Friday, January 13, 2006

An annoying contradiction

This is my last semester of school. Please pray that I don't get sick, miss a test, and don't graduate.

Anyway, I went to my English class yesterday morning for the first time. I can tell already that I'm not going to like this class. It turns out that the whole class is about interpreting hopelessly ambiguous literature. We read a really short story by Hemmingway. It was something about white elephant hills, I believe. I find this sort of thing annoying.

Here's why I find it annoying. Usually in this kind of literature, there's a point. There's a message the author wants to get across. Whether fiction, poetry, or philosophy, these people have a point of view they hope to communicate to their readers. It isn't just meaningless entertainment.

But the grand contradiction is that these people intentionally write ambiguously. They conceal their point of view, obscure their message, and leave as much room for speculation and misinterpretation as possible. What sense does that make? I remember complaining to a friend once that Nietzsche was like that, and he defended Nietzsche by saying something like, "Oh, you just have to appreciate aesthetic writing." Well I don't understand aesthetic writing. That's one of the things that annoys me about postmodern philosophers, too. They are intentionally ambiguous. What's the purpose of writing philosophy unless you intend to convey a point of view to your audience?

It seems to me that if you have a point of view you want to get across, you should articulate it as clearly as possible to give it the greatest chance of being understood. I don't understand why people write literature with a message they obscure intentionally. And my English teacher said one of the goals of the class is to teach us to communicate clearly. Isn't that ironic? She's going to teach us to communicate clearly by having us read literature that is intentionally unclear!


At 1/13/2006 7:17 AM , Blogger daleliop said...

From the apple that mysteriously struck Newton's head, the confounding truths of the universe are enveloped inside the seeds of rhetoric, which blossom beautifully into trees of knowledge. But are we not like the Adam and Eves of before, gazing ever gently upon its tempting fruit -- its whispers begging us to free it from its desolate, hungry world -- alas, in a haunting rasper from the days of old King Midas, our world has become ever fragile, orphaned by its creator, lost without the words of tomorrow, left only with the gold-plated convolutions of today...

At 1/13/2006 8:48 AM , Blogger Steve said...

I think the basic idea of aesthetic writing and other things is that their POINT is that they don't have a point in the traditional sense. As you suggested, they are INTENTIONALLY writing ambiguously, which I think that clearly implies there is a point of view they are trying to get across.

At 1/13/2006 9:02 AM , Blogger daleliop said...

what was that?

At 1/13/2006 9:28 AM , Blogger Jeff said...

You're going to learn to clearly communicate ambiguity!

OK, here's a stab. Perhaps in these cases the author intended ambiguity because he was hoping to play the game of sparking people's imaginations in the act of conjecture. He's playing with his readers.

Or, perhaps his goal is simply to use language in a way that the words themselves are a form of art. Rythm in the words for instance.

But I'm like you so I fully understand your consternation.

At 1/13/2006 9:59 AM , Blogger Steve said...

Yeah I definitely think modern art and other ideas are meant to deal with ideas other than traditional views of art and writing.

For example, a lot of modern art deals with the idea of "form" and what constitutes an "idea" whats "new" and whats not. I recall one piece at the Museum of Contemporary Art in LA that sparked my attention - it was a postcard of the Mona Lisa with a mustache drawn on it. Most people passed by and wondered if this wasn't simply plagerism or profitting off the real artists - but art critics saw the painter saying something else - he was actually CHALLENGING the idea that a replecation was art in and of itself, and that his small change - was it enough to make it "new"? These questions were intentional from the authors perspective, even if most people saw nothing more than a postcard with a moustache.

In terms of writing I think you have some of the same elements - philosophers playing with ideas, what constitutes certain elements of their idea and challenging existing views.

See, my problem with dismissing this writing would be the same as dismissing a Haiku poem for being too short. Poetry, writing, art - you cannot view it as being so simple as having an argument, and a conclusion. The argument can sometimes be, there is no argument. And any refutation you make to that idea (such as its all relative) is perhaps part of the value of such writing - it makes you think.

At 1/13/2006 10:23 AM , Blogger daleliop said...

Profitting off the real artists? The Leonardo Da Vinci foundation must be in fits.

At 1/14/2006 5:20 PM , Blogger Steve said...

I found the piece. It's Duchamp's Mona Lisa

Your distress at the author profiting off of the piece is intentional! Moreover, so is your desire to not call it art - because I think the artist is actually saying its not art.

But crypitcally, because it inspires us to think and to re-examine what constitutes art, it may in fact BE art. Art is not an image, nor is writing mere words - it is thought! That which inspires us to think, constitutes good art and good writing.

