Category: aesthetics

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.

Cognitive Theories of Art

Nick Gaskill and I have been reading some classic works of aesthetic theory, including Nelson Goodman’s 1976 Languages of Art (Hackett Publishers) and Suzanne Langer’s 1942 Philosophy in a New Key (Harvard UP).  Both Goodman and Langer are committed to a cognitive account of art. By cognition is meant our apprehension of the world.  Art, for them, is a mode of apprehension.  But, from there, it gets fuzzy, complicated, and increasingly implausible very quickly.

The stakes are clear—and I am 60% sympathetic with the cause that Langer and Goodman struggle to advance.  Basically, we are on familiar turf: the defensive insistence on art’s value in a world that seems to find its claims on our attention negligible.  Langer quite explicitly accepts the reigning logical positivist accounts of truth, knowledge, and propositional logic of her day.  But then insists that there is another way of knowing that art embodies and that logical positivism misses.  “Now, I do not believe that ‘there is a world which is not physical, or not in space-time,’ [quote from Bertrand Russell], but I do believe that in this physical, space-time world of our experience there are things which do not fit the grammatical scheme of expression.  But they are not necessarily blind, inconceivable, mystical affairs; they are simply matters which require to be conceived through some symbolistic schema other that discursive language.  And to demonstrate the possibility of such a non-discursive pattern one needs only to review the logical requirements for any symbolic structure whatever. Language is by no means our only articulate product” (88-89).

Langer is committed to 1) an assertion that we can “conceive” of matters relevant to (derived from) experience in non-discursive forms, and 2) that art deals in such non-discursive forms and 3) thus offers us a way to apprehend things that the discursive misses. Hence art is valuable because it is another way of knowing–and one that provides access to information we cannot gain in any other way. (Trouble is, as I am going to discuss, it is not clear that art, even by her account, is distinctive in that way.)

There are “different types of symbolic mediation” (97).  She offers us two basic types: the discursive and the presentational.  “In the non-discursive mode that speaks directly to sense . . . there is no intrinsic generality.  It is first and foremost a direct presentation of an individual object.  A picture has to be schematized if it is to be capable of various meanings.  In itself it represents just one object—real or imaginary, but still a unique object.  The definition of a triangle fits triangles in general, but a drawing always presents a triangle of some specific kind and size.  We have to abstract from the conveyed meaning in order to conceive triangularity in general.  Without the help of words this generalization, if possible at all, is certainly incommunicable” (96, Langer’s italics).

There is a puzzle here—and I can’t decide if it is a deep one or a trivial one.  Presumably, we have direct sensual experience.  So it seems that leaves us with two alternatives when it comes to Langer’s notion of presentational symbols (and of what art does).  Either 1) art is just another instance of direct sensual perception (the artist just creates a new thing for her audience to perceive) or 2) the audience’s perceptual experience of the art object is a different kind of experience than ordinary perception.  The answer to this puzzle must lie in the word “symbol.”  Are everyday perceptions symbolic—or is it only the perceptions that art offers that are symbolic?

It is clear what is at stake for Langer in arguing for presentational symbolism: the widening of the scope of rationality and cognition beyond the strictures of logical positivism.  “The recognition of presentational symbolism as a normal and prevalent vehicle of meaning widens our conception of rationality far beyond the traditional boundaries, yet never breaks faith with logic in the strictest sense.  Wherever a symbol operates, there is a meaning; and conversely, different classes of experience—say, reason, intuition, appreciation—correspond to different types of symbolic mediation.  No symbol is exempt from the office of logical formulation, of conceptualizing what it conveys; however simple its import, or however great, this import is a meaning, and therefore an element for understanding.  Such reflection invites one to tackle anew, and with entirely different expectations, the whole problem of the limits of reason, the much-disputed life of feeling, and the great controversial topics of fact and truth, knowledge and wisdom, science and art.  It brings within the compass of reason much that has been traditionally relegated to ‘emotion,’ or to that crepuscular depth of mind where ‘intuitions’ are supposed to be born, without any midwifery of symbols, without due process of thought, to fills the gaps in the edifice of discursive, or ‘rational,’ judgment” (97-98, Langer’s italics).

