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A Question of Taste

A Question of Taste

I, in full disclosure, towards the purpose of your esteeming me a personage of transparency and honesty, considered titling this thing Principia Aesthetica, but decided, in the end, wisely, that such a feat would have been too pretentious—even for me.

A POEM

Once upon a midnight dreary
walked down the street a German weary
rhyme his name one can with mouse
for this was Carl Friedrich Gauss

Returning to his grand estate
He saw two peasants at the gate
In the middle where they stand
Was a solid mass of sand

One said, "O Lord, please guide us, dear
Look at the sand we've gathered here
And will you end our mental trial,
Say whether it be heap or pile?"

Hearing this Gauss thus did ponder
Much time in thinking thus was squandered
At last he said, "It does not matter,
will you cease your chitter chatter?"

Friends,

Forgive me the bathos, but... Whether you call that mass of sand a heap or pile does matter. It matters so much that your entire value system depends on it. It matters so much that the concept of conceptualization itself depends on it. I am here to confirm your intuition that yes, what you choose to call that sand boils down to taste, and, furthermore, to argue that everything is reducible to taste: the gustatory differential capacity.

Because this is also a food blog, a sensible place to start would be the physical sense of taste. People who cannot see are blind. People who cannot taste are ageusiacs (it's true, I just looked it up). If you cannot taste, then everything tastes the same—or nothing has taste. In either phrasing, regardless of what you put in your mouth, there is no difference in flavor1. To be capable of tasting therefore necessitates the perception of difference, and it is like so how I come to term taste the differential capacity2.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, the sand riddle has a name:

The Sorites Paradox

At what grain does a heap of sand become a pile of sand?

Response the first: "That's simple, we just have to put numbers on it. Anything 10,000 grains or less is a pile, and anything more is a heap." Indeed such a response does answer the question, but good luck counting this3:

Sand on beach

The second response, equally common: "Who the hell cares in the first place?"

Connoisseur

How pointless does it seem to argue over what to call a bunch of sand or which frame of a Joe Biden video is the best? If you answered, "Utterly pointless," you have, in effect, just invalidated the entire field of aesthetics. Yup. You no longer have permission to rate anything because by repudiating our basic ability to distinguish you've rendered everything equally pointless. Enjoy your bland, gray world.

"Wow no, stop putting words in my mouth. I only meant those things are pointless. Soccer is definitely better than football." Fair. I, like you, also don't give a toss about many things, like traffic signals and bread clips. Yet people do care about these to obsessive extents. Why is this the case? Because they're weird. I dunno, we're not here to answer that. We are here, dear readers, to understand, independent of personal preference for what is good, what is bad, what is worthwhile and what is bunk, how taste works. We are here to create a total aesthetic theory. And then to punch some total pretenders out of the ring.

But first, our toolbox hungers for more concepts.

Aesthetics

What is Aesthetics? What are aesthetics? What is an aesthetic? What is the aesthetic?

This can get confusing quickly, and my heuristic for confusing topics is: move to concrete examples. Let's start with painting—Realism and Cubism are good examples of aesthetics. But painting itself is an aesthetic which can be put on the same conceptual playing field as say, sculpting, weaving, and pottery. Visual art as an aesthetic can be compared with music, perfumery, gastronomy, and literature. "The arts," as an aesthetic, may be contrasted with science and philosophy. And all such conceptions break into pieces when you get into multimedia.

These distinctions, you should understand, are ultimately arbitrary; the lines are up to you—not some Ulterior Being—to draw. The blank canvas necessitates no brushstrokes. Hell, the concept of distinction itself is experienced in phenomenally different ways in different cultures. Take language. German, English, and French (among others) qua aesthetic possess distinction as a primary feature, their grammatical structures enabling speakers to cleave and carve the world into superfine categories. Trying to make scientific progress in Pirahã or Swahili is impractical, even aside from English's lingua franca status, because, historically, they haven't developed the lexical gestalts for hyperspecialized discipline-specific ideas. Yet English has no word for "potable freshwater ice" (Inuktitut: nilak) or "the warm snuggly feeling one gets from sitting under blankets while the fireplace burns" (Danish: hygge), even though it can achieve approximate translations through extended description4.

Aesthetics, then, are virtually omnipresent because they structure our world at every level. And because everyone interprets their experience through slightly different mental models—regardless of language—a common vocabulary becomes all the more critical for meaningful discourse. To that end:

  • Aesthetics, capital A, singular, is the branch of philosophy concerned with the aesthetic.
  • aesthetics, lowercase a, plural, refers to a collection of (an) aesthetics in relation to some subject.
  • The aesthetic refers either to:
    1. the class of phenomena which can be experienced aesthetically (i.e. everything)
    2. a particular (an) aesthetic, as in "the aesthetic of Romanticism"
      • interchangeable with "the aesthetics of Romanticism"
      • not to be confused with ascetic or acetic
  • An aesthetic is defined as a logically coherent structure of tastes.
    • the one you need to remember if this is going to make any sense
    • not to be confused with anesthetic
      • which has very interesting implications for those etymologists out there
        • not to be confused with entomologists for the non-etymologists out there

Valuation

Certain differentials may feel frivolous/trivial/[adjective] to you for any variety of reasons, but the differential capacity is presupposed by all judgments of value. The second notion that precedes all valuation is that of the (an) aesthetic. Restated:

  1. Taste: Difference must exist in order for value judgments to be possible.
    • A thing cannot be better or worse than itself.
  2. Aesthetic: Criteria must exist against which value can be determined; the possibility of valuation depends on such a logical structure.
    • A swimming pool is not "better" than a math formula or golf ball unless the query is places to swim, in which case of course it is. Adding additional constraints might yield "crisp mountain lake" as a better place to swim than "swimming pool" or "bathtub."

Thus conceived, all valuation is by definition aesthetic; there is no such thing as a non-aesthetic preference. And so we can assign words like better and worse, beautiful and ugly, good and bad, yummy and revolting according to the question: How well does the object under consideration hold up against criteria in a given aesthetic5?

Example: Bowling balls, basketballs, and baseballs all fall under the "ball" aesthetic. You may judge these things to be equivalent in value, just as you may have no preference for swimming in a pool or at the beach. In fitness terms, if the criteria for "ball" consist of being spherical and tangible, each of my three examples are a 100% fit. An avocado may be 50%-80%, but a turkey may be, I dunno, 20%. So an avocado is a better ball than a Butterball.

Furthermore, fitness doesn't have to be conceptualized in terms of fluid gradations. An aesthetic that has exactly four Boolean criteria can only ever take five values (0%, 25%, 50%, 75%, 100%). Plus the 0-100% scale might not be the ideal model for all types of fitness.

Furtherfurthermore, aesthetics are not mutually exclusive; the same criteria may belong to multiple aesthetics, and aesthetics can come into conflict.

