Aesthetics for Birds is a blog that aims to bring people working in aesthetics and philosophy of art together with each other, as well as with artists, the artworld, and others in philosophy and the academy.
What follows is a guest post by Sean T. Murphy. Those who haven’t finished the series should beware of spoilers below!
Legitimate Artistic Expectations
“Almost nothing [showrunners David] Benioff and [D.B.] Weiss do will be enough to please (or appease) everyone.” So says critic Tim Goodman in a recent article in the Hollywood Reporter. It became clearer by the week just how great everyone’s expectations were for the final season of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Anyone taking a quick peak at Twitter following any episode this season could see fans breathing more fiery criticism, and wreaking more havoc on the show than Drogon did on King’s Landing. On the one hand, this is not surprising. After waiting two years for the series finale, there was no stopping the heights to which our expectations were ascending (although you would have thought that the lackluster seventh season would have tempered them a bit). And yet, after it became clear that episodes were not meeting those expectations, I found myself less angry at the show, and more intrigued by the viewers’ responses. And so I started to think about what was going on, and whether or not these great expectations were legitimate. I had to ask: What is, in fact, legitimate to expect of art? And where lies the flaw when a work of art fails to meet expectations? Is it in us, or the work?
Of course, I can’t give all-encompassing responses to these questions in this short piece, and not least because I myself have only just started thinking about these issues. But I am going to take a stab at figuring out what makes an expectation of art legitimate, and apply this loose notion to the final season Game of Thrones. If you don’t like what I have to say, and want to stab me back one, two, maybe five times, then at least have the decency to have The Red Woman on speed-dial to bring me back.
Human beings expect innumerable things from art: entertainment, enlightenment, pleasure, escape, a glimpse at true beauty, you name it. Moreover, what someone expects of art will likely depend substantially on how they conceive of what art is, what its ends ought to be, and, most importantly, on the type of art in question. Additionally, you might think that our expectations of art should be thought to be analogous—if not reducible—to our expectations of artists. If you lean this way, then you can simply import the ordinary framework for thinking about expectations that human beings have of each other to the expectations that human beings have of art.
Art is brought about by the action of some agent, i.e., an artist. And just as we form expectations of ordinary agents and their actions, we can do the same of artists. Therefore, what we can expect of art might in some respects be analogous to what we can expect of other agents in our everyday interactions with them. But I don’t want to carry this analogy too far. Instead, I just want to point out that thinking about the issue this way can help zero in on the kind of expectation that people have of art. The expectation in question is a normative expectation. It is this normative element that talk of “legitimacy” is meant to capture. And just as only some of our expectations of others are legitimate, the same goes for art.
In his essay “Music Discomposed,” philosopher Stanley Cavell explains why thinking about art often bleeds into thinking about people. For Cavell, human beings treat artworks in a very “special way.” He continues: “we invest them with a value which normal people otherwise reserve only for other people—and with the same kind of scorn and outrage.” Cavell’s view here nicely captures the normative component of our expectations of art. We form such expectations because artworks “mean something to us, not just the way statements do, but the way people do.” I don’t know if Cavell was right in claiming that artworks carry meaning in the same way that people do (it is always right to reject any view that assimilates people to things), but I do think that something like this attitude is lurking behind the moral outrage people are directing at Game of Thrones (more on this in a moment).
And so you see, I am already worried that the issues my initial question raises are too multifarious for us to make any progress on. As happens in philosophy (and especially in the philosophy of art), it seems that to answer one question, you have to answer them all. But philosophy that paralyzes is no fun. So risks must be taken.
The risk I will take is to suggest this: an expectation of art is legitimate when it has some basis in the internal structure of the artwork itself. This means that something in the artwork’s structure makes it appropriate that its audience should form that expectation of the artwork. Let’s call this a legitimate artistic expectation. Briefly, by “internal structure” I mean the artistic elements that normally figure in the composition of artworks of a certain type. I like this way of looking at things for a few of reasons.
The first is that, in cases where our expectations have been frustrated, we know where to look to find out whether they were legitimate expectations of the artwork, namely, in the art itself. If the work supports our expectation(s), then it is legitimate. If it doesn’t, then it isn’t.
Second, this way of approaching the issue allows for diversity—maybe a kind of context-dependence—in what counts as a legitimate artistic expectation. Many expect of a stoner comedy that it provide cheap laughs. According to what I have said, this is a legitimate artistic expectation, since levity is a feature of most stoner comedies. However, suppose that someone expected that a stand-up set performed by one of the actors from such a comedy would provide cheap laughs too. Suppose they then went on to criticize the stand-up set when it did not provide cheap laughs. This expectation, and the resulting criticism, would not be legitimate; it has no basis in the comic’s stand-up set, neither present nor past.
Third, it nicely allows for us to distinguish between legitimate artistic and legitimate non-artistic expectations. The latter is an expectation that has no basis in the internal structure of the artwork itself, but does have some basis in social practices and conventions surrounding artworks of that type. An example of this sort would be expecting of this year’s Whitney Biennial that it show artworks from across the gender spectrum. This would be an expectation based in recent museum practice, not in any particular artwork itself. It could also be that any expectation directed at the artist, rather than the artwork itself, is also a legitimate, but non-artistic expectation.
I hope this way of thinking about what counts as a legitimate expectation of art has at least some ring of truth to it, even if not a very loud one just yet. But the only way to see if what I have been saying is any good is to turn to a particular case. So goodbye general framework, and hello White Walkers, dragons, revenge, deviant love, and claims to the throne!
The fact is that many fans and critics seem wildly dissatisfied with the way things shook out in this final season of Game of Thrones. A way to explain their dissatisfaction and its accompanying negative artistic evaluation is to say that things did not turn out as expected. The criticism that has followed in the wake of these frustrated expectations centers on flaws in the development of significant characters and questionable plot choices that many see as inconsistent with the show’s internal logic. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Daenerys and her actions in the penultimate episode “The Bells” (although the season finale can give “The Bells” a run for its money in terms of “huh?” moments).
Why would a character who has spent years liberating cities from tyranny, a character who locked away her own children for killing the innocent child of another, a character who promised to be a better ruler, go on to murder thousands of innocents within the walls of King’s Landing? These questions all take as their starting point the expectation, or—even stronger—the demand that things should have turned out differently for Dany. To see if this is a legitimate artistic expectation, we have to look at the work itself.
The narrative structure surrounding Dany’s development as a character gave us good grounds to expect that the way in which she claimed the throne would be in keeping with her prior principles, principles that were on display when, for instance, she took Meereen from the Masters. But it is also a part of her narrative that the benevolent choices that she made were undertaken as much in the name of self-interest as in the name of loving-kindness for subjugated peoples of the Seven Kingdoms. Nothing in the show’s internal structure, therefore, rules out the particular course of action she took in “The Bells.” Maureen Ryan, another critic at the Hollywood Reporter, acknowledges that many of Dany’s actions were often the product of strategic choices done in the name of self-interest, but goes on to suggest that this case is different. Since we are dealing with her final act, the act for which all the previous self-interested ones were undertaken, it does not make sense for her to secure the throne in such a ruthless way. But why should that be true? Well, perhaps because you think Dany would want there to be something left of the throne on which she will sit as ruler (though recall her vision from Season 2 of the throne room destroyed). Or you might think that she ought to be true to her word, and rule with love, not fear. On the surface, these look like good reasons for thinking she should have acted differently. More importantly, they are based in the internal structure of the artwork, and so the expectations they support are legitimate artistic expectations.
What if you expected Dany to secure the throne in the ruthless way that she did? I think this is an equally legitimate artistic expectation. In fact, despite the initial uproar, a good number of pieces have come out showing that Dany’s decision was adequately foregrounded. In her article in The Boston Globe, Jaclyn Reiss reminds us that Maester Aemon flat-out said, mournfully, of Dany: “A Targaryen alone in the world is a terrible thing”; Lady Olenna told her to “Be a dragon”; and her best friend, Missandei, took her last breath to utter “Dracarys.”
What about expectations of other characters? Take Jaime Lannister and Brienne of Tarth. There is a general complaint with the arcs of these characters. The audience expected Jaime to achieve full moral redemption. And yet we saw him leave Brienne crying in the rain and head back to die in Cersei’s arms. The show’s treatment of Brienne, meanwhile, belied several seasons’ worth of forming her into one of the show’s more honorable and strong-willed characters. This, of course, speaks to one of the show’s major flaws, namely its treatment of female characters. Brienne, who for several seasons defied classic gender tropes, was transformed into a helpless, love-drunk woman, thus thwarting the expectation that her character arc would be wrapped up in a way befitting her development throughout the show.
The show therefore fails to meet a legitimate artistic expectation in the case of Brienne, and is artistically flawed for that reason. The case of Jaime is perhaps a bit more complicated. Earlier in the show, he says that he wants to die in the arms of the woman he loves, and, as it turned out, that woman was Cersei. And while it would’ve been nice to believe that he was heading back to King’s Landing to kill her, that hunch never had much support from the show itself. Jaime’s and Brienne’s narrative arcs, like Dany’s, reveal something interesting about our artistic expectations of narrative or temporally extended artworks. That the characters develop in some way is virtually always a legitimate artistic expectation. However, the more particular expectation that a character will develop one way, rather than another, is sometimes illegitimate. Usually these particular expectations are the ones being met or frustrated. So it would seem that our expectations can be directed at different levels of the artwork, and that their legitimacy depends on just what internal structural features makes them legitimate. There might be general legitimate artistic expectations of character development that are determined by genre that do not always count as legitimate when applied to a particular work of art.
Did Game of Thrones Owe the Audience Anything?
I am not sure if I have made my idea any clearer, but maybe that speaks to the messy territory we enter when we start asking normative questions about art. The thing is that, beyond certain very general expectations (like that an artwork will not be a fake, or that it will be “good”), we often do not even know what our expectations of art are until they have been frustrated. Why is that? I think it attests to our respect for the creative process, and for the work that results. Here again is something that makes Cavell’s thoughts, touched on above, seem right. We hold certain attitudes toward art that we otherwise only hold toward people. We respect and take artworks seriously, and we expect that the artworks (and the artists behind them) will respect and take us seriously in return.
It can therefore be especially frustrating when artworks do not return that respect. And here lies the problem with the final season of Game of Thrones. When art calls for our serious attention, it is appropriate to expect that it will in turn merit our attention by taking us seriously. But is this a legitimate artistic expectation? I hesitate to say it is, for two reasons. First, it would allow the audience to encroach too far onto the artist’s side of things; second, there is a lot of art that derives its artistic merit from the fact that it does not take the audience seriously (think of wonderful absurdist television, like The Eric Andre Show). But all this shows is that perhaps legitimate non-artistic expectations are the most important expectations that we have of art.
A.O. Scott, film critic for the New York Times, recently gave voice to this thought when, referring to the problems faced by the final season of Game of Thrones, he said that “fan service is surely the enemy of art.” If what Scott means is that during the creative process artists are under no obligation to consider the reasons the audience has for engaging with art, then perhaps he is right. Too much intermingling of this sort may in fact explain the backlash to the final season: Benioff and Weiss paid too much attention to what they thought the audience expected, and in the process failed to meet those very expectations! (Of course, it does not help that George R.R. Martin allegedly was supposed to have finished the books by now.) But there are other ways to understand what he means by “fan service.”
One of those ways is to think that art ought to take us—the audience—seriously, and that we often expect that it will. This is not the claim that art must serve us in the sense of giving us just what we want: far from it. It is the milder idea that art, when it is good, serves its fans’ desire for a meaningful intellectual activity. According to the view I am suggesting here, this would be a legitimate non-artistic expectation of art. But it is related to legitimate artistic expectations, since sometimes a legitimate artistic expectation can be thwarted in such a way that we feel like the artwork or artist is not taking us seriously. This sort of thing seemed to happen to many fans of Game of Thrones. Choices the writers and producers made to move the plot along were called out for lacking the subtlety of prior seasons. Some of them were just flat-out bad. (Dany went north in Season Seven just to give The Night King a dragon?) In this case, not only did they fail to meet a legitimate artistic expectation, but they also failed to meet an important non-artistic expectation. The show’s staff took us for dumb. So not all fan service is bad news.
