Thursday, October 4, 2007

Steven Pinker: What's Missing? Coming up Empty on post 19th C. Literature and Art

I came across a review of The Blank Slate a few days ago--a long, thoughtful response to Pinker's rather odd opinions on literature and art. I'd thought it might be Scott Esposito, from Conversational Reading ... no. Couldn't find it there. Tried Technorati, Google and Yahoo... no luck. But in the process, did come across a fine essay by Kathleen Ann Goonan, CONSCIOUSNESS, LITERATURE, AND SCIENCE FICTION: Iowa Review Web
She only touched on Pinker in passing (I've quoted those paragraphs here), but do check out the rest of her essay.

Her most telling point, and to me, the most puzzling turn in Pinker's argument:

"Although Pinker insists that, because of their evolved biological traits, humans prefer art that includes understandable landscapes, recognizable human faces, and novels that tell stories in the traditional fashion, it seems obvious that whatever Modernism and Postmodernism are, appreciation of them springs from biological roots as much as does appreciation of simpler modes of communication.


Maybe Pinker has some missing genes?

In his book The Blank Slate, Stephen Pinker blames the Modernists and Postmodernists for the insularity of the humanities in academe, for the fact that the "two cultures" of science and the humanities have grown so far apart. He also states that, in the main, those in the humanities would have the hardest time accepting that there is a genetic basis for much of who we are and what we do. He takes particular note of Virginia Woolf's 1924 essay, "Character in Fiction," (though he references "Mr. Bennett and Bennett and Mrs. Brown," an essay which, in its originally published form in 1923, did not contain this phrase) in which she states . . . "on or about December 10 1910 human nature changed." Pinker says, "She was referring to the 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... Woolf was wrong. Human nature did not change in 1910, or in any year thereafter." Pinker assumes that "the philosophy of Modernism" was a largely artificial movement made up out of whole cloth by Woolf and other arbiters of taste--essayists, critics, and artists.
The situation is actually a bit more complex. Although Pinker insists that, because of their evolved biological traits, humans prefer art that includes understandable landscapes, recognizable human faces, and novels that tell stories in the traditional fashion, it seems obvious that whatever Modernism and Postmodernism are, appreciation of them springs from biological roots as much as does appreciation of simpler modes of communication. He downplays another interpretation of the changes in the human psyche which Modernism concretely manifested - the fact that, due to changes in knowledge about ourselves and the world, and the use of new technologies which emerged from this knowledge, our reflection of these changes in art, literature, and architecture became radically new. Art emerges from humans, from some mysterious stratum intermingled with consciousness in ways which sometimes elude direct awareness. Art that is purely intellectual and calculated rarely finds as large an audience as did Modernism in all of its manifestations.
Pinker's blame of literature for the intellectual impasse at which we find ourselves, and in particular the contention that Modernism and Postmodernism "caused" this impasse, are in some respects straw men. Science and the humanities differ in fundamental ways, particularly in the fashion in which they approach fact and knowing. Yet, it is in journals such as the one in which this paper appears that differences between "The Two Cultures" can be discussed so that there can begin to be a melding of the richnesses and insights of these two cultures, to everyone's benefit. Just as scientific progress in many fields, including that of consciousness studies, is crippled by lack of communication between specialized, but extremely knowledgeable people, so the idea that human progress in all academic fields can be given a boost by a cross-culturization of information seems plausible. It might, therefore, be useful to have more information about the change Woolf noticed, and how the change--if not in human character, then perhaps a change in what people thought of as human character, came about.

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