Friday, December 29, 2017

Play and Everyday Aesthetics

I am reading vol. 3 of Paul Guyer's A History of Modern Aesthetics.  (Cambridge U. Press, 2014).  It covers the 20th century.  Guyer has a particular theory of role of play in aesthetic experience (not surprisingly, since Kant gives a big role to the free play of the imagination and the understanding in the experience of beauty).  In his discussion of Collingwood, Guyer quotes Collingwood on Schiller (also famous for his views on play and art) in a way that seemed suddenly relevant to the project of everyday aesthetics.   Collingwood writes:  "Schiller's identification has often been rejected because art is a high and serious thing and play a childish and trivial; or because art is a thing of the spirit and play a thing of the body, its source the mere exuberance of physical energy, its aim merely physical pleasure."  

This caught my attention because the same criticisms have been raised against the aesthetics of everyday life.  So perhaps the aesthetics of everyday life is in some way closely connected to the tradition of Kant and Schiller in the play theory of art and aesthetics.  

Collingwood goes on:  "But these antitheses are totally false.  Serious art is serious and trivial art is trivial; children's games are for children and men's games are for men.  But as children are naturally and instinctively artists, so they naturally and instinctively play; and as art for grown men is something recaptured, a primitive attitude indulged in moments of withdrawal from the life of fact, so play is for grown men something to be done as a legitimate and refreshing escape from 'work.'"  This all from his Speculum Mentis pp. 103-5.  

I would argue that there is a continuity between art and play and that the dichotomies suggested and traditionally held are false.  This is not to say that art is the same as play or even a species of play.  Surely art is generally more serious than play, but the aim of neither art nor play is merely physical pleasure.  So too, the pleasures of everyday life are not merely physical.   

Guyer speaks of both art and play achieve their goals of refreshment and relaxation "through their use of bodily energy without the conscious intention of solving any specific practical problem."  And this is also true for many aesthetic experiences of everyday life, for example taking a walk in the park.  Guyer's argument is intended to defend Collingwood against a common charge of excessive idealism.  He claims, I think rightly, that "the rejection of a rigid division between mind and body is essential to Collingwood's defense of both play and art and of the identification of the two"  (207)  although, again, I would hesitate to simply identify art and play.

Another quote from Guyer in this discussion of Collingwood is also relevant to our concern.  He quotes from Coleridge's Biographia Literaria ch. 1V in support of Collingwood's rejection of rigid distinctions between childhood and adulthood as well as play and art :  "the character and privilege of genius ...[is to] ...carry on the feelings of childhood into the powers of manhood; to combine the child's sense of wonder and novelty with the appearances, which every day ....had rendered familiar..."  (207)    This seems relevant to the contemporary debate over everyday aesthetics.  The everyday may be seen in terms of "the familiar" but it can also be seen through child-like eyes.  Both Coleridge and Collingwood seem to be arguing for an approach to the everyday through a child's sense of wonder, which is what I, much later, called finding "the extraordinary in the ordinary."

Thus reading Collingwood and Coleridge could perhaps help in developing an everyday aesthetics. 

I will close with another quote, again taken from Guyer from Collingwood's Speculum Mentis.   "The true defence of play is the same as the defence of art.  Art is the cutting edge of the mind, the perpetual outreaching of thought into the unknown, the act in which thought externally sets itself a fresh problem.  So play, which is identical with art, is the attitude which looks at the world as an infinite and indeterminate field for activity, a perpetual adventure."  Collingwood concludes later that "the spirit of play, the spirit of eternal youth, is the foundation and beginning of all real life."  (107)   

This would mean of course that art and play are not entirely to be detached from the realm of the practical.   But it approaches the practical from the standpoint of this word "adventure."  If life is approached as adventure it is approached as drama, as something with heightened significance, as wondrous.  The playful approach to the everyday is more in line with what the artist does, hence the continuity between everyday aesthetics, nature aesthetics and art aesthetics.  


Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Interview of Thomas Leddy by Shawn Chong

What is the most memorable event in your life?

It is hard to categorize events as “most memorable” or not.  One of the reasons for this is that you remember different things at different times.  If by “most memorable” is meant the thing that one ought most to remember, that’s one thing.  If it means the one thing you remember the most, that is another matter.  Besides, when people ask this question they usually just want an amusing anecdote.

One thing I remember distinctly and think about from time to time is the day Prof. Brock informed me that I had been awarded a tenure-track position as San Jose state.   I had been teaching here as a temporary full-time lecturer and there was pretty tough competition for this tenure-track position.  Just yesterday I ran into one of the leading contenders for that position at an aesthetics conference.  I was so glad that the department chose me over him.   

What is the most noteworthy event you experienced while working at SJSU?

One wants to ask “noteworthy for whom, and under what circumstances?”  Sometimes we think of noteworthiness as equivalent to newsworthy.  I was in the news quite dramatically twice in my life.

There was the time that a tree fell on me while walking to my office.  It broke my right leg in two.  I was evacuated to the Valley Medical Center.  Thankfully no one else was under the tree at the time.  There is an article about the event in the campus paper archives. 

Another time I appeared in the news was when I was interviewed by the New York Times about our department’s famous stand against problematic use of MOOCS (massive online classes) in higher education.  This was a very important event in the history of the department.  We all contributed to a letter to the Chronicle of Higher Education criticizing the use of such courses.  It was a great moment for the department.  A number of the other faculty were also interviewed in the national media.  Recently we co-wrote an article incorporating our further thoughts on the issue.  This is the only time I have collaboratively written a paper with anyone. 

Who was your idol in philosophy when you grew up, and how have you tried to be like them?

In our society we have no really clear idea of what is meant by “when you grew up.”  I assume you mean something like the period leading up to my 21st birthday, with greater emphasis placed on the later part of that period.   I had many heroes then.  I wouldn’t say they were “idols” since I never worshiped them as gods or god-like beings, but I certainly admired them.  You can look at my web page for a short autobiography in which I list the philosophers who influenced me at certain times in my life.   Under the age of 21?  Well Thoreau and Nietzsche were two philosophers who particularly affected me.  But I also read and was influenced by Descartes, Pascal, Bertrand Russell, Plato, Hume, Kant and towards the end of that period, Wittgenstein.  I was also much taken by some eastern philosophers including Krishnamurti and Lin Yutang.   
“Growing up” implies the process of coming to maturity and one can say that there is no clear cutoff point here.    Am I still “growing”?  Do I still have maturing to do?  I am not sure I know the answers to those questions.

I have been totally immersed in Plato, Kant, Hume, Ricoeur, Dewey and a number of others at different times in my life.   But when it comes to philosophy of life I think I probably draw more from the Stoics. 

During the period before I was 21 (I became 21 in 1970) it was not popular to pay much attention to women philosophers.  However, later in my life a number of women were added to my pantheon of heroes, both living and dead.  My advisor for my M.A. in Humanities was Sandra Luft, who I greatly admired and still do.  On my blog Aesthetics Today I have a list of the women aestheticians who have influenced me in my life.  

What belief or doctrine of philosophy had the most influence on you?

I am not much for accepting doctrines or even “beliefs” if, by that, is meant something someone accepts without questioning.   I have always been taken by skepticism and see doubt as central to philosophy. “Influence” is also a funny word since the relationship between writings one reads, classes, teachers, thoughts, and writings one writes is much more dynamic than can be described by the relatively passive concept of “influence.”  My initial response to this question was “Probably the American Pragmatist tradition had the strongest influence.  However I have also been much affected by both the phenomenological and the analytic traditions.”  But now I think that the strongest influence (assuming, for the moment, that I set aside my reservations about the word) was the dialectic of Christianity of Philosophy.   Christianity, which was an important part of my youth, really did present a doctrine and a set of beliefs that one was required to accept:  but I reacted against all of that.  I first began to think of myself as an atheist around the age of 15 and that was largely because of philosophy.  By the way, an important influence in this was a book I read by John Fowler called Aristos, which was based on the sayings of Heraclitus.   

How have the books you have favored changed throughout your life?

