A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful

A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful Analysis

Edmund Burke proves to be astonishing—and rather surprisingly, considering his reactionary political ideology—insightful on the subject of subjective determination of an object’s intrinsic artistic worth. Considering his reactionary conservative ideological stance, what is less surprising and perhaps more astonishing—is the brilliance with which he locates the mechanism for this judgment within each individuals ability to see the resemblance between something new and those things they have already established as being artistically worthy or not. In other words, at the heart of the Burke’s enquiry into what makes a thing sublime and beautiful is the capacity of the subconscious to discover unity between things that are unlike as well alike.

This capacity is that abstract quality that we know as “taste.”

Burke’s assertion is that when a resemblance is noted between two similar objects—such as an original and an inferior imitation, the perception of this recognition creates pleasure. Over time, when a large enough inventory of objects available for comparison has been collected and filed away, the same process allows for a perceptual recognition of a resemblance between dissimilar objects and when this occurs, the pleasure is enhanced through self-gratification with ourselves for exhibiting such higher level critical thought.

One aspect of the concept of achieving taste through a subconscious attendance to how something new is compared to something already known that Burke does not address in his text is the one area of modern life where his concept is most profoundly studied and analyzed and exploited. Burke’s thesis that one’s personal taste essentially comes down to something as simple as a relativistic comparison is routinely manipulated and exploited for the purpose of marketing and advertising and, of course, creative production.

Anyone who has ever questioned why primetime programming seems to go through cycles in which scheduling is dominated by sitcoms for a few years to be replaced by an abundance of medical dramas to be replaced by reality shows to be replaced by a dozen different spinoffs of Law & Order, CSI and Criminal Minds needs only to accept that Burke was really onto something. The same goes for why all rap songs seem to sound the same to those who love country music and why all country songs sound the same to those who love rap and why all music of both genres sound the sound to those who love rock and roll. The subconscious becomes wired to find resemblances and experience pleasure when it does.

Any network executive or advertising executive or marketer or rapper who didn’t take advantage of the complexity of the process of developing “taste” would be foolish.

Burke’s inquiry and conclusion also forms the basis the creation of generic conventions and the fans who love them. When a resemblance is detected between two books within a given genre, reading becomes a pleasurable experience. Take a moment to think about some time in the past when you were enjoying a book or movie or TV show fitting within one of your favorite genres and it suddenly broke a rule and upset your expectations. Or don’t, because one of the greatest example supporting Burke’s theories remains a subject of contention that drives certain quarters of the universe almost to the state of madness.

The Star Wars prequels were similar to the original trilogy but similar enough: they rejected the familiar and comforting black and white world of good and bad and demanded that viewers completely reinterpret their longstanding view that the Jedi were the absolute paragon of virtue capable of no ambiguousness in their morality. When the subconscious detected the dissimilarity between the conventions which had formed their taste, the result was no pleasure, but the opposite of pleasure. So upsetting to the process was this shock to their subconscious that a conscious explanation had to be created to explain the dissatisfaction. To this day, those who hate the Star Wars prequels will swear it is based on a conscious rejection of things like acting or screenwriting or character when, in fact, those are the elements of the prequels that bear the closest resemblance to the simplistic, unambiguous, low-level critical thinking skills required of the original trilogy which informed their taste.

The same processes occur on a daily basis and helps to explain those occasions when a song or movie or TV show that you just knew your friend was going to love because you know their taste so well is not just rejected, but rejected on what you consider the most insane basis possible: “it’s nothing like _______.”

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