Category: aesthetics

Anticolonial Aesthetics (2)

Here’s the question that J. Daniel Elam’s book (World Literature for the Wretched of the Earth: Anticolonial Aesthetics, Postcolonial Politics [Fordham University Press, 2021]) poses in stark terms: How to live in an insufferable present?  One answer is to work as a revolutionary or as a reformer to create a future that is better than this present.  That, we might say, is the traditional answer—and, as Elam is at pains to show, that answer is tied to a package of assumptions that he calls “liberal.”  I, of course, would quarrel with using the term “liberal” in that way.  But that’s irrelevant at the moment.  Let’s instead just identify the key features of the package: an investment in effective action, understood as the ability to envision something and then act in ways that bring that vision into existence.  Such a model of effective action is going to emphasize the will (hence a certain model of the controlled self dedicated to a coherent “project”), along with rational planning, and the capacity to command resources (both of human labor and of required materials).  In sum, a celebration and enactment of “mastery,” of shaping the world to fit one’s vision of what the world should be.  For Elam, mastery leads, just about inevitably, to tyranny.  The present is laid waste, is sacrificed, in the name of the future—a future that never arrives.

In response, Elam wants to articulate a politics that does not bank (and the word “bank” is particularly apposite here, with its image of delaying present gratification in favor of future returns on investment) on any future at all.  This politics eschews utopian visions, even visions of reform, declaring them “sweet cheats” that devastate the present while never delivering the promised future.  To that extent, Elam is seeking the same golden calf I have been pursuing: a non-sacrificial politics, ways of being in the world with others (human and non-human) that don’t require victims. 

But there is a catch.  The present is itself unliveable, insufferable.  Completely and utterly.  Back to the affirmation issue.  What does it mean to live in a present that cannot be affirmed, that is a continual affront to every value and desire one holds dear—and to live in that present with no hope that the future will be any better.  To be blocked on all sides.  No exit.  Just a succession of present moments all as bad as this one.

It seems inevitable under such circumstances that the search will begin for “lines of flight.”  It is unimaginable (unless one sinks into the utter torpor of despair) that nothing will be done in an attempt to meliorate the situation.  Even if only in fantasy.  Shamed by the cruelty of American society and the puerility of American politics, I dream of moving to Canada.  I don’t do it, but the idea that an escape is possible offers some small consolation, some inkling that the present doesn’t have to continue utterly unchanged. 

The activists Elam discusses in his book are just that: activists.  They keep moving, keep acting, even though all ways forward are blocked.  What do they do, how do they live?  What choices do they make in a world that has denied them any meaningful freedom—if we take freedom to name the ability to make a choice and to act on that choice.  Elam downplays the political acts that these Indian activists performed.  That’s probably a weakness in his book.  But this downplaying has two functions: one, to starkly dramatize his central question of what to do when the future is foreclosed, and two, to allow him to highlight an alternative politics, a politics that is not oriented to actions designed to create a future.  A politics of living in the insufferable present, a politics “in the meantime” (3).

It is a politics precisely because it seeks an alternative to the regimes of mastery.  This politics turns its back on (even at times explicitly renounces and refutes) the marshalling of resources that yields the tyrannies of most political projects, including colonialism.  Against the command and utilize structure of efforts to produce a future, this politics aims for egalitarian moments of collective togetherness that produce nothing, that offer a fleeting experience of sociality for its own sake.  The model feels aestheticist because of this focus on the non-utilitarian, on that which is done for its own sake.  George Simmel thought of “sociability” in these terms.  Simmel was thinking about the person who loves to throw a good party (Mrs. Dalloway).  There is no thought of what is to be gained by throwing the party; it has no aim other than of bringing people together.  Mrs. Dalloway tells us that she throws her parties “for life,” as a tribute to life.  She has a “gift”—and fights back against those who consider calling her “a perfect hostess” is a sneer.  The present is all—although death does come to her party when she learns of Septimus’s suicide.  The party is not a denial of death, but a way of attending to the preciousness of each moment in the face of that inevitable future death.  Death—and other imagined futures that are less inevitable—do not justify sacrificing the present.