It may seem too obvious to say this but the books that I favored under the age of ten were children’s books often involving adventure.  In my teens I was eager to read the great classics.  My grandfather gave me a list of such books and I was happy to work my way through that.  I was a big reader of novels and history books in my teens, but later in my life I focused more on philosophy.  I still read about twelve novels a year, mostly in connection with a literary fiction reading group that I have belonged to for over thirty years, although sometimes I read mystery and science fiction.

As for individual books, Brother's Karamazov was one of the reasons I became an atheist.  I loved reading the great classics including such works as The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann and of course the plays of Shakespeare and the Greek plays.   However during my professional life I have pretty much focused on whatever books I have been teaching.  This semester it has mainly been books on the aesthetics of film, but also, just this week, Suzanne Langer's Feeling and Form.

What time and place would you like to live in?

It seems like a silly pastime to imagine living in another time and place.  But perhaps an indicator of the choice I would make would be what sorts of novels I like to read, including historical fiction, as well as the history books I like to read and the historical sites I like to visit.  Perhaps my choice of novels and history books and sites reflects whatever time I would like to live in (if I had a choice) since to read a novel or to visit a historical museum is to vicariously live in another time.  In this regard I have always favored the 19th century.  It was a time of great possibility and we had not yet discovered that we were about to destroy the planet.  I prefer Sherlock Holmes stories when they are placed in the 19th century, and I love Jane Austin.  Growing up in California, history was mainly the 19th century.  My second choice would be the 18th century.  In both cases life would only be acceptable if in a major city and if one were comfortably well off.  My third choice would be Athens during the time of Plato. 

If you have a chance to meet someone, who might that be?

If dead people are included I would certainly like to meet Socrates.  But I probably would not do very well in the debate.  I don’t really have a list of living people I would like to meet.  It is not so much meeting people that would be interesting but talking with them at length.  But it is hard to know who you would really enjoy talking to at length.  Most great men and women I have known are egocentric and to talk with them you have to be pretty tolerant of that. 

What is your most proud achievement in philosophy?

Pride involves positive feelings of accomplishment.  I have that mainly towards my career as a philosophy teacher at SJSU.  A great source of pride is the accomplishments of my past students.   Another source of pride is my publications…the academic part of my professional career.   I was one of the founders of a new sub-discipline of philosophical aesthetics called Everyday Aesthetics.  My book The Extraordinary in the Ordinary:  The Aesthetics of Everyday Life was published in 2012 and I am proud of that book.  Yesterday I attended a talk in which my work in this field was referred to positively, and that made me feel proud. 

Do you consider your work unique?

Uniqueness is a pretty common property.  Everything is different in some respect.  On the other hand, usually when people use the word “unique” they mean particularly unusual.  So, let’s assume that we are talking about this sense of “unique.”  People often associate the word with something positive:  it is considered a complement to say that someone’s work is unique.  But it can be used as a put-down, i.e. uniquely stupid or uniquely incompetent.  My philosophical writings (“my work”) reflect a distinctive voice that is my own.  Whether or not it is unique, in the sense of particularly unusual in a positive way, I might not be the best to say.  If someone other than me decided to read all of my writings and then compared them with the writings of someone considered to be more typical perhaps it could be determined how unique my work is.   But I suspect that the conclusion would be that we were both unique. 

There are some philosophers who simply accept a doctrine and apply a standard method without trying to think very deeply about assumptions.  Such people, and people who are followers of one philosopher, might be less deserving of the accolade “unique.”  I am not that sort of philosopher.  I have tried in my career to derive inspiration from every philosopher I read and I would never say that X is true because philosopher Y believes it is true.  However, that, in itself, does not make me particularly unique. 

What would you change about yourself?

In a way this is a very strange question.  What is the point of talking about changing oneself?  I am not sure I can answer this.  If the question is something like “If you could retroactively modify your DNA or your history what would you change?” how could I possibly answer that?   If I changed myself in this sort of way then I would not be myself.  There is a paradox here. 
Nietzsche argues for saying “yes” to your life including your entire past, and presumably your genetic makeup too.  He sees this as the basis of the only worthwhile optimism.  You should strive to say “I will it thus.”  I agree with this.  So, in a way, I wouldn’t change anything.   There is a paradox here too:  if I try to follow Nietzsche’s advice more often, then perhaps I am not saying yes to a part of myself that says no to myself.   But that paradox does not bother me.

Change is about the future.   One always makes plans and all plans are about change.  Usually this question is directed, however, to what personal habits one wants to modify, for example “do you want to eat more vegetables and fewer saturated fats?”  I do not want to talk about those kinds of projects since that kind of thing is not appropriate for public discourse.

What philosopher's writings have you agreed with the most?

My initial response to this question was “Richard Rorty's writings constantly gave me that sense, although I probably have agreed even more with the writings of Joseph Margolis.”

Thinking about it more I imagine that among my contemporaries I have usually agreed with Yuriko Saito the most.   However, I am not sure how important it is to agree with someone or how important this category really is.  I sometimes have written “I agree” with regards to some claim by some philosopher:  but who cares how often I do this?  In philosophy it is often much more interesting to disagree with someone than to agree with them.  I suspect that I have also disagreed the most with Saito. 

If you could change one period or stage in philosophy, what might that be?

"I would let Descartes disappear:  he did not really do any good for philosophy.  The value of his work is mainly to provide something to argue against, although I admire his dedication to truth.”  This is what I initially wrote in response to this question.  But, thinking again about Nietzsche’s idea of saying yes to life, I would say that I would not change anything about the history of philosophy:  why would I want to?  Even Descartes has value for me.  The debates between Descartes and his contemporaries are particularly fascinating. 

A second possibility would be to have had Heraclitus and Parmenides travel to India or China and have some serious discussions with the philosophers there.  Or Plato.. Or Aristotle:  definitely Aristotle.

Do you believe philosophy is a subject-matter capable of being understood only by a few?

My initial response was “Not at all:  anyone who cares to learn can sink into the world of ideas created by a philosopher.”

I am not sure that philosophy is one subject-matter.   There is philosophy as a practice and philosophy as a collection of writings and talks.  Also some people argue that there is philosophy in literature and film, maybe even in painting and music.  One should not forget the philosophy in one-to-one dialogues such as those described by Plato.   Each work of philosophy presents its own challenges.  If you are reading Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra you need to learn how to read it.  It is a different think to learn how to read John Dewey’s Art as Experience.  That is why we have seminars and professors.

“Understand” usually means being able to appreciate and explain.   Only a small number can currently appreciate and explain Nietzsche’s great books.  But potentially almost anyone can do so if you are willing to put in the work.   Of course there is a distinction between superficial and deep explanation.  Perhaps the deepest form of explanation (and the deepest form of appreciation) is when someone creates his or her own philosophical work in response to the work in question.  Plato was possibly the deepest reader of Socrates, as Aristotle was of Plato.   As a practical matter, not everyone can read and understand on that level.  There are also multiple possible equally good understandings of a philosophical writing.  There are many other readings of Plato than that offered by Aristotle.  Yet some really good philosophers are not very good readers:  they are perhaps best as coming up with their own theories and may even be engaged in creative misreadings of others.

Do you think philosophers are wrongfully viewed and represented by most people?

“Yes.  But we philosophy teachers are constantly trying to correct that.”  That would be my initial reply.  A better way to answer this would be to survey adults on the question “How do you value philosophy?”  That is, this would be a good question if, by “philosophers rightly viewed,” one means “philosophers rightly appreciated.”  Maybe, however, it means “philosophers rightly appreciated and understood.”  OK, so we generate some questions, ask them of a representative sample of most people and then analyze the responses. But how would you determine the representative sample?

Since most people have not read a lot of philosophy we already know that most people will not have much understanding of philosophy and hence will not view philosophy rightly, if by “rightly” is meant “with understanding.”  One way to answer this question would be to look at popular sayings about philosophers and philosophy.  It might be popularly agreed that “Atheism necessarily implies immorality.”  That would be a wrong view of atheism.  To check this, one would have to read most of the great atheist philosophers and most of the great works defending atheism.  Some people rightly view some philosophers largely because they have read them and understood what they have said.  Some people can do this simply by listening to lectures about the philosopher or reading secondary sources.  Most people wrongly view most philosophers simply because any partial understanding of a philosopher is an incorrect understanding.  I am not entirely comfortable, however, with the dichotomy “right view” vs. “wrong view.”  Maybe we should speak instead of better and worse views of philosophers.

