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.
[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
[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)   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 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)?

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Cavell: The World Viewed 'Sights and Sounds"

I am teaching a Philosophy of Film class in which we have been reading selections from Stanley Cavell's The World Viewed. from the Carroll and Choi anthology Philosophy of Film and Motion Pictures.  The reading is tough, but rich.   One has to take into account a seemingly casual and unpredictable style:  read and contemplate seems to be the order of the day.  My specific interest here is in the relationship between the aesthetics of film and the aesthetics of everyday life.  A lot of the early part of the reading, for example in the "Sights and Sounds" and "Photograph and Screen" seems pretty familiar when one comes to it from such earlier theorists as Panofsky and Bazin.  Then the essay takes some interesting and surprising turns.  But here I will only talk about the first section, "Sights and Sounds."

Following Bazin, photography is taken to be the medium of movies and photography is of reality.  Of course the question, as Cavell puts it, is somewhat new viz.  "What happens to reality when it is projected and screened?" (67)  We'll get back to that.  First, however, Cavell discusses another familiar point, that photographs present us with the things themselves, or even that photographs have "an aura or history of magic surrounding them."  But magic is not much discussed in analytic philosophy, so this is a bit surprising in a textbook that follows, for the most part, the analytic line.  Cavell perhaps makes all of this safe-sounding by putting it in the language of ordinary language philosophy, talking about "what we say" and finding interesting insights in that.  We can say all sorts of things that don't sound true to the (only and always) science-minded if we are just talking about the ways people typically talk:  for example "a man can be spoken to by God and survive" is said by Cavell, but not asserted, since he is only talking about what some people ordinarily say.  Still, as much as Cavell wants to mark a big difference between the way we see pictures and the way we listen to recorded sounds so that "That's an English horn" on listening to a recording is less weird than "That is Garbo" on looking at Garbo on screen, this just doesn't seem plausible to me.  When we hear Garbo speak on screen we are hearing Garbo who is not present speak just as we are seeing Garbo who is not present speak.   

But back to mystery:  Cavell says "My feeling is....that we have forgotten how mysterious these things are" which I think is basically right.  And he is entirely correct about some stuff we say.  For example, we can say that a record "reproduces a sound" but it is not clear what a photograph reproduces, if anything.  Cavell has some interesting things to say about what we mean by "sight" here.  He thinks the best candidate for what photographs might reproduce is "sights," but this does not fit how we ordinarily use that word,  i.e. "objects don't make sights, or have sights."  And, rather neatly, he says "I feel like saying:  Objects are too close to their sights to give them up for reproducing."  

On the issue of whether photographs and paintings are in competition, Cavell follows the unusual strategy of going behind both to the notion that there is a "human wish, intensifying in the West since the Reformation, to escape subjectivity and metaphysical isolation -  a wish for the power to reach this world, having for so long manifest fidelity to another [i.e. heaven]." He ties to this the observation that painting in Manet was forced to forego likeness "exactly because of its own obsession with reality." 

I connect this to my philosophical project in this way:  the interest in everyday aesthetics comes, in a way, after religion.  Cavell and I are on the same wavelength here.  Foregoing likeness is just one way of getting closer to physical reality, which really means here the experienced reality of everyday life (since, after all, it does not mean the reality of physics.) Cavell brings this out in more detail later in the the book when he talks at length about Baudelaire's Painter in the Modern World.  So, for me, everyday aesthetics is closely tied to the project of aesthetic atheism, i.e. the project promoted by Nietzsche and Dewey, among others (for example it is implicit in Kant, and very deeply buried but also implicit in Plato read rightly, and also it is to be found in Zen Buddhism) that in turning away from a transcendent realm one becomes transcendental and in doing this one revives the magic in things of everyday experience (that was the lesson the American transcendentalists learned from Kant).  

Cavell ssys: "It could be said further, that what painting wanted, in wanting connection with reality, was a sense of presentness - not exactly a conviction of the world's presence to us, but of our presence to it." (69)  This is where his theme of the great quest of overcoming skepticism comes in:  "At some point the unhinging of our consciousness from the world interposed our subjectivity between us and our presentness to the world.  Then our subjectivity became what is present to us, individuality became subjective."  (69)  I would call this the Cartesian wrongturning:  a wrongturning that everyday aesthetics seeks to overcome.   The opposite of individuality in Cartesian isolation is individuality interacting with the surrounding world, i.e. the sense of John Dewey's notion of experience.  But, perhaps unlike Cavell, I do not see Descartes as providing any positive contribution to this.  Cavell says "The route to conviction in reality was through the acknowledgment of that endless presence of self" and I think this is giving too much credit to the cogito.  This "terror of ourselves in isolation" is a pretty manufactured terror, a self-inflicted disease.  

