Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Aesthetic Truth: The Creation of the Realms of Possibility

Ok, sorry about the long absence of posts. Finals and Ph.D. applications are mostly to blame. But even if I haven't posted much that doesn't mean that I haven't been writing or thinking more about this stuff. I have tons to share, and hopefully I can take you through the steps I have taken in my mind since last. I have been thinking a lot about the aesthetic and how an artist can create experiences which we perceive as beautiful and real. This post is about aesthetic truth, and how an author frames what we see as possible and pleasurable:

Rhetoric and aesthetic as defined by their purposes (to induce cooperation and to arouse the emotions) of necessity use many of the same tools of language to reach their ends. However, Kenneth Burke claims that whatever their express purpose may be, all texts have a rhetorical and aesthetic effect, and as such can and should be analyzed accordingly. Thus, seen in this perspective, the aesthetic and rhetoric are just two different ways of approaching a text.

Describing his Motivorium Triology, Kenneth Burke said the three books “deal with linguistic structures in their logical [Grammar], rhetorical [Rhetoric], and poetic [Symbolic] dimensions respectively” (CS 218). The method of approaching a text poetically for Kenneth Burke means to see “a work in its nature as a structure of organically inter-related terms” (CS 217), meaning that the every word in the text is a natural part of the whole, working towards a common end like the diverse cells in a body. This echoes the statement from Aristotle’s Poetics that a tragedy should resemble “a living organism in all its unity, and produce the pleasure proper to it” (105), and “a thing whose presence or absence makes no visible difference [in the text] is not an organic part of the whole” (67), and Socrates’s criticism in Phaedrus of Lysius’s speech that had its different pieces jumbled and in no particular order of progression or fruition. Socrates claims that “every speech should be put together like a living creature, as it were with a body of its own . . . so written as to fit both each other and the whole” (48). 

The aesthetic or poetic perspective is seeing how a work by itself develops as a unity and creates a world which sets up laws of probability and then fulfills them. This is why Aristotle can write that “It is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen – what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity” (68), meaning according to the laws of probability or necessity already established by the author. These laws may not be overtly stated, but they are nevertheless established throughout the initiation to a plot. This is how Aristotle can say that the “tragic” effect of inspiring fear or pity “is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follow as cause and effect” (70). The events may be a surprised, yet, without us realizing it, we have already been set up to accept this possibility. It belongs to the poetic logic or aesthetic truth of the play. Observe how the ending scene of "The Sixth Sense" creates this aesthetic feeling by revealing an underlying truth which has been subconsciously observable throughout the entire film.
This is what Aristotle called "The Reversal" where a character suddenly goes from the benefactor to the victim, hunter to the hunted, or vice versa. It a surprising twist of events, and yet we have been prepared for this twist throughout the entire movie. This is why Aristotle claims that the best tragedies create the effects of fear or pity resulting “from the inner structure of the piece” (78), and that even characters should act or develop consistently with the rules of character that have already been set up. Even though Aristotle wants poets to avoid the irrational or absurd, he consents that “an air of likelihood” can be imparted to it by a good artist when “the absurdity is veiled by the poetic charm with which the poet invests it” (110). As Kenneth Burke concludes, “each individual work could be viewed as setting up and obeying its own particular body of laws” (“Glimpses” 96). The aesthetic sets up the realms of possibility and then exploits these possibilities towards their natural end, which, in Greek tragedy, imposes feelings of fear and pity in the audience as a noble character is brought to an inevitably tragic end.