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Gestalt and Concept (Excerpts)

Translated and introduced by Charles W. Haxthausen

This text is a fragment of a larger manuscript that was never published and probably never nished. The ideas expressed in it are close enough to those in Carl Einsteins Georges Braque (1934) to suggest that it dates from around the same time. In several unpublished letters dating from 193031 to Ewald Wasmuth, Einstein wrote of his plan to publish his aesthetics, which he described as a collection of essays; it seems probable that Gestalt and Concept was part of this unnished project.1 Even as a fragment, it remains one of Einsteins most importantand brillianttheoretical texts. The German word Gestalt has been left in the original because no common English translation of it seemed entirely satisfactory given its somewhat idiosyncratic meaning for Einstein. It is not synonymous with form, structure, or gure; as Einstein writes in a passage of the essay not excerpted here, form, in contrast to the amorphous, dynamic richness of gestalt, means delimitation, impoverishment, exclusion of the Real. Gestalt denotes the opposite of these attributes; it signies the raw, unmediated subjective experience of inner and outer phenomena prior to any articulation in form or concept; it signies process as opposed to xity, thinking as opposed to knowing. And here art is identied not with form but with gestalt, with the concrete, the visionary; it is opposed to conceptualization and cognition. It strives to contest deadly generalizations and the rationalisitic impoverishment of the world, to sever the chains of causality, to unravel the web of signications. And it achieves this through the proliferation of gestalt, such that the deadly, ever more pervasive order is combated and destroyed by an intensied disorder, i.e., by a continually renewed gestalt formation.
1. The German text is printed under the title Diese Aesthetiker veranlassen uns in Carl Einstein, Werke Band 4: Aus dem Nachla I, ed. Hermann Haarmann and Klaus Siebenhaar (Berlin: Fannei & Walz, 1992), pp. 194221. It is not clear why the editors do not use the title Gestalt und Begriff, which can be found on a separate page included with the manuscript preserved in the Carl-EinsteinArchiv of the Akademie der Knste Berlin. OCTOBER 107, Winter 2004, pp. 16976. 2004 October Magazine, Ltd. and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Gestalt and Concept 2004 Fannei & Walz Verlag, Berlin.



Even as Einstein afrmed the quintessentially utopian nature of art, his faith seems to have been wavering. Writing to Wasmuth in 1931, he conded: The art book that I still have to do [Georges Braque ] will be my last. I have had enough of it, it makes me puke. Enough of theories, too. We have been pasted over with this wallpaper long enough. Either something completely different will come my way or Herr Einstein isnt writing any more. Einstein ceased publishing on art after the appearance of his Braque book. Yet he did write again. He undertook an unsparing critique of the avant-gardeand of his own former attitudes and cherished beliefsin his last major nished manuscript, the 480-page The Fabrication of Fictions, which remained unpublished at his death. In its opening pages he offered his verdict on modernism: Artists will never make major history, he wrote. In former times art served modestly to solidify conventions and to defend important shared values and human standards. Todays modernism will fade away, because it lacks norms and social commitment. This art will perish in autistic over-sophistication and playful isolation.2 * These aestheticians induce us to consider the problem of the opposition between concept and gestalt, between the rationalization of the world and its defamiliarization. Man defends himself against overwhelming impressions and experiences, against surging forces, by rationalizing and conceptualizing them. That is to say, he effects a diminishing reduction of the Real in its complexity. He fears the tremendous power of experiences that force him into the zone of passivity; he is especially fearful of hallucinatory processes that condemn him to a role of suffering endurance. And so he proceeds to diminish the impact of the coercive forces of the world, namely of the Real, through conceptual impoverishment. Every act of conceptualization is designed to assimilate and master concrete experience. Thus conceptualization involves a principle that depletes gestalt. This is how one attempts to create an economy of forces; one erects barriers against the stream of concrete events; the dynamism of the whole becomes segmented. This is the crucial point: the world of concrete events unfolds beyond the limits of cognition, which is at bottom a movement that seeks distance from what is immediately concrete. One overestimates this small rational segment of reality, the reasonable, for the sake of self-preservation, all the more because man is threatened by another annihilation from within: self-destruction through identication with the concrete gestalt event, through metamorphotic dissolution. Conceptualization means to fend off what is deadly and vital, the immense coercive power of the world. Cognition is an attempt to abandon the self-identical
2. Carl Einstein, Die Fabrikation der Fiktionen, ed. Sibylle Penkert (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1973), p. 14.

