Pleasurable, Exalted Terror

Edmund Burke wrote that “whatever is qualified to cause terror is a foundation capable of the sublime.” But instead of a category of aesthetics, in contemporary English the word is mainly used by the pretentious to flatter one another. It has thus lost much of the nuance that originated in Burke’s treatise On the Sublime and the Beautiful, in favor of yet another superlative for “good”.

Strictly speaking, something is sublime if it uses the infinite or incalculable to create an experience of beauty incorporating fear or overwhelming. For example, I reserve sublime to describe my first visit to the Niagara Falls, whose dramatic horseshoe of roaring waters transfixed me in a torrent of terror and tranquility.

Yet sublime does not have to refer to natural wonders or artistry. Indeed, many social phenomena can be sublime. Slavoj Žižek once argued that ideology related to the sublime, due to an influence over social reality that defied perception. Specifically, he claims ideologies require a “sublime object” that carries an irreproachable greatness, be it God, the King or the proletariat.

The general idea comes from Kant, who wrote that the sublime is a “formless object” representing our intrinsic inability to perceive vastness or complexity, thus elevating “nature beyond our reach as equivalent to a presentation of ideas.” In confronting such objects, we at once feel displeasure “arising from the inadequacy of imagination in the aesthetic estimation of magnitude” and a “simultaneous awakened pleasure, arising from this very judgement of the inadequacy of the greatest faculty of sense…”.

In ideological space, this inadequacy of imagination parallels the subject’s inability to articulate the nature of their deepest political commitments, which in turn creates a similar “awakened pleasure” in the knowledge that their cause defies a complete description.

In this sense, there is something strangely sublime surrounding the recent brutal interfaces between state and citizen in New York,  Mexico, Hong Kong, and elsewhere. To appreciate the scope and complexity behind these patterns of violence and protest is literally impossible. So out of necessity, our inadequate media elevates that which is beyond our reach to a coherent presentation of ideas. Indeed, it seems as if the news and social media act as a magnifying glass, concentrating public attention onto stochastically occurring tragedies until a spark creates ignition, giving producers the cue for the “national conversation” graphic along the lower third.

There are those that decry the news for being guilty of exploiting “sensationalism,” but this is a mistake. What is being constantly exploited is precisely our craving for the sublime. Indeed, the grotesque scenes of protest that play across our screens, straining eyes that alternate from face to crowd to face, are genuine objects of beauty. And this in turn explains why as a society we have never been more at peace, but also never more in terror. Pleasurable, exalted terror.

hong kong

Advertisements

The Aesthetic of the Macabre: A Critical Look at Junji Ito’s Horror of the Bizarre

Junji Ito has gathered something of a cult following here in America as of late. Already known among horror lovers in Japan, Ito is, in my mind, more closely aligned with the weird fiction of old than with the contemporary horror genre as it stands in this country. I read his masterpieces, Uzumaki and Gyo a few years ago, as well as a few of his short stories. I recently encountered a list of his works with links to each, and worked my way through a few I hadn’t heard of. We at Sweet Talk tend to lean towards social science, but I’ve been hoping we might plumb deeper into the humanities. Art criticism seems about as far from science as it gets, so with Junji Ito fresh on my mind I thought I might engage in a little.

I will start with Uzumaki, move to Gyo, and conclude with a few lesser known ones. Warning: spoilers galore.

Continue reading “The Aesthetic of the Macabre: A Critical Look at Junji Ito’s Horror of the Bizarre”

Dipping Your Toes Into the Irrational World

I keep my vinyl records on the opposite side of the room from my record player (or “turntable” for the more effete vinyl connoisseur), which is twenty-one feet away (I measured). I’m compelled to do so by something within, something which is out of reach of the rational self; there’s no sense to it. In every way it would be easier to put my collection right next to my stereo system. In fact, if someone from HGTV were to come by and blanch at the arrangement, I’d be highly offended, on camera even, at the suggestion to rearrange, for any reason, aesthetic or practical.

There is now attached to the arrangement a ritual; that’s right, a ritual. From my collection I pull several records–by the way, this is all predicated on whether I’m in a record-listening mood. If I’m not in the mood, then I don’t do the ritual: I click my mouse through iTunes until I find the playlist I desire to hear, or just click Pandora. See, that’s the point. What kind of ritual can develop organically from some easy scrolling and mouse-clicking? A ritual of frustration, I suppose, if you don’t know what you want to listen to.

