Monday, July 19, 2021

The Philosophy of Art is the Philosophy of Technology

Guest post by C. Thi Nguyen

People keep asking me why I work in both the philosophy of art and social epistemology. I guess it must seem like an especially weird stew. But for me, they’re intellectual soulmates. Social epistemology studies how we work together to understand things — how we pass information around and intellectually collaborate. And art is one of our most important techniques for communication and connection. It is a key method for recording subtle emotions, complex perspectives, and rich ways of seeing the world.

[image from the video game Braid {source}]

Most importantly: the philosophy of art — at least my favorite parts of it — is deeply concerned with the technology of communication. My favorite aesthetics stuff is obsessed with the tiny details how each medium has its own particular communicative strengths and weaknesses. It’s obsessed with the deep difference between photography and painting, between comics and film, between movies and video games. It’s interested in how tiny shifts in the technical medium can open the door to vastly different expressive potentials and social patterns. Oil paints, photography, film, sound recording technology, video games — each of these involves some new technology which yields new expressive potentials. Seen from a certain angle, the history of art is a history of technological shifts and their social impact. It’s the history of artists, and artistic communities, mining every new technology for some fresh communicative potential.

And sometimes these medium shifts are quite subtle. Here’s one of my favorite examples: Stanley Cavell thinks that the medium of film changed essentially in the sixties.[1] Before the mid-sixties, you didn’t go to a movie; you went to the movies. As in: there were no published schedules of movie times. You went to the theater, paid an entrance fee, and just sat down and watched whatever was showing, for as long as you wanted. So filmmakers were making films catering to that viewing environment: people walking in the door and watching whatever was playing.

But in the mid-sixties, movie theaters started publishing specific showing times for specific films, and people started showing up for specific films. According to Cavell, this apparently tiny social shift essentially changes the relationship between filmmaker and audience. Because an audience member can now think of themselves as being interested in a particular kind of movie — action, horror, Westerns, art-house. And filmmakers can start making films, not for a generic audience, but for an audience of self-conceived fans of a particular genre. So the publishing of film schedules splinters the film-going and film-making world into channels and sub-communities. Cavell thinks that this constitutes a deep change in the core artistic medium of film itself.

This observation teaches us a few things. First: what’s most important about a medium for communication often isn’t in the raw material at the center, but in its social embeddedness. Much of what is crucial to the medium of film isn’t just in the images and sounds — it’s in the social process of theater-going. It’s in the fact that showtimes are, or aren’t, published in the newspaper. Second: tiny changes in the medium can have enormous social repercussions and shift the whole pattern of how people relate to an artform.

In the social epistemology world, I’ve been working a lot on the technology of communication — like about how social media structures the motivation of its users. As I’ve been working my way through these projects, I keep looking to traditional philosophical work on epistemology and finding it mostly unhelpful. But I keep finding bits of aesthetics and the philosophy of art incredibly useful, in a thousand unexpected ways. My theory, now, is that philosophical epistemology has mostly tended to think about communication in a vacuum. Philosophical work on the nature of testimony, for example, largely tends to seek invariant and universal conditions for the transmission of knowledge. It’s looking at underlying similarities between different communicative modes. That kind of approach is certainly useful for all sorts of projects. But if you’re trying to understand the impact of specific technologies of communication, then the universalizing tendency will lead you away from the grit and texture and particularity of different communicative mediums.

The philosophy of art, on the other hand, is obsessed with grit and texture and specificity. Traditional epistemology, as I was brought up to do it, de-materializes communication, ripping it from its social and technological context. But the philosophy of art is obsessed with the material nature of communication, and the impact of the specific details of different social practices of communication. It cares about the specific way that photographs transmit information, as opposed to paintings. It cares about the communicative difference between a secured painting in a museum and a piece of street art that’s out there in the public, vulnerable to modification by any passer-by. The philosophy of art cares about how a dancer and a non-dancer have deeply different experiences when watching a dance. It cares about how the concrete physicality of monuments changes their meaning — and about how the context of display shapes that meaning.

I spent some of last month writing something about the impact of Twitter’s length constraint — about how enforced shortness shapes how people connect on that platform. I couldn’t find anything in the philosophical literature on testimony that helped me grapple with the impact of enforced brevity. But what I did find incredibly useful was Ted Cohen’s beautiful little book on the aesthetics of jokes. Cohen’s theory is that the shortness of jokes evokes intimacy between joke-teller and joke-hearer, because the hearer must fill in all the information that can’t fit in the joke. And that thought unlocked, for me, the peculiar magical — and dangerous — feel of Twitter.

