Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

16 JANUARY, 2015

Susan Sontag on the Trouble with Treating Art and Cultural Material as “Content”

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“Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art… Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.”

“There are no facts, only interpretations,” Nietzsche wrote in his notebook in the late 1880s. Nearly a century later, Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933–December 28, 2004), perhaps his only true intellectual peer in the history of human thought, used Nietzsche’s assertion as the springboard for one of the greatest essays ever written — her 1964 masterwork “Against Interpretation,” found in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (public library).

Sontag — a woman of penetrating and enduring insight on such aspects of the human experience as courage and resistance, the “aesthetic consumerism” of visual culture, the clash between beauty and interestingness, and how stereotypes imprison us — examines our culture’s generally well-intentioned but ultimately perilous habit of interpretation, which she defines as “a conscious act of the mind which illustrates a certain code, certain ‘rules’ of interpretation,” a task akin to translation.

Portrait of Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar, 1975, from 'Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.' Click image for details.

Only thirty-one at the time but already with two decades of intense and intensive reading under her belt, Sontag writes:

Interpretation … presupposes a discrepancy between the clear meaning of the text and the demands of (later) readers. It seeks to resolve that discrepancy. The situation is that for some reason a text has become unacceptable; yet it cannot be discarded. Interpretation is a radical strategy for conserving an old text, which is thought too precious to repudiate, by revamping it. The interpreter, without actually erasing or rewriting the text, is altering it. But he can’t admit to doing this. He claims to be only making it intelligible, by disclosing its true meaning. However far the interpreters alter the text … they must claim to be reading off a sense that is already there.

This, of course, warrants the necessary meta-observation that Sontag’s now-iconic essay was perhaps, at least on some level, her way of admonishing people like you and me against interpreting her own work to its detriment — that is, misinterpreting it, or merely over-interpreting to a point of stripping it of the sheer sensory pleasure of Sontag’s style, of the elegance with which her mind spills onto the page in its essential form.

Even half a century ago, in fact, Sontag was wary of the violence embedded in the act itself:

The contemporary zeal for the project of interpretation is often prompted by an open aggressiveness… The old style of interpretation was insistent, but respectful; it erected another meaning on top of the literal one. The modern style of interpretation excavates, and as it excavates, destroys…

[…]

Interpretation is not (as most people assume) an absolute value, a gesture of mind situated in some timeless realm of capabilities. Interpretation must itself be evaluated, within a historical view of human consciousness. In some cultural contexts, interpretation is a liberating act. It is a means of revising, of transvaluing, of escaping the dead past. In other cultural contexts, it is reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, stifling.

Today is such a time, when the project of interpretation is largely reactionary, stifling.

Although Sontag presaged with astounding accuracy the compulsions of the social web, one can’t help but wince at a gruesome modern illustration of her point: I recently witnessed a commenter on Facebook throw a rather unwholesome epithet at Sontag herself, in reacting solely to an auto-generated thumbnail image, rather than responding to the 2,000-word article about Sontag, which Facebook’s mindless algorithm had chosen to “interpret” by that thumbnail image — human and machine colluding in an especially violent modern form of “interpretation.”

In that respect, Sontag’s condemnation of such reactionary cowardice echoes the insightful observation Kierkegaard — another peer whose ideas she absorbed early and revisited over her lifetime — made in his diary a century earlier, contemplating the psychology of why haters hate. Hate, after all, is a form of interpretation — a particularly “reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, stifling” one. In a remark astoundingly timely in our age of lazy reactivity and snap-judgments, often dispensed from behind the veil of anonymity, Sontag illuminates the underlying psychology of such “interpretations” with piercing precision:

Interpretation is not simply the compliment that mediocrity pays to genius. It is, indeed, the modern way of understanding something, and is applied to works of every quality.

Interpretation, she argues, is at its most perilous when applied to the arts:

Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art. Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world — in order to set up a shadow world of “meanings.” It is to turn the world into this world. (“This world”! As if there were any other.)

Susan Sontag's diary meditations on art, illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton. Click image for details.

In a spectacular answer to the eternal and elusive question of what art is and what its duties are, she adds:

Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable.

In another stroke of prescient and urgently timely insight, Sontag considers this notion of “content” — perhaps the vilest term by which professional commodifiers refer to cultural material today — and how it defiles art:

Interpretation, based on the highly dubious theory that a work of art is composed of items of content, violates art. It makes art into an article for use, for arrangement into a mental scheme of categories.

As an antidote to such violating interpretation, Sontag points to “making works of art whose surface is so unified and clean, whose momentum is so rapid, whose address is so direct that the work can be … just what it is.” In a sentiment that Wendell Berry would come to echo two decades later in his bewitching case for the value of form, Sontag writes:

What is needed, first, is more attention to form in art. If excessive stress on content provokes the arrogance of interpretation, more extended and more thorough descriptions of form would silence. What is needed is a vocabulary — a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, vocabulary — for forms.

