The Aesthetic of Big Data (3)

I spent a fair amount of time in the last post on this topic to examine the shortfalls of big data memory, especially in its inability to engender human identity and therefore a coherent subjectivity. Without that, I argued, it is impossible to form any meaningful relationship with the world. This may sound phenomenological, but essential to our discussion of big data aesthetics, especially when we put it within a larger context of the recent threat from big data insurgence, namely that a lot of our daily activities are being dictated by empirical analysis of conceivable data to a point where our aesthetic experience is greatly diminished.

But is aesthetic necessarily subjective? Philosophers since time memorial have touched upon the subjectivity-aesthetic question, arguing whether there is such a thing as ‘beauty in itself’, or that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. But if beauty is entirely in itself, it bears no relation to its milieu, and can be grossly undervalued or undiscovered as long as the perceiver’s eye does not recognise it. This problem was pointed out by St Augustine who asked ‘whether something is beautiful because it pleases, or whether it pleases because it’s beautiful’.[1] Though Augustine would eventually subscribe to the objectivity of aesthetic, he nonetheless pointed to a crucial link that previous debated had completely overlooked. St Basil would later pick up this clue and reformulate beauty as something relational to subjects, emphasising on the personal meaning that object(ive) beauty confers on a subject. Expanding on this further, Vitelo raised the question of aesthetic experience – certainly a thing is beautiful by itself, but does everyone experience it to the same degree? Much immersed in his study of optics, he pondered on the question from the perspective of … perspectives. During Renaissance, beauty, or the idea of it, was transcended to an unprecedented height and was given the status of ‘holy’.[2]

Kant is entangled in the subjectiveness and the objectiveness of our perception

Reviewing this trajectory of development confirms the propensity of human beings to endow meanings to (if not invent the existence of) objective, in-itself qualities, which in fact culminated in Kant’s trump idea of ‘transcendental synthesis of imagination’[3] which springs from nowhere other than our unshakeable sureness of a continuous identity, which is at the crossroad of object and subject, knowledge and memory.[4] This identity forms the very foundation on which our judgement is formed. But Kant’s primary concern was not our judgement of taste, but one might argue that it is his ultimate goal – to understand human ability of not mathematical calculation but our artistic creation, and by virtue of which that human consciousness is to be elevated above that of other animals.

Yet, such attempt to understand art, or form our relationship with art, only emerged against the background of an Enlightenment awakening of subjectivity. Interestingly, Groys seems to identify the same period as the time when our modern understanding of art emerged as a product of globalisation, when we had to deduce a new universality from amongst a disparate array of artefacts.[5] If anything, Groys’s assumption serves to illustrate an impasse between self and non-self, exacerbated by the discovery of others as objects to gaze, observation and study. In The Dialectics of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno locate a precursor of such subject/object divide in the ‘rationalisation’ of myth by Homer. In the remaking of myth into epic, primitive knowledge (i.e. the knowledge of being) is turned into art, which in the history of epistemology is treated as a form of knowledge, objectifiable and therefore alienable. The fact that the epic is treated as oral history also speaks of the praxis that now defines the Enlightenment. In interpreting the Siren episode in Odyssey, Horkheimer points out the condition that art is ‘tolerated’ by an enlightened society ‘as long as [it] does not insist on being treated as knowledge, and thus exclude itself from praxis’.[6] This explains the suppression of purpose in Kant’s treatise on art. But art’s ancient claim to knowledge cannot be dismissed easily, and the power of the chthonic gods in ancient myths remains in the oracular nature of the genre itself. Kant’s elegant formulation of ‘purposiveness without purpose’ precisely evidences that tension that is resolved by reversing rationalised art to myth.

Interestingly though, if we look at how this dialectics plays out in contemporary art, we will see how ‘purpose’ and ‘purposiveness’ are manifested in completely different realms. Insofar as contemporary art is either critical, conceptual, or theoretical, they are pretence of knowledge masking an ultimate aim, determined by the ubiquitous market, of commercial gain. What’s more, there are artists who are unashamedly market-driven in their mass production, such as Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, whose alleged criticism of vile commercialism is embodied in the market value of the works they produce. Groys is most astute when he says that ‘the universal aspirations of Modernist art were substituted by the commercial aspirations to be successful on the international art market’. The forgetfulness evoked in the Siren’s song that the Enlightenment suppresses so hard and expunges out of the realm of knowledge is now embraced by ready-made, consumable and recognisable images, repeating one after another with a faint attempt of any real meaning – erased by the excess.

Persistence of Memory (19310) Salvador Dali (C) Museum of Modern Art

Persistence of Memory (19310) Salvador Dali (C) Museum of Modern Art

Such ‘automation of thinking’, whether it inspires praise or lamentation, is evident in the advent of big data, on which public opinion, taste or even intellectual pursuit follow like loyal disciples. Outside of contemporary art, it can be found in debates of democracy (the most successful self-fulfilling prophecy) where the word and its shape is impressed on minds as desirable without question; its sound carries an aesthetic truth derived from the romantic beauty of sacrifice; and identity is now being curated online, mostly through what one sees on social media, which is often filtered by some sort of trending algorithm. It seems that the creative process that Kant relies on in construing human identity can be dispensable in this day and age, thus making aesthetic judgement a perfectly objective skill, much like the obtaining of knowledge, which is according to Horkheimer, objectified, rationalised, and resides in the fact of narratives (art) rather than the being of myths.

