Aesthetic Commons

The Aesthetic Commons and the enclosures of instituting autonomies.


All aesthetic processes run along repertoires of historically determined forms and they are exercised with the deployment of a number of competences which update and make real the forms of those repertoires. Both together, repertoires and competences, may then constitute generative pattern languages. These pattern languages are commons and work as such, since the only conceivable way for them to be produced, improved and transmitted is through the individual manufacturing of a longer lasting sensitive and intellectual milieu, a kind of “aesthetic laboratorium” as Marx would have called it.
It is obvious these aesthetic commons, as most other commons, have undergone -and are still subjected to- their own “enclosures” as part of the institution of capitalist societies. Whenever these enclosures have been effective enough, we might find the access to the arable lands of aesthetic forms restricted and codified behind the walls of high culture. Behind such walls these lands have been devoted to pasture for the professional artists, curators and other experts while the very competences necessary to sustain any productive aesthetic sensitivity have been systematically neglected or made irrelevant.
Most of the aesthetic concepts we can use to contrast our own, such as medieval modes, Greek ethoi or Hindu ragas are based on modal proceedings which also combine definite forms and modulating competences. Therefore some basic research is needed to make an essential contribution to fight the “tragedy of the anticommons ” which poses a real threat to most of intellectual and aesthetic generativeness,. Along this research something should become clearer about these aesthetic commons and how they can contribute to the more general issue of autonomy and instituting competences.
Our presentation will focus on the need to think over our paradigms of aesthetic sensitivity, aesthetic reception and artistic productivity to understand how deeply the aesthetic is related to commons both in a social and an anthropological level.


A tale of two tragedies.

By definition, in a commons regime, multiple agents constituted as a community, are endowed with the privilege to use a number of given resources, while none of these agents has the effective right to exclude another. When a community is overtly stupid or has lost its institituing competences, as Castoriadis would put it, it could happen that too many people consider themselves solipsist owners of such privileges of use, and therefore the resource is prone to overuse. When a resource is held “in common,” with many people having this kind of autistic “ownership” and access to it, Hardin reasoned, a self-interested “rational” actor will decide to increase his or her exploitation of the resource since he or she receives the full benefit of the increase, but the cost of this increase is spread among all users. In Michael Heller’s words: The remorseless and tragic result of each person thinking this way, however, is ruin of the commons, and thus of everyone using it. Garret Hardin famously called that the “tragedy of the commons”, even though it might have been better described as the “tragedy of the gone instituting competences”, since historically one of the solutions given to the possibility of such an overuse has been the segregation of the existing community and the creation of a new one, endowed with their own commons. The fact that these instituting processes through which communities have usually avoided the tragedy of the commons might have become impossible under the regime of material and mental scarcity in the capitalist era, is just one more reason to consider how much we may be missing our competences to self organize, our autonomy…

In this context where autonomy is solipsistically faked or totally gone, we might be likely to face an anticommons regime where, following Michael Heller’s definition, multiple owners are each endowed with the right to exclude others from a scarce resource so that at some point no one has an effective privilege of use. As Mr. Heller says “when there are too many owners holding rights of exclusion, the resource is prone to underuse” – And that might be properly called a “tragedy of the anticommons”.

In the case of aesthetics, none of these tragedies, that of the commons and that of the anticommons, can be properly described refering to the overuse or the underuse of the aesthetic materials, perhaps because as in the case of other intellectual materials, there’s no such thing as an overuse or underuse; aesthetic ideas do not become tired or sterile through overuse or rusty and utterly broken through underuse. Nevertheless these tragedies in the domain of the aesthetic are likely, very likely, to show the conflict between colliding and thoroughly stupid owners, and not just that conflict but also and mainly –in both cases- the tragedy of the loss of competences and properly organized communities, which translated to aesthetic terms reads: loss of repertoires of the modes of relation and their associated competences. This constitutes specifically the basis of what we would like to call the “aesthetic commons”. Let’s get clear about this very peculiar sense of loss.

In the enclosure we trust.