Shawn Chong was a student in my Introduction to Aesthetics class and he uses these questions to write an interview for another class.  I want to offer my thanks to Mr. Chong for posing these questions and getting me to elaborate on my original responses. 

Monday, November 20, 2017

Suzanne Langer and the virtual space of everyday aesthetics

Suzanne Langer might not be the first person one would associate with everyday aesthetics.  Her fundamental ideas are all associated with the word “virtual”:  virtual object, virtual space, and virtual time.  But the virtual is deliberately disassociated from the everyday.  Unlike Dewey, (and she is like Dewey in many respects) the virtual is not continuous with everyday life.  In this respect she is more like Clive Bell.  One could say that her overall position combines Bell and Tolstoy:  significant form and art as expression (she uses both terms) although unlike Tolstoy and more like Collingwood, Langer favors a cognitive approach to the expression of emotion.  More on this later.  In any case, she clearly believes that art is autonomous, and this would seem to exclude everyday aesthetics.  In fact, the autonomy position insofar as it radically separates everyday life from art, makes everyday aesthetics difficult.  It is thus not surprising that Langer is dismissive of everyday aesthetics.  She considers music, for example, radically distinct from pleasurable non-musical sound,  and associates the later with the pleasures of the senses of touch, taste and smell.  She says, for example, that sound “as a sheer sensory factor in experience, may be soothing or exciting, pleasing or torturing;  but so are the factors of taste, smell, and touch.” (Ross 233)  She sees all these as “somatic influences” and believes that exploiting them is “self-indulgence.”  This approach would not be friendly, for instance, to the ideas of Sherri Irwin.  Langer strictly separates people who work in these areas, whom she calls “mere epicures,” from artists whom, she believes, are “torchbearers of culture” and “inspired creators.”  So, “If music, patterned sound, had no other office than to stimulate and soothe our nerves, pleasing our ears as well-combined foods please our palates, it might be highly popular, but never culturally important.”  (223)   Cooking schools should not be rated as highly as music conservatories. 
However, although Langer constantly stresses the discontinuities between art and everyday life.  Consider how she sees a picture:  “a picture …is an image, created for the first time out of things that are not imagined, but quite realistic – canvas and paper…”  (226)  Here we see how Langer is naïve about the phenomenological space of the studio, where canvas and paper are seen by the artist phenomenologically as having potential for creation and hence as part of a virtual space, the virtual space of the working studio.  The image in the painting, to be sure, is created from this things which can be very easily seen as without meaning content.  They can have a double reality, can be seen in one way or the other.  They could not however be used in creation if they did not have this phenomenological side.  Langer herself admits that the distinction between image and actuality is functional:  “real objects, functioning in a way that is normal for images, may assume a purely imaginal status.”  (227)

