“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

What the mp3 recorder missed in my Kant class

I think what happened was that the stunned silence after the first introduction of aesthetic beauty made the recorder switch off.  

There was a question about interobjectivity, which I was explaining, because of Kant's use of Euler. The aesthetic dimension implies a shared space in which colors and sounds can arise. To have colors you need photons and absorption of photons and optic nerves and so on.  

Now Kant himself goes to a very correlationist place with this. Beauty is “subjective,” which has its far cheaper imitation than what Kant truly meant for sure. But there's no real reason why you can't extend the Kantian experience of beauty, which is deeply impersonal, object-like, to say fish. And then you can think about extending it to trees. And then you can think about extending it to pencils and records and needles and clubs and sweat on the floors of clubs. Yes, I am a weirdo. 

At this point, there was a great question, from Iris. She was wondering about how to tell her friends who didn't think much of beauty about what it was. People get defensive about what they like. I started to answer in Kantian terms. You can't really do it. Because the reason is basically that it would be coercive, and beauty is profoundly non-coercive. All you can do is model it. She picked this up in a question that is on the mp3 later.

My analogy was about the Buddhist idea of compassion, which is also an unconditional feeling, like the Kantian aesthetic. You feel it but you can't quite communicate it. It's an experience of impersonality that is totally personal.
This is what I argued later in the class. The trouble today is that we have so many technological devices and so many things that connect us to the nonexistent Big Other that it's very hard to pay attention to beauty, which is a contemplative experience. I later suggested Iris put a little contemplative something in her day, if only unplugging from Facebook for five seconds. Just once. I am a fan of the idea of contemplative spaces that are in public. Like retreats.

The context of the question was the notion of freedom, crucial for Kant. The question, for Kant, is not about taste, but how come we can even make distinctions involving taste at all. It's about something much more unconditional than taste. Because taste is already socially conditioned. Hume doesn't get past it really. I mean, why on earth do we have that feeling of freedom at all?

We interpret this freedom through the ideology of anthropocentrism and consumer capitalism. Objects are just lumps of stuff that we somehow personalize. Beauty is more scary than that because it seems to be coming from the object: there is a good OOO reason for this, of course. But even Kant has some sense that is almost like OOO. It's in his idea that inside us there is an object-like entity, an impersonal thing—the aesthetic experience—that is unconditional and universalizable, in other words it's not us.

Democracy, of which beauty is the startup software, for Kant, is like a secret we all share but we can't tell anyone. A paradoxical secret. We're all “in on it.” It reminds me of the first two years of the acid house movement. We were all “in on” something but it was very hard to specify. There was a sense of togetherness. Of course yeah, it was chemically mediated but the scene and the music stretched the gratification of that into a much larger loop, where Kantian beauty lives.

Then we got talking about the slightly scary enigmatic smile of beauty.

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