What practices embody this politics of the present? Elam’s quartet—Lala Har Dayal, B. R. Ambedkar, M. K. Gandhi, and Baghat Singh—didn’t throw a lot of parties.  What they did do, a lot, was read and write. Hence my unjust crack in my last post that when the going gets tough, the tough pick up a book.  Reading is certainly a line of flight, a way to escape the insufferable present into another place.  There is an imperative need to envision an elsewhere—be it Canada, a utopian future, or the world offered by a book—when present circumstances are soul- and life-destroying.  And Elam’s book brings home just how bookish radicals on the left are.  Even Stalin had pretensions to being a scholar.  Most revolutionaries read voraciously—and their revolutionary convictions stemmed almost as much from their reading as from their direct experiences of oppression and injustice.

Elam, however, is not interested in the convictions that underwrite one’s disgust with the present.  Rather—and this is his book’s greatest strength—he develops a particular ethos of reading.  It is not the only possible way to understand the practice of reading, but it is a way that he argues (persuasively) is shared by philology and anticolonial politics in the period between the two World Wars of the twentieth century.  Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis stands for Elam (as it did for Edward Said) as the exemplary text of a philological practice of reading that announces its own incompleteness, inadequacy, and non-totalizing, fragmentary forays into interpreting a world and its texts.  That world, those books, will always exceed any effort to comprehend it, so that the individual philologist is always already engaged in a collective project, contributing his or her mite, to a project that aims not so much at achieving comprehension (in every sense of that word) as at creating fellowship (“fraternity” in the work of B. R. Ambedkar) through the ongoing conversation.  We are all readers together, struggling to parse a difficult text, occupants of a kind of Borgesian library where the effort to understand does not generate despair and competition, but fellow feeling, cooperation, and (perhaps) delight in the world’s endless intricacies (good and bad).

One concrete form this practice of reading takes is the commonplace book (103-105).  As distinct even from the anthology (which is aggressively curated and annotated by its editors), the commonplace book simply presents snippets one by one in an egalitarian jumble.  We can identify the one who has compiled the commonplace book, but he or she is certainly not an author and only a very minimalist editor.  The compiler is assembling a fellowship—and joining its ranks.  Elam sees such work as “the assertion of one’s own radical inconsequentiality, commonness, and accessibility” (105).

And then proceeds to explain why this self-abnegation of the reader is political.

“An ethics rooted in inconsequence refuses future possible outcomes in favor of an investment in the secular (that is, non-transcendent) present.  For Leela Gandhi [from whom Elam derives his attention to “inconsequence’], this is a political gesture: “we democratize our consciousness by sacrificing our telos,” she notes.  If inconsequentialism names “ a force of interruption in the worldly drama of repetition, reproduction, and duplication, so that newness might reenter the world,” inconsequentialist reading  is the practice of a revolutionary anti-authorial recalcitrance that both inaugurates and is made possible by a certain worldly commitment to the common, the impossible, and the ephemeral present” (105).

A radical politics of renunciation.  The list of what is renounced is long: hope for a better future, faith in one’s self as an effective actor, surrender to the myriad voices of a multitudinous world, and acceptance (even affirmation?) of the massive territory of the impossible.  But where, Elam and Leela Gandhi ask, has our allegiance to schemes for betterment gotten us: just the deadly repetitions yielded by our efforts at mastery.

Mine is not a renouncing temperament.  And it is all too easy to sneer at the Western academics espousing renunciation even as they carefully build their CVs.  But Elam’s book brought home to me, in the starkest terms, the issue of how one lives (day to day in the most mundane ways) in a present one despises yet cannot escape.  The answer, at least for me if I am honest (and I suspect my case is not so different from many others), is that I read and write “against the day” since few other outlets for protest or action are open to me.  I do contribute to political causes (what Adrienne Rich called “checkbook activism”) and attend the odd protest or two. I agonize over the daily news, but somehow feel it a duty to keep up even while it does my spirits or the larger society no good. And I take lots of “moral holidays.”  The term is from William James—and he did not mean it negatively.  He simply wanted to note that all of us give ourselves breathers; we take a respite from worrying about or even suffering from the state of the world.  We go on a picnic and even manage not to feel in the least bit guilty about it.

