Monday, 3 March 2008

I am the third revelation!

On Saturday evening I went to see There Will Be Blood with my partner Lois and another friend. Given our different reactions to the film over a beer (in that fine pub, the Star and Garter) I was struck again by the subtlety of the ‘logic’ of aesthetic discussions. One issue in play for us, for example, was the extent to which the entire film really hangs on the pay-off of the extraordinary final scene –

“I drink your milkshake! I drink it up!”

- and the way, both for the central character but also the audience, for that scene to be ‘possible’ one has to have had the rest of a long film. Given a sufficiently positive reaction to the end, much of what goes before can be justified simply on its basis. But if, as seems plausible, part of what makes that scene work, if one thinks it does, is a specific kind of reaction to the rest of the film then there is an inevitable circularity in what one can say against the worry that the whole thing is just too loose and bloated.

Wittgenstein characterises the gappy and ultimately groundless nature of such discussion as follows:

Aesthetic discussions [are] like discussions in a court of law, where you try to “clear up the circumstances” of the action which is being tried, hoping that in the end what you say will “appeal to the judge”... if by giving reasons of this sort you make another person “see what you see” but it still “does not appeal to him” that is “an end” of the discussion. [Wittgenstein 1955: 19]

This suggests a key contrast with other kinds areas of debate. It is, for example, ‘part of the framework on which the working of our language is based’ that ‘disputes don’t break out (among mathematicians, say) over the question whether a rule has been obeyed or not’ [Wittgenstein 1953: §240]. So whilst he suggests a kind of anthropological background to logical or arithmetic rules, still, as a matter of fact, there is agreement there.

In the Philosophical Investigations he does say a little more about the nature of aesthetic judgements through an analogy with understanding meaning (a central theme in the book).

Understanding a sentence is much more akin to understanding a theme in music than one may think. What I mean is that understanding a sentence lies nearer than one thinks to what is ordinarily called understanding a musical theme. Why is just this the pattern of variation in loudness and tempo? One would like to say “Because I know what it’s all about.” But what is it all about? I should not be able to say. In order to ‘explain’ I could only compare it with something else which has the same rhythm (I mean the same pattern). (One says “Don’t you see, this is as if a conclusion were being drawn” or “This is as it were a parenthesis”, etc. How does one justify such comparisons? - There are very different kinds of justification here.) [§527]

We speak of understanding a sentence in the sense in which it can be replaced by another which says the same; but also in the sense in which it cannot be replaced by any other. (Any more than one musical theme can be replaced by another.)In the one case the thought in the sentence is something common to different sentences; in the other, something that is expressed only by these words in these positions. (Understanding a poem.) [§531]

Then has “understanding” two different meanings here? - I would rather say that these kinds of use of “understanding” make up its meaning, make up my concept of understanding.For I want to apply the word “understanding” to all this. [§532]

This hints at a model of aesthetic judgement as essentially comparative. It is a matter of seeing matters in some specific way. Such seeing, or seeing as, can be partially explained but there is a kind of circularity. If someone else does not see things that way then reasons run out almost immediately. The other party need not be guilty of inconsistency and the extent to which they are guilty of ignorance turns on the status of the initial comparison for which there seems merely the thinest of foundations. Of course on some readings, things are fundamentally the same even for mathematics. It just happens we agree more about maths than films.

For a brisk mention of a  ‘resolute’ reading of There Will be Blood, see this entry.