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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.
Date: 2004-02-17 18:42:14
Link to this Comment: 8256
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.
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2004-02-18 11:30:34
Link to this Comment: 8262
Some of the ones that stick in my mind:
|a need for caution?
Date: 2004-02-18 13:18:19
Link to this Comment: 8265
Name: Jan Trembl
Date: 2004-02-18 13:34:57
Link to this Comment: 8266
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?
Name: Jan Trembl
Date: 2004-02-18 13:47:45
Link to this Comment: 8267
|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:
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--
Date: 2004-02-18 21:55:19
Link to this Comment: 8278
Name: Jan Trembl
Date: 2004-02-19 10:16:28
Link to this Comment: 8287
Date: 2004-02-19 12:19:21
Link to this Comment: 8288
Date: 2004-02-19 17:26:31
Link to this Comment: 8295
Date: 2004-02-21 23:32:56
Link to this Comment: 8344
|why pragmatism doesn't work
Date: 2004-02-23 16:30:16
Link to this Comment: 8396
|more bits and pieces
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2004-02-24 21:40:21
Link to this Comment: 8468
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.
Date: 2004-02-24 22:33:51
Link to this Comment: 8475
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
Date: 2004-02-25 13:24:22
Link to this Comment: 8490
Date: 2004-02-25 18:12:04
Link to this Comment: 8499
|Sexual and Pleasure/Depressive position
Name: Susan Levi
Date: 2004-02-25 20:09:07
Link to this Comment: 8503
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
Date: 2004-03-02 21:32:01
Link to this Comment: 8641
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:
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.
Date: 2004-03-03 18:40:48
Link to this Comment: 8662
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.
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2004-03-03 20:56:40
Link to this Comment: 8667
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
|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:
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
|beauty and econ omics
Name: Dorothea L
Date: 2004-03-17 17:30:55
Link to this Comment: 8859
Name: Jan Trembl
Date: 2004-03-17 17:58:44
Link to this Comment: 8860
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
|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:
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
Date: 2004-04-03 14:24:01
Link to this Comment: 9139
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.
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
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 ...
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
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):
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?
Date: 2004-04-05 16:53:19
Link to this Comment: 9175
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2004-04-05 20:45:42
Link to this Comment: 9181
(thanks Em. May there always be the "setting it beside something" .... in all our lives.).
Date: 2004-04-06 22:58:33
Link to this Comment: 9218
|couple of thoughts...
Name: maria s-w
Date: 2004-04-07 08:22:00
Link to this Comment: 9228
-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 baggage...in 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.
Date: 2004-04-07 16:20:42
Link to this Comment: 9239
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
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
|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
Date: 2004-05-24 16:10:27
Link to this Comment: 9910
|PS on symposium
Date: 2004-05-24 16:38:22
Link to this Comment: 9911
|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 rest...in 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."