Monday, December 23, 2013

Notes Towards An Aesthetic of 1970s Cinema: Chantal Akerman's News From Home and The Power Of Location

In 1970s cinema and aesthetics more generally the power of place comes to the fore; never before has environment, in all senses of the word, been seen as equal to and constitutive of individual or collective human identity. Of course there was great precedence. For example, in the European art cinema of the 1960s - above all, Antonioni - location and place became most important and the entire traditional assumptions of foreground and background were called into question. In addition, the documentary tradition was also very interested in environments, in particular the urban centers.

In the 1970s all of this is pushed to the absolute limit. As I have suggested before, artists in the 1970s were surely aware, if only unconsciously, that there was something exceptionally weird and at times outrageous about the design of the period, and that awareness must in part account for the level and focus of attention on both location shooting and the environment during this period. It was as if the filmmakers, even in nominally fictional works, wanted to document the curious and striking look of the times: the environment people created and found themselves in became less background and more foreground. Also emphasized were the attire and accessories with which characters, whether fictional or nonfictional, wished to present themselves. It is not merely a budgetary issue (the cost of recreating with a semblance of "realism" the look of an actual historical period or contemporary city) nor a technological issue (the excitement over new techniques of shooting on location): it was above all an aesthetic issue: the question of style and meaning, as in any artistic decision. Understandings or evaluations of this 1970s visual aesthetic that look merely to economic or infrastructural causes, as in the lowering of budgets, or the invention of the steadicam etc., are  inadequate at best.

In the past, when discussing 1970s film and/or visual culture, I have included many works that would fit neatly into a commercial designation. In this latest installment I am including a conspicuously non-commerical work, indeed one that would be considered thoroughly artistic. I have in mind Chantal Akerman's News From Home. 

When it comes to films that can lay claim to documenting the styles and looks of the 1970s none is more definitive than this film.

I can't be coy when it comes to this gem of a movie. It is a masterpiece. Firstly, it is one of the great films of and "about" New York City, easily ranking alongside The Naked City, Dog Day Afternoon and In The Street. One reason it may not be so regarded is that it is in almost every way unlike a traditional narrative film.

The entire film consists of the audio of a woman reading letters from her mother from back home in Europe, in a heavily accented English and in a formal and a times reportorial tone. The content contains all of the qualities that one would expect from a letter by a mother to her daughter living in another country, in this case the United States. Simultaneous with this audio is the visual of different public transportation and street scenes of "real", that is, ordinary, nonprofessional people going about their business in the hear of New York City. The people we see and/or witness appear as if in an unrelated film and in appearance and manner appear different from the ostensible intimacy of the letters, since the spaces are public and "anonymous".

This is literally all that happens in the feature length film.

Over the course of the film the mind wonders and wanders and just maybe one will think about the relationship between this European voice reciting accented, not always decipherable English (and the audio is purposefully kept low at times) and the faces and bodies we see. The film is humanistic in the tradition of older "realist" painting, a comparison I have not seen any critic make. In this sense, this very formalist and structuralist film has a fiery heart at its center, but its emotions are not so specific and specified. It is something of being dislocated, of living in a foreign country. It is something of being a mother or a daughter. It is something in the nature of letter writing itself.

The so-called "classical" Hollywood period of American filmmaking, a list of names including but far from restricted to King Vidor, Raoul Walsh, John Ford, Howard Hawks, George Stevens, Billy Wilder,  Alfred Hitchcock and Frank Capra, Nicholas Ray and Robert Rossen, (again to name only a few) was one of the greatest periods in the history of all Western Art. Nevertheless, though my praise is most high for these figures, there are many radically different and equally valid ways to make a film.

Because of the "template" set down in that period many unsuspecting viewers, including critics, have a rather narrow notion of what a film is supposed to be and look like. Partly in response to this situation critics, and some artists, coin terms like "structuralist", "minimalist", "avant-garde", and perhaps the worst of them all, "experimental", to categorize these differing, "difficult" (and to some eyes and ears simply boring) artistic and stylistic strategies. One book on Akerman considers her a hyperrealist, whatever that may mean. (Though to be fair, Ivone Margulies' book has much that is good in it, and it is, after all, a full length book on Akerman). For me she is simply a filmmaker and one of our very best.

News From Home is really nothing like any of those Hollywood films and is a lot like certain avant-garde films. Akerman's more famous and accessible Jeanne Dielman is actually much closer to Hollywood in certain respects, especially the films that centered upon melodrama or female protagonists. News From Home is much less Hollywood. (Though whole chunks of News From Home could have served as the background in many an action film from the 1970s). Akerman acknowledges the influence of the so-called avant-garde such as Michael Snow and Andy Warhol, yet the film is so much a work of absolute cinema, a work of viewing people, places and things. (Indeed both Snow and Warhol belong to cinema as much as Hawks or Rossen).