In retrospect, this should have been entirely unsurprising. Because where are you going to kind really deep thinking about what it means to communicate under extreme limitations of shortness? And where will you find studies of what happens when speakers try to actually embrace that shortness, to turn it from a limitation into a virtue? It won’t be in some abstract theory about testimony. It’ll be in the work of people who have spent an enormous time thinking about jokes, or haiku, or sonnets. It’ll be in the art critics, the art historians, and the philosophers of art, where people think obsessively about how the specific details of peculiar formats and media and social context shape the nature of communication.


[1] I found out about this bit of Cavell from the philosopher of art Daniel Wack.


Carl M. Johnson said...

This is very interesting. At the risk of self-promotion, I wrote a dissertation on aesthetics as a social phenomenon interpreted through the work of Watsuji Tetsuro. It’s online at carlmjohnson dot net (hopefully that gets through the spam filter). I’d be interested to hear if you think his Confucian-Buddhist-Existentialist bears on what you’re getting at.

Carl M. Johnson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

This is cool and seems absolutely right to me. As an outsider to aesthetics, though, I was surprised to see this emphasis on the intrinsic differences of difference art media, since my un-updated understanding had been that most aesthetics people didn't believe in medium-specificity, especially in the wake of Noel Carroll's various attacks on it (most recently here - ). I think Carroll's arguments are absurd, but it was my understanding that they were pretty mainstream and dominant.
So I'd love to know what other recent books and articles have offered active defenses of medium-specificity in general.
Thanks for the post.

chinaphil said...

The point about jokes is very good. I'm a translator, and sometimes translate poetry, which often functions in a way somewhat similar to jokes, in that what isn't said is just as crucial to the working of the poem as what is said. So I have to juggle this all the time: first you have to work out what the target audience in the source language knows, what knowledge they bring to the poem when they understand it, and how that reader-supplied knowledge interacts with what's there to produce the final effect. Then you have to make some attempt to reacreate that same dynamic in the target language.
I'm also reminded of something that I saw expressed most pithily by Tyler Cowen: something like, asking people for favours makes them like you. In the same way, asking the listener/reader to do more work (or supply more unspoken knowledge) draws them closer to you. I'm not yet sure if these two things are really the same.

Sean D. Kelly said...

I really enjoyed this post, Thi - thanks for putting it up! We haven't met, I don't believe, but I've heard great things about your work and I find your observations here really interesting. I'm particularly struck by three overlapping themes - about jokes, brevity, and the importance of aesthetic media. A quick comment about each.

1. Kierkegaard has some interesting things to say about the philosophical importance of jokes (as well as, of course, of irony). These are spread pretty widely throughout his works, but Eric Kaplan did a terrific job in his dissertation at sussing them out and discussing them in interesting ways. The dissertation is called "Kierkegaard and the Funny." It's not published, but is worth tracking down. Eric S. or I could probably put you in touch.

2. I know there is, as you say, a fair amount of work in aesthetics and the philosophy of art about the relevance of the aesthetic medium. I don't know, however, whether any of it discusses in any interesting way what Heidegger has to say about this issue. If there is nothing good on this topic, I'd love to know what you think about the parts of "The Origin of the Work of Art" that discuss the "earthly" aspects of the work of art. Or especially about how to understand the claim that the essence of a work of art is the "struggle between earth and world." If there is any good discussion of this in the aesthetics literature already, I'd love to be directed towards it!

3. I find the issue of brevity fascinating. I agree that the Cohen book on jokes is great, though I didn't remember that particular point about brevity creating intimacy. Definitely worth thinking about. I wonder if there is any interesting discussion though, either in aesthetics or in literary theory, about the power of the "Six word story." You probably know the famous, but apparently apocryphal, story of Hemingway's bet at The Algonquin one afternoon in the 1920s, that he could write "a novel in six words." The famous result - "For sale, Baby shoes, Never worn" - is a go-to example for writers about the power of brevity. But I wonder if any theory has accrued to that example. (See here [] for a discussion of the history of the story.)

Anyhow, thanks again for your thoughts!


Carl M. Johnson said...

FWIW, I have a brief discussion of Heidegger and Origin of the Work of Art in my dissertation §5.II.E "Context-centric theories".