The following essay is part of the Los Angeles Review of Books special series "No Crisis": a look at the state of critical thinking and writing — literary interpretation, art history, and cultural studies — in the 21st century. Click here for the full series.
LET’S BEGIN with an uncommon sensation. Early in Tao Lin’s novel Taipei, the protagonist sees his girlfriend at the other end of a hallway.
Paul, walking self-consciously toward her, vaguely remembered a night, early in their relationship, when he somehow hadn’t expected her to enlarge in his vision as he approached where she’d stood (looking down at a flyer, one leg slightly bent), in Think Coffee. [He remembered] the comical, bewildering fear — equally calming and surprising, amusing and foreboding — he’d felt as she rapidly and sort of ominously increased in size […].
By describing Paul’s experience as uncommon, I don’t mean that this kind of thing is rare. Such oddly minor cognitive or perceptual blips might be rare, but they might not be. At any rate, people tend not to talk about them. We may not even remember them; they seem to lack the kind of significance that would make them memorable.
For example, when I was young — and even not-so-young — I used to pretend the drops of rain on my parents’ car’s windscreen were gun sights. I would line up a passing object with a particular drop, and imagine that I was “shooting” it. I never spoke to anyone else about this, and probably would have forgotten it long ago. But one day a friend casually mentioned to me that he used to pretend raindrops were gun sights. As the years have passed I’ve come across two or three others who also admitted doing this.
Discovering I shared this with my friend didn’t bring us closer together. Realizing we love the same movie, finding out we both volunteered for the same obscure leftist politician: these things bring us closer together. But not our strange way of looking at raindrops. It’s not hard to see why.
Pretend, that upon reading Lin’s example, you remember you’d had a similar experience. And pretend you tell a friend about it and they discover they’d also had it. Now imagine how the conversation would go:
“So let me get this straight. You saw someone who was far away. And then you, like, just sort of thought they’d just remain small when you walked toward them? Instead of getting bigger?”
“Wow! I had the exact same experience one time.”
“Yeah. I totally kind of thought they’d stay small!”
“But they didn’t.”
“No, right. They didn’t. It was just a … a thing.”
Someone you “somehow” expect not to get larger as you approach, a raindrop you sometimes see as a gun sight: these just don’t seem to be the kind of things we can have, in any robust sense, in common. Hannah Arendt writes that “to live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between those who sit around it; the world, like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time.”
Artworks, beliefs, city squares: these are common things, solid things, things that can found in a community, things that people can hold in common. The quasi-perceptual blip that Lin describes isn’t. It stands apart from the common world. Unlike religious visions or dreams or full-blown hallucinations, this experience seems to repel meaning.
And yet it nevertheless exerts a certain pull. It activates contradictory emotions. “Equally calming and surprising, amusing and foreboding.” One finds occasional traces of its presence, distributed like blanks across social life in stray remarks. If Tao Lin is right, drugs have lately been pulled into the service of this mysterious impulse. Drugs in his novel — Ambien, Xanax, Adderall — are machines for opening small departures from the perceptual norm that don’t quite rise to the level of hallucination. His novel isn’t anomalous. I’ve seen records of strange, minor perceptions that aren’t exactly normal, and aren’t exactly abnormal, in other artworks, ranging from Sigmar Polke’s photography to Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s poetry.
What appears in these appearances? These apparitions fit so exactly into the space between the genuinely strange and the utterly quotidian, that space about which it’s so hard to speak. What is the source of their fascination?
Rei Terada’s 2009 book Looking Away explains why people have been fascinated by “particularly ephemeral perceptual experiences.” She provides therapy for those who feel that their interest in these perceptions is childish, even shameful. The ephemeral experiences she studies include “afterimages of colors, double vision […], double-take […], and reflections taken as objects […], and as dramatic as flowers on the curtain that turn into faces,” clouds taken for mountains, fireworks, looking at a landscape with one’s eyes half closed so that it appears underwater. All are instances of what she calls mere appearance. We are drawn to mere appearance “when we want to create distance between ourselves and the given world.”
Terada excavates a philosophical tradition running from Plato through Kant, Coleridge, Nietzsche, and Adorno that links the emphasis on appearance with a vague, pervasive dissatisfaction. This association is easy for any of us to access. Imagine you’re at a store. The register reads “$12.99,” and you hand the clerk a twenty-dollar bill. She picks it up, examines it, and says:
“This appears to be money.”
How do you interpret this statement? On its surface, it’s quite innocuous, trivial even. Roses are red, violets are blue, money looks like money. But by drawing attention to your money’s appearance, the clerk opens a potential gap between what your money looks like and what it actually is. It is as if the clerk is withholding — or as Coleridge says, suspending — judgment about whether the piece of green paper in her hand is money. You might get the feeling that the clerk is not entirely satisfied with your money. You might get the sense that she is somehow dissatisfied with it.
“That’s real money,” you mutter angrily.