Still, Scott does have a point. In its strongest form, his point is that you, entitled audience member, are not the end toward which art aims. (So much for Malcolm Budd’s theory of artistic value.) But this merits the immediate rejoinder: “What would art be without someone like me to engage with it?” I don’t know how to answer this. Maybe it is the right way to respond. However, it is not my intention to reprimand anybody for the expectations they had going into this finale season of Game of Thrones, nor to offer a total defense of the show (of course it could have been better). All I have tried to do is suggest a way for you to check to see whether your expectations were legitimate and relevant to the quality of the show itself. As it turns out, I don’t think many of them were. This does not mean that you were mistaken in having them. It just means that the show is not artistically flawed for failing to meet them.
Let me end by not ignoring the dragon in the room. The show’s final season had many flaws. As I already noted above, one of its biggest is the poor treatment of its female characters. Again, take Dany. After her death we are left to consider whether she did what she did because she was forever stricken by mental illness (something hardly foregrounded). And then add to that the show’s deplorable final verdict on a woman’s pursuit of political power. Certainly the show should come under criticism for these decisions. What I have tried to do here is show, however, that not every normative expectation of art is a legitimate artistic expectation. Many of them will be legitimate, but non-artistic. Of course, that leaves it open for an artwork to be deemed bad for failing to meet non-artistic expectations. But to see why would take me deep into the weeds of the ethical criticism of art—not some place I can venture today.
Notes on the Contributor: Sean T. Murphy is a PhD. candidate at Indiana University Bloomington. He specializes in 19th century German philosophy (especially Schopenhauer), ethics, and aesthetics. His research in aesthetics is focused on the philosophy of literature, artistic cognitivism, and aesthetic normativity.
Critics and fans approach certain works (like The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars) very differently. The critics evaluate these works on their own merits, considered as art objects in their own right, while fans consider in terms of their contribution to a larger world of play and creative exploration. While philosophers, like art critics, have spent a lot of time thinking about artworks, they have spent relatively little time thinking about this playful, participatory world, the world that is the focus of fan culture.
I have often found myself on the periphery of fan culture. I don’t read usually read fan fiction; I have only attended conventions once or twice; I am not inclined to argue about my favorite popular culture on social media. But the mere existence of fan culture gives me great delight. I love reading about the detailed and carefully researched discussions of different genealogical theories in A Song of Ice and Fire discussion boards; I am entirely convinced by Alex King’s vigorous defense of cosplaying on this blog. And, most of all, I feel that the vibrancy of fan culture is exciting and underexplored philosophical territory. Fan culture can be a source of rich and valuable aesthetic experiences. What’s more, understanding its value helps us better understand a couple of important features of our interest in popular culture: the desire of many fans to disavow works of art made by immoral artists, and the yawning gap between critical opinion and popular reception of certain works.
But let’s start with the idea of fan culture. What do we mean when we talk about fan culture?
In a lovely essay about fan fiction, the author Michael Chabon writes (see page 44):
Readers of Tolkien often recall the strange narrative impulse engendered by those marginal regions named and labeled on the books’ endpaper maps, yet never visited or even referred to by the characters in The Lord of the Rings. All enduring popular literature has this open-ended quality, and extends an invitation to the reader to continue, on his or her own, with the adventure. Through a combination of trompe l’oeil allusions [sic] of imaginative persistence of vision, it creates a sense of an infinite horizon of play, an endless game board; it spawns, without trying, a thousand sequels, diagrams, and web sites.
Chabon is talking about the ways in which the works we love engage us by inviting us to explore their worlds. We don’t merely attend to the story being told to us, but also to the other stories that might be told with those characters, in those places, or using those ideas. Chabon himself wrote a Sherlock Holmes novel (The Final Solution). But fan activity is not limited to creating new artworks. When audiences bring rubber gloves, toilet paper, and rice to midnight showings of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, they are not making new artworks (not obviously, anyway). Rather they are engaging in creative, expressive activity that goes far beyond anything that the artwork itself seems to ask for.
Some works are particularly attractive as spaces for fans to explore and play around. Here are some of the qualities that make them so attractive:
When Star Wars was released in 1977, George Lucas also sold dolls and games representing not only the main characters (e.g., Han Solo, Princess Leia), but also, more surprisingly, characters who barely appeared in the film. Some of these characters (like Hammerhead) appeared for only a few moments in the background of the movie.
Nonetheless, the toys representing these minor characters became popular. I bought the toy Hammerhead and used it to imagine new stories that take place in that world. And of course fans also create their own costumes, maps, and other props to expand their interaction with these fictional worlds, spending a great deal of time and effort in the process. My father spent a long Saturday afternoon making me my own light saber out of wood and plastic.
2) Contradictory and Confusing Details
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories about Sherlock Holmes, it is unclear how many wives Dr. Watson had over the course of his life. References to “my wife” by Dr. Watson in different stories sometimes appear inconsistent, since he was apparently made a widower at least once, but he appears to have been married both before meeting this wife, and afterwards. This puzzle prompts fans to try to solve it. There are now differing theories about how many wives Watson had, and when he married each. There are a number of distinct solutions that are each consistent with the evidence given in each story.
While the presence of large numbers of contradictory or confusing details in a story is rarely attractive, the presence of a few mistakes and ambiguities generates opportunities for creative problem-solving, allowing fans to offer up new fictional possibilities to reconcile apparently conflicting features of that world (for this, see again Chabon on Sherlock Holmes). Why didn’t George and Fred notice Peter Pettigrew hiding out in their house on their Marauder’s Map? How can you win the Kessel Run by finishing in fewer units of distance? (Yes, I know that this question was answered officially by the 2018 movie Solo. But that still left more than 40 years in between the two films for fans to wonder what the heck the Kessel Run could be.)
These errors and puzzles increase the complexity and even the apparent realism of these fictional worlds, since our own world also contains many apparently contradictory and puzzling features. Fictional worlds seem to be valued most when they pose enough such problems to generate interest, while in general creating a coherent and internally consistent world.
3) Rich, World-Building Details
Some artists take steps to create additional background details for the worlds of their works that go far beyond anything necessary for understanding the work itself. Nonetheless, these details spark our curiosity. What are power converters, and why does Luke Skywalker want them? What is a womp rat, and is it really larger than two meters long? In creating Middle-Earth, Tolkien created several new languages, a detailed mythology, history covering thousands of years, and even a cosmogony. Minor characters were given rich back-stories and genealogies. This richness of detail generates more possibilities – each further detail suggests other possibilities not yet settled. J.R.R. Tolkien called the process of creating the whole world behind a story “Sub-creation” (see his “On Fairy-Stories,” esp. pages 59-60).
These three features are not intended to be a complete list. But they do illustrate why some works of art are particularly good at inviting us to take a more active role. The presence of these features encourage fans to be puzzle-solvers, to join the discussion, to engage in their own creative work, to form communities with one another, and so on. Fan culture thrives in such environments.
Fan culture can help explain the gap that sometimes appears between professional critical judgments and popular acclaim. Since its publication, critics have derided The Lord of the Rings for its plodding, pedantic style, its overly complex plot, its heavy-handed self-importance, and its simplistic character psychology. Yet The Lord of the Rings’ popularity is enduring; it has won several readers’ polls for the best book of the twentieth century, and even of the second millennium. Many other enduringly popular works have met the same critical fate, including the Harry Potter books and the Sherlock Holmes stories.
In some cases, fans value artworks because they provide access to an imagined world which affords opportunity for rich play and collaboration, and not because the work has great value considered by itself. While critics may focus on the flaws of these works as films or works of literature or whatever, many fans look instead to the enormous richness of the world that lies beyond the particular work.
Fan culture can help us to explain something else that is both important and a bit puzzling: why it is that fans are so often troubled when they learn that artists have done something wrong. Fan culture thrives when there is a vibrant relationship between artist, artwork, and fans.
(I should mention that the view I’m sketching owes a great deal to an approach outlined by Christopher Bartel in his unpublished paper “The Lives of Artists and the Ethical Criticism of Art,” which was delivered at the National Meeting of the American Society for Aesthetics in November 2016. Bartel, however, no longer defends this view.)
Harry Potter fans enjoy not just the Harry Potter novels, movies, and plays, but also websites, memes, and fan fiction produced by fans themselves. And the author, J.K. Rowling, often joins in the discussion herself. Fans communicate with one another in person at conventions and online via Twitter, Facebook groups, and other platforms; they argue about favorite characters, offer theories about apparent inconsistencies, and so on. Ted Cohen called these “affective communities.”
So, when fans learn that an artist has done something seriously wrong, it can affect them deeply. There are at least two reasons for this.
First, some artists play an active role in their affective communities and in fan culture. This is particularly common in the performing arts, though not only there. But the more of an artist’s personality and history that become known, and the more active a role they play in making themselves visible, the more relevant moral features about the artist’s life are to the fans. R. Kelly communicates regularly with his fans via Twitter; Bill Cosby, while awaiting trial, engaged his audience personally at stand-up concerts that doubled as rallies for support against his accusers. Fans who choose to engage with the work are also choosing to associate with these artists.
The second feature that seems to make a difference is the importance of moral themes or ideas to the works. Some affective communities come into existence because the audience is drawn to the moral themes in an artist’s work. Woody Allen’s movies focus on questions about how to live, right and wrong, justice and injustice. So of course fans care when they learn about his deplorable attitudes and actions towards girls and young women. (See Claire Dederer’s wonderful essay on Woody Allen.) When an artist’s works highlight moral themes, it is natural for fans to consider whether their own moral choices either can be reflected in or possibly contrast with the moral choices that seem to be thematized in their works.
Of course fans care about who the members of our morally salient communities are. Some of our affective communities form around artists, and the artists are members – important members – of those communities. We want to surround ourselves with people who are good, as much as we can. So when we find ourselves following those that we no longer think are good, we rightly desire to distance ourselves.
If you obtain a worthy friend to befriend, then what you see will be conduct that is loyal, trustworthy, respectful, and deferential. Then you will make daily progress toward ren [humaneness] and yi [righteousness] and you will not even realize it. That is due to what you rub up against. Now if you live alongside people who are not good, then what you hear will be trickery, deception, dishonesty, and fraud. What you see will be conduct that is dirty, arrogant, perverse, deviant, and greedy. … Everything depends on what you rub up against!
When works of art offer us an infinite horizon of play, they invite to engage, to create, to participate, and, yes, even to leave when we are unhappy. We transform from audiences whose agency is somewhat detached to fans who are deeply emotionally attached participants – and this can be a wonderful thing.
Notes on the Contributor: James Harold is Professor of Philosophy at Mount Holyoke College. He has published widely in aesthetics, ethics, and related fields.
Every year, the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City selects a theme around which to base its annual exhibition. And each year, that exhibition is kicked off with a huge fundraiser, the Met Gala. It has been called fashion’s biggest party of the year, drawing A-list celebrities and fashion personalities. Everyone attends, dressed for the exhibition’s theme. This year, that theme is camp.
A lot has been written about what camp is, and how we should understand it. But we thought it would be good to hear from scholars with interests in aesthetics and camp. Keep reading to learn more about the history of camp – including Susan Sontag’s important but perhaps overstated role, Old Hollywood, and queer and DIY cultures – as well as camp’s alternating seriousness and playfulness, and even a reading of Donald Trump as camp.
