Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Art of Life

To Fight or Fuck

As a branch of philosophy, aesthetics gets a bum deal. You have screeds upon screeds written on ethics and politics. Epistemology even sounds important with a name like that. But poor old aesthetics, that's just about... you know... art, beauty, shit like that, right? A person's aesthetic is just a set of standards by which they decide whether they think something is beautiful, or the set of standards they apply in creating art. Right? No big deal. Trying to figure out what's beautiful. It's not like we're trying to figure out what's valid or invalid, true or false, good or evil, how to make society work best, whether God exists or not. Come on, we're hardly talking the propositional calculus here, or categorical moral imperatives, or first-level predicates, or ontological arguments, or any of that proper philosophy.

An aesthetic is just a "set of principles of good taste and appreciation of beauty", according to the OED. So aesthetics as a field of study, a philosophical domain -- that can't be of much interest to anyone other than poncy artists and their poncy critics. And, hell, how fucking fusty is that definition? "Good taste"? "Appreciation of beauty"? Doesn't it just reek of privilege and pageantry, in the hierarchy of tastes, the authority of assumed superiority, and in the superficiality of spectacle, the skin-deep splendours of the picturesque or the sublime? Feh. Even the artists and critics aren't interested in that shit any more.

But that definition is too narrow. Sorry, OED, but you're wrong. An aesthetic is a set of principles of tastes which cover both good and bad, high and low, the charmingly refined and the gloriously vulgar. And these principles don't just underpin our appreciation of beauty; they underpin our appreciation and disappreciation of all artistic effects, the horrific, tragic, epic, comic, pathetic, sublime, absurd, intriguing, disgusting, shocking, thrilling, and wonderful. Whether we relish these or recoil from them, our reaction is an aesthetic judgement. Where our reactions are stabilised as preferences, rationalised as principles, what we have is an aesthetic. Those of us with an appreciation for genre can happily talk about a "pulp aesthetic", and we know fine well we're not talking about "good taste" and "beauty".

Now look again at that list of effects -- horrific, tragic, epic, comic, pathetic, sublime, absurd, intriguing, disgusting, shocking, thrilling, and wonderful -- a list that's not even a fraction complete. When we're talking about these effects achieved by the art we are talking about affects manifested in the audience, emotional responses of horror, awe, pity, amusement, intrigue and so on. When we're talking about an aesthetic as the set of principles underpinning these responses we're talking about a system which evaluates experience itself. We're talking about our tastes and distates, desires and fears, prejudices and perversions, the basic rules and relationships which shape our affective response to not just art but life itself. Our aesthetic sits at the very heart of our personality. When we respond with horror to a car crash, real or imaginary, it is an aesthetic reaction. When we respond with awe to a sweeping vista of canyons and mountains, it is an aesthetic judgement. When we respond to the image of two men kissing with appetence or abhorrence, that evaluation is defined by and defines our personal aesthetic. Good taste and appreciation of beauty? Screw that. An aesthetic is the set of principles that make you want to fight or fuck.

Senses and Sensibilities

As a domain analogous to the domains of pragmatics, ethics, politics, etc., then, as the study of how and why we construct our personal and individual aesthetics, of whether or not there are universal principles underlying the process of construction, the field of aesthetics is not simply asking the questions "What is art?" and "What is beauty?". Aesthetics is the study of affect itself and the sensations which produce it, of how these relate, how those relationships are systematised into a value-system, how that value-system shapes our responses. It is, in essence, the study of our senses and our sensibilities.

The word aesthetic comes from the Greek, aisthanomai, meaning "to perceive, to sense".

Aesthetics, then, is the study of sentience, of how we make sense of the world, make sense of our sensations. It is the study of consciousness itself.

At the heart of my own (perhaps idiosyncratic) theory of aesthetics is a fairly simple idea. It might be bollocks or it might be banal, but it strikes me as a fairly straightforward solution for the age-old questions about what consciousness is, why we have it -- one which doesn't rely on metaphysical mysteries like the "soul" or computational complexities like "intelligence", the two historic head-fucks which have, I think, sent us down the wrong tracks for centuries, in our search for the nature of consciousness.

