Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

Aesthetic theory and the book group

July 9, 2015

heidegger

Book group members are not infrequently confronted by the question, How does our practice measure up against the thought of Kant, Heidegger, Gadamer, Adorno, Bourdieu and Gell?

As we have seen, Kant wanted to see whether such a thing as aesthetic judgment, where we demand that others share what appears to be our purely subjective reaction, could in principle be justified.

His problem therefore can be seen as the solution to why book groups exist–why one would want to debate reactions to artistic literature and indeed convince others.  However, Kant’s contention that aesthetic pleasure is disinterested does not really seem to apply to novels in the same way as other forms of art, since they are normally thought to confer some benefit in terms of understanding what people are like and how they relate to each other or at least how to write decent English.

Kant’s insistence that there are no rules that will make something beautiful may at first sight seem to be contradicted by the practice of publishers, who seem to believe there are very definite rules for producing a book that will sell.

But selling many copies is hardly the same as being ‘beautiful’ or as one might say in this case ‘aesthetically valuable’.  That rather fits in with the thought of Adorno, who thought of the cultural product of the era of late capitalism as being something to be consumed, whereas in better times the aesthetic experience was produced by the participant.  So the book club members who seek distinctions, indeed distinctions that are not differences, in the products of the publishing industry, may be compared to his famous hobbyist listener who has an encyclopaedic recall of available recorded performances but with little understanding of the music that can be heard.

Heidegger of course  thought that art worked by selectively focusing an historical community’s tacit sense of what is and what matters and reflecting it back to that community, which thereby comes implicitly to understand itself in the light of this artwork. Artworks thus functioned as ontological paradigms, serving their communities both as “models of” and “models for” reality, which meant that artworks could variously “manifest,” “articulate,” or even “reconfigure” the historical ontologies undergirding their cultural worlds.  Or a rose is a rose is a rose, talking about its rose-ness is infantile self-indulgence and making an institution of talking about it is even worse.

On the other hand, Gadamer‘s hermeneutic approach, whereby the art-ness of the work of art resides in the dialectical transformation of our interpretations as they enter into contact and indeed conflict with the artwork does sound rather positive for the book club.  Indeed, if one thinks (as Adorno probably would) that the readers were initially only consuming or confirming prefabricated commonplaces, then it is only in the book club setting that the real aesthetic experience might arise.  On the other hand, Gadamer would not have approved of the antiquarian tenor of much book group discourse–Is it a true story?  Was the author ever married? and so on.

This seems rather reminiscent of Bourdieu, who saw this kind of naive view of the artwork as a window whose function was to admit sweetness and light as characteristic of the dominated sections of society, since nothing more rigorously distinguishes the different classes than the disposition objectively demanded by the legitimate consumption of legitimate works, the aptitude for taking a specifically aesthetic point of view on objects already constituted aesthetically.  He would certainly have been interested in the petit-bourgeois aspirationalism of the book group, showing as it does an anxiety with regard to the assimilation of high culture together with a desire to assimilate it to the comfortable and the homely.

Gell’s treatment of the artwork as a social actor amongst other social actors at first sight seems like a comfortable fit for the book group, but here as in many other cases we find that his art nexus resists facile application.

Gell's Art Nexus

Gell’s Art Nexus

First of all, we note that the ‘recipient’ here seems to be conceptualised as an individual, which is a strange kind of thing for an anthropologist to do.  If we ignore this consideration, the book group experience seems to be one of struggle between Index and Recipient as to which will be master, where victory for the Recipient is equivalent to the Index being supplanted by the Prototype.

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Immanuel Kant’s account of beauty

May 17, 2015

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We have been asked to explain Kant’s account of beauty, so here goes.

Kant starts off from the idea that the sensation of beauty is both subjective and universal.  It is subjective because it belongs to the subject (perceiver) rather than the object.  In particular, there are no rules that will make the object beautiful to us if we do not perceive it to be so.  It is universal because the statement ‘X is beautiful’ carries the implication ‘I like X and you ought to like X’.  This is different from the normal situation of liking ice-cream for instance where there is no insistence that anyone else should like it.

So how can something–a kind of pleasure–be both subjective and universal.  In Kant’s thought, pleasure is seen as springing from meeting some need (like hunger for instance).  So what need are we talking about here?  Kant suggests that it is the need for understanding.  But beauty is not about understanding as such–Kant gives the example of an innkeeper’s son in a bush imitating a nightingale, which song ceases to be beautiful once he is found out.  Instead it is the promise of understanding that beauty provides.

