Thursday, September 19, 2013

On The Definition of Everyday Aesthetics: Round 2 Initial Response to Naukkarinen

It looks like a lot of people are unhappy with my definition of everyday aesthetics.  I already responded to Kevin Melchionne's objections in an earlier post.  Now the Finnish philosopher Ossi Naukkarinen has weighed in with his "What is 'Everyday' in Everyday Aesthetics?" To start with, it is exciting that anyone would think that "everyday aesthetics" was an essentially contested concept:  it shows how far this new sub-discipline has come.  Naukkarinen, like Melchionne, wants to limit everyday aesthetics to what literally happens every day (although we shall see below that he limits it even further than that, i.e. to what is normal, comforting and easy).  As I suggested in my response to Melchionne, I have little problem with this and am happy to use another term for the broader category of aesthetics I was trying to capture in The Extraordinary in the Ordinary.  Perhaps this broader category could be called "life aesthetics."  Life aesthetics would cover all the aesthetic issues that arise out of reflecting on the way we live our lives.  It would include the things that happen every day, but also special events such as weddings, holidays, science museum trips, Sunday church service, and visiting ruins.  As before, there is no need to include experiences involved in appreciation of the fine or popular arts since these are already covered in their own domains, as is appreciation of a natural creekside, which would be part of the aesthetics of nature.  This may disturb some philosophers since life obviously includes these events too.  But that just means that there is a domain that is broader yet, and this would be called "aesthetics" or "general aesthetics."  "Life aesthetics" just marks out new territory to be explored.  Other branches of aesthetics might include design aesthetics and the aesthetics of science and math.

Naukkarinen says that there are basic precepts for the everyday, first that "every one of us has his or her everyday life; second, it is necessarily his or her own; and third, the contents of it change over time."  He then adds that "[e]veryday life is the unavoidable basis on which everything else is built.  Life without everydayness is practically impossible, and it is difficult to even imagine a life that would be completely non-everyday-like."  This sounds reasonable at first, but I have a few problems with it.  (1)  Although it is true (at least on this planet) that we all have lives divided up into days, what happens in these days is sometimes the same and sometimes varies.  It is true that we all get up at some point, go to bed at some point, and eat at some point --- but just about everything else is variable.  Many of us have very different lives on weekends than on weekdays, for example.  To talk clearly about everyday life we would have to be able to make sense of what does not count as everyday life.  I don't always write philosophy, but today I am doing it, so it would seem that writing philosophy is not part of my everyday life.  But it might be for someone who is really obsessed with philosophy.  Also, it is an important part of my life, and the experience does have certain aesthetic properties.  The aesthetics of scholarship is a possible chapter in the newly titled aesthetics of life.  (2)  I don't see why we need to bring in the word "necessarily" here:  why not just say that my day is my day?  Of course this would ignore the fact that days, like everything else, are often shared with others (a point that Naukkarinen recognizes later in his essay).  I wonder whether  Naukkarinen would allow sentences that begin with, "We started our day..."  (3)  It is not clear what life with or without everydayness means or even what it means to say that everyday life is the basis for everything else.  In what way is a non-everyday event, like taking a Sunday drive, based on an everyday event?  Is it based somehow on the aesthetics of driving, which is more "everyday" for most Californians (for example) than taking a Sunday drive?

But wait, Naukkarinen also says, "Everyday objects, activities, and events, for me and for others, are those with which we spend lots of time, regularly and repeatedly."  That would seem to include weekend events and even once-a-year holidays.  So, which is it?  Is the everyday limited to what happens every day or can it be extended to holidays and weekends?  And what about wedding festivals?  Naukkarinen quotes Melchionne talking about eating, dressing, dwelling and going out as "nearly everyday."  Perhaps the "everyday" is flexible enough to include the nearly every day.  However, as I understand it, Naukkarinen wants to define the everyday in terms of what he calls the everyday attitude, which he describes in this way:

"The everyday attitude is colored with routines, familiarity, continuity, normalcy, habits, the slow process of acclimatization, even superficiality and a sort of half-consciousness  and not with creative experiments, exceptions, constant questioning and change, analyses, and deep reflections.  In our daily lives we aim at control and balance."

