Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Pinker redux

A. C. Douglas responds to yesterday's post; he feels that in my rush to condemn Pinker's antimodernist bias I have in fact misread both Pinker's own writing and that of Virginia Woolf. I have no desire to pick a fight with ACD, who I very much respect and who has the distinct advantage of having actually read the book in question, but there are a few points I think ought to be made in response to his comments:

First: ACD acknowledges that Pinker has misquoted Woolf, but feels that the terms "human character" and "human nature" are so close in meaning as to make no difference in context. I can only disagree. To me, the terms have entirely different connotations; "human nature" refers to the immutable qualities shared by all human beings, regardless of their life experience and social context, while "human character" is something which differentiates individual people, and which can be altered by events in a person's life. This problem, of course, is Wittgensteinian; we're using the same words, we just disagree on what they mean.

Yet in this context, it doesn't matter how ACD or I want to use the terms "human character" and "human nature": what matters is how Woolf and Pinker uses them. It's instructive, then, to consider how Woolf uses the two terms; first, "character":
My first assertion is one that I think you will grant - that every one in this room is a judge of character. Indeed it would be impossible to live for a year without disaster unless one practices character-reading and had some skill in the art. Our marriages, our friendships depend on it; our business largely depends on it; every day questions arise which can only be solved by its help. And now I will hazard a second assertion, which is more disputable perhaps, to the effect that on or about December, 1910, human character changed.
It seems fairly clear here that she intends the term to mean not some immutable set of human qualities, but the unique behaviours and quirks of individuals. The change of human character she describes, then, is not a change in our essential genetic makeup, but a change prompted by a new social and political environment. For example, the influence of the womens' suffrage movement causes us to look at characters like Clytemnestra, or historical figures like Thomas Carlyle's socially repressed wife, with new sympathy. (This example is Woolf's.)

So much for "character". What does Woolf say about "human nature"?
There she sits in the corner of the carriage - that carriage which is travelling, not from Richmond to Waterloo, but from one age of English literature to the next, for Mrs. Brown is eternal, Mrs. Brown is human nature, Mrs. Brown changes only on the surface, it is the novelists who get in and out - there she sits and not one of the Edwardian writers had so much as looked at her.
To read an essay that contains this statement as a "militant denial of human nature" is, I believe, stretching Woolf's meaning somewhat. Pinker, anxious to pursue his agenda of radical genetic determinism, is forced to acknowledge only one side of the nature/nurture debate; Woolf, however, is able to encompass both the changeable and permanent aspects of the human psyche. As a writer, it is her business to understand both.

I am further accused of misunderstanding the purpose of Woolf's essay. Perhaps my understanding of the essay is not complete, but I great have difficulty following ACD when he states that "Woolf's essay's intent was to fire a warning shot over the heads of the Georgians, so to speak, by admonishing them to take a lesson from the Edwardians". Woolf goes to great lengths in her essay to demonstrate how artificial the technique of the Edwardians was; how it focuses on the irrelevant details of people's houses, occupations, and economic circumstances at the expense of exploring their character. If Woolf expects any lesson to be gleaned from the Edwardians at all in terms of depicting character, it's a purely negative one. It's the Georgians who are attempting, in their halting way, to paint a fuller picture of "Mrs. Brown".

I should add, for readers who are patiently sloughing through all of this, that the Woolf essay in question is entitled "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown", and can be found widely anthologized. If you've read all the quotations that ACD and I are throwing at each other, you've read a significant portion of the essay already. It is worth tracking down a copy; this is a crucial piece of literary criticism.

Finally, ACD points out that Pinker is talking about the theories underlying works of art, not the aesthetic objects themselves. I understand this, but feel the distinction to be a porous one for several reasons. First, many artists throughout history are poor critics of their own work; therefore, one cannot assume that the aesthetic theories of a writer or composer represent accurately the content of their output. Second, Pinker directly refers to twentieth-century art works as "ugly, baffling and insulting"; because this is an aesthetic judgment on a group of works, it is best answered by aesthetic judgments of our own. Finally, it's been my observation that the twentieth-century saw a particularly wide schism between theory and practice; composers preached an intellectual and ascetic approach to art, but they could not prevent their works from having emotional and expressive content. Books by Boulez and Xenakis scowl at the reader, and say "No", but their music, heard properly, says "Yes".


A.C. Douglas said...

To spare readers of both our blogs, I'll answer you here rather than on S&F, and provide a link on S&F to your above post. I mean, our readers expect music talk from us, not a debate on evolution and evolutionary psychology and how they're relevant to the arts.

You're quite right on the "human character"/"human nature" thing, generally speaking. The point I was attempting to make, however, is that in the quoted passage in question Woolf used "human character" to mean precisely "human nature", and therefore Pinker's misquote, while egregious in principle, was trivial in meaning in the instant case. Incidentally (or perhaps not so incidental), the Woolf essay I read was titled, "Character in Fiction", not "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown". But perhaps it was the very same essay under different titles.

