“On the Varieties of Experience of Art” in Theory, Culture & Society (vol. 40, no.4-5, 2023)

Few topics in social and cultural theory have been addressed so widely and thoroughly over the past decade as ontology’. This special issue is a sustained set of explorations and analyses mobilised effectively against ontology. The focus is Chinese thought and the work of French philosopher, classicist and sinologist, François Jullien. For Jullien, ontology is a question of the ‘qu-est-ce que c’est’, the ‘what is it that it is’: in effect interrogating the ‘is’ of the ‘it’. Instead of ontology’s mechanics of cause and effect there is an organicism of cognition of patterns. The authors in this issue with Jullien and through China find that in Chinese thought this question of being is very much displaced by a focus instead on life. Thus, the Dao De Jing, the Zhuangzi’s notion of the ten thousand things are rejections of ontology, as are Chinese gardens, geomancers, Yi Jing and other modes of divination. As are landscape, literati, the Book of Songs and the Book of Rites. The issue begins with Jullien and then Scott Lash who directly address this question of being on the one hand and life on the other. Ontology and the question of the ‘is’ are integrally intertwined with language: the question of the ‘is’, as Shiqiao Li demonstrates is one of predicational or propositional language, whose natural home are the highly inflected Indo-European languages from ancient Greek to modern European. Li juxtaposes this to the radically uninflected Chinese whose logographic nature is close to the similitudes of natural language and actually performative life itself.

The issue addresses art, in which Yuk Hui contrasts the West’s paradigmatic art form, tragedy, with China’s, which had neither epic not tragic poetry, but instead featured landscape, which Hui addresses through a Chinese inflected idea of Immanuel Kant’s intellectual intuition. Wang Min’an looks at Chinese art and poetry as a ‘view from above’ that has nothing to do with the stationary eye of Renaissance perspective nor the omnipresent vision of God but instead with the nonhuman visions in random motion, alongside the view, not of but by the mountains, clouds, rivers and trees. We segue to the ontology debate which have been perhaps most acute among anthropologists. Here William Matthews challenges Descola from the viewpoint of divination; Stephan Feuchtwang looks at geomancy and the patterning, as if written in nature of Chinese gardens. Wang Mingming shows that the anthropology debates were never about ontology as much as about animism and points to a very different idiom of neither ontology nor animism in the earth-centred cosmology of Fei Xiaotong. We look at the possibility of a critical theory in China. Julia Ng, Michele Ty and Peter Fenves explore Walter Benjamin’s anti-ontological critical theory in his encounter with Daoism. And Joyce Liu shows how Jullien’s anti-ontological ‘silent transformations’ can be countered by Zhang Taiyan’s transformed ontology as a critical practice overcoming the passivity of Confucianist naming.

The issue includes short essays on the initial reception of Jullien in France by Paul Ricœur, Jean-François Lyotard, and Alain Badiou.

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