For me, the most surprising thing about the Met’s decision to take up camp as the theme for this year’s gala was the fact that they hadn’t done it before. After all, camp’s most characteristic qualities—theatricality, extravagance, and a “seriousness that fails”—are on display at every Met Gala, especially in the red-carpet performances of celebrity guests striving to outdo each other in their sartorial interpretations of a theme. The inevitably of camp at the Met Gala has been noted by the mass media as well. GARAGE and Vogue, for instance, have published albums collecting the “Campiest Looks of Met Galas Past” in the lead up to this year’s event. So, what, if anything, does the Met’s choice to explicitly call attention to its own campiness now tell us about camp?
Since the Met has us all talking about camp, we might recall Susan Sontag’s admonition, in her famous essay on the subject, that “To talk about Camp is…to betray it.” Camp, she explains, is not just a set of formal qualities like extravagance and theatricality but also a sensibility, a kind of taste in things. Sontag notes that it is hard to talk about sensibilities in general, to describe the complex intersections of perception, judgment, and performance of self that we use that word to describe. To write about a sensibility is always to betray it, to sell it short. However, camp is even trickier to discuss than your average sensibility, she suggests, because of its connection to queer communities outside of the mainstream or mass public sphere. Camp belongs to these groups; it is an “esoteric” sensibility that deviates from traditional standards. “A private code.” Sontag acknowledges that to bring this “private” phenomenon to the attention of the 60s American public, putting it into circulation in an environment structured by the oppressive social norms that prompted the emergence of camp in the first place, constitutes another betrayal. However, her essay also suggests that if the betrayer of camp can justify her actions as efforts to educate or otherwise instruct others, perhaps by showing them how to take distance from oppressive social conventions, it is defensible.
In an undergraduate class I taught recently, I asked students to reflect upon whether or not they thought the Met’s engagement with camp would be a defensible “betrayal” akin to Sontag’s or a more objectionable appropriation of a marginalized culture. Most seemed to feel that, due to Sontag’s initial ‘betrayal,’ camp has long been a fixture of mainstream American culture. Consequently, these students argued, no one can really be accused of ‘betraying’ camp anymore—the ‘private’ nature of the sensibility has been lost. So—is camp just old news?
Not exactly. It seems to me that we have a lot left to learn from and about this complex sensibility; camp’s renewed prominence (as evidenced by the many, many explanatory pieces on the subject currently floating around the web) shows us something we may have previously overlooked. Not only can the camp sensibility be betrayed, but it can also betray those who wish to use it as a political tool. Since the 60s, many have built on Sontag’s work to point out—and celebrate— the way that camp’s deviation from traditional Anglo-European values can be understood as highly political, as a collective rejection of the social order that reproduces these conventions, keeps them alive. When it comes to the conservative Cold War era in which Sontag was writing, I think that such assessments make a certain amount of sense. But today? Hardly. Nevertheless, a statement made by Max Hollein in Vogue suggests that the Met will present a seductive, outdated vision of camp as a radical cultural politics; he laments that “camp’s disruptive nature and subversion of modern aesthetic values has often been trivialized.”
Upon first glance, Hollein’s position seems reasonable enough; words like “disruptive” can be confusing in this context, especially when held up against “modern aesthetic values.” After all, if it is in camp’s “nature” to essentially throw a wrench in the works of the conventions underlying contemporary values, then wouldn’t that automatically make it revolutionary in some way? Not necessarily, for disruption and deviation has actually become one of our modern aesthetic values. Calling attention to the ways in which our tastes are not defined by convention is now a central part of what it means to be ‘cool,’ as Carl Wilson points out in his book on Celine Dion and taste. Consequently, it is possible that this year’s Met Gala theme will make us feel even ‘cooler,’ more ‘radical’ in our resolutely idiosyncratic habits of cultural consumption. Complacent.
To fully understand what this complacency might paper over, we would do well to look to past critiques of camp. Chicano critic Ramón García, for instance, has pointed out that the logic of camp, as articulated by Sontag, can potentially be used to justify appropriation and ignorance of other cultures. The way that camp, in this formulation, moves the consumer to dismiss conventional standards of judgment and questions of content in order to pursue pleasure can also lead to questionable habits of consumption because of its emphasis on individual experience and inclination. The logic of the sensibility provides little, if any, motivation for the camp consumer to check herself and take social factors into account, to recognize her potential ignorance of the cultural context that gave rise to what she perceives as an extravagant failure. Her camp interpretation is as good as any in her eyes. This has always been a problem within camp, and ought to continue to concern us now. A 21st century resurgence of camp may not only encourage us to believe ourselves to be more ‘woke’ than we are, but might also provide an alibi for all manner of cultural colonization. So maybe the question for us now is really about how to camp responsibly, since we are all already camping, in a manner of speaking. As we approach the Met Gala and exhibition, it is worth asking: What objects or phenomena are fair game for the contemporary camp connoisseur?
Camp Closer to Home, via Gallery 999
This year the Metropolitan Museum of Art is asking how the vitality and comic sensibility of camp appear in the form of fashion. The inquiry speaks to my research, but the extent to which the question is embedded in my psyche snuck up on me by way of family. I’ve long been sustained by my sibling’s aesthetic, and specifically by the way our fashion senses overlapped even though I am emphatically queer and trans while Scott, a disillusioned but patriotic American who died in Wuhan last month, was seemingly less so. The way our clothing histories interwove, such as in the dopplegangery give-and-take of t-shirt trading, was a cauldron (a Care Bears Movie-climax cauldron) of mutually constituted expectation-defying queer gender. Six feet tall and Midwestern white, Scott cultivated a life in which the wardrobe he produced stood out. He inhabited the intersection of Qingnian Road and Jiefang Avenue for nearly a decade, having found in the crossroads of Wuhan a choice sewing district and the ideal backdrop for his bellbottoms and waistcoats featuring built-in monochromatic satin pocket triangles, which he paired with extravagantly-cuffed dress shirts in intricate, brash, and asymmetrical prints that might fit right in at this year’s Met ball.
Scott invariably went to work in this signature look he sewed himself, which took a left turn away from my staging of sartorial satire. While the general crowd found him quirky, with my points of reference I hardly considered him camp. When my conduit to his hometown contacts reported that, along with recalling Scott’s creativity, kindness, and intelligence, his grieving friends repeatedly referenced his impeccable taste, goddess forgive me, I cringed. What these comrades remember as flawless is Scott’s concession to what Sontag calls the “little triumph,” the “awkward intensities of ‘character.’” I loved Scott—his immodesty as much as his epic restraint—but “impeccable taste” was a distressing description. Too Vogue for my prole brother, who was a contrarian anti-materialist, the aristocratic ring of the phrase is off-key, but it probably irked me because, on impact, I felt aesthetically superior.
My older-sibling entitlement might seem to coincide with refined “sensibility,” but not with camp sensibility. Purported to favor the impersonal and mass-produced, camp is also self-costuming, and is encapsulated specifically in self-produced self-costuming. Susan Sontag concludes “Notes on Camp” by stating in points 56 and 57 that camp is more about love than it is about mechanisms of appraisal. Camp is not a tool for superiority; it “relishes, rather than judges.”
Camp delights in and devotes itself to the persistence of idiosyncratic style. It reveres and seeks reverie in that intensity, especially in overlooked examples such as the hyperbolic needlework of homemade embellishments and their posthumous traces—whether in images like these or in those of the Met’s Costume Institute archives. As Scott’s self-crafted wardrobe of workwear grew, by way of domestic labor, colors and textures flourished, incubating a psychedelic regularity. The fabrics, the movement of cuts, the combinations of mixed-contrast stitching, and the choice of patches for upkeep continued to spiral even as he put these pieces more or less on pause and turned to perfecting pure-black smoking pouches accessorized with layered coins for latching. From what I gathered of his patternmaking, his next project appears to have been underwear. The Met exhibit pinpoints exuberance as a camp attribute, but what does that mean for someone as laidback as my sibling operating a solitary assembly line with semi-affected disaffection?
Scott at Shenandoah Books, Etc. - YouTube
Other remnants of our osmotified sibling style. With Kole Oswald At Paul Skenandore’s Shenandoah Books, Etc. (Video: Laura Wetsel)
Camp “nourishes itself on the love that has gone into certain objects and personal styles,” Sontag writes. What of this love, and what of camp fashion, is archivable? The Costume Institute preserves clothing, some of which is camp, and solicits looks, many of which are camp, for its annual gala, photographing them for posterity with cutting-edge techniques of preservation and digitization. They consecrate the names of top designers and derive funding from labels like Gucci, this year’s sponsor. But can they archive the concentrated care manifest in years-long labor over your own actually quite modest closet? Scott’s uniform shows one form of the “love of…artifice and exaggeration” that Sontag described in “Notes.” By posing the question of how costuming exhibits camp, the Met show invites attention to plebeian garments as well as celebrity-centered haute couture. Is Scott’s style objectively camp, or does it become camp when we’re considered as a pair? Either way, it’s not through a prism of unilateral queer influence but rather through interconnection, a series of migratory inversions, and the fluidity between us that Scott’s store of threads and blooming extremities appear in full camp mode, in an obvious retrospect. Sometimes as trans people our selves can be like siblings. What we wear, whether or not we make it, mirrors and merges. As this video and Scott’s admirer in it asks, “How so?”
The selection of “camp” as this year’s Met Gala theme presents a wonderful opportunity to think about what happens when LGBTQ subcultural practices become co-opted by mainstream audiences. In popular conversation, the concept of “camp” is most often associated with Susan Sontag’s wonderful 1964 essay “Notes on Camp.” Indeed, Wendy Yu, curator of “Camp: Notes on Fashion,” frames the entire event around Sontag’s essay, and articles in Vogue and GQ cite Sontag’s essay when discussing the concept. While Sontag indisputably popularized “camp” among art critics and lay audiences, she did not invent the concept. By 1920, the term camp was used in the theater to refer specifically to gay men and lesbians, and Christopher Isherwood provides a discussion of camp in his 1954 novel The World in the Evening. Sontag did not originate the language, and although her essay serves as the Met Gala’s inspiration, we would be remiss not to recognize that camp has a much longer history.
I raise this point not to slight Sontag’s wonderful work but to acknowledge and honor the fact that camp, historically, comes from specifically homosexual communities. For LGBTQ people, camp is not just about embracing irony, celebrating theatricality, valuing bad taste, and seeing the world in quotation marks. We use camp to survive in a homophobic and transphobic world that seeks to silence and destroy us. Historically, LGBTQ people use camp’s irony, theatricality, parody, humor, and aestheticism to help relieve the social stigmas associated with our identities. We embrace theatricality because we’ve had to pass as heterosexual in order to survive, forced to learn to hide our identities through calculated self-presentation. We use irony and parody to subvert the normative gender and sex roles that define us as deviant. And we adopt an ironic and sarcastic bitter wit in order to neutralize the sting of homophobia and transphobia. Gallows humor gives us a way to laugh at and mock our stigmatized identities. For LGBTQ people, Camp has been one of our most powerful subcultural practices.
I emphasize this context because I fear that camp’s queer history will be lost among the sea of outrageous fashions during the Met Gala. A true celebration of camp would require filling the red carpet with LGBTQ artists and activists and elevating drag performers to their rightful roles as grand marshals of the ball. In reality, we will be lucky to see any drag artists (other than RuPaul) celebrated during the event. To make up for this absence, I want to end by celebrating some of the many LGBTQ artists and activists who make camp what it truly is. Contrary to popular belief, camp is not actually about paying $30,000 to dress as a Tiffany lamp for an evening. Camp is about:
José Sarria, the first openly gay candidate to run for public office in the U.S., founding the Imperial Court System and using drag performance at San Francisco’s Black Cat bar to raise political consciousness in the community:
Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson, a fearless drag queen and founding member of the Gay Liberation Front, using her wit when demanding gay rights and fighting police brutality on the front lines of the 1969 Stonewall Uprising:
What follows is a guest post by philosopher Saul Fisher, on the recent tragedy of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris.
