Hans Rainer Sepp’s book begins with the cultural crisis that spread with the age of industrialization and the evolvement of new analytic and mimetic tools that sparked a generation of Modernists, after 1900, who would explore the limits of the real. Quite alien and almost opposing to the high beliefs we have in contemporary sciences, their skepticism towards the means of technology—and those of humans—is striking, yet it is this caesura in the psychology of perception that would particularly seed phenomenology’s pursuit of an embodied perception (Philosophie der Leiblichkeit). Sepp’s introducing example and cover picture for the book of August Strindberg’s Celestographs (1893-94) synthesizes therefore not only the birth of the discipline to which advance it contributes. It also outlines the genuine outset of his philosophy of imaginary things (Philosophie der Imaginären Dinge): It is a discussion of the real as factual blur between objectivity and subjectivity. According to the Swedish playwright Strindberg (1849-1912), who trusted neither the senses, nor technological instruments to display the true nature of things, the only way to truth was to omit the instruments and organs that were so prone of warping and distorting the real. He therefore set out to capture the starlight directly on the carrier medium of photographic plates. The immediacy of his technique and the process of chemical developing produced a rather diffused reflection of the night sky. Contributing less to science, Strindberg’s Celestographs (1893-94) can be regarded as an important step in the history of abstract art and, in terms of Hans Rainer Sepp, show the need for non-signifying articulation that would represent a symbiosis of body, device and the image they produce. In between objectivity and subjectivity, its medium occurs at the borders of perception, respectively the imaginary. In the further course, the book unfolds from an analysis of imaginary things (imaginäre Dinge), to a philosophy of embodied cultural forms and epistemology.
Hans Rainer Sepp’s hypothesis of an external medium in the in-between of perception directs a critique towards mere introspection in phenomenology that even lead to an agenda of rather self-entangled discourses in twentieth century philosophy. For this reason, he hypothesizes a phenomenological pursuit that takes place in the space midst the body, its means and the event of engagement. Sepp conceptualizes this space in a three folded spanning from the body of limits (Grenzleib), over the body of direction (Richtungsleib) to the body of sense (Sinnleib). This segmentation of embodied perception enables an analysis of artworks that goes beyond conventional categorizations of cultural and artistic expression—respectively meaning—, genre or style, and treat examples from early human and ancient magical and ritualistic sites (the Paleolithic Chauvet Cave or Mesoamerican city Teotihuacan 1000 AD), as well as literary formats (Franz Kafka’s Beschreibung eines Kampfes, 1912) over film (Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange, 1971) to surrealist painting (Yves Tanguy’s Le Palais aux rochers de fenêtres, 1942) and even anatomical studies (Gunther von Hagen’s Körperwelten, 1996) under equal review. This displays a truly heterogenic selection that seems rather behoove of the author’s subjective preferences, than contributing to a canon. But particularly this objection directs attention to examples outside usual curatorial guidelines (i.e. Mark Morrisroe’s Ramsey, Lake Oswego 1986 and CHEUNG Chan-Fai’s The Photographer. In Kyoto, 2006; Kelly Richardson’s Marnier 9, 2012; Dorothy Napangardi’s Salt on Mina Mina, 2012) or the comparative analysis of artworks, and it reflects newer disciplines such as performance art, collage, experimental photography, digital animation from a poly-ethnic heritage—on the whole, a very stimulating compilation.
The book “Philosophie der Imaginären Dinge” (Philosophy of Imaginary Things) appears as both phenomenological study and cultural analysis, yet Hans Rainer Sepp has no curatorial or art historical agenda. The hybridity of the book is owed to its composition of twenty chapters, each as autonomous essays that have been written over the course of 17 years. According to the author, each chapter is laid out as “experimental” case study, which he understands in a very literal sense of ex-periri: As an intellectual venture with no escape exit that, instead of being backed up beforehand by a well-trodden path of established theories, would scout to find multiple paths to engage and challenge theory itself.[i] This leaves the reader with a sense of indecisiveness, as it appears that the essays bundled in this book, must have been supplemented only in hindsight with a phenomenological framework. But this, due to the complexity of its articulation, is rather unlikely. To term it an “experiment” is therefore unfortunate and misguiding, as it almost tries to hide Hans Rainer Sepp’s adept phenomenological practice, which proves to be highly ingrained in the elaborate discussions of the artworks.