This notion of vocabulary once again calls to mind the modern fixation on “content” — a term by which no self-respecting writer or artist would refer to what she makes, and yet one forcefully seared onto writing and art by the tyrannical vocabulary of commercial media, that hotbed of professionalized consumerism concerned not with the stewardship of culture but with the profitable commodification of it.

Sontag points to cinema as the perfect example of a form that resists the violence of interpretation. “Cinema is the most alive, the most exciting, the most important of all art forms right now,” she writes — a remark partially quoted all over the internet, almost always with the “right now” portion missing, in a testament to exactly what Sontag warns against; her point, after all, was that cinema’s aliveness in the “right now” of 1964 was due to its being such a young art. She writes:

Perhaps the way one tells how alive a particular art form is, is by the latitude it gives for making mistakes in it, and still being good… In good films, there is always a directness that entirely frees us from the itch to interpret… The fact that films have not been overrun by interpreters is in part due simply to the newness of cinema as an art.

But Sontag’s greatest admonition against interpretation has to do with its tendency to de-sensualize art — to render impossible the “active surrender” by which great art makes its claim on our souls:

Interpretation takes the sensory experience of the work of art for granted, and proceeds from there… Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience. All the conditions of modern life — its material plenitude, its sheer crowdedness — conjoin to dull our sensory faculties. And it is in the light of the condition of our senses, our capacities (rather than those of another age), that the task of the critic must be assessed.

What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.

She returns to that timeless, devastatingly timely question of “content”:

Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.

The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art — and, by analogy, our own experience — more, rather than less, real to us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.

The entirety of Against Interpretation and Other Essays is all genius, no mediocrity — the kind of reading that plants itself in the garden of the mind, remains there a lifetime, and blossoms anew with each passing year. Complement it with Sontag on literature and freedom, the writer’s role in society, boredom, sex, censorship, aphorisms, why lists appeal to us, and the joy of rereading beloved books.

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16 JANUARY, 2015

Why Not to Put a Raincoat on Your Dog: A Cognitive Scientist Explains the Canine Umwelt

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“If we want to understand the life of any animal, we need to know what things are meaningful to it.”

In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s Levin observes his dog Laska one evening — “she opened her mouth a little, smacked her lips, and settling her sticky lips more comfortably about her old teeth, she sank into blissful repose” — and finds in her behavior a “token of all now being well and satisfactory,” mirroring the “blissful repose” he so desires in his own life. Our tendency to anthropomorphize our faithful canine companions and project on them our own experiences and intentions may have produced some great literature — including Mary Oliver’s sublime Dog Songs and an entire canon of high-brow comics — but it is something against which cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz admonishes with great elegance and rigor in Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know (public library).

Of all the misplaced anthropomorphism we unleash on our dogs, Horowitz — a self-described “dog person” and “lover of dogs,” who also happens to be a scientist heading Barnard’s Dog Cognition Lab, where she studies dogs at play — makes a special, and utterly fascinating, case against the use of doggie raincoats:

There are some interesting assumptions involved in the creation and purchase of tiny, stylish, four-armed rain slickers for dogs. Let’s put aside the question of whether dogs prefer a bright yellow slicker, a tartan pattern, or a raining-cats-and-dogs motif (clearly they prefer the cats and dogs). Many dog owners who dress their dogs in coats have the best intentions: they have noticed, perhaps, that their dog resists going outside when it rains. It seems reasonable to extrapolate from that observation to the conclusion that he dislikes the rain.

But dogs, Horowitz points out, are also masters of mixed signals — your dog might wag his tail excitedly as you put the raincoat on him, or he might cower from the coat and curl his tail between his legs; he might look disheveled after a coatless rainy walk, but then take great joy in shaking off the water vigorously. To discern the dog’s true feelings about that possibly plaid, possibly tartan-patterned raincoat, Horowitz turns to the dog’s evolutionary ancestor:

The natural behavior of related, wild canines proves the most informative about what the dog might think about a raincoat. Both dogs and wolves have, clearly, their own coats permanently affixed. One coat is enough: when it rains, wolves may seek shelter, but they do not cover themselves with natural materials. That does not argue for the need for or interest in raincoats. And besides being a jacket, the raincoat is also one distinctive thing: a close, even pressing, covering of the back, chest, and sometimes the head. There are occasions when wolves get pressed upon the back or head: it is when they are being dominated by another wolf, or scolded by an older wolf or relative. Dominants often pin subordinates down by the snout. This is called muzzle biting, and accounts, perhaps, for why muzzled dogs sometimes seem preternaturally subdued. And a dog who “stands over” another dog is being dominant. The subordinate dog in that arrangement would feel the pressure of the dominant animal on his body. The raincoat might well reproduce that feeling. So the principal experience of wearing a coat is not the experience of feeling protected from wetness; rather, the coat produces the discomfiting feeling that someone higher ranking than you is nearby.

