Saturday, November 23, 2013

Review of The Extraordinary in the Ordinary by Christopher Dowling

I would like to acknowledge Christopher Dowling's excellent review of my book The Extraordinary in the Ordinary and make some comments on the issues he raises.  I particularly appreciate the way that Dowling focuses quickly on Chapter 4 in which I begin to develop my own view of aesthetic experience as experience with what I call "aura."  Dowling provides an extremely good explication of my concept of aura, making all of the appropriate connections.  It would be silly for me to summarize what he has done here:  the reader can see it by going to the review, or better, reading my book.  Dowling goes on to stress that my approach to aesthetics is eclectic, and that there are advantages and disadvantages to this.  My eclecticism involves drawing from several different traditions that many philosophers see as involved, rather, in a death struggle.  Thus I may speak of Dewey on one page, Heidegger on another, and Danto on a third, without privileging any of these competing traditions.  I mainly try to interpret the writings of great thinkers of the past and present them in a way that brings out their significance for my own projects.  This idea, as Dowling is aware, is inspired partly by Gadamer's theory of interpretation.  Partly this is the result of the particular kind of intellectual training I received, which was quite interdisciplinary as well as crossing many theoretical boundaries.  My philosophical heroes, people like Sandra Luft, Marx Wartfosky, Joseph Margolis and Richard Shusterman, have also been good at crossing such boundaries.  There should be more of this, in my view.  Dowling, I believe, is not unsympathetic himself.  Of course, there is a unifying perspective, which is Dewey's pragmatism (something I also share with Margolis and Shusterman ... and I think Wartofsky, my lead dissertation adviser, was a pragmatist of the same sort without quite realizing it.)  It is interesting to me that Dowling thinks my eclecticism is what leads me to a "fairly broad characterisation of aesthetic experience encompassing both 'low-level' or 'background' aesthetic experiences -- expressible via predicates such as "clean", "well-ordered", "good-looking", "pleasant" -- together with the more extra-ordinary, intense, and complex experiences -- often expressible via the same predicates as the first class but with the addition of terms such as "very", "strikingly", "remarkably" and so on."  His way of expressing my view is correct:  I had just never thought of this as coming out of my eclecticism.  He may be right.  Certainly the idea of continuity goes back to Dewey.  Dowling also recognizes that although my rhetoric is sometimes anti-analytic, this is all from a Deweyan perspective, one which has many real affinities with analytic philosophy....something which often emerges in the later writings of such important analytic philosophers as Danto, Wittgenstein, Goodman, and Korsmeyer.  My eclecticism seeks to enfold analytic aesthetics too, although, as Dowling observes, I seek to overcome the rigidity of certain distinctions that are dear to those who wish all of their philosophy to be "clear and distinct."  Dowling further correctly stresses the way in which I talk about the close dialectical relationship between the aesthetics of art (including popular art) and the aesthetics of everyday life.  He nicely summarizes:  "By emphasising the artistic creative process (often neglected in analytic aesthetics) Leddy identifies what he sees to be a continuity between art and everyday life according to which the transformation of everyday experience is itself part of the nature or art. This dialectical relationship is, he thinks, most prominent in the artist's studio or in the moments at which the artist draws inspiration from the world."  Dowling notes, however, a possible contradiction between my claim on pg. 261 that everyday aesthetics is not the sole domain of experts and pg. 121 where I say that artists are the true experts of everyday aesthetics.  I can only reply that artists, including painters, poets, dancers, and composers, pay attention to the aesthetic aspects of non-art things (as well as to the aesthetic aspects of other works of art) and bring these to our attention:  yet at the same time,  we non-artists (and we artists as audience members for other art) are all at least subconsciously aware of these same phenomena.  That is why what the artists do actually works:  it works because it relates to what we have already done in our lives, for example in paying attention to the exact taste of coffee in the morning cup, to choosing a color scheme, to gauging whether the house is "comfortable" or the trip "interesting."  Aesthetic properties are everywhere.

Dowling's criticisms of my book are subtle but interesting -- perhaps interesting because subtle. (He knows full well that my non-analytic approach may be irritating to some, and perhaps this reflects some irritation on his part.)  He says: "in the end his 'something new and valuable' is probably situated with the debates that might ensue from these proposals (see, e.g., 203), and the possibility for reflexivity that might arise from our encounter with his work."  Perhaps the point is that I haven't really come up with something that is directly new and original, or well-argued or "solid theory" but rather with some nice meat to chew on for future discussion in the field. I hope that is so.  


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