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Aesthetics and Objectivity II

2013/04/21 5 comments

It’s nearing the end of paper writing season and I have no clue what I’m going to do for the final section of one of my papers, so now is as good a time as any to revisit a peren­nial concern of mine: the possibility for objectivity in discourse about art. I wrote a post on this subject a couple months ago, in which I stated that my goal was to move be­tween two equally unpalatable poles: “pure” objectivism and “pure” subjectivism. My goal here is to introduce an apparatus (drawing on the work of Rudolf Carnap and Huw Price) in which to think about these poles, in order to make it clearer that there in­deed can be a middle ground between the two.

One vice of that earlier post was that I did not give a very explicit, very clear definition of objectivity. Since the term is used in so many different ways, that is a serious flaw, though I tried to mitigate it through context clues. However, while reading parts of Carnap’s Der Logische Aufbau der Welt recently, I came across a superb definition. (As it happens, reading Carnap has been quite eye opening, stripping me of a great many of my prejudices about logical empiricism. Carnap was a genius and a philosopher quite congenial to my general way of thinking, despite my many points of disagreement with him.) Carnap defines objectivity along two poles (The Logical Structure of the World, §66, George translation):

The requirement that knowledge be objective can be understood in two senses. It could mean objectivity in contrast to arbitrariness: if a judgment is said to reflect knowledge, then this means that it does not depend on my whims. […]

Secondly, by objectivity is sometimes meant independence from the judging subject, validity which holds also for other subjects. It is precisely this intersubjectivity which is an essential feature of “reality”; it serves to distinguish reality from dream and deception.

In just a couple sentences, Carnap has cut through a vast swath of issues. First off, it is useful to understand just how these two concepts are separate, by seeing how you can have either without the other:

Intersubjectivity without non-arbitrariness: This position is exemplified by cultural relativist views (in any domain)—or at least by certain extreme forms of cultural relativism. What is right or acceptable is just what is deemed right or acceptable by the lights of a particular culture. Thus, within that culture, there is intersubjective validity because there is an intersubjective standard by which to evaluate the relevant statements: just check what is deemed appropriate by that culture. However (and this is where the restriction to extreme forms of cultural relativism comes into play), what the culture deems acceptable or appropriate is entirely arbitrary, a result of what we might call communal “whims”. That is, there are no normative restrictions on what the culture may deem acceptable.

Non-arbitrariness without intersubjectivity: This possibility is more difficult to see, but it is possible. A view that would fit this model is one that suggested that e.g. questions about the value of a work of art that say that a person cannot give reasons for her view that have any force for other people, but that her opinion is nonetheless not arbitrary. For instance, she might base her appreciation for a work of art on a rigorous attempt to relate the work to her experiences, ignoring those experiences that don’t matter. Her judgment is then justified in a way that not just any judgment would be, but because her experiences are her own and not shared, there nevertheless is not intersubjective validity.

What is most useful about Carnap’s two axes of objectivity is that there is no mention of ‘truth’—presumably in part because he wished to avoid the metaphysical excess of the correspondence theory of truth, in which a statement is true just in case it corresponds to some fact about the world. If one holds such a theory of truth, then there is an immediate temptation to think that objectivity is a matter of grasping truth in this sense. Science then becomes the paradigm of objectivity: the claims of science correspond to the facts. Moreover, once this view of truth is in place, it becomes very difficult to even see how there could be objectivity about normative matters such as ethics and aesthetics, because it becomes very difficult to see just what an evaluative fact might be. This is the jumping off point for J.L. Mackie’s error theory (specifically, his argument from queerness). Mackie in effect asks what an evaluative fact might be, finds the very idea weird (rightly so, I think), and diagnoses our moral discourse as a thoroughgoing error: we think we are making true claims, but we are not, because there are no evaluative facts to correspond to our claims.

Carnap is having none of this, and in fact I think diagnosed Mackie’s error nearly 50 years in advance: “However, we must here clearly distinguish between a certain kind of language usage and the assertion of a thesis” (The Logical Structure of the World, §178). It is not at all obvious, and in fact I think it manifestly incorrect, to see our moral discourse as implicitly committed to the thesis that there is a special sort of evaluative fact. Of course, many people certainly do believe in such facts, and this belief certainly shapes how they talk. But this is not something inherent to moral discourse. While Carnap would disagree with me about the possibility for some degree of objectivity about evaluative judgments, it is not on the grounds that there is no special class of moral facts. (When I say Carnap would disagree, I mean the later Carnap. The Carnap who wrote the Aufbau in fact made explicit room for the construction of values within his system.)

When I said above, “science then becomes the paradigm of objectivity,” I was not being dismissive. Science is the paradigm of objectivity, and Carnap lets us see why. Good scientific practice fights against arbitrariness and attempts to maximize intersubjective validity (I will say more about what this amounts to shortly). The sciences are rife with disagreement (which is essential to their flourishing), but they have mechanisms to eventually resolve this disagreement. This allows them to enjoy a degree of objectivity that is unparalleled in any other domain.

