Unreal Nature

March 31, 2013

A Refusal To Consent to Understand

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:48 am

… no knowledge content can win its independence from the question that gives it meaning; no question can gain its autonomy from the choice from which it proceeds; no choice can prevent its selective nature from being taken into consideration, can ignore what is excluded from being presented so that what is chosen can present itself.

This is the second of two posts today from Cosmopolitics II  by Isabelle Stengers (2003):

… Obviously, Bohr never denied that reality “exists,” or that it is “knowable.” Reality is clearly “knowable,” as the existence of quantum mechanics demonstrates. But being “knowable” is something quite different than the possibility of knowledge that critics demand. What they express is nostalgia for that blissful situation where reality itself seems to dictate the categories of its definition.

… It is important to understand that the requirements of EPR [the Einstein, Podolsky, Rosen paradox] reproached “quantum reality” (as defined by quantum theory) for failing to satisfy has nothing to do with what other practices require of their “reality.” Even less with the knowledge one human can have of another. How can I even dream of knowing the other “in itself,” independent of the relation I have with it, independent of our respective abilities to form relationships with one another and with others? The notion that knowledge, in this instance, is dependent on words, on contexts of meaning in which those who know one another participate, is not something to regret. It is, rather, the possibility of knowing in the absence of a relationship that is a nightmare. Should we regret what takes place in a laboratory, where phenomena are effectively staged, purified in such a way that they become experimentally meaningful, acquiring the power to authenticate their representation? No one would dream of imagining that the necessity of a laboratory, of the devices that are used to transform an “empirical” fact, subject to a thousand and one interpretations, into an “experimental” fact, implies the “unknowable” character of reality. Quite the contrary, experimenters are all the more “realist” to the extent that their practice obligates them to fiercely distinguish between “fact” and “artifact,” that is, to distinguish between those cases where “reality” has indeed satisfied the requirements that define it as a reliable witness and those where the device has extended the power of interpretation to produce a “false witness” who cannot but confirm that reality. Laboratory practice connects “reality” not to the possibility of predicting without intervening, but to the possibility of an interaction productive of evidence whose meaning can be determined. From this perspective, Bohr’s indeterminacy does not signify unknowability. It reminds us that every determination is productive of a link that carries meaning, creates the ability to make a difference for the one who has the means to determine.

Bohr, therefore, did not give up trying to “know” reality. He remembered that is was only because the bodies interrogated by classical mechanics allow themselves to be presented in terms of the idealization of mere location that, in Galileo’s lab and that of his heirs, experimental practice appeared to have simply staged a reality determined in itself and by itself. The reality he wanted to reject was not the one presupposed by experimental practice, or the one each of us presupposes when addressing the world and other humans. It was the reality of the Queen of Heaven, the dream of a reality whose truth could be attained independently of any practice, any question, any relationship.

… each science must undergo, in its own way, the challenge of statements such as: no knowledge content can win its independence from the question that gives it meaning; no question can gain its autonomy from the choice from which it proceeds; no choice can prevent its selective nature from being taken into consideration, can ignore what is excluded from being presented so that what is chosen can present itself.

Nonetheless, the fact is that physicists have not abandoned the dream. We can even say that high-energy physics, when it addresses the mathematical symmetries that characterize its objects rather than behaviors in space-time, has reinvented the dream, which then becomes, as Heisenberg noted, frankly Pythagorean. Physicists no longer require of the interrogated reality that it subject itself “in itself” to the determinations in terms of which we measure it. They address symmetry properties that, independently of measurement, characterize the mathematical beings presented by theory.

… It is impossible to acknowledge that Bohr was right and denounce those who didn’t follow him without transforming my approach into a critical, and thus normative, endeavor. Bohr, like Duhem, failed. But we can use his failure to better understand the practice to which his proposition was addressed.

Bohr was incomprehensible, his language was obscure, he would think out loud.” I don’t want to let such statements stand in my way, even though they might be relevant. Not only did people listen to Bohr, intensely, not only did he continuously struggle to express his thought in ever more lucid terms, but he had, in the person of Léon Rosenfeld, a faithful and perfectly intelligible interpreter. Anecdote alone is inadequate. Here, misunderstanding must primarily be understood as a refusal to understand, that is, a refusal to consent to understand, as William James would put it.

