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A Symposium on Beauty Forum

Comments are posted in the order in which they are received, with earlier postings appearing first below on this page. To see the latest postings, click on "Go to last comment" below.

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greetings ...
Name: Serendip
Date: 2004-02-17 18:42:14
Link to this Comment: 8256

Welcome to the forum area for continuing conversation related to this year's symposium on Beauty, sponsored by the Center for Science in Society at Bryn Mawr.

Like other forum areas on Serendip, this is a place for public informal conversation, a place to leave thoughts of your own that might advance the thinking of others and to find thoughts from others that might advance your own. Its a place for "thoughts in progress", an environment for good conversation.

So join us for the evening sessions and, between them, if you think of something because of something you heard (or something you didn't hear), make a note here for others. And if there's something you think we all ought to be thinking or know about, add that too. And if something said here makes you curious or think something new, better still. Everyone's welcome to join in. That's good conversation.

So, let's see what sense we can collectively make of beauty.

openings ...
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2004-02-18 11:30:34
Link to this Comment: 8262

Wonderful start to the series last night. Thanks to Sharon, and all involved for a rich laying out of some themes I suspect we'll be turning over and over for some time to come.

Some of the ones that stick in my mind:

I trust others will add their own themes. Very much looking forward to the continuing conversation.

a need for caution?
Name: em
Date: 2004-02-18 13:18:19
Link to this Comment: 8265

in response to the idea of beauty as an acculturation:
this made me uncomfortable last night, and i can't quite put a finger on it. the example prof grobstein used of the wine-drinker who develops a more discerning palate especially bugs me because it connects to what i'm worried about. i am worried that analogies like this will allow an avenue through which beauty becomes an elitist endeavor, or an elitist process. i feel that the pursuit of beauty should be open to everyone, and by saying that one appreciates true beauty once one learns more of it, this shuts the door on many people in many situations. perhaps i'm putting weight on this analogy it wasn't meant to bear. in that case, i'll try to explain myself a little better. substitute a word for beauty such as god, or truth, or love. is it possible to say that one can only search for or process god (or truth, or love) if they "know better"? if this question is answered affirmatively, it could then be argued that the god of a person who does not have a phd or is not a minister is more crude or cheap than the god of one who does. what worries me is that i think this last point could be argued convincingly, and i don't want to see that happen.

Name: Jan Trembl
Date: 2004-02-18 13:34:57
Link to this Comment: 8266

In doing some web searches today on various topics (including ultramarine, Anne), I came across a reference to an article
in the August 6, 2003 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, by David Schwartz, Catherine Howe, and Dale Purves of Duke University, arguing that the sounds of music and the sounds of language are intricately connected.

Most of us agreed, I'm sure, with Paul's caution about the chromatic scale in music not being a cultural universal, but they argue that there are only a total of 12 notes
found in the scales of any musical culture.

Paul, can you supply more context for any of this?

music URLS
Name: Jan Trembl
Date: 2004-02-18 13:47:45
Link to this Comment: 8267

Sorry, those URLS didn't link.

the Neuroscience article

An another reference to it.

The Neuroscience article:

An another reference to it:

2 different aesthetics?
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2004-02-18 21:05:03
Link to this Comment: 8276

I want to say a warm thank you, too, to everyone who came and helped make the first evening of our symposium on beauty such an interesting one: it was filled with questions and insights, which generated (for me @ least) a number of further questions...

I confess that I brought into this first session a single motivating question of my own: What IS it that we experience, when we experience beauty? (Okay: what is it that I experience, when I experience beauty?) What Sharon's presentation and our discussion afterwards gave me was an account that operated on a very different level from that of the experiential. In Sharon's multiple (and beautiful) illustrations of what satisfies her and her colleagues in chemistry, I heard three related but slightly different accounts/aesthetics:

It interested me that Sharon felt a connection across what was in my experience a gap--between this adumbration of satisfactory structures on the molecular level, and our experiences of being moved by a bright color, a pure tone, a sweet smell.

Also of great interest to me--which I also hope further sessions will explore--is how the beautiful may be experienced--and so perhaps get defined--differently in these different sensory registers: what do we (individually or culturally) find a certain sight beautiful? a certain sound? a certain smell? Why do we use "beauty" less frequently to describe something we touch, and almost never to describe what we taste? Is this, as Sam suggested, a matter of distance, quantity or rate? Will we, by the end of this symposium, be able to trace out a "theory of a good smell" (or sound or sight)? And how far will Ralph's suggestion that we substitute "attraction" for "beauty" get us, particularly in understanding how non-humans process the inputs they receive?

This morning, I was trying to trace for Mark Lord (who will speak later in this series) my sense that we had identified two very different aesthetics in the course of our evening's conversation (one axis may measure degree of symmetry; another may have more to do with whether we have made/ have had no part in making what we find beautiful). Mark suggested that our sense of the beautiful might also be described in terms of desire/desirelessness: is the beautiful that which draws us on/out/beyond ourselves, pulls us off-center, makes us long for what we cannot reach; or is it one that (in the terms Paul was suggesting) that which makes us "relax," contributes to a sense of "stability"?

Elaine Scarry's book On Beauty and Being Just suggests a way of bringing this tension together nicely (which I think also speaks directly to Emily's concern): in being pulled out of ourselves by something beautiful (=symmetrical) we may find ourselves moved towards the symmetry of justice (=equality). That would make our "acculturation into what is beautiful" not at all a matter of narrowing of taste, but rather an expansion of empathy.

Very much looking forward to further expansion--

Name: orah
Date: 2004-02-18 21:55:19
Link to this Comment: 8278

two ideas:
prof. grobstein posted that "we (cultural dependence?) tend to use "beauty" more readily for things seen and heard and smelled than for things tasted or touched."
sex is refered to as beautiful and i think sex is the ultimate touch (possibly the ultimate beauty?).
regarding, "we (cultural dependence?) hear pure tones (highly ordered) as more beautiful than noise (highly disordered) but that sounds somewhere between highly disordered and highly ordered may be more beautiful still," i think humans seek orgonization. we are scared of dispersion, dissipation. the first two verses of the bible read, "in the begining God created the heavens and the earth and the earth was formless and void." alternative translations of the hebrew word usually translated as 'created' is 'orgonized.' this is a radical idea. does this idea take the ultimate power of creation away from the almighty? Elizabeth Cady Stanton writes in "the women's bible," "there is something sublime in bringing order out of choas." i think: very very true. for humans, there is possibly a greater power in orgonization than in creation. in this creation/orgonization what did god do? brought beauty to this formless void.

pure tones
Name: Jan Trembl
Date: 2004-02-19 10:16:28
Link to this Comment: 8287

If people don't have time to read the article about the relationship between music and language in the Journal of Neuroscience, here is a shorter report on it from the Boston Globe. Music may be more beautiful to us than pure tones because it is closer to human language. The question of whether animals appreciate human music is also addressed.

Name: orah
Date: 2004-02-19 12:19:21
Link to this Comment: 8288

"Music may be more beautiful to us than pure tones because it is closer to human language."
so is beauty that which we understand?
and the level of beauty determined by our level of understanding?

Name: Jan
Date: 2004-02-19 17:26:31
Link to this Comment: 8295

"Is the level of beauty determined by the level of understanding?"
I don't know.
Some partipants (or at least one) said they no longer found something beautiful once the mystery was gone.
If the language/music argument holds (and I don't know that it does either), it could be that the criteria for beautiful sounds differ from those for other things we perceive to be beautiful.

