Monday, September 23, 2019

Are All Real Values Aesthetic?

Our life would not be worth living if we valued nothing. Indeed, that’s a tautology, because to speak of life as worth living is, of course, to speak of life as having a (positive) value. If we were to take the physicist’s view of the universe as sufficient for knowledge or if we were to adopt an eastern mystical perspective on the natural world of changing events as being wholly illusory, we would be nihilists. In that case, we’d have to believe that values are unreal, that all that exists is either an amoral, inhuman flow of matter and energy or some transcendent realm in which human values are meaningless. To value something is to assess the thing as being good or bad. If nothing is really good or bad, if the assessments of value are, at best, self-indulgent conceptual tools we use to accommodate ourselves to living with many strangers in civilized society, we’re poised to lose faith in whatever we’re doing as human creatures. As the Bible likes to say, our heart might grow as cold and heavy as a stone when, instead of humanizing the inhuman wilderness, the opposite influx happens: the physical object’s indifference and pointlessness infiltrate our cultures and worldviews, bypassing our mental defenses, and we objectify ourselves and each other. Human life takes on the aspect of an absurd game, a grotesque folly, a blasphemous outrage.

Nietzsche declared that nihilism would be the inheritance of the “Last Man” who would lack an authentic culture, after the death of God and the surrender of theistic value-systems that are obsolete after the modern discrediting of organized religions. Only if we’re saved by the grace of a superhuman act of value-creation by some ingenious artist might we discover a worthy faith for our time, one that’s fit for the real world. Late-modern art, however, is arguably as dead as God. The art world is a con exploited by the wealthy few in China, Russia, Europe, and the US to launder their ill-gotten profits. Digitization, the proliferation of free data on the internet, and the democratization of the paraphernalia of musicians, visual artists, and film-makers have degraded the outputs of those media. Anyone now can be an artist, which means art can no longer be revelatory. To the extent that art is ubiquitous and consumed like the air we breathe, we take art for granted, and artists themselves can be expected to die off—especially as they’re replaced by machines and software.

The codes of civic morality, too, are arguably disgraced along with neoliberalism (the colonization of all areas of culture by free market principles) and social democracy, given the recent global rise of populism. If the coda of the American century is the farce of Donald Trump’s presidency, we might wonder whether anyone can trust that our secular institutions have real merit. By way of illustration, consider that if the Christian myth is that Jesus took on the sins of the world and was punished to wipe away their stain on God’s creation, President Trump evidently stands as an anti-Christian figure, as an unholy parody of Jesus’s sacrifice; after all, Trump embodies practically half the sins that have ever been committed by humanity and avoids punishment for any of them. Should we play by the rules, then, when the justice system of the most powerful country—which drew up the plans for the global world order—is evidently a sham? Should we bother to vote when the leading democracy can elect a Trump or when Britain can be duped into destroying itself with Brexit? Should we continue to participate in our economies, when consumerism threatens to destroy the planet’s ability to support life?

There are roughly two kinds of nihilist, the informed and the uninformed. The former deliberately sets out to believe in nothing, due to her hyperskeptical antipathy to traditions, institutions, and other sources of value. The latter, unknowing type of nihilist, however, is far more common since while this type believes she has plenty of ideals and goals, these are in fact debased; that is, even if you think you’re trying to be good and you have a religious or philosophical story to justify your value judgments, you’ll be effectively a nihilist if those accounts and judgments put you in touch only with nothing in the reality outside your small-minded frames of reference. You’ll be a nihilist except that you won’t know it; you’ll be one of the walking dead, enthralled by some empty bits of propaganda.

However, this dire analysis is flawed, because the “nihilist’s” austere picture of the world of objects presupposes a type of value (besides the scientist’s epistemic standard). The “absurd game” or “grotesque folly” of the zombified masses that flatter themselves with high-minded self-portrayals rests on an aesthetic reaction, albeit a negative one. The horror implicit in the mass delusion of acting against our self-interest and spiritual potential is hardly objective. What would be objective is a pure world of objects in which the illusion of subjectivity or of goodness or badness is impossible. But put the world as described by physics, together with the delusions of religion and morality, that is, with the behaviour that takes values to be real, and you have a mismatch. That mismatch opens the door to aesthetic interpretation, and that interpretation won’t be arbitrary. On the contrary, the enlightened shock in the face of mass foolishness must be grounded in a real fall from grace, to take the Christian expression, or in a real travesty. To appall or to astound the philosophical elites with a showcase of existential inauthenticity, your behaviour must be wrong in some grand fashion. That wrongness is evident from the disgust a wise person directs towards the harm caused by gross ignorance and arrogance.

