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Dewey and Artistic Expression 29 November 2008

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Culture.
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A reader emailed to ask me about the connection of Dewey’s Art as Experience and “expression theory” for her undergraduate aesthetic class. She is especially concerned with the connection of emotion (of the artist, I think) with Dewey’s emphasis on meaning. My own work with Dewey’s philosophy focuses on his social theory and his cognitive theory, and it’s been years since I read AaE, but I think what I offered her is a good place for her to start in thinking about Dewey’s approach to art. It also reminds me that I should go back and re-read the work.

As far as Dewey is concerned, there are some key assumptions you need to keep in mind when thinking about his approach to art and aesthetics. 

First, all acts in the world are pre-conditioned by the contents of the individual organism’s mind. That is, the individual has a lifetime of experience that condition his/her mind and make acts meaningful before they occur. This *includes* emotion. Dewey in the 1920s distinguishes between emotion as a mere reaction to stimulus, and an emotion that has been considered and rendered meaningful by the individual (the first precedes the second). The emotion you’re talking about with artists would be the 2nd kind, considered and meaningful already, before the “expressive act” of producing a work of art.

Second, the contents of the mind are preconditioned by the environment in which that mind circulates. In other words, the environment in the largest sense is inextricably part of the mind, because the mind would not exist without having a lifetime of transaction with the environment. Dewey uses the term “transaction” because he wants to emphasize the two-way, inextricable connection between human meaning and the environment. Just as the environment conditions the mind in this transaction relationship, so does the human individual (re)act to the environment, interpreting it, acting against it, shaping it, changing it to match its needs, desires, values, expectations (all of which have emotional components).

Third, the environment is more than just the physical, material world; it is also a social environment. That means that the mind is always also social and depending on social transaction for meaning. To say it another way, the mind (the individual) is preconditioned by society.

So Dewey doesn’t speak of “expression” as an act in itself or per se, but rather art as “production” that expresses a particular transaction within a particular time and place.  In most aesthetic theory of the past 300 years or so, the artist is paramount and there’s a privileging of the artist’s unique and individual vision. Dewey undercuts that somewhat by insisting on the transactive nature of the artist’s mind and his/her acts. Any individual act of art production has been necessarily preconditioned (just as all human actions are preconditioned).  

Do not confuse preconditioning with thinking that human actions are predetermined. Not at all. They are predetermined. That is, they are inextricably connected to all the experience that preceded any individual act. The human individual, however, takes all those experiences and THINKS about them. The art-productive act could be thought of as the action that follows the THOUGHT of the individual about his/her experience. In that regard, it may have a connection with “expression theory”. Dewey sees human agency in their ability to think creatively about their experiences and then act in the world to enact their values or “adjust” to their environment by changing their own behavior or perception. That is always creative, for Dewey.

Art production is, for Dewey, the thoughtful and purposeful organization of discrete elements to create the artistic whole. The artist’s genius or individuality is in their ability to draw upon their (preconditioned) meaning-making mind and use objects, elements, sounds, etc., to convey that meaning with a consumer of the art.

Secondly, Dewey offers a different way of evaluating art which is based upon knowing the environment that pre-conditioned its production and its consumption. For Dewey, you don’t actually consume art (or view or listen to it). Rather, you participate with it. When that art resonates (his word) with your own meaningful experience in your environment, such that it adds meaning to your experience, that art is successful. Dewey argues that we can, through training and education, come to participate with art from different periods of time and different cultures (i.e., from different environments) such that they may also resonate with us in our own experience and add to our own meanings, even though our environments (and our minds) are different. A work of art that fails to evoke a resonance, that fails to invite participation, is a failed or inferior piece of art. The quality of art can be judged by the degree to which it evokes resonance and creates an experience that increases meaning for the participator.

For Dewey, then, meaning is an emergent property of mind, the effect of the transaction between the organism (and the society) with its environment.  Although I haven’t addressed emotion as such much here, I hope you can see that for Dewey, emotion is always a constitutive part of this process. 

