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Art as a Catalyst of Spiritual Experience


For many epochs the destiny of the human spirit and its works were taken for granted. In our time, when the existence of the human spirit itself is under question its destiny demands some special consideration.

The present notes are not a survey of any past or present theories discussing the relationship between the spirit and art. I shall only indicate the problems encountered by the semiotic approach when it attempts to comprehend the relation between works of art and the life of the human spirit. I shall then try to outline an alternative way of apprehending this connection. Though I advance here some new considerations - new at least for myself - I acknowledge, however, my debt to the thinking and terminology of the Russian philosophers Alexander Pjatigorski and Merab Mamardashvili. The present notes are no more than the modest result of my long meditations on their writings, especially on their joint work Symbol and Consciousness.


2.0. By a semiotic approach I understand an approach to the text which is concentrated on its sign nature and tries to explain or interpret it as a phenomenon of language. There exist, in fact, a great number of semiotic approaches. For methodological purposes they can be grouped into three general approaches according to their definition of the text and the character of its connection with meaning.

2.1. The first approach can be called "immanentism". The text is considered as an autonomous and complex, highly organized integrity /Lotman/, as a quasi-special configuration created by formal relations between the elements of different orders and its levels. The formal (i.e. structure) is that which generates meaning. The relations and hierarchy of elements and levels are thought of as immanent, that is real and existing before and independently of any analytical procedure. The audience or analyst can only reveal that which is contained in the text. Such an approach has been presented most clearly by classical structuralism.

Not only discrete texts but also the process by which they arise and function can be described as immanent (cf., for instance, the Russian Formalists' idea of the autonomy of literature; also the conception of the ideal, or immanent reader).

2.2 The second approach can be called "intertextualism". Attention is transferred to the relationship between texts. The notion of the "text" itself is universalizing: it is claimed more or less categorically that the whole world is a text and that language is "an universal medium of human experience" (Gadamer).

The elements constituting a particular text are thought of as borrowed from and referring to other texts. It is not immanent structure but Reference and Quotation that become the main subject of interest and the generators of a text's meaning. Analysis is directed not to the relations between elements within the text but to the relations between elements and their constellations within a "semiotic universum" containing in itself all real and potential texts.

Such a pan-semiotism, however, alongside the re-ontologization of language, inevitably fails to deal with the problem of non-sign reality. As Gadamer put it:

semantics and hermeneutics have abandoned their efforts to exceed the bounds of language as a primary form of the giveness of every spiritual experience.
The logical consequence of this is the development of the conception of the non-referential sign, i.e. a sign which refers only to other signs.

Moreover, intertextual analysis erodes the boundaries of the particular text and dissolves it in a limitless "intertextuality". This total openness of the text implies its semantic voidness. This void may be arbitrarily filled by the reader using various interpretative codes, i.e. those texts through which he reads the text. If the criteria of verification are thus dismantled, as in deconstructive thought, a crisis of truth occurs. In the loss of orientation which results from this crisis, the world-text seems to lose sense and meaning.

2.3. The third approach concerns the investigation of semiosis, i.e. the problem of arising sign structures from certain non-sign or pre-sign reality. This reality has usually been identified with nature (as opposed to culture) and designated as "life", "instinct", "psyche", "desire" etc.

From Bakhtin on, cultural acts have been conceived in terms of a ceaseless interaction, a struggle or dialogue between a culture and its own otherness. Attention has shifted to the frontiers of the field of culture, and this problematization of the boundary has characterised approaches such as psychoanalysis.

The crucial problem of this approach is the continual slippage of the non-sign which, caught up in an analytical frame, loses its identity by virtue of signification. Thus the analyst finds himself dealing with secondary, converted and culturally given forms instead of with "natural phenomena".

(As a matter of fact, the treatment of the (un)conscious as a natural phenomenon entails its objective interpretation. This means that in trying to observe the (un)conscious, we observe only its objectifications).


The problem of conscious, or spiritual experience must be posed as the problem of consciousness realized by the subject in terms of personal value, being at the same time essentially non-personal and neutral with regard to value.

