Drones And The Beautiful World They Reveal

Over the past year or so, I have, on multiple occasions, sat down with my toddler daughter to enjoy BBC’s epic nature documentary series Planet Earth. Narrated by the incomparable David Attenborough, it offers up hour-long packages of visual delight in stunning high-definition: giant waterfalls, towering mountains and icebergs, gigantic flocks of birds, roaring volcanoes and river rapids, deep canyons, majestic creatures of all kinds; the eye-candy is plentiful, and it is dished out in large portions. While watching it, I’ve been moved to remark that my co-viewing of it in the company of my daughter–and sensing her delight as we do so–has been one of the highlights of my parental responsibilities.

Filming a documentary like Planet Earth, the most expensive ever, takes time and money and technical aid. The featurettes for the various episodes explain how they were filmed: sometimes using a cinebulle, sometimes “the Heligimbal, a powerful, gyro-stabilised camera mounted beneath a helicopter.” Now comes news that Planet Earth II, the second installment of the series will deploy even more advanced technology:

The BBC…has not only shot the whole thing in UHD, but it also used the latest camera stabilisation, remote recording, and aerial drone technology, too.

The use of drones should make perfectly good sense. Drones can be commandeered into remote and difficult to access territories and zones with great ease and precision; they can be made to wait for the perfect shot for long periods of time; they can generate huge amounts of visual image data which can then be sorted through to select the best images; without a doubt, their usage will result in the previously hidden–and beautiful–coming to light. Perhaps they will descend into the craters of volcanoes; perhaps they will hover above herds of animals, tracking their every move to record and reveal the mysteries of migration; perhaps they will enable closer looks at the dynamics of waterfalls and whirlpools; perhaps they will fly amidst flocks of birds.

Their use will remind us once again of the mixed blessings of technology. Drones can be used for surveillance, for privacy invasions, for the violations of human rights; they can be used to conduct warfare from on high, sending down deadly munitions directed at civilians; they can also be used to reveal the beauties of this world in a manner that reminds us, yet again, that our planet is a beautiful place, one worth preserving for the sake of future generations. Technology facilitates the exploitation of nature but also, hopefully, its conservation and sensible stewardship thanks to the beauties of the images brought back to us by the drones we use. The use of drones in Planet Earth II may refine our aesthetic sensibilities further: many of our aesthetic superlatives are drawn from nature, but that entity’s contours will now be revealed in ever greater detail, with more aspects brought front and center. And so, as we have never stopped noticing, even as technology makes the world more understandable, it reveals its ever greater mysteries.  Technology may make the world mundane, quantify it all the better to tame it, but it may also reveal facets of the world we may have been previously blind to, rendering some sensibilities duller and yet others more acute.

An Unforgettable Image, Appropriately Contextualized

In the summer of 1992, I traveled to India to visit my family: my mother, my brother, his wife (my sister-in-law), and my little, then barely six months old nephew. The monsoon lay around the corner, promising mixed relief from the brutal heat of the North Indian plains; the humidity would still oppress, but evenings and nights promised to be cooler. My days at my brother’s air force base passed quickly: morning teas with my mother, playing with my nephew, indulgent afternoon beers, a lazy nap, then a long walk with my mother through the leafy, broad-avenued cantonment, and finally, at night, an old Indian favorite, several whiskies with club soda to accompany a hearty meal. It remains, to date, the most treasured of my many trips back ‘home’ since migrating to the US in 1987. Much was to change after that trip; those few weeks marked the end of an era of sorts.

Among the many pleasantly nostalgic vignettes of that trip that I can summon up quite effortlessly in my mind’s eye, one particular afternoon stands out clearly. That day, my mother and I returned to my brother’s residence on base from a brief train trip to meet some family in Central India. On arriving, my brother asked if we had had lunch, and on hearing we had not, suggested we get some take-out from the local market. My ears perked up, and I suggested we sample the wares of a local shop, which specialized in making the North Indian snack called kachori; this establishment’s products were known far and wide for their lip-smacking taste, and every daily batch produced by the cooks sold out in a few minutes. My brother looked at the time, saw it was just about that hour when the kachoris were to go on sale, and suggested we bust a move if we wanted to get lucky. I complied. We scored, picking up two dozen of the savory, spicy snacks. A dozen were to be consumed that afternoon itself; the remaining would have to bide their time till the evening. On the way back, I suggested to my brother that it would be a shame to not wash down our meal with a cold beer. He agreed, and we stopped off at a local shop to pick up a few three-quarter-litre bottles.

