Saturday, 9 June 2012

The Aesthetic Situation

Why do we need art? Every human society abounds with stories, images, sayings, and music. Some are passed down through the ages; others are created seemingly spontaneously in any community. There will be funny incidences which are retold to those who did not witness the event; seemingly inexplicable behaviors of some which people will try to explain; and happy moments of summer, which people will recall during a dreary winter. The list goes on. Such a universal phenomenon indicates the existence of some sustained and recurring question or need to which it is the answer. This is similar to what Lloyd Bitzer refers to as an “exigency.” In “The Rhetorical Situation,” Bitzer describes an exigency as “an imperfection marked by urgency; it is a defect, an obstacle, something waiting to be done, a thing which is other than it should be” (6). I contend that we need art because of the universal exigency caused by living in the midst of uncertainty.

As human beings we live in uncertainty just as fish live in water. The amount of what we can really know and understand from everything that happens to us and our surroundings is actually very limited, and yet we still need to make decisions every day based on this limited information. This situation calls forth different exigencies. We want some explanation of the complexity around us and how we should interact with the world based on that explanation. The situation is well described by John Dewey in Art as Experience:
Order cannot but be admirable in a world constantly threatened with disorder—in a world where living creatures can go on living only by taking advantage of whatever order exists about them, incorporating it into themselves. In a world like ours, every living creature that attains sensibility welcomes order with a response of harmonious feeling whenever it finds a congruous order about it. (13)

          These exigencies are answered by the aesthetic and rhetorical abilities we have by virtue of our ability to use symbols. Art orders experience into what Kenneth Burke calls “a pattern of experience” or “an interpretation of life.” As he describes in Counter-Statement, “[The work of art] can, by its function as name and definition, give simplicity and order to an otherwise unclarified complexity. It provides a terminology of thoughts, actions, emotions, attitudes for codifying a pattern of experience” (154). Rhetoric traditionally negotiates uncertainty, but the aesthetic replaces uncertainty with an interpretation of life; a pattern by which one can sort and select the complexity of reality. Kenneth Burke and John Dewey help us to understand the process by which we as humans organize experience, and how art replicates this organized pattern. John Dewey fills in more of the process, and Kenneth Burke provides us a vocabulary by which we can detect and analyze the structure of experience in art and in our own lives.

Living with Uncertainty and Aesthetic Response
          In Art as Experience, John Dewey explains why the situation of uncertainty nurtures the aesthetic reflexes of mankind, and why both ignorance and complete knowledge make aesthetic experience impossible:
There are two sorts of possible worlds in which esthetic experience would not occur. In a world of mere flux, change would not be cumulative; it would not move towards a close. Stability and rest would have no being. Equally is it true, however, that a world that is finished, ended, would have no traits of suspense and crisis, and would offer no opportunity for resolution. Where everything is already complete, there is no fulfillment. (16)

For Dewey, aesthetic experience comes when, after struggles and conflict a being reaches “a stable, even though moving, equilibrium” (13), and this can only happen in a world that lends itself at least somewhat to interpretation which establishes some structure and rules. To have an aesthetic experience one has to be able to see a pattern in what one observes, which is what makes change “cumulative” and moves it towards a “close.” There also has to be some uncertainty concerning the outcome to allow for suspense and crisis which can be resolved. The aesthetic does not exist in ignorance (constant flux with no pattern emerging) or in complete knowledge (no change, thus no conflict or fulfillment/resolution), but in the realms of uncertainty the aesthetic fulfills a need for purpose and structure to a world which lends itself to explanations, but usually ones that are incomplete.

          At its very core the aesthetic is an embodiment of man’s search for order, and it is a natural response to the situation of general uncertainty in which mankind finds itself in life. John Dewey and Kenneth Burke give similar explanations about how mankind adjusts to its surrounding and establishes some form of order. Dewey writes, “The first great consideration is that life goes on in an environment; not merely in it, but because of it, through interaction with it,” and that mankind, in order to live, “must adjust itself [to it], by accommodation and defense, but also by conquest” (12). The experience of living inevitably challenges our adjustment to our environment and threatens our equilibrium or temporary sense of order and predictability. This creates a gap which we must then try to bridge somehow. Dewey describes the process as follows, “If the gap between organism and environment is too wide, the creature dies. If its activity is not enhanced by the temporary alienation, it merely subsists. Life grows when a temporary falling out is a transition to a more extensive balance of the energies of the organism, with those of the conditions under which it lives” (13). The organism loses equilibrium by a disruption, and regains it through conflict and finer adjustment to the environment. The final equilibrium is not simply a return to the first. Through the process, the organism has changed and now is able to encompass elements of greater complexity within its new equilibrium. This could describe the basic structure of almost any story. These experiences of life are “akin to the esthetic” (14) and their conditions become “the material out of which he [man] forms purposes” (14).