So what then is an image.  She says that a building “becomes an image when it presents itself purely to our vision, i.e. as a sheer visual form instead of a locally and practically related object.”  (227)  “We abstract its appearance from its material existence” and then it becomes “simply a thing of vision” and “acquires a different context.”  There is some truth in this, and yet it is more complicated than she makes out.   One can say that its practical relations for example are themselves transformed and carried up into the aesthetic realm and so it is a mistake to think that material existence is always completely distinct from imaginative experience, since material existence can be imaginatively perceived and worked,  and acquiring a different context does not mean entirely losing the original context.  So there is something problematic when Langer says that the painted canvas is not a new thing among the things of the studio:  it is indeed a new thing, but let us not think of the other things of the studio as themselves merely the objects of scientific or mathematical analysis.  They too are not mere things.  To be sure, imagination is more evidence in the image:  there is a kind of intensification of imagination in the area of the image.  The mistake can be seen in this quote:  “even the forms are not phenomena in the order of actual things, as spots on a tablecloth are;  the forms in a design – no matter how abstract – have a life that does not belong to mere spots.”  (227)  What is deeply wrong here is that the spots on the tablecloth are not at all mere spots.  They are pot there as part of a design, and so they too have a life, although no doubt not as pronounced as the version of them we see in a painting by Matisse.   So of course Langer is right that “something arises in the process of arranging colors on a surface, something that is created, not just gathered and set in new order:  that is the image” but yet the new image in a Matisse piggybacks on the new image on a less scale in the designs he uses as subject matter.  There is a continuity between everyday life and art.  Langer is right that the painter is not just taking an arranging elements, that she/he is creating a virtual space, and even that there is bracketing from the realm of the practical, but not complete isolation or discontinuity. 
Langer does not go as far in the direction of artistic autonomy as, Clive Bell and the formalists however.  Bell argues that art has nothing to do with our everyday emotions.  It only has to do with that special aesthetic experience that we get from appropriately apprehending something with significant form.  Art expresses emotion, not just the aesthetic emotion, but emotion in general.  But, unlike Tolstoy, art does not express the particular emotion of the particular artist:  it is  “not the symptomatic expression of feelings that beset the composer but a symbolic expression of the forms of sentience as he understands them.”  So the composer is not interested in expressing his/her own feelings but rather what he/she “knows about” the inner life.   The idea is to make a statement about human sensibility in general through music (and art in general) as a symbol.  Now that point I want to make here is that Langer, in discussing individual art forms, begins to deconstruct the radical discontinuity between art and life.  She already begins to move away from the formalists like Bell simply by observing that art has to do with emotion.   Keep this summary in mind as we proceed:  “music is ‘significant form,’ and its significance is that of a symbol, a highly articulated sensuous object, which by its dynamic structure can express the forms of vital experience which language is peculiarly unfit to convey.”   (226)  So “significant form” is not here tied to the special “ecstatic” aesthetic experience in the way it is in Bell’s formalism.  Bell says that this experience is like that of a mathematical discovery, or like religious experience.  It is transcendent in a Platonic-like way.  But for Langer significant form is tied to the actual structures of our emotions.  She is more like Aristotle:  it captures and expresses universals, not Platonic Forms.  But she is very unlike Dewey.  Whereas Dewey stresses continuity, she, again, stresses discontinuity.   Now for my deconstruction.  But please do not think of deconstruction as a negative thing.  I believe that Langer provides us with help in solving problems in everyday aesthetics by way of this deconstruction.  Heidegger does something similar, especially when he talks about the Greek temple, but Langer’s formulation has the advantage of not being saddled with the Nazi baggage that unfortunately Heidegger carries.  Also, she is not given to the often off-putting mystification we find in Heidegger.  I am beginning to reveal my hand.  My argument in short will be that Langer, through her discussions first of Sculpture and then, even more so, when she discusses Architecture, re-establishes continuity at least on one level.   And again she does so in a way that can help us with what has been called the dilemma of everyday aesthetics.   Sculpture as with painting creates what Langer calls virtual space, however unlike with painting, the virtual space does not stop at the physical boundaries of the art object.  The volume created “is more than the bulk of the figure;  it is a space made visible, and is more than the area which the figure actually occupies.”  (229)  In emphasizing the negative spaces and the spaces around the sculpture Langer essentially expands the virtual space that she seeks to keep separate from everyday life.  Interestingly she is willing to use the word “continuity” here, where she would not earlier:  “The figure itself seems to have a sort of continuity with the emptiness around it, however much its solid masses may assert themselves as such.”  (299)  And further “the void enfolds it, and the enfolding space has vital form as a continuation of the figure.”  (299)  My point here is going to be related with an ongoing debate I have been having with other everyday aesthetics.  My stress has been on the close relation between art aesthetics and everyday aesthetics.  What happens to the space around the sculpture:  it is brought into the world of the work of art.  This is a problem in a way since the space then can be constituted in two ways, for Langer, one as physical space of everyday life and one as virtual space.  But her understanding of physical space is actually discursive, logical, scientific, and really not the space in which we live.  Whereas her virtual space is the phenomenological (using Husserl’s sense of that term) space in which we live:  one that has emotional import.  It is here I want to say something about Langer’s actual closeness to Dewey, and this is by way of her notion of “vital form.”  One could say, in defense of Langer, that the sculpture does not really move into the realm of the everyday even though it goes beyond the physical object:  the empty space it “commands” is “part of the sculptural volume.”  Let’s grant this.  But things will be different when we come to architecture.  Here is an aside, related to Dewey.  Previously we observed that Langer is closer to life than Bell in that she is committed to significant form as having to do with the actual structure of our emotions, which surely are tied to our lives.  Further, she emphasizes the “semblance of organism.”  Dewey stresses that we are live creatures interacting with our environments.  Langer tries to keep the two radically separate, but interestingly the value of art is that it reflects us by resembling ourselves as live organisms.  “Living organisms maintain themselves, resist change, strive to restore their structure when it has been forcibly interfered with….organisms, performing characteristic functions must have certain general forms, or perish.” (229)  Following Aristotle, once again, she stresses that life has necessity, that only life “exhibits any telos” and that the acorn strives to become the oak.  Now she stresses that there is “nothing actually organic about a work of sculpture” (230) and yet is gives us “semblance of living form.” 
Now for architecture.   The actual theory is a bit more complicated:  “Architecture creates the semblance of that World which is the counterpart of Self.  It is the total environment made visible.”  It is not clear here how the environment made visible is to be distinguished from the environment.  The introduction of “Self” may indicate a phenomenological point of view:  we are talking about the world as perceived by a self.  And as she observes that the “Self is collective” which probably simply means that we perceive the world according to certain shared worldviews.  This would explain why “the World is communal.”  But if this is so then the World (ironically very like Heidegger’s concept of World) really is the world of everyday life experience.  Thus continuity is re-established.  The only world that is cut off is the world understood not phenomenologically but discursively, i.e. the world as understood by science.  That is a problem, I think, since it relies on a continued dualism which would be unacceptable to a Dewayan, but we will not address that here.  But things do get a bit confusing as when Langer says “as the actual environment of a being is a system of functional relations, so a virtual ‘environment,’ the created space of architecture, is a symbol of functional existence.”  (230)  What exactly can this mean:  isn’t the virtual environment, the symbol of functional existence, exactly the phenomenological world in which we actual live and act:  the world as we experience it?  Here is an interesting implication:  if that is so then the world surrounding architecture, basically the built environment, basically most of the world in which we live, is one that is infused with the spirit of architecture.  But if that is true then the everyday is a collection of virtual spaces constituted by various architectural entities?  Langer wants to stress the non-practical aspect of this space:  “symbolic expression is something miles removed from provident planning or good arrangement.”  (230)  This seems to me just plain false.  My architect brother, William Leddy, of Leddy, Maytum, Stacey designed the Roberts Campus for disability services in Berkeley, California.  The work is both symbolically expressive and arranged well for people with disabilities:  part of the symbolism is to accomplish this very arrangement.  But I think that Langer is right when she says that symbolic expression “embodies the feeling, the rhythm, the passion or sobriety…by which all things are done.”  Buildings create what she calls an “image of life” which is also “the visible semblance of an ‘ethnic domain’ by which I take her to mean not the domain of some ethnicity, like the Irish-Americans, but rather the domain of humanity since, for her, architecture is a “symbol of humanity to be found in the strength and interplay of forms.”  What is ironic and strange here is that what is symbolized is identical with the symbol:  for the symbol just is the virtual space created by architecture which is our space as expressive and lived.  The two are both separate and dissolved into each other: and so we have a paradox…one might call it the paradox of architecture.  Architecture, as least where we are talking about spaces constituted by architecture, is the space of everyday life.  It is designed to accommodate everyday life aesthetics.  As Langer puts it “the human environment, which is the counterpart of any human life, holds the imprint of a functional pattern; it is the complementary of organic form” which see sees in terms of the “metabolic pattern” of our both our feelings and our physical acts.  But again as opposed to Langer, it is not just complementary or a counterpart;  it is just exactly also where we live.  To put it briefly:  human life is in the human environment  I do not deny that buildings create an illusion.  In my book I described what I called the aesthetic aura.  When we perceive our surrounding environment as having an “aura of significance” this can be called an illusion, if you wish, although this implies that what is seen is somehow less real:  whereas in fact it is experienced as more real.  So “illusion” is not my preferred term here.  Instead of speaking as Langer does of creating “the illusion of an ethnic world” we should speak of creating an experience or way of experiencing the world in which there is heightened significance and in which the world, paradoxically, exemplifies itself.  (See Nelson Goodman for further discussion of this.)  Given this I agree with Langer that in architecture the place is “articulated by the imprint of human life” and that such a place “must seem organic, like a living form.” (230)   The great modernist architects she mentions:  Sullivan, Wright, Le Corbusier, all succeed in re-visioning the world through architecture in this organic way (although, to be sure, Le Corbusier, also like the machine metaphor, as when he spoke of a house as a machine for living.)   I cannot agree however that life has “no relevance..to builder’s supplies.”  As Dewey clearly showed, and also Heidegger, builder’s supplies are taken up into the virtual space of architecture and transformed by it.  Let us not forget the thingliness of the thing, as Heidegger would put it.  All of this said, I am in perfect accord with Langer’s idea that the place in this sense is destroyed when the work of architecture is destroyed.   I will end by noting some of the ways in which Langer allows the work of architecture to reach out even further into the world, in terms of continuity with everyday life, than the work of sculpture.  As she puts it:  “its virtual domain may include terraces and gardens, or rows of sphinxes…” and further “sea and sky may fill the intervals between its columns and be gathered to its space.”  This point is, of course, remarkably similar to Heidegger on the temple.   The “ethnic domain” is perhaps better described by her as an “atmosphere” created by architecture.  I just cannot accept her separation of the utility of the building from its “semblance.”  Or her conviction that hot water heaters are irrelevant to architecture. 


Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Emotional Identification in Film: The Floating I

The floating I.   Here's a hypothesis.  A question is constantly raised as to how we engage in films emotionally.  Some speak of identification with the characters, some of empathy, some of sympathy, and so forth.  But the question I want to ask is: Where am I when I am looking at a film?  The giant shark attacks and I jump in my seat, but I do not run from the theater.  It seems that I am there in the fictional world but also not there.  My hypothesis is that the I (my I) floats, attaches, and then floats again.  Momentarily the two worlds collapse and I, in my seat, jump with fear, but then quickly I enter back into the world, and feel no need to escape the theater. 

What about empathy?  The giant shark is about to attack a swimmer.  I do not feel empathy for the girl since she is still having a good time.  I am as if an observer in that fictional world, although in a protected space since I do not fear for myself.  I am fictionally there as Walton would put it.  But sometimes, as with other humans in the real world, I feel deep empathy with a character:  I am fictionally identifying with the character.  

I am also interested in a certain conflict between Carroll and Walton.  Carroll believes that the director uses "criterial prefocusing" to lead us to the water of emotional response.  The viewer is supposed to "cognize the film" in the way the director wants.  A problem with this is that there is no particular reason for me to emotionally respond to events in the film if I am just cognizing and categorizing.  

Walton in "Fearing Fictions" (originally published in 1978:  I am looking at the version in the Carroll and Choi anthology) offers something very different.  I think the signal interesting thing about Walton's theory is that in viewing a film we enter into the fictional world.  Of course this is a phenomenological point.  "We and Charles feel ourselves to be part of fictional worlds, to be intimately involved with the slime....or with whatever constituents of fictional worlds are, make-believedly, objects of our feelings and attitudes."  Carroll has us outside the fictional world but busy cognizing it and categorizing things within it.   We just have feelings because we are engineered to do so in the context of this cognizing activity.  Walton has us inside the fictional world in the sense that we feel ourselves to be part of such a world.  This seems much more plausible to me.

There is one problem with Walton's account.  When I think of make-believe I think of something active.  But we do not actively make-believe that we are in the fictional world in the way someone might actively pretend that she is a movie star while walking down a street in Hollywood or in a way that a child can actively pretend that a mud paddy is a pie.   We go to a movie and we are automatically entered into a fictional world (or alternatively into a non-fictional rendering of the world in a documentary). 

Combining Carroll and Walton  might help.  One could say that the director sets it up (Carroll) but that the world is entered into (Walton.)  I do not have to make-believe that Huck floated down the Mississippi:  I see that he did and know that he did insofar as I am immersed in the movie.  But I have no big problem with Walton's overall use of the term "make-believe" which I think is just, for him, a technical term that helps him make a point that is basically right.

