Thursday, February 1, 2018

Is it Really "Art?"

Defining art is a task that is both necessary yet inextricably complex. Regarding the former, a definition necessarily functions to dissociate art objects and non-art objects from one another. Defining an entity as “art” is a judgment which essentializes an object or concept into an elementary, binary classification that acts as a foundation to further attempt many meanings that could articulate a definition. This is to say, that to understand what art is, one also needs to understand what it is not. Although, in that there is no general consensus as to what art is, defining art comes to be a subjective matter which designates any definitive meaning to be uniquely particular and thus difficult to equate to a far-reaching generalization. In this sense, any definition of art will always be permeable, intangible, and indefinite. Thus, “art” is a word with abounding definitions that cannot be definitively fixed in the same way, for example, that the definition of the word “shovel” can be reasonably established. Any definition of “art” can be applied essentially or particularly, and subsequently disputed. Anything can be defined as “art,” yet justifying the definition can be problematic and ultimately unsatisfactory. Therefore, the question of definition means that art is both a classification that is easily administered as well as something that is paradoxically ineffable. However, the contentiousness of the question itself elicits its importance.    

The importance of defining art has led to a profusion of theories to support particular definitions throughout recorded history. Art has been variously defined as human-made objects or concepts that imitate natural phenomena, communicate information, express emotion, or prompt interpretation to find a meaning in such a way that distinguishes an object, characteristic, or concept from a non-art object, characteristic, or concept. In this fashion, the only essential quality to art is the word, “art.” Thus, theories of art have emerged that are cognizant of this difficulty and have accordingly developed principles that attempt to explain the meaning in and of art. The efforts of all the theoretical pursuits indicate the significance of art’s meaning and have contributed to a body of knowledge that is comprised of many definitions. Clearly, the existence of art theory correlates to a value in seeking to understand what art is and is not. Yet, as to the importance of defining art, the value lies in the question and not definitive answers. There is more value in pursuing an answer with a diversity of questions than arriving at an answer, because questions produce new and divergent ways of understanding a complex concept like art that do not necessarily define art. Consequently, endeavoring to define art is distinctly important, whereas an ultimate definition is less important. 

Two strategies emerged in the 20th century to accommodate the radical changes in art and its appreciation. The first derived from the Frankfurt School with the theories of Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. This approach argued that art should be understood within the economic and cultural conditions of modern capitalism. The second strategy developed from the theories of Arthur Danto and George Dickie which placed the meaning of an artwork outside the work itself. This approach argued that an artwork’s efficacy as art was no longer inherent to the work of art itself. These two strategies thoroughly altered the way in which art is understood and accordingly provide insight into the question of “what art is.”

In his 1935 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin addresses the ways in which mass reproduction of aesthetic works alters the experience and perception of art. However, it is noted that art changes along with cultural changes, and thus functions as a means in which to perceive and understand the wider world. Benjamin writes, “During long periods of history, the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence.” Demonstrating this process, Benjamin uses the term, “aura” to describe the authenticity of an original artwork that is established by way of a ritualistic basis. In this sense, the aura is associated to the cultural context in which the artwork was created. It has a provincial cult value in its extrinsic properties that exist as a part of the aura. With the standardization of mass produced and reproduced artworks, the aura has been disassociated from the work. The original work is now removed from experience, or there is no original at all in the sense that the artwork is designed for mass production, as with the mediums of photography and film. Nonetheless, Benjamin recognizes that these technological adaptations have the means to positively alter the ways in which art is created and appreciated. As a result of this paradigmatic shift, traditions are curbed by experimentation, and art can be widely appreciated through its new availability that can foster conditions for social and political change. Benjamin views these changes as an expansion of the definition and function of art.

Theodor Adorno, in his in his 1967 essay, “Is Art Lighthearted?” focuses on art’s connection to society. Whereas mass production can inspire new ways of understanding art in Benjamin’s perspective, Adorno views mass production as a symptom of capitalism that further displaces individual freedom. Thus, the effects of capitalism suppress “high” or serious art, and substitute readily available, low-quality entertainment for art’s genuine function. This function is liberatory in the sense that the beauty and complexity of art allows for a freedom of consciousness apart from the conditions of reality. Adorno claims that the liberatory value of art is that “it embodies something like freedom in the midst of unfreedom.” This “unfreedom” cultivates various cultural mechanisms, such as entertainment or what Adorno and Max Horkheimer term the “culture industry,” that function to subjugate individual and social freedoms with dull, satiating amusements. Consequently, Adorno advocates for a renewal in artistic originality that moves beyond mind-numbing entertainment, as well as the seriousness and gravity of the human condition, as exemplified in his statement; “it is not possible to write poetry after Auschwitz.” This new artistic originality would uniquely speak to the distinctiveness of human nature in a way that is transcendent of the conditions of reality.

In a wholly different approach from that of Adorno and Benjamin, Arthur Danto emphasizes the importance of theoretical perspectives to inform conceptions of art. In this perspective, documented in his 1964 essay “The Artworld,” works of art are components of a larger “artworld” that ultimately determine art’s status as art. That is to say, it is the context as established by a theory of art that accounts for the aesthetic efficacy of an artwork. In this fashion, the evocative capabilities of a work of art exist outside the object itself and are instead realized conceptually. Danto’s “artworld” is a contextual atmosphere that is informed by theories that account for cultural developments. He proclaims; “To see something as art requires something the eye cannot decry – an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art: an artworld.” Hence, theories of art expand the meaning of art even though the work of art itself undergoes no transformation. The cultural zeitgeist creates the conditions for specific art, insofar as the artist understands the time and place in which their work will be understood as something evocative of a specific cultural meaning. Citing Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box as an exemplary of his theory, Danto affirms “It could not have been art fifty years ago. But then there could not have been, everything being equal, flight insurance in the Middle Ages, or Etruscan typewriter erasers. The world has to be ready for certain things, the artworld no less than the real one.” To this extent, Danto’s theory substantially broadens the explanation of what art is. 

