Category: Literary studies

Cognitive Theories of Art (3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben Lerner’s Novels

I recently read both 10:04 and The Topeka School, Ben Lerner’s second and third novels.  I read his first one, Leaving the Atocha Station, last fall.

Leaving the Atocha Station is a quick, light read, but its neurotic, inept, hipster narrator is so fey, so self-involved, and so irresponsible that he is hard to keep in the reader’s good graces.  The plot is as aimless as the narrator, but the book is blessedly brief, often witty, and always well written.  Geoff Dyer does this thing rather better—and Paris Trance seems the obvious forerunner, maybe even the direct model, for Lerner’s novel.

10:04 is a big step forward, although we still get the bumbling, self-absorbed narrator whose charm Lerner seems to overestimate drastically.  There is also the rather annoying fancy footwork between fact and fiction—so that novel (in Paul Auster fashion) is “about” writing this novel we are reading.  Too cute by half in my opinion.  But there is a lot more to chew on here, especially the narrator’s (Lerner’s?) reflections on various art works (most particularly, Donald Judd’s sculptures) and about the insane New York art market more generally.  The format allows for these mini-essays embedded in the story—and they enliven the book instead of detracting from it (mostly because “the story” is mostly negligible).

It turns out that Lerner just doesn’t do human relationships very well.  His characters interact to some extent, but he never really succeeds in getting the reader to “feel” the emotional struggles that he announces exist between his various characters. In that sense, the novels are rather diagrammatic, not “realized” in the ways you would expect from the “thick” portraits of character and of its unfolding that we traditionally receive from realistic fiction.  (Rachel Cusk’s trilogy—Outlines, Transit, and Kudos—is similarly “thin,” a series of monologues that give us vignettes but no revelatory action or character development over time.)

The Topeka School is both more and less interesting than the reviews had led me to believe. Less interesting insofar as it is not a novel that has much to say about contemporary American society; more interesting in that its ideas (as expressed by a number of intellectual characters who narrate different sections of the novel) are consistently thought-provoking.

The reviews had claimed that Lerner (from Kansas) was, in this novel, giving us an insight into middle America in general and the Trump phenomenon in particular.  In fact, the novel only addresses that complex territory obliquely.  Instead, we get a fairly intricate plot, dotted with interesting characters—a much more diverse tapestry of human types than offered by the first two novels.  Once again, however, the characters are mostly static, interesting because of their idiosyncratic views about a whole range of topics.  There is almost nothing in the novel—despite its framework of intense familial, friendship, and romantic relationships—that immerses the reader in the nitty-gritty of that intensity.

I guess the old saw about showing, not telling, is apposite here.  The analysis of what lies behind how people speak to and act toward others is so forefronted that we are very rarely given the concrete actions themselves or the raw feelings that interactions generate.  (There are some exceptions, like an intense interaction among parents in a New York City playground, but that is an isolated incident with no connection to anything else in the novel, and ends completely inconclusively with no aftereffects.)  That analysis predominates “fits” in the sense that the novel is preoccupied with psychoanalysis; the main character’s parents and his parents’ best friends are all psychoanalysts.

Lerner and Cusk are tremendous talents.  Neither writes a word that is not eminently readable.  But they are “cold” writers even as they write in the “warm” mode of the realist novel.  Both of them are self-consciously re-crafting the novel as a genre, but eschewing at the same time the irrealism of 1960s “experimental fiction.”  Their “meta-fictional” touches are light (heavier in Lerner than in Cusk) and it is not clear to me just what work those touches are meant to be doing.  Postmodernism as parlor tricks, I am tempted to conclude.  Meta-fiction is cute, but trivial, just another trick that can be pulled out of the bag.