For Cavell "apart from the wish for selfhood (hence the always simultaneous granting of otherness as well), I do not understand the value of art."  I am with that:  finding oneself in the world is what making art, and also appreciating art, are all about, but this would be true even if there had been no Descartes to muck up consciousness by splitting mind and matter in two.  Descartes just took the worse tendencies in Plato exacerbated by St. Augustine and plopped them into the scientific world view just as they were beginning to lose power as an essential aspect of the religious one.  

"To speak of our subjectivity as the route back to our conviction in reality is to speak of romanticism."  (70) Yes!   As long as it is OK to speak of romanticism once again in a positive light.    And I agree with:  "the recent major painting which [Michael] Fried describes [in "Art and Objecthood" 1967] as objects of presentness would be painting's latest effort to maintain its conviction in its own power to establish connection with reality  - by permitting us presentness to ourselves, apart from which there is no hope for a world."  (70)  Very nice.  And then photography overcame subjectivity in another way.  

However, I cannot place as much emphasis as Cavell does on the automatism of photography or on the idea that the human agent is entirely absent in photography.  Really?  What about all the choices and manipulations photographers make?  But maybe something else can be made of sentences like "Photography maintains the presentness of the world by accepting our absence from it." (70)  Perhaps Cavell is talking more about a temporal thing.  That is, I am not present to the photograph because the world it portrays is of the past of which me, now, cannot be a part.  Well, maybe.  But that is also true for painting:  a painting comes out of the past, it has a history.   Maybe the difference is that in viewing a photograph we are viewing a past that was at the time of taking very much present, whereas in viewing a painting one is viewing a past that build up over time in the the slow layers of paints on surface, as the artist slowly digested the world, and also as future appreciators slowly digested the product in the history of appreciation.  But the second slow digestion is also present in photography.  So, again, I do not see the big differences Cavell sees.    


Thursday, October 12, 2017

Authors in Cinema?

So I have been thinking about the question of "auteur theory."  Although auteur theory appears not to be very popular currently it is hard for me to get past some fundamental facts about my own experience watching movies.  First, I tend to group movies according to directors, a Hitchcock movie, etc., and if I discover a director I really like I want to see more films by that director.  Second, I agree with Truffaut and Sarris that our interest in great directors is such that we want to see all of their films as part of their overall oeuvre:  there is something inherently interesting in even a relatively bad film by Woody Allen, for example.  Third, although I do not have any faith in their objective validity, I like looking at rankings of great films and directors, and I find such rankings to be helpful, that is, if made by a well established film critic or through an amalgamation of evaluations by film critics.  These lists help me to decide which film to see next. 

I understand the anti-auteur position.  For example, I have no trouble with the idea that films are collaborative exercises or with the idea that often the creative force in a film is not the director, but the producer, the main actors, the writer, or someone else.  But I am somewhat skeptical about the overall attack on auteur theory.  I am reminded by these attackers of what Nietzsche referred to as "the last man."  The last man has no trouble with mediocrity, and indeed aspires to mediocrity:  the last man says "what is a star" and blinks.  The last man is someone, actually some big swath of our society, that just does not believe in the possibility of greatness, and resents the idea that anyone might be considered great.  And yet there was Mozart, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Fellini, and the list goes on.  There is something perverse and self-defeating about denying greatness or claiming that certain low-level films are worthy of as much regard as the masterpieces of, say, the 20th century.

I therefore have a problem with Jim Gisriel’s “Auteur Theory: The Cinematic Class System” published Sep 24, 2016 on Youtube,  Although this piece is very nicely produced and I have enjoyed showing it in class, it seems to harp on and on about how terrible it is to have a "class system" in the cinema world.  "Class system" here seems to have nothing to do with economics or oppression of the working class but is simply an attack on the idea of saying that some film, type of film, or director is better than another.  OK, I'm sorry, but what exactly is wrong with such a "class system"?

Truffaut, who was one of the original proponents of auteur theory, provided a list of directors who he believed were better than another group who mainly just filmed adaptations of novels.   The directors on his list, which included Renoir, Bresson, and Tati, among others, have stood the test of time.  The others have not.  Really, no one remembers them.  Gisriel seems pretty excited about some directors who mainly make action or sci-fi movies, and although these directors are probably good within their genres, I have no problem with ranking them below the truly great directors that Truffaut lists. In a hundred years no one will remember them either.  For example, although Gisriel seems excited about a director who features pilots and flying in his films, I find this to be of no real interest.  I favor democracy on most fronts, but I think there really are qualitative differences between artists/directors.  Some directors produce films that encourage repeated viewing, contemplation and reflection.  Some, for example, are worth writing about.  Some cinematic works fall within that category Kant called "fine art" which is to say the art of genius.  Such an artwork induces what Kant referred to as aesthetical ideas in his famous Chapter 49 of the Critique of Judgment, ideas that seem unending and that cannot be explained in language.  So, as the old song goes, my question is: 

"Would you like to swing on a star 
Carry moonbeams home in a jar 
And be better off than you are 
Or would you rather be a mule"  or a last man?