Today’s other post from Stengers’s book is here.



Assumes Meaning

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:46 am

…  the device that provides information must also produce meaning.

… the choice of a detection device is the choice of the problem by which the production of determination (or the actualization of the virtual) assumes meaning.

This is first of two posts today from Cosmopolitics II  by Isabelle Stengers (2003):

… for Bohr, measurement of the quantity of motion has no effect on position whatsoever. It reflects the intervention of a detection device that actualizes the “quantity of motion” observable.

Bohr retrospectively defined classical dynamics, from Galileo to Hamilton, as determined by an idealization that becomes misleading whenever the physicist addresses the quantum world. What did causal measurement rely on? … [I]t was causal measurement that enabled Galileo to create the very concept of instantaneous velocity and, with the rational mechanics of the eighteenth century, gave physicists the ability to measure force. In both cases, the visibility of the body, the possibility of determining where it is, is presupposed. For Galileo especially, the equal sign implies that we know both the initial height and velocity of the moving object: the height that characterizes it at a later moment will then allow us to determine the amount of velocity it has gained or lost since leaving its point of departure, and thus its resulting instantaneous velocity. The idealization arises because the possibility of spatial determination is taken for granted, it can be “seen,” and this visibility hides the energy interaction it presupposes. Even in astronomy, we know the Sun’s position only through the emission of light. In both cases the idealization that overlooks this interaction is legitimate in that the order of magnitude of the energy intersection required (given by Planck’s constant) is negligible compared to the energy associated with the motion of the body being characterized. Detection has indeed taken place, but it has taken place at the level of the retina or the photographic place. Who would dare to claim that the Sun is in any way affected by the fact that the photons it emits enable us to locate its position? Doesn’t it emit them regardless? Irresistibly, we think: it is where it is.

It is this irresistible conclusion that quantum mechanics, according to Bohr, obligates us to resist. Neither position nor quantity of motion answers to the idealization of mere location. To determine the position of a particle is to answer a question we have taken the means to make decidable by the appropriate use of a detection device. And in order to be answered, the respective questions about the localization and evaluation of the quantity of motion imply logically incompatible means. The term “logic” is important, for it emphasizes that it is information, intelligible information, leading to reasoning, that we demand of our detection devices. Thus, the device that provides information must also produce meaning. And it is what is implied by the production not of data as such but of meaningful information, information about position, that is incompatible with the production of meaningful information about velocity. The first requires a rigid device, which makes energy exchange uncontrollable; the second must introduce causal measurement, measurement of the transfer of energy, which prevents us from rigidly attaching the device and makes position uncontrollable.

Bohr insisted that our measurement devices are part of classical mechanics by definition, and he was often heard expressing what sounded like an arbitrary limit to the ingeniousness of future devices. However, he adhered to the obligations that followed from the project of interrogating quantum beings in terms that allow us to interpret detection, to claim that if a mark is produced on a photographic plate, the quantum being was “there,” or that if electrons reflected by a target lose energy, it is because they were the “cause” of a recoil of the target particles, which received energy equivalent to the energy lost by the electrons. In other words, just as the laws of classical electrodynamics were required by Bohr’s model of the atom, which happened to contradict them, the classical idealization, made untenable by the finite interaction any detection entails, must still be maintained for the interaction to become a measurement, productive of meaningful information.

… The Bohr interpretation … requires a crucial distinction that mechanics, ever since Galileo, has, according to him, spared the physicist. Causal measurement authorized description and reason to coincide. Between the object defined by measurement and the “measured reality” there was thus no interruption requiring that an observer be implicated or introduced, or obligating the physicist to recall that measurement had to be understood in terms of intervention, mediation, or the production of meaning. Reality was determined “in itself” by the very mode of determination introduced by measurement. For Bohr, the lesson of quantum mechanics was not so much about knowledge as it was about reality itself, more specifically, the fact that reality did not, either in classical mechanics or in quantum mechanics, dictate its categories to the physicist. Variables, whether classical or quantum, refer observables to variables, the meaning of which is the function of which they are variables, but they never authorize the physicist to speak of a “functional” reality. They merely express the fact that the physicist has taken the means to characterize reality as a physical-mathematical function. For Bohr, with regard to the requirements of a functional definition, “reality” has to be referred to as indeterminate, independently of the measuring device able to provide a determinate interpretation to an observation.

