The sublime in art and self-actualization

Blogmate Paul Adkin recently posted about “purposiveness and becoming.” The simplified gist of it – I partly conjecture, as Paul is ahead of me on some things philosophical – is that purposiveness is teleological or end-oriented. We get a sense of purpose by directing our attention at something “out there/not here yet” toward which we can strive. Thus, purposiveness is wedded to our process of becoming, of transforming ourselves. And if that process of transforming ourselves is in a predetermined direction, we have “purpose” in life.

After a bit of free association, I started correlating Paul’s ideas to some art shows I’d seen recently. In the arts, there is the age-old distinction between the beautiful and the sublime, sometimes cast as the classical and the romantic. Beautiful/classical is associated with symmetry, framing, a delightful rational pleasure; the sublime/romantic is associated with excess, passion, feelings of awe or of being overwhelmed by something that cannot be adequately grasped or framed.

So my tie between Paul and the arts becomes this: Beauty relates to being, the sublime relates to becoming; beauty is static, the sublime is dynamic. The beautiful artwork or musical composition comes to us framed neatly, symmetrically; it is calming and delightful, not disruptive or disturbing. Indeed, it is calming and delightful specifically because it ratifies our sense that we can frame things neatly, symmetrically, rationally, hold them in our hands and view them in wonder.

Knowing nothing of musical history, I think of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik as beautiful, the perfect expression of that delight that comes with rational pleasure. Then I think of his younger contemporary, Beethoven, composing his 5th symphony 20 years later. The 5th is sublime right from the 4-note opening, the “fate motif” that everyone knows. The ominous motif itself seems a warning shot that what is coming is not beautiful but sublime, not an invitation to relax in delight, but something disruptive, full of passion that is not easily confined or domesticated; indeed, something a little bit frightening, breaking the comfort zone of being and expanding it in a way that causes existential angst, as the listener goes beyond their capacity to keep the response within pre-ordained limits. The capacity falters, and one is overwhelmed.

Though my examples might be faulty from the viewpoint of music history, I can still take the point about beauty and the sublime and apply it to self-actualization. Beauty resonates with our stages along the path, it resonates with the pleasure we get when we can pause, look around us, and appreciate the wonderland we happen to be in at this stage of life or of reality. The sublime resonates with our moments of transformation, disruption, the struggle between stages, where one fixed stage is lost and the new not arrived. It is a period of angst – frightening, dizzying, and exhilarating at the same time. The self that has existed up to this moment is overwhelmed and swept aside and the new self not yet formed. It is not unlike what ancient civilizations must have felt at the winter solstice, when the old sun seems dying but the new sun uncertain. It is the breaking of the snakeskin as the old self is shed, its boundaries shattered, but the new self not yet secure.

I know that Slavoj Zizek, whom I admire for his politics, has had something to say about the sublime. (Full disclosure: I have not read Zizek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology, but I have read The Parallax View and a few other bits, and hey, as I said at the outset, this is free association time.) If I had to tie my thesis about the sublime to politics, the easiest point of entry would be in royal lineage. “The king is dead; long live the king.” In that paradox is the anxiety of the sublime in its political aspect. That moment between the death of one monarch and the coronation of the heir must have been one of tremendous anxiety for the body politic, the opening for bloody war and massive dislocation in the fragile civil society, the sublime moment of transformation is all its terrible possibility. Best to try close the gap to the single breath indicated by the semicolon: “The king is dead; long live the king.”

For Zizek, I know, it’s probably more of an ideological thing. Perhaps the self gets overwhelmed and lost in the totalizing ideology that swamps it. This seems especially relevant in totalitarian societies. But I like my king example for how it resonates with those transformative moments in self-actualization.

