_This article belongs to the study on aesthetics and videogames being carried out by Antonio Flores Ledesma. The presentation of this series of columns can be found at this link. _
- Kant’s theory of knowledge fails
- Does beauty «exist» or is it «discovered»?
- Do I like it because it’s good, or is it good because I like it?
Do you remember Simon Niedenthal’s criticism that the aesthetic has been derived from the appearance and the superficial rather than the very perception of forms and kinesthetic sensations? Well, it is the fault of Kant and his successors, lacking any reading comprehension. We are at the core of the aesthetic problem, at its origin. There is a mismatch. In the previous work, from Kant’s transcendental aesthetics (that is, from the conditions of possibility of perception), I suggested that the video game is an exploration of the limits of the perception of space and time, and that they are experiments on those limits. He gave the examples of Portal , Antichambers , or SuperHot. From this formal perspective, the video game is something (almost) scientific. But it tells us nothing about its value, in the sense of taste, whether it’s good or bad, or whether it’s funny or not. Doing a triple corkscrew with a double somersault and a half back, Kant jumps on his «transcendental aesthetics» and in the last of the Critiques —the Critique of the faculty of judging —, he forgets everything that has to do with perception and focuses on that the sensations fit into his theory of knowledge. In our discourse, if we put aside perception, what do we judge when we say that a video game is good or bad, beautiful or ugly, fun or boring?
Kant’s theory of knowledge fails
We are going to do the impossible: draw a line on the curves of the Critique of Pure Reason. As I mentioned, what Kant was looking for was to base knowledge through a universal, transcendental and autonomous law or laws, that is, a reason that required nothing more than itself to say something true and that was valid in any time and space. (and will not need, for example, God’s justification). In theory he achieves it: the data of perception (of transcendental aesthetics) are processed according to an analysis and a universal deduction by the understanding, which is what establishes patterns, predictions and laws on nature. Everything that can be known as true follows this process, regardless of its content. And what is at the bottom, for Kant, is the transcendental subject, consciousness, that I who thinks of Descartes, the universal form of consciousness, for everyone.
Here the problems begin. For example, Kant tries to start from the same transcendental process to justify ethics in duty and freedom. We do not need moral content, simply a formal law that tells us what to do. It is the categorical imperative: act in such a way that your actions can be considered universal. Can the action of hitting a person with a sweaty sock be universal? No, therefore it is a bad action. Help a person with difficulties to cross a problematic stretch? Yes, therefore it is a good deed. Here the problems arise when they begin to be filled with content (the moral problems, the tram thing). What if that person is Hitler? Kant trusts that a polished and oiled formal system does not offer these problems, but it does, because in the end Kant puts God and the universal Christian ethic as the horizon of work. He calls them «regulatory ideals», which cannot be scientifically demonstrated but are part of consciousness, and are the motor of reflection, the «ideas of reason». For Kant, this is the basis of everything; Without God, without the soul, without cosmology, what we would be left with is an atheistic materialism where the human being would be little more than an animal machine. But those regulative ideals, without being able to know them, do not make what to do clear either.
Does beauty «exist» or is it «discovered»?
What does this have to do with aesthetics? As we say, Kant seeks a universal law to judge everything: the validity of knowledge, the validity of morality and, of course, the validity of sensations. We already know why what we know is true, we know why what we do is good, but what about what we feel? A problem arises here, because what is known or done is the same for everyone, but what I like is not the same for another person; I like chocolate, but my friend doesn’t; I like heavy and my colleague is more into hip-hop, etc. Sensations are always particular. What is for Kant the universal norm of taste, of judging particular sensations to make them universal? For Kant does not know (and, being an imbecile, he has abandoned his transcendental aesthetics without a solution). He rather makes an approximation.
The aesthetic judgment is a reflective judgment: a kind of judgment that does not put the universal norm to nature (as the understanding did), but a judgment that seeks the universal norm in particular things. Here we speak of the beautiful, as that universal norm. For Kant, when we say that something is beautiful, it is not because it is objectively beautiful, but because we establish a judgment that intends to make the thing absolutely beautiful. Example: a Labrador puppy is beautiful for everyone, but not because it is ideally beautiful, but because I, a particular person, find in it a beauty that, in my opinion, should be seen as such by every1. Apply the same scheme to food, to art, or to the feeling of the breeze on your face. In this way, the objectively beautiful would exist, but not as something absolute that is always beautiful, but as something that forms itself as beautiful. This idea is interesting because Kant has in mind, for example, works of art that did not exist before and now do, and whose beauty was nowhere to be found before. In the same way, the natural beauty would not be in nature itself, but in the eye that looks beautifully at a tree, a flower, etc. By saying that something is beautiful, we give absolute finality to something that does not have it, such as what would represent all the beauty in the world (and think about the way you look at your partners or your pets). But that, again, is a problem.