For me, reading is very often one of those moral holidays.  It is not political in the ways that Elam describes.  But it is true that reading can offer the deep consolation of learning that there are others who feel as I do about the current state of things, and who have ways of articulating or explaining our mess that resonate with me.  Edmund White has written movingly about how his reading of Proust and Genet during his Ohio boyhood allowed him to understand there was not only nothing wrong with him as a homosexual, but that there was a world, a fellowship, out there that he could join.  Reading Hardy, Joyce, and Woolf as a teenager had the same effect on me; there was a world beyond the suburban desert of my hometown—and I was going to leave and join that world. 

The point is that reading is often very solitary—and an escape from one’s surroundings.  But that reading can also intimate that an “elsewhere” exists—and is already occupied by those one would like to have as fellows.  The politics therein focuses on the imagined “republic of letters,” or the “world literature” referenced in Elam’s title.  No matter that countless tales of disillusionment reveal that world to be petty, cutting, and back-biting once achieved.  In the space of reading, the fleeting utopian fellowship of equals that Elam invokes offers its escape.  I still think turning that image into a politics requires a way to get from here to there.  But it is, of course, just that kind of calculation that Elam rejects.  So: is reading just a “moral holiday” if we don’t try to make its egalitarian allurements, its invitation to join a world we want to belong to, “real”?  Are we to leave those awakened desires in the world of fiction, accepting they are impossible to realize in the non-fictional world?

A short digression: worth thinking about the ways in which the internet allows every sub-community discover that it has it adherents.  White, the isolated gay Ohioan, finds his similars through books.  Now deeply devoted fans of the Dick van Dyke Show discover they are not alone—and form chat rooms followed up by conventions.  No avocation is too obscure or too outré to not have its quorum.

Elam is striving to articulate an anticolonial politics.  On the one hand, that politics is trying to escape the massive damage that has been done by fantasies/practices of mastery and the infinite demands of productivity, accumulation, and the quest for profit.  On the other hand, he is trying to imagine a politics that deals with the ethical question of how to live in a world that refutes our most basic desires for justice, an end to suffering,  and love between one human and another. 

That second, ethical, question—how to live—can be put in stark existential terms that make it seem less political and more just a matter of responding to the human condition.  Elam hits that existential bedrock in the following passage:

“What does it mean to read in the face of death? What does it mean to read without seeking mastery or expertise?  What does it mean, therefore, to read without consequence?” (104). 

Most academics read in order to have fodder for their own writing.  They rarely read without thinking about how what they are reading is going to drive their own production of a new text.  Writers are harvesters from the books they read.  But there is a limit, there is an impossible future: namely the future of one continuing to live and write without end.  No one gets to cheat death—everything we might do to cheat death is inconsequential, cannot have the consequences those actions aim toward. 

So maybe one fundamental political question to ask is: how do we live together on this earth in face of the fact that the future for every single one of us is foreclosed?  If we accept our radical lack of mastery in the face of death, does that have consequences for how we should arrange our relations to one another and to the world we inhabit?  What would follow (and this is the burden of much of Judith Butler’s recent work) is we accepted our radical equality in this matter of dying (instead of seeing some people as less consequential, as more dispensable, as more acceptable victims of mortality)? I am trying to register here why Elam’s book moved me so deeply.  It goes against almost all of my instincts, but opening myself to his eloquent meditations, leads me to seeing how the pretension to mastery is just that: a pretension.  Elam adds that it is a pretension that only generates misery—in the short and the long runs.  So: can we abandon that pretension?  What does it look like to abandon it?  And what practices and politics follow if we succeed in this act or renunciation?  There are paradoxes here, to be sure, since to talk of “acts” and what “follows” them as I do in my last sentence returns us to the ground of the consequences of doing things, but Elam’s book has convinced me that the difficulties of thinking through impossibility and non-mastery should not short circuit the effort to do so

Non-Cognitive Theories of Art (2): Sensibility Formation

A quick follow-up to the last post.  Nussbaum’s project is to show how the reason/feeling divide misrepresents how we actually come to know things.  Judgments are guided by feelings.  There is no way to separate out feelings when we come to “cognize.”  Rather, feelings are an indispensable component in our acts of knowing.

