Manchester 2015 Report
This was the inaugural workshop of the Network, on the theme of ‘Aesthetic Pleasures across Disciplines’. It brought together lead Network partners and their colleagues with expertise in fields spanning Anthropology, Art History, Chinese Art, Cognitive Psychology, Dance Studies, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Medical Humanities, Music Psychology, Neuroscience and Visual Culture and Design. The first afternoon was given over to discussing provocations and responses that had been pre-circulated to all participants. On Day 2 we discussed two case studies that were presented as part of the workshop. Emerging from the first day’s discussion, the afternoon of Day 2 featured a debate of three key themes: beauty, pleasure and disruption. On Day 3 the discussion was widened to include a set of local scholars working in relevant areas.
The function of this report is to provide a written account of the proceedings of the first workshop of the Leverhulme International Network ‘Aesthetic Enquiry across Disciplines’, held at the University of Manchester, 24-26 September 2015, for the general public. It is based on transcripts from recordings of the workshop sessions.
The information is organised around four key questions emerging from the workshop discussion. These are:
- How do we define the object of enquiry?
- What are the components of the aesthetic across disciplines?
- What constitutes evidence?
- What are possible strategies/ways of working across disciplines?
1. How do we define the object of enquiry?
The aesthetic is contested territory. Disciplinary boundaries define our object of enquiry differently, so we cannot be sure we are actually talking about the same thing. But can any one discipline accuse another of failing simply because its terms may be different?
Disciplines may also have very different aims in their enquiries. Neuroaesthetics is interested in general laws; it aims to explain human behaviour and focuses on biology and the brain. Aesthetic enquiry in the Humanities, on the other hand, aims to interpret art works relative to historical and cultural contexts with the aim of explaining cultural factors.
2. What are the components of the aesthetic across disciplines?
Aesthetics can be understood as sensory perception, and this varies across cultures – hence, it can be seen as political. Pleasure is a crucial component of aesthetic experience, but it is important to attend to different types of pleasure – biological, neurological, cultural. Certain forms of knowledge are key to aesthetic experience. Aesthetic experience also involves emotions, but there are no specifically ‘aesthetic’ emotions. While closely associated with the aesthetic, the idea of beauty is a problematic term for analysis. The relation between coherence and disruption is important to aesthetic experience, but is valued differently by specialist audiences (to whom disruption brings pleasure) and non-specialist audiences.
3. What constitutes evidence?
There is both a need for empirical testing and a need to recognise its limitations. Moving along a spectrum from the physical to the biological to the social sciences and critical theory, increasing attention is given to variation/diversity. Similarly, language is both necessary and must be critiqued. It is important to recognise that the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ (Humanities) and the need for operationalization (Neuroaesthetics) are not always compatible. In this context it is also important for scholars to be critically aware of their own position.
4. What are possible strategies/ways of working across disciplines?
In order to progress, it is important to prepare for debates by understanding each other’s approaches. For this we need to read each other’s work and give feedback on it. Similarly, it is important to recognise and accept divergence of objects or aims across disciplines.
It is also important to be flexible with our methodologies. For the cognitive sciences, this could mean asking broader questions while staying focused on measurable elements and extending the subject-pool to inexperienced subjects. For the Humanities this could mean adopting a more experimental approach, for example thinking about sound and image recordings as forms of measurement.
Humanities scholars can help the scientists by giving feedback on models and theories and by articulating hypotheses for testing. Scientists can help Humanities scholars by testing hypotheses, especially in relation to e.g. poetry, dance performance, music.
The discussions demonstrated strongly held views and personal engagement with the research that each of us is involved in. On some issues there were very clear disagreements. As we are still working out strategies, we can’t yet predict how much progress we will be able to make over the course of the Network. However, it does seem that mutual education about our approaches will be beneficial to improving levels of understanding, and we have put plans in place to develop this, mainly through reading one another’s work, and the Vienna [LINK] workshop will build on this.
We discussed the possibility of a shared project on multisensory dining. Here it was suggested that we could combine a common core with separate avenues of enquiry. In this way, separate disciplines can conserve a ‘pure’ way of working, which will also safeguard researchers’ legitimacy within their own field of research. We are looking for examples of questions where input from more than one discipline is needed, and the multisensory dining project appears to provide that scope. At the same time, the practicalities of executing the project with a creative element represent a challenge and it remains to be seen if we can realistically take this on. Also, not everyone might want to be involved and we may need to elaborate other projects, most likely without a creative practice element.
The divisions that emerged were broadly between Sciences and Humanities, although there are also differences within these domains themselves, particularly on the science side, notably in terms of a focus on biology or psychology.
An area of convergence that emerged implicitly and is worth flagging up for further attention concerns the idea of reflection as a characteristic of the aesthetic across different fields of enquiry.
The question, ‘Can we limit the aesthetic to art?’ was raised, though not extensively discussed, and the opinion was offered that ‘aesthetic moments’ can happen in any context. At the same time, the category of pleasure is not confined to art, or even to beauty, and so an approach to pleasure that links it with reflection could be useful for aesthetic enquiry. This could also be linked with the question concerning the functions of art that came up in different contexts and that is relevant across the different disciplines that we represent. It is also relevant to the argument that specifically human aesthetic experience is to do with the human brain, a biological fact, but it is then also elaborated into culturally constructed categories of the aesthetic/aesthetic pleasure in art.
In terms of disciplinary autocritique, the opinion was expressed that we need to give up something of our own to take on what is important for another discipline. The neuroscience approach was subjected to scrutiny and critique from the outset, but this gave rise to in-depth discussions and by the end, despite ongoing disagreements, there was evidence of recognition from both Science and Humanities scholars of the limiting aspects of their discipline-specific approaches.
It remains to be seen how this will be dealt with – whether it will lead to more complementary uses of different methods, or whether methods might be refined in response to different approaches.
The involvement of arts practitioners, and the discussion of practice, was an important aspect in opening out the debate and input from practitioners should be maintained. Diversifying the disciplinary base and exploring contradictions within disciplines could help to open out the Science/Humanities dichotomy.
An important first step towards further collaboration is to educate ourselves in each other’s approaches and consider their implications for our own discipline. We also need to map the remits of disciplinary territories. We are planning to develop a shared project that will enable us to take a transdisciplinary approach. We should also explore the benefits of multidisciplinary and/or interdisciplinary approaches.
Copyright © 2015 Aesthetics Network