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  • Complexities of Aesthetic Experience:Response to Johnston
  • Richard J. Shusterman

I am grateful for this opportunity to clarify my views on aesthetic experience and somaesthetics that Scott Johnston discusses. Combining two very vague and contested ideas ("experience" and "the aesthetic"), the concept of aesthetic experience is an extremely ambiguous notion some of whose principal different conceptions I have carefully tried to outline.1 It is therefore rash for Johnston to presume that what I mean by aesthetic experience is simply "the [Deweyan] sort of experience that connotes an immediate, qualitative whole" that is "consummatory." Though I deeply appreciate John Dewey's view, I have also criticized it on several counts. I insist, for example, on the existence and value of aesthetic experiences of fragmentation and rupture that have neither the unity of coherence nor that of completion that Dewey demands. In fact, as I have often pointed out, part of my interest in rap music was connected to its aesthetic of fragmentation.2

Dewey and I both affirm (in sometimes different ways) some sort of primacy of the immediate in aesthetic experience. But primacy and immediacy are polysemic notions whose meaning is very context-dependent and shifting. Insufficient attention to these multiple meanings and contexts seems to confuse some of Johnston's discussion and leads to his puzzlement about how I can emphasize both immediacy and reflection and whether I consistently accord primacy to the former. The first step toward clarifying matters is to note that affirming immediacy in aesthetic experience is not to deny two important dimensions in which aesthetic experience is importantly mediated. First, aesthetic experiences are rarely, if ever, immediate in the sense of being instantaneous; they require some time of processing. Even with allegedly nontemporal arts such as painting (and even with paintings that do not demand complex decoding), there is, in aesthetic experience, a process of focusing on the work, of reacting to it, and of deepening appreciation or absorption. Second, at least in the arts, an aesthetic experience should be mediated by some prior (typically extensive) training in what is necessary to understand and appreciate such art. My aesthetic experience of French poetry required a sustained training in French language, literature, and culture, a training that required reflective thinking.

However, despite these crucial mediations, aesthetic experience is usefully characterized as distinctively immediate in that its meanings and values are perceived and savored directly in our experience of the work rather than being only revealed, understood, or appreciated at a later time. I appreciate [End Page 109] the poetry of Baudelaire as I hear or read it, and not only after it is explained to me or after I subsequently reflect on or recollect this poetic experience. Aesthetic experience is immediate in the sense of being immediately enjoyed and valued rather than being an experience in which gratification and appreciation is deferred to a later time. An aesthetic experience of climbing a mountain (which obviously takes time and requires some training) means enjoying the climb while one is climbing, not when one's enjoyment is postponed till one has reached the summit and enjoys its view. When I emphasize the immediacy of aesthetic experience, I am celebrating this character of direct, undeferred, imminent appreciation or sense of value, which is what makes such experience enjoyed or valued for its own sake.3 Such immediate enjoyment is all that is usefully meant by saying that aesthetic experience is appreciated intrinsically or as an end in itself rather than a mere means to some further end, even though there are obviously many good ends to which aesthetic experience can usefully serve as means.

This sense of immediacy — of direct, undeferred appreciation of meaning, enjoyment, and value — does not deny a role for reflection. Not only can prior reflection prepare the way for immediate enjoyment but reflection itself offers its own aesthetic pleasures of immediacy. We can enjoy the process of reasoning, speculating, interpreting in a direct or immediate way without postponing our satisfaction to a subsequent appreciation of the results of our reflective process, that is, when we (meta-)reflect, at a later time, on what that initial reflective experience has engendered. Moreover, subsequent reflection on an...


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