So it seems that, with this detour I managed to open an inlet to the objectivity of aesthetics, which ironically and dialectically emerged as a concept only with the rise of the human subjective consciousness. This contradiction is more inherent than it is apparent.

5th century BC vase depicting Odyssey tied to his ship's mast to resist the Sirens' songs

5th century BC vase depicting Odyssey tied to his ship’s mast to resist the Sirens’ songs

For if, by saying that with Homer the process of Enlightenment has already begun, it is also with Homer’s rationalised narration that Odysseus’ hierarchical entitlement to art and pleasure is preserved, thus undermining the project of democratisation that is a logical result of Enlightenment. Homer tells of how Odysseus’ men are ordered to row on with their ears plugged lest they hear the dangerous siren songs, while the king himself is the only person on the ship that is allowed of the pleasure, tying himself to the mast thus he will not be carried away by their music.[7] With this, the beautiful thing becomes exclusive to the ruling class, who admire art from a distance, with a sober mind, lest too much involvement will jeopardise its authority, derived mainly from its enlightened knowledge.

Yet to read in this way would be to commit the very fault of enjoying art objectively, analysing it in a rational way. That is to say, the conclusion of class oppression can be reached only if we accept that there is rationality at play with Odysseus, thereby self-fulfilling a prophecy. But let’s say we forget about understanding the story and subject ourselves to the bard’s tonal and rhythmic enticement, will we be lost and forget ourselves like the myth says? We will never know, for perhaps we have forever lost the innocence to appreciate art without agenda. Or to flip the coin, art, as soon as it is created as art, has its magic lost and is formulated or programmed to elicit certain emotions, or in the case of modern art, notions.

But the Sirens aren’t the bard, and their songs are not poetry. If we deconstruct Homer’s construct of the narrative we may be able to arrive at a new understanding. In the primitive muthos of symbolism, the Sirens are beautiful women whose songs (they don’t sing with any instrument) make one forget. In contrast to their songs, the Muses, who are responsible for making music, which up until as late as Mozart and Schubert’s times, was considered as corresponding to mathematics. There is a Roman sarcophagus in the Metropolitan Museum of Arts that depicts the Muses’ victory over the Sirens to evidence the displacement of myths by narratives and not surprisingly, the patron goddess overseeing the victory is Athena herself – the golden girl of balance and harmony. What this scene suggests is that once upon a time before the Muses became rationalised, art and poetry used to be a mesmeric potion, an ecstasy, and a cathartic agent.

The Muses' victory over the Sirens with Athena leading the triumphal parade

The Muses’ victory over the Sirens with Athena leading the triumphal parade

One thing Kant may have stopped short of suggesting is that art is, and insofar as it has always been part of human consciousness, a dialectics of subjectivity and objectivity, where inspiration becomes knowledge and the forgotten becomes memories. But if memory is being replaced by automated thinking and big data aggregation there is no dialectics between the two, for knowledge is always already given, and that it is impossible to forget. Yet, to recall that big data is meaningful insofar as its depository information is narrated in some form, that in its original state it is in some sense the anti-rationalisation force of foreknowledge. But this requires a new kind of human – a post-human whose consciousness constitutes an infinite amount of data; the deep web perhaps, who is itself the myth and the forgotten, and whose awakening of subjectivity allows it to experience (?) the narration of data as beautiful, a creative process which exists in us human as reasoning.

Perhaps that’s how God sees our artistic endeavours?

[1] Augustinus, De Vera Rel. XXXII 59: Et prius quaeram, utrum ideo pulchra sint, quia delectant, an ideo delectent, quia pulchra sunt.

[2] B. Catiglione, Il Libro del Cortigiano, IV. 59.

[3] Kant sought to steer a middle course between the phenomena and noumena, between the British empirical and idealist psychologists, between what is perceived and what is. But ultimately, what is is what is (with a degree of human concession), because our perceptions are consistently so in time and space. He essentially redirected the investigation paradigm from ‘how do we know’ and ‘what is there to know’ to ‘why do we know we know’ – let’s not worry about our faculty of reason or whatever enables us to make reasonable judgement about the world; let’s focus on the fact that we know the world as it is and that knowledge is pretty reliable because it has seldom failed us. To Kant, the disparate information a person receives from the environment via his senses – ‘representations’ of things – must be grounded ‘in pure apperception, that is, in the thoroughgoing identity of the self in all possible representations’. (I. Kant, P. Guyer and A. Wood trans., Critique of Pure Reason, 2nd ed. pp. 131–32.) What it means is that Kant thinks our making sense of the world is predicated on the appreciation of a one continuous consciousness that is self situated within the reception of disarray representations. This knowledge, however, is not intuitive but is engendered through the harmonious ‘recognition’, for want of a better word, of the various faculties. Pure apperception is original, that ‘it is that self-consciousness which, while generating the representation “I think” … cannot itself be accompanied by any further representation’ (ibid.).

[4] Even though Kant tried to pare down his problem to the core, he still could not explain how we form that continuous identity. What he eventually succeeded in doing was to deduce the identity because it could not have been otherwise for us to reckon the world as we do.

[5] John-Paul Stonard, ‘Boris Groys in Conversation’ in Immediations, IV (2007).

[6] Max Horkheimer and T.W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, Gunzelin S Noerr ed., Edmund Jephcott trans., (California: Stanford UP, 2002), p. 25.

[7] Homer, Odyssey, XII.39.


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