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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.

Kim Evans Responds

Here’s is Kim’s correction of my mis-understanding of her project.

Dearest John,

Many thanks for the shout out! I’m intrigued by your account of my argument and your response to it—which has sent my head spinning (not in an unpleasant way). Here are a few initial reactions, and since you paint the scene with a useful mix of the personal and the intellectual I’ll respond in kind.

First, you have perfectly captured the gist of our not-wasting-any-time-with-chit-chat encounter: that by changing the original meaning of “noumena” from “that which is thought” to his own “things as they are, independent of observation,” Kant not only altered (detrimentally) the trajectory of thought in the modern era but also created the conditions for our enduring misreading of Plato. Ironically, Plato gets the rap for Kant’s dualism.

However, I did *not* say (as you report) that “we should understand the Forms as the concepts by which we (humans) grasp things.” I’m sorry to be so fastidious on this point, but something I find preoccupying is how confused many people have become about concepts (or what it means to have the use of a concept) and concept formation. The confusion is largely due (thanks for nothing, Kant!) to the belief that concepts are formed in the individual theater of the mind. You are still reading Kant or operating out of a set of assumptions established for you by philosophers in the modern era (after the defining work of Descartes and Locke) when in the second half of your post you object to what you call my idealism or worry about the way that all this talk about concepts “confines humans within the boundaries of our languages.” This Kantian view of concepts (as an activity of mind) simply does not map onto the view we find in Plato’s writing. Plato calls attention to the world of forms in order to help us see how language actually works. And discovering how language actually works, according to good readers of Plato (like Wittgenstein) and good readers of Wittgenstein (like Bernard Harrison), helps us to see how a) the “meaning” of a word or linguistic expression—“whale,” for example—doesn’t come, as it were, from Nature and it doesn’t come from Mind; it comes from the role the world plays in language, and b) the meaning of a word can’t be divorced from the wide array of socially devised and maintained practices in which the speakers of language are engaged.  This should come as an enormous relief to anyone who wishes, as you do, to emphasize the central importance of practices in the formation of concepts. I could also say here that something you presumably like about Wittgenstein is that he both denies the existence of a referential relationship between words and things and at the same time dispels the view that language is self-referential, the meaning of its signs established by nothing more than the history of language. But for goodness’ sake let’s please finally concede that this is in fact the position of the classical realists and their best readers (like C. S. Peirce)—though this will presumably only happen when we get back to reading Plato’s dialogues instead of using him as a foil.

SO, to repeat, I did not say that “we should understand the Forms as the concepts by which we (humans) grasp things.” After all, we’ve never had any problem grasping things! The matter that needs explaining is how we grasp thoughts (or the thoughts our words express, which all together make up what Plato called the noumenal realm) and also how the thought a word expresses is affected by or sedimented out of our undeniable placement in the phenomenal realm or world of empirical objects, forces, etc.

The formulation I prefer (and if I get hit by a bus tomorrow, would like to be remembered by) is this one:

For Plato, the real world is the world of things signified by the signs in our language. 

Or,

The things signified by the signs in our language (“the living whale in his full majesty and significance” in Melville’s signature expression, when the sign is “whale”) are what Plato calls real.

What I like about this formulation is that it gets us away from all the garbled transcendentalism misleadingly associated with Plato but really pushed by philosophers in the modern era (for example all the talk about the “stability” of the forms) and back to the view, which is the view we get from reading Plato’s dialogues, that our concepts are in motion. (They are in motion because they are always being revised and added to, as you say, but this does not make them subjective. For Plato concepts are not private but public.)