Two kinds of readers will be attracted by this book: Those phenomenologists committed to Husserl’s legacy of questioning the object, its medium and the meaning of embodiment—as well as with a pursuit to extend it—, and readers from the arts appealed by Hans Rainer Sepp’s detailed analysis beyond the arbitrary and often hollow rhetoric used in so many art reviews. In terms of aesthetics and the meaning of art, he aims to excavate more than meets the eye by conceptualizing the “imaginary thing” as something that brings to light what ontology fails. It is an attempt to unravel the “philosophical” sedimented in art’s medium as a space in between subject, object and context. The author provides us with several enlightening insights to human existence and disguised artistic or aesthetic intents. Besides giving an understanding to historical contexts and accounts, Sepp speculates the epistemological value of form and expression within the realm of his methodology. However, readers of the second kind are likely to feel discomfort with several specifically phenomenological terms and their distinct conception.
The appreciative reader acquainted with phenomenological treatises will likely find Hans Rainer Sepp’s attempt to a philosophy of imaginary things, even to go as far as suggesting a meta-philosophy from the meontic, as he states at the end of the book,[ii] as quite adventurous. What he tries to articulate is indeed bold, and his theoretical and formal methodology in leaving a secured path and abandoning the blueprint of a discursive structure leads to a meandering of concepts, hypothesis and—sometimes surprising—conclusions. However “experimental” in the execution of his philosophical method, Hans Rainer Sepp has a concrete conception of imaginary things, which runs through the text consistently. He drafts the definition of imaginary things from the idea of the consistent and perceptible thing, yet the imaginary would exhibit a complexity of several components that concentrate within a context, but simultaneously direct to a whole inventory of senses outside the thing itself.[iii] Sepp refers his ideas behind this rather obscuring definition to Heidegger’s famous example of the qualities in a hammer and elaborates it further. The wooden handle and the iron piece signify the hammer’s purpose for hammering, yet its components, as well, direct to further intended purposes or potentials, which the action of hammering is actually subordinate to: For example, making a birdhouse. A text, too, in the author’s sense, is an imaginary thing. It is made of sentences that are traced as lines on a piece of paper, but also project the intention of articulating and mediating information to others. The text’s elements have meanings (languages) or even values (numbers and currency). As art form, the text will evoke a sense of virtuality. On the other hand, a tree or other living form refers, in first sense, to nothing but itself. It is only in the form of a poem or other artificial articulation such things would receive any sense beyond their meaning as thing.[iv] Having rendered this roughly, the core problem of Hans Rainer Sepp’s philosophy reveals itself: Everything, in this sense, can at one point become an imaginary thing. Yet, he is interested in the truly meontic—neither ontic nor ontological—and diffused sense of imaginary things. They should produce an independent fiction from sensation. From this diffusion, the process of meaning is only induced by the formation of a space that is tied both to the subject and object’s corporeality. These kinds of imaginary things are embodied by artworks. Lending from the words of the author, those imaginary things with most potential for an autonomous sense, beyond mere significance of the object, are of highest interest in his genuine quest to excavate the “philosophical” (das Philosophische) from the imaginary.[v] What does this mean? Whatever is in the intermediate space of the imaginary contains an intellectual context that reflects and informs reality.[vi] The density of this reflexive mesh reveals namable and discursive aspects of the object. Sepp terms the process of excavating the philosophical as “con-creative”, as it involves both sides: the object and its analysis, respectively the analyzer, whereby Sepp emphasizes that this process should not be one of private concerns. The reciprocal and intermediate process of object and percipient reminds strongly of theories of perception and the attempt to integrate cultural forms in a semantic theory articulated by symbol theory in twentieth century philosophy. Also informed by Hegelian descent, Ernst Cassirer, for example, proposed a rather analytic conceptualization leading to a philosophy of art, which he unfortunately could not complete.[vii] Here the building up of sense data would supply the body with receptacles for meaning—capturing impressions in spatial substrata from where pre-rationative intellect and subsequently meaning would emerge. Yet, meaning making—and this is where Hans Rainer Sepp distinguishes his methodology from a genuinely hermeneutical approach—is not the purpose.[viii] He seeks the purely bodily and not yet articulated as that realm beyond being, but not non-existent. In this sense, the blurred and uneven monochrome in Strindberg’s Celestographs (1893-94) embodies this possible realm of meontic articulation.