“Never said it wasn’t,” says the clerk, putting it into the drawer and counting out your change.
Imagine that as you leave the store you can’t quite leave the scene behind. “This appears to be money.” What the hell did she mean by that? That was real money you gave her. What’s she trying to say? What’s her problem?
This thought experiment shows that too great an interest in appearance is easily identifiable with a certain dissatisfaction. But perhaps the clerk’s dissatisfaction isn’t with your money in particular. Perhaps her dissatisfaction is both vaguer and more far-reaching. I vividly remember the time when I was sixteen or seventeen and I took out a twenty-dollar bill, and thought — this is just a piece of colored paper. It felt as if the world was an iceberg that had just slid into the ocean.
Mere appearance, Terada writes, “is relief.” It gives us the feeling “that something heavy is gone.” Take out some money and look at it. Look at the way it appears. What is this appearance? The green papery appearance seems to cover or obscure its character as money. To see it as appearance is in some sense to refuse to see it as money. This is why the clerk’s comment angers us. “That doesn’t look like money,” we want to reply, “it is money!” In this gap between looking and being Terada discovers a kind of freedom. We are momentarily freed from the necessity of recognizing the world.
Recognition, after all, entails a certain obligation. For one nation to recognize another is to accept it, to welcome it, to become obliged to address it in a certain manner. For a person to recognize the ex-lover who walks by is to register the claim he still makes. But to linger in “mere appearance” is to be free of the demands of recognition. Instead of a nation, you have something that looks like a nation; instead of your old lover you have someone who appears to be that person. Terada writes: “Instead of being like the skin of an object, […] appearance is the impression left when a belief is temporarily lifted away. What dissolves here is the obligation to endorse […] fact perception.”
The example of money highlights the intertwining of value and fact that has troubled philosophy for generations. To recognize a fact is also to endow it with value; real things have a claim upon us that unreal things don’t. We feel as if we must accept facts as soon as we recognize them as facts. As soon as the clerk recognizes the bill as money, she must accept it.
Drawing on post-Kantian philosophy, Terada marks a distinction between “object perception,” when we attend to the appearance of a thing, and “fact perception,” when we experience a thing as a fact embedded in the social world. Just as the clerk avoids depositing the bill so long as she examines its appearance, “lingering in object perception” enables one “to avoid the value entailments of fact.” When we dwell in mere appearance, “the world feels lighter,” and “the association of appearance with mereness, lightness, radiance, and hypothesis is our only way of registering the absence of a weight we carry without knowing it, the perceived pressure of the given world and its natural laws on our potential endorsement.”
How does one dwell in appearance? By cultivating those impressions that seem, though their brevity and insignificance, perfect instances of mere appearance. The key is to be aware that what you are experiencing isn’t a fact. To take one of Terada’s examples, Coleridge knows that when he half-closes his eyes, and the landscape appears to be submerged under water, he isn’t observing a fact. The land remains dry. Rather, he has framed his perception of the world in such a way as to enable it to float gently free of reality. “Casting a perception as mere appearance […] allows the mind to entertain it without endorsing it.” Similarly, by framing his experience of the girl in the hall by the expectation that she won’t get larger as he comes nearer, Lin’s protagonist suspends his perceptual contact with the given world.
More importantly, he suspends contact with the person whom he approaches. Attention to mere appearance, Terada writes, “becomes a way to get away, or imagine getting away, from other people.” We turn “toward these perceptions to deflect the other’s invasion, by the reasoning — the comically quick and amoral reasoning typical of the unconscious — that if the other is inexorable once perceived, then obviously one should put off perceiving it or not look straight on.”
The sense that by attending to mere appearance one is avoiding others is one reason why the philosophers who have thought most deeply about aesthetics argue that “merely suspensive, illusory, or ephemeral perception” cannot be aesthetic. Part of the point of art, part of the defense of its value, has always been that it’s socially affirmative. Art builds community. Kant, for instance, believes that we expect others to agree with our judgment of a landscape or painting as beautiful. This expectation demonstrates, in his influential view, our possession of a common sense, a common sense activated by aesthetic perception. He dismisses “ephemeral and indefinite perceptions” because he doesn’t think we can expect others to share them. Or, Arendt might add, because their very flimsiness, their mereness, renders them unable to support a common world.
Adorno, unlike Kant, is suspicious of our common world. He suspects that the appearances of capitalist society veil malign power relationships. He imagines art as an occasion for exposing the emptiness of bourgeoisie society. The art he loves is theatrically functionless, “a thing that negates the world of things.” And yet he too refuses to admit “ephemeral and indefinite perceptions,” like the kind provided by firework displays, into the realm of the aesthetic. “Adorno,” Terada points out, “prefers that the artwork be able to be mistaken for another fact among social facts.” He wants artworks to have solidity and duration. His critique of capitalist common sense depends on monumental artworks that everyone can interpret in common.