Alan Mozes, Seine/sibility #2, 2013, reproduced with permission of the artist
The burning of the roof and spire of the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris on April 15 was a moving and dramatic event, variously interpreted as architectural disaster, economic loss, flashpoint for myriad heritage issues, and moment of French national unity. The cathedral has endured since medieval times: construction began in 1163 CE, the towers were completed in 1250, and figurative elements were added in the mid-14th century. From this endurance alone, it is little wonder that the cathedral captures the imagination of the French, the devout, the appreciators of architectural history, and the every Parisian visitor. Little wonder, too, then, that the fire consuming the cathedral prompted strong emotional response.
While lamenting the event’s tragic dimensions and symbolism, I find consolation, or perhaps refuge, in formalist and abstractist ways that I think about architectural objects.
Cathedrals are not a big draw for me. I have occasionally wandered in for a special event or to see the vast enclosed spaces, marvel at glories of medieval design and construction, or get at some sense of the Church’s sheer authority as represented to feudal parishioners or as telegraphed through the ages to our present day. My main activity, though, in relation to large cathedrals—including Notre-Dame—has been walking by a relatively fast clip.
One reason I have tended to stroll past Notre-Dame or other cathedrals is that the cultural particularities are not my own, and this is true in ways that become rather complicated rather quickly. It’s one thing to strive towards cosmopolitanism; it’s another to engage wholeheartedly with structures featuring alien historical symbolism. And yet there is a general obligation to not be churlish or unceasingly aggrieved—and beyond that, a special obligation, relative to aesthetic self-development, to try to fully appreciate world-historical built structures as signal contributions to human cultural heritage.
La Synagogue vaincue, Notre-Dame de Paris
Indeed, this sort of aesthetic self-development drives endless streams of tourists to take photos in front of Notre-Dame, with or without themselves in the picture. They may recognize the majesty and beauty of the cathedral but they surely recognize at least an obligation to look for such majesty or beauty, or at a minimum to capture the moment as they try to do so. This is where aesthetic self-development obligations tip into the territory of touristic obligations.
Cathedral of Notre-Dame with nearby Metro/RER entrance
Twice upon a time a Parisian resident, I may have escaped those attendant obligations—yet I still should have incurred aesthetic self-development obligations. My override clause: as a dyed-in-the-wool modernist (in architectural and design frameworks), I tend to see medieval cathedrals, along with much else in deep Western architectural history, primarily as the old stuff that helpfully provides contrastive background for the modern built environment. We don’t get to have modernist built structures or urban design without the older built structures, for reasons of both historical continuity and disruption. (What continues from the old makes better sense when we see the older stuff; and what presents as new benefits from its detectable divergence relative to at least some historical predecessors.) So when I take in the urban fabric of Paris or other largely modern cities in the West, I tend to be attuned first to its modernist structures and only second to the less modern ones. Further, through a modernist lens, I may also see the older structures primarily through their forms—perhaps in the manner of Matisse’s 1914 impression of Notre-Dame.
Henri Matisse, View of Notre-Dame. (1914)
My own formalist-calibrated lens turned on Notre-Dame partly results from not investing deeply in the content, history, spiritualism, or lore. I don’t so much reflect categorially on the cathedral as I walk by, either because it doesn’t capture my interest or because I have previously reflected deeply in that fashion and—given either cultural or aesthetic stakes—I resist categorial framing. Much of the detailing (the statuary or the colonnade on the west facade) even blurs for me, if I don’t stop to change my frame of mind and focus. From my particular perspective, the cathedral can seem a massive medieval hulk to hurry across, as I travel from one side of Haussmann’s 1870s Paris to the other, busily navigating the contemporary urban context. In my haste, though, I still envisage, however peripherally or dimly the outlines of the cathedral’s forms—they cannot be missed. And what I perceive, if in marginal or incidental fashion, is the outline of twin rectangular forms, rising nearly 70 meters, joined at the base and framing the view east of the Rue de la Cité across the Place Jean-Paul II.
The only positive news of this destructive fire: It appears that the greater part of the built structure of Notre-Dame de Paris, including my dimly perceived forms, remains structurally sound. The three main structural losses comprise the 19th century spire over the transept, the cathedral’s lead roof, and the wooden frame that supported the roof—itself built in the 13th century. Even from my idiosyncratic perspective, and modernist severity, I can join all who are grateful that despite the raging fires these forms still stand today, as does most of the cathedral’s exterior, splendid flying buttresses and all.
I can also be grateful, looking beyond my parochialisms or tastes, that others may continue to appreciate such a vitally significant, historically rich built structure as Notre-Dame in a multitude of fruitful ways.
Wooden frame of Notre-Dame de Paris
A second source of solace is this. Even if Notre-Dame the built cathedral had fully burned down, Notre-Dame the cathedral would still be with us—on an abstractist view.
Many of those who care deeply about Notre-Dame are calling for—or offering to help fund—its being rebuilt. The idea that the structure can be rebuilt is odd, though, if we think of the actual, original built structure being built once again. After all, the built structure erected in the 12th and 13th centuries—or some large part of it—has been irreparably destroyed by fire and so that can’t be rebuilt. It seems instead that what is to be rebuilt is the architectural object as defined abstractly, by reference to either the original plans or else some subsequent notion as to what the built structure should look like. In this way, the built structure—whether the versions from the thirteenth century through the 1860s, or the version from the 1860s through 2019, or the probable version from 2019 until many years from now—is in each case a physical instantiation of the abstract architectural object.
Across these historically different versions, the cathedral has served a common core of ends—religious, ceremonial, symbolic, community-building, etc. By contrast, much about the built structure itself has varied, including its builders and custodians, its engineering challenges and damage, and the principles guiding, and aesthetic or structural results from, its repairs, restorations, or reconstructions. Thus, as Caroline Bruzelius details: a 13th century fire, per Viollet-le-Duc’s account, prompted reconstruction of the clerestory and the flying buttresses; other repairs in the 1400s and 1500s likely included additional flying buttresses on the north side of the choir, for reinforcement; the spire which fell in the April 2019 fire was added in Viollet-le-Duc’s controversial mid-19th century restoration, to replace a prior spire—which itself was a medieval era addition to the original design; and so on.
As many and varied are the built structural versions of Notre-Dame of different eras, so the corresponding abstract object has to be generously construed and allow for a range of interpretations in initial construction and subsequent additions or renovations. This much is reflected, for example, in plans that don’t proscribe additions or subtractions, or aren’t overly prescriptive relative to style. Thus, for example, the plan that appears in Ferdinand de Guilhermy and Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc’s Description de Notre-Dame, Cathédrale de Paris (1856) is at least roughly consonant with all proposed period-wise versions of instantiated structures.
From Ferdinand de Guilhermy and Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, Description de Notre-Dame, Cathédrale de Paris (Paris: Bance, 1856), reproduction from Bibliothèque nationale de France
Sara Uckelman recently offered a related, moving thought about churches in general, as occasioned by the Notre-Dame fire: that “It is the continuous presence, not the original structure, that matters.” Here she suggests that, while religious built structures may feature additions, subtractions, and other amendments through phases of a ‘lifespan’, the corresponding religious communities may continue to invest significance in the structures as sacred space, through any number of transformations.
The sacred space concept provides powerful inspiration in such cases, and the concept of a ‘lifespan’ of a built structure—enduring trials and changes but somehow retaining its identity—is possibly fruitful, possibly fraught. Their potential merits aside, however, we do not need either point to motivate optimism about future lives of built instantiations of Notre-Dame. We know future built instantiations are possible because, as Uckelman and others have noted, there is terrific documentation on the past built structure as has been instantiated over time. But what makes that documentation possible and also have enduring value—conceptually and practically, in this terrible architectural loss—is that it in turn reflects the abstract Notre-Dame object. (This is also what enables such documentation to detectably pick out a single object, where, within a range, documentation varies.) Our lasting knowledge of that indestructible architectural object serves as guarantor of our capacity to rebuild, or re-instantiate the corresponding built structure with all its majesty, at whatever focus level or categorial commitment, for future appreciators of all ideological stripes.
Notes on the Contributor Saul Fisher is Visiting Associate Professor of Philosophy and Associate Provost for Research, Grants, and Academic Initiatives at Mercy College (NY). His research is focused on philosophy of architecture, for which he was awarded a Graham Foundation grant (2009) and which includes publications in JAAC and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. He is also pursuing a research program on developmental aesthetics.
Image credits: 1 – permission of the artist, 2 – by Olivier Lévy, via Wikimedia Commons, 3 – reproduced with permission of www.eutouring.com, 4 – Museum of Modern Art, 5
Edited by Alex King
What follows is a guest post by philosopher Aaron Meskin. He discusses a book that he and poet Helen Mort recently co-authored. In it, Mort “replies” to a variety of different philosophers’ papers with original poems, and the philosophers get to reflect on the poem and its relationship to their work. This piece is also cross-posted at Daily Nous.
The core of the book comprises ten poems composed by Helen in response to her reading of ten recent essays in philosophical aesthetics which I suggested. The main criterion for selection was a suspicion that Helen would find the paper interesting. The philosophers (Jeanette Bicknell, Eva Dadlez, Anne Eaton, John Dyck, Cynthia Freeland, Sherri Irvin, Eileen John, Thi Nguyen, Nick Riggle, Jon Robson, and I) then briefly respond to Helen’s poems. An introduction explains the genesis of the work, and two codas reflect on the relationships between coffee, philosophy and poetry.
Topics addressed in the book include bad art, itches, meals, oversinging, portraits, rock climbing, street art, tastimony, tattoos and a song by Belle and Sebastian. We’re really excited by the way it turned out.
Why coffee? We hatched the plan for the bookshop in a local cafe conveniently located opposite the University of Leeds where we both worked when we met. The first poem that Helen wrote—the piece that gave us the idea for the project—was set in another of our favorite Leeds coffee places, and it responds to a co-authored paper of mine which addresses the epistemology of taste. And the whole project was based on the idea that the book might be like a cafe (or bar) conversation between a poet and a philosopher (or ten).
All the royalties from the book are going to support a Leeds charity which addresses childhood hunger. Order your own copy here.
Below is an excerpt—the first bit is a piece from the introduction where Helen talks about her process, then there’s a poem by Helen in response to Eileen John’s “Meals, Art and Artistic Value” (originally published online and open access in Estetika), along with Eileen’s response. You can read the abstract of Eileen’s paper and download a complete copy of it here. To read Helen’s response to Eva Dadlez’s work on the art of tattoos, along with Eva’s response, you’ll have to get the book.
From the Introduction, by Helen Mort
I was excited and inspired by the papers Aaron had begun to send to me, particularly Eva Dadlez’s work on the status of tattoos as works of art. As I began to try to write poems in response, I sometimes got a little weighed down by the idea of trying to make my creative responses ‘hold’ or contain some of the theory explored so eloquently in the papers. In short, I was trying to make them too directly philosophical. The resulting pieces were abstract and seemed dead on the page. When I returned to Eva’s paper for another read, I decided to try a different approach and react to her consideration of tattooing-as-art by creating my own version of a portrait, a sketch (in words) of famous tattooed lady Betty Broadbent. This response was much more tangential than the pieces I’d tried previously and freed me up to react to the theories and proposals I was encountering in a looser way. I couldn’t hope to paraphrase the philosophers I’d been reading, nor should I try. This needed to be a dialogue, a sprawling conversation, the kind you might have in a bar late at night.