Date: 2004-02-21 23:32:56
Link to this Comment: 8344

i was reading "darwin's dangerous idea" by daniel dennett tonight, and on page 386, i came across this: "science was the Enemy--as every card-carrying humanist knows." Dennett goes on to quote Wordsworth "Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;/ Our meddling intellect/ Misshapes the beauteous forms of things:--/ We murder to dissect."
i suppose that i could be called a card-carrying humanist, but despite that, i find this rather appalling. why is it that the sciences and the humanities can't just... get along? connecting to the csem that orah and i are in, why can't everybody have their own stories and let them coexist happily? --the biologist can find a forest as beautiful as a chemist or a philosopher or a poet does even if the biologist admires it for its spectacular photosynthesis... and likewise, photosynthesis doesn't have to "ruin" it for the poet, writer, or english prof etc., does it?
i have to say here that i know i'm probably preaching to the choir... and perhaps my secret passion for chemistry is what motivates my desire to see the sciences and the humanities find steady ground on which to admire and support each other. but now it's a secret no longer. oh well.

why pragmatism doesn't work
Name: orah
Date: 2004-02-23 16:30:16
Link to this Comment: 8396

hey em,
that's what i was thinking when i posted on the evolution forum all that william james's pragmatism. james says that, "ideas (which themselves are bit parts of our experience) become true just in so far as they help us to get into satisfactory relation with other parts of our experience...any idea upon which we can ride, so to speak; any idea that will carry us prosperously from any one part of experience to any other part, linking things satisfactorily, working securly, simplifying, saving labor; is true for just so much, true in so far forth, true instramentally..."He goes on, "an idea is 'true' so long as to beleive it is profitable to our lives....the true is the name of whateer proves itself to be good in the way of beleif, and good, too, for definite, assignable reasons." (Lec.II: What Pragmatism Means. Dover Publications, inc. New York p.17-32)
so james is saying: live and let live.
but, i really don't think pragmatism works. it's just not useful or applicable.
it doesn't work on two levels. 1. you can't go to the middle east and get everyone to read james and say, "do it."
IT DOESN'T WORK LIKE THAT. it's a really nice idea. and james is such a nice writer, but people, whether they say it or not, beleive in absolute truths. and we each have fundalmental beleifs that we refuse to let be shook. ((( there might not be any universal absolute truths, but there are personal truths that we hold as absolute.))) these fundamentalisms are just played out violently (and therefore more obviously) in the middle east.
i'll give an example of something that i beleive to be an absolute truth:
i fundamentally beleive that genocide is wrong. i cannot allow militant racists to beleive what they beleive and to tell the stories that enable them to be who they are.
therefore pragmatism doesn't work.
i realize that this is an extreem example, but i think it is necessary to think of extreems when we are making general rules about the world. when you write, "why can't everybody have their own stories and let them coexist happily?" where do you draw the line? where do you disallow people to tell a certain story? when the story is translated into action? you tell me.
see you tomorrow :)

more bits and pieces
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2004-02-24 21:40:21
Link to this Comment: 8468

Thanks to Susan for the ground laying presentation and to all involved in the discussion, as well as those who've posted here, all of which has added some more pieces to my own trying to imagine a story to explain "what is beauty"?

I'm sure everyone's story in evolving differently and different pieces mean different things, but here are the two that I think nestle well against some of the others in my particular emerging construction (so far, only two weeks into this game):

thank you Ms. Levine for the talk tonight.
Name: orah
Date: 2004-02-24 22:33:51
Link to this Comment: 8475

one of the aspects that struck me was the way you continually described the feeling of UNDERSTANDING something about a client/patient. there was one point you described dorthey lying on your couch and she figured something out and a rush of "physical pleasure" went through her body. both last week and this week we talked about the reception of beauty on the senses in terms of "pleasure." and i think it is a sexual pleasure. any encounter with beauty, as we have described it thus far, and as i have witnessed seems to be a sexual pleasure. even the thought process, i assert, is conducted to acheive a form of sexual pleasure. ((a true freudian at heart.)) i've been thinking about this idea for a while: is there a usefulness to thought like this other than to acheive this pleasurable feeling? there are no seeds planted in this process......we learned in the stories of evolution class that in biology sex has an essential function besides reproduction: it spreads seed horizontally opposing verticle regeneration. so! what does this mental mastrabation acheive? the spreading of the word. the immortality, the publication, the reproduction of the word is not always essential.

i was really excited about your idea that beauty is found in the movement from dissorganization to organization. the beauty is not found in the end. and i deeply appreciate the comment (so sorry i don't know you name, princeton class of 1963?) about not getting the name of God, never seeing God's face. in Exodos 3:14 God gives his name as "I WILL BE THAT I WILL BE." God is unacheivable. becuase in the act of acheiving is the end of beauty. beauty is in the struggle, the movement, the pulse, the breath.
i wonder what the process of moving from organization to dissorganization is? could that too be beauty??????????????????

well, let's see
Name: em
Date: 2004-02-25 13:24:22
Link to this Comment: 8490

hey orah,
while i do appreciate your treatment of beauty in terms of sexual pleasure, i wanted to add my two cents on that idea:
the other day in my native american literature class, we were looking at a book of photographs, and our prof and most of the girls in the class paused at this picture of a young Indian man and gasped. my prof went on to say, "ok, so we can appreciate this photograph because you either want to be this man or be having sex with him." etc. however, i was taken aback, because i'd simply been looking at the picture as beautiful. i had not attached sexual pleasure or value to it. i'd like to propose that attaining sexual pleasure from beauty is a lens we place on our viewing. why this may seem like a negligible distinction, i think beauty is much more a sensual process. our eyes, or fingers, or nose takes in what is before us, and what gives the senses pleasure forms our view of beauty. therefore, we are innately sensual, rather than sexual (the use of the word sexual limits the description of our perception of beauty...). make sense?
i wish i could say it as well as mary oliver (in a poem about the sun):
"and have you ever felt for anything
such wild love--
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure
that fills you,
as the sun
reaches out,
as it warms you..."

Name: orah
Date: 2004-02-25 18:12:04
Link to this Comment: 8499

let me clarify: i'm not saying that we'd like to 'get with' everything we find to be beautiful, rather, the experience of sensing beauty instigates a sexual feeling. i think there is a subtle difference. so to take it into the context of your naitive american lit class : i'd agree that that gasp was not necessarily a gasp of anticipated sexual pleasure (wanting to be WITH that man or BE the man getting with someone) rather, it was a sexual experience in itself...there in the classroom. yes, humans are innatly sensual. and as a result things that we would not instinctivly call sexual become objects that lead of sexual satisfaction. and i think your poem illustrates this beautifully. that poem, i would argue, is not merely a sensual poem, but also a very sexual poem. "the pleasure that fill you as the sun reaches out." and this makes me think about the idea brought up in the first conversation about beauty about whether beauty can be FELT or TASTED. (we agree that beauty is seen, heard, smelled?) i think i will assert that ALL beauty is FELT. and when any beauty is sensed the same feeling arises in (all ?) humans. this means that while we argue about what is beautiful, we have commonality in the way we perceive that which we find to be beautiful.

Sexual and Pleasure/Depressive position
Name: Susan Levi
Date: 2004-02-25 20:09:07
Link to this Comment: 8503

I agree with ominder (sorry – I don't know your first name or whether you call you Ms. or Mr. Minder) that the pleasure of beauty ultimately comes down to a bodily experience. Sometimes the pleasure might be something we would understand as related to adult sexuality, and sometime related to infantile sexuality. So when I referred in the paper to aesthetic pleasure as sublimated or symbolized I did mean that to refer to the libidinal elements. To emadsen (again, sorry not to know how to address you): I understand the shock that you are describing at the idea that what you thought was just beautiful or sensual might be sexual. I would understand sensuality to be a form of sexuality, though not necessarily adult genital sexuality. So when you pose the question of whether we are innately sensual, I would say "yes" and would include this in what analysts consider "infantile sexuality." I think we are primed to experience sensual pleasure and that we require it, as infants, in order to develop.
In answer to the question Anne posed last night about Klein's depressive position, she and I spoke briefly afterwards, and what she seemed to be pointing out was the disconnect between calling something "depressive" when it represented a developmental step forward. The depressive position does represent a step forward form the paranoid- schizoid position in the following way. In the paranoid- schizoid position, the infant splits off and projects the badness and this experiences it as coming from the outside. In the depressive position, the toddler is aware (unconsciously) of his/her destructiveness. The primary anxiety is about whether he/she will destroy the mother, who is now seen as predominantly good (although containing both good and bad. So the depressive position toddler fears destroying the object, and these fears/wishes are accompanied by fantasies of reparation. As I said to Anne, depression, and the capacity to mourn are developmental achievements.

