The possibility to conceive and perform aesthetic practices as a specific and autonomous variety of research relies on the development of distinct methods—systemic sets of relationships between particular practices: aesthetic research practices—and, more fundamentally, on a clear definition of the specific intentional relationship between these practices and the object of research. I use the term “intentional” here both in a phenomenological sense—meaning the modalities of subjective actions towards the inquired subject-matter—but also in its colloquial sense of intending or aiming at something. The question to be answered here is this: What is the goal of aesthetic research practices? Or more precisely: What do they intend to achieve in relation to their object, that is, to the researched issue? The answers to this question tend to refer to the concept of “knowledge” and to be formulated as follows: “research practices, whatever kind, aim at knowing—explaining, clarifying, elucidating, describing—the object of research”; “research practices aim at increasing knowledge about their object of research”; or “research practices aim at producing knowledge about their object of research”. These formulations are based on a common structure. They are configured by two entities, the object of research and knowledge, and the relationship of the second to the first is established, explicitly or implicitly by the preposition “about”. Knowledge and the subject-matter to which it refers are two differentiated entities, which implies that they have an objectness nature. Moreover, the relationship between both is established only in one direction, characterized by a specific quality: aboutness. This structure mirrors the etymological composition of the term that commonly defines the field of study related to the issue at stake here: epistemology—“epi-“ over, beyond + “-histasthai” to stand.
In contrast, I postulate that aesthetic practices—in general, also those which are not research practices—relate to the objects they approach not in terms of aboutness but of “withness”. Aesthetic practices—I will elaborate later on this issue regarding my concept of “aesthetic conduct”—establish non-hierarchical relationships between the actions and technologies that configure them and the objects addressed by them. Aesthetic practices enable specific forms of “touch” with their objects. Furthermore, aesthetic research practices do not aim at producing objectness entities—knowledge—that establish an epistemic relationship to the inquired subject-matter. Instead, I posit that these practices tend to transform their objects, firstly, destabilizing their given meaning and/or form, secondly, disclosing new fields for their intelligibility, that is, expanding the cognitive domain of the practitioner in relation to the inquired issue—meaning the field of possible significances of the inquired issue for the practitioner—and thirdly, exposing through specific dispositives the unsettled object for new, now possible stabilizations through other kinds of research practices. Aesthetic research practices intervene in the relationship between practitioner and her subject-matter enabling a transformation of these three entities—the researched issue, the practitioner and the practice—as well as of the environment in which the practice is performed.
On this basis, I consider that the relationship between aesthetic practices and their objects of inquiry cannot be clarified in the conceptual framework of epistemology, that is, by specifying a concept of knowledge, its mode of formalization and the kind of aboutness that relates it to the investigated issue. Instead, I propose to address the posed question—What do aesthetic research practices intend to achieve in relation to their object, that is, to the researched issue?—in the conceptual framework of the embodied and situated cognition and more specifically in the line of thought that, originated by Maturana and Varela, led to the definition of the enactive approach to cognition. A comprehensive description of this conceptual framework would by far exceed the scope of this section. Therefore, I am going to focus exclusively on a basic outline of the concept of cognition formed in this context. According to the enactive approach, the concept of cognition is not limited to designate those epistemic achievements produced by rational capabilities—the so-called cognitive skills. On the contrary, in this framework the concept of cognition is extended to the concept of life. Cognition here is understood as the emergence of selves and environments out of the interaction between bodies—or more precisely, biologically realized autonomous systems—and their surroundings. In other words, cognition is understood in this framework as a continuous process of transformation of bodies into selves—at least in the case of humans, selves (present) for themselves and for other selves—and surroundings into environments— (present) for the emerging selves. Formulated in another way, cognition in this context is the radically relational process of sense-making, or more specifically, of emergence of sense, enabled by the realization of autonomous forms of organization as living beings in structural coupling with the components of their surroundings. Taking now a phenomenological perspective, cognition can be outlined as the emergence of phenomena and phenomenal worlds—that is, significant entities and all-over presences that integrate those entities in a significant way— (present) for those subjects that co-constitute them and simultaneously co-emerge as phenomena for themselves. This concept of cognition implies a radical specification of embodiment, situatedness and the fundamental intertwinement of both processes. Cognition comes to be through the interactions between bodies—or better, the processes of becoming the very interacting bodies—and their situation—or better, the processes that transform the surroundings of these bodies in the environments for these bodies. More radically: cognition is interaction between bodies and their situation—cognition is situated embodiment. Cognition, thus, is action: transformative interaction.
On this basis, I aim at defining aesthetic cognition as a specification, that is, as a particular variety of embodied and situated cognition. Departing from the idea that cognition is interaction, this endeavor implies to define a specific variety of interaction. I denominate it as “aesthetic conduct”, referring to the etymological composition of the word “conduct”—“- duct,” from ducere”, to lead + “con-“, with. A body—a self, a subject—is able to interact aesthetically by adopting a specific disposition of its skills. This disposition is characterized on the one hand, by the intensification of sensorimotor and emotional actions and on the other hand, by the neutralization of target-oriented and will-based forms of acting. By doing so, the body privileges its most fundamental relational skills which allow a spontaneous development of the structural coupling between body—as body—and its surroundings. Acting in this way, the body takes a position of body-between-bodies, which leads to a de-hierarchization among the agents involved in the process of (aesthetic) cognition. Consequently, this kind of interaction—aesthetic cognition—develops in a field of shared and distributed agencies, which means that no agent involved—also not the aesthetically acting body—leads nor controls the process. Instead, the aesthetically acting body develops an extensive form of receptivity that allows it to become aware of the transformative processes in course. The aesthetically interacting body fundamentally becomes a highly sensitive “listener” to what it is “in touch with”.
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