I have been working on a project about beauty that attempts to restore to view the mixed and conflicted character of this aesthetic category. The beautiful is conventionally identified with feelings of unmixed pleasure on the part of the spectator, in marked contrast to the sublime. If pleasure is regarded — by Gilles Deleuze, among others — as a domain where affective intensities are neutralized, the beautiful is typically conceived as a refined and uniformly mild expression of pleasure. Yet in experiences of the beautiful, feelings of pleasure and displeasure frequently operate in unison; the feeling of pleasure in beauty regularly appears in conjunction with sensations of irritation, discomfort, or displeasure inseparable from the pleasurable circumstances that call the experience forth.
One of my goals in examining such moments to arrive at a new and more adequate account of the relationship between affect and the subset of affective experiences we call “aesthetic.” To this end, the project situates the beautiful in relation to a larger category of what I call “pleasure problems.” The pleasure problem refers to circumstances in which the predictable functions or operations of pleasure have been impeded, arrested, suspended, or set aside. These are often circumstances where pleasure takes on a problematic aspect, though the pleasure problem may with equal likelihood represent conditions in which pleasure emerges, improbably, from problematic circumstances.
The larger project draws mainly on writing in aesthetics and poetry from the long eighteenth century. But there is a much longer tradition behind the blended quality of pleasure and pain in experiences of the beautiful — and one needn’t look two hundred years into the past to find an illustration of the pleasure problem either. For a contemporary instance, we can look to the opening sequence from a 2011 episode of the sitcom Louie (season 2, episode 6, “Subway/Pamela”).
This episode delays the opening credits and reverses the typical sequence, beginning with Louie emerging from a comedy club rather than descending into one. Louie is shown walking down the stairs onto the subway tracks where a handsome young man in a tuxedo is playing violin. (The piece, as I learned from the internet, is “Csárdás” by Vittorio Monti .) Louie tosses a bill into the violinist’s case as he passes and leans against a girder to watch him. The man playing the violin is beautiful; the piece he is playing is beautiful.
As he watches the violinist, an older, heavyset man laden with large plastic bags descends the stairs onto the platform. The man lays out a plastic sheet on the tile floor, removes his shirt, pours soapy water over his head and proceeds to bathe himself with abandon. The man’s appearance on the subway platform is preposterous; his condition would be heartbreaking were it not for the obvious relish (and obliviousness) with which he scrubs himself. We see the man’s body, pink, wet, and glistening, as he reaches down behind himself to soap between his ass-cheeks. The violinist and the homeless man occupy the same visual plane; in one shot (shown above) we see the back of Louie’s head as he looks on at both.
Critics noted of this scene how in Louis CK’s New York City, the beautiful and ugly, romantic and repulsive, are yoked together in visual proximity. Were Louis CK a sociologist of aesthetics in the Bourdieuian vein, one could read the sequence as pointing to beauty’s silent dependence on an extruded material remainder. The repulsive, shirtless man operates in the scene as the unavoidable background from which the beautiful man and his beautiful music springs. In this way is the beautiful conceived as emerging from a background of negativity, of poverty and privation, even as our unmixed pleasure in the beautiful somehow depends on us being blind to these conditions. Once you admit those conditions into your field of view, beauty ceases to be wholly pleasureable.
While I detect the elements of an aesthetic theory here, it is not Bourdieu’s. In an interview Louis CK described the genesis of the scene: “The violin player, I came up with because a woman played violin at my daughter’s school concert, and I almost cried just from hearing the music, so I kind of dreamt up that sequence.” This scene of emotion recollected in absurdity converts a beautiful memory into an occasion for laughter by juxtaposing it with something absurd and repulsive. But then too, to get at what is involved in a pleasure so intense as to make one feel like crying, one would have to imagine how the beautiful could produce feelings of discomfort or displeasure. Louie depicts this proximity of affects even before the old man’s entry. In successive shots, we see the stages of Louie’s response, from the clenched and exhausted facial expression many wear in the subway —
to a pose of relative contemplation. His face softens.
In the shot just prior to the old man’s entrance, Louie’s head appears once more in tighter close-up. His face momentarily contorts; the expression is a wince, an expression of emotion, even of pain.
Later, shifting his view between the beautiful violinist and the homeless man, Louie again winces, with a face that signals strong discomfort and disgust. Before the entry of the homeless man, however — a wince. The wince of “pleasure” precedes and anticipates the wince of disgust.
That the scene unfolds entirely from Louie’s perspective (a perspective that, as the second sequence of the episode establishes, may be wholly imaginary) is not incidental. In the interview, Louis CK says: “The whole subway episode was supposed to be an entire episode of me observing and not talking to anybody. I wanted to do a whole episode that just shows me scratching in my notebook and looking at people, and seeing things happen.” The sense that what is seen in the episode is seeing itself explains why all traces of the female are erased (the biographical context of a woman playing violin at his daughter’s school) in favor of the homoerotic (a man observing men) or the intrasubjectively narcissistic (a man contemplating two separate and ludicrously juxtaposed externalizations of his own aesthetic response).
But what Louie sees is nothing special. He is an ordinary guy, an Everyshmuck; his representativeness as White/professional/middle-aged/divorced/a father is repeatedly emphasized in the show. The scene in other words presents an extravagant image of contrast in order to display something about the everyday perception of beauty. It illustrates how, before the sight of a beautiful person playing (beautifully) a beautiful piece of music, one cries — or winces.
The excellence of Louie consists not simply in how imaginatively it represents absurd and improbable scenes of contrast. It is great too for the ease with which it makes visible qualities not typically subject to empirical verification. I’m interested in how this scene articulates a principle I’ve wished to trace more broadly: that to problematize pleasure is a way of visualizing a property of pleasure itself. To problematize an experience like that of beautiful is no more than to ask questions of it — not because the experience is itself so frail (it is not), but because nothing is more natural than to call it into question. Where one seeks pleasure, one finds pleasure problems.