Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Is There a Perceptual Commons?

Arnold Berleant has recently been arguing for an expanded concept of the aesthetic, and in his "The Aesthetic Politics of Environment" he has set forth a theory that would combine aesthetics and ethics. (in Aesthetics Beyond the Arts:  New and Recent Essays, Burlington: Ashgate, 2012)  The theory is basically a defense of a kind of political liberalism but from an aesthetic base.  I see myself as a liberal and I have long seen John Rawls as having set forth a convincing set of arguments in favor of this political position.  His ideas are based on a version of the idea that humans arrive at a social contract in the state of nature.  Of course, for Rawls, this takes place behind the "veil of ignorance," and the "social contract" is not an actual event but something more like a thought experiment.  We are all to imagine what basic rules we would arrive at if we were behind the veil of ignorance maximizing our own self-interest and developing a social contract.  Berleant rejects this as mythologizing and proposes an alternative:  the perceptual commons that will provide the basis for an aesthetic politics.  He sees the perceptual commons as "the ground of all perceptual experience" and he sees it also as "necessarily, immediately, and universally present and accessible..."   I have trouble believing in anything that has these qualities.  We do share a common world with other humans, but people of different cultures have very different ways of perceiving, and this is because they have different ways of understanding and imagining.   The notion of a pure world of perception beneath our cultural overlays is like that of what Kant refers to as the thing-in-itself.  I think we can do without either.  

Berleant thinks his idea of the perceptual commons can replace the vague concept of "rights."  His thought is that "rights" can be replaced by "claims" (by which he seems to mean "rightful claim" since he does not discuss or consider the possibility of unjustified or vague claims).  He speaks of various "perceptual claims" where most would speak of "rights":  for example to a "quiet public space" and a claim to pure and healthful air.  These are all good things, but it seems to me that whether we call them "claims" or "rights" is unimportant.  Moreover, they are better established in the Rawlsian way than through an appeal to something that is immediate, necessary and universal.

Before going on, I should say something about perceptual immediacy.  It is not entirely clear what Berleant means when he refers to perceptual immediacy.  It could be argued that there is no such thing.  Perception takes time and thus is never immediate.  For example it takes time to see a painting.  Granted, sometimes it seems as though a perceptual event takes no time at all, for example noticing that something is red.  But what percentage of our perception is relatively quick in this way?  It is hard to say.  Another sense of "immediate" is "not mediated" which is to say that nothing outside of the perception influences the perception,  I already questioned the idea of unmediated perception.   As for necessity and universality, there is an apparent contradiction here.  In many of his writings, Berleant argues against Kant's universalism, and yet his own talk of a perceptual commons seems little different. Berleant further explains that a claim, unlike a right, is "a simple assertion evidenced in behavior and grounded on the conditions necessary for life."  But this seems vague or at least problematic since what one person sees as necessary for life another may see as simply good for life, or merely useful, or not necessary at all.  As I suggested earlier, Berleant talks about perceptual claims as immediate and yet admits that it is extremely difficult to isolate the purely perceptual from the conceptual aspects of our experience that color our perceptions.  He says that no one needs a right to the air they breath:  rather they have a perceptual claim to that air. Their "living presence is the sole justification needed for exercising that claim."  Yet, unless you are a total pacifist, you will believe that sometimes it is necessary to kill others, and one of the main ways to do this is to deprive them of air.  It is hard to see how something about perception gives one the absolute right not to be killed by others by this means.  What if the only way to stop a person who is about to murder you is to deprive him of air?  Berleant thinks that his path of replacing rights with claims will avoid myth, which clouds our thought.  However, Rawls has shown that certain myths are valuable, when taken as myths.

Still, one could argue that Berleant's  idea of a perceptual commons is a useful myth too, and I could hardly deny that.  It is helpful to see at least much of the world (i.e. the part that is public) as a commons in which we share certain perceptual spaces.  And, as I said at the beginning of this note, it is valuable, sometimes at least, to see social issues from an aesthetic angle and in terms of perception. 

I do have trouble with the idea of treating rights, the right to water, for example, as perceptual rights.  We need water for survival but we do not need to perceive it in order to use it.  Someone in a coma needs water but cannot perceive the water she needs.  When it comes to water the properties that are relevant to aesthetics are those having to do with smell, taste and look, not healthiness.  Sure, it is usually more pleasant to be healthy than not....but is this really a matter of aesthetics?  If we broaden aesthetics to include the right to water we might unnecessarily intrude into the domain of ethics.  I have sometimes been tempted to combine ethics and aesthetics into one discipline but it is tricky to do this and aesthetics stands a good chance of being overwhelmed by ethics in the process, for example, by being reduced to ethics.

Berleant thinks that aesthetics or "the aesthetic" is charged with creating a new world and a positive culture free of negative mythologies and sociality based on self-interest.  Why the aesthetic?  His answer is "the aesthetic offers the means for clear, unclouded vision."  But when has the aesthetic ever been exclusively associated with clear, unclouded vision?  He ends his section on this matter by saying that the ideal new perceptual landscape "is designed, appropriated, and populated concerns everyone, and it allows many possibilities, both aesthetic and political" in contrast to the current exploitative use of the commons  This is fine, although I am still nervous about treating the physical commons and perceptual commons as one, since it would then treat ethics and aesthetics as one, and that is a pretty hard trick to carry out.

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