Example: I've just teleported you into a tribal village on a remote island. The tribe worships a mound of sand in the middle and insists that everyone call it a heap, at risk of death. As a professional sandologist, you take one look and instantly know that's what you'd call a pile. Calling it a heap repulses you so much that you'd vomit if you tried. However, you'd take retching your guts out to being impaled by spears—any day of the week. So you call it a heap. And retch. And retch. And resolve to get revenge on me for teleporting you.

Uh oh, I better hide! But point is, you nest aesthetics into each other and create an indescribably complex structure of preferential structures. It's all super meta, you're doing it all the time, with 99% of it running in your head like background processes. Scary? Cool? Depends on your, wait for it...

...crickets...

Lastly, if you thought "aesthetics" pertained only to painting, music, and other activities traditionally conceived of as art, think again:

There is taste in people, visual taste, taste in emotion - and there is taste in acts, taste in morality.6
-Susan Sontag

Provided there is difference, anything can be considered an aesthetic phenomenon. Thus taste is limited not by our taste buds, but by our imagination.

Now that we've delineated our ontology of aesthetics, we're almost ready to enter the ring. Just one brief statement about my philosophy of philosophy. I strongly believe that philosophy should not (indeed, cannot) be divorced from lived experience, and strive not to write about anything that doesn't affect me on a personal level. Properly understood, good philosophy makes intuitive sense. To demonstrate, perhaps let's start with a little biology?

Hierarchy

If we accept that humans have a smattering of innate desires, we can marginally submit that the more of them satiated at any given time, the more we prefer being in that state. Observe:

  • Fed, quenched, vacated, sheltered, healthy, moneyed, loved, respected, accomplished, actualized

And of course you recognize where most of these come from:

Maslow

Without commenting on the accuracy of the pyramid (its geometric structure, conditions for progression, underlying psychological theory), one would be hard pressed to deny that the general person prefers being more of the adjectives than fewer. Few things make more intuitive sense than the association of "good" with positive affects (feeling well, fulfilled), and "bad" with negative affects (lack of above adjectives; physical + psychosocial pain). Yet–and this is key–this association is not logically necessary. You can believe that going through pain and hard times makes you stronger, more virtuous, more spiritual—thus good. Or you—masochist that you are—may enjoy pain (of any sort) for its own sake. Or perhaps you, bodhisattva, may simply not prefer7. More later.

We may analogize this (I argue) natural notion of preference, of hierarchy, onto any structure where difference is discernible. "Having an aesthetic" is the visible result of endorsing any such hierarchy. When a large group of people agrees on the same aesthetic values, you get movements like Renaissance Humanism; when very few agree, you get postmodern performance art. It is here, it is now that I must beat in yet again that, A, neither is per se better, and B, that "better" is a property of your personal aesthetics. I am merely describing observable patterns that emerge from different degrees of aesthetic cohesion, which should to anyone with a modicum of sense be plainly apparent.

Calvin

Your response: "Ha! Bill Watterson, 'mirite?"

My response: "The humor comes from the viewer's attempt to decipher Calvin's aesthetics. In the first panel, we learn, firstly, that he considers painting 'high' art and, secondly, that its emblematic qualities include being moving, enriching, and sublime. In the second, we see that he associates none of these qualities to comic strips, and in the third, that he values content he considers sophisticated and challenging. We wonder why he attributes these qualities to a painting of a comic strip. Is it because the representation of one medium is nested within the technique of another? The answer is no, as is revealed one panel forward, where he shatters our hypothesis by mocking a proposed cartoon with precisely this recursive quality; the only response left to us is laughter. This is of course metacommentary on Watterson's part, as he has, in effect, effected exactly Hobbes's proposition with these very panels, suggesting the effort in toto is, ironically, 'low' art, but by virtue of this irony the viewer is all but forced to conclude that this cartoonist is one of consummate sophistication, and that, by extension, if, as Calvin declares, sophisticated irony is characteristic of 'high' art, this is none other, no less, no more, than an undeniable instance of that which is called 'high' art."8

You: "No, I just like how the third panel doesn't have a border."

Me: "Oh."

Mind Reading

A frequent trope in romantic relationships is that men want things stated directly and clearly while women want their minds read, causing all parties to rip out their hair. But mind reading—regardless of gender—is pretty awesome and often results in better outcomes than simple fulfillment of stated desires. Not convinced yet? That's because I haven't supplied any arguments, silly.

An aesthetic, let's recall, is a structure of taste with internal logical coherence. Now let's add a provisional definition of articulation: intersubjective communication of aesthetic preferences. The better you are at articulating things, the more assured you can be that the other party has understood your aesthetics like you understand them—and dash your hopes on the concrete if you think this is easy. I'm of the opinion that many, if not most, of our aesthetic preferences are subconscious or virtually hidden to us—which does not mean they don't exist—and that, of those which aren't, successfully articulating them is still difficult9.

Two years ago I mentioned to one of my colleagues, upon seeing a pamphlet for Man of La Mancha on her desk, that Don Quixote was my favorite novel. We never discussed any much related topics thereafter, but at my going away party several months later, she presented me with a large poster print of Picasso's Don Quixote signed by team members with thanks and well wishes for my new role. Needless to say I found this delightful in the absolute and will be cherishing this most joyous of moments for the remainder of my period on this our beloved rotating rock.

The moral of this fable—fabulous indeed is its character—is that I would never even have thought to express—indeed such expressions, by virtue of their implanting possibility in the subconscious, temper emotive impact (for the impossible is always more surprising)—desire for, A, this particular gift, B, the category of the gift, and C, any gift at all; and that by at once surfacing and fulfilling an entire array of submerged aesthetics, my dear colleague created in me an incomparable piece of art: a shimmering memory.

So: I greatly appreciate those who recommend [books, movies, presents] with my personal tastes in mind, even if—especially if—I can't articulate or don't know them myself; hopefully I've persuaded you to desire such a structure of desire for yourself. But if you remain skeptical of mind reading's aesthetic potential, allow me one more, much briefer parable.

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses."
-Henry Ford10

People like Ford and Steve Jobs were able to read the collective mind of society so well that they delivered products for which no one would've possibly been able to articulate their desire. The rest, as we all know, is history.

A more dangerous idea is that in the future, technology will decide our desires, writ large, in the same way map applications now decide which routes we take. This is fine for people who believe that if technology can read our minds, there's no reason to think humans can better optimize for their interests than the tech. Those of us who have a problem with this take a different stance, which is that because our structures of desire are so complex, such a proposition is inherently intractable; letting tech control these "unknown knowns" sounds ominously like giving up our last remnants of human agency. In other words, the problem lies in the idea that, to a large degree, we don't know why we want what we want, and that, if we did, we wouldn't want (some of) what we currently want. With sufficiently advanced algorithms (or sufficiently simple humans), the possibility of desiring to desire other than we've been programmed to evaporates. We first need to work out how our own minds work before we consider designing tech that decides for us.