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Currie's attack on the idea that film is importantly like language and that semiotics is a worthwhile endeavor

No one believes that film is literally a language or that there are literal film languages.  So that is a red herring.  But film philosophers since the 1990s have been attacking that idea that film is importantly like language.  One of the most prominent articles in this areas is Gregory Currie's "The Long Goodbye:  the Imaginary Language of Film" first published in 1993 and appear in an anthology I am currently using in a class: Philosophy of Film and Motion Pictures (Blackwell, 2006).  Noel Carroll in his Introduction to Part II of the book endorses Currie's attack on semiotic theory, saying that his critique is "devastating."  Although I think Currie makes some good points I hardly think that his critique is devastating.  It has, however, led me to some serious rethinking about the nature of language itself.  

To introduce my comments I think it is useful to refer to a passage in Carroll's discussion of Curry.  One of the most telling points is that film, unlike a standardly accepted language as English, has no grammar.  This leads Carroll to a claim, based on Currie's premises, which is so outrageously false that the entire enterprise of Currie and Carroll is thrown into question.  The passage in question is in a paragraph about poetry.  "English has a grammar, but English poetry qua poetry does not.  What is right as poetry is not what abides by strict grammatical conventions, but that which, when executed, proceeds in cognizance of how things are usually done, but which nevertheless works with or against traditional procedures in order to move the reader in the way the poet intends.  If an infinitive needs to be split, so be it.  This is not poetically ungrammatical.  For poetry has no grammar.  Ditto film editing."  (62).  On this view, since language requires grammar and poetry has no grammar, then poetry is not language, or rather, not in language.  Sure, he qualifies this by saying "poetry qua poetry" but it is not clear how the "qua" functions here.  So neither film not poetry are language, nor are they in language.  This is so deeply wrong, one has to question the foundations of the entire enterprise. And if contemporary Philosophy of Language entails this then there is something deeply wrong with it too!

For a more thorough analysis we need to turn to Currie himself.  (I recognize that Carroll has written on this issue at length, but my focus here is on Currie.)  Currie claims that film is not in any way interestingly language-related.  But this is dependent on his understanding of natural languages like English.  His view of English (which is, I grant, a standard one, and perhaps close to universally accepted by philosophers and maybe also by linguists) is that it is characterized by productivity, conventionality, recursiveness (meanings are assigned by convention to a finite stock of words and we combine meanings by rules of composition), and it must be molecular (which seems to me to mean the same thing as "recursive" except that it is a metaphor that understand the sentences as molecules and the words as atomic.)  Then he says what I have found shocking (closely related to the implication by Carroll that poetry qua poetry is not in language). 

"Since the atoms - words in English - are assigned meanings individually, and since the composition rules make the meaning of the whole a function of the meanings of the parts, we can say that meaning in our language is acontextual."  I believe this to be wholly false.  The meanings of words used depend on where and how they are used:  meaning is contextual.  (This is my extremely controversial claim.)  Currie must be referring to some abstract thing, called "language," that we actually do not use in daily life.  Currie's big point is that meaning in a film is contextual and, since acontextuality is is required for the presence of language then film cannot be like or involve anything like language.  I grant that meaning in film is contextual, but so too is meaning in language!  The meaning of an English sentence (not some ideal sentence floating outside of real use, but a sentence as used) is as contextual as a meaning of a sequence of shots in a film.  

Then it turns out that Currie (and others like him...they are legion) holds that when we speak of utterance meaning then meaning is contextual.  (I see this as damage control:  a concession to the real world, although, as we shall see, a very weak one, since it the only context it seems to require is assuming the rationality of the speaker, i.e. a Davidsonian move.)  The problem he thinks is that film theorists are confusing semantic (also called "literal") meaning and utterance meaning.  My claim is that there is no so thing as semantic or literal meaning.  It is a fiction.  What is the literal meaning of Currie's sentence "There are several reasons for this, and I shall mention just one of them." (95)  Is it a set of dictionary synonyms for each word in sequence?  We cannot speak of anything like literal meaning here unless we think of the context in which it appears.  The separation of literal or semantic meaning and contextual meaning is bogus.  

