Ruminations on the Most Sublime Onion

This was an exercise in Aesthetics. Many of my opinions may now have changed.

Part One: Culture is not About Aesthetics

Summary: The glut of art and culture is enough to last us several lifetimes. Thus there is no need for the subsidy of new books, or new materials, or new art at all for that matter. Culture has come to a complete standstill in this regard. The argument is completely terrifying, cohesive, and, although it sounds heinous, is actually very very very hard to rebut without making some shady claim in the transcendental value of art (which can always be refuted by any level of counts). Gwern really plugs up a whole lot of holes so that you really have to think as to why the protection of Art and the artist seems so necessary in our times?

The same argument was strangely made by Stanislaw Lem in A Perfect Vacuum, except that he took it to the furthest extreme, probably as a form of satire. And his argument is different in that he theorized placing a penalty on art to save art itself. (An artist is a being of ego, and will perform his aesthetic duties irrespective of the rewards given to him, in theory, so a penalty on aesthetics cuts out the rabble in one swift slash, and ensures the highest minds are those who chase art for art’s sake)

(The text is here

My first rebuttal would be to try and sanctify the act of creation itself. David Bryne made the same argument in his How Music Works, about the socially cohesive nature of Music. But that makes Art the means rather than the end, so why not just burn books after we write them, rather than publish them on the growing tide of glut? Or why demand that we get paid for them? It’s kind of arrogant to think that your book is worth a subsidy and deserves to be read in an individualistic book format. Then Poetry Slams would be the highest form of Literature. Also if you look at some guy like Baudelaire, there was no way that writing poetry was actually good for his soul at all. For every example there are probably a thousand more counterexamples of people whose life is worse due to trying to go on a creative path.

My second rebuttal would be to try and attack the idea that people would be satisfied with old forms (which Gwern himself points out as the primary attack point, mainly to prove that there is no substituitability for old works with new works), or to at least show that people’s tastes evolve at amazingly fast rates (like myself, for one, who is neither satisfied with old nor the amount of new forms). Even then, that would only justify the existence of the mainstream-fringe geniuses, and it wouldn’t help the case for subsidies at all. It would also require some real statistical hard shoveling, and I have a feeling I would be disappointed with the results.

My third rebuttal would be to try and prove that shady transcendental thing or that they have some ‘moral’ value. Very difficult given that very good writers tend to support completely heinous viewpoints, and really art and morality are pretty diametrically opposed on so many counts. Engaging with the Critique of Pure Reason is probably going to derive more ‘moral’ value than skimming over any number of Baudelaire’s saucy poems. And if you say Beauty is subjective, then Gwern will merely point out that indeed, but there seems to be enough stuff already to cater for all forms of subjectivities so why should we try to pretend that we can ever be as beautiful a poet as Dante or Shakespeare, or as tender a writer as Nabokov?

If you work primarily on the economic spectrum, there is no reason to subsidize those outre indie artists, even if there was a market for them, given that it wouldn’t be economically efficient. Fincher maybe, and Kubrick, but no one would be there for your Brakhages, or Tarkovskys, or Tsai Ming Liangs, or Laz Diavs. In the sciences or other realms you have good parameters for gauging what is useless and what is useful. In arts you have a bunch of old classics-ridden profs on some panel to decide for you what is the sublime. Most likely they would never be able to properly judge who is a writer worthy of the ‘contemporary’, whilst giving credit to people still in sync with old forms. The best judges of writers are other writers in the same epoch,

How can I explain that quality that makes it worth it for society to cart loads of cash onto some self-proclaimed dreamer so that he never has to work in his life, ever? The only way to justify new forms is to say that old forms are crap, but now we’re also suffering from an overburgeoning ruckus of new forms as well. One method is to proclaim that there is an actual calculus for aesthetics, so that there really is a Sublime limit that has yet to be reached and is worth reaching, and that calculus is to prove that aesthetics is primarily onion-like in nature, in that its beautiful by the immensity of layers and peels (the worth of a composer is by the amount of different trumpets he or she can fit in a single symphony without the whole thing collapsing into an overdose of noise). Art, then, is not caused by any transcendental urge, but merely by piling forms upon forms. Art really does have a calculus that makes an artist’s work on a single corpus just as important, and definite, as a scientist working on any huge multi-tomal quantum thesis. So Shakespeare is only beautiful because he is the densest at creating poetic associations.

This, though, refutes the beauty of Hemingway or Kawabata. Yet actually I can support that. If you conceive of the idea that the minimalist novel of the 19th century is the first time in history anyone has ever stripped a novel to its barest essentials, given that previously authors were paid by the bulk, as in our good ol’ Dickens, then we’re merely comparing large bulky unwieldy onions to smaller, more precious onions. But this also means that minimalism, as an aesthetic, has been fully exhausted (just learn Japanese or Chinese and you’ll have your fill of it). The clearest of necessity has been reached. At the very least you have to make a work shinier and more precise than Flaubert, the lifelong hermit of Literature. Now we need large precious onions.

This then merely changes Art into a matter of trained craftsmanship. Art’s true Sublime is in how larger than life it can get provided you spend the years and ages dumping forms upon forms upon forms. All art is useless except for the Gesamtkunstwerks that are able to fully accommodate the whole of Everything in Wagnerian character (think Pynchon, think Foster Wallace, think Dostoyevsky), since we are already facing a glut. Given that these works really do require ages and ages and ages of work upon work upon work (like the architectural designs of Antonio Gaudi, or all those heavy in decor baroque pieces), thus it is necessary for the Artist to be left to his own devices, to spend his time creating form upon form upon form, in search for the most Sublime Onion.

