The burden of connoisseurship

Take a look at David Chapman’s gigantic chart that explains absolutely everything. We’re in the atomized mode, which is characterized by “senseless kaleidoscopic, hypnotic reconfigurations, with no context or coherence”. Old structures all blown to bits, the components floating around, able to be combined however you want.

The trend away from choicelessness has its pros and cons. It’s good that many possible combinations of meaning exist, but it’s bad, or at least burdensome, that responsibility for putting them together falls on the individual. After all, individuals vary in their ability to notice, articulate, and ultimately deliberately implement a way of interacting with the world that truly works for them.

Compare systems of meaning to clothing. In the past, one size had to fit all*. But it didn’t, not really. Many were secretly uncomfortable in too-tight or too-loose outfits. Now selection is almost infinitely varied, but you have to go shopping, which is a chore to some (not to mention expensive).

It can also be alarming when the satisfaction of coarse-grained needs consistently reveals finer ones. Though it’s pretty easy to not care about being a wine snob, it’s much harder to ignore the intangible-but-totally-necessary qualities lacking in a prospective mate. This is apparent to anyone who has ever tried online dating — it quickly becomes clear that, for any given social milieu, nearly everyone uses the same basic menu of uniqueness markers, creating a new baseline. Hitting every legible target exposes the illegible ones, and communicating the illegible is hard work.

What does the atomization of meaning have to do with aesthetics? Most obviously, thin meaning like connoisseurship (food, movies, TV, and so on) is palliative in the absence of thick meaning, such as social standing and relationships to family and friends. Less obviously, both thin and thick meanings are subject to obsolescence as coarse needs give way to fine, leaving it to the individual to isolate and describe the missing-but-essential elements.

People react to this challenge in different ways. I can think of at least two fairly common attitudes, often compartmentalized:

  1. Nuance is unknowable, sacred, and profaned by tradeoffs – Denies and/or works against atomization by sacralizing already-atomized structures that are too late to preserve; focuses on harms of global cultural exchange and discounts benefits; zero-sum — widespread use of particular element is believed to dilute its “magic” for the “original” users; reflexively opposed to mass produced items.
  2. Nuance doesn’t exist or is unimportant – Assumes connoisseurship is a treadmill, and that everyone more discerning is just being pretentious; reflexively opposed to artisanal/bespoke items.



*Not actually true. Just a metaphor.


2 thoughts on “The burden of connoisseurship

  1. alexisgallagher

    This points to the question of how we choose what form of meaning to invest in, or when exactly “the satisfaction of coarse-grained needs consistently reveals finer ones.” Because I find it is not something that happens consistently, i.e., across all domains of potential refinement.

    I am happy with the box of raisins in front of me. They serve the purpose of flavoring my oatmeal. I feel no impulse within me to go down a rabbit hole of raisin connoisseurship. I take whatever raisins I find in the grocery store without complaint.

    But, clearly, I am not as simply satisfied with whatever reading matter the grocery store offers in the checkout aisle. I have been moved to seek out more and more recherche sources of news and reflection, until I find myself commenting on blog posts about the deeper nature of aesthetic taste and the atomization of meaning.

    So in one case a coarse-grained satisfaction has sufficed. In another, it has not.

    You could say I am compartmentalizing, and sacralizing the value of finer-grained discrimination in my reading tastes, while simply denying the importance of nuance regarding raisins. Maybe that is true. But it is such an automatic choice it is a bit mysterious. I can imagine a parallel universe where my doppelgänger is a raisin snob who reads checkout aisle magazines, but that feels like it would be a very different me.

    So _where_ we choose to shoulder the burden of connoisseurship seems to reveal more than the connoisseurship itself.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Gary

      Perhaps it reveals something about the connoisseur’s predisposition to appreciating different sense channels over others, and desire to signal belonging within some groups over others (wine vs artisanal pickles or whatever is popular in Portland these days)



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