The general situation in the field of the artistic and cultural practices could well be summarized following the scheme Marx described in his research about the enclosures and what happened to the British human and material –is it not really the same thing?- landscape. It is quite clear that there was a process out of which arable lands cultivated by small communities living in small villages were massively converted to pastures, destroying the villages and farms where people lived. In some cases, documented by Marx, like that of the Duchess of Sutherland, these land enclosures contributed to the replacement of 3000 families of peasants and small farmers with just some 30 families of sheperds. In a later stage even these few shepherds would be evicted as the pastures were now converted into aristocratic hunting grounds.
Let’s consider for a moment that this shifting from common arable lands to pastures and then to game preserves might make a good description of what has been going on in the field of artistic generativeness in western societies all through the last two or three centuries, following the instauration of capitalist societies and nation-states. For decades the artistic landscape has been very similar to some kind of extended academical pastures where the artists would be pleasantly roaming here and there. Some braver horse or goat would show up now and then and the proud owner would surely get a price in one of the numberless provincial farming fairs like the ones described by Flaubert.

Even if we are not willing to idealize any kind of joyful precapitalist generalized creativity, it is quite obvious, in a Hobbesian way, that our enlightened and modern institutions –ready made to protect us and to foster our specialized knowledge and expertises- have often taken away from us a nice part of our instituting competences. We might consider, altogether with such competences, the dispositions related to some kind of poetic and musical productivity somehow organically embedded in the lives of those peasants and farmers whose world was going to be enclosured. Theirs could be –according to our modernist standards- quite a sluggish artistic generativeness, with a repertoire limited and perhaps too deeply connected to a specific range of aesthetic sensitivity and to the competences strictly enabling them to deal with their art forms. This is indeed still quite a problematic field and if one attends the discussions among anthropologists and philosophers, it becomes unclear whether the proper postcolonial thing to do is believing primitive peoples do not have any such thing as aesthetic sensitivity or whether such faculty is the only one they have. In what comes next we would like to suggest some different, and quite unusual as a matter of fact, aesthetic categories which may help here.

In the meantime though, we don´t need any such idealization to understand that, accompanying the establishment of Absolutist states, there was a whole enclosure process through which artistic forms were first isolated from the people who used to live with them and then confined to a small number of shepherds, that’s to say of curators and critics recognized as such by the state sponsored academies. After this first enclosure process “popular arts” would be as clearly distinguished and detached from “fine arts” as evicted peasants were distinguished and detached from shepherds. The question is not the care of sunflowers or sheep, but –we must insist- the generalized loss of instituting competences, of autonomy, which comes along with this productive shift.
Aesthetic commons, as all the other commons, are the basic resource for the laboratorium of autonomy to happen. In the conceptual frame we are working with, instituting competences, commons and autonomy are deeply connected. It is through their connection that we can properly think of the production of communities and individuals, obviously not as completely detached, even opposed, entities but as expressive possibilities of a specifc modal gradient. The agents we are interested in will be ensembles of these or those modes of relation showing up in this community or that individual and the decisive trait for us will be their degree of tolerance towards policontextuality and generativeness. A modal way to talk about freedom if you dare use that kind of words.
But let’s keep our feet on the enclosured grounds of economics and aesthetics history.

