Saturday, June 16, 2012

Malcolm Budd's mistake about aesthetic pleasure

In an otherwise fascinating and agreeable paper, Malcolm Budd writes "'noting something's value with pleasure' means nothing other than taking pleasure in something's possessing a valuable quality of some kind - pleasure in the reliability of one's car, the thickness of the walls of one's house, the speed of one's computer, the excellence of one's spectacles, the good fit of one's new shoes, the purity of the water, the power of the vacuum cleaner, the high level of one's IQ, the strength of the cable, the accuracy of the thermometer, and so on.  But none of these is an aesthetic pleasure, each of them being disqualified by the fact that it is a propositional pleasure - pleasure in the fact that one's shoes fit so well, for example."  (22)  This is a very rich mistake.  It is true that propositional pleasure is different from aesthetic pleasure:  we can thank Budd for this distinction.  But in most of these cases there is both propositional pleasure and aesthetic pleasure.  Yes I can be pleased that my shoes fit so well, but I can also be pleased by the way that my shoes fit so well:  the second is a sensory pleasure, not pleasure in a fact. Similarly,  I can be pleased that my car is reliable, or I can be pleased by the new feel of my car after it has been worked on, the new feel of reliability.  The second is aesthetic.  I can be pleased by the fact that my walls are thick or I can be pleased by the look and feel of the thick walls of my newly purchased (but possibly quite antique) house.  I can be pleased that the vacuum cleaner is powerful or I can find pleasure in the feel of vacuuming with my powerful vacuum cleaner. I can be pleased by the fact that my computer is fast, or I can be pleased by the feel of the speed of my computer.  I can be pleased that the water is pure or I can be pleased by the pure taste of the water.  Although I may be pleased that I have a high IQ it is not clear how there can be an aesthetic version of this.  Nor do I see room for aesthetic pleasure in experiencing the accuracy of a thermometer.  I can however both be pleased by the fact that a cable is strong and also by the way that the cable feels strong when I touch it and the way it looks strong when I look at it.  If Budd were right, there could be no such thing as everyday aesthetics, but I believe I have shown he cannot be right. The quote is taken from Budd's article "Aesthetic Essence" which appears in Aesthetic Experience edited by Richard Shusterman and Adele Tomlin (New York: Routledge, 2008)


Glenn Russell said...

Here is a review I did of Nicholson Baker's Mezzanine where I linked the main character with quotes from Tom Leddy's book on Everyday Aesthetics (Part I):

A jaded, young wealthy aristocrat in French author Joris-Karl Huysmans’ slim novel "À rebours" retreats to a country villa to construct a custom-made artificial world where he can live his entire solitary life on his own aesthetic, highly refined terms. In many ways, the main character in this slender Nicholson Baker book is the complete opposite of Huysmans’ - rather than being a jaded aristocrat, Baker’s narrator is an ordinary guy supremely attuned and energized by commonplace things and events; instead of retreating to a country villa, he commutes to a routine office job in the city; rather than seeking the extraordinary in fine arts and exotic tastes, his experiences the extraordinary in the ordinary, so much so that I see him as the perfect instantiation of what nowadays is referred to as ‘everyday aesthetics.’ So, with this in mind, here are my observations on Baker’s novel coupled with propositions on everyday aesthetics articulated by Thomas Leddy, a leading thinker in the discipline:

We are thinking of everyday aesthetics in the context of the world-wide city-based culture within which most of us live.-----
First page to last page, this is exactly the subject for our pleasant, perceptive 25-year old officer worker as he encounters and recollects during the hours of his workday in the city, as when we read in the opening paragraph “On sunny days like this one, a temporary, steeper escalator of daylight, formed by intersections of the lobby’s towering volumes of marble and glass, meet the real escalators just above their middle point, spreading into a needly area of shine where it fell against their brushed-steel side-panels, and added long glossy highlights to each of the black rubber handrails which wavered slightly as the handrails slid on their tracks, like the radians of black luster that ride the undulating outer edge of an LP.”

Glenn Russell said...

