Monday, May 16, 2011

Lee Konstantinou - Biological Universals as Authenticity, or, What's the Matter with Steven Pinker?

Cool article from Arcade - How can you not like an article in which lovers of postmodern art are called, and I quote, "Sneering Sophmoric Status-Grabbing Bohemian Modernist/Postmodernist Beauty-Haters." Best line I have read in ages.

In all seriousness, this is actually a good critique of Steven Pinker's inaccurate understanding of modern and postmodern art in The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.

Biological Universals as Authenticity, or, What's the Matter with Steven Pinker?

I'm not posting the whole article, but I did like this section quite a bit.
In The Blank Slate, Pinker does not argue that culture is epiphenomenal so much as claim that there are a list of human universals that transcend cultural difference. He writes, "My goal in this book is not to argue that genes are everything and culture is nothing--no one believes that--but to explore why the extreme position (that culture is everything) is so often seen as moderate, and the moderate position is seen as extreme." That is, in his view certain aspects of human existence are culturally variable--though no less biological for their variation--and other aspects of humanity can be found among all cultures. The fictional nature of Moya's story might suggest that delving into "Kitayama's" error is beside the point, but I think looking at what Pinker is really arguing will yield some interesting insights into the significance of Na and Kitayama's real research.

At this level of abstraction, it seems to me that Pinker's claim is hard to dispute, but the problem is that it is also hardly very interesting from the perspective of the human sciences. What Pinker fails to tell us with any level of precision is where we can find the boundary between difference and identity and what the significance of that boundary is. Pinker's appendix listing human universals is so free of relevant discussion and context as to leave the reader scratching his head--though it seems perfectly plausible that human universals, like the language faculty, exist and might tell us something about the arts. His discussion of evolutionary psychology, for this head-scratching reader at least, fails to convince, though this is more the fault of contemporary evolutionary psychology than Pinker, whose own area of expertise is linguistics.

As many reviewers have pointed out, The Blank Slate's discussion artistic production (in genetic or evolutionary or biological terms) borders on the ridiculous, quickly and problematically moving from fact to norm, abandoning science very quickly for poorly thought through moralizing. From arguments about universal human capacities to appreciate symmetry or tonality Pinker claims priority for artworks that make use of symmetry and tonality.

After embarassingly misquoting Virginia Woolf, and fundamentally misunderstanding her views on human nature, Pinker disparages "the [then] new philosophy of modernism that would dominate the elite arts and criticism for much of the twentieth century, and whose denial of human nature was carried over with a vengeance to postmodernism, which seized control in its later decades." Modernism's problem is that it allegedly denies human nature, which is a mistake because "[a]rt is in our nature--in the blood and in the bone… in the brain and in the genes… In all societies people dance, sing, decorate surfaces, and tell and act out stories."

Of course, Pinker is aware enough of how problematic his argument is to feel the need to explain the prestige of artworks (elite artworks, as I'm sure Sarah Palin would not hesitate to note) that fail to meet his Fact-Backed-Norm, and so he whips out his shopworn Bourdieu. "The conviction that artists and connoisseurs are morally advanced is a cognitive illusion, arising from the fact that our circuitry for morality is cross-wired with our circuitry for status…" We are also informed that the avant-guard tendency to "sneer[] at the bourgeoisie" is

a sophomoric grab at status with no claim to moral or political value. The fact is that the values of the middle class--personal responsibility, devotion to family and neighborhood, avoidance of macho violence, respect for liberal democracy--are good things, not bad things [as presumably postmodernists thing]. Most of the world wants to join the bourgeoisie, and most arrests are members in good standing who adopt a few bohemian affectations.

Humans who appreciate modernist or avant-garde artworks only pretend to do so because of an ultimately (in an evolutionarily psychological sense) cynical desire to gain acclaim and prestige (and fitter sexual partners, which is what the game often boils down to) or because we are "cross-wired" in weird ways:

As Bourdieu points out, only a special elite of initiates could get the point of the new works of art. And with beautiful things spewing out of printing presses and record plants, distinctive works need not be beautiful. Indeed, they had better not be, because now any schmo could have beautiful things.

We can all be grateful that Pinker doesn't have his moral-circuitry cross-wired with his status-circuitry. Certainly, none of us could imagine that there is any advantage Pinker might gain (in either a proximate or ultimate sense) in condemning the menace of Sneering Sophmoric Status-Grabbing Bohemian Modernist/Postmodernist Beauty-Haters in these terms, especially since those of us who enjoy ugly artworks (how can I deny that I am a hater of schmos?) are so powerfully dominant.

Read the whole article.

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