More concering the female ankle — or what Evolutionary Psychologists and Aesthetic Theorists could learn from Marketing Research

June 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

This research paper says ankles are among the body features least paid attention to by potential sexual partners.  Like all such papers by evolutionary psychologists, it fails to address the question no marketing researcher would ever overlook:  does the aggregate data in fact obstruct the structure of the phenomenon (“market”)?  That is to say, does aesthetic interest in ankles define a certain population — one among whom the ankle is a significant item?  (Perhaps even “the most significant”?).

This writer’s self-observation suggests:  yes.

If so, then comes the crunch question: if so, then what else is unique about this sub-group?  Surely, they are not all balding six-foot-five, paper-skinned descendants of East European gentry with a strong interest in martial arts, European opera, glazed pottery, and Japanese classics?  And if not — are there any features they share?  And significantly:  not just taste features — i.e. “all ankle lovers prefer blonds” (clearly not true)– but “do all ankle-lovers have ankles themselves?” or:  “do all ankle-lovers happen to have an extra-long middle finger in the right hand?”) The marketer will also want to know — I should say chiefly want to know — how to reach them — what media they watch, what magazines they read, etc.

Can you see what I am driving at?  Taste as a hidden structure of humanity!

In my view, Evolutionary Psychologists, like aestheticists (and all academics in general), would benefit greatly from courses in marketing research.  For instance, publications of the World Coffee Council would teach them that:

a) the entire coffee-drinker population in the world can be divided into several very specific groups (fewer than ten) — with respect to the particular coffee flavor they prefer;

b) that the populations of those groups are spread across the globe — but not evenly; they are in fact spread lumpily:  for instance, the preference for a coffee taste described by professional tasters as “burnt rubber” shows up all over the globe, even in (still) mostly coffee-less China, but is a significant plurality in only two nations on earth:  Poland and the UK;  not the majority, mind you, as in “50% +1”; but significant plurality, meaning the largest of the many minorities, and one large enough to dictate its tastes to others (it determines what gets put on supermarket shelves);

c) each such group consists, in different proportions, of a hard-core (can’t sell them a milky cappucino if their life depended on it) ; and hangers on (can drink any coffee, generally prefer burnt rubber, but happy to try whatever everyone else is having at the moment);  the hangers on can be sold a different product, the hard-core — only once;

d) the special gifts required to make a coffee-taster (a natural gift is required followed by intensive training) disqualify a person from telling you what they like:  people who have tasted a great deal of coffee often can’t make up their mind and, in private, actually turn out to be tea- or juice-drinkers; or else consume such a wide variety of coffees that they do not fall into any of the broad categories themselves; in other words, the process of training an expert, both sharpens ones taste and, in a sense, ruins it.

It is my hunch, based on years of conducting marketing research, that not only does the taste in ankles, but the tastes in opera and painting and architecture run the same way:  many islands of mutually incompatible, probably hard-wired taste-preferences; and between them a sea of hangers on, who happen to say they like X because their mother did, or their girlfriend does, and have some familiarity with it and some sentiment for it, but who really don’t have anything that could be called taste of their own; and swimming within that sea are — “experts” — near-omnivores, seeing everything, understood by the blind who see less and, in a sense, baffled by everything.

[Next lecture:  taste as a speciating factor]


The remarkable disappearance of the female ankle

June 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

The sudden arrival of summer has caused the fair sex to drop excess clothing and appear before us (nearly) as nature has made them.  And nature has made them, it would appear — incredibly! — without the — talocrural joint — sans the synovial hinge — sine angulus, in short — nature has made them — ankleless!

The aesthete’s eye is amazed to see that by and large the human female’s leg does not, after all, appear to sport the narrow waist of his imagination — as the porcine trotter does; but instead the female foot appears to connect directly to the calf, without any attempt at defined ligature, or modulation; in the style of the Doric column, the Egyptian pylon, or the pachyderm support column.  Can this be possible?  To explain his misconception, the aesthete has gone back to search the various Roman and Renaissance Venuses and to his surprise has discovered that among them, too, the ankle is — notably missing.  (Unbelievable, but true).

Now, the aesthete knows form personal experience — observation of several significant others — that, in principle, the female ankle does exist; but he is now compelled to admit that it would appear to be a commodity in severe shortage.