Still: kindness, grievance, tolerance, sympathy, envy, hatred, and the like are not themselves “knowledge.”  They are better characterized as “dispositions,” as feeling states that influence how we judge situations, people, ourselves, and events.  Because different people have different sensibilities, different sensitivities, they process the world differently.  They come to different conclusions, different judgments, not only abut the significance of what they deem to be the case, but make different assertions about what is the case.

That different dispositions can lead to radically different assertions about the facts of the matter has become very apparent in 2020 America. 

The Trump cult has been created not simply by the man himself but by a right-wing media (led by Fox News) that has inculcated a sensibility best described as combining a perpetual sense of grievance with an openness to believing the worst about designated enemies.  (Immigrants are criminals, Democrats steal elections, liberals are socialists, and leftists are pederasts who are kidnapping massive numbers of children.) 

If cognition is so dependent on disposition, then it is no surprise that one theory of art would say that art is more directed to creating (fostering) certain sensibilities, certain predispositions, in its audience, than in making concrete assertions about what is.  The success of Fox News, or of the “lost cause” narrative in the American South, testify to the power of word, image, story, anecdote, staged emotions (outrage, condemnation, fellow feeling for those on one’s side), ceremony, and ritual to shape how people understand the world and their place in it. 

In our day, “culture” appears more and more intractable.  More than 150 years after the American Civil War, and the set of shared feelings and grievances that ignited that war still shape the American political and social landscape. 

The creation of culture, of shared dispositions across a group of people, is, it can be argued, aesthetic.  It is a matter of shaping feelings, of shaping how we “sense” things, and what “sense” they have for us (to go back to the root meaning of “aesthetic.”)

Thus, one non-cognitive theory of art would look not at any knowledge art might convey, but (instead) to the ways art fosters sensibilities.  If a novel, as Nussbaum claims, makes me more “sympathetic” with the sufferings of orphans, it is not primarily because it has given me new information about orphans.  It is because it has changed my general disposition toward suffering by making me “see” it, experience it, differently—and in a way that moves me beyond just responding to this particular case, this particular orphan, to a more general care for suffering orphans in the plural. 

I want to say more about “sensibility” and what that term might mean in subsequent posts.  And that discussion would connect up with Nick Gaskill’s interest in “aesthetic education” (a concern he shares with Joseph North).  Is the goal of aesthetic education to create certain kinds of sensibilities—and how might that creation be achieved?  I am inclined to think (as a teaser for where I think I am heading on this topic) that Kenneth Burke’s focus on “attitudes” will prove useful here.

But, first, I want to return to the effort to overcome (or, at least, mitigate the fact/value divide)—and that will be the subject of my next post.

Non-Cognitive Theories of Art (1)

Non-Cognitive Theories of Art

Enough of this election anxiety.  Back to the airy heights of theories of the aesthetic.

My four posts on cognitive theories of the aesthetic were really just a prelude to considering non-cognitive theories.  And I am going to start with Martha Nussbaum (although she can be seen as just the latest in a long line that would include David Hume and George Eliot).

Basically, Nussbaum believes that art works activate sympathy.  A novel can portray the sufferings of Oliver Twist and children like him.  Such a novel may serve to bring to our attention facts about orphans and workhouses, thus adding to our knowledge.  But more crucial is the way the story inspires fellow-feeling, a new sympathy for the plight of orphans.  It is one thing to know that orphans are often underfed; it is another thing to respond to that fact feelingly, to experience it as something that should be rectified.  The moral emotions of indignation and sympathy are brought into play through the power of the story, a power that a simple recitation of the facts does not have.

