December craziness is making it hard for me to get around to writing decent summaries, so this will be a very immanent announcement; the ep should be soon:
On Dec. 2, Seth, Dylan, and I were joined by photographer Amir Zaki to discuss Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, parts I, II, and the 2nd-edition introductory essay, "On Taste."
Burke published this in 1756, and after this point, for the next hundred years or so, all serious aestheticians had to talk not just about the beautiful, but about the sublime too. While beauty is (as Kant says, who was very influenced by Burke's ideas on this topic) all about appreciating the form of a sensory object, which means it has to be clearly presented, and small enough to take the form into your grasp, so to speak, sublimity is about the vast, the powerful, the scary. A great waterfall or mountain, a vast chasm or church, a mighty thunderclap or power chord from a Marshall stack: all this is attention-getting, perhaps awe-inspiring, but not what you'd want to call beautiful.
While Burke has a good deal to say about what qualities something that strikes us as sublime might exhibit, the shift (again, influencing Kant) is toward human reactions: it's not that anything is sublime or beautiful in itself, but that there's a common human nature and so when struck by certain stimuli we react in predictable ways, such as with a feeling of the sublime. Though he doesn't use the terms "stimulus" and "response," he presents an aggressively physiological, psychological account that is meant as a correction to his predecessors, whom he characterizes as focusing purely on artistic works and not on human reactions. This is why, even though he's of course interested in art, most of his examples are from the natural world: we react to certain things in certain ways, and when we use our imaginations (generally necessary for producing or even appreciating works of art), we're only "displeased with the images, from the same principle on which the sense is pleased or displeased with the realities..." (intro, stanza 87).
Burke gives us a picture of human psychology based on pleasure and pain, but wants to distinguish himself from his predecessors by not taking them as simply positive and negative values of the same kind of stuff. They are conceptually separable, not simply contradictories, and he denies straightforwardly the old adage that you couldn't understand one without having experience of the other. In particular, he points out that cessation of pain is not a type of pleasure, and cessation of pleasure is not itself a pain. To give an example of the latter type, he identifies grief as one species of cessation of pleasure, i.e. a permanent severing of ties with a pleasure-giving individual. Though we would hardly consider grief to be a happy experience, he identifies it as within the realm of pleasure: it's a pleasurable savoring of the memory of the beloved.
So it's not that pain = bad and pleasure = good, but that pain and pleasure are each psychological foci for a set of emotional experiences, some of which are ones we would want to experience and some of which we wouldn't. Included within the realm of pleasure is beauty, and included within the realm of pain is the sublime. Since pain is a more powerful force on us than pleasure (we act more keenly to avoid pain than to seek pleasure), the sublime is actually more powerful aesthetically. The key to aesthetic appreciation of the sublime within this realm of pain is distance: I can't appreciate the magnificence of a raging storm when it's directly threatening me. It's only when I'm somehow at a safe distance that I can do this, and so of course a picture (or 3D movie!) of such a storm leaves me dry and safe.
To fill out this picture of our psychological relation to objects of aesthetic appreciation, Burke wrote a new introduction, "On Taste," to the second edition of the book (two years after the first edition), which tries to explain how, even though he's given this very physiological account, there can still be bad taste and good taste. We all have the same uncultured tastes, and he actually starts off here talking about gustatory tastes, like alcohol tasting bitter. People who drink alcohol and feel good can come to like the taste, purely through association with this good feeling, not because it's any less bitter, and this (says Burke) won't make them like bitter things in general or confuse bitter with sweet.
With more reason-intensive acts of appreciation, there can be even more variation, because to for instance, understand a story, you have to understand the words and syntax, maybe the storytelling conventions, the cultural assumptions the storyteller assumes you have or are familiar with, maybe even the history of the art form in question. The more educated you get about an artform, the less likely you are to be satisfied with rudimentary examples of it, the more demanding your tastes. Burke adds to this that your taste could be not just uneducated but actually displaying poor character, if you take pleasure in the vulgar, i.e. whatever wasn't considered proper according to the mores of his time.
Leave a Reply