            Because these experiences of disruption of equilibrium, conflict, and resolution (or the gaining of a new equilibrium) are so common in human experience, they become a pattern by which we interpret the meaning of the world. I believe this is one of the reasons why experiences are only acknowledged as meaningful in our lives when they fit into this pattern, with a beginning, middle (conflict), and end (resolution). Experiences which fit this pattern become what Dewey calls “an experience” rather than just experience:
We have an experience when the material experienced runs its course to fulfillment. Then and then only is it integrated within and demarcated in the general stream of experience from other experiences . . . a situation . . . is so rounded out that its close is a consummation and not a cessation. Such an experience is a whole and carries with it its own individualizing quality and self-sufficiency. It is an experience. (36-37)

Only such experiences have formative power and become part of our understanding of life. Our understanding of life is formed by the cumulative power of many such complete experiences. These experiences may function both as disruptions of our equilibrium and as tools in the construction of our new equilibrium, but only complete experiences which have their “individualizing quality and self-sufficiency” are likely to have such formative power over us.

            I had my own experience with the power of an experience last summer. I was visiting my brother-in-law in the DC area together with my family. Before we left to go back home, my wife persuaded me to take a visit by myself to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. As a Norwegian I subscribed to a general European distrust and dislike of America, and especially of its foreign policy. The museum in general had little impact upon me, until I went to a section called Americans at War. In this exhibit there was a small theater where they were showing a movie about the Americans who had died on battlefields all over the earth the last 100 years. The movie was brief and simply showed graves of American soldiers in graveyards all over the globe with some quotes from Abraham Lincoln and other presidents and poets. I initially engaged this movie with my perception about the world and the role America had played in it. By the time the movie had ended I was in a conflict within myself. I started questioning some of the assumptions underlying my understanding of the world. The film had resonated with me, and the emotional response I had was that of gratitude and a certain shame for the ingratitude I had formerly shown. I was experiencing the disruption of a part of my equilibrium. Sitting in the subway on the way back my mind was racing to reconcile what I knew and thought before with what I had just experienced. Finally my mind settled on a new understanding. My former understanding saw American foreign policy as arrogant, selfish, and often a great threat to the world. The film presented a reality where American soldiers had given their lives all around the world as a bulwark and defense against all manner of menacing forces, even though they didn’t have to get involved. The concrete example of the thousands of graves had a strong emotional impact. By the time I had reached my brother-in-law’s house, I had decided on a synthesis of the two realities. I decided that even though the US had made mistakes and had at times been arrogant, there were thousands of Americans who had given their lives and been willing to risk their lives in the fight against the Axis powers and the Soviet Union, and tamed the ambitions of many a ruthless ruler around the world. I thought about what my world and my life would be like today without that sacrifice, and that in turn filled me with gratitude for what these thousands of people had given. That was my new equilibrium, where the experience both caused it by functioning as a disruption and at the end helped determine the state of the new equilibrium.

This is a similar movie, though not quite as powerful:


             Kenneth Burke’s explanation is very similar to that of John Dewey, but Burke has a special focus on literature and on methods of analysis. Kenneth Burke does also address the idea of universal experiences and patterns, such as arousing and fulfilling expectations and the climactic nature of many of our physical experiences, which highlights useful points that Dewey does not address, but I want to focus on Burke’s theory of individuation and how individual patterns of experience are formed. I do this because Burke was not only interested in the formation but also the criticism of patterns of experience, and I believe he developed a helpful method to uncover these in all language usage.

In Counter-Statement, Kenneth Burke explains that every person forms a “pattern of experience” which is based on their adjustment to their environment or situation: “Any such specific environmental condition calls forth and stresses certain of the universal experiences as being more relevant to it, with a slighting of those less relevant. Such selections are ‘patterns of experience’” (151). This ‘pattern of experience’ influences how each person engages with the world, and traces of it will be found in the terminology this person uses. In “The Philosophy of Literary Form,” Burke writes, “The ‘symbolism’ of a word consists in the fact that no one quite uses the word in its mere dictionary sense. And the overtones of a usage are revealed ‘by the company it keeps’ in the utterances of a given speaker or writer” (35). Every person connects words with each other in a different way in their personal vocabulary, because we don’t have the same emotional connections to all terms. John Dewey describes this process for experience, but it is just as applicable to vocabulary: “Emotion is the moving and cementing force. It selects what is congruous and dyes what is selected with its color, thereby giving qualitative unity to materials externally disparate and dissimilar” (44). This “emotional connective” endows terms with their meaning based on the other words that they are connected with. In Burke’s explanation then, patterns of experience are created by selections and connections which come from the adjustment of an organism to its environment. These connections (what Kenneth Burke would call equations) work together to form an interpretation of how the world works and how the separate elements in the world are connected (158-159).