Both writers are so intelligent, such interesting observers of contemporary life, that it’s the ideas they offer in novel form, rather than plot or character, that keeps me reading.  Cusk’s insights are almost all relationship-based, and almost exclusively focused on the romantic relations between men and women (with some side glances to parent-child and friendship relations).  That focus does begin to look like a limitation after three novels.  No one in her world has any money worries, or has anything that looks like a serious or troubled relationship to their work.  All the action takes place on airplanes or in comfortable restaurants, coffee shops, or hotels. The not-so-discreet (given her characters’ propensity to spill their souls) life of the bourgeoisie.  Her novels have no urgent news to offer; they begin to seem fairly frivolous by the end.

Lerner engages a wider range of concerns, but barely wanders outside the realm of bohemia.  Even his Topeka novel deals with an intelligentsia that has landed in Topeka because of the famous clinic there.  They live in Topeka, but are not really of that place. The novel features three of four native-born Topekans at the most. Which is why it was so odd that the reviewers thought they were getting some kind of insight into middle America.

The novel does offer one rich insight into America’s current mess.  I was a high school debater—and the novel’s main character is as well.  Apparently (I have no way of knowing if this is actually true, but the novel reports it as being the case), basic debate technique was altered dramatically sometime in the 1990s.  The new technique is called “the spread.”  The idea is to (rapid-fire) present as many possible arguments for your side in your opening speech—so many that your opponents cannot possibly respond to (refute) them in their rebuttal round.  Then in your closing summary, you can claim victory by referring to all the arguments your opponent did not contest.

“The spread” is a perfect description of Trump’s Twitter feed.  He floods the public sphere with so much stuff—and his opponents are driven to distraction thinking they must respond to every one of his tweets.  To leave even one of those tweets uncontested looks like conceding that point to him, while responding to every one of them drives the opponent crazy.  Futility either way.  The spread cannot be beaten precisely because it so fiendishly beats the opponent down.  It is impossible to ever raise one’s head above water as this flood of assertion, misinformation, outright lies, and outrageous proposals comes pouring down. Because there is no filter, no way to decide what is newsworthy or not, there is no way to keep Trump from flooding the channels of information/communication.  And we are all drowning in that flood.

I will write another post where I take up some ideas found in 10:24.

Crisis of Conscience in the Arts and Humanities

The current crises (multiple) in the US and the world has generated a very specific crisis of conscience among practitioners in the arts and humanities.  From the Mellon Foundation’s shift in funding priorities to my daughter-in-law’s small theater company and the anguished discussion on Victorian studies listservs about justifications for teaching/studying Dickens, those practitioners are agonizing over how their work (which they enjoy and want to continue doing) contributes to social justice.  “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem” troubles people of good will with special urgency in the current moment.

Retirement is a time for reflection.  I think of what I have done with my life, of the choices I made.  Those choices were, in one way, quite haphazard.  I did not have a plan; I was opportunistic.  I knocked on the doors that presented themselves and walked through the ones that opened. I almost never turned down an invitation to do something—and one thing led to another.  All of it, however, was within the structures of an academic career, and constituted advances along fairly clearly mapped out career paths.  Once having secured tenure, the choices I made were all safe ones.  I never put myself at serious risk in terms of financial and career security, even as I did not stick to a field or a discipline.  I was more of a free-floating intellectual, but within an institutional place where that carried no significant risks.  In that sense, I was less “careerist” than many academics, but my being a bit of a maverick came at no cost and was hardly anything like significant rebellion.  I maintained a steady distaste for, even contempt of, much academic business as usual, but let my colleagues go their way so long as they let me go mine.

What did I accomplish besides garnering my fair share of rewards?  Not much.  Tops among the rewards was working with students—and enabling some of them to go on to their own successes.  When the fairly obvious paths for a career began to close down, making the possible way forward to students increasingly murky, much of the joy of my work began to dissipate.  I couldn’t justify what I was doing in terms of the ways it provided opportunities for my students to advance.  And while the scholarship itself (as evidenced by this blog), my engagement with ideas and arguments, continued (and continue) to interest me, that pursuit seemed more and more like self-indulgence.  It does no good to anyone—a fitting way to spend my retired time if I wish, but hardly an activity that society should feel any need or responsibility to support.  I am cultivating my own garden, which seems a betrayal of our needy world.  But I can’t figure out where my efforts could be better directed.