“Learning to Eat”
Learning to eat again
is like learning to run
down a mountainside,
I mean really run, your
your ribs bright spokes
in your chest. It’s like
learning to fall asleep
in someone else’s arms,
or like that exercise in art
class where you don’t
look down at the page
until the end to see
the bulbous, lovely
shapes you’ve made.
I have acquired the
language of colour
and shade. I have
renounced the minimalism
of Ryvita and apple peel.
I have abandoned
of meat-rind in the plant pots
potatoes hidden in pockets
sponge pudding pushed
around the bowl. So,
when you place a dish
of mackerel down
in front of me on our first
meal together, I see
the jewelled detail
of blackberries, the sweep
of buttered mash,
the texture of kale.
I say this is a masterpiece
and mean it, then
you arrange each
on the plate
we demolish it.
“Mash, Mackerel, Masterpiece” Eileen John
This poem makes me really happy. It is remarkable to me that Helen Mort could make such a beautiful, flowing, moving leap from my earnest attempt to write about meals and artistic value. Her poem does the thing that I love but do not understand about poetry, as it packs more into its forty-one short lines than can fit into pages and pages of a philosophical essay. Let me try to talk about what that ‘more’ is.
Her title is ‘Learning to Eat’, and the first line is ‘Learning to eat again’. This is a hook for me right away, because I do not think of eating as something I learned to do or would have to relearn. But that thought has changed by the end of the poem. The first simile given to tell us about learning to eat again, that it ‘is like learning to run / down a mountainside’, is a great image of bodily freedom and almost tumbling downhill motion – but the mystery of the hook is still there. Why do we need to learn this? Can’t we just let gravity and the mountainside have their way with us? But with that vivid motion in mind, you can remember that although it is in a way natural and hard not to do, it is also not exactly easy to do. It takes coordination and concentration and being ready to adjust at a moment’s notice. The poem brings out how eating does and does not ‘come naturally’ to us. We will eat somehow or other, if there is food available, but we will not inevitably eat in a way that has the freedom, energy and finely adjusting, coordinating ease that can be had. We may have to learn it, and part of what the poem does is make that project bigger or deeper than I made it. I was trying to say that in having meals, though we are not constituting works of art – roughly because meals resist the pointed purpose and integrity of art – we can do things with artistic value. That value involves ‘taking reflective charge’ of possibilities for goodness. This poem takes charge in that way: as I am trying to say here, I could not have seen the possibilities for goodness that happen in this poem. It does this in part by making the ‘masterpiece’ of a meal be a matter of people meaning that it be so to each other. Maybe this is a deft, heartening argument against my claim – if so, I don’t mind! In the vocabulary of the poem, that we learn to eat well, perhaps happily demolishing a dish of buttered mash and mackerel together, seems to be hard and easy. It is not only a matter of artistic value; it takes openness to what people are, as bodily, artful, moving, learning beings.
Notes on Authors Helen Mort is a poet, novelist and lecturer in creative writing at the Manchester Writing School, Manchester Metropolitan University. Her poetry, collected in Division Street and No Map Could Show Them, has been shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize and the Costa Award. Her first novel Black Car Burning has just been published by Chatto & Windus, and she has also written plays, short stories and creative non-fiction. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Aaron Meskin is Professor of Philosophical Aesthetics at the University of Leeds. He works on a variety of issues in philosophical aesthetics, the philosophy of food, and philosophical psychology. Aaron is the editor and author of numerous publications including The Routledge Companion to Comics (2016) and The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach (Wiley-Blackwell 2012). In July 2019, Aaron will begin as Head of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Georgia.
I greatly enjoyed my walk up this majestic ice-river, charmed by the pale-blue, ineffably fine light in the crevasses, moulins, and wells, and the innumerable azure pools in basins of azure ice, and the network of surface streams, large and small, gliding, swirling with wonderful grace of motion in their frictionless channels, calling forth devout admiration at almost every step and filling the mind with a sense of Nature’s endless beauty and power. Looking ahead from the middle of the glacier, you see the broad white flood, though apparently rigid as iron, sweeping in graceful curves between its high mountain-like walls, small glaciers hanging in the hollows on either side, and snow in every form above them, and the great down-plunging granite buttresses and headlands of the walls marvelous in bold massive sculpture; forests in side cañons to within fifty feet of the glacier; avalanche pathways overgrown with alder and willow; innumerable cascades keeping up a solemn harmony of water sounds blending with those of the glacier moulins….
Human and more-than-human communities are living in catastrophic times of global warming and the Sixth Extinction, of severe weather, drought, water and food insecurity, ice melt, warming oceans, and massive loss of species. Geologists have designated a new age ‘in which many geologically significant conditions and processes are profoundly altered by human activities’. What is the place of aesthetics in the age of climate change and the Anthropocene?
On the one hand, aesthetics can have negative ethical consequences for the environment. I use ‘environment’ broadly here to mean those places inhabited together by non-human and human. These consequences arise through aesthetic taste for manicured parks and lawns, invasive species, perfectly formed supermarket fruits and vegetables, and fast-fashion, to name just a few cases. An aesthetic taste for tidiness, as well as some cases of nimbyism, can mean that poor communities have to deal with the grim consequences of toxic waste and industry in their own backyards. In these ways, forms of aesthetic appreciation can be seen as culpable with respect to environmental and ecological injustices.
On the other hand, beauty, grandeur, sublimity, and other aesthetic values can figure differently, toward more positive ethical outcomes. In the philosophy of art, and more widely in non-art aesthetics, philosophers have been interested in the relationship between aesthetics and ethics. In environmental aesthetics, some have argued that aesthetic appreciation can encourage environmental protection. To cite a common occurrence, the destruction of a largely natural area for human development – industry, mineral extraction, a new building or parking lot – will mean the loss of habitat for plant life, insects, birds, and other animals and, with that, changes and losses in the aesthetic qualities and character of a place. Many people will seek to protect the area for ecological, aesthetic, and other reasons. Here, the valuing of aesthetic qualities may feature as a motivating factor in any moral action.
In the lines quoted above, John Muir recounts walking up a glacier while exploring the Stickeen (or Stikine) area during his first visit, in 1879, to what was then the ‘Department of Alaska.’ He would make subsequent trips to explore the area around what is now Glacier Bay National Park (and parts of the Aleutian Islands). During these trips, Muir was part of expedition parties guided by Alaska Natives living in southeastern Alaska, mainly the Tlingit and Haida Indians. Based on the journals he kept while exploring wild places in North America and beyond, Muir’s writings convey an enthusiasm for the natural world that has proven to be extremely influential. An important botanist, geologist, and explorer of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Muir emigrated with his family from Scotland to Wisconsin in 1851, when he was a boy of 11. His first long-distance journey on foot – his preferred method of travel – took him a thousand miles from Kentucky to Florida in 1867, but he was most impressed by the majesty of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, which he first visited a year later. He is famously celebrated as the first president of the Sierra Club and credited with playing an essential role in the designation of Yosemite National Park. Across the globe, natural aesthetic values (often expressed as ‘natural beauty’) commonly feature in the conservation and preservation aims of national parks.
“John Muir” (Isaiah West Taber & Thomas H Boyd, c. 1880)
Muir’s essays, like many non-fictional works about the natural world, provide a descriptive aesthetics, or a source for developing the outlines of an aesthetics of this or that kind of environment. Such descriptions can help to develop ideas about an environment’s aesthetic character by drawing on non-aesthetic and aesthetic concepts – and also help to address environments that receive less attention from aestheticians, for example, seas, oceans, rivers, sky, atmosphere, space, snow and ice, and deserts.
The literature on Muir often focuses on his explorations of the Sierra Nevada, but his time in Alaska provides an opportunity to consider the aesthetic character and value of spaces deeply affected by climate change: ice and atmosphere. By turning to Muir here, I don’t mean to prioritize non-fiction writing; all kinds of creative works will have a role in such considerations. Muir’s essays and books are, I think, especially interesting for contemporary debates in environmental aesthetics for the way that his reflections interweave aesthetic, religious, and scientific experience and values.
Muir’s aesthetic enthusiasm about ice (and snow) is bound up with his interest in understanding glaciers, but his positioning as an aesthetic subject couldn’t have been better. Sometimes he remarked on the scenic glory of Glacier Bay from a distance, but much of the time his aesthetic judgments originate from being deeply situated in the environment thanks to his self-taught skills as a mountaineer. This more embodied positioning, whether walking, climbing, sailing, lying on a moraine, or clinging to a tree, inspires detailed descriptions of his experiences. Setting off to explore the “grand crystal prairie” of a glacier, he writes:
All was so silent and so concentrated, owing to the low dragging mist, the beauty close about me was all the more keenly felt, though tinged with a dim sense of danger, as if coming events were casting shadows. …. After two hours of hard work I came to a maze of crevasses of appalling depth and width which could not be passed apparently either up or down. I traced them with firm nerve developed by the danger, making wide jumps, poising cautiously on dizzy edges after cutting footholds, taking wide crevasses at a grand leap at once frightful and inspiring.
His situated standpoint also enabled aesthetic responses to more than visual and tactile qualities of glaciers; sounds were also ever-present:
Hundreds of small rills and good-sized streams were falling into the lake from the glacier, singing in low tones, some of them pouring in sheer falls over blue cliffs from narrow ice-valleys, some spouting from pipelike channels in the solid front of the glacier, others gurgling out of arched openings at the base. All these water-streams were riding on the parent ice-stream, their voices joined in one grand anthem telling the wonders of their near and far-off fountains.
Always, his aesthetic reflections are interwoven with his scientific observations. Writing about the Glacier Bay area, Muir’s observations show his understanding of glacial retreat:
Charley, who was here when a boy, said that the place had so changed that he hardly recognized it, so many new islands had been born in the mean time and so much ice had vanished. As we have seen, this Icy Bay is being still farther extended by the recession of the glaciers. That this whole system of fiords and channels was added to the domain of the sea by glacial action is to my mind certain.
Muir’s outlook combined acute observational skills with his own religious upbringing and a kind of piety toward nature. With this background, we find an interest in the passage of time and its effects on mountains, glaciers, and other natural phenomena. It’s unlikely that he could have predicted our current situation of climate change; indeed, he would surely have been horrified to learn of the current, rapid retreat of the Geikie (now Muir) Glacier that he observed in 1890.
“Man in canoe in front of Muir Glacier, Alaska” (Edward Curtis, 1899)
Having an awareness of deep time and broader scientific and metaphysical framings, there is also a sense of how things fit together, a cosmology as much influenced by Muir’s scientific knowledge as by his spirituality. This brings us to atmosphere. It’s not easy to find a link between his experience of atmosphere at the turn of the 20th century and today’s depletion of the ozone layer from carbon emissions. Rather, I would suggest that, from Muir, aesthetics can learn and develop ideas concerning that damaged part of the ‘environment’ that lies between earth and space.
Descriptions of changing weather feature often in Muir’s writings, but in his trips to Alaska, we find especially rich descriptions and aesthetic judgments with respect to the aurora borealis:
I ran out in auroral excitement, and sure enough here was another aurora…. And though colorless and steadfast, its intense, solid, white splendor, noble proportions, and fineness of finish excited boundless admiration. In form and proportion it was like a rainbow, a bridge of one span five miles wide; and so brilliant, so fine and solid and homogeneous in every part, I fancy that if all the stars were raked together into one windrow, fused and welded and run through some celestial rolling-mill, all would be required to make this one glowing white colossal bridge.
On another occasion, but found in the same chapter:
… I lay down on the moraine in front of the cabin and gazed and watched. Hour after hour the wonderful arch stood perfectly motionless, sharply defined and substantial-looking as if it were a permanent addition to the furniture of the sky. At length while it yet spanned the inlet in serene unchanging splendor, a band of fluffy, pale gray, quivering ringlets came suddenly all in a row over the eastern mountain-top, glided in nervous haste up and down the under side of the bow and over the western mountain-wall….
