Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Aesthetic Morality. The Minimal Division Of Attention. The Maximum Unity Of Mind.

I continue to situate my thinking at the intersection of art, culture, and politics.

I, however, am beginning to associate myself with the issue of morality. 'Moral philosophy' or whatever. Not the most useful category. But an important one.

The idea of morality and moral action is clearly implicated in my thinking, yet I have failed to use the word.  But it seems so obvious!

Because the thing I have been most involved with is the definition and cultivation of an attitude. I have tried to elaborate a style of living, a way of being, and I have tried, so far as possible, to embody that attitude.

Further, I have identified this attitude primarily with aesthetics. By choosing aesthetics as the basis of morality, I was picking up a line of thought that Foucault initiated at the end of his life. "Recent liberation movements," he said in 1983, "suffer from the fact that they cannot find any principle on which to base the elaboration of a new ethics. They need an ethics, but they cannot find any other ethics than an ethics founded on so-called scientific knowledge of what the self is, what desire is, what the unconscious is, and so on" (Foucault Reader, 343). Foucault believed that a new ethics could be found if we were willing to engage in historical study. In particular, Foucault believed that the ancient Greek notion of the 'aesthetics of existence', in which life itself is conceptualized as a work of art meant to be actively created, could be a useful starting point for modern ethics: "Among the cultural inventions of mankind," he argued, "there is a treasury of devices, techniques, ideas, procedures, and so on, that cannot be exactly reactivated, but at least constitute, or help to constitute, a certain point of view which can be very useful as a tool for analyzing what's going on now–and to change it" (Ibid., 349 - 350). For Foucault, the Greek aesthetics of existence was this starting point. It was a technique that we could repeat so as to arrive at something new for ourselves. Morality was somehow to be found in the belief that "everyone's life could become a work of art...." (Ibid.,). Morality, for Foucault, then, had to be found outside of the dominant scientific discourse of our day. And the Greek notion of aesthetics as the basis of morality was his starting point for the elaboration of a new ethics.

This is the idea that I have been most occupied with for the last year and a half. The question of how to constitute a new form of morality. One that finds its primary reference in aesthetics. One that is politically relevant. One that escapes the pressures put on us by modern forms of thought and morality.

My recent inclination towards the language of morality is also influenced by two other factors. First being my new essay that I'm working on, 'Nihilism, Magic, And Amusement', and the fact that I just received a copy of Alasdair MacIntyre's well known book After Virtue: A Study In Moral Theory. John Gray works with MacIntyre in Enlightenment's Wake, claiming that he properly identifies our problem as the collapse of the Enlightenment project. Both Gray and MacIntyre argue that the Enlightenment project has exhausted itself, failing to provide any basis for individual or political morality. MacIntyre's conclusion is quite radical: "Marxism's moral defects and failures arise from the extent to which it, like liberal individualism, embodies the ethos of the distinctively modern and modernizing world, and that nothing less than a rejection of a large part of that ethos will provide us with a rationally and morally defensible standpoint from which to judge and to act – and in terms of which to evaluate various rival and heterogeneous moral schemes which compete for our allegiance" (After Virtue, xviii). Although he references Marxism, his claim reaches far beyond it, aiming at the core of modern Western morality.

This is also Gray's conclusion: Modern attempts to rationally ground morality have failed. The modern project, the project of the Enlightenment, has left us in a state of cultural nihilism. We need a new way to conceptualize morality, we need fresh thought on the moral and political issues our society face. Gray believes that 'humiliated modes of thought found in poetry and mysticism' may be the answer. Foucault believes aesthetics is the answer. Schiller seems to believe that aesthetics is the antidote. Collingwood does too.

My conception of aesthetic morality, the aesthetic existence, is therefore in response to a real cultural-political situation: the state of nihilism brought on by the collapse of the Enlightenment project.

We thus have the situation and the response. We have cultural and political nihilism, and we have aesthetic morality. How impossible it seems, though, that we can ground morality in aesthetics. We seem too far gone. But I gotta try.

When I first began this writing I intended to explore two very different ideas. But then I got wrapped up in the language of morality. But I'd like to discuss those now.