Mumbai 29 November 2008

Posted by Todd in Democracy, Inequality & Stratification, Islam, Modernity and Modernism, Multiculturalism, War & Terrorism.
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Note: I am no expert in Indian history or politics, so this is just a casual reaction from an outside observer. I would love to hear from readers who are better informed or have deeper analyses to offer.

There is a lot of really good commentary floating around the interwebs about the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, this past week, and I have been trying to sort out all the intricacies of what happened. The social scientist in me (and my base personality) goes quickly to trying to understand such an event, the structures, attitudes, and practices that would lead us to such a show of violence. Unfortunately, much of the early analysis drew facile parallels with Middle Eastern Islamic fundamentalism(s), but I really don’t think that works. Although global Islam is (loosely) connected, it seems that this Indian event is much more deeply tied to a particularly Indian inter-communal conflict, one that has been brewing and boiling over for decades, if not centuries. Whereas terrorism born of Saudi malcontents is anchored in an anti-modernity and anti-Americanism, that is, a long post-colonial history, it seems that the Mumbai violence, while certainly connected to British imperialism, has as much to do with internal inequalities. It looks to be a domestic terrorism only loosely (perhaps even ideologically) connected to global interactions. Although Pakistan and India are separate countries, which makes it look like an “international” affair, I think that the partition of Pakistan from India in the late 1940s is evidence of internal divisions within the subcontinent more than of an international conflict. 

To me, then, the terrorism in Mumbai looks far more like a failure of pluralism, or more pointedly, a failure of plural democracy. One of the key weaknesses at the origins of the modern state of India, which Ghandi warned of, was the imagination of India as hindu, and all others as Others. The national imagination of the Indian state wove into it the pre-existing communal conflicts between Indian muslims and Indian hindus, and really hasn’t ever allowed for a true and equal pluralism to develop. See “India’s Muslims in Crisis” by Aryn Baker for a brief primer on the status of Muslims in India.

Unfortunately, the global Ummah is made up, partially now, of a culture of terrorism, where injustices (perceived or real) are dealt with through direct violence against anyone perceived as benefiting from or participating in the oppression of muslims. It is perhaps far beyond this now, but maybe not: Is there no Ghandi for Indian Muslims? Are there no other ways for Indians to demand their full equality within the modern Indian state without resorting to violence of this kind? Or am I just naive and idealistic?

Is Marriage the Containment, Once and for All, of Homosexuality? 14 November 2008

Posted by Todd in Democracy, Democratic Theory, Gay Rights, Gender, Inequality & Stratification, Microsociology/Social Psychology, Queer Theory.
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A common thread in queer critiques of gay rights movements is that the aims of the movement are moving us toward a domestication or containment of our queerness, of the things that make us different and interesting in the first place. I have mixed feelings about these criticisms. 

On one hand, Michael Warner’s argument in The Trouble with Normal really resonate with my own sensibilities of the beauty and the possibility of queer culture and gay relationships (see also Anthony Giddens, The Transformation of Intimacy). I worry that the movement’s goals are about conformity and respectability, rather than about the freedom to be different and, well, queer. My own research concludes that what makes gay community and culture possible are the social spaces necessary for gay people to work out the meanings of their difference with each other, rather than in relationship to the dominant heterosexual norm. I argue that one of the key areas of weakness in the current iteration of gay rights movement is that it seeks integration into the dominant culture, and ignores the necessity for queer spaces in their own right. If there are no more queer social spaces, there are no more contexts within which queers can create their own culture. Remember, culture is an emergent property of social interaction; without interaction, there is no culture. Do we really want to just blend in and accept the terms of ‘normality’ from the dominant? Is my desire for men nothing more than a quirk that can fit into the hegemonic American Dream?

There are at the practical level significant problems, sociologically speaking, with my position. Namely, the kind of social spaces, whose loss I bemoan, and the kind of emergent culture they produce, have historically happened oppositionally. That is, they happen because there was a need in the social environment for their creation. Or to say it yet another way, in my research, gay men formed social spaces and cultures because they needed to in their context in history. Could it be that to maintain gay male difference, for example, you must live in a homophobic or heteronormative society? If there is no institutional or social mountain to climb, is there still a difference worth fighting for? In some ways, this will be a question of history. You can look at places like Sweden which has integrated homosexuality to a great degree, so that there are virtually no queer spaces at all in the country: Then we can ask the question, are there still differences? If not why not? If not, should there be?

