[xmca] Art and Answerability

From: David Kellogg <vaughndogblack who-is-at yahoo.com>
Date: Mon Jun 25 2007 - 22:42:16 PDT

We¡¯re doing two kinds of work on play this summer, and both involve ¡°answerability¡±. First of all, there¡¯s the following very simple ¡°volleyball game¡±:
  A: How are you?
B: How am I? Fine!
A: Fine? You look terrible.
B: Terrible? But ¡¦.
  Each side has to repeat what the last side said with an UP intonation and then add a comment which is then questioned. When one team ¡°drops the ball¡± the other side gets a point and then serves.
  We¡¯re going to study the GESTURES that children use when they play this game. Some of these gestures are what we call NON-VOLITIONAL (that is, they are not particularly conscious and they appear to be part of a word search or some other form of self regulation rather than intended to supplement verbal communication). Some of the gestures appear to be VOLITIONAL (that is, they serve to emphasize a point, whether they are beating a stress or indicating an intonation contour or pointing to emphasize ¡°you¡±. The hypothesis is that as children gain control of the verbal language, the non-volitional gestures will die away and the volitional gestures will exhibit a closer coordination with the language.
  You can see that this type of game would be very difficult to do with (for example) Computer Mediated Communication even using real-time video-equipped chat rooms. Actually, one of my grads attempted to do this last year and failed miserably because of technical problems?an ENORMOUS amount of the ¡°CMC¡± was concerned with the technical channels of communication (also true on XMCA of late, alas!)
  The second kind of work we¡¯re doing is on story-telling with three and five-year-olds. We¡¯re using several versions of a traditional Korean story with the following questions, loosely adapted from Bruner/Cazden/Mehan¡¦.
  a) Look! Listen! (imperatives)
b) What¡¯s this? Who is this? Where is this? (¡°Product¡± questions)
c) What is he doing? What is he thinking? How is he feeling? Is he happy or sad? What is he saying? (¡°Process¡± questions)
d) Why? What makes you say that? How do you know? What makes you think that? (¡°Metaprocess¡± questions)
  Obviously, when you have mythical monsters, b) becomes less answerable, and when you have magic c) becomes less answerable. But our hypothesis is that d) questions are only answerable in versions of the story which are fairly realistic, fairly coherent, and have a fairly strong moral purpose.
Of course, one can do a great deal of research on computer games (and Jay certainly has done, on the strength of his recent presentation at AAAL) and find counterexamples (for counter-example, the vicarious homosexual fantasies based on Harry Potter written by Japanese schoolgirls, which Jay presented).
  But for most young Koreans, computer games mean the products of Blizzard, especially Starcraft and now mean World of Warcraft in its various incarnations. Both of these games are narrowly interactive in precisely the way classroom discourse has been criticized for being: choice questions (yes/no questions) are privileged over product question (what/where/who) and product questions are privileged over process questions (What is he doing, thinking, saying). As for metaprocess questions (¡°Why do you think that? Can you think in the bowels of Christ that you might be mistaken?¡±) it is not possible to formulate these without destroying the world in which they are formulated.
  In ¡°Starcraft¡±, the player is given a choice: Protos, Zerg, or Terran. Then the player has a choice of what to put where. It is possible over the course of many games to elaborate WHY one lost and HOW one can avoid losing, but this already takes us well outside the actual world of the game. At no point are the basic schemas (Protos, Zerg, and Terran) destabilized.
  Jay discusses two ways in which an artist needs to be ¡°answerable¡±. First of all, the very act of understanding a work of art involves formulating some kind of response (even if this response is never verbalized). In this sense, an artwork is no different from an ordinary utterance to Bakhtin, since Bakhtin clearly says that understanding an utterance is in every sense reducible to the active response that the utterance evokes. Let¡¯s call this kind of answerability ¡°comprehension answerability¡±.
  Even paintings, which are merely a form of mediated perception, have this basic comprehension answerability. Any realist painter knows that if you attempt to mix your colors on a tree leaf in order to get an exact match and then proceed to paint a tree the exact color that it is in life, the result is hopelessly unrealistic. The reason why realist paintings are realistic is precisely that they create a world that is framed off from the world we live, in which the RELATIONSHIPS between colors is realistic even where the colors themselves are not.
  The person looking at the painting is not comparing the colors in the painting to real life (that would be about as realistic as looking at a tree made up of the word ¡°tree¡±) but only comparing the relationships between colors in the painting with the relationships between colors in real life.
  The aesthetic thrill which Vygotsky talks about in ¡°Psychology of Art¡± (where the great contradiction between Hamlet¡¯s ability and motivation and his incompetence and inertia is at last resolved) comes from the contradiction between the unrealistic contrast between the colors in the painting and the colors in real life and the very realistic comparison of the colors in the painting to each other. The person who gets this aesthetic thrill ¡°gets it¡±, and in this sense even paintings represent a form of comprehension answerability.
