Tuesday, July 03, 2007

God’s purpose in the creative advance is the evocation of intensities

Whitehead is very much a Jamesian pragmatist. The pragmatic test for truth is the interest that it sustains; “the primary function of theories is as a lure for feeling, thereby providing immediacy of enjoyment and purpose” (1929/1978, 184). Truth is finally a matter, not of empirical verification, but of “enjoyment and purpose,” or (to use Whitehead’s more frequent term) “satisfaction.” That is why “Beauty is a wider, and more fundamental, notion than Truth” (1933/1967, 265).19
In linking feeling to beauty, rather than subordinating it to truth, Whitehead unites the two senses of the word “aesthetic” that we find in Kant (and in the philosophical tradition more generally). On the one hand, the “Transcendental Aesthetic” has to do with sensation and the forms of sensibility; on the other hand, the “Critique of Aesthetic Judgment” in the Third Critique has to do with experiences of the beautiful and the sublime. Though Kant himself doesn’t comment upon the disparity between these two senses, other thinkers have found it problematic.
As Deleuze (1990) puts it, “aesthetics suffers from a wrenching duality. On one hand, it designates the theory of sensibility as the form of possible experience; on the other hand, it designates the theory of art as the reflection of real experience. For these two meanings to be tied together, the conditions of experience in general must become conditions of real experience” (260). For Deleuze, such a transformation is accomplished by certain modernist art practices; in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and Gombrowicz’s Cosmos, among other works, “the conditions of real experience and the structures of the work of art are reunited” (261).20
But Whitehead unites the two senses of aesthetics without privileging modernist aesthetic experimentation in particular. This is because, for Whitehead as for Kant, the question of beauty pertains not just to the creation and reception of works of art, but to sensible experience more generally. The connection, unremarked by Kant, between the “Transcendental Aesthetic” and the “Critique of Aesthetic Judgment” is that acts of sensible intuition and judgments of beauty alike involve feelings that are receptive and not spontaneous, and for which there can be no adequate concepts. In both cases, there is a certain act of creative construction on the part of the subject; yet this construction is responsive to the given data, and cannot be described as arbitrarily imposed, or as merely subjective. Neither the attribution of time and space to phenomena, nor the attribution of beauty to phenomenal objects, can be justified on cognitive grounds. Yet both these attributions make universalizing claims that have to be taken seriously.
Whitehead emphasizes these continuities between the two senses of aesthetics. He notes that the creation of “subjective form,” as an element in any act of sensible intuition, is already a proto-artistic process, involving as it does the selection, patterning, and intensification of sensory data. There is always already a “definite aesthetic attitude imposed by sense-perception” itself (1933/1967, 216). Even the most utilitarian, result- and action-oriented modes of perception nonetheless remain largely receptive, and thereby involve a certain “affective tone,” and a certain degree of aesthetic contemplation – and, Whitehead adds, “thus art is possible” (216).
In the process of feeling, “any part of experience can be beautiful,” and “any system of things which in any wide sense is beautiful is to that extent justified in its existence” (265). Though it falls to Whitehead to make these immanent connections explicit, they are already there, implicitly, in Kant’s own accounts of sensible reception and aesthetic judgment. It is only Kant’s privileging of cognition over affect that leads to the “wrenching duality” deplored by Deleuze.
If “the basis of experience is emotional,” then the culmination of experience – what Whitehead likes to call its “satisfaction”21 – can only be aesthetic. This is the reason for Whitehead’s outrageously hyperbolic claim that “the teleology of the Universe is directed to the production of Beauty” (1933/1967, 265). Whitehead defines Beauty as “the mutual adaptation of the several factors in an occasion of experience”; it is the “Harmony” of “patterned contrasts” in the subjective form of any such occasion. The purpose of such “patterned contrasts” is to increase, as much as possible, the experience’s “intensity of feeling” (252). Such a buildingup of intensity through contrast is the basic principle of Whitehead’s aesthetics, applying to all entities in the universe.
At the low end of the scale, even the most rudimentary “pulses of emotion” (like the vibrations of subatomic particles) exhibit a “primitive provision of width for contrast” (1929/1978, 163). And at the highest end, even God is basically an aesthete. “God is indifferent alike to preservation and to novelty,” Whitehead says. “God’s purpose in the creative advance is the evocation of intensities” (105). Whitehead’s overall principle of “creative advance,” his “Category of the Ultimate” underlying all being (21), has nothing to do with Victorian notions of moral and political improvement, nor with the capitalist ideal of endless accumulation. Creative advance is rather an intensive, qualitative, and aesthetic drive for “depth of satisfaction” (93, 110). Emotions are intensified, and experiences made richer, when incompatibilities, instead of being excluded (negatively prehended), are transformed into contrasts that can be positively integrated within a greater “complexity of order” (100).
But this process is not a tranquil or banally positive one, and Whitehead certainly does not regard “order” as an intrinsic good. The “patterned contrasts” must not be too tastefully arranged. Creative advance is stifled by any sort of static perfection. It demands, rather, the impetus for renewal that comes from “the emotional experience of aesthetic destruction” (1933/1967, 256-257). Whitehead always reminds us that “it is the business of the future to be dangerous” (1925/1967, 207); his aesthetics of feeling is both an expression of this danger, and the best means we have for coming to grips with it. Steven Shaviro shaviro@shaviro.com The Pinocchio Theory
19 It is important to point out, once again, that this means “not a relativity of truth, but, on thecontrary, a truth of the relative.” James’ and Whitehead’s pragmatism is not a slipshod relativism, but rather a claim about the situatedness of truth. A truth that is not “important,” or not strongly felt, does not thereby cease to be true; and a false proposition doesn’t become true, merely byvirtue of being invested with intense feeling or great aesthetic appeal. An unimportant truth isjust that: unimportant. But it may become important, if it is invested by feeling. And when afalse proposition operates effectively as a “lure,” so that it is invested with great feeling, one resultmay be the arousal of an “appetition” that works towards changing the world in order to make theproposition true. This is the very basis of change and Creative Advance: the “realization of whatis not and may be” (1929/1978, 32).
20 Elsewhere, Deleuze (1994) states the same point slightly differently. Aesthetics is “dividedinto two irreducible domains: that of the theory of the sensible which captures only the real’sconformity with possible experience; and that of the theory of the beautiful, which deals with thereality of the real insofar as it is thought. Everything changes once we determine the conditionsof real experience, which are not larger than the conditioned and which differ in kind from thecategories: the two senses of the aesthetic become one, to the point where the being of the sensiblereveals itself in the work of art, while at the same time the work of art appears as experimentation”(68). Here, the emphasis is less on specific modernist art practices than on the way in which philosophicalconstructivism converts Kant’s transcendental conditions of possibility into generativeconditions of actualization.
21 Whitehead uses “satisfaction” as a technical term. He defines it as the “final unity” of any actual occasion or experience, “the culmination of the concrescence into a completely determinate matter of fact” (1929/1978, 212). “Satisfaction” evidently does not mean that an experience has turned out happily, or favorably, or unfrustratingly; but just that the process of experiencing has terminated, and now only subsists as a “stubborn fact,” or a “datum,” for other experiences to prehend in their own turns. In the present context, the crucial point is that the same movement that transforms an affective encounter into an objectively cognizable state of affairs also, and simultaneously, offers up that state of affairs as an object for aesthetic contemplation.

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