His fetish — if that’s what it is — the aesthete does not spend excessive amounts of time slobbering over his significant other’s ankles; but he will generally and instantly lose interest in anyone shown to lack a well-turned one — isn’t his alone:  he remembers others  commenting on women’s ankles — fine-ankled Rajasthani upper-class women; Edo-era floating-world habitues — and wonders why such an interest should exist.  Clearly, fine ankles are far more rare than agreeable faces — could it be that a good ankle is harder to make?  Is a fine ankle and indication of good carpentry — a better tool for running and jumping?  (Desirable for one’s offspring).  Or is it the opposite — that an unsightly ankle is an indication of bad health?  (A swollen ankle is the one most obvious indication of circulation problems).

As many aesthetic preferences do, the ankle-interest appears to have speciating effects:  those who pay attention to ankles appear to have good ankles themselves.

[Incidentally, while looking for an illustration for this post I discovered that female ankles unuglified by some sort of an ill-conceived tattoo appear to have gone extinct; closer inspection shows all those photos sport non-ankles; presumably the tattoo is there as a form of disguise].

When looking at beauty, we know it will end and this knowledge kills us

August 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Sufferingist Theory of Art

Yesterday on a radio show a Herr Professor talked (in connection with K. 466) of his frustration with Mozart as insufficiently deep; and of the Piano Concerto No. 20 as having the saving grace of the minor key, which, he says, at least offers some hope of spiritual depth.

Though his view (that things sad/upsetting are deep — and, conversely, things happy and content are shallow) was not shared by other participants of the program (it generally is not), it is very widespread; it receives much support from the millenia-long association between much beautiful (or just important) art and Christianity and her macabre obsession with putrefying wounds and cold sores; and reinforcement from the romantic notions of the salutary effects of struggle.

And it frustrates me.

It frustrates me in part because it seems to be an invitation to make and contemplate ugly art — the horrible Suffering Mary Magdalene by Donatello, or the mentally disturbed prophets from the campanile del duomo in Firenze, etc. (and everything which has followed in their wake) which are somehow supposed to be deep because they are disagreeable (ugly); whereas to most normal, happy people they are merely disturbing.

But mainly because it slights my own spiritual experience — which I now personally perceive as one of great depth — in response to works of art which are peaceful, calm, and pleasing.  Indeed, raised in a Christian and romantic nation as I was, I had long lived in the throes of the sufferingist theory of art and was, as a result, long blind to the experience of depth of contentment.  I have only been able to discover it after many years in (blessedly un-Christian and un-Romantic) Asia and — another decade by the sea (sea, O sea, with her oceanic-ecstasy-inducing hypnotic powers). The eventual discovery of the notion of upekkha — held up by Buddhism as a state of spiritual advancement — finally clinched it for me, providing at last the intellectual justification for the pleasure I receive from calm and peaceful art.

Or, in other words:  the pleasure I receive from… pleasure.

The subtle connection between sufferingism and meaningism

[Incidentally, Her Professor’s sufferingist view often goes hand in hand with the meaningist theory of art (i.e. that art is only, or principally, good because it means or symbolizes something and “makes us think”).  This theory is often embraced by linguistically gifted people suffering from aesthetic atrophy. (Many of such people are brainy and ugly:  subconsciously, they find the concept of beauty unsettling and prefer theories of art which focus on information processing instead).]

The failures of sufferingism

The sufferingist theory of art neglects what is to me an obvious fact that struggle is not a good in and of itself, but only as a means to a goal which transcends it, and that that goal is — well, not-struggle, i.e. upekkha — i.e. contemplation of contentment.  The sufferingist view brands contentment as shallow and is thereby not only cruel (because it seeks to prevent those capable of experiencing calm from embracing it and tells them instead to go out and suffer), but also self-denying (because it denies the very purpose of any struggle — i.e. victory).

On beauty and sadness

Though Christianity bears much blame for buttressing the sufferingist view of art, the association between beauty and sadness, on the other hand, isn’t Christian. It is universal:  it can be observed in all sorts of settings across the world:  the ueber-un-Christian Japanese say that the cherry blossoms are never more beautiful than when they begin falling — and wipe a tear when they say it; Orhan Pamuk’s un-Christian heroes invariably are overcome with inexpressible sadness as they cross the Galata bridge; and Lisboeta Fado manages to sound sad even when it is in major key.  Perhaps great beauty makes us sad because it is mortal:  when looking at beauty, we know it will end and this knowledge kills us.  Or, perhaps, a glimpse of beauty drives home the misery and pity of our everyday existence and makes us despair at our own condition.