This may be the crux of the matter and the point of real disagreement between myself and Naukkarinen.  On his view if I approach every day as a creative experiment or with constant questioning and deep reflection, my everyday experience would not be part of everyday aesthetics.  The deep issue may be one of one's philosophy of everyday life, one's idea of how we ought to approach life (an ethical issue, every bit as much as an aesthetic one.)  

Naukkarinen writes:  "The everyday is the area of our life that we want and typically can trust, the sphere of life that we know very well; or at least believe that we do, which is normally enough to keep us contented."  So, as I take it, everyday aesthetics needs to be limited to materials in daily life that we can trust, that we know well, is normal, and generally keeps us contented.  I do not have any problem with these things as valuable and even as sometimes aesthetically valuable.  I have argued elsewhere that "comfortable" can be taken as an aesthetic property, and maybe there are other similar properties that relate to this realm, for example "makes me happy" or "makes me feel peaceful."  What I do not understand is why these should gain priority over such other concepts as "disturbing," "exciting" and "interesting," which can also be aesthetic properties, and ones that do not have much to do with trust, normality and contentedness although they have a lot to do with life.

Naukkarinen says that everyday life is something we are familiar with.  Does this mean that when we find things unfamiliar that we have left the domain of the everyday?  How unfamiliar does it have to be?  Wildly?  Let's say that I am walking down the street and I see that a house has been gutted for renovation.  I haven't seen this particular house as-gutted before.  I happen to find it visually fascinating.  What domain does this experience fall within?  I see it during part of my daily walk, but it is unfamiliar.  It would seem odd to exclude it from everyday aesthetics. 

Naukkarinen speaks with approval of Melchionne's idea of "easy integration of the aesthetic into routines with amendments" and observes that, for him, this means that he knows his home and his workplace quite well, and that many things he does there are easy and obvious:  "There are lots of things that I don’t have to pay much attention to but can perform almost automatically."  I wouldn't deny that this is the case (not only for him but for anyone), but wonder where aesthetics and aesthetic experience comes into this.  After all, if you do something automatically then you aren't paying attention to it, and if so, then you aren't paying attention to aesthetic properties.  Maybe you are experiencing aesthetic properties unconsciously in such cases.  However, as I have argued elsewhere, even if you pay attention to the ordinariness of ordinary things, the very fact of paying attention to them aesthetically raises them out of the ordinary.

It turns out that, for Naukkarinen, everydayness has even more to do with normalcy, ease, trust and comfort than it does with something that happens every day.  We know this since he argues that someone who is depressed or in crisis does not have everyday experience in his sense: "In such cases one probably cannot say that such people have an everyday life in the same sense as most of us."  I would imagine then that this would also be true for a Buddhist monk who has achieved satori or for someone who is in love with someone who is in love with them (such a person may be in a kind of magical world in which everything is beautiful).  Neither one of these personal types experiences the world primarily in terms of normalcy, ease and comfort.  They have very different attitudes to what I, at least, would call everyday life.  Naukkarinin also says, "whatever is routine and normal can be a part of our everyday, be that play and toys, fixing a car, or sports."  True, but this is different from the idea that only the normal and the routine is part of our everyday.  

What about parties?  Naukarinnin places them outside of the everyday.  As he puts it:  "Parties and festivals are supposed to be breaks in the routine.  They are exceptions, occasions when we do other things than the normal."  He then associates John Dewey and myself with taking these breaks as essential to everyday aesthetics.  Dewey and I "refer to the direction of rather special experiences that rise above the normal stream of daily life, although without being in stark contrast with it." This, Naukkarinen observes, has led Yuriko Saito to stress, by contrast, the everydayness of the everyday.  