Here is my blunt principle for all the writing I have done and will do on all works of art: the absolute gold standard for understanding and evaluating any work of art, from the lowliest commercial advertising illustration to the highest Henry Moore sculpture (or Akerman movie) is how we feel about its sight and sound temporally, as we are experiencing it. All other considerations i.e., cultural allusiveness, intertextuality, historical context and so on, while at times important are still secondary to this experience as it is lived in time. One technical word for my approach is phenomenological.

Looked at in this way, all art is perceptual, whether its artists or creators wish to complicate or contest perception and go by the word and label "conceptual" or not, and however much discursive and textual stuff (or junk) fills the object in question. This is the totality of what we have to deal with.

In this sense Akerman's film, if it is about anything, is about the sound of the filmmaker reading her mother's letters, the emotions and sensibilities of such letters, and the shots of anonymous people in the architecture and setting of New York City. It is about the distance (or perhaps the closeness?) between the audio and the visual. Critics often write about it as if it were purely self referential, a film about film. But to treat News From Home in this way alone is to miss a great deal of its experiential richness: it is too "theory addled" an approach.
Yes it is true there is something like a "breaking of the fourth wall." The strangers acknowledge the camera. In this case the man facing us moves to another train car to escape our and its gaze. But the meaning of it is precisely the effect this has on us, and the feelings we (potentially or actually) have about it. We are the ones who are noticing it and we are going to register that it is different than in other movies we have seen. How this is achieved is perhaps secondary. We have to watch the film and deal with it, in the fullness of time.

News From Home has the second greatest ending of any 1970s film, the other ending of course being Antonioni's The Passenger. The two are similar in certain respects, in their "slowness" and in their spiritual abstraction.
It is a long tracking shot away from the New York Harbor. It is so beautiful. It is also ten minutes long.

Today's movies do not look like this. Most newer technologies take rather ugly pictures, in ways I can't get into now. It always seems wrong, either too bright or too dark.

I love the sound of the seagulls as much as the waves. Robert Bresson was right to observe that cinema was actually more of an aural art form than was usually recognized and nobody exhibits Bresson's lesson better than Akerman/
News From Home (1977) from Dave Chino on Vimeo.
If you have not seen it, here it is in its entirety on Vimeo. If you are at all interested in New York City. It is a must see. If you are at all interested in family and the theme of parents and children, it is a must see. If you are at all curious about how people looked, dressed or behaved in another era, it is a must see.


Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Place of the Contrarian

It is not always a bad idea to be against things. A certain critical spirit, a skeptical spirit is needed in every time, especially in a time of social pressure to conform. (Though my use of "skeptic" is not to be confused with the way the so-called New Atheists and some humanists use the word Skeptic-as a kind of code for the privileging of their form of natural scientific inquiry over other kinds of inquiry). Since this blog continues to be titled "the moderate contrarian" I had thought it timely, considering my absence here of about three months, to revisit and rethink what it means to be in opposition or against something.

There are (relatively) few things in life that admit of requisite assent and conformity. That Hitler is evil and Shakespeare is good are verdicts with which only the ethically insane or aesthetically blind would wish or dare to argue against. Then there are scientific facts and laws which have an approximate correspondence with physical reality is something that anybody in air travel with a modicum of faith should be expected to hold, even if not entirely understand (as the pilot does).

In truth, such matters of universal consensus are far fewer than we would like or expect. One does not wish to oppose as a game or philosophic tic. This is not what is meant by contrarian. Being contrarian is not a spirit of wanting to lord it over one's fellows or to be in opposition for the psychological thrill of it. Rather, being contrarian has something to do with the fact that most matters of great and small importance are unsettled, inspire intractable and continual argument and the majority of people in any given time or place, once they reach a consensus. are usually wrong about the matters in question.

Being contrarian also has something to do with liberty and independence. It is simply part of being a human being of integrity. The highest figure in  modern history for speaking of the spirit I have in mind is, of course, Immanuel Kant, especially in his What Is Enlightenment.

He could not have put it more plainly. Dare to use your own reason (understanding). This has consequences that do not sit well in our current epoch. In our current epoch there is a love and preference for group identitiy. Community and neighborhood are seen as superior virtues or at least catchy buzzwords. Conversely, the individual is usually seen as vice: a sign of egotism or selfishness. This is a mere fashion, perhaps born of an overpopulated world where each individual is force to count for so little, or where humans are inculcated early on, vis a vis the complex ties of family obligation and loyalty, into the preference for the group.

