Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Chapter 7: On Beauty: I. The Birth of the Arts From the Spirit of Ritual

Ritual is how vertebrates attempt to reorganize the world when faced with conflicts having to do with their perception of that world. As Lorenz points out in On Aggression, the most common conflict among vertebrates is between the aggressive protection of territory and the needs of sexual reproduction. For animals such as schooling fish, this is not a problem. Herring are simple in both their coloration and in their behavior. Why spend energy on potentially dangerous bright colors to attract mates when everyone releases their eggs and sperm all at once, collectively? And why develop complex behaviors if there is no reason to, if there is no conflict, since there is no need to defend territory if you are a schooling fish in the open ocean? The beauty of herring is expressed only at the level of the golden mean – the simplest fractal form – in their shape, reproduction, and behavior.

Conflict creates greater feedback processes, transforming simple golden mean ratios into more complex fractal forms. An example would be the brightly-colored gobies, which are very territorial. “For many vertebrates, a clearly defined territory for offspring rearing seems to be fundamental. This involves aggressive behavior of a great variety on the part of the male (and sometimes the female too), usually of a ritual nature, but effective in defending an area” (Bonner, 86). The bright colors serve two purposes – to warn and to attract. The warning is for members of the same sex. The attraction is for the opposite sex. In both cases the bright colors advertise health: brightly-colored fish are strong, well-fed, healthy fish. The conflict comes about in the need to aggressively defend territory versus the need to sexually reproduce. If one just defends, one runs off potential mates. But passive gobies lose territory – and thus, ironically, cannot attract mates. What develops from the conflict between these straightforward actions of defense and sex is the mating ritual, a nonlinear feedback behavior designed to allow members of the opposite sex to enter one’s private space. It is a dance. It is a dance wherein linear elements conflict to create nonlinear systems, which reorganize the chaos created by the conflict into a sort of disorderly order. Ritual is the emergent system created out of the conflicting elements. It is a safe space in which the participants play out the conflicts, to ensure mating can occur. One effect of this is the development of the ability in gobies to differentiate between individuals. Territoriality (notions of private property) created individuality through the need to ritualize sex. In more social animals, including pair-bonding animals, this resulted in the development of personal relationships, including love. None of which could be possible without a complex neural system to allow for the creation of such complex behavior.

Complex ritualistic behavior resulted in more complex brains, as more complex rituals more effectively attract females. This is how vertebrates evolved more complex brains, leading to the complexity of mammalian behavior. Social mammals have strong social bonds even among those who are not mates. These bonds were generated through the elaboration of mating rituals into things like grooming rituals. Primates in particular have strong grooming rituals, which have elaborated into such things as sexual pleasure leading to recreational sex in humans and bonobos, and massage in humans. We can see this behavior in the fact that “the human neurotransmitter vasopressin, which is closely associated with aggression, is also deeply implicated in the drive to stay with and cherish one’s mate and protect one’s offspring. Without the resistance to strangers there could be no individuality and love” (Turner, Hope, 170). The conflict is found even at the neurotransmitter level.

If we understand ritual as the attempt to create a new recursive order from the disorder created by the conflict between two or more linear orders, we can begin to understand the origins of a large number of human behaviors. As I pointed out in the previous chapter, we could get athletic sports out of the ritualization of combat/conflict. This would allow very large numbers of people to live together, and could help maintain unity both within and among communities. It also allows us to ritualize our xenophobia – it is better to ritually dislike Philadelphia because the Eagles are playing the Cowboys than it is to actually dislike someone because of their race, color, religion, gender, etc. One may object that it would be better if we did not dislike anybody at all. But as a territorial species, that is not an option – and without it we would have neither individuality nor love. To have love, including love of one’s own, love of one’s community, etc., one must have hate. Each of the things that is best about humans comes with what is worst about us. This is a shameful situation we can deal with through ritual transference – in the case of love of one’s community, to athletic sports. Ritual, beauty, is how we get beyond this sense of good and evil, of the wya good and evil are entangled with each other, to help us to become better and to make a better, more complex game.