Where was I? Oh, yes, kneeling before my collection on the bottom shelf: I pull several records to put them in a designated “on deck” spot so I don’t have to flip through my entire collection for the duration of the mood. I walk over to the turntable, turn on a special light which illuminates it (that’s so I can see the print on the record label; I’m getting old), lift the lid of the turntable, walk back to the On Deck Circle, pick a record, remove the actual record within its sleeve from the cardboard packaging, gaze at the artwork for a moment, walk all the way back to the record player, remove the vinyl from its sleeve, mount it onto the turntable, set the needle into the groove on the outer edge, close the lid of the turntable, place the sleeve atop the lid, turn off the special light, walk to my chair in the middle of the room, and from there I listen until the needle lifts itself from the groove on the inner edge. It’s an invocation and a benediction, with an entire liturgy between, complete with genuflection and pauses for silence for meditation.

Music, especially long play music fit for one side of a vinyl record (before progressive rock artists discovered the 74-minute compact disc), is a work of art whose purpose is largely to affect the emotions of the listener-participant.  Such art has a penchant for stirring the passions, not the least of which are love, hate, anger, happiness, and fear, along with the more subtle ones, such as longing, loss, sadness, and hope. All of these are buried deep within the breast, only tenuously associated with the intellect. For example, I am much moved by Rush’s 2112, which has no small amount of literary influence upon it, yet I am not moved to discourse about the music intellectually. That, of course, kills the experience, and creates an artifact out of living music. The same with Mozart’s piano concertos, and Beethoven’s late violin concertos, and Genesis with Peter Gabriel, and so on.

IMG_2944ed

So, why the ritual? I know that I feel like performing this ritual, which grew organically, mind you, in order to prepare my body for the emotional encounter it is about to experience. The intellect, apparently, desires to have its body’s passions aroused, but also desires protection from them. A ritual sets boundaries, guides, and rules: “This far, anger, and no further!”

This far, love, and no further?

A True Friend Helps You Move A Body

A true friend not only helps you move your old dormitory couch out of the basement man-cave because your wife complained about the smell even though you don’t smell anything amiss–but she does, and you know what it is she’s smelling, and whom–not only does a true friend help you move aromatic furniture, he also helps you move a body. As the bard proclaims: Ne’er is friendship made more sure than ‘neath the docks/ In darkness for the poor deceased creating concrete socks (Now the song is stuck in your head, isn’t it?)

In civil society, we generally wait for the body to assume room temperature, even refrigerator temperature, before we hire men to dig the hole or stoke the furnace. Moreover, we ask for information regarding death: what kind of sickness? What manner of death? Next of kin? On the other hand, when a friend is required in order to perform a burial, we’re no longer in civil society, and the body is still warm. Most importantly, no questions are asked, not even, “Remember that thing we did?” And whenever someone asks, “What ever happened to Johnny Two Shoes?” the answer is along the lines of “He did seem kind of heavy the last time I saw him.” “Yeah, like he had a kind of sinking feeling about him.”

Many are nostalgic for print media, but we haven’t even buried print media yet. Basic questions have yet to be answered: what killed print media? Was it self-inflicted morbid living (lowest common denominator marketing)? Or was it old age (ineluctability of new technology)? Could the cause of death actually have been suicide (shooting its own customer base in the head repeatedly)?

It was this sentence fragment in Clay Shirky’s “Nostalgia and Newspapers” post which aggravated me (I thought the post was otherwise commendable), concerning print media: “…an industry that prides itself on pitiless public scrutiny of politics and industry…” That’s like saying Johnny Two Shoes loved gambling when in fact Johnny Two Shoes loved running a fixed and illegal roulette game in the Miami Beach area. For a while there, before the sudden demise of print media, we all agreed to play the fixed game because it was fun and there was still a chance to come away with something of value. We small government types tacitly acknowledged that print media was in the tank for Big Government types, and we bought the paper just so long as there were boundaries of decorum. But when Drudge Report, a digital media source, broke the news that Newsweek had declined to pursue the Monica Lewinsky story, the general public abandoned the print media casino. That was it. Too many of us had seen too much violence done to truth, virtue, honesty, integrity, etc., to look the other way any longer; our secondary benefits had been tainted by an arrogant culture of liars and power mongers. News media is not supposed to be terribly objective, but neither are they to be so crass in their power influencing.

