Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Saito and Thick vs. Thin Appreciation

I have been thinking about Chapters 6 and 7 of Saito's Aesthetics of the Familiar.  In chapter 6 "Consequences of Everyday Aesthetics" Saito stresses the ways in which "seemingly trivial and inconsequential aesthetic preference and taste have unexpected serious implications that determine the state of the world and the quality of life."  She calls this "the power of the aesthetic."  The aesthetic can guide our behavior, our decisions and our actions.  Although I disagree with little in this chapter, the mood of the first part can be kind of depressing.  One begins to feel that aesthetics is, overall, a bad thing, since it is associated so strongly with propaganda, advertising and various forms of manipulation.  Saito's overall position is consistent with also paying attention to the good results of aesthetics.  I also should note that I strongly approve of her alliance of everyday aesthetics with environmentalism.  However some individual passages make me nervous.  Doing philosophy is exploring this kind of nervousness.

For example, she argues that "The aesthetic norms governing [the] ideal [American] lawn are order, uniformity, neatness, and cleanliness, although the contemporary critics of this aesthetic ideal point out that the green lawn instead expresses monotony, conformity, lifelessness, and sterility."  (143)  I have no problem with criticizing the environmentally bad "ideal lawn."  But I do not see how the critics mentioned know what the green lawn really expresses....and in such detail.  Are we anthropomorphizing the green lawn here?  The green lawn, as a type, is not a person.  It does not, as a type, express anything.   Perhaps as a particular thing a green law expresses something. True, most people who have green lawns have similar ideas about it.   Perhaps they are the ones who are expressing, i.e. by way of the lawns they choose to have.  But do they really want to express these properties or endorse these values?  I doubt it.  So the claim seems to be that green lawns have or exemplify these properties regardless of the intentions of their owners.  This might be true but I would like to see some explanation of how.  It would be easier to simply say that, to an environmentalist, it seems as though the owners were trying to express these values.  But this solution would seem too subjective to environmentalists.  Couldn't we just do without this move and insist that we should change the looks of our lawns based on the bad environmental consequences?

This whole matter has to do with a debate I have  had earlier with Allen Carlson over thick vs. thin appreciation of a junkyard.   See my, “The Aesthetics of Junk and Roadside Clutter,” Contemporary Aesthetics.   http://www.contempaesthetics.org/newvolume/pages/journal.php  6 (May 17, 2008).  I will return to this later.

In my seminar meeting on this chapter some discussion entered around the issue of the relationship between Saito's views and utilitarianism.  It is odd that Saito does not mention Bentham, Mill or any consequentialist, given that she is committed to talking about consequences, and also given that she is really interested in bringing ethics and aesthetics closer together.  I think that one of the reasons for this absence is that Kant looms so large in both ethics and aesthetics, whereas the utilitarians are not often mentioned in aesthetics articles, this despite the fact that qualitative differences in pleasure are central to Mill's thinking.  

Another thing that is nagging me takes off from a sentence on consumerism that goes:  "Contemporary persuaders consist of qualities such as new, fashionable, cool, cutting-edge, novel, state-of-the-art, and stylish."  (146)  The quote actually comes right after a quote from my book.  So I may be expressing here some doubts about my own previously expressed views.  I agree with Saito that obsession with these things can lead to bad consequences.  But I also don't want to abandon these everyday aesthetic concepts, or demote them to the realm of the negative. 

So here is my thought, or perhaps it is just a worry.  It seems to me that most of us participate in consumerism, although often with reservations.  I might buy something partly because it is stylish for example.  To that extent I might be buying into (literally) what the advertisers who use the "aesthetic persuaders" want.  But also I want this stylish item (say a nice pair of shoes), and I actually do think that they will look good on me.  Even though I happily join in with critics of consumerist society, I cannot fully do so since I am part of it, and not just part of it out of "no other choice."  I am part of it out of choices I make every day.  I choose, for example, to shop at Whole Earth rather than Safeway.  I choose to buy Ritual coffee over Seattle's Best, and I am not going to be seriously put off if I hear this described as fashionable.  I am particularly susceptible to the persuader "cool."  Most people I know want to be cool, or at least not to be "uncool." 

Even if I were to join a commune in the woods I would still need to buy certain products, and my choice of this lifestyle might well itself be the result of coming to see this lifestyle as stylish, although in a non-standard way. 

What worries me are quotes like the one that says that the staggering volume of stuff created to satisfy consumer appetite is "fueled primarily by aesthetic desire rather than genuine need..."  Can we really distinguish (in anything but a vague way) the domain of aesthetic desire from that of genuine need?   Isn't what is considered "genuine need" highly relativized?   

