Cusa,  won't you unKantify me

Cusa, won't you unKantify me

The text Cautious Creation pondered upon the notion of breaking down a certain kind of subjectivity. In this short text, this theme is being further developed. This time starting with a rough sketch of the Renaissance and it's relationship to Kant. Thereafter, a devotional exercise invented by Nicolas of Cusa is used as an example of a subtle disruption of the narcissistic ego.  So beginning with the Rennaisance, let us begin with the following statement: "whenever three-dimensional space is represented on a two-dimensional canvas, a presupposition is hidden".  This means that, to represent reality in perfect perspective, the artist needs to incorporate in the mind a single fixed point of reference. Thereafter mirroring it onto the canvas, drawing multiple lines toward that point. The viewer then has to accept this presupposition to be able to comprehend the composition. What is presumed is something like a third eye inside the mind. A stable self, contracted into a single point. This invention: a third eye inside the mind, between and behind the two eyes, enables the subject to reproduce the drawing as a representation of everyday experience. Or rather, a simulacrum of reality.


However, one could argue that, this invention of the Renaissance, and Alberti in particular, foreshadow modern metaphysical strides concerning representation and reality. The renaissance did not just create representations of reality on canvases but also constructed an internal space where reality could be re-interpreted. Thus creating a simulacrum of reality to be experienced inside the mind. “Now I will close my eyes” writes Descartes, “I will stop up my ears”, "I will avert my senses from their objects” (Meditations III). In Descartes, developments in the pictorial arts receive philosophical foundation. This then is taken further when the house constructed by Alberti, gets its final interior decoration done by Kant. Continuing this metaphor, Kant's three critiques can be seen as decorating a three-leveled Albertian interior. The first critique starts with the upper floor with overarching categories. The roof and walls that will secure the subject from the outside. The second critique focuses its attention on the mundane life of the middle floor, the practicalities of daily life. When this has been taken care of, still the work is not complete without a visit to the basement. The third critique, therefore, has to deal with what has been left out. When doing this, cracks in the foundation become apparent. Cracks in the cellar walls, make the exterior world burst into the construction. These cracks are the Kantian sublime. When peeking thru the cracks, a hurricane blows outside, forcing the mind to represent the unrepresentable. Yet, the outside remains the outside, and the construction, the simulacrum, even with its cracks, holds the subject back. The experience of not being able to fully comprehend and represent the sublime grows to a ressentiment. The Dostoevskian cellarman is here born. Sitting in the basement, cursing the construction, refusing its logic of 2+2. Thus a gap slowly opens between the conceptual geometrical perception of the world, and a sublime, non-exact, perception. The Kantian reasoning is a method to test all of the representational-logic to come, but with the cost of chaining the subject inside itself, holding it back from Dionysian and Bacchian ecstasy. An internal death dance of western metaphysics there has its beginning.

However, indulging in some contrafactual history of philosophy, what if the Renaissance did not happen? And Kant never wrote his critiques? These questions are silly, but still, is a non-Albertian, non-Kantian subject possible?

Here we draw upon Johannes Hoffs book “The analogical turn - Rethinking Modernity with Nicholas of Cusa”. Because in a sense he is doing just this. To explore this possibility, Johannes Hoff points us back to an experiment invented by Nicholas of Cusa, documented in the preface to De Visione Dei. The surface goal was to educate the monks at the  Tegernsee Monastery in mystical theology. Yet, at a deeper level, it was an experiment to open up something beyond the Albertian single-point perspective. And a pathway beyond the Kantian subject sketched above.  

The experiment starts with hanging an icon on a wall (the northern wall in the example). The icon is a Vera Icona, probably similar to van Eyeks painting of Christs face displayed above. Thereafter the monks are to place themselves around the icon, letting their gaze fall upon the icon. The face of the icon will then give the impression to each one of them that the face is looking directly at them. To the monk in the east, the face will seem to be looking at him, simultaneously the monk in the west will also perceive it as if the face looks at him. Pause here, and reflect that the imagination of the monk in the east is unable to apprehend that the icon, at the same time, is looking at the monk in the west. This insight immediately exposes a gap in the imagination. The icons multiple gaze is a fullness, incomprehensible to the onlooker. After this the monks are to start circulating, placing themselves in the others positions. During circulation, the monk is to fix his sight onto the icon.  While fixing his sight upon the icon he walks from west to east, he will find that the icon's gaze proceeds continually with him; and if he returns from east to west, the gaze will likewise not desert him. This movement opens up a change in the unchangeable gaze of the object, the icon's gaze is moved immovably. To further deepen the experiment the participants could at any time ask each other whether the icon's gaze moves continually with him. Thereupon he will be told that the gaze is also moved in this opposite manner. If the monk chooses to believe the other - listening to his testimony - he can apprehend that this simultaneous opposition of motion is possible. They are all simultaneously being seen by the gaze, and the monks need each other to be able to grasp the unfathomable depth of this mystery.

The full text can be read here.

This devotional exercise can, therefore, be read as a subtle critique of the simulacrum subject invented by renaissance perspectival art. The icon depicting the face of Christ is the object Descartes choose not to see. The monks are not to search for a single point of reference that they are to share, they are not to reinterpret the image inside themselves, creating a simulacrum or representation of the face of Christ. Instead, they are to experience the interactive engagement with the gaze from the object, interacting their senses with the surface.  Only in this engagement with the surface, can something be expressed in front of them. In the gaze of the icon, they experience themselves as complete singularities. What is expressed on the surface of the icon, is a subliminal gaze incomprehensible for a single subject, but inside the community, the father's infinite gaze becomes unfolded thru the incarnate Son. The singularity of those being gazed upon is guaranteed by the singularity of the only begotten. The icon serves therefore as an expression of that which cannot be expressed. The finite wood becomes truly an icon, an expression of infinite love.

The experiments subtly break down the narcissistic ego. But at the same time it breaks down, it also gives birth to a new subjectivity, becoming a person thru a face-to-face encounter with the divine loving gaze. What is broken down is the autonomia of the participants and the new subjectivity is a subjectivity in ecclesia. Yet, this new (re-born) personhood is still a person, a true person. Returning to the above-sketched house of Kant and Alberti. What if the cellarman where to break out of representational-logic without being caught in the divine gaze. Without faith, the autonomia granted by the representational-logic, at the same time the house is demolished, becomes dissolved. Instead of stepping out into freedom, a cosmic loneliness is experienced. Outside of representational-logic, a violent cosmic wilderness awaits. The Kantian sublime, when experienced outside the divine gaze, does not become an experience of love, but of the opposite, an experience of non-love. Notwithstanding, this the subject has to retort back to the representational-logic, this time ironically. “I know it’s a simulacrum, but it’s the best I’ve got”. And is not the postmodern, post-Nietzschean death of the subject often this ironic death. Not a dead subject but the creation of a zombie subject. Dead, but somehow still alive, just a little more fluid. Somehow there is a residual “I” lurking around searching for attention as if it were searching for the lost divine gaze. Cusas experiment shows us that the divine gaze is already, always, turned towards us, giving each and every one of us our singularity. Awaiting our turning to him.

When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, He said of him, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is no deceit.” “How do You know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus replied, “Before Philip called you, I saw you” under the fig tree. “Rabbi,” Nathanael answered, “You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel”

John 1:48


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