The Drudge/Lewinsky example might be too fraught as an example (I’m feeling bombastic), but I repeat for emphasis: it wasn’t the Monica Lewinsky story, it was that Newsweek declined to do its job. Thus, the nascent digital media, which could have died in the birth canal, was delivered, and print media was no longer. Digital was a favorable alternative for many reasons, but not ineluctable, and it didn’t have to mean the demise of print; it still doesn’t.

These quick and easy eulogies of print media seem to me to be disposing of a warm body.

 

To Tell or Not To Tell

Reasonable people might say that Shakespeare wrote his Richard II with reference (perhaps allusion) to Elizabeth’s childlessness in her old age. In fact, reasonable historians believe that the play itself was an added inspiration for the revolt of the Earl of Essex, which ended in a rather ugly fashion. The trick, of course, is that reasonable people can disagree most vehemently, and, thereby, keep their heads attached to their necks.

AB is on to something with his corrective post, namely that wisdom bears in telling stories. All stories can be told. All stories are told in context. Contexts change. Contexts can be manipulated. Stories can be manipulated. People can be manipulated.

When you get into the  business of people-manipulating, it helps to have the power to do so with impunity. A wise storyteller uses ambiguity as a defensive weapon, that is, winks and nods encoded in the text, the decoding of which, naturally, becomes the playground for mischievous persons. Shakespeare, as history bears out, endures much foolishness, but as all wise men do, he speaks not, and in not speaking, he asserts power, much power, over the reader, over history, over society, informing our hearts with virtue.

Likewise Homer, and a few others.

Beauty grows on trees

I just recently returned from France to my home in Atlantic Canada. It was my first time in the country, and I was glad to have spent it within the lush, rolling pastures of Normandy, made famous through the artwork of impressionist par excellence, Claude Monet, during his years in Giverny, long before the Allied liberation I was there to commemorate.

Impressionism happens to be one of my favourite genres of art due its resonance with my philosophical appreciation for David Hume. Hume believed that our aesthetic standards, much like our moral ones, derive from inner sentiments that project approbations on our “sensory impressions”.  The snap-shot framing common in impressionism even mirrors Hume’s empiricism, with each short, thick brush stroke as a ray of light, a sense datum within our kaleidoscopic perception.

Tree-in-Flower-near-Vetheuil

Beauty, Hume maintained, does not realize itself by ideas, but by a conformity between the object and our inner sense. As he wrote in the Standards of Taste, “beauty and deformity, more than sweet and bitter, are not qualities in objects, but belong entirely to the sentiment, internal or external; it must be allowed, that there are certain qualities in objects, which are fitted by nature to produce those particular feelings.” That “nature” we know to be biological evolution, which cross cultural surveys suggest has predisposed us to relish, among other things, the sight of an evergreen landscape, presumably for its signal of hydration and plenty.

Beauty, then, really does grow on trees. But how do we reconcile this with Adam’s point in his discussion with David that all art is a conversation which necessarily requires a group with shared concepts and ideas?

The difference lies in the distinction between aesthetics on the one hand and art on the other, a distinction that leads to an abyss of confusion if not addressed head on. The late David Best gives an excellent example of this in his 1985 book, Feeling and Reason in the Arts. Drawing on Wittgenstein’s argument against the possibility of a private language, Best sees art, unlike aesthetics, as a type of language game, whereby “individual creativity depends upon the existence and grasp of a social practice.” A philosopher of rhythm and movement, he gives the following excellent example, which I’ve pulled from this review:

Some years ago I was privileged to attend a performance by Ram Gopal, the great Indian classical dancer, and I was quite captivated by the exhilarating and exquisite quality of his movements. Yet I was unable to appreciate his dance artistically since I could not understand it. For instance, there is a great and varied range of subtle hand gestures in Indian classical dance, each with a quite precise meaning, of which I knew none. It is clear that my appreciation was aesthetic, not artistic.