But it is a fashion nevertheless and it is a fashion against which we should be armed. Though I use the word fashion it is a remnant of the very oldest human societies - traditional societies that are much more collective in spirit. Nevertheless I use the word fashion because our longing for some kind of return to such a state of affairs, an uncritical return, is a fashion masked as the normative. It is even more problematic and confusing that when the individual makes its appearance on the current stage it is in pathological and indeed sinister forms: the Ayn Rand cult of capitalist domination, to name but one example. When I praise the individual as golden I am thinking not of these deformed and quite contemporary examples. It is important to recognize that contemporary Libertarians, however much lip service they pay to individual liberty end up, however inadvertently, creating a bondage and slavish devotion to "great men and women" to heroic business entrepreneurs, for example, even to the point where society as a whole is forced to give over huge amounts of wealth and attention to such exalted figures, even if the result means poverty for a great many people.

 When I speak of the individual I mean the conscience and inner life of an individual, which is priceless and sacred: the individual as understood by the the Enlightenment Philosophers, by the early political theorists of Democracy and literary artists of Democracy such as Whitman and Emerson, and by the great Romantic thinkers such as Schelling, Hegel, Nietzsche and by an attitude exhibited in Kant's great essay.

When Kant enjoins us to use our own reason who is the person in question? What can and does he mean? It is the individual human being. He is speaking to a single reader of his essay; he is not speaking, as would Marx a century later, to a group identity to be mobilized in the name of some progressivist cause. It is not the nation, or tribe/blood, or precious identity. It is not even one's own family, and, most controversially for traditional religionists, it is not even one's own experience with the the commandments of a personal God. The process of interiority for Kant must be so independent as to  ignore even that obligation to the highest authority, if that highest authority is in violation of moral law or aesthetic preference, if such authority  doesn't feel right or violates one's sense of autonomy in reasoning. If the vibes are bad. Daring to use your own reason is quite simply living out the fullest potential of being a self, in its independence. The independence to make up one's own mind. Yes, we live embedded in society and we come in a context, but Kant urges to be as free as is possible from such influences.

The question of how to honor both self and community is far from settled and George Kateb stands practically alone among contemporary philosophers is critiquing group conceptions.

An important caveat about freedom: freedom is really only one good among many. It is never the sole nor even primary good. Liberty must be tempered by many other social matters, especially safety; safety being a value that is under theorized and ill considered outside of criminological circles. Yes freedom is a necessity and a precondition but far from sufficient. Much of the evil in the world has been committed because someone had the freedom or was enabled to have the freedom to commit the evil. This is why, protestations of certain anti-government Anarchists notwithstanding, we need things like courts and police forces. This does not make freedom the problem as authoritarian conservatives might argue. Freedom as I use it here merely means the absence of forces preventing any person from acting. The problem here is an infantile or juvenile conception of freedom whereby freedom is the only value that matters. Lots of things matter, not any single thing.  We need freedom but we also need security and safety, for example, to name two often contrasting and conflicting value claims. And in large part, I think the debate between political Left and political Right is not a debate between good guys and bad guys but between those that perhaps overemphasize freedom (the economic Libertarians) versus those that overemphasize equality (the Marxists and Anarchists). Too much freedom, and you get the rapacity and savagery of our economic inequality of the U.S. over the past thirty years. Too little freedom and forced (though imperfect) equality, and you get the Soviet Union for its entire duration. I call my blog the moderate contrarian for a reason. I don't think that you can or should be a moderate in all things but moderation is a safe and good starting assumption with which to begin and, as Hegel remarked, we must after all eventually begin and start somewhere. Moderation is a better starting point than the alternatives. If needed we can rise in our passions and even become excessive, but in special cases and on rare occasions. I take moderation to be the antidote to and antonym of fanaticism.

Karl Popper noted that Kant, though a fan of revolutionary political activity, was concerned about fanaticism:
"It was Robespierre's rule of terror that taught Kant, who had welcomed the French Revolution, that the most heinous crimes can be committed in the name of liberty, equality and fraternity: crimes just as heinous as those committed in the name of Christianity during the Crusades, in various epochs of witch hunting, and during the Thirty Years' War. And with Kant we may learn a lesson from the terror of the French Revolution, a lesson that cannot be repeated too often: that fanaticism is always evil and incompatible with the aim of a pluralist society, and that it is our duty to oppose it in any form-even when its aims, though fanatically pursued, are themselves ethically unobjectionable, and still more so when its aims coincide with our personal aims".

