Thursday, May 29, 2014

Shusterman on everyday aesthetics

"It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to cave a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do.   To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.  Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour."  Thoreau, quoted in Richard Shusterman  Thinking Through the Body pg. 288.  

"to live philosophically means living in a waking rather than sleeping state...the discipline of awakened life can provide everyday experience with deep aesthetic enrichment and even spiritual enlightenment"  Richard Shusterman, (all quotes from Thinking) 288-9

"We fail to see things as they really are with the rich, sensuous resplendence of their full being because we see them through eyes heavy with conventional habits of viewing them and blinded by stereotypes of meaning."  Shusterman, 291

I would like to live philosophically, which seems an odd thing to say for someone who has been a teacher of philosophy for more than forty years.  But then reading, teaching and writing about philosophy is not quite the same as living philosophically.  Both Shusterman and I see the task of living philosophically partly in terms of Socrates.  This, at least, is not surprising.  Socrates was one of my earliest philosophical heroes, and that is probably true for most western philosophers.  He taught that the unexamined life is not worth living, and I still believe that, taking it to mean something like:  to make life worth living (to enhance value in one's life) one needs to reflect on the key concepts that guide one's perception and action, reflect deeply, constantly questioning, constantly coming up with hypothesis to test, never accepting one of these as the final answer, recognizing that the only thing worthy of the name "wisdom" comes out of this process.  But this does not, on the face of it, seem to be the aesthetic life.  Can the philosophical life and the aesthetic life work together?  

Socrates also plays a leading role in Plato's Symposium where we get a different take on the philosophical life, one that sees it ultimately as aesthetic.  As one engages in philosophical examination one is also in search of beauty.  One travels up a ladder of love, where the object of love is always something of beauty.  The final stage is apprehension of beauty itself, the eternal Form of beauty, which holds roughly the same place in the metaphysics of the Symposium as recounted by Socrates (in describing the views of Diotima) as the Form of the Good does in The Republic.  I take this to mean that close attention to the aesthetic dimension of human existence can be one path to an awakened state of being.  But I also recognize that it may seem arrogant, perhaps is arrogant, to see others as in a state of dreaming.  We all live our own lives and do what we feel we have to do.  As my students are fond of saying: what right do we have to judge others on this (as long as they are harming no one)?  

The issue that Shusterman has raised is an important one for everyday aesthetics.  In response to the question "what is the point of everyday aesthetics" his answer would be, not to simply catalog a new field of inquiry in philosophy but to help us learn how to live philosophically where living philosophically is not just a matter of examining concepts and arguments but is also a matter of paying attention to the phenomena.  The question remains how these two things can fit together:  they almost seem to be in opposition.  How can you both examine life and also live life with the intensity of perception required by, for instance, Zen practice, or even by the Platonic philosopher at the top of the ladder of love?  Shusterman observes that "the notion of awakening to a clearer, critical awareness of the nature of things is also extremely central to the philosophy of Buddhism."  292.  

Shusterman's recommendation for living the philosophical life of heightened awareness is simplicity, slowness, and focusing on the here and now.  Yet it is hard to understand what exactly simplicity means in this context, especially when we reflect on the life of Socrates.  When we engage in Socratic dialogue (examining our lives) things become increasingly complex:  simple things are no longer simple.  We thought we knew what, for example, piety was,  and then we discover that we are ignorant (the result of his dialogue Euthyphro).  Instead of one definition for a concept we have several, none of which are fully adequate.  So where is this simplicity?  Of course Thoreau is right when (quoted approvingly by Shusterman) he says that our lives are frittered away in detail.  At philosophy conferences one is often horrified by the great level of detail to be found in individual arguments centered often around very small corners of the field.  Perhaps the life of the philosophy conference-goer is precisely what Thoreau argues against.  Again, though, one can just see it as the goal of one who seeks a philosophical life to wade into all of that (even at a conference!) and try to simplify, to find the core of meaning, the essence of the issue. 

Slowness and attending to the here and now are easier to understand as methods to the philosophical life.  The first ("slow down!") is needed for the second.  I recently read a piece of advice (can't remember the source) which is to say to oneself, every once in a while, "and so it all comes down to this!"  I find this exercise reassuring and relaxing, although also a bit funny, depending on when you say it.  It definitely brings one to focus on "the now."  Shusterman quotes Thoreau again, that the "true and sublime...are now and here.  God himself culminates in the present moment...And we are enabled to apprehend at all what is sublime and noble only by the perpetual instilling and drenching of the reality that surrounds us" 298 from Walden.  Shusterman adds that "the present moment - although fleeting - a sense, beyond time, when it is apprehended in itself as fully present and thus outside the conceptual line of temporal extension that runs from past to future."  299   He adds, most relevantly to everyday aesthetics:  "But apart from these sublime, quasi-mystical moments of grasping a timeless now, there is the simpler yet significant value of attentive awareness of our mundane experience, of being fully present in what we do and where we are so that we can more fully profit from what our surroundings actually offer."  299.  