Such a way of explaining what is going on rests on a fairly stark fact/value divide, Hume’s worry about deriving an “ought” from an “is.”  One can see that an orphan does not have enough to eat.  But that seeing does not entail the judgment that the orphan’s hunger is “wrong” (or “unjust”) and that it should be rectified.  Rationalist theories of moral value (Kant or Mill, one deontological, the other utilitarian) believe that reason provides the basis for moral judgments.  But the Humean school hands that job over to feelings.  Our moral judgments come from those moral emotions, from our indignation at suffering felt (perceived?) as unnecessary or cruelly inflicted, from our sympathy with those who suffer.  

Some may be able to see the hungry child and feel no sympathy, may even be able to claim the child is getting what he deserves.  Those seeking to convert such a person to their sympathetic view needs to find a way to pull on the heartstrings, to call forth the needful feelings.  Arguments and reasons will not do the trick.  We don’t know something is heinous simply by looking at it.  Thus it is unlike knowing something is red.  We don’t need some particular “feeling state” to judge the thing is red.  But we do need the appropriate feelings to judge something is unjust, should be condemned and, if possible, rectified.

This is philosophy, so of course it gets complicated.  My own theoretical and moral commitments mean that I really would like to avoid such a sharp fact/value divide.  There are, as far as I can see, two pathways to lessening the gap between fact and value.  Neither, I think, closes that gap completely.

The first path is one I think Nussbaum takes.  She is very committed to the assertion that feeling and cognition are not distinct—that, in fact, a feeling-less cognition is monstrous and mostly impossible.  For her, sympathy enhances understanding.  The story of Oliver Twist increases our understanding of the plight of orphans. (George Eliot would make this claim as well.) If we define “empathy” as the ability to get a sense of another’s experience, then sympathy is the gateway to empathy.  We know more about others when we are able to sympathize with them—and that ability is feeling-dependent.  No amount of simple or “rational” looking will do the job.  The feelings must be activated for the most adequate knowledge to be accessed. 

Thus, Nussbaum (ultimately) is a cognitivist when it comes to (at least) literature. (What she would have to say about non-literary artistic forms is not clear; she seldom writes of them.)  But there still lingers the difference between explanation and understanding, or determinative and reflective judgment.  To know that the house is red is a determinate judgment (in Kant’s terms).  We don’t claim to “understand” the house; we just state what its color is, and would presumably “reduce” that judgment to the physics of wavelengths and the semantic facts about English if we had to explain to someone the basis for the judgment. 

[A digression: I continue to struggle with the possibility that there is a significant difference between “explanation” and “understanding.” To “understand” the orphan’s plight is not to “explain” it; to understand can mean either I now see that he is hungry or now empathize with, have a sense of, his suffering. To explain his hunger would, presumably, be to trace its causes, what factors have deprived him of enough food, or what physiological processes lead to hunger. Since Dilthey (at least) there has been an effort to see “explanation” as characteristic of the sciences, and “understanding” as characteristic of the humanities. My problem–shared with many others–is not being able to work out a clear distinction between explanation and understanding. Plus there is the problem that making such a clear distinction threatens to create another gap similar to the fact/value divide. Do I really want to see the sciences and the humanities as doing fundamentally different things, with fundamentally different goals and methods? How drastic a dualism do I want to embrace–even when a thorough going collapse of all distinctions between the science and humanities is also unattractive? The trouble with many aesthetic theories, in my eyes, is their desperate commitment to finding something that renders the aesthetic distinct from every other human practice and endeavor. I don’t think the aesthetic is so completely distinctive–and I don’t see what’s gained (in any case) if one could prove it unique. So my struggle in this long series of posts on the aesthetic is to find some characteristics of the aesthetic that do seem to hold over a fairly large set of aesthetic objects and practices–while at the same time considering how those characteristics also operate in other domains of practice, domains that we wouldn’t (in ordinary language as well as for analytical reasons) deem aesthetic. And, to name once again the golden fleece I am chasing, I think some account of meaning-creating and meaning-conferring practices is the best bet to provide the theory I am questing for.]

