Feel beauty supply, post 5

Feeling submissive with Edmund Burke; or, love is beautiful

Readers, in my last post I began showing how examples in texts of aesthetic philosophy often betray universal human subjectivity to be limited to European white males.  Last time I shared some examples from Kant. Today I’d like to go to one of Kant’s influences, Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful from 1757. Should you ever be tasked with teaching aesthetics, I highly recommend this text. It will make your students irate and nothing is better for class discussion. As John Lydon sang, “Anger is an energy.” What’s infuriating (at least to some contemporary readers) is the fact that Burke’s theories are structurally reliant upon sexism and racism. Today we’ll stick to sexism and Beauty, as that’s where Burke himself begins. Don’t worry, though, next time we’ll move on to racism and the Sublime.

Burke opens the Enquiry by expressing his wish to establish a “logic of taste.” Doing so, he asserts, would continue the Enlightenment project because practices of rational debate have proven reason to be a universal human faculty. By moving to aesthetics Burke wishes to establish taste as universal. This would expand the list of shared human capacities to include affective experience or what he calls “sentiment common to all mankind.” (11) These opening pages sound to me  like a good thing. To put his intentions crudely (at least as I understand them), we’ve already proven that all humans think, so now I (Burke) will prove that all humans feel. Don’t worry. He messes it up.

One simple way to understand Burke’s text historically is as a bridge between the Augustan era and Romanticism because his theory moves away from classical notions of Beauty dependent on qualities such as formal symmetry and proportion to feeling. We see this when Burke begins innocuously in his declaration, “By beauty, I mean, that quality or those qualities in bodies by which they cause love…,” rejecting rationality for affect in a work that in places reads as a proto-psychology text. (83) This may sound hippie-dippy feel good, but Burke’s definition of love is sinister. It emerges in his discussion of why beautiful objects must be small. Why? Because “we love what submits to us.” (103) We love that which will submit to us, so all qualities of the beautiful operate as a means of communicating to the perceiving subject that the object is submissive. I will refrain from making a Fifty Shades of Gray joke.

So smooth surfaces are Beautiful because they hide nothing from us and have no jagged edges which may harm us. Burke gives us a list of “such objects:”  “…smooth streams in the landscape; smooth coats of birds and beasts in animal beauties; in fine women, smooth skin; and in several sorts of ornamental furniture, smooth and polished surfaces.” (103-4) [This is where my female students, finding themselves between “animal beauties” and “ornamental furniture”  began to suspect that their subjectivity was not being discussed here.]

Burke makes the matter clearer when he argues for “gradual variation” in “beautiful bodies.” (104) After explaining such variation in a dove, Burke once again turns his eye to the object of a woman: “Observe that part of a beautiful woman where she is perhaps the most beautiful, about the neck and breasts; the smoothness; the softness; the easy and insensible swell; the variety of the surface…” (105) Though he makes “delicacy” itself a separate category of the Beautiful, it’s a softness and fragility that he is valorizing here in these examples. When Burke does finally get to the quality of “delicacy,” he uses it to describe female subjectivity as a whole: “I need here say little of the fair sex, where I believe the point will easily be allowed me. The beauty of women is considerably owing to their weakness, or delicacy, and is even enhanced by their timidity, a quality of mind analogous to it.” (106) Through these examples which place a woman on the object side of the subject/object relationship, the Enquiry communicates to the reader that women in general are excluded from the category of universal human subject. Burke’s examples of the Beautiful argue then that the supposedly universal human subject is a heteronormative male.

Next time: How Burke makes the universal human subject white. 

Burke, Edmund, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Oxford University Press, 1990.