I’ve been reading The Mirror and the Lamp, M.H. Abrams’s (Capt. Norton’s) study of the metaphors of poetry. He traces the development of an expressive theory of poetry from the contrary Aristotelian notion of poetry as imitation. It’s interesting to see the development of ideas we now take for granted, and I was thinking about it while I was talking to Sexface, Mike, SES, and others about aesthetic evaluation
We were mostly talking about the relationship of craft (technique, mastery) to inspiration (aesthetic content, gut feeling). I dislike labeling the first pole “inspiration,” because it forces the locus of evaluation on the creation and not on the project. But whatever. I thought that technique ought only to be in service of a larger aesthetic content, and wanking qua wanking lacks any value, except among a highly specific audience of fellow practitioners who have, perhaps, ratiocinated their aesthetic evaluations along the lines of “difficult to do -> good.”
Sexface argued that of course technique ought to be in the service of a larger aesthetic project, but I was just deaf to the aesthetic role of a given chunk of wankery. I should have countered with my love of Television, but this other question started to bother me.
These days, the claim that technical mastery ought only to be in the service of inspiration is, as Sexface said, obviously the case. (Tho’ it might not have always been.) However, the question of how much wankery becomes too much wankery is clearly up for grabs. Here is the interesting question: is this just a sorites paradox? And are all aesthetic problems (of a particular mode of aesthetic evaluation) just special cases of this one?
The classic form of a sorites paradox is the bald man problem: A man with a full head of hair is obviously not bald. And if we were to remove just one hair, he is still not bald. And if we were to remove another, his hirsuteness would persist. But, were we to repeat this process indefinitely, removing all the hair on the man’s head, one by one, at some point he would be bald. The problem comes with defining the point at which baldness begins. This may seem like stoned philosophy, but it’s real philosophy. (Probably the only differences between the two are precision and whether the problem is “totally awesome” or “interesting.”)
Maybe holistic aesthetic evaluations are in a different class, but any atomistic (new critical) approach that evaluates objects in terms of predicates drawn from that genre of art can be transformed into an expression equivalent to “how much x until it’s y?” where x is the specific predicate (hair, rocks saxophone, irony), and y is the category in question (bald, heap, wanky, dry). Plain language aesthetic judgments often have this form: it’s too precious; it’s too sad; it’s too confusing. This might also be a better way of capturing the data that aesthetic relativism is supposed to account for– at the very least, it does say a little something about the nature of aesthetic debates.
There are a couple of things that interest me about this idea. The first is ontological: reading aesthetic disputes as sorites paradoxes clarifies the relationship of the parts of a work of art to the evaluation criteria. Trying to transform plain-language evaluations into a sorites form forces an examination of grounds: “too precious” becomes “too precious to be good,” where preciousness is sort of reified as an object, the collection of which contributes to the semantic determination of good. It’s the same as the semantic relationship between the given objects and the vague predicate. A heap is just a sufficient collection of rocks; hirsuteness is just a sufficient collection of hair. Quality (or, even more specifically, non-wankiness, funniness, etc.) is just a collection of sufficient quantities of x, where x is the specified object of investigation.
(We can do away with the “collection” notion with another form of the paradox: I have a bunch of color swatches that gradate from red to orange. The gradation is so fine that, say, any three consecutive swatches are basically indistinguishable. Meaning that the swatch right next to red is still red, and the swatch right next to orange is still orange. The paradox: moving one swatch over doesn’t change the color, but the color eventually changes. Maybe this contends that red is just a collection of sufficient “redness,” but my hunch is that there’s a slightly different onto-semantic thing happening here, which may or may not be closer to the ontological picture of aesthetic categories and their constituent parts; at the very least, probably a few metaphysical relationships are permitted between the terms (objects) and (predicates) in question.)
You also get interesting facts about scope: “good” might be ascribed to the right amount of “preciousness,” but quickly “precious” becomes the predicate, and we’re trying to determine what objects make a thing precious. It might be a fractal-y, turtles-all-the-way-down kind of thing, but maybe there’s a maximal reduction (phonemes and semantemes in poetry, or, from another end, quanta of feeling?). I guess all this comes down to is that thinking of aesthetic problems in this way forces us to be clear on our terms, and the form suggests a relationship among the things we’re interested in (hairs to baldness, preciousness to quality). There’s a lot to work out here, the implications of this, but it casts into the sharpest relief the new critical project.
The second interesting thing is a bit more speculative: perhaps “solutions” to sorites paradoxes can offer us solutions to aesthetic problems. Of course, most solutions tend to more precisely articulate the problem (fuzzy logic, “truth gaps” (which is aesthetic relativism?), contextualism, and so on), but there’s one strange and interesting solution, which has touching implications.
Epistemism is the position that sorites parodoxes are not semantic problems at all– they’re epistemological ones. In other words, there is a precise boundary of heapness and hirsutness, BUT WE SIMPLY CANNOT KNOW WHAT THOSE BOUNDARIES ARE. How perfectly tragic: indeed, there is aesthetic truth out there, but we just can’t know what it is: it remains always elusive: not diaphanous, but eternally out of sight. We can, at best, just keep approximating it, even as it recedes from view.