One Angry Motherfucking Chimp

See, there's an experiment I remember hearing about once. We have two chimps, Chimp A and Chimp B, in separate cages but within sight of each other. Two bowls of sweets are offered to Chimp A, one with more sweets, the other with fewer. Chimp A reaches automatically for the bowl with more, which is then given to Chimp B in full sight of Chimp A, Chimp A being given instead the bowl with fewer sweets. There's a simple "inversion rule" at play here: whichever bowl Chimp A reaches for he gets the other.

Repeat this experiment and -- contrary to what we might expect in terms of trial-and-error, reward-and-punishment, learning and conditioning, which is to say intelligence -- Chimp A will never reach for the bowl with fewer in order to get the bowl with more. He'll grow increasingly frustrated, even downright irate, at the bad outcome, but he just can't stop himself from reaching for the bowl with more, every time, every fucking time. He's one angry motherfucking chimp afterwards, but he still does it the next time.

One might, if one is overly anthrocentric and committed to a Cartesian distinction between "thinking" humans and "unthinking" animals, attempt to dismiss the interpretation of his agitation as frustration, declaring this "anthropomorphism". But this is pseudo-skepticism based on a spurious assumption of a qualitative difference in ability to feel based on a quantitative difference in ability to reason, a baseless assumption that human consciousness is some sort of special case. This is less scientific than the assumption that the tantrums thrown by Chimp A are as much an indication that he's well and truly pissed as they would be coming from a human, and that he's well and truly pissed because he knows exactly what he's doing wrong. It's not that he doesn't understand the inversion rule. He just can't interrupt the automatic reflex to try and grab the best bowl.

Any tosh about this interpretation being anthropomorphic projection is blown out of the water when you teach Chimp A the numbers zero to nine.

By the Power of Numbers I Defeat You

Now run the experiment again but with a card in each bowl instead of sweets, numbers on these cards representing the number of sweets that will be given. Chimp A will reach for the lower number every time, knowing that if he does so he'll get the larger number that he didn't reach for. Assuming Chimp A has been through the first form of the experiment, he will immediately implement the inversion rule, demonstrating that he understands it full well. Ha! says Chimp A. By the power of numbers I defeat you! Revert to sweets instead of numbered cards and he'll revert to the automatic response, once again reaching for ythe bowl with more and pissing himself right off. Bollocks, says Chimp A. By the lack of numbers I am once again defeated! The point is, this demonstrates that it's not about understanding the rule; it's about implementing it.

The purpose of this experiment is actually just to show, by running through the combinations of numbers, that Chimp A can and has acquired basic numerical skills, that he understands these numbers as a sequence; eight is higher than five, four is lower than seven, and so on for every permutation. It can also be taken as a demonstration of reason, of foresight in reaching for the smaller number to get the larger, and of hindsight in throwing a tantrum when the automatic response has brought about the bad outcome. However, it strikes me as an illustration of a far more important principle too: it's only in having a symbol to react to rather than the thing itself that the innate response, the automatic grab for the bowl with more sweets, is circumvented.

So what? Well, imagine another situation, where the sight is not a bowl full of sweets but a threat -- another chimp, say, Chimp B, challenging for status -- and the automatic response of Chimp A is not to grab but to attack or run. We can imagine a simple automatic reflex based on size: if Chimp B is smaller, attack; if Chimp B is larger, run. To be able to circumvent this innate response, in a situation where the basic rule doesn't work, where Chimp A is able to reason that he'd be better to do the opposite -- say, for example, where Chimp B is larger but older and weaker -- what would be very handy indeed is if Chimp A had a symbol that worked like the numbers on the cards, if he had an abstract evaluation of the threat that he can not respond to rather than the threat itself. The problem is that sometimes we really need to fight when our automatic analysis of the situation tells us to run, to reach for the smaller bowl to get the larger.

That simple idea, perhaps bollocks, perhaps banal, at the heart of my theory of aesthetics? That idea is just that this is where anger and fear come in, as the numbers on the cards, written in our bodies rather than placed in bowls, but still abstractions. This is where pleasure and pain come, joy and sorrow, disgust and shock. This is where all our affects come in, as the surrogate, as the substitute, as the symbol we don't have to respond to. This is where sentience comes in.