In 1984, George Dickie wrote, “The New Institutional Theory of Art” in which he attaches an institutional system to the success or failure of a work of art. Dickie’s theory claims that the overall meaning of an artwork is participatory, in that an artist creates a specific artwork for a specific public, and that this combination entails an institutional network. These institutional factors conceptually formulate the manner in which an art object is determined to be art. This is to say, that an artist produces an artifact that is then received by a knowledgeable institutional public, which may consist of aficionados, scholars, critics, and curators, that then confer the artifact as art. Defining art as art is a classificatory matter, wherein the institutional framework of artist and informed public define art. In this sense, a definition of art is particular to a category, whereas outside of the category the same definition would not be understandable or acceptable as art. Dickie’s theory increases ways in which art can be understood as art, and therefore allows for more definitions of art.    

The theories of Benjamin, Adorno, Danto, and Dickie, infer and then conclude that art is definable. As aforementioned, there can be no singular definition to art other than the word, “art.” Rather, art is only art under certain conditions that fall under the auspices of its contextual schema. Warhol’s Brillo Box would not be art according to Adorno, just as a contemporary cave painting in Colorado that is executed in the style of a painting found at Lascaux would merely be a craft-like presentation produced by a skilled artisan. Thus, defining an entity as art or not art is relative to the motivations and dispositions of a particular weltanschauung or philosophy. Consequently, defining art matters most to the party that is attempting a definition, and secondarily to an interested public.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Causality and Complexity: It's Complicated

In his paper, “Causes and Conditions”, J.L. Mackie determines to explain the insufficiencies in attributing effects to causes, as well as the conditions of causes. He begins by suggesting that causes are commonly misunderstood events. A general account of a misunderstood cause might proceed in this way: a cause is an event that comes before another event that is said to be the effect; additionally, the cause is something that is necessary to lead to the effect and sufficient to account for the effect. For Mackie, this sort of reasoning is far too simple and credulous when linking cause to effect. A more complex understanding is needed in asserting causal relationships. Hence, Mackie proposes an alternative way to understand causality as INUS conditions – an “Insufficient but Necessary part of a condition which is itself Unnecessary but Sufficient.”
To illustrate an INUS condition in what Mackie refers to as a, singular cause, he gives the example of a house fire. In this thought experiment, fire investigators have determined that a particular short circuit caused the fire. Yet, the short circuit was not necessary to cause the fire. This is because there could be multiple other reasons that could be attributable to the fire such as; a natural gas leak, an unattended candle, or another variation of an electrical malfunction. Similarly, the short circuit cannot be said to be a sufficient condition for the fire. This is because the short circuit was not isolated, but rather required the presence of flammable material as well as a means not to extinguish the initial beginnings of the fire like an individual possessing a fire extinguisher. Here it is important to note that a circumstance such as the flammable material is said to be a positive condition, while the absence of a means to extinguish the fire is said to be a negative condition. In this way, the investigators understand the short circuit to be unnecessary and insufficient to have started the house fire. So, how, Mackie asks, do the investigators know that the short circuit caused the fire? They know because there are other conditions like, the aforementioned flammable material and the absence of a means to extinguish the fire. When these conditions are added to the condition of the short circuit, a “complex condition” results. This complex condition is interpreted as sufficient for the fire to initiate. Although, this same complex condition is not necessary for the fire to initiate because the fire could have started in alternative ways. However, the short circuit as a part of this complex condition is essential, because the flammable material and absence of extinguishing means could not have started the fire by themselves or in combination. In Mackie’s words, “The short circuit which is said to have caused the fire is thus an indispensible part of a complex sufficient (but not necessary) condition of the fire.” So, in summation of Mackie’s singular cause, the house fire’s cause is an INUS condition in that the short circuit has been determined to be an insufficient (because it could not have started the fire by itself), albeit necessary (because it is essential to the fire) part of a condition which is itself unnecessary (because the fire could have started in other ways), yet sufficient (because the condition allows for the fire to be initiated) result.

Mackie goes on to relate a general causal statement to an INUS condition. He begins with the example of an economist claiming that the restriction of credit leads to, which is to say causes, unemployment. Here, Mackie points out that a “causal field” exists in the form of economics. This is to mean that economics, and an economy in which economics can function, are a multiplicity of causal conditions that differentiate. For a general causal statement, “the causal field is then the region that is to be thus divided” which in this case is the economy in which people are either employed or unemployed. The causal field of the general causal statement also allows for the alleged cause to differentiate, as in, the restriction of credit sometimes happens and sometimes does not happen. So, the economist is claiming that the restriction of credit in this economy is an insufficient (because the restriction of credit could not have directly caused unemployment alone) but necessary (because the economist included the restriction of credit in a causal field that allows for unemployment) part of an unnecessary (because unemployment could be the result of something else) but sufficient (because the restriction of credit allows for unemployment to happen) cause. Using the formal characters that Mackie applies throughout the paper, the economist is stating that for some X (positive and negative conditions) and some Y (another set of positive and negative conditions) combined with A (the restriction of credit) as in (AX or Y), is a necessary and sufficient condition for P (unemployment) in an F (causal field), yet neither A, X, or Y is sufficient on their own accord to account for the cause. Also, in a general causal statement such as this, it is important to differentiate between causes and the cause. If the general restriction of credit can be linked to general unemployment, then it is proper to articulate the restriction of credit as something that causes unemployment. Alternatively, in a singular causal statement, an individual’s restriction of credit can be said to be the cause of their unemployment.

Finally, the aforementioned causal field bears reiteration because it is a factor that functions in both general and singular causal statements. In the former, the causal field is the region in which differentiation occurs, and causes with respect to effects, are determined. Mackie’s example is the sentence, “What causes influenza in human beings in general?” Here, the causal field is “human beings in general” and consequently, differentiation is needed in this term. The new differentiated term could be, “In areas where influenza exists, how do some humans contract influenza, while other humans do not contract influenza?” The key is the differentiation of the cause within a broad spectrum. Mackie writes, “In all such cases, the cause is required to differentiate, within a wider region in which the effect sometimes occurs and sometimes does not.” In a singular causal statement, the causal field is a background in which causes are determined. Mackie’s example is the sentence, “What caused this man’s skin cancer?” There are many causal fields in this sentence and they are to be separated to help determine the cause of melanoma. One causal field could be the man’s job in which exposure to radiation was frequent. A new question could be, “How did this particular man develop melanoma when other individuals at the same place of employment did not?” In this sense, the causal field is now all the individuals that worked alongside the man in a place with copious amounts of radiation. Thus, causal fields figure into INUS conditions as complex conditions. For general causal statements, the causal field is a region like economics in which causes and effects are determined. For singular causal statements, the causal field is a background like a house where a fire started where a causal determination can be determined.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Reflecting Back the Gaze

