Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Existentialism and Everyday Aesthetics

I have been reading At the Existentialist Cafe by Sarah Bakewell (2016). At one point she defines what existentialists do.  Let's see how this can relate to everyday aesthetics (EA).  What I am going to suggest is that EA and existentialism, at least as described by Bakewell, are very close.  Although EA scholars often refer back to pragmatism, perhaps existentialism is also a source.  I know that in my own life, Sartre was a very early strong influence.  Dan Eugen Ratiu has recently been working on drawing connections with Gadamer and other phenomenologists.  Arnold Berleant has drawn from Merleau-Ponty, and I have recently written a post on Merleau-Ponty and everyday aesthetics.  Finally, many writers in EA reference Heidegger.  Turn now to Bakewell's definition.

1.  "Existentialists concern themselves with individual, concrete human existence." (all of the points are on her page 34).  EA does too, except in relation to the aesthetic dimension of that existence, for example of a lunch had at a certain time and place. However, I do not think EA should be limited to human existence: there may be an aesthetic dimension to the existence of animals. Darwin said that the pea-hen experiences the peacock's feathers as beautiful. There is an aesthetic dimension to at least some other animals' individual concrete experience.  Existentialists make us too different from other animals:  but phenomenologically, we know human experience best, so the point is not that important.

2.  "They consider human existence different from the kind of being other things have.  Other entities are what they are, but as a human I am whatever I choose to make of myself at every moment. I am free -"  As I mentioned above, other animals also choose, for example the pea-hen choosing her mate based on aesthetic features. We certainly have hypotheses about what is going on in the minds of particular animals, for example dogs, cats, elephants, and even octopi.  But sometimes, phenomenologically, we feel free, and that feeling seems authenticated by creative action, and often this is closely related to aesthetic experience and not just that aspect of experience related to choice.  To say this is true "every moment" is a bit much, however.

3.  "and therefore I am responsible for everything I do, a dizzying fact which causes an anxiety inseparable from human existence itself."  Those aspects of experience which we label "feeling responsible" and "anxiety" are closely related both to positive and negative aesthetic experience.   If I feel generalized anxiety because I failed to make a phone call at the proper time and let some others down this colors my experience of the day, of my lunch, of my walk, of the trees I see on my walk.  It is part of the phenomenology of my life.  And if this can somehow be incorporated into a larger experience of harmony, or into poetry or tragic art, then it can have a positive aesthetic dimension too.

It is not part of EA to make claims about about I am actually responsible for: that's for ethics to determine.  And yet our lives are, as Dewey said, things of stories, and the stories are often couched in terms of responsibilities accepted and not.  The ethical dimension of life seems to be intertwined with the aesthetic.

4.  "On the other hand, I am only free within situations, which can include factors in my own biology and psychology as well as physical, historical and social variables of the world into which I have been thrown."  EA accepts all of that.

5.  "Despite the limitations, I always want more:  I am passionately involved in personal projects of all kinds."    Yes, and most of these projects have an aesthetic dimension.  For example, I have a project of caring for a dying relative, and this involves seeing her, conversing with her, touching her, all of which can count as what Dewey calls "an experience" and which in turn can have a pervasive quality:  that visit.  There are also life projects associated with self-definition, and these life projects color one's lived experience, sometimes negatively, sometimes positively.  Passion intensifies the experience.  For example, I can passionately define myself as a poet and many or most of my activities and experiences are related in some way to this self-definition.

6.  "Human existence is thus ambiguous:  at once boxed in by borders and yet transcendent and exhilarating."  Yes, and this ambiguous quality can be negatively aesthetic when perceived as boxed in, and positively aesthetic when perceived in the latter way. It is also possible and common, as suggested above, for the two to mix, for the boxed in experience to make the transcendent experience possible, for example. 

7  "An existentialist who is also phenomenological provides no easy rules for dealing with this condition, but instead concentrates on describing lived experience as it presents itself."  It is amazing that such descriptions also often (usually?) describe everyday aesthetic phenomena.  Note for example, Bakewell's own phenomenological description of a cup of coffee on pg. 41...I will just quote the first line, although the entire quotation can be seen as exactly the same as a description in EA!  "this cup of coffee is a rich aroma, at once earthy and perfumed,;  it is the lazy movement of a curlicue of steam rising from its surface.  As I life it to my lips, it is a placidly shifting liquid...  It is an approaching warmth, then an intense dark flavour on my tongue..." 

The only problem with Bakewell's phenomenology is that she says "everything else to do with the bean-growing and the chemistry is hearsay...irrelevant to the phenomenologist."  No, that's a major mistake.  If I experience the coffee against the background of knowledge about how the beans grew, the chemistry, where the coffee is from, and so forth, this is another feature of the experience, and can add to the intensity of the aesthetic delight. Husserl's epoche is an interesting and sometimes helpful strategy, but brackets need to be seen as no more than that:  you can bracket the scientific knowledge out, or bracket it in, and to do both successively is to enhance the experience even more.   

It is also noteworthy that the description is almost identical to that of EA it nowhere mentions judgment, taste, or pleasure.  These are also aspects of the experience of coffee.  

8  "By describing experience well, he or she hopes to understand this existence and awaken us to ways of living more authentic lives."   But if describing experience well is describing EA phenomenologically then isn't a life devoted to EA a life that is more authentic?  Well that depends on the relation between EA and ethics!

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