Now, there is something else at work here that I think is worth remarking on. In your post you comment on your reading habits (that you only skim the news but prefer to read books, the longer the better) and you reference (with sympathy or shared feeling, I think) my remark that the sound of not reading is what we mostly hear. But then, after introducing my position (as found in my MLA talk, but given full development in my new book, One Foot in the Finite: Melville’s Realism Reclaimed) you go on to spell out a difference you see between your position and mine on the grounds that what I say about concepts has not taken enough account of practices. But good god, man! As the author of a book about, precisely, the relationship between concepts and practices or the materiality of our conceptual lives (through the lens of Melville’s Moby-Dick, the most practice-aware study of concepts in all recorded thought!) I’m puzzled by your account. I can only imagine that you are not reading all of the book in which the view you characterize is laid out. This would be perfectly understandable, given the demands of life. Even the most intelligent and serious of readers learn to make use of reviews, rumors, and what they can glean from titles. (And speaking of reviews, I’ll paste below the first few paragraphs of one of the reviews of One Foot so that you don’t have to take my word for it on the question of my focus on practice.) But I am nevertheless interested in the likelihood of people not reading because not-reading seems to have become the means by which our profession keeps chugging along. Well, to speak more accurately, your profession, since as you point out I am no longer paid by anyone to be a reader of texts or to help other people undertake that work. Payment, as my latest labor of love suggests, is not necessary—though the want of it is profoundly uncomfortable & of course the kids suffer.

In any event I am brought back to something you said at the beginning of your post. I am extremely happy to be characterized by you as “a scholar of rare conviction and a thinker of even rarer originality,” and wouldn’t it be nice to think that this is the reason I am presently unemployed! My feeling is that the truth is more mundane and (to me) more unsettling. My last position, as you know, was Associate Professor of Literature and Philosophy at Yeshiva University, and when I am asked what happened there the best way I have of explaining is with a line cribbed from The Great Gatsby. I say I fell into the hands of careless people. ‘Careless’ is perhaps less damning a mode than many others (like ‘ill-willed’ or ‘frightened by originality’) but I think that when it is the mode taken up by professional readers and critics it can feel almost calculated—an engine of professional life rather than an obstacle to it. Isn’t that what Kant demonstrated, when in his Critique of Pure Reason his “unwarrantable” use of the word “noumena” (to quote Schopenhauer) both launched his own career and buried Plato’s own view under two centuries of misreading?

I’m sure I have made certain missteps, here—but oh, the pressure of a blog to respond quickly! I prefer the slowness of books. And shouldn’t books be read as deliberately as they were written? When did that way of reading end, and what will be the result?

 

Very much love, Kim

Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

2018.04.28 View this Review Online   View Other NDPR Reviews

  1. L. Evans,One Foot in the Finite: Melville’s Realism Reclaimed, Northwestern University Press, 2018, 210pp., $34.95 (pbk.), ISBN 9780810136120.

Reviewed by Gary Shapiro, University of Richmond

Recently there has been an explosion of Anglophone philosophical interest in Herman Melville. The author of Moby Dick, or the Whale (1851) was neglected until the Melville renaissance that began among literary critics and historians in the 1920s and that has grown steadily since. However, it is only recently that those working in the analytical philosophical vein have turned their attention to the writer. Others writing in English with a more continental orientation have produced several monographs and essay collections in just the last three years or so. These studies were preceded some decades ago by a number of European thinkers, such as Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Ranciére, and Giorgio Agamben. Evans’s book should be of great interest to those seeking a strong interpretation of Melville’s great novel and to those exploring the value of Wittgenstein’s thought for literary analysis.

Evans focuses specifically on Moby Dick. As her title suggests, she is interested in reclaiming Melville’s realism. In a larger sense, she joins in an effort to reclaim American literature for philosophy, a project identified most frequently, but not exclusively, with the work of Stanley Cavell. She advances a Wittgensteinian reading of the novel, claiming that Melville “in effect lays out a solution to the problem that has vexed philosophy since its inception — the problem of how we grasp thought” (118) or (just a bit more modestly) that he dissolves the Cartesian problem of bridging “the ontological chasm between nonspatiotemporal thoughts and spatiotemporally bound thinkers” (164). While Evans devotes about as much time to explaining her version of Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language, knowledge, and reality as to explicating and commenting on Melville’s text, she does offer a number of distinctive readings of the latter inspired by the former analysis. This book offers an original understanding of Melville’s realism and argues that, so understood, the novel is quite coherent, contrary to many critics who regard it as a poorly patched together combination of a realistic whaling narrative and a metaphysical tragedy.

