Monday, June 24, 2013

Overcoming dualism: textual meaning discovered and invented, first comment

In theory of interpretation competing positions are usually presented as dichotomies.  Either one is an intentionalist or an anti-intentionalist, either a monist or a pluralist, and so forth.  I would like to try to get away from that way of thinking, although it will be obvious that in those traditional debates I definitely lean in a certain direction, for example towards pluralism as opposed to monism.  One distinction is between the idea that the meaning of literary work is discovered (sometimes called "the retrieval view") and the view that it is invented (often called "the imposition" view.)  Here, I am also inclined to try to find a middle path.  One version of a middle path would be to say that some literary meaning is discovered and some is invented.  Or one could say that both discovering meaning and inventing meaning are legitimate activities.  Both of these strategies in my view accept the dichotomy.  So what I would like to suggest is a deconstruction of the distinction itself.  That is, when one engages in literary interpretation one discovers through invention and one invents through discovery.  I believe that creativity is essential to good literary interpretation, but I am unwilling to see creativity as a matter of simply imposing something external onto a literary text.  I am a pluralist in that I believe that there can be equally good interpretations of a literary text that are in fact in deep competition.  Marxist, feminist, Buddhist, and so forth, types of literary interpretation can all be valuable, some more valuable than others depending on the situation.  My position is historicist in a sense that is quite different from that commonly given by authors like Saville.  I believe that true historicism is a recognition that literary works evolve over time, that they grow new possibilities and can be legitimately read in new and interesting ways.  Ronald Dworkin held that interpretation was not a matter of conversation but of construction.  As he put it, "creative interpretation, on the constructive view, is a matter of interaction between purpose and object."  Although I like the emphasis on creativity and construction in Dworkin's thinking, I cannot see how this is opposed to a conversational interest or interest in the origin of the work of art.  As I see it, a good conversation is one that is constructive, that is oriented to action and not just to recovery.  Even more puzzling in Dworkin's analysis is the idea that the imposition of purpose is a matter of making of the work "the best possible example of the form or genre."  One wonders why this should be the goal, or even a goal.  The idea of imposition implies a kind of aggressiveness.  Impositions are generally seen as burdens, obligations, or duties.  So they are seen as negative to the thing imposed upon.  We do not want to be imposed upon.  Interpretation is not best seen as imposition in this sense.  If one takes a good Freudian interpretation of a literary text one is not simply imposing a Freudian framework onto the text, but seeing the text from a Freudian perspective.  And you do it not to make it the best possible form but to make the best possible sense out of it.  Lamarque speaks of this as maximizing interest in the work, which I think is close to is a matter of bringing the work alive. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Gaston Bachelard The Poetics of Space

I have long thought that there must be something of value on the aethetics of everyday life in Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space.  The problem is with reading his rather weird prose style. But I have finally got into it, and there is in fact some interesting material.  Of course Bachelard would agree with me that artists (in his case, poets) are the true aestheticians of everyday life. His effort is to be inspired by poets in doing a phenomenology of the house.  It turns out that a phenomenology of the house in his view involves analyzing various poems and responses to poems, poems that feature aspects of homes.  Poems are seen as dreams or dream-like.  Bachelard encourages us to read poems a second time with the view to letting them engage us in a sort of day-dream.  Here are some quotes from Bachelard and comments on how his views can contribute to everyday aesthetics.

"I once read an Italian novel in which there was a street sweeper who swung his broom with the majestic gesture of a reaper.  In his daydream he was reaping an imaginary field on the asphalt, a wide field in real nature in which he recaptured his youth and the noble calling of reaper under the rising sun."  (60)   I believe that an aesthetic experience is being described here.  We are seeing how the street sweeper experiences his sweeping.  Notably, it is experienced as enhanced through the use of imagination.

Bachelard also quotes from Rilke's Lettres a une musicienne.  in which Rilke describes his experience as a child cleaning a piano.  This might be seen in juxtaposition with Yuriko Saito's discussion of cleaning in her book on everyay aesthetics.  Describing the dusting Rilke says that the piano "was one of the few objects that lent itself willingly to this operation and gave no sign of boredom.  On the contrary, under my zealous dustcloth, it suddently started to purr mechanically...and its fine, deep black surface became more and more beautiful....Politeness tinged with mischief was my reaction to the friendlines of these objects, which seemed happy to be so well treated, so meticulously renovated." (70)  There is an imaginative dimension to this experience insofar as the piano is personified, but this is also coinnected with greater dimensions of beauty associated with the black surface of the piano.  So we are not just talking about the pleasures of fancy....there is a sensuous dimension as well.

