Sunday, January 15, 2012


The main point of this post is just to draw attention to It's an online humanities journal with lots of essays by good people on Wittgenstein and art. The only one I've read so far is this by Bernie Rhie on faces. It's very good, but a couple of points make me wonder. For instance, Rhie writes that:
There is nothing to stop us from regarding artworks as void of intrinsic expressive life, just as there is nothing to stop us from seeing the human face as without intrinsic psychological expressiveness.
This seems sort of true but also sort of false. Don't (some) artworks themselves force us to regard them as intrinsically expressive, just as the human face (sometimes) forces us to see it as intrinsically psychologically expressive? Or rather, since I don't really want to make any claims about what does the forcing here, is the kind of blindness Rhie refers to always a live option? It doesn't seem so to me. I remember (i.e. might have dreamed) that there was once a room full of Rothko paintings in London (presumably in the Tate, but I don't remember) that you entered by going through a black curtain. As soon as I went in I felt instantly depressed. That isn't a very subtle response to art, I know, but it wasn't a response that I had any control over. Was there nothing to stop me from regarding these paintings as void of intrinsic expressive life? I suppose I could have insisted that it was a coincidence, or that I was projecting, or something. But I can't imagine honestly agreeing there and then that these paintings did not have intrinsic expressive life.

Maybe I'm misunderstanding Rhie's claim. But he goes on to say that:
Cavell’s important discovery about skepticism was that far from simply being an intellectual error in need of correction, the skeptic’s position expressed an important philosophical truth: that there is no absolute ground for the meaningfulness of our lives together (like a framework of concepts or rules), only the fragile attunements we ourselves maintain by means of our continuing investment in, and care for, our shared sense-making practices. There is thus nothing to stop any of us from withdrawing our acknowledgment of those attunements, fragile as they are, which is of course the skeptic’s tragic choice. And just so, there is nothing to stop any of us from withdrawing our mutually attuned acknowledgments (fragile as they are) of the expressive meaningfulness of our very bodies, or of the artworks we make, enjoy, and study. The aesthetic expressiveness of art will indeed be but a fiction—and artworks will be dead: mere sounds, images, and dead letters—in so far as we choose (as we always can) to see them in that way. Indeed, as I think my essay has made clear, quite a few modern thinkers have already made that very choice.
This passage seems to me to move from something true to something much more dubious. I'm happy to accept that the meaningfulness of our lives together depends on the fragile attunements that we maintain by involvement in certain practices. It doesn't follow, though, surely, that we are free to choose to withdraw our acknowledgement of those attunements. Can we choose to see artworks as dead? We can choose to try to do so, I would think. And the attempt might succeed. But I don't think that we can choose in the sense that trying is bound to succeed. I can't choose not to be moved by a song or film, even if I know that I ought not to be moved. Surely this is part of Wittgenstein's suggested experiments involving trying to see children as automata or flies as no more capable of pain than rocks are. (Which relates not only to his idea of doing philosophy from within the sphere of the ethical but also to this post of Kelly Jolley's on which I would comment if I could think of more to say than Yes.)    

Being moved doesn't make you right. I have twice seen and twice cried at My Stepmother is an Alien, but (not having seen the film recently) I expect this is because I am a sucker for a certain kind of sentimentality, not because I am a discerning connoisseur of cinematic drama. On the other hand, not being moved doesn't make you right either. You might be blind (or deaf or whatever). There are some things that ought to move you. That, of course, is a value judgement. But so its denial. The facts don't dictate that we not be moved. Which is, at least roughly, why I agree with Rhie's conclusion:
But what I would like to suggest, by way of conclusion, is that that choice [not to see expressiveness] need not be one we ourselves feel compelled to make, as if it were somehow philosophically truer and less theoretically naïve to see the emotional expressiveness of artworks (as of ourselves) as something that’s not really there, but rather some sort of interpretive projection, an animating fiction, or what have you.  


  1. 'But I don't think that we can choose in the sense that trying is bound to succeed. I can't choose not to be moved by a song or film, even if I know that I ought not to be moved.'

    that surely is not what cavell thinks in part 4, and probably rhie knows it. the preference for 'choice' here seems pretty infelicitous, since it does have the false suggestion that you point out. 'withdrawing' (why not 'withholding'? is rhie reserving that for acknowledgement of human beings' expressions of inner life?) is something to be accomplished, not fated to succeed, and which may come at the cost of a change in the one doing the withholding (or his relationships with others, etc.).

    but a big part of cavell's interest here is in the willedness - willfulness? willingness? - that goes into either acknowledgement or withholding of acknowledgment, to stress that neither is automatic, fated, that it is something to be responsible for, etc. i assume that is what rhie would like to emphasize. it seems he has not found the most apt way to do it.

    i wonder if that has something to do with the dogmatic tone that comes along with reporting someone else's discoveries and claims as if they were conclusions. at the points of rhie that your're quoting, i would expect, in cavell, something more like a mood of questioning, or a sense that one could hardly be satisfied with the present way of framing his remarks (especially if they had been framed in this 'choice' idiom).

  2. Yes, I don't know but do suspect that Rhie and I (and Cavell) really agree, and that 'choice' is just a bad word for him to have used.

    I have made a mistake here that might be worth pointing out. When I talk about movies making you cry or paintings making you feel sad, these are not examples of seeing works of art as expressive. Someone could acknowledge that objects cause emotions without accepting that the works are themselves expressive of any emotion. Perhaps the choice Rhie has in mind is not a choice not to be moved but a choice about what one says about this emotional reaction. But I still don't think one can say honestly that this face is not really sad, or that music is not really pompous, or whatever (in cases where the face really is sad, etc., of course). That is, I don't think we can choose how we see faces or experience works of art. At least, there are limits to what we can choose or control.

    I think you make a good point in your last paragraph, too. Rhie is giving Cavell credit for making something clear, but it's hard not to make it sound as though Cavell has done something impersonal here, which I doubt is how Rhie or Cavell would want to put it.

  3. There's a reply to Rhie by Garry Hagberg in Issue 4:

  4. Thanks, praymont. I'll have to read that soon.

  5. Hagberg's essay is a very nice response to Rhie (and to another essay by Magdalena Ostas). It's mostly an appreciation of what's best in their essays. In bringing out all that's best in Rhie's essay, though, he does perhaps imply that Rhie's talk about choosing is ill-advised. This passage (which might be difficult to read out of context) seems to me to make the point:

    actions as actually performed (i.e., real action like Wordsworth’s real language) by human beings, and events as experienced by human beings, are always already intertwined within the fabric of a life-narrative with previous actions and events, within trajectories throughout a life of such engagements, with actions considered but not performed, with events anticipated or imagined but not had, and countless other variations on this theme.

    If experience is intertwined with narrative then we can't, surely, just choose to have the experience without the narrative. Or, we can choose to have it, but we won't get what we've chosen.

    Hagberg's essay is a model of how to read insightfully and generously.