Aesthetics as holistic systems analysis

by Suspended Reason

In the world of cars, there are whole subcultures of engine audiophiles who purr with delight when well-configured chrome comes to life.

My friend Jeff, straining to speak over the roar of a Monster Truck rally, asks, Is it a functional thing? The health and build of the engine? Or is it more aesthetic?” Then my usual razor sliced the distinction apart: ¿Por qué no los dos?. The aesthetic sense had developed as a holistic diagnosis of functional properties.

The aesthetic sensibility of a gearhead is a bit like sexual attraction. Human beauty correlates with all sorts of vitality markers and reproductive indicators, but we don’t experience it that way. We just find certain faces and bodies pleasing. So too with flavor. The concept of a maladaptive superstimulus is given platform by the base assumption of adaptive attraction.

And this is what Dennis Dutton has argued about landscapes: probably not coincidence that the generically beautiful vista has abundant amounts of water and verdure. Show a buncha eight-year-olds pictures of the savannah, and they’ll end up preferring (on vague aesthetic grounds) approximately the sorts of ecologies you’d pick if you were running a functional analysis on survival odds. Many of the elevated perspectives landscape paintings take match roughly to the predictions prospect-refuge theory makes.

No question: aesthetics decouple from function constantly, especially at the tail-end of the distribution, especially when competing agents are fucking with each others’ environmental distributions—hence heroin chic. But I think this aesthetic-functional duality begins pointing us in the same direction as Bourdieu’s habitus, in updating on standard rational-actor models. Sometimes, acting on gut feel, ineffable attraction, and the aesthetic is a form of strategic action.

To close—my hunch is that vibes operate on a similar logic:

In the most reductionist, rationalistic terms available, we can think of [social] vibes as coherent arrays of costly signals. An array might consist of body posture, facial microgestures, vocal tremors and tonality, the actual semiotic content of utterances, clothing. One of the most load-bearing forms of costly signals, in human communication, is the information signal. A given shibboleth—perhaps the pronunciation of a word, or an item of clothing—is easily performed granted one knows to perform it. What is costly and difficult to obtain is the tacit, procedural knowledge itself. It is difficult for a fed to personally infiltrate a countercultural group, because of how lacking in relevant shibboleths of speech, attire, and opinion he is. (Thus he more frequently resorts to turning and bribing insiders.) The best undercover agents spend years or decades gaining intimate familiarity with the worlds they live in; they come to be proper members of those worlds, not so much acting anymore as living their role; and here of course enters the danger of the long-embedded agent, who is helplessly compromised by his time undercover.(src)

We could never articulate this complex constellation of signals, but we carry an intuitive, felt sense of normalcy over our cognitive-sensory arrays—our external and internal landscapes—so that small, systematic deviations will set off our sensors.