This interpretation is borne out by most dogs’ behavior when getting put into a raincoat: they may freeze in place as they are “dominated.” … The be-jacketed dog may cooperate in going out, but not because he has shown he likes the coat; it is because he has been subdued. And he will wind up being less wet, but it is we who care about the planning for that, not the dog. The way around this kind of misstep is to replace our anthropomorphizing instinct with a behavior-reading instinct. In most cases, this is simple: we must ask the dog what he wants. You need only know how to translate his answer.

But more than a mere evolutionary curiosity or reality check for our relationship with our beloved pets, this illustrates the broader solipsism of the Golden Rule in its traditional formulation, which urges us to do unto other human animals as we would like for them to do unto us. Instead, as Karen Armstrong has written in her magnificent treatise on the subject, true compassion requires that we seek to understand others so that we can do unto them what they would like done, rather than treating them by the personal ideals we subscribe to ourselves.

Artwork by Ana Juan from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.' Click image for more.

Much of that, whether it comes to a dog’s raincoat or to interpersonal relationships between humans, has to do with understanding the umwelt — the subjective reality in which each creature dwells — and how it shapes the meaning of things for that creature. Horowitz writes:

If we want to understand the life of any animal, we need to know what things are meaningful to it. The first way to discover this is to determine what the animal can perceive: what it can see, hear, smell, or otherwise sense. Only objects that are perceived can have meaning to the animal; the rest are not even noticed, or all look the same… Two components — perception and action — largely define and circumscribe the world for every living thing. All animals have their own umwelten.

[…]

Each individual creates his own personal umwelt, full of objects with special meaning to him. You can most clearly see this last fact by letting yourself be led through an unknown city by a native. He will steer you along a path obvious to him, but invisible to you. But the two of you share some things: neither of you is likely to stop and listen to the ultrasonic cry of a nearby bat; neither of you smells what the man passing you had for dinner last night (unless it involved a lot of garlic). We … and every other animal dovetail into our environment: we are bombarded with stimuli, but only a very few are meaningful to us.

This notion is what led Horowitz to follow up Inside of a Dog — which is intensely fascinating in its totality — with On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes, a book that profoundly changed my perception of reality. For a sample taste of these first disorienting, then wonderfully reorienting ideas, see my conversation with Horowitz about the art and science of looking.

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16 JANUARY, 2015

Joan Didion on Driving as Secular Worship and Self-Transcendence

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“Participation requires a total surrender, a concentration so intense as to seem a kind of narcosis, a rapture-of-the-freeway.”

Many years ago, an imaginative campaign for Mini Cooper reframed driving, something drudgerous, as motoring, something joyful. It became an instant success and received every major industry award, including a Cannes Lion. The young creative director who dreamed it up — Steve O’Connell, an old friend with whose encouragement Brain Pickings was born back in the day, and a brilliant creative mind always looking for the deeper longings beneath human behavior — was hailed as a rising star and went on to start a new kind of creative agency. The genius of his idea was that it tapped into a fundamental yearning to bring more mindfulness and presence to the ordinary activities of our daily lives — the same impulse that Thoreau tickled when he reframed the ordinary activity of walking as the art of sauntering.

But the original champion of driving as more-than-driving, as an experience more transcendent than simply propelling a vehicle over pavement and more present than mindlessly getting from point A to point B, is none other than Joan Didion — she of world-reorienting wisdom on self-respect, grief, and the value of keeping a notebook.

Joan Didion by Julian Wasser

In an essay about California’s freeway system in her altogether sublime 1979 collection The White Album (public library), Didion writes:

The freeway system … is the only secular communion Los Angeles has. Mere driving on the freeway is in no way the same as participating in it. Anyone can “drive” on the freeway, and many people with no vocation for it do, hesitating here and resisting there, losing the rhythm of the lane change, thinking about where they came from and where they are going. Actual participants think only about where they are. Actual participation requires a total surrender, a concentration so intense as to seem a kind of narcosis, a rapture-of-the-freeway. The mind goes clean. The rhythm takes over. A distortion of time occurs, the same distortion that characterizes the instant before an accident.

Drawing from 'Mr. Bliss,' the little-known children's book J.R.R. Tolkien wrote and illustrated for his own kids. Click image for more.

Illustrating the idea that kindred minds often arrive at the same conclusions about certain aspects of the human experience, Didion quotes from the 1971 book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies by Reyner Banham, a work of enduring genius:

The freeways become a special way of being alive … the extreme concentration required in Los Angeles seems to bring on a state of heightened awareness that some locals find mystical.

The White Album remains one of the best essay collections ever published. Complement it with Didion’s all-time favorite books, then revisit Vanessa Redgrave’s beautiful reading from Didion’s memoir of mourning.

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