Wuthering Proletarized Heights

As we know, a byproduct of these first enclosures was also a huge wave of proletarization, which can be understood as a process leading to the reduction of what used to be a complex web of agencies and competences into a one-dimensional agent whose only relevance is supposed to be its unqualifed workforce and later its consuming potential. Together with these relevancies, people end up loosing some of their economic independence, having then to structure and develop themselves exclusively within a market which rules they cannot question or even comprehend.
In the field of art and culture the first wave of enclosure does bring a proletarization itself, which also shows these two dimensions of reduction: We are not qualified anymore to produce, unless we feel happy to cope with the freakish role of “amateurs” and we get really busy with our brave new role of consumers who must have seen this and that, now and then, endlessly.
This is precisely the scenario where we are confronted with the loss of our instituting competences: we cannot question the institutional –not to say the conceptual- frame of artistic production and aesthetic sensitivity. Even if we go a step further, this very aesthetic sensitivity has come to be circumscribed as something only existing in art-world institutions –or art-history as an institution itself in Danto’s version- can define. No wonder: all these institutional theories have just arrived on time to acknowledge we do not have the keys to the aesthetic laboratorium anymore. Those keys are today even farther than they used to be.
Indeed, after this first conversion –also in the cultural domains- from arable lands to pastures, there would be a second process of transformation, one which would stand for a more spectacular approach to cultural production and consumption. This second enclosure is also quite easy to understand following Marx story about the further change of pastures into aristocratic hunting preserves. Now we would not have some families of shepherds living here and there anymore, but just an even smaller number of “guards” and a huge, organic-looking British garden blooming with shaftesburyan freedom where the extremely wealthy people go hunting from time to time.
The fact that the tendencies giving importance to freedom, wilderness and organicity in British gardening style happened at the same time as the enclosures and the correspondent eviction of people, is surely a nice coincidence. Back here and now, one cannot help thinking about the big Biennials and Art Fairs such as Vennice, Dokumenta or ARCO as such game preserves, where the extremely wealthy also go hunting things they will not even eat, among the organic looking wild landscape of artistic creativity.

The conceptual frame who shot Liberty Valance

To write endlessly about lost instituting competences and proletarization is a good move –in a Ransom Stoddard’s sense – and perhaps a nice way to make friends among a certain number of “Marxist parishioners”. But this might also be just a rhetorical gesture if we are not able to figure out a way to think this proletarization or generalized loss of generative comnpetences and the ways to fight it.
Tom Doniphon and all his cactus flowers died a long long time ago, and tough we did find the flowers charming, we cannot help being somehow happy about him having disappeared. Therefore we should rather start considering any kind of device able to communally shoot and wipe away Liberty Valance and all his enclosures and awful manners.
We would love to think any such device could be something close to what we are working on in Madrid, in the “Laboratorio del Procomún”, all over the fields of epic poetry, popular music, architecture, programming or bioclimatic engineering and which we call “generative pattern languages”.
This kind of pattern languages we are interested in are modal devices; each pattern being –as Christopher Alexander used to say along time ago- a bundle of relations , or better: a specific mode of relation.
Thinking of patterns as “modes” reminds us of the necessary dynamic character they must have and ascribes the agency of the patterns to the modes themselves –and not to the subjects or objects resulting from their deployment-.
To better conceive what modes of relation are, we should consider them as devices which are at a time: situated, policontextual, generative and relational, therefore constituting a commons regime. This brief communication cannot run for too long but some words should be said about these characteristics of the modes of relation.
They are situated which just reminds us of their concrete historical and experiential nature, something which can hardly be ignored by any contemporary epistemology after Heisenberg and his elusive cat. This situated character states that both modes and competences are necessarily experiential, perhaps quite in the sense John Dewey would think of when considering the need to think under subjunctive and conditional modes if we were to survive (John Dewey, “The postulate of immediate empiricism“) and live together. That takes us to the next characteristic.

Being policontextual deserves some more attention since it implies assuming the end of the “tertium non datur” paradigm and considering the necessary, and ecologically unbeatable, conviviality of different modes of relation. This has been quite the case in most aesthetic cultures where, most often, a number of different -and even contradictory- poetics have been able to live together. Now it should be taken with all the consequences to the wider field of epistemology and life organization, taking caution to avoid the postmodern resolution of policontextuality into an sterilized celebration of un-articulated differences. To break this postmodern trap something should be said about the modes’ generativeness.

