Wednesday, July 07, 2010

note taking [response posted, accepted by the moderator and pulled 8 hours later by persons unknown]

On the Human, "Cultural Evolution: A Vehicle For Cooperative Interaction Between The Sciences And The Humanities"
Cultural evolution or cultural change? Bernini's sculptures are advances over Michelangelo's only in technical complexity. In more important ways you could say the devolve from their predecessors, not the reverse. Forms of communication change as culture changes. Old forms die out, often very slowly.

"Novelty value... recommends expressive works to their audience..."
Only in the imagination of partisans of the modern formulation called "the avant-garde." In the history of culture "progress" is a recent term, and the ideology of cultural vanguardism -the myth of leadership- has no foundation; and it's been around long enough for us to recognize its failure. Faulkner described the American south of a certain period, as it existed in the categories of his own imagination: he was the product of a time and place who described it through himself, in language. The same was true of Joyce and Manet. The avant-garde is the first to use the language of its present. Looking at history you won't find it doing anything more or less than that. The question in the humanities, if you're going to refer to "science", is whether your own project will in the end be any less a historical relic than the Bauhaus. Some of us are still in the age of the fantasies of science.

"[The] blurring of the supposed boundary between speculative metaphysics and natural science." When someone says to me that Quine was an empiricist I can't help but laugh.

Is there a relation between the anti-historical rationalism of post-war american academic philosophy and the equally rationalist and formalist idealism of Clement Greenberg's writing? And is there a relation to the recent stumbling attempts at empiricism by philosophical rationalists -"experimental philosophy" et al.- and the attempts at a representational art of "praxis" on the part of high art conceptualists, and more importantly the critics who champion them? The core of both is a condescension towards those fields that already occupy the land. This paper and things like it seems like an attempt to poach on historians turf while keeping a claim to the high ground of "science", as the increasingly academic Fine arts ape popular culture while claiming to critique it. Both continue an ideology of intellectual vanguardism, part of a tradition that claims in Alex Rosenberg's words that History is Bunk. Tell it to a Palestinian Alex. Or an Israeli for that matter.

The Sopranos and The Wire are not avant-garde. They fit with the standard model of art (as viewed by historians) as description of their time. The self-styled vanguard of contemporary culture aligns itself with MIT, either through the pseudo-leftist academicism of October or the capitalist boosterism of "Convergence Culture". As I've said elsewhere MIT's techno-optimism celebrates the technical complexity of Grand Theft Auto while The Sopranos and The Wire describe the tragedy of the culture it's a part of. Will historians look at MIT -either the Consortium or October- for a contemporary analysis of our times or merely as symptoms of our romance? I'd say the latter, but that's just my opinion. We can't be sure, and the constant references to science, the aping of it in every field of study is an attempt to bypass that question entirely.

Colin McGinn
The metaphor that best captures my experience with both philosophy and sport is soaring: pole vaulting, gymnastics and windsurfing clearly demonstrate it, but the intellectual highwire act involved in full-throttle philosophical thinking gives me a similar sensation – as if I have taken flight, leaving gravity behind. It is almost like sloughing off mortality.
Modernism is the dream of timelessness, and of immortality for the dreamer

On the piece itself: the article is full of grand generalizations and not enough specifics. There's not much meat.
It's a commonplace to see a relation of the forms of Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic periods in ancient Greece that parallel the art of the Primitives the Renaissance, Mannerism and Baroque in the last millennium. You can refer to the rise and fall of forms of culture, and the rise and fall of cultures. But to do any of this without reference to the specifics of each place and time seems more than odd. The global view for global view's sake seems more than anything like a way to keep your hands clean. And history is a dirty business: to follow life and death is to be reminded of your own.

Clapping and Hollywood economics. Is the first point to describe how people move back and forth between the pleasures of individualism and membership? If so it's a nice story but what else? What's the surprise?

