Aesthetic Realism
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Dissertation Extracts:   1   2        5   6

Selection 2

Oksapmin Society and World View 

by Arnold Perey, Ph.D. 
Columbia University, 1973
bullet for Aesthetic Realism dissertation in anthropology

Note: for this website I am reprinting short selections of my doctoral dissertation and giving a descriptive heading to each excerpt. - A.P.

Aesthetics: the Basis of Culture
from Chapter 1

     This work is intended to describe with some comprehensiveness the culture of Oksapmin, New Guinea. Oksapmin was contacted recently by Australians. Its mode of life is strikingly traditional, and description, both accurate and deep, is very much to be desired. 

     The method that best gets to the principles at the bottom of the rich and bewildering culture I observed and somewhat shared in Oksapmin is Aesthetic Realism. It also explains the deepest feelings of the Oksapmin people and of myself. It is the point of this dissertation, its thesis, that Oksapmin culture has an aesthetic structure and that this structure is an aesthetic oneness of opposites. 

     Aesthetic Realism is the philosophy founded by Eli Siegel, the great American poet, critic, and educator. Just how Oksapmin, its society and world view, is a oneness of opposites which include, centrally, self and world, for and against, and separation and junction, will be empirically demonstrated in the work that follows.

Oksapmin Itself

     First, however, we have to place Oksapmin. It is a region in the central mountains of New Guinea where the West Sepik District touches the border of the Territory of Papua.

While Oksapmin is a Highland culture, it belongs to the culture area within the Highlands known as the Mountain Ok. The people of the area are brown in color and have dark eyes and black curly hair. They are powerful and diminutive, as mountain dwellers are in New Guinea, and the men average perhaps five feet in height while the women are some inches shorter. The Oksapmin language is spoken by about 4,000 people in Oksapmin and by people in Kuti and perhaps beyond.

Two men relaxing after horticultural labor

     Sweet potato and taro are the vegetable staples, and domestic pork is the main meat, although meat is scarce. Supplementing this pork are wild pig and other animals hunted by the men in the mountain forest; and the insects and small game obtained by the women and children in the second-growth bush near home.

Two boys hunting birds: Bobot and Ebot

     I conducted field research there during the period of June 1967 to April 1968 under a National Science Foundation Dissertation Improvement Grant and a Public Health Service Predoctoral Fellowship in Anthropology.

Two Contradictory Hypotheses: How Can They Be Reconciled?

     While conducting my research I had these two working hypotheses, which were later very much added to, but which still have value in explaining my data:

    Hypothesis 1. Within any New Guinea community there must be traditional ways of redistributing food so that persons with insufficient food would receive surplus from persons having it. This would tend to reduce inequalities of wealth and in the long run be more efficient than having each person or household care for itself alone.

     Hypothesis 2. Within any New Guinea community there must be traditional ways of withholding surpluses of land, food, pigs, and other goods from redistribution to people with insufficiencies. In times this would affect individual lives, causing nutritional defects, and would be an incipient ranking system.

     The first hypothesis was based on work by Andrew P. Vayda as expressed in the following sentence from an anthologized paper on Northwest Coast economic systems (1961, 1968:177):

As the effectiveness of food production was varying from time to time and place to place, there were movements and conter-movements of food, wealth, and prestige from person to person and from group to group in such a way as to minimize the adverse effects (starvation, hostilities against neighbors, and death) of any local and temporary lock of success in food production.

     The second hypothesis was stimulated by the controversy concerning the nature of New Guinea Highland leadership as discussed by Andrew Strathern in his "Despots and Directors in the New Guinea Highlands." Evidence in the work of Strathern and others suggested that something lke an incipient ranking system, or perhaps some other means of maintaining wealth differentials in New Guinea societies, existed. For example, Strathern says, of the pre-European Mt. Hagan people or Mbowamb (1966:363):

Not all the men of a lineage seem to have been wealthy, since in genealogies relating to this peried we find the occasional brother of a big-man described as "rubbish" or a bachelor.

     Anthropological research in New Guinea, howver, tended to confirm both hypotheses, the one based on Vayda's work and the one based on Strathern's. In Leopold Pospisil's Kapauku Papuan Economics, especially in the appendix detailing the possessions of each person in a Kapauku community, it is clear that some people are wealthier than others. Marshall Sahlins (1969), however, shows that there is social mobility in New Guinea. But he also shows that there is a top of society to go up to, and a bottom to fall to. And among the Arapesh, Margaret Mead says (1947, 1971) there is a sharing of garden land when the need arises.

     My two hypotheses were contradictory, one saying there are tendencies to equality and the other saying there are tendencies to inequality in the same society. I became confused by them. It was while confused that I began to gather data of my own. My data supported both. As will be shown later, when I returned from New Guinea and my theoretical orientation changed, I saw that Oksapmin has both tendencies at once, and that they are indeed aesthetic opposites.