Current social media makes independence of thought and spirit more endangered than it ever was in the conformist nineteen-fifties. One of the major reasons is that the internet is a project of the group mind or the hive: it is all group identity all the way down. Liberals talk to only other liberals and conservatives talk to only other conservatives. Groups of people ride waves of instantly felt and instantly shared enthusiasms as well as shared hates. Current social media is like mirror neurons on steroids. One of the results, if it is not already happening, is that all sorts of new politically correct consensuses will form on a variety of hot button and moral issues. The problem is, what if the consensus is actually wrong? Or what if an individual human being cannot feel or see his or herself in the new shared norm? Or what if the consensus is hysterically overwrought? Or reductionist? And last but not least, what if the facts are hard to find and without definitive authority?  In a sense and in short, without the contrarians, without those that dare to challenge  beloved and agreed upon norms and mores, we will be in great trouble.

Being a contrarian in my personal behavior might mean refusing current fashions in areas of speech as well. I refuse the current vernacular. For example you will never hear me say awesome about anything. I might call things good and bad or say I love something instead. Neither will I say "no worries" in an awkward moment. I want to resurrect the seventeenth century use of the word disinterestedness, not in its current (and, interestingly, original) form as a synonym for uninterested.

It is important to be suspicious of anything that is greatly popular however entertaining it may feel. Why? Well it is one way of maintaining individuality and independence; it is also a way of taking the longer and larger view. Yes Breaking Bad is perhaps well acted and written but to read people's responses to it you'd think it was as good as or better than a Chekhov play! Larry David (who does deserve the praise he has been given) called his show Curb Your Enthusiasm for a reason. It was his way, I think, of asking us all to be less credulous and more, well, contrarian.

That is all I have to say after my long absence, I revisited a larger theme and now it will be time to discuss what really matters: 1970s music and films, Jazz, jazz, and more jazz, funky music, European classical music, and Chantal Akerman's News From Home, and many other delights. For, my oppositional tendencies notwithstanding, I always prefer to praise than to blame and to celebrate and understand than to merely critique.
Still from Chantal Akerman, News From Home

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Taking Differences Seriously: An Introduction

"We are always coming up with the emphatic facts of history in our private experience and verifying them here. All history becomes subjective; in other words there is properly no history, only biography. Every mind must know the whole lesson for itself-must go over the whole ground. What it does not see, what it does not live, it will not know." Ralph Waldo Emerson, History, Essays: First Series
In contrast and in contradiction to my previous post on Ronald Dworkin, I turn here from abstract and objective principles to personal and subjective values.

It is a commonplace view that the world or universe, at least the human social world, is a holistic totality. That everything is connected to everything else, and that there is thus a center from which to comprehend and  conform to an objective Truth appears a majoritarian proposition. This view has perhaps always been a predominant one in both secular and religious worlds; people even enlist hard science to support such a view.

I should like to introduce a contrary account.

It is abundantly clear that there are gripping and dramatic divisions which daily and increasingly fray, indeed practically dismember, our current society.  Whether it is conceived of as a polarization or cultural alienation, the really central question is whether such divisions reflect a contest between objective truths and falsehoods or,  conversely, subjective value.  Are such divisions the expression of equal and competing values, values that are incommensurable, to use Isaiah Berlin's carefully chosen word?

In many respects this might be thought of as the age of Psychology. Whatever differences experts and professionals may have over difference itself (the valence and extent of difference, whether individual temperament matters the most, or, conversely, large, group identity matters most), anybody - whatever their background - who has lived in a family, or dealt with coworkers, or simply observed the variety of motivations that create individual variations in human behavior, can attest to the power and intractability of such differences. The psychologist Steven Reiss has a theory of at least 16 different motivational values that, when found in various combinations, combine to make every one of us truly unique (and even invent some hypothetical individuals who have yet to be born!) In his two books, Who Am I, and The Normal Personality, he has put forth a scientific account of these variations in individuality. I believe Steven Reiss' project to be a great advance over theories of single and unified psychological health. (For example, the superiority of intimacy or social justice, to name two currently privileged values).

In past ages there have been many theories of group interests. On the political Left, to name the most prominent taxonomy of group identities, accounts of dominant and subordinate class identities, or accounts of  shared struggles owing to membership of a gender or ethnicity that have a certain history and experience have been put forth to explain a great deal of human behavior. Steven Reiss notes that when differences are discussed at all it is almost always large scale group differences that are being discussed rather than the harder to notice individual differences between any two people.

One of the virtues of the filmmaker Ozu was that his entire art was an exploration of the power of such differences. Though the setting of his films is an ostensibly unified one, at least on the surface, there is nevertheless immense drama in his films as, given the cultural unanimity, the underlying individual difference stands in relief, mainly because of the subtle comic or dramatic misunderstandings among his characters. Ozu's films are case histories of the power of temperament in the world.

One of the advantages of a contemporary post-industrial and post-agricultural society is, for all of the sins of such a society, it enables people to understand and realize their individuality in way that would have been impossible in heavily traditional societies marked by only duty or rank.

