Have you ever wondered why you enjoy some art and not other art? Why one genre of music seems to ‘speak to you’, and others feel unimportant or even annoying? Why you continually seek out, say, action movies, but roll your eyes every time some one mentions a romantic comedy? Some folks argue from all sorts of perspectives of objective superiority in media, but that doesn’t explain why shows, songs, video games, paintings, etc. they find to be inferior are still enjoyed and defended by others (and typically come off as just elitist back-filling). You can’t just explain away bad taste with a ‘lack of culture’ or stupidity; human psychology isn’t that simple.
Has it ever seemed to you that certain answers to questions or responses to situations just feel right? ‘Go with your gut’, ‘follow your heart’, ‘trust your intuition’ people say, like there’s an impulse that comes from an invisible source when logical solutions to problems aren’t available to you. Ever wondered where intuition comes from? What that source is? Why your gut might tell you one thing while some one else’s gut might tell them an other? Some folks say this is your spirit talking, your conscience, and a freer spirit/less corrupted conscience will be able to communicate to you better information: that the person with the good response is hearing a clear message from their spirit or god, while the person with the bad response is getting information distorted by spirit energy blockages or lack of faith. This isn’t a religious blog, so discussion here requires more material hypotheses. We’ve just got to clear our thoughts to hear the voice of our conscience? But that still doesn’t explain what the conscience is. Does the inner voice, what ever it is, look out for you? For the greater good? What are its motivations? If you can’t be confident that god or the collective unconsciousness is benevolent, ya gotta wonder why.
There’s a lot of subconscious stuff going on in our mind spaces. Freud’s model of ego/superego/id is an oversimplification, and so is the visualization of the ice berg with its smallest portion being all that’s visible above water, but they’re still useful as short-hand. In the global west, in the US Empire especially, there’s a long-standing myth that economics is driven by rationality. In other words, we make decisions that effect our livelihoods using refined logic, make them only after pausing to think, and this process you might say comes from our superego. But how does this explain the trope of the impulse buy? Is that the exception that proves the rule, since any one would admit to silencing their rationality when making that purchase? Even so, you have to wonder how many serious decisions were quietly made impulsively, and how much this influences the greater results of our economics. And any one listening to their intuition, their inner voice, certainly isn’t consciously deliberating on a solution.
Secular folks tend to like to think the human mind generally developed vertically in this way: instinct gave rise to emotional subconsciousness gave rise to rational consciousness. With this perspective, it’s easy to believe that our subconscious drives still have a strong biological foundation, that our intuition is telling us to fulfill our basic needs. They may be skeptical of intuition for this reason, because it may prioritize food or sex over some thing more pressing, but they still see it as some thing that is entirely internal, easily predicted once you’ve glanced at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I’m not so sure of this perspective any more, in stead more inclined to believe that the subconscious is a product of our consciousness, that the subconscious wouldn’t exist at all without there first being conscious perception, ideas, thoughts, emotional reactions, meaning.
We can feel intuitions about all sorts of things, after all, base urges regarding information that didn’t even exist nor would have had any value while the human species was emerging from our purely instinctual motivations. We dream about our technology, about our culture, about abstract nonsense, and feel all sorts of deep relationships with things of human design, designed by humans we’ll never meet, things that are consciously completely novel. Were we biologically determined to enjoy electric guitars and synthesizer music some how, or is there some thing else going on?
The key lies in that phrase ‘it speaks to me.’ If our consciousness communicates in text, our subconsciousness communicates in subtext. Body language may reinforce what a person is explicitly saying, or it may say some thing else. We might not pick up on the message of a person’s body language (the subtext) consciously, not until it makes us feel some thing that we then translate in to a conscious idea. ‘I can’t explain it, but so-and-so just gives off bad vibes.’ Well, so they communicate some thing to your subconscious that you aren’t able to translate in to conscious thought. If we can’t consciously explain why we like a novel or a TV show, our subconscious still ‘knows’ in stead.
