Risatti and Craft After Heidegger’s Critique of Traditional Ontology Part 2

This post is a continuation of Risatti and Craft After Heidegger’s Critique of Traditional Ontology.

II. Risatti’s Problematic Conceptions of Intentionality and Meaning

Risatti’s discussion of craft unfolds in a philosophical space provided essentially by four philosophers: Immanuel Kant, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Hans-Georg Gadamer. It is not my intention to trace the entirety of Risatti’s utilization of these philosophers and their ideas. Nor do I mean to recount Risatti’s complete theory of the craft object. Instead I want to focus on those areas in which Risatti most problematically attempts to synthesize the views of Kant and Husserl with those of Heidegger and Gadamer without fully acknowledging the difference between their theories. Ultimately, Risatti’s answer to the question “What is a craft object?” is unsatisfactory because it does cannot fully overcome the differences between what I will call a “subjective” approach and a “post-subjective” approach to finding meaning in the work of art.

Risatti clearly has what I will—perhaps crudely—describe as a loyalty to (“respect for” might be a fairer way to put it) a Heideggerian post-aesthetic, post-subjective, and therefore post-modern, philosophical approach. Beginning in his introduction, Risatti draws upon Gadamer’s analogy to the game as a way of describing the tans-subjective event that occurs in understanding (5). Throughout the book, Risatti repeatedly returns to this notion—the way in which, in understanding the work of art or craft, the work itself makes a demand on us, and we must allow ourselves to be open to that demand if we are to receive the meaning that is there. Likewise, Risatti is clearly drawn to Heidegger’s assessment of the way works of art can lose their “world” in the absence of preservers and gradually transform into no more than aesthetic objects gracing the halls of museums (Risatti 84). In the same vein, Risatti seems to be drawn to Heidegger’s notion of (non-objective) “meditative thinking” (as opposed to “calculative thinking”), and in fact Risatti seems to base his model of aesthetic contemplation on Heidegger’s meditative thinking (264-5). He does so, however, only after a detour through Kantian and Husserlian characterizations of perception, and therefore cannot fully pin down how he wants the viewer to encounter the work of craft.

While Risatti clearly wants to explore the regions opened up by Heidegger’s attempt to overcome aesthetics, he is also drawn to a Kantian model of the aesthetic experience and a Husserlian model of intentionality. Put briefly, the problem with Risatti’s characterization grows out of the fact that he wishes to grasp the craft object at both ends, so to speak. He wants to describe its creation by the craftsperson using a Husserlian intentional model, and at the same time to facilitate our encounter with it using a fusion of Kant’s aesthetics and Heidegger and Gadamer’s post-aesthetics. The task that Risatti has set himself is immense, and we can certainly sympathize if he fails to achieve entirely clear and satisfactory results in terms of offering a theory of what the craft object is. He nonetheless raises important questions about art historical (and craft historical) method, not the least of which is how tenable it is to investigate the phenomenon of art from the point of view of the creator and in the same breath from the point of view of the viewer.

I have said above that Risatti fails essentially because he cannot synthesize a view which is premised upon the subject-object division with a view that fundamentally wants to move beyond that distinction. Let me explain the former view, and how Risatti depends upon it. Risatti is concerned with the meaning works of art/craft have for us, and how we might appropriately open ourselves to that meaning. For a description of how the work receives its meaning, Risatti proceeds from a telling description of Kant’s “purposive objects” and the contrasting “free play of the maker’s imagination” that characterizes the creation of works of “fine art” (220-1). Risatti does this in part, undoubtedly, because he wishes to avoid the association between craft and function, an association which has led theorists to view the creation of craft objects as a process totally governed by the ultimate use to which the object will be put. So, from the start, Risatti is concerned to show that there is some freedom, and thus some meaning, in the activity of homo faber when he makes craft objects. Risatti says: “To mean is to signify, and for an object to signify something…two things must be present. One is that its formal demands must be such that they allow for manipulation on the part of the maker in the name of expression; and two, this allowance for expression must be intentionally exploited by the maker in a desire to express something” (221). Now that Risatti has used the word “intentionally”, he needs a way to describe this intentionality, and to do this he turns to Husserl.

