Echoes of the Real

February 14, 2019 - February 15, 2019
Philharmonie de Paris

221, avenue Jean-Jaurès
Paris 75019


  • University Paris 1
  • Institut Acte
  • ESÄ, École Supérieure d'Art du Nord-Pas de Calais Dunkerque/Tourcoing


ESÄ, École Supérieure D'Art Du Nord-Pas de Calais Dunkerque/Tourcoing
University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne
Université paris 1

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FEBRUARY 14-15, 2019

In partnership with Pantheon-Sorbonne University, the Institut Arts, Créations, Théories et Esthétiques (ACTE) and the Centre de Philosophie Contemporaine de la Sorbonne (PhiCo), axe Culture, Esthétique, Philosophie de l’Art (CEPA) of the Centre de Philosophie contemporaine de la Sorbonne (Phico – ISJPS – UMR 8103)

If we want to reassess the boundaries between art and non-art, then we have to examine the links between art and reality — a question that emerged before the birth of contemporary art. This kind of question opens several possible pathways: it is indeed necessary to understand what is at stake when visual arts or music are exported into reality, and when reality is imported inside the works of art themselves: those phenomena lead to a renewed definition of the medium or at least to the need for an analysis of the concept of the autonomy of art. What is at stake when a purely heteronomous element arises in the work of art, without being shaped by the medium, or when art slips into reality? What becomes the status of the fragments of the empirical reality when they are integrated into the structure of the work of art? How can one distinguish between the art forms that become a part of reality and remain constructivist, and those that seem to have a “realist” attitude? From art to reality and from reality to art, we have to understand a kind of realism that deeply transforms the historical legacy of mimesis theories. In term of musical practices, we can observe the presence of a certain “voice of the concrete”, a critical — and often polemical — voice, persistent from echoes of the Futurists to the desires of an urban realism specific to noise music… An alternative voice, opposed to a conception o the musical idea and its material, false friend whose name would describe a dialectized set of historical meditations rather than sonorous concrete. Against a “structural” approach, we will use the concept of concrete (musique concrète) but also the idea of a return to an ambient noise environment. We associate return to “sonorous reality” and a certain naturalism. But what do such aesthetic choices really give us access to? Is it really a question of thinking about musical practices and listening in terms of access to sound — a concrete and ductile material, the source at which the ear regenerates itself, a sonorous reality finally rediscovered and opposed to the constructions of the musical idea? The question is certainly less about whether it is necessary to identify “real” and “concrete”, rather than about recognizing the mediatized character of concrete sonorous. In the field of visual arts, we will have to examine the specific paths that have been traced by certain works that can be defined more in term of “capture” than in term of creation — a distinction made by Paul Valery — or that are part of a fiction regime that makes us look at the world from a non-human point of view. We will then have to tighten the focus on the works of contemporary artists or designers using operative concepts stemming from the speculative shift in continental philosophy: Object Oriented Sculptures or “archifossils”, for instance, that renew the concept of ready-made, through recording (field recording) and listening practices (deep listening).

Thus, art – in theory as much as in practice – follows the tectonics that impacts the contemporary philosophical landscape. Indeed, we are witnessing the emergence of what might be called a “conceptual archipelago” in the waters of “realism”. There is nowadays a renewal of realism in philosophy, and this realism is plural. This term is being given various meanings, depending on the currents in which it reappears and the authors who pick it up: it reappears in analytical-oriented philosophies as in the post-phenomenological elaborations (of, say Étienne Bimbenet); it also reappears in the wake of the Wittgensteinian philosophy of the ordinary (with Jocelyn Benoist); we still find it with thinkers who (like Manuel DeLanda) claim Deleuze’s legacy; it finally is enshrined in the name of the movement of “speculative realism” (as exemplified, in France, by Quentin Meillassoux and by Graham Harman in the United States). Beyond their disagreements, these varieties of realism contribute to an attempt to think reality as such, separate from the ways in which we access it and the relations, both cognitive and practical, we maintain with it. In other words, it is a matter of exploring the modalities of a discourse that says what it is, independently of how it appears to a consciousness — or, to put it in more Kantian terms, it is a matter of saying what things are before a transcendental subjectivity makes objects of knowledge out of them. What are things, indeed, apart from the conditions we force upon them, and under which we are given objects in experience? To put it this way, we would have to dissociate what seems inseparable — namely: Being from its modes of donation. We would have to unravel that link we deem inextricable, between the subject and the object, or between consciousness and the world. It would take a thought pattern that breaks free of what Quentin Meillassoux calls “correlationism”, defining it as “the idea that we have access only to the correlation of thought and being, and never to one of these terms in isolation.” In its so-called “speculative” variant, realism has spread beyond the simple limits of the philosophical discipline. It can notably be seen in the theory and in the practice of the arts, to such an extent that in the United States a “speculative aesthetic” has developed (whose links to the Bildakt we shall analyse). This speculative aesthetic is no longer merely a prism through which one analyses the relationship of certain works to reality. It is now best conceived as the study of images considered in a broader iconic context, in which one fully recognizes their independence, their strength, and the way they migrate and interact with each other, regardless of their context of appearance and their media affiliation. This way of thinking marks a step aside from the guidelines that used to prevail in these matters. From Marcel Duchamp's ready-made to conceptual art, through the “poetics of the open work” celebrated by Umberto Eco, as well as the phases of “de-definition“ (Harold Rosenberg) and “de-materialization” (Lucy R. Lippard) that it underwent during the 20th century; art seemed to be permanently settled in the “correlation circle” as described by Quentin Meillassoux. Indeed, one is to note that there has been a great deal of talk about the feedback effect of reception on creation and the decisive role the interpretative body (the “viewer”, the context, the institution) plays in producing the meaning of the work. All this amounted to making the work inseparable from a meaning thought of as construction. Thus, we could have thought that art had partly lost its interest in reality, to refocus on the mediations that condition the experience and appreciation a subject might have of an object imputable to art. The relationship seemed to take precedence over the object; but now, we see art suggesting that we contemplate the “Great Outside”, while the discourse that accompanies it may belong to an “Object-Oriented Ontology” promoted by Graham Harman. This symposium is therefore aimed at mapping the archipelago of contemporary realisms by paying attention to their echoes in the field of art and aesthetics.

