Aesthetic Arrest

In my recent presentation on YouTube I mention the idea that we can sometimes experience moments of “aesthetic arrest” while watching YouTube.  This was mentioned in the context of Domino1023′s insightful reply to Boh3m3′s question, “Why do you Tube?” in which she says,  “It allows you to watch other people without staring at them, or making them uncomfortable, because they don’t see you watching them. You can just watch their videos.” She concludes with the powerful suggestion that this creates a situation in which “you can just like see their being, you can see their person.”

Here are some of my thoughts on this, again excerpted from the paper I mentioned in my last post on context collapse:

To see “being” is to see the person beyond your typical judgment of that person. To see “being” is not to “see” but the empathic experience of recognizing shared being. The viewer achieves what James Joyce calls “esthetic arrest,” a state in which “the mind is arrested and raised above desire and loathing.” In Joyce’s beautiful words, it is “the luminous silent stasis of esthetic pleasure, a spiritual state very like to that cardiac condition which the Italian physiologist Luigi Galvani … called the enchantment of the heart.” 

 This enchantment is often expressed by YouTubers who find themselves amazed by the depth of connection they find and the sense of community they can experience on YouTube. The feeling and experience of depth is enhanced by the self-reflexive contexts in which vlogs are most often produced and the private contexts in which they are most often viewed.

Yet many of these experiences of deep connection are experiences only, never manifesting into tight relationships with the kinds of responsibilities we associate with face-to-face relations. Many YouTubers do create strong and tight relations on YouTube that extend beyond the screen into physical contexts, and there are a growing number of YouTube gatherings  worldwide in which Tubers meet one another face-to-face (see Lange, 2007), but the experience of profound and deep connection with relatively (or even totally) anonymous strangers viewed on the screen from a distance remains an important phenomenon with important implications for how we understand ourselves and our relations with others. 

/ From there the paper goes on to cover much of the same ground as the video …

If you want to see more about what Joyce had to say about this, the whole book is online at Project Gutenberg.  Do a search for “arrest,” “stasis,” or “esthetic” to see the relevant passages. 


Associate professor of cultural anthropology. Ed Traceur. Hacker. Car-free.

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16 Responses

  1. Gardner says:

    So now we must think about how esthetic arrest might lead to ethical propulsion, and back again. Great stuff!

  2. don says:

    Hey mate, I really enjoyed your vid presentation and would love to subscribe to your feed.

    Would you be able to enable Email subscription in feedburner.


  3. Prof Wesch says:

    @ Gardner, Exactly! (and thanks for the kind words in your recent blog post)

    @ don, I just activated it (see sidebar on the right). Thanks for the tip!

  4. Yann Leroux says:

    Your quote of James make me think of the theory of aesthetic conflict of the psychoanalysis Donald Meltzer. For Meltzer, the body of the mother is experienced by the baby as extremely beautiful. In the adulthood, the sense of beauty will be deeply rooted in this primitive experience.

    I think that online we are more inclined to live aesthetic arrests because the relation with the others is paradoxally less mediatised than offline. Online, mostly because of the eclipse of the bodies, we meet our inner others. The

    You ll can find insight here, i think :

  5. Dan Thornton says:

    It would be interesting to quantify how often the state of aesthetic arrest is reached by individual Youtube users, or as a whole. I suspect it’s a small but very, very significant percentage of their viewing time, as it will have the most influence on them.

  6. Gar Ulbricht says:

    Groklaw today (8/4) carried a story entitled:
    “88% of YouTube is New and Original Content, Professor Says”
    Monday, August 04 2008 @ 12:28 AM EDT”

    With a link to your recent Libary of Congress “talk.”

    So after listening to your media presentation,
    I did a little googling.
    I noticed that your YouTube profle has a picture,
    and “google images” has half a dozen or so –
    probably more, but the Wikipedia article entitled
    “Michael Wesch” does not have a picture :(

    You might consider donating one to Wikipedia,
    so we can stare at you without being observed.
    We could also make a poster of it
    and put it on our bedroom walls
    along with our pictures of Scully and Mulder.

