Review of Bioaesthetics: Making Sense of Life in Science and the Arts | Leonardo/ISAST

Review of Bioaesthetics: Making Sense of Life in Science and the Arts

Bioaesthetics: Making Sense of Life in Science and the Arts
by Carsten Strathausen

University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2017
320 pp. Trade, $120; paper, $30
ISBN: 978-1-5179-0074-8; ISBN: 978-1-5179-0075-5

Reviewed by: 
Gabriela Galati
May 2018

Bioaesthetics is an ambitious work that intends to be a critique of what the author calls ‘biologism’, namely, ‘ the effort to understand all aspects of human culture, including art and politics in biological terms as part of our evolutionary heritage’ (p.1). As the detailed and accurate critique of all the approaches considered under the biologism umbrella unfolds, Strathausen also aims at defining what bioaesthetics is, and which is its position regarding other related theories.

The book is clear and precise, both in its analyses and in describing its own position in the field that it is delimiting. It exposes a sharp critique of socio-biology and neo-Darwinian theory that ground biologism. This critique is based on the confusion between the different objects of study of the sciences and the humanities, and on how the humanities give language constructs and modifies its object of studies, whereas for the sciences language is often transparent. One of the main flaws of biologism and neo-Darwinism is the indistinct use and application of concepts of the sciences to the humanities, that is to say, the use of scientific language and terminology taken completely our of context. The second problem is the universalist pretension: biology and bioaesthetics are historical disciplines, the approaches labelled by the author as belonging to biologism do not consider this fact.

Instead, the book defines bioaesthetics as ‘an interdisciplinary approach to the study of culture that moves beyond the speculative theory of art that has dominated the humanities since the early nineteenth century, without, however succumbing to the broad universalist claims that characterize today’s biologism and neo-Darwinism’ (p. 24). The author also draws on Francisco Varela’s, Eleanor Rosch’s and Evan Thompson’s concept of ‘embodied cognition’ to consider a more complete approach to knowledge and of how every living being makes sense of the world around it.

In the first chapter the book analyses extensively how nature is considered after Kant and the coincidences and differences between Kant’s concept of epigenesis, which uses intentionality to explain the emergence of life (p. 43), and Varela and Humberto Maturana’s autopoietic theory. Although the author claims that bioaesthetics doesn’t have a clear position regarding the emergence of life, it does adhere to Varela and Maturana’s autopoietic notion according to which ‘all living organisms are cognitive systems able to enact their unique environment by making simple choices’ (p. 56). At this point one of the main arguments of the book is advanced: that recursivity and non-linear causality of all living matter are essential to art and aesthetics, as Kant demonstrated a long time ago in theorisation of aesthetic judgements, coincident as they are with the contemporary notion of the autopoietic nature of human cognition (p. 57).

After dedicating the second chapter to the analysis of the dispute between Jacques Monod and Louis Althusser, Strathausen deconstructs, if the term can be allowed here, sociobiology, Evolutionary Psychology, and Richard Dawkins’ meme theory. In this last case particularly, there seems to be at least three problems:  memes, unlike genes, not necessarily increase adaptive fitness or produce some biological advantage; second, cultural evolution is not necessarily adaptive form the genetic point of view; and, lastly, it is not yet clear what a meme exactly is (p. 124-125).

In the following chapter, the book addresses the approaches of Evolutionary Aesthetics and Cognitive Studies. Whereas within the first one, especially among literary Darwinists, the tendency is to consider literature, and by extension art in general, as an adaptive feature that would facilitate manipulation to obtain reproductive advantages over others, cognitive studies seem to be more focused on the art object. Especially, cognitive studies understands art not just as an adaptive feature, or a fixed term to be defined, but points out at the cognitive function of art, which is considered to be to pose questions, not to give answers, and to underline possible misalignments in the environment (p. 185)—in a certain sense, this appears to be quite close to the McLuhanian consideration of the role of the artist.

In the fifth and last chapter Neuroaesthetics is analysed, and the author points out at how, even if Semir Zeki’s defines neuroaesthetics as ‘a theory of aesthetics that is biologically based’, it would be more appropriate to say that it seeks to develop an aesthetic theory that is actually based just on the brain (p. 194). Zeki’s approach is largely analysed and in general considered pertinent, although Strathausen makes evident how he reduces aesthetic judgements to cognitive judgements, or to judgements of taste. On the contrary, the bioaesthetics approach considers that art challenges traditional or fixed cognitive structures creating new cognitive patterns within the brain (p. 226).

Finally, in the Coda (p. 227) the author’s explains the difference between bioaesthetics, Gilles Deleuze’s aesthetics of affect, and a posthuman aesthetics: whilst Deleuze aesthetics is based on one’s possibilities of ‘becoming other than human’ (p. 227), namely, the body without organs, and the consideration that affect can be detached from the organism; and posthuman aesthetics considers, among other issues, also the production of sense by the non-human and advances a broader consideration of subjectivities; Strathausen positions bioaesthetics as a philosophy that fosters new kinds of subjectivity but is strongly grounded in ‘our shared nature and history of being human’ (p. 231). Precisely regarding this last statement there can be found maybe the only critique to be made to the book, and it has to do with the use of the prefix “bio” in bioaesthetics: Even when the author claims that bioaesthetics is considering ‘the living’ and ‘all living matter’ in general, (‘life makes sense only to the living’ (p. 231)) it doesn’t; it is actually considering only the human aspect within the living, and with it, sense understood and produced by humans and for humans. Of course one cannot avoid being human when thinking or writing, or living in general, but bioaesthetics doesn’t seem to be a theory that comprises and is equally interested in all the living. This is why the prefix bio is misleading. And it is also why it could be worth at least just asking whether or not this excessive focus on the human has not already been overcome in the humanities.

For the rest, the book is acute in its analysis, observation, and eventual critiques of all the approaches it addresses. It is an excellent introduction to an aesthetics that intends to overcome speculative theories of art and philosophy without disregarding context and history. That some space to speculation is still desirable and fruitful, and even important when thinking about issues like art, media and aesthetics is something that some of us are not ready to give up yet; however this interdisciplinary approach can hopefully only add to these practices and theorisations.