XIX No. 1 & 2 (1975)
University of Delhi,
this paper was presented at the annual meeting of
American Anthropological Association in 1971]
PERSPECTIVE FOR AMERICAN
ANTHROPOLOGY: THE PHILOSOPHY
OF AESTHETIC REALISM
By Arnold Perey
Department of Social
Science, Queensborough Community College, New York
Aesthetic Realism is the philosophy founded by Eli Siegel, the poet, critic,
and philosopher, in 1941. Its basic statement, "The world, art,
and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites,"1
I consider to be the single most significant statement ever made. This
is a careful judgement, and some of the reasons for it will emerge as I
consider the relevance of the statement to aspects of anthropology.
I say this after much consideration and study. I believe, for example,
that the problems of anthropology can best be viewed as aesthetic questions.
But to see this, I have had to learn first that the meaning of aesthetics
is wider and more precise than has previously been given it. Eli Siegel
has poetically defined aesthetics in these three lines from his "Free Poem
On The Siegel Theory Of Opposites":
|Aesthetics is the science
of what is,
When that which is, is seen
In common language, when
Participation & Observation Are Critical Opposites
of the main phases of anthropology has a crucial question which concerns
opposites. For example, participation and observation are opposites in
field research. And a crucial question in field research is How can I be
a participant in this culture and observe it at once? This is also a question
of everyday life, for every person wants to participate: to be of someone.
But we can find ourselves suddenly icy observers. Or we can feel nobody
knows our depths, just the surface we have arranged.
In 1967-'68, 1 spent about eleven months in New Guinea, six in a small
community in the highlands of the West Sepik District. Being a participant
observer in a culture at first alien to me was one of the deep experiences
of my life, as it is for most anthropologists. It is the heart of field
method. It is intensely personal, and it is scientific or impersonal.
Emotion and Objectivity
When field work goes well, one's emotions and one's objectivity work hand
in hand. When it goes ill, something else happens. Benjamin D. Paul, in
his essay in Alfred Kroeber's Anthropology Today, describes field
difficulty as "Participation implies emotional involvement; observation
requires detachment. It is a strain to try to sympathize with others and
at the same time strive for scientific objectivity. A crisis can suddenly
upset the balance between these opposing forces."3
Every field worker has felt the awful disjunction of participation and.
observation: you are looking on, but you are not of things. And, every
field worker has felt the disjunction of sameness and difference: you are
common humanity with the people you are studying, but their difference—the
very stuff of anthropology—seems distasteful to you. Your emotion interferes
with your ability to observe: the emotion is too narrow.
It is possible, though, to do well with emotion and seeing. In retrospect,
as I consider my field experiences in Nevada, 1965, and in New Guinea more
recently, I see that the times of my best observation and my largest emotion
were the same. They were those moments in which I felt I had to know
something, for myself. There was no superiority as those moments, no
oblige. There was a rapt appreciation of sheer person, and sheer culture.
Here is an entry from my field diary; an early entry about the first sentences
I understood in Oksapmin, New Guinea:
a little of the local language. I heard it as clear as a single drop of
water hanging from a spider's thread; all the other words were a muddle;
a buzz of freely varying sounds. But there it was: "Little boys can't smoke.
Only men with beards." Beautiful.
This moment, and others like
it, could be called "culture joy" as opposed to culture shock. It is what
anthropology is looking for.
What Is Culture Shock?
All field workers undergo culture shock. It has not been understood. We
know only that it is a feeling of intense disorientation when one is in
an alien culture as a permanent outsider, when participation and observation
In an Aesthetic Realism Ethical Study Conference, a class in which the
questions of self are seen as aesthetic questions, Eli Siegel asked me,
"Mr. Perey, do you feel the world is good enough to please Perey?" I answered,
"No." I have been learning from Aesthetic Realism that this is a mistake.
And that it is a common unconscious belief. I believe, too, that it is
the essential mistake that makes for culture shock.
