This is Part III.2 of my big essay, 'Art, Zen, And Insurrection'. It is titled 'Defining The Aesthetic Theory Of Existence: Zen And Life As An Art'. Here is a table of contents:
8. Foucault's Aesthetics of Existence
9. Zen, Consciousness, And Mindfulness as Transforming Life Into Art
10. Language, Zen, and Social Life As Art
11. The Role Of Craft In The Aesthetic Existence: Politeness, Tact, And Small Talk
12. The Relative Nature of Art, Choice, And Life: We Are Partially Determined, Get Over It
13. Concluding Part III.2
Generally I see it as being divided symmetrically. 7 is an intro of sorts, 8 and 9 address zen, 10 and 11 address craft and the relative nature of social life (which are similar), and 12 is a conclusion. So it goes 1, 2, 2, 1. The structure.
Part III.2: Defining The Aesthetic Theory Of Existence: Zen And Life As An Art
So in the last section I talked about technical theories of life. I tried to explain how craft is a major part of social life, and how that might be problematic. Now I want to try and talk about how art can be a part of social life, and how that could be a positive thing. I want to talk about how there might be something called an aesthetics of existence, how life itself might become an artistic project. First, I’ll discuss how Foucault inspired me to think about this idea. Then I’ll talk a little bit about Zen and mindfulness as it relates to art. Then I’ll try to talk about language in the aesthetic life a bit. Then I’ll talk about how craft is a necessary component in this idea of an aesthetic existence. And finally I’ll be talking about how it is that both life and art are relative, how they are always embedded in certain social and historical relationships.
I’m a bit baffled. I don’t really feel like the outline I have for this is very adequate. Looking at it I really have no idea how it flows, what I’ll be saying.
I haven’t written this in about a week or two. I have been having a miniature crisis with it. Nothing serious. But just a serious bout of reflection on what I’m writing and why I’m writing it. I ran into some frustrating moments when I felt like I wasn’t writing about anything very important, or felt like this writing wouldn’t be very helpful to me in many ways. So I’ve just been wondering about why I’ve been doing this, what my deal is, why I want to talk about these things. Why am I doing this at this point in my life? Well, there are three things I can say. First, at this point in my life I feel trapped and confused by what I’m doing. I’m a barista and I feel that my time and my interactions are often structured by my economically defined position. So I end up feeling like days are similar, like interactions are similar, like monotony is creeping into me. So therefore I have become fixated on creativity in my daily life. I was already concerned with creativity in August and September. But then I started working and boy howdy creativity in my daily life seems like something I really need if I’m going to avoid the monotony and redundancy of the working world. Second, I am very focused on the idea of expression. So much of my writing and thinking right now is about pushing what I am capable of. Communication is not my concern. It would be nice if someone read this and understood it and it meant something to them, but frankly I don’t know how realistic that is right now. And Collingwood’s definition of art is all about expression and how it differs from communication. So this writing on art has me in this mode where I’m craving everyday creativity and craving pure expression without the desire to communicate. But there is a third issue: I have a desire for my expression to do something beyond me, to do something good for people in society, for other people in some kind of community, people in some kind of political situation. So how can I make my personal desire for creativity and expression into something larger, something more important, something political? Well, Collingwood hints at this, at the political role of art. It has to do with the corruption of consciousness and other things. The threads are there. I’m not talking complete bologna. I am trying to figure this stuff out for my own sake.
So anyways now I’m going to move on to the actual abstract writing and stop reflecting so much. But basically I feel trapped in my life at the moment. I’m trapped in my circumstances. I fear that I will become defined and trapped by my economic role as a barista. I fear that monotony will overtake me. I fear that I’m not capable of expressing myself and my experience. So I’m going for it. In some way this whole project is attempting to express the experiences I have been having for the last year or so.
On to Foucault’s work and my initial inspiration for this idea.
8. Foucault’s Aesthetics of Existence
Foucault has been a major influence for me in the last year, and he was the first person who explicitly told me that there might be something like an aesthetic existence. I first encountered this idea of his The Use Of Pleasure which is Volume II of The History Of Sexuality. In that book he attempts to recreate the ancient Greek experience of sexuality. He claims that their experience of sexual morality was very different from the one that developed after the rise of Christianity. The primary difference, he claims, is how individuals are taught to relate to themselves, or in his language, how it is that individuals constitute themselves as ethical subjects of knowledge. He wants to understand how certain forms of ethical knowledge allowed people to think of themselves as ethical agents. So the main difference, therefore, is not the themes or the rules of ethics, for they have remained relatively consistent, but rather the way in which individuals are taught to relate to themselves. Schematically, Foucault claims that in the Christian era were are dealing primarily with the hermeneutics or analysis of desire, that we have an essence or a nature within us, and that the task is to discover what it is that we are. So the Christian form of ethics is defined primarily by the existence of an essence or nature, and that the task is therefore self discovery.