Here, it is appropriate to mention the radical distinction made by Gilles Deleuze between the virtual and its actualization, on the one hand, and the possible and its realization, on the other. The only thing “missing” from the possible is existence. Indeed, this is what is presupposed by the measurement device assumed by dynamics: a body can have any possible position or velocity; measurement occasions the transition from the possible to the real of one of those values. Actualization, on the other hand, is associated with creation. It implies a change in kind, not the determination of a preexisting possible. “The virtual possesses the reality of a task to be performed or a problem to be solved: it is the problem which orientates, conditions and engenders solutions, but these do not resemble the conditions of the problem.” In reply to the concept of the problem in Deleuze we have Bohr’s concept of choice. For Bohr, the choice of a detection device is the choice of the problem by which the production of determination (or the actualization of the virtual) assumes meaning.

Today’s second post from this book is here. My most recent post from Stengers’s book previous to these two is here.



March 30, 2013


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:05 am

… Worldmaking as we know it always starts from worlds already on hand; the making is a remaking.

… With false hope of a firm foundation gone, with the world displaced by worlds that are but versions, with substance dissolved into function, and with the given acknowledged as taken, we face the questions how worlds are made, tested, and known.

This is from Ways of Worldmaking by Nelson Goodman (1978):

… In just what sense are there many worlds? What distinguishes genuine from spurious worlds? What are worlds made of? How are they made? What role do symbols play in the making? And how is worldmaking related to knowing?

… If there is but one world, it embraces a multiplicity of contrasting aspects: if there are many worlds, the collection of them all is one. The one world may be taken as many, or the many worlds taken as one: whether one or many depends on the way of taking.

… The alternative descriptions of motion, all of them in much the same terms and routinely transformable into one another, provide only a minor and rather pallid example of diversity in accounts of the world. Much more striking is the vast variety of versions and visions in the several sciences, in the works of different painters and writers, and in our perceptions as informed by these, by circumstances, and by our own insights, interests, and past experiences. Even with all illusory or wrong or dubious versions dropped, the rest exhibit new dimensions of disparity. Here we have no neat set of frames of reference, no ready rules for transforming physics, biology, and psychology into one another, and no way at all of transforming any of these into Van Gogh’s vision, or Van Gogh’s into Caneletto’s. Such of these versions as are depictions rather than descriptions have no truth-value in the literal sense, and cannot be combined by conjunction. The difference between juxtaposing and conjoining two statements hs no evident analogue for two pictures or for a picture and as statement. The dramatically contrasting versions of the world can of course be relativized: each is right under a given system — for a given science, a given artist, or a given perceiver and situation. Here again, we turn from describing or depicting ‘the world’ to talking of descriptions and depictions, but now without even the consolation of intertranslatability among or any evident organization of the several systems in question.

Yet doesn’t a right version differ from a wrong one just in applying to the world, so that rightness itself depends upon and implies a world? We might better say that ‘the world’ depends upon rightness. We cannot test a version by comparing it with a world undescribed, undepicted, unperceived, but only by other means that I shall discuss later. While we may speak of determining what versions are right as ‘learning about the world,’ ‘the world’ supposedly being that which all right versions describe, all we learn about the world is contained in right versions of it: and while the underlying world, bereft of these, need not be denied to those who love it, it is perhaps on the whole a world well lost. For some purposes, we may want to define a relation that will so sort versions into clusters that each cluster constitutes a world, and the members of the cluster are versions of that world; but for many purposes, right world-descriptions and world-depictions and world-perceptions, the ways-the-world-is, or just versions, can be treated as our worlds.

