Aesthetics and Astronomy

Aesthetics as a single star.

Then the awareness of its place in a conceptual constellation.

And the sense of this constellation’s place in the wider night sky.

But it would have to be noted that there is not a single star, or a single constellation, or a single night sky. There are multiple stars, constellations and skies. And there is no single point to discern each of these properly. The complexity can be recognised, but never adequately resolved. The matter is more of a practical orientation, of trying to find some way through the mix of dark and bright elements.

This work is intended as a rough map of the aesthetic night sky drawn by an amateur astronomer.

This framing metaphors of star, constellation and night sky are not only a metaphors. They also relate directly and substantitvely to the issue of aesthetics. Aesthetics appears literally as the luminal space in which the relation between darkness and light are partially, imaginatively reconciled. There is the ignorance (darkness) of appearance as well as its vivid experience (light). Aesthetic engages with the paradox of appearance – brightly manifest and yet somehow also obscure. This obscurity relates to the whole problem of how the senses and imagination are conceived and positioned in relation to that other realm of apparent brightness, rational understanding.

The first of the Pre-Socratic philosophers, Thales, obtained initial fame by predicting a solar eclipse. He also wrote of water as the fundamental arche of the universe, but it is the eclipse, the nature of a solar eclipse, that interests me here. At one level an eclipse obscures the sun and renders the world dark. At another level, it renders the brightness of the sun even more apparent, in that an eclipse cannot safely be viewed with the naked eye. To gaze directly at a solar eclipse is to risk blindness. An eclipse can only be safely viewed as a cast projection via a pin-hole device. Although apparently dark then, the phenomena itself has a blinding brightness. It summons representation as a necessity so that the nature of its brightness, which is constituted precisely as moment of obscurity (the occlusion of the sun), can be made visible. It is also worth noting the place of the moon in all this. The moon does not positively appear itself. Rather it only appears in negative terms as a ball of darkness that moves across the sun. We only see the shadow side of the moon in a solar eclipse, which works to gradually obscure and occlude the sun and then equally gradually reveal it. There is then here a complex interaction of darkness and light. Moreover the limits of each reveal aspects of the other. The limits of brightness is blindness. The limit of obscurity is a curious moment of alignment between the sun and the moon.

All of this sets the scene for the aesthetic – for a mode of appearance and uncertain knowledge that has its basis in the darkness of sense and the darkness of a mode of formality that cannot be adequately rationally characterised, that appears in an instant, as a whole, or in fragments. Moreover, instead of infusing all aspects of experience, the aesthetic takes shape as a special and liminal field; and as a complex one, which, like an eclipse, coordinates aspects of visibility and obscurity, which renders these two coincident and undecidable. The aesthetic represents the theatrical scene in which the key dichotomies that ground our understanding of the world are played out both as a form of reconciliation and as an irresolvable (and thus animating) enigma.

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