On the contrary, the Greek form of ethics is not about the discovery of the self, but rather the creation of the self. Rather than analyzing desire, they were using pleasure to create themselves as ethical subjects. I hope this distinction doesn’t sound too opaque, because to me it seems quite important. It means that we are not locked into any particular way of being, we do not have to feel like our desires define us, it means that we are free to create ourselves through the way that we use the pleasures available to us. We constitute ourselves as ethical subjects through our rational behavior. This, Foucault claims, is an ‘aesthetics of existence’ in which life itself can be turned into a work of art. Through our choices, through self-mastery and the moderate use of pleasure we could beautify our lives and turn them into a work of art. The relationship between life and art was clearly a big issue for Foucault towards the end of his life, and the ancient Greeks were a good place to try and recover a form of experience in which life and art were more closely related. Foucault succinctly posed his concerns in a 1982 interview published in The Foucault Reader: “What strikes me is the fact that in our society, art has become something which is related only to objects and not to individuals, or to life. That art is something which is specialized or which is done by experts who are artists. But couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an object of art, but not our life?” (Foucault, 1982, 350). Clearly, Foucault’s late work was attempting to understand the relationship between art and ethical existence.
I, too, think that these are important questions. Collingwood has also convinced me of this. Why can’t our lives become artistic? Why does art possess the status that it does? Why is it so wrapped up with issues of craft and of beauty? What would it mean to live an aesthetic life? How would it be beneficial to other people? I think Foucault opens up a few fruitful lines of thought. In particular, he shows that an aesthetic existence would have to be one in which rational principles were used not as absolute guides, but as aids to judgment: “a way of life whose moral value did not depend either on one’s being in conformity with a code of behavior, or on an effort of purification, but on certain formal principles in the use of pleasures, in the way one distributed them, in the limits one observed, in the hierarchy one respected. Through the logos, through reason and the relation to truth that governed it, such a life was committed to the maintenance and reproduction of an ontological order; moreover, it took the brilliance of a beauty that was revealed to those able to behold it or keep its memory present in mind” (Foucault, 89). It was about using principles to regulate oneself in a world of particulars and blurred lines. Secondly, Foucault shows how an aesthetic life would be aimed at political and collective change. He says that political elite would live an aesthetic life to provide an example to help each individual exercise self control: “the ruler publicly exhibited a mastery and a restraint that spread to everyone, issuing out from them, according to the rank they held, in the form of a moderate conduct, a respect for oneself and for others, a careful supervision of the soul and the body, and a frugal economy of acts, so that no involuntary and violent movement disturbed the beautiful order that seemed to be present in everyone’s mind....” (Foucault, 91). For Foucault, therefore, the aesthetic existence is a creative process by which an individual develops themselves in relation to certain principles, and one that becomes a political project by setting an example of behavior for the public.
While I think that Foucault poses serious questions about the relationship between art and life, I think that he implicitly endorses a definition of the aesthetic that Collingwood would disagree with. In particular, I think that Foucault wrongly identifies the aesthetic existence with craft and beauty. Collingwood is adamant that aesthetics is not to be identified with craft or beauty, but rather with how individuals imaginatively express their experiences and emotions. To identify aesthetics with craft or beauty, Collingwood claims, is a major mistake. I think that the following quotation shows that Foucault’s definition of the aesthetic is muddled with traces of craft and beauty. He says that by the ‘arts of existence’ he means “those intentional and voluntary actions by which men not only set themselves rules of conduct, but also seek to transform themselves, to change themselves into a singular being, and to make their life into an oeuvre that carries certain aesthetic values and meets certain stylistic criteria. These ‘arts of existence,’ these ‘techniques of the self,’ no doubt lost some of their importance and autonomy when they were assimilated into the exercise of priestly power in early Christianity, and later, into educative, medical, and psychological types of practices.... it seemed to me that the study of the problematization of sexual behavior in antiquity could be regarded as a chapter... of that general history of the ‘techniques of the self’” (Foucault, 1984, 10-11). The confusion between art and craft becomes clear when he uses the terms of ‘arts of existence’ and ‘techniques of the self’ interchangeably. In the future I’ll have to read Foucault more carefully to determine precisely what he means when he talks about the aesthetic existence. But right now it seems to me that his emphasis on beauty and his emphasis on technique means that his definition of the aesthetic is slightly confused.
In conclusion, Foucault’s work in The Use Of Pleasure opened me up to this idea of an aesthetics of existence. It is a very fruitful line of thought that has serious implications for how I behave, how I think of myself as an ethical agent, and how I live. I do think his definition of aesthetics, however, is underdeveloped and seems to drift into the realm of a technical theory of art. Nevertheless, his work has important implications and I will continue to use it in this section. Now that I’ve roughly laid out Foucault as one of my major inspirations for this idea I’d like to move on and explain how these ideas have an affinity with Zen Buddhism, and how they would have to be enacted through our use of language.