One of the many qualities found in the arts is its often profound psychological insight into human nature. Considering literary fiction and the visual arts specifically, many people enthusiastically seek out the non-scientific approach to the human condition offered in these mediums. These art forms have served as a powerful means to articulate the issues of sexism and oppression found in contemporary American feminism, and regularly communicate feminist ideals in intelligent and affecting ways. One such issue is the concept of “the gaze.” While extensive amounts of theoretical literature have investigated the gaze in its original Lacanian interpretation and its various adjuncts like the “male gaze” and “colonial gaze”, contemporary literary fiction and visual art have reacted to what can be defined as a “normative gaze.” In a sense, the normative gaze can be said to be an amalgamation of sorts concerning subjective qualities like power and surveillance found in the male and colonial gazes. Feminism is one area of study among many such as, critical race theory and postcolonialism, that has offered valuable analysis into the normative gaze and its ramifications. Nevertheless, it is the reactions of writers and artists that have revealed the normative gaze to a wide audience in unique ways that call attention to its functionality as an insidious and invisible mechanism of oppressive ideologies. Thus, literary fiction and visual art confront the normative gaze by reflecting it back to an audience in ways that expose its effects.
To understand the signatures of the reflected normative gaze, it is important to know what and how the conception functions. A normative position is a binary conceit in which normativity is in partnership with abnormality. Power and the majority possessing power largely comes to be associated as normal. And while power enables the ability to dictate, enforce, and maintain these distinctions, normality absolutely requires the presence of the abnormal. In this way, what is normal comes to be defined by what is abnormal. The dynamic is not proportional or stable, so power is maintained in the ability to determine and demarcate difference. The normative gaze is a tool that both consciously and unconsciously facilitates binary divisiveness. In historical and modern America, normality has been and still is associated with white, heterosexual, patriarchal supremacy. Thus, the normative gaze is the standard or “normal” way of seeing and interpreting the world through the lens of a white heterosexual masculine male. This way of seeing and understanding, in turn, gets projected as the standard way of seeing, even if a viewer does not identify as a white heterosexual masculine male. Additionally, the normative gaze entails a subject/object relationship wherein the subject participates in objectification. On this situational perspective, Robert Dale Parker writes:

[T]he term objectification can have two different but related meanings. It can mean turning someone into a mere thing. Or it can mean treating someone as an other, that is, seeing someone, grammatically, in the position of an object (the one who is acted upon) in relation to someone else in the position of the subject (the one who acts).  

In perceiving the world this way with the prejudiced notions of normativity, the normative gaze is often invisible and becomes internalized through repetition and an unquestioned acceptance of what is “normal.” Although, when the normative gaze becomes apparent, efforts to further expose its damaging consequences come into being. Feminism is a movement that strives to reveal and combat the binary thinking of normativity and the gaze that allows for its inequality to persist.

In visual art, and photography in particular, the medium used to communicate and exhibit an artwork is the same medium in which the work comes to be experienced. For this reason, photography perhaps holds somewhat of a privileged position in that the field of vision is the precise phenomena, at least on the initial surface, in which the normative gaze originates. In this sense, the perspective of the camera as represented in the photograph becomes the perspective of the viewer interpreting the work. This is to say that in communicating the normative gaze to an audience that is unaware of the concept, the camera eye that situates and assumes the human eye becomes the most immediate and telling channel to perform this task. Artists such as, Cindy Sherman and Jenny Holzer are keenly aware of this fact, and have masterfully used their perspective behind the lens to convey the multifarious impressions left by the normative gaze. Furthermore, both artists uniquely reflect back the normative gaze to the viewer in evocative ways that elicit reactions leading to self-interrogation and the beginnings of affected understanding.

The gaze of normativity comes to subtly inhabit the viewer of Cindy Sherman’s conceptual artworks of self-portraiture. Beginning in the late 1970s, Sherman has produced series after series of thought-provoking images of women in normative frames of presence. Her early portrait work is not conventionally shocking, but the perspective of the gaze does, however, creep into the viewer’s mind and gently reveals the utter strangeness of the scenes. Sherman creates diverse characters and assumes their roles – she is both the model and photographer. Both of these artworks illuminate ways of perceiving women through a male heterosexual point of view. In the black and white image from her “Untitled Film Stills” collection, a domestic environment frames a woman that is in the midst of, or just finished reading a personal letter. Her expression implies disappointment, skepticism, and the idea that the letter may have been disturbing for her. As the central features are her wandering and wondering eyes, as well as the handwriting adorning the letter, the viewer feels that perhaps the letter was of the “Dear John” variety or that she is clandestinely reading and then hears something that startles her. In either interpretation, the male gaze is apparent in the traditional assumptions of pity or deception that the photo generates. In the color image from her “Centerfolds” collection, Sherman adopts the role of a docile girl-next-door that stares longingly at a telephone. The single light source implies it is late at night and her posture evokes disappointment. Here Sherman is playing upon the scene of a young girl that is most likely waiting for a man to call. This could be a someone she knows that has failed to call, or a case of unrequited love where she is aimlessly yearning for the phone to ring. Again, in both scenarios, Sherman has brilliantly distilled the normative gaze into the interpretation of the scene. The viewer “sees” a generic characterization of a young girl that is dependent on a boy to alleviate the tension. The irony becomes clear when the viewer realizes that their own assumptions inform the image, while also realizing how easily those assumptions have been manipulated by Sherman to call attention to the normative projections of white American, heterosexual, middle-class, suburban, Leave it to Beaver-esque generalities. The artwork confronts its audience with the very normativity that propels the scene. In this way, the viewer is just as much a part of the function of the overall image as is any feature of the image. On this effect in Sherman’s work, Eleanor Heartney comments; “Cindy Sherman’s pseudo pin-up self-presentations have derived their impact from their subjects’ complicity with the camera which acts as a surrogate for the objectifying male gaze.” Sherman’s early work achieves its effect in challenging normative ways of seeing, and this can, of course, also be transmitted in a more direct fashion that still transgresses patriarchal normality.

