hugo :: ideas :: metaphysics
"only as an æsthetic phenomenon is
existence and the world justified"

- nietzsche


emotus ponens picture
::: what is aesthetic? :::

before i knew what aesthetic meant, i had an inkling of an idea that it refers to something that is beautiful. and sure enough, many people shared this definition of aesthetic. and i suppose that, living in the age of relativism, aesthetics is a fairly personal notion. but what sorts of things can be judged beautiful or ugly? visual art? obviously. music, nature, and surroundings? it doesn't take a great stretch of imagination. but what about lifestyle? what about ethics, and tribal cultures, and mathematics? what about sex, rape, war, murder, and ugliness itself? can these be aesthetic? making this argument, most people would roll their eyes and accuse me of melodrama. but i can certainly think of *some* way of looking at each of these things that would generate the same physical sensation in me, as a more common aesthetic might evoke.

to me, anything can be judged as aesthetic if only one takes the "aesthetic stance" toward it. dan dennett, a clever philosophy of mind guy, wrote about how people can understand other people, objects, and concepts in different ways simply but switching their "stance" toward it. For example, I can view a robber running out of a convenience store with a physical stance, and only see objects in motion, governed by laws of gravity and inertia. By adopting the design stance, I can interpret the robber as being designed to go into stores to rob them. By adopting the intentional stance, I interpret the robber as a willful and rational person who robbed this store out of some motivation or habit, and that he is running because he is fleeing from the scene of the crime. the point is that the same situation or concept can be interpreted through different eyes which look for different qualities. i like the idea of haivng an "aesthetic stance". it's value is priceless, because imagine that you could adopt it and live life primarily through aesthetic eyes. your life could be so much happier.

but the catch is, whereas all people are good at adopting the physical, design, and intentional stance, having had those abilities evolved into us over eons, the aesthetic stance must be cultivated.

i believe that the capability for the aesthetic stance arises out of an active attempt have an open mind and live as a perspectivist. Live life, and understand things from as many different worthy points of view as possible. When you understand a situation, a system, or an issue from many opposing points of view, i believe your mind will engage in dialectical mediation to synthesize these opposites at a deeper level, leading you to see what's right (and thus, beautiful) in each position.

so what is the secret of the aesthetic stance? how do we look at any situation and willfully evoke that feeling of jouissance? if we succeed, then we become the master of our own aesthetics, and possibly forge our own key to our happiness.

situations, things, objects, concepts, and systems are all "aesthetic" in their own way. When i describe something as aesthetic, what i fail to describe is exactly how or why they are that way. and it's not just a matter of not better explicating myself, it has to do with the fact that aesthetics cannot be easily verbalized. i like to think of this ephemeral and abstract aesthetic signature as a scent. scents are unique in our sensory vocabulary. it is the most specific and sophisticated encoding of any sensory data. there are at least 3,000 molecules that can be distinguished by our noses, consisting of about 1,000 odor receptors. different molecules in different combinations create complex activation patterns of our receptors, and thus, complex signatures. despite such specificity, smells are instantly recognizable, and quite unforgettable. i like to think of aesthetic signature as a smell because each is incredibly complex, built on top of untraceably many unverbalizable contributing factors. we cannot deconstruct a smell in any real compositional way, we can only map it to other smells familiar to us. an aesthetic doesn't want to be deconstructed either... it can be compared to other aesthetic experiences that we have an intuition for, but as a gestalt system, it cannot and will not be deconstructed.

taking a walk through new york city on a warm summer's day, i allow myself to surrender to my senses. the streets wreaked of humidity, cars, people, and sewage, all tangoed into one. looking down at the sidewalk, i noticed cracks of an interesting pattern in the very grainy concrete. an old model ford that was a fixer upper and a street-veteraned mercedes were parked bumper to bumper. the sky wasn't nearly as blue as i remembered it to be in san francisco, and the clouds, not fluffy or striated...just kind of... pathetic, actually. the soundscrape was a recognizable tapestry of car horns and motors, dogs barking, people chatting, trees swaying, and buildings being silent and solemn. no matter what i heard, smelt, saw, or felt, and no matter if it was the sky, a skyscraper, the people around me, or a crack in the sidewalk, i felt the new york city aesthetic. it's an emersive sensation, leading me to believe that everything big and small possessed the new york city aesthetic signature. new york was a SYSTEM.. a system so distinct, i had a built a complete intuition about it, that being in this system made me feel like being surrounded by soul. a self-similar fractal whose repetition was this element of soul. btw, a soul, is another fascinating idea.. possibly even more titilating and difficult to figure out than aesthetics, but i digress...

so what is aesthetic? i'll think about it and get back to you.



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H U G O . . L I U ...

program in comparative media studies, mit

the media laboratory, mit
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hugo at media dot mit dot edu