Monday, December 6, 2010

Brief Propositions on Qualities and the Subjective/Objective Distinction

Inspired above all by an all too brief conversational encounter, with one of the most brilliant minds I have had the good fortune to encounter, I am moved to set down some brief and explicit propositions on what is objective and subjective about taste in things and culture.

As Mark Edmundson remarks in his glorious - and notorious - piece in Harper's Magazine in 1997, "On The Uses Of A Liberal Education," a course at Columbia University used to ask the following two questions to its students of literature.

One: What book did you most dislike in the course? Two: What intellectual or characterological flaws in you does that dislike point to?

Looked at in the form of this question, some things in life are objective, they are in fact so good - so meaningful and valuable and so on - that resistance to these things, in this case books, are subjective failures to grasp objective value. I heartily endorse the question and cannot believe it would or should be seen as tyrannical or elitist, if we were to ask it of students today. At the very least we would get some deep self reflection, at least among those students with enough humility, or lack of entitlement, to approach the question with honesty. Of course I still leave open the question and possibility that such a pedagogy may well be problematic, (perhaps for reasons of psychology), though I do admire it in these lines.

Thus my first proposition is that some things have objective value and that this value is intrinsic. Moreover this value is finite and unevenly distributed. Appraising and evaluating such value is a matter of entering into the text at hand with at least a partially open mind, heart, perhaps even soul and spirit, while we are at it.

This first proposition is complicated by my second proposition. This is the doctrine of pluralism, whereby the differences in kind between one value and another, and, in the case of the arts, one style and another, can be so great that we are left with no Archimedean vantage point from which to choose among them, thus left to what would seem to be taste, mood, personal proclivity, inborn temperament, learned experience. In a word, subjectivity.

A lot of complications and tensions in life are a negotiation between the first two propositions.

My third proposition is that works of art have two dimensions, many times in conflict with one another, (but not always in conflict).
One dimension is immediate pleasure, or structural entertainment. That is, a quality of supporting, aiding, and reinforcing certain likes that are universal among the world's peoples. These would include things like jokes, interest in and sympathy for other people's stories and motivations, both triumphs and pleasures, pain and woes. Certain delight in this regard is formal pleasure, an excitement at watching a couple dance or love one another in representation, an excitement at reading for a plot that is suspenseful, and an attraction to art that is manipulative of our capacities for fears, longing, or shared passions. Much music, dance, and certain visual arts operate purely at this level. There are many gradations of quality in what, for lack of a better word, I call entertainment. Some entertainments are most excellent, so excellent, in fact, that they incorporate my second dimension.

This second dimension is that art can be a form of knowledge, much as physics is or other non artistic fields are. (Ray Carney and John Dewey have written about this second dimension rather well. It is borrowed from them.) In undergoing this form of knowledge we undergo an experience that will always hurt a bit (since being knowledge, there is some effort involved that is not chiefly pleasurable. Though for those with higher than average curiosity this experiencing of knowledge can itself be pleasurable in an entertaining sense. It is to this second aspect of "art as a form of knowledge" that Columbia University's question to the students was addressed.

Fourth proposition: since art can be a form of knowledge, ignorance of this knowledge is tantamount to real objective losses for those who express ignorance or resistance to works containing that knowledge. When many young people today tell me, much to my astonishment and dismay, that they dislike Emily Dickinson and prefer a more contemporary or "relevant" poem, they are actually robbing themselves of wisdom. The reason for this is that works of art are most particular. The line and meter and rhyme is set precisely in this way and not another, and the meaning cannot be found in the summary or plot of it. There are actual bits of knowledge contained in a Dickinson poem that cannot be gleamed in any other poem, however close the ideas might be to Dickinson's poetry. Moreover, they cannot be gotten in any other way than in her particular lines, stanzas, and overall formal strategies.

To not read Dickinson on grounds of personal taste, while understandable because humans do not always have the taste that would lead them to pursue things of higher than average value, is to exercise a mistaken reason. Whether on grounds of individual choice, individual sovereignty, or even cultural identity or priority, that failure to read Dickinson is to miss the greatest opportunity for undergoing rather specific kinds of knowledge. Nobody else can quite do the same thing for you, not even another poet - when we consider at least only those things which only Dickinson possesses. (This is not to claim that Dickinson is the greatest poet, but rather to claim that for the things she and only she does well you will profit from them. If you want something more nakedly erotic or frank with edgy attitude you can read Frederick Seidel. Seidel's qualities are important qualities too, but they are also perhaps overvalued at this particular historical moment.)

Since works containing the knowledge can only be gleamed from undergoing the experience of the works in question and cannot be fully comprehended in any translated or summarized form, (say in the form of propositional points taken from the work), works containing such knowledge are essential since the specific styles and choices of the work are what make such knowledge possible.

All the following leads to my fifth and final proposition. This is that quality in art has at the very least an objective component. It was created and exists in the world for others to see or read it. And by experiencing its effects one can gain or grow from it, not unlike physical exercise for the body. This quality of knowledge can be akin to a spiritual value, irreplaceable and integral.

These five propositions might culminate in QED.

But we have a confusion over the word taste. In one meaning it is a descriptive term for what somebody is liable to like or dislike. In another meaning it is a moral term indicating that certain tastes are at the very least more worthy of pursuit than others. We say that there is objectively good and bad taste, on the one hand, and on the other, talk of a plurality of tastes, my taste as opposed to someone else's taste, and how "it is all good".

Moreover there is always a subjective dimension to reality. This subjectivity is not all of reality as certain New Age mystics and Idealists claim. Neither is it unreal and this subjectivity does always, already influence the reality we share.

This sense of there being something or someone on the inside that feels, or experiences, or senses in a most special and irreducible way is one of the few things in life of which we can be sure, and yet, ironically is also one of the things to always be subject to perpetual incredulity, dismissal, and skepticism, especially among the scientific community.

I shall use myself as a particularly curious, if not peculiar example. I have written before on this blog about the domain of things that are above average. Things that I don't dislike and don't love yet I think have some merit. It is not common that I love something. I may have many likes but I really do reserve the sentiment of love for special things: for Tarkovsky and Antonioni movies, for Proust, for Fred Astaire, and for the late Freddie Hubbard.

Here is the trick to all of this talk of values and merit. Those names I mentioned are all objectively valuable, in part for reasons having to do with my five propositions. Yet there is a way of regarding them that is purely subjective. We may not unanimously love them or recognize them as supreme for purely subjective reasons, having to do with our personal sense of values and how we like to spend our time. The same is true, of course for our dislikes and our hates. We might hate something unworthy of our hatred, indeed, that we, like the examples of those who reject Emily Dickinson, hate to our own diminution. But we may well have no choice given our experiences, and how our brains are wired, and so on.

There is also the very real distinction between kinds of value. There is the irreducible value to simple pleasures, or what may be called craft or entertainment, as there is the irreducible value to spiritual growth and knowledge. The two may coincide, but not always.

It seems to me that it is only in setting down these matters in a clear form as I have here, can we being to have a fruitful discussion about these questions of quality. Above all, I hope to create better questions the next time around.

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