Merlin Donald’s Three Stages of Human Cognition

Merlin Donald
Thus, it’s worth pondering the scenario in which all values have only ever been aesthetic. To ground this discussion in empirical facts, I’ll base the aesthetic interpretations on the neuroanthropologist Merlin Donald’s account of the main shifts in human cognition. (See Donald’s article, “An Evolutionary Approach to Culture: Implications for the Study of the Axial Age,” in The Axial Age and its Consequences, eds. R. Bellah and H. Joas.)

From four million to around half a million years ago, humans had a purely mimetic mentality, meaning that the early hominids thought and communicated nonverbally, by bodily gestures. As Donald explains,
Mimesis is an embodied, analog, gestural mode of expression that is inherently reduplicative and collective in nature. It turns the public arena of action into theater. Hence, in a sense, the primal form of distinctly human culture is theatrical, embodied, and performance-oriented. Humans are actors, and initially, in its archaic form, the public face of Mimetic culture was a theater of embodied action, manifest especially in the well-documented proliferation of refined skills among archaic hominids. It was also evident in their ability to coordinate their hunting behavior (suggesting at least some limited conventionalized gesturing) and in the emergence of ritualized patterns of cultural practice, such as coordinated seasonal migrations, shared campsites, and some division of labor. [my emphasis]
Donald points out also that “Mimetic culture still forms the underpinning of human culture. It persists in numerous cultural variations in expression, body language, and expressive custom (most of which people are unaware of and cannot describe verbally), as well as in elementary craft and tool use, pantomime, dance, athletic skill, and prosodic vocalization, including group displays.”

Then, around two to four hundred thousand years ago, there was a transition to what Donald calls the Mythic stage of cognition that was centered on linguistic modeling and lent itself to story-telling.
The second major hominid cognitive transition mediated the shift from a purely mimetic form of culture to speech, storytelling, and fully developed oral-mythic culture. This revolutionary development precipitated a representational shift away from slow-moving mimetic customs, toward group storytelling, which can convey huge amounts of knowledge at speeds that are inconceivable in a mimetic context. With language, the collective knowledge base would thus have accelerated its development to the point where narrative became the dominant, or governing, cognitive mode of hominids, replacing mimetic governance with an allegorical form of thinking that I have labeled “Mythic”…Mythic culture is so named because its governing representations cohere, in any given culture, in a shared narrative tradition: an oral, public, standardized version of reality, full of mythic archetypes and allegories, can exert direct influence over the form of individual thought. The central structures of oral-mythic culture emerged as the hominid capacity for language became universal. It was a direct product of language, and it introduced both a level of culture that remains firmly at the center of human social existence, and a powerful means of recall from memory that proved faster and more precise than the imagery-driven retrieval enabled by mimetic representation. [my emphasis]
Finally, according to Donald, there was a much more recent shift to Theoretic cognition that took advantage of literacy and related cultural developments, producing a social class of reason-centered elites and what we know of as philosophy and science. The cultural changes supported by the invention of external symbols and memory came to fruition in the Axial revolutions in the first millennium BCE, although Donald believes the effects of those revolutions are still unfolding.
The third transition, a cultural explosion that has gradually led humanity from preliterate cultures to symbolically literate societies and theoretic governance, has been marked by a long, sporadic but nevertheless culturally cumulative history…The invention of new memory media was an event of prime importance in this transition, because it readjusted the parameters of communication and memory in the collective social-cognitive structures of society. This culminated in advanced systems of writing and the subsequent externalization of memory storage, which gradually changed the governance hierarchy so that ideas and images, and especially the historical record, were brought under centralized control.
Donald explains further how the shift from Mythic to Theoretic cultures is from inner-focused, authority-based, closed, fixed, stable, and highly emotive narratives, based on implicit, slow and deep analogic logic, on the one hand, to outer-focused, analytic, evidence-based, open-ended, unstable, much less emotive theorization based on explicit, fast and shallow symbolic logic, on the other. However, the transitions cascaded from one to the next, as opposed to each entirely replacing the others, so we retain all three cognitive modes, although predominates in different periods of history or prehistory.