Evans comments acutely on a signature philosophical passage in Moby Dick that compares a whaling vessel hauling along two dead whales, one on each side, and so precariously balancing itself, to a thinker attempting to juggle Locke and Kant (chapter 73). Nominalistic empiricism competes with the transcendental a priori: is our knowledge limited to the things of sense, or do we possess concepts and forms of intuition that invariably structure our experience while rendering the noumenal world inaccessible? The narrator comments on the plight of those who “for ever keep trimming boat” as they compensate for a tilt toward one by hoisting up the other side. Evans endorses the narrator’s exclamation: “Oh, ye foolish! Throw all these thunderheads overboard, and then you will float light and right.” Melville, as read through Evans’s take on Wittgenstein, recognizes that our concepts are embedded in common forms of life, elements of a rich and complex network of habits, customs, practices, and institutions. The “living whale in his full majesty and significance” — a phrase that Evans repeats with increasing resonance — is not to be reduced either to a set of sensible experiences nor to the idea that a single person might form of the cetacean. The whale is the object of those forms of life practiced by whalemen who pursue, catch, slaughter, process, and are sometimes the victim of the leviathan.

Throughout, Evans engages in a running discussion with a number of Wittgenstein’s leading interpreters and commentators. She is particularly partial to Bernard Harrison’s explication of meaning as use and the concept of language games. Evans suggests a continuity which has not always been apparent between the “logical space” of theTractatus and the Investigations‘s focus on use. In clarifying this project, she observes — rightly, I believe — that it is misleading to reduce Wittgenstein’s meaningful “facts” to mere “things,” as the Pears and McGuiness Tractatus translation tends to do. Literary scholars inspired by (say) Cavell’s readings of Emerson and Thoreau should find these analyses, which are bolstered by discussions in the extensive notes, especially helpful. Philosophers who are in the current Wittgenstein loop may find them a bit repetitious, while others less conversant with relatively recent relevant discussions may be grateful for them……

 

Moral Envy and Opportunity Hoarding

One quick addendum to the last post—and to Bertrand Russell’s comment about how the traditionalist is allowed all kinds of indignation that the reformer is not.  What’s with the ubiquity of death threats against anyone who offends the right wing in the United States?  That those who would change an established social practice/pattern, no matter how unjust or absurd, deserve a death sentence is, to all appearances, simply accepted by the radical right.  So, just to give one example, the NC State professor who went public with his memories of drinking heavily with Brett Kavanaugh at Yale immediately got death threats—as did some of his colleagues in the History Department.  Maybe you could say that snobbish contempt for the “deplorables” is the standard left wing response to right wingers—just as predictable as right wingers making death threats.  But contempt and scorn are not solely the prerogative of the left, whereas death threats do seem only mobilized by the right.

Which does segue, somewhat, into today’s topic, which was to take up David Graeber’s alternative way of explaining the grand canyon between the left and right in today’s America.  His first point concerns what he calls “moral envy.”  “By ‘moral envy,’ I am referring here to feelings of envy and resentment directed at another person, not because that person is wealthy, or gifted, or lucky, but because his or her behavior is seen as upholding a higher moral standard than the envier’s own.  The basic sentiment seems to be ‘How dare that person claim to be better than me (by acting in a way that I do indeed acknowledge is better than me?”” (Bullshit Jobs: A Theory [Simon and Schuster, 2018], 248).  The most usual form this envy takes, in my experience, is the outraged assertion that someone is a “hypocrite.”  The right wing is particularly addicted to this claim about liberal do-gooders.  The liberals, in their view, claim to be holier than thou, but know what side their bed is feathered on, and do quite well for themselves.  They wouldn’t be sipping lattes and driving Priuses if they weren’t laughing their way to the bank.  Moral envy, then, is about bringing everyone down to the same low level of behavior—and thus (here I think Graeber is right) entails a covert acknowledgement that the general run of behavior is not up to our publicly stated moral aspirations.  So we don’t like the people who make the everyday, all-too-human fact of the gap between our ideals and our behavior conspicuous.  Especially when their behavior indicates that the gap is not necessary.  It is actually possible to act in a morally admirable manner.