To be more aesthetic than ethical or more ethical than aesthetic?  This is a great dilemma which needs to be seriously addressed.  For instance I know only a couple of environmentally-minded people who refuse to fly because of global warming:  I am not one of them.  I do it....I consume that product largely because I really enjoy travel.  How much of this is a real need?  Well, if we reduced ourselves to "real needs" (as defined say by the minimum needed to keep us alive) then perhaps all aesthetic properties and experiences would be expendable.  The truth is, I live in a world in which most ethnically minded people think it is worth the environmental cost to indulge their aesthetic desire to fly to places like New York. I can respect the environmental purist who refuses to do this just as I can respect the vegan who refuses ever to harm an animal for his/her daily nourishment.  But it seems to me reasonable to act differently, perhaps while making some modifications to my habits, or hoping that these (e.g. the fact that I do not commute to work) balance out the more ethically problematic stuff.  I just do not want to give up the aesthetic portion of my life to be ethically correct.  Although I know that people who work for contractors for Apple in China sometimes commit suicide because of poor working conditions.  But I still buy an IPhone.  I do not change my IPhone every year....but I still have one.   So too with my car.  It is 1999 vintage, which is sort of virtuous, but on the other hand it is not an electric car, and so it still contributes more to global warming than a electric car would, which in turn contributes more than just walking would.

Also sometimes in Saito's book things are described in a way that makes them seem bad; but maybe they are, in a way, good.  For example, she discusses how "today's economy is referred to as 'experience economy'" and how businesses are expected to go beyond selling goods and services to selling an experience.  For example, when buying an Apple product you are also buying the experience of an Apple Store.  (147)  It is even seen as problematic that someone who goes to a place called "The Rainforest CafĂ©" has all five senses engaged.  But isn't this exactly what Dewey was calling for in his Art as Experience and what Arnold Berleant is still calling for in his writings, and what Saito herself calls for from time to time?  Is the problem here that the experience is being packaged by a company and is not created by self and friends in a DIY manner?   

Actually I really hate some total experiences some corporate stores and malls provide for me, but that just might be closely associated with my own snobbery: my intellectual caste taste-group has rejected these things, and so do I.  Saito mentions how a bookstore found that the aroma and taste of coffee go well with selling books. (148)  Is that supposed to be a bad thing?  Over the years I have spent many a charming hour in now-fast-disappearing coffeehouse/bookstores.  This is a product (sometimes the coffee, sometimes the books) I willingly buy.  Should I feel guilty about this?  Does this make me hopelessly non-environmentalist? 

Terry Eagleton takes a strong position on this:  Saito quotes him as saying that there is aestheticization that saturates the entire culture of late capitalism "with its fetishism of style and surface, its culture of hedonism and technique, its reifying of the signifier and displacement of discursive meaning with random intensities."  (148)  Well, that is the culture we live in, and I agree that sometimes we really need to escape all of this.   But we (that is most of the intellectual caste I belong to) still live deeply immersed in this world most of the time.  Have we sunk into something like the realm of sin?  Or are we just choosing our own pleasures within this world of hedonism (e.g. choosing to consume MSNBC and not FOX news)? 

Saito quotes Berleant as complaining about "the ubiquity of canned music in public spaces" as a particularly "flagrant aesthetic-moral intrusion....psychologically manipulating moods to promote vulnerability."  Sure, I hate canned music too, but isn't this a matter of poor targeting that may actually be rectified in the near future?  How would Berleant feel if instead of the awful stuff he has to listen to now he would get his own bit of well-recorded Bach to listen to as he picks through shirts at Macy's, knowing full well that the trucker next to him is listening to Country Western?  We used to complain about boom-boxes in the 70s.  But, guess what, they (almost) all disappeared, replaced by ear buds.  To see a boom-box now is to almost have an experience of nostalgia.

Saito says "While it is possible to adopt a distanced and disinterested attitude toward [negative aesthetic qualities such as hideous, offensive, malodorus], as in seeing the junkyard for its interesting combination of colors and texture....it is crucial that these negative qualities be experienced as negative in the context of the world-making project."  (214) The problem I have with this is that it assumes a realist stance with respect to negative qualities, as though an omniscient God would be able to see minus signs next to all of the bad things with all of their bad qualities.  And yet aren't negative qualities, as with all experienced qualities, a function of interaction between perceiver and perceived?   Dewey would say so.  Can sense be really made of really experiencing negative qualities as negative?   In the 1960s the neighborhood in San Francisco called the Fillmore was considered blighted, and all urban design experts agreed that it would be better for all, including the residents, that it be torn down.  They were realists about urban blight, but they were wrong.  (I wouldn't say that they were wrong in a realist sense but rather that they were wrong in being realists rather than pragmatists in the first place, and that their wrongness led to bad consequences.)  What they saw as a pit of moral decay others saw as a vibrant African American community.  Today, we consider the destruction of the Fillmore to have been a major aesthetic and moral mistake.  Doesn't it make more sense to just say that we and our taste cohort think it a good idea to eliminate what we perceive to be negatively aesthetic phenomena?  And shouldn't we set aside our self-assured realism and take into account how others would feel about our actions of urban improvement? After all, urban designers really should have followed the golden rule when it came to the mostly black folk who lived in that neighborhood. 