9. Zen, Consciousness, And Mindfulness as Transforming Life Into Art
So one of the crucial connections I want to make in this whole piece of writing, which I fear I have neglected thus far, is linking the notion of an aesthetic existence with Zen Buddhism and mindfulness. My honest hunch is that Buddhist mindfulness may in many ways resemble the aesthetic existence that I am trying to define. I think this for a couple different reasons. First, I think that both aesthetics (as defined by Collingwood) and Buddhism place a strong emphasis on the role of consciousness. Second, I think that they both place a lot of emphasis on the role of judgment, and more specifically, the supremacy of judgment over any codified rules of conduct or morality. Again, the word Zen is in the title of this whole thing, and yet I’ve done such a good job of avoiding the issue up until now. Art is the crucial thing in it all. But Zen to me seems like a way that the aesthetic theory could be implemented. It seems like Zen holds so many possibilities, so many of the things that I have been talking about. So let me just discuss these two points: the role of consciousness, and the role of judgement.
Now, as my explication of Collingwood should have made clear, consciousness is a crucial factor in transforming our experience into something expressible, into a work of art. So, if life itself is to become a work of art, then perhaps consciousness also needs to be a crucial aspect in this. And my reading on Zen has made it clear that consciousness is indeed a crucial part of living a mindful and Zen existence. In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind Shunryu Suzuki stresses the importance of consciousness: “When our thinking is soft, it is called imperturbable thinking, This kind of thinking is always stable. It is called mindfulness. Thinking which is divided in many ways is not true thinking. Concentration should be present in our thinking. This is mindfulness. Whether you have an object or not, your mind should be stable and your mind should not be divided. This is zazen” (Suzuki, 142). It is our awareness of ourselves, of our lives, that allows us to live a mindful life. Another crucial element of mindfulness is unfaltering acceptance of things. If we are to truly be aware we can’t be blinded by how we want things to be, we simply need to accept things as they are. Suzuki says that “there is only the unchanging ability to accept things as they are. For people who have no idea of emptiness, this ability may appear to be patience, but patience can actually be nonacceptance” (Suzuki, 99). Clearly Zen and art both have a strong relationship with consciousness and awareness.
So, the question then becomes, is Zen mindfulness a way to turn life into art? The answer for me is. I’ll be elaborating this point in a second, but first and foremost I’d like to show you that Suzuki makes this point entirely explicit. Suzuki discusses how a calm perspective can allow us to appreciate the conscious observation of our daily life. While discussing this point he says that “for Zen students a weed, which for most people is worthless, is a treasure. With this attitude, whatever you do, life becomes an art” (153). This idea that Zen can make our lives into art becomes clearer when we recognize that Zen is about expressing our true nature at every moment. “In our everyday life,” Suzuki says, “we are usually trying to do something, trying to change something into something else, or trying to attain something. Just this trying is already in itself an expression of our true nature. The meaning lies in the effort itself” (153). With Zen we are using consciousness in our daily lives so that we are able to express ourselves fully at every moment. With Zen “You are expressing yourself. You are expressing your true nature. Your eyes will express; your voice will express; your demeanor will express. The most important thing is to express your true nature in the simplest, most adequate way and to appreciate it in the smallest existence” (Suzuki, 46). Basically, if we are willing to accept things as they are, to exert our consciousness at the whole of our lives, then our lives themselves can become a process of constant expression, and therefore a work of art.
But why is this so? How can this be? Well, Collingwood’s defines art is the imaginative expression of emotions. Emotions become imaginative when they are transformed from impression into idea through the work of consciousness. So, if in Zen, we are constantly using consciousness to raise our sensations and emotions from their raw level to the level of imagination where they are then expressed in our every action, then life itself can satisfy Collingwood’s definition of art as the imaginative expression of emotions.
I also think that Zen and an aesthetic theory of existence both have to place a lot of emphasis on the supremacy of judgement. Now, I don’t know that Collingwood explicitly places a lot of emphasis on judgement, but I think it is implicit in many of his ideas. Foucault, on the other hand, does explicitly talk about how the ancient Greek aesthetics of existence made a lot of room for judgement. He explains how an ancient text known as the almanac was meant to serve as an aid to judgement. Even though the almanac set out all kinds of formal principles, it was not to be taken as prescriptive, but as instructive, as providing a set of analytical tools that would be aids to judgement: “the almanac is thus not to be read as a set of imperative recipes but as strategic principles that one must know how to adapt to circumstances” (Foucault, 1984, 111). To me it seems like an aesthetic theory of existence, if it is to propose principles, must propose them tentatively, and must always defer to judgement. Zen also seems to advocate a loose application of principles that are to give way to judgement and the particulars of circumstance. “The teaching or the rules,” Suzuki argues, “should be changed according to the place, or according to the people who observed them, but the secret of this practice cannot be changed. It is always true” (Suzuki, 67). This is why there can be “no particular way in true practice. You should find your own way, and you should know what kind of practice you have right now” (Suzuki, 81).