Recognizing scientific inquiry as a paradigm of objectivity in this way does not make us lose sight of the possibility for objectivity (in different degrees) in other domains. This is because Carnap’s conception of objectivity allows us to see both axes as axes, i.e. as defining a continuum. Once we have this in view, we can see how there is room for objectivity in other domains, even if they are not as paradigmatically objective as scientific inquiry.

Why bother with all of this? One big motivation—for all sides, I would wager—is the phenomenon of disagreement. In my last post on the subject I discussed disagreement at some length, and I’ll discuss it more here. Another, related, aspect of the issue is the need to hold other people accountable. How we think about objectivity in various domains will change how we go about holding one another accountable for their claims, and how we react to disagreements. In the rest of this post, I want to relate these issues to an essay I recently read by Huw Price, “Truth as Convenient Friction” (published in his recent collection of papers entitled Naturalism Without Mirrors). In that paper, he discusses three norms of discourse, which I want to relate to the phenomena of disagreement. My end goal is to motivate a view in which we recognize the need for a norm of truth in aesthetic discourse, and to connect this to the discussion of objectivity above.

When considering the phenomenon of disagreement, it is useful to start by considering the marvelous closing sentences of Nelson Goodman’s delightful book, Ways of Worldmaking (emphasis added):

The vaunted claim of community of opinion among scientists is mocked by fundamental controversies raging in almost every science from psychology to astrophysics. And judgments of the Parthenon and the Book of Kells have hardly been more variable than judgments of the laws of gravitation. I am not claiming that rightness in the arts is less subjective, or even no more subjective, than truth in the sciences, but only suggesting that the line between artistic and scientific judgment does not coincide with the line between subjective and objective, and that any approach to universal accord on anything significant is exceptional.

My readers could weaken that latter conviction by agreeing unanimously with the foregoing somewhat tortuous and in a double sense trying course of thought.

What Goodman so rightly emphasizes, particularly in the italicized portion, is that disagreement is rampant in all walks of life. Science, as I said, is a paradigm of objectivity, but not because it lacks disagreement. Nevertheless, the fact of widespread disagreement in ethical and aesthetic matters is routinely used as an objection to views that think that such discourse can be objective. The reason why such arguments are not simply mistaken on their face is that disagreement in the sciences looks different from disagreement in other areas. In at least certain respects, disagreements in the sciences are more tractable than those in the arts. (Goodman, I should note, is sensitive to this. In a footnote to the passage just quoted, he writes, “The reason that earlier theories but not older works may be rendered obsolete by later ones is often, I think, that the earlier theories insofar as sound, are absorbed into and are rederivable from the later while works of art, functioning differently as symbols, cannot be absorbed into or derived from others.” I have added emphasis to an important and astute point—the point that gives the lie to Mackie’s error theory.)

One reason why scientific disagreements tend to be tractable in a way that aesthetic disagreements are not is that, when a scientific question is sufficiently well-formulated, it tends to have a single correct answer. Much of the most interesting scientific work lies not in determining the answer to such questions, but in learning just which questions to ask. Questions in aesthetics, on the other hand, don’t seem to admit of such unitary answers. Compare: (a) What is the charge of an electron? (b) Are Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos better or worse than Beethoven’s fifth symphony? The former question has a determinate answer, which at this point we know to a fairly high degree of precision. The latter question, on the other hand, does not obviously have a correct answer, and if it does we sure as hell don’t know how to find it. Nor is there any real prospect of us somehow “discovering” the method for finding it at some point in the future.

Part of this is because the comparison is unfair. The scientific question is just the right question to ask, part of a very clear theoretical framework established through a great deal of conceptual and empirical work. The aesthetic question, on the other hand, is precisely the wrong sort of question to ask (at least, not without a very clear context given). It is an argument for another day why it is the wrong question, but see my “screed” to the right for a brief indication of my thoughts. Here are some better questions: (c) What is the mood of the piece? (d) Does it establish this mood effectively? (e) What is the piece saying? (f) Should one listen? — These questions also may not have unitary answers, but they are at least more worthwhile questions to ask, and the reasons they don’t have unitary answers are more interesting. (I have more to say about what questions are interesting in my post Why write about art?)

I think part of why people take disagreement in normative discourse to cut against objectivity is that they take questions like (b)—the bad sort—to be the paradigm sort of question in those areas. But that is hardly the full explanation. It is also because disagreement about even the better sorts of questions do not seem tractable to anything like the same degree as those in science. I think that these arguments can be overcome. I argued in my last post on the subject that certain forms of subjectivism lose sight of the very possibility of disagreement, so I won’t rehash that here. However, I do want to look at Huw Price’s discussion of norms of discourse, and relate them to the phenomenon of disagreement more generally.

Price discusses three norms of discourse, each more stringent than the last: (1) sincerity, (2) warranted assertibility, (3) truth. These are norms of discourse in the sense that we can and sometimes do hold people accountable for failing to uphold them.