Beyond Manischewitz
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2004-02-26 11:41:09
Link to this Comment: 8524

I add my thanks to Susan Levine for her talk Tuesday night (as well as the helpful explanation of "depressive," above)--and to all those who came and entered the discussion afterwards, and here since on the forum.

My own notations about the evolving-after-just-two-sessions-pattern include the strong sense that the process Susan was describing is strikingly LIKE the process Sharon Burgmayer had described chemists going through, the week before. Susan's description of searching for a pattern: the pleasure of seeing the shape of the thing take form, then slip away, was remarkably congruent w/ Sharon's description of "seeing a structure solving," "the satisfaction of one's own labor in the process," and walking "some tense edge" where order and chas "contend"--that fine line where one seeks a pattern, unsure whether or not it it will emerge.

What I felt myself resisting in this account were the notions that the pattern was both pre-known and coherent: that there are only a few stories (of human development), and that the work of psychoanalysis is to identify one's experiences as enacting one of those scripts. With Mark Lord, I find myself wanting to hold out for a different aesthetic, one of "incoherence," some place where the narrative will run differently, away from known knowlege. This may well turn out to be (following Paul, above) a difference between the aesthetics of the conscious and that of the unconscious; and artists today may be less interested in the former, formal than in the latter, alternative beauties (see also "What Is Information?" for a discussion of the possibility that it is precisely the work of contemporary art to constantly query the boundary between what we find "meaningful" and what we dismiss as "noise"). One of the questions I came away with from Tuesday night was, then, what is the standard for things that don't have a formal "arc"? Is talk about standards even appropriate here? Can we really say that one of the usefulnesses of pyschoanalysis might be to help us toward enough "internal stability/coherence" so that we can tolerate (even enjoy?!) an aesthetic of the incoherent? an aesthetic of destruction?

Two other bits I also hope we can keep in play: that sense of immersion, of interplay and congruence between me and what I am working on/playing with ("the flow"? see discussion elsewhere in a course on The Evolution of Stories) and this still-vexed matter of "developing a discriminating palate": how much of our talk about beauty is guided by acculturation/socialization into already-recognized forms? And how much might our understanding of beauty be expanded if we thought of it as breaking out of such forms? (Finding "adequate gratification" in Manischewitz? Or in something never-before-drunk?)

Looking forward to savoring more of this wine together.

nausea and beauty
Name: em
Date: 2004-03-02 21:32:01
Link to this Comment: 8641

been thinking a bit and wanted to post on what was mentioned briefly during discussion but left me wondering: so often it is the things that i find beautiful that end up as painful-- on those days when the sky is so blue and i stare at it and stare at it to try and satiate my desire for the beauty of that blue, my eyes burn and my stomach gets queasy from the intensity of the color.
i love the blue of the sky because although it will still be there the next morning, it will not be the same blue that i experience in that one moment. the pain comes from the rawness of the experience, and also from the knowledge that beauty is transient. in placing beauty in time, we are also acknowledging that it comes to an end. the moment of beauty itself is brief, wordless, timeless-- yet then it passes and we are left to process it and reflect upon it with words and contexts.
perhaps i should state that this is only what i am thinking and since, as we discussed, the experience of beauty is an intensely personal occurrence, i am not assuming to impose this musing on everyone. just throwing it out there.

postmodern neo-platonism
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2004-03-03 06:08:28
Link to this Comment: 8653

(Clearly, since it's 5 a.m.) my head's still full-and-reeling from all the pinballs Mark Lord set spinning for us last night. Thank you, both for the range of meditations and the refusal to settle any of them too neatly into conclusion. Which, of course, just keeps the balls bouncing in this brain (and, I suspect, in others'--to whom I'm also grateful for extending the conversation)...

Over the past two weeks, Susan Levine (who is a psychotherapist) and Sharon Burgmayer (who is a chemist) have described what sounded like a very similar pleasure: searching for a pattern, unsure that it would emerge, watching/making it form, then slip away. What Mark added to their descriptions of that experience of beauty was (at least) two things:

I have heard this experience described, in different phrases, in multiple different ways/disciplines. It's When done successfully, this leads not to nausea, but...
to a profound sense of beauty (moving beyond the sort that comes "w/ appetite" to the kind that is "w/out desire").

The question remaining (for me, at least) has to do with politics, w/ my insisting, at the end of our session, that Mark is engaged not only in making his "found spaces" "be alive," but in altering them, in changing the world. (To paraphrase slightly the to-me-very moving song he played at the end of his session:) "What can we do with all this useless beauty?" Must we do something, as the tension resolves, the nauseating/delicious balance settles...? In the savoring, it is beautiful. In the sustaining, in the continued haunting of the beautiful spaces by the ghosts of what have been performed there, in the realizing of the traces of what remains, (I betcha) it is/can be political.

Name: orah
Date: 2004-03-03 18:40:48
Link to this Comment: 8662

and i think "negative capabilites," "dual consiousness" and the "depressive postion" all work well with the possibility that all beauty is FELT as well as seen or smelled or tasted etc. not only may we be perceciving multiple sources of beauty simultaniously, but we have simultaneous sensory reactions to beauty as well.

still been thinking about whether the movement from organization to disorganization can be beautiful ...
from this past tues. night it seems that this movement, too, can be beautiful.

and in response to : " the momentariness of that experience, its fleeting nature in time ... once one recognizes that the experience of beauty is by nature not to be sustained"
this makes me think that there can be no beauty in limitation. we see the beauty, as a flash of winter lightning, and then it is gone. we cannot grasp it.
so can there be beauty in a word? in writing ...
i think that the beauty of writing is found when the words on the page expand in a person's mind. a written image is not beautiful until pictured in the mind. so, no words themselves limit and contain and therefore cannot be beautiful. yes? no?
the beauty of poetry is found in the mind of the reader. the beauty IS only when joined with a living mind. beauty is not on the page, but rather, poetry is an attempt to transfer the beauty in the writer's mind to the mind of the reader, as unchanged, as pure as possible. it is an atempt to join minds. the merging of the mind of the poet to the mind of the reader on an image.

premodern ...
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2004-03-03 20:56:40
Link to this Comment: 8667

Hmmm ... beauty is getting more interesting all the time. So, now we've got from Mark .... beauty popping up despite one's (or at least Mark's) best efforts to deny beauty/the significance thereof: beauty out of anti-beauty. What sticks in my mind is Hiroshi's story (which he may well want to correct) that Mark inspects any profered "beautiful" thing and discards it if he finds on it any taint of past models/standards of beauty. From which we can conclude (perhaps)

A few other perhaps relevant bits and pieces include

And a possible line of inquiry to pursue further: what is similar between Mark's transiently beautiful things and the more stable classical beautiful things? (actually that's not quite fair to Mark, who included Joseph Cornell's boxes among his list of beautiful things, as would I ... they are quite stable in their beauty, though they create an air of transiency).

Looking forward to others' thoughts, and to seeing where we go next.

Whither Beauty? A question for Mark
Name: Susan Levi
Date: 2004-03-04 20:37:36
Link to this Comment: 8691

I think there is a fundamental tension between whether we regard beauty as an attribute of an object(a thing -- painting, person, sunset, play, symphony) or as a quality attached to our internal mental representation of an external object. What is the relationship between our mental representation of beauty and the object? And what is the realtionship between the symbolic element and the sense of pleasure that is based in the body?
And Mark -- is Lladro as bad as Hummel? I would say a big YES.

