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Further Thoughts on McMahon

Having read and understood slightly more since Aesthetics and Material Beauty, my view of McMahon’s theory has shifted. While I still find it generally coherent, I now see it as almost exactly half the story.

When I said, in the previous post, “we use art-making to reinforce existing communal patterning and we can use it to catalyse the system around new states”, I was on the right track. However, McMahon’s theory only adequately (perhaps I should say beautifully because it is elegant) explains the first part - how we create community through sharing aesthetic perceptions. McMahon calls this process “the normative force of aesthetic judgement”. McMahon’s “critical aesthetic realism” doesn’t really offer an explanation of the role aesthetic experience has in a process of change - of making a ‘new normal’, one might say.

The “new materialist” school of thought, which traces a lineage back through Deleuze (and Kant) to Spinoza rather than leaning directly on Kant, embodies a much more dynamic, process-oriented and gritty idea of what art does than McMahon’s rather refined theory. I think this all stems from what Deleuze and his acolytes might describe as the main problem with Kant’s aesthetic theory - that it presupposes a whole pre-existence. If art is a “normative force” and the aesthetic experience is only about the system responding automatically by “finding a concept for which there is no form” and then backflipping into an experience of finding that concept _in_ the form… where did the “concept for which there is no form” come from? Whatever the process is by which they appeared, presumably art had nothing to do with it. I think for McMahon (and possibly Kant, though I still haven’t read Critique of Judgement), these concepts are somehow baked into us at an earlier stage of evolution. They come from before we were fully modern humans and started to make art.

For Deleuze [and the DeleuzeGuattari simbiot] art is something animal - in fact pre-animal. It is about the ceaseless processes of life - in fact, the ceaseless processes of becoming and unbecoming of which life is just a part. Deleuze calls this process “inorganic life”. Complex systems are “assemblages”, territorialising out of chaos in an endless process of becoming and becoming something else. Some assemblages become temporarily “solidified” and predictable - Deleuze might say “stratified”.

You can detect that I’ve started to use Cynefin here, to make sense of Deleuze. I think there’s a very clear way in which we can combine Deleuze’s ontological, aesthetic and philosophical approach with Cynefin for the benefit of both frameworks. Dave Snowden has made it clear that DeLanda’s re-interpretation of assemblage theory has influenced his thinking profoundly. Other key Deleuzian concepts like chaos, stratification and lines of flight (think exaptation) map very nicely to Cynefin and associated concepts. If we were to look into these aspects of Deleuze’s onto-philosophy we might find useful connections that will deepen the application of Cynefin.

For my part, I’m interested in the operational relationship between us, our art and the rest of the world, including our technology and all the non-human inhabitants of the world. On a practical level, I’m interested in how we might use art in the work we do with organisations and communities. Deleuze’s idea of art as ”abstract machinic assemblage” is a powerful idea. The kind of radical but natural deterritorialization and reterritorialisation art embodies is a profound process of change. I’m looking forward to unlocking some of the potentials it has in combination with Cynefin.