But since culture is emergent and context specific, is it even the right focus to mourn the loss of cultural practices that arose in different contexts and that may no longer be useful or meaningful in the current environment?  Because culture is nothing more nor less than the production of meaning that is useful to the group in a specific setting, should our critical focus be preserving a culture within a changed context? [I believe these questions must be asked of other minority groups as well, not just queer culture.]

There are still more levels to delve through. Warner is but one among many who argue that marriage is the wrong battle to wage. But we are left with two important empirical considerations: 1st and foremost, the liberal democracy distributes social goods based on institutions, in this case marriage, which means that when the legal definition of marriage excludes same-sex relationships, it necessarily distributes those goods unequally; and 2nd, because marriage is a part of a the current social environment and it carries significant cultural weight, across race, ethnic, class, and religious lines, it is an object of desire for many (most) people in the society.

On the first point, many activists argue that the institution of marriage should be eliminated altogether, not only because it excludes homosexual pairings, but because it has a long history of sexist and racist effects. Marriage has been a tool of containment for women, specifically controlling their bodies and reproduction and limiting their public participation and status. The cultural spectre of marriage has been used in many different ways to maintain racial categories and in their effect the subjugation of African Americans (think: social gospel movement, eugenics, contemporary debates about “welfare queens”, etc., not to mention anti-miscengenation). So should the government just scrap marriage altogether? Should we as a society just jettison the institution because it cannot be clensed of its past and/or because it still is used as a tool to maintain social boundaries and control the flow of social power? [A similar question has been asked at a much larger scale if liberal democracy itself should be overthrown for similar reasons.]

On the second point, we have to deal with the thorny issue of people’s desires, why the desire them, if those desires are ethically acceptable, if they should be allowed to consummate them. Clearly, this should be of utmost importance to queer thinkers, as our whole modus operandus revolves around the consummation of desires, sexual and otherwise. In traditional critical theory, the world revolves around, in some form or another, “false consciousness”, the belief that people who desire “bad” things are duped or ignorant, but that if they could only be made to “see” would desire something else. In this specific case, it means telling gay men and women and other queers, transsexuals and bisexuals, that if they desire to be wed, they are complicit in their own oppression, they do not understand, or that they are morally or intellectually inferior.

Both points are powerful, but both points leave me unsatisfied. Both points seem to rest on deeply flawed understandings of where meaning comes from in human populations, how social institutions arise and change over time, and the irreducibility of the connection of human meaning (and desire) to the context within which is emerges. Maybe I’m too past graduate school for this kind of critique, because it just seems to treat the question in ideal (in some ways Hegelian/Marxian) terms, disconnected from on-the-ground reality, with how societies build and maintain social structures and the degree to which state power can be coercive or not, without regard to the degree to which power flows in the other direction, and without accounting for the connections between institutions and meaning making by those who are supposedly oppressed by the institutions. It also risks lapsing into that “radical” netherworld where institutions are bad per se. It ignores that all institutions, no matter how they are constituted, both enable *and* foreclose possibilites, including whatever social institutions would fill the vaccuum after the state sanctioned marriages are removed. Importantly, all institutions bring with them a concomitant resistance, regardless of our personal political stance on the institution. To make an anti-marriage argument on the grounds that an institution has negative consequences seems nearly childlike in its naivete.

The brief piece “No State Regulation of Families”, while pointing to disturbing and important historical power-relations in marriage, also relies on an assumption that marriage (and by extension all social institutions) are static and unchanging, as if marriage in 2008 is the same thing as it was in 1808. I don’t think the authors actually think that, but their argument assumes that, as if the very humans who live and breathe within that institution don’t push against it and transform it constantly, both at the micro-, individual social level and at the macro level of overall constitution of the institution. Marriage isn’t essentially or inherently oppressive merely because it has been so in the past. Marriage is simply a category of a kind of social institution that humans have created in innumerable ways to organize relationships and structure society; but they have always then moved with and against it, to transform it over time so that it has evolved to meet differing needs in different contexts. You could argue that marriage is a particularly stubborn institution, particularly slow to change; yet you can’t argue that it is the same or that it oppresses in the same ways as the past.