As we rode home on my brother’s motorbike, we noticed an unusually powerful afternoon monsoon shower brewing: grey rainclouds coalesced rapidly into gigantic black thunderheads building and lifting ominously as the winds picked up and little dust devils began dancing by the roadside. We arrived home, placed the food on the dining table to be sorted out into plates, opened our chilled bottles of beer, and stepped out into the lawn to watch the show being put on for our pleasure. As I drank the beer, its cold wetness in my gullet bringing relief from the heat, I felt exhilarated; the buzz was kicking in. All was well; I was at home with those I loved, beauty was all around me, good food awaited.

As we watched the storm brewing, my sister-in-law, a painter and artist, standing next to me, spoke softly: ‘Look at that; my most favorite vision of all, white birds flying with the black rainclouds as backdrop.’ I looked up; there they were, ivory-white wings silhouetted against the now-almost-ebony-black clouds, a stark and stunning contrast. It was, without doubt, one of the most startling and striking visions I had ever had of nature; it remains so to this day. And I knew, even at that instant, that my assessment of the beauty of the image presented to me, was directly and immediately affected by my placement (an air force base my father had flown out of many years ago), my company–those I missed so acutely once I had crossed the black water, my sense of belonging in a space that felt familiar, the love I could feel around me (and perhaps the beer too.) Without those accompaniments, I would not have seen what I did.

Note: In The Analyst and the Mystic: Psychoanalytic Reflections on Religion and Mysticism, his psychoanalytic study of the Indian mystic Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Sudhir Kakar writes:

The artistic streak in Ramakrishna was strongly developed, and it seems appropriate that his first ecstasy was evoked by the welling up of aesthetic emotion; an episode of ‘nature’ mysticism, it was the consequence of an aesthetically transcendent feeling: “I was following a narrow path between the rice fields. I raised my eyes to the sky as I munched my rice. I saw a great black cloud spreading rapidly till it covered the heavens. Suddenly at the edge of the cloud a flight of snow white cranes passed over my head. The contrast was so beautiful that my spirit wandered far away. I lost consciousness and fell to the ground. The puffed rice was scattered. Somebody picked me up and carried me home in his arms. An access [sic] of joy and emotion overcame me….This was the first time I was seized with ecstasy.”



Zoë Heller on the ‘Shocking’ Role of ‘Aesthetic Grounds’ in Moral Judgments:

I quite enjoyed reading Zoë Heller‘s review of Janet Malcolm‘s Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers but I’m not inclined to join her in all the hosannas she sends Malcolm’s way. Consider for instance, the assessment she makes of a judgement offered by Malcolm:

In the absence of moral certainty, Malcolm suggests, our sympathies are assigned on what are essentially aesthetic grounds—on the basis of who has the more attractive language, or the more engaging style. This is a rather shocking proposition and it is meant to be.

I am perplexed by why Heller finds this such a ‘shocking proposition.’ Even if no one has ever expressed the sentiments underlying this claim using precisely the same sequence and composition of words that Malcolm has,  it is underwritten by a host of observations about our sensibilities and judgments that almost tend to the commonplace.

For instance, the distinction between the formal structure of an argument and its rhetorical content, which goes back to Aristotle, has long made it clear humans are persuaded by much more than logic – no matter what the subject matter. This is why the trivium of old consisted of the study of grammar, logic and rhetoric. If not, the study of the first two might have been all that was required.

Or consider that in science, when empirically equivalent theories are candidates for adoption, the choice between them might be made on the basis of an assessment of their simplicity. (‘In the absence of empirical certainty, our theoretical sympathies are assigned on essentially aesthetic grounds, on the basis of which theory is phrased in the more readily comprehensible language,  presented in the more engaging style or makes fewer claims upon our pre-theoretic credulity.’)

For yet another example, note that we prefer the company of, and extend our moral sympathies more readily to, those creatures that remind us the most strongly of ourselves. (‘Lacking certainty over which creatures have inner mental and emotional lives like ours, we are more likely to extend kindness to those that more closely externally resemble us than others.’)