Some folks say music is a language, and it helps to think of all art, all of aesthetics, actually, as language. Art isn’t just deliberately constructing pleasing sounds and shapes and colors and movements; it is meaningful. It communicates some thing, whether ideas or emotions. We only feel some thing from art because it is communicating some thing to us. If we don’t like a piece of art, ‘get no thing out of it’, it is because we don’t understand it, consciously or unconsciously. Our subconscious mind might not be able to speak its language.
So how does the subconscious learn these wordless or subtextual languages? Well, not unlike how a small child learns literal, spoken language. It learns it through absorption, pattern recognition, reinforcement, all automatically through repeated exposure. Even as adults we often learn new words through context, and learning the same word through different contexts can result in different understandings of the meaning of the word. This is one way to explain how one person can love a song while an other person hates it: they both learned the language(s) that the song communicates with in different contexts. Sadly, a broad negative context could result in novel music being avoided in general, or a broad positive one could bring a person to subconsciously ‘understand’ novelty only, and never develop a deeper appreciation of new music, it’s diversity, its nuance.
If we appreciate things because we find them meaningful, and we learn meaning through repeated exposure, then we can say that meaning has a historical element. What I mean here is that there is a progression of meaning, from meaningless noise to familiar noise to pleasant sounds, shapes, colors, smells, tastes, and movements to valuable works, events, and people to deep and lasting narratives.
It’s no secret that art makes us feel things, evokes emotions both as simple as sadness and so complex that we struggle to explain them. But what about ideas? Are we talking explicitly political lyrics pushing a specific political stance, and themes of heroism, triumphing over evil, and whether success or the friends we made along the way are the most important part of a journey? That’s all part of it, sure, and a story can have a moral to it without explicitly saying, ‘Do this thing but not this other thing.’ But instrumental music can also present and reinforce ideas- why does it evoke the emotional atmosphere that it does? What is that for? And how does it do it? Why does that particular composition and selection of instruments work for the job? Each instrument has a history of use, a place in different cultures across time, and any chord progression or melodic hook shares a relationship with others, per haps a hundred years apart, per haps across genres that are iterations of combinations of iterations that share a common root that no one even really remembers any more- yet their meaning would not exist without this shared history. It shouldn’t be hard to imagine that some one who understands the social/political conditions that developed blues and shaped country from blues will have a very different experience listening to present-day stadium country than some one who just takes stadium country for granted, as the definition of the genre simply because it is presently popular.
Aside from your typical themes, story can also carry a message about the parts of its content that the narrative completely ignores: ‘these things are normal, obvious, unworthy of analysis.’ You don’t have to be paranoid to be suspicious of some one telling you, ‘Don’t think about this.’ Writers likely take things for granted to save time and focus on the story they want to tell, but like a nervous person giving away their lie with body language, stories often have unintended, accidental subtext. If a story, for example, features a complex, morally superior white man versus a simple-minded, sadistically evil Black woman, you have to wonder what kind of prejudices it’s reinforcing by not addressing why these narrative choices were made.
That’s just an easy example, though. Dangerous subtext goes way beyond basic prejudices. When we are bombarded with media that suggests consumerism is normal, that every sane person gets married, that love is pain, that success is wealth, that the Empire’s military is a force for good, that police are inherently benevolent, that the position of authority of teachers and politicians is necessary, that finance and currency are integral to any economics, presents these things with no or only superficial criticism (which only tricks the audience in to being satisfied that the depth of criticism possible has been complete), a specific and complex belief system is being promoted and reinforced. When beliefs are presented quietly like this, are only implied, across many outlets of multiple forms of media, we call those beliefs the ‘status quo’: beliefs that have developed to the point of being normal, having conquered all competing beliefs, setting the expectations for what should and should not be challenged, regardless of the ethical implications (culture can progress in both good and bad ways, simultaneously). When beliefs are so prevalent for so long that they become the back ground to the rest of our lives, when they’re so normalized that we can’t even identify them any more, yet their meaning persists and informs our judgment, those beliefs have shifted from intellectual to wholly aesthetic. Ideas once laid out in explicit words are now implied by simpler, grander symbols. The simplest representation of the crucifix being seen in an incredible amount of places, worn around necks even, evokes the dominance of the Christian church acquired through two thousand years of slaughter and torture… but some how not in a repulsive way. All of our traditions of professionalism, corporate hierarchy, the historical procession from peasant to merchant to banker to administrator to CEO, all condense in to the simple business suit. Do we feel our way through human relationships in terms of exchange because there’s a biological imperative to do so, or because our society is steeped in an aesthetic of buying and selling?