There is some truth to the idea that gays wanting to get married works to conservative advantage and is in part a domestication of gay/queer culture. In fact, it’s true enough that it scares the shit out of me. Yet it ignores the opposite flow of power, which is that by their very insistance on participation in the institution, same-sex couples have and are dramatically changing the institution itself, how its power is constituted and how it constrains and enables behavior and meaning. One clear example is that queers, legally married or not, continue to negotiate the sexual boundaries of their relationships, rather than merely excepting sexual exclusivity as a norm. Another example is how male couples tend to negotiate and consciously arrange their finances in a range of ways that undermine the kinds of power marriage has had historically on unequal economies within the relationship.

Many anti-gay-marriage analyses also often have the problem that always comes from a kind of false-consciousness critique: Somehow, ethnic and racial minorities (and of course gay folks) who desire marriage and/or who want marriage are duped, that their desires are somehow less authentic or coerced. If blacks, for example, only saw that “traditional marriage” were deployed against them, they would no longer want to be married. Yet what African Americans have done for generations is insist on the validity of their own formations of marriage and family relations; while simultanesouly demanding the recognition of the state with all its accompanying rights and privileges. And yet in the social context within which all of these people live, marriage is one of the terms of social participation. That is, marriage already is, and so categories of people who have been oppressed by the terms of marriage (e.g., slaves who were married until “physically separated”, or women who were economically dependent on husbands) or who were excluded from it (e.g., interracial couples and same-sex couples) will naturally engage “marriage” as a cite of social transformation, rebellion, and change; and it necessarily involves a tension between wanting in and wanting it to be different once they are in. They redefine the institution necessarily by their very participation in it.

In an odd way, I believe arguments against gay marriage almost give too much power to marriage as an institution (and by extension to all social institutions), oversimplifying the flows of power and constant cultural change and transformation.

Time for the Movement to Spread Its Protests Around 13 November 2008

Posted by Todd in Democratic Theory, Gay Rights, Inequality & Stratification, Religion.
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Just a quick thought: Although I’m supportive of the many protests of the Mormon church over the past week, and I think they are totally justified given the church’s prominent role in the Yes on 8 campaign, I think it’s time to expand our scope. We need to continue the peaceful, but pointed protesting, at other churches who were deeply involved in this issue, and we need to include churches across race lines as well. If the exit polling was correct, the religious vote generally, which in this case included Catholic and evangelical churches, voted roughly 80% in favor. Spread the love, my people!  I also thought of suggesting the protests move to retirement communities, but for some reason that thought just made me giggle.

Free Speech 101: Mormon Edition 9 November 2008

Posted by Todd in 2008 Elections, Democratic Theory, Gay Rights, Mormonism/LDS Church.
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Please read Chanson’s great post at Mainstreet Plaza explaining to Mormons why protesting at their temples does not violate their rights. My favorite paragraph:

But seriously folks, free expression 101: your right of free speech doesn’t guarantee you protection from having other people tell you that what you freely said was wrong. You know it, and I know you know it, so please cut the B.S.

Here’s my post from a couple years ago on American Christianity’s basic misunderstanding of free speech, “Free Speech, and Insulting Religion.”

Clarification on Mormons and Prop 8 9 November 2008

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Democratic Theory, Gay Rights, Mormonism/LDS Church, Religion.
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Just to clarify: I’m completely supportive and in favor of the ongoing protests and civil disobedience to bring to light the wrong-headed, unscientific beliefs in fairy tales, and the undemocratic efforts of the Mormon church and its adherents to enshrine their *religious* beliefs regarding homosexuality and marriage into the *secular* Constitution of California. In fact, I’m especially thrilled by the prospect of protestors disrupting Mormons’ efforts to marry in their temples. The irony is rich, no?

And especially in reference to my post about the Mormon church’s tax-exempt status, I’m in favor of all churches losing their tax exempt status. There is no reason at all that churches should be able to keep their finances secret and that they should be able to control billions of dollars in assets without contributing back to the society. And they certainly should be paying taxes if they are going to step into the public sphere to make their particular biases and bigotries enforced by law.