Part 11 of above comment:

As readers we are given a unique opportunity to concurrently experience with the narrator not only what he sees but the various feelings he derives from his seeing. Take my word for it here: Nicholson Baker’s novel is a jewel – a narrator particularly sensitive to life’s minute details, those objects and events usually overlooked and underappreciated by the rest of us.

Everyday aesthetics emphasizes how objects can take on an “aura” when perceived aesthetically. -----
The narrator reflects while walking down a city street: “It seems that I always liked to have one hand free when I was walking, even when I had several things to carry: I like to be able to slap my hand fondly down on the top of a green mailmen-only mailbox, or bounce my fist lightly against the steel support for the traffic lights, both because the pleasure of touching these cold, dusty surfaces with the springy muscle on the side of my palm was intrinsically good, and because I liked other people to see me as a guy in a tie yet carefree and casual enough to be doing what kids do when they drag a stick over the black uprights of a cast-iron fence.”

He derives pleasure on two levels: 1) the fact that his hand is free, and 2) the feel of his hand being free - free to slap against a mailbox, bounce off a steel pole, feel the cold, dusty surfaces, pleasures having no greater aim or purpose beyond the intrinsic goodness of the feeling itself. And it is the second level that is aesthetic – taking pleasure beyond the “fact” of things to taking pleasure in the “feel” of things. And by being open to the “feel” of things, in this case hand and mailbox and steel pole, these very things take on a certain “aura.”

Glenn Russell said...

Part 111:

Actually, in addition to 1) and 2) above, he values: 3) the social benefit of being seen by others as a man who has retained a kid’s aliveness and freshness when interacting with the world. For me, this is so charming- a simple happening providing our narrator with triple-decker pleasure as if savoring a slice of triple-decker strawberry cake.

Everyday aesthetics is a category separate from the fine arts and the natural world. -----
Although the narrator notes how there are Edward Hopper prints in the office hallways and observes the blue sky out his office window, his focus is not on the fine arts or the natural world but rather on things like the difference between working in an office with a linoleum floor and ones with carpets: “Linoleum was bearable back when incandescent light was there to counteract it with a softening glow, but the combination of fluorescence and linoleum, which must have been widespread for several years as the two trends overlapped, is not good.”

Everyday aesthetics studies the whole field of human experience, not just the high points. -----
There really isn’t any drama here in the conventional manner of storytelling, such thing as a runaway spouse or the loss of a parent or a psychological crack-up or artistic, spiritual or life-shattering epiphanies, not even close; on the contrary, we read about episodes in the narrator’s life leading to revelations about shoe-tying, brushing tongue as well as teeth, applying deodorant after being fully dressed, the virtues of sweeping with a broom made with straw rather than plastic and the time-saving benefits of owning your very own rubber stamp imprinted with your home address. Sounds like fun? Actually, these subjects make for great fun presented in Nicholson Baker’s breezy, frequently humorous, carefully crafted language.

Everyday aesthetics appreciates how artists are close and constant observers of everyday life. -----
Case in point – here is our young office worker/narrator entering the corporate men’s room: “I negotiated the quick right and left that brought me into the brightness and warmth of the bathroom. It was decorated in two tones of tile, hybrid colors I didn’t know the names for, and the sinks’ counter and the dividers between urinals and between stalls were of red lobby-marble.” This bathroom sequence, complete with observations about towels, hot-air blowers, toilet paper, the habits and sounds and sights of other company men goes on for several pages. I don’t think I have to include any more quotes as I am sure you get the idea.

Everyday aesthetics is immensely important for our lives. -----
Important in the sense you can use the realm of everyday aesthetics to gauge how awake you are to your everyday world. If you are like Howie (yes, we learn the narrator’s name in the closing chapters when his fellow-workers address him directly), then you will have the feel for what it is to be reading this review, a feel for not only the language and ideas contained herein but also the size and font of the letters and words on your screen. And what is the level of brightness of the white behind the words? What color is the border around your screen? Black? White? Silver? What is the texture of your keypad? Is your computer making a pleasant hum? If your desk is made of wood, does the grain have small groves? . .