Sunday, March 28, 2010

More NeoKant: Beauty, Realism and Organic Unity

This neo-kantian stuff about how experiencing beauty = being set of on pleasurable chains of judgements and imagination, (where you are tempted to explain more and more of the artwork as being made to have a certain effect on you, while not thinking of the artwork as having an overall purpose) seems to explain soo much!

- Why things that are unrealistic often but not always seem un-beautiful: if some character just randomly does something which seems flatly psychologically implausble (i.e. you can't fill in the details to make it seem likely that someone in that situation would so behave), this decreases your temptation to find out explanations for how other actions of characters are really likely or plausible. Hence, ceterus paribus, psychological unrealism is bad. BUT If however the unrealistic psychology persists through the novel, and all seems related, like maybe the extreme reactions of Dostoevsky characters, then this doesn't tempt you to just give up on psychological explantions, all together, but rather to seek different ones than you normally would. And ditto if the story has something else going on where you are tempted to explain the behavior in terms of that instead e.g. in terms of symbolism, or in terms of how a person's actions can *seem* to a different person. (maybe Kafka stories are an example of this, but im not sure)

- What people are talking about when they insist that beautiful artwork has "organic unity". Obviously, 'unity' here doesn't mean that the art has to be all the same color, or the same events over and over again. Rather, I propose the idea is one has to be tempted to explain why any one piece/aspect of the artwork is the way it is, in terms of other features of the artwork e.g. this thing happens at this part of the novel to contrast with this that thing at the beginning of the novel. A very natural way to make sure there are lots of chains of thought suggested by a single chunk of text would be to put the reader in a state where they think there might well be an interesting relationship between each piece/aspect of text and each other one. In contrast, if an artwork seems NOT unified, then this means that you won't go looking for relationships between the different parts, so it thereby has that much less of a tendency to spark chains of thought.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Morally Illuminating, but not Morally Improving

I recently heard about an interesting controversy between Martha Nussbaum and a Supreme Court Justice, regarding whether literature is morally improving.

There's definite intuitive attraction to the idea that literature can produce moral insights. Doesn't reading Jane Austen show us how someone can be behaving in a transparently selfish way, while only citing to themselves the loftyest motives - and hence make us aware of this possibility? Or doesn't Lolita show us how passionate love is compatible with persistent cruelty? It certainly seems prima facie plausible that vividly imagining and thinking about cases like this would help you avoid similar hypocracy or cruelty in your own life.

However, the judge then made the nice point that we don't seem to expect students of literature to be more moral than students of related fields. So if literature is really so morally improving, why don't we expect to see good effects ?

Here's one possibility: literature can make us aware of subtle ways to be cruel or self-deceptive (or kind or sensitive) to one another. Insofar as it does this, it may tend to make people behave better e.g. by making them notice when they are considering doing something similar.

However, the main barrier to acting well in ordinary life may be more a matter of organizational skills and overcomming akresia than a matter of recognizing subtle morally relevant aspects of one's situation. It doesn't take any subtle act of imagination to recognize that you could help people by donating to unicef, and to find something attractive about this prospect. This puts a limit on the extent to which we should expect moral improvement from literature.

And, in fact, it suggests a way in which literature might actively have the opposite effect. Thoughtful imaginative engagement with the prospect of committing adultery, or spending lots of money touring the ruins of ancient China, can also make someone feel more keenly how much one is giving up in forgoing these. Insofar as literature can make us aware of morally salient features of a situation, it can also make us aware of hedonistically or self-interestedly salient features. If Madam Bovary and Camera Obscura engage our thoughts and imagination with certain aspects of adultery, Marvel's "let us roll all our strength and all our sweetness up into one ball" (or Chekov's The Lady With a Lapdog) engages our thoughts and imagination with quite different ones!

Thus, literature might be morally enlightening, but not -on net- morally improving.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Authorial Intent - Everything Matters

When facts about an author's intent/the production of an artwork can't be guessed from the artwork itself, can these facts matter to the interpretation of the work? Or does it only matter what an informed audience of the authors contemporaries would have been able to infer from the work?