As we come to to see things in more intimate and psychological terms might we also understand large scale collective phenomena as a manifestation of individual psychology writ large? What if the conflicts that most inflame passions are not conflicts between a side that has it right and a side that has it wrong but, rather, conflicts that reflect subjective and tragic differences in values that admit of no central and objective solution? We can even take the most sensitive of examples to see this. What if, in the abortion debate, the anti-abortion side is not merely or only pathological misogynists, but rather people for whom sexuality is a most precious affair and family and childrearing are concerns to be placed above all others? Conversely, the pro-choice side takes the freedom of choice of individual female, and human lives very seriously, and thus sees a multiplicity of meanings and uses for sexuality. The abortion debate is between two opposing views of sexuality itself  - views that cannot be objectively morally evaluated precisely because they are so very different.

The painful truth is that sometimes there is no holistic totality in which we can inhabit to make the perfect choice, from an objective perspective.  This is what Isaiah Berlin meant in using the word incommensurable.

Sometimes whole epochs are in the grip of a single standard of human character. Ever since the presidency of Bill Clinton we are enthralled by a certain kind of magical and charismatic "people person". President Obama is constantly measured against this standard and found wanting. I never thought I would live in a world in which a journalist would publically ask the president if he "had juice".  It is not only the lack of respect and tact that had entered the public sphere that surprised me, doubtless the culmination of an excessively casual, rock n'roll influence upon all areas of life. It is the assumption that a leader must possess certain fixed psychological traits to be deemed a competent leader. The question concerned the juice, as if it were a masculinist magical elixir to deal with an intractable and hostile congress. It is like something from an old Firesign Theatre comedy skit. Yet this was a serious question. But, of course, the problem is not with Obama but with the belief in the juice itself. This is a belief that all problems can be solved and overcome and the failure to do so must always already be a failing of individual character rather than, say, the structural limits of an impossibly complex society. Who is to say how long this ideal of the "I feel your pain" people-person will last? Doubtless some time in the future it will be eclipsed by something else: the socially awkward loner who finds the cure for cancer, for example. And in the reign of a newfangled sensibility in the far future a figure like Clinton might seem corny and inauthentic. We might one day regard the current mode of expected behavior like that of opening up like a cheap suitcase.

Every currently fashionable philosophical orientation seems to me in error. The newfound interest in "Virtue" ethics blinds us to the inevitability of tragic choice; where choices aren't clearly right or wrong, or the product of character defects, but the result of innate limits. Utilitarian philosophy holds that pleasure and pain, and good and evil can be quantified as if a science by comprehending the whole "big picture": it is a view that intentionally disregards the innate biases and preferences of individual persons. Yet bias and preference is not always a bad thing. As Stephen Asma argues in his book Against Fairness, knee jerk fairness is ultimately a view that seeks to always disparage favoritism and bias when, in reality, there are many realms of life where bias is essential, preeminent among them, the prominence a parent's child holds for the parent over a stranger's child in another neighborhood or country. To say nothing of the notion of monogamy, superior artistry, and all other sorts of defensible favoritism.

A utilitarian aims to know some general good for all while forgetting that there is really no such thing as an average person and that we must experience the world always from a biased and particular point of view. One cannot have it all, and one must choose  how to spend one's time. When the difference in choice is translated into a question over what is the objective moral law,  you get political disagreement.

Psychological disposition is powerful: think of the debate between an extroverted and introverted sibling inside a family about whether to go out to a party. When we move from light issues to the heaviest of issues, the causes of the conflicts in both might have similar roots, psychologically speaking.The extroverted sister wants to go out on the town and be the life of the party and the introverted sister or brother wants to stay inside and have peace and quiet. People become religious fundamentalists or liberal secularists and vote accordingly, not for objective moral principles, but because their choice serves their respective needs for freedom, order, loyalty, security, risk taking, and a whole host of other values.

Life is quite a bit like that Neil Simon light comedy The Odd Couple. Oscar Madison is not unclean and dirty, just very relaxed and loose.  Felix Madison is not anal retentive and uptight, as Oscar Madison might see it, just neat and precise. They each might pathologize the other but both men's habits and temperaments have something to be said for them. Objective truths are quite beside the point. It seems to me that many of the intractable and perennial debates in human life are extensions or collective manifestations of such individual and subjective differences. It is hard to realize that the minor issues of personality conflict in a light popular comedy are at the root - however hidden - of some of the most serious debates in public life. The difficulty in admitting the psychological root is that we always, already assume an Archimedean objectivity to be attainable, thus implying that psychology is a moot point.

