Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Ancient Philosophy Society: First Post

Keynote Address: Anastasia-Erasmia Peponi's "Dance, Aesthetics and the Polis"

One of the highlights of this year's meeting of the Ancient Philosophy Society for me was the keynote presented by Dr. Peponi of Stanford University. Peponi is an accomplished Classicist and expressed some trepidation about addressing an audience primarily made up of philosophers. Her work, however, deals extensively with philosophy and often focuses on Ancient Greek aesthetic experience. Ultimately her trepidation was misplaced as her paper was very well received and was also very philosophically productive. In particular the question period following her paper was exceptionally rich.

(Like most keynote's, Peponi's paper is not in the printed proceedings so I am working entirely from my rather untrustworthy memory so please keep in mind the following comments are likely to be partial at best. This goes especially for my recollection of some of the question and answer period.)

Peponi's paper asked how the Ancient Greeks aesthetically experienced dance. Aristotle's brief discussion of the subject focuses on dance as mimetic, which seems a rather poor framework for considering an art like dance (or music for that matter). Was the Ancient Greek experience of dance actually an experience of mimesis as Aristotle would have us believe?

Peponi's argument focused on two elements. First, she demonstrated that the major descriptions of the experience of dance we can find in epic and lyric poetry depict dance as experienced by an audience and is even generally described from the view point of an audience. This demonstrates that there was a spectator view of dance, one which involved an aesthetic distance much like the one we find in Kant. I will say more about the connections between Peponi's paper and Kant a bit later, but the key point here is to justify an analysis of dance in terms of fairly standard conceptions of Kantian aesthetic experience on the part of spectators.

Second, Peponi provided examples of poetic descriptions of dance which don't rely upon a one to one representational conception of mimesis. In other words, dancers aren't primarily described in epic and lyric as imitating a specific natural thing, say the running of deer, but rather as dancing like the running of deer or the flow of rivers or the flight of birds etc. In other words, the audience experience of dance wasn't in terms of a simple imitation but rather in terms of what Peponi called metamimesis, an experience in which one thing can be viewed to imitate several different things all at the same time. This seems very appropriate for dance which, if judged by the standards of a simplistic mimesis, would seem to aesthetically fail through a lack of specificity and clarity.

Peponi pointed out that metamimesis, and the imagination of the audience which experiences it (labeled by Peponi as the Choraic Imaginary), rather than simply complicating mimesis actually serve to destabilize mimesis for surely the dancers are not intentionally imitating a potentially long list of things and events. Rather, metamimesis points towards a level of abstraction in dance that problematizes the very conception of imitation. We may describe the dance in terms of deer, rivers and birds but what is actually being imitated is something much harder to state which is common to all of these. There are provocative connections with the Platonic problem of the Forms here, a topic which was raised during the questions following the paper when one of the audience members (I regret I don't remember who) pointed out that on this view dance rather than painting or sculpture seems to be the ideal model for discussing the way in which Forms and concrete things are related.

I would like to briefly offer some further topics discussed during the question period and a few thoughts of my own. There was a question (if I remember right offered by Walter Brogan) concerning whether this work can be understood to rehabilitate dance to avoid Socrates' critique of mimesis in the Republic. In relation to this, had there been time during the lively question period, I would have asked why Peponi thinks Plato and Aristotle had such a simplistic and mistaken appreciation of dance. If the primary aesthetic experience of dance wasn't mimetic but rather metamimetic what was it about the time period and thought of Plato and Aristotle that blinded them to the nature of dance? This topic did come up briefly during the discussion and it was suggested both by the audience and by Peponi that the influence of tragedy likely limited dance to serve specific needs in representing character and plot through a limited mimesis. I think, however, there may be much more to say about a certain deafness on the part of Plato and Aristotle to elements of epic and I suspect that the difference between a literate society and an oral one may have a role to play here.

P. Christopher Smith sought to problematize the analysis of the experience of dance in terms of the aesthetic distance of primarily passive spectators whose main aesthetic activity involved interpretation of dance through the free play of choraic imagination. As Smith pointed out, the experience of really good dance seems to involve the audience being drawn into the dance, even if only by tapping their feet or bobbing their heads. The aesthetic experience of dance, then, seems to build towards a pinnacle not in aesthetic distance but in a loss of distance in which one becomes part of the dance. Smith drew for this suggestion heavily on Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy and the Dionysian nature of dance. In response to Smith's questions Peponi confessed to relying heavily on a Kantian conception of aesthetics and she dismissed either the experience of the dancer or the more embodied experience of the audience as falling within the realm of the pleasant and not of the beautiful (and therefore the fully aesthetic). There might be something to say about the experience of the dancer but it won't, then, be about the Greek aesthetic experience of dance. Although I greatly enjoyed and admired Peponi's paper, Smith seems to have struck upon a major problem in her work. There is potentially a dangerous ahistoricality involved here if the project is first motivated by a general Kantian conception of the aesthetic and then seeks to read aspects of this conception into the Ancient Greek context.

Drawing on this concern with the Kantian aspects of Peponi's project, it seems there is another direction we can go in interpreting the issue of mimesis in the Ancient Greek context especially in the light of her epic and lyric examples. I have always been very cautious in interpreting what mimesis really means for Aristotle and Plato. This is because, faced with something like the description of music as mimetic, I can't imagine that Aristotle just failed to really appreciate the nature of music such as to limit it to some sort of one to one imitative action. Instead, rather than assuming Aristotle lacked an appreciation for the complexities of art, I tend to take the more cautious interpretive stance that I likely lack an appreciation for the complexity of what he meant by mimesis. I do not, then, think we are dealing in Aristotle or Plato with a simple representational imitation when dealing with mimesis. Taken from this direction, then, Peponi's work may serve to enrich our understanding of mimesis rather than show aspects of Greek aesthetic experience which are not best addressed in terms of it.   


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