Aesthetic Materialism IV

See also Aesthetic Materialism I, II, and III.

Why aesthetic materialism?  Why not some other form of materialism?

The answer is simple: there is no other form of materialism.  Aesthetic materialism is the only materialism.

Every attempt to ground materialism in something other than aesthetics winds up requiring some kind of transcendent justification - that  is to say, it proves not to be genuine materialism.  To ground materialism in aesthetics is to ground it in the senses, in what Marx in the first Thesis on Feuerbach calls "sensuous activity".  Anything that does not come from the sensuous is immaterial.  In this way, much of what is called materialism should actually be seen as a kind of idealism.  Indeed, Marx asserts that this is the "chief defect in all hitherto existing materialism".  But then again, the doctrine that says that idealism is the opposite of materialism is itself a kind of idealism.

For instance, any attempt to ground materialism in a priori moral principles cannot be materialist.  And despite what soi-disant utilitarians may tell you, this includes the absolute principle of the greatest good for the greatest number - after all, can you derive that principle from any sensuous experience?  You cannot feel the pain, or the pleasure, of the majority of people on Earth.  Guilt, yes, is an experience, but it is not a principle.  It lacks universality.  Right now, someone on Earth is in enormous pain and suffering, and you don't care.

On the other hand, the positivist doctrine that a statement is meaningless unless it can be proven true or false by way of verification through sense-data would be meaningless according to its own logic.  And similarly, the doctrine that the only valuable stance toward the world is value-free observation is obviously self-defeating.  To deny human affect, whether positive or negative, towards human experience is dishonest.

Perhaps the primordial aesthetic experience, more than that of beauty, is disgust.  Beauty is arresting, bewildering - we cannot ultimately articulate what it is that makes something beautiful.  Disgust, on the other hand, is constructive.  We can build an entire system out of disgust.

There are orders and levels: first there is the immediate sensuous experience of something (a song you hear on the radio, say).  This can be pleasurable, or painful, or what have you.  Then there is a higher, more important level - the feeling you have about the people who enjoy that thing.  You may be disgusted with them for a variety of reasons.  Perhaps it is too poppy, too common.  Identity comes into play here - in the case of a song, are their clues, within the song, about what sort of person, what identity, is supposed to enjoy it?  Is it a country song?  A hip-hop song?  A punk song?  A classical piece?  A metal song?  An emo song?  Do you see yourself as that kind of person?  Do those kinds of people disgust you?  Would you be disgusted with yourself if it turned out that you were one of the type of people that enjoy that kind of thing?  Does it give you a feeling of illicit pleasure to disgust yourself this way?  Or, then again, are you disgusted with yourself that those people disgust you?  Or perhaps you wish you were that type of person, and you disgust yourself for failing to be that kind of person.  Or, then again, perhaps you do see yourself as that type of person, and the song disgusts you for failing to rise up to the standards of the group to which you see yourself as belonging.

There are acquired tastes.  When you first taste salted licorice, it's disgusting - but after you become used to it, it becomes quite delicious and habit-forming.  This can work the other way, as well.  When you first taste wine, it all tastes the same.  After you have experienced more, you come to recognize subtle differences.  What once tasted fine may now taste disgusting.  Social groups and entire institutions exist to cultivate a specific sense of taste, and these institutions may develop over generations, over centuries, over millennia.

A profound and fascinating sense of disgust is the kind one feels when one encounters a lie.  A more subtle kind of disgust can be felt when one experiences someone committing a logical fallacy, or a mathematical error.  Perhaps all of human reason, up to the incredible human accomplishments of science and technology, are ultimately motivated by a highly specialized and finely tuned type of disgust.  Logical proofs can be elegant, as can computer programs.

A highly refined sense of disgust can elucidate materiality. This is not to say that the material is disgusting.  On the contrary, an automatic disgust for the material world, in favor of some transcendent beyond, is evidence of undeveloped taste. The "nausea" that Roquentin experiences when he looks at the roots of the chestnut tree (unless it is simply an effect of mescaline) is mere fearful childishness, because he is actually seeing them for the first time.  We should learn to become disgusted with Roquentin's disgust.  As the situationists realized, this existentialism, in its mood of retreat, is inverted - standing on its head, it must return its feet to the solid ground of materialism.  Children don't like eating vegetables, either.  Someone more experienced will be delighted by the roots, not nauseated by them.  Aesthetic materialism neither yearns for a mythical purity nor revels in the muck of defilement - both of these are idealized abstractions.  The inverse of an idealism is always another idealism.  The world is more interesting.

That having been said, an aesthetic appreciation of the material world does not mean a preference for things being as they are.  There are further, higher levels of taste.  After a passive acceptance of static materialism (which "leaves everything as it is" as Wittgenstein says) one can progress to a dynamic materialism through an active participation in the world, which appreciates the potential of what may become, discovering the limits by attempting to push beyond them.  And with the development of a better, more subtle aesthetic sense still, this simplistic dichotomy between "active" and "passive" itself breaks down.  Fetishizing the supposedly "masculine" active, too, is a form of idealism, and a silly, boring one.

An old pond -
A frog tumbles in -
The sound of water.


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