In general, Bachelard speaks of daydreams that can accompany household activities.  "The minute we apply a glimmer of consciousness to a mechanical gesture, or practice phenomenology while polishing a pice of old furniture, we sense new impressions come into being beneath this familiar domestic duty.  For consciousness rejuvenates everything, giving a quality of beginning to the most everyday actions." (67)  This idea of consciousnessness making things young again makes me think again that phenomenology is really devoted to aesthetic exeperience. 

"when a poet rubs a piece of furniture - even vicariously - when he puts a little fragrant wax on his table with the woolen cloth that lends warmth to everything it touches, he creates a new object; he inscreases the object's human dignity; he registers this object officially as a member of the human housefuld."  (67) 

See this as an addendum to my article on sparkle and shine. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Can there be a single, comprehensive, correct interpretation of an artwork?

Philosopher Robert Stecker (in "Art Interpretation" in Contemporary Readings in the Philosophy of Literature ed. David Davies and Carl Matheson, Broadview Press, 2008) argues that "questions about the interpretations of artworks not only can have correct answers but a single, comprehensive correct answer" although he also thinks this view can be consistent with the idea that there can be many perspectives on art that may produce equally good interpretations of the same work.  I think that Stecker is wrong, and that there can be no single, correct interpretation.  Stecker seeks, counter-intuitively, to combine Critical Pluralism and Critical Monism by reinterpreting Critical Pluralism to no longer deny the view that there can be a single correct interpretation of a literary work.  Part of the disagreement between Stecker and myself must be based on different ways of interpreting the term "true."  Stecker sees truth as a matter of correctness, and distinguishes this from acceptability.  The standard view of truth in the analytic tradition, to which Stecker belongs, is that truth is a matter of correspondence:  "snow is white" is true if and only if snow is white.  Sentences are the things that are true or false, and they are true if they correspond "point by point" with the facts that they describe.  I am more attracted to the pragmatist theory of truth, that truth is a matter of what works, and the Heideggerian theory of truth, where truth is something that emerges in the process in inquiry and has great significance.  Heideggerian truth is closer to wisdom than standard analytic versions of truth.  A pragmatist/Heideggerian approach to truth (PH truth) would downplay the distinction between truth and acceptability since it would not accept the reduction of truth to correctness or reduce acceptability to something purely subjective or fictional.  That is, the truth (as correctness) vs. acceptability disjunction, is based on a radical dualism between the objective and subjective which is denied by the theory of PH truth. 

Stecker assumes that "all correct interpretations about a given work are conjoinable into a single true interpretation" since standard logic tells us that true propositions, when joined, yield true propositions.  This, to me, shows a deep misunderstanding of the nature of literary interpretation.  Interpretations are not simply conjoined sentences proposed as truth.  They are, to be sure, a series of sentences, but unlike the realm of logic, the sequence of the sentences in the series is immensely important.  Interpretations are literary works in their own right.  We usually read them sequentially from beginning to end, or if we jump back and forth, we still see them as presented in a specific order in which later sentences and paragraphs illuminate what came before.  Moreover, it is less important that each sentence be true in some sense (many may be mythical, hypothetical, ironic, or even outright false) but that truth emerges from the reading of the interpretation as a whole.  A literary interpretation is an organic whole, and Stecker's entire analysis fails to see this because it is based on a model that allows sentences to be interchanged randomly without any concern for that fact.  To put this another way, a literary or other art interpretation is not true simply because it contains true sentences.  Moreover from a PH truth perspective these individual sentences can only be considered true insofar as they participate in the truth that emerges in the whole which is the interpretation.  Stecker has allowed himself to be seduced into belief in Critical Monism by this trick of formal symbolic logic, a trick that cannot be applied to the real world of art interpretation.

Stecker allows for interpretations that are acceptable but not true, but I would argue that his conditions for acceptability show that his notion of truth is anemic insofar as it excludes them.  For instance, he believes that enhancing appreciation can make an interpretation acceptable although not true.  What exactly would count as enhancing appreciation that did not also enhance our understanding of the work or of the world through the work?  I would suggest that you cannot do one without the other.  Stecker admits that acceptable interpretations must be consistent with some of the facts about the work.  I would argue that mere acceptability is too weak-kneed to be of much value in interpretation of art.  We do not want something that is just acceptable  As a teacher I think of the acceptable paper as one that passes, and no more:  a C+ paper, let's say.   It does, of course, make sense to speak of facts in a way that fits correspondence theory when we are speaking of uncontroversial truths about works of art.  A good literary interpretation minimally requires that it not be contradicted by the work itself.  For example, this novel contains sentence X.   However, talk about facts is usually governed by concepts that are conditioned by theories, and so in the interpretation of art, the non-controversial facts only provide a base-line for testing interpretation.

Stecker says he thinks of acceptable interpretations as neither true nor false, as simply "asking us to imagine the work in certain ways" i.e. "in terms of a further fiction" for example an ideology.  This is an important place where he goes wrong.  Imagining works in certain ways is one of the main paths by which truth emerges.  Imagining a work in such a way as to relate it to contemporary interests can help to bring the work alive again.  Bringing a work alive is a matter of making it have truth value, one perhaps it had lost.   Truth is something dynamic, something that happens, on the PH view.