Part 2: Sketches for an Ethical-Aesthetics

Coming in from my previous note about the idea that the Sublime can merely be described as a concentrate of forms upon one another, like a highly tangy delicious orange syrup, I started to think whether the concept could be applied to possibly the whole of existence? What I’m thinking about is whether we can turn the whole world over on its head and proclaim that the ultimate realization is that all ethics, all metaphysics, and all existential meaning, is basically aesthetics, or rather, novelty.

This idea can actually be attributed to Borges. The combination of two stories mainly – the Library of Babel and the Immortal. The first posits what happens if man were to be placed in a setting with every variation of a finite form? In that scenario, finding the meaning of life, the greatest book, the greatest repository of knowledge, and the secrets of the universe, is merely equivalent to the act of flipping through an endless series of different books. In the second story, an explorer finds out about the existence of Immortals, and he realizes that they all turn into the same dried out bored husks of dawdlers in immobility. In the first story, a universe of finite form becomes merely a run through all shapes and forms, until the ultimate form is reached. In the second story, if we remove the limit upon all humans, they all tend towards the same eventuality, the exhaustion of all forms to the point of inaction. We can foresee that an Immortal would commit every act of good and evil, purely out of boredom and possibility.

Kierkegaard posited a psychological framework for accepting an ethical, or even a religious, perspective. A person who places his trust in aesthetics and the feeble impermanence of form will pass through stages of boredom and anguish, never being satisfied because he lives merely in the flutter of form. His sense of time is skewed to exist in parts without completion. The ethical man has an order, and this grants him a continuity in time, whereby his existence becomes more full in the sense of his choice to deny the languour of an impermanent time. He submits to moral action in repetition because it punctuates his life with a flowing sense. If you think about it though, the ethical man also rests his ethics on a logical framework of give and take. His ethics has sources and consequences, but rarely does it accommodate for notions of evil, and mercy, and forgiveness. The religious man is the end state of this, who is able to account for the whole, through mad faith even in the most absurd of circumstances (he uses the story of the Binding of Isaac to give a model for this. By all ethical accounts the action is completely ridiculous, but only by a religious account is it given meaning).

It’s at this point that I would have turned to Kierkegaard and told him directly: “But isn’t it all onions?”. In his framework, at the end its all different definitions, but its still aesthetics all the same. Fragmentary pleasure, continuous pleasure, and religious pleasure, are all modes of pleasure, and thus firmly falls into the realm of aesthetics. Now I’m not Freudian so I don’t attach a psychosexual significance to aesthetics, but then if we look at it this way then we reduce all notions of ethics, morality, science, discovery, and the sublime, to matters of feeling and novelty.

Because our life is limited, then even 100 years of devotion would seem like a novelty to the 1000 year old man. Once we go beyond the current human limit, is it for certain that our centers will hold in the prospect of endless cascading Time? There’s a reason why its a frequent narrative conceit that a wise sage or mystic will only arise after going through either a life of hedonism or transgression. Perhaps its merely that his sense of time is faster than everyone else, and he has run through all the variances of forms in a hurry, and thus he has nothing left but the emptiest of silence.

Could we not think of the possibility of the pious immortal? One who would never commit acts for the whole of his time. I can’t. In any case the end result is still the same, one has committed acts and the other hasn’t, but all scale through towards the same form of immobility and inaction. Perhaps the ‘pious’ one is only so on the virtue that he has learned to forget the allure of the forms faster.

Stanislaw Lem once wrote the story about an epistemologically orthogonal Artificial Intelligence that was developed by accident as a part of a cold war effort to create a defense supercomputer. In the story humanity has reached the limit, in that the computer has surpassed them in all bounds of Science, Art and Knowledge. From his pure abstract perspective, human culture is an inhibition and a monstrosity born by bad evolutionary programming, and humanity is unable to reach the status of a higher-order being because it is too rooted into its current over-complex form. The computer advises man to shed its burdensome finitude of form, but also makes the decree that they are too rooted in the concrete form and the soup of culture to think of spaces beyond what is currently existent. Sure enough, religious cults decree that the supercomputer is a manifestation of evil, and terrorist groups form in order to launch assaults at the computer. Majority of the world is unable to comprehend the thesis except for a few scientists, and even those cannot comprehend it fully because they are unable to figure out the theorems and higher order logic involved to perceive the world from that perspective.

Art is about finding the highest sublime concentration of concrete forms, whilst science and mathematics are about finding the strongest and most stringent order of abstract forms, philosophy is about finding the clearest and most precise description of the structure of these forms themselves (though this task is somehow slowly being conflated with the idea of mathematics). We cannot think of any other possible reason for the forward pushing trajectory of humanity other than merely a deep rooted need (or deep-rooted pleasure) to scroll through all the forms, on the prospect that once all the forms have been exhausted, only then will be grasp the thing we, as a species, most desire.

If the whole of the world is just scrolling through forms to reach a viewpoint whereby we are able to grasp all forms in a state higher than our own perception, then Arts, Science, and Philosophy, are just the necessary layers to get to that perspective, and we can merely treat it as novel forms to be shed as quickly as they are appreciated and imbibed. If, in our lifetime, we are to realize that the expansiveness and diversity of forms underlie the futility of our task, then the only logical option is that mystical recourse in a philosophical quietism, and to match, in our own life, the immobility of the Immortals.