What a tangle!  In the first passage I quoted, art offers us a “direct presentation” of something.  Langer appears to desire an unmediated, immediate realm of apprehension that she calls “presentation”—and which is contrasted to the mediated and abstracted conceptualizations that discourse (with its inevitable reliance on generalizing terms) offers.  But then presentations are also to be understood as “symbols,” which ties them as well to conceptualization (and to logic).  With conceptualization comes “meaning” with its corollary “an element for understanding.”  Presumably, understanding is tied to cognition.  In the second passage quoted, the argument leads to “judgment” as the mental capacity exercised in the encounter with the presentational symbol. 

The very next paragraph (I have not skipped anything here) gives us a better sense of what Langer thinks judgment is/does—and ties to judgment to knowledge.

“The symbolic materials given to our senses, the Gestalten or fundamental perceptual forms which invite us to construe the pandemonium of sheer impressions into a world of things and occasions, belong to the ‘presentational’ order.  They furnish the elementary abstractions in terms of which ordinary sense-experience is understood.  This kind of understanding is directly reflected in the pattern of physical reaction, impulse and instinct.  May not the order of perceptual forms, then, be a possible principle for symbolization, and hence the conception, expression, and apprehension, of impulsive, instinctive, and sentient life?  May not a non-discursive symbolism of light and color, or of tone, be formulative of that life?  And is it not possible that the sort of ‘intuitive’ knowledge which Bergson extols above all rational knowledge because it is supposedly not mediated by any formulating (and hence deforming) symbol is itself perfectly rational, but not to be conceived through language—a product of the presentational symbolism which the mind reads in a flash, and preserves in a disposition or an attitude?” (98, Langer’s emphasis).

Judgment for Langer, apparently, is what makes sense of “the pandemonium of sheer impressions.”  We need to do some basic abstracting, some sorting of our sense impressions into kinds or into analogies with other impressions, to attain any understanding.  I think (relying on this and other passages in her book) that she, in Kantian fashion, builds this abstracting, this “formulization,” into the very act of perception. For example: “Our merest sense-experience is a process of formulation. . . . [T]he world of pure sensation is so complex, so fluid and full, that sheer sensitivity to stimuli would only encounter what William James has called . . . ‘a blooming, buzzing confusion.’ Out of this bedlam our sense-organs must select certain predominant forms, if they are to make report of things and not of mere dissolving sensa. . . . An object is not a datum, but a form constructed by the sensitive and intelligent organ, a form which is at once an experienced individual thing and a symbol for the concept of it, for this sort of thing”(89, Langer’s italics).

Thus, it is not clear that she actually allows for any distinction between “ordinary sense experience” and its symbolization (abstraction).  The two occur simultaneously; the “fundamental perceptual forms” are always already there.  Intuitive knowledge happens in a flash; there is no discernible gap between perception and the act of judgment that gives that perception “form.”  And it symbolization has always already occurred, there is no “direct perception” of the unique object; that object has always been apprehended through the lens of an abstraction that sees it as one of a larger kind (the “sort of thing it is”). 

Nick and I have also been reading Brian Massumi (and I will get to him in posts to come)—and he is committed to the quest for certain forms of immediacy.  Certainly, much art since 1890 has tried to by-pass mediation in an effort for an innocent perception, a perception out from under received cultural forms and meanings and categories.  Langer isn’t quite there; she builds mediation (symbolization) into presentation.  She does so because she believes that “symbols” are “vehicles for the conceptions of objects” (60-61)—and an object that has not been conceptualized is, quite fully and literally, meaningless.  You might say that we have “to know” what we are perceiving.  Otherwise, we are lost in “the pandemonium of sheer impressions.,” William James’ bedlam. A symbol, after all, is not the thing itself.  But perception of the thing itself without the “vehicle” of the symbol cannot register cognitively.  Such pure perception would be the sheer nonsense that is the bugbear of logical positivism. 

In trying, then, to rescue a non-discursive presentational mode from logical positivism’s narrow understanding of reason and knowledge, Langer goes too far.  How so?  Because if she builds symbolization into perception itself, then it is unclear what distinctive role is left for art.  Even if we grant that art (at least the arts apart from literature) are non-discursive and thus an avenue for meanings and understandings not accessible in discursive, propositional modes, there seems to be nothing that distinguishes art from ordinary perception.  What do we do differently in art from the spontaneous symbolization that accompanies apprehending things in the world?

