Jonah Lehrer and the discourses of art and science

The problem I have with Jonah Lehrer‘s type of book (Proust Was a Neuroscientist, and Imagine: How Creativity Works, but there are other examples in this genre such as The Bard on the Brain) is that it does not aid the humanities the way it purports to or the way its audience would like to believe. I am not making this point from the direction of neuroscience, as Daniel Engber does in SlateI want to come from another direction, that of the literature and art that his work seeks to illuminate. My fundamental point is this: contrary to the notion that he is helping art, he in fact perpetuates the notion that a certain type of thought is the final arbiter of all acceptability. It’s as if we say “These guys wrote some books with some passing observations about A, B, and C, but look, now we see that science proves it!” I wish to discuss this by referring to:

  1. the internal structure of each discourse
  2. how these structure relates to other discourses
  3. how all discourses constitute a meta-discourse

First off, the way this is presented is that what the poet says, the scientist has now proved. This is not so. What the scientist conjectured, the scientist proved. The structure of scientific knowledge is necessarily self-referring, as that is what gives it its consistency. The arts, by virtue of their dominating genius of comparison, analogy, simile, and symbol, all partake in the logic of metaphor (outlined in detail here). That is that structure of discourse that refers beyond itself, with somewhat less regard for consistency (which is not to say it is inconsistent). Lehrer’s final effect may not be one he intended to make, but it is one which is made time and again. It says that anything which is not of the scientific system is by the very nature of its non-participation invalid.

In discussing this with others, I have met the standard zero-sum logic which responds that by discussing the possibility that such a state of affairs is not the full story, then I am facilitating or even advocating the most pernicious falsehoods and fantasies as somehow equally acceptable. This assumes that criticism is antiscience in toto. This is an over-reaction which seems to betray something of an inferiority complex. Interestingly, it’s not an argument I have heard from any scientist friends, so perhaps it’s a performance whereby the non-scientist attempts to pay fealty to our logical overlords. Either way, it’s not my concern to fix that, and I just say get over it. I am not suggesting that there are equally valid ways of approaching reality. I would follow Peter Boghossian when he says “If you wouldn’t fly in a faith-based plane, why would you want to formulate a social institution based on faith? Why is it that we give more credence to values that come from a faith-based process when we formulate institutions and laws and conventions, but we don’t in technology?” I am delimiting the scope of my point.

Secondly, we still have the two cultures of science and culture, and it is my view that the latter does not need to be “validated” or rescued by the former, for that is importing a notion of justification that applies to science, not culture. The structure of culture is predicated on the logic of metaphor. I would draw parallels with Hans Blumenberg‘s work regarding the crisis of modernity, whereby we can note that when he illustrates the crisis of legitimacy that attended the birth of modernity in the seventeenth century, we must note that this was a crisis in the social and cultural realm which was a product of importing the notion of consistency that came from the birth of modern science. This is still with us. We still use the same logic of scientific discourse in a realm which functions in a decidedly different manner.

Thirdly, and building on the above point, information is not a wholly consistent system a priori, but is in fact closer to an ecology (which I clunkily called a meta-discourse above – my bad). I admit that using this word makes me wary, as it is approaches being debased to a cliche, and invoking it is somewhat fashionable (though Adam Robbert‘s site shows how beneficial and illuminating the rigorous application of this idea can be, quite aside from green rhetoric). There are alternative approaches, such as the knowledge market (convincingly critiqued – nay, destroyed – by the Fields medalist, Tim Gowers). Putting down my shotgun of overview, I wish to indicate that we apply a certain structure to the information at our disposal, and accordingly we seek to make it knowledge (does this structuring constitute another discourse, or an element of the meta-discourse? Is structuring inherent to each discourse, such that attempting to separate it is redundant?). Science is one such way we structure our discussion of reality. It needs to be internally consistent, and of course we can apply its discoveries elsewhere (via technology for example). We need to be aware, however, that applying scientific insight to culture is at best a route to understanding the science, that is to say, it is a metaphor (as Engber notes). It is a way to get a handle on the science. The science still has to be understood on scientific terms. It remains self-referring.

Another possible criticism against what I am attempting to say is that I am like the person who holds that to understand the physics of a rainbow is to make it less beautiful. This is not so. I am talking about human artefacts, which are often about a what rather than a how. These are on different levels within the meta-discourse (without implying that a different level means a value-judgement). I am not saying one is superior to the other, I am saying that there are different functions served by each respective discourse. Science functions to describe reality. Art and literature, following the logic of metaphor, functions to transform reality. One could attempt to connect them by describing the route of access to reality, via the senses, and this is Lehrer’s interest in applying cognitive science to these human artifacts. My question would be, why? What do we actually gain from this? By referring externally, away from science, is this type of book attempting to make science more like the humanities? And why?

Engber writes: “These claims might serve as the sketchy points of reference for a more modest book—a lighthearted jaunt through neuroscience, perhaps, as seen through the eyes of some of our most beloved artists.” This is how we should see this work, a popular overview, an experience which is divertente. Beyond this, I do not really understand its function, nor to I fully get why the NYT hails Lehrer as a prodigy. Surely this is not intended seriously, and is in fact journalistic self-congratulation  of the same sort that attends Gladwell. The humanities and culture do not function according to the premises of the techno-scientific outlook, because these are not premises which would allow it to flourish.

Consider this from another angle. Think of culture and the humanities as set A, the set of all possible discourses, from all possible worlds. Science is another set, set B that discourse which is the model most consistent with this actual world, and necessarily it is a subset of set A. We can then place these both in another set which we call reality, if we wish, it makes no difference to my point here. The point is that you cannot define the overall set of all possible discourses in terms of one of its subsets. Of course, we live according to this subset, but we think and imagine and hope in terms of the overall set extending beyond it. And I haven’t even mentioned the place of a priori knowledge, and where Kant would go in all this!

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