Muir’s descriptive aesthetics provides a collection of aesthetic concepts and connected non-aesthetic concepts, while also suggesting the varieties of aesthetic value and disvalue afforded by experiences of ice and atmosphere. Consider the range from the passages quoted: “ineffably fine light,” “majestic ice-river,” “basins of azure ice,” “wonderful grace of motion,” “solemn harmony of water sounds,” “low dragging mist,” “maze of crevasses,” “dizzy edges,” “singing in low tones,” “wonders of their near and far-off fountains,” “glowing white colossal bridge,” and “serene unchanging splendor.” Many of his descriptions mention the colors of ice and snow, whites, greys, crystal, etc., but we also find him describing the pebbles, mud, dirt, boulders, and moraines – less attractive maybe, yet just as integral to such environments which occur through glacial melting and movement.
Thinking again about the interactions between aesthetics and ethics, Muir’s interweaving of the aesthetic, religious, and scientific can be said to spawn an ethical stance. His partly self-taught knowledge of botany, geology, and natural history, and keen observations grounded in intimate experience of the places he explored, give rise to a strong sense of the natural world as greater than himself and humanity at large. Sometimes, this is expressed in aesthetic terms through descriptions that either name or suggest grandeur and the sublime. At other times, his judgments are of admiration based in what I would characterize as a neighboring and sometimes overlapping category to aesthetics: wonder. Viewing himself as humbled rather than as master, Muir conveys a strong sense of humility toward the natural world, showing disdain, even misanthropy toward ‘man.’ Such humility runs through much of his work.
Set beside this humility, though, aesthetic and other forms of injustice can be argued to stem from his writings. For example, the creation of US national parks like Yosemite involve a legacy of displacement and land dispossession of indigenous and other persons. Today, national parks and other public lands continue to be less inclusive places for aesthetic and recreational enjoyment (some organizations such as the Next 100 Coalition are working to change this). Recent controversy about Muir centers on this issue. In moving beyond Muir, more diverse stories and accounts of the natural world and nature-human relationships can provide fertile ground for descriptive aesthetics, from the arts and cultural artifacts to ‘traditional ecological knowledge.’ In thinking about aesthetics in our current age – and our ethical responses – these sources will both inspire and demand reflection.
Notes on Contributor: Emily Brady is Professor of Philosophy at Texas A&M University, where she also holds the Susanne M. and Melbern G. Glasscock Director’s Chair at the Glasscock Center for Humanities Research. She has published several books, including: The Sublime in Modern Philosophy: Aesthetics, Ethics, and Nature (Cambridge University Press, 2013) and Aesthetics of the Natural Environment (Edinburgh University Press, 2003).
Still from The Tree of Life (2011), dir. Terrence Malick
In what follows, philosophers Tom Mulherin and Fred Rush talk about deep aesthetics
and Rush’s nearly finished book, Film’s Experience.
TOM MULHERIN: Film’s Experience is a contribution to what you have called, in On Architecture and in some of your work on Adorno, “deep aesthetics.” As I understand it, deep aesthetics is a commitment to the particularity of both the artworks and the disparate arts that confront us as aestheticians. These should be understood in their particularity and, consequently, the philosophical tools we use to engage with them should be fitted for that purpose. As you say in “Adorno after Adorno,” “If understanding a particular work of architecture, say, requires an idea of embodied experience, then one will investigate the resources available in the phenomenological literature stemming from Merleau-Ponty and the emerging field of consciousness studies.” Perhaps you could start us off by saying a bit more about this approach to aesthetics and its place within the discipline.
FRED RUSH: Dewey begins Art as Experience with a call for general aesthetics. He is concerned that the cultural prestige of some art obscures the purported fact that art, at least as to the aesthetic experience it affords, is different in degree but not in kind from everyday human experience. Experience or, more precisely, what Dewey qualifies as having an experience, itself is structured aesthetically; art is an intensification of that. One can grant the thought but be impressed with the utter plurality of human artmaking and of “aesthetic experience” broadly construed. There are many social manifestations, much history, and legion modalities within both. Generality of claim implicates consideration of proper scope. It is always appropriate to ask after the bounds within which a theory enjoys cognitive power—in this case, to which art it applies and under what social and historical conditions. It strikes me that any approach to cover it all at best is going to radically underdetermine all manner of crucial things and will be of very limited use in spelling out what is philosophically significant about the art such an approach is meant to explicate. Philosophy has to be general of course, but one must be circumspect about suitable domain. Philosophical aesthetics as it is currently practiced is often less concerned than it might be not to over-idealize the processes or objects it encounters in order to fit them into a given theoretical framework. Of course, that does not describe all the work done; nevertheless, there are degrees to which we all fall into this.
Here are some things to keep in mind on this front. First, cock an eye to other intellectual disciplines. Aesthetic phenomena are bounded psychologically, socially, and historically. There is very little work that can be done isolated from other humanistic and social scientific research. Second, take on hard cases. In the philosophy of art, that would mean complex, demanding works both as to their specificity and in relation to other works of the artist. Attention to artform, artifactuality, and a host of other possibly relevant matters is key. Third, take advantage of a full range of philosophical resources. In Film’s Experience I am working at close quarters with three films and have found that Noël Carroll convinces on certain issues while Deleuze offers insight on others. For all the differences of approach, both are scrupulous with individual films. When one turns to other aspects of aesthetics—e.g. to nature, to the everyday—the same challenge presents itself: never underestimate the things themselves.
TM: Who are the philosophical antecedents to this project? You mention Carroll and Deleuze, but in deep aesthetics, their thought is applicable only as refracted through particular films. Adorno comes to mind, of course, but his aesthetics is often surprisingly general for a thinker so insistent on the importance of particularity. (There are exceptions, of course—the Mahler book and his essays on literature come to mind.)
FR: Right, theory makes way for the object, but there are difficulties formulating matters quite so simply. In the first place, the kind of object that is involved is an artifact and, like all artifacts, is itself a product of interpretative and creative activity. It is not a datum in the way physical theories think of an object. So, when one says that theory has to be sensitive to the demands of the object, that cannot mean “pre-interpretative object.” There will always be a proper theoretical role for general thought in understanding what amounts to the specificity of an object in a particular domain, but that is very different from preadaptation to a given theory. So, what I have in mind is a shuttling back and forth between acute perception of the object and whatever theoretical resources one wants to argue are relevant to understanding the work as significant. If one thinks that the conception of objects that is at home in the physical sciences and mathematics has a stranglehold on what the term “object” means in all domains, perhaps one should steer away from talking of aesthetic or art objects. That sort of slippage is a Heideggerian concern that I believe one can handle well enough by exercising circumspection, i.e. without having to change vocabulary.
Deleuze’s two film books are, as you suggest, strongly adapted to his general metaphysics. That said, it is striking how well he discusses films in their own terms. The test is how illuminating the approach is to thinking about those things. The second volume especially is compelling even for one who does not accept hook, line, and sinker his process metaphysics. Carroll is a powerful debunker of pretension in film theory and that forces him to the films themselves, and his training in film theory and film history put him in an excellent position to talk about structure on a case-by-case basis when necessary.
Adorno: what to say on that count? He is obsessively concerned with false generalization to the point of sometimes saying that all generalization falsifies. His philosophy of mind and epistemology not only give experiential priority to non-conceptual capacities, but are committed to holding that thinking of the significance of objects merely in terms of their common properties distorts thought. I would not go that far as a general matter and find Adorno’s arguments for that conclusion problematic, to say the least. He attempts to fashion a form of theory that takes care not to run roughshod over the specificity of objects, and art works, especially those of high modernism, are his favored objects since they push categorical boundaries by their very nature. You are right that the theory is hard to work out rigorously and that Adorno’s twisting and turning on a general theoretical level often sacrifices the very specificity the theory is supposed to vouchsafe. Some historical context can help—attention to his contemporary Walter Benjamin, to early German Romanticism, to his interpretation of Hegel—but that goes only so far. Adorno’s is most at home in the aphorism and short Nietzschean paragraph; Minima Moralia remains the crucial work. The musical monographs, and for me especially the Mahler book, are exceptions to the rule that he cannot work in long form.
In sociology there used to be a distinction made between so-called “grand theory”—Talcott Parsons’ “action theory” was the main target, but sometimes functionalism more broadly—and theory of “middle range.” I think Robert Merton coined that term. Middle-range theories are sensitive to state-of-play restrictions on scope. At any given point, the sociologist is presented with a previously integrated domain over which hypotheses can work. To either exceed the domain (e.g. give a theory purportedly good for all societies) or constrict it (e.g. only proceed with segmented data on a piecemeal basis) would be incorrect. The results of middle-range theories are conceived as ultimately provisional but explanatory within context. Aesthetic theory is not (mostly) explanatory, it is interpretative; still, the analogy is apt. Books in philosophical aesthetics that seem to me especially rewarding in this light are Richard Wollheim’s Painting as an Art and Lydia Goehr’s Imaginary Museum of Musical Works, to name just two. Danto’s ontological arguments start out paying close attention to Duchamp and Warhol but, because he was not mostly interested in aesthetic effects and because those works are in his estimation “non-aesthetic,” the power of the argument was abstract in the end. Danto could write in the other vein: his book on Mapplethorpe and some of the reviews in The Nation, like that one of the Vietnam Memorial, are “deep” in my sense.
TM: Let’s talk more specifically about Film’s Experience. The project rests, as the title indicates, on the idea that certain films afford a specific kind of filmic experience. Which films are you concerned with and what kind of experience do they offer their viewers?
FR: My claim is not that there is one kind of experience that is filmic. What interests me is the plurality of ways that films formally intensify the experience they depict. This is both narrative and non-narrative; as a matter of fact, I am most interested in the interplay between narrative and non-narrative filmic experience. What I mean by “filmic experience” is not merely experience that happens to pertain to film, but film-experience as such. This draws me to films that conceive of themselves as being experiential in this way, to films self-consciously structured to reflect on their experiential power and instantiate that in an especially pointed way. Given the stress I place on attending to specific structure of the films, I do a good deal of shot/take analysis, some film history, and some straight aesthetics and philosophy more generally. And given that hands-on approach, I thought that taking on three films of the above sort in-depth was a reasonable way to proceed. My choices were Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Trois couleurs: Bleu, and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia.
With Tree I am looking at issues concerning episodic memory, one’s narrative memory of one’s past. The spin of the film as I see it is in a broad sense “oneiric”. What we see are the imaginings of the principal character at a moment of self-reckoning. This in turn implicates a host of intricate technical issues having to do with perception, imagination, self-interpretation, and the ontology of filmworlds. Bleu is allied in a way, but different. Its protagonist, Julie (the indelible Juliette Binoche), attempts the existential high-wire act of forgetting her past, including the accidental death of her husband and child. She wants to live “clean,” with no attachments, no memory. All she desires is a radical break, une coupure. Little by little—sometimes by a play of contingencies, sometimes more intentionally—she is pulled back into her past by the music she hears. She is a composer, but does not take credit for her compositions, which are instead “authored” by her famous dead husband. The music’s claim on her works contrary to her disclaiming the past.
Still from Bleu (1993), dir. Krzysztof Kieślowski
Bleu is not so much a film about the past as it is one about carrying one’s self into a future and, as the titular color of the film suggests, into a form of freedom. Nostalghia is the most demanding. The central issue there is the nature of temporality, the human experience of time, and its relation to being displaced. The protagonist is a Russian abroad, away from everything he might root himself in. He is “translated” into Italy and, like all translations according to him, is an impossibility. The viewer is presented this out-of-place character as out-of-place by means of temporal glitches in the film that gesture towards a form of timelessness, eternity, to which he ends up dedicating his life. It is a film about self-transformation and the ontology of moods.
