Wednesday, June 3, 2015

everyday awe

There has been a lot of interest recently among psychologists concerning the concept of awe.  So what is the response of the aesthetician?  One immediately thinks of the concept of the sublime, and it is certainly the case that things that are sublime cause us to experience awe.  However, the sublime, going back to Burke's understanding of it, incorporates not only awe, but also delight.  The dictionary defines "awe" as "overwhelming wonder, admiration, respect, or dread."  There doesn't seem to be a delight component required here, although wonder, admiration and respect might each of them have their own associated positive affects.  I can't imagine dread ever having a positive affect component.  But this may be because of my non-religious nature.  I find in that the "current sense of 'dread mixed with veneration' is due to biblical use with reference to the Supreme Being."  Veneration can have a positive affect component, and any dread that a believer has towards God must be combined with some positive affect, love, for example -- otherwise why "believe in" or worship God?  If awe is defined however as simply a combination of fear and surprise then it could only be part of aesthetics in the way ugliness is.....unless of course the surprise aspect contains within it a delight aspect.  Also, psychologists have observed that when people describe experiences of awe they are usually positive.   
I got started on this because my friend Russell Quacchia told me to read article in the New York Times, "Why do we experience awe?"  by Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner, May 24, 2015 Sunday Review.  Piff and Keltner associate awe with goose bumps in the first paragraph, which is a bit puzzling to me since one can experience awe without goose bumps and probably (although I don't have a good example) even goose bumps without awe.  More important however is that they give an evolutionary account of the experience of awe: awe motivates people to do community building things. Their list of community-building things draws the attention of the aesthetician.  They include: "collective rituals, celebration, music and dance, religious gatherings and worship."  All of these communal-type events have strong aesthetic components.  So perhaps awe is one of the important aesthetic phenomena.  (Again, this would situate it as somewhat broader than the sublime.)   Some might balk at this mixture of the aesthetic and the religious. However, in tribal societies the arts (music, dance, etc.) and ritual are not clearly distinguished.  So, the distinction may be relatively recent in human evolution.  I am not happy with making these boundaries more porous.  In earlier posts on aesthetic atheism I have argued for incorporation of religious experience under the aesthetic.  

Another aspect of this of interest to the aesthetician is that the psychologists associate awe with shifting focus from narrow self-interest to community well-being. Evolutionary aestheticians have often seen art as something that brings communities together, thus giving them an adaptive advantage.  Awe, and whatever gives rise to awe, might then be adaptive in this sense.

The actual psychological studies used to support this claim seem somewhat odd:  the authors have found that people who record experiencing awe when looking at blue gum eucalyptus trees are more likely to help a stranger pick up some dropped pens. Apparently there is a correlation between experiences of awe and helping strangers. It is not clear, however, how this is community-building since strangers are, by definition, not part of one's community, although helping a stranger is one way of bringing that person into one's community, at least in a tangential and short-lived way.  But it is not clear how this form of altruism (stranger altruism) could be adaptive. 

But all of this relates to the broader issue of the relation between aesthetics and ethics.  If everyday awe is closely associated with ethics (in its stranger altrusim form) then there is a stronger relation between the two then we have thought.  Well, eighteenth century philosophers, for instance Schiller, thought that sensitivity to beauty made one more moral.  So perhaps this is a continuation of that tradition.  

Piff and Keltner say that in one experiment "participants who reported experiencing more awe in their lives, who felt more regular wonder and beauty in the world around them, were more generous to" a designated stranger.  Maybe this can be generalized. In more common sense terms, experiences of awe might make one feel more expansive and less driven by satisfy immediate personal needs. 

The last part of Piff and Keltner's article is also of interest.  They suggest that our culture is awe-deprived in that we spend more time working and less time outdoors and with others.  We are missing the camping trips and the starry heavens of our youth.  Kant said that two things impressed him:  the moral law within and the starry heavens above.  Piff and Keltner are arguing that the two are deeply connected, that in experiencing awe while looking at the starry heavens we are more inclined to follow the moral law within.  Kant, of course, thought we should follow the moral law out of duty, not inclination....or at least, that this is more admirable.  Sure, but he also found a connection between beauty and morality in his Critique of Judgment.  

Piff and Keltner then extend their critique of our society to a decline in attendance at arts events.  This one is questionable since I have seen other statistics that indicate increases in museum attendance.  Much of this talk about decline in attendance may be associated more with the decline we are seeing in "high art" venues, for example classical music concerts, classical forms of dance, theater, etc. Popular art forms probably see no such decline.  But, as the authors observed, in the U.S. there has been a decline in funding for arts programs in the schools.  So, maybe all of this is an argument for more camping trips and more school arts funding, and I am all for that.

The authors conclude that "awe deprivation has had a hand in a broad societal shift ...over the last 50 years:  People have become more individualistic, more self-focused, more materialistic and less connected with others."  It is hard to measure this, and one would have to be careful in defining the key terms.  It does somewhat fit a characterization I have seen of millennials, that they are autonomous, entitled, imaginative, self-absorbed, defensive, abrasive, myopic, unfocused and indifferent  (Managing the Millennials  by Chip Espinoza, Mick Ukleja, Craig Rusch. 2010 35-36.)  

In any case, the upshot of this, if true, is that aesthetics, including everyday aesthetics, may be a lot more important for our cultural survival then we seem to currently believe.  "To reverse this trend, we suggest that people insist on experiencing more everyday awe, to actively seek out what gives them goose bumps, be it looking at trees, night skies, patterns of wind or water or the quotidian nobility of others...."   Promoting this might be an important goal for everyday aesthetics.

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