[An aside: Langer uses the terms “meaning,” “understanding,” “judgment,” “reason,” and “knowledge” very loosely—as if they were synonyms.  All of them, quite clearly, belong firmly in the realm of cognition on her view.  But I still need to sort out for myself if I think that “to know the meaning of a sentence” is distinct—and how—from “knowing that my car is not running because it ran out of gas.”  In other words, are “meanings” a distinct quality of things as contrasted to “causal explanations” or acquaintance (“I know him”).  We can stand, it seems to me, in multiple different relations to things—relations that ordinary language characterizes as “knowledge” of those things—and “meaning” is only one of those multiple possible relations.  Jumbling them all up under the general rubric of “knowledge” or “reason” is not helpful.  From which it follows (as Langer presumably agrees) that there are also different modes of “cognition” (coming to “know” something)—and art might name one of those modes.  That’s what a cognitive theory of art aims to establish.]

Langer digs the hole she is trying to escape even a bit deeper. Not only does she have to show that art’s presentational symbols do something that ordinary perception does not, but she also insists that we need to have a way to distinguish good art from bad art.  (See 207-208.)  Langer’s solution to this double problem is to extol “perfection of form” (208).  Art is distinguished from ordinary perception by its abstraction away from the sensible (sensuous) particular things.  “’Artistic meaning’ belongs to the sensuous construct as such” (208).  That is, art is sensuous, but in a way that calls our attention to “the construct” not to the thing (or things) the art object offers to perception.  “It exhibits pure form not as an embellishment, but as its very essence. . . . [T]he meaning of art belongs to the sensuous percept itself apart from what it ostensibly represents” (209).

If this is the case, then what is the cognitive content art is delivering?  What does the apprehension of form enable us to know?  What meanings does it convey—or allow us to grasp?  Langer takes music as her primary art form because it is most fully distanced from representation, from “content.”  Langer’s position is that music is “about” feelings, but it is not a representation of feelings.  “If music has any significance, it is semantic, not symptomatic.  Its ‘meaning’ is evidently not that of a stimulus to evoke emotions, nor that of a signal to announce them; if it has an emotional content, it ‘has’ it in the same sense that language ‘has’ its conceptual content—symbolically.  It is not usually derived from affects nor intended for them; but we may say, with certain reservations, that it is about them.  Music is not the cause or the cure of feelings, but their logical expression; though even in this capacity it has special ways of functioning that make it incommensurable with language” (218).

The basic idea is that music abstracts from particular emotions to reveal the fundamental form  (particularly its rhythms, duration, unfolding, and entwined relations among various elements) of an emotion.  Music has “genuine conceptual content” (219).  “[M]usic is not self-expression, but formulation and representation of emotions, moods, mental tensions, and resolutions—a ‘logical picture’ of sentient, responsive life, a source of insight, not a plea for sympathy.  Feelings revealed in music are essentially not ‘the passion, love or longing of such-and-such an individual,’ inviting us to put ourselves in that individual’s place, but are presented directly to our understanding, that we may grasp, realize, comprehend these feelings, without pretending to have them or imputing them to anyone else” (222).  The cognitive pay-off is made clear here. 

And Langer fully understands that it requires what she calls “psychical distance,” a term she borrows from Edward Bullough.  Here is the traditional idea that knowledge requires “reflection,” and a distance between the knower and the thing known.  Immersion is dangerous, messy, inchoate, and over involved.  This commitment to distance (as Bourdieu outlines in Distinction) goes hand-in-hand with the elevation of form over content, and with the disparagement of popular art as offering cheap thrills in place of more subtle contemplative pleasures.

“[T]he hall-mark of every artistic ‘projection’ of experience . . . does not make the emotive contents typical, general, impersonal, or ‘static’; but it makes them conceivable, so that we can envisage and understand them without verbal helps, and without the scaffolding of an occasion wherein they figure (as all self-expression implies an occasion, a cause—true or imaginary—for the subject’s temporary feelings).  A composer not only indicates, but articulates subtle complexes of feeling that language cannot even name, let alone set forth.  He knows the forms of emotion and can handle them, ‘compose’ them” (222).

I am sympathetic to an “articulation” understanding of the arts—and that is why I am attracted to cognitive theories.  We “know” something better after an artist articulates it for us.  That “something” may be contents (feelings, beliefs, commitments, values, intuitions) that were fairly inchoate before our encounter with the clarifying work of art.  And I am happy to say that articulation can come in non-discursive modes when the art is question is music or painting or other varieties that use non-linguistic media.  I can even get on board with saying that such knowledge as the arts import has it uses.  Perhaps it allows us to better grasp our own commitments; perhaps it lets us see meaningful connections or patterns that hadn’t previously occurred to us.  In some cases it might even change our understanding of some thing (here we get to more rhetorical understandings of art, a topic I’d like to consider).

