Category: Meaning and Life and the Humanities

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.

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.

Rachel Kushner

I have recently read Rachel Kushner’s novels, Telex from Cuba and The Flamethrowers.  They are both compelling reads.  Telex is more coherent, telling the story of Castro’s take-over of Cuba, mostly from the perspective of Americans living and working in Cuba at the time.  The narrative evokes both the blindness of those Americans to what is happening—and the nostalgia for pre-Castor Cuba (and their lives there) that afflicts these Americans after they return to the States. 

The Flamethrowers is a mess.  The story wanders all over the place, with various characters and incidents offered up with no subsequent follow through.  But is it always interesting.  In its second half, it wanders into narrating radical (and violent) political action, specifically the Italian Red Brigade of the 1970s and their kidnappings and executions of business executives.  The narrative voice during this section of the novel is curiously disengaged.  It is not best described as a recording of the events that refuses to suggest any stance (moral or emotional) to them.  Rather, there is a kind of unreality about the whole narration, as if (without ever explicitly stating this) the events are presented as an unbelievable fiction, as a visit to an alternative world neither the narrator nor her readers could actually credit.  It’s like the play violence of a video game rather than violence that is actually experienced as a shock or a grim fact.  There is something pro forma about these sections of the novel, as contrasted to the tale of the heroine’s experiences in the first half.  Adding to this effect is the fact that the heroine walks away from the violence in Italy (in which she has become entangled) with little to no discernible effect on her life or attitudes. It’s as if it didn’t happen.

The violence in Telex is not sidestepped in the same way.  Maybe it’s because we are dealing with a successful revolution—and with a civil war that saw wide-spread violence on both sides.  In any case, Telex contends with the issue of the ways violence is utilized in political struggles—and with the divide between those willing (able?) to deploy violence in cold-hearted, “calculated” ways and those to whom violence is beyond the pale (for whatever emotional or moral reasons). 

The following passage leads me to think about the connection between meaning and “the deliberate.”  Obviously, we can do things that convey meanings we never intended to convey.  But there are also cases where we very carefully set out to communicate something, to insure that what we do or say is fraught with meaning.  Cases where we take special care to see that our meaning gets across.  Kushner ties this heightened attention to meaning to certain acts of violence, ones that can be deemed “rhetorical,” through a speech given by the character La Maziere to a group of Castro’s guerillas after they have captured two of the counter-revolutionary forces.

“Executions, La Maziere continued, his voice rising to be sure everyone heard, was an act of intent, purpose, and exactitude. Assassination was a far lower act, an act of opportunity, or worse, ‘necessity’—a word he said as if it were a soiled, smelly rag he held between two fingers.  Execution was a ritualized killing, he emphasized.  It was never, ever, an act of necessity.  It was always an act of choice, a calculated delivery of justice.  And only by the elevated loft of choice, he explained, could the act of killing take on symbolic meaning.  Killing, he said, had meaning, voluptuous and mystical meaning that should never be squandered.  An execution was a rhetorical weapon, a statement that could not be disproved, just as a man could not be restored from death” (pg. 232 of Telex from Cuba).

Meaning is enhanced by ritual, by the elaborate staging/demonstration of deliberate choice, and by full publicity, full openness to view.