December 6, 2009

Inclination Changes

Physicist Arthur Worthington's desire to prove the perfection of the splash, using drawings he made from observations of mercury droplets, was abandoned after flash photography made it possible to see that the droplets actually made imperfect, non-symmetrical splashes. This was both a scientific set back for Worthington and a spiritual bummer, since the connection between symmetry and spiritual perfection was assumed in the 1890's; natural symmetry was taken as hard evidence of God's sublime hand at work, and as a model for man's attempt to perfect himself.

With this new view on things, Worthington questioned how he (and all the other scientists that predated him) could "have seen for so long a perfection that had never been present" and he reasoned that the human mind's "psychological tendency to improve" had led him, and all other viewers, to "attend to part of the image with a preference for the part that is regular, and then tend to fill up the rest in...imagination."

About 100 years earlier, Immanuel Kant wrestled with the concept of aesthetic judgment (and imagination, and pleasure) in a long and intricate essay that hinges on the idea that there is a clear distinction between the beautiful and the sublime. "The delight which we connect with the representation of the real existence of an object is called interest" he wrote (living as he did in a time before secular, non-representational abstraction was everywhere). "The beautiful is what pleases in the mere estimate formed of it [outside of understanding]. From this it follows at once that it must please apart from all interest. The sublime is what pleases immediately by reason of its opposition to the interest of sense...The beautiful prepares us to love something, even nature, apart from any interest: the sublime to esteem something highly even in opposition to our (sensible) interest."

So, responses to beautiful things are on one level, irrational maybe but certainly comprehensible. And responses to sublime things are on another level, as awe or respect for something sublime is actually rational (an act of esteem) but not really comprehensible in the mind of man alone. Because for Kant, the sublime was tinged with something, a sprinkling of a spiritual perfection that is not attainable by humans.

It strikes me that Kant did a lot of "filling up the rest" in imagination. Living as he did before flash photography. And high definition tv. The core dichotomy (beautiful versus sublime) Kant deemed necessary for his understanding of aesthetics makes me question the need for this kind of thinking. I wondered about this last week while listening to Lauren Wye, a doctoral student at Stanford, describe the complex measurement-and-correction process used in radar mapping of a lake on the surface of Titan, the largest moon around Saturn.

We know from photographs and readings taken by the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft that this lake, Ontario Lacus, is 18,000 km long, is shaped like a super giant right footprint, and is filled mostly with methane and ethane. Because of things I can't comprehend, like the actions of pulse echoes, sinusoid signals, backscatter and signal distortion, lots of mathematical hoops had to be jumped through to achieve reliable data about the surface of the lake and whether it is viscous or wave-filled.

Turns out, Ontario Lacus is kind of like a large pool of oil on the garage floor -- not choppy or wavy at all, but dense and sluggish. And working backwards from the data about the lake's surface features, scientists can now more confidently claim knowledge about all of the lake's content materials and what the bottom of it may be like. Which is fine, and nice to know, and alongside the data about Titan's other surface features, gives us a pretty robust picture of a place we've never been to.

Titan is similar to the other objects in our neighborhood, it has some gravity, mountains, impact craters, lakes, etc. Having that totality of information is wonderful, in and of itself, but the description provided by Wye of the the filters and sieves the data had to be pulled through to match a theoretical frame seemed...self-serving. Like reading Kant's neat categorizations of all things knowable in art, or one's reaction to art. Both seem to be exercises in proving bounded reasoning to itself, and both seem propelled by the notion that bounded/defined reasoning about objects is superior not only to guessing or projecting ideas onto the object ("Maybe a skillion years ago a huge space giant stepped on Titan and made the lake?") but to not projecting an answer at all.

But what if we all just waited until the Cassini-Huygens space probe or its progeny got down to the moon's surface, and analyzed the materials in the lake, and took photographs of its surface? And in the meantime we all lived in a state of not guessing or projecting, but simply not-knowing-but-open-to-knowing-someday?

This is not the point where science bumps up against art; this is the point where the expectation that humans can know the why and wherefore anything they ponder or imagine about (the why of time, what God has planned for folks) bumps up against a different reality, the one where humans recognize what we possibly can't know, and instead of covering up that apparent failing with a guess or projection, actually don't see that as a failing at all.

The drive to find a concrete expression about all things we encounter, the idea that all is knowable and therefore explicable, drives a pretty large percentage of human action, and interaction of course. But does that mean its a moral good? I'm not talking about remaining willfully ignorant about what is knowable, as it seems a human imperative not just to "improve" on what we see, but simply to know what you can, to learn more, to allow for contexts.

There is a point in that process where, when one comes up against what is imaginable but currently inexplicable, then something like fear, or perhaps the desire for power over nature, or power over other humans, or the desire for connection overtakes, and...signal distortion is implemented, the concrete division between the beautiful and the sublime is constructed, the adherence to an unchanging set of rules is instituted, and we are bounded by description. The not-totally-explicable-yet is captured, limited, crafted into a version of "known" through a process of extrapolation, ratification, reiteration. Images become meaning, nature's perfection becomes sublime. Radar signals become a comprehensible physical feature, the surface of a lake on a distant moon.

This process is subjective, and context-bound; before flash photography, another reality existed. What if the research team at Stanford had claimed that the process they undertook was simply to learn about how radar works in space on a weird moon far away, not to define the smoothness constraints of a lake on Titan? What if Kant had claimed that his "Critique of Aesthetic Judgment" was not a prescriptive essay about the way man's mind is designed to comprehend art, but rather his own personal exercise in figuring out artistic taste in his time? What if ancients had claimed up front that creating systems of gods with superpowers was awesome simply because it was an exercise in human imagination applied to reducing stress about as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena?

What if the most sustaining, engaging, energizing part of being conscious was simply in recognizing that human capability, rather than using imagination on itself to create a bounded, word-filled structure one must adhere to when engaging in an act of imagining?

Critic Dore Ashton wrote of artist Mark Rothko that the painter was "dubious about the world of men" and strove to operate outside the "clutter of the mundane world" so that he could paint that most non-human experience, boundlessness.

Boundlessness. It seems like this is what Worthington and his colleagues bumped up against when finally really viewing the variations in the natural, not very symmetrical world. And this seems to be what Kant worked so hard to describe around in the geometrical proof that is "The Critique of Aesthetic Judgment."

Certainly we are all stuck here on earth, and stuck in our own heads...but we are able to consider unanswerable questions and unending space, to encounter endlessly mutating nature, and we are capable of imagining boundlessness, and creating about that, even if we can't inhabit it. Do we really need to always map the borders?