It is true that the aesthetics of parties, festivals and holidays can be clumped together, and that these things have different features from, for example, hanging laundry and noticing that it is neat (an example both Saito and I have used of an everyday application of an aesthetic property).  The idea of rising above the normal stream of daily life is ambiguous, however.  Dewey urges us not only to notice the aesthetic properties of a great storm or a marvelous restaurant dinner but also the fire in a fireplace and the aesthetic satisfaction a mechanic takes in a job well done.  In my book I stressed the value of taking an aesthetic attitude towards such ordinary everyday things as shadows of trees on sidewalks.  Sherri Irvin has stressed taking such an attitude towards such things as observing her cat or even the way she sits and breathes.  These latter things do not take us beyond the stream of daily life, but they do involve taking a different attitude towards that stream.  Sometimes I feel that Naukarinnen wants us to take a non-aesthetic attitude to everyday aesthetic phenomena and then, rather perversely, to call this non-aesthetic attitude (what he calls the everyday attitude of trust, etc.) aesthetic. At other times, though, he seems to recognize that routine and boredom are the opposite of the aesthetic.  He observes, rather nicely, that one can try to escape from boredom in slow ways that involve training, for example, in a language or art form:  "This often means a process of developing ourselves, widening our horizons, or learning something new, which can be very demanding."  That would be an area rich in aesthetic possibilities.  He also speaks of de-familiarizing ourselves with the things that are normal to us and says that we then "start to reflect upon and analyze them in a different way."  That would seem to me to be an occasion for aesthetic experience too.  But consider diets (to use an example he gives) which only have long-term impact when they becomes routine.  Yet this (the becoming routine of taking smaller portions at dinner) seems irrelevant to aesthetics.  It might very well be true that our everyday habits have positive power, but that does not mean that they have positive aesthetic power.  

However, the areas of agreement between Naukkarinen and myself are actually quite large.  I agree, for example, with the following:  "I would think that in principle whatever belongs to our everyday can be approached aesthetically or from the aesthetic point of view. It is possible to evaluate anything aesthetically, although it is by no means always necessary.  Often we can choose our point of view.  If we approach something aesthetically, we typically pay attention to such issues as appearance, feel, look, touch, sound, and other perceivable qualities of the things we encounter and interact with: their emotional and sensory aspects."  Also, in response to a debate between Saito and myself, Naukkarinen says "art-related everyday aesthetics is simply another option available for us, not necessarily better or worse as such," and I am happy with that.  He is right that art-relatedness could be an essential part of one person's everyday life and not of another's.  

Perhaps our deepest level of disagreement comes when Naukkarinnen says, "The point of my approach is that should our aesthetic approach really be of an everyday type, we should evaluate and handle things rather routinely, easily and repeatedly, not experimentally, not in atypical and challenging ways, not aiming to broaden our possibilities.  Instead, we should aim at what is normal and non-spectacular to us, at something that does not stick out from the mat of normalcy but supports the routine.  This, in any case, might feel good, safe and satisfying, not simply uninteresting and boring, as Leddy suggests."  I would like to know to what extent this is just descriptive or whether there is something normative going on here.  Is it that Naukkarinen is recommending that we should, generally speaking, evaluate and handle things in this non-experimental way, avoiding the broadening of possibilities?  Is he arguing that, in general, in life, we should aim for the non-spectacular?  Is Leddy more the typical Californian, fascinated with the fascinating, interested in the interesting, always looking for the experimental?  Or is this merely descriptive, merely a matter of setting the most useful boundaries within a new range of aesthetic sub-disciplines?

It is interesting that these division lines are not clear in the complex philosophical diagram Naukkarinen gives to illustrate his position early in his essay.  He puts "My Everyday Now" as a red dot in the center of a field, but the field includes some items that he explicitly excludes from everyday aesthetics.  For instance, the outside circle includes both things to aspire to and things to avoid, and "party" (which, I take it, includes festivals and Sunday drives) is in the "aspire" category even though he explicitly excludes it from everyday aesthetics in the essay.  Moreover, slow development of the sort found in learning a language or instrument, which he also excludes from the everyday in its learning stage, is included when it has become routine.  If the entire chart covers everyday aesthetics then there is little difference between myself and Naukkarinen, except perhaps that I promote moving towards the aspire category and away from the avoid category as essential to everyday aesthetics.

To end these reflections on a positive note, I observe that Naukkarinen says "specialized analyses and critics of, say, restaurants, wines, cars, or fashion are not really examples of everyday aesthetic discourse, even if they have to do with something other than art and natural environments.."  Although the comment was directed against my definition of everyday aesthetics I agree that such analyses are not part of everyday aesthetic discourse.  Everyday aesthetic discourse is the discourse of non-specialists.  On the other hand, such analyses play an important role in the aesthetics of life as well as, in many cases, the aesthetics of design and the aesthetics of the minor arts.  Whether or not the aesthetics of food and wine is necessarily an aesthetics of minor art was discussed in my last post.



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