Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Contrast: Playing Nice with Jullien

In addition to his general contrast between Western and Eastern metaphysics, Jullien presents a series of more specific contrasts between various Western and Eastern cultural entities (theorists, aesthetics, strategy). For this post, I want to focus on Part Two, or the section on art and aesthetics, which I believe most explicitly outlines the role and importance of Contrast within the notion of shi.

In his first section "Absence of Mimesis: Art Conceived as the Actualization of Universal Dynamism," Jullien explores the Chinese emergence of “an autonomous aesthetic mindset” following the disintegration of the unified empire at the close of the second century A.D. Contrasting this Eastern artistry with the West’s propensity for mimesis or representation, Jullien describes a Chinese aesthetic that simultaneously captures universality and particularity rather than merely depicting universality or particularity. He writes, “artistic activity was seen as a process of actualization, which produced a particular configuration of reality….The particular disposition that receives form can potentially express the universal dynamism” (75). In this way, the painting is not an replication of the dynamism within reality but is itself a new dynamic moment of reality. Shi innovates rather than recapitulates. Possible instruction: MOVE AWAY FROM REPETITION AND TOWARD INNOVATION. This is an instruction we know well by now, even if we do not always heed it.

As he moves to a more specific example of aesthetic shi (poetry and literature), Jullien complicates this notion of contrast as I have been presenting it as a movement from one place to another (away from X and toward Y). Instead, Jullien argues, one should “exploit the potentials of both those contrary qualities” in order to adequately reveal their essences which can only be grasped through their differences. Jullien warns, however, not to confuse this  contrast that promotes originality with the “contrariness, contradiction, and quasi-mechanical subversion” that leads to mere novelty (87). Contrast, as opposed to contradiction, strikes a balance between a subtle “tension” and an overt “saturation that permeates the tension and brings about relaxation and enjoyment.”

The important thing to glean from this example in thinking about our instructions for Contrast is to keep in mind that contrast maintains, rather than “moves away from,” differences, and not only that, but it maintains differences only to the extent to which the false resolution toward which tension inherently gravitates is forestalled by the “harmonious saturation” that makes the tension tolerable. An instruction: PUT YOUR CONTRASTS TOGETHER, BUT MAKE THEM PLAY NICE.

1 comment:

  1. This post reminded me of a few quotes from Hegel's Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences that I wanted to mention in the post itself. In particular, the points about contrast as determinate of essence seemed like a very Hegelian notion.

    Discussing one of his main contrasts (Understanding vs. Reason), Hegel writes, "changeableness in existence is to the superficial eye [Understanding] a mere possibility, the realization of which is not a consequence of its own nature. But, mutability lies in the notion of its existence, and change is only the manifestation of what implicitly is" (234). Change is negation, and negation is the underlying essence (shi) of reality, it is "the notion of its existence." Thus, aesthetic shi is always going to do the same thing (representing changeableness) without being repetitive. It is only repetitive in the sense that the dynamic of reality is repetitive.