Henri Bergson and Visual Culture
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Henri Bergson and Visual Culture

A Philosophy for a New Aesthetic

Paul Atkinson

  1. 336 pagine
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

Henri Bergson and Visual Culture

A Philosophy for a New Aesthetic

Paul Atkinson

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What does it mean to see time in the visual arts and how does art reveal the nature of time? Paul Atkinson investigates these questions through the work of the French philosopher Henri Bergson, whose theory of time as duration made him one of the most prominent thinkers of the fin de siècle. Although Bergson never enunciated an aesthetic theory and did not explicitly write on the visual arts, his philosophy gestures towards a play of sensual differences that is central to aesthetics. This book rethinks Bergson's philosophy in terms of aesthetics and provides a fascinating and original account of how Bergsonian ideas aid in understanding time and dynamism in the visual arts. From an examination of Bergson's influence on the visual arts to a reconsideration of the relationship between aesthetics and metaphysics, Henri Bergson and Visual Culture explores what it means to reconceptualise the visual arts in terms of duration. Atkinson revisits four key themes in Bergson's work – duration; time and the continuous gesture; the ramification of life and durational difference – and reveals Bergsonian aesthetics of duration through the application of these themes to a number of 19th and 20th-century artworks. This book introduces readers and art lovers to the work of Bergson and contributes to Bergsonian scholarship, as well as presenting a new of understanding the relationship between art and time.