Since the fact that there are many different world-versions is hardly debatable, and the question how many if any worlds-in-themselves there are is virtually empty, in what non-trivial sense are there, as Cassirer and like-minded pluralists insist, many worlds? Just this, I think: that many different world-versions are of independent interest and importance, without any requirement or presumption of reducibility to a single base. The pluralist far from being anti-scientific, accepts the sciences at full value. His typical adversary is the monopolistic materialist or physicalist who maintains that one system, physics, is preeminent and all-inclusive, such that every other version must eventually be reduced to it or rejected as false or meaningless. If all right versions could somehow be reduced to one and only one, that one might with some semblance of plausibility, be regarded as the only truth about the only world. But the evidence for such reducibility is negligible, and even the claim is nebulous since physics itself is fragmentary and unstable and the kind and consequences of reduction envisaged are vague. (How do you go about reducing Constable’s or James Joyce’s world-view to physics?)

… Talk of unstructured content or an unconceptualized given or a substratum without properties is self-defeating; for the talk imposes structure, conceptualizes, ascribes properties. Although conception without perception is merely empty, perception without conception is blind (totally inoperative). Predicates, pictures, other labels, schemata, survive want of application, but content vanishes without form. We can have words without a world but no world without words or other symbols.

The many stuffs — matter, energy, waves, phenomena — that worlds are made of are made along with the worlds. But made from what? Not from nothing, after all, but from other worlds. Worldmaking as we know it always starts from worlds already on hand; the making is a remaking.

… With false hope of a firm foundation gone, with the world displaced by worlds that are but versions, with substance dissolved into function, and with the given acknowledged as taken, we face the questions how worlds are made, tested, and known.




March 29, 2013

Young Mothers

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:02 am

… it seems essential to bring in the fragile and temporary quality of life, as well as the beauty.

This is from A Critical Cinema 3: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers by Scott MacDonald (1992). This is from his interview is with Gunvor Nelson:

[ … ]

MacDonald: So how did you begin making films, and collaborating with Dorothy Wiley?

Nelson: We talked about filmmaking in the abstract for a while, but had no ideas for films, and then one day I was doing the dishes and looking at the gook in the sink and I thought, “Ooooh, here I have it: the contrast between what women ‘should’ look like and what they actually have to be doing.” Schmeerguntz came out of that.

[ … ]

Nelson: We needed to start somewhere. My natural inclinations as a painter were not very evident in the first films. And Dorothy and I needed each other to dare to do it!

MacDonald: You were both young mothers?

Nelson: Yes. She was pregnant and had one child, and I had had Oona: it was the right time for Schmeerguntz.

MacDonald: It really is a disgusting film, you know.

Nelson: I was embarrassed by it when it was finished. But when you’re with small children, that is your world — all that shit and all that gunk. It’s not a false or exaggerated picture.

There were a lot of accidents. The soundtrack worked out almost too well! When I was vomiting (in reverse stuff was coming into my mouth), by accident there was this romantic voice saying, “And he kissed her again.” But even though some of the accidents did add to the film, we wanted more control over what we were doing.

[ … ]

Nelson: … In doing Schmeerguntz, I discovered how beautiful things look through the camera. Seeing a neighbors dirty kitchen in reality, and then seeing how through the camera it became beautiful gave us a kind of euphoria. A melon or dirty dishes, seen with a lens in close-up, were translated into something else. We had so much fun looking at the world in that way. We may not have caught that experience in Schmeerguntz, but we saw it as we were making the film. The camera became like binoculars: you zero in on a small area and isolate it, and it becomes more precious because it’s selected. That process of selection is what makes a film. I started to understand all this through Schmeerguntz.

We were such beginners that when we would get film back from the lab, we’d sit in the car and unroll it to see if imagery was actually there. When it was, we were astonished! It was a miracle to us that an image had created itself.

MacDonald: I can see a vestige of that in Old Digs, in the slice of optically printed orange in that landscape space. It creates wonder.

Nelson: Yes. Close-up lenses are wonderful, because I see not only what is depicted but worlds beyond and feelings and layers beyond or inside or behind.

