Beauty, Contempt, & Ourselves
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is chapter 3 of a scholarly, vibrant philosophic work written by Eli Siegel in the late 1950s. The Opposites Theory is about this principle, not known before in the centuries of art criticism: All beauty—whether in dance or architecture, sculpture or poetry—"is the oneness of the permanent opposites in reality." In the chapter printed here, Mr. Siegel is showing some of the richness of the opposites. Such major pairs as Motion and Rest, Freedom and Order, Sameness and Difference are not monolithic, not static: each has many forms, and is surprising, flexible, alive. The opposites are eternal, yet frisky too, and warm.
I'll point to another important accomplishment in this third chapter. In the 1950s, there was a feeling that the modern, abstract art of the time was entirely different from the work of earlier centuries. But Mr. Siegel explains that there is a fundamental likeness: the opposites. Jackson Pollock in the mid-20th century and (for instance) Antoine Watteau in the early 18th are both trying to put together rest and motion, heaviness and lightness, freedom and control, sameness and difference. That is what every artist, each in his or her own way, has tried, is trying, and will try to do.
What Makes for Cruelty?
Aesthetic Realism's understanding of beauty is inseparable from something Mr. Siegel does not discuss in The Opposites Theory: his explanation of what, in the human self, makes for cruelty; of what in us hurts our mind and interferes with our life. That hurtful thing is contempt, the feeling we get an "addition to self through the lessening of something else." Contempt uses reality's opposites, and disrupts them, makes them fight.
We can consider a phenomenon of our very own time, written of in the New York Times last month (Feb. 20): "flaming." To "flame" is to send an email or instant message that is nasty, mean.
I've written in other TROs about why the Internet is beautiful. The reason is that it puts opposites together. It is many and one: how many people, places, thoughts, experiences, feelings, statements (good and bad) are united in that single network! The Internet is private and public, near and far: you can be in your own room and have vast information come to you, and the views of people on all continents. Meanwhile, like other beautiful things, the Internet can be misused. And it certainly has been.
The writer of the Times article, Daniel Goleman, uses "neuroscience" to ascertain the cause of "flaming." He notes:
In face-to-face interaction, the brain reads a continual cascade of emotional signs and social cues, instantaneously using them to guide our next move so that the encounter goes well...[and] socially artful responses emerge.
Since the email situation lacks "face-to-face cues," Goleman says, "the orbitofrontal cortex has little to go on"; therefore there is "online disinhibition effect," or "flaming."
Now, I do not think the cause of vicious email is in an "orbitofrontal cortex" deprived by a non-face-to-face Internet. (A telephone conversation has no "face-to-face cues" either, and there are certainly none in old fashioned letter writing.) Nevertheless, the "neural mechanics" Goleman describes happen to be about the fundamental opposites of separation and junction. Our nervous system and all our senses are designed to have us joined rightly with the outside world as a means of our being fully our individual selves.
The Oldest Fight
What is necessary to understand is that the new field of email is a field for the biggest and oldest fight in the self: the fight in every person between contempt and respect. Email, like other forms of communication, can be used in behalf of either respect and good will, or contempt and ill will. Persons have sent email messages in order to strengthen other people and care more for reality. And they've sent them in order to weaken people and feel superior. What matters about an email or instant message is not whether it is (as Goleman writes) "socially artful," but whether it is in behalf of justice or injustice, kindness or cruelty, beauty or ugliness.
Goleman presents aspects of the Internet as leading to "flaming": "the anonymity of a Web pseudonym; invisibility to others;...the exaggerated sense of self from being alone." Yet circumstances like these are not the cause of malevolent emails. For example, people have sometimes used being alone not to have an "exaggerated sense of self" but to see other things truly. Most of the kind, beautiful art of the world has been created when a person—perhaps Shakespeare, Beethoven, Rembrandt—was alone.
The fundamental cause of "flaming" is in this statement from Eli Siegel's book Self and World: "We are looking for contempt at any moment of our lives. Contempt is our soothing revenge for a world not sufficiently interested, as we see it, in what we are hoping for" (p. 10).
The self can use the circumstances of email to let go with contempt, just as it can use something very different: being part of a mob. Mr. Siegel has pointed out that a person will do things with a crowd—make vicious fun of someone, brutalize someone—that he might not do singly. But the circumstance of a crowd is not the cause of the brutality; nor is the email circumstance the cause of "flaming."
We need to understand those two fighting desires in us. There is the desire to know the world, see value in it, use ourselves to make it better: that desire is the most beautiful thing in the human self. And there is the desire to despise things and people, make something different from oneself look low and stupid, bring discomfort to someone representing the outside world, because in doing so one feels oneself is important. That is contempt, the ugly thing in everyone.
The Opposites, Used by Contempt
The online "invisibility" Goleman mentions can be used in behalf of contempt, because if you're invisible you can feel superior: you can affect without (apparently) being affected. The opposites of affecting and being affected are here. So are hidden and shown: there is a contempt victory in thrusting oneself via a nasty email, while being anonymous, hidden.
And there are slowness and speed. Part of the beauty of the Internet is its speed. Yet contempt can sever that speed from the slowness of respectful thought. There is a thrill of power in feeling one has one's way fast, without needing to think—therefore, lo! one sends a contemptuous email.
The opposites, then, are our very lives. As one, they make for beauty. Severed by contempt, they are in ugliness, in cruelty. Aesthetic Realism is the means to understand all three: beauty, contempt, and ourselves.