Cognitive Theories of Art (2)

I won’t dwell as long on Nelson Goodman and Brian Massumi as I did on Susanne Langer because I want to move on to the larger stakes of trying to link art to cognition.  But a quick look at what the two male theorists have to say will help me to clarify those stakes.

Goodman wants to overcome the traditional gap between reason and emotion, arguing (as Martha Nussbaum will do some thirty years later) that “the emotions function cognitively” (Languages of Art, 248, Goodman’s emphasis).  “Also, emotions function cognitively not as separate items but in combination with one another and with other means of knowing.  Perception, conception, and feeling intermingle and interact; and an alloy often resists analysis into emotive and nonemotive components. . . . I am not resting anything on the distinction between emotions and other elements in knowing, but rather insisting that emotion belongs with them.  What does matter is that the comparisons, contrasts, and organization involved in the cognitive process often affect the participating emotions.  Some may be intensified as colors are against a complimentary ground, or pointed up by subtle rhyming; other may be softened, as are sounds in a louder context.  And some emotions may emerge as properties of the orchestrated whole. . . . In daily life, classification of things by feeling is often more vital than classification by other properties; we are likely to be better off if we are skilled in fearing, wanting, braving, or distrusting the right things, animate or inanimate, than if we perceive only their shapes, sizes, weights etc.” (249-51).

Notice how “classification” sneaks in.  Talk of “cognition” seems to slide easily and almost inevitably into “recognizing” what sort of thing something presented to me in the here and now is.  In other words, Kant’s determinative judgment.  I cognize a thing by placing it in the right class: as a thing to be feared, as an example of the larger type of which I already have an image, a word, or a remembered encounter (Dewey’s “funded experience”).  To know something is to know what it is, which is to know what I can expect of it, what consequences follow from its appearance in these circumstances (the pragmatic maxim). 

Judgment entails getting that designation of what it is right.  Bad judgments lead us to mistake what are the possible outcomes of this encounter, lead us to interact with this thing, this situation, in ways that do not produce expected or desired results.  Cognition thus introduces the possibility of getting it right or wrong.  Truth, in the pragmatist account, is demonstrated by the arrival of the expected, desired, results.  Truth is what is good in the way of belief; truth is what happens to an idea—the idea being the initial judgment and the happening being what unfolds when that judgment is acted upon.

Goodman, no less than Langer, is thus brought to wonder what distinguishes the aesthetic from the non-aesthetic since he has made a general case for the entanglement of emotion with cognition, just as she has made a general case for the existence of “presentational, non-discursive symbols.”  At the end of his defense of the centrality of emotion to cognition, Goodman writes:  “Although many puzzles are thus resolved and the role of emotion in aesthetic experience clarified, we are still left without a way of distinguishing aesthetic experience from all other experience.  Cognitive employment of the emotions in neither present in every aesthetic experience nor absent from every nonaesthetic experience” (251). 

Goodman does not claim to provide a firm distinction between aesthetic and nonaesthetic experience.  Instead, he offers some “symptoms” of the aesthetic (that I will not go into) and then considers non-utilitarian uses of symbols.  Such uses exemplify cognitive processes as such—abstracted away from any attempt or desire to put the cognitive insight to use as a basis for action.  We can see here the fairly traditional effort to disconnect the arts from “interest,” as well as the abstraction away from “content” toward a focus on “form.”  In Goodman’s case, it is the “form” of cognition itself that becomes the focus, as contrasted to anything cognition might be about.  He doesn’t in fact deploy the term “form” at all; instead the point is connected to what is done for its own sake, not for some other end.  Here’s the relevant passage:

“Use of symbols beyond immediate need is for the sake of understanding, not practice; what compels is the urge to know, what delights is discovery, and communication is secondary to the apprehension and formulation of what is to be communicated.  The primary purpose is cognition in and for itself” (258).  In certain cases (which can be aesthetic or non-aesthetic for Goodman) we just cognize for the pleasure of cognizing.  Exercising our cognitive capacities can be delightful.

The oddity of this retreat to a “pure” cognition is that it undermines Goodman’s ambitious desire to celebrate the “world-making” powers of imaginative, feeling-tinged cognition.  His larger philosophical project is all about plural worlds, about the ways that possibilities are opened up by creative thought.  His description of the ways aesthetic practices open up such possibilities is inspiring.  “Establishment and modification of motifs, abstraction and elaboration of patterns, differentiation and interrelation of modes of transformation, all are processes of constructive search; and the measures applicable are not those of passive enjoyment but those of cognitive efficacy; delicacy of discrimination, power of integration, and justice of proportion between recognition and discovery” (261). 

Certain uses of symbol, certain aesthetic constructions, allow us to “discover” new things about the world.  “The peak of interest in a symbol tends to occur at the time of revelation, somewhere midway in the passage from the obscure to the obvious.  But there is endurance and renewal too.  Discoveries become available knowledge only when preserved in accessible form; the trenchant and laden symbol does not become worthless when it becomes familiar, but is incorporated in the base of further exploration.  And where there is density in the symbol system, familiarity is never complete and final; another look many always disclose significant new subtleties” (260).