I do not think culture shock is only the result of an anthropologist's
failure to transfer his "civilized" responses to the unfamiliar stimuli
of an alien culture. I believe there are unconscious choices made which
hinder adjustment. They arise from the disposition in man to have contempt
for what is not himself. I believe Aesthetic Realism presents the first
scientific description of contempt, which Siegel describes thus: "There
is a disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making
less of the outside world."4
Every anthropologist I've talked with, or read, on the subject of field
work has shown a disposition to lessen the people he works with in the
field. He is also greatly moved by them, and admires them. But the interference
to scientific observation is there: we feel superior in some ways to the
people we study. We may feel they are crude, or bearers of vermin and odor.
That is no way to feel about people whom you are learning from. It hinders
The Opposites of Sameness and Difference
The aesthetic opposites, sameness and difference, are crucial to anthropologists
here. For, rather than seeing sameness and difference as completing each
other, helping us to know about the people's valuable differences through
appreciating our likenesses to them, we draw back. It is not just ethnocentrism,
the feeling that one's own culture—whatever it is—is superior to all others.
It is basic contempt—which all individuals have. We want to feel utterly
different, and better. It makes the people we study seem unknowable, perhaps
inhuman. It is therefore not only bad science and bad ethics, it is dangerous.
I have known it to result in nervous breakdowns. Our mind, our one instrument
of observation and analysis, has to work right.
The disposition in man to feel he will be for himself by making less of
the outside world—other people, and things—is countered only by aesthetics.
In art you take care of your own needs and you are fair to other people
and objects at the same time. In art, the seemingly incessant war
between altruism and self-interest is resolved. Eli Siegel, in his book
Aesthetic Method in Self-Conflict, provides the means of annulling
turmoil in self. The aesthetic method, I believe, solves the problem of
participation and observation in everyday life, in field work, and in anthropological
theory. Siegel writes:
The basic conflict in the
human mind—present, I believe, in all particular conflicts—is that between
a person warmly existing to his finger tips, and that person as related
to indefinite outsideness: this is the subject and object conflict, the
personal and impersonal conflict, the Self and World conflict. In every
person there is a drive towards the caring for and pleasing of self; in
every person there is a drive towards other things, a desire to meet and
When an artist is successful,
he does not deny either one of these drives, for each is essential;
each has its necessity; even its inevitability. But he is not lopsided;
he does not accent one, and muffle or curtail the other. The perfect work
of art is that where the artist, while entirely himself, while a unique
individual, also sees an object in its completeness and precision. It is
possible; if, in fact, it is the great purpose of art to be one's self
and yet give everything to the object, can we not find here the just purpose
in life itself?"5
Unfailing Clarity about Emotions
Realism provides the first objective descriptions and definitions of emotions
that can be used cross-culturally with unfailing clarity. Using these definitions
one can come to some sureness about emotions in other cultures. I believe
Siegel's definitions will lessen culture shock, as anthropologists learn
how it is possible to perceive accurately and objectively the signs of
emotion in peoples of other cultures, After three years of very close research,
it is my opinion that these definitions of emotions are true for man as
I quote from Siegel's book Definitions, and Comment:6
is any situation of mind taken by itself.
a feeling thought of as cause.
analysis of photographs I took in New Guinea can give a sense of why I
see Siegel's definitions as so valuable. Photographs, which are a means
of recording how people appear at given instants, can be used later to
see what the people were feeling. The Aesthetic Realism approach has taught
me to see the signs of emotion in photographs with a precision I had once
thought was impossible.
is the feeling in a thing that another thing is for what it is; or at one
with what it is.
Pain:—Pain is the
feeling in a thing that another thing is not for what it is; or not at
one with what it is.
Hope:—Hope is pleasure
from feeling that pleasure may come.