The stakes are twofold. On the one hand, it is a matter of pinpointing and evaluating how realism can contribute to aesthetics. Conversely, the question is to determine what role aesthetics can play in the philosophical enterprises that are currently developing under the banner of realism. This survey invites us to see how aesthetics, which initially emerged as the science of sensitive cognition, could contravene the conceptual endeavours of contemporary realisms or, on the contrary, how it could encourage or even inspire them.

It seems, therefore, that perceiving the relationship between aesthetics and the contemporary realisms would encompass an issue related to the philosophical status of aesthetics itself. If we agree that aesthetics defines a field of study for the formation of sensitive forms and how they are likely to affect us, we are forced to admit that it bears experience at its very heart. Whether or not experience becomes a cognitive paradigm is a pending question. The fact remains that it is acknowledged as an aesthetic dimension whenever it proves to be phenomenological — or at least perceptual — evaluational, and transformative at the same time. Could it be, therefore, that aesthetics hinders realistic outbreaks for the very reason that it fully recognizes the sensible? Wouldn't the problem be, more precisely, that aesthetics questions appearance as it appears to someone — or, in other words, as a phenomenon which is dependent on a subject? Then it would be this preliminary position of a subject, to which things are given, which would stand in the way of realism. But is that self-evident? Should we assume that aesthetics is centered on the subject and considers things from its point of view? Is aesthetics definitively themed as a matter of human consciousness and human reaction to the representation of objects? Does it necessarily ascribe us to the correlation of mind and the world? What resources would aesthetics rather hold at the disposal of realists? Among the notions that are specific to this system of thought, among the states of mind or epistemic attitudes it has highlighted, are there not some which provide us with a means of breaking the correlationist circle, and which indicate, for the human being, ways of establishing a relationship with reality which, not being originally conceptual, frees him from any pre-emption that a subject would like to exercise his right? Should we then stop considering aesthetic experience as a type of relationship with the world that is specific to the human being? Should we go so far as to disinherit him from this privilege and to distribute aesthetic experience equanimously among beings? For some realists, the problem seems indeed to be less about the centrality of experience than the centrality of the subject in the experience. Let us consider the proponents of Object-Oriented Ontology, such as Timothy Morton or Graham Harman, the latter speaking of an “experience without a subject”. He consequently locates it in relationality as such, which is inherent to reality and concerns all the entities that make it up: whether human or not, all of them are interconnected; all of them interact; all of them therefore have experience of each other.

In this perspective where aesthetics becomes a descriptive theory of relationality as such, the aesthetic determinants of experience can be seen as beyond the scope of human consciousness and faculties. Thus de-subjectivized or de-humanized, they now apply to the very fabric of the real. But what does it mean to say that objects perceive, intuit and taste each other? How is that legitimate? What does it presuppose? And what do we gain from extending the domain of aesthetics beyond the human and trying excursions into the domain of non-human? Does it contribute to a better understanding or a rational grasp of relationships, human or otherwise? How is the relationship between epistemology and ontology reconstructed, in other words, after aesthetics has shifted from the first to the second? In addition to presenting this “speculative” aesthetics to a French public, which remains largely ignorant of it, our symposium – which will bring together philosophy, music, visual arts, and cinema – aims to confront this version of realism with others: the direct one, the perceptual one, the contextual one, etc. Each will be asked to explain what it means, in their view, to be “realist” as regard to art and aesthetic values. The bet we make is that aesthetics is a privileged field to discern the dividing lines separating contemporary realisms, for this is were the relationship to reality diffracts.

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February 12, 2019, 6:00pm CET

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