Interpretors, Assistants and Observers

Sentience, the awareness of one's external stimuli and one's own responses to them, is the big mystery of the human mind. It's often thought of as a middle-man between stimuli and a control system of responses organised by logic, innate or learned. With automatic behaviour there's no sentience; the reception of situational data from the firing of receptor cells is simply processed into the inception of response actions. Sentience only comes in with conscious behaviour, where the reception of data is experienced as perception, that perception is processed into concepts, and the interactions of those concepts results in the inception of actions. In the classical model of Enlightenment philosophy, sensation and ideation were pretty much seen as distinct processes in this system of transforming data into deeds. Sensations and ideas were seen as distinct types of experiential unit, quite different basic elements of this system, though you do have philosophers like Hume playing with the theory that ideas are constructed out of sensations. Whatever. Generally a strong distinction was made between what we sense and what we think, and that distinction persists in everyday use of the terms. We'll call this the Interpreter Model, where sensation serves simply as a direct translator of data into a form that can be ideated, processed into ideas and from that into actions.

The evidence of overlap between sensation and ideation makes this model dubious though. Perception is an artificial construct to a large extent, we now know, often shaped as much by unconscious invention as by reality. Concepts, meanwhile, are themselves experienced as perceptions; we are aware of our ideas -- we sense them -- which means they are, to all intents and purposes, sensations in their own right. So the distinction in the classical model breaks down: we can't really seperate the system into two distinct processes; we can't really distinguish sensations and ideas as basic units. This is OK, because what we can do is revise the model to distinguish two complementary aspects of the system and the processes and units that constitute it -- sentience as the awareness of the system-in-action, and sapience as the intelligence of the system-in-action. The element of unconscious invention, of ideation, that goes into constructing perceptions, analysing raw data into sense -- that's intelligence at work, sapient behaviour in the system. The raw quality of experiencing, of perceiving this whole complex system of sensations-and-ideas -- that's sentience. We'll call this the Assistant Model, where sensation serves to translate data, but also largely to filter it, add to it or reshape it in accordance with ideation's instructions, and serves also in the actual processing, recording and replaying ideas so that ideation can review and revise before finally deciding.

Isolating out awareness and intelligence from each other in this manner allows us to focus on the key mystery of consciousness, which is not intelligence at all but awareness, not sapience but sentience. The former is not much of a mystery, in truth. If we're looking at the mind as a system, that system's goal is to transform data into deeds, and intelligence is simply the process(es) developed to achieve that goal, the success of the system, its capacity to do what it is meant to, viewed as a key feature. We may not (and largely do not) understand quite how the intelligence of the system functions, the actual system of pragmatics applied, but we understand why it exists, that it is a system of pragmatics. With sentience, however, there is a far deeper enigma: why does the transformation of data into deed involve this strange feature of awareness? What is the purpose of this aesthetic level in a system of pragmatics?

One alternative view that's not terribly comforting to most of us -- being rather attached to the idea that we're the drivers of our own destinies -- is that sentience is actually only a side-effect, a by-product. In this more recent model, the control system of the mind has already processed reception into inception by the time we become aware of the process in the form of sensations and ideas. Here the intelligence of the mind is basically pre-sentient, seated in the unconscious, with what we call ideation being really just the sensation of deeper processes, long after the fact, the minutes of a meeting we've already missed. Between reception and inception is this automaton intelligence, analysing the data as it comes in, processing it, and firing off response actions. We'll call this the Observer Model, sensation here no more than a transcript of the data and how it was processed, perhaps even a shorthand synopsis of it rather than a full record. Awareness is sidelined in this model, irrelevant to the basic functioning of the system. Of course, this only increases the enigma of why it would exist at all.

Extra Sprinkles of Awareness

In many ways this model makes sense. Fear is a waste of time when it's imperative that we run. Anger is a waste of time when it's imperative that we fight. The fight-or-flight response could simply kick in as a direct signal to the control system, that control system could tell us what to do, and we could do it, without ever having to be aware of what we're doing. And it's not just innate responses this applies to. We learn new responses from pleasure and pain, from their association with behaviour and its results, as positive and negative reinforcements; but even here there is no need for us to be aware of what's going on, no need for the actual sensations of pleasure and pain. All we need is for the control system to register the positive and negative stimuli and apply them to the behaviour options, assess the relative weights the next time the behaviour option is to be computed. What I'm saying here is that we can make a distinction between a compulsion -- as a drive to do something -- and an impulse -- as a compulsion with extra sprinkles of awareness. I'm saying we don't need to want to do something; we only need to need to do it. The cold calculus of survival does not require that we know our own compulsions as impulses, only that we have them. An ice cream is still an ice cream that can do all an ice cream is supposed to do, even if it doesn't have those extra sprinkles on top.