The first norm, sincerity, requires that when people make some claim, they advance it sincerely, i.e. it requires that people honestly express their opinions. This norm may be suspended for rhetorical or other purposes, e.g. when one person plays devil’s advocate, but in most contexts it holds (and even in the case of playing devil’s advocate, the norm may hold insofar as the person is expected to make it clear what she doing). One way of distinguishing a lie from just any false claim is by noting that a lie violates the norm of sincerity.

People who hold hardline subjectivist views about aesthetics generally hold aesthetic discourse only to norms of sincerity. It is possible to explore people’s motivations for their views on works of art, but ultimately you cannot fault someone for the opinion they hold. You can only fault them for being insincere. For just this reason, it is inappropriate on such views to talk about reasons for evaluating works of art one way or another, taking the notion of a reason to involve at least some intersubjective rational force. You can only speak of motivations. This norm of discourse thus does not require objectivity in either sense: a person’s judgment may be totally arbitrary (“I just like it”) and it has no claim to intersubjective validity whatsoever. On both axes, an aesthetic discourse that involved only a norm of sincerity would be a paradigm of subjectivity. As Huw Price notes, there is no room for disagreement if such a norm is all that is available. If you sincerely express your opinion and I sincerely express mine, we may have different opinions, but we cannot disagree. As I argued in my previous post on this topic, I think this fact is enough to make us wish to avoid such a form of discourse at all costs if we can, so I will not belabor the point here.

The second norm, warranted assertibility, comes in both personal and communal forms. The personal form says that a speaker is incorrect to make an assertion, not only if she does not sincerely believe it, but also if she does not have adequate grounds for believing what she asserts. This norm basically amounts to requiring that one be able to justify one’s claims and opinions. We can take one another to task for expressing opinions that are not well-founded, where ‘well-founded’ here means well-founded by the speaker’s own lights. (Price gives the example of beliefs that are not well-founded “on the grounds that they [do] not cohere with the speaker’s other preferences and desires.”)

Allowing this norm makes possible a more moderate subjectivism about aesthetics. While opinions may be quite arbitrary and subjective, they cannot be totally arbitrary—they are held at least to standards of minimal coherence. Moreover, it makes possible what Price calls ‘no-fault’ disagreements—disagreements where neither party is at fault (where nobody is wrong). However, there is still a very real sense in which parties to such disagreements “slide past one another,” as Price puts it. Because there is no norm beyond minimal personal justification, there is no disagreement in a fully robust sense. There is no real prospect of resolving our disagreements, and the reason is because there is no real intersubjectivity.

This can be overcome by considering a communal form of warranted assertibility, where one is justified in making a claim only if that claim is warranted by the standards of her community. On one view, the community imagined is some ideally rational future community (when we reach “the end of inquiry”). But, from my perspective, it is not clear what such a community would look like, it is clear that no such community actually exists, and it obvious that we have no way of judging one another by the standards of such a community, seeing as we are not one. (Price makes all of these points, but I arrived at them independently of him.) Thus I will focus on a more modest norm of warranted assertibility, in which one is warranted in asserting something just in case one is justified in believing it by the lights of one’s actual community.

This needs to be handled with care. If taken too crudely, it lapses into a strong cultural relativism, with all its flaws. (How, for instance, could an individual justifiably dissent from the cultural norms, if those norms determine what is justified?) We might, however, imagine that both the personal and communal forms of warranted assertibility are used, which allows for a picture of critique in both directions. The risk this runs, however, is that disagreements still slide past another. When personal and communal warranted assertibility disagree, what arbitrates the disagreement? The problem is that personal warranted assertibility has no intersubjectivity, which means it cannot really engage in an intersubjectively compelling critique of communal norms. Moreover, while communal norms are intersubjective, one can still say, with Price: “My manners are not those of the palace, but so what?” There must be some account of why communal norms should apply to me, why I should be beholden to them. So the picture of mutual critique I suggested is, in fact, a ruse.

This argument, which I have adopted almost wholesale from Price’s paper, leads to the need for a third norm, the norm of truth. The title of the paper is “Truth as Convenient Friction”, which indicates the role the norm of truth plays: it introduces the friction needed to get disagreements to stop sliding past one another. Price: “We could be aware that we have different opinions about what is warrantedly assertible, without that difference of opinion seeming to matter. What makes it matter is the fact that we subscribe to a practice according to which disagreement is an indication of culpable error, on one side or other; in other words, that we take ourselves to be subject to the norms of truth and falsity.”

When we hold other people to the norm of truth, we take them to task for saying false things. We take there to be “facts about the matter” (please do not read this metaphysically) that transcend what any particular person is warranted in asserting at a particular time, and when people disagree, they are culpable in the sense that at least one of the parties to the disagreement is at least partially wrong.

It is easy to see how the norm of truth plays a key role in scientific inquiry, and helps us to make sense of scientific disagreement. Let me illustrate by example. In the 1910s, Alfred Wegener proposed his theory of continental drift. For several decades, there was sharp disagreement among scientists, with many (even most) still holding to immobilist theories. Wegener’s theory eventually won out, of course, but that did not fully happen until the 1960s. We can say about this case that, in those intervening decades, both sides satisfied the norms of warranted assertibility (and sincerity, I presume) in that both sides could offer compelling, empirically acceptable reasons for preferring one theory over the other. In hindsight, we nevertheless praise those who supported Wegener’s theory, because Wegener’s theory was the true one. (This is really very crude, and it sidesteps the myriad issues of scientific realism. But I can only fit so much in a single post.) Scientists can agree to disagree, as the saying goes, but only temporarily. Agreeing to disagree, for a scientist, is an uneasy state to be in.

