Originally published in brief.22 (December 2001): 40-44.
To those of you who have spent a pleasant summer break at the beach happily reacquainting yourselves with Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten’s Meditationes Philosophicae de Nonnullis ad Poema Pertinentibus (1735) and Esthetics (1750–58), Immanuel Kant’s 1790 Critique of judgement and its insights into ‘ideal beauty’ and ‘adherent beauty’; nodding contentedly with John Ruskin’s 1843 Modern Painters Vol.II and its stimulating distinction between ‘vital’ and ‘typical’ beauty, or Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the genealogy of morals 1887 and its even more stimulating idea of ‘beauty’ as a biological force; or falling stupefied with sunlight off your deckchair after reading aloud to your attentive kids (as the philosopher in his time dictated to his own son Nichomachus) the foundational thinking of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (3rd century BC) – I bring glad tidings.
Beauty is mostly about sex.
Beauty is a beauty-plan, and also the dishevelment of all plans. For example, beauty lives in the neglected second half of Darwin’s theory – not natural selection, but sexual selection. Not the form-follows-function evolutionary goosestep of survival of the fittest, but the wasteful and expensive love-motel of the male golden bowerbird of northern Australia.
Beauty is what makes the grim, progressive pragmatics of natural selection into a fun game, not an end game. It’s what makes room for excess, adornment, uselessness, and impracticality in evolution – which would otherwise be a nightmare of the fitness of form and function, a bad dream of Baumgartian aesthetic realpolitik: aesthetics as a science of provable beauty, a reductive, modernist eugenics of practical symmetry, a reification of obsessive-compulsive syndromes, a law-‘n-order of progressive improvement, a vanishing point of selective fitness, an – dare I say – ultimate reification (that word again) of modernisation: beauty as the best stackable chair, unadorned, ergonomic, refined almost to invisibility, and very expensive.
Not – at all costs – obvious, because obviousness denotes effort, which implies the use of energy, which (in terms of natural rather than sexual selection) is counterproductive. Obvious beauty belongs with sexual selection and mate choice. Such beauty is often deemed vulgar, common, or popular. Not-obvious ‘beauty’ as an act of erasure, withholding, or insignification – of aesthetic celibacy, even – belongs with natural selection. Natural selection loves the absence of effort and the pureness of adaptation. Which, I guess, is why minimalist aesthetics are so little interested in the obvious, in narrative, representation, and virtuosity; and so interested in progress and quality benchmarking.
Recently I heard Leigh Davis approvingly describe the bracing intellectual atmosphere during his salad days at Fay Richwite’s as ‘monkish’. I guess this meant male, celibate, cerebral, refined, secretive, slightly misogynist, austere, powerful, esoteric, liveried and in other key respects precisely branded, and elitist. I list these descriptors with as much precision and objectivity as I can muster, because as we shall see they have a precisely accurate task to perform. I also guess this meant the monks were reading Emmanuel Kant in the FR boardroom, not Friedrich Nietzsche; that they liked the minimalist, sharply edited cut-and-thrust of the first part of Darwin’s theory (natural selection), not the ‘girly bits’ (Leigh again) of the second half of the theory: sexual selection.
As for me, I think we need beauty’s anti-plan. I think we have it anyway, because evolution has put it in the world. Indeed, evolution has made the world with it. We need beauty the way evolution needs sexual fitness indicators. We need beauty to dishevel the reductive progressions of natural selection. We need beauty to diversify the pure forms of adaptability.
Neo-Platonism, the Sublime, Baumgartian esthetics, Ruskin’s theories of Typical and Vital Beauty – all trying to plan beauty, all trying to come up with a better plan for beauty, all failing to conceal their terror of or distaste for the anti-plan, all looking for ways to systematise the anti-plan, the randomising effects of excess, uselessness, enjoyment, flaunting, and come-on.
All trying to avert their gaze from the pleasant evidence of beauty’s function as what evolutionary psychologists such as Geoffrey Miller call ‘sexual fitness indicators’ – a delightful flaunting that says, ‘I am better than necessary at this, I can afford to spend excessively on this, I have the resources to devote excessive energy on this, and I know that you have the perceptual and cognitive ability to see and to evaluate my body, language, deeds, performances, products, and assets, and to make an appropriate mate choice.
A segue back to Leigh Davis. In a recent talk, Time, Text, and Echoes (Where Poetry is), Leigh spelled out an historical programme for ‘verbal art’ (which is what he wistfully calls poetry) in which he drew an absolute distinction between (recidivist) ‘analog’ poetry and (innovative) ‘digital’ poetry. His model is at once a straight reissue of the modernist canon (Dante, the French Symbolists, Eliot, Stein, Pound, Zukofsky) and a plug for those he sees as the inheritors of the modernist programme, the ‘language’ poets.
While the pedant in me is appalled by the naivete of Leigh’s historical analysis, his talk contains an interesting, if involuntary, subtext.