This is the theory, anyway, if it's intelligence we want in the mind, if the system is based purely on pragmatics, on the transformation of data into deeds. We might think that novel and flexible behaviours would cause problems, but we could theoretically complexify that control system as much as is required by evolution or learning, develop capacity for novel and flexible behaviours as a result of intricacy. We could generate strategies for generating strategies, develop intelligence as a complex processing of known and unknown factors, the sum of stimuli past and present analysed into goals and tactics for achieving them. We might well imagine ourselves as distinct from Chimp A in this respect, as simply having a more complex control system which allows us to reach for the smaller bowl because this is what the situation requires. Whether we see it as mechanistic, dynamic or heuristic, however, at no point in such a control system is sentience necessary. At no point is there any real need for us to be aware of the system-in-action.

Indeed, when we look at the level of automation, the lack of awareness, involved in many behaviours, innate or learned -- riding a bicycle, driving a car -- we often see sentience being cut out of the loop. Awareness interferes, gets in the way; it's more trouble than it's worth. Too many sprinkles and you have to get through them all before you even taste the ice cream, and if the only thing you're looking for is ice cream, why bother with the sprinkles at all. So it's not at all unusual for the system to bypass it -- or neglect to produce it as a side-effect, depending on your point of view.

In terms of the Interpreter Model, what we're saying is that intelligence can do its own interpretation, so why bother having a translator telling you what you already know. In terms of the Assistant Model, what we're saying is that intelligence can do what sentience does and faster, so why have this layer of bureaucracy to slow you down? In terms of the Observer Model, what we're saying is the transcript is irrelevant, so why bother having someone making minutes of the meeting just to throw them out straight afterwards?

A Weird Fucker Called Sentience

To put it another way, intelligence is a straightforward and smart guy. He knows what he wants and he knows how to get it. What's more he has this neat trick of compartmentalisation; if there's a distinct task to be taken care of, well, intelligence just pops out a clone of himself and sets him on it, to specialise in doing that one thing. Tasks like interpretation, processing or transcription of data -- those are tasks that suit intelligence down to the ground, so if intelligence needs an Interpreter, an Assistant or an Observer to carry out those tasks, it seems sensible for him to just pop out a clone to take on that role. If anyone can do that shit, it's intelligence.

But instead he brings in a weird fucker called sentience. We're not quite sure of what his actual role is -- Interpretor, Assistant or Observer -- but we do know that he does it in a way entirely distinct from how intelligence would; because whether he's translating, transforming or transcribing, whether he's rendering a communication in a form intelligence can deal with, responding to a query, running through outstanding messages, repeating back dictation, or just reading aloud the minutes as he writes them down, sentience doesn't just speak the words he needs to say what must be said. He sings them.

That's the point of distinction between sentience and intelligence, that extra dimension of awareness, the unique quality of sensation. An idea or unit of perceptual data being utilised, processed, is like a word being spoken, and this is what intelligence does -- this is its manner of articulation -- but that same idea or unit of perceptual data being experienced is like that word being sung -- articulated in a quite distinct and seemingly unncessary manner.

So why does sentience sing?

Of Morphologies and Media

The essential question seems to me to hinge on morphological forms and the media in which they're manifest. Intelligence is the morphology of the system-in-action in its most abstract sense. Whatever media its goals, strategies and tactics are modelled in, processed in, whatever mechanisms, dynamics and heuristics are employed in transforming data into deeds, the rules and behaviours, the intensions of the system, can be viewed as morphemes, morphological forms, components of a grand morphology. An intelligent system is one in which this morphology is manifested, articulated.

With sentience that morphology is inscribed into a strange media, the abstract morphemes becoming concretised, manifest as what I'll call aesthemes -- units of experience, units of sense. A weird property suddenly becomes obvious here though, in the distinction between pragmatics and aesthetics, between sapient use and sentient experience, between recitation and song. The enigma of sentience comes down to the question of how this property comes into being, whether a) a certain type of media into which the morphology is transcribed has this weird property, b) a certain type of morphology which can be transcribed into any media has this weird property, or c) the transcription of a certain type of morphology into a certain type of media invests the transcript itself -- the aesthemes from which it is constructed -- with this weird property.