All of this as a long preamble to an email I recently sent to a former student, now a professor of Victorian studies, when she wrote to me about the current discussion on those listserv about reading/teaching/studying Dickens.  Here’s what I wrote back”


“As for studying Dickens, I share your inability to think straight on the topic.  I have two fairly recent posts on my blog–the titles include the terms “cakes and ale” so searching that way will get you the posts–that are relevant.  I think people will keep reading Dickens in the wider world no matter what the academy does, whereas I think some authors–Smollett, Oliphant, Meredith–would disappear altogether if there weren’t scholars reading and writing on them.

But whether the academy should devote resources to scholarship on Dickens and have courses where students are made to read him is a much tougher question.  I do think it highly, highly likely that Victorian studies will slowly fade out of existence–and I do think that’s a mostly bad thing even though I also understand that Victorian studies does little, if anything, to address the massive problems that our world faces.  That’s the dilemma my posts try to address: how to justify activities and scholarship that are not necessary in the sense of not directed toward issues of social justice.  “Not directed” meaning that, even if that scholarship talks about social justice, it is not doing anything concrete to bring social justice about.

My advice for you remains the same.  Play the game by the rules that currently apply.  Get tenure.  And then, with that security obtained, consider what work you can do with a good conscience, making you feel you are contributing toward something you can affirm.  For me, that mostly meant helping my students make their way forward in the world while writing and reading about things I felt germane to articulating a vision of what we should want a democratic society look like.

But all that definitely often felt very removed from making the world a better place.  The helplessness of looking on, and the guilt of doing that looking on from a secure place, did often make me accuse myself of cowardice.  I should have been putting myself on the line and doing something direct instead of pursuing my very pleasant indirect path.

There is a question of temperament here–although it can also seem a question of selfishness.  I have worked in political campaigns since I was 18, and I find I am not suited to it.  I believe much of what campaigns do is futile make-work (phone banks and canvassing, of which I have done a fair amount without any sense that it is effective) and I also find the focus on winning the election at the expense of much investment in what one is winning the election to achieve troubling.  Finally, in my one experience dealing with Congress (I was part of a team trying to influence the writing of a legal aid bill), the compromises we had to swallow and the pettiness and ignorance of the representatives we had to deal with was a massive turn-off.  The political process–no surprise–is very broken.  So a retreat back into academia, where at least I could control my relations to my colleagues and students, and act in ways I could affirm toward them, was a huge relief.

More than you wanted to hear doubtless.  But how to make one’s way through a life lived in a corrupt and cruel society is a real dilemma.  How to maintain self-respect and some sense of investment in what one is doing day in and day out even as you bemoan the state of the world and feel you should contribute to making it better.  Not a trivial problem. “


Sentimentality and Apocalypse

Despite the effort of feminist critics, Eve Sedgwick most notable among them, fear of sentimentality (one of the most persistent hallmarks of a modernist mindset) still rules the roost in almost all “serious” fiction.  I remember figuring out around age 14, when I first started reading classics like Hemingway, Joyce, and Hardy, that I could be sure that I was reading the “good stuff” if it all ends badly.  “Poetic justice” and “happy endings” belong to the Victorians and Hollywood.  They were banished in any fiction post 1890 that aspired to “high” status—and such seems to still be the case.  Bad things happening to good people is the rule.

One reason for abandoning sentimentality, one I find myself very much in tune with, is the determination to avoid any hint that suffering pays dividends.  The classic Christian plot, of course, reveals how redemption is won through suffering.  And classic fictional plots offer all kinds of variants on the ways that characters grow in wisdom or strength or sympathy through various trials, physical and/or mental.  Not to mention suffering that serves as atonement for various faults, thus washing them clean and making the character “worthy of” a happy ending.

The modernist sensibility is that suffering is meaningless.  It does not make people better—and it does not make the world better.  Suffering is just outrageous, all too common, and offering nothing but the cup of bitterness.  In fact, there is something obscene about all efforts to turn suffering to account, to make it serve some purpose.  One must resolutely turn one’s back on any sentimental way enlisted to make suffering pay dividends.