Recently I listened to a debate between a friend who is an atheist and one who is more of a spiritual seeker.  The atheist felt that the word "spiritual" could have no meaning, and I wondered whether it could, to an atheist.  I see myself as an atheist, and yet I find myself constantly attracted to the word "spiritual."  Shusterman writes:  "Mindful somatic discipline is not meant to destroy the body but rather to raise it to a higher level; for the body is not simply flesh....but a sentient soma that includes all the entrenched bodily dispositions that constitute our unreflective habits - what guides our unconscious 'sleepwalking' through life.  By making our somatic life more conscious, deliberate, and controlled, we are spiritualizing it." (300) That makes sense to me. Since Shusterman rejects mind/body dualism, he is not tempted by notions of a literal soul or an afterlife.  Thus his thinking can be translated into something like what I have called in earlier posts aesthetic atheism.  He cointinues, "Through...heightened, appreciative awareness and the mindful movements and actions that emerge from it, one can achieve extraordinary aesthetic experience in everyday living" 302.

Shusterman further observes two very different conceptions of everyday aesthetics:  "Although both are concerned with appreciating ordinary objects or commonplace events, the first notion stresses the ordinariness of these everyday things, while the latter instead emphasizes how such things can be perceived through a distinctively focused aesthetic appreciation that transfigures them into a more richly meaningful experience."  303 The second involves "focused or heightened experience ...appreciated as such." 303   I think that both approaches to everyday aesthetics are valuable:  we need to recognize the ordinariness of everyday things, but we also need the meliorative approach that Shusterman stresses.  Shusterman finds limitations to the first approach since it might lead us, for instance, to try to appreciate "dull weather with an ordinary, dull appreciation of its dullness, rather than a sudden spectacular vision...of its dullness."  Dullness can become doubly dull with emphasis on the ordinariness of the ordinary, or it can become dullness enhanced (no longer really dull, actually.)   And so, like me in my book (pg. 36), Shusterman takes inspiration from Emerson's speaking of "the sublime presence of the highest spiritual cause lurking" in simple things.

So, I join Shusterman in finding the second kind of everyday aesthetics "more promising, especially when aesthetics is conceived melioristically as a field of study aimed at enriching our lives by providing richer and more rewarding aesthetic experience." 304.  He recognizes that this may seem paradoxical since "heightened perception renders the ordinary somehow extraordinary in experience" but he sees worse paradox in the first approach to everyday aesthetics in that if we experience the ordinary in the most ordinary way we risk "nor really perceiving anything aesthetically at all..."  304  

However, there is a place where we also disagree. Shusterman contrasts his own conception of everyday aesthetics with the notion in art of defamiliarization or "making strange," an idea often used by artists, for example formalists (and surrealists too).  Viktor Shklovsky saw this as a way to complicate form.  The difficulty of perception would then "compel prolonged perception."  Shusterman thinks that difficulty alienates art from life, confining art to the elite.  This takes us back to the issue of simplicity vs. complexity.  There seem here to be two ways to look at the idea of attentiveness.  The classic view is that when one pays attention closely one sees a thing for what it really is, the essence of that thing emerges.  But another way to look at it is that paying attention and slowing down allows for the work of the imagination such that a metaphor can emerge that gives that object perceived new life, making the ordinary extraordinary.  Earlier I discussed the ways in which creating greater difficulty in the Socratic dialogues can produce an experience (as in the final grasping of Beauty or Good itself) that, paradoxically, has a certain simplicity to it:  one gets to the simplicity through the difficulty.  Similarly, one could say that "making strange" is just another word for what happens when a striking metaphor emerges, one that gives new life.  I do not deny that there are problems with elitism in the contemporary art world, but at the same time, if one puts the work in, one can sometimes use contemporary art experiences to enhance everyday life experience through the process of "making strange."  This would only undemocratically confine art "to the privileged elite" if the average person is deliberately excluded.  But in truth our cultural world is full of in-groups, from motorcycle clubs to Chelsea gallery-goers.  To dump on the Chelsea gallery-goers for not making their material accessible to the motorcyclists seems as strange as reversing the situation and dumping on the motorcycle enthusiasts for not making their aesthetic thrills more accessible for the Chelsea gallery-goers.  So, although I am sympathetic to the "awakened-consciousness version of everyday aesthetics" I do not see it as an alternative to "high art's alienating difficulty and isolating elitism" but rather as as another path to intensity of awareness.  The two paths, one focusing on making strange and difficult and the other on making simple and easy, are really just aspects of the same thing.  

Ironically, despite his attack on elitism, Shusterman exemplifies his so-called democratic path with the intensely elitist experience of being a student at a Zen monastery.   This kind of experience is hardly available to your average working-class individual!  Moreover, it is perfectly appropriate to say that Zen experience is extremely difficult, even though searching for an experience of simplicity.  When Shusterman attacks high art for its "alienating difficulty and isolating elitism" one wonders why these terms do not apply to the very monastic experiences he describes.  I think that on a deeper level, Shusterman is unwilling to accept the deeply imaginative nature of the experience of the extraordinary in the ordinary, and the role that metaphor plays in this. 

Interested in learning more?  See my book:  Thomas Leddy The Extraordinary in the Ordinary:  The Aesthetics of Everyday Life.  Broadview Press, 2012.  Available at Amazon in paperback, and an electronic version at google where you can also find most of the first 47 pages including the table of contents.  You can also buy it fro  Broadview. 

1 comment:

Erik Borchardt said...

Great article! I hope you enjoy everything you're doing! Keep these blogs coming!