Beauty Is Death
I base this essay on Kant's “Analytic of the Beautiful,” the first part of his Critique of Judgment. In the introduction to the Critique of Judgment, Kant outlines the three basic properties of the beauty experience in a sentence whose twists and turns, and mirror-like inversions, are a masterpiece of hiding something in plain sight:
- That object the form of which (not the material aspect of its representation, as sensation) in mere reflection on it (without any intention of acquiring a concept from it) is judged as the ground of a pleasure in the representation of such an object—with its representation this pleasure is also judged to be necessarily combined, consequently not merely for the subject who apprehends this form but for everyone who judges at all. The object is then called beautiful.
In this sentence is the key to the threefold Kantian theory of beauty. It is nonconceptual: when I try to isolate what is beautiful either in the object or in my experience of it, I can't grasp it. First, beauty gives me the feel of thinking, in a paradoxical membrane between what Kant calls pure reason and what he calls practical reason. This feel is not directed at a particular object of thought, but is rather directed by thought at itself, in a loop that Kant here calls “mere reflection.” Secondly, beauty is virtual. It is as if the feel of thinking reveals something in the object itself, as if I were magically capable of grasping the ungraspable thing-in-itself, what in the thing is distinctly itself, not its data, its phenomena. I see a duck: the duck's wings and feet are not the duck, yet they are part of the duck. I can't grasp the duck as such. But in the beauty experience, it is as if I am able to touch the unicity of a thing itself, by analogy with the way I can feel thinking, or reason, as an indivisible quantum. Secondly, the beauty experience is universalizable—be careful to see the “izable” suffix here, because it means that this universality is non-coercive. I feel like putting speakers on the Empire State Building so that everyone can hear this beautiful tune. But I shan't, because the coercion would ruin the beauty experience. In this respect, beauty vividly shows me the rush of cognition, and the nonviolence of democracy (pure and practical reason), in a strange mixture.
An analogy might be love. When I love someone, it is as if I have always loved them, that they were destined for me, from beginningless time. I feel this vividly even though I know very well that we just met last Thursday. It is as if cognition doesn't spoil beauty. I can know everything about the historical, social, economic and ecological (and geological, even) context of a poem—and it's still beautiful. Contextualization doesn't destroy it, despite the intentions of some forms of contextualism, which are to demystify beauty. The mystery remains, indestructible.
Moreover, the beauty experience is an attunement (German, Stimmung). The beauty experience tunes up my cognition and my feeling of freedom.
But what is Kant hiding? Kant is hiding how, in order for this experience to happen, there is always already an object, not related to me at all, an object that doesn't depend on my transcendental subjective ability to turn on the lights and see it, or think it. This object is emanating a force field that holds me in its tractor beam. The object tunes me. My cognitive tune-up is possible because there is already a tractor beam, described by some philosophy as givenness.
The object compels me, just this object, this painting. This object is positively tricksterish, as in the culture of a Paleolithic human, insofar as it is vivid and real yet ungraspable. Its appearance is itself, and not itself, at the very same time. It is as if Kant, the gatekeeper of modernity, one of the thinkers who allows humans to do anything to anything because things are just mirrors of (human) thought and desire—the Kant whom Lacan pairs with the Marqus de Sade—has somehow discovered a tiny place in the human universe that is decidedly shamanic.
Why? Because Kant was obsessed with mesmerism, animal magnetism: the idea that objects emanate energy fields, whether they are living or non-living. The bowdlerized child of mesmerism is hypnotism and telepathy. The bowdlerized child of this bowdlerization is the Freudian psyche. Freud himself was also fascinated by the paranormal, a physical yet “impossible” realm, impossible if all there can be is only (gross) body and (pure) mind. But the very experience of beauty shows me that there is at least a membrane between body and mind, a membrane that some cultures (Chinese, Indian, Tibetan and so on) are happy to call the subtle body. This kind of body is in me but it isn't me, yet it has sensations, moods, feelings. It is accessed in yoga, in “spiritual” or religious experiences that are idealized or demonized (or just plain old taboo), and in the “paranormal.” This paranormal—the experience of a non-agricultural human—is what is discovered at the very start of modernity with its eventual global warming and mass extinction. Discovered, and repressed, hidden away at birth.