Pembroke Seminar: 2014-2015
"Aesthetics and the Question of Beauty"
Seminar Leader: Marc Redfield
Chesler-Mallow Senior Faculty Research Fellow, Pembroke Center
Professor of Comparative Literature and English, Brown University
The question of the beautiful has preoccupied Western thought since Plato, and remains a rich area of inquiry in today’s world. Manifestos affirming the cultural or ethical importance of aesthetic experience appear regularly; philosophers, artists and art historians, culture and media theorists, anthropologists, and sometimes even evolutionary biologists encounter—in various ways, of course, and with varying frequency and intensity—the question of what it means to say that someone or something is beautiful. This question can even be said to have inscribed itself in the workings of consumer society itself, where some of the most ancient problems and patterns of aesthetic discourse find themselves writ large, in neon. (Is there such a thing or event or experience as “the beautiful” that would be separable from rhetorical manipulation; from technical reproducibility; from commodity fetishism and acquisitive desire; from the objectification of the female body?)
In 2014-15 the Pembroke Seminar explored the topic of the beautiful from as many disciplinary and discursive perspectives as possible. Traditional philosophical questions (such as, e.g., the degree to which the event or experience of beauty is culturally determined) were taken seriously but submitted to counter-questioning from multiple angles. Can philosophical aesthetics and Darwinian evolutionary theory speak productively to each other? Do judgments or experiences of the beautiful inevitably refer back to being-human in a human body, or do they exceed anthropomorphic limits? To what extent does the question of the beautiful overlap with that of art, even after a century of anti-aesthetic avant-garde movements? How best to interpret the predilection of traditional aesthetic discourse for gender-marked binary oppositions and for metaphysical affirmations of the human?