Hans Rainer Sepp’s philosophy of imaginary things is particular, for it seeks to bring to light—or let speak—that, which is not there, but exists. Even at the bottom of our flesh. In order to carve out its shape, the author proposes a triadic conception of bodily functions from which the imaginary whole emerges: The first instance is the body of limits (Grenzleib), which Sepp describes as basic entity limiting the inside from the outside: The real of corporeality is composed of the body’s organs and its factual materiality in acting out movement until it reaches an impermeable.[ix] The second is defined in the body of direction (Richtungsleib), which is determined by the limits of the impassable. Only in the experience of bodily limits emerge spatial conceptions: Perspective, orientation, positioning. This threefold localization of the body provides a sense for movement and stasis and a sense of being embedded or disconnect.[x] Thirdly, the body of sense (Sinnleib) is conceptualized as intersection of limit and direction, in which the making of sense comes into play. This body of non-ontological meaning emerges from its limitations and given or received direction, and will only be sensible when it either experiences a disruption in its expansion process or crisis—as being thrown back on itself. In this instance, force can play a particular role to construct and manipulate sense, even defend the space and direction of bodily expansion. Hans Rainer Sepp sincerely suggests the contrary, and this presents a surprising turnaround from his continental tradition in phenomenology to Far Eastern and Buddhist philosophy, respectively a genuine intension to withhold from assent in a practical implementation of Epoché.[xi]
Hans Rainer Sepp spans his philosophy of imaginary things from these three dimensions to an openly framed and embodied epistemology of art, and reveals a deep understanding of the humanly need to localize, force and relate the self, embed and orient in social coordinates, and contemplate ahead of the ontological. He unfolds the most intricate process of correlation in the functions of bodies outside the body.
[i] Cf. PID, p. 23.
[ii] Cf. PID, p. 447.
[iii] Original text: „Was aber genau sind imaginäre Dinge? Wenn Dinge sinnlich wahrnehmbar, in sich einheitliche Gebilde sind und als solche etwas Körperhaftes haben, so kann man unter imaginären Dingen allgemein solche Gebilde verstehen, die eine Komplexität aufweisen, d.h. aus mehreren Bestandteilen bestehen, und in denen sich ein Zusammenhang von Sinn konzentriert, der auf andere Sinnbestände, die außerhalb von ihm liegen, verweist.“ PID, p. 17.
[iv] Cf. PID, p. 18.
[v] Cf. PID, p. 18.
[vi] Original text: „Imaginäre Dinge mit einem hohen Grad an autarker Sinnbildung enthalten in ihren Sinnstrukturen einen gedanklichen Zusammenhang, in dem Wirkliches sich reflektiert und der so über dieses Aufschluss gibt.“ PID, p. 20.
[vii] Cassirer, Ernst, 1979. Symbol, Myth, and Culture: Essays and Lectures of Ernst Cassirer 1935–1945. Yale University Press, New Haven, USA.
[viii] Original text: „Das Manko hermeneutischer Methoden besteht darin, dass sie gemeinhin auf ontologisch zugängliche Sinngehalte ausgerichtet sind und das nur meontisch Erreichbare verkennen, dass sie darüber hinaus nur auf Sinn gerichtet sind und folglich dasjenige vernachlässigen, worauf das Sinnbildungsgeschehen eines imaginären Dinges noch aufruht: auf seiner realen Körperlichkeit, die, wie angedeutet, mit Formen von Leiblichkeit derjenigen Subjekte korreliert, die in dem Umgang mit imaginären Dingen involviert sind.“ PID, p. 22.
[ix] Cf. PID, p. 25.
[x] Cf. PID, p. 30.
[xi] Cf. PID, p. 36.