Written by Lakshman Nishanth Kadiyala
Graphics by Ariadne Danae Chavez Salinas
You do not have a personality. You do not have a single essential unique quality that you communicate to society, you are not your own person. You, and all people, are subject to the single most powerful social concept that exists. Society has constructed it, and it in turn has also constructed society:
Okay, let’s be honest—it’s pretty self-important of me to claim what I just did. It’s my opinion, my hypothesis that I can only test with deductive reasoning. In other words, we can’t test it, we can only theorize about it. So the hypothesis I will attempt to answer in this piece as such:
Our personality (as we colloquially say it) is entirely composed of one or more different aesthetics that we learn from social interactions.
In other words, I’m claiming that our personality is just a performance that we put on for the sake of social interactions.
First of all, what is personality? Describe your personality.
Well, I’m very talkative.
I’m an extrovert.
I’m pretty cultured, I’d say.
I get excited and mad easily.
I’m not actually a quiet person, but everyone thinks I am.
These are all actual responses that people have given when asked to describe their personality, and there’s a common thread in all of these responses: they all describe behaviours and attitudes.
There is this idea that personality is some intrinsic self or essence, but these responses indicate that we tend to think of personality as more of a collection of behavioural or emotional characteristics. Personality Psychology Researchers Jay C. Thomas and Daniel L. Segal discuss defining personality in their Comprehensive Handbook of Personality and Psychopathology, Personality and Everyday Functioning (2006):
Personality refers to an individual’s pattern of psychological processes arising from motives, feelings, thoughts, and other major areas of psychological function. Personality is expressed through its influences on the body, in conscious mental life, and through the individual’s social behavior” (p. 446)
Those researchers are pretty smart, and most of the psychology community seems to agree with this idea. Even Buddhists agree—they define personality similarly and go a step further by saying there is no true personality because behavioural and mental states are only temporary states.
So… personality = behaviours/reactions
But what causes those behaviours? Why do we respond a certain way? Now we can go the spicy route and agree with Freud: that those behaviours are the result of sublimation and discharge of built-up libido, a driving instinctual sexual energy.
Quite the well-seasoned take, Freud.
You know, you really didn’t have to call it “sexual excitation”. I mean your theory works perfectly well when referring to all survival-related instinctual urges/desires, like hunger, excitement etc. But no, it had to be weird and sexual.
Anyway, the basic idea is that people have “feelings” and those feelings cause us to do certain things, make certain decisions, and develop certain behaviours. Since we cannot always express our feelings directly, we shape them or sublimate them into socially acceptable emotions or behaviours, i.e. our personalities. Here is an organized way of putting it:
Foundation: Your personality is a set of behaviours and reactions.
- You have instinctual urges.
- There are social rules that stop you from expressing those urges rawly.
→ So you sublimate those urges into socially acceptable behaviours/expressions.
In order to communicate with other people.
Conclusion: That is your personality—it is a communication tool to interact with other people while following social norms.
The only missing piece in this conclusion is the social norms. Since there are so many different types of personalities, certain groups of people must be following different rules. If we aren’t all following the same rules, then what determines those norms then?
Ooh yikes, let’s come back to this later.
The original use of the word “aesthetic” is found in philosophy: the analysis of art and beauty, or the philosophy of beauty, taste, and art (Slater). So let’s talk beauty. What makes something beautiful? What goes through my head when I call something beautiful? Aha! It goes something like…
- I am perceiving something (I see, hear, smell, taste, etc.)
- This perception brings me pleasure/enjoyment
- I know and recognize that I am enjoying this perception—it’s beautiful!
Congrats! If you figured that out, you’re a philosopher. This is actually pretty similar to (well, identical to) an argument that German philosopher Immanuel Kant makes to define beauty. However, when we call something “beautiful” we are doing more than just recognizing the pleasure it brings. We are also begging that other people recognize that the thing is also beautiful.
If I say, “This painting is beautiful!” I’m really saying “I like this painting, and anyone who disagrees with me is wrong.”
If society does end up agreeing with me, then the painting is beautiful. And anything similar to it is also beautiful. Boom. I just made a beauty standard. And if you can detect this beauty standard, than you have this superpower that we call good taste.
Aesthetics work similarly: to have good taste is to be able to recognize different aesthetics well, and to properly judge those aesthetics. Natalie Wynn, better known by her youtube handle Contrapoints, once proposed, “[A]esthetic sensibility—whether for gemstones, architecture, fashion, or music—begins with absolute pleasure” (2019). Here we can deduce further:
- Aesthetic sense starts with pleasure.
- But then people create beauty standards, which combine together.
- People then create aesthetic rules defining how beauty standards are allowed to combine.
- Aesthetic rules add up to construct the Aesthetic.
One observable difference between our colloquial and the original use of the word was pointed out by esteemed Reddit user TwoWilburs, who noted the shift from the noun “aesthetic” and the adjective “aesthetic”:
And so the word “aesthetic” can now just refer to how well aesthetic rules are followed. Your artwork (clothes, music, etc.) is “aesthetic” if you have good aesthetic taste (if you are good at recognizing and following the aesthetic rules). For example, my aesthetic taste sucks in that I honestly can’t tell the aesthetic differences between the pictures below:
To me, these are all roughly “alternative” or “e-girl / e-boy” aesthetics. However, someone with good aesthetic taste could tell you that they are actually emo, goth, grunge, and punk aesthetics.
Still just “alt” to me (please don’t kill me).
Aesthetic Emotion and Personality
Okay that was a lot of info but bear with me, I’m so close to my point!
When we discuss an aesthetic in the modern day, we feel emotions in response to the art. That reaction is called aesthetic emotion. Think of it like this—everyone feels a vibe when they interact with a piece of art. Someone with good taste can tell why they feel that vibe because they know what rules the artist is following.
For example, cottage-core gives us a cutesy almost fairy-tale-like vibe. That same vibe can be felt when eating on a grassy hill on a picnic blanket eating European sweets out of a hand-woven basket. This is because doing so follows certain rules that cause an emotional response, the aesthetic emotion, or more simply, the vibe. Certain subcultures in society identified different sets of rules and vibes and labeled them as certain types of aesthetics.
So… an aesthetic is just a set of beauty standards that create a specific emotional response. Or in simple terms, artistic rules that give off a specific vibe.
Do you know what else gives off vibes? People!
It is a truth universally acknowledged that some people’s personalities give us a certain vibe. But remember earlier, when I basically proved that personalities are made of social rules used to communicate? Well here’s the missing piece: those rules are there because we want to give off a certain vibe. Some people try to give off preppy vibes, other people might want to be more chillax vibes. Either way, they’re following some rules to give off that vibe, which means that they embody the aesthetic that they aspire to give, which is their personality. From this artistic perspective, we all perform aesthetics to communicate.
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