Tuesday, October 31, 2006
In a World Like Ours
In Chapter 1 of Art as Experience, John Dewey writes:
Order cannot but be admirable in a world constantly threatened with disorder--in a world where living creatures can go on living only by taking advantage of whatever order exists about them, incorporating it into themselves. In a world like ours, every living creature that attains sensibility welcomes order with a response of harmonious feeling whenever it finds a congruous order about it.
For only when an organism shares in the ordered relations of its environment does it secure the stability essential to living. And when the participation comes after a phase of disruption and conflict, it bears within itself the germs of a consummation akin to the esthetic.
According to Dewey, our response to the “order” produced by art is rooted in our response to living in a world that is inherently disorderly but that is occasionally punctuated with an “integration with environment and recovery of union.” It is this same “integration” that is produced by works of art--they reaffirm our hope that order can be achieved and produce a “harmonious feeling,” in this case a feeling that human labor and imagination can momentarily impose order on chaos.
. . .Since the artist cares in a peculiar way for the phase of experience in which union is achieved, he does not shun moments of resistance and tension. He rather cultivates them, not for their own sake, but because of their potentialities, bringing to living consciousness an experience that is unified and total. . . .
Dewey is suggesting that artists (good artists, that is) are distinctive in their ability not merely to acknowledge “resistance and tension” (the world’s tendency to thwart “harmonious feelings") but to dwell in them, to accept disorder as a necessary accompaniment to the experience of order. The scientist wishes to conceptualize disorder as a problem to be solved, after which “he passes on to another problem using an attained solution only as a stepping stone”; the artist wishes to capture the “rhythm” involved in the movement from disorder to “attained solution” (the work of art), to exemplify in the work what life feels like to the “living creature.” Order is not as satisfying if it can’t be contrasted with its always-impending dissolution, and the artist inherently calls attention to the fragility of order, aesthetic and otherwise.
Thus art is not just the ultimate product, the finished sculpture, the musical score, the published book, although these are the immediate gateways by which we enter art’s domain (and the achieved work to which we return.) Great art also invites reflection on the process by which the product has been realized, order wrested from “flux.” This emphasis on process is inherent in the very possibility of human creativity, since
There are two sorts of possible worlds in which esthetic experience would not occur. In a world of mere flux, change would not be cumulative; it would not move toward a close. Stability and rest would have no being. Equally it is true, however, that a world that is finished, ended, would have no trails of suspense and crisis, and would offer no opportunity for resolution. Where everything is already complete, there is no fulfillment. . . .
(See Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning” for a concrete, poetic embodiment of this Deweyan idea. Much of Stevens’s work could be taken as an extended reflection on the Deweyan notion of “order” more broadly.)
The emphasis on process is also crucial to Dewey’s theory of art as he will develop it in Art as Experience. The “experience” of art includes an awareness of the process by which the work must have taken shape:
Without an act of recreation the object is not perceived as a work of art. The artist selected, simplified, clarified, abridged and condensed according to his interest. The beholder must go through these operations according to his point of view and interest. (Ch. 3, p. 54)
Dewey concludes Chapter 1 with this account of “experience”
Experience in the degree to which it is experience is heightened vitality. Instead of signifying being shut up within one’s own private feelings and sensations, it signifies active and alert commerce with the world; at its height it signifies complete interpenetration of self and the world of objects and events. Instead of signifying surrender to caprice and disorder, it affords our sole demonstration of a stability that is not stagnation but is rhythmic and developing. . . .
Experience as Dewey defines it is the irreducible characteristic of life itself, and the most “vital” experience we can have, he will come to claim, is the experience of art.
I think that Dewey’s way of speaking about literature respects the literature-philosophy difference while still illuminating and honoring literature, as something which is not philosophy. Dewey even seems to be proposing philosophy and science as different but related forms of art.
Whereas the “ontologization of literature”, which tries to merge literature and philosophy, strikes me as a weaselly kind of anti-literature. If you try to make your piece on Kafka or Beckett into an important literary object itself, it’s as if you’re competing with Kafka or trying to supercede him. There are probably people alive today who think of Kafka and Beckett as important precursors of Lacan and Derrida.