Just to finally touch on Zizek’s psychoanalytic (Freudian) angle on the sublime, as I am told that he goes there, too. Freud’s superego, of course, relates nicely to the sublime. Let’s briefly say that Freud’s tripartite schema consists of (1) the id, which refers to the dark, primitive drives; (2) the superego, which relates to the inscrutable, all-powerful (father-) figure to which the infant psyche is subjected (and which the infant psyche introjects), the enforcer of prohibitions but also the source of higher ideals for which to strive; and (3) the ego, where the rubber meets the road in terms of the id’s reckless drives and the superego’s controlling function. In Zizek (or so I’m told), ideology functions as a superego. This, to me, opens an interesting dichotomy in the sublime. In one variant, the subject is overwhelmed by the inscrutable power faced and is humbled into in state of awe by the objective power. The second variant comes with the exhilaration of resisting and thwarting the Law – “jouissance” Zizek calls it. To stick to the political framing, the first variant might the “conservative” variant (cp. Edmund Burke), insofar as the subject is humbled, resistance impossible, and the objective power source reaffirmed. The second variant might be the more “radical” variant (cp. Kant), in that the subject breaks down the objective formations of power and proclaims its own dominion.

Back to self-actualization. Beauty and the sublime. An endless series of steps, each step a pleasant resting place, with the movements between fraught with danger and transformation, fraught with the possibility that that self might be utterly lost, humbled, overwhelmed (Burke), or that the self might be exhilarated and transformed, ennobled into some entirely new being who can look back in wonder at all the steps below, enjoy the delight of the moment, and then feel the pull of purposiveness and turn the gaze back upward.

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On Edmund Burke

Reading Iain Hampshire-Monk’s review of The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke by David Bromwich, I noted Bromwich’s comment that “no serious historian today would repeat the commonplace that Burke was the father of modern conservatism.” Picking out “the father of modern conservatism” does pose difficulties, as such abstract categories as “liberal” and “conservative” are context-sensitive and shift dramatically over time, and picking a single “winner” from among the contestants implies a bit of a game-show approach to history. But to play the game and see where it leads, I confess that some of my own publications support the notion of Burke as the father of modern conservatism, at least if that means providing a modern substructure for conservatism.

My line of reasoning (drawing heavily on Burke’s seemingly apolitical treatise on the sublime) was that the 18th century saw rapid erosion of objective social hierarchies as a legitimating discourse in favor of subjective registers – from empiricism’s egalitarian emphasis on the five senses to the Cult of Sensibility novels, wherein “nobility” is established by personal character and not birthright – all tending toward the subjectivism of Kant. Pre-modern conservatives clung to the old hierarchical thinking of the Great Chain of Being. Burke, though, could see the writing on the wall. The new playing field was the field of subjective registers. Kant and Wordsworth (liberally, in my reading) use the new subjectivism to demystify those old hierarchical power structures and empower the individual. Burke, on the other hand, brings conservatism to modernity by updating its ideological support system. He leaves the mystification of objective power sources intact but articulates a subjective and modern ground of authority for that mystification. First and foremost, he does this through his emphasis on the “second nature” of learned behaviors and received traditions folded into our very identities. But one can see it also in how his aesthetic theory shifts the locus of “the sublime” from the neoclassical objective markings to subjective registers of power, terror, etc. In so many ways, he shores up the dignity of traditional institutions and gives them a foothold in the modern playing field. Thus when Enlightenment radicals like Paine and Wollstonecraft would replace monarchy and aristocratic birthrights with rational democratic principles, Burke countered with the  subtlety and forethought that laid the ground for modern conservatism. At least that’s one way of looking at it.

Gary Gautier, “Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian in Context: Gothic Villains, Romantic Heroes, and a New Age of Power Relations,” Genre 32 (1999): 201-34.

Gary Gautier, Landed Patriarchy in Fielding’s Novels (Edwin Mellen Press, 1998), chapter 3.

Aristotle, Wittgenstein, and Identity Politics

My blog entry on Two Kinds of Liberals raised for me a philosophical knot to be untied, implicating such formidable dead men as Aristotle and Wittgenstein.

Aristotle’s interest in natural philosophy and classification leads him to distinguish essential traits from accidental traits. Having four legs and a tail are “essential” traits of a cat; having a calico coloring is an “accidental” trait, a trait that applies to the individual but doesn’t define the category.