The artistic work of Jenny Holzer functions in ways that, on an initial account, are obvious and indisputably subversive. Much of her work is displayed in the public sphere and in ways that employ common items to broadcast her profound messages. In these messages called “Truisms”, which are usually dense and minimal aphorisms and maxims that Holzer has composed, the textual meaning is literally spelled out for the viewer. Examples of this intermingling of poetic form with the everyday world include; “MEN DON’T PROTECT YOU ANYMORE” as part of the labeling featured on a plastic condom package, “PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT” as featured on a military baseball cap and a large LED billboard, and “YOUR OLDEST FEARS ARE THE WORST ONES” as part of a variety of aphorisms printed out on a store receipt. While the immediate impact of these statements are apparent to the viewer, it is the context of their placement that dominantly informs the overall images. The messages become even more radical and subversive when they are placed in or on items that regularly bombard the sensory experiences of the population with trivial banalities. It is in this fashion that Holzer disrupts the normative gaze. In seeing the stark words, MEN DON’T PROTECT YOU ANYMORE embossed onto a condom wrapper, a viewer, after perhaps a double-take, would most likely ponder the significance of such a sentence on an item that is designed to protect from sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancies. The artwork prompts questions in the viewer that upset the string of common held answers that support normative thinking and behavior. “Did men ever protect me?” and “Are these words referring to old-fashioned chivalry?” and possibly the most important and ambiguous question, “What is this supposed to mean?” Another destabilizing “Truism” placed on a simple tank top, is one of Holzer’s most well-known artworks; “ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE” (Holzer, 24). The image is striking because the women looks into the viewer’s eyes as the viewer gazes at her and is thus confronted with the objectification they are projecting. The photo’s quality suggests a guerilla style photo-shoot and model that Holzer most likely sought out to wear the shirt. The words on the shirt confront the viewer with the possibility that the model might in fact be a victim of forced sexual servitude. It is a powerfully moving and disturbing image that directly defines and illustrates the effects of the normative gaze and patriarchal structures that lead to an unsurprising abuse of power. On this architecture, Kobena Mercer writes; “Within the dominant tradition of the female nude, patriarchal power relations are symbolized by the binary relation in which, to put it crudely, men assume the active role of the looking subject while women are passive objects to be looked at.” Yet, in Holzer’s famous image, the normative gaze is gazing right back at the viewer.

In literary fiction, the effect of the medium is enacted by an author and enabled by the reader. This is to mean that a work of literature requires that the story and characters a writer records to the pages of a book come alive in the mind of a reader in a way that uses all their capacities of psychological experience to complete the work. In this way, a concept like the normative gaze is communicated and demonstrated in literature by appealing to the characteristics of the reader that would facilitate such a view of the world. By appealing to human nature, the truth of how a discriminating gaze can take hold and flourish in society is revealed as a presence in each of us. Literary fiction, in this sense, is a very effective psychology. On this function, Salman Rushdie, in a speech claimed:

So what do we mean then by truth in literature? Clearly, what we mean is human truth. Not photographic, journalistic, recorded truth, but the truth we recognize as human beings – about how we are with each other, how we deal with one another, what are our strengths and weaknesses, how we interact... you’re looking for people you can believe in [that] are behaving in ways you can recognize, and that tell you something about your own life.

Hence, with this view in mind, the forces that enable a normative gaze exist within everyone, and it is through a medium like literature that such an insight can be revealed, articulated, and addressed.

In the novel, The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison brilliantly connects the causes and effects of the normative gaze to the human disposition. Morrison’s character of Pecola Breedlove embodies the very discriminating gaze that has oppressed her. It is a tragic story in that she, as an African-American little girl, has already unconsciously internalized and enacted her own oppression. Pecola becomes so damaged by her environment that she craves the blue eyes of a white person. Reflecting in 1993 on the personal inspirations that compelled her to forge a character like Pecola and to write The Bluest Eye in the late 1960s, Morrison states; “Who made her feel that it was better to be a freak than what she was? Who had looked at her and found her so wanting, so small a weight on the beauty scale? The novel pecks away at the gaze that condemned her.” In comprehending and expressing this gaze, Morrison constructs Pecola as a character that bears the burden of a gaze that has informed the attitudes and beliefs of those closest to her in ways that seem to be normal. And it is the aspect of normality that is the crux of the problem documented by the novel. For Pecola, this is the “damaging internalization of assumptions of immutable inferiority originating in an outside gaze” (Morrison). This inferiority is a product of the inherent instability of the normal/abnormal binary and it manifests itself in, as Morrison states, “something as grotesque as the demonization of an entire race [that can] take root inside the most delicate member of society: a child; the most vulnerable member; a female.” Morrison evokes this injustice in her novel in a way that does not elicit great amounts of sympathy for Pecola or the characters that condition her abuse, but instead focuses the normative gaze and its machinery back onto the reader.      

While Morrison and Holzer offer candid and confident indictments of the normative gaze, an argument for indirect means can be made in the cases of Sherman and the novelist Rachel Kushner. In Kushner’s book, The Flamethrowers, the central protagonist does not have a traditional name. Instead people call her by the name of the city she comes from – “Reno.” At the outset, Reno is a woman of tremendous power that has ambitions of being an artist and setting land speed records on her motorcycle. She is aware of the gaze, and it has perhaps shaped her into an emboldened and determined spirit. Near the beginning of the novel, Kushner displays Reno’s individualism:

One of the truckers spoke to me as he passed. “That yours?”
For a moment, I thought he meant the truck. But he tipped his chin toward the Moto Valera.
I said yes and kept braiding my hair.
He smiled in a friendly way. “You know what?”
I smiled back.
“You won’t look nearly so good when they’re loading you off the highway in a body bag.”

All vehicles with livestock must be weighed. I passed the weigh station, breezed through third gear and into the midrange of fourth, hitting seventy miles an hour. I could see the jagged peaks of the tall mountains, stale summer snow filtered by the desert haze to the brownish tone of pantyhose. I was going eighty. Won’t look nearly as good. People love a fatality. I redlined it, still in fourth gear, waiting.