On sex, women, and divine beauty

June 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

Or:  further reflections on Jerome Robbins’ En Sol

But Gillot is divinely graceful and otherworldlily beautiful (all impossibly long arms and legs, a beauty so unusual, so striking as to be un-sexual, positively… seraphinic, powers and thrones, powers and thrones, I kept thinking — see this post)

Either most evolutionary psychologists are wrong in suggesting that our perception of beauty in members of opposite sex is sexually driven (being in their view  recognition of a good breeding material); or I am a cross-wired mutant:  my greatest loves have hardly been the most beautiful women I have known; and when faced with some types of beauty I am moved but — not attracted.

Agnes Gillot, and the Paris Opera Ballet in general, are case in point:  I find them very beautiful and can stare at them for hours (usually hitting the replay button twice), but I am neither in love, nor sexually stimulated.

And while this could be a matter of intimidation (very beautiful women are often not courted precisely because they are in the opinions of men too beautiful for them to stand a chance), it seems, in my case, very well hidden indeed:  I seem unable even to fantasize about these girls.  (Bah!  I am… uninterested in fantasizing!)

As beautiful as I find these ideal athletes, for pleasure I seem to prefer girls with… more flesh on them. An Evolutionary Psychologist might explain that:  slightly chunkier girls are better breeding material, all that flesh — evidence of good feeding.  But if so then why do I find the Opera Ballet girls beautiful?  What could possibly be the point?  Atavism?  A throw back?

Nor is this a case of intimidation (i.e. preferring easier girls):  while I have noticed — with great surprise — that trashy/easy looking girls get a lot of attention from men — perhaps because seeming cheap they do not intimidate; or perhaps because their unkemptness suggests general laxity (hair refusing the control of the comb being symbolic of a… shall we say, more general lack of control), the girls I have loved have all been prim and rather severely controlled.  (Such girls can turn out to be surprisingly adventurous lovers – ease (or difficulty) of getting isn’t in any way indicative of the quality of the food).  This, too, is straight Evolutionary Psychology:  girls who are hard to get pose less risk (of infection); but even folk psychology can explain this:  when a reserved girl loves you, you feel singled out for special treatment.  Such love seems more… personal, more precious.  (And it strokes your vanity).

OK, so evolutionary psychology explains perfectly my sexual conduct to-date: I prefer healthy looking (good breeders), well groomed, self-controlled (safe) girls.

It does not seem to explain why I find Agnes Gillot divinely beautiful.  Why thrones, powers, principalities and dominions come to mind.  Or why there should be such a thing as divine beauty:  things so beautiful as to make us think of them as supernatural, greater than life, worthy of worship, and — unsexual, pure.  Atavism?  Or — faulty mutation, a mistake in the cognitive apparatus?

The ability to sense this divine beauty may be a minority phenomenon (I am surprised by how many people seem not to… — er — divine it); but one sees it frequently enough:  there exist whole branches of mysticism — in otherwise unrelated religious traditions — whose whole point is the contemplation of divine beauty.  Ergo, if it is a mutation, it is a fairly common one.  And if it is, then it is there for a reason.

What reason could that be?


Hey, let’s have fun with this:  here’s a poll: Do you experience divine beauty?  By which I mean:  if you are religious, do you find God beautiful?  If (like me) you are irreligious, are you sometimes faced with experiences of beauty that make you think of God/ things divine/ transcendent/ otherworldly?

Jerome Robbins En Sol

June 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

Jerome Robbins choreography “En Sol” (“In the sun”) suits the music (Ravel’s G-Minor concerto, in French: “en sol majeur”) so well, one might swear the music was a ballet commission.  The choreography takes as its theme the beach and the sea — an idea very well suited to the jumpy outer movements (all that frolicking on the beach) and the gently swaying middle movement (floating on the swaying sea).  It is brilliantly conceived on the ensemble level, with all parts — individuals, small groups — moving in harmony as if they were parts of one body.  Agnes Gillot’s rendition of swaying waves is so convincing as to be mesmerizing – just like the sea.

Unfortunately, the male lead is stiff and wooden — with an occasional technical blip — and utterly lacking in the gift of grace.  It is possible to ignore him for the most part, but not when he is dead center (the “swimming figure” in 1st movement makes me want to cry:  it could be so beautiful and he ruins it); nor in those instances in which he trips up the female lead.  Rather funnily, during the final bows he seems quite satisfied with his performance, rather like that certain Japanese prince Sei Shonagon mentions in the Pillow Book — subject to mean snickerings behind his back, who thought composing poetry was easy and frequently dashed out fast and furious — drivel.