Which leads us into our section on acquiring tastes.

Acquired Tastes

Middle school, for any American tot, is one of the few periods in life whose awfulness in experience matches (exceeds, even) its awfulness in memory. Distrust anybody who says they had a blast in middle school because, in medical terms, that is what's known as a strong indicator of psychopathy, and you don't want psychopaths running and ruining your life now do you? (Oh wait.) In any case, wee middle school me felt intense anxiety about the food he was eating, specifically during the period known as lunch. Around 7th or 8th grade, I imagine, I decided that the cafeteria food was in fact radioactive gruel. Probably because the only acceptable fare, pizza, was incubated on rotating platforms, five or six pies at a time, in a tall rectangular see-through box replete with tiny greenhouse lights. At some point I asked the parental units to let me start bringing my own lunch, a request which they granted, and soon I commenced eating what I then considered to be cuisine, Lunchables.

But I grew envious of my friend, let's call him Cyrus, who every day would devour with gusto a whole wheat sandwich and cut of iceberg lettuce11. Though I couldn't understand what he liked about that rabbit food, my Lunchables started feeling mundane in comparison because I was clearly not having as much fun eating them as the kids in the TV ads, for one, but more importantly, as Cyrus with his homemade meals. So I asked my mom to start making my own, which she graciously agreed to do: a ham and cheese sandwich. Noon arrives the next day, and as I with great trepidation began munching on my new lunch, I have a breakdown. "Is there ham in there?" asked my friend—no malice, all curiosity. I think that was what triggered it. I think I sought his approval too much, and I knew he wasn't eating ham and that that difference was everything. After the Vice Principal came (he was just dropping by) and further embarrassed me with his presence (for he wouldn't have come if I hadn't been crying), after the tears stopped, I asked Cyrus, "How can you eat that stuff? You always look so satisfied." He replied, "Well, when I bite into my lettuce, I think about how fresh it is and how it crunches when I chew on it, and how it's healthy."

It was that moment when the idea of acquired tastes, avant la lettre, first struck me, although to claim its form then was anything other than subconscious would be an egregious act of autobiography. There was nothing I could say to disprove anything Cyrus had said; that things could be liked for reasons different than my own was, for the young tyro, mindblowing. After that day I became much more confident about eating what I ate because I'd begun internalizing how pointless it was to care about how others judged me. Irony being, of course, that everyone—then, as now—was too preoccupied with themselves to bother thinking about Me, Protagonist, Center of the Universe.

If the motion which objects we see communicate to our nerves be conducive to our health, the objects causing it are styled beautiful; if a contrary motion be excited, they are styled ugly.
-Benedict de Spinoza

Already you know some foods you find inedible others consider (figuratively, if not literally) an essential part of their diet (mayonnaise, of course, remaining objectively disgusting). On the other hand, we're predisposed to prefer certain sensations from birth, such as sweet and salty to sour and bitter. Even if these findings are valid only in most (not all) cases, no one should dispute that the differential capacity is also built in—biologically innate—for without it, as mentioned before, preference is impossible. And speaking of nerves, neuroplasticity is also innate.

It's common knowledge now not only that our brains are malleable, but that we, with intention, can actively shape the ways we respond to stimuli, or in other words sculpt (to some degree), as it were, the neurology we want—through the Power of Habit™. "Use it or lose it," as they say; who hasn't experienced loss of linguistic or musical fluency from disuse?

Zeki

Neurobiologists Semir Zeki and John Paul Romaya conducted a study in 2011 to determine the neural correlates of aesthetic experience. Why this is important is that the results basically prove Spinoza's point. The duo put 21 people in fMRI machines, made them view and rate 30 different pieces of visual art from 1-9, with 1-3 coding to "ugly"; 4-6 "indifferent"; 7-9 "beautiful." They then did the same thing with 30 different pieces of music. The yellow splotches in the image show the parts of the brain that light up only when beauty is perceived, relative to the "indifferent" and "ugly" conditions.

We propose that all works that appear beautiful to a subject have a single brain-based characteristic, which is that they have as a correlate of experiencing them a change in strength of activity within the mOFC and, more specifically, within field A1 in it.

Key: The analysis was conducted relative to each individual's own rating of each artwork. Which means that if Sam thought Painting A was beautiful but Tony thought it was ugly, Sam's brain would show yellow spots and Tony's wouldn't. Moreover, it's crucial to remember these are snapshots in time. Because what we consider beautiful, good, pleasing, positive, beneficial, etc. changes over time, it follows that what caused "strong mOFC activity" in the past may fail to in the present or future12. I used to beg my parents to take me to McDonald's, but now all I think of when I pass the Golden Arches is factory farming and chemical processing and Fast Food Nation.

To bring this back to my ontology, "acquiring taste" corresponds to changing your preferential structure, retooling your aesthetics such that what was once bad, boring, or nonexistent (because you couldn't tell a difference) is now tasty. This takes effort, which makes sense because acquired tastes are by definition not innate. I can learn to appreciate salads by adopting Cyrus's attitude; the more I conjure up (what I consider to be) the positive aspects of lettuce munching, the easier it is and the more disposed I become to herbivorism. This is a great example of reification, by the way, roughly synonymous with self-perpetuating confirmation bias. Which has terrible and obvious implications in the political sphere.

The Dark Side

Coffee, wine, and dark chocolate are easy examples of acquired tastes; their adherents tend to be so proud of their bitter barrier (to entry) that they've spawned entire subcultures dedicated to advancing their virtuous qualities. People who cannot abide even these small pleasures generally have low Openness scores and are generally not worth associating with (jk). But if these are easy to learn to like, what is hard?

For one, there's the "protagonist" from Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground who masochistically enjoys, among other things, living in squalor, feeling unaccomplished, and social humiliation. There's the Tantric Buddhists who engage(d) in coprophagia, ganachakra, and other disgust-based practices to accelerate their enlightenment. Horror movies. Systematic abuse, where the only viable defense mechanism is to acquire a taste for it (endemic to corporate workaholism). Or going to the gym, even. Given how much suffering there is in the world, not developing some masochistic tendencies, or being wholly unable to derive pleasure from pain, is in many ways maladaptive.

Sophistication

Ozy Frantz, fellow blogger, has also attempted a theory of taste. But it misses the mark. Ozy considers taste a thing one develops over time in a given aesthetic (my term) at the expense of enjoying more basic varietals in said aesthetic. This is, of course, a real phenomenon, but taste is not the word for it.