Still from Nostalghia (1983), dir. Andrei Tarkovsky
TM: Were there any films or modes of filmic experience that were left on the cutting room floor?
FR: Nice! Yes, plenty. Robert Pippin’s wonderful book on Vertigo is a good example of a different approach than mine, but one that still operates in detail with film structure. One can argue for one’s personal favorite, but there is not really serious doubt that Vertigo is the apex of Hitchcock’s achievement. Of course, Pippin chose that film to work with because of the thematic structure he sees in it having to do with misrecognition, but that theme is in a lot of Hitchcock, as he points out. Maybe it is merely best present in Vertigo, but I suspect that Vertigo is Hitchcock’s best film because misrecognition is present in it. Perhaps The Tree of Life is Malick’s best movie. I’m open to that thought, although one would have to contend with Days of Heaven. Neither Bleu nor Nostalghia are their filmmakers’ most powerful outings. Surely Kieślowski’s greatest achievement is Dekalog. And Tarkovsky—well, he is working on another level altogether—many would argue for Stalker, but I would pick Mirror. I chose the films because each is most characteristic of its filmmaker’s overarching preoccupations, even if (or perhaps just because) it is not the best of the lot. I do discuss other films in passing in the book, but there is no discussion of great substance of, say, Tree against the background of Malick’s other films in it.
As for modes of experience left on the table, there are too many to list. One that occurs to me is improvisation. You’re a performing jazz musician and philosopher, so the nature of improvisation is something you are bound to think about. Improvisation is native to any art, conceptually speaking. Improvisatory architecture? I wouldn’t want to rule it out. In any case, it is not extraordinary in the least to have improvisation in film. Acting is the case everyone will think of first. Take the lovely scene in Roman Holiday in which the character Audrey Hepburn plays sees the character played by Gregory Peck stick his hand in the mouth of a statue, the Bocca della Verità, to see if he has been telling the truth. The mouth is said to bite the hands of liars. Apparently, Peck ad libbed yelling in pain, pretending that that his hand truly was wedged in the hole and being bitten by the spirit said to inhabit the stone. Hepburn—this was her very first role in a major picture— reacted quite naturally by, in fact, screaming. Peck had improvised and, in a way, so did she. There are directors who attempt to incorporate improvisation across a great swath of film, Cassavetes for instance. What about improvised shooting? There’s a lot of that in Tree; most of the footage is Steadicam and unscripted. But it is heavily edited. Does the editing somehow subtract the improvisatory character of shot and take? Can editing itself be improvisatory? I don’t see why not. Talking about improvisation, especially with memory, dreaming, and temporality in the mix, might have been fruitful. But one can’t do everything.
TM: If I understand your position correctly, a film concerned with improvisatory experience would have to instantiate that experience for the viewer. Interestingly, I’m not sure that a film could make that experience available without considering the kinds of experience you’re already tracking through Bleu, Tree, and Nostalghia. After all, improvisation (at least in the contexts I’m most familiar with) is about constructing something coherent in real time; you’re reacting to the past and trying to carry those reactions into the future. (I’ve been on plenty of gigs where I’ve had to react to temporal and consequently musical displacement, but the less said about those, the better.) Is this as personal a project as constructing or integrating a self? It seems so to me.
I have ideas about what we might call improvisatory editing, but would be interested to hear what you had in mind. (And I’d add that I doubt that Teo Macero and Miles Davis would have thought that editing subtracted anything.)
FR: Instantiating for an audience, but not necessarily in an audience. There is a distinction to be drawn between a work representing X, instantiating X, and causing X to be instantiated in the viewer. The conception of the filmic with which I operate in the book has it that a film representing something and almost being that something are closely related in filmic films, at least in the ones I am talking about. Whether, in addition, a film representing or instantiating something causes that something to be instantiated in the audience is a separate matter.
I think you are right about the preconditions for talking about filmic improvisation, a kind of improvisation in a film that would be tuned specifically to film’s hardest hitting modalities. One would have to track what I am trying to get at with regard to filmic experience, and more. Tree is the most improvisatory film of the three—Bleu and Nostalghia are controlled affairs. As is the case with all of Malick’s films from Days of Heaven forward, he shot a tremendous amount, much of it on the fly, and sorted out continuity in the edits. If you look at the original script of Days of Heaven, for instance, significant portions of the narrative were left on the cutting room floor. What I had in mind about improvisatory editing is, I’m afraid, not as developed as I would like. Something like what director Stan Brakhage tried when he was aspiring to the condition of jazz. Perhaps the most general thing to say is that editing would be improvisatory to the extent that one would treat exposed stock more as material to be formed than something that delivers hard and fast form that dictates cuts. So, a matter of degree. One might think that John Cage-like “chance procedures” governing editing techniques would count as ‘improvisatory’ in a loose sense. But recall that Cage was against improvisation; he held it to be inherently willful and wanted to evacuate out as much intentionality as was possible in his art. According to him that’s what the I Ching was for—submission of the will. Might there be a film analogue to automatic poetry? But now we drift away from fictional narrative film and into more experimental sorts.
TM: I suspect that readers will be able to extrapolate at least some of the philosophers you find valuable for thinking about film from what you’ve said above. However, you’ve also recommended that philosophers interested in deep aesthetics turn an eye to other disciplines. As such, what works in film studies (theory, history, or criticism) do you think a philosophical audience looking to engage in the deep aesthetics of film might find valuable?
FR: There’s a lot out there. Most philosophers working with film will know the stock works: Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Balázs, Kracauer, Bazin, and others. There is an interesting literature, mostly by directors, that surrounds the unfairly ignored French impressionist film. Contemporary film theory can also be philosophically rewarding. Miriam..
John Rawls said, famously, that the way to judge a society was to look at the condition of its worst-off.1 It doesn’t matter how rich or well-educated the people at the top are. The best society is the one that best treats the people at the bottom.
Let me suggest a corollary: the Rawlsian Theory of Food Culture. The Rawlsian Theory of Food Culture says that, if you want to judge the quality of a food culture, don’t look at its finest restaurants and best food. Look to its low-end. Look to its street carts, its gas-station snacks. Look to what you can get in the airport at 2 AM. Any community can spit up a few nice places to eat, if they throw enough money at it. What shows real love for food, and real caring, is when people make good food when they could get away with making crap.
This is a Jamaican patty I had for $2 out of hot cabinet in a mini-market in Toronto. It made me cry, it was so good.
I spent half my life in Los Angeles. Los Angeles has some fantastic pockets of food culture, and some of the best restaurants in the world. I love the Los Angeles food scene with all the passion in my heart. But for the most part, Los Angeles utterly fails the Rawlsian Food Test. I’m mostly talking about the wealthy parts here — Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Hollywood. Whenever people could get away with it, they’d serve up stale, thoughtless, bullshit food. There was crap food everywhere. Love for food didn’t go bone deep.2
When I went to Istanbul, I was so inundated with amazing food, that I started playing a game: could I actually find bad food? I turned out to be just barely possible. Almost everything I tried was at least pretty good. The pastries at the gas station? Awesome. The baklava at the airport coffee shop? Better than anything I had in the States. The kebab from the street stall in the fancy tourist shopping area? Surely, if there’s any place that people could slack off, it’d be there, right? Nope: even that kebab was pretty good, and made with at least a minimum of pride. Anthony Bourdain wrote that that, after a lifetime of bouncing around New York and having his fill of crappy, thoughtless food, his first trip to Saigon almost shredded his soul. Every single bite of food he had was amazing. Every single person he could find selling food had made it with care and attention and sensitivity.
These are hand-pulled deep fried noodles from a stall in the food court of a mall in Richmond, BC. It’s been five years, and I still think about them.
Notice that the Rawlsian Theory of Food Culture is different from my Airport Principle of Food. The Airport Principle says that, in an area which is really good at Food X, the airport version of Food X will probably be better than the very best version of Food X at many other places. The fish tacos in the LA airport, which are just part of a local SoCal chain, are better than the best fish tacos in all of New England. The chili dogs in the Detroit airport are better than any chili dog I’ve had on the whole of the West Coast. The Chicago deep dish pizza in the Chicago airport is a pale shadow of Chicago’s best, but so many leagues beyond the best Californian attempt that it blows my mind.
The Airport Principle and the Rawlsian Theory of Food Culture are about different things. The Airport Principle is just about how what an incredibly deep and complex skill a particular food expertise is, and how much variation there is between areas. When some area specializes really deeply in a type of food, they’re not just a tiny bit better than other places. They are light years better. The Rawlsian Theory of Food Culture, on the other hand, is above love. It’s about the fact that in some places, the love of food is so deep that people will make great food even when they don’t have to. They care, even when almost nobody’s watching.
1 This is a simplification. Get off my back, Rawls scholars.
2 Some of the ethnic enclaves of Los Angeles, on the other hand, pass the Rawlsian Food Test with flying colors. Which just goes to show that a “food culture” is not the same as everybody that lives in some named geographic area.
“Video games don’t tell stories,” he told me. “They’re just games.”
So said a friend of mine when I told him I was writing about video games as works of fiction. And despite his mansplaining my own topic to me, my friend was giving voice to the very problem which I hope to address. Despite the fact that more people are playing video games these days than ever before, and game makers continue to create more inventive and engaging narrative works every day, my friend is not alone in his opinion.
Although there have been some recent exceptions, such as the works of Jon Robson, Aaron Meskin, and Grant Tavinor, video games are often overlooked in the philosophy of art. Many people don’t consider them to be a form of art at all, rather “just games”. And when games do turn up in aesthetics textbooks, they tend to be lumped together with film and television and afforded no special interest. This is not only a shame but a loss for philosophy. Not only does a great deal of artistic effort go into making a video game, but the result is more than the sum of its parts. Video games are unique. They present several new and interesting philosophical challenges that may, if we let them, reshape our understanding of art as a whole. My work aims to shed some light on these challenges—specifically that of establishing fictional truth in video games.
Finding Canon in Video Games
“Fictional truth” may sound oxymoronic, but I bet you know quite a few. Sherlock Holmes lives at 221b Baker Street. Bruce Wayne is Batman. Hamlet says, “To be or not to be?” All of these are fictional truths. They are not actually true—no detective named Sherlock Holmes ever actually lived on Baker Street—but they are true within their respective fictions.
Interest in fictional truth has become more commonplace in recent times under the name of canon. Something is considered part of the canon of a certain fiction if it is an established aspect of that fiction. This term can be useful when discussing more complex fictions, such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or the even more complex world of the comic books on which these films are based. Most of the time we can determine what is canon by checking the text, as long as it remains unaltered. Even if every time I watch Black Panther I notice something new, the film itself stays the same, and so does the canon.
But what do we do when the text itself is continually changing? This is the problem that video games pose. Take for example my favorite game, Mass Effect 3. The game tells the story of Commander Shepard, a space marine who fights to save the galaxy from the Reapers – massive aliens bent on destroying all organic life. But every time I play Mass Effect 3, that story can change. Sometimes Commander Shepard is a woman, and sometimes a man. Sometimes Shepard saves everyone, but other times causes the death of an entire race. The story changes because Mass Effect 3 is interactive. It takes the player’s choices into account. All video games do this to one degree or another. Some, like Tomb Raider, are very linear, while others like Skyrim vary wildly every time they are played. So how are we to determine what counts as canon in a video game?
This question is more important than it might seem. Having a canon enables us to treat video games as a unified whole, like we might the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Without that unification, all we have is a collection of different stories. When I play Mass Effect 3 it tells the story of a woman in love with an alien, but when my sister plays Mass Effect 3 it tells the story of a man who is not in love with anyone. How can we say that we are interacting not only with the same computer program but with the same work of fiction? To answer this, we will need a more nuanced view of fictional truth in video games.