Reno is a keen observer of people and understands the subtleties of interaction, yet she is not conscious of their impact on herself. Throughout the book, Reno navigates her relationships with friends and lovers with uncertainty. She remains tough, yet she feels the ache of loneliness. In this way, the gaze has appropriated her sensibilities and Reno becomes a victim of her defiance to push through the injustice of the world. Kushner gives the reader the sense that Reno is both determined and confused, and that she exists in a world that has not been kind to her, yet she also somehow wants solace within the world. “When you’re young, being with someone else can almost seem like an event. It is an event when you’re young. But it isn’t enough. I was still young, and I wanted something else. I needed a new camera. The Bolex was smashed and I was alone and I wanted my life to happen” (Kushner). In this manner, Reno resembles some of the characters depicted in Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills.” There is conviction and uncertainty, yet the gaze is nevertheless reflected back in the most unforeseen ways.

In these works of literature and visual art, the normative gaze is complex in its presentation by artists as well as its interpretation by an audience. In the hands of art, the gaze takes on an amorphous character that is often felt but not witnessed. It is the unique way of art to communicate pathos that instills uncertainty and prompts psychological investigations into moral character.

Friday, October 6, 2017

John Dewey: Experience in Life

Throughout history, the capacity of art to affect both societies and individuals has been profound. As a concept that is undeniably complex and powerful, art has influenced mental states ranging from bliss to revulsion, as well as being both embraced and disavowed from societies. Various philosophic approaches have sought to determine essentialized definitions and understand anti-essentialist positions that attempt to know what art is, and how it functions in particular and universal modes. The American philosopher, John Dewey, formulated an aesthetic philosophy that called for a repositioning of art in the experience of the individual and the ideological constructions of society. According to this view, the moral implications of art are not fully appreciated in modernity, and consequently the human aesthetic experience has become significantly removed from the natural world. Thus, the aesthetic experience of art has the power to revitalize the relationships humans have with each other as well as their relationship to the societies in which they construct and inhabit.   

In his aesthetic philosophy, Dewey felt that the motivations to produce and appreciate art were foundational to the experience of being human. In this respect, art is not separate from human experience, but rather is something that can only be understood as an experience. Hence, the meaning of an artistic work cannot be derived from the singular objective status of the artwork. Instead, meaning is the result of a symbiotic relationship between the creator and appreciator of an artwork, and it is this aesthetic experience that defines art. In this way, the experience of art is similar to biological functions in that it works to link, or alternatively, associate humans to their environments. The aesthetic experience acts as a means to balance and harmoniously mediate the human presence within the natural world.

To understand Dewey’s conception of the importance of human experience, it is necessary to interpret experiences in ways that would not commonly be associated with art. At a primal level, humans have a constant relationship with their environment that is interactive. A human is, as Dewey designates, a “live creature” that exists within an environment in a manner that can be described as, “in the raw.” In this sense, the human is a reactive creature that is a constituent part of its surroundings, that correspondingly, ebbs and flows in a rhythmic, non-static fashion. For instance, an individual might be walking down a busy city street or find themselves on a solitary backpacking trip in the wilderness, or participating as an athlete in a sporting event or watching one on television. Degrees of experiential interaction vary from ennui to the momentous and positive to negative, but nonetheless, any experience can be powerful in its affect on an individual. Yet, an awareness of the power of experience seems to be lacking in modernity. This ignorance of experience can facilitate ideological designs upon the individual that function to disengage critical thinking and reify systems of power that come to dominate societies. It also can contribute to a sense of apathy that not only enables cultural homogeneity, but deprives an individual of a profound and meaningful existence. It is perhaps this loss of personal meaning through disjointed but repetitive experiences that emphasizes a lack of aesthetic appreciation that, in turn, invites external moral influence.

In the Deweyian perspective, such disjointed experiences are said to be “anesthetic.” These are experiences that have no connective thread that binds them into a cohesive whole that results in a definitive meaning. They are instances without any clear-cut inception or end. Dewey writes:

Things happen, but they are neither definitely included nor decisively excluded; we drift. We yield according to external pressure, or evade and compromise. There are beginnings and cessations, but no genuine initiations and concludings. One thing replaces another, but does not absorb it and carry it on. There is experience, but so slack and discursive that it is not an experience. 

These anesthetic experiences serve as an agent to mollify and shape entire societies into obedient and morally dutiful populations. In this manner, honor is bestowed on the individual that subserviently functions within an established order that the power of authority aligns with moral decency. Whether or not this endorsed, and thus majority, morality resonates with the individual’s singular moral sense of right and wrong is extraneous here, but rather the primary onus rests with the implications of an individual’s non-awareness of their experience in the world, as well as the desensitizing effects of the anesthetic experience. The concern herein is the morality of the anesthetic experience to affect individual notions of morality that consequently construct a plurality of sensibilities in a society. The power of ignorance in a well-functioning society is beneficial to hegemony, and as Dewey indicates; “One great defect in what passes as morality is its anesthetic quality. Instead of exemplifying wholehearted action, it takes the form of grudging piecemeal concessions to the demands of duty.” Thus, there is a crucial importance in an person’s ability to be aware of these aesthetic sensibilities that inform and aid in the development of individual morality. 