Do I like it because it’s good, or is it good because I like it?
Let’s apply it to video games, which is what doesn’t matter after this Kantian veneer. Kant, ignoring the transcendental aesthetic that did provide some objective elements to judge video games, leaves us orphans of the norm. What makes a video game good? A supposed universal norm that we discover in each particular video game from which we get a feeling that we want to be universal. We provide, of course, arguments, rationally, adjusted to the form of scientific knowledge. But, unlike a physical theorem, it is impossible to prove that Disco Elysium is the best video game ever made. All we have is our rational ability to adjust that idea to a more or less scientific standard. It is the subjective dimension: the subject whose vocation is to make the particular universal; a shitty video game is good because you’ve reasoned that way. Our subjectivity, for Kant, is transcendental, that is, shared, universal (and not the opinion that he has reduced subjective to personal). There are rules, even if they are weak.
The main problem is that of the contents, of the particular cases and, above all, of time, of the history that is transforming taste and giving us perspective. We can say that Disco Elysium is a beautiful game (understanding beautiful as something pleasing to the senses in a very plural way, which includes being good or fun), but has it always been beautiful? Will it always be beautiful? This is a problem that you, people who play a lot of video games with a great variety, have to face and, in fact, do face, every time a new title comes out. Especially if you have been playing since, what do I know, the Play 1 or the Nintendo 64. The beauty of a rose, or the pleasure of eating chocolate, for practical purposes does not change much over time, but the art (and also an art that is in constant transformation), is in another league.
I asked on Twitter which video games that you consider good were previously considered bad and vice versa (not counting bug and other errors or faults that were corrected), and along with a very interesting plurality, certain constants were given. I start with the opposite reading, a video game that was originally praised when it came out but that today is viewed negatively. There was unanimity in pointing to Bioshock Infinite. A video game valued positively at the time, as the greatest achievement not only in appearance, graphics, mechanics, but also with a story and characters that made the whole a masterpiece. This idea is still maintained, but it has also been questioned, because Elizabeth, no matter how much personality she has, is still an accessory, because the combats completely cut off the flow of the game, because the spaces try to be eloquent but remain as decorations, for… a bunch of other stuff. The point is that everything that today is attributed to him negative was already on his way out. How is it possible that it was not discovered until later? Something like this happens with Spec Ops: The line, praised at the time for deconstructing the shooters by putting decisions and dilemmas, but in practice they were not such relevant dilemmas and, in the end, everything was solved like in others shooters, shot. What has happened so that we stop liking it (it stops being beautiful)? Well, precisely, as Kant would say, because beauty is not a universal a priori, but something that the subject discovers, and the norm of taste and beauty changes as new beautiful things are discovered.
It is not only about new works that update taste, that transform our taste or that give us more information and make us reconsider our judgments; it also occurs in the first statement, if there are «video games considered good today that were previously considered bad». In recent months I have seen a revaluation of Assassin’s Creed Unity, as the last great AC, despite its bugs and failures. It had extremely detailed Paris settings, and it had all the verticality that newer titles have lost since their refounding (and honestly, I haven’t heard anything about Syndicate ). The same has happened, as I have seen, with Dark Souls 2, which has gone from being the most hated installment of the saga to, over time, being considered an almost cult title. According to a Kantian perspective, which seeks that universal formal law, everything that made these two games beautiful was already in them, but it was the gaze of the subject that had not yet discovered its universality. How do you see this? Does it make you rethink the way you judge video games or does it keep you in your position?
Why do we enjoy a video game that everyone says is bad? Well, because we find elements of beauty in it, that incline us to think and feel that wants that what pleases us in that video game, can please every1. It is on this, and on nothing else, that good taste is based. In the end, what is asked of us is that we have reflective autonomy, that we do not stop investigating. In the case of aesthetics, Kant leaves us in the same dilemma as the Aarseth/MDA-Niedenthal dispute: do we judge videoludic aesthetics from taste and appearance or from its cognitive bases? There is no contradiction, but tradition says otherwise. Focusing on taste has led us to that subjective criticism of personal taste through romantic aesthetics that has done so much damage. But that is another story. For now, Kant asks you to open your taste and reason and reflect on what you feel, and if it can be universal.