One way that I think that this emphasis on judgement relates to Collingwood’s definition of aesthetics is in what I think of as ‘the attitude of modernity’. An idea of Foucault’s and one that Collingwood advocates, in which our primary concern is the quality of our contemporary moment. Basically the idea that modernity is qualitative and not chronological, and that it is all about having a concern for the self in the present, our reality right now in this historical moment. Collingwood says that the aesthetician should be concerned with the realities of his own time and place, the realities of his situation. Similarly, Suzuki frames the Buddha as a very ‘modern’ figure in this sense. He says that “Buddha was not interested in the elements comprising human beings, not in metaphysical theories of existence. He was more concerned about how he himself existed in this moment. That was his point. Bread is made from flour. How flour becomes bread when put in the oven was for Buddha the most important thing. How we become enlightened was his main interest. The enlightened person is some perfect, desirable character, for himself and for others. Buddha wanted to find out how human beings develop this ideal character–how various sages in the past became sages. In order to find out how dough became perfect bread, he made it over and over again, until he became quite successful. That was his practice” (Suzuki, 54). It seems that Buddhism, too, is concerned with the realities of particular times and places, and not with universal properties of humanity. This is why both Zen and art must defer to judgement, because there is no identifiable universality in the social world that would allow us to prescribe any type of action. Or, as Suzuki says, “No school should consider itself a separate school. It should just be one tentative form of Buddhism” (161). Furthermore, Suzuki was explicitly concerned with finding a form of Zen that would be applicable to modern American life, which is perhaps what I’m concerned with here. He said, “I think we must establish an American way of Zen life” (Suzuki, 175). Interesting stuff.
In this section I should have made a few things clear. I tried to explain how consciousness is a key factor in both aesthetics and Zen. I then tried to explain how that implies that Zen could be a way to turn our lives into a constant process of imaginatively expressing our emotions. I then tried to explain how judgement is also a crucial factor in aesthetic living and Zen. Finally, I tried to explain how the attitude of modernity is implicated in both the aesthetic theory and Zen. So I am just moving towards a comparison between this idea of an aesthetic existence and the ideas of Zen. It seems to me that both Zen and the aesthetic theory need to revolve around the conscious expression of ourselves in every moment, the supremacy of judgement, and the attitude of modernity. Now I’ll try to talk about this stuff in relation to language.
10. Language, Zen, and Social Life As Art
Now, seeing as how Collingwood concludes that all art must be a form of language, I feel like I have to address the role of language in this supposed aesthetic theory of life. There are several things that I want to try and bring together in this section. The two major things I want to deal with are 1. Collingwood’s explicit claim that every use of language can become a work of art, and 2. Suzuki’s explicit claim that Zen can turn life into art. I might try to use John Searle’s work at some point in this section, but it isn’t yet clear to me how that would actually work. So then I’m just going to deal primarily with Collingwood and Zen.
Now in The Principles Of Art Collingwood is trying to accomplish a very specific task. He is attempting to create an aesthetic theory that will help us understand the aesthetic experience, that will help us understand the process of emotional expression. As a result he only touches on the idea that life itself can be an art in passing. He is so preoccupied with disentangling art and craft, with creating a theory of the imagination and a theory of language, that he is unable to address life as an art form at any significant length. This question of life as an art, however, was my explicit reason for picking up the book. So from the very start I was asking Collingwood ‘What can you tell me about art and creativity in my daily life? How will your aesthetic theory help me live a more expressive life?’ And these art in fact the questions I am taking up in this larger piece of writing. I am not faulting Collingwood for not taking up the question of life as an art at greater length. His task was much more specific than that. I applaud him for his valiant effort at creating a theory of the aesthetic process.
And while Collingwood is not able to address the issue of life as an art at length, he does address it explicitly. At several points he hints at the general import of an aesthetic theory. In the preface of the book, for example, he begins to ask questions about the role of aesthetic theory in everyday life."Is this so-called philosophy of art a mere intellectual exercise,” he asks, “or has it practical consequences bearing on the way in which we ought to approach the practice of art (whether as artists or as audience) and hence, because a philosophy of art is a theory as to the place of art in life as a whole, the practice of life?" (vii). “[T]he alternative I accept,” he concludes, “is the second one” (vii). So from the very start Collingwood hints at the importance of aesthetic theory for all existence. There are other moments in the book in which he hints at the importance of aesthetics in everyday life. This comes out, for example, in his views on writing: “There can be no such thing as inartistic writing, unless that means merely bad writing. And there can be no such thing as artistic writing; there is only writing” (298). How is it that there can be no good or bad writing? How is all writing artistic? Well, this must mean that if it is genuine writing then it is expressive, and if it is genuinely expressive, then it must be artistic. This confuses me a little bit because I know a lot of people who write papers that they don’t find particularly expressive. But maybe that is just bad writing.