If my reasons for wanting to save disagreement in the aesthetic realm are compelling, then we have good reason for wanting a norm of truth for aesthetic discourse as well. Nevertheless, it is just this fact of widespread, seemingly intractable disagreement in such discourse that makes such a norm seem impossible to have. I want to offer a diagnosis of this apparent impossibility, and point the way toward seeing how we can have such a norm.

One reason why aesthetic disagreement seems to rule out the possibility of such a norm is that our concept of ‘truth’ is, I think, strongly connected to the existence of a single right answer. Regarding empirical questions, such as, what is the charge of an electron?, the existence of a single correct answer is straightforwardly comprehensible. Price never makes this point explicitly, but I suggest it is implicit when he says, “Assertoric dialogue requires an intolerance of disagreement.”

But in the aesthetic domain, even when we move away from crude questions like (b) earlier and toward more sophisticated interpretive and evaluative questions, it is still difficult if not impossible to get a grasp on there being a single right answer. The reason for this, I suggest, is that disagreements in aesthetics are (or ought to be) something between pure fault and pure no-fault disagreements. They are fault disagreements in that we think (or should think) that it is possible to be wrong, to have bad opinions. But they are no-fault disagreements in that the resolution of such disagreements can indeed be a stable agreement to disagree. Such agreement to disagree is possible precisely because, while we recognize a norm of truth that extends beyond the norms of sincerity and warranted assertibility, we do not think that there exists a single correct answer, for any deviance from which one is culpable.

This creates problems because it stands in tension with our sense that we can only speak of truth where there is a single right answer. There are two ways to resolve this tension. One way is simply to get over that prejudice, and to allow talk of ‘truth’ and ‘knowledge’ even in evaluative discourse. I tend to favor this strategy on the grounds that I think banishing such terminology from aesthetic and moral domains is dangerous, as it creates a temptation to fall into the sort of subjectivist positions I find intolerable. (Of course, keeping the terminology is dangerous, too, as it leads to the opposite temptation of falling into an equally intolerable and implausible objectivism. But I think this temptation is easier to resist, as it looks much less attractive in today’s philosophical landscape.)

In general, then, I am happy to speak of aesthetic truth, aesthetic knowledge, and of art as a “way of knowing” (to use a troubled but lovely phrase). But it is also useful to have a terminological distinction at hand for when it is necessary. For this, I return to the Goodman quote I introduced a long way back, specifically this sentence: “I am not claiming that rightness in the arts is less subjective, or even no more subjective, than truth in the sciences…” Here Goodman draws a distinction between truth and rightness, leaving “truth” to the sciences while speaking about “rightness” for the arts. As I understand Goodman, truth is a species that falls under the genus of rightness. Crudely characterized, we can imagine truth as the special case of rightness where a well-formulated question has a single correct answer. (This probably will not do on closer inspection, but it’s good enough for now.)

The reason this distinction is apt is that while our sense of ‘truth’ seems to involve the existence of a unitary correct answer, the same is not true of our sense of ‘right’, for I am sure we are all familiar with the phrase, “there are multiple right answers” (which is of course distinct from “there are no wrong answers”). Having a notion of rightness allows for a healthy pluralism that has room for agreeing to disagree in the long run (i.e. not just temporarily, with the hope that in the future the disagreement will be resolved).

This should let us see how aesthetic discourse can be objective. It is not arbitrary because we cannot take just any position that suits our whims—we must take due care to ensure, as best we can, that we are right. And it is substantially intersubjective because we must be able to offer reasons that can justify our position to another, showing why we are justified in taking ourselves to be right. It is not purely intersubjective because we cannot take consensus even as an ideal (as we might in science), but it is nevertheless much more than merely subjective.

I hope I have gone some small way to showing how we might save the objectivity of aesthetic discourse.

Kiarostami and Goodman on the value of copies

2013/02/17 1 comment

Questions of forgery and authenticity abound in Abbas Kiarostami’s film Certified Copy. As a way of getting at these issues, I want to consider aspects of Goodman’s discussion of art and authenticity, found in his book Languages of Art. (Advance note: there will be spoilers.)

I do not wish to recreate the whole of Goodman’s discussion, for that would be tedious. I do wish to isolate a few core ideas from his discussion. Goodman begins by considering forgeries of paintings, and asks: can a difference between an original and a forgery that cannot be seen by a normal observer merely by looking make an aesthetic difference? More loosely: if you can’t tell the difference between two paintings just by looking at them, can they still be of different aesthetic value? (Goodman actually puts the question somewhat differently, since he is sensitive to complicating factors that aren’t relevant here.)