A society with an old, invisible belief structure will naturally discourage making its subtext explicit out of self-preservation. If we can’t analyze it, we can’t criticize it, and, if we can’t criticize it, we can’t decide that it’s bad or suggest an alternative. But individuals in small-scope situations benefit from how our society neglects subtext also. In this society, a fascist can say some thing that’s innocuous on the surface but with a tone that conveys hatred and promotes bigotry, requiring only the defense, ‘I didn’t say that. You’re putting words in my mouth.’ The phrase ‘I’m sorry you feel that way’ can easily mean ‘your emotions are annoying.’ ‘Every one here has a voice, and is welcome to speak their mind’ often means ‘democracy has no place here, also we are welcoming you to have your discontent surveilled.’ We now call these tactics ‘dog whistles’ when they communicate coded messages to the in-group, yet it’s still difficult to convince people that deceit is happening. The fact that we have to explain gas-lighting at all suggests that language games are used to preserve power all of the time.
News-casters go on with an air of unbiased fact-telling, even though which facts to present has been carefully predetermined, and their writers decide what kind of information is factual. News-casters present horrific events in relative calm, which trains us to be desensitized to violence. TV shows and movies have to condense a ton of information in to short segments, which has the effect of convincing us that life is simple- having thrown out all this causal information to just leave us with the exciting points. We slowly learn that that’s how the world just is, by learning to ignore the stuff that those media discard. And then what happens? We can’t fucking read books that include all of those discarded details because we’ve been conditioned to feel that they’re boring and extraneous, so recovering our senses for them is that much more difficult.
Jean Baudrillard defines media as ‘the mediating power between one reality and another.’
The novel is the medium between our reality and the ‘reality’ presented by the author’s story. The same story can be presented through a different medium, like film, but it will necessarily become a different story: the narrative voice is lost, changing the atmospheres of scenes from being precisely described to being simply shown, and the content is dramatically condensed. When film and television push for realism, what they are really pushing for is one specific interpretation of reality, a ‘realism’ defined by our concept of the real as fed to us by media, one that in fact is not real at all. When art copies life copies art enough times the media, by Baudrillard’s definition, disappears. Pop art becomes so self-referencial that it is no longer art, but just a dead echo of the norms.
The narratives of our popular myths have become the meta-narrative of our lives, a set of subconscious beliefs that tell us what every thing means.
The lie of the prevailing cultural aesthetic, that it’s divorced from historical context, that only the immediate, explicit, superficial message exists, is essentialistic. I call it essentialistic because it assumes all of the meaning of art and ideology is just baked in to the nature of things. Meaning in culture develops over time based on broadly accepted values. Every ‘common sense’ perception today is an iteration of an old one. The human worldview is an ancient, multicultural patchwork. In other words, the present meaning, feel, value of our commodities, media, institutions, etc. is taken for granted because the context is hidden. A Christmas tree is just a Christmas tree, not a specific species of plant selected and reselected based on ancient, alien-to-us traditions co-opted by Christianity and then a consumerist repackaging of Christianity, covered in a collection of symbols that also developed over time. Our culture behaves as though the idea ‘Christmas tree’ is built in to the object its self. Essentialism, the idea that meaning precedes, that purpose and symbolic character manifest with objects in stead of after objects. Why is this disturbing? Why is this mistake so grave? Because it has made Neoliberal capitalism in to a fucking religion. Not unlike Eastern pagan religions, we believe that every thing has its own eternal spirit, divorced from time. But the horror of it is that this is accepted as secular, and we have no words for it. It’s an invisible religion that you can’t opt out of because you need those words in able to do so, words that have been stolen and buried through the long process of the normalization of competitive markets and advertising. The language of escape is suppressed; we no longer have a secular vernacular, if there ever was one.
