Sunday, November 21, 2010

Logically, aesthetics and ethics are identical (Leach 1954)

I saw this quote:
Leach (1954) claimed, "to understand the ethical rules of a society, it is aesthetics that we must study."
in Deb Orr's dissertation*. I Googled it to its original appearance in a 1954 essay titled "Ritual as an Expression of Social Status." Here's the surrounding text, all of which is worthwhile (boldface added):
From the observer's point of view, actions appear as means to ends, and it quite feasible to follow Malinowski's advice and classify social actions in terms of their ends -- i.e. the 'basic needs' which they appear to satisfy. But the facts which are thereby revealed are technical facts; the analysis provides no criterion for distinguishing the peculiarities of any one culture or any one society. In fact, of course, very few social actions have this elementary functionally defined form. For example, if it is desired to grow rice, it is certainly essential and functionally necessary to clear a piece of ground and sow seed in it. And it will no doubt improve the prospects of a good yield if the plot is fenced and the growing crop weeded from time to time. Kachins do all these things and, in so far as they do this, they are performing simple technical acts of a functional kind. These actions serve to satisfy 'basic needs'. But there is much more to it than that. In Kachin 'customary procedure', the routines of clearing the ground, planting the seed, fencing the plot, and weeding the growing crop are all patterned according to formal conventions and interspersed with all kinds of technicall superfluous frills and decorations. It is these frills and decorations which make the performance a Kachin performance and not just a simple functional act. And so it is with every kind of technical action; there is always the element which is functionally essential, and another element which is simply the local custom, an aesthetic frill. Such aesthetic frills were referred to by Malinowski as 'neutral custom', and in his scheme of functional analysis they are treated as minor irrelevancies. It seems to me, however, that it is precisely these customary frills which provide the social anthropologist with his primary data. Logically, aesthetics and ethics are identical. If we are to understand the ethical rules of a society, it is aesthetics that we must study. In origin the details of custom may be a historical accident; but for the living individuals in a society such details can never be irrelevant, they are part of the total system of interpersonal communication within the group. They are symbolic actions, representations. It is the anthropologist's task to try to discover and to translate into his own technical jargon what it is that is symbolised or represented.
Ritual as an Expression of Social Status (1954)
pp. 153-154 in The Essential Edmund Leach
Volume 1: Anthropology and Society
Edited by Stephen Hugh-Jones and James Laidlaw
2000. Guildford: Biddles Ltd.

If I can do the right things in my thesis, it will show the indissolubility of aesthetics and ethics in participatory representational practice, at least in one small corner of it. Nice to have some backup from 1954.

* Orr, D. E. (2003). Aesthetic practice: The power of artistic expression to transform organizations. Unpublished PhD dissertation, Benedictine University

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