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Interactive Hot Potato

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A fundamental learning exercise is a productive discussion building elaborate webs of transference.  A good question can promote collaboration and we find ourselves sharing in one another’s minds.  Melissa McMahon’s article; “BEAUTY Machinic repetition in the age of art” (McMahon 1), unfolds Benjamin and Kant’s notions of beauty and provides for an excellent potential discussion.  An electronic “hot potato” (Rauscher & Thorogood 1) was made to act as a discourse instigating tool that merged ideas of the collective experience and mechanical reproduction through its use. According to Mahon: “Thought would no longer rely on a pre-existing determined order which it would stand back and ‘reflect’, but remains indeterminate until an encounter at a contingent moment (an ‘interception’) obliges it to make a difference” (McMahon 3). Of this we asked: “Is something beautiful?” (Rauscher & Thorogood 1)

Anxious anticipation lingers in the groups’ chests as we are made aware of the rule of responding to the question while in possession of the hot potato (cast from a sweet potato) and passing it when it gets “hot” (vibrating and blinking vigorously).  One of the concerns shared by Miles and I, while designing the hot potato, was that the anxious participants might simply not respond and the device would fail to accomplish its primary goal of inclusion and discourse as governed by mechanical reproduction.  In fact, this was one of the first things that happened. The second and third students in order simply passed on the potato without commenting at all.  However, rather than this action carrying the comfort of avoidance it provoked involvement by the students simply touching the potato and carrying the responsibility of discourse forward. Later this would evolve into provoking responses from everyone in the group thereby transforming the passing of the hot potato into a welcomed, rather than feared, event. Interestingly, the group collectively embraced mechanical reproduction as the hot potato became an integral part of the conversation, while simultaneously we debated the potential loss of beauty in mechanical methods of reproduction.

Initial reactions to the first question, “is something beautiful” (Rauscher & Thorogood 1) were varied and remarkably diverse.  The individual perspective of beauty was put forward as being the result of the inherited cultural and historical definitions of beauty.  McMahon seems to agree with; “the aesthetic experience is not just an isolated moment but the repository of history and culture” (McMahon 4). A shared collective agreement as to what is beautiful was contrasted with the concept of ‘perception guided’ beauty as inherent in an object. 

This establishes beauty as being separate from the identification of something beautiful.  “The beautiful obliges us to think (its singularity poses a problem), without there being any concept for thought to settle on” (McMahon 7). Here the question of what is beauty as a concept took precedence over the question of whether ‘something’ is beautiful.  In breaking down the conceptual notion of beauty as compared to the predicated adjective we see that both may be possible.  This was manifested in the much anticipated question, “is the hot potato beautiful?” (Aguirre et al.) sparking one of many moments of playful laughter as its sharp blinking/vibrating interruptions pushed through and into the conversation.

  “Yes, I think it is beautiful” (Aguirre et al.) Glen Lowry answers his own question, but later situated the comment in a brief criticism about the mechanism’s effectiveness in generating conversation.  He argued that while he thought the potato was beautiful it was not perfect in that it might have been a stationary object and accomplished a similar ‘effect’.  While the criticism appeared to be a comment on the balance between form and function, the important idea of a ‘degree’ of beauty was born. One might also argue mechanical reproduction was only accomplished by limited time allowed by the device for responses to each question and this would not be accomplished by a stationary object.  The essential task of the potato of designing the system of communications governed by a limited time would not have been accomplished by a stationary object even with similar rules in place.  However, for Glen, on the one hand the object was beautiful, but it was also ugly. Of course, ‘ugly’ naturally follows as a reference point for ‘beauty’ and it might be argued that the idea of beauty requires an “ugly” comparison. Therefore, the potential degree of ’ugly’ determines the potential degree of ’beauty’.

This notion of degrees of beauty was furthered with the historical context of Walter Benjamin’s perspective when writing “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (Benjamin 1) as it was widely held that traditions of beauty, and in Benjamin’s view the essence of beauty, was something being threatened by the concepts of the political movements of the time and threatened by the tools of mechanical reproduction.  “For Benjamin, the politicization of art should be the goal of Communism; in contrast to Fascism which aestheticized politics for the purpose of social control.” (Gregbard, Wikipedia). Glen asks whether or not Benjamin was correct in asserting that “beauty will be destroyed . . . Where does beauty go?” (Aguirre et al.).  Joy James answers this with the “eventuality of beauty” (Aguirre et al.) explaining (it) as an occurrence and therefore beauty does not go anywhere but rather happens. However, separating ‘it’ (or the event of beauty) from ‘I’ (or the one perceiving the event) is problematic in that the possibility of beauty (as an event) without any perceiver is questioned. This issue connected smoothly to the second question of our discussion.

In consideration of the prologue as related to: “I distinguish myself from the mechanism; ‘it’, however does not return the favor” (McMahon 5). We asked, is ‘it’ itself or myself that returns beauty? (Rauscher & Thorogood).

Among the first of the responses, given by Erdem Tasdelen, was that both ‘it’ and I return beauty; described as there being “a quality in ‘itself’ that is for us to perceive . . . looking at the form . . . there is a way in which we see ‘it’ itself . . . so it’s myself that returns beauty but it’s ‘it’, that I see in it that returns beauty” (Aguirre et al.). Rachelle Clifford seconds this argument with; “I agree . . . the object has to offer me something that I take and reflect on, and then something inside me, this sensation . . . happens” (Aguirre et al.).  It is perhaps the comparison of beauty and Benjamin’s ‘aura’ that Rachelle describes with these collaborative events between it and I.

However, whether or not Benjamin would agree that ‘aura’ and beauty are both “the sense of awe and reverence one presumably experienced in the presence of unique works of art” (Wikipedia) is questionable. One might argue that just as we gain beauty from its juxtaposition to ugly, we gain understanding of Benjamin from his juxtaposition to Kant. McMahon argues that “Kant’s beauty is too easily reduced to a languid reflection on natural forms” (McMahon 4) and perhaps we lack the perspective capacity to do more than this.  Taken into alignment both Kant and Benjamin might find agreement by using methods more empirical than deductive reasoning that falls victim to our perception. 

If empirical reasoning has an argument and subjective reasoning is an argument then both might be missing from the attempt at building a metaphysical understanding of beauty through epistemological investigations.  In closing I offer this.  Being qualified to recognize beauty is the problem inherent in the attempt to recognize ‘it’, but it certainly was a beautiful journey.

Works Cited

Benjamin, W. “The Work ofArt in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks (2001).

Darinka Aguirre et al. Morgan Rauscher and Miles Thorogood: Reading Presentation Report I (audio recording). Emily Carr University, 2008.

McMahon, M. “Machinic repetition in the age ofart.” A Shock to Thought: Expressions After Deleuze and Guattari: Routledge ISBN 0415238048 (2002).

Rauscher, Morgan, and Miles Thorogood. “Melissa McMahon “Beauty: Machinic Repetition in the age of art” Shock to Thought. Presented by Miles and Morgan.” 8 Nov 2008.

Gregbard, Wikipedia. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Wikipedia. USA, 2008. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Work_of_Art_in_the_Age_of_Mechanical_Reproduction>.