But where I get stuck is Langer’s elevation of form over content (notice how the word “form” gets snuck into the last sentence of the passage I just quoted).  How is making certain emotional experiences “conceivable” a matter of form, not content?  And why does it preclude my being marched through those emotions as part of the experience of the art work?  I am inclined to a more Stanley Fish-type “surprised by sin” approach.  The art work sees me submitting to an emotional process that it also provides me the resources to (eventually) reflect upon.  It is this doubleness that distinguishes art works—and that doubleness has less to do with form than with the “fictional” nature of art.  If there is a “psychical distance,” then that distance is provided by our knowing in some part of ourselves that this experience isn’t “real.”  We have these emotions (you’ll laugh with him, cry with him), but they are “make believe.”  And like the experiment in the lab, which is also “controlled” and distinct from actual life processes, the art work can tell us something about the “real world.”  But I don’t see how that something it tells us is only and purely “formal.” 

It all comes down to what is meant by form.  I think form is simply the way various elements are arranged.  A skillful artist will arrange her materials in a way that maximizes their impact.  The recent  movie version (2019) of Little Women offers an interesting example.  From any straight-forward story-telling point of view (not to mention how the source novel tells its story), the film was overly complex.  Its arrangement of its various incidents jumps around wildly in time and is potentially disorienting.  Any viewer unfamiliar with story would be very confused.  But that was Greta Gerwig’s (the writer and director) salvation.  Her arrangement is parasitic on the assumption that the story was familiar to her audience.  Thus she did not have to prioritize that audience’s ability to follow the plot line—and could achieve a variety of other effects through her formal tricks.  But it seems crazy to me to then claim that those formal tricks are the sole focus of the true art appreciator, or the sole criterion for judging the film’s success or failure.  The formal tricks were clearly adopted in service of various meanings, emotions, values that Gerwig wanted to convey.  The content that she desired to deliver is what gives the formal tricks their point.  Otherwise it is just an empty exercise in cleverness.

Now Langer clearly thinks that knowing “the forms of emotion” (222) has its benefits.  But without a much more specific statement about what those forms are, I am at a loss.  To say, for example, that the emotion of grief has its rhythms and its stages—and that music can gives us a feel for them—is not nothing.  But such a statement (or such a presentation in a work of music) abstracted from the content of grief is close to senseless.  Which, Bourdieu would say, is the point: to get as far away from the sense as possible into a world of pure intellect.  That isn’t exactly where Langer heads.  Instead, she wants to make sure the sensuous is “conceptualized.”  Only then can it become something we can cognize, something that can be invested with meaning, and become an object of knowledge.

I’ll get to Goodman and Massumi is future posts.

Arendt Contra “Life”

Hannah Arendt famously insisted that any politics that attended to the demands of “life” was doomed to descend into factional strife.  How to understand her argument on these matters has troubled her readers ever since she first articulated this view in 1957’s The Human Condition and, more forcefully, in 1962’s On Revolution. It doesn’t help matters that the critique of a life-based politics in the former book is replaced (augmented) by a differently inflected argument in On Revolution: namely, that politics must avoid addressing “the social question.”  Just how Arendt’s disdain for “the social” connects to her insistence that “life” should never be the principal motive for “action” is hard to parse.

Let me start with life.  Arendt’s argument (derived from Aristotle in ways that resonate with Agamben’s adoption of the distinction between “bios”—bare life—and “zoe”—a cultivated life) is that life belongs to the realm of “necessity.”  What is needed to sustain life (food, shelter, etc.) must be produced and consumed.  The daily round of that production and consumption is inescapable—but the very opposite of freedom. 

Politics exists in order to provide freedom, to provide a space for action that is not tied to necessity.  As countless readers have pointed out, Aristotle’s polity relies on slaves to do the life-sustaining work tied to necessity—and Arendt seems nowhere more mandarin than in her contempt for that work.  While it is going too far to say that she endorses slavery, there is more than a little of Hegel’s master/slave dialectic in Arendt.  She seems at times to accept that the price of freedom, the price of escaping slavery, is an heroic, aristocratic disdain for life that allows the master to achieve his (it’s almost always a “he”) position of mastery in the life/death struggle that creates slavery in the Hegelian story.  Those tied to “life” are slavish in disposition; they have bargained away their freedom because they have valued life too highly—have, in fact, taken life (not freedom or mastery) as the highest (perhaps even the sole) value.  This contempt gets carried over into Arendt’s deeply negative views of “the masses.” 

