A Short, and Mostly Gloomy, Post-Election Post

I wrote most of this post three days ago, then held on to it because it assumed Joe Biden’s victory and I didn’t want to jinx that outcome by anticipating it.  The wait, it turned out, had a positive effect on my mood.  Having it all hang in the balance for so long made the victory that much sweeter when it came.  And the pleasure, nay joy, of my friends and family made this sourpuss give way a bit.  Let’s appreciate what went right for a day or two.

The 2020 election has been a disaster for Democrats (and for liberals and the left more generally) and an uplifting delight for Republicans, especially the wonderfully named Vichy Republicans, the party hacks who have enabled the Trump presidency.

Not an unmitigated disaster, since getting rid of Trump is all to the good.  But Biden takes office unable to govern.  He will be thwarted at every turn—and the multiple problems afflicting the United States (climate change, crumbling infrastructure, a dysfunctional heath care system, economic inequality, racial injustice, the kleptocracy of our tax code and subsidies to big ag, big pharma, big oil and others) will go unaddressed for another four years.  And the vote reveals that more than 70 million of our fellow citizens could witness Trump’s antics, ineptitude, corruption, and cruelty for four years—and ask for more.

The Vichy Republicans, meanwhile, got exactly what they wanted out of Trump: massive tax cuts and a lock-hold on the federal judiciary.  And now they get to see him out the door, and replace inflammatory tweeting with their quiet entrenchment of minority rule to benefit the already rich and powerful. 

Trump has served their purpose and now they can reap the benefits of having the courts on their side as they go back to doing what they do best: nothing.  They will return to the 2010 to 2016 playbook: obstruct, obstruct, obstruct. While insuring legislative gridlock, they will use the courts to enhance corporate power, and voter suppression/gerrymandering; and they will mobilize “religious freedom” to enable discrimination, and to make abortions inaccessible (and perhaps illegal).  It’s all about unaccountability.  Corporations and politicians and the police are to be beyond the reach of the people—as are, of course, judges appointed for life.

The Republicans have learned that there is no price to be paid for the insider baseball stuff.  Game the system in any way you like to undermine democratic processes—and the vast majority of the public does not respond. Winning is everything, the rules of the game nothing. If there ever were “norms,” there are no longer.  Most likely, the norms only had some grip in the past because there was a centralized, elite media that actually did have some power in shaping public opinion.  Now we have ten million “influencers” and the resulting cacophony has blasted any chance of commonly adopted standards. 

Meanwhile, the Democrats must come to grips with how successfully the Republicans have used fear and hatred to mobilize voters.  The cry of “socialist” works with significant numbers of non-white voters (refugees from Cuba or China or Vietnam or Central America), while (as is evident here in North Carolina) significant numbers of white voters hate (the only appropriate word) “liberals.”  As they have in every election since 1968, a majority of white voters went for the Republican candidate for president.

The Democrats cannot depend on demographics to get them out of this hole.  This election demonstrates that non-white voters are not automatic Democratic voters.  And younger voters have a nasty habit of becoming more conservative as they get older (and more likely to actually vote). 

Against all evidence, the left wing of the party is going to argue that Biden was an uninspiring candidate and someone like Sanders or Warren would have done better.  That argument ignores the record turn-out for this election, as well as the resonance of the charge of “socialism” with many voters.  There simply are not enough non-voters out there who would have voted for Sanders to have won this election down-ballot for the Democrats.  Sanders (or some theoretical candidate of his ilk but younger, more dynamic, and sexier) would not have done better than Biden—and most likely would have done worse.  But that won’t stop those who will argue otherwise.

So the Democratic civil war will continue, and the activists might well get their chance to run a more progressive candidate in 2024.  Obviously, I don’t think that will go well.

Fintan O’Toole (characteristically brilliant, if uncharacteristically long-winded), in his post-election piece, considers how deep and permanent are the anti-democratic forces that Trump tapped and amplified. 

My only consolation—and I will admit to be being baffled by this fact—is how strong the taboo against political violence remains in the U.S.  In a country awash in guns, where gun violence is a regular occurrence and you only need to sneeze in the public square to receive hundreds of death threats in your email inbox, no one crosses the line over into directly political violence. Yes, we have the lone shooters who are inspired by the hate-filled rhetoric of Trump and of the right-wing web sites.  But organized violence directed at influencing political outcomes is still unknown in this country—despite posturings in that direction. The gun-toters at the polling place in Fairfax County, Virginia back in September, and the militia thugs occupying the Michigan state house in the summer turned out to be one-offs, not harbingers of general attempts at intimidation or of any actual violence.  Maybe now, in defeat, that line will get crossed as Trump continues to claim he was robbed.  But I don’t think we will see violence, even though we will have the lingering rot deep in the national psyche of at least 30% of Americans believing the election was stolen.  We know the power such grievances hold for right-wing politics. 

I always planned to stand outside a rural NC polling place on election day—and figured I would do so in the presence of guns.  I spent fourteen hours outside of Creedmoor Elementary School on November 3rd, passing out the Democrats’ sample ballot.  Creedmoor is about 45 northeast of Chapel Hill.  The three of us working for the Democrats were Chapel Hill imports; the eight people manning the Trump tent were all locals and they greeted by name most of the white voters and were polite to the African-American voters (whom they obviously did not know).  No guns and we had sporadic, cheerful conversations during the long day with the Trumpistas. No overt hostility. But it was also clear that every white voter was going for Trump. 

As Fred Kaplan says in a short essay in Slate and Wallace Shawn argues in a short piece in the New York Review of Books (links provided below; Heather Cox Richardson style): maybe this is just who we Americans are. (My colleague Kumi Silva has said “stop saying this is not what American are.”  The vote shows that racism and its cruelties are embedded deep in the American soul.) Our better angels have been put into storage; Americans see that we live in a harsh, unjust, dog-eat-dog world and are determined to get ours, letting the devil see to the hindmost.  Trump gave us permission to put all that do-gooder liberal stuff behind us.  No American exceptionalism—just the unalloyed freedom to be selfish without shame or guilt.

I don’t want to live in this society.  But it seems to be the society I am stuck in. 

Kaplan:

https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2020/11/trumpism-election-results-america.html

Shawn:

O’Toole:

Cognitive Theories of Art (4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.