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Re: [xmca] understanding understanding

Thanks for pointing out this very nice (and relatively short!) piece.

I wholly agree with Gadamer's position (as described by Grondin) and find
it a very appealing approach with one major caveat. First the appealing
parts, and second the caveat.

Gadamer's notion of the ability of art to "pull in" its audience
articulates very nicely with a Latourian notion of actants (see bottom of
p. 44 for lovely language about being "engrossed" and "pulled in" - "where
our whole being is at stake").

And yes indeed, as Gadamer notes, the true experience of the play is "being
drawn into" the opposite of which is "not taking part" (cf. Durkheim's
"anomie", but also consider Dewey's notions of the ideal balance between
"goofing off" and "drudgery" that is further developed by Rathunde and
Cziksentmihalyi in the notion of "serious play").

Also, a lovely idea about the "temporality" of the experience of art: "The
play of art will never be conceptually grasped; we may only participate in
it to the extent that we allow ourselves to be moved by its magic."

Gadamer nicely points to the way in which a persons self is taken up into
the act of experiencing the art. This is an important move. As is the move
away from epistemology and the desire for control via knowing - without
much appreciation of the activity of knowing.

Generally, I am in complete agreement with Gadamer's take, and I'm
particularly fond of the blending together of play in art, festival, and
ritual. I would add that I think Goffman's notion of interaction ritual
(drawing on Durkheim's social ontology of subjectivity) accomplishes
perhaps all of the work that Gadamer (via Grondin) is doing in this piece.

But I can't help but be concerned about this deeply bourgeois notion of
"the aesthetic" (rightly picked apart by Bourdieu and others). I'd rather
bring it back down to earth, and return to what we might call the art of
everyday life, a somewhat "crasser" notion of what is at work in play (and
art). (I think that Grondin addresses this concern, to some degree, toward
the end of his essay, but "art" seems to remain as something that everyone
"gets" in one way or another).

Social psychologist Jon Haidt has done some interesting work on what
happens in the brain when one's hero (e.g., political hero, whether Barack
Obama or George W. Bush) has been accused of doing something wrong, and
then one finds one's hero vindicated. What he finds is that the "pleasure"
areas of the brain "light up" (i.e. are active) when the vindication
occurs. This is surely a banal insight - I discovered long ago the notion
of a "feel good" thought - you know the thought that you are thinking and
then manage to forget the content but remember the "feel" of it? And poets
have been speaking of this for hundreds if not thousands of years.

And this is a point that Levi-Strauss made long ago in his suggestion that
we seek out structure, we desire it aesthetically. We seek patterns in the
world and when we find them, we feel good. An aesthetic impulse. This is,
perhaps, most effectively argued in The Sorcerer and His Magic where he
presents three cases in which the truth of the events becomes secondary to
the meaningful structures by which they are interpreted. Better to justify
the system of meaning and deny what "really" happened rather than accept
what "really" happened and deny the reality of the structures of meaning
that provide one with a life-world. This simple contradiction between
structure and event is at the core of what L-S was up to in his very long
life. The contradiction happens whenever, as it inevitably will, the events
of the world exceed the explanatory power of the structures of meaning by
which we understand those events.

What I think L-S was missing was a notion of recognition. That is to say,
that it is not aesthetic impulse alone but rather that it is an impulse to
be consummated in a way that 1) asserts the agency of the self (and a
particular kind, an agency in social worlds) and 2) asserts the value of
the self. So when "the facts" cause us to challenge the system of meaning
that gives our self meaning and through which we attain powerful forms of
social agency, it is better to deny the facts rather than become
meaningless, or worse without a system withing which to know how to act. In
either case, un-ruled, anomic. When we hear the exculpatory evidence of
Barack O'Bama or George Bush, it is not just that a view of the world has
been confirmed. Rather, it is that *we* ourselves (as "Democrats" or
"Republicans") have been confirmed! The aesthetic impulse by itself would
do little if it weren't for a self that breathes life into it and which it
breathes life into.

This is where I think Gadamer falls short as well. Gadamer is right to
point out that there is an experience of the event that is prior to
objectifications of the event and of the self (a kind of "absorption"
(samadhi?) into the interaction/activity/play/festival/ritual). This
phenomenological moment of pre-objectified (apparent) immediacy is right
on. It is true that one can be pulled into such moments and this "pulling
in" is a critical feature of human life (Goffman speaks of "engrossables"
and of "involvement" in interaction). But there is also an object that
matters in the event. We could speak of numerous play/festival/ritual
events that wouldn't have these engrossing effects on participants
precisely because of the nature of the object qua "self" that is entering
into the event (aka the "subject").