So what does this mean about artistic taste and intuition? Well, intuition is merely the medium between our subconscious beliefs and our conscious processing. Aesthetics is a language that speaks directly to our subconscious, requiring little to no conscious translation, telling us to believe and disbelieve things, using emotional conjugation of the meaning of events, people, institutions, habits, every thing. Think of the skilled artist or advertiser or politician as a computer hacker trying to find the back door to your machine, the vulnerable points in your security, and exploiting them to plant viruses. Their jobs are to find ways around your consciousness, to get you to believe things without you knowing it, to accept ideas that you may resist, if they were presented explicitly. And these people don’t expect it to happen with a single painting, with a single billboard, with a single speech. Our subconscious learns through repetition, remember; these beliefs are formed through repeated exposure, familiarity, habits.
So is your music taste yours? It might make more sense to say that your music taste is your parents’, modified by popular radio, tweaked by what signified that you were cool to other kids in high school, reinforced by the frequency with which some of the major influences were repeated in film, T.V., and commercials, later in the audio gags of Internet memes, and so on. Just as no piece of art was produced in a cultural/historical vacuum, as every song is in some way a remix, every story an adaptation, our own tastes, our entire personalities, are the products of the explicit and implicit influences in our lives, both due to which we’ve accepted and how we rejected the others. Our intuition is only telling us what all of those successful influences wanted us to hear. Our intuition is just the expression, the chorus of every computer virus we’ve let slip in to our hidden hard drives.
That is, unless we learn these languages. Unless we do the work necessary to translate the subconscious languages of aesthetics in order to interrupt and control them. We can rewire our subconscious; that’s largely what psychotherapy is for. It’s just that the commodified versions of psychotherapy don’t go deep enough, because their purpose is to make us normal, not analytical or individual, and certainly not free. The study of aesthetics and how it intersects with politics, ethics, epistemology, logic, and metaphysics is not an easy one to tackle, and is often muddled and sterilized by the dry weight of academia or the fluffy, juvenile, get-educated-now! of Youtube summaries. I likely never would have understood it my self, had I not first studied ethics, then political theory and political history, then the history of media, all the while building up my understanding of how we attain knowledge and develop our processes of judgment. It also takes a broad range of examples- you can’t begin to understand music, if you’re not willing to immerse your self in all of its genres, all of its hundreds of genres spanning tens, hundreds, or thousands of years. Contrast is important. Context is essential. History is messy, and if you’ve never read history that brought you significant and memorable discomfort, you’ve never actually read history.
If we’re not deliberately and carefully developing our selves, through constant study and reevaluation, some one else, some one else’s system is doing it for us, and it does not have our best interests in mind. I, personally, am currently taking a journey through developing an aesthetic of resistance to the malicious hackers, one that not only protects me from subliminal propaganda but orients me more confidently in the world, minimizing my cognitive dissonance and sense of alienation in a world that was not designed for me- not through a rejection of the contradictions at play but a profound and educated acceptance of them, not acceptance of them as good or correct but as factually real, concrete things that I can understand and combat. I mentioned in Part 10 of my previous post that cyberpunk and Stoicism are such aesthetics, but both are dead (cyberpunk having been zombified in to an enslaved nostalgia commodity), so possibly insufficient to challenge the world of today. I’m not just trying to preserve my own sanity, after all. I’d like to think my knowledge has the potential to some day manifest a systematic method for bettering the whole world.