ah, “something else” – so un-assuming, so endearingly groping a term (1). It was its clumsiness that had attracted my attention, oddly out of order in these thoughtful, elegantly elaborated texts written by two eminent intellectuals. Meaningfully, they were discussing meaning, Hannah Arendt and Erwin Panofsky, when they resorted to this “something else”.
They were writing about “meaning” in altogether different contexts, and totally independent from each other. Because, apart from being both German-speaking 30s Nazi-refugees in the US, I don’t think there was any link between them. One was a political thinker/philosopher, the other an art historian. But anyway, I was so excited to discover these echoing passages, to discover this secret affinity between two beloved authors. Yes, a most gratifying find, “in particular for a certain inner philosopher who was only happy when he had discovered , between two works, between two sensations, a common element” .(2)
two lengthy quotes
Hannah Arendt on the “the meaning of human affairs” (3) :
“Is it not true that “something else” results from the actions of men than what they intend and achieve, something else than they know or want?” […]
It is not through acting but through contemplating that the “something else”, namely, the meaning of the whole, is revealed. The spectator, not the actor, holds the clue to the meaning of human affairs – only, and this is decisive, Kant’s spectators exist in the plural, and this is why he could arrive at a political philosophy ”
Erwin Panofsky on “intrinsic meaning or content” of a work of art (4):
“As long as we limit ourselves to stating that Leonardo da Vinci’s famous fresco shows a group of thirteen men around a dinner table, and that this group of men represents the Last Supper, we deal with the work of art as such. […]
But when we try to understand it as a document of Leonardo’s personality, or of the civilization of the Italian High Renaissance, or of a peculiar religious attitude, we deal with the work of art as something else which expresses itself in a countless variety of other symptoms , and we interpret its compositional and iconographical features as more particularized evidence of this “something else”. The discovery and interpretation of these ‘symbolical’ values (which are often unknown to the artist himself and may even emphatically differ from what he consciously intended to express) is the object of what we may call “iconology” as opposed to “iconography”.
humanism, politics and aesthetics
I said there was no link between Arendt and Panofsky, engaged as they were in different disciplines, but of course they did share something quite fundamental: the humanist attitude. They represent humanism at its erudite & sensitive best: a humanism aware of human frailty & depravity (5), and yet unfalteringly upholding human responsibility. A humanism with a ‘passion for understanding’, deeply interested in human affairs. And more particularly, interested in that fascinating margin of freedom humans have – or at least, the possible margin of freedom humans have, freedom from necessity. Which means freedom, not only from our daily metabolic needs & lusts, but also ( even …) from the despotic constraints of logical reasoning or of irrefutable scientific cognitions. (6)
This freedom is not to be seen as an excuse for obscurantist, irrational revolt against rationality.
But rather, this freedom is a realm of free interaction that humans can create, in their diversity & plurality. A realm where humans determine what they value, what goals they want to pursue and where they try to convince each other of these goals and values – well beyond efficiently providing for life’s necessities. It’s the kind of freedom that (ideally of course, ideally …) is the hallmark of democratic politics; a realm where humans can only hope to convince each other by argumentative persuasion, and by appealing to common human tendencies, but without compulsion by force and without being able to resort to some ultimately sanctioned truth, be it theologically or scientifically.
Or you could define this freedom as the realm where humans can indulge in “the free play of understanding and imagination”, where they can reflect and contemplate. Indeed, the realm of aesthetics, where humans can freely exercise their faculty of taste.
And where they can debate for ages amongst each other on these matters of taste, trying to convince each other, by argumentative persuasion and by appealing to common human tendencies, but without compulsion by force and without being able to resort to some ultimately sanctioned truth, be it theologically or scientifically.
Nope, dear reader, the above is not a frivolous copy-paste-error : I indeed manipulated those two passages in order to attribute some of the same characteristics of human freedom to both politics and aesthetics …. ! (7)
And perhaps that curious correspondence may also explain why Panofsky (the most thoughtful of art historians) and Arendt (the most aesthetic of political thinkers) converge in their respectively art historical and philosophical writings on this “something else”, this “meaning”.
the emergence of meaning
“Meaning” itself is of course eminently a product of human freedom. It is not a fixed attribute of a deed or of a work of art. Meaning emerges only in the encounter between a human subject on the one hand and a deed, or a work of art , or a text on the other hand. (8)
And meaning cannot be analytically dissected into objective components. Yes, of course – when contemplating a work of art, on a first level you can determine what the primary ‘meaning’ of a certain blob of paint is (eg, it represents a loaf of bread), then you might decipher any conventional ‘meanings’ (eg, the religious symbolism of a loaf of bread) – but the overall intrinsic meaning of a work of art?
