Friday, October 21, 2005

Aesthetic Realism: So Different from Structuralism Yet Somewhat Like It

Some observers, such as Conrad Arensberg of Columbia University[personal communication], have pointed to a resemblance between structuralism, as presented by Claude Levi-Strauss, and the philosophy Aesthetic Realism, founded by Eli Siegel. Meanwhile, there are also important differences.

The reason for their likeness is that both respect the dialectic process and see opposites as primal in our understanding of the world. A dialectic, writes musicologist Rose Rosengard Subotnick, "enables one to grasp the two opposed priorities as simultaneously valid". []

Aesthetic Realism, however, sees the dialectic process as essentially aesthetic. This makes for very significant differences. Eli Siegel presented reality as having a dialectic structure, yes, but more fundamentally as having an aesthetic structure. That is why, he stated, the world--or reality--can be liked: it has a structure that is beautiful the way a painting or poem is beautiful. This differs from structuralism, which does not neccessarily accent the value--or beauty--of an object's structure, but the structure itself.

This brings us to another difference between structuralism and Aesthetic Realism. The opposites which, Siegel explained, are at the basis of reality are the metaphysical or ontological opposites: such as freedom and order, one and many, sameness and difference, individuality and relation, matter and energy. These are qualities which are in reality as such (see for instance Aristotle's discussion of One and Many in his ''Metaphysics''). And take an electron--it is both substance and form, a particle and a wave. A sonnet is both substance and form (a Shakespearean sonnet about the Dark Lady has subject matter and sonnet form) -- see the similarity? The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle describes every instance of matter as both definite and indefinite (we can know position or velocity but not both). Monet's ''Waterlilies'' are both definite and indefinite--and beautifully so! We feel both opposites at once: hence the idea of dialectic. We see it as beautiful: hence the term aesthetic.

Eli Siegel wrote in his preface to ''The Aesthetic Method in Self-Conflict''(Definition Press, New York: 1946):

"Were there a word as exact as aesthetics for the purpose, we would have been glad to use it. The nearest word, other than aesthetics, is dialectics."

Claude Lévi-Strauss by comparison--the best known of structuralists today--relies on such opposites as ''sky and water'', ''succulent and dessicated'', ''raw and cooked'' which are not ontological, along with such opposites as ''diversity and unity'', ''order and disorder'' which are ontological; but the structuralist approach does not see it as necessary to differentiate between them. That is, ''Raw'' and ''cooked'' are not ontological the way ''disorder'' and ''order'' are; they are not fundamental or inescapable in the description of any reality--though we do use them to describe food as well as other things that we process, e.g.: "He ''cooked up'' a plan for revenge. But it was only a ''half-baked'' plan."

Lévi-Strauss explained that opposites are at the basis of social structure and culture. In his early work he demonstrated that tribal kin groups were usually found in pairs, or in paired groups that both oppose one another and need one another. For example, in the Amazon basin, two different expanded families would build their houses in two facing semi-circles that together make up a big circle. He showed too that the congnitive maps, the ways early folk categorized animals, trees, and so on, were based on a series of oppositions.

Later in his most popular work ''The Raw and the Cooked'' he described the widely dispersed folk tales of tribal South America as all related to one another through a series of transformations--as one opposite in tales ''here'' changes into another opposite in tales ''there''. As the title implies, for instance, Raw becomes its opposite Cooked. These particular opposites (Raw/Cooked) can be considerd as symbolic of human culture itself, in which, by means of thought and labor, raw materials become clothes, food, weapons, art, ideas. Culture, explained Lévi-Strauss, is a dialectic process: thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

While Aesthetic Realism has a resemblance to structuralism and other philosophic thought, and arises from the Western philosophic tradition, it also differs in this fundamental way: Eli Siegel stated that art, the self, and the sciences have in common a structure of fundamental opposites--opposites which make for beauty. "The world, art, and self explain each other," he state: "Each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites." This relation among those three things: reality, the human self, and art, had not been understood before.


Important Links to know about

As an educator myself I have used, and highly recommend to every teacher, the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method. This educational method, taught by Eli Siegel, founder of Aesthetic Realism, has been successfully used to teach a wide variety of subjects (K-12 and beyond) for over 30 years. Students learn their subjects with a beautiful eagerness and thoroughness. The most compact introduction to the theory of aesthetics on which Aesthetic Realism is based would be "Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites?" and the chapter "The Aesthetic Method in Self- Conflict" from Self and World. Some of the many subjects Aesthetic Realism is resoundingly true about include not only the very basis of aesthetics in general, but photography in particular; not only conflict in the human self as such but a new perspective for anthropology and sociology in particular and a way of seeing a person, whether man or woman, in relation to history, current events, and art--as the website created by Lynette Abel shows -- and that by journalist Alice Bernstein, an Aesthetic Realism Associate. The large online body of work on these very subjects has been provided by Ellen Reiss, Class Chairman of Aesthetic Realism, who writes on the "criticism" of John Keats as well as, for example, on poet Robert Burns, and much more. Meanwhile, to learn more about Mr. Siegel, you can visit the Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company, as well as biographical information on the Aesthetic Realism Foundation website. Meanwhile, I am sorry to say that as has occurred so often in history, a very few people have attempted to smear this new knowledge and present it as far from what it truly is. This is documented on the important website titled Friends of Aesthetic Realism—Countering the Lies--which I hope you visit.