that contests its very materiality as fixed location and show how it has the capacity to decompose the very coherence of form on which the materiality of House has been thought to depend.”5

Now, Cvoro draws on the work of Bois and Krauss in order to introduce the important notion of the formless, a notion without which we might be left groping in our encounter with more recent approaches to art. As Cvoro explains, “Bois and Krauss detach the trace of the formless from the visual form, thus undermining the proximity of the trace to the form and the possibility of the trace being absorbed by the form. Their point is that if the trace of the formless is independent of the visual form, it will eschew the binary logic of form and content.”6 As my readers are well aware, this binary logic of form and content has tyrannized art theory for far too long. But in introducing the essential notion of the formless, we find ourselves in the happy position of moving beyond this relic of ancient speculation.

But Cvoro is here concerned with House, and he makes skillful use of the previous considerations to open our understanding of the work. Cvoro suggests that

“by using the operations of the trace and the formless as models for our reading of House, we will open the interpretative possibilities of the work to more democratic ways of reading. More specifically, we will be able to eschew the confounding absent/present binary of the body. In short, I will suggest that just as the trace is without a past, and the formless is without a form, House is without a body.”7

With this move, Cvoro can finally declare checkmate against “the reductive humanist perspective” that has hitherto been “brought to bear on House” and that “always returns into the symbolic economy of the body.”8 If House is in fact without a body, then any debate over its status as either inverted body or absent domestic body is rendered meaningless, no matter how well entrenched it may be.

I suggest that my readers review their own past modes of thinking and see if they are not equally infected with the form/content prejudices so prevalent even in this new millennium. I expect that you will be surprised and greatly benefited by the realization that there is indeed a way out of this binary straightjacket, a way that can lead us closer to our elusive quarry, artistic truth.

1-8: Cvoro, Uros, Art Journal, Winter 2002, Vol. 61 Issue 4, pp. 54-64.

12 Comments:

Anonymous Capuchin said...

Mr. Silverthorne: Please elaborate upon this notion of the formless. Is not saying that something has no form saying that is has a form, viz. formlessness? Isn't saying that something can have no form akin to asserting as true that there is no truth?

3:38 PM  
Blogger Marcus Silverthorne said...

As an example, consider our experience of the natural sublime, which surpasses all form. Our imagination is stretched beyond its natural limits, as in contemplating the size of the universe, and we are left with an experience, but one without definite form. This bewildering experience can correctly be said to be formless in that it a) cannot be defined, b) cannot be precisely classed with other experiences of its kind (each is uniquely bewildering), and c) cannot be imagined as bearing a definite design or organizational scheme. These points exhaust the meanings of form fairly completely, it seems to me.

8:58 AM  
Anonymous capuchin said...

Mr. Silverthorne: Thank you for your decisive reply, but I remain unconvinced--or perhaps simply confused.

First, what leads you to say that the experience of the natural sublime surpasses all form? Moreover, if it surpasses all form, what renders it "natural"?

Second, your characterization of form is seriously lacking.

Point c) concerning imagination is simply a mistake, for cognition of forms is wholly intellectual-- not imaginative.

Point b) contains a confusion. In fact, it shows that formless may be predicated of many and is, in truth, a form and constitutes a kind. While each is uniquely bewildering in other aspects, they are nevertheless all bewildering and formless. Consequently, formless must be a form. So, while they may be unique individually, their individuality consists in their particular determinations apart from the predicate of formlessness.

Which leads to point a). In fact, formless can be defined, and we can have a positive conception of it, simply by conjuncting "not" and the definition of "form".

12:43 PM  
Blogger Marcus Silverthorne said...

1) The natural sublime is the experience of that which surpasses the limits of our imagination (as in the attempt to contemplate the size of the universe). It is an aesthetic experience (and not a scientific attempt to measure the universe), and its object, in surpassing the imagination, is beyond comprehension. It is formless.