Sought: The Grand Unifying Theory of Beauty
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2004-03-17 04:19:26
Link to this Comment: 8847

So, in my unremitting search for the Grand Unifying Theory of Beauty, I offer these observations from Al's talk on this surprisingly snowy March night. I saw and heard him describe two categories of beautiful objects:

The first of these is known by the visceral reaction it provokes; the second is a rational choice, informed by conscious knowledge of the meaning of what we observe. (The first is unconscious, the second conscious? There are different "styles" of beauty appreciated by different portions of the brain? See Paul, above re: the possibility of these differing aesthetics--the formal coherent pleasures of conscious processing, vs. the incoherent immersion of the unconscious portion of the mind.

There was also a (wo)manful effort to reconcile these two categories, in Susan's suggestion that a beautiful thing is a plateau were things look (momentarily) understandable, but which "sows the seeds of its own destruction, opens the door for something else"--and is powerful precisely because it holds this sort of promise. (Category A, presumably, always gives way to Category B.) If that's the case, then Al's theory works nicely w/ the one Mark gave us two weeks ago, both in its insistence on the "momentariness of the experience of beauty" (because it will always be transcended) and in its ability to function on several levels @ once--or rather, in our ability to hold two worlds simultanously in mind, a process that is only beautiful as the patterns are solving, not after they settle.

I guess I'm still unsure, still unsettled, whether this explanation works/makes the two sorts of beauty

Even more intriguing to me were the two lines of questioning pursued just at the end of our session: What aesthetic is limiting physics today? Is it the search for "broken symmetries," the presumption that we live in a universe that was once symmetrical, is now broken, and whose originary/primal/lost symmetry we are trying to recapture? (How Platonic!) There was also interesting discussion about whether different scientists--physicists, chemists, biologists, psychoanalysts--all perceive the past as a more ordered state (Newtonian thinking shaped even psychology, influencing the conception of the determining nature of initial conditions). Does this work for those who study the nature of the universe as well as for those who consider the slow disintegration of the "big bang of each of us"? But organisms continue to accrete matter and energy in a way the entropic universe does not. The universe is more improbable, but not more ordered, in its beginnings; while organisms are increasingly probable, increasingly organized, and increasingly predictable in behavior, styles of response, and character as they age (or are they not? there was some disagreement here, and--as the conversation was getting personal--it adjourned).

beauty and econ omics
Name: Dorothea L
Date: 2004-03-17 17:30:55
Link to this Comment: 8859

I just happened on this forum, and am sorry that I missed the presentation. I like to draw and am a psychoanalyst, and from both perspectives I have become interested in aesthetics. I have a suspicion that aesthetic pleasure is a biological phenomenon which rewards us for remaining in situation with economic possibilities, with the right kind of mix between organization and disorder. These ideas were triggered when I heard that movements in ballet came from fencing movements (a similar parallel holds for dressage. The parallel would be that in either pattern you want to avoid movements that could throw you off balance and would be hard to correct. From my own experience drawing I also know that initially I seem to be concerned in striking some kind of dynamic "balance" on the page, and I have seen similar patterns repeated in studies by Desmond Morris in having primates produce art. I have also heard that the best athletes are distinguished by unusually symmetrical bodies (which make it easier for them to move in a balanced way). I would hypothesize that most systems who are undergoing healthy changes show certain patterns of variability which are in a mid-range between order and disorder, and that we may have developed our aesthetic sense as a reward system to learn to be attracte by them and avoid others with characteristics of catastrophic change. Tolkin's ideas that our various affects are triggered by different rates of stimulation (and quick changes usually trigger aversive affects) would fit here. the dialectic between order and change would also be a powerful motivator for learning: we integrate date into a pattern, then start to get bored by it as we get used to it and take the next step of looking for a new pattern, but still influenced by the context of our previous experience.
I also think that our unconscious is very much influenced by our own bodily experience, which includes leaning to keep balance, and also keeping track of how much energy goes to different parts of our bodies at different times. I suspect that it was the mechanisms which developed for these tasks which then got further elaborated into our emotional apparatus (I don't think it is an accident that we have "emotional balance" as a goal). I think that there is an overlap between aesthetics and emotions. Interestingly the gestalt psychologists spoke of the "Anmutungsqualitaeten" of different gestalten/systems which seems to indicate that they thought that different kinds of organization of a system were more or less conducive to evoking reactions tinged with certain emotions (again, see Tomkins)

Name: Jan Trembl
Date: 2004-03-17 17:58:44
Link to this Comment: 8860

When Anne pressed Al on either/or, I started thinking about Soren Kierkegaard's Either/Or (based on his breaking off of a marriage engagement for a life of philosophy). This may be no more than an associative red herring.

In the novel, he identifies progressive "phases" or "stages" of existence. The first volume, "Either," exemplifies the aesthetic (that which appeals to the senses) life. The second volume "Or" showcases the Ethical, the reflective life.

The aesthete will eventually find him- or herself in "despair," a state that results from a recognition of the limits of an aesthetic approach to life. The only cure for this is a state of existence is to make a "leap" to the second phase, the "ethical," which is characterized as a phase in which conscious choice and commitment replace random and inconsistent longings. Ultimately, in Kierkegaard's dialectic, the aesthetic and the ethical are both annulled and preserved in a final phase, the "religious" mode, living out a faith which derives its power from the capacity to take a chance on what can't be verified by rational means. No, I'm not sure where I'm going with this. Anne, tell me if you see!

Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2004-03-19 03:44:33
Link to this Comment: 8886

Yes, Jan, I think I DO see. See picking through the rubble.

parallel of "religious mode" and psychoanalysis
Name: Dorothea L
Date: 2004-03-19 11:27:37
Link to this Comment: 8891

It strikes me that Kirkegaard's "religious mode" of "living out a faith which derives its power from the capacity to take a chance on what can't be verified by rational means" is also paralleled by the basic psychoanalytic assumption (its "faith") that, barring clear evidence of phsycial trauma, we all have the resources we need to have happy and satisfying lives, if we can only access them. I have always found it amazing that Freud and psychoanalysis were criticized for being pessimistic, whereas the underpinnings of his theory are about as optimistic as possible.
I do believe that most human endeavours are based on some "faith", often implicitely and with inadequate ethics, and that what we see clinically as repetition compulsion is part of the same process.

Pandora Opens the Box
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2004-03-21 17:47:11
Link to this Comment: 8930

On Wednesday afternoon, I attended a talk that Sharon Burgmayer gave as one of the Weekly Colloquia sponsored by the Center for Visual Culture. In this presentation about her new course on "The Stuff of Art," Sharon focused (in part) on the subjective reception of color: how we all see different hues differently (...and how would we know?)--which led me back to my by-now-tiresome question about the subjective reception of beauty: WHY does one color move some of us, another color others?

In conversation afterwards w/ Lisa Saltzman, Director of theCenter for Visual Culture, I learned that there is a long prohibition in the field of art history not just against beauty, but against iconoclasm in all its forms: that is (stepping off from the Second Commandment) against the worshipping of images. Lisa sent me afterwards an essay she'd written, "To Figure or Not to Figure: the Iconoclastic Proscription and its Theoretical Legacy " (Jewish Identity in Modern Art History, ed. Catherine Soussloff, U Cal Press, 1999), which (among many other rich observations) lays out a telling opposition of what (above) we called 2 different aesthetics: "in terms of desire/desirelessness: is the beautiful that which draws us on/out/beyond ourselves, pulls us off-center, makes us long for what we cannot reach; or is it one that that which makes us 'relax,' contributes to a sense of 'stability'?"

