Sunday, May 02, 2010

For a couple of decades the lowly plastic cassette tape, full of good sounds, cheaply copied and passed around like samizdat, served as creative raw material mostly in the indie-music world and the college dorm room.
But in London in the early 1970s, a conceptual artist named William Furlong began harnessing the cassette for his unlikely purposes in the visual arts. The motivation wasn’t dauntingly conceptual: he and his friends talked a lot and listened to the conversations of other artists and realized something.
“It became apparent to us,” Mr. Furlong said in a telephone interview last week from his home and modest recording studio in the Clapham section of London, “that none of that talk and none of our interests were being met by any traditional arts publications.”
Phaidon Press has now published “Speaking of Art,” a small sampling of the immense undertaking that resulted from that dissatisfaction. Beginning in 1973, with the help of a few collaborators, Mr. Furlong created Audio Arts, a no-budget “magazine” composed solely of cassette recordings of interviews with artists Mr. Furlong found interesting. He mailed them to friends and subscribers, at first hundreds and then thousands.

...Mr. Furlong considers the magazine a work of art itself: a monumental audio sculpture.
Considering himself a sculptor he refers to his projects as sculptures; whether they're best defined as that is irrelevant. His pretense fits with the history of video and performance art and of every other process of cultural transformation wherein one formal system acclimates itself to change while maintaining a pretense of continuity.

Culture in the 1960's continued the fraught process of return to a model of non-ideal representation, of representation involving time rather than timelessness, the fine arts specifically struggling to accept what photography and film took for granted. But art was art and movies and theater were entertainment. This is the tension as I've said that marks the mixture of smart observation and absurd prescription in Michael Fried's Art and Objecthood, as well as art-school teachers' fondness for Vertov and indifference to Eisenstein.

This brings us (since I was lucky enough to find both last week) to another example of the same process of change: philosophy, poaching on experimental psychology as "experimental philosophy"

Joshua Knobe, and the "Knobe Effect"
Rather than consulting his own philosophical intuitions, Knobe set out to find out how ordinary people think about intentional action. In a study published in 2003, Knobe presented passers-by in a Manhattan park with the following scenario. The CEO of a company is sitting in his office when his Vice President of R&D comes in and says, ‘We are thinking of starting a new programme. It will help us increase profits, but it will also harm the environment.’ The CEO responds that he doesn’t care about harming the environment and just wants to make as much profit as possible. The programme is carried out, profits are made and the environment is harmed.

Did the CEO intentionally harm the environment? The vast majority of people Knobe quizzed – 82 per cent – said he did. But what if the scenario is changed such that the word ‘harm’ is replaced with ‘help’? In this case the CEO doesn’t care about helping the environment, and still just wants to make a profit – and his actions result in both outcomes. Now faced with the question ‘Did the CEO intentionally help the environment?’, just 23 per cent of Knobe’s participants said ‘yes’ (Knobe, 2003a).

This asymmetry in responses between the ‘harm’ and ‘help’ scenarios, now known as the Knobe effect, provides a direct challenge to the idea of a one-way flow of judgments from the factual or non-moral domain to the moral sphere. ‘These data show that the process is actually much more complex,’ argues Knobe. Instead, the moral character of an action’s consequences also seems to influence how non-moral aspects of the action – in this case, whether someone did something intentionally or not – are judged.
The fact that people are held responsible for thoughtlessness that results in a bad outcome while not given credit for thoughtlessness that results in a good one -an "asymmetry in responses"- is common knowledge.  Here it's somehow a new and surprising thing, named for its "discoverer". Knobe may want to make a distinction between intention and responsibility but the author of the passage doesn't give it much thought, slipping from one to the other just as I assume the "folk" Knobe interviewed did.  It's as if Knobe were surprised to see a woman on the street wearing a bikini while he doesn't notice that the road is running by a beach. Taking a break from his life in the library stacks -and not the stacks in the law library where he'd find discussion of why "ignorance of the law is no excuse"- he thinks he's discovered something new.

Law is a function of organized society. Its job is the management of conflict, and needs to be consistent in its application. No one has ever insisted that it's absolutely consistent in its formal structure. Similarly there's no reason that people's responses are internally consistent according to one definition of rationality. Responses may be predictable, but that's not the same thing.

People argue from values. The respondents transposed questions of intent into questions of praiseworthiness. Should the CEO be praised by helping the environment without caring one way or the other? No.
Modern empiricism has been conditioned in large part by two dogmas. One is a belief in some fundamental cleavage between truths which are analytic, or grounded in meanings independently of matters of fact and truths which are synthetic, or grounded in fact. The other dogma is reductionism: the belief that each meaningful statement is equivalent to some logical construct upon terms which refer to immediate experience. Both dogmas, I shall argue, are ill founded. One effect of abandoning them is, as we shall see, a blurring of the supposed boundary between speculative metaphysics and natural science. Another effect is a shift toward pragmatism.
The penultimate sentence in that paragraph is more absurd, and more perverse, than anything by Derrida, and it's done more lasting harm.

I posted this before but again it's apropos. The meanings of words change over time. Here's some mainstream left-liberalism from 1965. It does not represent mainstream left-liberalism now.



Language games describe the era in which they're used. There is no access to the language of the past without both an imaginative sympathy and a knowledge of function. There is no valid empiricism absent an (empirically derived) knowledge of history and of historical change. The rigors of formal logic brought into the world become pedantry.

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