Friday, November 14, 2008

I cannot read Bertrand Russell...

Since I`m travelling these days, I took Betrand Russell`s book Authority and the Individual (1949) from my bookshelf. I was anticipating an interesting read about the underpinning philosophical debates of social cohesion. So, imagine my disappointment when I got stuck right on the second page.

I have found this a lot with philosophical debates: the generalized statement of how things are. If you do not accept it, if you have some problems with the premises, to use the language of logic, then you`re in trouble.

"In all social animals, including Man, co-operation and the unity of a group has some foundation in instinct. This is most complete in ants and bees, which apparently are never tempted to anti-social actions and never deviate from devotion to the nest or the hive" (p. 12).

What`s going on in this paragraph? The first sentence frames the context: social animals; it further places man (really, what`s meant is human beings...) under the category of "social animals" and it calls for understanding this category in terms of "instincts".

Now, exactly what counts as co-operation and unity is debatable: critical approaches to science (read Donna Harraway for instance) have shown that we tend to see the animal kingdom through the lenses of our social vision. For a long time, the dominant paradigm in seeing sexual practices in the animal kingdom was that of male domination and possession of the passive female. Feminism comes into the picture: scientists start noticing that females are not passive, but in fact make active choices and select male partners.

My point: what we see as unity or co-operation depends on what we take as such. To what extent these are based in instinct - that`s again highly debatable. Instinct is a very good black box: it provides an explanation for a behavior without really explaining it. These things aside, I am not sure ants and bees never ever exhibit anti-social behavior. Nor am I sure their lifestyle is a `devotion` to the hive. Even the use of the word `temptation` here is highly important: anti-social behavior is like a temptation, a deviation from the norm. So really, social cohesion is the norm. Yet, the parallel with the animal kingdom has a specific function in the text: it frames the explanation of social phenomena within the `natural world`, a world which cannot be challenged because, well, it`s natural!

It shouldn`t come as a suprise that a few pages later, Russell furthers the argument of social cohesion and unity are first and foremost visible in the family, the basic social cell (as Lenin was fond to say...). And, like any good nationalist, he continues:

"Social cohesion, which started with loyalty to a group reinforced by the fear of enemies, grew by processes partly natural and partly deliberate until it reached the vast conglomerations that we now know as nations" (p. 16)

The teleological development of human communities, from families to tribes, from tribes to clans, from clans to nations... starting from the premise of cooperation and unity as an instinct. The argument of the need to be part of the whole, the need to belong to a group is very suspicious to me (not to mention there`s no clear reason as to why nations and not, say, cities... but I`m not going to cover this side of the critique here). There`s a functionalist explanation of it which I find important, but incomplete. I`m still not sure cooperation and unity are a natural necessity - nor am I sure what exactly that means. The more I think about it, the more confused I am about "nature" and "instincts".

Thursday, November 13, 2008

What counts as art? Context!

As I walked my way through the museum, I realized I didn`t seem to value the pre-columbian or the chinese exhibits in the same way I did with the Western Renaissance paintings collection. Some time ago, I had the exact same feeling while visiting a North American Native museum: I just couldn`t bring myself to seeing the beauty, the catharsis and the meaning of the collection. It was dry. All I saw were everyday life items, like shoes or belts or wooden sticks, and all of them said to me `mundane`, `banal`, `pragmatic`.

Every now and then, I would notice the craftmanship. I would spend time to look at the detail, trying to appreciate the exquisit skills needed to saw or to sculpt, and yet it was not art to my eyes. A recent conversation made me realized the hierarhical categorization system shaping my vision of things: craftmanship was not art. And why is that, I wonder? Is it the fact that I`ve been taught to draw a very fine distinction between art, High Art, and crafts, folklore? It is not sophisticated enough, I was told. Hierarchies of class were no doubt at play in classifying something as art or craft. Art belongs to museums. Crafts to fairs. Art is exhibited. Crafts are an amusement.

And hierarchies of class melt into nationalism: folk is what the proto-nation does, what the nation`s intellectuals collect and catalogue to prove the persistance of the nation. But art is what the established-nation seeks to create so that it reclaims its place in the cultural Pantheon of the world.

But that was not all: beyond class and national(ist) histories, or maybe together with them, there was something else at play in my classification of something as art versus craft. I looked at the China porcelain and I remembered the ones we had at home. Chinese porcelain was very popular with our grandparents`generation (again, as a sign of social status). I thought of the Western context in which Chinese porcelain became an important signifier of social class, of being of part of aristocracy. But beyond this, there was nothing else I could use or rely upon in making sense of the symbols, the images and the colors.

Show me any Western Renaissance painting or sculpture and I`ll easily talk about it for hours... I`ll see the links with the previous works, with the historical context, with the religious context, with the everyday life context... And that`s the key: CONTEXT. Today, as I looked at the pre-columbian exhibits, I could not make any sense of them. I could not place them within a context, within a network of relations that provides meaning. The only experience they could provide was the one accesible through my senses, and that was not satisfactory enough. I guess I should start reading more about non-Western histories before I can claim myself an intellectual...
Photo Credits: Mark Cartwright
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