Taste, Quality, and the Panjective World
Post #1070 • October 10, 2007, 11:26 AM • 177 Comments
Is taste subjective? Is quality objective? These two questions come up repeatedly when we talk about art. The answers are so unsatisfactory that the problem must be a good one to work on.
The two questions ask the same thing, oppositely. Both try to determine whether goodness in art is a stable phenomenon, or changes according to each fickle pair of eyes. Whole ideologies hinge on the answer. If the former is true, then Derrida's signifiers can't defer meaning infinitely, and we should disregard wide swaths of his work. If the latter is true, Greenberg's liking or disliking art is a singular, meaningless exercise, and we should disregard wide swaths of his work. A clear answer would decide whether exercising judgment is a valid activity, or whether it would be just as well to describe one's mental associations when looking at a work of art and leaving it at that. If taste is subjective, why pursue goodness of any kind? If quality is objective, why does opinion about it vary?
The questions don't come to satisfying conclusions because they presuppose that there are internal and external processes, and this is likely a faulty distinction. The subjective/objective split says that there's a world "out there" of materials and facts and a world "in here" of perceptions, ideas, and consciousness. I suspect that we believe in that split for the same reason that we commonly think of the earth as flat - it corresponds well to our usual experience. You don't have to think about the earth's curvature to drive across town. Nevertheless the earth is definitely spherical and considerations of sufficient magnitude require that we deal with it as such.
I suggest instead that instead of a subjective and an objective world, awareness flickers across a framework of material fact like electrons through a circuit board. Like a circuit board directs the flow of electrons, the materials shape the awareness. Unlike a circuit board. awareness can direct the materials to some degree. It would be as if the electrons could order one bit of hardware to produce another bit of hardware. Now imagine this circuit board as the size of the universe. Everything is circuit board. Your awareness is a charge on the board. In a particular spot this charge is high and active. In other contiguous spots the charge is lower, and extending further from the center, lower still. There are contiguous charges on the periphery with hardly any charge at all. Beyond this, we see the vast majority of the board that doesn't contain a connecting charge.
The analogy breaks down in a hurry so I'll restate my point: We have an awareness with an active, energetic center, and that activity and energy decrease by degrees towards a periphery. That periphery is mobile and variable. Even parts towards the center become highly charged or not depending on whether we're applying our awareness to it. Most importantly, the shape of this awareness corresponds to the material facts about the world in which the awareness takes place: our brains, our bodies, our dwellings, our city, our planet. Our awareness does not have a shape of its own independent of these facts. On the other hand, within this material template, it has enormous freedom of movement and configuration.
This model has an interesting implication: Your self includes awareness of distant things. I'm in California at the moment, but in twenty seconds I could go on the Web and look up the weather in Hong Kong. Weather in Hong Kong thus would become part of my self, at the periphery. Richard Dawkins asserted the idea of the extended genotype, which implies that our cultural products, even culture as a whole, is as much of an expression of our genetic material as our limbs. I'm proposing an extended self that includes everything in our awareness.
The self also includes past phenomena. We interact with the facts of world and learn from them. We store those facts as memories, and memories are part of the material template. It lives in our bodies, mostly but not completely in our brains. (Brains store those memories in one way; books store it in another.) Those memories and our ability to make predictions about the world based on them have an enormous impact on our awareness.
Again, this awareness doesn't have a shape independent of its material template. Right now my endocrine system is maintaining a certain level of insulin. If it got this wrong, I would become irritable and tired and stop working on this essay. If it got it really wrong, I'd lose consciousness. Nevertheless I have no idea what my endocrine system is doing at the moment. These material facts that shape awareness, even though outside of awareness, are also part of the self.
So there is no outside world, unless it's all outside, and we're outside with it. It's not subjective and/or objective, it's panjective.
Our awareness can act on the world and change it, using our bodies and by issuing directions to other people. Afterwards the world is shaped differently, and our awareness reshapes accordingly. When I make art, I reshape some material facts about the world and my awareness follows along this new little adjustment in the template. When I present this art to other people, their awareness does the same.
Let's return to our questions, which we now have to restate. Taste isn't taking place "in here" because there is no "in here." Taste is an activity of awareness, just like any other aspect of consciousness. It has a state of its own, a positive or negative charge as it were, as it moves over a set of material facts. That charge is not the materials, but with no materials there's no charge, and that charge is shaped like the materials however it moves around within them. These materials include those of the art, and also our bodies as we interact with it, and all the dependent effects on our awareness that arise from our bodies, including memories residing therein. Taste is as real as electricity. It varies, but it doesn't vary infinitely. Roses may not charm you but they don't induce vomiting. You may not like a certain hue but you don't find it deafening because we don't experience color as sound. (The few genuine synaesthetics in existence don't disprove this.)
If taste is as real as electricity, then quality is as real as matter. Quality is a configuration in the material template. We can't describe this configuration very well for the same reason that we can't describe what's going on with our endocrine systems at any given moment very well - even though it shapes awareness, it exists outside of it. Running our awareness over certain configurations of materials returns a pleasurable feeling. The materials are part of the material template, our bodies are part of it, and our learning is part of it as well. Looking at the material components as one continuous template, we don't have to figure out where the pleasure is coming from. It's coming from the whole template as we run our awareness through it.
Why does taste vary then? Because everyone has a different material template - different bodies, different memories. Unlike electricty, with a mere positive or negative charge, awareness can be colored countless different ways as it travels over its available template. Everyone's borders are different and and their charges are higher in different places. And yet, judgment and criticism remains a meaningful exercise. People with trained awareness and a rich template can bring back descriptors of a high-quality configuration in a manner that escapes people with low-wattage awareness and a poor template. After all, the configuration exists as a real entity. Quality is a stable thing. Taste, as awareness running through a given configuration, can vary, but not infinitely. The materials of the art don't change, our bodies don't differ all that much from one another, and our memories are analogous if not similar. The same world produced all of them, in notably similar ways. We can see certain configurations returning pleasure dependably over time. We respect these things and we should. So we pursue quality because we want to include goodness as part of our template. Certain things prove to be compensating when we point our awareness at it. We might feel inspired to create our own versions of them. This is a worthy thing to do with our attentions, given a choice about the matter that we may or may not have.