And then on page 285 Collingwood drops the bomb. He says in no uncertain terms that all of life can become a work of art. Furthermore, that not only can life become art, but that good life depends on life becoming art. He insists that the health of communities depends on individuals being able to honestly express themselves to one another. And in this way art, as a process of imaginatively expressing our emotions, is something that is vital to our everyday social lives. This long quotation should make this quite clear: “Just as the life of a community depends for its very exist on honest dealing between man and man, the guardianship of this honesty being vested not in any one class or section, but in all and sundry, so the effort towards expression of emotions, the effort to overcome corruption of consciousness, is an effort that has to be made not by specialists only but by every one who uses language, whenever he uses it. Every utterance and every gesture that each one of us makes is a work of art. It is important to each of of us that in making them, however much he deceives others, he should not deceive himself. If he deceives himself in this matter, he has sown in himself a seed which, unless he roots it up again, may grow into any kind of stupidity and folly and insanity. Bad art, the corrupt consciousness, is the true radix malorum” (285). He couldn’t be more explicit. When I read this I freaked out a little bit. I was on the bus. I wrote in the margins “Yes, yes, yes! Life as art. I’ve been waiting the whole book for him to make this explicit. War in our minds. Creativity. It is all related. Wow.”
Life itself must become an art if we are to have the most rewarding social lives possible. Furthermore, the aesthetic life must be enacted through language. Only by expressing ourselves through language will we be able to understand ourselves and others. If we are willing to exert our consciousness at our own experiences, raise them to the imaginative level, and express them to others, we will be enriching our own lives, and we will be communicating clearly to other people. The best way to communicate, in most instances, I suspect, is simply to express. Sure, sometimes we just have to communicate, but expression is better.
Furthermore, this also has implications for how understand other people. If you recall Collingwood’s discussion of how language works, you will remember that we can only understand people’s expression if we are willing to express those emotions for ourselves. So, if we become adept at expressing our own emotions, we will therefore become better at expressing the emotions that other people express to us, thus understanding them better. The aesthetic life is thus person and social. It hinges on language, both as we use it and as we hear it.
I’m not sure if this sounds too bald. I suspect it does. But I’m having a hard time doing more than quoting this passage and restating what it means. It means that the way we use language is of the utmost importance. If we wish to use it in shallow ways, we can simply run through the motions, avoid our serious emotions, and allow our consciousness to be corrupt, as Collingwood would say. Or we can use our consciousness to show down our deepest emotions, call them out, clarify them through a process of expression, and transform moments of our life into a work of art.
I suppose i’ve just stumbled upon one point that I ought to make explicit. It is not that life itself, in its entirety, is to become a work of art (although that would be nice). But rather it is about turning particular instances of expression into works of art. Collingwood stresses the point that everyone has to struggle against the corruption of consciousness, that everyone has to work hard at expressing themselves in an artistic way. “Corruption of consciousness,” he says “is not a recondite sin or a remote calamity which overcomes only an unfortunate or accursed few; it is a constant experience in the life of every artist, and his life is a constant and, on the whole, a successful warfare against it. But this warfare always involves a very present possibility of defeat; and then a certain corruption becomes inveterate” (284). So it wouldn’t be that life itself as a whole suddenly became a work of art, but that certain moments of life can become works of art through expression. This is why Collingwood says that “Every utterance and every gesture that each one of us makes is a work of art.” Not life itself, but instances of language can become art. I suppose, however, that if we can manage to wage a constant struggle against our own minds, if we can be persistent and disciplined, then it would be possible to turn the bulk of our lives into a work of art. But that might be a tall order. It is still important, though, to recognize that we can become existential artist in every instance that we try hard to express ourselves.
Now, I think I’ve done enough explication of Collingwood’s claims about life as an art form. It should be clear that it has to involve the conscious expression of ourselves through language, and that it has serious implications for how we interact with ourselves and with others. Now I’d like to try and explain how Zen places a similar emphasis on consciousness and language, and how Zen might be a way to enact this aesthetic existence.
Now in looking at Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind I had all of these ideas on my mind. I was curious about how Suzuki regarded language, consciousness, and expression. So I ended up seeing that Suzuki had similar things to say. He regards consciousness as crucial element in the practice of Zen, and regards expression and language as important. Above I explained how consciousness was a crucial point, so the previous section should have taken care of that. But here I want to present some quotations to show that Suzuki was also concerned with language. At one point Suzuki expresses a view on language that reminds me of Collingwood. He talks about how language is a broad phenomenon of expression that goes beyond words:“To understand your master’s words, or your master’s language, is to understand your master himself. And when you understand him, you find his language is not just ordinary language, but language in its wider sense. Through your master’s language, you understand more than what his words actually say” (Suzuki, 101). This seems like a weak quotation, and a weak connection to me. But I don’t want to just delete the quotation. Either way, it seems that Suzuki regards language as a broad phenomenon of expression and communication.