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1 DurĂŠe
Henri Bergson was one of the most celebrated philosophers of the fin de siècle. His belief in time as durée transformed intellectual life in France and across the continent, where he inspired artists and writers, as well as philosophers and social theorists. There is no single explanation for this success, but it is notable that Bergson presented a philosophy that heralded life and critiqued the increasing systemization of thought in the sciences. He rejected determinism in his first published work by accentuating the time of human consciousness, and this initial idea later evolved into a broad theory of creative endeavour. Despite this interest in creativity and life, Bergson did not write extensively on art or aesthetics. There is no explicit theory of aesthetics in his work, nor does he examine the practices of particular artists, or, indeed, musicians, even though there are many references to the value of art and music in his work. The closest Bergson comes to the direct investigation of art is his book Laughter (1900), in which he develops a theory of humour that includes a brief analysis of the difference between comedy and tragedy. In fact, Bergson is less interested in the links between humour and artistic genres, and more interested in the way in which humour arises out of the juxtaposition of the mechanical and the living. Bergson’s philosophy is nevertheless amenable to discussion in terms of aesthetic theory, and in many respects, his focus on the haecceity of time lends itself to an aesthetic approach. He was able to inspire artists because his reimagining of time and movement could not be reduced to scientific conceptualization or philosophical systemization, as well as reasserted the value of human creativity. Moreover, he wanted the readers of his philosophy to be attentive to the variability of the real in intuition, that is, he wanted readers to develop an aesthetic and metaphysical sensibility rather than a conceptual understanding. In order to draw out this aesthetic sensibility, this opening chapter will examine Bergson’s most celebrated idea of time as durée, explaining its importance in turn-of-the-century thought and indicating how durée along with intuition remains central to a Bergsonian aesthetics.
The poetics of philosophical argument
Bergson’s ideas continue to be invoked in contemporary debates in philosophy, and have been applied in the humanities to the examination of literature and the arts. While his ideas remain potent, it is important to recognize that they were shaped in response to a particular social and intellectual milieu in which scientific ideas were increasingly adopted in philosophy, social sciences and the humanities. Bergson was a philosopher who straddled two centuries; he was born in 1859 and died in 1941, and his most celebrated and influential works appeared between 1889 and 1911. Philosophically he was grounded in nineteenth-century metaphysics, in the tradition of spiritualist philosophers such as Maine de Biran and Félix Ravaisson, and this informed some of his early teaching, while also being interested in the empiricism of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer.1 At first glance, these approaches seem to be incompatible; however, spiritualism can be associated with empiricism insofar as mind, perception and consciousness can be taken as the object of empirical observation. It is an empiricism of the particular, which differs quite significantly from scientific empiricism with its aim of deriving general principles through induction. French spiritualism, or voluntarism, is linked to religious humanism, but one of the features that probably attracted Bergson was the specific interest in the ‘spontaneity of the human will’, a quality that cannot be explained using scientific causality.2 This is evinced throughout Bergson’s oeuvre, particularly in his critique of theories of determinism, and his belief in the ipseity or selfhood of human consciousness, including the independence of artistic creation. This interest in both the sciences and a philosophy thoroughly grounded in the humanities can be traced back to Bergson’s early philosophical training. At school, he was lauded for his mathematical ability and was encouraged to pursue his studies in mathematics, and it is notable that his first publication was a solution to a mathematical problem.3 Although Bergson is noted for his critique of some of the fundamental principles of the sciences, he maintained an interest in the sciences throughout his oeuvre. He directly discussed principles of evolutionary theory, psychological theories of memory, and even the Lorentzian calculations underpinning the special theory of relativity. He did not reject science outright, but argued that it presented only a partial view of the real due to its overemphasis on material explanation. He maintained that there were other, more direct, ways of apprehending the real in philosophy, and even in the arts.
At the end of the nineteenth century Bergson was well known in French philosophical circles following the publication of his critique of associationism, Matter and Memory in 1896. This eventually led to a teaching role at the Collège de France, where his lectures became so popular that the lecture room could not house all the interested parties and measures had to be implemented to restrict audience numbers. Due to the fuss, Bergson reduced the number of lectures he presented, and gradually came to devote all his time to his written work.4 One of the reasons for the popularity of his work was the fact that he carefully critiqued the specific claims of scientific disciplines as well as the broader assumptions of scientism on their own ground, rather than retreating to a humanist or spiritualist position. This critique was well received by those among the intellectual community in France who wanted to refute determinism, and Bergson was consequently known as the ‘liberator’. ‘Thanks to Bergson it was possible for modern intellectuals to reaffirm the reality of the human spirit without ignoring the major achievements of natural science and without reverting to the traditional doctrines of the church’.5 During this time, scientific humanism, manifest as mechanism and determinism, dominated the intellectual culture of France and was entrenched in the curriculum at the Sorbonne University, which led to the disillusionment of many of its students.6 In this context, Bergson’s lectures at the Collège de France provided inspiration for many young intellectuals dissatisfied with the positivist principles of ‘Comte, Taine, and Renan’.7 The Collège de France was a very different institution to the Sorbonne, and this was typified in Bergson’s lectures which inadvertently attracted the disillusioned students, many of whom would themselves become prominent intellectuals, including Henri Focillon and Jacques Maritain.8 Albeit unwillingly, Bergson provides an early example of the celebrity philosopher who was able to significantly affect cultural debate, and much of the success of his ideas can be attributed to his development of a viable alternative to the cultural dominant of scientism.
Bergson’s popularity grew with the publication of his 1903 essay, ‘Introduction to Metaphysics’, and reached its apex in the period following the publication of Creative Evolution in 1907.With this work, Bergson achieved worldwide fame, such that he ‘became the most popular philosopher of his day’, which led to keen critical interest in his work in the period before the beginning of the First World War.9 One of the reasons for the success of Creative Evolution was its capacity to generate interest in a philosophy of direct experience in which even the study of biology was not overdetermined by the systematic operation of reason:
However much he denied it later, Bergson called his generation to turn away from the restrictions of a logical thought which could only distort truth and to give themselves instead to an immediate, intuitive grasp of truth in a world that had to be felt and experienced to be really known. Creative Evolution inspired his readers with an appreciation of the tremendous importance of this life – a cosmos which was free and changing and which creatively transcended everything.10
