The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

How Can We Be Civilized?

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are serializing Selves Are in Economics, by Eli Siegel. Given in December 1970, it is one of his great, historic Goodbye Profit System lectures, in which he showed:

The desire for profit has never had a good effect on humanity. But...in recent years, the insufficient ethics of a specialization in profit has been noticeable; and also the inefficiency of that specialization....

There will be no economic recovery in the world until economics itself, the making of money, the having of jobs, becomes ethical; is based on good will rather than on the ill will which has been predominant for centuries. [Goodbye Profit System: Update, pp. 167, xxxiii]

We also print part of a paper by Aesthetic Realism consultant and sociologist Devorah Tarrow. It is from an Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled "A Woman’s Tormenting & Beautiful Question: Can Her Hardness & Softness Ever Make Sense?" The seminar took place last September, a week after the horrible attack on our nation and city.

Eli Siegel is the philosopher who understood the human self, in all its good, evil, and confusion; and that includes, as Ms. Tarrow shows, the feelings and tumult of woman. His comprehension of self is a crucial reason he saw, as no one else did, what economics deeply and constantly is, and what is happening to it now. The self, he explained, is the central matter in economics—the self of every person. And in the lecture we are serializing, he uses an economics textbook to speak, with a oneness of casualness and precision, about the presence of self in the various aspects of economics.

My commentary this week is rather brief, and I go to something basic. On the desk before me are three articles from recent papers. One, from the New York Times (Mar. 14), has the headline "U.N. Says Millions of Children, Caught in Poverty, Die Needlessly." A Washington Post article (weekly national edition, Mar. 11-17), about widespread hunger in America, notes that "the largest hunger relief organization in the country...fed 23 million people last year." The third article, from the New York Daily News (Mar. 14), reports that "Even before the World Trade Center disaster, an astounding 1 million New Yorkers depended on the city's 1,200 soup kitchens and food pantries to feed their families."

And this is what I mean by basic: For there to be poverty and hunger in a country, and on a planet, with enough resources for everyone to live in comfort and dignity, is barbaric. To conduct a "civilization" that way is completely evil. Mr. Siegel said that if people really wanted poverty to end, it would. It exists because people like being superior. It exists only because of that thing in the human mind which he identified and explained: contempt, "the addition to self through the lessening of something else."

A world, a nation, that can produce an Internet and "smart bombs" is clearly capable of having its resources allotted in such a way that no person is poor. It will be seen as shocking (and we should see it as shocking now) that this has not been a principal motive of our economy. It will be seen as shocking that as the 21st century began, world economics was not based on good will but on how much profit various persons could grab from the resources of the earth which should be everyone's, and how much money they could squeeze from the work of their fellow humans, robbing them of the fruits of their labor. So we have this matter, which I think anyone can see as basic: a nation with our know-how and resources, that permits poverty to exist should not pretend to be moral or civilized.

Meanwhile, what Mr. Siegel described in 1970 has intensified: throughout the world there is an increasingly conscious objection in people to how they are forced to live. Men and women in different lands, in different situations, feel they have been robbed. They include millions of people of the once-middle class in Argentina. They include people in America, agonized (for instance) that their elderly parents must be in an awful nursing home because the family is not financially able to have these parents live their last years in ease and dignity. Eli Siegel was the beautiful advocate for humanity: for the true self of everyone. And he showed that we need to want other selves to fare well if we ourselves are to be comfortable in this world and under our own skin. This is an inescapable fact, and a lovely one.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Everywhere in Economics

By Eli Siegel

Note. Mr. Siegel is commenting on passages from the textbook Principles and Problems of Economics, by Ault and Eberling

People want to get about and they want to remain where they are: these are the two things in life. One is the home-loving idea, maintain your home; and the other is, keep moving. In a human being these two opposites are present; everyone has them: "I stay where I am and nobody’s going to make me move if I don’t want to." "If I want to get out of here, nobody’s going to stop me." You can be tough and snarling about either.

