The Covid Aesthetic

by Sinéad Murphy

In his AIER article published on June 1st, David McGrogan describes support for Western governments’ Covid measures as attributable, not only to fear of a deadly virus or to care for those who are vulnerable to it, but to the pleasurable add-on awareness that Covid fear and Covid care are felt by everyone else around.

Insofar as it is comprised primarily of this sense that everyone shares in the Covid experience, the Covid experience, David observed, is kitsch.

David’s original analysis throws up the intriguing possibility that what we are dealing with in the satisfaction of so many in the Covid regime, and their palpable distaste for those who do not share their satisfaction, is neither a flawed Covid reasoning nor a distorted Covid morality but a new Covid aesthetic.

In a comprehensive account of the conditions for the possibility of human experience, Immanuel Kant drew clear lines between objective knowledge, moral judgement and aesthetic feeling. His account of aesthetic feeling tallies well with the consensus experience of Covid and explains why it is that any attempt to intervene in this consensus experience with personal, factual, practical or moral arguments is a category mistake and unlikely to produce much effect.

Kant’s classic example of an aesthetic experience is the one occasioned by a beautiful sunset, an example which reveals how removed is personal, factual, practical and moral content from the aesthetic mode.

Imagine that you are sitting outside of a midsummer’s evening, watching the sun go down on a glorious day. You’ve had a glass of wine or two, perhaps, and are at leisure and communicative. “Ahhh,” you gasp, gazing skywards. “Now that’s something.”

Kant was interested in the precise nature of this common experience; his analysis of it threw up some surprising insights.

Imagine that your neighbour to the left is sitting outside that evening too. Hearing your “Ahhh” of satisfaction, he interjects with, “Never mind your ‘Ahhh’ – I’ve got my potatoes to think about, and there’s no rain promised in that sky.” Without wishing harm to your neighbour-on-the-left’s potato harvest, Kant would judge you to be well within your rights to feel cheated by this response; your pleasure at the setting sun was not intended to address its implications for projects such as that of potato-growing, and, while you might enter into your green-fingered neighbour’s concerns at another time, they have, in this particular moment, rather dampened your pleasure at the prospect of the evening sky.

And now imagine that your neighbour to the right is sitting outside that evening too. Hearing your “Ahhh” of satisfaction and pausing a moment to allow for the contribution of your neighbour to the left, she proposes the following: “Isn’t it interesting that tonight’s sunset is occurring about 15 minutes later than last Saturday’s sunset?“ Again, Kant would have been aghast, as no doubt are you. When we “Ahhh” at a sunset, we are not in the business of comparisons between the timings of different sunsets. We are in a certain mood, awash with feeling – we have not signed up for our first lecture on the habits of sunsets any more than we have a monologue on the prospects of a good potato harvest.

And now imagine that your neighbour across the road is sitting outside that evening too. Hearing your “Ahhh” of pleasure and waiting his turn to allow for the insights of your neighbours to the left and the right, he offers something apparently more conducive. “Well,” he says, “I think I preferred the one two nights ago, you know, the one that was a little bit more orange about the edges – I like orange, you see.” Certainly, this neighbour knows not to rain on your sunset satisfaction with growing concerns or physical facts. It is a moment, he realises, for feeling – not for planning or for knowing. And yet, Kant would have regarded his response too with some contempt. When you emitted your “Ahhh” at the sunset, you were not merely expressing a personal preference – for a particular shade of orange, for example. Your “Ahhh” was infinitely more profound, indicating something far deeper than your likes and dislikes.

All three of your neighbours on this fine evening have been obtuse, having responded to your “Ahhh” at the sunset with one or other piece of inappropriate content: with allotment projects, with sunset science, with personal preferences, all of which have derailed an experience of satisfaction for which such plannings and knowings and likings are not only irrelevant but disruptive. Not only are your neighbours not feeling it, they have ruined your feeling it too.