Again, what is interesting about Walton, is that "we end up 'on the same level' with fictions."  Further "this enables us to comprehend our sense of closeness to fictions, without attributing to ourselves patently false beliefs."  (243)  

Moreover, this is not just a minor point, for example a point about fearing fictions.  It has to do with the function of film and literature.  As Walton puts it "we are now in a position to expect progress on the fundamental question of why and how fiction is important" and why it is not "mere fiction."  (243)  

It also connects up with the much maligned theories of Suzanne Langer and F. E. Sparshott (and yes Nietzsche too) that there is an important similarity between our experience of film and our experience of dreams.  See especially "A Note on the Film" by Langer (I posted on this previously.)

The I floats as well in dreams.  Walton says "people are usually, perhaps always, characters in their dreams and daydreams."  Sometimes we only observe, but even then, we belong to the fictional world of the dream.

Further:  "much of the value of dreaming, fantasizing, and making-believe depends crucially on one's thinking of oneself as belonging to a fictional world.  It is chiefly by fictionally facing certain situations, engaging in certain activities, and having or expressing certain feelings...that a dream, fantasizer, or game-player comes to terms with his actual feelings..."  (243)  and people derive something similar from novels and films.  Again:  "it is fictional that they themselves exist and participate (if only as observers) in the events portrayed in the works..."  (244)  The important point is that we do not "merely stand outside fictional worlds and look in" (244).  

It is not required that the I be in a specific place in the fictional world.  It is only required that the I be somewhere capable of observing what we actually see on the screen and hear in the theater as coming from the movie.  The I here is relatively empty.  Of course, ultimately, it is identical with myself who is sitting there in the theater.  

Walton speaks of a girl hearing Jack in the Beanstock for the umpteenth time:  "she is engaged in our own game of make-believe during the reading, a game in which make-believedly she learns for the first time about Jack and the giant as she hears about them."
Further, "it is her make-believed uncertainty (the fact that make-believedly she is uncertain), not any actual uncertainty, that is responsible for the excitement and suspense that she feels."  (245)  She does not have to actively pretend anything.  But what is important is that she is once again an observer in the world with a certain degree of knowledge.  Of course, over time, the knowledge that she really has will make this process less enjoyable, and adults, notably, seldom enjoy reading mystery novels a second time.  We carry something with us into the fictional world.


This idea of entering the world might be seen as related in a strange way with Danto's idea that an artwork is something that leaves the world and enters into the artworld.  It is as though Danto were right but that in order to experience the artwork we had to enter its fictional world as well.  "Something becomes art when we enter with it into the artworld."  That's an interesting hypothesis.

  












Thursday, October 26, 2017

Dewey: The Liberal Arts and the Visual Arts.

