Friday, February 01, 2008

Are aesthetic objects knowledge objects?

Aesthetic objects (literature, fine arts, performing arts and films that are not exclusively used for the purpose of education) are both containers (the form of poetry, fiction, etc.) and contents of knowledge—mostly of the non-falsifiable variety.

Narratives or art objects do not empirically prove anything, but they “show” slices of life (events, emotions, periods, ideas, egos, behaviour), and provide readers or viewers with an experience that moves them or a lens through which they start seeing things differently. The debate about whether this experience is regressive or progressive can be left to the realms of moral philosophy and sociology. But if aesthetics is examined purely from the angle of knowledge production, it is quite possible that knowledge is produced not just as a distilled unit (the insights and convictions one draws from a novel or a play) of the aesthetic experience but in the experience itself.

If you ask Person A to jot down what she learned by looking at a work of art, she might jot down her experience in a couple of pages of prose. Now, if you give this piece of writing to Person B, will it have the same effect on that person as the art object had on Person A? My guess is that it will not. So, what does that mean? What you wanted was a recording of Person A’s experience. And what the person did was to translate the distilled unit of her experience into written language. In effect, she created another knowledge object which is quite distinct from the original art object. A single art object can thus give rise to an infinite number of knowledge objects (distilled units of experience). Looked at this way, the art object becomes an inexhaustible repository of (or a trigger for the creation of) knowledge objects.

But what about the untranslatable (“something moved me, but I don’t know how to express it in language”) experiences? How do we know if untranslatable experiences get recorded or not in our brains? Do they affect our behaviour or perceptions in a certain way? If they do, then the untranslatable part (which is probably the bulk of the aesthetic experience) achieves the status of knowledge.


Blogger Dip Narayan said...

Hi, Anil! This is Dip Narayan. I used to be in TIS. Nice coming across your blog!

I was surfing the net to get something on humor in e-learning and I reached Geetha's blog. From there, here. :)

And this post is really really interesting. It struck me how the basic questions about our surroundings never seem to change. The question you wanted to address in the post was first raised by, as far as I know, Plato in Republic, Book 10. In Republic, he formulates the structure of the quarrel between philosophy (roughly similar to your knowledge objects because every academic knowledge disciplines were clubbed under the title of philosophy in Plato's time) and poetry (aesthetic objects). His contention was not that aesthetic objects weren't knowledge objects, but that the aesthetic objects were false sirens disseminating false knowledge. Aristotle responded by qualifying the kind of knowledge poetry disseminates. He argued that philosophy or the traditional knowledge disciplines disseminate teh knowledge of the possible, or what is and can be. Poetry, however, concentrates on what is probable. He used the concept of entelechy to explain how poetry/aesthetic objects go beyong what actually is and try to capture/present what should be. If we advance the Aristotelian argument in the area of content types, we may somewhat safely claim that poetry/aesthetic objects can correctly present what is entelechic in fact/information, concepts, principles, processes, form/structure, sensations and opinions, which together form the components of aesthetic objects. I know this is a rather contentious list, but if we can be a bit inclusive in compiling the list, we will be able to use them to explain even material aethetic objects like sculptures or intangible ones like music and dance. This list looks pretty much a compilation of the parameters with which we perceive the world and make sense of it. So, coming to the point:

1. if the parameters of cognition are the same for both knowledge objects and aesthetic objects, and

2. if aesthetic objects present the parameters as they should be and not always as they are

3. then, aesthetic objects are equal to knowledge objects.

However, here the assumption, a crucial one, is that aesthetic objects actually present the parameters as they should be. I know that this assumption is not true always. But it is obvious that in some cases they are. From here, I will go to my next hypothesis: the listed parameters, if tweaked and combined, can turn a knowledge object into an aesthetic object.

A knowledge object would mostly have form, principles, fact/information and opinions (hypotheses) in a particular form (i.e. a logical structure). I am not qualified enough to make an informed statement, like Russell, on the beauty of mathematical equations, but we all have seen some "elegant" solutions, be it in e-learning or in mathematics. Here "form/structure" comes into play. Certain qualities of form (e.g. harmony, or intentional disharmony, if applicable) make it beautiful. If we include appropriate sensations in a mathematical equation (for example, environment and interaction), we have an e-learning course. If we put enough funny opinions in that course, it becomes a good course. If we include enough sensation-provoking information/opinion/principles in it, it may become a book/movie like "A Beautiful Mind." After watching "A Beautiful Mind" I may learn a great deal about both game theory and on great relationships between lovers. So the same aesthetic object serves as a knowledge object for me.

Now let's consider the other possibility: aesthetic objects do not present things as they should be. They sometimes don't. If we try to arrive at this change in European thought following a timeline prepared with a freshman's understanding (my intellectual limit actually), the major milestones will be the Romantics, who put Beauty and Truth in the same bracket, and Theophile Gautier, who, thankfully, relieved art of all responsibilities toward Truth/Knowledge/Good/Whatever. Here comes your question. What about those experiences created by aesthetic objects (or parts of an aesthetic object otherwise rather purposeful and instructive) devoid of any learning/knowledge/instruction howsoever incidental. Whether it is the “je ne sais quoi” feeling of the fashionable turn-of-the-nineteenth-century ladies or the awed intimation of the sublime under the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, we do feel something inexpressible about aesthetic objects. Well I must say that I don’t know whether such experiences in themselves can turn into knowledge in the people having the same experiences. But the fact that those experiences took place in certain contexts can be turned into knowledge. For example, the concept of the sublime can be considered a knowledge artefact helping us understand the qualities of certain objects and our responses to them. But the concept itself came from recording and examining the inexpressible responses to sublime objects. In Longinus, sublime meant grand and dignified. In the hands of the English and German Romantics (Hegel, Coleridge) it came to mean more than that. I have not followed the evolution of the concept better than the sketchy idea I presented here, but the fact that it evolved is a proof of the usefulness of the “inexpressible” in distilling knowledge. No philosopher/literary practitioner could experiment with the sublime in a lab. They mused on the inexpressible feelings they had, inexpressible because the current term was not enough to describe what they felt, and read on the inexpressibles of other, and then finally enlarged the available concept of sublime to make it mean more. I may not end up formulating knowledge bytes from my inexpressible feelings/ideas, but if the existence of such inexpressibles is documented in sufficient detail, somebody will, hopefully.

Now that was a rather long comment. And very much undergraduate-preparing-for-English-303. But, I am really amazed by the questions you raised. People talk about the greatness of asking new questions. I wonder about the greatness of these questions, which keep on finding “askers” forever. As if they are some deathless demons floating around and patiently waiting through thousands of years to find somebody to get hold of. Thanks a lot for your patience.

PS: May I link your blog to mine?

9:45 AM  

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