The mobility and the staying put are everywhere in economics and history. Rome was changed because of tribes that went from Eastern Europe and felt they could find things in Italy. And everything that’s made accents either staying put or motion. A quilt, although it has color in it, accents staying put, while my favorite instrument once, the eggbeater, was a study in both. It went through a great deal of clatter but remained where it was. Then, the iron is a study in motion and staying put. The ironing board, however, spends its active life staying put. The purpose of an ironing board is not to move when you don’t want it to move.

What Affects Price?

The things that make for price have been studied. The biggest happening as to price was the making of things by machine which once were made by hardworking human beings. It is hard to think that everything was once made by hand, everything. Rome and Greece and Egypt and Assyria and Persia and Lydia and Paphlagonia— none of them had any machines. They had contrivances. A big contrivance was the wheel. Also, they knew how to use iron in many ways. But the machine as we know it now was unseen. If people had seen an adding machine they would have thought the devil was around, up to something. They didn’t see it, so we don’t have to worry about it.

A machine is that which a human being can leave to itself, being quite sure that it will do a human being’s work: that is, it can be left to itself and it will do things that a human being could have done. The accepted definition of a machine is not around yet. Ault and Eberling say:

Every advance of science, every improvement in mechanical technique, every discovery in our physical and chemical laboratories tends to decrease cost of production. Costs are also reduced by more efficient organization of the factors of production

So there have been two ways of reducing costs. One is to have mechanism, a certain process, take the place of human work. And that is being debated now, with automation knocking at the doors of newspapers, and elsewhere. Automation wants to take over the printing press and typesetting, although the printing press in a way is already automation. The printing press is an example of man and the machine. It need not be attended all the time. A person arranges the paper and then the press will do what it does. It’s good to take a look sometimes.

An example of the automatic at work is that thing which makes many people nervous, the automatic elevator: you find yourself alone on the tenth floor. At one time the big thing in industry was Otis Elevator, as Baldwin Locomotive was.

So there are two ways of reducing costs: there are new processes; and then, more efficient organization. Before stenography was what it was, there would be eight persons listening to a speech and one person was supposed to take down so many words, another would follow, and that was organization of listening. The desire to reduce costs goes on. Reduce costs and make the need for human labor as little as possible: those are two desires.

There’s nothing, for instance, that the taxi fleet owners would like more than to have a taxi that would know street numbers: you push something to indicate the number and you’re off in a taxi. Then also you could tip the automation. It would be wonderful, but it hasn’t come yet. It seems the human element is needed if you have to get somewhere. Then, the libraries are looking for a means by which a machine can read the books for you. Very useful; it would make life worth living for many people.

There Are Opposites

One opposite in economics is reducing costs and another is raising of wages. The third element is stabilizing the monetary situation. You reduce, you raise, and you stabilize. What more do you want? "The franc is firm," said de Gaulle. And it was, too. Instead of having to pay 300 francs for a monthly magazine, well, you get by with four francs.


Woman: Hard and Soft

By Devorah Tarrow

Women have had pain thinking we are hard, cannot feel as deeply as we hope to. Yet we want to be strong, "our own person." We want to be caring and kind and to love someone; yet a woman feels if she’s soft or yielding she’ll be taken advantage of. In his essay "Medusa Is a Nice Girl," Eli Siegel explains that the trouble is, a woman’s hardness and softness "do not serve the same purpose....She is soft in order to be liked; she is hard in order to protect herself."

Aesthetic Realism shows the two can serve the same purpose. We need to criticize that in ourselves which feels that to take care of ourselves we can’t be too affected by things. That is the hardness of contempt. But contempt is also the thing that has a woman use softness for social advantage.

We need to be soft not to be liked but to be affected by what things are, who people are. We need to be strong, firm, in behalf of that very same thing: to use our mind to comprehend the meaning of a person.