For a mind conditioned by these sorts of reminders that the formal, the empirical, and the moral by themselves do not give us conclusive reasons to pick one option over another, Malcolm’s claim that aesthetic sentiments color our moral judgments will not come as much of a surprise. Indeed, the history of literature, and the complexity of the moral judgments recounted therein should also have primed us to not be taken unawares by such a notion.

Most fundamentally, Heller assumes that moral certainty is more common than it is. But more often than not, we are confronted with moral perplexity; we seek guidance in religion, in popular nostrums and bromides, in teachers, ‘role models’ and punchy slogans. In short, we attempt to solve the problems of moral judgment with a grab-bag of shortcuts, tricks, and satisficing solutions.  The aesthetic dimension of a particular choice cannot but have a prominent role in our final selection.

Malcolm’s keen eye has merely pointed out the existence of such a desideratum in a very particular situation.

Bronowski on the Actively Constructed Good (in the Beautiful)

At the conclusion of The Visionary Eye: Essays in the Arts, Literature and Science, Jacob Bronowski writes:

You will have noticed that the aesthetics that I have been developing through these six lectures are in the end rather heavily based on ethics. And you might think that I belong to the school of philosophers who say that the beautiful must be founded on the good. But that traditional formulation in philosophy will not do. My view is that there is a no such thing as a single good, and that ethics consists of a clear and unsentimental register of values which cannot be arranged into a single hierarchy, to be called the “good.” I do not think that anywhere in life we can isolate an ultimate supreme value. The thing about life really is that you make goodness or you make the experience for yourself by constantly balancing the values that you have from moment to moment. And you have to have profound moments like that which Einstein had and you must make profound mistakes, but you must always feel that you exploring the values by which you live and forming them with every step that you take. On that I think the beautiful is founded. That, I think, is what the work of art says.

Some of the confusion about the existence of something called The Good can, of course, be blamed on Aristotles‘ opening line of the Nichomachean Ethics.¹ That is easily cleared up but some traces persist in notions like either the existence of a supreme value among Bronowski’s ‘register of values’ or even the existence of values by themselves, assured of an uncontaminated state of being (the basis of the fact-value distinction, one now discredited by pragmatist and indeed, most post-analytic philosophy).

So Bronowski is right, to reject the notion of a single good or supreme value, but he is still reliant on a problematic notion, that of the autonomous existence of values. But his view is redeemed, partially, by his constructive notion of ‘goodness’: an active manipulation, balancing, and weighing up of (fact-laden) values that informs our lives and conceptions of the good on an ongoing basis. An ethical life is not one measured and evaluated by its deviation from the mean of the Good Life; rather, its very progression along the trajectories made for us by our balancing acts informs us what the Good Life might be for someone like us, in situations like ours. The Good Life is a dynamically contested concept.

The aesthetics of the good, the contours of the Good Life that Bronowski alludes to above are visible in the works of the artist; here, in them, these balancing acts are brought alive for us. They enable the inspection of the values of artist, his highly idiosyncratic judgment of their relationship to each other. The people we interact with on a daily basis provide their lives for such evaluation; the artist does so by means of his hopefully-enduring works. The classic works of art are those that continue to provide such instruction long after their creators are gone.


1. The Nichomachean Ethics begins:

Every art and every kind of inquiry, and likewise every act and purpose, seems to aim at some good: and so it has been well said that the good is that at which everything aims.

Seamus Perry on Samuel Palmer and the Laying Bare of the Artist

A quick pre-disclaimer: Pardon me for referencing the London Review of Books two days in a row, but that’s what weekend-catching-up-with-a-stack-of-unread reviews can do to you.

In reviewing Rachel Campbell-Johnson‘s Mysterious Wisdom: The Life and Work of Samuel Palmer (‘The Shoreham Gang‘, LRB, 5th April 20120), and in particular, on Palmer‘s ‘The Valley Thick with Corn,’ Seamus Perry writes:

Oddity in art can be a bravura display of brilliant perversity, like Glenn Gould taking Bach at a counterintuitive lick; but the best Palmer is odd in a much quieter and more mysterious way than that, as though serenely unaware of its own peculiarity. It is hard to imagine an art less calculating: the picture is not the emphatic expression of a personality but more the exposure of one, as though allowing an intensely private kind of idiosyncrasy to reveal itself to a public gaze; and a good part of its quiet power comes from the implicit sense of vulnerability which goes along with that sense of exposure.