As to the intent of the Woolf essay, we seem to have come away from it with different ideas of what it had to say. I freely confess I quick-read the essay only to see what you were talking about as I've little interest in reading it for itself, so perhaps I misread its core argument. I'm not saying I did; merely that I might have.

You wrote: Pinker, anxious to pursue his agenda of radical genetic determinism, is forced to acknowledge only one side of the nature/nurture debate....

Pinker has NO "agenda of radical genetic determinism." He's far from being a radical genetic determinist. He's a cognitive neuroscientist who knows just what in human behavior should be consigned to nature and what to nurture according to the best science available to us at present. But as you say, I have the advantage of having read several of Pinker's books on the subject which books I most heartily recommend to you. The man is brilliant, a superb writer, and his knowledge of and insights into his field and the fields of culture and the arts is quite detailed and extensive.

You further wrote: Pinker directly refers to twentieth-century art works as "ugly, baffling and insulting"....

I respectfully point out to you that Pinker was making no such sweeping generalization. What he said was that the delusional, blank slate theories underlying modernism and postmodernism are directly responsible for producing "ugly, baffling, and insulting art." That much — I would say most — 20th century art is all those things is, I think, undeniable; far more art than in the art of centuries past, and I'm perfectly comfortable accepting Pinker's explanation for why that's so. I think he's spot-on in identifying the principal culprit in that sorry state of affairs.


Osbert Parsley said...

Heh. I'll accept your word for it that I've misjudged Pinker's angle on nature vs. nurture. I'm interested enough to make a point of having a closer look at his work in the future.

As far as the portion of his argument that you originally presented, however, I still have two fundamental problems with it. One is the premise: I don't think that the phrase "human character" in the Woolf essay means anything like what he thinks it does. The other is that I simply don't recognize the problem he's trying to address: I don't see the majority of twentieth-century art, or even a significant portion as "ugly, baffling and insulting" when taken in context and on its own terms. Indeed, the most obvious characteristic of twentieth-century art in comparison with earlier eras is the enormous stylistic diversity; any number of widely divergent styles could coexist at any given time, making generalizations about "twentieth-century art" almost a priori irrelevant. Because I don't experience the aesthetic problem he takes as the basis for his arguments, the rest of his arguments can be of no more than intellectual interest.

A.C. Douglas said...

I think we'll have to agree to disagree about what Woolf meant by "human character" in the graf in question, not the entire essay as she uses "character" in several different ways over the course of the essay. As to the "ugly, baffling and insulting" question, it makes no difference that "widely divergent styles" coexist in 20th-century art. One can still make the assertion made by Pinker (and agreed with by me) and be perfectly within bounds. Style is not the question. Ugly, baffling, and insulting is, no matter what the style. Of course, your differing aesthetic response to 20th-century art can't be gainsaid. But, then, neither can Pinker's (or mine). If a survey could be taken of a meaningful sample of the art-going population for all sub-domains of art, I'd bet giving odds that an overwhelming majority of that sample would agree with Pinker's (and my) assessment rather than yours even though there may be disagreement as to the cause.


Osbert Parsley said...

The stylistic question is relevant only because there are several twentieth-century styles which one would be hard-pressed to describe as "ugly, baffling, and insulting". Richard Strauss's oboe concerto, for instance, was written in the 1940s. Vaughan Williams was a twentieth-century composer. So was Ravel. So was Britten. These people all represent divergent styles of music that are clearly identifiable as "twentieth-century music", but which few people would lump together with someone like Nam June Paik.

As I'm sure you realize, appeal to popular opinion is not particularly relevant in settling artistic disputes. Would you poll a house full of operagoers on the correct tempo for the Tannhauser overture? If not, why would you expect to get a better result by asking them for their opinions on a full hundred-year span of music?

A.C. Douglas said...

Neither Pinker nor myself is suggesting that "ugly, baffling, and insulting" or any one of the three is applicable to all 20th-century art; merely applicable to more art — far more art — in the 20th century than in any previous century as I've already said, and most of that ugly and/or baffling and/or insulting art the product of the movements known as modernism and postmodernism. And I quite agree with you that appeal to popular opinion is irrelevant in settling artistic disputes or anything else for that matter. I was simply suggesting that within the art-going population those who find most (not all) modernist and postmodernist art to be other than ugly and/or baffling and/or insulting are a decided minority. By that suggestion I wasn't attempting to settle an artistic dispute, but simply attempting to show that the aesthetic response to much of 20th-century art as expressed by Pinker and with which I agree is hardly an eccentric or uncommon one, or an aesthetic response experienced only by philistines.


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