The intersting: precondition of the modern culture
Ieva Kolmane is interviewed by Artis Svece
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Artis Svece: – “Interesting” is a very common word we often use to describe an artwork. I am not sure whether it means anything at all, certainly many of those who use it would not be able to explain what exactly they mean when they call something interesting. Maybe the vagueness of the meaning is the reason why philosophers often ignore it. Why does this notion interest you?
Ieva Kolmane: – There are several reasons why the notion of the interesting is especially troublesome for philosopher to deal with. First of all, the word may be referred to everything thus losing its meaning whatsoever. Colloquial language allows for “blank” or formal phrases keeping up appearance of communication, like, “How are you”? This is often the case of ‘the interesting’. “Well, that’s interesting” may mean, “That does attract me, but I cannot say why”, as well as, “Leave me alone, there’s nothing really great about that, it’s only interesting”.
A. S.: – So, you would say that the vagueness is somehow intrinsic to this notion?
I. K.: – Not exactly. I guess it is one of the "blurry" notions philosophers have always had trouble with. All kinds of great and not so great things alike can be described as 'interesting' (like, for instance, everything can be described as 'play'), and this makes the notion too amorphous to be suitable for a decent philosophical analysis. The same can be said of 'interest', as well: "Interest: One of those terms that slipped unnoticed into the technical vocabulary of psychology, especially educational P. Its meaning is loose at best and at one time or another has been used to imply all of the following: attention, curiosity, motivation, focus, concern, goal-directness, awareness, worthiness and desire. Most authors merely follow their intuition in its use; it's hard to go wrong". (Bernard Weiner. Human Motivation: Metaphors, Theories and Research. SAGE, 1992). Nevertheless, in every case 'the interesting' is referred to a particular, more or less pleasurable experience I will try to specify later.
Then, philosopher should seek for the essence of the phenomenon he or she investigates, but the attempt to find the essence of an experience may very probably result in a mere description of it or the list of its features. For example, in the case of the interesting such a list is proposed by Aurel Kolnai: extraordinary, mysterious, movement, manifoldness, originality. Nevertheless, he interprets 'the interesting' not as an experience, but as an aesthetic category, defining it (à la Kant) "as that which evokes interest without appealing to one's interests" (Cf. Kolnai A. On the Concept of the Interesting / Aesthetics in the Modern World. Ed. by H. Osborne. NY: Weybright&Talley, 1968). Moreover, the phenomenon should be 'transcendental', 'universal' or 'objective' in a sense to be treated philosophically.
A. S.: – And you are saying that these categories cannot be applied to the notion of interesting? Is this a phenomenon without any essence?
I. K.: – The very meaning of 'the interesting' has been manifold. The Latin inter-esse means "being located in the middle, between something; difference, presence, participation", while interest means "there is a separation, there is a difference; it is important, significant". The synonyms of 'interesting' in most West European languages range from intriguing (captivating, fascinating, mysterious, exciting, attractive, tempting etc.) to different (unique, unusual, peculiar, queer etc.) and important (significant, essential, vital, valuable, necessary etc.) and promising. Thus, there are at least two meanings that are quite difficult to merge: (1) the interesting is always connected with concern or curiosity and (2) with some prospect of benefit, especially financial. The claim "That is of interest to me" may mean, "I find this interesting (I somehow feel attracted despite the fact that I don't intend to make any practical use of all this)", as well as "That is in my interest (financially, politically etc.)". The bifurcation of meaning is clearly shown by derivatives: 'uninteresting' refers to the lack of concern; indifference; dullness, while 'disinteresting' denotes something not influenced by prospect of personal advantage; the state of being unbiased; impartiality – therefore it is possible to state, "My attitude to some object may be completely disinterested yet at the same time utterly remote from uninterested (..)".
In the situation 'the interesting' is in, it could be worth trying to combine the meanings. Concern or curiosity may not pay financially or in any other utilitarian sense – so Kant's request for the aesthetic judgment free of any interest is to be understood as the request for disinterestedness only, but not for uninterestedness. Nevertheless, it seems possible to find some common denominator or the kernel of the matter there: the interesting inevitably involves a certain outward striving, excitement, tension, enjoyment and total participation in the interaction between what have been traditionally called the subject and a physical or mental object. That is why it can be recognized 'universal', since no living being can exist without any outward interaction with its environment. 'The interesting' is not a quality or attribute of the object, it is rather to be explored as interestingness, namely the specific (using the term coined by Wolfgang Welsch) elevated sensuous experience of the event when an individual invests his or her physical, emotional and intellectual potential expecting to be rewarded. Therefore the interesting is always optimistically tended; the interested person is full of expectations regardless of how joyful or sorrowful might be the reward itself: for instance, it could be extremely interesting to wait for the Judgment Day. Such optimism is contrary to indifference or refusal to participate at all.
The interesting is always a vectorial quantity; "heightened" interest is also indicated by an increase in vocal intonation – depending on the tone of the question the person who is addressed gains a fairly adequate idea of the extent to which the questioner is truly interested in the answer. The intonation of a rhetorical question, for example, is usually falling. Isn't it? Or the tonal amplitude of expressive, impassioned and at least seemingly interested speech, by contrast, can in no way be compared to the tone in which a person, e.g., reads a text, allowing his or her thoughts to drift elsewhere from time to time. As to the final reward, it is always probable. The interesting is always a risky undertaking: there is a possibility of loss present. But in addition to the final reward the success pays also in terms of living experience: it proves that an individual is able to communicate with his or her cultural framework and thus is rooted into it. The interesting is always structured in the form of narrative: it tends to develop along the lines of the prescribed scenario.