Against this tradition, writers from Coleridge to Lin think the fleeting, transient perceptions they cultivate are art. These non-facts furnish the substance of some of the most important post-Romantic literature. Consider Proust’s endless interest in the changing light on his bedroom walls, or Dickinson’s image of a hummingbird as a “wheel of evanescence.” We have lacked a theory of this substance, largely because we have lacked a way of recognizing the desire that animates it. Terada makes this desire recognizable. She turns it into a fact.
Here is the fact: Something is wrong with the world. There is a fundamental flaw in society. Relations between people seem to have something wrong with them. Something … off.
Sometimes, when I want to share something with you, I realize that my experience has an unsharable dimension. I realize that we encounter each other only by peering across the thick boundary of our social personas. I don’t know how to fix this problem, but I don’t like it. I can only meet other people on the terrain of a common world that seems too heavy, too alien, too uncomfortable, too cold. Sometimes I protest by looking away, by watching the part of my experience that none of you can touch.
We all know about the kind of problem Terada describes, even if we avoid talking about it. It doesn’t seem worth talking about. And it doesn’t seem worth talking about because it doesn’t seem fixable. A revolution might fix a lot of things. But no imaginable transformation of society will fix this.
We might get a firmer grip on the problem by approaching it from a slightly different perspective. Contemporary philosophy discusses the problem of “mere appearance,” of unsharable perceptions, in terms of “qualia.” Qualia refers to the qualities of perception. A common example invites us to consider the “redness” of a red object, while bracketing any meaning or significance associated with the object. A prominent strain in the philosophy of mind affirms that qualia are “epiphenomenal.” That is, these experiences of mere redness and the like have no effect on the world. If they were suddenly to disappear, if we were all to suddenly lose our capacity to experience qualia then, according to David Chalmers’s famous thought experiment, nothing at all would change. The common world would remain the same.
But one doesn’t have to go as far as Chalmers. Consider the example of Coleridge, squinting his eyes to give the landscape a blurry, watery look. What does it mean to say we can’t share this experience? I can squint my eyes in the same way, and experience the same blurry look. Yet Coleridge’s visual experiment focuses so exclusively on mere appearance as to strip away any meaning from the experience. And meaning is the sharable part of an experience. This is why discovering other people who imagined rain droplets were gun sights didn’t enhance my relationship with them, didn’t lead to any meaningful or memorable conversations.
“Oh yes, I experienced that too.”
We ultimately can’t say much more about such experiences. What can you say about the redness of a red object?
“It looks red.”
We know — or at least we think we know — that when someone tells us they see the color red, their words correspond to a certain experience. But almost nothing about that experience, beyond the bare registration of its existence, can be brought into the public world, the world between people.
Philosophers like Chalmers are interested in the metaphysical and epistemological dimensions of qualia. Is there a certain kind of knowledge that can only be accessed through the first person perspective, and not the third person perspective of science? What is the relation between qualia and the brain?
Terada, on the other hand, wants to know why people deliberately cultivate the experience of mere appearance. She wants to consider the desire that leads us to look away from the common world, and to dwell for awhile with surfaces of soap bubbles, reflections in water, surfaces of clouds, with droplets of rain. She recognizes that sometimes we want to watch the persistent solidity of the world simply dissolve in the fine glitter of mere appearance.
Terada anticipates the anxiety that recognizing this desire triggers. She knows people will rush into the gap opened by the phenomenophiliac in looking away with political, social, and psychological diagnoses. Certain Marxists will suspect that the phenomenophiliac really suffers from an advanced case of generalized commodity disorder. Doesn’t advertising teach us to just look at the surface? Terada is a victim of advertising!
Certain philosophers, following Stanley Cavell, will argue that the phenomenophiliac’s intractable dissatisfaction with society is a denial of “the structural limitations of human communication.” We can never look through another’s eyes, we can never truly share experiences. This is just the way things are. Stop denying it, accept it!
But Terada affirms, mildly, simply, that those who choose to look away are not denying the limitations of the world. They just “don’t like these limitations.” She listens patiently to explanations that the desire for a basically different kind of world is an impossible, childish desire. “One may feel justified in having desires,” she replies, “even when there is no possibility of fulfilling them […] the absence of a grammar for such feelings reflects […] deeply internalized, unfreedom.”
Terada has given us a grammar for the feeling of wanting to escape from something unfixable. In so doing, she’s provided us with a way of understanding and appreciating one of the basic tendencies of the art of our time. This is what great criticism does.
And it does something else. Terada defines a limit. In dwelling with mere appearance, she tells us, we turn away from the world and nothing else. We protest society’s intractable barriers, without knowing how to surpass them.
The history of art moves forward by transcending such limits as Terada identifies. Her masterpiece of description is also a challenge to create a kind of art that her magnificent concepts will no longer be able to describe. We should leave her book wondering if there’s something more to say about those raindrops on the windshield, about the face Paul somehow expects not to get bigger, more about the color red.