This seems to be a major debate in the contemporary lit, but...

There doesn't seem to be a sharp/principled line between what the author knows vs. what "their community" would know. Rather we have a gradually increasing body of facts available to...
- all people speaking the same language as the author
- all people speaking the same language, living at the same time
- all people speaking the same language, living at the same time in the same country
- all people living in the same town
- the author's friends
- the author themselves, just after they wrote the work
- the author at some moment, while at work on the book

Actual art scholars' practice seems to be (so far as I know!) to ignore biographical facts when they speak against an otherwise motivated interpretation (e.g. the poet says they didn't intend any symbolism of this kind, or that The Wizard of Oz is just an elaborate political allegory), but to take them into account when they allow for a much stronger/more interesting interpretation (e.g. the artist reveals that she copied the lines in an abstract painting from pornography).

Suggestion: Everything about an artwork can matter to the "interpretation" of it e.g. theories of what happens in the story, what's ambiguous, what themes there are etc. But interpretation isnt the job of guessing what the artist, or their community or anything else is about. Rather, the point of interpretation is to facilitate valuable engagement with works of art (=the Kantian free play of the intellect and imagination etc.) by coming up with the most compelling possible interpretations. This is USUALLY served by telling us facts about the artists' community, and sometimes served by telling us facts about the artist, since interesting features are likely to arise by way of the artist consciously or unconsciously putting them in. But, given this aim, no facts - even facts about eery resonances with events after the production of the art- are out of bounds to the literary/art critic.

So I think facts about the author's intentions can matter, but only for the same reason that facts totally unknown to the author can matter. e.g. Here's Nabokov bringing his extra knowledge of entomology to bear on Kafka's Metamorphoses:
". . . neither Gregor nor his maker realized that when the room was being made by the maid, and the window was open, he could have flown out and escaped and joined the other happy dung beetles rolling the dung balls on rural paths" (Strong Opinions 90-91).

Arguing about novels: a neo-Kantian account

Key idea: we tend argue about novels not fruit, because pleasure in novels somehow arises from chains of thought/imagination of propositions, so suggesting propositions can kick start someone's novel-appreciation, while it can't kick-start their fruit appreciation.

Expect agreement not in patterns of thought, but in acknowledgement of possibilities for 'text-suggested' patterns of thoughts
-(e.g. relatively little agreement in actual beliefs about math vs. massive agreement in what people could be lead to acknowledge about math)
-massive agreement in when a literary critic has made their case for x being reminiscent of y, compared to actual chains of thought prompted by reading x.

Generic lit reading faculty = (weak) what lets you correctly evaluate claims about what is reminiscent of what/ evaluate claims made in literature journals.
(strong) you are actually somewhat likely to be reminded of x by what's reminiscent of x, curious about y when a text raises questions about y, drawn to compare when a text contrasts etc.

The application of the strong generic reading faculty to a text creates a chain of curiosity which is then pleasurably satisfied by actually finding the answer to these questions, imagining the scenarios you are made to want to imagine etc.

Call something beautiful insofar as you think the "free play" of the generic reading faculty creates pleasure i.e. nearly all paths lead to suitable pleasurable chains of inquiry/. We typically conclude this by taking a few random walks, and having reason to expect nothing other than the tendencies included in the generic reading faculty were responsible for your pleasure.

When people disagree about beauty one of them is wrong.

But there is no reason that people ought to relate to texts with the generic lit reading faculty, deviant readers are just wrong insofar as they ascribe their experience to the beauty of the work (e.g. as opposed to e.g. vanity or the work plus certain descriptive personal facts, which might be added to the work to create something that was beautiful)

hello world

I'm a philosophy grad student with a very new interest in aesthetics. Hence, I'm quarantining all the half-baked ideas and sophomoric enthusiasms I don't dare put on my regular blog here. You know where the back button is :)