To return to the matter at hand: The judgment that the plight of orphans is unjust or outrageous is a reflective judgment in Kant’s sense.  Reflective judgments have two features that distinguish them from determinative judgments:

1. The category to which this instance is being assigned is itself not fixed.  Thus, for Kant, “beauty” is not a stable standard.  A new work of art comes along and is beautiful in a way we have never experienced before and/or had hardly expected.  But we judge that the term “beauty” is appropriate in this case, even though it is novel—and even though our judgment revises our previous senses of the category “beauty.” 

2. Kant is also very clear that reflective judgments originate in subjective feelings.  He is concerned, of course, to find a way to move from that subjectivism to “universal validity” and “universal communicability.”  But the starting point is individual feeling in a way that it is not for determinative judgments.  My feeling about the house plays no role in my assertion that is red.  But my feelings about the Matisse painting are necessary, although not necessarily sufficient, to my judging it “beautiful.” (not necessarily sufficient because my judgment also takes the sensus communis into account. I judge, as Arendt puts it, in the company of others. Reflective judgment is neither entirely personal nor entirely social. Its public character comes from the fact that it will be stated for/to others.)

Thus, even if we (as Nussbaum wants to do) say our aesthetic and moral judgments count as knowledge, as assertions that we make with confidence and expect others to understand (at least) and agree with (at best), those judgments still arise from a different basis than judgments of fact. (N.B.: I am following Arendt here in taking Kant’s aesthetics as a more plausible basis for morality than Kant’s own moral theory.)

To summarize: aesthetic judgments (“this is beautiful”) and moral judgments (“this is unjust”) would still be seen as “cognitive.”  Such judgments are assertions about how some thing in the world (an art work, an orphan’s hunger) should be understood, should be labeled—and purport to say something substantial about that thing in the world.  But the process by which that judgment is reached—and the process by which I would get others to assent to it—is distinct (in certain ways) from the processes that underwrite statements of fact. A key feature of that difference is the role feelings play in reaching the two different kinds of judgment.

So maybe Nussbaum’s approach is not non-cognitive; instead, it is committed to their being different forms/processes of cognition.  Then we would just get into a fight over what we are willing to label “cognitive.”  How capacious are we willing to let that term be? Is calling the Matisse painting “beautiful” a knowledge claim or not. The positivists, of course, pronounced aesthetic and moral judgments non-cognitive in the 1930s–and philosophers (of whom Nussbaum is prominently one) have been pushing against that banishment ever since. The only stake (it seems to me) would be whether being deemed “cognitive” is also seen as conferring some kind of advantage over things deemed “non-cognitive.”  Nussbaum certainly seems to think so. She is very committed to expanding the realm of the cognitive and the rational to include feeling-dependent judgments—and seems to believe that enhancing the status of such feeling-dependent judgments will increase the respect and credence they command.

But the alternative would be to say credence does not rest on something being cognitive; that we should look elsewhere for what leads people to make judgments and to assent to the judgments that others make. Standard understandings of cognition are just too simple, too restrictive, to account for the complexities of how people actually judge and come to have beliefs. Better to abandon the cognitive/non-cognitive distinction altogether–and provide an alternative story about how we come to think and feel about things.

I am going to leave it here for today—and discuss in my next post an alternative way to lessen the fact/value gap, one that does move toward ignoring characterizing judgments and beliefs as either cognitive or non-cognitive.

Cognitive Theories of Art (4)

I had thought I was at the end of cognitive theories and ready to move onto non-cognitive ones.  But then, in thinking of these matters over the past few days, realized that one could plausibly claim I had gotten hold of the wrong end of the stick entirely.  My discussion in the previous three posts assumed a representational understanding of knowledge, cognition, and art.  That is: art was cognitive insofar as it gave us a representation of some fact (some content) that the audience could now grasp through the medium of the art object.  The goal was to use the art object as the means toward some insight.  And that way of understanding the matter also seemed to imply that the insight could be articulated.  The critic (Jameson or Nussbaum) could tell us in words what the art work had taught us. 