[ … ]

MacDonald: The mixture of elements in your films seems more than a desire for variety; it’s as if you can’t see beauty without seeing decay.

Nelson: There is beauty in decay — that’s what it is. In Light Years Expanding the rotting apples were an investigation of how things look at different stages of decay. The more decayed and strange the apples became, the more interesting they were, and the more beautiful. The color of the decaying apples often takes my breath away: its incredible delicacy, its fragility. Even mountains decay. To me, it seems essential to bring in the fragile and temporary quality of life, as well as the beauty.

My most recent previous post from a MacDonald interview is here.




March 28, 2013

Lose Your Balance

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:19 am

… Think of anxiety as good fortune, self-assurance as poverty.

This is from The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies by Michel Serres (2008, 1985):

… Let us design an interesting itinerary, one that leaves its optimal talweg and begins to explore a place: one which does not reach a foreseeable resolution, but searches; seems to wander; not deliberate or sure of itself, but rather anxious, off balance and relentless; questing, on the watch, it moves over the whole space, probes, checks things out, reconnoitres, beats about the bush, skips all over the place; few things in the space escape its sweep; whoever follows or invents this itinerary runs the risk of losing everything or inventing; if he makes discoveries, it will be said of his route that he has left the talweg to follow strange attractors.

If you happen upon a fertile method, forge straight ahead with it. It will be productive. You will soon have a notion of the sort of questions it resolves. Then stop because you are heading rapidly towards boredom, rigidity, old age and idiocy. To be sure, repetition and results, canonizing a place, give it the aura of what one knows: money, power, knowledge, things already accomplished. Dead, imitable, desirable. In the beginning, however, the wondrous idea promised life.

Leap sideways. Keep the recognizable method or methods in reserve, in case of illness, misery, fatigue; go rambling again. Explore space, a flying insect, a stag at bay, a stroller always chased off his habitual path by guard dogs growling around familiar places. Observe your own electroencephalogram jumping all over the place and sweeping across the page. … Think of anxiety as good fortune, self-assurance as poverty. Lose your balance, leave the beaten track, chase birds out of the hedges. Débrouillez-vous, muddle through, a perfect popular expression meaning literally to unscramble yourself. It supposes a tangled skein, a certain disorder and that vital confidence in the impromptu event that characterizes healthy innocents, lovers, aesthetes and the lonely.

This research regimen distinguishes us from machines and brings us close to what the body is capable of. It is the latter, more than the mind that separates us from artifice.

On Sundays method rests, rambling saves lives every day. If what you need is victory, everything in its place, battles, banks or institutions, go by way of the first. The other is there for time and intelligence, the well-being of thought, freedom, peace; the creation of unexpected places.

But take both paths, condemn neither; those who love the countryside sometimes need expressways.

[LOL at that last sentence.]

My most recent previous post from Serres’s book is here.



Contemplative Wavering

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:18 am

… Playing “outside oneself” is really allowing the alterity of art the space to play, and it is part of the improvisor’s task to produce this playful space, not by standing next to the work and pointing at it … but by entering the space of the work …

… This is not a question of going beyond the known but of entering into it again and again.

This is from The Philosophy of Improvisation by Gary Peters (2009):

… while it may be true that the interruption of the familiar with the unfamiliar is something that seems to exceed the responsibility of the individual performer, this does not change the fact that such moments of interruption are by no means random, despite the widespread confusion of improvisation with chance. On the contrary, it is the improvisor who decides (or should decide) how to negotiate and manage the tropes and figures, codes and formulae within the contingency of any particular performance. Anything could happen but only certain things will, everything could be different but this time it will be like this: such is the nature of improvisation and, even when the unwonted occurs, the improvisor is still responsible for ensuring that this serves the continuation of the work rather than the mystification of the artist. Playing “outside oneself” is really allowing the alterity of art the space to play, and it is part of the improvisor’s task to produce this playful space, not by standing next to the work and pointing at it, as Bryars suggests, but by entering the space of the work and working ceaselessly to “unravel” it, with an ironic agility able to keep the permanent parabasis aesthetically productive and disruptive.