Gestalt and Concept


center of the world in order to assume a safe peripheral position by splitting up the coercive forces of the world into a subjective and an objective realm. One achieves such a position by denying the interwoven character of the workings of the world; instead one strives for discrete spheres and segments. The distinction between an inner and an outer world is only a matter of perspective, an issue of power, as is the belief in a discrete, self-contained human form and in static objects. We can also see this method of repression at work in the construction of causal sequences; one rationalizes out of fear, i.e., one diminishes. Now conscious man lives on the edge of the world, while around him lurk powers, hostile or indifferent, which he seeks to entangle ever more deeply into his web of concepts. To combat these active masses, he carves out typologies, he strives at any price to minimize and weaken his complex connections to the world. He wishes to control the overpowering mass of events that are alien to him. To identify with them would mean his certain destruction. We regard cognition primarily as a negative tendency, as a struggle against the concrete world and the increase in gestalt. One neutralizes the forces of individual gestalts, those embodied demonic animisms, by generalizing them. Spirits, gods, and cosmic powers degenerate into mere ideas or elements, mythic processes dim into rational metaphysical operations. Here we perceive a negative phase of resistance against the world. Through concepts man deadens powers that were once dominant or at least equal to him. He splits apart the complex Real into an inner and an outer reality, into subjective and objective spheres. (To be sure, ideas or concepts inherit the tremendous powers of the gods, for humankind always overestimates the results of its latest effort; instinctively it attempts to secure its most recent, yet feeble acquisition, e.g., the conscious ego, by overvaluing concepts.) In this way, the power of the functional is carved up and the falsication that underlies all philosophy is accomplished. The concrete gestalt is degraded and devalued to the status of a subservient material, while functional values are displaced into the point that is called subject. Thus the Real is diminished even as the protective operations of logic are overvalued. For this reason, we view logic as a means of destroying reality, and the mathematical calculability of a process entails its drastic diminution and the negation of its function. By reducing phenomena to types based on laws one domesticates them. Thus impoverished, deprived of all possibility of chance or disorder, they are disarmed. And yet as such they are especially valued because what comfort!they permit apparent repetitions. (A complete contrast to this is the process of metamorphotic identication, i.e., here the concrete experience [Erlebnis] is preserved and the subject dissolves into a dynamic, complex fusion. Generalization, on the other hand, serves the defense of the conscious ego.) In the isolation of the subject, of the conscious and rational ego as opposed to the complex animist person, we grasp a biologically important event: the birth of the anthropocentric attitude. Every experience should be considered a shocka shock that is arrested by converting it into a concept or by diverting and displacing it metaphorically. One



could speak here of an uncanny process of shadow formation. Compared to the Real, the world now fades into mere appearance; the concrete, the gestalt, decays in the concept to become a form of deception, and the concrete, hallucinatory person, measured against the rational ego, becomes contorted into a liar and producer of all that is arbitrary. Now one shrinks the crucial zone of visionary experience and decreases the metamorphotic danger by explaining away what is concrete and functional in experience. One attempts to displace the entire mass of activity into the conscious ego. Up to now these conceptual xities have been considered a vitally positive force, whereas we regard them absolutely as a sign of death and a reduction of the functional. We consider these concepts, which weaken all that is concrete and dynamic, to be of inferior biological value. Now, with the overemphasis on the conscious ego and on concepts destructive of gestalt, a static image of the world emerges. Events are paralyzed by reason and deadly systems are constructed. Now it is ideas that are feared, yet in these ideas the concrete experience grows old and atrophies. . . . Once the cement binding human beings to their environmentnamely, Godhad crumbled, the chasm between psychological processes and their causal explanation deepened and became the fundamental problem. God had functioned as a mean, reconciling paradoxes and antinomies. Absorbed and neutralized in God, they were thus removed from the immediate world. In earlier times, cognition, logic, and dialectics were subject to the irrational dominant that was God. The incongruous and the miraculous were considered to be the origin and the ground of being; the hallucinatory, mythic origin of cognition was clearly apparent and retained its power. In this regard, medieval thought was far more complex than modern thought, since it encompassed logics irrational opposite. Hence, thanks to its elementary antagonisms, the cognitive process was dialectically more complex, especially since it incorporated the alogical within itself. Today, however, we are ruled by a prejudicial belief in continuity and in the qualitative unity and unambiguousness of knowledge. We forgot that both continuity and causality represent only a reaction through which we acquire a comfortable selection of repeatable facts. In our view, laws are the narrowest segments and the most monstrous exceptions, for cognition is an escape from the concrete, an elimination of gestalt events, which are supplanted by logical operations. With every act of cognition or of judgment one distances oneself from the concrete event. The very predicate of a judgment introduces a word that actually belongs to other groups of events and hence functions as a transition to them. Accordingly, every act of judgment means an alteration of its object and a depletion of gestalt. Generalizations and syllogisms will always neutralize or structurally change the objects of experience. Every syllogism entails a homogenization of different conditions by virtue of eliminating undesirable properties, and here we can see that the act of knowing represents an attempt to falsify dynamic fragments by deconcretizing them into wholes, so that the conditional nature of cognition is concealed. One covers over the origin, the provisionally