So that explains how the sensation of beauty can be both subjective and universal.  By analogy with hunger, there is no particular difficulty with saying that the catalogue of things that are beautiful will be different in different times and places, since what will satisfy your hunger (which is surely something real) will depend on what you are used to and what you’ve eaten recently.

Ingenious, or what?

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Aesthetics: Art and Anti-Art

April 22, 2015

We present below the outline of this course at City Lit.  It looks not unchallenging–we shall see…

Kant (1724-1804) wrote three books with’critique’in the title: the Critique of Pure Reason (1781, 1787), the Critique of Practical Reason (1788) and the Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790). His central problem is to explain our ability to act according to a moral assessment of a way of life. In short, how is enlightenment possible? The first Critique is a study of the limits of knowledge. The second is a study of the intelligibility of moral judgments. The third is a study of the relationship between science and morality. Oddly, Kant devotes the first part of the third Critique to what he calls pure aesthetic judgments. The influence of his analysis of them – of his ‘Analytic of the Beautiful’ – extends well beyond the limits of academic philosophy.

In making our basic assumptions about art and beauty explicit, Kant sets some central problems not only for philosophical aesthetics, but also for the sociology and anthropology of art. Accordingly, we are going to be considering the ideas of four theorists: the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002), the critical theorist Theodor Adorno (1903-1969), the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) and the anthropologist Alfred Gell (1945-1997). All of them have used Kant to clarify their aims. So we need to begin with the basics: Kant’s
analysis of our ways of talking about objects of taste.

21 April

Unlike a person’s reasons for doing a course on something else, your reasons for doing a course on aesthetics are examples of what we’ll be talking about. This is bound to be confusing at times.

28 April

Kant draws a crucial distinction between agreeableness and beauty. To claim that an object is agreeable is just to claim that it gives me pleasure. To claim that an object is beautiful is to claim that it ought to give me pleasure
(regardless of whether it actually does). The point of Kant’s ‘critique’ of aesthetic judgment is to make sense of the distinction.

5 May

Kant regards the pleasure of aesthetic reflection as a kind of satisfaction. An object gives us pleasure if it allows us to do something we want to do. And a beautiful object gives us pleasure. The question, then, is what a beautiful allows us to do. Kant’s basic answer is that it allows us to exercise our imagination unrestricted by rules.

12 May

Kant’s aesthetics anticipates discussion in twentieth-century philosophy of the problem of practical understanding. The problem he sets himself is to explain the idea of an indeterminate norm of taste. It anticipates the problem
of Wittgenstein’s famous discussion of rules and rule-following.

19 May

Our tendency to regard to aesthetic judgments as merely subjective may be due to a misconception of the relationship between thought and language. Heidegger denies that the subject is first of all a kind of spectator and insists on the primacy of practical activity. His analysis of ‘being-inthe-world’ lays the ground for a different way of thinking about aesthetic judgments.

26 May

Gadamer denies that the objectivity of scientific method is the only kind there is. In the popular imagination, science puts everything to test. lt also seems to be the opposite of aesthetic reflection. There is no science of beauty. But there may still be another kind of objectivity, the objectivity of interpretations
of works of art.

2 June

Some of Adorno’s readers have accused him of elitism. He draws a distinction between authentic ad and the products of the culture industry. Authentic art reveals the truth about society. It does so not by representing
society, but by being impossible to represent. Unlike the products of the culture industry, it helps us think the unthinkable about the modern world.

9 June

There is culture – in the anthropological sense of the word – wherever there are human beings. There is as much of it in the practices of a so-called primitive society as there is in our own, and as much at a performance of
stand up comedy as there is at a performance of Swan Lake. This makes cultural refinement a possible topic of anthropological investigation.

16 June

Bourdieu takes aesthetics out of the hands of philosophers and puts it into the hands of sociologists. He offers “a scientific answer to the old questions of Kant’s critique of judgment, by seeking in the structure of the social
classes the basis of systems of classification which structure our perception of the social world and designate the objects of aesthetic enjoyment.”

23 June

Anthropologists have struggled to make sense of the idea of ethnographic art. Are museum exhibits artworks if, for the members of a so-called primitive society, there is no equivalent of our category of art? Gell reverses the
problem. Instead of contemplating the artefacts of an exotic culture as artworks, he considers uses to which artworks are put. His central idea is that artworks are agents.

30 June

In your opinion, is John Cage’s 4’33” worth taking seriously? ls it a piece of
music? ls it a work of art? ls it (or has a performance of it ever been)
beautiful?

7 July

Review