Tuesday, May 21, 2019


Jason Tuckwell, Creation and the Function of Art: Technē, Poiesis, and the Problem of Aesthetics. Bloomsbury studies in continental philosophy. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017. Pp. viii, 231. ISBN 9781350010765. $95.99.

Reviewed by Janet M. Atwill, University of Tennessee (jatwill@utk.edu)

Version at BMCR home site


Drawing on elements of Aristotle's depiction of technē, Jason Tuckwell offers an account of artistic production embedded in the work of continental philosophers and an eclectic array of theoretical mathematicians and evolutionary theorists. Tuckwell demonstrates familiarity with the Aristotelian corpus throughout the text; specific references, however, are often relegated to endnotes. Moreover, the liberties Tuckwell admits he takes with Aristotle may put off some readers from the start. For example, he explains that his argument requires that he "diverge from Aristotle for whom technē is a rational faculty" (3). The elements of Aristotle's philosophy that most inform Tuckwell's discussion are the distinctions between technē and epistēmē and the relationships between nature and material and efficient causality. The result is a dense read, likely to have the most appeal to those whose intellectual commitments are grounded less in ancient philosophy than in continental/postmodern thought.

The author begins with the premise that contemporary aesthetic theory continues to view the work of art as an "object for ideal contemplation" (8). In contrast, technē is the "power of the particular," which, he asserts, has nothing to do with imitating a form (1). Chapter One argues that technē performs a radical critique of epistēmē. Entitled "Functions and Models," the chapter posits that technē redefines the conventional paradigm of problem formation whereby "the value of a problem often concerns how well it anticipates its own resolution" (2). Under the sign of technē, problems are not there to be solved: "problems are approached via their inherently productive and generative properties—they create and disgorge differences" (2). Tuckwell goes on to summarize Gilles Deleuze's critique of Plato and then invokes a phalanx of theoretical mathematicians to support this alternative epistemology: Benoit Mandelbrot, L. E. J. Brouwer, Alan Turing, Albert Lautman, Fernando Zalamea, Norman Madarasz, and Colin McLarty. Not all of these theorists are found in the bibliography. For example, Tuckwell appears to draw on Hermann Weyl for his interpretation of Brouwer and Zalamea for Lautman. But by Tuckwell's account, all challenge the notion of a "scientific epistēmē," which the author identifies with "eternal, unchanging 'truths'" (14). Thus Brouwer's mathematical "intuitionalism" yields a "dynamic" theory of function that brings "a resolute skepticism to bear upon universal propositions or axioms" (17), and the mathematician's rejection of the "law of the excluded middle" disrupts a correspondence theory of representation (18-19). Little effort is made to define the particularities of epistēmē in Plato's or Aristotle's own terms. Tuckwell is intent on replacing "certainty" and "representation" with Brouwer's notion of "repetition and creative transformation" (20). This artistic process is increasingly depicted as autonomous, and artists are, more or less, incidental agents: "the function of creation works to overcome origination" (46); and "[t]he work of art is functional"—but in an "autopoietic" sense (48). Innovation—or poēsis—is defined as deviation in that process: "Functions are irruptive events; in the midst of poesis [sic], they are the emergence of something new, precisely insofar as they deviate the productive order" (47).

Chapter Two elaborates Tuckwell's theory of artistic subjectivity. On the one hand, his subject is the product of poēsis—"a largely primary, bottom up, generative process [that] is responsible for the appearance of all beings" (53). On the other hand, technē persists in a dialectical relationship with "bodies": "Technē governs transformations from bodies to ideas and from ideas to bodies" (57). Direct questions about artistic intention are largely negated by the theoretical terms of this chapter, which draws on René Descartes, Sigmund Freud, and Jacques Lacan. Cartesian doubt "dismantles all ties between immanent presence and epistēmē" (56). Paraphrasing Freud, Tuckwell asserts that the psychoanalyst's notion of the unconscious deals "a third Copernican blow to the centrality of the subject" (68). But the unconscious is so closely tied to processes associated with technē that it appears as a set of psychic operations, despite Tuckwell's claims for its autopoietic character. In his treatment of Lacan, Tuckwell goes so far as to posit that we might "locate technē in how Lacan addressees the process of formative functionality in his theory of the mirror stage" (70). Still, within the terms of Lacanian psychology, Tuckwell ascribes to technē a "higher order autopoietic" function, an "immanent agency" (73).