Gestalt and Concept


dynamic, to mitigate the plunge toward death. And yet it is thanks to this depletion of gestalt that one gains an ostensible continuity; it is this effort that is expressed in the sign for innity, which is a desperate attempt at ultimate mastery of the world. We point out the gestalt-depleting deadliness of knowledge, and the murderousness of philosophical categories, which culminate either in the Absolute or in the void of the mystic. Philosophy can be dened essentially as a technique for conjuring away the Real, as the reduction to nil of what is functionally concrete, in which subject and object, virtually stripped of qualities, wither away. The manifold applicability of concepts is founded precisely on their gestalt-less emptiness. . . . This tendency toward conceptual standardization demonstrates the fundamental opposition between cognition and gestalt. Every instance of meaning carries with it a fundamental limitation of process and a coercive reduction of the psychological. It is here that we perceive the negative effect of any act of cognition, and we see that the cognitively constructed reality contains but a minimum of the Real. This reveals the negative emphasis of cognitions biological value; it is based on the principle of gestalt destruction. Continuity means standardization of all processes, which is achieved by eliminating the conicting, irrational, irritatingi.e., irreconcilablelayers and tendencies. In this way, one suppresses the genetics of the ostensibly static conguration as well as the intuitive processes that, at any given point, can break through or tear apart any rational system, since they cannot be incorporated within it. To conceptualize means to standardize at the cost of the immediate and concrete; in the act of knowing we perceive a hostile manifestation of the weak and threatened human being. The chance for freedom is not to be found in cognition; rather it lies precisely in freeing ourselves from unequivocal causality and from the narrow constraints of continuity, which spontaneous hallucination disrupts. Every continuum, including that of causality, represents a simplication and reduction of process, which by its nature is immensely paradoxical and pluralistic. All vitality originates from the chaotic tension of concrete shocks. From this standpoint we regard causality as something provisional, as a diminution of life; it is at once an aspect and a process of death. This is a fundamental fact: cognition is directed against thinking, and is its deadly nal phase. Just like the xed subject and object, cognition is the terminal stage of function. Perhaps we can view this ossication as a sign of a dying planet, as one element of a more general process of dying. In that light, knowledge, like everything xed, including images, would be a symptom of the nal stage of planetary death, such that the vital forces of the earth are gradually overgrown by its propensity to death. It is not events that unfold causally; rather, it is only our belated acquisitions of knowledge and its fragments that seem to us to be causally structured. In the act of knowing, one resists metamorphotic identication with the gestalt, one ees the vortex of process to assume a tangential position in which the most



recurrent shocks provide accents. Thus fear of concepts may present itself as fear of the most frequent shocks; but then the veneration and overestimation of concepts may stem from a secret fear, since the concept destroys the concrete person and diminishes and deconcretizes the spectrum of his experiences. In the concept, the human subject dies, just as by means of the concept he destroys his reality. All causally based knowledge has validity only within the limits of the hypothesis on which it is based. That dispenses with the idea of universally valid laws. Perhaps one overestimates causality because of its origin in magic and above all because it represents a projection of human desires. But that cannot possibly serve as an argument for its epistemological value. The causal chain of events belongs to the category of merely illusory dynamisms, for in the causal chain, cause and effect are simultaneously imagined, and the effect is less a consequence than a correlate of the cause. . . . In order simply to live and not succumb wholly to the negative and impoverishing processes of logic, man must hurl himself again and again into logically senseless and irrational processes, so that all meaningful unity is unceasingly destroyed. An opposing current is thus formed against the tendency to experience the world as a continuum, for one is driven to singularize, dissolve, and estrange the world into abrupt discontinuities. This occurs through the constant scattering of not yet logically determined visions into a well-adjusted and rationalized world. And in this way the reasonable world, from which elementary psychological processes are excluded, is annihilated; its continuity and its unity are ended. Again and again dialectical chaos ows anew when, periodically, the oods of irrationality break through the dams of logic. For this reason art now assumes a decidedly greater importance, for what matters now is concrete experience, by which one repels deadly xities and generalities. Reality draws from visionary experience, i.e., out of nothing, the mythic increase in gestalt, without which it would die. Now one disrupts the mechanical continuity of causality and an event unfolds that the religious would call a miracle. Yet even without this step the futility of logic becomes apparent, since the struggle of different solutions reveals logics utter meaninglessness. The very existence of dialectics demonstrates that there is nothing denitive or binding about logic, especially since an excess of constricting meanings was and is unbearable to us. Thus a power would have to be ascribed to art that, to be sure, moves it outside of the schematic classical aesthetics of order. By means of art, one attempts to contest deadly generalizations and the rationalistic impoverishment of the world, to sever the chains of causality, to unravel the web of signications. This occurs through the proliferation of gestalt, such that the deadly, ever-more pervasive order is combated and destroyed by an intensied disorder, i.e., by a continually renewed gestalt formation. We will now briey attempt to determine how the achievements of art differ from those of cognition.