For Kant, careful analysis of the manner in which we often appreciate a good sunset reveals the nature of aesthetic experience generally. This experience is comprised of a feeling of pleasure that is more than a merely subjective liking (liking the colour orange, for example), a feeling of pleasure that we expect everyone around us to share, in other words – but not because the feeling is subject to conceptual analysis (which is why we expect everyone to agree that two plus two equals four, for example) and not because it is tied to common concerns (as it might be if we had the same farming interests as our neighbours, for example).

We often take pleasure in sunsets and expect everyone to share in our pleasure, although our approval of sunsets is in these moments founded upon neither scientific concepts nor practical concerns but only upon a feeling – an immeasurably pleasurable feeling that all is somehow right between us and the world.

In fact, for Kant, the feeling of pleasure that comprises an aesthetic experience consists of no more and no less than the expectation that everyone around us will share in this feeling even though we know that there is no objective reason for them to do so. The feeling is the pleasure of a certainty (which can never be proven) that, when not pulled in different directions by conceptual disagreements, conflicting interests and personal preferences, we human beings in the world are fundamentally the same as each other.

When, on that midsummer’s evening, you “Ahhh” at the sunset, the clumsiness of your neighbours in mistaking the nature of your experience is all the worse because the pleasure that you had been feeling before they rudely upended it consisted only in the conviction that your neighbours would share the feeling with you, not for conceptual or practical reasons, but on the strength of your common humanity. What a betrayal from your left and your right and across the way!

Kant’s concluding summary of the essential character of aesthetic experience is that aesthetic experience is disinterested. Not uninterested. Disinterested. In other words, an aesthetic experience, though it requires to be occasioned by something appropriate – sunsets are good – has no stake in the thing that occasions it – whether the sunset is early or late, whether it is a sign of rain or not, whether it is red or orange, are of no interest to the person who, sitting at leisure and gazing upon it, feels pleasantly overwhelmed by it.

For anyone who has witnessed the apparent immunity of supporters of Covid mitigation measures to the many and various arguments that we have levelled against them, thinking of the Covid experience as an aesthetic experience explains a lot.

We have been the neighbour on the right this year – over and over again. We have marshalled more factual evidence than we can archive, for the harmfulness of lockdowns, the ineffectiveness of masks, the relative mildness of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and so on. Is the apparent immunity of the Covid consensus to our factual contributions explained by its being an aesthetic experience, essentially untouchable by conceptual analysis?

We have also been the neighbour on the left this year, of course – contributing to the Covid debate our pressing practical concerns: for the survival of small businesses, for the education of young people, for the treatment of cancer and other diseases, to name but a few. Is the indifference of the Covid community to the damage being wrought by Covid policies on the most pressing of practical projects due to its aesthetic character – are those who are caught up in Covid just feeling too deeply to be available for common concerns?

And we have been the neighbour across the way this year too, sometimes in the utmost desperation, overwhelmed by personal feelings: of despair at imposed isolation, of panic at mandated masking, of persistent anxiety at the precariousness of all that had heretofore been relied upon. “PLZ I DONT LIKE THIS,” typed a young child into the chatbox of her virtual geography lesson, as reported by the Conservative Woman a number of months ago. How many of us she cried out for in doing so. And how deaf have been the ears on which her and our cries have fallen. Have our feelings been too personal to move the Covid faithful? Have our panic and anxiety and despair been too particular to melt the hearts of the Covid crowd?

If the Covid experience is indeed an aesthetic experience, the impotence of our counter arguments, our practical concerns and our personal pains is certainly explained very well. Those we wish to convince to change their minds are not using their minds; those we wish to share our concerns do not have concerns; those we wish to feel our distress cannot see us or our distress: they are caught up in a kind of satisfaction – occasioned by the concerted responses of governments and populations to an invisible global attack – that is comprised of a heady sense of profound community, of fellow feeling on a universal scale. We cannot touch this experience with our facts and our projects and our pains. At the very most, we can only threaten to puncture its ecstasy; insofar as we do that, we are batted away as an inconvenient distraction.