Stecker says that when it is suggested that we think of King Lear as an example of theater of the absurd we should not think of this as asserting that King Lear actually represents characters in this modern way.  He thinks that interpreting works in such a way as to "shed light on the meaning of our own times" as Martin Esslin put it, is precisely not to be concerned with the truth of the interpretation.  It seems to me, rather, that this is the best way to address the truth, i.e. from the PH truth perspective.

Stecker thinks he can combine Critical Monism and Critical Pluralism by insisting that all the true interpretations can be combined into a comprehensive true interpretation, and yet (he adds) there may also be a multiplicity of interpretations that are acceptable because they enhance appreciation through getting us to see things in different ways, although they are neither true nor false.  The distinction is dualist in an important way:  it depends on a radical dichotomy between subjective and objection and, importantly, between fictional and non-fictional.  Stecker fails to recognize that essential role that fiction plays in the construction of truth, at least of the deeper truth that approaches wisdom. 

Monday, June 3, 2013

Danto on "Kant and the Work of Art'

I have been reading Arthur Danto's new book What Art Is.  What you expect from such a book is a theory of the nature of art, and Danto does give us something like this.  Here I will comment specifically on his chapter on Kant and the work of art.  This is just a first pass.  Danto rightly sees that Kant's theory of fine art in his discussion of genius, aesthetic ideas and spirit, is the meat of Kan's theory of art, this contrary to Clement Greenberg who found Kant's theory of art in the analytic of the beautiful.  It took a long time for Danto to figure this out, but he got it as last...although he still has it a bit wrong since he says that Kant had two theories of art, which is not quite right since Kant never claimed that he was defining art in the analytic of the beautiful, and he did claim that he was defining art in the later passages to be found in the analytic of the sublime.  I also have a small problem with Danto's tendency to fetishize periods in history, acting as though these ideas were somehow not quite Kant's, who, on Danto's view, is really an enlightenment philosopher, and thus who is simply accomodating romantic ideas here.  Why not just see this as an important aspect of Kant's own thinking?  After all, the Critique of Judgment was written to bridge the gap between the phenomenal and noumenal realms, and this is how this is to be done, i.e. through the aesthetic ideas provided by in part or in one instance by art.  Danto makes a good point that aesthetic ideas would have seemed a contradiction in terms to the typical enlightenment philosopher of the times, however.  Danto thinks that Kant's idea that fine art is a matter of the genius coming up with aesthetic ideas (what we might well call symbols, for example the eagle symbolizing Zeus) is quite similar to his own idea that art is embodied meaning, which Danto takes to be an eternal unchanging philosophical truth about art.  I do not think that there are any definitions of art that are eternal and unchanging in the way Danto thinks there are and so do not see Danto as solving that problem.  In fact, I think Danto's mistake was in misreading Weitz's anti-essentialism and failing to recognize that honorofic definitions of art are the best things that we can get from art theory or the attempt to define art, and yet honorific definitions will have to come up again and again in art history...there is no end of the process.  And, although Danto thinks he is unlike Greenberg in that he has found the true definition of art, one that is not tied to a particular historical epoch of art itself, in fact his notion that art is embodied meaning is really just tied to the art of his time, or the art that originally inspired him, i.e. in particular the art of Andy Warhol.  The notion that art is embodied meaning, at least that this is a necessary condition for art, is nice and has some power...but notice how different it is from Kant's own notion largely because the purpose of art is left out...there is no evaluative component in this.   Kant of course realized that many things could be called art which are not productive of aesthetic ideas, but the purpose of fine art is to produce aesthetic ideas, ideas which give us access to the supersensible realm of God, immortality and the soul.  (I would like a definition of art that is more Kantian than Danto's but not committed to literal belief in a transcendent God....more Nietzschean in its reading of Kant.)  So Kant, like Aristotle in his definition of tragedy, defines art in such as way that we can tell what art is good.  This is exactly what Weitz meant honorific definitions of art to do.  Danto in just talking about embodied meanings leaves out this evaluative dimension.  For Danto it is enough for a definition of art that it says that there are two sides:  the physical side and the idea side, the idea side making many physically indistinguishable things different works of art.  But for Kant the idea that is embodied is not just any idea:  it is an idea that gives one a sense of self-transcendence, basically an idea that connects us to the supersensible, but not one that is itself an idea of reason, not something for example that could prove the existence of such a realm.  Danto adopts Kant but secularizes him so much that fine art becomes something mundane.  But perhaps a problem with contemporary art is that it does aspire to little more than embodiment of just any meaning, that it lacks courage of convictions.