Dewey’s *Art as Experience* has been an important text in my own thinking about art. My main problem with it is that Dewey never really questions what sorts of vicarious experience offers us, what the limitations of these experiences might be, what might be erased from the vacarious experience of art, and so on—all of which might be considered some version of ideology critique. Only, I don’t think one needs Marx to ask these questons; Barthes basically pragmatic *Mythologies* would work just as well.
So, to borrow an example from Dan’s post, I sometimes wonder if it’s a fair question to ask of Wallace Stevens: why is there not a single reference to war in his corpus?
Or, in my more Marxist moments, I might add a little Jameson to my Dewey. Once we determine the sort of order or pattern into which the artist has wrestled chaos, what is the social significance of that order? Drawing on Levi-Straus, Jameson argues that structure is a symbolic way of resolving a real social crisis. (I actually don’t think Dewey would disagree with this, as the later chapters in *Art as Experience* testify.)
I know Dan would probably object to shifting from the formal/aesthetic/experience aspect of art to the idea of social content, but I would argue that both are key aspects of “art as experience.”
I haven’t read Art as Experience, but the quoted blocks above prompt me to a comparison with the ideas in Worringer’s Abstraction and Empathy. Worringer is earlier, and to me is on main line of aesthetic development out of 19th-century rationalism/materialism. In the quotes it seems that Dewey—and perhaps this should not be surprising since Dewey is US—is lagging behind, and is still too oriented in the rational: that is, everything is defined according to the superior rationality, and the feminine, occult imaginative is still subordinate. Worringer brings the two to equal status.
Experience within what I see as the main line could be represented by Rosenberg’s writing about Pollock (though, I admit, there are points where Rosenberg gets a little wobbly). The language in Rosenberg is very close to that of Dewey—yet Rosenberg is in opposition to Greenberg in that Greenberg is mired in rationality while Rosenberg permits both the Apollonian and Dionysians currents to play.
I type that as a question—yes? no? possibly?
I now want to look at Dewey and see if his line runs with Rosenberg’s (who I see as following in the Worringer line, if getting there from different grounds), or if the remnants of 19th-century rationality I smell in Dewey keep him in a completely individual line.
(Note—I say “19th-century rationality” not as a point of origin but only at predecessor.)
I wonder whether Dewey sees himself as responding to Plato; that is, looking for a way to reconcile Plato’s idea that truth is the induced meaning of worldly phenomena, at a remove from those phenomena, with the fact that we cannot exist in the world of the Forms. Thus art triumphs over philosophy (and science) because it simultaneously arrives at the heightening of life which is the achievement of order, thereby “overcoming” the world, and retains the experience of the less-than-truth chaos which situates life. I say this because unless one sets up a distinction between the truth of experience (art, order) and the necessary conditions of experience (chaos), you are stuck with two different kinds of reality/truth/life apparently in competition.
I find, in scanning and preparing a number Dewey’s works for digitization via Distributed Proofreading, that I’m scouring the pages looking for his thoughts on engineering.
I keep expecting some mention, since he was a such a wide-ranging and comprehensive thinker, and was writing during the peak of engineers’ public esteem. When reviewing modern philosophical discussion of work and thought (like the one ongoing here, and no less the whoel of the Academy), I confess deep disappointment when I consider how rarely making and doing are mentioned. Though art is surely “making”, and science as well, and perhaps philosophy as well… those who build the world we use are unremarked.
Nonetheless, the motivations and frame of mind of the best engineers must surely coincide with those of scientists, artists, and philosophers. Perhaps the difference is in the tradition of collaboration in engineering; the work may be similar, but is undertaken by collectives rather than charismatic individual thinkers? Perhaps the difference is merely University curricula, and the stern division between cultures.
But very soon I’ll start to balk more noisily, if I keep being presented with models of the whole of noble endeavor divided neatly into “science, art, and philosophy.”
This thing we’re using now to write to one another, this Interweb. Might it be informative to consider its creators’ motivations?
It seems to be pretty common for theorized science to slight both the applied forms and even the experimental / empirical side of the science iself. Experiment and empiricism seem inseperable from engineering—you have to design your experimental apparatus.
I would guess that most pragmatists say this somewhere, whether or not they talk much specifically about engineering. Veblen might be another guy to look at.