An immoral distraction too – which is why the batting away can get so ugly. An aesthetic experience, Kant advised, is not in itself a moral experience. Appeals to moral content and respect for the moral law detract from the disinterest necessary for the aesthetic mode. A fourth neighbour, with concerns about the morality of sipping wine under a midsummer’s sky while nearby children suffer from neglect has made a category error too. But not because morality is irrelevant to aesthetic experience, but because particular moral content is irrelevant to it. In fact, an aesthetic experience, because it is premised upon the setting aside of conceptual analysis, worldly projects and personal preferences, is excellent preparation for the moral and a good sign of a moral disposition; it only excludes particular moral issues. This explains the most curious feature of the Covid consensus: its combination of intense righteousness and ethical indifference; its simultaneous heady capture of the moral high ground and calm disregard for moral fallout all around.

The Covid aesthetic: a pleasurable experience of the excellent fit of human beings with one another and their world that is not only unconcerned by scientific facts, human enterprise and tales of woe, but premised upon their utter irrelevance, and that is infused with moral brilliance without being troubled by moral content of any kind.

There are many enthusiasts for the Covid consensus whose enthusiasm is clearly not an aesthetic one: many cite statistics and other scientific facts; many describe the moral repugnance of ‘letting it rip’; some admire the projects that it has set in train, ‘green’ initiatives or cultural reassessments; and a few even claim to like working from home or reducing their social commitments. But the outright refusal of so many to engage in debate, even to admit that there is a debate, and their injured backlash against anyone who does not share in their enthusiasm, is surely explained by Kant’s great insight from two-and-a-half centuries ago: that there is an experience available to human beings which, given the appropriate occasion and so long as our neighbours play ball, is the infinitely consoling certainty that we are all, fundamentally, in this together.

The only question that remains is whether this experience is or is not kitsch.

Kant is famous for having never left his small town of Konigsberg, and for having been a man of exceedingly regular habits and somewhat narrow tastes. Such a man living such a life might have found it relatively easy to have aesthetic experiences – his neighbours were few and similar to himself, and likely to “Ahhh” when he Ahhhed and feel things just as he felt them. But we do not live like Kant did – we travel often and read things on the internet and have hundreds of friends dotted all around the globe (or we did, at least). Our awkward neighbours – literal and metaphorical – abound, and occasions for simple pleasure in our shared humanity are thin on the ground. Even sunsets may struggle to occasion such simple pleasure – obscured as they are by the smog of industry or by the latest Instagram filter. If so, then all that remains to us of aesthetic experience is kitsch – not a feeling that everyone will share in an experience with us, but the knowledge that this is the kind of experience that everyone would share with us if we were less informed, less urbane, more innocent. Kitsch is aesthetic pleasure at one remove; aesthetic experience gone cynical.

So, is the Covid experience a purely aesthetic pleasure or a knowing kitschy enjoyment? A bit of both, perhaps. The Clapping For Carers in the early months was surely kitsch – not even the most convinced could have applauded in good faith, without the accompanying sense that this is the kind of thing that everyone would be moved by in a more innocent time. But the distancing and the masking and now the injecting? The vitriol against those who do not comply with these measures – undefined moral contempt allied with unrelenting immunity to arguments of any kind – indicates that the experiences occasioned by these aspects of the Covid regime really and truly are aesthetic experiences, straight-up, uncynical, unamused, unknowing experiences of our shared humanity in our well-designed world.

If this is so – if the Covid consensus really is an aesthetic experience – then its irresistible appeal is no longer to be wondered at: for it offers no less than the return of the feeling of universal community in an organised world that, however irrational, impractical, and indifferent to the plight of others, cannot be expected to be relinquished easily or soon.

Dr Sinead Murphy is Associate Researcher in Philosophy at Newcastle University.

October 2022
Free Speech Union

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