Cognitive Theories of Art (3)

One last post about cognitive theories before moving on to non-cognitive theories. Cognitive theories, it seems to me, are committed to the assertion that art works transmit information.  It is that information that the audience cognizes.  And usually there will be an accompanying assertion that art works either uniquely or at least more effectively transmit that kind of information they are seen (by the theorist) as transmitting.

Here’s three examples.  Heidegger states that poetry illuminates Being.  The heightened, non-ordinary uses of language that we find in Holderlin open us up to information/knowledge/apprehension that is not available to us (or, at least, not as readily available to us) by other means of transmission.

Jameson tells us that postmodern art works inform us about the condition of late capitalism; specifically, they make apparent the inability of selves in late capitalism to “cognitively map” the world in which they live.  Hence, the information we receive from such works is the failure of cognition to grasp the conditions in which we are constrained to live. 

Finally, Nussbaum argues that novels (in particular) are a privileged avenue toward sympathetic understanding of other people.  Stories are especially powerful in getting us to realize (to recognize) the reality (thoughts, feelings, desires, anxieties, susceptibility to pain and joy, the selfishness or selflessness) of others. 

A number of theoretical questions immediately arise when we consider these three examples.

  1.  As I worried in my last two posts in discussing Langer and Massumi, is it really true that the audience for postmodern works walks away with the recognition of our inability to map the whole?  Or do we need Jameson to tell us this?  And what is the difference between Jameson telling us this and the art work that transmits that message?  How is one mode of disclosure different from, more effective than, or more replete than the other (i.e. the critic’s discourse vs the art work’s discourse)?  Nussbaum’s answer is that the novel makes us feel the fact of other lives in a way that assertive statements cannot.  The novel uses story to bring the truth home in a visceral way that makes a more powerful impact. 

It is not clear that Jameson would go that route—especially since the Jamesonian harvesting of information requires an additional interpretive step.  A George Eliot novel in Nussbaum’s view (and she can point to Eliot’s own understanding of what she was doing) aims to do exactly what Nussmaum tells us it does: i.e. awaken and develop sympathetic understanding.  But the postmodern art work, in Jameson’s account, does not consciously set out to tell us about cognitive failure.  It requires the intervention of the critic, making a hermeneutical move that owes a fair amount to post-Freudian techniques for uncovering unconscious thoughts/feelings, to articulate the information embedded in those postmodern works.  Would the works transmit that information without the critic’s interpretive intervention?  That is like asking if the patient would come to recognize his unconscious thoughts/feelings without the intervention of the analyst.  Those unconscious thoughts/feelings manifest themselves in symptoms, dreams etc., but still require interpretive work for their meaning to become clear (if it ever does become clear). 

In short, the theorist will need some kind of account of indirect communication, some way of explaining why the critic’s own bald statements of the information the art work transmits are not equivalent to the art work’s own communication of that information.  And, generally speaking, the theorist will try to explain why the art work is a more effective communication, one that impacts audiences more powerfully than the critic.  (Although it is not clear to me that Jameson takes this stance.  Since he sees postmodern works as cognitively impaired, his own clarifying account might be considered preferable to the passivity inducing befuddlements of the postmodern.)  Heidegger’s response to this problem is interesting.  I would claim that he tries to erase the distinction between poetry and philosophy; by melding the two, his discourse is not radically different in kind or technique from that of Holderlin, thus sidestepping the problem of judging the critic’s statements against that artistic ones. 

The Heidegger strategy points to another issue with cognitive theories: why art? Many cognitive theories will try to establish that not only is art the best way to transmit certain cognitive contents, but also the only way. Art provides access to certain information that would never be revealed to us otherwise. We can call this the “strong” cognitive theory, the ones that says there is no alternative pathway to the insights art provides.

2. Cognitive theories are going to have a much tougher time with non-verbal arts.  We have seen how Massumi and Langer address this problem by insisting that visual arts and music (respectively) display (make manifest) forms of perception (in Massumi’s case) and of feeling (in Langer’s case).  To make something apparent is a mode of transmitting information.  What was not perceived before is now apprehended.  Something is cognized.  But we need an account of how that manifestation is done.  Langer works hard to do this for music, building on her earlier account of non-discursive symbols.

3. I keep claiming that I am moving toward an account of meaning.  But these reflections on cognitive theories of art have a problematic relation to questions of meaning.  On the one hand, we can say that any account that talks of “transmission of information” has to include a theory of meaning.  How do the particular elements of the art work come to “mean” the information that is received from that work?  Nussbaum can rely on a fairly straight-forward faith in ordinary language’s ability to communicate.  There is nothing mysterious going on in a George Eliot novel if we are reading it for the story and for its portrayal of the interior life of its characters.  But Jameson has to provide a fairly complex account of how an art work both reflects and misreads the socio-economic conditions of its production—and how that simultaneous reflection/miscognition is expressed in artistic form and content. 

On the other hand, if “meaning” points us toward what is significant, what has import for us, the cognitive approach appears to need a further step.  We are back to my pay-off question from the last post.  If music reveals the form of feeling, that doesn’t show that this revelation is particularly “meaningful.”  Billions of people lead full lives without that kind of second-order information.  What changes if I do possess that knowledge? 

Nussbaum has a more direct case to make that an expansion of sympathetic understanding would lead to beneficial social effects.  In Jameson’s case, it is harder to tell.  He clearly bemoans the passivity connected with the cognitive inability to grasp the whole—but he just as clearly thinks it is important to alert us to the pervasiveness of that cognitive inability.  If that implies there is something we should care about—and then act to remedy—, the proposals for action are not going to be found in the postmodern art works he analyzes.  Instead, the remedies will have to be imported from elsewhere, presumably from Marxist works of political and economic theory.  Art, for Jameson, is symptomatic of a benighted social order, but not the source of meaningful information about 1) why we should care about that benighted order or 2) what we should do about it.  (I may be wrong about #1.  Maybe the art works display deformed lives that make us recognize how blighted contemporary lives are.  But mostly Jameson seems to see postmodern art as displaying a numbed “what me worry” incoherence, not some outraged or even conscious indictment of that benumbed condition.)

4. Finally (for now): a cognitive theory of art is committed, it seems to me, to the notion that we learn something from our encounter with the arts.  And that suggestion provides one way of explaining why the arts are part and parcel of most educational curricula.  What we can be said to learn varies widely, from the Nussbaumian notion of an ethical expansion of our sympathies to enhancement of our communicative/interpretive skills to more concrete information about how the world works.  Balanced against this need for cognitive theories to specify just what it is that art works transmit are two alternative possibilities: 1) that art works are not cognitive at all, and should not be yoked to any imperative to transmit information or to mean anything at all, or 2) that art works do not transmit specific bits of information but can be connected to the development of certain sensibilities, certain sensitivities, that render one more likely to attend to certain features in the world.  It is to these two possibilities that I will turn in my next posts.  If #1 (no meaning or information) is accepted, it is not at all clear why the arts would be part of an educational program; if #2 is the case, then aesthetic education would be aiming at something rather different than Jameson would advocate.  Nussbaum’s position is more ambiguous (or maybe ambidextrous): she wants to bridge cognition and feeling, so the information receive about the other’s reality fosters a sensibility that cares more for what others experience.

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