Ah, but that is “something else” As Panofsky said, to grasp this intrinsic meaning , one needs “a faculty that cannot be described better than by the rather discredited term “synthetic intuition”.
And of course it helps to know the socio-historical background of the artist, it’s good to be acquainted with the history of styles, but in the end – in the end it is not by methodical analysis but by attentive contemplation and by the letting freely play one’s powers of “understanding and imagination” that this “something else”, that “meaning” dawns.
So meaning is subjective, or rather, meaning is inter-subjective – because, as Arendt notes, we are all members of an audience (be it as spectators of the worlds’ affairs at large, or of a particular spectacle or work of art.) And as members of an audience of spectators , we might judge from an “enlarged mentality” , or at least confront our own understanding of meaning with that of our fellow-spectators.
Thus meaning is potentially universal. But also potentially evolving & thus transient : “[…] that even if the spectacle were always the same and therefore tiresome, the audiences would change from generation to generation; nor would a fresh audience be likely to arrive at the conclusions handed down by tradition as to what an unchanging play has to tell it” (9)
Hidden agenda of this post: show that meaning had already been deconstructed - but not ditched! (10) - by humanism before the advent of post-structuralists.
We all know with what relish post-structuralists have debunked the authority of traditions and canons. While doing so they pictured themselves as bravely rebelling against western bourgeois humanist consensus. They allegedly discovered there was no such thing as a fixed meaning and went on to deconstruct the meaning of meaning in convoluted verbosity.
“the meaning of meaning … is infinite implication, the indefinite referral of signifier to signifier”. “ we now know that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the message of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space”. “Meaning, in so far as it can be established at all, exists in the space between the reader and the text”.
Well, the above post-structuralist passages did not teach me anything that I hadn’t yet read, though more poetically and more humbly formulated, in the works of bourgeois humanists like Arendt and Panofsky. And as far as my personal meaning of meaning is concerned, I’ll fondly stick to the clumsy quest for “something else”.
the indefinite referral of footnotes to text
(1) But as plain as it may sound, this “something else” can be quite subversive and revolutionary. “something else” : as opposed to everything that has been neatly defined by the mainstream.
“something else” : to be used when there’s not even yet a vocabulary to denote what one wants.
“something else, I only knew I wanted something else” : can be used by anyone wrestling with stiffling social constraints , but I’ll always remember it as how this transsexual woman explained her childhood gender-transgressive longings
(2) Proust in « La Prisonnière » : « [Des petits personnages intérieurs qui composent notre individu il en restera encore 2 ou 3 qui auront la vie plus dure que les autres] notamment un certain philosophe qui n’est heureux que quand il a découvert, entre deux œuvres, entre deux sensations, une partie commune »
(3) Hannah Arendt : The Life of the Mind – Thinking and doing : the spectator
(4) Erwin Panofsky: Meaning in the Visual Arts – Iconography and Iconology: an introduction to the study of renaissance art
(5) With their Jewish heritage, living in those dark decades of the 20th century, they could of course hardly not know about human depravity
(6) HA: « Truth compels with the force of necessity […] ‘Euclide’, as Mercier de la Rivière once noted, ‘est un véritable despote’. » and « the opposite of necessity is not contingency or accident but freedom »
(7) As Hannah Arendt , rhetorically- surprised, muses in “The Crisis in Culture”: “Could it be that taste belongs among the political faculties?”
(8) I am of course paraphrasing Kant on beauty. And a lot of what has been said about “beauty” can be said about “meaning” – but there is an intriguing difference in degree where the criterion of “disinterestedness” is concerned. Even when, as spectator, we are not directly participating in an event or a spectacle, our own self-interest will taint out interpretation, our understanding of its meaning far more than it would taint our experience of its purely aesthetical qualities. Fascinating pair, meaning & beauty …. The stuff of which all art is made…
(9) Hannah Arendt : The Life of the Mind - Thinking and doing: the spectator
(10) It’s an interesting New Year exercise to make a list, not of good resolutions, but of things one would gladly ditch. Xmas is eminently ditch-able, meaning is not!!!