Burke: On Taste

I’ve been thinking lately about the hows and whys of literary criticism. Last week we talked about video game criticism, and this trend of talking about how games ought to be – this week I’ve found myself back reading a classic of aesthetic theory. Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful seeks to explain our responses to art by grounding them in psychology. It draws a line from our experiences of pain and pleasure to the aesthetic concepts of beauty and the sublime: “Whatever is qualified to cause terror is a foundation capable of the sublime … whatever produces pleasure, positive and original pleasure, is fit to have beauty engrafted on it.” It’s a compelling read, especially for something published in the 1750s – I think mostly because the questions it’s asking haven’t gone away. Looking back at when I studied literature, probably the most surprising thing was that you could get a group of people together in one place and find similar currents in how they responded to the texts. There were these little moments of kinship, of – yes, I felt that too! We don’t respond to texts in random or arbitrary ways, or so differently that we can’t understand each other. In those moments, it seems perfectly clear that criticism is not some totally idiosyncratic process – it’s something shared, something we all do. Even where our individual judgements differ, the overarching process seems similar enough that we can call it the same thing. We can assert that we’re all engaged in the same act of literary criticism. From there, it’s only natural to want to understand how we make literary judgements. That’s the task Burke sets himself:

“My point in this enquiry is to find whether there are any principles on which the imagination is affected, so common to all, so grounded and certain, as to supply the means of reasoning satisfactorily about them. And such principles of taste I fancy there are; however paradoxical it may seem to those who on a superficial view imagine that there is so great a diversity of tastes both in kind and degree that nothing can be more indeterminate.”

As a starting point, grounding the conversation in our bodies seems like a reasonable way to go. As humans, we’re all part of the same species – you can therefore (theoretically) draw on common features of the species to explain how we do literary criticism. Thus, Burke says that our interpretation is facilitated by three things – our senses, our imagination, and our judgement. The first doesn’t create meaningful differences, he suggests – our senses all work in roughly the same way. As humans, we all have human eyes and human mouths, and they receive information in a consistent manner: “what appears to be light to one eye appears light to another; what seems sweet to one palate is sweet to another.” Even when our senses don’t work, they malfunction in consistent ways – if you can’t see colour, it’s probably something to do with your cones. We can split hairs over exceptions and unique situations, but on the level of species, I can appreciate the argument. As humans, we share a common physiology, meaning that when we absorb art, we’re doing so through comparable sensory input. We’re all receiving more or less the same signals. We might interpret them in different ways (we’ll get to that), but, Burke says, when we disagree about art, it’s not because one party sees in infrared.

I will acknowledge – this line of argument is typical of the Enquiry. Burke makes a run of claims that sound super sweeping, and that you can only really accept in quite a vague, general way. It’s so hard not to nitpick about exceptions and special conditions. With the senses, I think we can move some of the way towards Burke’s argument – but after that it gets harder. For example, Burke suggests that every object has a universal affect – that it affects everybody in the same way. “But as there will be very little doubt that bodies present similar images to the whole species, it must necessarily be allowed that the pleasures and pains which every object excites in one man, it must raise in all mankind.” This point I think is straightforwardly indefensible. People derive different amounts of pleasure from things. That’s how it works. Not everybody has the same passion for chips as me. I fuckin love chips, and most people think they’re only fine. And that’s normal. People react differently to things. Sports fans on opposite sides can watch the same game and have entirely opposite reactions of pain or pleasure. We might be seeing the same things, but that doesn’t mean we process them the same.

Burke isn’t having that, though – he writes that if we deny his idea, “we must imagine that the same cause, operating in the same manner and on subjects of the same kind, will produce different effects, which would be highly absurd.” He accidentally touches on the answer – really, the point is that we’re not subjects of the same kind. Someone who supports Team Red is not the same as someone who supports Team Blue. They experience the events of the game not “naturally, simply, and by its proper powers only” – they rather experience it filtered through the lens of their own subjectivity, which is deeply embedded into the fabric of society, with all of its attending norms and concepts. If you’re Team Blue, you’ve already taken on the concept of games, of teams, and you’ve picked a side. We derive pain and pleasure not only from what we see and hear, but from how those sensory experiences fall within our cultural frame of reference. There is no ‘natural’ encounter – it’s all mediated.

So where does that leave us? We don’t want to abandon the idea of understanding interpretation or criticism. Burke’s goal is still meaningful, and a lot of his observations are still valid. Maybe it’s as simple as shifting our focus from the level of species to the level of society. There’s a part in the Enquiry where Burke talks about sharing beautiful things with other people:

“I never remember that any thing beautiful, whether a man, a beast, a bird, or a plant, was ever shown, though it were to a hundred people, that they did not all immediately agree that it was beautiful.”

What strikes me here is not the agreement, but the act of showing. It’s not proof that we all experience pain and pleasure in the same way, but it does prove our communal nature – that one person can show something they like to someone else and get a positive response in reply. Maybe that’s the start of it.

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