But a more radical cognitive theory (and clearly Langer and Massumi are trying to give us this kind of radical theory) would argue 1) that the art work does not represent some content which the audience is given the means to cognize; 2) that the art work instead presents (or is itself the embodiment of a fact or content) what is to be grasped; 3) that our grasping of that content is immediate in the same way that perception is immediate; and 4) that what we grasp is not translatable into another vocabulary.  In short, the art work’s value resides precisely in its doing something that cannot be done in some other way. 

The art work functions as an entirely different mode of knowledge, one that does offer important insights (or illuminations) about the world and about humans in the world.  Those insights are not available through any other means and are not reducible to expression by any other vocabulary.  The heresy of paraphrase.  Any translation of the art work into other kinds of statements inevitably misses (at least) part of its point even if it doesn’t misunderstand that point entirely.

This kind of heroic theory of art is everywhere in modernism and in the avant-garde sensibilities that still persist even in the postmodern disillusionment with modernism.  A few observations are in order—and these observations suggest that we are entering some fuzzy border land between cognitive and non-cognitive theories of art.

Why fuzzy?  Because to insist art yields insights but through an entirely different, non-representational and non-mediated, process is to commit the theorist to a revisionary account of what knowledge is and how it might be gained. Thus, the theory can go two ways: expand our understanding of cognition or celebrate the powers of and capacities enabled by non-cognitive modes of interaction.  Which path the theorist chooses is mostly inconsequential.  The real pay-off is in the details of how art is understood to enact its powers, not in whether those powers are deemed cognitive or non-cognitive.  The key is to move beyond a hard-core realist or empirical understanding of cognition, and it is not of much importance whether that move is seen as an expansion of our concept of cognition or as introducing process of non-cognition.

The Langer/Massumi approach resonates with all of those modernist attempts to side-step mediation and representation, to be the thing itself rather than some imitation (Aristotle) or representation (Locke) or sign (prison-house of language) of the thing.  And there is a very strong desire to nullify any and all attempts at reduction, of claims that this appearance is really (au fond) an expression of this underlying fact.  A denial of surface/depth dichotomies in favor of a metaphysics of appearances (as all there is) runs from Nietzsche through to Foucault, from Wilde through to Ad Reinhardt.

The cognitive/non-cognitive split does seem a bit more consequential at this point.  Basically, the desire to emphasize that the art work is the thing itself, not some representation of some truth or underlying non-manifest reality (as in Jameson), can go one of two ways: 1) a fierce denial of meanings, of putting the work in service to any kind of “take-away,” any kind of transformation of the audience.  The work is just a mute thing, which is a glorious achievement in our over-signed world, where (in William James’s words) “the trail of the human serpent is over everything.”  Art “dehumanizes” (in Ortega y Gasset’s phrase)—and thus offers us a liberation from our over-cultured existence. Ad Reinhardt chooses this path. 

2) The thing itself is seen as numinous.  This is the Kandinsky route.  The painting does not represent anything other than itself, but what it presents is shot through and through with spirituality, with an energy or aura that is lost in the materialistic modern world.  The painting puts us in touch with, helps us come to know (hence cognize), spiritual realities.  It seems to me that for every Ad Reinhardt, insisting that his paintings as just mute objects, there are four Kandinskys (Mondiran, Malevich, and Rothko among that number) in this debate about the aims and meanings of modernist non-representational art.  It seems fair to say Reinhardt is non-cognitivist while Kandinsky is a cognitivist.  Knowledge is not at issue with Reinhardt (something like pure perception divorced from knowledge is the aim), while getting to know something modern culture obscures is the whole point for Kandinsky.