A good palate is not tried by strong flavours; but by a mixture of small ingredients, where we are still sensible of each part, notwithstanding its minuteness and its confusion with the rest.
-David Hume

Suffice it to say, the stronger your taste—the larger is your differential capacity—the more difference you're able to discern. Sophistication is the measure of aesthetic complexity; the more sophisticated something is, the more distinctions exist to be made. As it relates to subjects, it's the ability to taste what the less sophisticated would miss. One needs to be sufficiently sophisticated in [literature, math] to grasp [the puns in Finnegan's Wake, the finer points of the Poincaré Conjecture].

However, however much elitists enjoy spreading the idea, there is no logical connection between being sophisticated and being better per se or a better person. I was once discussing with another colleague the food scene in his stomping grounds, Los Angeles, and he remarked how regardless of price, the quality was impeccable. In reply I ceded it was possible he got more pleasure out of eating one taco from a stand there than did I consuming a course menu from the tire company, often an exercise more academic than gustatory. When at last I made it down, I found my hypothesis sadly confirmed.

At the same time, one should not begrudge such activities as classical music and opera their due, for participants often invest mountains of time, effort, and money developing and refining the requisite aesthetics for their appreciation. If high art, as it were, has a barrier to entry, all the better when at last your siege succeeds. And if you still wonder whether it's worth your while, Ecclesiastes kindly reminds you there is a time for cotton candy and a time for confit de canard. Ready to do some exercise?

Compare these two tracks:

One is a common partner dance folk song; the other lives on the far side of musical edginess. I'm going to generalize here (in the non-philosophical sense) because we're talking about specific examples, but I'd hazard that to fans of Cotton Eye Joe, Oneohtrix Point Never sounds like total cacophony, or the sort of stuff the CIA pipes into its interrogation chambers to disorient political dissidents. Nevertheless it is the case, odd as it may seem, that certain individuals take pleasure, see beauty in the song's strange samples and atmospheric diaphony and unfolding rhythms; they may build in their heads a narrative of what a "Sleep Dealer" is and how it functions and why this song aptly depicts its essence. Upon witnessing their own inability to comprehend Oneohtrix, the musically curious may decide to try and puzzle out what exactly makes them work, and then, upon "getting it" (to an internally satisfactory degree), rejoice doubly in their newfound ability to appreciate what used to be noise and in the sheer fact that their effort to acquire taste yielded fruit. But just to hammer it home, "more sophisticated" does not equate to "better" unless you choose to define "better" by that standard.

Basic

Basic in common parlance has evolved into a derogatory remark directed towards individuals or groups one finds insufficiently sophisticated. What this implies, in effect, is that in this particular cultural moment, swathes of the newer generations (those who use the term) have oriented towards sophistication as a value, even if they have no idea this is what they're doing, and even if they only use it in aesthetics I myself find basic. And herein, the crux: Sophistication is relative. There is no basic per se, only basic to and basic for. To demonstrate, I've created a small hierarchy (neither exhaustive nor exclusive) of people who might read me:

  • 0: These things can't read (babies, birds).
  • 1: These people find my words totally incomprehensible. They think I'm either insane or some kind of genius.
  • 2: These people (my primary audience) are just sophisticated enough to kind of understand what I'm saying and perhaps leave with a few new insights (I hope).
  • 3: These people agree with some of my perspectives but get annoyed at others, and can, with some effort, disprove my statements or persuade me to change my beliefs. I want to find more of these people, or maybe just say I do without actually seeking them out (so my ego remains intact).
  • 4: Such stratospheric exemplars find my ideas as basic as I find tic-tac-toe. Not only can they better articulate my positions, but they've already anticipated the category 3 counterarguments (and my countercounterarguments) to the point where they find the whole thing either unbearably tedious or cuddly and cute.

Because it's hilarious and because this post needs more images, I've selected two of my favorite aesthetics to meme:

But perhaps we can rehabilitate "basic" by pointing out that the basic is fundamental, elemental, constitutive; one would do well to remember that more sophisticated aesthetics have a vital dependence on the basic—from Greek básis; foundation, base, fixity—for their existence and expansion. And let's not forget, as Ozy noted, the tendency with increasing sophistication for people to lose their taste (read: aesthetic preference) in more basic varietals. As such, I've formulated a theory that tries to account for it:

Minimum Viable Sophistication

AKA the hedonic treadmill's little cousin.

In his book The Lean Startup, Eric Ries popularized the phrase Minimum Viable Product. An MVP is the version of a product or service that has just enough utility that customers will adopt or buy it. Any less, and it's not viable. New entrepreneurs are encouraged to constantly test their products in the marketplace, adding, tinkering with this or that feature as needed—"rapid iteration"—instead of spending all their time in the lab, building something they think is awesome, releasing it into the market, and discovering that exactly nobody wants to use it. In short, they're advised to reach for viable before optimal.

If we envision customer demand as an aesthetic within which, for any given product, certain criteria must be met before its market adoption, we can apply the same logic to our lived experience where "viable" is defined not as "market-adoptable," but "good enough for us to maintain affective homeostasis." Someone who's only had Lipton tea so far feels perfectly normal when having another cup of it, but then, on trying, I dunno, Celestial Seasonings, finds it tastes much better: viable beyond the mere. However, regular CS drinkers feel normal drinking it, so they may find Lipton disagreeable because it's worse than normal, less than viable. Personally I've upgraded pasta brands twice now, and my friends are in awe when they try what I use, but I've adapted to the point where it feels ordinary and everything else worse. Which means my mOFC region probably wouldn't light up were my brain on pasta to be scanned.

For the sake of it, let's suppose the intuition that most of our aesthetics don't affect how we feel, so viability as a metric only applies to those that do (regulate, to some extent, our emotional equilibria). The collection of your MVS aesthetics, then, forms what I propose to call your MVE: your Minimum Viable Existence. If on any given day all your MVS criteria are met, then it feels like "any other day"; you are, no surprise, no better or worse off than normal. If I had to downgrade pastas, I'd be quite disappointed for several [days, weeks] until my embodied cognition system habituates to its new, indescribably sadder condition.13

There's an episode of Black Mirror, San Junipero, in which people can upload their minds to virtual bodies on a virtual Earth after their physical bodies die on physical Earth. They stay in this afterlife forever, free to roam around whatever cities they please in whatever historical period they please. What's of specific relevance to us, however, is a club in the episode called The Quagmire. See for yourself (slightly NSFW):

.

