Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Experience Machines and Their Ratification III: Aesthetics and Religions, a Minor Distinction

Aesthetics and Religions: A Minor Distinction

A distinction between the two main ultimately-not-very-distinct types of homegrown Experience Machines will help communicate the meaning of that term as I use it. The filling out of the category is more important than the distinction.

Art requires obstruction; pure, limitless freedom is the death of art. An aesthetic is necessary for the creation and experience of art. This aesthetic need not be explicit or articulable, and frequently includes inarticulable elements. But even purely legible rule sets can create much of the aesthetic context that art needs in order to be meaningful. Dogme 95 (and von Trier's The Five Obstructions) illustrate the salubrious effects of even almost random limitations on art. Dennett and Hofstadter praise the practice of JOOTSing, or jumping out of the system; an aesthetic or cognitive leap requires a system to jump out of. Without any such system or any limitations, we see shark jumping on the level of contemporary fine art rather than the creation of meaningful experiences.

Religions also allow us to create meaningful experiences from the random chaos of sensory experience we perceive - especially those scary experiences in which our best theory doesn't match up with reality. They allow us to believe, and to interpret our experiences to support, that we have a meaningful role to play in the heart of something that is deeply meaningful in and of itself.

It is often difficult to tell aesthetics from religions - if in fact there is a difference. Both aesthetics and religions are created and maintained socially; they promote intra-tribal bonding in natural and synthetic tribes, and also outsider identification and rejection. Both are experience selection devices that help us produce, select, reject, and interpret particular experiences. They are culturally evolved, and are variable but display observable patterns.

The major difference is that aesthetics are much more explicit than religions about pointing to the experience itself, rather than to something higher beyond the experience. Many aesthetics demand that the experience itself be recognized as the ultimate value; food criticism (along with many other aesthetic domains) has a morality of focusing on the eating experience itself, and within that domain, focusing on anything but the experience (such as social signaling) is a shameful sin. Religions, on the other hand, generally claim to point to a higher something, an ultimate value that the experience only evidences and does not subsume. The proper pursuit of this "higher something" leads to meaningful experiences, but the point is not the meaningful experiences but the higher something. Insight porn is an aesthetic; truth seeking is a religion.

One layer of meaning, one layer of about-ness, separates the aesthetic from the religion. But wild specimens need not be tidily, lumpily categorized one way or the other; frequently they display characteristics of both. Experience Machines that are clearly aesthetics if anything may use pointing-to-something-higher in order to produce experiences, and those that clearly seem to be religions may use honest, conscious experience selection.

It is common, for example, for aesthetics, not just religions, to promote magical thinking regarding objects in order to produce meaningful aesthetic experiences. The magical history of objects motivates much appreciation and meaningfully contextualizes rapture. This summer, I was able to hear Jing Wang as concert master playing Mahler's Third Symphony. I had really never particularly noticed the first violin in that symphony, and was not informed enough to be expecting anything special in that department. Hearing Jing Wang, though, with my mouth open and tears streaming down my face, it was immediately perceptible that he was the most special part of the experience. Reading the program after the show, I learned that he plays a special violin made by a master in the year 1700; this seemed to explain and contextualize some of the awe that I'd felt listening to him.

There is a common perception among serious violin players (and many classical music snobs) that old violins produce sounds that are not duplicable by modern violins. The magical history of the object, its induplicable nonfungibility, produces a similarly magical sound. I later found out (from Will Newsome) that this idea is pretend. At least, one study found that serious violinists wearing blindfolds did not consistently prefer ancient violins to modern ones after playing both, and in fact frequently preferred modern violins while identifying them as sounding older, and identified genuinely older violins as sounding too new.

If beliefs were just "about" correctness and experimental validity, we would expect violinists and snobs to carefully update on this information. However, I would not expect nor even necessarily recommend this updating. The magical belief about old violins, I think, functions not for the purpose of making correct predictions about the world, but for social reasons, including in-group identification and bonding and satisfying the need to elevate and give meaning to rapturous experiences - experiences bought at the cost of inhuman hours of practice. It is not just any lie - it is part of an Experience Machine.

Buddhism, generally identified as a religion, seems to be on the aesthetic side of the divide in the distinction presented here. It offers cognitive techniques (such as mortality salience inductions and meditation) that are explicitly designed to cause the experience of liberation. The "something greater" that various forms of Buddhism point to (such as liberation for all in Mahayana Buddhism) seem to be more afterthoughts than central to the project, though some forms of Buddhism embrace more woo than others. At its core, though, it is not so much directed at a thing for its own sake, but for the experience (and rejection of experience, namely that of suffering) that it claims to be able to provide.

A further set of examples will demonstrate the enmeshment of aesthetic and religion. (Hopefully, reviewing outsider edge-cases will help us more clearly see our own, possibly more subtle religious and aesthetic Experience Machines.) The Five Percent Nation of Islam is an explicitly racist Islamic heresy that became a popular religious movement in the United States over the past few decades. Its doctrine provides that there is a tiny elite - the titular five percent - who are the Good Guys, aware of the truth and trying to spread light. Then there is a slightly less elite set of Bad Guys, and below that, a giant mob of sheeple (in Five Percent Nation speak, the eighty-five percent). Only black people (referred to as the "Asiatic Blackman") are truly people; white people are the devil. Despite its being an incredibly goofy religion, the Five Percent Nation managed to spawn one of the most productive religious artistic movements since the damn Shakers, including the Wu Tang Clan, Erykah Badu, and others among the most interesting, original musicians of the end of the last century. In this case, the religion serves as a social background upon which a musical aesthetic evolves, within which geniuses flourish. *

Another religious movement has recently evolved that is also explicitly racist and also utilizes the Nation of Islam's model of a tiny elite, an evil adversary group that is somewhat less elite, and an irrelevant mob of proles. This is the thing where a few modern humans (the elite good guys) evolved directly from Neanderthals, the evil less-elite humans evolved from Cro-Magnons, and the irrelevant mobs are, surprisingly, descended from an army genetically engineered by the ancient Cro-Magnon bad guys. The introductory come-on of this religion is the invitation to perceive an in-group aesthetic: as with n-rays, novices are invited to aesthetically perceive facial differences between modern humans to identify them as either Neanderthal or Cro-Magnon. This is a brilliant religious innovation, as aesthetic agreement over ambiguous stimuli can create a feeling of both understanding (insight) and connection to fellow perceivers.

Of course, the Five Percent Nation did not invent the Elite/Less elite/Prole masses structure (it shows up, among many other places, in Orwell's 1984, minus the existence of good guys). It is merely one of many common patterns that exist within the patterned variation of religion and aesthetic, selecting and shaping the experiences most people accept as genuine and real enough to justify life itself.


*The author was once personally laughed at by Busta Rhymes when Mr. Rhymes played a concert at her institution of undergraduate education; Mr. Rhymes asked the crowd if anyone was representing the Five Percent Nation of Islam on that particular evening and the author's enthusiastically positive response caused Mr. Rhymes to nearly crap himself laughing.

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