Option A is basically a theory of the soul, that intelligence is written upon a substrate which is intrinsically aware, the human spirit. It is saying that sentience sings because we're all performers in a cosmic opera; the media in which we exist is musical, so to exist in that media is to sing. Option B is basically a theory of Hard AI, that no matter what the media it is manifest in, a morphology of a certain form will be aware. It is saying that sentience sings because we're each a song being played; the morphology which shapes us is musical, so to exist as instantiations of that morphology is to sing. Option C is a theory of sentience as life, that it's only in the fusion of physiological substrate and abstract system that we can expect to find sentience, that sentience is somehow a property of aesthemes rather than medium or morphology alone. It is saying that sentience sings because we're singers who sing songs, partly due to the medium of our flesh, partly due to the morphology of our mind, and wholly due to the relationship between them.

Options A and B for the theologian and the scientist respectively. I'm neither, so I'm going to approach this from the viewpoint of an amateur philosopher, professional scribbler and natural born seed-spiller, as a question of aesthetics, working on the premise that sentience is indeed a product of both concrete substrate and abstract system, physiological media and morphological form. To me sentience is an aesthetic system, a mode of artificing, the process and the products of that process, the materials and methods of creation, the acts of creation, and the resultant creations themselves, simultaneously and inextricably abstract and concrete. Sentience is not so much a property of living beings, so much as it's the art of being alive. Sentience sings, metaphorically speaking, because that musicality is the basis of the art-form, which is life. To be alive is to sing, to make sense-as-song.

There Are No Shadows In Your World

To take it right back to where we started, with Chimp A and Chimp B, my thesis is that aesthetics -- which is to say sentience -- comes into existence because the alternative is to be governed by pragmatics. Whether the intelligence we're born with, develop and apply is innate or learned, such intelligence seems quite capable of governing us by pragmatics alone, with no call for sentience, simply by stepping up the complexity. We could breed a chimp with a less compulsive instinct to grab for the bowl with more sweets. We could make the experiment more complex, with rules more elaborate than the basic inversion rule, and the chimp could learn to figure out those rules.

We could -- and some would -- argue that evolutionary pressure has actually led to us, as humans, developing that higher level of intelligence, that far more complex pragmatic system, that this is why we'd very quickly learn to reach for the bowl with fewer sweets. But maybe this level of complexity is needless. Maybe there's an evolutionary shortcut that renders such an elaborate system of pragmatics, such a complicated form of intelligence, a higher overhead in comparison. Maybe it's easier, cheaper, more efficient, simply to bring in the equivalent of numbers on cards -- sentience as a quick-fix, as a work-around.

What exactly are those numbers on cards? Simply arbitrary symbols allocated a meaning, abstract signifiers of a set of numerical relationships which map to the real-world relationships of two bowls of sweets. All of our aesthemes, all of our sensations are similarly abstract. Red is an arbitrary symbol, as are yellow and blue, light and dark. There is no such thing as red in the real world, the physical world. There is no yellow, no blue. Energy is not white, and the absence of it is not black. There are no shadows in your world. These are invention of the human mind, letters in the limited alphabet of vision. The sensations of sight are articulations in a semantic system which functions quite differently from mathematics or language, but which is just as abstract, just as much a construct of semes related by syntax.

Hearing and smell, taste and touch -- our senses are not direct connections to the world, direct analyses of light frequencies, vibrations in the air around us, chemical composition, the distribution of mass in space. They do not directly connect us to the world as streams of data we can process into deeds through the pragmatics system of intelligence. Rather they form a barrier of abstract symbolisation which, like the numbers on the cards, separates us from the stimulus that would otherwise invoke an automatic response. Aesthetics exists to interfere with pragmatics, and I would hazard a guess that it does so because this is, in itself, pragmatic.

The Paint of Our Affect, the Canvas of Our Flesh

This argument may seem less than persuasive if we're merely looking at the basic senses. Chimp A, we presume, is seeing the bowls of sweets in much the same way we do, with the same sentience, with a sense of sight, making sense of that bowl -- and the rest of the world -- as aesthemes of colour and shape. That barrier of abstract symbolisation doesn't help him stop himself from reaching for the larger bowl. But it's more complex aesthemes I'm talking about. In the fight-or-flight example I posited anger and fear as the symbols required in order to overcome an innate response of attack-the-little-guy, run-from-the-big-guy. In the original example, with the bowls of sweets, I'd posit that desire is what Chimp A needs, an impulse of wanting that can be acted against, rather than a compulsive need that is automatically acted upon.