Awareness to all experience is fundamental to the appreciation of art in an aesthetic experience. This awareness involves the capacity to decipher the anesthetic experience from what Dewey characterizes as, “an experience.” In this approach, an experience is one in which a single quality permeates connected episodes. This quality serves to relate each episode, that in effect, consolidates parts into a whole. “An experience has a unity that gives it its name, that meal, that storm, that rupture of friendship. The existence of this unity is constituted by a single quality that pervades the entire experience in spite of variation of its constituent parts.” This unifying quality also entails a decisive commencement and conclusion that makes an experience a fulfilling and complete experience in itself. Thus, in having an experience, one is fully engaged in a meaningful way that associates an individual’s aesthetic sensibilities to their environment. An experience is an acknowledgement of the artistic qualities that come to inform customarily non-artistic experiences throughout an individual’s existence. The aesthetic quality renders, not just the conclusion, but the entire experience as profound. To exemplify this aesthetic potential in an everyday scenario, Dewey writes; “The intelligent mechanic engaged in his job, interested in doing well and finding satisfaction in his handiwork, caring for his materials and tools with genuine affection, is artistically engaged.” Hence, the aesthetically informed individual is a person that is not as susceptible to the disconnected anesthetic experiences that make for oblivious submission at the hands of an external agent. In being aware of the power of an experience in the Deweyian sense, an individual is able to know the fulfillment of virtuous activities that engender a meaningful life in the Aristotelian eudaimonia sense. Therefore, the aesthetically cognizant individual is not separated from their environment. They are connected to their experiences in their surroundings in the same way the artist and art appreciator are sensitive to the aesthetic experiences of art.     
In differentiating between the anesthetic and the condition of an experience, Dewey reveals the ways in which art as embodied in the aesthetic experience affects people and the common good of a society. In this manner, art is something that is either connected or disconnected from culture. The modern-day museum displays artifacts from an ancient culture as “art”, when in fact the culture that produced the work had no conception of art. In its current understanding, art is a fairly recent invention, and moreover, it was invented, or rather emerged, as a consequence of ideological power. In this sense, the cultural hegemon has the power to establish knowledge and historicize past cultures in a postcolonial, imperialistic fashion. Dewey’s contention is that, “Most museums are, among other things, memorials of the rise of nationalism and imperialism... The growth of capitalism has been a powerful influence in the development of the museum as the proper home for works of art, and the promotion of the idea that they are apart from the common life.” In perceiving art as a commodity that is produced by a trained artist, modern culture has separated the art of aesthetic experience from everyday life. Art is isolated as a whole and in forms like, “fine”, “low-brow”, or “vulgar” that function to define art in relation to entities that are non-aesthetic or anesthetic. Thus, art is no longer a part of life in the ways in which, for example, it is being exhibited in a museum. The displayed artifacts of ancient cultures are concrete manifestations of art as a normal part of an everyday cultural experience. That is to say, aesthetic experience was a unifying force in the past, whereas now, aesthetic experience only exists in the domain of artists and art appreciators, and not in the fragmentary and compartmentalized experience of contemporary life.
Ultimately, the best criterion for assessing the strength of Dewey’s argument is 21st century Western culture – principally, American society. Writing his aesthetic philosophy in the 1930s, Dewey’s insights into art as experience, and its corresponding link to humans and their environment are remarkably prescient. In the ensuing time, the separation of humans from the aesthetic experiences that engender a meaningful existence has only become more severe. That Dewey’s philosophy seems so radical is evidence of this severity. Improved sensitivity toward awareness has not developed. Technological advancement has allowed for more abundant communication and increased accessibility to artistic works, yet the isolating effects of the anesthetic experience are increasingly profound. Modern humans are paradoxically busy and bored at the same time. While the aesthetic experience still has the power to revitalize human relationships and the common good, this awareness has, as of yet, not matured.   

Friday, September 1, 2017

Constructing Time

In the history of thought, the conception of time has always been a contentious issue. It is often taken for granted, as the previous sentence demonstrates, that time is real and inherently natural. Time has been viewed as something that is categorically absolute, as with Newtonian interpretations, as well as a dimension relative to motion in Einsteinian spacetime. While these notions are not wrong, they nonetheless regard and further establish time as an actuality that is quantifiable. However, it has been argued by Parmenides and probably most notably by Immanuel Kant that time is an artificial construction imposed on reality by the human mind. While this mental imposition is certainly beneficial in that the architecture of time allows humans to measure and thus understand reality, it does not in fact mean that time in itself is a fact of reality. In this sense, time like language, is at best a reifying mechanism that has taken a representation of reality and made the representation real and natural in itself. For Parmenides, Kant, and two 20th century thinkers which are the focus of this essay, John Ellis McTaggart and Donald Cary Williams, time is not an axiomatic truth of reality but rather a symptomatic construct that represents the limitations of human thinking.   

In the early 20th century, J. Ellis McTaggart published a paper titled, “The Unreality of Time” in which, like the title suggests, he argued against the reality of time. McTaggart begins by establishing that there are positions in the appearance of time that are manifested in two ways. First, positions can be distinguished as “earlier than” or “later than” and McTaggart refers to this as the “B series.” Second, positions can be distinguished as past, present, or future and he refers to these classifications as the “A series.” In the B series, events in time are permanent. This is to say, for example, if M came earlier than N, then it will always be earlier than N. Or, if a sunrise happened earlier than a sunset, then that sunrise will always and permanently be earlier than that sunset. In the A series, events in time change and are not permanent. To explicate this, McTaggart uses the death of Queen Anne as it appears in the A series. Queen Anne’s death began by being an event in the distant future. It then became an event in the immediate future. Then, the monarch’s death happened in the present. After which, her death became an event in the past, and as time appears to change, Queen Anne’s death becomes more of a distant event that happened in the past.

McTaggart points out that humans perceive time in both the manners described by the A and B series. However, the A series displays change while the B series is permanent and does not display change. Since time as it appears to humans displays change, then, as McTaggart asserts, the A series is necessary and foundational to the concept of time while the B series is not necessary. Additionally, the B series cannot exist on its own because its features of “earlier than” and “later than” are temporal in nature and thus require the element of change which only the A series can provide. In this sense, the B series needs the A series in order to function properly.

McTaggart claims that there is another series in the concept of time, and labels it as the “C series.” The C series provides order for time but does not involve change. With the order of the C series and the change of the A series, the B series comes into existence. This dynamic functions by change proceeding in a certain direction. The C series, to use McTaggart’s example, provides an order like M, N, O, P or P, O, N, M. In conjunction with the A series, the C series provides an order to time so that time can proceed to change from earlier to later as in, M, N, O, P, or also as, P, O, N, M. It is also important to note that the C series order can only proceed in two ways, so in using the same alphabetical example, the order can only be the two mentioned above and not something else like, O, N, M, P. In this way, the A and C series are necessary to time, and the B series arises from the order provided by the C series and the change provided by the A series.