I once saw a lovely talk by an anthropologist who was speaking of the
collective effervescence in a rally for the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in
Argentina and is in protest of the military men who are considered to be
responsible for the disappearance of their children. Every year there is a
major gathering that takes on a festival like quality. At the lead-up to
the main event, the whole crowd jumps up and down shouting (in Spanish) "if
you're not jumping, you're a military man [i.e. the bad guys]." The
anthropologist and the audience of anthropologists (at the University of
Chicago) all insisted that this collective effervescence was all
encompassing and that everyone present was pulled into the moment of
jumping up and down (and the anthropologist presenting had some wonderful
video of the event in which it did indeed seem that everyone was jumping up
and down). But I couldn't help but ask "what if you are a military man?
Would you be jumping just the same? or would you be cursing these "heathen"
who are (perhaps to your mind) acting like animals?"

Sure, the self-as-object may not be objectified in this moment, for there
is an immediacy to the experience - we (apparently) perceive the world "as
it is," not "as it is *to us*." So, in responding to Gadamer, there is no
need to go back to an overly objectified notion of the self as subject. But
at the same time, that the self-as-subject is consequential in the ordering
of experience, and in making the experience of absorption "immediately"
available in the first place, this is something that should not be left out
lest we imagine that the bourgeois experience of walking into an art
gallery and being "taken in" by the art is an experience that is somehow

All I'm saying here is that it would seem to me that the subject-as-object
matters, more than a little, in the moment of absorption.

Maybe Gadamer has built this somewhere into his structures of meaning and
perhaps I missed it (maybe it was even in the aforementioned text). Happy
to have someone set the record straight.


On Thu, Mar 29, 2012 at 10:43 PM, Larry Purss <lpscholar2@gmail.com> wrote:

> Martin,
> thanks for this link to the International Journal for Dialogical Sciences.
> In the same spirit of exploring the notion of *understanding understanding*
>  I'm sending a link to a scholar [Jean Grondin] who has engaged deeply with
> Gadamer's writings.  It is only an 8 page document but introduces Gadamer's
> ideas in a seriously playful *way*
> http://mapageweb.umontreal.ca/grondinj/pdf/play_festival_ritual_gadam.pdf
> The article is a fascinating interpretation of the centrality of play,
> festival, and ritual in our ways of becoming human.
> Larry
> PS Greg,
> The article also engages with the modern sense of self as preoccupied with
> self-control
> On Sun, Mar 25, 2012 at 10:35 AM, Martin Packer <packer@duq.edu> wrote:
> > Hi Larry,
> >
> > Seems that this may be a helpful resource: The International Journal for
> > Dialogical Science.
> >
> > <http://ijds.lemoyne.edu/>
> >
> > Martin
> >
> > On Mar 25, 2012, at 9:55 AM, Larry Purss wrote:
> >
> > > Martin,
> > > thank you for your last clarification on Reddy's notions of the
> relation
> > of
> > > 2nd person and 3rd person "ways of knowing".  Further on this topic of
> > > "ways of knowing" I want to share a provocative quote from Joel
> > Weinsheimer
> > > in his book *Philosophical Hermeneutics and Literary Theory*.  He is
> > > exploring Gadamer's notion that theory and validity do NOT *contain*
> > > understanding. This quote also may contribute to the discussion of
> > > technology.  Martin, I also remember you recommending that we read
> >  Hayden
> > > White's insights. In the spirit of understanding understanding,   Joel
> is
> > > attempting to highlight Gadamer's distinction between *theory* &
> > > *philosophy*
> > >
> > > Greg,
> > > I'm also sharing this quote because of the theme you were exploring
> about
> > > *the will to power* and the notion of *owning* that seems to be an
> > > archetypal theme.
> > >
> > >
> > > Gadamer's hermeneutic philosophy concludes that what is universal to
> > > interpretation, if there is anythng universal at all, is not a canon of
> > > interpretive REGULATIONS.....
> > > It is, after all, primarily in industry, or more generally in
> technology,
> > > that theories find practical applications.  Even if students of
> > literature
> > > are repulsed by the notion of an interpretation industry, many still
> > > cherish the notion that the IDEAL interpretation is that which is the
> > > product of and is legitimated by applied theory and this suggests that
> > > interpretation ideally consists of CONTROLLED production, of
> subjectively
> > > REGULATED creation.  Insofar as the ery purpose of literary or any
> other
> > > theory is to GOVERN practice, Gadamer is quite right to state, ' Modern
> > > theory is a tool of construction by means of which we gather
> experiences
> > in
> > > a unified way and make it possible to dominate them'.  Offering
> dominion
> > > over literary experience, interpretation CONTROLLED by applied theory
> is
> > a
> > > function of the WILL TO POWER". [page 30]
> > >
> > > Larry
> > >
> > >
> > >
> > >
> > >
> > > "
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Gregory A. Thompson, Ph.D.
Sanford I. Berman Post-Doctoral Scholar
Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition
Department of Communication
University of California, San Diego
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