I myself have consistently been valorizing the sort of beauty that comes "w/ appetite" over the kind that is "w/out desire," but it turns out that art history (following Theodor Adorno, following Moses) has made a rather different choice:

Adorno writes, "perhaps the most important taboo in art is the one that prohibits an animal-like attitude towards the object, say a desire to devour it"....what Adorno gives us is ultimately...a Hebraic ethics of spectatorship. Adorno is less concerned with the qualities of the object...than he is with the attitude of the spectator, with encouraging an attitude of disinterestedness....If we trace the legacy of the Second Commandment even further [than Adorno's taboo on any sort of sensual...relationships with the image]...

the full force of the libidinous nature of the spectatorial relationship is revealed in one of the foundational texts of feminist aesthetics. Laura Mulvey's essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema"...calls for an end to visual pleasure..."to free...the look of the audience into...passionate detachment. There is no doubt that this destroys ...satisfaction, pleasure and privilege"....Mulvey herself came to qualify...her iconoclastic formation, her call for a cinema of displeasure.... In her later essay, "Pandora..." Mulvey fully articulates a...position of intellectual curiosity. She contrasts the fetishist, who becomes fixated on an object in order to avoid knowledge...with the curious spectator, who seeks knowledge..."

So: if fetishists are "aesthetes," those who seek "stability," beauty "without desire"; and "ethicists" are (following Adorno) "spectators, who have internalized the laws of the Hebraic father" (surely, Jan, this is what Kierkegaard called the "ethical phase" "in which conscious choice and commitment replace random and inconsistent longings")--

then? I retain my faith (in the company of the later Mulvey!) in yet a third "phase," where the desire which curiosity feeds, and which in turn feeds us (me), is nourished.


Survival of the Prettiest/Problems of Power
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2004-03-26 09:50:35
Link to this Comment: 9011

Many thanks to Christine for her overview of philosophy's theories of beauty:

All this was very helpful to my thinking, and (for what it's worth) here's a record of where it led me....

Does thinking about beauty as a cluster of "resemblances" simply expand the range of "what counts" as beautiful? Or does it get us out of the category altogether, replacing it w/ the sort of "anti-pleasure" aesthetic some feminists advocated @ one point in time...?

Beauty evokes pleasure. So: Beauty has power. We can acquire (be "socialized" into) a "second order" appreciation of it, but it is, first, a visceral experience, that which "moves" us--an experience most/all of us want to enjoy. Some of us don't feel the need to manipulate or change what is beautiful (the way we appear to others); some of us very much want to participate in its production (= i.e., to "make something beautiful" or to "be beautiful" ourselves).

So: What are the political consequences of this desire? Is the "real problem" that beauty is exclusive, that whoever "has" it (I'm thinking now of beautiful women) has the power? And/or that whoever gets to define it (I'm thinking now of the male gaze) exercises power?

problems of power
Name: Christine
Date: 2004-04-03 14:24:01
Link to this Comment: 9139

I have learned a lot from each of the talks in the Beauty symposium. I think it was a great success and thank the organizers, Anne and Sharon.

I just want to pick up a couple of themes that emerged from my own talk, Anne's posting of her reaction to it, and then Paul's talk as the last in the series. Paul's talk was provocative (maybe intentionally so) and raised many questions and comments - on Tuesday night and for me since. Because his talk could be interpreted as a critical response to my approach, I've decided to take the bait so as to continue the conversations here.

At the end of her posting, Anne asked if the real problem is that beauty is exclusive so that whoever has it (beautiful women) have power OR if it is that whoever gets to define it (male gaze) exercises power? While I am a bit uncomfortable with the either/or, if pressed I think I would go with the latter. And it seems to me that this is what got missed/ignored in Paul's talk when he drew certain conclusions at the end about the social and political consequences of beauty.

Let me explain a bit more. To endorse a "viva la difference" and a let women be beautiful strategy is to ignore the ways in which female beauty as it is defined in our culture can be disempowering. Think of the ways in which women starve themselves or go through painful, expensive, and life threatening surgeries of various sorts to "fit" the standard of what counts as beautiful. Women are bombarded with messages in the media, by men, advertising, movies, and so on about what they need to do or buy or change about themselves to be beautiful. Increasingly perhaps, men are getting these messages too, but there is a whole industry of sculpting and shaping women's bodies that isn't in place for men in the same way - nor does it have the same impact on men's choices, opportunities, status, or levels of power. The point is that not all the consequences of women attending to being beautiful are harmless. Moreover, having women treat beauty as a desirable attribute does not necessarily get them the power that men have. I'm just not convinced that using standards of beauty to get ahead makes one powerful in a way that eliminates or alleviates oppression for women. So I'm not sure I agree with Paul when he says about feminism that women "needed men's gaze to achieve influence and found it easist to do so by being beautiful". It seems to me that having power based on how you look and whether you are judged as beautiful may give women power in personal relationships with men, but it doesn't get women the kind of power or status that would change how they are perceived and treated in the public sphere.

I agree with Anne and others (Susan in particular) who defend the idea that women don't need to be anti beauty or anti pleasure. When beauty and pleasure are themselves used to challenge and change the current norms of beauty that are damaging or oppressive this can be liberating. So I would endorse feminist strategies of men and women doing the beauty thing to subvert or challenge current norms. However, the strategy here isn't to treat beauty (as defined by the male gaze) as a desirable attribute in and of itself and as isolatable from its consequences for women.

And by the way, I take something like a family resemblance account of the definition of beauty (that the meaning of concepts isn't fixed for all time) to be one that supports feminist involvement in challenging, changing, and reappropriating what beauty means when it is applied to the human body.

Lastly, I was trying to articulate (I think unsuccessfully) what disturbed me in Paul's talk when he transitioned from the "scientific facts" part to the "moral and political consequences" part. At least one aspect of the unease had to do with Paul finding an important and interesting role for the "World outside, Reality, Culture" in his discussion of the relation between the self (what the brain does) and the objects or phenomena in the world that it works on or interprets - in the case of color, for example. But when he discussed beauty in the context of bodies, he seemed to ignore the "Reality" of an outside world with facts of the distortion, disfiguring, surgical changing, and starving of women's bodies when it comes to them trying to measure up to standards of beauty in our culture. These are some of the "consequences" I am concerned about highlighting - but perhaps didn't do entirely successfully in my own talk.


(cultured?) presumptions
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2004-04-04 19:14:49
Link to this Comment: 9149

I write also in gratitude, not only to the presenters in our just-finished symposium, but to all those, from a range of generations, who came--what a satisfaction to have guests and alums and students and prospective students and their parents join faculty and staff in a conversation about Beauty! You all provided an engaged audience of listeners and responders to these variety of perspectives on beauty and its meaning for us as individuals and a culture, which enriched the conversation enormously. In that spirit of glad interaction, I want to share my own sense that the last talk in the series was less a critical response to the one foregoing than another, entirely complimentary, angle of vision. So let me say what I'm seeing--in hopes that the conversation might continue a little while longer. (In fact, it's only beginning; Sharon and I have just gotten approval from the Curriculum Committee to offer a new course on "Beauty" in Spring '05, which will of course step off from this series....)

Paul began his "Scientifico-Philosophico-Humanistic" Inquiry with what he called the "elephant presumption: that there is a there there." I got confused as he stepped from this first presumption, that "beauty is that which causes stories in people" to the claim that "beauty is not a thing, but a relation": an interaction between what's out there and what's in here. I couldn't easily make the step from the "there there" (which seemed to me the initial--and classic--isolating gesture of the scientist: let's extract this object from the world, set aside our own investments in it, and study it in the separable space that is the laboratory) and what seemed the next move in the talk (the typical gesture of a humanist: let's study this thing in relationship to who we are/how we feel about it/how it engages and moves us....)

That the "there there" could ITSELF be a relation was an insight that came slowly, after further conversation: that the "there there" could be a conversation that the self has w/ the self, reporting/reflecting on an experience that is the result of the relation the self has to the world, makes a lot of sense to me. More importantly, I think that identifying that sort of interactive relation does help us understand and appreciate not only the various forms "beauty" might take, but also more "social" ("humanistic"?) ways of doing science.

One of the things this sort of 2-cultured inquiry might help us do is continue to clarify why, as a species, we value beauty. Christine has traced some of the psychological and cultural damage that the ideal of beauty--and the "appearance anxiety" it generates--has done (as well as its shortcomings as an intervention in power structures), but I'd like to hear more still about why we nonetheless continue to use it--and might continue usefully to use it--as a discriminative category (back, perhaps, to one of the talks we didn't hear: Elaine Scarry's On Beauty and Being Just?).