Video games present two important challenges when it comes to establishing canon: variable content and variable scope. The first of these I have already explained. While some things are constant, like Commander Shepard’s rank, other things are variable, like Shepard’s gender. Fortunately, video games are not the only type of art to face this challenge. Performance art, like stage plays, also deal with variable content. For example, every time that Hamlet is performed, certain things stay the same: Hamlet always dies. But other things vary between performances, like Hamlet’s hair color or height. While all of these things are part of the performance, some of them are also true in Hamlet itself. They are included in the play’s script, and in every performance of Hamlet. So while we might contrast different performances, we can still talk about Hamlet as a whole.
We can use a similar approach to games by differentiating between the game itself and an individual playthrough of the game. These playthroughs are analogous to performances. Video games are mediated to us via playthroughs, which contain both constant fictional truths (Shepard is human) and variables (Shepard is female). The constants are part of canon, part of the game itself, while the variables are only true in that specific playthrough.
The only problem now is determining which fictional truths we encounter while playing the game belong in which category. Plays have an easy go of this, as they tend to have scripts which we can read apart from a performance. But games do not. We can only encounter a game via a playthrough. One way we might use playthroughs to generate a canon would be to play through every possible variation of a game and compare them. Even if not feasible in practice, this is at least a theoretical possibility. We could then define canon as anything which is true in every variation, since it would be constant (Shepard is human), and exclude from canon anything which is true in some but false in others, since it would be variable (Shepard is female). However, there is a tricky snag in this plan, one that brings us to the second complexity of video games: their variable scope.
By saying that video games have variable scope, I mean that most games have a good deal of optional content which the player may investigate or may skip at will. For instance, in Dragon Age: Origins there is a character, Alistair, who has a sister. The player only learns this if they speak to Alistair about it, and could go the entire game without learning it. Because not every playthrough of the game features Alistair’s sister, we might be tempted to say that “Alistair has a sister” isn’t part of the Dragon Age: Origins canon. But this move is not as simple as it may first appear.
If how we determine what is canon and what is not depends on comparing all possible playthroughs, then what “counts” as a playthrough is important. What if I played a game for less than one minute and then turned the game off and never played again? What if I encountered <1% of the potential fictional content? If we allowed such a playthrough to “count”, that would drastically narrow what we can consider to be canon down to almost nothing. To avoid this, I suggest that we instead define canon in video games like this: Something is canon in a game if it is true in at least one possible playthrough, and never contradicted in any other playthrough of the game. This means it would be fictionally true in a playthrough even if it is never presented to the player, because it is part of the canon of the game. Alistair always has a sister whether he tells us or not.
Video Games and the Theory of Make-Believe
This is where the rubber meets the road when it comes to the theory of fiction. So far, I have done a lot of problem solving trying to find a way to determine what is canon in a video game: how we address a video game as one unified work of fiction, even if it tells a different story every time. But I haven’t actually addressed what it means for something to be “fictionally true” in the first place, or what is happening when we interact with fiction.
One of the most influential theories of fiction is Kendall Walton’s theory of make-believe. Walton says that the way a work of fiction generates fictional truth is by inviting us to play a game of make-believe in which the words on a page or pictures on a screen are true. So we make-believe that there is a detective living on Baker Street, or that in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. We make believe that once upon a time, etc. We don’t actually believe it, of course. We aren’t fooled or lied to. We know it’s a fiction. But we play a game in which we let the work tell us what to make-believe. To Walton, that’s just what a fiction is: Something we interact with during a game of make-believe that tells us what to imagine.
By rights, Walton’s theory should apply to video games. Not only because video games are works of fiction, but also because his entire theory is based around comparing fiction to playing a game. If any theory applied to games, we would expect it to be his, and if his theory applies to anything, we should expect it to be games. But it doesn’t.
There are two major conflicts between Walton’s theory and video games as I have described them. The first is that according to Walton, if a work does not mandate that we make-believe something, then it’s not part of the fiction. This means that, contrary to what I maintain, “Alistair has a sister” cannot be canon in Dragon Age: Origins, as not every playthrough mandates that we imagine it.
However, video games are not entirely alone in this. Lee Walters has pointed out a similar issue in serialized fiction by asking, “Is Darth Vader Luke Skywalker’s father in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope?” Vader is clearly Luke’s father in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, and we know this means that during Episode IV he was Luke’s father all along. But if someone had only ever seen Episode IV and never Episode V, they would have no way of knowing that Vader is Luke’s father, and would never be asked to make-believe that he is. And thus, according to Walton, the answer would have to be that Darth Vader is not Luke Skywalker’s father in Episode IV, as ridiculous as that sounds.
To fix this problem, Walters offers what he calls a “Waltonian” solution in which he appeals to the existence of a larger overarching fiction – the Star Wars series as a whole – which mandates that we make-believe that Vader is Luke’s Father, even if Episode IV doesn’t. This is exactly what I have been referring to when we say we can determine what is “canon” in the Marvel Cinematic Universe or in Mass Effect 3 itself. However, while this is a good solution, it isn’t truly Waltonian.
If we maintain that when someone plays a video game what they interact with is a specific playthrough of that game and not the game itself (just as we watch a performance of Hamlet and not the play itself), then according to Walton’s theory the game (and play) is not, itself, a fiction. Because the game does not mandate that we imagine something, the playthrough does. The same can be said of Walters’ example. We do not watch Star Wars in the abstract, we watch Episode IV. According to Walton, Episode IV is a work of fiction, but Star Wars is not. And if it’s not a fiction, then we cannot appeal to it as Walters suggests and still call it Waltonian.
It seems that no matter where we turn, there will be at least one aspect of fictional truth in video games which Walton’s theory cannot explain. And this is concerning. As I said, if Walton’s theory is to apply to any art, we should expect it to apply most easily to games. But it does not. And if Walton’s theory of make-believe cannot explain games, we must ask whether it can truly explain anything else.
Walton’s theory is of course not the only philosophical approach to fiction. But the fact that his theory, which is built around children’s games of make-believe, cannot account for video games is telling, not only about Walton’s theory but about the philosophy of art in general. If we want to discuss the philosophy of art we must not be bound to the traditional, but also must not turn a blind eye to the popular or rule out art targeted at a different demographic than our own. And as the philosophy of art expands we must work hard to examine new forms of art and shape our philosophy around them, rather expect them to fit into old molds. And above all, we must be committed to exploring fiction in all of its mediums, and never dismiss anything as “just” a game.
Notes on the Contributor Marissa Willis is a graduate of Oxford University and John Brown University currently working as a substitute high school teacher while she tries to apply for PhD funding. Her research interests center around fiction: it’s structure, ethics, and epistemological importance, and especially on interactive fictions and on mythology.
Last year, we did a series of five Artworld Roundtables in collaboration with Chris Richards, the pop music critic for the Washington Post. Richards posed the “five hardest questions in pop music”: “cultural appropriation, problematic lyricism, selling out, the ethics of posthumous listening, and … separating the art from the artist.” In response, we rounded up several thinkers working in these areas to see what they had to say about each question. Richards provided us with key examples to draw out the problems and complexities of each debate. The results are here: cultural appropriation, how to respect the wishes of dead artists, whether selling out is still possible, how to engage with objectionable lyrics, and separating the art from the artist who created it. And now Richards is back. Read on to see what he took away from it all.
What follows is a guest post by Chris Richards. You can find him at the Washington Post here and on Twitter as @Chris__Richards.
When the editors of Aesthetics for Birds asked if I would be game to participate in a virtual round table discussion where various philosophers would take their respective whacks at what I had dubbed “the five hardest questions in pop music” in an essay for the Washington Post, I was pleasantly surprised and quite honored.
And once the discussion was underway, I was delighted, enlightened and enlivened. Many of these arguments helped me better understand my questions. Others made me want to rethink my conclusions. And when the good folks at AFB asked me if I’d be willing to transpose those responses into keystrokes, I said okay. Then I made them wait for many weeks, and finally, here they are.
Is cultural appropriation ever okay?
Shen-yi Liao locates a sharp edge in this question right out of the gate: “Much of the cultural appropriation discourse has been identity-first rather than power-first.” That felt like such a significant and illuminating distinction to make. Identity and power can overlap, of course, but attempting to tease the two apart has sunk me much deeper into the question.
I also thought that Elizabeth Burns Coleman made an exceptional point about who participates in the debate, noting, “The peoples of Africa are not only waiting for their royalties, but for their names to be recognized – and maybe for someone to ask them what they think.” Right on. We won’t get broader understanding of this problem if we only have certain members of listening public aggrieved on behalf of the appropriated. This discussion needs more voices.
Should we listen to music against a dead artist’s wishes?
Ashley Dressel kicked things off with a provocative idea: “There is no clear, compelling, reason to think we can harm the dead.” She goes on to explain that there are philosophers who disagree with that, but I felt almost instantly convinced.
And then James Stacy Taylor carries that line of thinking into a closing argument that pretty much sent me back to the drawing board. He argues that the release of Michael Jackson’s posthumous recordings could not harm Jackson (he’s dead), but that the recordings themselves could (and did) make people happy. Conversely, Amy Winehouse’s destroyed demo tapes would not have hurt her (she’s dead) but they did deny many fans the happiness of hearing them. Well, damn.
Can today’s artists still sell out?
I thought the most to-the-heart-of-the-matter argument in this segment belonged to Roy Cook who concludes that “economically aspirational themes of “getting paid” have been a central theme of rap music since its origins. As a result, it seems like hip-hop artists selling out doesn’t threaten the very identity of themselves or their work as hip-hop in the way that punks selling out threatens their very identity as punk.” Am I a little bit jealous that I didn’t write those very words in my original piece? Yes, very much so.
How should we engage objectionable lyrics?
My favorite point came from Angela Sun who said that she doesn’t cringe when she hears Mick Jagger singing “Brown Sugar,” perhaps because she can’t exactly make out what he’s saying. I think this is an incredibly important point. As a music critic, I’m constantly arguing that a song’s meaning does not reside exclusively in its lyrics – which seems obvious, but isn’t. When we talk about what a song is “about,” how often are we talking about the drums? Singers have an incredible ability to communicate more than one message at once, and this point that Sun makes is something I wish I would have dug deeper into in my original essay.
I also really appreciated Lauren Ashwell’s reminder that music is human-to-human communication, and that human beings are quite fallible. Musicians “are just people,” she writes, “and sometimes they really do misunderstand what they are doing with their words.” I feel that everyone should listen to music with this idea near the front of their minds. And for anyone who reads my writing in the Washington Post, I hope it’s at the very front. I think good critics should make mistakes.
Can we separate the art from the artist?
I liked David Heti’s resistance to my hypothetical question about inadvertently being drawn to music with inscrutable lyrics about white supremacy. I asked, “As an ethical listener, what’s your next move?” Heti writes that ethical listeners might not exist, and if they do, he doesn’t want to be one: “I think that one ought to allow oneself to be drawn to whatever art to which they are drawn.” I agree with that idea in my head, but it doesn’t hold up for me in the real world. Our consumption of art still happens in this wacky biodome of late-capitalism, and now that streaming has become our predominant mode of listening to music, the act of listening itself has become transactional. That is, we are giving white supremacist musicians our money by simply listening to their music on streaming platforms – even if we’re only giving them penny-slivers. So I’m still vexed.
But ultimately, I think the “five hardest questions in pop music” don’t have answers – but if we engage them as we should, they will hopefully generate more questions that might help us better understand the scenario. And I think that’s what’s happening when Eva Dadlez thoughtfully asks, “Is a film less good if it is produced by a rapist, a role less expertly performed if performed by a harasser, a routine less funny if an exploitative exhibitionist performs it?” How do an artist’s transgressions inform their art? I think that’s a very good question that gets us closer to an answer, or maybe even better, to a clearer understanding.
Image is a collage of headers from each roundtable. Credits for each: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Edited by Alex King