The Assertive Self, part one
When John Duns Scotus, William of Ockham and their followers kicked the snowball in the Middle Ages, the end result was not only modern isolation. The transformation of every self into a fortress caused tragic loneliness, yes; but it also prepared the West for war—the “war of all against all”, to borrow a phrase from Thomas Hobbes. With the self incapable of connecting to that which was “other”, the only remaining option was to attack: to assert the self over against the world. Scotist-Ockhamist voluntarism, by putting the will in command, left us with the endless, arbitrary conflict of power-against-power. Self-interest and the goal of domination were the root of every human action, and, some argued, of the entire universe.
We begin this series on the assertive self with a look at voluntarism’s earliest, most innocent cultural manifestation: Renaissance humanism in art and philosophy. First, a refresher. We have said before that Duns Scotus, a medieval scholastic philosopher, broke from Aristotelian tradition by reimagining humanity and the Christian God as “willing”, rather than “knowing”, entities. With his nominalism, Ockham expanded on these views: he declared that nearly all logic and truth were arbitrary, and that all beings were totally disconnected and individual. Intentionally or not, his philosophy shored up every human into an isolated, “buffered”, self-assertive identity with no true connection to the outside. Historian Michael Allen Gillespie, in his book The Theological Origins of Modernity, tells us that the humanist writer Petrarch was the first to explore the implications of this voluntaristic New Man.
While Petrarch and Ockham lived at the same time and in different parts of the world, the latter had a huge influence on the intellectual climate of his day; and it is clear that even Petrarch was affected. Gillespie paints Petrarch as a kind of cultural titan, a genius who synthesizes his osmotic Ockhamism with Greek Epicureanism, Roman Stoicism and Augustine of Hippo’s famously personal Confessions. According to Gillespie, Petrarch builds from these sources an ideal man who “affirm[s] and liv[es] in accordance with his own idiosyncratic being”. The “disposition and humor with which nature has endowed” this man are unique, and he seeks an authentic expression of his individuality, uncompromised by “the claims of his fellow men upon him.” He strives for pleasure in moderation and in line with virtue; but he is also intensely introspective, focused heavily on his individualized interior life. Petrarch shows how the New Man of voluntarism can have a practical existence outside of philosophical theory.
At the same time, Petrarch expresses disgust for the hyper-rational Aristotelianism that, in his view, dominated in the centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, up to his own time. He believes that the obscurantist metaphysics of this philosophy, particularly as expounded by Averroes, stamped out virtue, individuality and spirituality. (The writers in this tradition usually emphasize essentialism and common sense.) In contrast, Petrarch’s development of the New Man is self-contained, self-sufficient, self-actualizing, self-expressing and wholly unique. He will not be held down by “the claims of his fellow men”, including those of the Aristotelians, who believe that all humans share a single nature. This popularization of Ockhamism had an immediate and lasting impact on all of Western society; but, for now, this writer will focus on its appearance in art. While Aristotelians traditionally view art objectively, Petrarch’s philosophy tilts the scales in the direction of subjectivity.
In one of his many letters, Petrarch writes that “every one has […] his own voice and language, something peculiarly his own, which it is both easier and wiser to cultivate and correct than it is to alter.” It is here that we see the earliest inklings of art as self-expression. The Petrarchan Renaissance artist sought to inject “his own voice and language” into his work; to express his individuality. It must be maintained, though, that most Renaissance artists—from Michelangelo to El Greco—had in this regard a stunningly light touch compared to the modernists. These people were operating under the ancient definition of “art”: our understanding of the term was invented by the Romantics centuries later. They strove to express, but they retained the emphasis on depiction that had defined pre-modern works. The notion that “art” was a blanket term for pure “self-expression” could hardly have been more foreign to them.
The Renaissance, then, balanced the ancient world with a new one. But its underlying Ockhamism was unstable. In the early modern period, cultural Ockhamists like John Locke and René Descartes placed more and more emphasis on the individual. Their Enlightenment descendents, such as David Hume and Immanuel Kant, followed this thread out to its logical conclusion: a tremendously subjective quasi-solipsism. As Ockhamism mutated, so too did art. Hume and Kant, in fact, were influential commentators on aesthetics; and their theories of art were as subject-based as their philosophies. In time, authenticity and individuality in art came to dominate. The impressionists, while incredible, mark the true beginning of this slippery slope. As Henri Matisse tells us, “You must forget all your theories[. …] What part of these is really your own will be expressed in your expression of the emotion awakened in you by the subject.”