My second puzzlement has to do w/ Paul's other initial presumption: that because we use "a single word" to describe the wide range of things we find beautiful, "beauty is a singularity." The etymologist/literary critic/enjoyer-of-puns in me wants to question that assumption (as, by the way, does the beauty ranking , which uses a graded scale, rather than asking us to simply vote "yes" or "no" in response to a given image). I've been thinking a lot lately (see Emergent Meaning/Emergent Literature/Emergent Pedagogy) about the ways in which puns demonstrate the inherent instability of the meanings of words, and so challenge the conventional understanding of language as a structure of relationships in which each word is identified by its difference from others. The distinction between words isn't at all that clear; the "category" that each occupies is very porous.

Kathy Rowe (who was in the audience Tuesday night) was pressing Paul to acknowledge the "classical" and "modular" qualities of his story of the brain, one that, rather operating as a distributed network, required an "inside and outside." Along those lines, what I'm thinking is that words are very labile and associative, both in their evolution and in their "distribution" in our brains. For instance, etymologists say that the English word "beauty" comes from the Latin word bellus; how far removed in the metonymic landscapes that are our brains is bellus (pretty, lovely) from the Latin bellum (quarrelsome, bellicose), or the Middle English bely (belly, leather bag, bellows)? Does the echo of similar sound tell us anything useful about the contingent meaning of these words? Does it suggest that the use of a single word/single sound never (for a humanist, anyhow) signals a single meaning?

Another bite, anyone?

Stories of beauty, sex, power ... and "the gaze"
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2004-04-04 21:39:36
Link to this Comment: 9152

More than pleased to continue the general conversation about beauty here, and the more specific conversation related to my presentation as well.

People are different, and so hear differently what others say. That's probably not only a fundamental characteristic of conversation and of language (as it is of trees falling in the forest) but an inherent and desirable characteristic. Against this backdrop, I take Christine's "provocative" and inclination to "take the bait" as compliments, and as an invitation to further story-sharing in particular directions.

Christine's presentation and a number of reactions to it, including Anne's posting, built an important bridge between earlier more general discussions of beauty and some more immediate concerns that it became clear were on a number of peoples' minds. I certainly intended that my own presentation move from the theoretical to the applied and to contribute to the bridge in so doing. So I am delighted to continue working on the bridge together.

I actually don't think we're as far apart on bridge construction details as Christine seems to fear. I certainly agree(d) with the idea that "women don't need to be anti beauty or anti pleasure" and had no intention whatsoever of endorsing "beauty (as defined by the male gaze) as a desirable attribute in and of itself and as isolatable from its consequences for women. " Indeed what I heard myself saying (with due recognition of the sound of trees falling in the forest) was more or less along the lines of "an interest in beauty, in oneself, in others, and in the creations of oneself and others, is a fine thing" AND "putting too much weight on beauty puts one at risk of becoming oppressed by others". The latter I believe(d) to be an understanding that emerged from feminist thought, and it is in any case an understanding I value (while at the same time seeing it as a special case of a more general phenomenon: it is not only "females" who are subject to oppression by "males" for this reason, and there are lots of things beside "beauty" that can get one into trouble in this way) .

Thus far, I think the stories bring us pretty much to the same place, if not entirely comfortably so. The discomfort suggests we've gotten here for somewhat different reasons and might accordingly be inclined to explore different future paths. And that's fine, more than fine ("the difference between us ... was itself the bridge ... across what divided us" (Ursula Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness)). So let's see if we can isolate the differences that create discomfort and make something useful for the future out of that.

I freely confess that my own reaction to the notion that people (some but not all "females" and some but not all others) can become oppressed because of their own interest in "beauty" was to suggest as a simple and straightforward strategy (a "male" trait"?) that such people recognize the problem and adjust their own interests/behavior accordingly. Christine, if I understand her correctly (the sound of trees falling again) is concerned with two distinct aspects of that argument. The first concern, a "how we got here" difference, relates to my suggestion that women who have strong interests in beauty may be complicit in the social dynamics that result in their oppression. The second concern, a "where we go next" difference, relates to whether problems are better solved by promoting individual as opposed to social/cultural change.

Have we a history of "male" oppression of "women"? (I continue here to use terms that are demonstrably inadequate but nonethless culturally dominant/meaningful, and so for the moment unavoidable) Of course. Has a male encouragment of women to be beautiful been a mechanism of that oppression? Of course. Do we still have in our culture elements of that history? Of course. Should these be identified and altered? Of course. But one can acknowledge all of that, and its importance, and STILL raise the question of whether, in addition, women have, for their own reasons (conscious or unconscious), contributed to a social dynamic that results in their oppression by the cultural conception of "beauty". As I did; as I unapologetically do.

I deny that it is in any way degrading/demeaning to "women" (or any other human group) to make the suggestion that they have played a role in the cultural phenomena in which they find themselves. Very much to the contrary, it is an acknowledgement of agency (existing and potential), and an invitation to consider how to make the best use of that agency in the future. Moreover, the women-as-contributors story in no way conflicts with or precludes the males-as-oppressors story, and if both are aspects of the elephant then our prospects of understanding the problem and redressing it are enhanced by putting the two together.

Note also that I am talking about a female interest in "beauty" generally, and not specifically about females' interest in being beautiful themselves, as defined by and in order to satisfy the "male gaze". My guess (for the reasons described in my talk, and subject to testing by further observations) is that "women" (as a population) have a greater interest than "men" (as a population) in "beauty" and that this, while beneficial to both women and men in lots of contexts, also contributes to women being at risk of allowing both the cultural definition of beauty and their own sense of themselves to be defined by the "male gaze". Whatever the eventual usefulness of this particular guess/story, I hope its obvious that I do not offer it to distract attention from the well-publicized sins of men and I am no more in favor of women being oppressed by the "male gaze" than I am in their being oppressed by cultural conceptions of "beauty". For those whom the shoe fits, the important point is to notice the consequences of too great a preoccupation with EITHER "beauty" OR the "male gaze" (or both), and to make corresponding adjustments in the degree of significance one attaches to these things (without necessarily giving up entirely such interests). As was once said in a distinct but importantly related context: one has nothing to lose but one's chains.

This brings us to what I understand to be Christine's second concern: that in my story I neglect the social/cultural forces. Maybe, but maybe not. I certainly very much agree with Christine that "to challenge and change the current norms of beauty that are damaging or oppressive ... can be liberating". If there has been any misunderstanding here, it perhaps relates to my not saying loudly enough or often enough that my hypothetical "esthetics processor" (like all aspects of the unconscious) is significantly affected by social/cultural forces. The upshot is that to look into and question oneself is also to look outward at "current norms", and to change oneself is also to change the societies/cultures in which one is always both a cause and an effect. On a related topic ...

it is right here that the personal and the social/political intersect ... One cannot conceive of, nor act to bring about, a non-hierarchical culture without being able to refuse hierarchy within oneself. Any revolution without that, however significant in its own right, is inevitably the replacement of one hierarchy with another. Conversely, having refused hierarchy within onself, one cannot but become subversive of hierarchy, of all kinds, in the social and political realm. In this sense, the personal and the political are the same thing. Of course, females faced, and still to some extent face, social/cultural forces having to do with beauty (among other things) that "are damaging or oppressive". And of course we need to identify and correct those. But we need (males and females alike) to look inward as well as outward to effect genuinely meaningful revolutionary change.

One other matter, perhaps in less controversial terrain (or, more likely, on different controversial terrain). Christine (and others) seemed to feel that I surreptitiously and inappropriately slid between a "scientific" posture and ... something else ("the 'moral and political consequences' part"?). Perhaps I was less clear in the transition than I might have been, but there was certainly no intent on my part either to claim "authority" in the first two thirds of my presentation nor to mislead as to the underpinnings of the last third.