Arendt’s disdain for “life” has often been seen as a critique of bourgeois sensibility.  The bourgeoisie is focused on “getting and spending” which it deems “private”—and is, consequently, uninterested in politics.  That’s one way of interpreting Arendt’s lament that politics is in danger of disappearing altogether in the modern world.  In a liberal society, all the focus is on “private” pursuits—the religion of personal salvation, economic pursuits, family and friends.  It is reductive, but not altogether inaccurate, to link Arendt to figures like Tocqueville who lament the loss of an aristocratic focus on “honor” even as they both admit that aristocratic virtues are lost forever.  If the triumph of “life” is to be overcome, it won’t be through a revival of either Aristotle’s or Machiavelli’s worlds. 

Arendt’s prescription (especially in The Human Condition) appears to be the attempt to substitute amor mundi (a love of the world) for the love of life.  My student Martin Caver wrote a superb dissertation on the concept of amor mundi in Arendt—and had to contend mightily with how slippery and vague that notion is in her work.  Pushed into thinking about this all again by Matt Taylor’s essay—and by a subsequent email he wrote to me in response to my post on his essay—here is how I would pose the contrast world/life today.

The problem with “life” from Arendt’s point-of-view is that life is monolithic.  Its demands appear to be everywhere the same: sustenance.  To maintain a life is a repetitive grind that Arendt depicts as a relentless “process” that never allows for individuation.  There are no distinctions within life.  Every living thing is the same in terms of possessing what we can call “bare life.”  Paradoxically, life renders everyone the same even as it also renders everyone selfish. Unlike politics, which for Arendt offers the possibility of individuation, selfishness just makes everyone alike. The bourgeois self is focused on “getting his”—which is why “life” is antithetical to amor mundi.  We humans are in a sorry condition unless we can generate some care (think of Heidegger on Sorge at this point) for the world that we share.  When everyone is pursuing only his own interest, the world falls apart. (Certainly sounds like a pretty good description/diagnosis of American society in 2020.)

What is this “world” that Arendt calls us to love?  She insists that it is the fact of “plurality” (the fact that we are with others on this planet) and that it is what lies “between” the various actors who inhabit it.  The modern retreat into the private is making the world recede.  We no longer (at least as intensely) live and act together in a shared world, in a public space.  That public space is the scene of politics for Arendt.  And politics is where one distinguishes oneself (i.e. where one can achieve a distinctive identity).  Politics is also where the world is produced through “acting in concert.”  The notion here (although Arendt never articulates it in this way and is way too vague about the particulars of “acting in concert”) is that a public space is created and maintained by the interactions of people within that space—just as a language is created and maintained by people using it to communicate.  The ongoing health and existence of the language is a beneficial, but not directly intended, by-product of its daily use by a community of speakers.  Our common world is similarly produced.

Love of that world thus seems to mean two things: caring for its upkeep, it preservation, and a taste, even a love, for plurality.  I must cherish the fact that it is “men,” not just me, who constitute this world.  In Iris Murdoch’s formulation: “Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.”

To understand Arendt’s critique of “life” in these terms leads almost too smoothly into her work of Eichmann and, then, to The Life of the Mind.  To be thoughtless (as Arendt accuses Eichmann of being) is precisely to be incapable of comprehending otherness, that fact that “something other than oneself is real.”  Selfishness is thoughtless, a failure of imagination, a failure to grasp the fact of plurality in its full significance.  Soul-blindness. And she reads Eichmann’s blindness in terms of his being entirely focused on climbing the ladder in the bureaucracy within which he works.  That’s why his evil is “banal.”  It’s the product of his daily round of making his way, not a product of any deeply-held convictions or ideology.  He was, in her view, quite literally just doing his job with an eye toward promotion, without any conception of how his actions were effecting other people.  (Whether this is a plausible reading of Eichmann is neither here nor there for the more general argument that the modern mind-set, along with the  bureaucracies—among which we must count large corporations—in which so many moderns are embedded, generates soul-blindness, the thoughtless inability to see the consequences of one’s actions apart from how those actions contribute to one’s “getting ahead.”)

