Saturday, March 15, 2014

A space between the uncanny and the abject

Walking along the sidewalk on the edge of campus, I had a unique opportunity to experience the fuzzy boundary between two related, yet distinct aesthetic categories: the uncanny and the abject.

The object prompting this experience was a detached weave, which initially appeared to be a dead bird. At first, my aesthetic response was horrified repulsion at the abjection of such a thing, as is to be expected. The abjection was worse than that which typically emanates from a dead bird as this appeared to be a larger bird, on the order of a crow. But as I realized it was not a bird, but rather a fringy strip of hair and adhesive, the horror shifted into a gray territory between the abject and the uncanny.

Dead organisms (or hyperrealist sculptures, wax museum replicas, taxidermied animals, certain cyborgs, etc) are very often sources of the feeling of the uncanny: the uncanny is the aesthetic category that occurs when confronted with something that is familiar and yet, in some profoundly wrong way, simultaneously unfamiliar. In a word, we might describe it as the antifamiliar. Imagine the revulsion you feel when a celebrity gets a bad face-lift – that feeling, where Kenny Rogers looks like a bad wax museum replica of himself, is what we call the uncanny. The uncanny in nonliving objects seems to attune the viewing subject to a feeling of anxiety, essentially grounded in the question “what if this thing moves?” It can be a very strong feeling; I could not even enter the Marc Sijan exhibition at the museum because I heard a noise as I approached the first figure at the entrance and it made me too anxious to do anything but cautiously sidle my way back out of the gallery. (A further question I have considered is whether there might be a metaform of the uncanny if we compare Sijan’s work to Duane Hanson’s.)

The uncanny dimension, however, can be outweighed in various cases when a lifeless body confronts us. Abjection is the aesthetic category of debasement and disgust – dead bodies are of course potentially both uncanny and abject, but abjection assumes more wretched states and materials: hair or fingernail sweepings, excrement, blood, rotting foods… abjection is more emphatically disgusting than disquieting, and I feel it can easily overshadow the uncanny. Roadkill, for instance, is usually too abject for the uncanny to register very much. The dead deer on the roadside is abject on one hand for the blood and the guts spilling out of it, but on the other hand, the context of the open world I believe makes it abject. This becomes more apparent when we consider if you were to discover a dead body in a trash receptacle (which is a phobic anxiety I have any time I have to open a trash container.) The immediate experience I would imagine would be a sort of abject trauma beyond uncanniness; it would be very different from seeing a body in calling hours with an open-casket.

The detached weave was unique in that it was almost equally abject and uncanny. That is, it literally could move about in a gust of wind – in fact, it could fly right into you, and perhaps it did fly into someone, given the wind over the weekend. The horror of this being flown into would potentially operate at two levels – an abject horror at the mere fact of detached hair, and at the same time, the uncanny horror of a realization of the fear at the heart of the uncanny – the thing flapping about as if it actually were a dead bird come to life.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Fragility and Alienation in Kantian Universality

When we say that beauty is subjective, we mean something like this: a painting, a landscape, a song, etc, is not in and of itself actually beautiful, but rather that the beauty dimension is a sort of illusion in the mind of the viewer. Despite the understanding we might have that beauty is not an inherent feature of an object or experience in itself, but rather a subjective response we are compelled to superimpose upon it, nevertheless, the beauty of a Beethoven string quartet feels as inherent a characteristic as greenness is an inherent characteristic of grass, or coldness of ice. That is, just as you can’t strip away the green from the grass, beauty feels like it couldn’t be stripped from the music; it just seems to be there. And just as we don’t feel like the greenness of grass is a subjective matter that occurs somewhere between our eyes and visual cortexes, we don’t actually feel like the beauty of music is actually only subjective, or imaginary, or a matter of choice.

As a result of this state, where beauty is experienced as a virtual reality dimension of a thing, we tend to expect that others will agree that the beauty is there, in the same way we expect others to agree that a blade of grass is, in reality, green. In other words, we commonly say that art and beauty are purely subjective, but when you are really gripped by a piece of art or music and feel that intense sensation of beauty, where your hair stands on end and tears are brought to your eyes, it doesn't feel subjective, but rather feels quite objective and "real."

What results from this is a social component of beauty, which has two basic sides: one, a potential embarrassment, and the other, a sort of pride. These manifest what I observe as two different types of behavior in turn. I will account for the latter first.

Why do we like to post songs on Facebook? Why do we use Pinterest or Tumblr? And why is "liking" or "faving" a part of this experience? There are many ways to explain this phenomena to be sure, but an explanation from the vantage point of this entry is that we want to share things we find beautiful, and when we do this, we want others to feel the same way. Beauty allows us to virtually externalize our subjective states in a way that isn't otherwise easy, if even possible. A piece of beautiful art is able to crystallize something you feel but could never really articulate and, in turn, to present it in simple, sensate form. Beauty utters the ineffable (which presumably undergrids everything, if you will indulge me some portentiousness.) To find that someone else connects to the object in question and "likes" or "favs" it is to feel, through proxy perhaps, a connection beyond the object. Your own subjective response feels all the more real by virtue of the agreement of others. And thus we want to share the things we find aesthetically right, if not beautiful. This aspect of aesthetic experience allows us to form communities (this is a term I tend to associate with Dave Hickey in regards to aesthetics) around things we agree are beautiful. It is the mechanism of stylistically-oriented subculture. It is the reason bands are able to sell t-shirts. It isn’t trivial and I don’t think it is even really secondary.