This formulation isn’t only applicable to humans. If you’re ambitious, try to imagine the wonderful aesthetic sensations honey bees must experience upon receiving the ultraviolet sense impressions of a pollen laden Golden crocus, before returning to the hive, and transmitting said beauty through the artistic medium of the waggle dance.  While the sentiment produced by the flower may be immediate and personal, the dance only works to communicate because each specie of bee has a genetic understanding of their particular waggle dance rules.

Humans have the capacity to learn the rules of a particular art and then bend them, inventing new forms of artistic media and waggle dances all our own. But it is important to bear in mind that the rules would cease to exist without the aesthetics underlying them. Even in Manga, another captivating form for which I (like Indian classical dance was for Best) have no artistic appreciation, the unique and extremely idiosyncratic iconography Adam highlights are all conspicuously exploiting a Pleistocene aesthetic, in the same way cheesecake exploits our adaptive sweet tooth. Namely, Manga hits on the sentimental fondness for cutesy and wide eye child-like facial features that one would expect in a species that protects and invests as heavily in their kin as humans do.

So in some sense David and Adam are both right. Adam is right that art can never be a private affair — it, by its very nature, is a social practice. Yet David wasn’t deluded when he reported experiencing aesthetic delight upon his introduction to anime, because the latter feeds up into the former. For without that shared evolutionary heritage, the conversation could never begin.


I’m Samuel by the way, and am pleased to be joining the Sweet Talk team. You can follow me on twitter @hamandcheese and I run an independent blog called Abstract Minutiae, where I try to bridge the conceptually near and far from using the ideas of Quine and Hayek. I’m also an economics student, commencing my MA in the fall. Cheers.

 

Anime is Sacred, Indoctrination is Profane

720px-Anirage-alternate.svg

My bother David is not pleased with the post I wrote about how we appreciate art.

In my very serious response, I’m going to pretend that he was talking about Anime or Manga rather than art in general.

David doesn’t want to buy into any institutional theory of Anime, because he does not believe that Anime’s value is arbitrary. Moreover, he doesn’t like the idea that partaking in the sublime enjoyment of giant sweatdrops indicating embarrassment requires that he be a member of a group. We must not sully the sacredness of Anime with the profaning influence of group indoctrination.

As far as I’m concerned, Protagoras of Abdera has this all figured out thousands of years ago. In the Platonic dialogue that bears his name, Protagoras argues that people spend their whole lives teaching one another right and wrong. He said that if learning to play the flute was the same as learning right and wrong, we would all be prolific flute players, though there would still be variation in talent. Perhaps there would be variation in taste as well—the dialogue does not imply that he thought so.

My question to David is: how did he even discover Anime in the first place? It’s a very strange thing, with a whole iconography of facial expressions and reactions that have nothing to do with how people look or react to things. The answer is that you get introduced to Anime—directly or indirectly—by people. The fact that other people value it and talk about it makes you aware of its existence at all. Part of the joy of watching it is being able to talk to other people about it.

At this point I hear David saying: “Wait a minute. Say Anime just happened to be on the TV when I was a kid and no one actively introduced me to it. Say I never talk to anyone about it ever, I just cherish my private enjoyment of it.”

But you cannot escape community by this means, because the creators are part of a community by necessity! Anime does not spring up in a vacuum.  Artists and writers and voice actors and producers and directors all practice a craft which they learned from other people—either directly through instruction or indirectly through imitation—and by practicing that craft with other people playing the other essential roles. The devoted Anime fan sees every mech series as standing on the shoulders of Mobile Suit Gundam and other predecessors; the devoted fan sees how creators have learned from one another while also trying to do things their own way. They see the conversation.

Anime is a conversation, and conversations by definition require a group of people conversing.

Often denigration of the form is tied to denigration of the people. Anime fans have been denigrated as some version of “abnormal, insane people” for as long as people have watched Anime. That is because Anime is tied to the community of people watching and creating it; it just is.

I cannot help but see David’s attempt to demarcate Anime’s intrinsic value from merely arbirarily valued anime in the context of modern philosophers of science’s attempts to demarcate Science and Truth from mere truths, something Deirdre McCloskey has expended a great deal of energy arguing against. We humans do not experience anything meaningful—in terms of knowledge or aesthetics—without conceptual schemes, and conceptual schemes are built socially. They just are.

Anime doesn’t grow on trees.