But then Graeber goes on to do something unexpected—and to me convincing—with this speculation about moral envy.  He ties it to jobs.  Basically, the argument goes like this: some people get to have meaningful jobs, ones for which it is fairly easy to make the case that “here is work worth doing.”  Generally, such work involves actually making something or actually providing a needed service to some people.  The farmer and the doctor have built-in job satisfaction insofar as what they devote themselves to doing requires almost no justification—to themselves or to others.  (This, of course, doesn’t preclude all kinds of dissatisfactions with factors that make their jobs needlessly onerous or economically precarious.)

Graeber’s argument in Bullshit Jobs is that there are not enough of the meaningful jobs to go around.  As robots make more of the things that factory workers used to make and as agricultural labor also requires far fewer workers than it once did, we have not (as utopians once predicted and as Graeber still believes is completely possible) rolled back working hours.  Instead, we generated more and more bullshit jobs—jobs that are make-work in some cases (simply unproductive in ways that those who hold the job can easily see) or, even worse, jobs that are positively anti-productive or harmful (sitting in office denying people’s welfare or insurance claims; telemarketing; you can expand the list.)  In short, lots of people simply don’t have access to jobs that would allow them to do work that they, themselves, morally approve of.

Graeber’s point is that the people who hold these jobs know how worthless the jobs are.  But they rarely have other options—although the people he talks to in his book do often quit these soul-destroying jobs.  The political point is that the number of “good” jobs, i.e. worthwhile, meaningful jobs is limited.  And the people who have those jobs curtail access to them (through professional licensing practices in some cases, through networking in other cases).  There is an inside track to the good jobs that depends, to a very large extent, on being to the manor/manner born.  Especially for the jobs that accord upper-middle-class status (and almost guarantee that one will be a liberal), transmission is generational.  This is the “opportunity hoarding” that Richard Reeves speaks about in his 2017 book, Dream Hoarders.  The liberal professional classes talk a good game about diversity and meritocracy, but they basically keep the spots open for their kids.  Entry into that world from the outside is very difficult and very rare.

To the manner born should also be taken fairly literally.  Access to the upper middle class jobs still requires the detour of education–and how to survive (and even thrive) at an American university is an inherited trait.  Kids from the upper middle class are completely at home in college, just as non-middle-class kids are so often completely at sea.  Yes, school can be a make-it and a break-it, a place where an upper class kid falls off the rails and place where the lower class kid finds a ladder she manages to climb.  But all the statistics, as well as my own experience as a college teacher for thirty years, tell me that the exceptions are relatively rare.  College is a fairly difficult environment to navigate–and close to impossibly difficult for students to whom college’s idiolects are not a native language.

So two conclusions. 1.  It is a mixture of class resentment and moral envy that explains the deep animus against liberal elites on the part of non-elites—an animus that, as much as does racism in my opinion, explains why the abandoned working class of our post-industrial cities has turned to the right.  As bad as (or, at least, as much as) their loss of economic and social status has been their loss of access to meaningful work.  Put them into as many training sessions as you want to transition them to the jobs of the post-industrial economy, you are not going to solve their acute knowledge that these new jobs suck when compared to their old jobs in terms of basic worth.  So they resent the hell out of those who still hold meaningful jobs—and get well paid for those jobs and also have the gall to preach to them about tolerance and diversity.  2.  It is soul-destroying to do work you cannot justify as worth doing.  And what is soul-destroying will lead to aggression, despair, rising suicide rates, drug abuse, and susceptibility to right-wing demagogues.  Pride in one’s work is a sine non qua of a dignified adult life.

Name Change

Thanks to an alert reader, I found out today that there is a blog out there with the same name: Public Intelligence.  It’s a right-wing conspiracy blog, especially obsessed with pedophilia.  Truly ugly stuff.

So I have changed the name of my blog in order to avoid all confusion.  And to make sure that Google searches for my site don’t lead people to the other one.

From now on, this blog is called McGowanBlog.  The url remains the same: https://jzmcgowan.com