  The second form of answerability Jay talks about it is when the artist is ethically answerable to society for the relevance, creativity, and moral constructiveness of his contribution. It¡¯s very easy to associate this kind of ethical answerability with Tolstoy¡¯s puritanical rejection of Shakespeare¡¯s moral ambiguity in King Lear (where he insisted on a happy ending) or Hamlet (where Tolstoy condemned poor Hamlet for dithering). John Gardner¡¯s book ¡°On Moral Fiction¡± lays out a very similar argument, and so did our professors in art school back in China (the head of the school specialized in toilet tiles that featured pictures of Chairman Mao).
  Orwell considered Tolstoy¡¯s position to be merely stupid. But Vygotsky points out that ambiguity is precisely the point of Shakespeare?it is precisely in the disproportionate disastrousness of an old man¡¯s blunderings and Hamlet¡¯s unmotivated ditherings that Shakespeare gives us both realism and answerability.
  In 1998, Guy Cook wrote a book on Discourse and Literature (Oxford University Press) in which he described an attempt to teach a computer to distinguish between the language of literature and that of advertising. All attempts based on stylistic word counts or syntax failed; the advertising copy writers tended to be literature majors, and they knew their stuff.
  Then the computers were programmed to recognize certain schemas. Some of these were schemas of setting, such as the sleazy underworld, or the brilliant royal court, and others were schemas of characterization, such as the handsome young man on his way up in the world, poor but beautiful girl, brilliant but cantankerous scholar oblivious to appearances and intent on a great breakthrough.
  In novelistic art, no sooner were these schemas set up but they were almost immediately destabilized: Raskolnikov is a student, but he doesn¡¯t study. He is poor, but he has money to drink and fool around; he is not afraid of his landlady, but he avoids her. He is a murderer, but has no murderous passion; he is without any compassion, but he is wracked with guilt. In advertising, they are invariably reinforced. Armed with this insight, a computer could be easily programmed to distinguish between a Dostoevsky novel and a Gore-Tex advertisement, and even to place a James Bond thriller as being somewhere in between.
  Essentially, Vygotsky¡¯s defense of Shakespeare against Tolstoy prefigures Guy Cook¡¯s argument; it is in the destabilization and ultimately annihilation of the initial schemas that Shakespeare gives us the aesthetic thrill we see in painting when we compare the coherent world within the frame with the same-but-different world around us. I also think that it is in the destabilization of schemas that we can see the difference between novelistic art and computer games.
  The contradiction between other-regulation and self-regulation, or, more accurately, the contradiction between using other-regulation to promote not more other regulation but rather self-regulation, is the most difficult problem in education; it is why Vygotsky says that concepts simply cannot be directly taught, and why, the reduction of the zone of proximal development to ¡°scaffolding¡± was in some ways the most serious blow to Vygotsky¡¯s lifework since tuberculosis.
  This is even truer in moral education than in other fields; higher moral concepts simply cannot be effectively taught using the system of rewards and punishments that we normally use in teaching, because that system negates the kind of self-regulation we are trying to bring about.
  Here in Korea, moral education is largely done through improving stories. For example, a little boy comes to class with no lunch. He is told to shut his eyes while they play a game of hide-and-seek. Instead of hiding, the children each put a scoop of their own rice into his empty lunch box. Critically thinking children, confronted with this story, quite rightly ask what kind of an idiot would bring an empty lunch box to school or shake their heads over the kind of slop that such a child would be forced to eat.
  In China, at least when I lived there in the early eighties, the story makes a lot more sense--school lunches were more uniform (EVERYBODY ate cabbage all winter long in Beijing) and the lunch boxes were often provided by the school. But Chinese researchers in moral education were worried, for many years, by the lack of transfer of moral instruction. Children would receive stories like this, then in the lunchroom a group of four children would be presented with only three dumplings. Neither moral nor mathematical education was much on the menu.
  Vygotsky understood that it was ambiguity and not direct instruction in moral concepts that brought about moral SELF-regulation in verbal art. Similarly, Brecht argues that moral choices like aesthetic ones have to be defamliarized, and suggests, for example, a reading of Hamlet that says that Hamlet¡¯s education in rational thought at University of Wittenberg hampers him in the business at hand, the sort of feudal butchery that Fortinbras manages to bring off very well without much to-do.) But Tolstoy who has such great faith in the goodness of children and in their ability to develop concepts of good without instruction, has no faith in the ability of the reader of Shakespeare to make his or her own moral choices independent of Lear¡¯s unhappy example or Hamlet¡¯s unclear precedent. (
  Mutatis mutandis, the Blizzard company are up the same creek; they simply cannot offer enough choice and still keep their mass market playing the game; they cannot keep asking both choice and meta-process type of questions, and they cannot destabilize the schemas on which their art rests without having the whole structure come tumbling down. That is why a computer taught to play Warcraft will probably associate it with a Gore-Tex advertisement and not with a Dostoevsky novel.
  David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education

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Received on Mon Jun 25 22:44 PDT 2007

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