The premise, as suggested by one of the two leads, is that Quagmire-dwellers have gotten so bored of post-death life that the only way they're able to feel some semblance of emotion is by engaging in utter hedonic depravity. Replace "infinite time" with "infinite money" and you get Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, an intimate portrait of the cultural gulf spanning the upper middle and truly upper classes.14

Paradoxically, it is possible to re-learn, or re-acquire prior tastes. The tendency to prefer differently on gaining sophistication is only that: a tendency, a correlation; neither necessary nor inevitable. Witness these apologia for bad coffee and American cheese15. I can appreciate a Michael Bay film for its sheer bombast, or as an I-Spy game where points are earned based on how many product advertisements I spot. Pinning one's emotional reactions to plot quality or character development—as do more simple-minded critics—is a recipe for unmitigated catastrophe. Along this line, Tommy Wiseau's masterwork of a film, The Room, represents the pinnacle of sophistication in an aesthetic floridly described by IMDB user "Brickyard Jimmy":

Simply put, 'The Room' will change your life. It's not just the dreadful acting or the sub-normal screenplay or the bewildering direction or the musical score so soaked in melodrama that you will throw up on yourself or the lunatic-making cinematography; no, there is something so magically wrong with this movie that it can only be the product of divine intervention. If you took the greatest filmmakers in history and gave them all the task of purposefully creating a film as spectacularly horrible as this not one of them, with all their knowledge and skill, could make anything that could even be considered as a contender. Not one line or scene would rival any moment in The Room.

Writers are constantly exhorted to churn out smooth transitions, so to demonstrate my superior transitional capacity, this next section is titled David Hume. Because Hume just happens to rhyme with Room. I'm a genius.

David Hume

David Hume, known empiricist, got two things so irrevocably correct that any attempt at refuting them has set philosophy back centuries. Those two things are, respectively:

  1. That affect conditions reason.
  2. That ethics cannot be derived from physics.

He also got one thing so irrevocably wrong that I had to spend eleven thousand words correcting him. From his essay Of the Standard of Taste:

Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible of beauty...

This part corresponds quite well to what we've outlined, but the rest?

Whoever would assert an equality of genius and elegance between OGILBY and MILTON, or BUNYAN and ADDISON, would be thought to defend no less an extravagance, than if he had maintained a mole-hill to be as high as TENERIFFE, or a pond as extensive as the ocean... The principle of the natural equality of tastes is then totally forgot, and while we admit it on some occasions, where the objects seem near an equality, it appears an extravagant paradox, or rather a palpable absurdity, where objects so disproportioned are compared together.

Hume is here, by analogy, demonstrating his support for the Sorites Paradox's consensus solution, which is that majority opinion determines whether it's a heap or a pile, and not, as earlier mentioned, some numerical line in the sand. However, Hume's "extravagant paradox" is neither extravagant nor paradox in my ontology, where the consensus and numerical solutions are equal in epistemological validity not only to each other but to any flavor of solution on the same aesthetic level16. Put differently, his confusion results from the intuition that aesthetics may take on seemingly objective properties, as in (but by no means restricted to) the time-sensitive snapshot that is the user survey. Right now, it is a "fact" that Dunkirk has a 93% fresh rating on RT, as much as it was a "fact" for Hume that the prominent critics of his day held a general consensus on artistic quality. See also my footnote on morality.

He then digs himself even further underground by claiming:

Where [the critic] lies under the influence of prejudice, all his natural sentiments are perverted. Where good sense is wanting, he is not qualified to discern the beauties of design and reasoning, which are the highest and most excellent. Under some or other of these imperfections, the generality of men labour; and hence a true judge in the finer arts is observed, even during the most polished ages, to be so rare a character; Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty.

Bad David. BAD. A total Hume-iliation, if I may, for a philosopher of his caliber to conflate emergent patterns with universal principles. Shall we play that most entertaining of games, Spot the Errors?

  • That prejudice can be escaped
  • That "design and reasoning" are the "highest" and "most excellent" of beauties
  • That it is the generality of men and not the totality of man
  • That an ageless Standard of Taste can, even in principle, exist

It is facile, Minerva's owl having long since soared, to apply the givens of the present to the relics of the past, but the fact remains that many who now live still hold such antiquated positions, and in the interest of shifting society's Standard of Taste closer to my own, by definition superior in all respects, it is important nonetheless that I evangelize the new and updated Gospel to any soul who has not yet seen the light.

Maybe our next challenger will do better.

Clement Greenberg

Clement Greenberg, insufferable microbe, felt the need to spew 8,961 words justifying his inscrutable artistic standards—his existence, really—so of course I had to one-up the lad by being even more insufferable and scribbling 11,224. Can someone say mission accomplished?

In his essay On Taste, evidentially inferior to my A Question of Taste a.k.a. Principia Aesthetica, Greenberg fails to suggest even a provisional definition of taste, preferring (and bastardizing) the postmodern technique of shotgunning around the target in hopes we'll believe one exists (it doesn't).

He claims taste can be true or false:

True taste doesn't swing, doesn't veer.

He claims taste is subjective:

You can't verify it, because taste is subjective.

He claims taste converges around universal standards:

We all agree (I'll bring Raphael's name in again) that if you can't see how good Raphael is when he is good, you can't see painting.

He claims taste is personal:

Everybody has to acquire taste for himself. You don't learn taste from someone else, you don't learn it through communication. You only acquire taste through your own experience.

Taste for Greenberg, as we can see, is many things, but above all malfunctional, as he failed to make any distinction between taste, aesthetics, valuation, and sophistication in an essay one supposes would do exactly that (terminology aside). And because of his dare I say willful myopia–which he possessed in droves–he was damned to pen sentences like:

[B]y the same token, nobody yet has been able to take apart art or aesthetic experience.

That's why this baby exists, baby.

That said, I do find his taste in paintings on point:

Hans Hoffmann

delicious.

Which just goes to show how functioning is possible while remaining in the dark about the mechanics of function, because as a philosopher—we all are, though we may not claim to be—Greenberg is befuddled beyond belief.

Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag, known pseudointellectual17, had the honor of being the first person quoted in this treatise. But a fuller quote reads as such, which is why you should always seek out context:

There is taste in people, visual taste, taste in emotion - and there is taste in acts, taste in morality. Intelligence, as well, is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas. (One of the facts to be reckoned with is that taste tends to develop very unevenly. It's rare that the same person has good visual taste and good taste in people and taste in ideas.)
-Notes on Camp

Subtle as a firecracker in shouting "I'm smart, look at me!" Isn't she. To classify [categorize, differentiate] taste in ideas as "intelligence" is a prime example of taste in action—while saying nothing of substance about taste itself. What if I were to suggest that intelligence is decidedly not "taste in ideas," but rather a numerical value one can determine through tests like Raven's Matrices18? I can see those of you familiar with the topic readying your pikes already. Calm yourselves; notice I've made no claims as to what I think intelligence is. But I will claim that the degree to which you felt your buttons pushed mirrors your investment in [whatever] aesthetic. "Intelligence" is not a thing but rather, like all words, depends on context for function; or in fancier prose, its aesthetic constraints mediate its hermeneutics. So it can be "taste in ideas," "IQ," whatever you want, really, just don't go claiming it doesn't exist in a conference full of psychologists.

