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Research Spotlight: Robert Hughes

October 28, 2019

Research Spotlight: Robert Hughes

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Each month, the Communications Team reaches out to members of the Department of English faculty and asks them to elaborate on a current research or creative project they are working on or have recently completed. For this month, we asked Associate Professor Robert Hughes to talk about his work tackling the big question: "What is art?"

In a sentence, what is your project?

My scholarship works with contemporary continental aesthetics to puzzle on two related problems: (1) what art is and (2) who we are as human beings, such that we respond in the ways that we do to the work of art.

Now, as the expert that you are, can you give an overview of your project?

In general terms, I work with the continental (mostly French) philosophical tradition in thinking about the ontology of art – basically the question of what art is. This tradition will say that art is not, strictly speaking, an object (Moby-Dick, say, or the Mona Lisa, or Kind of Blue) or a quality (“artiness”) inhering in certain objects. Rather, for this tradition, art is an “event” that either happens or doesn’t happen when a “subject” (you or me, say, considered in our complexity) encounters in a receptive mood objects that stage a formal innovation that we register at the level of aesthetic affect. In other words, strictly speaking, Moby-Dick is a work of art only when and while someone is reading it – specifically, someone who is, for that duration, open to the way that Moby-Dick can effect a strange or “uncanny” re-organization internal to that subject.

Right now I am working with some thinkers – Heinrich Wölfflin, Jacques Lacan, Alain Badiou, Jean-Luc Nancy – who are trying to think about how the work of art might be conceived as an engagement with form and deformation as such, as if the event of art might be productively described as an ontological drama in which the subject engages with the adventures of aesthetic form offered by a given work of art and, through those adventures, through the proxy of the work of art, engages at the same time with the subject’s own profound and intimate ontological dramas of being and becoming. In this way, art appears as a sympathetic, affectively-charged identity posed between two different formal scenes: (a) form as something inhering in the art-object’s relation to its generic ideal, as grasped by a given viewer and (b) form as something inhering in the subject’s relation to his or her own ego ideal.

You can see that this line of inquiry will also organize a further set of questions: What motivates our deep investment in form? Why does our engagement with form and deformation in art produce precisely an aesthetic affect (pleasure, unsettlement, whatever) on or in the body? What can we infer about the body when we take it as susceptible to affect in these terms? So, thinking about the embodiment and passibility of the subject is also important for my work.

Within this same continental philosophical tradition, I also present and publish on themes of love and sex and the body. 

How is your research significant?

I would say that I produce creative readings of fertile thinkers who are generally not interested in really thinking about art in quite the ways that I am – Wölfflin wants to think narrowly about the deformations of Baroque art and architecture; Lacan is thinking about clinical ramifications of phenomena presented in psychoanalysis; Badiou is a philosopher of the event, but he’s less interested in the aesthetic body in the sense that I’d like to develop; Nancy wants to elaborate a sexier version of Heideggerian phenomenology. Still, I find resources within their work for elaborating what I think is a compelling account of art and embodied aesthetic subjectivity. In other words: their work makes permissible and possible certain conceptual developments, and my own work, then, takes some of the hitherto fallow possibilities of their thought and creatively develops them in according to the aesthetic, existential and phenomenological agenda that moves me.

My work is also significant in that (if I may say this on my own behalf) I am a talented writer and a clear explicator of thinkers whose work is sometimes quite difficult – so people read it and are amazed and interested to find it so clear and compelling. 

Are you working with any colleagues or collaborators?

I have worked with graduate student theses and dissertations in other departments at Ohio State and at other institutions, but my intellectual work with graduate students at Ohio State English has been limited to a Lacan Study Group that meets early Sunday afternoons. There’s nothing nefarious here, I hasten to say – it’s just that our department doesn’t really invite graduate student interest in my areas and, insofar as it does, the local Columbus faculty is wonderfully well staffed with other scholars interested in thinking about art and about the body in their various ways.

Is the project being funded or supported by any individuals or organizations that you would like us to acknowledge?

I work with several collectives that have been important to me: (a) above all, for ten summers, the International Philosophical Seminar, which meets to discuss the work of living continental philosophers, (b) likewise, for ten springs, an annual seminar I have organized for the American Comparative Literature Association called “Twists of the New Aesthetic Turn,” and (c) a work group in the critical humanities that I attend in Estonia, where I keep a summer home.

Where do you see this project going in the future?

Much of this project is completely drafted, but it needs some packaging work. Once I do that, I shall certainly send it out as a monograph.

What's next for you? What would you like to work on once this project is completed?

I have a large number of more or less developed and polished article-length writings – fragments of abandoned book projects, I’m a little embarrassed to say. These are on themes of love and the real in Badiou, sleep in Peter Sloterdijk, winking in Jean-Luc Nancy (and Richard Wagner and K-pop), landscape in Irving and Melville’s Rip Van Winkle, blindness in Cixous and figures of history in Jacques Rancière. I should de-couple these from their abandoned book-frames and send them out into the world.

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