Goodman argues that “unobservable” differences can make an aesthetic difference. The cornerstone of his argument is that there are no clear bounds on what can be seen “just by looking”—not within observers and certainly not across them. He is right in both cases: were Goodman and I to look at the same painting, he would undoubtedly see a great deal more than I—hence what can be seen varies across observers. But, further, I could learn to see the painting as richly as Goodman does by learning to become sensitive to its aesthetically relevant features—hence what can be seen varies within observers over time.

It is the second case that is particularly crucial to Goodman’s argument. Two importance aspects of within-observer variation in what can be seen are pertinent. First, one learns how to see a painting, learns what is relevant, and this is a process. Further, as with any pedagogical matters, there are more than one ways to learn, and not all will be equally effective. Second, this process is always ongoing; it never comes to a definite end. No one reaches a point where she can see all there is to see, and in principle she can always develop her sensitivity further. One reason for this is that there simply is no definitive list of what a particular painting says. A painting may be truly seen and truly described in many ways (Goodman would add that these ways might even contradict one another), and there is no totality of the ways it can be truly described. (It is better to see this not as there being an infinity of ways to truly describe it, but rather as there being an indefinite number of ways to truly describe it.) Thus there is always open-endedness when it comes to seeing a painting, i.e. there is always the possibility of coming to see more.

These points can be augmented by recognition of the point that not only does one learn how to see paintings in general, one also learns to see particular paintings and styles of painting. Revolutionary art is revolutionary precisely because it upsets old ways of seeing and forces people to adjust to the new standards for seeing it sets. (This also explains why, once people have become inured to the new standards, the painting can cease to seem revolutionary.)

Keeping in mind that learning to see paintings is an open-ended process that applies both at a general level and to individual paintings, we can see why Goodman thinks that it makes an aesthetic difference whether or not a painting is a forgery. Knowing of two paintings that one is an original and one is a forgery matters because it tells one how to look at the paintings, provides information useful for knowing what to look for. Goodman’s fleshes out this idea (Languages of Art, 105):

In short, although I cannot tell the pictures apart merely by looking at them now, the fact that the left-hand one is the original and the right-hand one a forgery constitutes an aesthetic difference between them for me now because knowledge of this fact (1) stands as evidence that there may be a difference between them that I can learn to perceive, (2) assigns the present looking a role as training toward such a perceptual discrimination, and (3) makes consequent demands that modify and differentiate my present experience in looking at the two pictures.

Note that Goodman is not saying that the original is automatically better than the forgery—it might not be.

I have thus far followed Goodman in talking about painting, but it is worth noting that the above points about learning to experience a work of art apply to all art forms. There are, however, differences. In a certain sense, while one might forge a copy of a painting, one cannot forge a copy of, say, Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Why not? Goodman introduces a distinction between autographic and allographic art. Autographic art is that which permits of forgeries. There can only be one original Mona Lisa; all others are fakes of one sort or another. Allographic art, on the other hand, cannot be forged. I own Certified Copy on Blu-ray, as do many other people, and each of us is watching the original film. None of us are watching mere copies. Likewise, Gould and Perahia’s performances of Bach’s Goldberg Variations are performances of the same work—neither is in any sense a forgery.

What distinguishes autographic from allographic art, according to Goodman, is that for allographic art forms there exist definitive tests that will distinguish an original from a copy. A copy of a painting might get taken for the original (no definitive test exists unless you already know which one is the original), but a performance that is not of the Goldberg Variations is always easy to spot: it doesn’t follow the score. This hits on what Goodman thinks is the crucial difference between allographic and autographic art: allographic art involves some form of notation that will allow one to establish a definitive test of authenticity: faithfulness to what is notated.

Before moving away from Goodman and toward Kiarostami, I want to focus on one last case that Goodman discusses. Goodman does not think that the distinction between autographic and allographic art is hard and fast. Because allography depends upon notation, and because it is possible to develop a notation for an art form that lacks it, an autographic art may eventually become allographic. In this capacity, Goodman discusses dance, which might seem to be an autographic art, but for which several people have attempted to develop notation systems (indeed, the cover of Languages of Art is just such a notation). So dance exists on the border between autography and allography.

I bring up dance because it allows me to make a brief detour through Nietzsche (I can’t resist) and in so doing effect the transition between Goodman’s philosophy and Kiarostami’s film. Nietzsche is relevant because he often describes life in terms reminiscent of works of art—especially dance. In Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche claims, “High culture will resemble a daring dance, thus, requiring, as we said, much strength and flexibility” (§278, Faber translation). And in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he is even bolder: “I would only believe in a God who could dance.” Life, for Nietzsche, is substantially like dance.

If I may imaginatively extend Nietzsche in light of the discussion of Goodman, we might see Nietzsche’s critique of morality as a critique of attempts to develop a notation for human life: just follow this script, and you will be a good human being. Of course, as with a music score, the script leaves a great deal of room for how it is to be followed, and these differences of performance may be tremendously important, but the notation system nonetheless isolates a single set of aspects of human life as essential, and in this way makes all people performances of the same work (if they live up to the “score” at all).