Sontag's second claim is, trivially, that "good" is a thing taste can be, which I accept, but moreover, substantially, that she, holy arbiter, knows how to spot the elusive unicorn. Perhaps we can clean her cobwebs, so to speak, by remembering that "good" is a value judgment, and that having "good taste" simply means one party considers another's aesthetics agreeable. By extension, having great taste means adding highly in front of agreeable. It's possible for John to think Jane has good taste in movies and not vice versa. It should also be clear as crystal there's no such thing as "good taste in itself"; conditions for its possibility, outlined before, must be present. Thus to promulgate one's personal hierarchies as canon is a violence equal in brutality to that of the Crusades. But we all do this all the time, kind of, so it does kind of cancel out, kind of.

Camp, of course, is an example aesthetic, and Sontag deserves applause for circumscribing it with such precision, but she, like Greenberg, lacks a coherent concept of aesthetics.

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant, role model for all humanity, may very well have said exactly what I'm saying in this essay nearly three centuries ago, but because no one who reads him can possibly understand him, he forced me to say it again anyway.

In his Critique of Judgment he distinguishes four different kinds of judgments, about: the agreeable, the sublime, the beautiful, and the good, all of which, in my view, is total rubbish, for judgment simply is, well, judgment. But he does present an interesting principle, very interesting indeed, particular to his "judgments of beauty" and "judgments of the sublime", which, in plain English—try me, really—supposes that although such judgments are subjective, each holds the inherent injunction that all other judging subjects ought to concur. I would like to universalize this idea to present the Principle of Agreeability, which holds that for any aesthetic judgment, holding subject prefers all other subjects to concur.

Example 1: "This movie was good." If everyone thought it was a good movie, it's quite obvious that more like it would be made. Which, presumably, you'd be delighted with. The reverse holds with "This movie was bad."

Example 2: "I don't want everyone to think the same as me, otherwise artistic diversity might as well be a myth." Good try, but no dice. Given what you say is true, you'd clearly prefer if others also held the same thought, leading directly to artistic diversity. In other words, you would not prefer if others believed "I want everyone to think the same as me."

Example 3: "I want this park to be clean. But I don't want to clean the park." When I asked my friend to challenge the principle, this is what he came up with. This one's easy enough to figure out yourself, but just in case... Let's say Susie uttered the statement. Susie would prefer if others preferred a clean park—that would make its cleaning likelier. Susie would also prefer if others preferred that Susie not be the one to clean the park, because if they did, she'd be pretty much obligated to now wouldn't she? Peer pressure: not even once.

Example 4: "I think Universal Healthcare is good because of X. I believe X is true, but if it isn't, then I don't think Universal Healthcare is good. I prefer if others disagreed with me because I am not certain that X, and if they can show X is false, I will gladly stop voting for Universal Healthcare." This, my friends, is also known as cognitive dissonance. Harry, let's call him, would vote for Universal Healthcare today because he believes in X today. He says he prefers if others disagreed, but this isn't his actual preference because if they did disagree, they'd vote against and the bill wouldn't pass and he'd get mad. So this isn't what he means by "I prefer if others disagreed." What he means is that because he's uncertain, his opinion can change dependent on future facts, and that he prefers being malleable to dogmatic—and that he prefers others also prefer being malleable to dogmatic, because that would mean he might be able to persuade them today. Paradox resolved.

Example 5: Jill: "I am ugly." Alas, a contender in the flesh. A trophy for whoever came up with this one. Okay. Fine. The gloves... OFF. All bets... OFF. Firstly, I'll grant you this is indeed a value judgment based on an aesthetic hierarchy. And who could ever want others to confirm their belief that they are ugly? It's not so simple.

  • Jill's friends may try to help her feel better by saying she is, in fact, quite pretty. But Jill may perceive this as being lied to. She would rather them just "tell the truth" than try to make her feel better. Counterintuitive as it sounds, having friends who "tell the truth," who confirm, yes, her beliefs about herself, but more importantly her value of honesty, may make her feel better; they accept her for whom she (thinks she) is.
  • You object, correctly, that it is not necessary for Jill to prefer they "tell the truth." You say, "It could just as easily be the case that she prefers being 'lied to' so she can feel better." Two replies. The weak reply: Jill either doesn't genuinely believe she is ugly or doesn't believe it with enough conviction that she won't change her mind about it; in which case the principle is irrelevant because the value judgment is not actually held; she might just be expressing it for sympathy points. The strong reply: If two value judgments conflict with each other, the one held with more conviction wins out. Whether Jill expresses a stronger preference for having her belief changed (to, say, "I am not ugly") to having it confirmed does not negate the possibility that, at some level, she may still wish for her (assume sincerely held) belief that she is ugly to be confirmed.
  • Finally, you object that, in spite of her self-perception as ugly, she may prefer if others genuinely believed she was pretty. But as we've seen, these are apples and oranges, two separate value judgments: one is her perception of herself, the other is her preference for others' mental states. In other words, she can be perfectly consistent in wanting others to acknowledge her self-perception while preferring them change how they judge her.
  • This is a good example of aesthetic nesting and how complex things can get.

Example 6: "Treat others how you want to be treated." The Golden Rule is a great example of the Principle in action. Advocates of this widely adopted ethical precept are notorious for spreading it around, not least because of its obvious prosociality. But it fails in multicultural scenarios, which should be easy enough to figure out, and when, as Kant noted, the condemned convict appeals to the judge that the judge would never likewise condemn himself. This doesn't mean it should be discarded–though I can see how you'd think my reasoning implies that claim–it just illustrates the importance of aesthetic nesting. (Aside: I think Miller's Law works much better as a Golden Rule.)

Example 7: "I have cancer." I'll let you puzzle this out. Hint: If you've been paying attention, the solution is not "This is a determination of fact, not an aesthetic judgment." Also, "the" solution is a misnomer; there are many; it depends on how you nest.

Crazy as it sounds, this Principle of Agreeability is also not insane. Crazy as it sounds, I genuinely do believe in its applicability. For two people who disagree (say, politically) to agree on the terms of an argument is as tremendous a step as two board gamers sitting down and agreeing that chess is the game they're playing. But instead of trying to derive it as Kant did (using logic more arcane than the Kabbalah), I'll present a couple other theories that bear it out quite well. The first is psychoanalyst Otto Rank's conception of therapy:

In [his book] Will Therapy, for instance, Rank refers to therapy as a "battle for supremacy," "a great duel of wills" that the patient must win "by the actual overcoming of the therapist and complete ruling of the analytic moment"...
-Atwood and Stolorow, Faces in the Clouds [p.134]

This fantasy bears great resemblance to a state of affairs in which other subjects do (come to) concur with a given subject's aesthetics. Indeed, such a victory is more or less defined by total assimilation. In practice? History shows even the most powerful of empires were forced to learn that resentment boils beneath subjected subjects. But if speculative metapsychology is not your cup of tea, give Kevin Simler's theory of personhood a go.