Fear:—Fear is pain
from thinking that pain may come.
the feeling that something outside of oneself has something in common with
oneself; and that that something in common
is for one.
is that in a self which wants other things to be rightly pleased.
a state of knowledge in the self along with a state of unknownness, otherness,
and immediacy, in motion.
One of the difficulties in interpreting the signs of emotion in people
of other cultures is that the expression of the emotions differs, to a
degree, from culture to culture. However, if one reads Charles Darwin's
Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, and his The Descent
of Man, one can see that facial and bodily expressions for many emotions
are shared by animals and man. And after observing animals, myself, babies,
foreign movies, and non-Western friends, it is my careful surmise that
the overwhelming majority of human facial and bodily expressions, and tones
of voice, can communicate emotion to any person of any culture whatsoever
who really cares to know the emotions of others.
Certainly I was in Oksapmin, New Guinea, long enough to know that the facial
expressions of the people there are essentially like our own.
This photograph of Ebot, for instance (Photograph 1), shows a mingling
of hope and fear — opposites in emotion that I have. It was taken at the
time my house was built in Gwe Parish, the first day I was there. The people
were hopeful and fearful: a stranger was settling among them. Nobody knew
what the result would be.
looking at the photograph of Ebot one can see he has no anxiety wrinkles
between his eyebrows the way Bian has them (Photograph 2: Bian). In fact
he seems to be on the verge of smiling. But only on the verge. He is both
liking and not-liking, He is looking at me with his body turned mostly
toward me, not away like Bian's body, and his eyes are rather wide: again,
Photograph 1: Ebot
Photograph 2: Bian
There is also little tension in his face, compared to Unran (Photograph
3), whose mouth is drawn at the corners and whose upper lip is very tense.
is a cautious liking which Ebot maintained while I was in Gwe. He was one
of the kind children. His hand shows this; and to me, that hand is the
hand of New Guinea. He is not wrapping his arm on his body, but he is touching
himself lightly; and with his two smallest fingers he shows an inclination
towards the photographer. I see him as New Guinea, cautious and hopeful,
with wonder present trying to take care of himself and to be fair to the
Photograph 3: Unran
All Peoples Have Deep Sameness
Realism shows ways in which all peoples of the world have deep sameness.
Using the Siegel Theory of Opposites it is possible for anthropology to
see man just as he is: an aesthetic situation, in which the permanent opposites
of the world are present: separation and junction, participation .and observation,
contempt and respect, pleasure and pain, self and world, sameness and difference.
Because these opposites are present in all people of all cultures, the
Siegel approach may justly be considered true for man.
Because these opposites are one in art, as Siegel has shown, and have their
likenesses in all things—in butterflies, molecules, galaxies—the Siegel
approach provides a new basis in physics and in mathematical logic, a new
accuracy, for the study of man and his creative works. It is my carefully
arrived at belief that the best means of comprehending people and being
just to them is the Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel. It is therefore necessary
that anthropologists study it.
References and Notes
SIEGEL'S statement is quoted, for instance, in Sheldon Kranz et al, Aesthetic
Realism: We Have Been There—Six Artists on the Siegel Theory of Opposites
Press, New York, 1969), 1.
ELI SIEGEL, "Free Poem on 'The Siegel Theory of Opposites' in Relation
to Aesthetics" in Hot Afternoons Have Been In Montana: Poems,
Eli Siegel (Definition Press, New York, 1958), 51.
BENJAMIN D. PAUL, "Interview Techniques and Field Relationships" in Anthropology
Today. An Encyclopedic Inventory edited by A.L. Kroeber (The University
of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1953), 441.
ELI SIEGEL, James and the Children: A Consideration of Henry James'
The Turn of the Screw (Definition Press, New York, 1967).
ELI SIEGEL, The Aesthetic Method in Self-Conflict
New York, 1965), 11-12.
ELI SIEGEL, Definitions, and Comment: Being a Description of the World
(Committee for Aesthetic Realism, New York, 1949) definitions nos.
7, 8, 19, 24, 25, 26, 35,87,101.