A Change of Viewpoint

     The hypotheses which largely guided the field research on which this thesis is based, then, are ecological and socioeconomic. However, I had also been exposed to anthropological work which took a very different view of culture, including Ruth Benedict's Patterns of Culture, Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa, Edmund Leach's Rethinking Anthropology, Rodney Needman's Structure and Sentiment, Claude Lévi-Strauss' "Social Structure," Dorothy Lee's "Being and Value in Primitive Society," and others.

     These approaches took a different viewpoint as to what was important in culture, and often emphasized the seeing of cultures as wholes. In Kroeber's words, culture itself has organization which can be studied just as any other natural phenomenon can be studied, however multifaceted it may be:

Primary, it seems to me, is the recognition of culture as a "level" or "order" or "emergent" of natural phenomena, a level marked by a certain distinctive organization of its characteristic phenomena (1952, 1965:4).

     The seeing of a culture as a whole need not stop at being just description and analysis, but it can go further to be an act of appreciation. Mead (1959:viii-ix) describes this for Benedict:

She came to feel that each primitive culture represented something comparable to a great work of art or literature....If one took these cultures whole--the religion, the mythology, the everyday ways of men and women--then the internal consistency and the intricacy was as aesthetically satisfying to the would-be explorer as was any single work of art.

     I had been affected by this approach deeply, having been interested in the arts long before studying anthropology. But being unable to reconcile it later with what I saw as science, I dropped it. I felt that quantification was impossible in any but the realm of population statistics and economics, and that emotion was a hindrance to objectivity rather than an enhancement of it. In guarding myself against what I viewed as excessive subjectivity I tried to eliminate feeling from my work and stick to statistics. But even so, my Oksapmin observations were affected by what I had leaned of configurational and aesthetic approaches, and by my own spontaneous interest in New Guinea culture. But the different approaches were disjunct in my mind. Which was I to rely on?

     It was when I returned to New York and began to study Aesthetic Realism with Eli Siegel, that I began to see form in my mass of data. I began to understand how to reconcile the ecological and configurational approaches in my description of Oksapmin. I saw, for instance, how the economy of Oksapmin is part of its whole culture. The adaptation to the natural environment, the organization of society itself, the artistic expression of the people, the very confilcts within their personalities, are based on the opposites: self and world, for and against, and separation and junction, among others.

The Method of Aesthetic Realism

     It would be well to clarify how the method of Aesthetic Realism is used in this work. To begin with, Eli Siegel sees aesthetics as more comprehensive than other authors. He defines it poetically in "Free Poem on 'The Siegel Theory of Opposites' in Relation to Aesthetics" this way: 

      Aesthetics is the science of what is, 
      When that which is, is seen as opposites- 
      In common language, when it's beautiful.  (1958:51)

Oksapmin, then, is an aesthetic structure because it is a oneness of opposites. The people of Oksapmin are trying to put opposites, such as selfishness and altruism, together in their everyday lives, but it is in their art that they most completely unite the opposites. In their workaday lives the unity remains incomplete and unfulfilled. The putting together of opposites on a day to day basis is, then, an aesthetic purpose or objective towards which life strives

     For myself, coming to see Oksapmin as a oneness of opposites made for an aesthetic emotion. Seeing opposites together in my Oksapmin data was seeing significant form in what had seemed to me a largely formless gathering of information. Many anthropological writers speak of an emotion that occurs as they see coherent pattern in their data, although this is not usually recognized as an aesthetic emotion.

The Opposites Defined

     It would be appropriate at this point to say what is meant in this thesis by the term opposites. Eli Siegel defines opposites:      

Opposites are the presence in a specific object of things centrally different found in the universe such as change and sameness, motion and rest, within and without, free and orderly, one and many, unexpected and expected, personal and impersonal, singleness and relation, time and space, and so on (1968).

For example, when we consider Oksapmin sex roles (in Chapter 3, p. 73), the male role and the female role are as different as can be (or "centrally different") within their restricted field. Historically they have stood for the philosophic opposites of active and passive, or motion and rest (although both sexes have both opposites). Male and female are often thought of as hostile roles in Oksapmin, though they are also complementary; that is, they go for the same purpose, they have central objectives in common.

    Within the field of staple vegetable food, sweet potato and taro are as different as can be and are used for human nourishment of body and spirit (see Chapters 2 and 11). They also stand for opposites.

    Likewise, animism and animatism stand for opposites: animism, being the belief in spirits having personality, is personal, finite, concrete; while animatism, being the belief in a pervasive spiritual power without personality, is impersonal, tends toward the infinite, is abstract. In Melanesia both spirit worship, which is personal, and a belief in an impersonal spiritual force, mana, are pervasive. It is so for Oksapmin. The Oksamin idea of awam corresponds, I believe, to mana elsewhere. Oksapmin religion joins the personal and impersonal as both represent the unknown affecting human life (see Chapter 5).

    Similarly we have motion and not-motion, or fixity, put together in the Oksapmin dance described in Chapter 6 and in arrow carvings in the same chapter. And we have two kinds of motion and posture put together too. Curing and straight motion and posture, like many similar contrasts in art, are opposites.

