Robert Sheppard

I have now left two slightly critical posts on Sheppard. I wanted to defend that, though honestly it’s not meant coldly (perhaps oddly?) and I probably think the ontological status of form is irrelevant or at least should be beside the point. I feel pretty bad about blogging my incredulity, but anyway.

He seems to think that the language etc. of poems is mind independent. The language of mathematics may be mind independent, in so far as the abstract entities it refers to really exist. Likewise moral discourse, maybe. But, while the world, even the world we inhabit and its coarse objects of tables and laptops, may well be real, it is just insane to think that the conventions of language exist mind independently. Even in Platonic realism (I’ve in effect read nothing about his philosophy of language) forms are surely not linguistic; instead, language imperfectly represents reality. It is not even especially fashionable (in philosophy) to claim that languages exist at all, rather than each person’s idiosyncratic means of communicating.

In e.g. Foucault (I read some of the archeology, but got distracted. Maybe I’ll find my notes later and add to this), very many “statements” may well be true independent of their assertion, but that does not mean they materially exist independent of sentences etc., ready to be discovered like a real object is, rather then e.g. justified. Statements work as functions of enunciations (relating them to objects, subject positions, etc.): unsaid statements do not construct the discourse; the discourse is constructed from the principle that means some things are unsaid.

I just think Sheppard’s apparent claim, that poetic form exists as artefacts do, is pretty indefensible; surely they are no more real than, and contextually dependent on, the acts of writing they organize. Maybe form is propositional and propositions are mind independent (a live issue), even-though “truth content” is not propositional. But it seems Adorno is a nominalist, just wants to draw attention to nominalism: the existence of the social whole, as it is, is not the only possible way of carving things up, and that reveals an alternative, reflective, nominalism in which capitalism is self consciously shown to be missing something. It’s probably difficult to fully work out the relation between the fetish of commodities – which do control us day-to-day – and the enigma of art. The former reification is real to me despite being a product of the social institutions of capital. If analogous, then form is a product of artistic institutions, maintained through “habit” and “second nature”, but not independent of them, just like the commodity form depends on capitalism. Exchange value is not “inherent in things in general”, is inherent in commodities only as a fetish that can “vanish”.

“It is only by being exchanged that the products of labour acquire, as values, one uniform social status, distinct from their varied forms of existence as objects of utility… [W]hen exchange has acquired such an extension that useful articles are produced for the purpose of being exchanged… the labour of the individual producer acquires socially a two-fold character… a definite social want… [and] a branch of a social division of labour… [W]e also equate, as human labour, the different kinds of labour expended upon them. We are not aware of this, nevertheless we do it… to stamp an object of utility as a value, is just as much a social product as language… The categories of bourgeois economy… are forms of thought expressing with social validity the conditions and relations of a definite, historically determined mode of production. The whole mystery [vanishes]… so soon as we come to other forms of production… The religious reflex of the real world can [vanish with] reasonable relations with regard to his fellowmen and to Nature (Das Kapital)”.

“Form is sedimented content”; it depends on content, and that content is past art (which is precisely not to assume a pre-impressionist “pictorial” vision of art, but to say that unity etc. is a quality of the work itself rather than its artistic precedent: is the past “pre-given” when form transforms content?). If form “emerges” from content, is not violently imposed, that surely means – if the same is true of artist and post hoc critic – it is best to assume it exists only in acts of forming content.