The issue of how the studio arts could contribute to a liberal arts education is not something that Dewey addressed in his long career.  This is surprising since he had an enormous impact on educational theory in his early and middle years, and an equal influence on aesthetics, particularly with respect to the visual arts, in his later years.  Moreover, on a practical level, he and his writings had a notable impact on the role of the studio arts in liberal arts education through his effect on various colleges and universities with which he was associated.  Notable in this regard was his impact on those at Black Mountain College who were reshaping our notion of the liberal arts as something that would strongly incorporate the visual arts.  John Andrew Rice, the director of Black Mountain, was strongly influenced by Dewey’s educational theory, as was Josef Albers, one of the leading visual art teachers there.  Dewey was even on the Black Mountain advisory committee and visited on at least two occasions in 1934 and 1935.[1]   Black Mountain was a liberal arts college with a special emphasis on the arts, and it had great influence through such figures as (this list includes both faculty and students) Anni Albers, Ruth Asawa, John Cage, Harry Callahan, John Chamberlain, Robert Creeley, Merce Cunningham, Willem de Kooning, Elaine de Kooning, Robert Duncan, Buckminster Fuller, Suzi Gablik, Paul Goodman, Walter Gropius, Franz Kline, Gwendolyn Knight, Jacob Lawrence, Robert Motherwell, Beaumont Newhall, Kenneth Noland, Charles Olson,  Arthur Penn, Robert Rauschenberg, Dorothea Rockburne, Ben Shahn, Aaron Siskind,  Stephen De Staebler, Cy Twombly, and Peter Voulkos.  Dewey also had an influence on art education through his close association with Albert Barnes and the Barnes Foundation.  Even today a large portion of the secondary literature on Dewey’s aesthetics appears in art education journals.
Today, Dewey’s fame is most closely associated with his educational theory, which was mainly directed to K-12 schooling.  So, those who were influenced by Dewey in visual arts education at the college and university level were mainly making inferences either from his educational or his aesthetic theory.   Of course there are some general points that would apply to higher education as well as to K-12:  for example, Dewey was widely known for stressing active learning over rote memorization.   His emphasis on hands-on activity would make studio teaching and practice particularly relevant to his notion of liberal arts education.   He also sought to overcome prejudicial distinctions between vocational and skills-based learning on the one hand and book-learning on the other.  And of course he strongly associated education with the promotion of democracy.
But today if we are to find inspiration in Dewey on the role of the studio arts in liberal arts education we should look mainly to Art as Experience (1934)Only this work provides the theoretical basis for a strong pragmatist reading of the arts upon which can be based a re-evaluation of that role.  I will begin with a review of Dewey’s directly stated views on the liberal arts and on the relationship between the studio arts and the liberal arts, and then will go over some of his views in Art as Experience that are relevant to our concerns here.
Central to our investigation are the passages in Democracy and Education (1916) that deal with play, imagination and fine art.   Chapter 15, “Play and Work in the Curriculum,” is particularly relevant.  There, Dewey stresses that both play and work should be incorporated into school activity.  (Again, this is directed to K-12, but may be extended to higher education.)  Dewey observes that, already in the classroom, “[t]here is work with paper, cardboard [etc] …”  employing such processes as cutting and folding, and using such tools as hammer and saw.  He also mentions ”[o]utdoor excursions, gardening, cooking, sewing, printing, book-binding, weaving, painting” etc. and argues that the educator should “engage pupils in these activities in such ways that while manual skill and technical efficiency are gained and immediate satisfaction found in the work, together with preparation for later usefulness, these things shall be subordinated to education – that is, to intellectual results and the forming of” what he calls “a socialized disposition.”  (106-7)
In Chapter 18, on “Educational Values,” he goes further, arguing that “[a]n adequate recognition of the play of imagination as the medium of realization of every kind of thing which lies beyond the scope of direct physical response is the sole way of escape from mechanical methods in teaching.”  (237)  For Dewey, “imagination is as much a normal and integral part of human activity as is muscular movement.”  (237)  Imagination allows for the translation of symbols into direct meaning.  When play activities “develop in the direction of an enhanced appreciation of the immediate qualities which appeal to taste, they grow into fine arts.”  (237)  It follows that the function of the fine arts is the enhancement of qualities that make ordinary experiences appealing.  (238)  They are the main means for achieving “an intensified, enhanced appreciation.”  (238)   Their purpose, beyond being enjoyable, is that they fix taste, reveal depth of meaning in otherwise mediocre experiences, and concentrate and focus elements of what is considered good.  In the end, the fine arts are “not luxuries of education, but emphatic expressions of that which makes any education worth while.”  (238)
In his chapter on “Labor and Leisure” Dewey addresses Aristotle’s conception of a liberal arts education.   Aristotle distinguishes between useful labor and leisure, where the second is privileged over the first (253).   Dewey believes this prejudicial distinction is still dominant today, as also the related distinction between liberal education on the one hand and professional and industrial education on the other. (251)   He agrees with Aristotle on some points, for example, joining him in rejecting as mechanical whatever renders the student unfit for the exercise of excellence.  But, unlike Aristotle (and the Greeks in general) he holds all men and women to be free.  (255)  He also rejects the idea that it is natural to separate production of commodities and practical achievement from knowledge.  (256)  The thrust of his analysis is to retain the notion of liberal education and yet free it anti-egalitarian Aristotelian assumptions.
An Opinion piece in the New York Times by Michael S. Roth, titled “Learning as Freedom,” has recently returned to Dewey to explore the issue of the survival of liberal arts education today.   Roth observes that “[a] century ago, organizations as varied as chambers of commerce and labor federations backed plans for a dual system of teaching, wherein some students would be trained for specific occupations, while others would get a broad education allowing them to continue their studies in college. The movement led to the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, which financed vocational education, initially for jobs in agriculture and then in other industries.”[2]   The Smith-Hughes Act (which was applied mainly to high school education) stressed isolation of vocational education from other aspects of education.   Dewey publically opposed the act because he believed it would exacerbate the inequalities of the time.   Although he recognized that there will always be distinctions between managers and subordinates, he believed “the great thing for one as for the other is that each shall have had the education which enables him to see within his daily work all there is in it of large and human significance.”  In short, students should not be reduced to mere tools.  He put his argument in terms of what we would today call a progressive critique of relations of production, writing that, “[t]he kind of vocational education in which I am interested is not one which will ‘adapt’ workers to the existing industrial regime….”  Roth also stresses that, for Dewey, liberal arts education was a matter of learning how to learn.  As Dewey put it, “[t]he inclination to learn from life itself and to make the conditions of life such that all will learn in the process of living is the finest product of schooling.”
Roth correctly observes that Higher Education faces stark challenges today as well.  He notes “the ravaging of public universities’ budgets by strained state and local governments; ever rising tuition and student debt; inadequate student achievement; the corrosive impact of soaring inequality; and the neglect by some elite institutions of their core mission of teaching undergraduates.”  In a Deweyan spirit he insists that “learning in the process of living is the deepest form of freedom. In a nation that aspires to democracy, that’s what education is primarily for: the cultivation of freedom within society.
Dewey’s Explicit Statement on the Liberal Arts
In his 1944 piece, “The Problem of the Liberal Arts College, ” Dewey sought to re-define the liberal arts in terms of the notion that an art is a liberal art if it is liberating.  This was intended to free up the liberal arts from traditional lists of disciplines that did not, for example, include the practice of creating visual art (although he does not mention this), and also from what he considered an outworn identification of the liberal arts with the linguistic, the literary and the metaphysical.  We should bear in mind, for the sake of our discussion here, that Dewey’s re-visioning of the liberal arts in this essay did not come from his work in aesthetics but from his conception of scientific method.  He believed that previous theories of the liberal arts were based on the notion that knowledge is based on intuition of essences by pure intellect, a view that he saw refuted by the scientific revolution.  He also reiterated his opposition (expressed, as we saw, in Democracy and Education and in his objections to the Smith-Hughes Act) to the separation of the liberal from the useful arts which, in the past, was based on the notion that the useful arts were mere matters of routine.  However, now, with the technological revolution, these arts are much more closely allied with the scientific revolution.  Moreover, he believes a social revolution has occurred in which the useful arts are no longer simply associated with the menial class.[3]  Dewey’s main method of analysis of the liberal arts is to situate a need for a new definition within the reality of changing social conditions.  He sums up the issue in this way: “The problem of securing to the liberal arts college its due junction in democratic society is that of seeing to it that the technical subjects which are now socially necessary acquire a humane direction.”  They can only be “liberating” if they are connected in important ways with humane sources of inspiration.  Similarly, the literary arts can only be humane and liberating when not cut off from the world of the technical.  As he puts it, “The present function of the liberal arts college, in my belief, is to use the resources put at our disposal alike by humane literature, by science, by subjects that have a vocational bearing, so as to secure ability to appraise the needs and issues of the world in which we live.” Dewey would often defend liberal arts education by relating it to the idea that science and the scientific method should be utilized for the welfare of mankind.[4]  However, again, this says little about the role of studio arts in a liberal arts education.  For this, one needs to turn primarily to Dewey’s Art as Experience.
Earlier, in the 1930s, Dewey had become involved in a debate over the nature of higher education with Robert Maynard Hutchins, President of the University of Chicago. [5]  Hutchins had published The Higher Learning in America, which Dewey reviewed.   Hutchins argued for pursuit of truth for its own sake, making a strong distinction between liberal and vocational education.  Dewey, by contrast, believed that education should liberate students to prepare them to be good citizens.  For Hutchins, as Lisa Heldke puts it, “[t]o pursue truth requires one to do nothing less than abandon one’s efforts to develop the roles that define our human lives.”  But, for Dewey, as Heldke also nicely states, and I quote here at some length, “[k]nowing ….must be understood as always emerging from, and responding to, a particular context—a time, a place, a problem, a situation. Knowing, furthermore, has both “instrumental” and “consummatory” facets—it aims at solving identifiable problems, and it is also potentially beautiful and worth contemplating. ….The human activity of knowing is a complex, indissoluble mesh of consummatory knowing “for its own sake” and instrumental knowing, pursued for the sake of accomplishing some practical, concrete, or vocational aim.”  For  “abstract understandings regularly present themselves as useful solutions to all sorts of ordinary, day-to-day, practical problems we humans encounter.”  As we saw in Democracy and Education, Dewey believed that the sharp division between liberal and servile arts in the Greeks and in Aristotle need to be replaced in our contemporary democratic vision of the liberal arts.
Art as Experience as the Key
By the time he wrote Art as Experience Dewey was engaged in transforming the notion of experience itself.  He did this in a way that would reconstruct our very notion of knowledge and thus of what higher education could and should be.  Whereas his previous writings, and even his 1944 piece, mainly featured the role of science in knowledge production, Art as Experience placed emphasis on the arts… to the extent that, in many respects, the arts came to be treated as equal to the sciences.  The notion of empiricism itself is expanded.   The unique quality of esthetic experience is a challenge to philosophy, for aesthetic experience is “experience in its integrity” and, Dewey argues, the philosopher must go to aesthetic experience to understand what experience is.   
It is also a challenge to traditional notions of the liberal arts.  It is my view that the role of making and materiality in the liberal arts can only be fully understood once we understand the full implications of Dewey’s closely related concepts of experience and medium.  Dewey’s conception of “an experience” as it relates to artistic making and appreciation can be best understood in terms of his understanding of the creative process.   Materiality plays an important role in this, especially, again, through the concept of medium.  The creative process works in a cyclical way, where the artist draws from the public domain both subject matter and materials, processes this through his or her imaginative activity, and then puts it back out into the world.  Art involves intensification of experiences of everyday life achieved through expression using materials in a medium designed for one of our senses, each art form focusing on a different organ of sensation.  For example, the visual arts develop their media for the perceptive eye.  The creative process is dominated by a pervasive quality which first emerges in the inception of the work, and which evolves to the point at which the artist perceives the work as completed.  But, as I have suggested, the creation of the product is not the end of the creative process.  It continues in the reconstructive perception of the viewer.  
Materiality enters into this in several ways.  First, the subject matter comes from a shared public world.  As Dewey puts it, “[c]raftsmanship to be artistic …must be ‘loving’; it must care deeply for the subject matter upon which skill is exercised.”  (49)  He connects this closely with the idea that the work must be based on an experience of the artist’s own and must be framed for receptive perception by others.  Second, the materials themselves, for example paint and canvas, and the artist’s activity on them, form the medium of the artistic process.  Third, the artist herself is a material being insofar as she is conceived as a live creature interacting with her environment.  Fourth, the product is a material thing, although imbued with meaning.  Fifth, the creative process is actualized in the experience of the audience which itself exists in social context in a publicly shared world.  Sixth, as with Marx, this materialism is closely associated with a democratic impulse that seeks to overcome a social system that alienates the common man.  Seventh, as with a later Marxist, and contemporary of Dewey’s, Walter Benjamin, this all is directed towards overcoming the discontinuity between rarefied fine arts and the experiences of everyday life.
Dewey’s overall approach, then, is materialist.  But it is not physicalist.  He does not reduce the material world to discreet physical objects interacting with each other in a mechanistically organized world.  Instead, his materialism is deep and rich, so much so that it can easily be confused with a form of idealism.  Part of this is because of the importance in his mature thought of the concept of experience.  But Dewey does not take experience to be something merely internal.   To understand what he means by experience we need to understand what he means by “an experience.”    “An experience” is a type of experience.  It is distinguished from confused or incomplete experience in that it is an organized whole with a natural beginning, middle and end, and the above-mentioned pervasive quality.  He mentions, as examples, the experience of a great storm, the breakup of a friendship, and a restaurant meal that sums up all a meal can be, but it should be clear that every appropriate experience of a good or great work of art is “an experience.” 
An experience is not a subjective or ideal entity, but neither is it merely describable in terms of material causal processes.  Experience is a function of the live creature interacting with her environment.  When we have “an experience,” which, again, is the high point of experience, the past is drawn into the present and projected into the future.  We have here something in which the end is a culmination of all that went before.  The dynamic relation of past, present and future in “an experience” gives the creative process a quality of going beyond what we immediately see, one that makes crude or mechanistic materialism impossible.
 An undefined pervasive quality binds together all the defined elements, making them a whole. Evidence for this is the immediate sense of relevance of the parts to the whole. For Dewey, “A work of art elicits and accentuates this quality of being a whole and of belonging to the larger, all-inclusive, whole” which is the universe.  This is why we feel a great clarity and even religious feeling in front of an esthetically intense object.  We experience a “world beyond this world which is nevertheless the deeper reality of the world in which we live” and this carries us beyond ourselves in such a way as to find ourselves.   The work deepens “that sense of an enveloping undefined whole” characteristic of normal experience, and this is felt as an expansion of ourselves.  Unless we are egoists, we are “citizens of this vast world beyond ourselves” with which we can feel unity.   Many of Dewey’s readers saw this almost religious way of talking to be a betrayal of his naturalism and his commitment to a science-based view of the world.  However, it might better be seen as consistent with a manner of materialism based on an accurate understanding of human experience true not only to our material being to the way we experience the world as material beings.
Imagination plays an important role in this dynamic process.   It is not, for Dewey, an isolated faculty with mysterious potency.   It too is material in the sense that it exists where “the mind comes in contact with the world.” (278)  It is present when old things become new in experience.  Esthetic experience is imaginative, but then all conscious experience has some imaginative quality:  in all experience, at least all that is live, meaning come in from prior experience.  And experience is only human when meaning and value, drawn from what is absent, are present imaginatively.  The artist uses imagination to draw from the past and project into a future culmination.[6]   Imagination, then, should be distinguished from mere day-dream which is arbitrary and fanciful.  It is perhaps most evident in art.  For in works of art, as opposed to non-art experience, meanings are embodied in a material as medium.  Imaginative quality dominates here.  The work of art, “unlike the machine, is not only the outcome of imagination, but operates imaginatively” through enlarging and concentrating experience.  As Dewey puts it, in art “the formed matter of esthetic experience directly expresses …the meanings that are imaginatively evoked…”  This is not only true for the art creator:  the work of art also challenges the experiencer to a similar imaginative act. Thus, as Dewey puts it, “Imaginative vision is the power that unifies all the constituents of the matter of a work of art….”  