[ … ]

… the “element of showing” is something different, something sensed not so much in but around the way a movement is performed, a sound delivered, a word spoken, a mark marked, a space or gap between the showing and the shown: espacement. Thus, the difference between an improvised and a nonimprovised gesture is infinitesimal, not a difference of degree but, one might say, of existential quality, something more to do with the way in which a performer inhabits a performance, a form of “dwelling” quite different from being “at home” in the work.

[ … ]

The performance of any action, regardless of how predetermined it is in the minds of those who perform it and those who witness it, contains an element of improvisation. The moment of wavering while contemplating how, exactly, to execute an action already deeply known, belies the presence of improvised action. [Susan Leigh Foster]

It is precisely this, the contemplative wavering within predetermination that characterizes irony and that, thought together with improvisation, allows us finally to say that the way in which the improvisor can show us the mimetic transition from one thing to another, from the unfixed to the fixed, is in that moment of reflection, of hesitation, reservation, and decision prior to each gesture. Not the anteriority of a history stretching back over generations, but the concentration of all that memory in the “yes” and “no” of the now about to begin. This is not a question of going beyond the known but of entering into it again and again.

My most recent previous post from Peters’s book is  here.



March 27, 2013

One Day

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:01 am

… What is this weight that prevents your flying with me?

This is from Air and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Movement by Gaston Bachelard (1943; 1988):

… But we must understand right away that air is the homeland of the predator. Air is that infinite substance that is crossed in a flash with a sense of offensive and triumphant freedom like a bolt of lightning, an eagle, an arrow, or an imperious sovereign glance. In air, we bring our victim out into broad daylight. We do not hide.

… How could we fail, in fact, to suppose from the first paragraph of “The Three Evil Things” that a dream of flight underlies it? “In my dream, in my last-dream, I stood today on a promontory — beyond the world; I held a pair of scales, and weighed the world.”

… it is because the dreamer has winged lightness that he can weigh the world. Flying, he asks all creatures of the earth: Why are you not flying? What is this weight that prevents your flying with me? Who is making you remain motionless on the earth?

… But verticality requires a long apprenticeship: “he who would learn to fly one day must first learn to stand and walk and run and climb and dance: one cannot fly into flying.”

My most recent previous post from Bachelard’s book is here.



Adults Continue to Play

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:00 am

… This freedom and intensity, the fact that the behavior that is so exalting develops in a separate, ideal world, sheltered from any fatal consequence, explains in my view the cultural fertility of games …

This is from Man, Play and Games by Roger Caillois (1958; 1961):

… it is seen that play is not at all a meaningless residue of a routine adult occupation, although it eventually perpetuates a counterfeit of adult activity after the latter has become obsolete. Above all, play is a parallel, independent activity, opposed to the acts and decisions of ordinary life by special characteristics appropriate to play. These I have tried to define and analyze at the outset.

Thus on the one hand children’s games consist of imitating adults, just as the goal of their education is to prepare them in their turn as adults to assume real responsibilities that are no longer imaginary, that can no longer be abolished by merely saying, “I am not playing any more.” The true problem starts here. For it must not be forgotten that adults themselves continue to play complicated, varied, and sometimes dangerous games, which are still viewed as games. Although fate and life may involve one in comparable activities, nevertheless play differs from these even when the player takes life less seriously than the game to which he is addicted. For the game remains separate, closed off, and, in principle, without important repercussions upon the stability and continuity of collective and institutional existence.

The many writers who persist in viewing games, especially children’s games, as pleasant and insignificant activities, with little meaning or influence, have not sufficiently observed that play and ordinary life are constantly and universally antagonistic to each other.

[ … ]

… I must affirm that this supposed relaxation [of play], at the moment that the adult submits to it, does not absorb him any less than his professional activity. It sometimes makes him exert even greater energy, skill, intelligence, or attention. This freedom and intensity, the fact that the behavior that is so exalting develops in a separate, ideal world, sheltered from any fatal consequence, explains in my view the cultural fertility of games and makes it understandable how the choice to which they attest itself reveals the character, pattern, and values of every society.