Wittgenstein makes a point in the Blue Book that at first sounds similar to Aristotle’s but turns out to be different in implication. Wittgenstein is interested in how we use language. E.g., when we read, do we process the meaning of each word and then put the meanings together? That may seem intuitive, but thinkers as far back as Edmund Burke (in his great 18th-century treatise on the sublime) suspected that this is not how the psychological process works. Wittgenstein asks us to picture someone who hasn’t learned the names for colors. Send him out to pick red flowers today, blue flowers tomorrow. At first you give him a color chart and he compares the flowers in the field to the chart, picking the correct ones. But soon he doesn’t need the chart because he “knows” his colors. The color chart is no longer relevant to his completion of the task. Just as the color chart is no longer needed to pick the flowers, the “image” associated with each word is not required for the process of reading and understanding the novel. We don’t stop and picture the meaning or image associated with each word before going on to the next word. Were this so, we would never in a lifetime finish our first Russian novel. Thus, Wittgenstein distinguishes between “a process being in accordance with a rule” and “a process involving a rule.” As when the color chart is no longer needed, we understand the novel “in accordance with” the meanings of words, but the meanings are not “involved” in the process. Wittgenstein concludes: “The rule which has been taught and is subsequently applied interests us only so far as it is involved in the application. A rule, so far as it interests us, does not act at a distance.” Or, to put it mathematically, if we want to understand a calculation, we are only interested in a rule if “the symbol of the rule forms part of the calculation.”

At first it looks like “a rule involved in a process” corresponds to an “essential” rule in Aristotle’s terms and “a rule in accordance with which” a process takes place would be an “accidental” rule, and there may indeed be contexts wherein the analogy holds true. But Wittgenstein’s point is more radical. Whereas Aristotle is clarifying aspects of the objective world, Wittgenstein is saying that language, once learned, functions without reference to a world outside of itself. The objective world to which the language might refer is irrelevant to (uninvolved in) our processing and understanding the language. “The sign (the sentence) gets its significance … [not from] an object co-existing with the sign … but from the system of signs, from the language to which it belongs. Roughly, understanding a sentence means understanding a language.”

Unlike Aristotle, Wittgenstein points the way to postmodernism, where the ground of meaning is infinitely displaced by a series of signifiers, where there is no ultimate reference point, and where relativism – metaphysical and cultural – becomes hard to shake off.

This theoretical dissonance may seem pointless, but I think it exposes the layering that undergirds the way we think about real world problems. Take the issue of cultural difference. The wing of liberalism I associate with Enlightenment rationalism, as well as with 1960-70s Civil Rights and feminism, is folded on top of an Aristotelian base. The “essential” aspect of human identity is our shared humanness, and we can best resolve such problems as racism through appeal to our universal human capacities for reason and compassion. Race, gender, and cultural identities are, after all, “accidental” traits superimposed upon that shared humanness.

“Identity politics,” together with “multiculturalism,” took hold in academia in the 1980s, and proposed that objectivity is impossible because everyone is a priori “politically situated” by their race, gender, class, etc. This theory is rooted in the ideas of Wittgenstein rather than those of Aristotle. In addressing problems of cultural difference, identity politics does not expressly deny “shared humanness,” but shared humanness is no longer “involved” in the process – it doesn’t form part of the active calculation. The political determinants of race, gender, etc., on the other hand, are “involved” in the process, and need to be respected as such. For example, when the white William Styron wrote The Confessions of Nat Turner from a black man’s perspective, the liberals who attacked him for the arrogance of crossing that line would fit my category of multiculturalist liberals. For them, in today’s racial milieu, the black experience, the white experience, are “involved” in social relations, whereas shared humanness is remote; thus, it is presumptuous for a white man to think he can comprehend what a black man such as Nat Turner might have felt. The other branch of liberals – Enlightenment rationalists, 1960s liberals – who bank on the Aristotelian notion of shared humanness, would, quite the contrary, praise Styron for struggling to get beyond the “accidental” features of race and grasp experience from the point of view of our shared humanness.

When I said in my Two Kinds of Liberals blog that I was “with multiculturalism when it’s building bridges but not when it’s guarding walls,” I can now say that “identity politics” is an example of multiculturalism “guarding walls.” I see efforts such as Styron’s not as some kind of insidious “cultural appropriation” (an impossible term if one believes in the primacy of shared humanness) but as a heroic attempt to illuminate how our shared humanness is the key to dismantling the prejudice and ill will that can absorb us when we remain trapped within such “accidental” layers of identity as race or gender or cultural groupings. (And remember that “accidental” in Aristotle doesn’t mean trivial or unworthy of celebration, but simply means that it is a feature that does not define the essence.)