Many of the conflicts inside families are in fact conflicts over competing and equally valid values. An intellectually inclined parent will be dismayed over a son turning out to be a jock or vice versa. I have often thought that the whole drama that we call The Sixties turned not only on a clash over objective moral truths like war and social justice but on differing generational styles and sensibilities. For the Left that drama was story of progress and liberation over outmoded and ethically compromised and flawed older generations. For the Right the drama was a tragic story about the growth of decay and slipping of standards. Both points of view ignore subjective, psychological difference however; they think they are in possession of the Truth. If the so-called Greatest Generation was about achievement, sacrifice and work, the Boomer generation was more about exploration, leisure, and work-life balance.  Steven Reiss uses the phrase "I don't get it and neither do you" to describe this sort of conflict between conflicting values.

 As I have remarked before, our culture is one that fails to see the beauty or truth in the quotidian. We also tend to see beauty in that which unites us rather than that which divides us. As an antidote we need illustrations of the power of individual difference and we need illustrations of live not lived in extremis. Thus my invoking of Yasujiro Ozu.

Imagine trying to "prove" the superiority of either Mozart of Beethoven over the other. They are both very different, even when working in similar style and often identical forms, and yet the quality of both is equally outstanding.

It is easy to see the power of individual difference in aesthetic preference; it is far harder to see the power of individual difference in forming political or religious beliefs. The usual image we have in mind when understanding or conceiving of conflict is the image of a person struggling to directly master or overpower another person. The more common, though less discussed picture is the conflict between two over a third, almost always a value that is in question i.e. how much to eat and what kind of food, questions of taste and so on. The reason for the conflict is that there is a choice that must be made between two equally valid courses: both cannot be pursued simultaneously, and one must be discarded.

Since practically every human being, however introverted or passive, aims to remake their environment in order to suit their values and tastes, all sorts of conflicts inevitably ensue, all the more so when the larger society has at least a partial commitment to maintaining the freedom to pursue and indulge a plurality of choices.

Usually experts try to recommend that in solving conflicts we emphasize our similarities. Yet I would suggest the opposite. We should bring up bad news and elephants in the room first. The more we are conscious of individual difference and, moreover, conscious that the causes of individual difference are not rooted in objective moral stances but rather in the partial, subjective emphases of the interlocutors or combatants, the more possibility there is of preventing conflict and domination.

The real secret to solving many of our seemingly intractable divides is to imagine and inhabit points of view utterly foreign to ourselves. Afterwards we can then return to our rather different or even opposed point of view - not to "give in" to the other side, but to hold our usual values a bit more provisionally. Fallibilism is one philosophic word for this move. This would look rather similar to what I imagine therapists do in so-called "couples' counseling".

The greatest and surest way to imagine or inhabit alien points of view is through works of art.

As historian Carlo Ginburg famously wrote:"The historian's task is just the opposite of what most of us were taught to believe. He must destroy our false sense of proximity to people of the past because they came from societies very different from our own. The more we discover about these people's 'mental universe,' the more we should be shocked by the cultural distance that separates us from them." I am merely suggesting that we apply this principle to any two or more people inhabiting the same time and space and in the same culture.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Two Principles to Consider: Ronald Dworkin (1931-2013)

Though I think ethics to be partly innate and though I consider the raw, immediate sensory experience of the immediate environment to be almost as good a guide to behavior in life as any rational analysis, it seems to be that humans cannot have a society of minimal decency without principles of some kind. That is, some theories are needed of what it is or means to be a human being, and what, if any, behaviors are obligatory, or conversely, forbidden. As much as I respect the notion that there is an immediacy of innate instinct for the good, borne and bred in the bone, body, and heart; Hume notwithstanding, there is nevertheless a need for rational and theoretical overview.

Indeed, as we recover and recoil from the recent inhumanity and violence in the news, it seems absolutely necessary to me that we have good principles: if bad ideas and passions can be behind unspeakable violence, surely good ideas and passions could be a remedy. In any event, any discussion at all would be at least a first step.

I have spoken elsewhere here about the value of the arts. There is value too in plainly discursive thought (which, like Robert Pippin, I take to be opposed to or different from artistic representation). Humans cannot live on fictions alone; they need theories and essays as well.

The twentieth century brought some powerful and grand theories of humanity. Though they were flawed in some ways, the theories had much of objective truth to them. One canonical example of course was John Rawls' A Theory Of Justice. Instead of the Post-modern, piecemeal, adhoc collection of impressions that has been the favored mode of the contemporary period, Rawls' was an attempt at rather old-fashioned grand Theory: a holistic overview of in what a good society could or should consist.  I never had the opportunity to meet or study with John Rawls; though he is no longer with us at least we have his masterpiece.