2) Because we are dealing with an aesthetic experience of an indefinite object, what is at issue is precisely whether or not the form of the object can be imagined. Even in Aristotle, furthermore, perception must precede intellection. Otherwise there would be nothing about which the intellect could know a form. Because the sublime involves the attempt to imagine that which transcends the capacity of imagination, we find an analogous situation. If the form of the sublime cannot be imagined, there is nothing for the intellect to determinately cognize (obviously I'm relying on Kant here).

3) A negation is not the same as a positive predicate. That you and I are both non-crows tells us little about what we are. It makes little sense to speak of the form of a non-crow, in fact. Even if I did have perfect knowledge of what it is to be a non-crow, it is still conceivable that no two non-crows are alike (for an absurd example, say the universe consisted of millions of crows, one person, one star and one planet).

1:17 PM  
Anonymous capuchin said...

Mr. Silverthorne: I thank you for your swift reply.

1) I understand that it is an aesthetic experience, but the referenced article and the conversation has thus far defined the aesthetic experience in terms of scientific concepts (esp. form and content-- obviously these are not scientific concepts in the same way that physics employs scientific concepts of measurement). Indeed, whenever speaking meaningfully of an experience, I would suggest, "scientific" concepts must be employed.

2) It remains unclear why it is called "natural".

3) Aristotle's claim that all cognition begins in the senses does not entail that _all_ cognitive _elements_ are derived from the senses. Thus, Aquinas (for example) can concur with Aristotle that all cognition begins in the senses but that the power of abstracting forms depends upon a share of "divine light" imparted to the human.

4)I concede your point 3), the argument for which I tried to slip by you in an act of intellectual dishonesty, for I knew beforehand its falsity. Negation is syncategorematic and so can play no role in the _positive_ conception of a thing. Nevertheless, it can play a role in the conception of a thing. Minimally, to assert "not + form" is to assert that there is an experience of "form" upon which a logical operation has been performed.


4) Your comments suggest that there is an act according to which one tries to imagine the sublime as something beyond experience. However, in doing so, the act must negate the concept of form--or determinacy or definiteness. Thus, the act of negating a form is like the young zen buddhist meditating thusly: "By the principles of zen, I must purge myself of all thinking. I shall simply repeat to myself: I am not thinking, I am not thinking, I am not thinking." Obviously, the joke is that he is thinking about not thinking. Analogously, in the act of trying to imagine the not-form (i.e. that which transcends the limits of the imagination), the young Kantian says: "I am conceiving of the not-form. I am conceiving of the not-form. I am conceiving of the not-form." Obviously, the joke is that he is still _conceiving_, i.e. _forming_ a conception.

Moreover, herein lies the import of my initial claim: "Isn't saying that something can have no form akin to asserting as true that there is no truth?" I believe its relevance here is so obvious as to need no explanation.

7:56 AM  
Blogger Marcus Silverthorne said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:26 AM  
Blogger Marcus Silverthorne said...

1) Form and content are also aesthetic categories, and have not been viewed as particularly useful scientific concepts for quite some time.

2) It is called "natural" to distinguish it from the experience of the sublime in (human-made) works of art.

3) The point is that there must be a perceptual object bearing some form in the first place (even if something like the active intellect always has contacts with the forms in some general sense). Otherwise, no determinate cognition is possible.

4) An aesthetic experience is not equivalent to a purely conceptual act. In the experience of the sublime, one does not try to conceive of the nature of such an experience in general. Rather, one attempts to give form (in the imagination) to that which exceeds the imagination. As Kant argues, the proper object of the experience of the sublime is the free and indeterminate play of the faculties of reason and imagination. One does not think "I am conceiving of the not-form" but rather "Try as I might to imagine this, I find that I fail, and yet reason demands that I do so."

Finally, if a thing is defined in terms of some hylemorphic theory, it is trivially false to say that a thing has no form. But to say that the object of an aesthetic experience is formless is quite a different matter. The "aesthetic experience" refers to the subject, the "object" to that toward which the experience is directed. It may turn out that the latter is not a thing in any ordinary sense (as in the case of the sublime). This is a different situation from that found in the statement, "It is true that there is no truth."

