Bernstein, J.M. “Aporia of the Sensible: Art, Objecthood, and Anthropomorphism,” in Interpreting Visual Culture:
Explorations in the Hermeneutics of the Vision
. Ed. Ian Heywood. New York: Routledge, 1998. 218-237.
annotation by Michelle Yacht (Theories of Media, Winter 2004)

APORIA: Origin: Greek a + poros: without place.

1. a figure of speech by which the speaker expresses or purports to be in doubt about a question.

2. An insoluble contradiction or paradox.

The result of Enlightenment anthropomorphic thinking (thinking that projects human meaning onto the material world, figuring the material world as in itself meaningless), Bernstein writes, is that the world becomes understandable only “in the visionless medium of pure mathematics.” That is, since people think in words and numbers, in order to understand the world around us, we project immaterial meaning onto the material world; we replace images with words; philosophy overcomes art.

Bernstein argues that, in our modern, centerless world, art has reached an impasse, an aporia. At one pole, there is conceptual art, where, despite the attempt to fuse image and word, the discourse surrounding art objects threatens to overwhelm the visual/material art objects themselve. At the other pole, there is abstract expressionism, where meaning supposedly lies beyond discourse, “so that finally nothing can be said about them.” Abstract expressionism aims for “presence without assimilability,” meaning without discourse; they seek to safely aestheticize trauma. (220) However, this relies on the capacity of the abstract expressionist work to disturb; once a Pollock painting is seen as beautiful, the trauma gets lost and the work fails to be meaningful. Either way, the attempt to find a happy medium between meaning and material fails.

As a response to this, anti-anthropomorphic art tries to obstruct the viewer from projecting anthropomorphizing it, tries to keep itself independent of the viewer, tries to maintain its “objecthood.” However, this logic means that an art object, to be independent, must be indistinguishable from a mere thing, since what constitutes objecthood is “independence from anthropomorphic conditions of meaning,” i.e., meaninglessness. (227-8)

Bernstein’s argument is pretty pessimistic; the sensual is always in danger of disappearing. In a foot note, he suggests that the next step for art might be a state of mourning (though such a state also seems impossible).