No wonder, then, that Arendt’s grasps onto the passage in the Critique of Judgment where Kant calls for “enlarged thinking”—and ties judgment to the capacity to see something from the other’s point of view.  I must go “visiting,” Arendt says, in order to make a judgment.  The person who is focused solely on gaining a “good life” for himself will never encounter “the world,” never grasp plurality.

The problem comes when the critique of “life” in The Human Condition is paired with a critique of “the social”—and that problem becomes a crisis when the full implications of banning the social from politics are articulated in On Revolution.  Even Arendt’s most adept readers—Seyla Benhabib, Bonnie Honig, Hanna Pitkin—barely try to defend her position at this juncture.  Bluntly put, Arendt says that the polity should never attempt to address or alleviate poverty or material inequities.  The necessities of life—and how to secure them—should never be seen as a matter appropriate to politics.  To make that mistake is simply to make politics itself impossible while leading to endless strife. 

The puzzle has always been how a thinker of Arendt’s power could have been so blind, so stupid, so thoughtless (she is never so close to her caricature of Eichmann as at this point) on this score.  How could she think 1) that banishing the endless strife over material resources to “the social” somehow solves the problem of that strife, and 2) that “politics” could somehow (by fiat?) be separated from allocation of resources (where those resources include power and status as well as material goods)?  I can only suspect that she harbors the old aristocratic disdain of “trade” and imagines she can erect of field of contention where only distinction, honor, and virtuosity are at stake—and nothing so vulgar as monetary reward.  Arendt’s ideal politics are, after all, agonistic.  She is not against strife.  But she wants a “pure” strife focused exclusively on excellence, unsullied by irrelevant considerations of money or status.  She hates “society” because she deplores the standards by which it confers distinction.  No surprise that her politics seem so aesthetic—and that she goes to Kant’s Critique of Judgment to discover his politics.  What matters in the idealized aesthetic space is the quality of the performance—and nothing else. 

So the question Arendt poses for us is: Is it harmful to have this ideal of a practice (or practices) that are divorced (by whatever means are effective) from questions of material necessity and reward?  At a time when utilitarian considerations seem everywhere triumphant, the desire to carve out a protected space has a deep appeal.  Reduction of everything to what avails life (Ruskin’s formula) very quickly becomes translated into what can produce an income.  Various defenses of the university are predicated on fighting back against the utilitarian calculus.

But the danger of taking the anti-utilitarian line (the aestheticist position, if you will) is that it reinforces the bourgeois/classical liberal assertion that “the economic” is its own separate sphere—one that should be understood as “private.”  Arendt may be a sharp critic of bourgeois selfishness and how that selfishness diminishes what a life can be even as its blithely denies the necessities of life to others, but she seems to be reinforcing the liberal idea of “private enterprise.” 

It is not clear how (or where) economic activities exist at all in the “world” she wants us to love.  And we have ample evidence by now that leaving economics to themselves is not a formula for keeping the economic in its place, in preventing its colonizing other spheres of human activity.  Just the opposite.  Laissez-faire is a sure-fire formula for insuring that the economic swallows up everything else.  It accumulates power as relentlessly as it accumulates capital—and thus distorts every thing in the world.

In the realms of theory, then, Matt’s instinct that a monolithic, overarching concept like “life” would be better replaced by a pluralistic reckoning of the needs and desires of “living” seems promising.  The thought is that “life” requires (in order for it to be defined) a contrast with “not life” (the world fills that role in Arendt)—and thus to a designation of the enemies of life (or, in Arendt’s mirror image, to a denigration of “life” in favor of another value, amor mundi).  In either case, the logic leads to a desire to eliminate something because it threatens what is desired. 

The alternative path of pluralism disarms such categorical condemnations.  That path returns us to the “rough ground” (Wittgenstein) of tough judgments about what to do in particular cases where we have to attend to the particulars—and not think that generalized formulas are going to be of much (if any) use.  There are always going to be multiple goods and moral intuitions in play, with painful trade-offs, and messy compromises.  No overarching commitment or slogan—like “reverence for life”—is going to do the work. Similarly, we cannot successfully separate things into separate spheres—the aesthetic in that bin, the economic in another one, and politics in a third. It is just going to be messier than that even as we also struggle to prevent any one type of motive swamp the others.  Pluralism is about (among other things) giving multiple motives some room to operate.  Which is why I remain so attracted to some version of a universal basic income, some version of supplying the minimal resources required to “flourish” to all.  Only when the material necessities can be taken for granted because secured (not disdained because they are bestial or vulgar) can other motives take wing.