Even here it may seem utterly counter-intuitive, the idea that affect, such an obvious motivater, such a crystal clear signal that we should carry out an action -- desire urging us to seize, anger urging us to fight, fear urging us to flee -- should exist precisely so that we can ignore the impulse. We might immediately think of countless cases where that very affect is the thing that made us act, rashly and without control, because that affect was all that mattered at the time. But if Chimp A doesn't have the nous to figure out the rules of the game, he's likely to still reach for the bowl with more sweets, because that would seem the obvious answer. Our daily life is a far more complicated game to figure out, and given that our equivalent of reaching for the bowl with more is usually not just the obvious answer but the right one, we should expect to see people acting on impulse. I don't deny that affect functions as an impulse; what I'm arguing is that being an impulse makes answering it an option rather than a requirement.

We can set against those instances of loss of control, I think, every instance of behaviour born of "unconscious desire", every act of habit or instinct, unthinking selfishness, neurotic compulsion, every passive-aggressive deed carried out in complete denial of hostile intent. With all those points of incomprehension -- where we don't realise that we want something until we've taken it, where we don't realise we're angry until we're in a shouting-match -- we act on motives we ourselves are unaware of.

A psychologist might speak of unconscious desire, repressed rage, but to do so is to speak of these non-aesthetic motives in the language of impulses, of affects, of sentience, of aesthetics. To unsense desire or sublimate rage is to drive the affect from awareness, render it imperceptible and thus uncontrolled, no longer an affect at all but rather the sort of unarticulated and inarticulable compulsion that drives Chimp A to reach for the bowl with more. It seems to me that what I'm talking about is just this process in reverse, affects as expressions of compulsion rather than compulsions as repressions of affect. Those of you who write or paint or make music may know that feeling of a work of art emerging from fuck knows where, of finding out what it is you want to say through the act of saying it. And of finding out that, no, that's not what you want to say, going back and revising, scoring out that word, painting out that image, changing that note. This is the freedom you get with art, and it's why sentience is aesthetic, working with these arbitrary symbols it can fuck around with, making sense of what it does not even know it's trying to make sense of until it has made sense of it in the paint of our affect, on the canvas of our flesh.

Making Sense

An aesthetic judgement, because it is based on arbitrary symbols, can be illogical in terms of the obvious pragmatics of the situation. We might like a painting simply because it's a nice shade of red, buy it despite the fact that it's outside our budget. In the obvious pragmatics of the situation we should buy the cheaper one, but... unfortunately we like the one we can afford less because it's a gaudy purple. We get more pleasure from the more expensive one, a better return, but this is still illogical; pragmatically speaking we'd be better off simply liking the cheaper, gaudy, purple one more. Aesthetics don't work that way though.

Aesthetics might be shaped by pragmatics, both in terms of evolution and in terms of learning. Once we have affect it only makes sense for us to develop innate aesthetics that make us like this particular image, dislike that particular sound, where those likes and dislikes stand us in good stead for survival and reproduction. And once we have affect it only makes sense for us to acquire tastes that make us relish the scent of whisky or feel sick at the smell of vodka through processes of aversion or acclimatisation, or by association with pleasant or unpleasant experiences. But the pragmatics of drinking poison with the flavour, the inebriation, or both, as goal only points up the willful anti-pragmatism of aesthetics, where the experience is an end in its own right, and damn the consequences.

Aesthetics can adopt pragmatics as an aesthetic. We might find logic quite fascinating, heuristics quite intriguing. Our senses are structurings of symbols, symbolisations of structures, our attention drawn to raw material that comes with ready-made symbols or structures to make sense of, or that is ripe with perhaps random relationships that can be teased into pattern. When order and complexity in and of itself inspires affects of joy, when disorder disturbs us and making sense of it is satisfying, it's no surprise these tastes develop into principles, into an aesthetic where what we care about most is those systems of ordering the world with the modalities of must and must not, should and should not, could and could not, the informal logic of a suppositional calculus. Still, it is the fact that we care about this that really matters, the fact that it is an aesthetic judgement. At heart, with all our attempts to make sense of the world in this manner, the goal is still to make sense. The valuation of pragmatics is an aesthetic valuation.