Considering modes of relation under their generative aspect must keep reminding us that we are not talking about mechanical recipes or closed tactical directions, but of autonomous languages inducing autonomy themselves in all directions. Talking about generativeness does not suppose any romantic indulgence towards immoderate natural creativity or something of the kind, but just the acknowledgement any repertorial device must be dispossitionally updated, quite the same way everyday language works. This continuous interactions of levels, repertorial and dispossitional, has a number of ontological –so to say- consequences that also have to be considered.
That’s why finally, we come to thinking of them as relational. This aspect puts forward some claims about the ontological scope of the modes of relation –if we agree to consider ontologies as theories of distribution- and makes clear the fact that modal aesthetics -and modal epistemologies in a more general sense- are not about reorganizing the same old elements Hardin and Heller were still happy to play with, but a more a radical reconsideration of the entities which are at stake.

Two rode together

Therefore when we talk about aesthetic commons we are referring to an order of relational, modal creatures, which can be apprehended over two different scales which are always connected and codetermined within a variable gradient of intensities.
A first scale is that of the repertoires where a number of situational and expressive possibilities are summarized constituting, as Spinoza said, a “facies totius universi”, a kind-of-complete portrait of the universe. Hindi raga or rasa systems would be a good example, as the musical and rhythmical repertoires constituting jazz or flamenco music, in a not so systematic way, also do. The repertorial aspect stands as the more stable pole of the gradient, offering some kind of base from where we are likely to feel and create.
A second level then, would be that of the dispositional, that’s the ensemble of contextual determinations, and the abilities, or better competences, required to keep those repertoires so to say alive, as generative pattern languages. Some of these dispositional elements might be found in the ability to induce modulations to change from one mode to another as part of its basic deployment, the disposition to organize mixtures and make funny assemblies out of the established modes or the chance of finishing any performance with specific formal devices which are able to close any ongoing modes radically differing from them, that’s what in flamenco music we call remates or machos. In some African musical cultures –for instance- they are also used as a way to avoid the hegemonic “animal” in this or that mode to prevail in excess.
The interaction of repertoires and dispositions might privilege one or the other pole of the gradient. Possibly more traditional and established communities will emphasize the integrity of the reportorial level, while more unstable or changing contexts will foster the importance of the dispositional level of the aesthetic commons.
Both the repertorial and the dispositional commons offer a chance to specify different formations and states of art of the aesthetic commons in different cultural and social contexts. But they also bring forward the old Marxist idea of a historically and politically conceived common human nature, as amusing and old fashioned as this might sound. This notion of human nature, which Marx explored in his 6th thesis, should now be vindicated under the terms of a modal epistemology, that is, considering it as a situated, policontextual, generative and relational device able to protest (pro-testari), able to be a witness against a proccess of fragmentation which makes us weaker and, no doubt, enforces the still ongoing enclosure process.

Not quite gone with the wind

We have already mentioned how most of premodern and non western art practices and aesthetic thinking are organized as generative pattern languages contextually and dispositionally updated, in other words how they are modally organized.
This modal organization though, does not just affect old or primitive cultures but also some of the most poignant contemporary art practices and behaviours which have realized the importance of an approach that allows them to keep the autonomy of the aesthetic forms and faculties, while at the same time being able to extend this autonomy into other realms of our lives. The contagious character of this autonomy would be not an uncomfortable and painful contribution to the whole of society, but an organic way of the autonomy itself to exist and deploy. That’s quite the way Russian avant-garde movements, for instance, would consider autonomy. We could think of Rodchenko when stating “Contemporary art is about a conscious and self organized mode of living. Anybody having organized her or his own life and work and his or herself should be considered an artist”. Of course any kind of autonomy was likely to be tragically wiped away in the Soviet Union in the years after the revolution…but this does not prevent it from being a more general symptom in the development of the arts and contemporary aesthetic thinking.
So Georg Lukacs’ aesthetics, quite unjustly ignored and forgotten, can still offer us a number of interesting key concepts such as that of homogeneous medium or the dialectics between aesthetic experience and everyday lives, which could be helpful to develop our ideas about contagious autonomies and the anthropological relevance of aesthetics.
This sort of modal turn can indeed be traced as a general trait of some of the most interesting epistemologies currently being developed, organized around the discussion of the different notions (Chomsky, Fodor, Simon) of “modularity”. In different degrees all of them introduce as a general epistemological issue the need of a modal theory of distribution which implies resorting to a number of patterns and pattern languages which by definition seem to constitute a commons domain.
It becomes thus difficult to hold that commons regimes may be something belonging to an idyllic precapitalist past, some of the most interesting and recent epistemological, artistic and intellectual developments seem to point in the direction of a critical recuperation of the triad commons-autonomy-instituting competentiality.
The modal aesthetics ideas we have very briefly introduced are trying to be an approach on that direction.