My most recent previous post from Caillois’s book is here.



March 26, 2013


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:42 am

Bourdieu characterizes the eating habits of the leisured bourgeoisie as the “taste of liberty or luxury” and those of the working class as the “taste of necessity.” The latter favors food that is nourishing and filling, bulky, gulpable, massy. The taste of luxury is for lighter fare, since it need not nourish a body engaged in hard labor.

… There is no universality of Taste untainted by class privilege, no pure judgment of aesthetic pleasure. … Both kinds of taste are part and parcel of the same social forces.

This is from Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy by Carolyn Korsmeyer (1999):

… in this chapter I shall skip the qualifying adjectives and simply use “taste” with a lowercase t when I refer to the actual sense of taste, and “Taste” with a capital T to refer to aesthetic Taste — that type of Taste signified in the expression “philosophies of Taste” or the “philosophical problem of Taste.”

… metaphoric language is not simply the colorful application of terms from one domain in another for decorative or rhetorical purposes, such that the basic things that positively need to be said can be uttered without the use of metaphor. Metaphors constitute parts of the webs of meaning from which conceptual frameworks emerge. If metaphoric language is so crucial to developing the sorts of systematic relations among ideas that we call philosophies, then the choice of images to serve as theoretic metaphors calls for judicious reflection.

… let us begin by noting how observations about taste furthered the growing field of aesthetic theory. For the first point to make about taste as it appears in the intellectual tradition of early modern philosophy is a positive one: of all the senses, the gustatory sense seems most disposed to employment in aesthetic contexts. While examples of the apprehension of beauty are frequently drawn from visual experience (the sight of a flower, a design, a well-executed painting), the actual operation of the appreciative reaction is compared to the savoring of a flavor in which perception and pleasure merge. Taste comes to provide the chief analogy by which the apprehension of the beautiful and of fine artistic qualities and even social style is explicated.

The English term “taste” has had several meanings in its history, all of which relate in some way to the idea of intimate acquaintance with an object by means of one’s own sensory experience. Precursor terms include usages that mean to touch, to smell, and to test. Also of relevance is the fact that a “taste” of something has quantitative connotations — a very small amount, one that requires careful discernment even to notice. And of course “taste” also refers to personal dispositions and preferences, as in the expression “to have a taste for” something, whether a food or an activity or a type of object. The sensation of tasting seems to carry a virtually inescapable affective valence: tasting involves registering the sensation as pleasant or unpleasant. Therefore this sense provides a suitable analog for judgments of the quality of experience by means of immediate, subjective approval.

The metaphor of Taste fosters interest in unique qualities of objects that seize attention because of their fine character, summed up in the term “beauty.” Beauty is an elusive concept. Objects found to be beautiful display so much variety that it is impossible to specify what constitutes beauty in general. While some writers thought they could identify an objective correlate to beauty, few argued that the presence of beauty could actually be inferred from correlative qualities. Moreover, not every percipient is able to make the particular judgment of Taste, for such discernment requires the development of a special sensitivity. This becomes an important theoretical meaning that Taste carries when it assumes centrality in aesthetic theory: an ability to judge the fine points of an individual object, the presence of which cannot be inferred from principles or rules. “Taste” designates a type of apprehension that does not yield knowledge about the causes of sensation or about the principles that govern the phenomenon, but rather provides an evaluative assessment about the immediate object of experience, perceived directly through firsthand acquaintance and the subjective feelings that arise in response. This capacity comes to be seen as a type of good judgment whereby one responds appropriately to art and beautiful objects of nature.

… However, despite the power of the metaphor and the enthusiastic comparisons advanced by writers such as Dubos and Voltaire, modern European aesthetic theory eventually leaves literal taste behind altogether. The reason is partly that in the European context in which “Taste” develops as a theoretical term, the subjectivity of taste — the very quality of this sense that disposes it to aesthetic parallels — also poses a stubborn philosophical problem. Solutions to this problem permit aesthetic Taste to take its place in philosophical systems only because of the manner in which it differs from gustatory taste. To fail to note the differences between the two kinds of taste is to stop short of dealing with the pressing philosophical issue that faced eighteenth-century European philosophy: the threat of relativism to concepts of value and the consequent search for grounds to support claims of universal validity for value judgments.

