Thesis 3. On Immediacy

Immediacy is the temporality of an aesthetics of politics. When an appearance advenes, it strikes an impression on a sensorial apparatus, variously conceived. In doing so, it disarticulates our senses of constancy, continuity, and commonality. The immediacy of an aesthetics of politics is thus rooted in an ontology of discontinuity.

THE INGRESSION OF AN APPEARANCE OCCURS IN an instant, which is why it cannot be predicted, nor can it be anticipated or arranged. Consider the manner in which one is struck by a particularly compelling detail—of a song, of a movie, or of a swash of color on a painting. However overpowering—or not—the experience may be, it nonetheless is of the moment. It occurs instantaneously and one generates a sense of conviction regarding the vitality of the thing experienced, as if the thing were real and wholly present. This is the prestige, the conjuror’s reveal, of the aesthetic object: it affords an immediate sensation of concreteness that resists the necessity of having to validate its actuality.

This temporality has worried many critics of the aestheticization of politics thesis. That is, the immediacy of aesthetic experience makes any appeal to aesthetics seem at once irrational and politically terrifying. But to say this amounts to a rejection tout court of the role of sensation in political life. Nothing about sensation is cognitive or cogent, though this does not mean that one does not reflect on one’s sensations. These two conclusions do not follow. Rather, what does follow is that the temporality of immediacy that comes with an experience of sensation is of a different order of becoming than the terrapin pace of judgment. What the aestheticization of politics thesis takes for granted, therefore, is that politics is a cognitive activity resulting from ratiocination, and that political action must be calculated and considered. The alternative is unacceptable because anything that is not reasoned is politically dangerous.

But this conclusion seems rash. It carries with it the exclusivity of a substance ontology that imagines that the only things that exist in the world are, in fact, static substances, that there are no processes, and that politics is a realm of predictable behavior. However, the variability introduced by an ontology of immediacy exposes this fallacy of misplaced consistency by making apparent that even something as seemingly still and crystalline as a political concept is a wave of variable amplitude. As Michel de Montaigne once remarked in his essay “Of Repentance,” “Even constancy itself is no other but a slower and more languishing motion.”[1]

To appreciate the fullness of this point, consider for a moment what occurs at the instant of impression: on the surface of any body, an impression strikes and leaves a mark. But that mark inevitably fades, like the letters impressed on printed manuscripts, or a bruise on the skin, or the patina of celluloid, or the tread of a tire, or the scuff on a floor, or a publication in an academic journal. The punctuality of an impression is variable, and its weight lightens in time, as does one’s memory of it.

David Hume’s insistence on the immediacy of impressions gives full expression to an ontology of discontinuity for an aesthetics of politics, as when he advises in his Treatise of Human Nature that when one begins “with the SENSES, ’tis evident these faculties are incapable of giving rise to the notion of continu’d existence of their objects, after they no longer appear to the senses.”[2] There is a fragile relation between the advenience of an appearance, an impression, and continuity that for Hume is dissipated at the instant when the partiality of the appearance departs. This, in the end, is also the basis for his conception of civil society that is rooted in the idea of reputation as that variable impression that individuals impress on one another. Indeed, for Hume, civil society is a fragile and discontinuous advenience. Hence the importance of such customary practices as promising, which Hume compares to the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation and holy orders. Promises are those alchemical artifices we devise to grant temporary constancy to an otherwise inconstant world.

Furthermore, Hume’s ideas on impressions, their vivacity, and their punctuality suggests that there is no overarching impression, force, or criterion that will govern which aspects must stand forth as more relevant than others. Impressions can arise from anywhere or anything. Because their occurrence is immediate, impressions do not possess privilege. I take this to be the central aesthetic insight that Hume’s ontology makes available. That is, according to Hume, we have no overarching rule or criterion that will determine which impression will count more than others, which will rule our ways of being, acting, and thinking, and which will dictate how one ought to compose one’s existence. Because an impression is immediate and because immediacy denies constancy or predictability, then we cannot presume that our world is exclusively a world of substances. Rather, for Hume, the world is besieged by processes.

Such a process ontology extends to a discontinuity of self, which is the ultimate challenge of Hume’s radical empiricism. For him, the self is an interim that fluctuates between states of becoming. To the extent that we can ever only know ourselves through our senses—because our sense of self is only ever an impression of self—then our selves are discontinuous partialities, immediate impressions that alter, fade, and terminate. The nature of an impression’s discontinuity is thus contingent because there is no necessary relation between its effect and a preexisting cause; to put this slightly differently, there is no law of causality in the mere fact of series.[3] The determination of cause and effect are, for Hume, always retroactive; they are principles of association that contract the discontinuity between punctual impressions.

Immediacy is thus a marker of finitude. This fact also helps explain the disciplinary resistance to an aesthetics of politics in political theory and political science.[4] Finitude is unpredictable and variable: we can never know when we will die, we only know that we will die. The pressure of finitude is so heavy that we devise a variety of speculative metaphysics that assuage the anxiety of finitude’s discontinuity so as to assure us that the immediacy of life itself might possess infinite constancy. It is not the intention here to endorse or deny the truth of such speculations, but only to affirm that their availability and political import are a confirmation of the ontology of discontinuity that imbues political life. By occupying the temporality of immediacy, an aesthetics of politics makes an ontology of discontinuity central to one’s political considerations.