I find this curious because Suzuki also talks about how everyday life needs to be imbued with Zen practice. We are not only practicing Zen when we are meditating. On the contrary, “whatever you do is practice” (Suzuki, 108). Suzuki seems to think that this process of practicing Zen everyday is embedded in a social world of other people. He says that “everything makes up the quality of your being. I am part of you. I go into the quality of your being. So in this practice we have absolute liberation from everything else. If you understand this secret there is no difference between Zen practice and your everyday life. You can interpret everything as you wish” (Suzuki, 128). We are not simply us, existing in a vacuum, we are beings that are constituted by all the things around us. At the end of the day, however, Zen is not so be a rigid or formal practice, but rather a relaxed an open system that leaves room for judgement and circumstance:“Although our practice looks very formal, our minds are not formal” (Suzuki, 107).
The connections I’m making to Zen, I think, are strong, are legitimate, are there. But I don’t feel that the quotations I am using really demonstrate that. In the previous section, however, I do have a quotation from Suzuki saying that with a Zen attitude life itself can become art. It seems obvious that Zen has a lot to do with consciousness and awareness, that is has something to do with language. I am not very well read on Zen. It will be something for me to read much more about in the future.
But it seems obvious that Collingwood believed that every act of expression in the social world could and should become a work of art. The aesthetic existence is very real for Collingwood. There is something that should be called an aesthetic theory of existence. I believe it can be done. It would mean expressing our emotions through language, subjecting our minds to the power of our consciousness, not eschewing the expression of our emotions because it hurts too much.
God I can’t even tell you how much this matters to me personally. I can identify moments in my life in which I have been destroyed by the power of my emotions. I can tell you all about the shame I’ve felt, about the embarrassment I’ve felt, about the pain I’ve felt. I can tell you all about how corrupt my consciousness was, about how incapable I was of tackling my own feelings. How much I would just cry and whimper with my own silence, a self-imposed silence that I would have given anything to break free from. I couldn’t free myself, though. I was too wounded, too sad, too incapable of identifying my own feelings, of expressing my own feelings. I want to express myself because I don’t want to be dominated by my emotions. I want to express myself because I don’t want other people to be dominated by their emotions. I want so badly to believe that I have shown down my emotions, that I have exerted myself, used my consciousness to look at my own life and my own feelings. I want to believe that I have looked into the darkest dark of my heart of hearts and said , ‘oh I see you, and I know what you feel’. I won’t elaborate my personal woes in this essay because this is a place for abstraction. My mind is the place where this abstraction will blend with and modify my actual emotions and feelings. I feel myself changing with every page of expression. I want to keep going, to keep expressing, to keep becoming. I want to be an artist because I want to be in control of myself, I don’t want to be dominated by secrets that dwell within me.
Now that I’ve tried to show that Collingwood believed in the aesthetic existence, and tried to argue that Suzuki also believes in the aesthetic existence, I would like to spend a little bit of time integrating craft. Craft always has to be a part of art. It is undeniable. If this is so, then I must ask the question, ‘What is the role of craft in the aesthetic existence?’
11. The Role Of Craft In The Aesthetic Existence: Politeness, Tact, And Small Talk
Now as I said above, craft must always play a part in art. A poet must have a certain proficiency with words, he must be adept with certain techniques. Same thing with painters and their instruments, same thing with sculptors. Artists cannot avoid technique and craft. Craft, however, is useful only so long as it is put in service of art.
So then what are the necessary elements of social craft and technique that we would need to be proficient with in order to enact the aesthetic existence? What forms of social craft would have to be put in service of our social art? Well, the general argument I’ll be explicating is one about the relative and determinant nature of social existence. What I mean is this: the way that we interact in the social world is not up to us. Rather, we must operate within certain guidelines that have been historically constituted. What I mean is that the standards of social interactions exist without our consent, standards of politeness and tact exist before we our born. In order to enact an aesthetic existence, therefore, we have to be proficient at the forms of social craft that are demanded of us. In particular, we need to be comfortable with our societies established norms of politeness, tact, and small talk.
Politeness is such an important part of interacting with people in the social world. We need to know how to say hello, thank you, goodbye, your welcome, and so on. All these different phrases that can feel so frustrating, so trite, so confining. But guess what, if you don’t know them, if you don’t abide by them you won’t even have a chance of interacting comfortable. Imagine a world in which you approach people without these ‘formalities’, in which you don’t say hello or goodbye or nice to meet you. Think about tact. Think about restraining yourself, not always telling people exactly what you think, or how you disapprove of them. Think about a world in which you don’t know how to be tactful. You won’t go anywhere. Small talk is so important, as well, and contains both politeness and small talk. You need to know how to ask people how there days are going, how they are feeling about Friday, what they are looking forward to. You can’t plunge into the raw depths of their lives and their emotions, you have to traverse their borders by using these established social conventions. Tact, politeness, and small talk, are all formalities. Pre-established formalities that structure the way that we interact with others. Utilizing these social devices is something like a craft. We have to use language with a preconceived plan in mind. We know what we are doing when we ask someone how their day is, when we use these conventional lines to ask them about their feelings. But we don’t just do it to do it. We don’t just run the god damn lines and thats it.