Perhaps this is another "tree in the forest" problem here. I am indeed and persistently a "scientist" but may use that word (and that approach) in ways different from what some may understand by it. As I've written elsewhere

Science proceeds not by proving "truth" or "reality" but rather by disproving falsity, not by painting the "right" picture but by painting a picture "less wrong" than prior pictures. And that, rather than either "objectivity" or some other privileged access to "reality" is in fact the basis of the demonstrable power of science. To put it differently, I understand "science" to be "story-telling", and claim at all times (including the first two thirds of my talk) no authority other than that inherent in the observations I summarize and the potential usefulness for future inquiries of the story I tell to summarize them (which will, inevitably reflect my cultural background, personal tastes, etc etc).

Moreover, I (like the American pragmatists) make no sharp distinction between "scientists" and "non-scientists" nor between a "scientific" realm" and a "moral and political" realm (or, for that matter, a social and cultural one). In all cases, the resonsibility of an intellectual is, it seems to me, the same:

So, back to the story and what beyond the social/moral/political realm I learned from the telling of it (whi:h is, for me, at least as much a part of the conversation as what others hear/learn):

Thanks, all, for the story-sharing to date. Very much looking forward to more of it, to seeing what comes and where we go next.

Beauty Attachment
Name: Sharon Burgmayer
Date: 2004-04-04 23:40:14
Link to this Comment: 9156

I say simply "ditto" to Anne's thanks to all participants—presenters, inquisitors, mullers and beauty enthusiasts—for sharing 6 weeks to generate what became a very satisfying contemplation of beauty.

Like Anne, I started this symposium with hope (?), expectation (?), and/or assumption that at the end would be a Grand Unifying Theory of Beauty . It quickly became apparent that Beauty was determined to elude a neat definition. During my own chase after beauty, it was after Mark's talk, in which he explained the origins of his (and others') "anti-beauty" affinity, when the idea started bopping around my mind that beauty emerges from the unique relationship of the beholder to the beautiful. So I was pleased to hear a close version of this hypothesis put forth in Paul's talk. He described beauty as a creation of the brain, an interpretation of "what's inside" with "what's outside", and he proposed housing the interpreter in an "aesthetic processor" in the community of the unconscious. That seems a convincing description of the beauty mechanism. For me, however, I am taking away the idea that Beauty is an event, it is the interaction between the essential players of the unconscious and something else—or should that be, Everything Else?

Paul also incited a small riot with his suggestion that "women are much more concerned about "beauty" than men " and that women might be better off to value beauty less. Nope, not this one. I have no interest in jumping into that fray of the oppressed, the oppressors and who's complicit, mainly because the issue of female (or male) human beauty is pretty far down on my "what I experience as beauty" list.

I want to experience Beauty everyday and it's hardly ever a pretty face, sexy body or pink toenails. It's the light in a student's face when she understands, it's the way the shadows fall from the tree outside my office window, it's innumerable unanticipated perceptions that register (thanks to the unconscious aesthetic processor) as "beautiful".

If Beauty is an event of connection between "what's inside" and "what's outside", then I maintain that Beauty is for me joy—or maybe I should use 'pleasure' as Susan offered— in living.

a response to paul?
Name: em
Date: 2004-04-05 16:53:19
Link to this Comment: 9175

i've been doing some reading for a class on AIDS in africa, and the most recent article we were assigned provided an interesting sense of balance (at least for me) to paul's closing points last tuesday.
the article, written by will h. courtenay, is entitled "constructions of masculinity and their influence on men's well-being: a theory of gender and health." when paul discussed beauty and gender, saying that women could benefit from seeing beauty as ONE desirable characteristic, rather than a be all and end all (which leads to self-mutilation as discussed), there was no real examination of the male sphere. this article proposes that because women are more interested and concerned with matters of beauty and health, women are more likely to visit doctors, engage in health-promoting behaviors, take vitamins, and exercise. and men are statistically less likely to take care of their bodies-- in fact, our culture has defined the factors of what it means to be male as almost completely self-destructive. that is why men do not live as long as women, do not exercise as much, and do not visit the doctor as often. they also are far more likely to engage in risky behaviors, because this is what our culture (the "female gaze"? or a "self-reflexive male gaze"?) has defined as masculine. men are "independent, self-reliant, strong, robust, and tough" (courtenay, 1387) according to society, so therefore are less likely to admit or pay attention to poor or weak health. is this making sense? i just thought it was really fascinating given last week's talk. and also because i often feel that while feminist theory and criticism is indeed a much-needed presence in our discussion of beauty, the idea of setting it beside something like this deepens comparison and hopefully thinking. i know i'm pondering...

Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2004-04-05 20:45:42
Link to this Comment: 9181

uh .... well .... yeah .... maybe ..... hmmmmm ....... how about if I just don't LIKE doctors?

(thanks Em. May there always be the "setting it beside something" .... in all our lives.).

following orders...
Name: em
Date: 2004-04-06 22:58:33
Link to this Comment: 9218

so there is this girl, she happens to have the same name as me, who is in one of anne's (and paul's) classes, and she happened to write about some stuff that is being processed here (for example, the moment of the recognition of beauty). so anne asked me to help this girl out by linking her paper to the forum.
"Of Time and the Quiver"
it's about beauty, too... honest!

couple of thoughts...
Name: maria s-w
Date: 2004-04-07 08:22:00
Link to this Comment: 9228

I am going to assume that all of the many ways that ideals of beauty have been used in historical and contemporary cultures in the oppression of women can be taken as read. I am also going to assume that everyone thinks that the fact that we currently live in an eating-disorder ridden country where women will have toxins injected into their faces so that they don't have wrinkles is a BAD thing. While I understand the concerns that some may have about the assertions that Paul made during his presentation last Tuesday, I feel that it would be a mistake to fully reject the notion of an "aesthetic processor" simply because he brought the issue of gender into the argument. The issue is not whether this concept provides a definitive or final word on the issue of beauty; indeed, I don't think it was intended to do so. I didn't feel that by incorporating the issue gender into his discussion of the appreciation of beauty that Paul was suggesting that women ought to simply let themselves blindly embrace the standards that society sets for them. I didn't feel that the argument he presented endorsed the stereotype of the superficial female who, overcome by a mystical and intense affinity for beauty in art and feeling deeply connected to the fecund-mother-earth side of the natural world, spends her life swooning around like a heroine in a 19th century British novel. If one observes the world we live in, you can't deny that there is some interaction between the majority women in the world and the majority of societies in the world that results in a widespread pattern of females placing a high value on beauty. Regardless of whether it should or shouldn't be the case, the fact remains that it IS the case and that now the important thing to do is figure out how to rectify the situation. I felt that it was this observation to which much of Paul's lecture spoke.
I think that it is important to remember that when Paul spoke of females assigning a higher value to beauty than men he was not only talking about human beauty and he was not only talking about women valuing beauty within themselves. As evidenced by the various presentations in this symposium, there are many different kinds of beauty and they are found in many different places. I think it is important to keep in mind that it was to this broader and more inclusive definition of beauty that Paul was referring. It was my understanding that the intent of the presentation was not to further the idea that, as Christine Koggel put it, " all the consequences of women attending to being beautiful are harmless." Rather, I think the goal was to explore the possibility that identifying a biological basis for this issue could provide insight into (*not account for*) the situation and in doing so perhaps shed new light on a very old and very serious problem within our society.
We now know literally HOW beauty has been used to oppress and disadvantage women in our culture. Studies have been done that record the feelings of depression and low self-esteem that many women experience after reading fashion magazines. The constant exposure to advertising and popular culture all foster a sense of inadequacy as well as aid in the development of unrealistic and unhealthy ideals of beauty. The insidious manner in which these ideals and images seep into our collective and individual consciousness is something that most people are aware of, even if they are unsure of how to stop the process. It is not in answering the question of "how" this phenomenon occurs, but in exploring the question of "why" that I think the value of story with which Paul presented us last Tuesday can be found. There isn't any way around the fact how our brains are constructed plays some role in this process and I think that one risks losing valuable insight by not incorporating ideas or approaches that are, at least initially, uncomfortably different from our own.
I think that we have now reached a point that in interdisciplinary academic forums such as the one that this symposium provided, we can discuss the possibility that there may be underlying gender differences in the way our minds are set up without being afraid that people will seize upon the opportunity to assign value judgements to those differences that disadvantage women. This is not to suggest that the ideas put forth last Tuesday are any sort of final answer. I do however think that they facilitate discussion and, if people will allow them to do so, make a contribution to this important dialogue by, if nothing else, providing a slightly different lens through which to view an old problem.
I think that this is a useful story. It's a useful way to explain at least in part why societal roles for women exist the way that they do. A couple of thoughts that I wanted to add...