9:45 AM  
Anonymous capuchin said...

My dear Mr. Silverthorne:

1) I believe you have misunderstood my first point. Form and content, as they are used to describe aesthetic experience, are being employed scientifically, if science be taken in it most general sense to concern the study of anything whatsoever--in this case, aesthetic experience. Moreover, the distinction of form and content still cuts across the whole of the sciences. Everyone recognizes the difference between these two comments:

p is q

and:

a dog is an animal.

The former concerns form alone. The latter adds content. Precisely this is Kant's point in employing "the transcendental object" as and x, i.e. some object, any object what so every, the object formally considered apart from its content.

2) Thank you for the definition. I see you mean it as the antithesis of artifactual.

3) I concur that an object is necessary. However, that is _not_ the point, as you say. The initial point was simply to point out the fact that a form, in the proper sense of an eidos, is not imagined. The form of humility--as an "object" or intellectual awareness--is different kind of "object" from various perceptions of humble acts. The humble act may appear differently in different circumstances, but humility is unchanging. This is just as different quantities of things may number two, three or four, but twoness, threeness and fourness are "objects" quite apart from the individual groups of things.

4) It is correct that an aesthetic experience is not equivalent to a purely conceptual act. The point of contact, based on your previous comments, was simply that it was an _act_. As such, it requires activity on the part of the cognizant. So, the cognizant must _try_ to imagine the indeterminate object. Hence, I fail to see the distinction between these two claims: "I conceive of the not-form" and "Try as I might to imagine the not-form, I fail, yet reason demands that I do so." The cognizant fails precisely because he cannot imagine the formless without imagining _something_.

Finally 5), you're right that it is false to say a thing has no form, however this is neither trivial nor constrained to hylomorphic theory. It is not trivial, for it shows that there cannot be experience unless there are forms. It is not constrained to hylomorphic theory, for one could be a nominalist and find himself in the same predicament.

This applies to aesthetic experience, for it shows that the experience must involve a form, whether that form is imparted by the subject in an act or is part of the object imagined. Thus, to deny that there is a form is to deny that there is an experience. This is analogous to the claim regarding truth, for to deny with the air of truth that there is truth is to deny that there is any truth in the claim.

10:34 AM  
Blogger Marcus Silverthorne said...

1) I'm not sure what you mean by your example. Logical form is different from both aesthetic form and the kind of Aristotelian form we've been discussing as a tangent. Furthermore, Kant's discussion of the transcendental object only serves to demonstrate my point insofar as it illustrates the fact that an object of cognition must be an intuition that stands under categories of the understanding. In the case of the sublime, for Kant, there is no determinate concept (remember that it involves the relation of reason and imagination, unlike the case of beauty) and the "intuition" involved (that of the sublime) outruns the imagination.

3) An abstract form is not imagined, but there must be something perceived (or, in the case of the sublime, imagined) bearing a form before the intellect can play its role. Thus, if there the "object" of an aesthetic experience is formless, no determinate cognition of it is possible.

4) The difference is "I conceive" vs. "Try as I might to imagine."

5) It is trivially false if a thing is defined as having a form. But the object of the experience of the sublime is not a thing in any ordinary sense, so it doesn't matter either way. I use "object" here not to substitute for "thing" but rather to indicate a relation. Since this object turns out to be unimaginable, incomprehensible, and formless, it is quite different from a thing. Thus, the aesthetic experience is turned inward toward the free and indeterminate play of reason and imagination, which is merely a relation.

Thank you for this discussion. I'll have to leave this as my final point now, but keep reading the blog!

12:01 PM  
Blogger Marcus Silverthorne said...

By the way, since I'm clearly rehashing Kant's discussion of the sublime, I'd refer readers to the Critique of Judgment for the whole argument.

12:06 PM  
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2:14 PM  
Anonymous Tali Purkerson said...

I believe the notion of the formless, L’informe, that which owns formlessness, was originated by Bataille and not Krauss/Bois?

12:02 AM  

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