Saturday, November 15, 2014

Is focusing on the pain in the dentist's chair having an aesthetic experience?

Recently, Mary B. Wiseman, in "Damask Napkins and the Train from Sichuan:  Aesthetic Experience and Ordinary Things" Chapter 10 of Aesthetics of Everyday Life:  East and West ed. Liu Yuedi and Curtis L. Carter (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014) has argued for using Descartes' idea of "clear and distinct" in relation to aesthetics.  As she puts it:  "[careful] scrutiny makes the experienced object [object of aesthetic value] clear, and de-contextualizing, that is, taking the object of of its frame, makes it distinct."  (136)  Descartes had defined "clear" as "perception which is present and manifest to an attentive mind" and "distinct" as both clear and "separated and delineated from all others" so much so that it contains "absolutely nothing except what is clear."  Wiseman holds the currently unpopular view that aesthetic objects must be considered out of their contexts.   So, contrary to those who would hold that the value of an aesthetic object comes from being part of the life of something larger, Wiseman holds that it "derives from the experience of paying it careful attention."  (138)  I don't quite see how the two positions are in opposition, since paying careful attention to something surely would include paying attention to its relational qualities along with everything else.  However, I also think that, and have argued for the position that, one can usefully toggle between focusing on directly perceivable properties and focusing on relational properties. 

The thing that puzzles me here is the application of Descartes:  as I argued recently in this blog, his way of examining a piece of wax is to eliminate all sensuous perception of the object.  Clear and distinct perception of a piece of wax seems inconsistent with aesthetic perception of such.  But clearly Wiseman is not thinking about Descartes' explication of this notion in terms of the wax example.

Wiseman takes the position that aesthetics is general:  the same sort of thing happens in each of the sub-disciplines of aesthetics:  close attention: "Aesthetic experience consists in paying attention to the experience of tasting, looking, listening, imagining;  these transitive verbs all name experiences whose objects [could be] tea, the pattern in a napkin, a painting, a sonata, an attack, an earthquake, being displaced, being a jade miner.  In the more complex cases you are paying aesthetic attention to imagining what it would be like to do or suffer or be thus and so."  (143-44)  This implies for her that there is no difference between aesthetic experience of art and aesthetic experience of "the world of the everyday."  She explicates this when she says that when we talk of the aesthetics of something we mean "a manner of attending to an object presented to the senses rather than to certain features" the manner being "careful and focused."  The careful scrutiny is directed to "all and only what the senses present and the mind focuses on" (135), although she does allow for imaginative presentation as well.  

There is one problem with this approach.  Perhaps the understanding of aesthetic experience offered to too least too broad to fit what we normally mean by "aesthetic."  Weiseman says that he characterization is "so broad as to allow any clear and penetrating attention paid to what one senses as counting as aesthetic.  An individual sitting in a dentist's chair focusing only on the pain the drill is causing is having an aesthetic experience." (141)  Her idea is that an aesthetic experience is not required to "please."  Wiseman may be right that being "pleased" is not required.  Are we really just pleased by a sublime experience for example?  But isn't it going too far to say that dental pain is aesthetic if attended to closely?  I have had a lot of pain in the dentist's office and, to be frank, my general approach has been to avoid this as much as possible.  Attending closely to the experience of pain is not usually a good way to get away from that experience.  Better ways include asking for another shot of Novocain, or in the good old days of the 1970s, getting a hit of laughing gas.  Trying to think of something unrelated to the pain and discomfort is usually helpful.  Careful scrutiny of my dental pain has never produced positive results.  Wiseman says that "the person in the dentist's chair can focus so intensely on the pain that they are absorbed into it and no longer feel it."  (141)   Perhaps one can, although this has never been part of my experience, and I suspect that whatever experience Wiseman had is not described correctly.  If it is pain, you feel it:  if you no longer feel it, it is no longer pain.  Pain is necessarily felt.  Moreover, my own experience of pain is that close attention to pain makes the pain more intense.  However, in Wiseman's favor, one could say that decontextualizing pain, stripping it of meaning content, can lessen the painfulness of pain.  This is an old Stoic strategy.  If you can achieve the right attitude then attendant feelings of shame or fear which help to accentuate pain can be reduced, thus reducing the level of pain.  


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