One other (unhappy in my opinion) consequence of the rise of “identity politics” within liberalism is the way in which it ceded the high ground that liberals held in the 1960s and 70s. Take the issue of double standards. My Aristotelian liberals (if you’ll permit the conceit) were the outspoken enemies of double standards on race and gender. This includes Wollstonecraft and Equiano in the Enlightenment period as well as the Civil Rights and feminist movements of the 1960s/70s. But with the theoretical turn to identity politics in the 1980s – where racial and gender identity displace shared humanness as the operative factor in race and gender struggles – a subset of liberals flip-flopped from being the enemies of double standards to being the champions of double standards. Thus began a liberal regimen of race-specific rules for what language is acceptable and for which practices are “reserved” against cultural appropriation, not to mention the idea, novel at the time but now widely accepted among a new generation of liberals, that a prejudice against someone on purely racial grounds is only “racism” if you are white (i.e., if your race has the upper hand in a power differential). Thus the legitimate effort to address gender inequities can take the illegitimate form of banning the word “bossy” for girls but presumably not for boys. The endgame of “identity politics” liberals is understandable, even noble, but the means – which shifted from the brazenly integrationist platform of the 60s to a kind of trench warfare defending this or that demographic turf, which shifted from a confident rejection of all double standards to an embrace of, or at least an equivocation toward, double standards – to the extent that these means have been deployed, liberals have ceded the moral high ground – not to conservatives, who from my vantage seem even farther aloof from the moral high ground, but to a vacuum waiting to be filled.

OK, I can’t really blame this all on Wittgenstein (from whom I learn more with every reading), although he is implicated in the trajectory towards postmodernism, which I do believe is at least partly responsible for the moral vacuum that developed within liberalism. But writing this has restored my faith in the extraordinary resilience of ancient Greek thought. Thus in this recycling of one of the great questions that absorbed European wits from Boileau to Swift in the 100 years or so leading into the Enlightenment – whether the ancients or the moderns were the greater masters of learning – the laurel wreath goes to … Aristotle and the ancients!

A Defense of Plato

Dear MT,

Per your comparisons, I don’t think Plato is as eager as Nietzsche or Kierkegaard (or perhaps MT) to separate men into two groups and condemn the ignorant masses. Plato’s myth of the cave is more about PROCESS than about passing judgment on the ignorant. It’s sort of like a rational correlative to the Buddhist process of enlightenment. We ALL resist the truth when it first dazzles us and we’re used to shadows. Plato’s myth is about the process we ALL have to go through if we want to achieve enlightenment. And yes, some are not strong enough, some have to turn back. But for Plato I think all rational beings have the capacity if they can find the fortitude. And he quite explicitly says that the enlightened ones should go back and help those who are still in the cave. In this sense he’s more Buddhist and less condescending than Nietzsche and Kierkegaard (especially Nietzsche in my estimation). In this process-orientation, Plato is actually not far from Aristotle’s notion of entelechy, where all things strive unconsciously toward their ideal destination, like the acorn strives toward becoming the oak. In fact, the wedge between Plato and Aristotle is somewhat forced. They have different emphases, yes, but they share a lot of fundamentals. Aristotle learned his Plato well.

In metaphysics, I think your resistance to Plato is a resistance to a straw man version of Plato – as if his formal world is like the Christian God with the beard who sits somewhere in physical space. I find it hard to believe Plato would be so naïve. He is just saying, in the cave and elsewhere, that there is an intellectual reality, a kind of Jungian collective unconscious, which is a hidden prerequisite to all the contingent truths we find in our everyday (transitory) reality. Whether we realize it or not (and most of us don’t), the contingent truths we structure our daily lives by would not be intelligible were they not undergirded by that collective unconsciousness, that conceptual substrate of deeper truths. And the deeper we dig, the closer we get to eternal truths and the more deeply we understand the prerequisites of our surface knowledge.