    Take care,

  7. /sms ;-) says:

    thx mike 4 this great vid! would be great to meet you somewhere in the german-speaking part of europe. just let me know, when you are over here. – die form der unruhe

  8. d-shaq says:

    would one be able to say that the reason the connections are happening only through youtube, and not through another medium, because we can spend the time to analyze whether consciously or not the other person, and come to understand them. while in the real world we don’t have the liberty, because we are always on the move, and don’t “stop and smell the coffee?”

  9. Josh says:

    I’m interested to know what how the success of reality television and the success of YouTube vlogging relate.

    Both contain carefully constructed “realities” (as opposed to complete unbiased recording) and both are driven by viewers having an emotional investment with the person on the screen, because they appear so real and honest to us.

  10. kidNeutrino says:

    @ d-shaq i am not sure you can compare reality TV. as you pointed out, most of these types of dramatic real-life video programmes are the ilk of the Lonelygirl15. and i also agree that any discrete mechanical record is a copy (framed and editable) which refutes apparent authority in originality, reality, etc of any content.

    yet, i think the really compelling content is from the small producers for small audiences of 100 or less and this is what draws the dividing line for me.

    i am not trying to claim the superiority of the many-to-many over the one-to-many model but, because the lion’s share of the youTube content is for these small groups, it makes me question the whether you can make comparative analysis.

  11. kidNeutrino says:

    oops i meant that last comment in reference to Josh’s question. sorry.

  12. Suzana says:

    Prof. Wesch, I am a big fan of your work and videos and I’ve been watching the speech about YouTube for the last few days, wich I found fabulous. I teach New Medias for undergraduates in cinema at a university in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and I certainly will dedicate a class for your presentation. As most of the students don’t have good english, I’m thinking of translating it into portuguese (subtitles), and I’d like to know if it would be ok.
    Best Regards

  13. Prof Wesch says:

    Yes, definitely. That would be great! Send the link when you are done.

  14. Suzana says:

    Great! I’m working on it and I’ll send the link for sure!

  15. Dr. Wesch,

    You might be interested in an Evan Ratliff post at Salon on whether the Internet is changing our capacity for memorization.   It immediately made me think of your University of Manitoba lecture on the purpose of university education.  It motivated me to post a blog entry that I thought I’d share with you.  I’m planning on implementing some of your ideas in my Race and Politics and Research Methods courses.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

    Keep up the great work!

    Jose Marichal
    Assistant Professor of Political Science
    California Lutheran University

  16. Michael Gambale says:

    There is a connection with Aesthetic Arrest and stories. There are many reasons why we are interested in stories but chief among them is the sense of empathy. I would say a part of Aesthetic Arrest in many occasions is there a deep sense of empathy for an individual.

    There is a huge cultural tension between the constantly changing views on current culture and our capacity to understand information through stories. It has been demonstrated that stories have been a great method of communicating and every day we read about and tell stories. But in our culture there is a veil that covers up these stories in the case of strangers. As you mentioned you can not stare at someone, but if you could stare at them, look at their facial reactions as they speak, you might find a glimpse into a journey that this protagonist is trying to hide. Culture in a sense is a veil that continually changes among our social groups. To strangers this veil is opaque and we don’t let anyone see the stories that are happening in and around us. That is in a way why we can somehow deeply connect with strangers over youtube videos because in an instant that veil is lowered revealing a true sense of a person’s self. It is our method of interpreting stories that is important in understanding why we can connect with strangers online. There has been a lot of research (neuroscience research) that suggests our adult brains have been greased (so to speak) for accepting information through storytelling. Whether its been shown that we create mini-simulations in our heads or that our brains seems to accept information in chunks (event structure perception) it is apparent that storytelling is a process that describes and defines ourselves.