Unlike Seth, the Mormon commenter to the previous post, I see no difference between the protests in Salt Lake City and in Los Angeles. Both were direct responses to the Church’s efforts to impose its religion on the people of California; both were lawful; and both were filled with the frustration of a people denied. The protestors in Salt Lake City gathered at one of the gates to Temple Square and chanted “You’re Sexist! You’re Racist! And you’re Homophobic!” The protestors in Los Angeles bore signs that read, “You have two wives. I want one husband!” I marched in the protest in San Francisco on Friday night and felt the power of a people galvanized against those who would make them second class citizens. Separate is never equal, and this is but one stop along the route to full equality under the law for the gay and lesbian citizens of Californa. Next stop: The United States.

Going After the Mormon Church’s Tax Exempt Status Is the Wrong Strategy 8 November 2008

Posted by Todd in 2008 Elections, Commentary, Democratic Theory, Gay Rights, Inequality & Stratification, Mormonism/LDS Church, Religion.
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I’ve been getting a lot of people directing me to the Mormons Stole Our Rights web site, starting a campaign to take away the LDS Church’s tax-exempt status for the participation in the Proposition 8 battle. This is the wrong approach. Let me explain:

I’m especially pissed at the Mormons for two reasons: 1) it was the religion of my childhood and I feel betrayed and shunned all over again; 2) because they financed at least 1/2 of the campaign and provided the lion’s share of the ground forces for prop 8. So I get the rage and the need to strike back.

However, I’m a stickler for free speech and free expression: As the law now stands, the Mormon church did NOT break the law; neither did the catholic church; nor the evangelical churches who campaigned (and who held that horrifying rally in San Diego a few days before the election).

There is a legal problem here that we realistically need to account for if we are to hold the LDS Church accountable (as well as the Catholics and all those Evangelical churches): The Mormon church did not break any law. It’s within their rights according to the IRS code to advocate publicly and spend money to advocate for political issues. Like all churches/non-profits, they are only barred from campaigning for candidates.  The website “Mormons Stole Our Rights” is wrong on the legal facts (it ignores subsection (h) of the tax code they site) and this will lose in any court in America. Ask any tax attorney and they’ll spell it out for you.  Even more problematically, the Mormon church itself donated exactly ZERO funds to this campaign anyway and asked its members to donate money; this is also completely within its rights as the law now stands.

The more legally sound approach is to begin a campaign consisting of one of the two of the following:

a) demand that churches not be considered special kinds of non-profits and that their finances must be made public, just like non-religious non-profits must.

b) remove nonprofit status from all religious organizations. Make them all pay taxes on the money they use to advocate for issues, just like all private citizens must (we have to pay taxes on the money we donate to political causes).  Religions have only had nonprofit status since the 1950s. This isn’t enshrined anywhere in stone.

There is also a third issue to consider:

c) another way to go might be to see if it could be made illegal for California propositions to be funded by out of state interests (see prop 10 as another example); I suspect that may come into conflict with the interstate commerce clause, however, and would require federal legislation.

In some ways, this nascent campaign seems to seek to punish the Mormons for expressing their beliefs and campaigning for them. That is, on its face, anti-democratic and the precise wrong way to go about addressing our the role of the LDS Church in this past election. I’m all in favor of the protests at the Mormon temples, the intense criticism in the public sphere that Mormonism has been getting over this issue, etc. That is what free speech is for: Engaging against wrong-headed and harmful speech and countering it. But rather than seeking to punish an individual or organization for doing what is most fundamental to a democracy, we should be seeking to change people’s minds and convincing the majority of Californians that they are wrong ethically and democratically to enshrine a second class citenzhip for homosexuals in their constitution.

Let’s face it: The No on 8 campaign was completely unprepared for this battle, and the homos of California were complacent and assumed that there was no way this could pass. By the time No on 8 made the staffing change in the campaign, it was too little too late.  There is much work to be done to overcome the homophobia and no institutionalized inequality in our Constitution. I fear that this specific line of attack is the wrong one, unless done very carefully and with full understanding and respect for the law and for the right to free speech and expression.