For Husserl, meaning comes from “the intention to mean”: “Intention to mean is just as important as the possibility of meaning,” as Risatti summarizes Husserl’s position in the Logical Investigations (221-2). Husserl sees all perception—and thus relation to the world—as intentional. For Husserl, and for Risatti, one cannot think without thinking of something, one cannot perceive without perceiving something, and—and this is Risatti’s development of Husserl—one cannot make without making something (252-3). Risatti thinks he is avoiding Cartesianism in his Husserlian proclamation that “the act of making can never be empty; always it must be directed beyond itself to an intentional object” (253). Risatti thus treats the craft object as the intentional object of the craftsperson, whose intention causes meaning to reside in the object. He then proceeds to call upon Heidegger’s “meditative thinking” and Gadamer’s characterization of understanding to explain the attitude that would allow us as viewers to open ourselves to the meaning placed into the craft object by the maker.

Here Risatti does an injustice to both Husserl on the one hand and Heidegger and Gadamer on the other. Risatti seems to overlook precisely the fact that Heidegger’s meditative thinking—a term the later Heidegger used to distance himself from fundamentally metaphysical philosophizing—is meant to transcend the subject-object dichotomy. In his characterization of the craft object using the ideas of Kant and Husserl, however, Risatti has already firmly rooted himself in this metaphysical tradition, and he cannot overcome it by simply switching to Heidegger’s point of view.

What do I mean when I say that Risatti’s Husserlian model is rooted firmly in metaphysics? Simply this: that it depends on the division between a knowing/perceiving/creating/meaning-giving subject and a known/perceived/created/meaning-receiving object (of craft). In fact, Risatti reveals this prejudice in his very first sentence when he says that he wants to discover what a craft object is (xiii). One might say that this is simply an unfortunate choice of terminology, but in fact Risatti can never escape the traditional conception of an aesthetic object to a more post-aesthetic conception, such as Heidegger’s characterization of the work of art.

The easiest way to think about how Risatti’s interpretation of craft adheres to metaphysics is to see how it is rooted in Cartesianism. While Risatti wants to dispense with an intentionality of function (in which the function is the only “goal” of creation), he nonetheless replaces it with what we might call an intentionality of expression. In doing so, he sees himself as preserving the freedom of the craftsperson in creating the object. Perhaps this is so, but he is also characterizing the meaning of the work of craft in a metaphysical way. Basically, Risatti conceives of meaning “getting into” the work craft object thanks to the craftsperson’s metalistic/subjectivistic prior intention to express something. For Risatti, there can be nothing more basic than this relation between free intention to mean and the object wherein the meaning is fixed by the maker. Risatti, following Husserl, does not want to fall into the Cartesian trap of a subjectivity that knows only itself (Risatti 253). But in “escaping” this Cartesianism, Risatti no doubt does Husserl justice. However, Risatti’s path leads him to a point at which—in his struggle to show how we can find works of craft meaningful—he must struggle with the idea of transcendence.  Since Risatti is tied to his concern with the “sign as expression”—his citation of Peggy Kamuf makes this clear—he is forced to try to explain transcendence on the basis of intentional subject-intended object. In other words, he has to explain how meaning gets from one to the other, and the how it might get to us on the other end. Here, Risatti comes up against a problem with a long history in philosophy: “How do experiences and that to which they direct themselves as intentional, the subjective in sensations, representations, relate to the objective?” (Heidegger 62).

In other words, Risatti (like Descartes and Husserl after him) places the division between the subject (the creating craftsperson) and the object (the object of craft) at the center of his theory of craft.  This was, as Heidegger notes, the “new beginning” which Descartes instituted: an ontology of being which takes its first steps from the ego, the subject, the res cogitans (Basic Problems 123-5). As I said above, this model is perfectly sufficient from one point of view. It is quite plausible to adopt a model in which the subject, the craftsperson, confronts the raw, meaningless material of the world with an idea to be realized and sets about putting that meaning into form in the object of the crafting process. Meaning is given by the intention of the crafter to mean, as Risatti and Husserl agree. We can follow Risatti this far.