But Gillot is divinely graceful and otherworldlily beautiful (all impossibly long arms and legs, a beauty so unusual, so striking as to be un-sexual, positively… seraphinic, powers and thrones, powers and thrones, I kept thinking 1), head-taller than the rest, she both dominates and saves the show.  One can’t help reflecting, when watching her in the pas-de-deux on the fate of extraordinarily gifted women reduced to coupling with mediocre men or — not coupling at all.

What is it like, I once asked one, to date men less intelligent than you?   What to do?  She said, and asked:  What is it like to date women less intelligent than you?

Oh, I said, I no longer do.


1 See Ophanim.

A very short history of ugliness (3)

June 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

After Courbet, deluge

Courbet was the equivalent of an unrestrained fart in a fashionable drawing room: it didn’t merely expand the realm of the possible (by allowing farts/red hands, say); it damaged any and all notion of limit. To paraphrase a Russian novelist, if farting in the salon is allowed, then everything is allowed: Schiele, Kokoschka, and Munch. The fairly mild action of introducing some ungainly looking people into salon paintings turns out to have opened the the flood-gates, letting in full-length celebrations of sickness and mental disease.

This alone wouldn’t be so bad:  after all, it is easy enough to avoid modern art galleries (by and large coterminous with ugliness), the Horror of War galleries, and books on nineteenth century art — as many right-thinking people do.  But there was a more sinister consequence:  the flood of ugliness did not come without a public fight, and the fight was both vocal (and therefore highly visible) and — perverse.  Instead of turning around the topic of what is beautiful, it turned around the nihilist argument that there is no such thing as beauty.  Both concepts — of beauty and of ugliness were willfully misrepresented in the debates, undermining the usefulness of the language to a point where, today, it appears totally broken, unable to carry any meaning at all.

The debate over Klimt’s paintings for the Great Hall of the Vienna University was typical of the intentional — and damaging — misuse of language in the nineteenth century beauty debates. The Univesity, objecting to the paintings, called them ugly, which they in truth weren’t — to the extent what we can say (the paintings do not survive):  they merely allegorized the university project in a way the professors objected to.  So the professors were lying about beauty (Klimt’s paintings weren’t ugly) in order to deny the facts (that they hated science to be represented as uncertain).

Their opponents were guilty of dishonest misrepresentation of beauty also:  whereas in order to defend Klimt it would have been simplest to speak the truth:  you professors are mistaken, these paintings aren’t ugly, they chose instead to argue the nihilist point:  who’s to say Klimt’s paintings aren’t beautiful?

Why did the defenders of Klimt choose not to defend these paintings but instead attack the very notion of beauty (and thereby defend the right of ugliness to coexist)?  Perhaps because that was the anti-authoritarian spirit of the revolutionary times (we’re at the height of the anarchist movement) — and Klimt’s defenders wanted to challenge authority more than they wanted to defend beauty; or perhaps because the argument of “who’s to say” seems like the killer argument (it seems impossible to reply to); or perhaps also, because in their debate they hoped to secure the support of all those who had defended the ugliness of Courbet and Kokoschka.  This is the dynamic of public debates:  arguments transform as new alliances are made.  As in all debates, what matters is winning, and the arguments themselves become unimportant.  End — in this case, winning – justifies the means — in this case, argument.  Argument and logic, become victims of politics.

The principal casualty of this — and all other nineteenth century debates — about ugliness and beauty was the language used to speak about them.  Today we live with the consequence of its perversion.  We are unable to speak coherently about the topics of beauty and ugliness today because our thoughts about them have been confused by the dishonest arguments of the past.  This perversion of language has made it possible for otherwise very intelligent people to say things like there is no such thing as beautiful or ugly but thinking makes it so.  Indeed, the proof of the effects of the past arguments lies in the fact that the more educated they are on the topic, the more likely they are to say it.

Recently, voices have risen from Evolutionary Psychology against this interpretation — with powerful arguments (that the apparatus for the recognition of ugly and pretty is nature-given for better selection of mates, food, and environment, and therefore that the concepts of beauty and ugliness reflect something real in the psyche of man — and, more importantly, something objective in nature), but good arguments don’t ever win a thing; this whole generation will have to die before it will be possible to speak again of ugliness and beauty with the unspoiled clarity of times preceding the calamitous nineteenth century.

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