-If we're going to start making observations about gender and beauty, it seems worth pointing out that while women have this broader range of things that seem beautiful, it also seems to me that men often closely (if not exclusively) associate beauty with sexual desirability. Beauty is also not a term often
-I've also noticed that on the whole, each gender tends to use the word 'beauty' very differently. When a man tells a woman that she looks beautiful, it is rarely in a situation that does not have at least some potentially romantic or sexual undertones. In most situations a man saying "You look beautiful" is not an objective statement about the woman looks. It carries with it a note of approval, or at least appreciation, and its meaning is more nuanced and complex than simply a statement about the woman's appearance. They don't just say it to inform the woman of this fact; rather, they say it with the aim of eliciting a certain response. At the risk of making broad generalizations, women, in, can tell other women sincerely that they look beautiful without it carrying as much general this isn't the case with men: it would be considered hitting on the other man. As the word "beauty" applies to people, it would seem that men immediately associate the term with being sexually/romantically meaningful. Though this could be because a lot of men are homophobic idiots...who knows.
- I very much liked Paul's statement earlier in this forum that he does not consider it "in any way degrading/demeaning to "women" (or any other human group) to make the suggestion that they have played a role in the cultural phenomena in which they find themselves. Very much to the contrary, it is an acknowledgement of agency (existing and potential), and an invitation to consider how to make the best use of that agency in the future." I think the reason that it stuck with me is because it is the notion of "potential agency" that makes discussions like this worthwhile. It is the possibility that once we have identified a problem or an undesirable trend in society, we can change it.
- One thing that I thought was not touched on was that while men might feel that beauty is one of many different desirable traits that men might wish to have, I think it would be inaccurate to say (at least as a general rule,) that when 'evaluating' women, men have any criteria that they weigh as heavily as beauty. If women perceive beauty to be the most important trait they can possess, they are not the only ones do think so.

sexual desirability
Name: Jan
Date: 2004-04-07 16:20:42
Link to this Comment: 9239

Picking up on a thread in Maria's comments:

During our discussions, there were a few references to biological markers of childbearing ability and fertility in women -- youth, symmetry/regular features, narrow waist, flat stomach, clear skin, shiny hair (or oiled hair), good teeth -- and the parts they play in a definition of beauty.

If these do function effectively as attractors, and given that, except for symmetrical features (although I'm not sure about that biologically), they are indicators or the results of good health (even being neither too thin nor too heavy), do we need to distinguish between that kind of value and their being set and exaggerated as standards for appearance for all ages of women?

shifting the level...
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2004-04-08 19:46:00
Link to this Comment: 9250

...of this conversation--

I just came across this in Albert Camus's "The Myth of Sisyphus" (1955):

"At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman, and these hills, the softness of the sky, the outline of these trees at this very moment lose the illusory meaning with which we had clothed them, henceforth more remote than a lost paradise. The primitive hostility of the world rises up to face us...for centuries we have understood in it solely the images and designs that we had attributed to it beforehand....The world evades us because it becomes itself again...that denseness and that strangeness of the world is the absurd."

This is a return, I suppose, to the sort of beauty Mark spoke of trying to create: that which is not pre-packaged: is alive BECAUSE not contained by what we already know.

Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2004-04-09 17:46:11
Link to this Comment: 9255

Glad to see the conversation is continuing. Maybe we could use some more observations as well. If you haven't take the "beauty survey", please do. And invite/encourage others to do so as well?

When we have a reasonable number of responses, we'll generate some analyses and put then on line for everyone to see.

Date: 2004-04-12 22:41:39
Link to this Comment: 9305

To complete an interrupted thought in my earlier posting
("beauty is also a term not often ...") ...what I was intending to point out with that scentence is that the term beauty is not often applied to men in the same sense that it is applied to women. When it is applied to men, it tends to be used to describe more feminine/androgynous looking individuals. While females seem to find such men attractive (as evidinced by the hearthrob status of boy bands and Jude Law such) men often dislike and deride the apperances of such men, calling them 'pretty boys' etc. It seems that while most of the women considered to be sexually desirable in our culture are also feminine and also beautiful, the same is not true for men. Steve McQueen and Indiana Jones- who, I know, isn't a real person (which is tragic), but that type of guy- are considered attractive and masculine but NOT considered beautiful. Being sexually attractive and being beautiful are not assumed to be hand in hand when it comes to men and ideals of male beauty or attractiveness. This distinction between sexual attractivsness and beauty did not always exist in men. There
have been times in other countries (like 17th and 18th century France) where being one of the more beautiful/androdgynous males was valued (and they wore make-up and wigs and so on and so forth). That standard changed, which I think suggests that over time (and with effort) that change can occur now for how we view female attractiveness and beauty.

Aesthetics: An Exchange...
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2004-05-19 16:17:35
Link to this Comment: 9903

One very fine (belated?) reverberation from Mark Lord's session in our Beauty Symposium is a new poem by Karl Kirchwey, just up now as Aesthetics: An Exchange Between a Poet and a Dramatist. Check it out, respond...

4 guys at a podium
Name: jan
Date: 2004-05-24 16:10:27
Link to this Comment: 9910

Some may be interested to compare our conversations (not to mention our style and culture) with a May 14 Symposium on Beauty in Art, Music, Literature and Philosophy at Princeton moderated by professor Alexander Nehamas, with speakers: Composer Milton Babbitt, Artist Frank Stella, Poet C.K. Williams.

This is a video, not text, so you'll need multimedia software to hear.

PS on symposium
Name: jan
Date: 2004-05-24 16:38:22
Link to this Comment: 9911

Actually, Nehamas' opening summary is helpful at this point in thinking back on many of our much more extended discussions.

the joy of DISequilibrium
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2004-06-08 22:50:40
Link to this Comment: 10073

We have been spending a lot of time recently in the Graduate Idea Forum w/ the work of the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio--whose studies of the function of feelings and emotion, it turns out, lie not so far afield from the topic of "beauty" as we have constructed it in this Symposium. One of the most interesting tensions for me in our series of talks on Beauty was that between what I'd call the Lord and Levine schools of thought: between

All this a VERY long way 'round of getting to a distinction Damasio (the neuroscientist) makes in his newest book on Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain. There's no "beauty" in his title, but his description of emotions traces the same tension we traced and re-traced above. According to the recent piece by Ian Hacking in The New York Review of Books, Damasio talks alot about self-regulation, about homeostasis:

Joy is the feeling of life in equilibrium; sorrow of life in disarray ("functional disequilibrium")....We monitor our body, we sense it at a stable state, homeostatic, until [something] disturbs the state. Equilibrium is always the goal. Joy, according to Damasio, is the name for the sense of harmony when we are in a state of equilibrium...

Nope. Joy, in my experience, lies in the disequilibrium, in what happens that is BEYOND expection (think 3.7, think 4.0). What is beautiful, in my book, continues to be what draws us OUT of the settled/known space. An interestingly similar line of thinking has just arisen in the new working group on Information, drawing on studies that demonstrate that children "get excited when they are shown something new."

That's beautiful.

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