In proving the unreality of time, McTaggart’s ultimate objective is to point out that the A series is contradictory. This is established by McTaggart claiming that events are either, past, present, or future. Yet, events in time always possess the property of a past, present, and future. Herein lies the contradiction, as McTaggart states, “Past, present, and future are incompatible determinations. Every event must be one or the other, but no event can be more than one” (McTaggart, 468). Additionally, a “vicious circle” (ibid) emerges in this reasoning because for events to possess a past, present, and future, there has to be time. So, the past, present, and future of the A series is dependent on the existence of time, yet, as McTaggart has shown, time requires the necessary foundation of the A series to exist. Thus, time cannot be real.
In the mid 20th century, Donald C. Williams published a paper titled, “The Myth of Passage” in which he argued against the feeling of time passing. Williams believes that time exists in an Einsteinian, four dimensional spacetime fashion that he called “the manifold”, but rejects the notion that time is something that can flow or pass. Williams maintains that space cannot move within space, and similarly, time cannot move within time. This is to say that time interpreted as a thing that is quantifiable or measurable is a superfluous and purposeless metaphor. Time cannot be measured as something that flows because it simply exists as part of the manifold, and there is nothing relative to measure it against. Time cannot exist as something outside of itself in order to measure the passing of time. Williams construes time as an “ordered extension” (Williams, 463) that contains “parts of our being” (ibid), yet the feeling of aging through time is an illusion. In this way, the present or “absolute becoming” (ibid) is no more a real passage in time than is a point on a contiguous line. The only motion a human experiences is within the manifold and comprises of an individual existing at different places and times. Explaining this concept further, Williams states, “Time ‘flows’ only in the sense in which a line flows or a landscape ‘recedes into the west’... and each of us proceeds through time only as a fence proceeds across a farm” (ibid). He goes on to point out that the perceived becoming or passage of time is merely an unneeded mental construct that has perhaps developed from a unique human anxiety concerning the trajectory of aging, but ultimately this perception is not an inherent function of the spacetime manifold. Overall, these concepts of time that Williams has postulated can be related to McTaggart’s outright denial that time exists.

To begin, McTaggart believes that time is unreal due to the contradiction of the A series, while Williams believes that time is real but denies that it is something that measurably passes. However, Williams does incorporate some of McTaggart’s concepts into his own argument. Williams adopts the B series into his conception of the spacetime manifold and relegates the A series to a misunderstanding of the functionality of time. Williams asserts, “McTaggart was driven to deny the reality of time because he believed that while time must combine the dimensional spread with the fact of passage, the B series with the A series, every attempt to reconcile the two ended in absurdity” (Williams, 462). Essentially, Williams is claiming that the B series is correct because it represents time as an all encompassing dimension. This equates to Williams’ example of the sprawling fence on a farm. The “earlier than” or “later than” aspects of the B series can be located at different positions on the fence, which represents the manifold. Yet, the A series, for Williams, negatively contributes to the conception of time as something that flows. Thinking of time as a thing that has a past, present, and future, is wrong and only contributes to the myth of passage or the present as something that becomes. Williams writes, “It is the mainspring of McTaggart’s ‘A series’ which puts movement in time” (Williams, 461). This, of course, contrasts with Williams’ notion that time cannot move, as well as the perception that time has the ability to measure itself that results in a past, present, or future. Hence, for McTaggart, the A series is fundamental to the concept of time but in turn contradicts itself, thereby undermining the B series and the entire feasibility of time. For Williams, the A series is a useless construct that complicates time as conceived by the spacetime manifold, or B series. In both of these perspectives time is revealed to be a component of human thought and not a fact that is indicative of reality.   

Saturday, August 5, 2017

There was a moment when, after having talked of seeing old movies, we realized drive-in theaters were something we both remembered. The experiences at the theaters told between us, from our unacquainted past, preserved these remembered times as a narrative in which we once understood ourselves. They were always a peak in some specific night when arriving and leaving were sharp slopes. On one occasion it was recounted to me that when my friend was an adolescent, their party left the theater, which was a theater in the rural West, and drove on a myriad of dirt roads – the same roads in which they arrived but now found difficult to recognize in the dark of the new morning. Lost, they came upon an abandoned, strange building seen a ways from their vehicle. My friend told me that someone said it might’ve been a Japanese internment camp. The meaning of hearing such a term that was connected to an old building in the rural dark has gone past bewilderment and entered into memory. Of course, this is my memory, even though I remember my friend saying it was likely apocryphal, but yet, real or not not, it is something that is there.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Plato: Virtue & Love

Platonic virtue is an ideal and concept that runs through the Meno and Symposium. The ancient Greek word, “arete” was the original term that now translates to virtue. In Plato’s works, it is an approach to living that represents moral excellence, wisdom, courage, temperance, and is presented as an ideal that is continually sought and practiced. In both dialogues, virtue has a philosophically didactic nature that results from the various arguments presented.

Beginning with Plato’s transitional dialogue, Meno, the nature of virtue is examined. Meno asks Socrates if virtue is a concept that can be learned, acquired through experience, or if it is something that is innate to humans. Socrates replies that he does not know what virtue is, but then asks, “if I do not know what it is, how could I know what sort of thing it is?” (71b). Further, he claims to have never met anyone that did know what virtue is. However, Socrates’ answer already implies that there is a single definition that is common enough for all people to be familiar with the word “virtue.” So at the outset, it is established that virtue is a concept that people seem to know and understand, yet a precise definition remains elusive. Thus, Socrates then prompts Meno to tell him what he thinks virtue is. In doing this, Socrates has initiated his dialectical method of pursuing an answer with persistent questioning. The point, philosophically, is to question established answers and, in so doing, generate new answers that could possibly supersede the original answer in validity. Meno responds that virtue is relative to the perspective of an individual, therefore there are abounding definitions as to what virtue entails and that it cannot be described as an absolute concept. Socrates rejects this multifarious definition by saying, “we have found many virtues when we were inquiring about one” (74a). Although he does acknowledge that their inquiry is useful is stating, “the one that extends through all of them we cannot find” (ibid). Here the Socratic dialogue helps Meno to recognize that there has to be a singular accepted idea of what virtue is, and that Socrates’ methodology has eliminated an answer and produced a technique to further pursue a correct answer. At this point, Plato’s dialogue has demonstrated that inquiry has yielded knowledge. Socrates and Meno have learned about virtue without any teaching. This process has directed them to recall and articulate knowledge that was already within themselves.