Against this, Nietzsche urges that every detail of a person’s life is essential. On one reading of his doctrine of the eternal recurrence (a reading I rather favor), one lesson it teaches is that were one’s life to be repeated with even the slightest difference in detail is not to repeat it at all—it becomes someone else’s life. Hence to affirm even one moment of one’s life is to affirm every moment. You cannot just affirm the beautiful and despise the ugly and evil, for each is necessary. Indeed, that is why Nietzsche in other places (I forget where specifically) talks about learning to see what is beautiful in what is necessary, which for him amounts to making what is necessary beautiful. One instance of this comes in The Gay Science: “Pardon me, my friends, I have ventured to paint my happiness on the wall” (§56, Hollingdale translation).

Life, then, is autographic. Certified Copy makes this point vividly, and in a way that multiplies the complexities of distinguishing originals and copies. Goodman, in his discussion, starts from the assumption that we have a determinate original and a determinate copy, and works from there. In Certified Copy, there is a world of copies, with the originals always out of sight. But, I want to suggest, Certified Copy is equally a world of originals—indeed precisely the theme of the film that I wish to explore is that the boundary between originals and copies is not at all a hard and fast one. Goodman’s discussion takes place with a static view: here is a painting, and here is a copy of it. They are extended in space, but not time. The copies in Certified Copy are extended in time, however, and that makes all the difference.

Certified Copy is a rich, complex film, and I will not do it justice. I am isolating only one strand of it, albeit a major one. Because it is such a complex film, I don’t know how clear I can make the following discussion to those who have not seen it. Nevertheless, I will attempt a basic summary that will orient the reader to the overarching structure of the film. James Miller has written a book called Certified Copy, in which he suggests that copies are worth every bit as much as originals. The film opens by showing him giving a talk in Italy, which is attended most importantly by a woman and her son, Julien. (The woman never gets a name, so I will henceforth call her ‘the mother’.) The mother runs a shop that sells copies of antiques, and this seems to be the pretense for her meeting James at some time after the lecture. (Her son suggests that the real reason is that she wishes to fall in love with James.) They end up spending the afternoon together, visiting a small town in Italy. In a scene in a café, the waitress mistakes James for the mother’s husband, and the mother plays along. From this point onward, the straightforward narrative of the film becomes warped, and going forward the film proceeds with James and the mother increasingly acting like a married couple—not playacting, mind; it seems that somehow things have changed and they in fact are married.

This deliberate ambiguity about what is real I do not intend to deal with, on the grounds that I do not yet fully understand it. Instead, I want to focus on what is constant in the film: its exploration of the question of the value of originals and copies. The film never answers the question; rather, I suggest that it reveals the question to be on some deep level misguided. This has to do, as mentioned above, with the fact that entities and events are extended in time and not just space, so you cannot get a static vision: here is the original, here is the copy. Originals and copies take on different histories and so accrue different values.

There is an explicit example of this just before the major shift-point of the film. The mother has taken James to this small town to show him a famous painting in a museum. The painting was for centuries renowned as an original, but, 50 years before when the film is set, was discovered to be a copy. Nevertheless, after the discovery, it remains displayed in the museum, remains the one of the prides of this town. Though it is a copy, its centuries of association with the town make it as valuable to them as an original. In an interesting exchange, James gets frustrated with a tour guide who is explaining the history of the painting—James thinks he need not have mentioned that it is a copy. The mother thinks people have to know (presumably so that, following Goodman, they know how to look at the painting properly), but James thinks it a matter of total indifference. The painting has, in his view, taken on a life of its own, independent of the history of its origins. It speaks for itself and has its own value, independent of the painting of which it is (or once was?) a copy.

This is the simplest example in the film, dealing still with paintings. It is possible to take a static view of paintings, even if perhaps one ought not. With life itself, though, things are more complicated, and it is life that is the real context in which the film’s central question is posed. Life, by definition, is animate, is always moving and changing. At one point James suggests that promises are foolish precisely because they attempt to impose some constancy on this flux, a flux that soon leaves the conditions in which the promise was made behind, and hence leaves the promise looking ridiculous and effete.

The connection between copies, originals, and life itself is made right at the start of the film, as we see James giving his lecture. He discusses an etymological connection between our word ‘original’ and a Latin root connected to giving birth. Creation of an original is an act like that of giving birth, he suggests. But what is it we give birth to? The metaphorical treatment of creating an original as akin to giving birth draws a connection between the artistic process and childbirth, and in this context James suggests that, at least in some sense, children are copies. Namely, they are DNA copies of their parents. Not exact copies, to be sure, but all of the genetic material that so thoroughly determines goes into “building” a child is copied from two people.

This thought that children are copies of their parents recurs later in the film, when the mother says (to James) that Julien is the spitting image of his father. (“Spitting image” is the phrase of the subtitle, but the mother is in fact speaking Italian and uses the phrase “copia conforme”. The translation thus fails to capture the explicit connection with the title of the film.) This occurs just after the café scene, and so at this point James “is” her husband, and hence by implication is Julien’s father. Her annoyance with her son mirrors an annoyance with James of a moment before, so I think it is clear that she is comparing Julien to James. So Julien is a copy of his father, yet he is also an original human being. A fairly trivial point in itself, but an illustration of the fuzzy line between originals and copies. (I also suspect that there are a great number of ways that Julien and James mirror one another in their relationships to the mother, and that studying these is crucial to understanding the film as a whole. But that is a task outside my concerns here, and outside my current comprehension of the film regardless.)

