Monday, May 24, 2010

a fool for foucault

I just started Discipline & Punish. Heaven help me.

When I say "just" I truly mean it--I've only read the first few pages (what I could get through during last week's La Valse; the orchestra sounded so good, it was hard to concentrate on my reading...)--but the accounts of punishment in terms of eighteenth century spectacle and nineteenth century compartmentalization made me think about certain aesthetic concerns of the former.

I'm thinking specifically about the body--by including an eighteenth century account of torture (written in, by the way, classically matter-of-fact style), Foucault illustrates the era's interest in man as a physical being (as opposed to a spiritual one as in the Medieval era, or mental as in the nineteenth century). Because much of my recent reading and thoughts have revolved around the epistemological shifts occurring between the conversion of Constantine and the Scientific Revolution, I cannot help but view torture through this particular lens. What is truly fascinating is the way the practice of torture interacts and reflects upon then-contemporary art, philosophy and science.

Lately I have been thinking about the eighteenth century as a sort of confluence of empiricism, scholasticism, classical thought (specifically Aristotle's Poetics, among others...), and the last gasps of the Reformation and the Scientific Revolution's luminous afterglow. You end up with social change and Enlightenment philosophy, but we already knew that. To me, the changes in how individuals viewed themselves is what is truly captivating. Because of the aforementioned cultural milieu, philosophes and the so-called "great unwashed" alike experience a re-nascence (if you'll pardon the pun): a new egalitarianism is born out of the coalescence and subsequent synthesis of medieval and early modern ideals. Subtle thought it may be, these things work together to empower physical man, always returning to the sensational experience of living.

So what then, do you get in art and culture? Low dance forms in "high" art (the gigue, for example), the prevalence of the pastoral (as we will see in Tyler Wottrich's performance of Mozart's Piano Concerto no. 17), things like (the other) Fragonard, Madame Tussaud, La Specola, David's rendering, and of course, revolution.

I bring all of this up because I think it is so important to understand the cultural turmoil from which the first Viennese school (Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven) emerged. Although on the surface their music may seem "pleasing" (a description favored by the eighteenth century critic), it is rife with the tension of duality: empirical thought versus scholasticism, feeling versus rationality, the grotesque versus the ideal. The next time you listen to Figaro, just remember that a few blocks from the opera house, there was a good chance of being able to witness torture in all its unfettered, disquieting brutality.

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