Socrates tells Meno that knowledge is obtainable through recollection because the human soul is immortal and “has learned all things” (81c). To be persistent in self examination and inquiry will lead an individual to recollected knowledge. Socrates claims, “the whole of inquiry or learning, in that case, is recollection” (81d). To demonstrate this to a skeptical Meno, Socrates questions a slave boy on the geometrical nature of the areas of squares. In doing this, Plato through Socrates, establishes two philosophical conclusions. The first is that in realizing a lack of knowledge where one previously thought they possessed knowledge, an individual is likely to self-correct and vigorously pursue the true knowledge. Through Socrates’ questioning, the slave comes to accept that he was wrong where he previously thought he was correct. While the slave is now confused, he nonetheless understands that, “he does not in fact know, he does not think he does either” (84b). The second conclusion is that continual self-inquiry is virtuous in that it is good to seek knowledge within one’s self that leads to truths. With this in mind, Socrates continues to question the slave boy until the correct answer is produced. This confirms that the true knowledge concerning the area of a square was within the boy’s mind and that inquiry led him to recall the solution without instruction. Socrates tells Meno of the importance of this awareness of inherent knowledge in the slave boy’s future, “he will have knowledge without being taught by anyone but only questioned, since he will have recovered the knowledge from inside himself” (85d). In this sense, the boy has acquired wisdom. Through inquiry, he has reasoned his way to the truth and now believes in the process. This combination of belief and knowledge is essential to virtue in Meno. Although Socrates and Meno do not arrive at a definition of virtue by the dialogue’s end, the essence of virtue is distilled in the methodology of continual self-inquiry.

Moving on to a middle Platonic dialogue, the Symposium explores various appreciations and conceptions of eros, or what has been translated as “love.” In the diverse interpretations of love by the participants of the symposium, virtue is revealed to be an important factor that is also a multifaceted concept. In Phaedrus’ speech, love is described as something that provides guidance throughout life. In this way, love has a virtuous quality because it is being applied as an ethical model to follow. Plato evinces this in a binary fashion that determines what is right and wrong as Phaedrus says, “What guidance do I mean? I mean a sense of shame at acting shamefully, and a sense of pride in acting well” (178d). In the same way that the avoidance of physical pain keeps humans alive and healthy, shame keeps an individual away from things that are morally shameful. Likewise, virtue is rewarded with pride. Thus, the shame/pride dynamic constantly functions to direct one toward virtuousness. Similarly, in the next speech given by Pausanias, there is a right and wrong aspect in the way one chooses to love. Pausanias states “that there is a Common as well as a Heavenly Love” (180e). He associates common with “vulgar” (181b) in that the person that feels this love is interested in bodily pleasure that is immediate and temporary. Pausanias claims that male to female and older male to young male (boys) relationships are of this vulgar variety because there are no possibilities to develop a meaningful connection. Heavenly love, on the other hand, is equated with the soul and is long lasting. This love is seen in the ancient Greek practice of pederasty wherein an older male and an adolescent male have a relationship that is both erotic and filial. Pausanias claims that it is this kind of relationship that supports the teaching of and pursuit of wisdom. Hence, heavenly love is virtuous because it allows for philosophy as a love of wisdom to continue and thrive.

Virtue as moral wholeness that is aided by love’s permanence is taken up in the speech by Aristophanes. The speech can be interpreted as a morality based tale that is meant to communicate the importance of love to human nature. Aristophanes tells of a time long ago when humans where very powerful because they were whole bodies with two sets of sexual organs. Zeus thought they were too powerful and so cut all humans in half. As a result, human nature was imbibed with a sense of love that drove and continues to motivate humans to be with one another. Similar to Phaedrus’ theme, Aristophanes’ love is a kind of moral guide that, if followed, yields virtuousness. He asserts that “Love is our guide and our commander” (193b) and that “Love is born into every human being; it calls back the halves of our original nature together; it tries to make one out of two and heal the wound of human nature” (191d). The “wound” here can be likened to an incompleteness that results from an absence of love and virtue, and that mending it with wholeness insures a more righteous state. Wholeness also brings about reproduction that assures the continuation of love. This reproduction is both sexual and philosophic because, through humanity wisdom is perpetuated. This notion of reproduction is continued by Plato in Socrates’ speech, where he is reiterating concepts of love as told to him by Diotima. Stated simply, she says, “what everyone loves is really nothing other than the good” (205e) and “love is wanting to possess the good forever” (206a). Reproduction enables “forever” to be possible. She goes on to tell Socrates that all humans are pregnant and later give birth to beauty. Along the same lines as Pausanias’ common and heavenly versions of love, Diotima states that people are either “pregnant in body” (208e) or “pregnant in soul” (ibid), and both types of pregnancy are beautiful. Bodily reproduction is divine in nature and thus harmonious with beauty, while the soul’s reproduction is the endurance of “Wisdom and the rest of virtue” (209a). Virtuous qualities like temperance and justice are reproduced in the soul, and as a result remain stable and absolute. Virtue as a pursuit of knowledge is constant, yet ever-changing because new knowledge replaces old knowledge so that “everything that is mortal is preserved, not, like the divine, by always being the same in every way, but because what is departing and aging leaves behind something new, something such as it had been” (208a).

In the Meno and Symposium, there exists a coherent discourse on virtue. There is an immortal quality that virtue maintains in both works that is accessible to mortals that have an attuned awareness of virtue. This is seen in Meno when Socrates is discussing the recollection of knowledge; “Since the soul is immortal, then, and has been born many times... there is nothing it has not learned. So it is in no way surprising that it can recollect about virtue and other things, since it knew them before” (81c). In the Symposium, Diotima speaks of a ladder of love that leads to an ultimate beauty. She then wonders what would happen if one witnessed this divine beauty that is absolute and pure in its form. She answers that one would transcend past mere images of virtue to true virtue that is divine in nature; “The love of gods belongs to anyone who has given birth to true virtue and nourished it, and if any human being could become immortal, it would be he” (212a). In both instances, virtue is a connecting point between the immortal and mortal. Through persistent inquiry, one can recollect and know virtue, and in understanding beauty’s true form, one can produce virtue. Ultimately, Platonic virtue is something that is sought and practiced, as well as held as an ideal that is revered.