On movies: are you saying that the moments of communal response somehow are self-generating, that the crowd produces the response in some way, like a chemical reaction? Or are you merely observing that if a movie pushes the right buttons on a large enough percentage of its viewers the social aspect of enthusiasm has an inertial force, or maybe a little more? And if the latter, are you arguing that this is something to be overcome or indulged? By focusing on the mean -"this is how people behave"- does that in itself not add to a downward pressure? I have the same comments about economics: growing up around academics who were as materialist in philosophy as they were anti-materialist in behavior, I've become convinced as they were that increasing conservative "realism" about human greed resulted in an huge spike in the personal greed of academics. They viewed that with disgust.
Again, I'm looking for more. I suppose I'm looking for a point of view.

"[W]hile it may seem intuitively obvious that complex cultures create a collective ambiance that favors expressive forms that different from those of less complex cultures, one would like an explanation for this “fit.” I would expect a robust account of cultural evolution to provide such an explanation."

Look to ethnography and again, look to history. What are the relations of individuals to each other and to their community when their community is simpler or more primitive than ours? Look to the relations of Giotto to to Michelangelo to Rubens. Look at the economics. And yes I suppose that's Marxist. You can also see how Giotto and even more so Michelangelo were central to our understanding of their ages, and Rubens again less so, as his chosen form is by this point in the long slow process of recession. Art describes the structure of the world that produces it. Anything man-made describes man. [a feminist might say: even to the exclusion of women] That's why mathematicians are Platonist, and historians are not. You are aware I think that individualism is a modern phenomenon. Look at working class neighborhoods and the pseudo-neighborhoods that gentrification makes out of them.

And then Moretti, who insists explicitly on treating the products of human activity as if they were so many rocks, though I have to assume he wouldn't be so happy to have his own work described in that way. If literature fundamentally is letter writing from the living to the unborn, why insist on dehumanizing it? I'm doing something similar here, responding less to your arguments than to the rhetorical structures behind them but I'm not writing of your work as if it were merely an object or event. Moretti is, and the question is why? Why pick apart literature and not the history of western philosophy as a series of tropes and "memes" and ignore agency entirely? That's a scary proposition for professors of philosophy.

Sita Sings the Blues

Some links: Panofsky, Three Essays on Style. I recommend The Ideological Antecedents of the Rolls-Royce Radiator which describes how a Palladian temple front found itself topped by an art nouveau sprite. As always Panofsky manages to be both cooly Germanic and casually hilarious. And deeply humane. Also The Intelligence of Art by Thomas Crow, with essays on Meyer Shapiro and Claude Levi-Strauss, on art, the foreign and the past.

I can only surmise why you spend so much time on new artwork, about which we can have only a limited perspective. But still even with that you don't offer us much. I'll begin with Chitra Ganesh.

Then I have to ask if you've done any research on the trope of floating figures on psychedelic or abstract patterns as an image of disembodied, private experience. [The McGinn quote links to a discussion of that subject] "Her outline, in black, is decoupled from the texture-filling forms, one for her hair (yellow-green), one for her body (a warm medium brown) and still others for her eyes. Paley does this for about six seconds. What’s this about?" Again you don't know even recent history of graphic art, or maybe (again) history doesn't matter.

You're skimming the surface. Panofsky and Crow are historians, and as such they are very wary of isolating patterns of any sort from their contexts. And that doesn't refer only to the works in the time of their making but the context of the historical narratives in which they've played a part. We look at Giotto and see things in the work that he could never see, even though they were always there, because we have a perspective on his own history and of his own world that he lacked. We also see how he fits into the world between his life and ours. It's the same with Constitutional theory or the theory of performance in Bach. Some say we have absolute access to the past, and that's all that counts. Others say we have to think only of the present. And finally there are those who say that originalism, interpretive history and present purposes should all apply, or better: that they all do whether we like it or not.

The human mind makes patterns of the world. Patterns are reassurance, are intimations of order and stability, and we like often to assume often that those patterns exist outside our imaginations, in the world. In very basic ways I'm sure they do, but things get very fuzzy very fast, and an ideology of clarity is counterproductive.

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