Perry has captured an interesting aspect of the public, revelatory aspect of an artist’s work: how the understatement of the inevitable exposure involved in putting out an artwork for public consumption and evaluation can produce a more powerful statement.

Much great art is recognizable as an emphatic signature, a distinctive stamping or watermarking of the cultural landscape by a particular vision made manifest. There we admire the artist for having forcefully asserted a unique personality through the medium of choice; the artwork is suffused with the artist made immanent. But as Perry is right to note, what makes some great art work is that the artist can make into his work into an inadvertent confession.

This confession is unlike the tell-all revelations of modern memoirs; rather, it is a peek behind the curtain, one pulled aside for us by the artist. It is to ‘bare one’s soul’ but not because that was the explicit motivational intent; rather, in viewing the work, we realize the artist has had to pay such a price  to make it possible. This exposure is a little more bashful, a little more ‘vulnerable’; it commands respect  because we are made aware of the seeming reluctance that underwrites it.  As such too, it is less flamboyant, perhaps more modest. These features add up to a distinctive style of their own.

In producing art works of this kind artists make another kind of familiar statement about the relationship between artworks and those who make them: sometimes the artist is merely a conduit, a channel of sorts, for the expression of forces greater than him; the works make themselves available to the world through him. The exposure of his ‘intensely private kind of idiosyncrasy’ is the burden the artist bears for having turned himself over to these. Here, the artist is not lord and master but something more humble, modest, and circumscribed. Our appreciation of this visible ‘vulnerability’ then, finds its grounding in our acknowledgment of the cost exacted, our gratitude to the artist for having performed this service for us.

Freud, Goethe and Burke on Happiness, Pleasure, and Satiation

Defining ‘happiness’ is hard; how are we to know what to do to be happy, if we don’t have a good handle on what happiness is? And thus, the persistent efforts through the ages, of philosophical minds–and more recently, grimly determined social scientists and psychologists alike–to provide some delineation of the concept. (Even David Brooks thinks he has something to contribute to this discussion and thus, often deigns to provide–from his Op-Ed perch–disquisitions on moral psychology.)

One recurring suspicion has been that happiness might not be all it’s cracked up to be; that happiness may only be transient, not a sustainable state, that to seek recurrence of a pleasurable state might be to commit oneself to a foolishly deluded pursuit of rapidly diminishing value, that satiation is likely to result all too soon on the attainment of a pleasurable state, leaving one again, discontent and unhappy. (The phenomenon, noted by many over the years, of how seeking the re-creation of a pleasurable event like a particularly successful vacation or family reunion, never, ever works, is related to this suspicion as are the drug addict’s vain attempts to re-experience the first really great high.)

At the heart of this suspicion is the notion that novelty and contrast play too great a role in our understanding of happiness and pleasure. This has often been articulated, and quite well too.

For instance, in that masterpiece of modern pessimism, Civilization and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud notes in Chapter II,

What is called happiness in its narrowest sense comes from the satisfaction——most often instantaneous——of pent-up needs  which have reached great intensity, and by its very nature can only be a transitory experience. When any condition desired by the pleasure-principle is protracted [link added], it results in a feeling only of mild comfort; we are so constituted that we can only intensely enjoy contrasts, much less intensely states in themselves. [footnote 8]

Footnote 8 reads:

Goethe even warns us that ““nothing is so hard to bear as a train of happy days. ““ [Freud then adds: ‘This may be an exaggeration all the same.’]

And of course, Edmund Burke in A Philosophical Inquiry Into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, in ‘The Difference Between Pain and Pleasure’ famously noted,

[I]t is very evident that pleasure, when it has run its career, sets us down very nearly where it found us. Pleasure of every kind quickly satisfies; and when it is over, we relapse into indifference

So there is resonance, when it comes to talking about happiness and pleasure, between ambitious psychoanalytic speculation which references the insight of the poet–always great diagnosers of the human condition–and philosophical attempts to analyze aesthetic sensibility. (These suggestions show too, that nothing is quite as much a downer as talking about happiness.)

More seriously, what lends these commentaries their particular gravity is that securing novelty and contrast is hard work, requiring constant reinvention, at the end of which awaits, not a serenely quiescent state, but further disappointment. Thus too, the particularly irony of the pursuit of happiness: it marks the beginning of a journey, which is always a return to the state which prompted its commencement.