The Premodern Centrality of Aesthetic Values

"All the world's a stage"
Notice that the aesthetic aspects of the first two stages are obvious. In the Mimetic period, hominids expressed their thoughts literally by acting them out, by wearing their mind on their sleeve, as it were. Nonverbal communication is a form of acting, except that instead of pretending to be someone else, we can try to be ourselves by acting the part. So take a concrete example of early mimetic thinking: a clansman signals nonverbally to his fellows as they prepare to hunt bison or some other large, dangerous animal. The signals might have been intended to motivate the group, to reinforce their bond and remind the members that they needn’t be terrified since they’ve practiced the skills needed to take on the “big game.” The mimetic period was too early for theology or morality, but the early hominids likely thought of the hunt as serving some social good. That value would have been dictated largely by evolution: the hominids instinctively protected themselves and their kith and kin, as they came to understand that their offspring depended on the elders, just as the elders in the clan depended on each other to survive.

At any rate, assuming the mimetic hominids implicitly took the hunt to be good rather than bad, they wouldn’t have understood my suggestion that their values were only aesthetic. Nevertheless, regardless of the evolutionary understanding of purpose and value that informed the minds of protohumans, the importance of certain events for them must actually have been aesthetic, because their mentality was performative. There was nothing else to their behaviour or their mental states that would have been susceptible to evaluation, than their living as actors, their miming of their intentions with wild or subtle gestures to coordinate their actions. The good of the clan was just the merit of the performance. Suppose the hunters succeed and bring down a wildebeest. They celebrate with the appropriate gestures, which indicate for them that this result of their cooperation is good. The protohumans implicitly value the dead animal as the end brought about by their risky means. But the killing and consuming of the animal would have been the climax of the play. If the members performed their parts well, the act would have been heroic. If the hunt was clumsy or the hunters only got lucky in bringing down the beast, the result would have been less admirable. The lucky hunters might feel guilty for consuming the meat they didn’t earn, which guilt might sap their courage for the next hunt, and so the value of that lucky first hunt plummets; that hunt could be more a curse than a blessing. There’s nothing intrinsically good or bad about the killing of an animal (or about anything else), but the value of that event would have emerged from the fact that those early hominids learned how to act as though they were engaged in theater, by way of their establishing a mimetic, prelinguistic form of thought.

The situation is similar with respect to Mythic culture, except that the nonverbal communication is largely eclipsed by the verbal, so that instead of life unfolding as the scenes of a play sustained by a protohuman talent for meaningful, nonberbal gestures, early human thought was immersed in story-telling. Instead of performing the meaningful events directly, taking part in the drama as actors on the given stage (the wilderness), language-using primates could speak of the actors who lived in the imagination and in their repeated tales. Along with dreams, here was perhaps a root of the eventual belief in a hidden immaterial realm of souls. The invention of fiction, of language capable of signifying not just the expected effect of certain actions (such as the killing of the hunted animal), but an imaginary, mythic character, an idealized hero who undertakes instructive or epic journeys created a cultural space that was later identified metaphysically with a supernatural realm.

In any case, while early humans might have conceived of their values in more elaborate, religious or moral terms, again in so far as their mentality was mythic, in Donald’s sense of being governed by the telling of stories, those values must have been fundamentally aesthetic. Like bodily performances of roles in an effective theater, stories are literally works of art. Therefore, any aspect of human life that inherits its meaning and value from a myth or legend or from an oral culture is to that extent an aesthetic phenomenon. Suppose, for example, the early humans spoke of the importance of hunting, by telling tall tales to instruct the young members of the tribe. Such tales would likely have passed on folk knowledge about how best to hunt as a team, about why cockiness should be avoided and the prey respected. Just as the value of the results of the hunt used to depend on the skill with which the performance was carried out, now it depended on the artistic merit of the story. Was the story sufficiently compelling, dramatically speaking, to persuade the tribe to obey the lesson?

Art and Objectivity

With the shift to Theoretic culture in the Axial and later Scientific Revolutions, we seem at first glance to leave behind the centrality of aesthetic values and perhaps even to enter a world in which values have no place at all, since Theoretic culture is concerned more with rational acceptance of factual truth. But this loss of value is only superficial, since the centrality of aesthetic values reemerges in a surprising way. With its external memory capacity and elaborate hierarchies of knowledge of how nature actually works, Theoretic culture is famous for disenchanting its subject matter, for alienating the theorists from the world precisely to the extent that they’ve attained an abstract overview of objective processes.