Technique became increasingly irrelevant; depiction was overshadowed by pure self-expression; and the intentions beneath the work came to dominate the surface. Yet, as with Petrarch’s statements centuries earlier, the destructive conclusions of the impressionists’ theory were not immediately visible. Indeed, their art was beautiful. By releasing themselves from the arbitrary rules of their time, they were able to take painting from a highly novel angle. They set off a quasi-Renaissance of their own in the 19th and early 20th centuries, which spread to all forms of art. It is from this ground that everyone from Vincent van Gogh to Erik Satie emerged. Much of this work, too, was excellent. However, to appropriate a line from that era’s greatest poet, “the center cannot hold” in an Ockhamist world. Extremely important commentary on the ultimate collapse of modern art comes to us from post-modern composer John Cage, who witnessed it first-hand.
In Kay Larson’s Where the Heart Beats (2012), an analysis of Cage’s Buddhism, we find that he once said, “I had been taught in the schools that art was a form of communication. [… If that was true,] we were using different languages. We were, therefore, in a Tower of Babel situation where no one understood anyone else.” Petrarch’s utopia in which every person spoke in their “own voice and language” had become, after roughly 700 years, mere cacophony. While trying to escape from self-expression, Cage studied Hindu, Buddhist and Christian (Eckhartian) mysticism, systems based on various forms of “ego death”. Self-expression often manifests itself as a display of emotion, as in Matisse’s description above; but Cage tells us, “I am trying to release myself from [emotions]. And I discovered that those who seldom dwell on their emotions know better than anyone else just what an emotion is.”
Cage learned from Indian musician Gita Sarabhai that the Eastern art of antiquity was meant “to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences.” After discovering that English composer Thomas Mace had said something very similar in the 17th century, Cage wrote:
"I decided then and there that this was the proper purpose of music. In time, I also came to see that all art before the Renaissance, both Oriental and Western, had shared this same basis, that Oriental art had continued to do so right along, and that the Renaissance idea of self expressive art was therefore heretical."
While Cage’s comments are clearly hyperbolic, they contain important points. By his time, self-expression had begun to devolve into animal yelping; and it only got worse. It has brought us the endless repetitions of conceptual art; it has brought us Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God. Cage’s best work, such as In a Landscape and Six Melodies, offers a very interesting alternative. Rather than projecting the artist’s ego outward, it focuses on the experience of the audience itself. Even his more infamous pieces (Water Walk, for instance) are unpretentious, precisely because they circumvent voluntarism. Had this not been the case, the not uncommon side-effects of self-expression—self-centricity and self-importance—would undoubtedly have followed. This is why the oft-cited “hallmark” of pretentious composition, Cage’s 4’33”, is so widely misunderstood. Many suppose that it is intended to make a point, to “mock the philistines”, when its goal is simply to allow the audience to experience the sound of a full music hall.
But self-expression continued. It has now advanced to an utterly purified state, devoid of content; a primal, pre-human release of power in the direction of the audience. All else but will has been stripped away. In an inevitable development of this Nietzschean state of affairs, many post-modern artists have attempted to silence their own self-expression via amor fati—or “deconstruction”, after the 1960s. On this model, genuine self-expression is forever undermined, swept away by a chaotic, all-affirming relativism. To borrow Jacques Derrida’s words, such artists “write under erasure”: they bury themselves in dexice-removed irony; they defy any attempt to find concrete meaning in the surface, or in the sub-sub-sub-surface. Paradoxically, this supposed self-removal cashes out as the ultimate self-centered act. It forces the audience to delve beneath the work, to focus on the hidden, possibly subconscious intentions of the artist. Art becomes the ground from which we analyze the artists themselves.
Despite their goals, then, these post-modern voluntarists utterly fail to “let be” the “other”. Instead, they have done the opposite: they have transformed their work into an all-consuming expression of the self. The audience’s genuine way in—the immediate surface—is destroyed, which prevents any mutual, non-confrontational connection between artist and observer. For the audience to engage the work, they must first be subjugated by the artist. Because this art is power alone, it is an expression so “pure” that it expresses nothing and allows nothing other than itself to exist. As a result, the only available connection to the audience—the only “experience” possible—, is a kind of lashing out; a near-physical violence. Chris Burden’s Shoot, a 1970s performance in which he takes a bullet to the arm, is arguably the ultimate piece of contemporary art. It is a nihilistic void of ironic distance, lacking any content or purpose, in which all focus is drawn to Burden himself. It connects to the audience like a right hook.
In the next entry in this series, we will consider the impact of voluntarism on the scientists and philosophers of the early modern period.
Still Eating Oranges