The introduction of terms such as intuition in the ‘Introduction to Metaphysics’ and élan vital (vital impetus) in Creative Evolution also contributed to the popularity of Bergson’s philosophy. This terminology brought with it an alternative mode of thinking that was thoroughly grounded in a dynamic notion of life realized in change rather than taxonomy. The problem with these terms is that they can easily be misused, for intuition has a popular meaning outside of philosophy, and life is a term that is very malleable and can be used to justify even conflicting theoretical positions. Bertrand Russell asserted that Bergson’s popularity was a direct result of scepticism before the First World War and that many people found in the irrational and romantic aspects of Creative Evolution an expression of their own desire for change.11 Likewise, critics of the very popular ‘Introduction to Metaphysics’ claimed that its critique of scientific positivism extended to all forms of rationalism and that Bergson was an irrationalist who undermined the ideals of the Enlightenment.12
Irrespective of the veracity of such claims, many found in Bergson’s philosophy what they sought rather than what he said. Some Bergsonians believed that Bergson had thoroughly rejected scientific method and that the real could be readily accessed through a semi-mystical intuition. In the ‘Introduction to Metaphysics’, Bergson certainly makes a clear distinction between the immediacy of intuition and the relativity of the intellect with regard to the apprehension of the real, but his nuanced use of the term intuition was overlooked by many of his followers. Although characterized as a form of direct apprehension, intuition brought together a number of ideas associated with his philosophy of time including its endurance and differentiation. Bergson also had some misgivings about the popularity of the critique of science in the ‘Introduction to Metaphysics’, for in a footnote accompanying the reproduction of the work in the collection, Creative Mind (1934), he noted that he had developed a much more detailed and precise understanding of science since writing the essay.13 Bergson’s long-time friend, Jacques Chevalier argues that many of the misreadings of Bergson’s philosophy are the result of his followers taking extreme positions and creating fixed oppositions, when, in fact, Bergson usually takes the middle ground.14 For example, even in the work that most clearly contrasts science and metaphysics, the ‘Introduction to Metaphysics’, Bergson acknowledges that many scientific developments are dependent on intuition, including the reimagining of physical movement in the infinitesimal calculus.15 Such subtleties were often lost in popular debate and when Bergson’s philosophy was used to support a political or social agenda.
Bergsonian intuition lost much of its specificity in its application by many of the Bergsonians writing in the first couple of decades of the twentieth century, who were more interested in what intuition was not – mechanistic, rational, determinist – rather than how it reveals the object in its haecceity. This is not surprising because in most of Bergson’s writings there is an emphasis on critique, particularly of the bias towards spatialization implicit in philosophical and scientific thinking. As he was operating in an intellectual milieu in which scientific and pseudo-scientific ideas were reaching ever further into the analysis of human experience, particularly in psychology, Bergson had to develop a critique to clear the ground for his new approach to philosophy. He had to expose the limits of the technical language and epistemological models that dominated contemporary thought. Bergson acknowledges this emphasis on critique, stating in a discussion with Chevalier that it is, in many respects, the most accurate and precise feature of his work, for many of his other ideas were subject to constant change and revision.16 In many respects, this is a necessary feature of his philosophy, for the theory of durée and intuition are inextricably implicated in becoming such that they must be rethought and reconsidered in relation to a specific object or philosophical question. Durée cannot be posited as an object nor can intuition be posited as a method with fixed and durable contours.
The enduring criticism that intuition was vague and irrational was one of the factors that led to the eventual waning in popularity of Bergsonism after the First World War, in addition to the fact that many younger philosophers felt that it did not properly address the problems of history raised by the war.17 This is probably why Gilles Deleuze in his book Bergsonism – a book that many years after its release was instrumental in reviving interest in Bergson’s work – was keen to state from the outset that intuition is a method that is ‘as precise in its field, as capable of being prolonged and transmitted as science itself is’.18 However, in order for it to maintain this precision, it should not be simply conceived as the apprehension of lived time, where it would be subject to the vagaries of temporal change, but must also be seen as a means of rethinking the real, by restating problems with regard to time and by properly recognizing ‘differences in kind’.19 Bergson spoke of intuition’s capacity to reveal the immediacy of lived time, which was a key argument in the ‘Introduction to Metaphysics’, but Deleuze argues that intuition is something that is found in the way that Bergson approaches problems. It is not so much immediacy, nor the givenness of intuition that is most important in Bergson’s work, but, rather, the way that he finds solutions to philosophical problems by rethinking the very ground on which they are posed. Bergson recognizes this in his 1911 lecture on ‘Philosophical intuition’ – yet another correction to the popular ‘Introduction’ – where he argues that intuition forces reason to turn back to the self, that is ‘draw closer to life’, in the reformulation of arguments.20 This principle is evident throughout his oeuvre. Even before he had begun to use the term intuition, Bergson applies such a method in Time and Free Will to the debate about the nature of free will. Rather than reinvesting in existing distinctions, such as the notion of a will freed from constraint, he states that the accrual of experience in lived time is what actually individualizes and differentiates each action. In free action, the particularity of the past comes to bear on the present and guide the action and not the discontinuity of events as part of a causal sequence as imagined in determinism. In intuition, the direct apprehension of time in lived experience initiates the fundamental rethinking of a problem rather than substituting for this rethinking.
Bergson’s popularity was attributable not only to the themes of his lectures and writing but also to the beauty of their delivery. Gabriel Marcel comments on the assuredness and ‘felicity’ of Bergson’s lectures for the Collège de France, in which his speech gave the impression that he was captivated by a continual process of discovery.21 Even the sound of the speech was worthy of mention, with Marcel stating that it was ‘permeated by the pleasant tremor that vibrates in the voice of an explorer when he tries to evoke the ineffable peace of some inviolate shore or perhaps a sojourn in the midst of a fabulous tribe’.22 This account of Bergson’s graceful delivery of philosophical argument can be linked to the importance he attributes to movement in communication, where the listener must learn to fall in step with the speaker, in order t...

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Stili delle citazioni per Henri Bergson and Visual Culture

APA 6 Citation

Atkinson, P. (2020). Henri Bergson and Visual Culture (1st ed.). Bloomsbury Publishing. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/1690986/henri-bergson-and-visual-culture-a-philosophy-for-a-new-aesthetic-pdf (Original work published 2020)

Chicago Citation

Atkinson, Paul. (2020) 2020. Henri Bergson and Visual Culture. 1st ed. Bloomsbury Publishing. https://www.perlego.com/book/1690986/henri-bergson-and-visual-culture-a-philosophy-for-a-new-aesthetic-pdf.

Harvard Citation

Atkinson, P. (2020) Henri Bergson and Visual Culture. 1st edn. Bloomsbury Publishing. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1690986/henri-bergson-and-visual-culture-a-philosophy-for-a-new-aesthetic-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Atkinson, Paul. Henri Bergson and Visual Culture. 1st ed. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.