The sentimentalist, in other words, lies.  He makes the world out to be better than it really is because he takes suffering, which is inevitable, and makes it palatable.

Anti-sentimentalism, as many have pointed out, comes with a kind of machismo pride: I am man enough to face up to the harsh truth that others try to shirk. My objection is that manning up seems to also entail admitting there is nothing that can be done about it.  It becomes sentimental to think there are ways toward a more just world.

Anti-sentimentalism also alters the form of narratives.  Traditional plots often turn on character development.  To put it most simply: they show characters learning from and being changed by experience.  As Aristotle put it way back when: characters are shown as moving from good fortune to bad, or the reverse.  It doesn’t have to be that schematic, but the point is that experience matters, that neither character nor the world are eternally the same.  Things and people change—and plots are ways of registering and accounting for those changes.  The anti-sentimentalist view tends toward stagnant, determinist, fatalism.  Things are always just about the same: the good suffer, injustice prevails, there is nothing much in the way of improvement to expect or hope for.

It’s this hopelessness that makes me like the John Dewey quote about sentimentalism that I offered a few posts back.  Here it is again:  “Education and morals will begin to find themselves on the same road of advance that say chemical industry and medicine have found for themselves when they too learn fully the lesson of whole-hearted and unremitting attention to means and conditions—that is, to what mankind so long despised as material and mechanical.  When we take means for ends we indeed fall into moral materialism.  But when we take ends without regards to means we degenerate into sentimentalism.  In the name of the ideal we fall back upon mere luck and chance and magic or exhortation and preaching; or else upon a fanaticism that will force the realization of preconceived ends at any cost”(Reconstruction in Philosophy, 73).

No surprise, of course, that Dewey, optimist that he is, believes change for the better is possible.  But I want to take up two different thoughts prompted by his statement.

First, that grand ideals like “justice” and “equality” are sentimental if unmoored from concrete ideas about how to put them into practice.  And such sentimentalism leads directly to preaching and exhortation, along with fuzzy thinking that avoids all consideration of means.  I have no more to say on that score.  If the shoe fits . . .

Second, if one has no concrete steps to be taken, I think the form “magical thinking” takes is apocalyptic.  The writer cannot imagine how to transform the world of injustice and suffering he presents.  But the writer also declares this state of affairs is unsustainable and, therefore, will come down with a crash at some unspecified point in the future through some unspecified chain of events.  This is the dream of revolution, but it has become the garden variety claim that current levels of inequality must lead to drastic political upheavals, that current levels of greenhouse gases must lead to transformative environmental disaster, and (of course) to the well-worn belief that economic crisis must lead to the collapse of capitalism.

Waiting for the apocalypse is not a politics.  “To profess to have an aim and then neglect the means of its execution is self-delusion of the most dangerous sort” (Reconstruction in Philosophy, 72-73).  Kant’s categorical imperative gets all the attention, but I have always preferred the “hypothetical imperative” myself.  Basically, Kant says we fail one test of reason when we don’t will the means toward an end.  As I explain it to my students, if your goal is to pass the test on Friday morning, the hypothetical imperative says you must study on Thursday night.  If you go out to the bars, you are being irrational by Kant’s account.

Now, it is true, neither Kant nor Dewey pay enough attention to the case where one wills the means (after having thought carefully about them) but is powerless to put those means into action.  Apocalyptic thinking is a delightful refuge for the powerless, for those who can’t make their desired courses of action a reality.

But there is no reason for such powerlessness to rule supreme in fiction.  We seem to be suffering from a debilitating case of fatalism (suffering and disaster are inevitable and there is nothing we can do about it) combined with a severe lack of imagination (an inability to entertain, at least in thought, pathways toward a better future).  The only means of transformation we seem currently able to credit is catastrophe.  And Dewey would claim that predilection is every bit as sentimental as an Austen or Dickens novel that offers its characters a happy ending.