Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Debate That Just Won't Stop: Reflections on Aesthetic Theory

As a social scientist and historian I am not really interested in engaging in aesthetic debates. Why? Because aesthetics are, in the final analysis intersubjective. Beauty is not transcendental. It is in the social and cultural eyes of its beholders. I thus prefer to leave debates over transcendental beauty to those whose stock and trade is that domain beyond the empirical, to philosophers, metaphysicians, and theologians. 

Nor do I see the point of arguing about whether a film, a literary work, a television programme, one brand of ice cream, or whatever is better than another or is good or bad anymore than I find it worthwhile debating the merits of Calvinism versus Free Will with the Westboro Baptist Church, whether one should baptise by dunking or sprinkling, or how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. 

One thing that the social scientific and historical study of readings reveals, and I learned this long ago, is that aesthetic readings, readings which attach beauty or value to some object, are ideological. I remember being struck by this realisation, when I took an undergraduate seminar on the Book of Exodus at Indiana University in Bloomington. As I sat in class I remember having one of those moments of enlightenment. I realised how the religious and non-religious backgrounds--Orthodox Jewish, Reform Jewish, Evangelical, Anglican, atheist, etcetera--of those in the class were "overdetermining" how they read the Book of Exodus and what they valued in the Book of Exodus. Ideology was making particular readings of the Book of Exodus real. I remember thinking to myself at the time that perhaps the only way we could break the seeming prison house of hermeneutics was through a focus on the empirical. 

Since that moment of enlightenment I have grown to care less about what someone likes or dislikes (love that colloquialism). Unlike many of those of a fundamentalist and evangelical ilk, I am rather "libertarian" when it comes to likes and dislikes. I now find it absurd, not to mention rather authoritarian, to believe that everyone should like the same things I do and that if they don't my likes and dislikes should be imposed on the rest of the world. I suppose this makes me the odd person out in a world dominated by authoritarian godlike statements of absolute transcendental aesthetic truth.

It is, I think, important to move beyond the notion that aesthetics are transcendental because when we do move beyond the transcendental conception of aesthetics we can began to make sense of the social and cultural function of these authoritarian and transcendental aesthetics "practises".
Moving beyond the notion that aesthetic truth is transcendental allows us, on one level, to come to the conclusion that if we want to know empirically what people like and dislike we have to empirically analyse what people like and dislike via surveys, interviews, ethnographic analysis, or statistical analysis. Such an empirical approach to aesthetics, in turn, allows us to see that likes and dislikes vary. For instance, it is clear that some people like American television show "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", some people don't, and most of don't really care one way or the other and may never have even seen "Buffy" and don't care to see "Buffy" for whatever reason.

The simple empirical truth that likes and dislikes vary across time and space invariably raises questions about why some people--intellectuals, nerds, geeks--believe and continue to believe that there are transcendental aesthetic "truths". I think the reason for all this aesthetic talk is very simple: One's identity invariably gets bound up with what one likes and what one dislikes. And since identity is usually bound up with community, aesthetic preferences are intimately entwined with human attempts to construct communities of the ideologically like minded. The simple if perhaps sad empirical truth is that most humans prefer to hang with those who think, by and large, like them. I call this the "I am OK, if you want to be OK you need to become like me" syndrome. By the way, this process invariably leads, in modern complex societies, to the construction of a "mainstream", the norms the mainstream majority are socialised into. Those outside the mainstream, of course, become "dissidents", those who, for whatever reason, do not imbibe the ideologies of the majority, .


Though I, over the course of my intellectual and academic life, have not had much time for psychoanalysis and Sigmund Freud, as I get older I occasionally wonder whether Freud has a point. Is all this I like and I don't like talk just a form, at least in part, of (mental) masturbation? Though I may think a bit in psychoanalytic terms sometimes I almost always return to that which is rarely ever repressed within me: my social scientific and historical "self". And when I do I generally return to the realisation that no Freud is wrong. The point of aesthetic talk, is social and cultural. All of this, by the way, doesn't mean, that I find all this like and dislike talk any less absurd. I do continue to find it all absurd and I don't "like" it (pun intended) even though I think I understand it. Bah humbug.

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