Thus, a key difference between the first two mentalities and the Theoretic is that the former permitted and indeed counted on the suspension of disbelief in the service of the aesthetic values that made early human life worth living, whereas reason-centered culture hinders that suspension. By learning how natural processes work, by objectifying and studying nature and recording the literal descriptions and explanations for posterity, Theoretic culture drains natural phenomena of magical, religious, moral, and aesthetic qualities. These qualities become illusory, at best, in the light of rational understanding. A rational theorist can entertain a religious myth about the gods who control the weather, but she’s prevented from believing in the story, by her scientific understanding of the relevant impersonal causes and effects. We still enjoy stories as entertainments, and so our societies have an aesthetic domain, but we don’t believe that human life or any other part of nature is dramatically meaningful in reality as opposed to fiction. In place of the drama of life on earth with our fellow animals, or the drama disclosed in treasured stories, we have abstract, impersonal theories to match the indifference of objective causality and of a disenchanted universe.

But this objectification of nature ironically prepares the way for the reemergence of aesthetic value, since objective knowledge produces an avalanche of technologies and thus the deep artificiality of our Theoretic civilizations. There, then, is the modern centrality of aesthetic value, in the creation of an artificial world that displaces the wilderness. The protohuman hominids became actors performing a play; later, the early humans spun myths that occupied their imaginations and inspired their actions; and the Theoretic cultures engage in something like the art of sculpture, in creating a host of machines and other artifacts as the fruits of our bounty of objective knowledge.

To be sure, not all artifacts are just sculptures, since we think of technologies as having instrumental purposes. We program computers with software, for example, literally encoding the intended purpose into the machine. Still, we face the fact that instrumental purposes are nowhere to be found in the things themselves. Mass producers of goods such as books, soft drinks, and automobiles tell us how the products are best used, perhaps even providing an instruction manual that lays out exactly how the products are best operated. But none of that instrumentality amounts to real value. Those hypothetical imperatives, as Kant showed, amount to descriptions and are thus consistent with the theoretic, objective mindset. If you drive a car in the intended manner, you should enjoy such and such effects, which amounts to saying only that a certain causal relation is in effect. Any deeper meaning in the instrumental use of artifacts is indeed illusory, since such a prescription translates into a description. Only when we treat all artifacts as akin to paintings, sculptures, music, films, or other physical works of art do they take on value as expressions of artistry. In so far as instrumental artifacts have irreducible value, that value must be aesthetic to be consistent with Theoretic objectivity.

Again, we don’t ordinarily think of cars or soft drinks as works of art, since we’re more interested in their utility, in the instrumental, causal relations that make up our civilized form of life. Those interests amount to effective mass nihilism, however, otherwise known in the West as cultural materialism or consumerism. If you asked the average person to explain the value she places on her smartphone, she’d say the device is good because it’s useful; specifically, the device makes her happy by connecting her with the rest of society in the prevailing fashion, by making her feel safe, by entertaining her, and so on. To speak of such instrumental values, though, is to speak indirectly of objective, impersonal facts, such as those that arise from the causal relations exploited in the invention of the smartphone.

Re-enchanting the world and escaping effective nihilism would require appreciating the artistic role of everything we create. Art historians say art has various purposes, including the communication of ideas, the creation of a sense of beauty, the exploration of perception, or the engineering of pleasure or other strong emotions. An aesthetic interpretation of artificiality in general and of the high-tech world of Theoretic cultures, in particular, would have to uncover such roles of those items we regard as “tools,” “goods,” or “private properties,” in our profane, effectively-nihilistic mindset. This interpretation would have to account for the hiddenness or occult aspect of this artistic purpose. For example, the aesthetic purpose and merit of the high-tech world might be widely recognized only at the end of some incubation period, such as at the point when we’ve reached the so-called technological singularity which some futurists speculate will generate either heaven or hell on earth in the form of a posthuman species. Either way, the aesthetic value should be continuous with that of premodern life in Mimetic and Mythic cultures. As I stress elsewhere, the irony of objective knowledge is that it produces the very personalized world of intelligently-designed and controlled artifacts that the ancients only imagined to exist with their animistic projections onto nature.

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