[Humanist] 26.100 aesthetic computing

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Jun 20 22:21:59 CEST 2012

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 26, No. 100.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Tue, 19 Jun 2012 21:19:50 -0400
        From: James Rovira <jamesrovira at gmail.com>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 26.95 aesthetic computing
        In-Reply-To: <20120618201642.551E72824AC at woodward.joyent.us>

Many thanks for Jascha and amsler for their recent contributions to the
aesthetic programming thread.

Amsler's response seemed to confirm much of what had been said previously
about the nature of aesthetic judgments on computer code -- they tend
toward valuing simplicity in the sense that more work for less code is
good, and valuing ease understanding the code (code that was written in
order to be understood, that is).  These judgments would be made within the
parameters and limitations of the medium (specific programming language).

Jascha's post reminded us of an age-old problem with aesthetic judgments,
and that's their relative nature:

> I suppose I refer to the absolute relativity expressed by the
> old phrase: *B**eauty is in the eye of the beholder.  *Call it what you
> will, eye, perceptor, phenomenal mass, whatever.  As each human being is
> unique [pace Kierkegaard], and a singularity, as it were, or so to say,
> from conception on, including identical twins, who part at delivery, first
> and second out into the world, all of that being's perceptions, the
> Æsthetic, will differ absolutely.

The problem that people writing about aesthetic judgments encounter is not
that they are absolutely arbitrary, but that they are both relative and
predictable -- which is more complex.  If aesthetic judgment was purely
subjective (hence unpredictable), aesthetics would not be a field of study.
 If aesthetic judgments were always predictable, then aesthetics would be a
branch of logic or mathematics rather than a study of emotional and
visceral responses to artistic products.

Both Hume and Kant would say that asserting that aesthetic judgments differ
absolutely is oversimple.  I don't think that's the case even in our
everyday experience -- we find that many people share the same judgment
that we do about many artistic products, and that is why artists can "play
to the crowd" when they want.  Kant attempted to resolve this difficulty by
introducing the idea of a "subjective universal" -- while our own
experience of a beautiful object is our own (subjective), people groups
tend to respond similarly.

Kant's argument in this part of the Critique of Judgment is fairly complex.
 He makes a number of distinctions, including distinctions between objects
that only give sensory satisfaction and objects that provoke the response
"That is beautiful."  If we're only thinking in terms of sensory
satisfaction (say, what flavor ice cream that we like), of course our
judgments will differ absolutely.

However, Kant argues that our judgment about the beauty of an object is
more than pure sensory gratification, like our love of a variety of flavors
of ice cream.  There's a process of reflection involved in our judgment of
beautiful objects -- perhaps not always an extended one, but reflection is
still present.  A man sees a woman and perhaps thinks that she's beautiful
immediately -- perhaps he is struck by her beauty -- but he can tell his
friend why he thinks that she is beautiful, though maybe only after
thinking about it for awhile.

But he can't really say why he likes Ben and Jerry's Mint Chocolate Chip
ice cream more than their Cherry Garcia or Chunky Monkey ice cream other
than to say that he likes mint more than cherry or banana and walnuts.  And
he probably can't tell you why he likes mint better.  He just does. There's
no real judgment involved in the preference of basic tastes.  I'm not
talking about the judgment of a chef, though, who might tell you whether or
not the broccoli casserole is a bad or good or great broccoli casserole --
a judgment the chef might hold even if he or she hated broccoli.

In the case of something beautiful (short for "aesthetically pleasing"),
Kant suggested that we find that part of the pleasure is in engaging our
mind in talking to others about the experience itself.  Again, we find this
pleasure in talking about an aesthetically pleasing object as being part of
the aesthetic experience to be a very common one -- when we really enjoy a
movie or book, we want to talk about it a lot more than when we enjoy a
really good bowl of ice cream (which usually just results in telling our
friends where to get this great ice cream).  I'm fairly certain that our
discussions about ice cream are much shorter than our discussions of books
and films, even among those who are neither critics nor chefs, because we
can only tell our friends where the ice cream is great, but not which
flavor they will like the best.

Think about ti this way: which of the following statements might provoke an
informed and rational argument?

I like chocolate better than vanilla ice cream (not, I like Ben and Jerry's
vanilla ice cream better than Haagan Das's vanilla ice cream -- which might
provoke an informed argument leading to objective criteria for "good
vanilla ice cream," which might still differ).

I think that the first Matrix film was better made than V for Vendetta
(not, I like Romantic Comedies better than Action films).

Jim R

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