Rough paraphrase: Personhood is a social performance in which one adheres to a minimum set of normative behavioral guidelines required to access social services in a given culture. Wearing clothes in public is a perfect example of one such guideline. The drunk, the mentally disabled, infants, and the insane have, thus conceived, varying degrees of personhood, and the close-to-base-level identity—higher levels being parent, working professional, etc.—of being (considered) a person can, thus conceived, be lost. I'd like to expand Simler's thesis with some different jargon: sanity and insanity. Sanity is the degree to which intersubjective communication is possible. Insanity is defined as lack of sanity and functions like our sand riddle, as a perception relative to the perceiver. We can think of the practically insane, as in psychotics and the severely schizophrenic, with whom minimal communication is possible, and the totally insane, as in Wittgenstein's private language argument. In other words, the inverse of the Principle of Agreeability seeks insanity.

Stranded on an island, we would prefer if the islanders spoke our language, and if not, if at least the possibility of communication existed, as in some sort of sign language, and if not, without any common aesthetic ground, it's the same as if there were nobody there, no subjects, just us, floating in space for all time.

--

In May of 2016 I found myself sitting in an auditorium at the Seattle International Film Festival, attending a so-billed "Masterclass" from producer, screenwriter, and Columbia professor James Schamus. The idea of a class is that something will be learned, and as Emerald City's aspirant filmmakers swarmed the seats, I'm sure the last thing they were expecting was an extended excursis on the colloquial conception of "art," its constitution, Kantian aesthetics, and the uselessness of advice. Schamus invited audience members to suggest advice they'd heard or endorsed regarding anything related to filmmaking, and on each suggestion, proceeded promptly to shut it down with counterexamples from the annals of film history. For instance, "Write what you know" was met with something along the lines of "But I didn't know anything about Chinese culture or family dynamics when I wrote Eat Drink Man Woman." Which I admit is a brilliant film. And for thirty minutes of such querying, he riposted every attempt at cracking his armor, the effect amounting not so much to a didactic moment as a total humiliation. I had a debate with the Schamus, which I lost, forgivably (self-forgiveness is a survival skill), having been at the time but a twee twit of twenty-two.19

My salvo parried, I challenged him to describe what he thought the function of advice was, and his answer, really quite a cop-out in retrospect, was "I don't know." His trick, now apparent, was to hold onto a specific definition of advice, that anything which did not guarantee success was advice, and thus not universal, and that anything which did was instruction. And I must admit my disappointment in this audience of cinephiles and artists, for not one, least of whom myself, not one single individual realized he'd hypnotized us into a particular frame of argumentation, and thus not one had the inkling to question it.

Noam Chomsky

Chomsky, Noam, known gnome, managed to mangle two theses with such thoroughness that he single-handedly set philosophy back centuries. An accomplishment which must be given due credit. They are:

  1. That "universal grammar" exists.
  2. That the Khmer Rouge had not been committing genocide in the 1970s.

This is not, of course, a history class, Chomsky is not, of course, a philosopher, and I am, of course, kidding about the whole setting philosophy back thing. So what the hell is he doing in an essay about aesthetics? Well, in response to his factual errors about Pol Pot's Cambodia, apparently:

Chomsky and Herman have continued to argue that their analysis of the situation in Cambodia was reasonable based on the information available to them at the time, and a legitimate critique of the disparities in reporting atrocities committed by communist regimes relative to the atrocities committed by the U.S. and its allies.
-Wikipedia

The only reason I'm spending this sentence to tell you I know Wikipedia is not a reliable source of information (I wish this were part of our assumption ground, but this is the internet so correspondence cannot be assumed) is because if I didn't, I'd be leaving myself wide open for the most juvenile critique. In any case, I did my due diligence and found two pieces of evidence, an email reply and an audio clip, in which his response, in my interpretation (ditto previous parenthesis), corresponds quite well to the Wikipedia description.

Whether or not you agree or disagree with the content of his defense is entirely beside the point, in fact I'd argue you'd need, in vast quantities, more of that delightful substance called context to begin having anything resembling rational discourse. Me? I have no opinion20. The point—finally—relates to the character of his response, which amounts to: "If you were in my shoes, you would've come to the same conclusions." In other words, I'd like to present a corollary to the Principle of Agreeability.

If you understand any given aesthetic in the same way as another subject, you have no choice but to arrive at the same conclusions as that subject. It is, after all, a logical operation, and why the sciences, in which observation-based positivist epistemology is virtually assumed, make more progress than the arts, in which nobody agrees on any aesthetic basis for the constitution of "progress" (or anything else). Unfortunately for Chomsky, such a correspondence—shall we call it the Principle of Reflexivity?—can only be achieved, you guessed it, by literally being the subject in its totality. It is, after all, a logical operation. "If only you could step in my shoes..."

But we can't.

Ever.

Conclusion

Koala

In the verdant rainforests of prehistoric Australia began the genesis of that archetypal miser, the koala bear, satisfied only to munch on the eucalyptus leaf and nothing but the eucalyptus leaf. What resides in the food of this arboreal creature, in the veins of those drooping, pointed fronds, is not nutrition but poison. Yet the koala has decided that it will eat nothing else. With a screech at once infantile and demonic they refuse the fine fruits and savory meats favored by their fellow, more reasonable mammals. No, for the koala? Only eucalyptus. Slowly poisoning themselves, leaf by leaf. What gives them life gives them death.

Raymond Geuss, an aged philosopher about whose work I know nothing, is disappointed. The preface to his book A World Without Why is a veritable lamentation about his choice of profession–which he calls "mildly discreditable"–and his achievements as an individual. To profess philosophy, says Geuss, in the manner he has, is to "train[] aspiring young members of the commercial, administrative or governmental elite in the glib manipulation of words, theories and arguments," thereby "help[ing] to turn out the pliable, efficient, self-satisfied cadres that our economic and political system uses to produce the ideological carapace which protects it against criticism and change." What interests me is not whether this is, indeed, the case, but whether, like our unfortunate Australian marsupial, the Cambridge academic was damned from the start to chew on eucalyptus. Presumably he, at one point, was passionate about figuring out how things worked, perhaps in order to change them, but on realizing in the end he had neither the courage nor the cleverness (his words) for such things, he found himself burdened, repulsed even, by the only thing for which he had and still has taste. Difference being, of course, that the koala has the mercy of never having to wake up to this conclusion.

In principle, the differential capacity can be entirely severed from the worldly stimuli required to provoke it; one can will oneself to feel any way about any thing. In practice, this verges on the impossible. As life cakes experience into us, day by day, as it dons and reifies our aesthetic propensities, as our brains grow older and lose plasticity, the patterns of our pasts become the givens of our future.

