Transcendence II

The previous article on transcendence touched upon the topic in a fairly concrete way, but transcendence is also a central philosophical concept, and consequently a theme running through many of the broader ideas here. Notions of "transcendence" encapsulate a fundamental philosophical question regarding the nature of reality, or more specifically our ability to know that our perceptions are real and related to those of others. The general idea of shared perception or underlying reality remains a fundamental issue for aesthetics, especially since an "objective" basis is already unpopular in this arena. The necessity of abandoning such intellectual crutches in aesthetic discussion also shines light, in cyclic fashion, back upon metaphysical considerations themselves. While naïve realist ideas are usually sufficient for day-to-day activity, more in-depth analysis naturally runs into various skeptical positions which deny reality or severely limit our ability to know it in more than a superficial way. These arguments are not so easily dismissed. Even in aesthetics, to inject deeper meaning into music & art, there must be some basis for evaluating that meaning.

The basic orientation here has been against dualism, whether expressed via Image or Form. The relation of many of these notions to personal transcendence, or rather basic gnostic communion with some underlying layer of reality, has often been expressed in sonic terms by "resonance," but can be clarified further. The development of a specific aesthetic stance derived from a monistic metaphysics can then be undertaken. I have referred to Abhinavagupta and the medieval non-dual Saiva school of thought previously, but want to revisit it explicitly both in the context of a monograph which orients the historical debate with Buddhist skeptics in terms of contemporary Western philosophy [original link reference defunct 04/04/10] as well as to collect my thoughts on the issue in a more concrete way. The basic idea is that the universe as generated by Siva's perception of himself is immediately synonymous with our own self-perception, and also with our perception of the world. The philosophical system of Abhinavagupta therefore has the ability to ground artistic perception in the reality of act itself. The system arises, in some sense, from the same impetus as Descartes' "cogito" argument, but is carried to the next step of identifying the individual with God. There is an underlying monistic unity of perceiver & perceiving (perceived) which effectively sidesteps the problems of Descartes' dualism. Abhinavagupta subsumes the skeptical position that the world is only what we perceive by identifying it with God and ourselves, and specifically by identifying our recognition of objects & ideas with God's self-recognition. It is a sort of all-encompassing solipsism.

While Abhinavagupta's system provides a logical explanation for the nature of observed reality, as well as a means to ground knowledge of it, it cannot provide an affirmative argument for itself, i.e. it cannot take what we observe and demonstrate that underlying reality must be as described. It is a self-contained system which explains the world from its own basis, but cannot construct a belief, except by a series of negations. This is typical of transcendental thought, and perhaps best-exemplified by Sankaracharya's "Not that!" aphorism. However, whereas Advaita dismisses observed reality, Abhinavagupta does take it as God's real emanation and describes in almost endless detail how transcendence might be achieved via mundane physical acts. This is, of course, the tantric side of his thoughts. Tantrism is built essentially upon negation, especially negating the sexual distinction, one of the lowest-level dualities in the ontological chain from Siva to the material world. Moreover, Abhinavagupta's school was especially willing to flaunt social taboos as a way to negate social norms. All of this has a tendency to reorient the mind, making self-recognition possible. Despite the necessity of relying upon what in the West has been called "divine grace," it is fundamentally an active intellectual (soteriological) stance, knowing objects by their actions and admitting a place for the material world in ordinary interaction. While Tantrism consequently conflates many ideas on vice, it does push physical limits and provide a natural arena for virtuosity of many kinds.

Although modern views on religion make unselfconscious practice difficult for the more intellectually-inclined, a basic devotional stance is inherent to negating the illusion of duality in this way. Moreover, bingeing as a mind-bending negation of custom is marginalized today by the near-ubiquity of bingeing. Restraint becomes that much more tantric, with the defining characteristic being the tendency — even eagerness — to connect other modes of thought to the same unitary vision. Indeed, the incorporation of divinity within humanity finds a ready correspondence with humanism, the language of which Abhinavagupta would have surely appropriated. The postmodern construction of experience as language finds another ready correspondence with the Hindu grammarians he cites, making much of deconstruction not seem particularly modern. In contrast to the monograph cited, I view the incorporation of linguistic constructions — especially in a document per se — as another example of incorporation and transcendence, with the Saiva cosmological narrative as an identification with practice & experience more than an ontology-as-narrative. The ontological is the identification itself, the concomitant of the epistemological act of recognition.

What does this say about aesthetics? First of all, any alignment of perception is a step toward general recognition. This is the view of assessment as resonance. Moreover, I argue the charged distinctiveness of style on this basis, unity of reality in maximum variety of expression as a sort of inverted symmetry. This comes down to an emphasis on act, on the material world as highly charged, and the dismissal of bland similarity as a non-act. Similarity is consummated in diversity, and the greater the diversity, the greater the challenge and illustration of transcendence. This also conflates social norms, which today demand a certain innocuousness. In music, some contemporary styles go on to blur note boundaries, the traditional "stuff" of music. Accompanying a creative forgetting, new constraints are forged, as constraints remain a necessity for conflation. Precisely what makes this sort of argument so uncomfortable for the rationalist? It is contradictory, not in an inherent fashion, but because it interacts with the already-contradictory material world. One cannot construct unity out of standard logic, because standard logic is already built upon duality. This is why non-dualism cannot be constructed directly, but only argued with negations, lateral thinking to which music as art is inherently suited. The next step, and the more practical one, is to ask how we know music.

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Todd M. McComb