The problem, I think, is a kind of Platonism.  Plato believed that real reality was acontextual.  The meaning of the Forms do not depend on context.  

Consider Currie's discussion of the sentence "Harold is a snake."  He correctly observes that it may mean in some context that a human named Harold is scheming.  There is of course an ambiguity in the phrase "this same sentence is used."  Sure, we can use "sentence" both for a set of words in sequence that can appear in different contexts and one instance in which that set of words appears.  The second is the ur-meaning of "sentence."  The other is just an abstraction and it is noteworthy that "sentences" in that sense have no meaning.  Currie however says that the sentence "Harold is a snake" does not mean that Harold is scheming.  He believes, it seems, that the meaning of the sentence is in someplace like the world of Forms.  But that is not how language works.  Language is a living, breathing thing.  Language is how we actually communicate with each other.   If I say that "Harold is a snake" in the context of intending that a human named Harold is a schemer this does not depend in any way on the claim that Harold is the name of an actual snake.  The linguistic idealist like Currie (my label) seems to think that the true (utterance) meaning of the sentence (as it is used) depends in some way on the ideal meaning.  It does not.  Semantic meaning is a myth.  It stands in place for the fact that we have certain models in our minds of how words can be used in certain contexts, models that are usually reflected fairly well by dictionaries (although dictionaries also have some normative force.) 

So it is false that "the meaning of a particular utterance depends in part also on the meaning of the sentence uttered" if the meaning of the sentence uttered is taken to be the semantic meaning!  I do not deny that there are conventions, dictionaries, and grammar books, and that these serve their important purposes mainly in helping us to communicate, conventions being the most important since we could certainly have language without the others.  Semantic conventions do play a role in determining meaning.  

The problem is in how these facts about conventions are used. Currie seems to think that utterance meaning is gained simply by adding to conventions of semantic meaning certain "non-conventional rules of rationality" ones that help us determine the intended meaning of the author.  I do not want to go into all of the questions surrounding the notion of "intended meaning" which, itself, is something of a myth.  But a quick look at the debates over that will show that determining the meaning of a sentence, for example in a literary work, or even in a philosophical writing, depends as much on the context of words that come before and after that sentence as on anything that can count as the "author's intention" which is notoriously nearly impossible to pin down independent of the immediate textual context itself.  I say this without denying that interviews of the author or, in film, the director, can be immensely useful in shedding light on the meaning of the novel or film.  

I would go further and bring up something mentioned by one of my students, that films should be seen as like novels, upon which they are often based.  Neither films nor novels are languages as such, but language plays an important role in each, it is just that novels only use language.  Films of course usually use a lot of language, literally English for example, in filmic dialogue.   But in film we need to recognize that whatever the characters say is inextricably connected with the behavior of the actors who are playing those characters, including various gestures.  When in Citizen Kane Orson Welles talks he is not just reading a script.  The meaning of each thing he says is contextualized and modified not only by what came before and what comes after but also by the movements of his body, the intonation of his voice, and so forth. 

Currie asks "does any of the story meaning that cinematic images convey possess the communicative features that we have attributed to the meanings of words and sentence?"  This is a misleading question. They do communicate in the way sentences do, but this very often involves (and certainly should not exclude) communication by actors portraying characters using a natural language among other means of communication.  It also includes the other surrounding contextual features which film semioticians often refer to as "the language of cinema."  That is they include close-ups, tracking shots and so forth.  This too is part of the overall way that directors and other key players in the film-making art communicate to us.  Actors do part of the job but directors direct the whole enterprise.  Doesn't it make sense that the whole package is language since the goal is communication?  

Currie notes that George Wilson has taken what I consider to be the reasonable position that interpretation of a film needs to look at it holistically.  (94)  Currie then says "Wilson is right to say that what the cinematic images tell us about the story depends on the surrounding context of other images.  But that is true also of words and sentences in a text, where there is no dispute about the presence of language.  What kind of relation between described events is suggested by one bit of text depends upon the role that bit of text is seen to have in the context of all of the other bits...So the context-dependence of interpretation applies to literature as much as to film":  which all seems completely right to me.  But this undercuts the idea that language is irrelevant to film as it also undercuts the idea of the acontextual nature of language.

Currie imagines defenders of cinema language saying that we should not conclude that the "meaning intrinsic to the images themselves is contextually determined."  I agree:  this would be a bad move since it relies on the very same linguistic idealism that Currie unfortunately accepts.   The problem is not, contra Currie, a matter of mixing up semantic and utterance meaning: the problem is with taking semantic meaning as something real.  The defender of cinematic language should just insist that there is no acontextual meaning either in literature or in film, or anywhere else for that matter.