The problem is that Risatti has not fully accomplished the task he sets himself. Characterizing the process of creation from the point of view of the creator is not (entirely) Risatti’s aim. Risatti also wishes, put bluntly, to raise the status of craft objects. This is what I might call his ideological goal, although this sounds perhaps disdainful. Risatti wants to be able to ask the question “What is a craft object?” and he means to create the space in which it can be asked by giving us, the viewers, access to the craft object. To do this, he cannot of course rely on his Cartesian model.

Why not, we might ask? Because, as I noted above, Risatti has raised the problem of transcendence, and he cannot overcome it from his current position. Even if we agree that the craftsperson is somehow able to make meaning appear from nowhere, or take it “from somewhere out in the stars” and invest it in the craft object, how is this meaning to become accessible to us? And more importantly, what meaning is supposed to become accessible to us? The pure meaning of the author’s intention? A meaning totally divorced from any intention of the author that somehow comes from outside the object and the maker? Risatti rejects both of these kinds of meaning (254-5).

Risatti looks to Kant for a way to describe how we appropriately encounter the work of art (or craft). In doing so, he is being consistent in his adherence to the subject-object division, since this division is fundamental in Kant as well. However, in discussing how we can break away from the “steady stream of data through our senses” and confront the object disinterestedly as Kant described, Risatti cannot avoid the implicit question he has raised—the question of how the meaning of the isolated object standing in itself can reach me, the subject of perception (266). This is a question which resounds through the history of philosophy, as Heidegger describes in Basic Problems of Phenomenology. Heidegger’s solution, briefly put, is to show that the problem only exists in a certain context: the context of a philosophy which takes the division of subject and object as the most basic distinction, and which regards the character of beings as present-at-hand for that subject (including even the subject itself).

Risatti does not seem concerned with this question, because he thinks that he can simply switch to a Heideggerian, post-subjective point of view and transcend the problem. This is true, to a certain extent. More is necessary, however, as I shall explain below. The easiest way to see how Risatti still struggles with the question, despite ignoring it, is to note the amount of effort he expends trying to “give us access” to the craft object. Having described how meaning “gets into” the craft object through intentionality, it would seem fairly simple to follow Kant’s model of intentional perception and summarize how we in turn understand the meaning in the object. Why detour through the New Criticism and Barthes at all, as Risatti does? Is Risatti simply being intellectually polite? On the contrary, Risatti perhaps senses that his model is still open to criticisms from these schools of thought because he has not yet said anything truly convincing about how the maker’s intentional meaning gets to us. He has posited a making subject and an object. Now he must posit a perceiving subject and an object. But, of course, it has to be the right kind of object—the kind worthy of the attention of art critics and art historians and the rest of us. It must be meaningful, meaning to Risatti that it must inspire in us an aesthetic experience. Here Risatti seems to shrug his shoulders: “[what matters] is that viewers are able to aesthetically behold the work of art as a contemplative, meditative object”, he says (261). Agreed, but this does not tell us how we, as subjects, are supposed to transcend our subjective sphere (the same sphere that, in the case of the craftsperson, gave meaning to the object through intentionality) and be open to the meaning which adheres somewhere in or around the object.

Having explained some of the difficulties inherent in the relationship between Risatti’s clear goals and the theoretical model of creative intentionality that he has chosen, I would next like to discuss Risatti’s attempts at adopting a Heideggerian stance. I intend to show how Heidegger and Gadamer offer a real alternative to Husserl and Kant, and why Risatti is unable successfully apply their views to his theory of the craft object.

Cited: Howard Risatti, A Theory of Craft: Function and Aesthetic Expression, University of North Carolina: Chapel Hill, 2007.

Martin Heidegger, Basic Problems of Phenomenology, trans. Albert Hofstadter, Indiana , Bloomington: 1982.

This post will be continued in Part 3.–Raino Isto

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