The final example that I want to discuss, though not the final example in the film by any means, is the most central. It is also more speculative, but I think the clues are solid enough to establish that I am at least moving in the right direction. As James and the mother drive to the museum, the mother asks James to sign some books, including one for her sister Marie. In the ensuing discussion, it comes out that Marie agrees with James that copies are just as good as the originals—James applauds her ability to believe it without any complexities, whereas he had to write a book to convince himself of the idea. Marie’s husband, it turns out, stutters, and Marie considers his stammer of her name (“M-M-M-M-Marie”) to be a sort of love poem. In one of the film’s final moments, well after James and the mother have “become” a married couple, they are visiting the hotel where they stayed on their marriage night 15 years ago. The mother lies on the bed, looks at James, and says, “J-J-J-James.” My interpretation of these correspondences is that they suggest that James and the mother are, in an odd way, a kind of copy of Marie and her husband. (It is worth noting that Marie’s husband, like the mother, never is named.)

These three examples are hardly the only copies we see in the film. I think, however, that they are sufficient to draw a couple of conclusions about the nature and value of copies. As stressed above, every copy and every original has a history, and no copy can share the same history as the original it is copied from. Because historical details matter, an original and a copy can never be evaluated solely as original and as copy. What starts out as a copy immediately begins to diverge, immediately begins to become an original. The painting in the museum is an example of this: over time it accrued a significance that the original lacks, and hence, despite being a copy, it is still displayed. Julien provides an even clearer example: he is a “certified copy” of his father, but he is shaped by a distinct set of experiences and is certainly not the same person by any means. The world of Kiarostami’s film is a world of copies becoming originals.

What is particularly interesting about this aspect of the film is that this divergence always takes place in the absence of the original. The painting was initially thought to be an original, and was only later discovered to be a copy. Had it been known to be a copy from the start, it never would have had the chance to gain the significance it did (this, at least, is the implication). Further, by all appearances, Julien’s mother is a single mother—and even when she and James become a couple later, their interactions make it apparent that James has been frequently absent over the past 15 years. So Julien, too, has grown up apart from the original from whom he was copied. Likewise, Marie and her husband are never seen, only described. There are no originals in Certified Copy, only copies. The suggestion, I think, is that we can be so star struck by an original that tmight never give its copy the time of day. Since the film indicates at multiple points the importance of perception for the value of a work, ignoring a copy (or only ever seeing it as merely a copy) is as good as consigning it to always remain a copy.

The second conclusion has to do with the intriguing issue of simplicity and complexity. James may be a copy of Marie, but it is noteworthy that he is much more complex. Marie thinks only fools work hard in life; James has to work hard just to come to believe an opinion that Marie holds simply. What this suggests that it is in some sense easier to start out as an original: then one simply need not work to become an original. If, however, one begins as a copy, then it is a constant struggle to become original. In showing us a world only of copies engaged in this struggle, with originals appearing only in stories, as if they were mythical creatures, Kiarostami suggests that copies, like turtles, go all the way down. There are no originals, and hence there is no way of avoiding the difficult process of changing from copy to original.

Goodman, then, is right so far as he goes: no copy is identical to an original, so knowing that something is a copy rather than an original can be important in learning to spot those differences. But precisely because it changes how we perceive the copy, this knowledge is a double-edged sword. It can prevent us from ever giving the copy its due. Goodman’s emphasis on knowing what is an original and what is a copy seems much more important on a static view of things, whereas Kiarostami suggests that it is the historical view that matters most. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine which of the two is right.

James Joyce and the word ‘Yes’

2011/08/20 3 comments

Ever since I finished Ulysses earlier this summer, I’ve had the last seven words rattling around my head. yes I said yes I will Yes. These seven words are the last seven words of a sentence that lasts five and a half pages and almost 250 lines, and they’ve stuck with me because they capture a euphoria I’ve rarely felt. I’m rather fond of Nelson Goodman’s aesthetic philosophy, and there’s one portion of his excellent book Languages of Art where he argues something along the lines of: what makes sad art sad (and so on) is not that that art effectively makes its viewers feel the sadness of a particular scene, because then art is simply a less good version of real life, for no verbal description or pictorial depiction of, say, love is as powerful as actually feeling love. Goodman is right, but one key reason Ulysses has stuck with me, and those seven words in particular, is that the euphoria I felt while reading them does rival (and eclipse) many of my real life experiences. Surely not the experience of a marriage proposal—in that Ulysses must pale next to real life, as Goodman notes. However, in the joy of the words themselves, combined with their meaning in the context of the novel, there is a very real feeling that is the novel’s own, and which is not a pale impression of anything. The euphoria of these words isn’t the (foggy, imperfect, diminishing) mirror of the event they describe, but an ecstasy that’s internal to the novel and its peculiar logic.