One can also expect that others will disagree with, castigate her for, the course of action she does pursue, the positions for which she advocates.  Plurality comes with a price—which is why it is hard to love.  And why thinkers keep imagining formulas that will enable our escape from it. 

Ben Lerner (2)

Floating beneath the surface in Lerner’s 10:24 is a longing for connection, for art’s communicative possibilities to open up a pathway to community.

“[I] felt the small thrill I always felt to a lesser or greater degree when I look at Manhattan’s skyline and the innumerable illuminated windows and the liquid sapphire and ruby of traffic on the FDR Drive and the present absence of the towers.  It was a thrill that only built space produced in me, never the natural world, and only when there was an incommensurablity of scale—the human dimension of the windows tiny from such distance combining but not dissolving into the larger architecture of the skyline that was the expression, the material signature, of a collective person who didn’t yet exist, a still-uninhabited second person plural to whom all the arts, even in their most intimate register, were nevertheless addressed.  Only an urban experience of the sublime was available to me because only then was the greatness beyond calculation the intuition of community. . . . [W]henever I looked at lower Manhattan from Whitman’s side of the river I resolved to become one of the artists who momentarily made bad forms of collectivity figures of this possibility, a proprioceptive flicker in advance of the communal body.  What I felt when I tried to take in the skyline—and instead was taken in by it—was a fullness indistinguishable from being emptied, my personality dissolving into a personhood so abstract that every atom belonging to me as good belonged to Noor, the fiction of the world rearranging itself around her.  If there had been a way to say it without it sounding like presumptuous co-op nonsense, I would have wanted to tell her that discovering you are not identical with yourself even in the most disturbing and painful way still contains the glimmer, however refracted, of the world to come, where everything is the same but a little different because the past will be citable in all of its moments, including those that from our present present happened but never occurred.  You might have seen me sitting there on the bench that midnight, my hair matted down by the bandanna, eating an irresponsible quantity of unsulfured mango, and having, as I projected myself into the future, a mild lacrimal event” (108-109).

The theme returns in a short lecture given by the narrator at a round-table featuring three writers.  He has explained how the Challenger disaster and its aftermath (a poetic speech by Ronal Reagan, the rash of anonymously generated jokes about the event that circulate through the culture) set him on the road to becoming a writer.

“If I had to trace my origins as a poet to a specific moment, I’d locate it there, in those modes of recycling.  I make no claims for ‘High Flight’ [a poem Reagan quotes in his speech] as a poem—in fact, I think it’s a terrible poem—and Ronald Reagan I consider a mass murderer.  I don’t see anything formally interesting in the Challenger jokes, I can’t find anything to celebrate there; they weren’t even funny at the time.  But I wonder if we can think of them as bad forms of collectivity that can serve as figures of its real possibility: prosody and grammars the stuff out of which we build a social world, a way of organizing meaning and time that belongs to nobody in particular but courses through us all” (115-116).

The wistfulness here reminds me of John Lennon’s Imagine—and seems tied to the author’s (and our?) inability to access Whitmanian mysticism with any conviction.  The skyline is a monument to collectivity.  It could never have been built except by many human hands working in concert.  And even if the various activities encompassed by city life—“bundled debt, trace amounts of antidepressants in the municipal water, the vast arterial network of traffic, changing weather patterns of increasing severity” (108)—are “bad forms of collectivity” they are “figures” of the possibility of collectivity.  Selves share the “meanings” by which “we build a social world.”  The boundaries between selves are utterly porous; we dissolve into one another—and into the stories that we share, the images that guide us.  If only we could tweak those facts, shift them slightly on their axes—then the world and each one of us would be “the same but a little bit different” (a formula for utopia that comes from  Benjamin or Brecht or someone of that ilk; I can’t find the exact source).

We always already exist in collectivities; the struggle is to make them better, to make them serve our deepest longings rather than to stifle and frustrate them.  We fight collectivity (cling to selfishness in all its senses) even as we long for it.  Art is connected to that longing; think of how movies and plays move us to tears, even those of us who almost never cry in “real life.”  We only indulge our longings in the safe space of art, while living our prudent, advantage-seeking, lives in the everyday world.  We know—as Adorno says—what our better selves and a better world look like, and we live out the shame (no matter how deeply we manage to bury it) of the gap between that vision of the good and the sordid realities we inhabit and reproduce.