I am, despite my attachment to meaning, much more attracted to the Reinhardt stance than to the Kandinsky one.  That fact probably reflects my resolute secularism and atheism.  I am that odd mixture: a positivist with a life-long interest in and engagement with the arts.  I suspect that the humanities are absolutely and irrevocably tied to meaning.  What the humanities do is to ponder, probe, speculate about the meanings of things, including art works.  But that probing and speculating occurs because the meanings of art works, historical events, ordinary language, political actions, social interactions etc. are neither self-evident nor stable.  So I don’t need—or perhaps even want—art works that come laden with pre-determined meaning(s).  Give me the thing itself and then let me go to work on it.  Don’t come selling me your spiritual claptrap. Or predigested political message(s).

I suspect therefore (although I haven’t worked this through entirely for myself) that I would prefer to retain a fairly rigid positivist definition of what counts as knowledge.  Instead of a revisionary understanding of what counts as cognition, I think I’d prefer allowing for different modes of interaction with the world that would then be understood as non-cognitive.  A simple example is any habitual action.  A trained tennis player or pianist will perform a series of actions that are so instantaneous that thought does not intervene.  In fact, if the player allows thought to intervene, he will almost invariably perform the action less well.  Is the tennis player cognizing that the incoming serve is going to swerve to the left and that he should hit it with his backhand and in such a way that the ball will go down the line rather than cross-court in its flight over the net?  That just seems a bad description of what is taking place.  Cognition, as the metaphors we use about it seem to suggest, requires “distance,” “reflection”—and hence time (some kind of stepping away from action and event after their transpiring).

This dichotomy between practice/action (the heat of the moment) and reflective distance troubles our understanding of art’s relation to cognition.  If art is another way of knowing, then who gets to experience that “other way”?  The artist or the audience? I am attracted to seeing the artist as akin to the tennis player or the pianist.  The practice of the art is a process of discovery in the moment; oh, this is how I react, this is how I interact (with the media of my art) and what unfolds from that interaction.  The unexpected arrives—and can be deeply satisfying and feel like a discovery, an achievement, a new understanding of oneself and the world.

But the difference is that the artist gets to revise.  The time pressures that make irreversible the actions of the tennis player during the game and the pianist during the concert do not apply to the artist.  She gets to revise, to wipe out what now seems to her a mistake.  There is reflection built into the process of artistic creation in a way that is not true of the “real time” unfolding of a game or concert. “Real time” in quotes because the time of games is artificial in lots of ways; but that time is real in the sense of being irreversible, unrevisable.

Plus there is a deep asymmetry between the position of the artist and of the audience.  The artist is engaged in an action of making and of discovery through the making.  The audience perceives what the artist has made.  True: much art since 1900 has worked hard to overcome this divide, to make the audience “work,” to render the audience less passive.  But there remains the gap between the process of making the work and the brute fact of the finished (inert) product that is displayed.  Again, much modern and avant-garde art has struggled mightily to elevate process over product.  We might say that “the product” is defined by having entered into irreversible time. Once in the museum, the painting is beyond revision. (Think, however, of all the poets who keep revising their poems for subsequent re-printings; Yeats and Auden are only particularly notorious examples.)

I would still say (just as a matter of common-sense) that what the artist experiences (and whatever cognitive contents emerge from that experience) are different from what the audience can and might experience.  This would follow self-evidently from the fact that the artist and the audience are doing different things.  Thus, any cognitive (and, most likely, any non-cognitive) theory of art is also going to have to account for the different experiences of artist and audience. 

I still think it comes down to the question: what do we learn from a work of art?  The artist learns about her craft and about her capacities for working with the materials of her media.  That engagement might very well also tell her something about herself (a gain in self-knowledge) and about the world (meanings emerge as she struggles to create a work that she thinks others will find interesting or compelling).  The audience learns about what is possible in a particular medium when it is shaped by a distinctive talent and, maybe, sees the world illuminated in unexpected and delightful (or depressing) ways.  To see things with new eyes, from a different perspective.  To have the world opened up, made anew.  The strongest claim for the aestheticist is that what is learned by both artist and audience could not be learned in any other way—and that what is learned is valuable, is life-enhancing, is an attainment we would not want to have to do without.