I only engage with these pre-established social conventions, these social crafts, so that I can transcend them and attain the status of art. Other people, however, I fear are trapped by these social conventions. When I talk to someone at work, I ask them how their day is going, and if they say ‘good’ without any hesitation I cringe on the inside because I don’t believe them. I think they have mistaken social craft as something that exists in its own right. They seem to have tacitly accepted that all social interactions need to be run along a certain type of script. While reading Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia I was reminded of this point. He is quite explicit when he says that “Words in their entirety are coming to resemble the formulae which used to be reserved for greeting and leave-taking.... Spontaneity and objectivity in discussing matters are disappearing even in the most intimate circle, just as in politics debate has long since been supplanted by the assertion of power. Speaking takes on a malevolent set of gestures that bode no good” (Adorno, 90). Are we really so trapped by our scripts? Is our language really so stale and conventional? Is our capacity for genuine really so suffocated by the established rhythms of social interactions?
But for me, when I ask someone how they are today, when I ask familiar questions, I really want to know. I only use those elements of social craft so that I can to a place in which we are both comfortable expressing ourselves. I ask my acquaintances how they are feeling today, and they could just say good, but instead I hope that they take the hint and they really begin expressing themselves. I hope they tell me how they are feeling excited, or feeling sad, or feeling angry. So what if a conventional question prompted them to speak in those ways. The point is to use social craft (tact, politeness, small talk) to elevate a conversation to the level of expression and art. I think that this makes a lot of sense. I think that we need to learn and dominate our society’s rules for interaction so that we can begin to express within them. Just as Renaissance poets used the poetic form of their time to express themselves, we need to learn to use the social form of our time to express ourselves. Because there is an enormous amount of room for expression within the world of social conventions. It is simply a fact that we have to learn within them.
This also brings me back to art and the attitude of modernity. We have to ask ourselves ‘What is this world we live in? What is this present that is mine? What are the conventions that structure my interactions?’ We ask the modern questions, we apprehend the age, we apprehend ourselves, and then we assert ourselves within that world. Furthermore, Foucault advocated this type of idea for the aesthetics of existence. In The Use Of Pleasure he explains how it is that individuals must act within certain historically constituted structures and guidelines. “I am interested...,” he said, “in the way in which the subject constitutes himself in an active fashion, by the practices of the self, these practices are nevertheless not something that the individual invents by himself. They are patterns that he finds in his culture and which are proposed, suggested and imposed on him by his culture, his society and his social group” (Foucault, 1984, 11). The practices of the self that I use are not my own, they are those of my time and place. I ask people how it is going, I ask them how their day is going, how their Friday is, not because of how I feel, but because of how the age feels. But if we can’t get past this structure of our lives then we won’t be able express ourselves. We need to learn how to operate along the lines of craft that our society has established for us so that we can express ourselves within those structures. We will never lead an aesthetic life unless we reckon with the politeness, the tact, the small talk, the craft that our society demands.
This brings me to a point that I’d like to make more explicitly: that all art, all choice, and all life is inherently relative.
12. The Relative Nature of Art, Choice, And Life: We Are Partially Determined, Get Over It
In the last section on craft I was trying to tell you that if we want to live an expressive aesthetic life we need to be comfortable with certain forms of social craft. If we want to express ourselves we need to understand that we need to know how to express ourselves along certain lines. That point, however, is part of a larger point: that everything we do in the social world, be it art, decision making, or existence, is always relative, always stands in relation to other historical and social facts. I think that I need to note this point because it is something that Collingwood, Foucault, and John Gray all emphasize. So let me tell you a little about this by discussing art, by discussing choice, and by discussing life as relative phenomena.
Now Collingwood, being the historian he was, recognized that all of life had to stand in relation to others and in relation to our history. He puts the point rather plainly: “But a man, in his art as in everything else, is a finite being. Everything that he does is done in relation to others like himself” (316). Collingwood clearly understands that everything we do has to be grounded in relation to all other things in our society and in our history. He even extended this conclusion to the notion of choice. “In order to choose, in the strict sense of that word,” he argued, “which feeling he shall attend to, he must first have attended to them all. The freedom of consciousness is thus not a freedom of choice between alternatives, that is a further kind of freedom, which arises only when experience reaches the level of intellect” (208). In order to really choose we need to have a full of understanding of every single option and all the outcomes. This seems to me to imply the primacy of judgement. We, obviously, can never know all the possibilities in any situation. We always have to be making judgements, therefore. Think of our recent post on the relative nature of choice, the issue of possibilities and inclinations.