The web of shared meanings is what we might call “myth”—and what is frightening about the current moment in American history is that the prevailing “myth” is no longer shared. (Probably it never was; more likely is that those who held alternative visions were more ruthlessly silenced in the past.) There are two (at least) utterly incompatible set of meanings circulating through the culture—and they appear so incompatible that the proponents of each find it close to unimaginable to share the national space with the other side.

In a sense, the power of art has never been so dramatically on display.  The left/liberal vision occupies the lion’s share of official culture, from the high art bastions of museums and universities to the culture industry’s popular music, film, and TV.  But the unofficial, unsanctioned world of the internet has spawned the alternative vision of the populist right, which now has its spokesperson in the White House.  Fed by a not inaccurate understanding of its exclusion from “respectable” opinion, populism has developed its alternative modes of communication alongside its refusal to credit anything the official world has to say.

Communication, “spin,” how and to whom facts and meanings are articulated, command the field.  Only catastrophic natural events—the virus, hurricanes, wildfires—seem capable of breaking through the morass of words and images, and not in any definitive, unequivocal way.  That supposed objective barometer of facts on the ground—the market—has proved as fictitious (if not more) than other “social indicators.”  Printing money and piling up debt have become disconnected from any actual consequences.  Inflation remains low, faith in government bonds remains unshaken, the stock market indices remain high.  We do appear to have left a reality-based world far behind.

And yet.  There is so much real and remediable suffering out there.  How did we, the human race, manage to turn all our possibilities, all our astounding capacities, into shit?  Collectively, we have built an amazing world.  But it amazes far more often by its byzantine dysfunctions than its praise-worthy accomplishments.  We can work wonders in medicine, but have developed a bureaucracy for delivering medical care that creates massive amounts of spiritually deadening labor and places obstacles in the way of getting treatment to those in need of it. We can feed seven billion people through our farming practices, but have built a system with perverse incentives that lead to the destruction of food while people go hungry and encourages the depletion of the natural sources of agricultural productivity.  We spend billions of dollars on military hardware, but claim we can’t afford to help the 20% of children who live in poverty.

I have always disliked Lennon’s Imagine.  It seems so removed from actual engagement, so enchanted with its own melancholy.  I find Lerner’s wistfulness more substantial.  He more fully articulates the sense of being both outside and inside of the collective failure.  Outside of it because seemingly unable to effect its unfolding disasters in any way—and outside of it because viewing it from a perspective that makes one unable to take its madness for granted or as inevitable or as immune from harsh judgment.  Inside because one is fully engorged by this whale; one can’t pretend not to be a participant, day in and day out, as one struggles to construct a life, a way of negotiating through this minefield.  Coming to terms with the devil is what we do even if we dream of living otherwise.  Driving one’s car, paying one’s insurance and tax bills to underwrite inhumane systems, consuming then throwing away plastic. The list of contributions we make toward perpetuating the world as currently constituted is endless.

Stop the world, I want to get off.  Whitman’s optimism is no longer available, even if his dreams are.  Lerner returns to Whitman later in the book and wonders about the “ecstasy” that runs through Whitman’s encounters with wounded Union soldiers in the hospitals in Washington DC.  There is something inhuman, deeply disturbing, in how Whitman gets off on the sight of these suffering bodies.  Optimism in such circumstances is reprehensible—and seems linked to an ideology of “glorious sacrifice” that was, I would hope, finally put to rest by World War I.

Where to find that optimism today?  Clearly, some people find in the collectivities created by the demonstrations that have become a recurrent feature of American civil life in 2020.  Insofar as the demonstrations attempt to construct—and make stick—a counter-narrative, a vision of American society antithetical to the racism and division Trump wants to amplify, the battle is on.  It is a war of meanings, and a war between an inclusive vision of collectivity against a divisive one.  Lerner articulates for us the forlorn, but still deeply felt, longing for that inclusive collectivity (the beloved community) even as he reminds us that art (if understood in the widest possible sense) is where articulation takes place, where the meanings we hope to share are first presented.  We can never quite believe that Shelley was right about poets being the unacknowledged legislators, but it is less incredible to recognize how the arts are powerful creators of community—and of the shared meanings that hold communities together.