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Thursday, October 8, 2015

Letter to a young philosopher



Dear James,

After reading your proposal for a book on black aesthetics, I raise four common sense questions:





If you paste these questions on your wall as you investigate "black aesthetics," you might write a mind-opening book.  That is the only worthwhile kind of book any of us ought to try to write.  Good thinkers use the gravity of simple questions to ground themselves.

Standard American English invites us to be careless as we pretend to be rigorous.  Take a clue from the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, who merits applause for publishing The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century ( New York: Viking, 2014). No sentence in his book refers to Black American English.  That is a damned fine thing.  By ignoring an ethnic use of English that flavors styles of contemporary American thought, Pinker alerts us to exclusion as an option.  In academic commerce, we opt to exclude or ignore as we shape reality in an image that we deem pleasing and proper.  For example, he tells us "the graybeard sensibilities of the style mavens come not just from an underappreciation of the fact of language change but from a lack of reflection on their own psychology"(4).  Should you opt to ignore the ethnic history of the word "aesthetic," and what that history reveals about use and abuse in doing things with words, you will make common cause with Pinker in mavenship. Be at once more cautious and more radical than he, and reflect on your own psychology.

The English language can be treacherous.  To write about aesthetics in a meaningful and necessary way, you have to weed the garden of Western thought.  As far as I know, aesthetics was not a worshipful category prior to the 18th century.  And since you up the ante by using  the slippery adjective black to modify aesthetics, remember that African peoples did not think of themselves as "black" prior to their sundry contacts with color-deficient peoples.  They thought of themselves as people who used their minds and bodies as instruments to sense what was external.  In this regard, they were no different than people unlike themselves in expressing how body and mind could deal with material objects and environments and flashings of the spirit.  Western thought is predisposed to fix what is not broken and to let weeds choke roots.

As a philosopher, you may have studied how etymology  is related to epistemology and use of words. From the Oxford English Dictionary, a source of some authority, we learn that aesthetic comes from Greek.  It originally meant "of or pertaining to...things perceptible by the senses, things material (as opposed to...things thinkable or immaterial."  In 1735, the German thinker Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten, being pro-Aristotle and anti-Plato in sensibility, used episteme aistetike to mean a science of what is sensed and imagined, a nice violation of the original meaning. According to some reports, Immanuel Kant was not pleased with such philosophical violation.  He was a purist. But when the word " aesthetic"  gained currency in English usage after 1830, thinkers  maximized the sense of taste (minimizing other senses) and designated it to mean "philosophical inquiry, the object of which is philosophical theory of the beautiful."  The word's  journey from the Greek to the German to the English is ethnic and also coloured by the paint of race. The word is now used most exclusively in  discussions of art.

It pleases me that you are taking up an unfinished project of the Black Arts Movement (BAM), namely exploration of diverse changes in how  African American make aesthetic choices as they respond to life and to art.  It became fashionable in the 1980s to demonize the "political" features of  BAM, to dismiss the phenomenon as a cultural temper tantrum or a suspect reification of African and African American mythologies.

 BAM did have flaws and contradictions, of course, but they were not so irrational that discussions of the Black Aesthetic and aesthetics in the anthology The Black Aesthetic  (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971), edited by Addison Gayle, Jr., had to be murdered  in a rush toward a reconstruction of instruction and the salvation of theory. Many  anti-BAM critics, energized by the vernacular signifying of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.,  deemed it a virtue to be "theoretical"  in the way Jacques Lacan,  Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida were always already postmodern and deconstructionist in the theatre of philosophy. Their opposition was a sign of how rational they were.  A smaller number of them embraced the blues-informed ideology of Houston A. Baker, Jr.'s history-bound  brand of theorizing.  Few of them, I suspect, read Derrida's characterization of metaphysics  in The Margins of Philosophy (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1982) as "the white mythology which reassembles and reflects the culture of the West: the white man takes his own mythology, Indo-European mythology, his own logos, that is, the mythos of his idiom, for the universal form of that he must still wish to call Reason" (231). Had they engaged Reason from this angle, they might have been more sympathetic to BAM's efforts to say that perceptions have a racialized historicity. They might have been less anxious to foreclose the unfinished  metaphysical project BAM initiated regarding aesthetics.

On the other hand,  it might  have mattered very little  if they had read Derrida, for they were determined to give  credibility to an assertion John Dewey made in Art as Experience (1934; New York: Paragon, 1979): "Usually there is a hostile reaction to a conception of art that connects it with the activities of a live creature in its environment. The hostility to association of fine art with normal processes of living is a pathetic, even a tragic commentary on life as it is ordinarily lived" (27). Dewey understood that aesthetic experiences were first of all about living (sensing of materiality) and only secondarily about "correct" contemplation of objects in the visual and plastic arts and motion in ballet;  eargasms and rapture  in the presence of "classical music" or opera; or in the case of literature, formal and deceptive  ahistorical inspection of  verbal icons.  James, I urge you to read Dewey as well as Cornel West's enlightened commentary on Dewey in The American Evasion of Philosophy (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989).  Dewey knew how to weed a garden.  You may also want to read Barnor Hesse, "Racialized Modernity: An Analytics of White Mythologies." Ethnic and Racial Studies 30.4 (2007): 643-663.  Hesse pulls up weeds nicely as he discusses the racial metaphysics of presence.

Above all, I strongly recommend that you read Carolyn Fowler's brilliant introduction to Black Arts and Black Aesthetics. 2nd Edition (Atlanta: First World Foundation, 1981).  Better than any other thinker associated with the Black Arts Movement, Fowler understood that the term "black aesthetics" is historical and non-exclusive.  Like the terms "Chinese aesthetics" or "Persian aesthetics," it belongs to a history of philosophical discourses.  The idea of aesthetics is fluid not fixed. And our talk about aesthetics should not lead to the belief that we can have a total accounting of how people perceive and think about things material.  We are limited to approximate accounting for the human sensorium in time and space.  Emphasize in your book that you are making an inquiry about history (narratives regarding the endless process of change and continuity) and that philosophical propositions are not omniscient.  It is necessary and good to make  acknowledgements with grace.  I believe you are trying to articulate "a truth" rather than "the Truth."  Ultimately, I am suggesting that you use common sense to write in uncommon ways about the flowing ontology of black aesthetics, the river where consciousness connects with the beautiful.

With very best wishes,

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

October 8, 2015


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