Reprinted from
The Anthropologist,Vol. XIX No. 1 & 2 (1975)
University of Delhi, Delhi INDIA
[Note: this paper was presented at the annual meeting of
the American Anthropological Association in 1971]

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 as opposites— 
In common language, when it's beautiful.2

Participation & Observation Are Critical Opposites

     Each 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 noblesse 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: 

I'm understanding 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 are disjunct. 

     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 perception.

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 The 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 know these. 

    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

     Aesthetic 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 such, anywhere. 

     I quote from Siegel's book Definitions, and Comment:6

    Feeling:—Feeling is any situation of mind taken by itself.
    Desire:—Desire is a feeling thought of as cause. 

    Pleasure:—Pleasure 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. 

    Liking:—Liking is the feeling that something outside of oneself has something in common with oneself; and that that something in common is for one. 

    Kindness:—Kindness is that in a self which wants other things to be rightly pleased. 

    Wonder:—Wonder is a state of knowledge in the self along with a state of unknownness, otherness, and immediacy, in motion.

     An 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. 

     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 The 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. 

Photograph 1: Ebot

Photograph 2: Bian

     In 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, a welcome. 

     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. 

Photograph 3: Unran

     There 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 outside world. 

All Peoples Have Deep Sameness

    Aesthetic 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

1 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 (Definition Press, New York, 1969), 1.

2 ELI SIEGEL, "Free Poem on 'The Siegel Theory of Opposites' in Relation to Aesthetics" in Hot Afternoons Have Been In Montana: Poems, by Eli Siegel (Definition Press, New York, 1958), 51.

3 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.

4 ELI SIEGEL, James and the Children: A Consideration of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw (Definition Press, New York, 1967).

5 ELI SIEGEL, The Aesthetic Method in Self-Conflict (Definition Press, New York, 1965), 11-12.

6 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.

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