Ulysses was my second experience with Joyce, after I read most of Dubliners for an otherwise rather pointless literary theory class I audited (I know as little about theory now as I did then, only now I can throw a handful of new terms around), and the rest of Dubliners because it was amazing. Perhaps I would have been better off reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man before Ulysses—I can certainly see the logic that leads to that being the common recommendation—but I’m glad I didn’t read it until later this summer, after I’d spent a month and a half or so with the end of Ulysses haunting my thoughts. The reason I’m glad is that, having spent so much time marveling at the command of English Joyce showed in wrangling so much emotion out of so few words, I was able to fully appreciate the genius of one particular passage in Portrait, also focusing on the word ‘yes,’ but with an entirely different effect. Here are both passages, first from Ulysses [pp. 643-644, Gabler edition, episode 18, lines 1592-1609] (I obviously won’t quote the entire final sentence of Ulysses, just the portion where the word ‘yes’ plays a central role):

and the old castle thousands of years old yes and those handsome Moors all in white and turbans like kings asking you to sit down in their little bit of a shop and Ronda with the old windows of the posadas 2 glancing eyes a lattice hid for her lover to kiss the iron and the wineshops half open at night and the castanets and the night we missed the boat at Algeciras the watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

And from Portrait [p. 134, Penguin Classics edition]:

He could not grip the floor with his feet and sat heavily at his desk, opening one of his books at random and poring over it. Every word for him! It was true. God was almighty. God could call him now, call him as he sat at his desk, before he had time to be conscious of the summons. God had called him. Yes? What? Yes? His flesh shrank together as it felt the approach of the ravenous tongues of flames, dried up as it felt about it the swirl of stifling air. He had died. Yes. he was judged. A wave of fire swept through his body: the first. Again a wave. His brain began to glow. Another. His brain was simmering and bubbling within the cracking tenement of the skull. Flames burst forth from his skull like a corolla, shrieking like voices:

—Hell! Hell! Hell! Hell! Hell!

In the second passage (the first chronologically, of course), ‘yes’ is a terrifying word. All of the joy at the end of Ulysses is gone, replaced by fear in the face of damnation. Stephen Dedalus, the ‘he’ of the passage, has just heard a sermon in which the preacher discusses the fall from Eden, then addresses the congregation, “Now let us try for a moment to realise, as far as we can, the nature of that abode of the damned which the justice of an offended God has called into existence for the eternal punishment of sinners.” The remainder of the sermon is a horrifyingly detailed account of Hell, and Joyce, in the passage quoted, captures the terror of the word ‘yes’ when it becomes the answer to “will I go there,” “will I be eternally damned”.

In addition to reading Joyce, I’ve also read a fair amount of Nietzsche recently (I’m currently in the midst of reading through his major works in chronological order). Joyce had read Nietzsche, and so far as I know admired him. Joyce was centrally concerned with the ways Ireland was wedged between and stifled by British rule on one side and the Catholic church on the other, and it’s hard to imagine that he didn’t sympathize with Nietzsche’s harsh criticisms of Christianity. In fact, in reading Joyce, I’ve toyed somewhat with the idea that he is in some respects Nietzsche applied to a specific culture (Nietzsche, of course, commented on every culture he could get his hands on). Certainly Stephen Dedalus’ famously stated aim in Portrait, to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race” (276) is a very Nietzschean aim. The extent to which Dedalus’ goals can be attributed to Joyce is certainly debatable, but it is hard not to see Joyce’s writing as in many ways creating an Irish conscience by exploring the state of then-contemporary Irish culture.

More importantly, though, in the case of the two passages above, is the specific tenor of Nietzsche’s philosophy, both his positive accounts of Zarathustra’s attitude toward life (which is discussed more strictly philosophically also in works like Beyond Good and Evil) and his specific critiques of Christianity. In both cases, Nietzsche fixates on the word ‘yes’ (and its opposition to the word ‘no’). Nietzsche describes his philosophy as a yes-saying philosophy, and implores his followers to say yes to life. He opposes this to Christianity, which he sees first and foremost as a philosophy that would deny life, that says no. With this consideration in mind, it is difficult not to look at the passage from Portrait in light of Nietzsche’s philosophy, knowing that Joyce did read Nietzsche. Read in this light, the passage is a visceral exploration of Christianity, and the Catholic church in particular, as a no-saying institution, as an institution that has managed even to pervert the joyous word ‘yes’ into something crippling and diminishing. The passage that closes Ulysses, then, returns ‘yes’ to its rightful glory. Indeed, ever since I read that passage in Portrait, the final seven words of Ulysses have continued to infiltrate my thoughts, and they have only grown more powerful, battling against the incursions of an equally memorable but much darker passage.

This is of course a partial reading of mere parts of two complicated and dense works of art, and I make no claim to having the final word. I welcome any and all input as to why my analysis may not work—my end goal here is understand Joyce, and I expect that will require being hopelessly wrong at many points along the way.