Here we have the lineaments of a very robust cognitive theory of symbols—one that sees their elaboration as tied to the opening up, the illumination of, the revelation of the world.  There is no way to confine this way of deploying symbols exclusively to “the aesthetic,” but the suggestion is that elaboration, density, and the self-conscious use of symbols as agents of exploration is a predominant feature of at least some aesthetic work and practices.  And it certainly seems like the pay-off is more than just a delight in exercising our cognitive powers.

One final note on Goodman. He offers his own version of Wordsworth’s “half-perceive, half-create” (from the Tintern Abbey powem), combined with William James’ understanding of how our beliefs must cohere. Goodman works to decenter “truth.”  “Despite rife doctrine truth matters very little in science,” he insists (262).  Rather, our truths or our beliefs are judged according to their “compatibility with our other interests” (263).  We move back and forth between the novelties that imagination or a new experience introduce and our settled beliefs about the way the world is.  And we work to make these two sources “fit” (264) one another.  (Thus “fit” is not exclusively, or even primarily, about “correspondence” with the world.) The decentering of truth is tied to the pluralist insistence that the world is not simply and unalterably one way. The world is neither static nor non-malleable; our actions upon it (prompted by our beliefs and our imaginings) can create novelties. Thus Goodman’s last words in his book extol the “creation and comprehension of our worlds” (265), the Wordsworthian move of seeing both human imagination and natural fact as co-equals in the constitution of “the world.”

Very briefly on Massumi, who explicitly says he is against cognitive theories of art.  (When I get to discussing non-cognitive theories, I will return to his work).  But despite that claim, he adopts a version of Langer’s position that art reveals the “form” of basic mental processes.  And like Langer, Massumi builds “formulation” (Langer’s term, not his) into the act of perception.  The fundamental mental function is called “thinking-feeling” in Massumi’s work, so he is aligned with Langer and Goodman in the insistence that feelings are essential to cognition.  And then he argues that the visual arts deliver “a feeling of seeing sight caught in its own intensive act” (Semblance and Event,[MIT Press, 200] 70). Such art stages “the thinking-feeling of vision as it happens”(70). 

What Massumi does not address is what effect this staging has.  He avoids (not surprisingly given his post-structuralist leanings) any notion that the staging makes us “conscious” or “self-conscious” about perceptual processes that usually unfold without being recognized or analyzed.  And there is, of course, the question of how he comes by his own access to the way perception works.  What are the sources of his insight—and what are the processes by which that insight is articulated? 

In short, like Langer, Massumi is making a second-order claim about art’s “content.” Art does not primarily provide us with a perceptual experience; rather, it presents the deep structure or the enabling conditions of perceptual experience.  In the same vein, Langer has argued that art does not provide emotional experience, but reveals the “form” that emotions take. 

Thus, Langer and Massumi (we might say) save art for philosophy; art does transcendental work of a Kantian kind, uncovering the necessary conditions of perception, thought, and emotion.  Even putting my hostility to transcendental thinking to one side, the intellectualism of their account of the arts renders it pretty implausible.  Is that really what an audience takes away from a performance of a Beethoven quartet or viewing a Francis Bacon painting?  Do these second-order considerations really overwhelm first-order responses?  Langer, of course, would argue that it is sign of “good art” to subordinate the first-order responses to the second-order apprehension of “form.”  Massumi (again, not surprisingly given postmodern diffidence about distinctions between “good” and meretricious art) doesn’t go there, but surely he would have to admit that many art works don’t push us toward second-order reflections or revelations. We need a fuller account of just how it works in the cases where it does work.

But that still leaves the question of “so what”?  What is the pay-off, the Jamesian “cash value?”  Massumi makes fairly extravagant claims for the political importance of his views, but the concrete connection between a theoretical account (a cognition) of how thinking-feeling perception works and the consequences for action (political or otherwise) is never made.  One problem is the generality of the account.  If that is how thinking-feeling works, then there are no alternatives, nothing to do.  You simply now understand a process that is going to happen, willy-nilly, whether you understand it or not.  There is no politics without alternatives that can be acted upon.  Philosophical generalizations, especially when they identify “necessary” conditions, are the death knell of politics.

Let me end with a quick statement about stakes that leads into my next post.  Cognitive theories of art are attempts to make art intellectually respectable in the face of empiricism, logical positivism, and utilitarianism.  Which of these three is seen as the threat to art’s dignity and importance will influence how the theory is presented.  The most global approach (seen in Langer, Goodman, and Massumi, as well as in Dewey, Nussbaum, and others) is to insist on the cognitive relevance of emotion—and to see the aesthetic as one set of practices very attuned to the emotions within a culture prone to disparage them (and their cognitive import).

More specifically, cognitive theories strive to elaborate how the arts provide us with valuable information about the world and the possibilities it affords.  Such theories often stress an interventionist model of knowledge (akin to Dewey’s understanding of the processes of inquiry that yield knowledge).  That is, the acts associated with producing knowledge transform the world rather than simply reflecting it.  Knowledge is gathered not through passive reception but through motivated interaction. Aesthetic practice is involved in that kind of active manipulation of materials offered by the world, thus exploring the world’s affordances.  Discursive aesthetic objects (literature, jokes, myths) manipulate symbols in ways that alter our understandings of situations, events, people, and values.  Such understandings can be parsed as “cognitive” when they underwrite actions that prove efficacious in moving from the present into a future that has been pre-figured as possible on the basis of those understandings.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s