I just want to briefly highlight two of the things that the aesthetic existence strives for, as I see it. The first is what I am calling 'the minimal division of attention'. The second is 'the maximum unity of mind'.

The minimal division of attention is a phrase that is supposed to communicate the goal of mindfulness, which is essential to the idea of aesthetic morality. Both Buddhism and aesthetics place a lot of emphasis on the role of consciousness. In both, consciousness primarily means awareness. And awareness is a tool that is to be purposefully used and managed.

Think about the way we use our attention. We can direct it somewhere, we can purposefully focus on something. Or sometimes we get distracted. Sometimes I'm at work and I'm doing something, then I hear something, someone says something to me, and my attention becomes divided. I continue doing what I'm doing, I still make the latte, but my attention is divided, and I'm paying attention to a conversation or a person instead of devoting my attention to the drink at hand. As a result, I may not even remember making the drink. I might make it wrong. Something may have gone wrong. All of this because my attention was divided.

An important thing to strive for, therefore, is the minimal division of attention. It is impossible to have an entirely focused attention. I will always be thinking about other things. There will always be some concern in the back of my mind. Some thought of the past or future dividing my attention. But it is a useful ideal to strive for the minimal division of attention. Focus as much as possible on the tasks at hand.  Aesthetic morality strives for this kind of focus of attention, this kind of mindfulness.

The second thing that aesthetic morality strives for is the maximum unity of mind. One byproduct of the modern spirit of enquiry is the intense segregation of forms of knowledge. As Collingwood says, with the advent of modern thinking "no man can serve two masters; he must give his whole soul to art, or to religion, or to philosophy, and in choosing his friends he chooses at the same time his enemies" (Speculum Mentis, 33). Modern disciplining of knowledge does not just divide knowledge abstractly, it divides our minds and hearts. Moreover, this disciplining does not emerge merely from the sciences, but is implicated in modern forms of government. Schiller argues that the "more precisely speculation made necessary a sharper division of the sciences on the one hand, and on the other, the more intricate machinery of States made necessary  a more rigorous dissociation of ranks and occupations, the essential bond of human nature was torn apart, and a ruinous conflict set its harmonious powers at variance" (On The Aesthetic Education Of Man, 39). We are thus divided in both our intellectual and political lives. We can no longer exist with the unity of mind that existed before the advent of modern forms of thought and government. The Enlightenment project's goal of rationally organizing society's has destroyed our ritualistic ways of life, leaving us in a state of nihilism, and personal and communal division.

Unity of mind is thus an important thing. It matters how comfortably we can corral our experiences into a coherent sense of self and community. And the aesthetic existence strives for this unity of mind. The aesthetic existence is one in which choices "reflect an individual's authentic sense of reality, not the holding of a certain course in accordance with markings on a moral compass constructed by others" (Sumida, 1997, xvi). The aesthetic existence strives for a unity of mind. Collingwood puts all of this quite succinctly: “What is wrong with us is precisely the detachment of these forms of experience–art, religion, and the rest–from one another; and our cure can only be their reunion in a complete and undivided life. Our task is to seek for that life, to build up the conception of an activity which is at once art, and religion, and science, and the rest” (Speculum Mentis, 36).

The task of seeking the unity of mind is a difficult one. And clearly it cannot be expressed merely by an aesthetic existence. Because it must also be a religious, scientific, historical, and philosophical life. But, frankly, science, history, and philosophy sit quite easily in my mind. The task, then, is the recovery of religious-aesthetic forms of experience. For only by reintroducing those forms of experience can we integrate them with our scientific, historical, and philosophical modes of thought.

The aesthetic existence thus seeks mindfulness (the minimal division of attention) and a total sense of reality (the maximum unity of mind).

This was a weird writing session. Took a bit and took some weird turns.

But this is where I'm situating myself these days. I am trying to overcome the era's cultural nihilism by trying to define an attitude that strives for the focusing of attention and the unity of mind. And I believe that this attitude deserves the label 'aesthetic'.

Don't be distracted! Don't be divided!

Pay attention and feel unified!

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