[1] Dewey wrote to Black Mountain College “I hope, earnestly, that your efforts to get adequate support for Black Mountain College will be successful. The work and life of the College (and it is impossible in its case to separate
the two) is a living example of democracy in action. No matter how the present crisis comes out, the need for the kind of work the College does is imperative in the long-run interests of democracy. The College exists at the very ‘grass roots’ of a democratic way of life.” Füssl, Karl‐Heinz. "Pestalozzi in Dewey’s Realm? Bauhaus Master Josef Albers among the German‐ Speaking Emigrés’ Colony at Black Mountain College (1933–1949)." Paedagogica Historica, vol. 42, no. 1/2, Feb. 2006, pp. 77-92.   81.
[2]  Michael S. Roth, “Learning as Freedom,” Opinion Pages, NYT, Sept. 5, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/06/opinion/john-deweys-vision-of-learning-as-freedom.html
[3] We should of course beware of identifying the fine arts with practical vocation-based arts.  Although Dewey saw a continuity between these he did not erase all distinction.  Many advocates of the fine arts practice as part of the liberal arts might insist that these arts gain this status precisely by being less practical and more cerebral than the vocational arts. 
[4] See for example Janean Stallman, “John Dewey’s New Humanism and Liberal Education for the 21st Century” Education and Culture  Fall 2003  20:2  http://docs.lib.purdue.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1463&context=eandc
[5] Lisa Heldke “Robert Maynard Hutchins, John Dewey, and the Nature of the Liberal Arts.” The Cresset:  A Review of Literature, the Arts and Public Affairs, 2005 (Vol LXIX, No. 2, p 8-13) http://thecresset.org/2005/Heldke_A2005.html   See Dewey “The Problem of the Liberal Arts College.” Vol. 15 of John Dewey: The Later Works, 1925–1953: 276–280.

[6]  See his sophisticated non-idealist theory of imagination pp. 277-286.

The Male Gaze "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" Part I

It is interesting to come to Laura Mulvey's "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" right after reading material from Stanley Cavell's The World Viewed.  Cavell's book was published in 1971 and Mulvey's article was written in the same year, although published first in 1975.  Both talk about the magic of movies, both are mainly interested in Hollywood, both are interested in the ways that character types function in film fiction narratives, and both are very interested in the role of women in society.  Cavell, especially in his later book on stories of remarriage, presents a notion of mature adult relationships in which women achieve equality with men.  In general Cavell is much more upbeat about the role of women in Hollywood movies, at least in movies of comedy of remarriage sort.  A Film Studies major could write a good paper comparing the two.

Frankly it is hard today to take seriously talk of "the image of the castrated woman" as that upon which the "paradox of phallocentrism" is based.  And this quote appears in the second paragraph of Mulvey's essay!  I do not know of any man who ever saw women as in some sense castrated:  as being essentially eunuchs:  men who lost their maleness through losing some or all of their male genitalia.  So it seems that we need to take this claim as a metaphor for something else.....but what that something else is is hard to say.   One can for instance do this kind of translation:  for "it is her lack that produces the phallus as a symbolic presence, it is her desire to make good the lack that the phallus signifies" (57)  we could possibly have "it is her perceived lack of maleness that give power to the maleness of males for males"  although this sentence leaves out the female perspective.  So perhaps a better translation might be that "the female recognizes that her lack of maleness makes her relatively powerless in a patriarchal society." Both claims is at least plausible.  Again, when Mulvey says "she first symbolizes the castration threat by her real absence of a penis" this could not possibly mean that men actually feel threatened when they first discover as boys that women do not have penises:  if that were the case then we would have some evidence for it, and we just don't.  But it might mean symbolical, for example that men fear losing their manliness or being perceived as unmanly, and that this leads them to lack sympathy for women since to be perceived as a woman, especially by other men, is precisely what they (or at least many heterosexual men) most fear.   

Mulvey and other feminists are no doubt right that we live in a patriarchal society and that this is structured into the way we, (meaning actually everyone), perceive the world.  So one could say, following this translation method, that "the function of woman in forming our commonly shared unconscious in a patriarchal society is that she symbolizes the threat to men's self-perception as manly insofar as she represents that which the manly man does not want to be, i.e. feminine."  Of course with such translations one would lose out on the colorfulness of such metaphors as "Woman's desire is subjected to her image as bearer of the bleeding wound..."  (38) But it does allow us to get beyond the feeling that we are dealing with  nonsense here:  which, as I have suggested, we are not.

This translation business is not easy and I pretty much assume I am not getting it right (largely because I do not know that much about Freud or Lacan).  The second paragraph of Mulvey's essay features the mother/child relation, for example in the term "raises her child into the symbolic" the symbolic realm being one in Lacanian terms is that of the male patriarchy.   A Wikipedia article called "The Symbolic" helps here:

"Lacan's concept of the symbolic "owes much to a key event in the rise of structuralism ... the publication of Claude Lévi-Strauss's Elementary Structures of Kinship in 1949. ... In many ways, the symbolic is for Lacan an equivalent to Lévi-Strauss's order of culture": a language-mediated order of culture. "Man speaks, then, but it is because the symbol has made him man ... superimposes the kingdom of culture on that of a nature". Accepting then that "language is the basic social institution in the sense that all others presuppose language", Lacan found in Ferdinand de Saussure's linguistic division of the verbal sign between signifier and signified a new key to the Freudian understanding that "his therapeutic method was 'a talking cure'". The quotes here taken from Macey, Lacan, Searle and Freud.

