I found out about this bit of Cavell from the philosopher of art Daniel Wack.
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. 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. 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. ---------------------------------------------