Wednesday, March 26, 2008
In The Logical Structure of the World, Rudolph Carnap attempts to show how a “constructional system” can be built the purpose of which is “to order the objects of all sciences into a system according to their reducibility to one another.” Among these “objects” are what Carnap calls “cultural objects” (which include works of art) and “pyschological objects.” The former, Carnap maintains, are reducible (for the purposes of this system) to the latter:
The awareness of the aesthetic content of a work of art, for example a marble statue, is indeed not identical with the recognition of the sensible characteristics of the piece of marble, its shape, size, color, and material. But this awareness is not something outside of the perception, since for it no content other than the content of the perception is given; more precisely: this awareness is uniquely determined through what is perceived by the senses. Thus, there exists a unique functional relation between the physical properties of the piece of marble and the aesthetic content of the work of art which is represented in this piece of marble.
To put it another way, the aesthetic experience includes an awareness of the piece of marble in all of its physical attributes, or of a page of text with its words printed in a particular style on paper of a particular color and weight, but it only begins there. “Aesthetic content” requires another step to be fulfilled:
. . .if a physical object is to be formed or transformed in such a way that it becomes a document, a bearer of expression for the cultural object, then this requires an act of creation or transformation on the part of one or several individuals, and thus psychological occurences in which the cultural object comes alive; these psychological occurences are the manifestations of the cultural object.
Although he uses the word “experience” rather than “psychological occurences,” and although he is more rooted to the “physical object” than is Carnap in what seems an essentially phenomenological analyis of the experience of art, John Dewey in Art as Experience offers a philosophy of art and the reception of art that at least has a family resemblance to what Carnap is suggesting here. Both Dewey and Carnap avoid attributing metaphysical status to the “beauty” of art (a beauty that is intrinsic to the work) by locating the aesthetic in our apprehension of the work. As Carnap puts it, for the work to become a “bearer of expression,” there must be “an act of creation or transformation on the part of one or several individuals.” Similarly, Dewey would maintain that these “several individuals” include both artist and audience, as the work is not really complete until the viewer/listener/reader is able to “recreate” it in perception: “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.”
Thus aesthetic judgment is unavoidably subjective, requiring the “transformation” Carnap describes, a process that will be bound to the “point of view and interest” of the “beholder,” as Dewey has it. Still, the “sensible characteristics” of the work remain what they are, and aesthetic judgment cannot simply be cut loose from the work’s sensible properties. Indeed, the more fully one experiences art according to Dewey’s account of the process, the more, and the more intensely, those sensible properties will be felt.
It seems to me that both Carnap and Dewey remind us that, although the aesthetic is consummated in the “psychological occurences” experienced by readers or viewers, the sensible charactertistics of works of art and literature cannot be denied or dismissed. Thus, in reading fiction, we should not forget that neither people nor “things“ are the subjects of perception. Words are. If, for example, we are reading a realist novel, we are not experiencing “the world” faithfully reproduced at all. We are not even, finally, experiencing a world of the author’s creation, whether it’s a world meant to be taken as a version of the real world or one the author has imaginatively brought into being. We are experiencing writing, which, through the psychological processes Carnap and Dewey invoke, is “transformed” into a world of characters and their stories. Ultimately a sufficient accumulation of responses by readers in turn transforms the work into a “cultural object.” In our haste to describe that realist novel as a convincing “picture” of reality or as something “that takes on the problems of social misery and class conflict,” we should not forget that it’s neither. As an object of aesthetic experience, it’s just writing, skillfully arranged for your act of recreation.
Certainly reader response is crucial, but one shouldn’t emphasize that more than the skill of the artist in creating objects that channel or permit readers re-creations in certain ways. No one reads H.D.’s “Heat” as a commentary on feudalism.
Does anyone really mistake a realist novel for that which it is depicting? We speak of a realist novel faithfully depicting a society as a kind of short hand because it would be tedious to constantly state that the novel is not what it represents.
I agree with you as far as appealing to the metaphysical goes—that’s a way we have of objectifying subjective experience.
One aspect that often gets left out of these discussions is that psychological experience is by no means “personal” or “individual” experience. The very nature of the sign entails a social contract, and even our sensual experiences are socially mediated and developed (or disciplined, to use a more Foucaultian term).
The reader puts him or herself into the sentences—I almost wrote into the hands—of the writer. That’s the physical & non-metaphysical part of it. What happens next is, as Dewey suggests, psychological, i.e., imaginary, but we ought to be careful not to denigrate the imaginary in the name of sober critical insight.