Conscious experience can neither be described in terms of cognition, i.e. receiving information, nor in terms of knowledge of substantional structures. Both cognition and knowledge relate to, or have place in, the sphere of signs, while conscious life unfolds itself as understanding not of language, but of some non- or trans-linguistic content.

Hence, the important consequence that consciousness in itself cannot be described as a language, and, on the other hand, that it is impossible to comprehend consciousness (as well as spiritual experience) through textual investigation.

This also means that the experience of consciousness cannot be communicated but must continually arise anew. Thus conscious experience is a result of auto-communication, or of the interpretation by consciousness of the individual psyche as itself.

What then is the role of the text? The text serves as an occasion for, or catalyst of this process of the self-objectification of consciousness (being, therefore, neither actual "source", nor "content" of the process). The conscious content of the text is an act, or occurrence, in the individual stream of consciousness, reading this text as a text of consciousness.

(A note in parenthesis: "to be an occurrence" can only be that which one experiences as a value, of either positive or negative quality. The "occurrence", therefore, is the opposite of the "fact", and unlike the latter is always symbolic).

Bakhtin writes:

To see and understand the author of the work means to see and understand a different, other consciousness and its world, i.e. the other subject ("Du").
When he sees the specifics of understanding within the presence of a dialogical moment, he misses the fact that the possibility of dialogue between two consciousnesses is thinkable only if there is a place where they meet not equivalent to either of them and that this is a structure of consciousness itself.

The structures of consciousness can be considered as non-empirical and non-personal facts or states of being, or as the meaningful and stable disposition of consciousness in relation to itself. These structures are discrete in space and indiscrete in time. The fact of conscious experience occurs when my (or one's) individual continuum of conscious states crosses (or enters) the locus where this fact is.

From this viewpoint, dialogue, be it with contemporary, predecessor or posterity, is based on the ontological possibility of coincidence with the interlocutor in the same structure of consciousness, and, regarded from the viewpoint of the sphere of consciousness, appears as an observation by consciousness of itself. In this sense every understanding is a process of cognition, or recognition, of oneself (not, of course, as an empirical subject).

The special things which act as mediators for such a recognition are symbols. Symbols, unlike signs, are not a designation of any objects or substantial structures of knowledge. They are direct or indirect designations of consciousness (or premises of its possibility). Unlike signs they are not subject to cognition, but may only be understood (or not understood). They serve not as means of transporting "information" but as an instrument of self- knowledge.

In a symbolical situation some things develop a special meaning for the subject, relating to his own mental states. This meaning is generated by these mental states themselves (of which the subject is, of course, under normal conditions unaware). The mentality of the subject responding to symbols is realized by him in its thingness (i.e. as "not-I").

The symbolical reading of a text is, therefore, a reading of the text as a description of our own mental states, or states which could be ours under certain conditions.

Such a reading is, of course, opposed to the semiotical interpretation of the text which translates the symbols of consciousness into the signs of culture. Consciousness which is reduced to signs appears as an ideology (i.e. knowledge of things and of its order). The understanding of culture as a realm of only-signs tends towards anti-consciousness and acts as a hindrance to spiritual growth, i.e. the conscious life of the individual.


The science of texts (including artistic texts) can relate to its object in two ways. Firstly, by regarding the text as sign-structures and seeing its own purpose as the interpretation of their linguistic meanings and connotations. In this case, it functions as ideology itself, which only legitimates that which already is (in the sense of consciousness) in texts and does not lead to any new conscious experience. (It might be even said that semiotics acts as a mechanism of the alienation of language from consciousness or, which is almost the same, of the individual subject from the world, including himself).

In the second case, the target of the science of texts is to show texts as an unfolding of primary symbols into "sign structures" and, also, to investigate the condition of its understanding (or misunderstanding) or introduction of the conscious contents into the individual stream of consciousness.

February 1993

© Евгений Горный / Eugene Gorny, 1993-2020.
© Сетевая Словесность, 2007-2020.


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