I recommend this article for anyone trying to read Mulvey.

Mulvey seems to be saying that when the woman has raised her (presumably male) child into the realm dominated by men, also called "the world of law and language," her life loses meaning.  She wants her male child to attain what she could not, i.e. maleness:  the only other option is to keep her male child "in the realm of the imaginary" which, for Lacan, is prior to the symbolic realm.  

"The imaginary now came to be seen increasingly as belonging to the earlier, closed realm of the dual relationship of mother and child ....to be broken up and opened to the wider symbolic order." quoting again from Wikipedia article.

So, when Mulvey says "Women then stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning" (58) it is implied that she simply operates as tool in the male's world of fantasy which is associated with his dominance of language and the linguistic order and in which she is tied to her function as mother who may only bear a (male) child if her life is to have any meaning, not as someone who can create her own meaning.  In short, film exhibits men's fantasy life in terms of his relation to women who need to be kept down for it all to work.

In the next section Mulvey places a lot of hope in the possibility of moving away from Hollywood films to "artisinal" and "alternative" cinema.  The reader of Mulvey's article should view Mulvey's recent interview  “Conversation With Laura Mulvey (Interview)”  2017  youtube  which covers some of her experimental work in film as well as the essay we are discussing.  She co-wrote and co-directed a number of films with her husband Peter Wollen including Riddles of the Sphinx (1977), in which they, as Wikipedia puts it, "connected 'modernist forms' with a narrative that explored feminism and psychoanalytical theory.  This film was fundamental in presenting film as a space 'in which the female experience could be expressed.'"  Mulvey nicely illustrates this in the abovementioned interview.  See also the wikipedia article "Riddles of the Sphinx."  This link will get you to a pretty good print of the actual movie (with English subtitles).  As an experimental film it is pretty hard to watch all of the way through, but it is worthwhile to pick up bits and pieces.  Mulvey thinks that the alternative film can react against "obsessions and assumptions" of the patriarchal society that has produced the kinds of films she objects to.  For me the most interesting part of the her film-making here is the long circular pan shot which seeks to undercut traditional ways of using space and time which Mulvey associates the patriarchy.  The shot style is innovative and worth further exploration.

Mulvey is quite radical in her attack on pleasure, or at least of a certain kind of pleasure in film.  As she writes:  "The magic of the Hollywood style at its best ...arose, not exclusively, but in one important aspect, from its skilled and satisfying manipulation of visual pleasure."  These films "coded the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order."  The next sentence is a bit difficult to make out [bracketed material is my thinking about how this might be translated]:  "it was only through these codes that the alienated subject [presumably the male protagonist], torn in his imaginary memory by a sense of loss [his worry that he might lose his maleness?], by the terror of potential lack of fantasy [in that he would not be able to live out his fantasies of dominating females if patriarchy were overthrown?], came near to finding a glimpse of satisfaction [through, for example, being able to erotically view a female character in the film?]:  through its formal beauty and its play on his own formative obsessions."  I take it that the reference to "formal beauty" is to the thought that the formal beauties of contemporary film are also implicated in the patriarchal project.  The "play on his own formative obsessions" must refer to the erotic and narcissistic obsessions he developed as a child, perhaps during what Lacan called the mirror stage.      

The end of the first section of the article is quite direct in its rejection of visual pleasure:  "It is said that analyzing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it.  That is the intention of the article.  The satisfaction and reinforcement of the ego that represents the high point of film history hitherto must be attacked."  And this is to make way for "a total negation of the ease and plenitude of the narrative fiction film."  This gives way to a "thrill" where the past is left behind "without rejecting it." [It is not clear how that can be done.]  She sees this as a "daring to break with normal pleasurable expectations in order to conceive a new language of desire."

Part II:   I am going to cut this short soon and not really finish commenting on the essay.  But I do want to say something about the beginning of Part II.  Mulvey says "There are circumstances in which looking itself is a source of pleasure, just as...there is pleasure in being looked at."  (59)  One's natural response is "yes, and is that always a bad thing?"   She describes Freud as associating it with "taking other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze."  (59)  That does sound pretty bad.  If one's basic morality is the golden rule (which has always seemed about right to me) then treating people as mere means (as Kant would put it) would be wrong.  But then people are not the same as images of people.  Moreover, images cannot be controlled by the audience member, only by the director, editor, and other images manipulators in the media. (And it is true that they control actual people sometimes in very immoral ways as we have seen recently in the case of Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood producer.)  

Moreover, a curious gaze is not in itself bad:  where it is bad is when it hurts someone, as for example when men ogle women on the street and remark on their appearance:  that often makes a woman feel cheap and dirty.   ("Gaze" is strangely such a non-obtrusive word.  We gaze upon a landscape.  We languidly gaze.  Gazing is a kind of casual looking, not, generally, an intrusive form of looking.  The dictionary says of gaze that it is to "look steadily and intently, especially in admiration, surprise, or thought" and that does not in itself seem like a source of harm.  It is not for instance like "stare" or, again, "ogle.")  But if one wishes to gaze on one's lover, appreciating her beauty, that is not not bad: it is actually generally considered a good thing.  But of course if the relationship is one in which the gaze is not only curious but also controlling that would be harmful.  

So, in the end, the question is whether gaining pleasure from viewing images of women who are erotic in some way (for example, Greta Garbo as a glamorous beauty, or Marilyn Monroe) is causing so much harm to women in general that we should probably cut it out.  Let's say that you would be more likely to treat women as mere objects.  (This would be similar to the empirical question of whether viewing violent video games is more likely to make you into a violent person. The jury is still out on that one.)

Plato would say so:  his basic idea is that if you get into the habit of doing something while in the theater then you are likely to do it in real life.  So if you weep tears in pity for a suffering character on stage then you might break down in tears on the battlefield, thus becoming a danger to your fellow citizen-warriors.  

But in the movie theater, as opposed to real voyeurism, you are not actually intruding on someone's privacy.  Or art you?  You might be if the woman was exploited into this position:  Marilyn Monroe committed suicide....maybe because of this?  Mulvey writes "At the extreme, [pleasure in looking] can become fixated into a perversion, producing obsessive voyeurs and Peeping Toms, whose only sexual satisfaction can come from watching, in an active controlling sense, an objectified other."  (60)  That kind of behavior is clearly morally wrong.  But what is meant by "at the extreme":  is this implying that gaining pleasure from looking at a actress in a movie is still wrong but on a lesser scale?   Or is Mulvey saying that the person who gets such pleasure is really no different from the obsessive pervert?  Surely not.  But what then is the point?

Mulvey addresses some of these issues in her next paragraph (60) suggesting that "conditions of screening and narrative conventions give the spectator the illusion of looking into a private world."  And this leads her to the claim that "the position of the spectators in the cinema is blatantly one of repression of their exhibitionism and projection of the repressed desire on to the performer."  (60)  I do not quite understand this point since it attributes exhibitionism to the voyeur who is viewing something exhibited.  Is it being suggested the the audience member who takes pleasure in the image is repressing a desire to be an exhibitionist?  So he sees the performer as doing what he would like to do?   Setting that interpretive problem aside, the point is simply that getting the illusion of looking into a private world is getting the illusion of being an actual voyeur, and that this illusion must, in some way, be contributing to patriarchy.  

In reading Mulvey I found myself looking at some of the examples and one of the most famous is the voyeur scene in Hitchcock's Psycho.  One of the most interesting aspects of this scene in which the viewer gets an extreme closeup of the eye of the male voyeur and also to the right of the screen the hole in the wall (you do not then see through the whole.)  So, here, we are being a voyeur on the voyeur.  The shot is somehow wonderful and could operate nicely as an appropriated artwork by itself:  call it "The Eye and the Hole."  I get pleasure from this shot:  I've never seen a more interesting shot of an eye closeup and the juxtaposition with the whole, with its nimbus of light and with, of course, its layers of implication, is fascinating.  I wonder how this complicates matters.  Is Hitchcock more interested in gazing on the male gaze?  Does that make him less morally problematic (insofar as he enables the male gaze)?