I think that Collingwood’s stance on art and choice as relative phenomenon that are always embedded in a network of relationships corroborates my idea that the aesthetic existence needs to be enacted by embracing its relationship with necessary forms of social craft, such as tact and small talk. Furthermore, both Foucault and Gray argue that humans cannot be understood outside of their relationships with history and society. In fact, Foucault’s claims about the aesthetics of existence account for the relative nature of life. Now, recall that Foucault’s exposition of the Greek aesthetics of existence revolves around the notion of self-mastery and how it could give rise to an expressive and beautiful existence. He argues that “the mode of being to which this self-mastery gave access was characterized as an active freedom, a freedom that was indissociable from a structural, instrumental, and ontological relation to truth” (Foucault, 92). In short, that a self-mastery, a disciplined expressiveness, an aesthetic existence, cannot exist except in relation to the conventions of a particular time and place.
John Gray advocates a similar idea in Enlightenment’s Wake. He chastises liberal theorists for speaking of ‘Man’ and ‘Civilization’ as if though they were timeless constants. Instead, Gray advocates a historicist perspective on human subjects and the choices that they encounter. This is precisely what I believe an aesthetic existence hinges upon: the recognition that our interactions are embedded in and structured by certain historical contingencies that need be reckoned with and navigated accordingly. Gray puts the point succinctly: “The conception of the autonomous human subject, though it is a central one in contemporary liberal thought... easily degenerates into a dangerous fiction. In its common uses, the idea of autonomy neglects the central role in human life of chance and fate.... And it sanctifies that fiction of liberal philosophy, the fiction of the unsituated human subject, which is the author of its ends and creator of the values in its life” (Gray, 164). We do not simply ‘choose’ our fate, we navigate a world of determinism. We work in relation to all kinds of different phenomena. If we want to live an expressive aesthetic existence we can’t think of ourselves as simply ‘rational humans’ that possess unhindered ‘free will’. We need to recognize how very relational all of our expression, choices are, how relative our entire lives are. Gray thinks it is very dangerous to rely too much on this of an autonomous and choosing human subject. He argues that “the ideal of autonomy has the clear danger of reinforcing the excesses of individualism promoted in neo-liberal thought and policy by further undervaluing the human need for common forms of life. All that is of value in the subtler liberal conception of autonomy can be captured, without the excesses of individualism, in the ideas of independence and enablement, where the human subjects that are so enabled are not the noumenal fictions of liberal theory but flesh and blood practitioners of particular, historically constituted forms of life” (Gray, 164). We are, indeed, living a particular and historically constituted life. The aesthetic existence cannot be enacted without realizing how embedded we are in a particular culture, in a particular history.
In this section I was trying to corroborate the claims i made about social craft in the aesthetic existence. I wanted to use Collingwood, Foucault, and Gray to argue that we can only understand our art, our choices, and our lives as relative phenomena. I think I can best live an aesthetic expressive life by reckoning with how relative and embedded my actions are in this particular culture and history.
13. Concluding Part II.2
I want to live an artistic life so that I feel less trapped by my emotions, by my society, and by my history. In this section I was trying roughly to elaborate this idea of an aesthetic theory of existence. I tried to explain how Foucault’s work in The Use Of Pleasure initially planted the seeds for this idea, and how my later reading on neuroplasticity pushed these ideas even further into my mind. I then tried to explore the connections between Zen and this aesthetic theory of life. In particular, I tried to pay attention to their emphasis on consciousness, language, and expression. It seems to me that Zen and Collingwood’s definition both center around these key concepts, and that both of them provide insights that can help us turn our lives into a project of expression, into an aesthetic experience. Finally I tried to explain how this aesthetic expressive existence needs to be grounded in the world of established social conventions. I tried to explain how this was an element of social craft that we needed to master in order to lead an aesthetic life. We need to be comfortable with the conventions of small talk and politeness so that we can express ourselves. I just wanted to explain how expression always needs to be a relative process, and therefore how the aesthetic life needs to be anchored by certain forms of social craft. I then tried to corroborate this argument by arguing generally for a view of humans as historistic and embedded in certain cultural traditions. If we accept Collingwood, Foucault, and especially Gray’s arguments that we are essentially historical beings that function only in relation to our particular cultures and societies, then we cannot but embrace the relative nature of all of our choices and expression. I have hopefully explained, therefore, how it is that an aesthetic existence is about consciously expressing emotions as frequently as possible by recognizing how our expression is structured by and embedded within a certain cultural and historical climate. In this way I can hopefully turn social craft, which is predetermined, into an aesthetic existence, which is expressive, new, open, novel, and creative.
Now that I've roughly defined this notion of the aesthetic existence, I would like to spend some time trying to specify precisely how we would do it. What would it look like? What would aesthetic social interactions be like?