That this is the case—given that it is the case—cannot be disputed, so the question becomes one of reaction, and whether this is for good or ill is, in the last analysis, an ethical question. I have my stance: It is for ill. What to do? Just as we exercise to preserve our vitality, so we can stymie against zombification, if you will, by the constant consideration that everyone acts according to a logic, whether sensible to you or not, beknownst to them or not, and that, given the circumstance, would you, in their shoes, really be able to act otherwise? And yes, it is the case that one can use this line of reasoning to justify one's one excesses, however it is from this position that I believe shaping the world must begin. Don't stop there, taste.

Figure the logic out.

So you can change it. And if you should not wish to change it, then consider your understanding a reward in itself.

In closing, I figured you might be curious, since I really had it out for a lot of people up there, who I am for. And to that I say, Protagoras had it right all along:

Man is the measure of all things: of the things that are, that they are, of the things that are not, that they are not.

A Drop Filled With Memories
Susumu Hirasawa

Footnotes

  1. Yes, yes, I know, "flavor" is an emergent phenomenon comprised, in order of importance, of retronasal olfaction, taste, and orthonasal olfaction. Not the point.

  2. I'll be using a host of synonyms for "difference" to spice up what is already amounting to a sordid philosophical exegesis. If you object to this, I recommend developing a capsaicin tolerance; you'll be able to enjoy a much wider variety of cuisines.

  3. Some will object that this is a valid way of addressing the paradox, which it is, so why not just stop there? Why bother rhetoricizing with "good luck counting this"? What I'm trying to convey is the idea that this paradox has captivated minds over the centuries for reasons; that there are equally valid ways of addressing it of which yours is but one; that, most importantly, this meta-question of approach reduces to taste. Yes this point will be developed further, much further, now won't you please return by clicking this arrow:

  4. Discussing the distinctive properties of these languages is not a claim about any one's superiority or inferiority; valuation can only be determined along that axis if rules exist by which they can be so defined. However—and please try to understand how this works even if you find it distasteful (the next section explains; have patience)—someone who bases the merit of a language on its scientific potential or euphonious musicality can be perfectly consistent in saying, respectively, "English is a better language than Pirahã" and "Japanese is a better language than German." Describing a claim as consistent is not the same thing as saying it is correct—or moral—and is certainly not an endorsement of said claim.

  5. Credit where credit is due: My formulation of aesthetics owes significant debt to Sarah Perry and Haley Thurston.

  6. Morality is subjective*. Obviously. Does this mean killing people isn't wrong? It isn't necessarily or inherently wrong, but it is conditionally wrong. Consequences arise from conditional states, such as the objective fact that most people in most countries currently consider most types of killing to be wrong (read: distasteful). You can kill someone, okay, but enjoy your life in jail. Also, you sure you'd never kill anyone? Really? "It depends" = supports my point about conditionality. "I'm sure" = hi Immanuel, sign my GMM pls? Image

  7. This is impossible, for taste, like breathing, is part and parcel of being alive. By "desiring not to desire" you may in extremis manage to dissociate your emotional reactions to physical and mental stimuli, but you cannot eliminate the differential capacity upon which desire is based. In effect, you place this state of dissociated indifference at the top of your hierarchy and fully attached egoic individualism at the bottom.

  8. I don't actually talk like this in real life, but I'd like to take the opportunity to shill one of my pet theories: the Pagliacci Effect (from Alan Moore's Watchmen). The Pagliacci Effect is a notable tendency in magicians (broadly defined) to find their own tricks (broadly defined) boring, even if the audience LOVES it, because—having spent hours/days/weeks/years in craft, practice, and refinement—they know everything about them. Disenchanted comedians, atheist clergymen, and tired executives may continue to perform because they, at some level, feel responsibility for delivering meaning to their audiences. I'm pretty convinced that our society is Pagliacci all the way down, as expertly argued here by Sudoscript, precocious blogger.

  9. My friend: "Why do you like this painting better than that one?" Me, typical amateur: "I dunno, it just looks better." Art critics tend to go through a torturous process of learning how to verbalize and communicate their preferences: "Rutolini's intriguing blend of Impressionist and Dada motifs, while accomplished in execution, is too obviously derivative both in style and process. His contemporary Selçuk receives higher marks for puzzling us, at least, with technique. I suspect her singular Pointillism is achieved through sharpened fingernails dipped in polish?" Of course in the general case they manage to persuade absolutely no one except their very own preoccupied selves.

  10. Informing me that Ford never actually said this, or that koalas are not actually bears (thank you, Dwight), is like refusing to eat a slice of cake because a sprinkle was sitting at the wrong angle. And if you can't see anything wrong with that, you have, I'm afraid, poor taste.

  11. Cyrus also tried converting our school into using Linux by passing out Ubuntu discs. It didn't work.

  12. This also has serious implications for philosophical notions of self, FYI.

  13. My best guess as to why so many Americans across the political spectrum are angry nowadays is that they're experiencing a pretty much constant downward slide (at varying velocities) in their MVEs, can't habituate, and realize this is happening. Who can blame them? I say: You can't know what it's like 'til it's happened to ya.

  14. The children of the rich are, in a way, the worst off, born into a world whose normality is what we plebeians might consider the height of impeccability. They have no context against which to appreciate their fortunes; everything in their lives is just one long, downhill slide. Didn't think I'd put forth that argument, did you? Indeed, Marie Antoinette, for all her pomp and circumstance, may have felt the exact same every day as your Jo Bean, IRS employee #324 in Peoria, Illinois. It doesn't take an economist to figure out how terrible this is for civilization. Not that you have to accept my premises—it's just rhetoric, after all. But what if, you know, what if? And if you're wondering by extension if there's such a thing as the apotheosis of hedonism, whereupon arriving viability is forever lost, peer into the abyss. If you dare.

  15. In all likelihood these authors are your garden variety click-grubbers, but I'll grant them the charitable interpretation of writing for real (thus revealing to everyone the absolute philistines they are). An alternative approach, manifested so well by Diogenes the Cynic, is to remain willfully unsophisticated: The higher you rise, the farther you fall, after all.

  16. "But you can apply the same logic to your own framework." Clever one, aren't you? If you've figured that much out, you've probably figured out which definition you choose is also to your preference. Will it be coffee tonight, or tea? Or perhaps a giant baseball bat to the face?

  17. Yes, yes, the irony is not lost. Just read your mind, didn't I?

  18. I'm sure the wannabe leftist found conservative ideas quite distasteful stupid regardless of the intellectual firepower of the minds creating and endorsing them.

  19. The weapon he possessed and I lacked was now what I call the definitive capacity, more powerful in some ways than the differential capacity and in many much less. But that is another post for another time.

  20. But I'm otherwise quite favorable to Chomsky's considerable contributions in linguistics (if and not only because he gave his students something to revolt against, a classic Oedipal tale), and to his general worldview on media and policy.

Postscript

Dedicated readers (thank you) may be asking: "Are aesthetics gestalts?" Maybe, probably; kind of: certainly. And are gestalts aesthetics? Ditto that; they're of the same kin, like a nice stable family.