Terms in Philosophy That Are Similar to Opposites

    Now that the Aesthetic Realism definition of opposites has been discussed, I will try to show its relation to similar terms used in philosophic logic.

First what is the relation of this definition to the concept of complementarity? Male and female, in Oksapmin or anywhere, are complementary because in the set of human beings A there are two subsets regarding sex. Call them A1 and A2, male and female. The union of A1 and A2 is A. Hence, A1 and A2 are complementary. As shown earlier, they also are opposites insofar as they can be used to stand for universal qualities, active and passive, motion and rest. But complementarity alone is not enough. Two things can be complementary and not opposites, or complementary and opposites. The two ideas are similar but definitely different.

    The idea of opposites bears comparison to the term contradiction. We can see that Iaulit, in Chapter 5 on religion, is begging or supplicating when he chants garden magic and also that he is demanding forcefully. Our statement has the effect of a contradiction. It is both a proposition and its denial. But it isn't really a contradiction because both are true.

Iaulit performing garden magic. His chant both demands and supplicates.

So are such statements as "Oksapmin people are generous and selfish," [Hypotheses 1 and 2] "the kinship is both flexible and strict" (Chapters 3 and 10), "the social organization is unified while diverse," (Chapter 3) and "the arts are free and orderly."

    Each statement has the impact of a contradiction, but each is, in reality, a statement about opposites that are one. Generous and selfish are centrally different in the field or domain of ethics. They stand for not-self and self, which are strictly opposites. When there is an act which is seen as truly ethical, these opposites are made one: oneself is served at the same time as something not oneself is served. Similar reasoning is true for each of the "contradictory" propositions I just made. Flexible and strict stand for the opposites of freedom and order; unity and diversity stand for one and many.

    And, finally, take the term contrary. A pig and spirit are mutually exclusive but they are not jointly exhaustive. This makes them contraries. What does this mean? First: no spirit is a living pig and no lively grunting pig is a spirit. They are mutually exclusive, yes. But if we ask whether all that is not a pig must be spirit, the answer is no. This means they are not jointly exhaustive: so they can't be opposites. Indeed, they are contraries. Contraries are similar to opposites but aren't.

    However, these contraries can stand for more than themselves. That is, pigs and spirits are also metaphors which have the impact of opposites. A pig, which is a personal valuable, stands for oneself. The spirits, which are mysterious forces in the world stand for reality as powerful. So when a pig is killed to please a spirit, the self is giving something over to the larger world and showing respect, while hoping for friendliness from that world. At the same time pain and pleasure are brought close to one another for this blood sacrifice, and the pain that goes with it, seem a good thing. Self and world, pain and pleasure, seem reconciled at such moments.

    In a great many ways the problem of self and world is resolved in Oksapmin art and literature. Here I refer the reader to the fourth of "Four Statements of Aesthetic Realism" quoted in full in the next section (Siegel, 1967:xii):

All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.

Take an example in which the dialectic nature of the problem can be seen easily. In the story "The Man with Pink Skin" (see Chapters 6 and 13) we have the man stealing and running away. This is the thesis. We have him chased, first by his brothers and then by a group of dancing men. This is the antithesis. Finally he dances together with them, they eat opossum together, and he claims one of their pigs. This is the synthesis. [Note: the dialectic process is defined as containing these three parts: thesis, antithesis, synthesis.]

    I try to show in Chapter 13 that this story represents and solves the problem of the opposites self and world. In the field of reality as a whole, all that which is not oneself can be called not-self or the world.  What remains is oneself. From the individual's point of view, that which is not himself is as different as can be from himself. Self and world exhaust the field. They are as different as can be. Hence, they are opposites. 

    The problem of self and world is both dialectic and aesthetic (Siegel, 1965:9). "The Man with Pink Skin" (the story is in Chapter 6 and the analysis in Chapter 13), satisfies himself by excluding the world. He is selfish. He is pursued by his opposite: the world. He gets pleasure dancing and eating with the world. Both self and world are dealt with justly: opposites are made one, and the point of the story is conveyed. Selfishness and altruism stop fighting for the while.

    This seeming contradiction, altruism vs. selfishness, is really the opposites seen as irreconcilable. By similar reasoning I believe that all the seeming contradictions of Oksapmin culture are resolved in Oksapmin art. And the complementary elements, which may not seem contradictory at all, have by virtue of the fact that they are different, some hostility to one another. Yet, their oneness or complementarity is stressed.

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Aesthetic Realism, the philosophy founded by Eli Siegel in 1941, is taught in classes, public seminars & presentations, and consultations at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City. Nationwide outreach includes speakers from the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, consultations by telephone outside New York City and internationally, and the work of the Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company. The Class Chairman, Ellen Reiss, teaches the classes for Aesthetic Realism associates and consultants in which I study. I am proud to say that as a consultant on the Foundation's faculty I teach anthropology, teachers' workshops, and am an instructor in consultations for individuals who want to learn the aesthetic way of seeing the world and themselves.  More links are provided below so you can find out more.