 There were other attempts as well. Tim Scanlon offers a contractualist theory in What We Owe to Each Other. I would normally recommend this book to any reader but the prose is extremely dry and rough going. It is a pity that it is not read outside of professional circles. Scanlon still teaches classes in moral reasoning at Harvard University; I was fortunate to study that particular course with him sometime in the late 1990s. 

On February 14 we lost one of the greatest legal and philosophic minds of the previous century, Ronald Dworkin. Though I have been critical of Dworkin elsewhere in these pages, (see my post of December 29, 2010) chiefly for his monism, that does not mean I don't find great value in his work.

In what I believe will promise to the most important work of his career, at the very end of his life he was still writing. Evidently, a posthumous book will be released of his writings on values and religious faith more generally. I was most excited by the sneak preview in The New York Review Of Books. (April 4, 2013)

What has excited me is that Dworkin, much like Thomas Nagel, has fearlessly started speaking the language of grand and objective principles by which to live. I quote him at length here, not merely for the beauty of his prose but for the power that such abstract assertion can have upon our consciousness. Other thinkers have talked of final matters, or ultimate values. Let us look at what Dworkin had and has to say:

"The religious attitude accepts the full, independent reality of value. It accepts the objective truth of two central judgements about value. The first holds human life has objective meaning or importance. Each person has an innate and inescapable responsibility to try and make his life a successful one: that means living well, accepting ethical responsibilities to oneself as well as moral responsibilities to others, not just if we happen to think this important but because it is in itself important whether we think so or not. 
The second holds that what we call 'nature'-the universe as a whole and in all its parts-is not just a matter of fact but is itself sublime: something of intrinsic value and wonder."
(Italics are mine)
In this passage Dworkin appears to be, at least in part, speaking in my language. One of my main themes in my blog, whatever the subject at hand is that some matters in life are intrinsic and objective. This doesn't mean that they are not deeply personal, or individually felt but rather that such things are good for themselves and not for some other instrumental, useful, ulterior or symbolic purpose. In this sense I am an anti-functionalist. There is an almost tautological circularity here and that is a good thing: some things are good for themselves. This is a very hard thing to swallow in a hyperscientific age since science only reads the world in terms of functions.

I eagerly await reading Dworkin's book. The fact that it is about religion needn't scare away the secular among us. While it is true that many of us will succumb to a functionalist or nihilistic account of our humanity - (Values emerge as an adaptation to survival and the like) - like the late Ronald Dworkin I maintain that we should hold a place for the conception of the independence of values and individual people. Though a lot of nonsense is done in the name of religion, we cannot live on science alone. That does not mean that we require religion, but it does mean, I must say that we need what I would call a religious attitude! We need fact and feeling, and we need imagination as much as discourse.

Here is an example of Dworkin's lecture style. It is a real pity that his mode of address and elocution seems a thing of the past. Many might regard it as pretentious; yet I see genuine aesthetic beauty in it.

I won't address Ronald Dworkin's two principles in any great detail but at the very least, Dworkin had them and thought about them.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Towards A Definition of Art Through Personal Memoir

Above is a candid polaroid of me hanging out in the bad, old Times Square circa 1979. I was evidently waiting with my parents to attend a matinee on Broadway. I am not exactly sure of the title but I believe it was this middlebrow play/musical starring, (and a less likely candidate to be in such a project), Liv Ullman.

I had known Liv Ullman from a couple of Bergman masterpieces, highbrow in more than one sense of the word, in particular Persona and Face To Face.

I really disliked this show. It was by Charles Strauss of Annie and Bye Bye Birdie fame. My mother cried all during the production because she said the set was an exact replica of the home she had grown up in: the Pittsburg of the 1940s.

I saw so much Broadway during those ten years. It is safe to say that I saw every Broadway or off (off) Broadway project that came through, from commerical musicals to avant-garde plays. The Joseph Papp productions in particular were full of vitality, the closest thing to the experience of a Cassavetes film that could be had on the stage. I saw the earliest examples of gay avant-garde theatre as well, from Charles Ludlum's Theatre Of The Ridiculous, to Lesbian political theatre. I did not always understand what I was seeing but I was never bored or restless.

A couple of times my father would take me down to the older Times Square so that I may study, (and he actually used the words sociology and ethnography, without bothering to define them), the rougher elements of society. He would show me the X-rated marquees and spoke vaguely of how some lonely men likes to watch such things and we discreetly watched drug dealers and hustlers go about their semi/illegal business. He pointed out who the prostitutes were, and they were rather conspicuous, so after awhile I could pick them out. He said that this world had to be contained in this section to satisfy human needs. He never explained what those needs were, only that it had to be contained in this one area because there was danger there.