Modal Aesthetics

The Modal Aesthetics Project aims at researching and advancing some conceptual tools that may enable us to think both artistic production and aesthetic perception in relational, pragmatic and generative terms, as performative ways of organizing both our most extraordinary experiences and our everyday ones.
Modes of relation, as relatively stable conformations of perceptive, relational and expressive possibilities are here considered as the basic units of this theory of distribution, a theory which could also be understood as an aesthetic ontology with some possible implications for the fields of meta-ethics and political philosophy.

As was the case with most of the approaches to aesthetics before Hegel and the Romantics, modal aesthetics does not take as its natural object the restricted field of recognized art practices, rather, it goes further, attempting to discern common features between such art practices and the wider field of experiences and ideas that – being irreducible to a concept – can justly be called “aesthetic”.
What is specific about this understanding of aesthetics is that in our attempt to include such a wide range of differently formalized aesthetic experiences, we have come across a new unit of analysis and codification. That is what we have called “mode of relation” understood as a basic operational device in between agency and structure: bigger than the former and smaller than the latter; able to establish its own repertoire of “subjects” and “objects”, which would ultimately be accidental and contingent. Modes of relation may be translated as specific grammars organizing perceptions, representations and behaviours. We are likely to find clear precedents of modal devices such as these in a great deal of premodern and non-western aesthetic discourses, which distributions of aesthetic materials and aesthetic experiencial possibilities normally gather around modal concepts such as the Hindi raga or the Polynesian patet which make clear allusions not just to the music scales used in every one of the “modes” but also and indiscernibly to the wider ensemble of environmental and situational circumstances that surround and make possible each mode.
So far, in all these modal aesthetics we are likely to find basic units which allow us to think both artistic production and aesthetic reception which are not restricted neither to the artist as producer, nor to the artworld or not even to the style under which such an experience is produced and processed.
Modal basic units are always specific intensities, modulations of the different relationships between artists, audience and the milieu in which all of them are situated. This is so to such a degree that even once the specific experience or work of art has gone it can be revived alluding to what could already be called its modal entity: its specific consistency at the time of defining and articulating a set of relationships.

So far, this deliberate complicity with pre-modern aesthetics and practices does not alienate modal aesthetics from contemporary aesthetic problems, rather it allows us to work through a great deal of some of the most pressing contemporary conflicts and predicaments, so we can figure out a way to deal with the obvious pattern of widening the range of fields and objects where aesthetic experience is likely to happen, a pattern followed by most avant-garde practices in the last century, with their focus on introducing materials, sounds and situations which would not have been easily admitted as proper to art experience in the 19th century. This Emtfrendung – rediscovering whole areas of our relational capabilities – has been recoded in institutional terms by hegemonic trends coming from Anglo-American art theorists and scholars, and therefore has lost most of its social and political potential.

For this potential to deploy itself fully we should take into account the development of certain perceptive and distributive capabilities we would like to call “modal competences”. Modal competences allow us to recognize modes of relation as they occur so that we may become part of their deployment and become a different version of ourselves through them.
Modal competences can be said to be innate and common to that historical and conflictual entity we may call, with Marx, generic being (Gattungswessen).
Through an optimal development of these modal competences we are not just able to have full access to an aesthetic experience but are also likely to recodify and, as it were, compress, whichever materials under artistic keys give back all its modal potential to the so processed materials.
Modal competences may then work in a double sense, as Marx used to say about our memory of nature: modal competences let us remember certain relationships we have never experienced, but that we profoundly miss nevertheless.