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

- nietzsche


emotus ponens picture
::: what is aesthetic? a second attempt :::

ok, so my lasting musing on aesthetic was a bit melodramatic and esoteric. it's true that aesthetic is a holistic phenomenon, with many factors and subtlties contributing to its gestalt identity. accordingly, aesthetic is very difficult to deconstruct without demolishing or perverse its fidelity. it's also true that aesthetic is a very context-sensitive phenomenon, because it is a matter of subjective taste. mary thinks her kelly green peacoat to be tres chic and beautiful on rodeo drive, but in boston on st. patty's day, she is horrified by it. so my lasting musing proved the point that aesthetics is ephemeral, context-sensitive, and difficult to deconstruct. point taken. however, a person can make an aesthetic judgement almost instantaneously. why??

aesthetics may be hard to explain, but they are easy to recognize! it takes no time at all for a given person to regard something as beautiful/ugly, exciting/boring, comforting/foreign. people have personal aesthetics. things they have be conditioned to regard as beautiful will trigger cached memories of aesthetic or unaesthetic things from the past. also, when a subject chooses to regard something as aesthetic, he/she will necessarily recall to mind the aesthetic context which epitomizes and enhances the aesthetic perception of that something. so, with that in mind, what are some examples of aesthetics from the every day?

we listen to different types of music: rock, lounge, techno, classical, and jazz, to realize different aesthetics. we have no doubt experienced techno in the excitement of a club, or lounge in the more relaxed social atmosphere of a bar, or classical on those lazy and inspiring sunday mornings. it is not even necessary that we had these experiences in the first person. perhaps we saw a film and associated certain types of people and places with certain genres of music. when first experienced (directly or indirectly), music is descriptive rather than prescriptive.. its aesthetic is a part of the description of the scene. through further experiences, we may re-encounter the same music in slightly (but probably not wholly) different contexts. thus, we begin to mentally carve out an "aesthetic neighborhood" around a genre of music. this process might be dubbed, "experiential grounding for aesthetic" once we have defined and grounded an aesthetic, future encounters with it causes us to create or expect the appropriate context for it. if encountered out of context, we must decide if the context is also there, or if we can recreate the context. if not, we will judge it as inappropriate. music is one example of taste. here is a more exploratory list and some examples for each:

  1. music: latin, techno, classical, big band, rock, lounge, house, 80s, 70s, 60s, 1800s, baroque, classical, etc. (not every musical aesthetic has to have a given name. for example, i might like "emotional" music which might encompass polyphonic church music, romanticism, emo, and love songs.)
  2. food: hearty (beef stew, fried chicken), obvious (buffalo wings, candy), healthy (granola, salads, vegetarian, organic), subtle (sashimi, wine), indian, chinese, french
  3. people: funny, athletic, down-to-earth, tragically hip, motherly, young, old, generous, serious, visionaries, ENFP (meyers briggs personality types)
  4. technology: simple and easy (netvista web appliance), portable (pda), cheap (emachines), stylish (apple products, thinkpads), well designed, good function
  5. home decor: antique/old-fashioned, high tech, minimalist, industrial, eclectic, practical, wood, child-friendly
  6. profession: well-defined, career-path (ibm), high-paying, high-prestige, problem-solving-challenging (consulting), independent/creative (artist, writer), existentialist (philosopher)
  7. language: ebonics, formal, minimalist/avant-garde, pragmatic, wordy, poetic/dramatic, jargon-speaking
  8. culture: chinese, asian, european, quaker, diasporas
  9. values: christian morals, Machiavellian, amoral, philosophy
  10. animals: dog owner, cat lover, animal lover
  11. lifestyle: party, high-life, practical, predictable, adventurous, family-oriented, girlfriend
  12. life aspirations: money, learning, art, survive, family and friends, experiences

from the above list, which is only a partial snapshot of a small fraction of those things involved in aesthetics, we can see that aesthetics is intimately tied to personal identity, and culture. aesthetic can be a dyadic association, but a person's system of aesthetics is ultimately their identity.

in creating systems that are concerned with aesthetic experience, we need to match the elements presented to the user to the user's personal aesthetics and identity, and their current context (for example, the events of someone's day). we also need to match the elements so that they are cohesive and compatible.

if we define an object by mapping it into an "aesthetic neighborhood" of related and compatible linked ideas, that may be enough grounding to use the object as a building block. we can determine the aesthetic compatibility between objects by assessing the intersections of their aesthetic neighborhoods, and the intersection with a personal aesthetics and a person's context.

what is the relationship between aesthetic and identity? at the most granular level, aesthetic can simply be a person's subjective attribution of beauty to something. the computational representation of aesthetic discussed here is just a dyadic association between affect and object or concept.



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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