Gestalt and Concept


In the late antique aesthetic of Plato and Plotinus, works of art, which they held in contempt, had validity only insofar as they partook of the Idea. This means that the gestalt possessed no value in itself; rather, its criterion lay outside of it and works of art were considered diminutions of the Idea. Aristotle in turn made art completely dependent on the rationally real. The art work is an imitation, or perhaps just the imitation of an imitation; therefore everything spontaneous or mythic is excluded. For the imitation of a myth would be extremely unmythic and thoroughly rational. In every case congruence is being sought, whether it is with the Idea or with the Real. This belief in a complete identity of the human being with the rationalized Real dominates the aesthetics of the Renaissance and of classicism; in this way one hoped to prove the legitimacy of a single binding doctrine of art and of the unity of its tradition. This position in turn led to the conservative attitude that reason, law, and order offered the only chance of human freedom. Consequently, the classical aesthetic excluded the spontaneous and concrete layers of experience, and invention declined to the status of an arrangement or a defect. But what if man was not congruent with the rationally Real? And what if this alogical incongruence regained its primary power and the gestalt became an expression of the difference between human beings and their rationalized environment, just as in former times such incongruence had found form in myth? The art work, in other words, is no longer an attempt at adaptation, but grows from a counterimpulse, a refusal to accept the world as given. And in this way art is directed against the identication with given objects and conventional experiences. Now it is no longer governed by tradition but by metamorphotic revolt. Every object represents merely a comforting normalization of experiences, an accord, a parti pris. What is needed now is not repetition of tired tautologies, but the extension of the repertory of concrete gestalts to form new visionary objects. Yet, with that, artistic activity is rescued from passivity and its optimistically servile attitude is shattered to pieces. Art becomes a human means for shaping and altering reality, i.e., it is now guided by active factors. With this we mark an important moral change of position. Now the meaning of art no longer rests on its partaking of the idea of continuity, of the Logos, and even less in the imitative Aristotelian tautology; rather the meaning of artistic creation now lies in the possibility of its shattering the suggestion of the given and the causal standardization of the world. And herein lies the slight chance for our freedom. Now the coercive power of inherited or given experience is offset and dissolved by visions of what is to come. What is factual and concrete in reality is no longer overestimated and not only external facts are valued. Vision and image now count as valid concrete realities and art thereby regains its former power of hallucinatory clairvoyance or magic. . . . We remarked that the viability and effect of the individual gestalt in the art work are grounded in hypnotic xation, in trauma. The art work grows from a



hallucinatory compulsion, and consequently something fatally real is created that opposes rationalized being, which is characterized by mediated reactions that as such permit choice. At rst one will reject this out of fear of regression, of losing the rationality of choice. By contrast the rational worldview offers, despite its limits, an apparent possibility of choice; thus cognition would be an enfeebling process of differentiation of the psychological functions, from which the idealistic arbitrariness of interpretation then grows. Such a worldview corresponds fully to liberal individualism and its construction of personal facades. The rational operates precisely on the periphery of the primary psychological layers, while the compulsiveness of visions belongs to an archaic layer, which in opposition to all rationalization breaks through repeatedly. We described this process as the periodicity of regressions. (This periodicity is unquestionably demonstrable, for example in art: the archaic regression in the Greek art of the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E., the regression in Saitic and later in Coptic art, the Byzantine regression, the regression in French art; see Nicolas Poussin and Jean-AugusteDominique Ingres, for example.) Here we glimpse in the gestalt a means of resistance against standardization; by means of images, rational unities are shattered. In opposition to the need for unity we can discern a compensatory drive for changes of gestalt, a need for discontinuities. If one no longer believes in a rational psychology of abstractions that works with forces devoid of abstraction, then one gains the functional gestalt as the primary psychological sign. The Freudian complexes, then, represent only heuristic typologies and crude generalizations, in which one stabilizes the experience of the individual gestalt and thereby interpolates again more or less abstract pseudofunctions, through which the psychological is excessively stabilized. The complexes are already psychological conventions that one varies within an experience; they are therefore absolutely not primarily spontaneous domains of experience. The repetition of form or the xation of the experience of a gestalt into a stylistic group is often shaped by extra-artistic factors, namely through magical rites and beliefs, to the extent that art is not merely a playing eld for apes who exercise with stolen muscles; in which case art now degenerates into idiotic reproduction. One succumbs to the biological spell of repetition. But if art should succeed in effecting a proliferation of gestalt, then it must spring from the hallucinatory, the alogical, or the void of the rationalist; art is therefore quintessentially utopian, as soon as its task becomes the transformation of the Real.