Saito asks, in a rhetorically fashion, "How else are we going to detect something is amiss or wrong with the artifacts with which we interact, our environment, or social engagement?"  (214)  I think that the question is far from having been  answered., and far from having an obvious answer.  I do not think we can assume that finding negative qualities is like finding coins on a beach.  They are not "really there" in the same way that those coins are.  What we have to do is engage in conversation with those with whom we disagree.  To be fair, Saito herself does this to great effect in chapter "The Aesthetics of Wind Farms" which I think has the sense of ethical complexity and nuance that seems lacking when she discusses the thick context vs. thin context issue in Chapter 6.

It is in Chapter 6 that she happily quotes Berleant who complains about the "bland anonymity of suburban housing tracts...sitcoms....pulp novels" and so forth.  But this just, again, sounds like urban elite taste.   Much of the history of recent aesthetic theory has been involved with giving recognition to these things, which are generally called the popular arts.  I recently saw a photograph of the tacky houses of Daly City which made them come alive as objects of wonder.  Whether or not something is aesthetically negative depends on situation and context.

Saito says that "So, the legitimacy of my environmentally informed aesthetic response to green lawns and laundry-hanging, one could argue, is context dependent, and we have much to gain from recognizing the value of aesthetic experience unencumbered b the life values associated with the object."  (203)  I agree, except I would ask "life values associated by whom with the object"?  She goes on "The important point ...is that we cannot make an indiscriminate case for or against one kind of aesthetic appreciation of everyday objects with out values or disvalues.  A further consideration is needed to determine the appropriateness of a certain kind of judgment in a particular context." (203)  I fully endorse this approach.


Friday, May 4, 2018

The Aesthetics of Washing Dishes

I have been reading Yuriko Saito's Aesthetics of the Familiar.  She has a great chapter there on the aesthetics of laundry.  I can relate more to the aesthetics of doing dishes.  So here is my current thinking about this.  My question is:  to what extent is the proper attitude to doing dishes mindfulness?  I want to do a kind of phenomenology of dishwashing.

I go back and forth on mindfulness.  What happens when I try to be mindful (as I do) when cleaning the kitchen.  I am aware of the ugliness of the dirty dishes and do not try to take a Ziff like aesthetic attitude towards them.  I get to work washing.  So my awareness of the dirty dishes is one that has a certain directionality.  As you have taught, it is action oriented.  If I was just mindful of my dirty dishes as dirty dishes I think this would not lead me to action.  But the directionality is towards the positive.  Negative aesthetics is only important if is directed to positive outcomes.  (probably an overgeneralization...but it seems apt here.)  I am also mindful of the process of my action, i.e. of cleaning and neatening.  It would be wrong of me (and less conducive to happiness) just to focus on getting the job done and over with.  I do not want my thoughts of the future (end of this process) to make the task itself less present.  That's the good way to interpret "be in the now."  But I also do not want to be totally in the now, for then I would miss out on the dynamic of the relation between the original situation, the process, and the goal.  Ideally I am aware both of the mess going away and of the orderliness coming in.  (Be in the now does not mean erase past and future.)  The end of the process is what Dewey would call a culmination.  I have had a low level example of "an experience."  The culmination however has no point if does not carry with it the process that led up to it.  Actually, the end moment, as I survey the neatened kitchen, although satisfying, is not actually more intense on the pleasure scale then any of the other moments, for example then the "now let's get to it and get this done" low level enthusiasm at the beginning, or the "let's focus on the natural rhythms of neatening" that gives pleasure to the medium moments. 

Another factor of this is that mindfulness can either be aesthetic or non-aesthetic.  Aesthetic mindfulness is attentive to aesthetic properties.  These emerge between objectivity and subjectivity.  But some may be believe that aesthetic properties are not real, for example because the subject him or herself is not real.  In that case it might be wrong or considered distracting or part of Monkey mind to attend to aesthetic properties:  in mindfulness you erase the thus and thus erase the aesthetic since the aesthetic always requires the self.  This kind of mindfulness is anti-aesthetic.  it might involve being aware of the oily feel of the plate but not of the unpleasantness of the oily feel of the plate.  My thought here is that the mindfulness I want to achieve is not Buddhist mindfulness if Buddhist mindfulness is the non-aesthetic sort I have just described.