I saw a lot of things down there that most children are, according to today's rules, never supposed to see, yet everything I saw was in public for the whole world to see. But at least I got a sense that this world was complicated and compromised by considerations of survival and even evil. My father always pointed out that no free will was involved in what I witnessed; rather, circumstances and "what is bred in the bone" had everything to do with it and that I had to feel sorry for the people I witnessed. He also told me that all of these people had good in them somewhere but that it wasn't allowed to shine or come forth. The goodness "was knocked out of them," was how he put it.

 I would often argue in a child's way with him to try and figure out what he meant, but it made for interesting discussions. I was fortunate enough to see a lot of R rated and exploitation fare in that neighborhood, the kind of stuff a child could get in while "accompanied by a guardian".

One of the most interesting things at this time to me is that I would "see" movies and plays that attempted to deal with the themes I had witnessed in real life, in a more condensed and summarized fashion. I would often wonder about the accuracy of the representation or depiction but I felt it curious that humans would reenact such things. Already I was curious about the connection between the arts and daily "real" life.

The following is that same block in which I was pictures above. (Note the Playland sign). The particular picture showing on the marquee - The Legend Of Boggy Creek - was a witless, cheap, and incoherent adventure movie about a mysterious monster in a rural area: it was a children's/family styled horror movie, as oxymoronic as that seems. I am sure I saw this particular run at that very theatre.
Note that the selling point of Caligula is its "sadism, gore, and extreme violence", a shameless celebration of the safely distanced consumption of represented, unreal, yet immoral behaviors for viewing pleasure. I doubt any commercial theater today would announce such motives so nakedly.
And here is the same location today: a gaudy, obscenely congested confection of  candy colored neon,  news images, all of it childish and without any human scale whatsoever.
 Here are some trailers giving a feel of the non-X rated material that would play at some of the movie theaters:

One of the things that occurred to me rather early on is that in one sense all of this stuff - call it culture or the arts - held one thing in common. It was made, constructed, built by human beings so that we might reflect upon our condition in this life.

I mention all of this not to discuss the history of New York City, or my personal life at all; my point is to talk about a basic fact of human existence: that we humans build, construct objects that we can call art so that we may reflect back upon ourselves removed from direct reality.

Indeed I would argue that what I have just stated is the only definition of art that seems to be sufficient enough to define the commonalities: "made-up things by ourselves so that we may reflect back upon ourselves, outside of the daily living".  We might reflect to just undergo catharsis, or for crude thrills; or we might reflect for the deepest of spiritual reasons. But in all Art we are trying in some way to reflect upon our condition. Even a distraction from that condition is still a reflection, a kind of self overhearing or eavesdropping upon our lives. This was what Persona had in common with Smokey and The Bandit and the Mark Rothko at MOMA. It was what Private Afternoons Of Pamela Mann had in common with Pippin, the two sharing more or less the same block. Indeed I think the only arts that don't really do this are the purely utilitarian ones like architecture or visual design. And even in these latter we are expressing the kind of environment in which we would like to exist.

 I had a sense that these were human creations and as such artificial. Only later did I discover the etymological connection between art and artifice.

Yet I had just as an immediate sense that all of these things had very little in common. Some of it was really not worth very much, some of it was boring and disgusting and some of it enlightened my soul and spirit.

Ironically, in a flat culture like the current moment, both of these insights are forgotten. It is by not exploring the commonalities that we inevitably are unable to see crucial differences. The insight of necessary discrimination or quality, and the opposite, though equally valuable, insight of unanimity in creativity.

By treating art as if it were completely natural and at one with the world, as if it weren't the product of individual hard effort (even in collectives!) but somehow a magical appearance in culture, we do what every censor does and what politicos do. We tend to think art is not special and  not apart from everyday life. By hewing to too exclusive a criteria of what art actually is we forget that human beings made  the stage show Pippin just as surely  human beings (including those other than Bergman) made the filmed "show" Persona. Even if one of these two productions is in some deepest, objective sense really better than the other, they nevertheless share the commonality of being manufactured objects.

What I am arguing for is that Art is actually a product. It is very fashionable to describe art as a process these days. The word product has negative connotations of purely commercial intentions. But I would argue that even the least solid artwork, say, a street dance performance, or a computerized light show is nevertheless a built thing. One of the great tragedies in art criticism these days has been the loss of the art object. Everything that lacks the quality of the thing itself is discussed: politics, morality, History and so on. What gets lost is the object.

Indeed, art is not unlike a construction project.

It is no accident that artists will use words like craft when discussing their work. We should not take it utterly for granted that humans manufacture and construct objects whose purpose is to help us reflect upon our lives. It is the most astonishing thing in the world. It is far easier to understand shelter, a home, and office building. It is less easy to understand a poem, a movie, and a ballet, at least in the sense that I am discussing, as human manufacturing.