[ … ]

… The eighteenth-century philosophers who refined the concept of the aesthetic considered themselves to be articulating a mode of perception that is “universal,” that is, recognizable by any person of sensitivity. Their goal seemed to require the separation of aesthetic Taste, which warrants shared values, from gustatory taste, which does not carry with it the expectation that agreement is either forthcoming or important to secure. While the latter presumption has remained more or less unquestioned over the centuries, the goal of establishing a universal foundation for Taste has come in for considerable criticism. Today this Enlightenment project can be seen to manifest a set of social presumptions and exigencies peculiar to its time, and many contemporary critics have interpreted philosophies of Taste skeptically as components of the historical development of certain class interests.

Bourdieu assaults eighteenth-century defenses of a uniform and universal standard of Taste as disguised class hegemony that regulates values of domination and submission in European societies.

Bourdieu characterizes the eating habits of the leisured bourgeoisie as the “taste of liberty or luxury” and those of the working class as the “taste of necessity.” The latter favors food that is nourishing and filling, bulky, gulpable, massy. The taste of luxury is for lighter fare, since it need not nourish a body engaged in hard labor. Luxurious taste also puts a premium on the presentation of dishes and the visual display of a table; it is tolerant of the fiddling necessary to consume dainty or elaborate dishes without dribbles and spills.

The links that Bourdieu draws between literal taste and aesthetic Taste contrast interestingly with the comparisons made by classic philosophies of Taste, for he has in a way turned the value hierarchy on its head. Unlike most philosophies of Taste, Bourdieu emphatically rejects the qualitative distinction between literal and aesthetic Taste. There is no universality of Taste untainted by class privilege, no pure judgment of aesthetic pleasure. And therefore there is no need to stipulate a particular sort of Taste to ground universal aesthetic standards. Both kinds of taste are part and parcel of the same social forces. In fact the oral pleasures of tasting, primitive and infantile, subtend the developed preferences of aesthetic Taste and remain their point of reference. The philosophical superiority of aesthetic Taste is an illusion rooted in the attempt to make class distinctions irrelevant to contemplative ideals of aesthetics, but far from being irrelevant, they have been rendered only invisible.

… The reason that analogies, comparisons — metaphors generally — are so useful in philosophy is that abstract, opaque concepts can be brought to clarity by apt comparison with a concrete, particular, and familiar thing. The disadvantage of analogies and metaphors is that when the comparison is dubious, the very elusiveness of the targeted concept makes it liable to distortion in the process of comparison. (As George Eliot remarks of one of her characters, “We all of us, grave or light, get our thoughts entangled in metaphors, and act fatally on the strength of them.”)

… Before pursuing a philosophy of taste for its own sake, we first should learn something about how this sense actually functions and investigate how much of the traditional understanding of this sense is accurate.

My previous post from Korsmeyer’s book is here.



March 25, 2013

After-Comers Cannot Guess

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:41 am

by W.S. Merwin

Stories come to us like new senses

a wave and an ash tree were sisters
they had been separated since they were children
but they went on believing in each other
though each was sure that the other must be lost
they cherished traits of themselves that they thought of
as family resemblances features they held in common
the sheen of the wave fluttered in remembrance
of the undersides of the leaves of the ash tree
in summer air and the limbs of the ash tree
recalled the wave as the breeze lifted it
and they wrote to each other every day
without knowing where to send the letters
some of which have come to light only now
revealing in their old but familiar language
a view of the world we could not have guessed at

but that we always wanted to believe

This is the first verse (of two) and one line of the second verse from:

Binsey Poplars
……felled 1879
by Gerard Manley Hopkins

My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
….. Of a fresh and following folded rank
…………………..Not spared, not one
…………………..That dandled a sandalled
……………….Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank.

[ … ]

After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.

[ … ]



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