I have introduced an idea developed at great length by Frederick Turner in Beauty and in The Culture of Hope, which is the issue of shame. Rituals “accept, frame, organize, and elaborate the chaotic shame inherent in death, life-crisis, birth, sexual awakening, and pollution, in such a way that we recognize the beauty that also attends those moments of embarrassing emergence and self-reference” (Hope, 48). Turner connects the feeling of shame to the feeling of beauty – there is a certain beauty in the ways in which we try to deal with our shame, when we deal with it through ritual, and we feel some shame at the very experience of beauty:

The traditional pan-human artistic genres are keyed to our neurophysiological makeup in such a way as to remind us of our materiality, our mortality, the automatism of our delight, as well as the strange reflexivity of our awareness. We are embarrassed by our pleasure in rhyme, by the sweetness of melody, by stories with neat endings, by gorgeous color combinations, and by the great natural genre of representation in general. (Hope, 49)

We feel shame because these elements of the arts make us aware we are materially part of the universe. The arts are the rituals we use to deal with the conflict between this material awareness and our feelings that we are, or should be, more than our material being – which is to say, they ritualize the conflict between life and death, of our awareness of our own immanent deaths, which came with our fullest self-awareness. The moment we became more fully aware we were alive – and of the connection between sex and reproduction – we became equally aware that we would also die. Philosophy, religion, and the arts are how we have dealt with this awareness.

The internal conflicts we as humans feel we feel as shame. Ritual – beauty – is how we deal with this shame. However, there are those who try to deny shame, who wish to avoid dealing with our shameful feelings. One way to deny shame is through transference to an Other – resulting in hatred of that Other: racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. These Others represent aspects of ourselves we wish to deny – and denigrating, or outright eliminating, the Other can appear to be an effective way to get rid of these feelings. But shame denial does not have to be relegated to those we feel ashamed at feeling superior to (and we should feel ashamed at that, while at the same time, we should not deny that we do feel that way toward some people, as denial only prevents us from properly dealing with those feelings). We feel ashamed of our material connection to the rest of the world. Body-soul dualism is the denial of this shameful feeling. We feel ashamed of our genetic connection to animals and other “lower” life forms. Creationism is the denial of this shame. We feel ashamed that we are more complex than other animals, that we are “special.” The hatred of humans – especially the best of and in us, of our art, literature, culture, technology, etc. – is the denial of this shame. We feel shame at receiving gifts. How can we ever “pay someone back” for the gifts they give us from the heart? Gifts create obligation (that is a gift’s cost), and obligation creates shame. For many, this is bad enough – but what if that gift is inherited? Intelligence is a gift from nature, from the particular genes we were born with, combined with the fortune of the parents a person is born to. It is a gift freely given, without the recipients having earned it (though education is the gift one can give one’s children, and to oneself, to make good use of that intelligence). So many intelligent people attempt to dumb themselves down through drink or drugs because they feel ashamed at being more intelligent than most other people. They do this to punish themselves, to try to deny the shame at receiving such a wonderful gift without having earned it. The attempt to deny their shame is an attempt to deny the gift they have received and to deny the obligation that comes with that gift. Instead, intelligent people should gratefully accept the gift they have been given, and use it to create gifts to give to everyone else. That is the proper use of a gift (be that gift intelligence, knowledge, wealth, or wisdom) – to create more gifts. To create the gift of beauty for others. But then, we feel shame at the very feeling of beauty. The postmodernists’ rejection of traditional artistic forms is the denial of this shame. It is here where we see that the rejection of shame is the rejection of beauty. Since beauty connects the (meta)physical world, epistemology, and ethics, we can also understand the postmodernists’ rejection of (meta)physics, knowledge, and any sort of universal ethics. When Milan Kundera admits to a distaste for rhythmic poetry because the steady rhythms remind him of his beating heart, which reminds him of his own future death (AN), we see the denial of shame in the denial of death itself – and, thus, the distaste for rhythmical form in poetry. Finally, we find in the rejection of the author (in Barthes’ death of the author) an attempt to deny the shame inherent in having someone (an authority) tell you a story, or how to think, what to know, or how to see the world.