Chapter Three, entitled "Deviant Technē", begins in more familiar territory, but as the chapter develops much of that territory is found in endnotes (pp. 194-6). Tuckwell's primary concern could be defined as agency. Tuckwell quotes generously from Aristotle's discussion in the Physics of the four causes and art's relationship to nature. Tuckwell's sense of agency would seem to be well served by Aristotle's concepts of efficient and material causality. He invokes Aristotle's example in the Physics of the relationship between the tree and the bed: "the work of art deviates the generative progression of the tree (telos) so that its materiality may be fashioned into a bed" (85). Tuckwell places formal and final causality in the domain of unchanging epistēmē, an interpretation that dismisses the situated and temporal senses of telos found in various places in the corpus. For example, in the Poetics Aristotle suggests that the end of tragedy is catharsis in the audience (1449b28), and in the Rhetoric the hearer is explicitly described as the telos of a speech (1358b1-2). Despite Tuckwell's resistance to such conventional notions as "nature," he relies on evolutionary theory to explain the agency associated with technē. He begins with French philosopher Gilbert Simondon's theory of "machinic evolution." In broad terms, Simondon argues that technological evolution proceeds without a well-defined starting point (let alone a formal cause) and it develops with no telos (89-94). Tuckwell goes on to compare the evolutionary models of Charles Darwin and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, maintaining that the recursiveness in Lamarck's theory of adaptation has more in common with technē than Darwin's dependence on random mutation (110-14). Basically, Tuckwell attempts to use technē to illustrate a kind of purposive activity that proceeds without a rational agent or a point of origination or end.

The final chapter is entitled "The Function of Art." Though one might expect some engagement with audience (or aesthetic) response, Tuckwell offers instead an iteration of the processes he associates with technē, declaring that poēsis consists of two. The first, primary process is identified with production; its material causes are "dominated by repetition and strongly determine what is brought into being" (132). The second process works "by deviating 'primary' processes" (132). He describes it as "an entire counterflow of efficient causes that emerge at every particular being" (132). At this point, Tuckwell acknowledges that some form of rationality and human intervention are essential to the artistic process. It is "animated" by "logistikós—the series of calculations without which thought is not possible" (133). And: "Poesis does not diversify and diverge of itself—it is forced to deviate by particular beings" (133). Having acknowledged that art requires some kind of rational calculation, as well as the intervention of living beings, Tuckwell assumes a more conventional vocabulary and tone through the end of the chapter. He surveys disciplinary distinctions that shape difference art forms (137-43). And the riddle of human subjectivity is answered, basically, with the acknowledgement that art creates subjects, and subjects create art.

I have summarized only a sampling of the theories Tuckwell brings to his task of creating an epistemology—perhaps even an ontology—based on his interpretation of Aristotelian technē. As a reader I am left with two questions: one rhetorical and the other philosophical. Is it wise to bring in every theory at hand to make such an argument? There are flashes of brilliance in some of the connections Tuckwell makes with diverse areas of inquiry. Evolutionary theories may, indeed, offer a useful perspective on Aristotle's sense of nature and efficient causality. However, when a text devolves into charts reminiscent of high school calculus, readers like myself begin to question the good-faith relationship a reader wants to maintain with a writer. Philosophically, I am struck by the dogmatic character of a postmodern orientation that requires such intellectual acrobatics simply to avoid ascribing agency to a human being. Those who do not find such gymnastics excessively tedious will appreciate this book.

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