These Opposites Fought in Me

My father was a colonel in the Air Force, and when he was saluted on the base by a person of lower rank, I took it to myself. I bossed people around—my sister, brother, anyone I could—unmercifully. I wanted my way, and if I didn’t get it I was angry, once ripping the head off my sister’s doll and throwing it down the toilet because she wouldn’t let me play with it. In my juvenile way, I had that hardness to the feelings of another which is behind all cruelty, including last week’s tragic attack.

I also wanted to be kind. At 13, as a camp counselor, I loved to lead the girls in singing the sweet French song "Don’t Cry, Jeannette." But by 16, though I had a big smile and lively exterior, I felt I was hard. I wrote in my diary, "What estranges me from all this? I’m cold and unrelenting."

When I was in college, at night I’d go drivingly after men, meanwhile seeming soft, using my smile and body. During the day I would try to be kind by tutoring poor children. But by 21 something new was happening. Though still aggressively going after men, I wrote about how lost and fearful I felt. I felt a kind of giving-way inside myself. I was paying, with a feeling of flimsiness and fraud, for being hard to things.

When I met Aesthetic Realism and learned about the principle of contempt, I felt, here was the explanation of what I had against myself! And I wanted to study the philosophy which I saw as the greatest advance in the understanding of mind in history.

In one class, Mr. Siegel asked me, "What do you think you are, firm or yielding?" "Yielding. Too yielding," I said.

ES. Don't you think at times you’re too rigid?

DT. Oh yes, I have been.

ES. Do you think you can hurt people?

DT. Yes, I have.

ES. Most people see themselves as mean, rigid, stubborn, obstinate, human, and all that kind of thing. What do you think men have had against you?

DT. They've thought I was trying to take them over.

ES. And there's no truth to that? Do you think you’re a mingling of tenderness and harshness, and they give you trouble? A surrealist phrase for that is "the hammer with petals." Are you both?

DT. Yes!

In Aesthetic Realism classes I felt comprehended for the first time in my life. Mr. Siegel himself was the most beautiful relation of softness and hardness, with a deep, wide sympathy at one with a critical love for the facts, for truth.

As I saw the harm contempt does, I began to question "my way," and to listen to people, learn from them, be affected by them. I came to see there is an honest way of knowing people; it is in the principle stated by Mr. Siegel: "Every person is always trying to put together opposites in himself." When I met Jeffrey Carduner, I saw a man who was tough but also unsure, who wanted to be strong and also kind. When I saw him meet the knowledge of Aesthetic Realism with deep feeling and see its large intellectual value, I fell in love with him.

Yet I still wanted to manage a man, and one day we had an intense argument. Jeffrey felt it would be kind and right that he go with his father to an electronics show in Chicago. I felt he wanted to get away from me, and no matter what he said I was right and he was wrong. He went to Chicago, and I felt awful.

Soon after, in a class, Mr. Siegel explained to me that when we are hard to the feelings of another, we are also soft in the wrong way: we yield to something unjust in ourselves.

ES. There are hundreds of people now who are biting their tongues—"What in hell did I say that for?" Not to yield to the right thing is the same as yielding to the wrong thing. And most persons say they yielded to their ill-temper and to their desire to be sarcastic.

DT. I feel I yielded to superiority.

ES. Whenever we feel bad, we assert in the wrong way and yield in the wrong way....You have too much contempt for Mr. Carduner, and contempt is the great disabler.

My hard fury began to change as I saw how I had wanted to have contempt and how this hurt Jeffrey. Mr. Siegel explained:

Every person is cursing himself for not having enough good will. [At this time] you are constantly looking for instances of disappointment in Carduner. You feel you need it; it’s a vitamin for you....Good will is the hope to think more of a person. If we respect someone more, something deserved by us is coming to us

I learned that good will is tough and tremendously pleasurable. You are so for a person that you want to take care of his value, including by criticizing that in him which is against it. Good will is the most neglected but most needed thing in love, and it is emergent for our world to be safe. black diamond