Monday, November 5, 2012

Adorno and Aztec Aesthetics

I was affected by the MIT exhibit "man in the Holocene," and especially the work of one artist, Germaine Kruip, whose 2009, Video "Aesthetics as a Way of Survival," documents the presumed "aesthetics" of a bowerbird preparing its shelter in order to attract a mate. A little research into the matter shows that Darwin himself considered this behavior and other aspects of sexual selection to represent an expression of aesthetics, so it's not something new. However I began digging a little more and came up with the writing of Theodor Adorno, whose controversial and convoluted writings I've shied away from (scholarship of the Frankfurt School was banned at BU when I started there in 1993!).

Anyway I came across a very interesting quote by Adorno that spoke to me in terms of barely articulated but strongly felt questions I pondered during my NEH trip to Mexico. I don't know whether I interpreted Adorno correctly and I'd be interested to hear your thoughts, but here goes.

Adorno wrote in his book "Aesthetic Theory", "Aesthetic reality seeks to aid the non identical, which in reality is repressed by reality's compulsion to identify."

As a scientist these words struck deep. My work as a taxonomist was entirely focused on a "compulsion to identify." For better or for worse this is what taxonomists do, and recently I reviewed a paper that was so hidebound in its need to identify that the authors were unable to allow new perspectives in their work. More to the point, as I grew dissatisfied with mere identification I tookwhat I  came to call an aesthetic approach that tried to qualify subtle shapes, growth patterns, and dimensional relationships among the organisms I studied. As I have written before in these pages, the attempt to jump off the reductionist, identity-obsessed taxonomic bandwagon resulted in disfavor among my colleagues. But I think I was onto something.

How does this relate to my question of Adorno and Aztec aesthetics?

This past summer as I observed closely the murals, the monuments, and the stone sculptures of ancient Mexico, I began to discern certain angles, curves, and ways of massing space that appeared unique and consistent in the works. This is something I had noted before, for example in Mayan work, but which I had never formulated into a question.

It occurred to me that there might have been an Aztec aesthetic that somehow transcended Aztec religious practices or polity. Instead of considering the aztecs on a "grand" scale, what if we considered the subtleties of Aztec art, with the goal of coming closer to it?

Now let's take apart Adorno's quote and see how it applies to this question.

When Adorno wrote "aesthetic reality" I think he might have meant a way of seeing or interpreting the world not on a grand scale, but by looking at its curves, angles, shades, and mass relationships. Exactly what I was trying to do in Mexico (often to the woe of our visiting scholars whose iconographic interpretations seemed to exclude my queries).

Second, when Adorno writes that aesthetic reality seeks to aid the non identical, I think he meant foremost, things that defy identity. A curve, a shadow, a relationship is not a pyramid or a mural. It is something without identity. And by non-identical I think we can conclude it is also unique. So we can say in this framework that aesthetic reality provides a framework for observing and interpreting non-identifiable, unique things.

Finally, his judgement about the compulsion of reality to identify refers to the hard wired nature of human cognition. We need to identify in order to understand.

But looking at it in another way, if all we do is identify, them we lose the subtle tools that help us identify in the first place. Identification is in a sense machinean, either a thing is or is not what it is identified as. But describing the hidden folds, the subtle shades, or the unique curves of an object, all of which contribute to its identity, require a willingness to shed the compulsion to identify and embrace the will to interpret.

No comments:

Post a Comment