Among the words that associate with ‘analog’ poetry are: poetry (as against poems – ie the modular as against the concrete), representation, the audience, the language of the tribe, inertia, a nation of fucking shopkeepers, romantic, experiential, realist, existential emotion, Big Thoughts, girly things, imitation, natural phenomenon, actual experience, authenticity, the outside, story, character portrayal, description, how to get to the superette, biography, autobiography.
Among the words that associate with ‘digital’ poetry are: poems (as against poetry – the concrete as against the modular), abstraction, the writer or poet, art, change, a big new conception of meaning, big idea, the medium, language, materials, mannerist, thought, frottage, anonymity, memory, time, text, echoes.
What we find here, as well as a qualitative distinction essayed by Leigh, are descriptions of two orders of beauty. One is obvious, even try-hard, and the words used around it describe a situation of wide reference and reception, of familiarity, in which an audience’s ability to scrutinise such effects as storyline, representational virtuosity, craft skill, and character interest or gossip, are important. The emphasis here is on a broadly familiar field of cognition, in which the maker’s skill and the audience’s discrimination are equally assayed. This is worldly beauty, discovered within a comprehensible, generalised field (call it ‘poetry’).
The other order of beauty, which Leigh wants to privilege, and even to make victorious over its demotic relative, involves a withdrawal from or a refinement of the obvious, and the erasure of signs of effort, of try-hardness. The words around it describe a situation of privileged reference and esoteric reception, of strangeness or specialisation, in which the audience is secondary to the maker, requiring to be led by the poet (the beautician) into a place of refined meanings, out-of-the-world not of it, abstract rather than narrativised. This understated, unworldly beauty is discovered within coded, specific sites for meditation (call them ‘poems’).
In terms of the second half of Darwin’s theory – that of sexual selection – an evolutionary psychologist would recognise at once that both orders of beauty are doing the same job, that of displaying sexual fitness indicators, allowing informed mate choice to take place. Neither is independent of the other – in fact, they are interdependent. The first kind of beauty, the obvious, allows a broad shakedown of opportunities to occur at a considerable remove from the pragmatic business of natural selection. It allows a healthy spread of sexual opportunity and of discriminatory skills. It encourages the introduction, refinement, and censoring for usefulness of new mutations, thus maintaining cross-species equilibrium. It promotes the use of an adult vocabulary of about 60,000 words when about 4,000 of them do 98% of the work. In marketing terms, it promotes good cashflow, consumer choice, and producer accountability.
The second kind of beauty, the refined and unworldly, narrows the search. Using the obvious as its base culture, it distances itself from it to generate models of production and reception in which signals are concealed, often by being moved very close to the territory of the first half of Darwin’s theory, that of natural selection – the form-follows-function margin. Usually, and especially in both the more transcendentalist forms of the Sublime and the more minimal forms of the modernist, it displays what might seem snobbish distaste for the worldly, and especially for the vulgarity of sexual display – though it is merely a hyper-refined form of such displays. This snobbishness has a biological function. Its forms narrow the spread of sexual selection, focus discriminatory skills, discourage the introduction of new mutations, and destabilise species equilibrium by producing specialist momentum. It works to edit the excessive demotic adult vocabulary by producing specialist hieratic terminologies and modes of citation that dispense with discursive language. In marketing terms, it looks for symbolic values rather than cashflow, prefers big occasional money to regular spend, is producer driven, and replaces notions of accountability with quasi-ecclesiastic assumptions of privileged and semi-concealed knowledge, taste, and often, of class.
At this point, and having perhaps laboured it, I am transfixed anew by a particular passage in Leigh’s essay, one I have been implicitly returning to throughout most of this discussion – having previously had my curiosity aroused by the word ‘frottage’ listed among the virtues of ‘digital’ verbal art.
The mildly sexual signal of this word soon gets totally pumped when Leigh looks at rhyming, or ‘echoes’, in poetry. Noting elegantly that rhyme ‘brakes time, foregrounds, relishes and retards it’, he soon embarks on a sexual rhapsody: ‘Rhyme by this means withholds release. Effects of tension, engorgement, and protrusion, poetry’s common tell-tales, occur.’
Here, in a to-die-for epigrammatic passage that presents poetry as an heroic, probably male, stiffy in your cotton dockers, we discover beauty as simultaneous sex and suppression, as technique rather than release, as a semi-concealed phallic engorgement, as a tantalisation, as a display of control. Geoffrey Miller, the brilliant evolutionary psychologist whose book The Mating Mind has had me falling off my deckchair with laughter all this summer, and whom I have preferred in thinking about this essay to his many famous, aestheticising, biology-averse predecessors such as Kant and Ruskin, should get a copy of Leigh’s sentence in his e-mail. On the strength of Miller’s hearty erudition and marvellous wit, the biologist would love Leigh’s intellectual bulge. Miller’s years of scrupulous thought and passionate research captured in a squeezed-off aphorism whose real burden of meaning is entirely involuntary, and probably biological at that.