So you’re right that your idea of a perfect car may not match my idea of a perfect car, but were it not for some abstract concept of perfection implicitly acknowledged by both of us, neither of us could have ANY idea of a perfect car. The concept of perfection is a presupposed premise of your idea and my idea. So now we can talk about a concept of perfection that, albeit abstract, is a necessary prerequisite to our contingent and various concrete ideas. Now we can ponder things at a deeper level, and delve dialectically deeper into the roots of our own consciousness. That’s what Plato is all about.

Re politics, of course Plato’s politics does sort men, but the sorting is not as damning as in Nietzsche. He just says that few men will find their way out of the cave and stay out, and those should be our leaders. And he is undemocratic in the sense that he seems to believe that order requires hierarchy – a practical consideration more than an existential judgment about master and slave races a la Nietzsche. We moderns tend to dismiss hierarchy as a prerequisite to political order, but go back just to the late 18th-century Enlightenment and you will still find strong and intelligent voices (e.g., Edmund Burke, Samuel Johnson) arguing that without hierarchy is chaos. So I don’t agree with Plato here, but I’ll give him a pass on politics. (From what I hear, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s new book, Plato at the Googleplex, presses Plato harder on the human implications of his politics, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.) Anyway, as I’ve said, I don’t think politics is the most compelling branch of his philosophy, but I still agree with Bertrand Russell’s mentor, Alfred North Whitehead, that “Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato.”

And with due respect to Nietzsche’s wit, I think Plato would be the more amiable drinking companion.


Modern Feminism

A recent discussion brought to my attention the curious but apparently widely held belief that feminism was a 20th-century invention. I won’t go into how feminist ideas play into ancient Greek works by Sappho and Aristophanes and Euripides, but I will argue that modern feminism begins circa 1792.

My venerable readers might grant me the premise that the modern democratic state emerged during the Enlightenment, with Tom Paine and others building on John Locke. They might know Paine’s “Rights of Man” (1792), which made the rational case for individual rights and representative government against monarchy and patrilineage. Two years earlier, Mary Wollstonecraft had written “A Vindication of the Rights of Men” (1790), with a thesis much like Paine’s. (Both of these were at least partly in response to the great conservative Edmund Burke’s defense of monarchy and tradition in the wake of the French Revolution.) Wollstonecraft then added “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”(1792), extending the same views specifically to women and on the same rational basis. Women have the same capacities as men, and should have all the same rights and opportunities. Reason tells us this. If it were not for the old irrational customs of a patrilineal society, and the caprices of education, all men and women could (and should) live equal lives integrated together in public and private spheres. That is Wollstonecraft. That, for me, begins modern feminism.

For contrast, we can look to a feminist of the late 1600s, Mary Astell, whose tracts suggest that the constant in modern and pre-modern feminism is the idea that women and men have equal capacities. But other variables show Astell to be what I’d call “pre-modern.” She believes in the conservative hierarchies of the landed social order – without hierarchy is chaos. Patrilineal ranking is natural, that men rule in the public sphere is fine. Her solution is to create separatist enclaves – kind of like secular nunneries –for women who want to advance their education and weigh in on philosophy, etc. But she is fine with segregation of the public sphere by rank and gender, and by no means a democratic thinker. Indeed, she specifically says that the old order of King Charles II is more favorable for women than the emerging, quasi-democratic order of the bourgeois moneyed people.

The literature of the period might support Astell’s alignment of feminism with aristocratic rather than democratic political structures.  Charles II invited female actresses and playwrights to the stage in the 1660s, much to the horror of the more puritanical bourgeoisie. Female characters were strong, witty, and sexually liberated in the theatre of his reign. Then came the 1700s and the bourgeois novels glorifying quiet, virginal women who were removed from the public sphere. One could at least argue (as did other feminists of the time like Mary Manley and Lady Wortley Montagu) that Astell was right in thinking that a conservative ideology of class suited feminism best. Until Mary Wollstonecraft. Then everything changes into its modern form.

(For my take on post-1960s feminism, see Female Chauvinist Pigs; for what’s at stake in the 2012 political arena, see Is There Really a Republican War on Women and Contraception Flap.)