How Art Imitates Structured Experience
Both John Dewey and Kenneth Burke saw art as an artificially structured experience which may be even better than our own structures of experience. Kenneth Burke’s writing is rather cautionary on this subject. The artist is an expert in their own pattern of experience, and as such they know how to make it convincing to the reader. Burke writes, “By thoroughness he [the author] should be able to overwhelm his reader to accept his interpretations. For a pattern of experience is an interpretation of life” (176). The reader may resist at first, but he is now in the world created by the rules of the author and operating by the author’s logic:
The thoroughness of the artist’s attack can ‘wear down’ the reader until he accepts the artist’s interpretation, the pattern of experience underlying the Symbol. He may, when the book is finished, return to his own contrary patterns of experience (but during the reading the evidence has been rigorously selected, it ‘points’ as steadily in one direction as the contentions of a debater). (176-177)

The structured experience can be transmitted so thoroughly that everything in it connects and supports everything else, and so the direction the author takes the reader is at once logical (according to the internal logic in the text) and aesthetically appealing. The work of art contains its own equations and internal structure, and this structure imitates the idiosyncratic vocabulary of an articulated pattern of experience. In this way, the thoroughness of the artist’s vocabulary can co-opt the reader’s own pattern of experience.

In Art as Experience, John Dewey writes about the experience of art: “What is evoked is a substance so formed that it can enter into the experiences of others and enable them to have more intense and more fully rounded out experiences of their own” (113). The work of art “enters” into the experience of the audience by making them participants in the experience. For example, rather than conveying the information of tragedy, the work of art evokes emotions of pity and fear by taking the audience through a tragic aesthetic reality. The appeal for the audience is that they can have “more intense and more fully rounded out experiences” because of how the artist invites a complete experience rather than the disordered bits and pieces of events which occur in normal life. As Dewey goes on to write, “That is what it is to have form. It marks a way of envisaging, of feeling, and of presenting experienced matter so that it most readily and effectively becomes material for the construction of adequate experience on the part of those less gifted than the original creator” (113-114). This is exactly why the artist can overwhelm the reader with his pattern of experience, because the artist can form experienced matter more completely than the reader himself, and thus gives him a more intense experience than what he could form by himself. It is implied that the more complete and intense an experience is, the more convincing and, I would claim, formative it will be. It is, as mentioned earlier an experience. It is partially by completeness and intensity that we measure the meaning and importance of our experiences because these can be found in true experiences that stand out in our lives as meaningful.

Thus, it may be through experiencing the art someone else has made that we define our
lives or frame our experiences. This is what happens in different degrees whenever one is effectively influenced by a work of art. As Burke writes, “[The work of art] can, by its function as name and definition, give simplicity and order to an otherwise unclarified complexity. It provides a terminology of thoughts, actions, emotions, attitudes for codifying a pattern of experience” (154). The work of art can do the work of structuring experiences for us. Although Kenneth Burke warned about the potential subversive effects this could have, he also said this simply is the way we learn most things about the world. As he writes in “Art as a Rough Draft of Life,” “For our sense of reality is shaped largely not by our own immediate sensory experience, but by what others tell us, in theologies, philosophies, textbooks, stories, poems, dramas, news, gossip, and the like” (158), and he goes on to recommend this as a method of learning: “In these days of much uncertainty, when each of us individually can experiment but somewhat, by ranging through the field of the arts in general we can personally consider many more possibilities than we could otherwise” (162).

            As humans we respond to the complexity and uncertainty around us by constructing structured experiences which become the foundations of our generalizations about the world or our interpretations of life. These are of necessity imperfect, but they are an attempt to capture the complexity of the world into a structure that makes sense and is unified. As Kenneth Burke writes, “We might get the truest slant on ourselves by thinking of our lives as a first drafts, as hastily organized essays that we never have a chance to revise” (161). As Dewey mentions, these structured experiences are formed by processes of disruption and reunion by synthesis which recur in different ways throughout our lives. They also connect different elements of life in a complex structure of interrelated terms and concepts which work together to form a complete, as Burke pointed out. Art is an attempt to imitate these structures in such a way that we can experience the pattern of experience it embodies without having to experience it in real life. There is a risk of accepting this new pattern of experience without question, and the human state of uncertainty may make this especially alluring. However, if we see art as other drafts of life, attempts to account for the complexity around us, then we can use it to test and revise the rough draft we have for life. By doing this, we may be able to improve our understanding of life, and by implication, improve our way of living.