In the beginning of it, there is a challenging difference that should be realized and estimated as a distance one is able to overcome if tries hard enough. The most important thing here is the process of overcoming per se regardless of what is the final profit in the terms of knowledge, spiritual values, self-confidence, human relations, power or money. Interestingness is the opposite of estrangement and mere vegetation, for it presupposes active involvement and creativity. Moreover, the interesting is present in all the fields of human activity as a precondition of interaction, basic motivation to join a game, a tension (tonos of the Stoics), a cohesive substance of human existence. Significantly, the most interesting experience is found in the marginal areas (the present knowledge and the unknown; the previous achievements and a higher goal etc.) or in the space between fixed entities (individuals; scientific disciplines etc.) where both the difference and disposition to be situated between are present.
The reality or cultural framework where the interesting can be expanded to the fullest degree must possess certain qualities:
1. There must be spatial and temporal diversity – where total uniformity has been established, existence cannot be other than boring;
2. There must daring and success be conventionally and highly valued;
3. The reality must be determined and accidental at the same time: there must be an intrinsic Heisenbergian uncertainty that makes the very existence in it as risky as market economy or a bridge party, and as unpredictable as the weather forecast;
4. Everything unique, extraordinary, new and strange must be evaluated higher than the replicated, customary, old and familiar, unless the familiar has been completely forgotten for some time and reappeared as novelty. This means that in general youth is also valued higher than old age;
5. It must be recognized there that the boundaries of every seemingly fixed entity including 'truth' and 'strict principles' are unstable and revisable. There should be flexible and imaginative mind highly valued. There should be free movement and as few restrictions as possible. Because of the low status of unconditional truth, there should also be a considerable amount of frivolity present in the form of irony, parody, humor or mockery.
A. S.: – Does classical art that is based on some standard or canon exclude the possibility of the interesting?
I. K.: – I would say the question is not put quite right. The interesting cannot be regarded as situated somewhere to be found, it rather depends on the recipient's mental stance. Nothing can be interesting per se, everything has to be interesting for somebody or, rather, you have to invest something to experience something as interesting enough. So – no canons are able to exclude the interesting, you are the one who is able to do that. You may find canons interesting well enough till the moment you decide you know everything here. Or you may feel interested in everything set up by a canon if it allows for a slightest invariation which it usually does.
A. S.: – Is the interesting a universal phenomenon?
I. K.: – I would say it is characteristic to not only the Westernized art – the traditional habitat of aesthetics –, but also to the whole framework of Western culture for those consent to adopt it. Cultural phenomena exist and develop regardless of the calendar time. The Western culture of the 21st century is still characterized by the postmodern heterogeneity, hybridity, impurity and playfulness.
A. S.: – Is there any connection between the attitude you describe and art of living, aesthetic or poetic life?
I. K.: – Yes, there is, and in the broadest sense. A human being should develop insect vision to perceive such a heterogeneous reality, though to inhabit this world, contribute to it and feel him/herself as a living being requires something more than mere perception: one should be able to change the viewpoint, shift his or her gaze, and keep the distance in mind. Creativity, active involvement and experience of both are necessary here. On the one hand, individual's belief in his or her own abilities and powers has grown considerably; on the other one, the information boom and conventional values of democracy and globalization make culture more and more extrovert: communication gets to prevail over solitary reflection, discussions and collective investigations are considered more effective and fruitful than individual ones. Thus, creative communication as a mode of being is becoming increasingly topical. Dissolution of subjectivity has made self-identity questionable turning it into a mere convention. It is rather convenient to define "the self" in terms of fixed entities, strict boundaries and contradistinctions, still it is not the only way of treating the problem. The self may be experienced as the event or a happening, as well.
A. S.: – How is the interesting to be related to the aesthetic as we know it?
I. K.: – Recent discussions on the aesthetic and aesthetics have shown that neither the first nor the latter can be treated as segregated or constricted fields nowadays. It seems reasonable to admit that most of the various and diverse interpretations of 'the aesthetic' are too limited and should be replaced or combined in the earliest notion of 'aisthesis' as an especially cultivated attitude towards the sensuous. Aesthetic experience has not been invented by artists or philosophers, it has always been present in everyday life as a product of the aesthetic attitude that can be "switched on and off" at will on every occasion. A certain cultural framework that makes an experience meaningful conditions interpretation of every experience. The mass media and so called visual turn have made the contemporary culture look very much like a thoroughly aestheticized show the length of which is equal to the length of an individual's lifetime. Therefore, we can rightly describe the human as the homo aestheticus: essentially, every human being is an artist in the broadest sense of the word: there are not many fields where a person can feel absolutely free from any creative activity and the wish to embody in life his or her individual idea of the world and his or her place within it. The content of this show is to be created individually and on the lines of any preferable genre: tragedy, horror story, fairy tale, soap opera, some sex and violence stuff, criminal drama, mock show etc. This is why we may say that everybody is living the life he or she prefers.
A. S.: – Prefers or is subjected to? The life as spectacle can have also negative connotation. I am sure there are people who are very critical about life as aestheticized show.
I. K.: – However, the idea of a show in any case presupposes that you must be present there and participate. In a way, Albert Camus' famous philosophical problem concerning the motives for not committing suicide reveals the same curiosity Iris Murdoch has expressed in the question why people stay at the theatre and do not go away? I propose the answer lies in the phenomenon of the interesting.