The postmodernists’ denial of knowledge comes from the denial of their shame at realizing they cannot know anything with 100% certainty. The postmodernists are correct when they say we cannot know with 100% certainty what an author meant when (s)he wrote a work, as we cannot know their exact thoughts, emotions, state(s) of mind, attitude, etc.. Nor can we know with 100% certainty the cultural, historical, economic, etc. situation within which a work was written. Further, psychologists such as Jung and Lacan say the authors themselves cannot know exactly how and why their works are the way they are. All of which is true. But then the postmodernists go on to say that since we cannot know these or any other things with 100% certainty, we cannot know them at all – so we should not try. Thus Barthes’ call for the death of the Author. Why must we have this all-or-nothing approach? Why insist on knowledge-as-equivalence when knowledge-as-synonymity will do? As Eisendrath points out,

the reader’s difficulty in understanding the author’s intention, as the author’s difficulty in understanding his or her own, cannot argue away the residual usefulness of understanding the writer’s intentions and world. Whatever the difficulties, it seems worth attempting, even if full understanding is only an approachable limit, just as it is worth attempting to connect subjective experiences with neurophysiology, and, in real social relations, it is worth attempting to understand another person, or gain what is called “accurate sympathy”. (214)

The postmodernists see the difficulties before them and have given up – thus the source of contemporary apathy. But this too is a shameful position – so they try to convince others to join them in denying the possibility of knowledge. But this is just the denial of the shame we feel in realizing we will never be able to know anything with 100% certainty (other than those truths “of limited value” Nietzsche talks about in “Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense”). We should not join them in this exercise of shame denial. Even if we cannot know anything with 100% certainty, even if we cannot understand something someone else has experienced with 100% certainty (since there are no equivalent experiences), we can know things to an “approachable limit,” through synonymous experiences.

Nietzsche too noticed an increasing trend in shame-denial in the use of foreign words to designate something that could just as easily have been said in one’s native language:

When I say “wisdom” and “love of wisdom,” I certainly feel something more familiar and powerful than when I say “philosophy.” . . . the trick is sometimes precisely not to let things draw too near; for there often lies so much that is shameful in the familiar words. For who would not be ashamed to call himself a “wise man” or even merely “one who is becoming wise”! But a “philosopher”? This easily passes anyone’s lips . . . Is what we call “philosophy” today actually the love of wisdom? Does wisdom have any true friends at all today? Let us fearlessly replace the word “philosophy” with “love of wisdom”: then it will become clear whether they are the same thing. (PT, 47)

One could ask the postmodernists these same questions. But the postmodernists have gone a step further. For them, the word “philosophy” has become a shameful word. Wisdom is so foreign to postmodernism that “philosophy” has been abandoned for “theory.” There are fewer friends of philosophy – let alone wisdom – today than there were in Nietzsche’s day. It seems most have given up on the very idea of wisdom, exchanging the pursuit of wisdom for the pursuit of knowledge alone – which has also since been abandoned.

Ritual – including sacrifice, religion, and the arts – are how we deal with shame in an accepting and acceptable way. Sacrifice is a transference – a transmutation – of shame onto something of value. It is a commuted punishment. One form of this is the creation of the sacrificial scapegoat. But this scapegoating can be ritualized – through the artform of tragedy (goat-song). By turning scapegoating into tragedy, we show how shameful scapegoating itself is, through ritual, while allowing us to deal with that shame in the safe play-space of the tragic play. As all art provides a ritualistic scapegoat for all our shameful feelings in a safe-play space, all art has, as Fraser suggests, its origin in tragedy – even if it was only in the West where tragedy was purified.

These rituals all originated in the original mating rituals – which were dances. As Fraser suggests, the arts do originate in dance – as every ritual is a dance. Music is the dance of sounds (thus, the birth of tragedy from the spirit of music). And, as we have seen previously, language likely has its origins in music – thus, in ritual. Meaning our very awareness of death comes from ritual (mating ritual), which we have had to ritualize. Philosophy, religion, and the arts are how we ritualize our self-awareness of sex and death. Painting is at minimum the dance of arms, hands, and fingers, captured in the strokes of color. Jackson Pollock went so far as to turn painting into the capturing of the full body’s dance in color. And, as rituals have their origins in territorial species needing to mate, we can see the connection of beauty to reproduction. Beauty wishes to reproduce itself (Scarry) – which is why the universe is scalarly self-similar as it hierarchically emerges into new, more complex levels. Which is why art and literature are scalarly self-similar to the universe, though more complex than their creators – as we can see in the fact that readings of literature give rise to as many interpretations as there are readings (readers, plus re-readings), though good readings will be self-similar.

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