On the other hand, and what is more interesting to me, a fragility embedded in the experience of beauty becomes apparent when disagreement occurs.

If I am lecturing to a class on aesthetics and I share something I truly feel is an example of beauty and the response of the class is something other than their agreement, it is a painful experience. In turn, of course, is a feeling of abject, awkward embarrassment to be in the audience that is being exposed to a botched beauty attempt. Someone is reading a poem or playing an acoustic guitar and it isn’t good and you don’t know what to do so you play with your iPhone because what else can you do in such a crisis?

Along similar lines is the potential debasement of the aesthetic dimension of something when it enters the larger public sphere. It would not be uncommon nor would it be wrong to feel a kind of betrayal when a song you have loved is used in an advertisement. Beauty does not really occur in a vacuum, despite the “white cube” rhetoric of modern gallery spaces. The power of soundtracks should go without saying. An image can be altered and manipulated in myriad ways merely by the accompaniment of music; it is as effective as it is subtle. If beautification through association is possible, why wouldn’t the opposite be as well?

A song by The Smiths called “Paint a Vulgar Picture” provides some insight into the nature of debasement and fandom:

“I walked a pace behind you at the soundcheck
You're just the same as I am
What makes most people feel happy
Leads us headlong into harm”

The key feature of the dynamic described in this song hinges around the distinction between “most people” and “us.” This is not a description of an ostensibly universal appeal of the object of fandom (described as “another dead star”), but rather very limited, personal connection felt by the narrator. (As a sidenote, I think this is another song Morrissey wrote about himself, which hopefully doesn’t complicate things too much.)

Kant describes the aspect of aesthetic judgment where we expect others to agree as “universality,” though we might use a word like “universalizability.” That is to say that for Kant, the community that a person expects will agree with an aesthetic judgment has no bounds. The nature of aesthetic experience in Kant’s conception of it is that anyone anywhere making an aesthetic judgment of beauty should feel like anyone else anywhere else will agree with the validity of that judgment. Or to use Kant’s word, you universalize your aesthetic judgments. Perhaps this expectation is an ideological feature – an artifact that emerged somewhere between the Symposium and the Critique of Judgment as a result of the philosophical baggage the concept of “beauty” acquired along the way (IE associations with “truth”, “goodness”, etc, all associated, in turn, with brute political or moral imperatives.) Perhaps the expectation of universalizability is a sign that our notion of beauty is corrupted.

In any event, this is a feature of Kant’s critique I find worthwhile to question: is it not typical of humans to identify their humanity at the level of microcommunities rather than toward an abstact whole? Isn’t it possible that, while a person might expect others to agree, this does not necessarily include all others – far from it, in fact? If you are a Morrissey fan and the world seems cruel, insensitive, wrong, etc, why should one expect the entire universe to agree about beauty? After all: “the world won’t listen.”

I might describe this limited scope of applicability as “aesthetic alienation.” That is to say, I think that we do project the validity of our aesthetic judgments onto other people, but we limit the extent of this projection. 

Different sources of beauty may entail different possibilities for social presentation. Is it comprehensible to imagine Mark Kozelek playing in an arena? It would be crass and absurd. While it is empirically possible that there are enough people who like Mark Kozelek to fill an arena, if you experience the music in very personal terms, mass appeal would be totally incongruous and aesthetically debased. When “personal” is an aspect of the aesthetic character of something, quality becomes bluntly inextricable with quantity: where art is “personal,” the better it is, the less of an audience you will expect to “relate.”

On the other hand, it goes without saying that ACDC will play in an arena and so an arena is probably aesthetically integral to the experience – of COURSE other people like ACDC, and of course there are enough to fill an arena in any given city. (I choose the examples of Mark Kozelek and and ACDC because Mark Kozelek has released an album of Bon Scott-era ACDC covers which render the songs abjectly poingnant and personal.) In effect, this sort of economics of fandom seems to be built into styles which have subcultural extensions; the discrete boundaries (and thus, the sanctity) of the community must not be overreached by popular appeal to the larger social sphere. This situation is grist for much “hipster” bashing, but I think it is actually a simple and basic mechanism of how taste actually works; the difference is that prior to the 00s, discrete styles were a possibility and we had words for them and their subcultural extensions like “punk” or “disco”. Basically, to account for this mechanism: we want our tastes to mean something commensurable with how deeply we might feel moved by them. The way we measure this meaning is a sort of balancing act between qualifying and quantifying factors – how precisely do we relate to the other people who are relating to the art?