In the end it's all about making sense, in all meanings of the term. We make sense of the world with sentience -- or rather, we should say, sentience is the act of making sense of the world. And the world, of course, includes ourselves, as beings living and breathing in it, so we make sense of ourselves also, with affect -- or rather, we should say, affect is the act of making sense of ourselves. And our sentience and our affect, being also features of the world, must also be made sense of. Like any art form, sentience works by creating patterns, points of tension and moments of release. Every sentient being is a composition of affects, its elements in conflict or balance, a fragmented unity. Making sense of that composition is like finding a title for a book, a story, or a section of an essay, finding a phrase or even just a word that can stand in for it, not summarizing it but symbolising it. That's where sentience becomes identity, in the sense of all that sensation being a whole, in the aestheme of self. And this, to me, is why aesthetic(s) means far more than just a "set of principles of good taste and appreciation of beauty" or the branch of philosophy which concerns itself with the questions of what constitutes art and beauty. Bullshit. What we're dealing with here is the very nature of identity, the self, what it means to be human. And the tools for investigating that from the ground up are right there in front of us, in our affect as aesthemes and the relationships between them. Not so much in front of us, actually, as within us.


Blogger Al said...

Have you read Peter Watts' Blindsight, which struggles with many of the same issues though strictly from a scientific and aesthetic perspective? The ultimate conclusion that he seems to draw is that sentience may really just be an odd turn and ultimately selected out. Strangely, Ken Schroeder came to the same point from the opposite point of view, as Watts notes himself.

I must say that I've been really impressed by your writing and I am currently reading Vellum. It has turned into a much different kind of book than I was expecting, much more challenging. I appreciate that very much.

9:15 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Cheers, man. I haven't read that but it sounds interesting. I'll check it out.

6:50 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jesus, Hal, if you're going to keep doing this, you really ought to consider upping your font size. And switching to a clean background. You're making me go blind, and my hands are nowhere NEAR where they usually are when I'm going blind!

5:27 am  
Blogger Swanosaurus said...

I should read this more carefully before commenting, but there are a lot of things I kind of should do ...

Anyway, while the basic concept (aesthetics as a "barrier" for pragmatics) is extremely intreaguing, I'm not sure about your treatment of the unconscious: are you implying that we should conceptualise the unconscious just as a pragmatic apparatus? Tha (aesthetic) decision-making is something that necessarily happens on a consciuos level? Because I kind of like the notion that we may not be aware of a lot of our processes of decision-making, but that they are nevertheless highly idiosyncratic, not at all governed by some simple, atavistic pragmatics, but by our whole social existence. Maybe not "governed" at all.

But then, I'm a Freudian, just like Reynard ...

Anyway, im with you on rejecting concepts A and B of sentience (soul or emergent quality if complex processes). However, I'm not sure if C is the answer. Can't come up with a better one, though.

By the way, does anybody remember the exact experiment that was supposed to prove the "observer"-theory of sentience? I have some vague ideas about scientists explaining that the acitvation potential (or something along the line) in the brain is reached only after the deed, the idea being that you move your little finger and afterwards imagine that you decided to do so. It always seemed kind of marred by the fact that you wouldn't know what process in the brain (or body? Or soul?) to look for to see the act of decision-making (after all, you couldn't even be sure if it happens in the brain? Would it be less of a decision if it actually happened in your little finger?).

12:02 pm  
Blogger Michael said...

Thanks again--please keep writing these long posts (and your books of course)

I reposted a quote/link to this because I teach a film class on aesthetics/politics of film (which I consider to be intertwined)--here is what I said to introduce your quote:

I've been thinking about the intertwining themes of aesthetics/politics in my film classes and this essay by Duncan gave me much to think about--I came across it b/c I am currently reading his novel Vellum: The Book of All Hours... highly recommended, challenging and rewarding. So in light of this my question is always... can aesthetics be divorced from politics? Is not our appreciation of what is beautiful, what is pleasing, what is sensible, always a political statement? As I navigate my neighborhood, my workplace, my community, my society, my world--I make asumptions, distinctions, conclusion... all based upon my understanding of the proper order of things, what is pleasing to me, what is beautiful--now I may stretch your common understanding of these terms... but if you relax for a moment and think... is not beauty/pleasure/sense-of-order [aesthetics] a political concept?)

9:02 am  
Blogger Michael said...

oh yeah--I'm in Kentucky in the US--if you are ever in our neck of the woods please let me know and I'll clue you into a good pub where I will gladly buy you a drink

9:05 am  

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