At 1/16/2006 4:06 PM , Blogger Paul said...

I thought philosophy was for thinking. If art is too, then who's covering the aesthetic stuff? Maybe part of the problem is the rejection of the idea of objective beauty, so what's left then: statements.

Maybe another part of the problem is that the ideas being expressed are not really all that deep or palatable, so obfuscating it is a form of cover. You can ohh and ahh, and scratch your head for hours over it, when all it might say is "life is meaningless." One reason why C.S. Lewis is so revered is because he had a way of relaying very deep ideas in very simple terms (while also managing to be eloquent).

I also find that liberal academics and artists strive to impress their peers more than they enjoy profits and public appreciation. For this reason, the meaning is not so much of concern (they are preaching to the choir); it is the uniqueness of the presentation that is point of focus. And if the presentation is meant to be consistent with the underlying philosophy, then it only follows that some of the pomo art we've seen recently incorporates dung and urine.

At 1/16/2006 6:28 PM , Blogger Steve said...

well first, beauty IS subjective - Im sure your taste is much different from Dales or Sams or my own - a quick look at any of our apartments/homes should prove that. Saying that a piece of art is not "aesthetic" is an opinion and not a fact. Objective beauty may fuel the plastic surgery industry, but I think people of all shapes and colors and beautiful - at least to God.

Whether we see that beauty is a question of how open our minds are.

You made a reference to a piece of art which defiles something religious. I agree that it is disturbing (that is probably the point), but therein lies the idea behind free expression - by pushing the limits of taste, the artist ensures the survival of artistic freedom. If we do not exersize our rights, they may not in the end exist at all.

At 1/16/2006 6:53 PM , Blogger Paul said...

So, Steve, how many people do you know who think a rainbow or sunset is hideous, or think a steaming pile of dung is lovely? And any who vary from the norm here may need to have their mental health examined.

There is certainly room for subjectivity within categories (Tom prefers blondes, Ed prefers brunettes), but I don't think relativism is warranted by the kind of loaded examples that are usually employed on this issue.

At 1/16/2006 7:00 PM , Blogger Steve said...

maybe a person's father was killed when they was a rainbow and everytime they see it they attribute it to bad things, and perhaps during a war a person hid in a maneur pasture to avoid detection by German soldiers and now associates it with safety.

The idea that everyone should just instinctively understand that these things "are just plain pretty" is rather presumptuous!

And I think you need to elaborate on "catagories" isn't everything in a catagory? Realistic art, Expressionist, Post Modern, etc? Aren't these all catagories, and isn't everything a catagory within a catagory, assuming its in fact unique?

At 1/16/2006 7:16 PM , Blogger Paul said...

Steve, you've made my case for me. To deny our intuitions about beauty you have to have some environmental override. For example, my wife's grandmother did not like roses because she came to associate the smell with funerals. If she had no such negative association, then she would be free to experience what almost every other soul experiences.

As to categories, I only meant that we could break something like a healthy human being vs. those with deformities (e.g., the elephant man) into categories. You can then find people who have different subjective preferences within a category considered aesthetically appealing. For example, you and I could watch the Miss America pageant and agree that all the contestants were "attractive," but you and I would likely each pick a different one as a "knockout."

And, in fact, we might discover that the reason everyone doesn't think this or that model to be the "best" is because of life experiences that cause us all to have different "tastes." I would propose that our confusion over the matter of objectivity here (and other areas) may simply be a matter of psychological and worldview differences. In any case, we all have a sense of beauty and ugly, and that suggests they are objective categories. What sense does it then make to have such ideas without something to satisfy them?

At 1/16/2006 7:17 PM , Blogger Paul said...

Sam, I would encourage you to check this fellow out:

He is a very interesting ex-Christian who is well schooled in Christianity (and, apparently apologetics), and has embraced atheism. He's just started blogging and has lain out some of his position and objections. A lot can be dealt with at a purely philosophical level I think.

At 1/16/2006 8:56 PM , Blogger Steve said...

If you believe in God, how can you say that a person afflicted with Elphant Man disease is deformed? Isn't he the way God intended him to be, and isn't that beautiful enough?

At 1/16/2006 8:57 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

One reason why C.S. Lewis is so revered is because he had a way of relaying very deep ideas in very simple terms (while also managing to be eloquent).

That's why I love C.S. Lewis. Now there's a guy who knows how to articulate his ideas clearly. I try to be like him when I write.

Thanks for the link, Paul. That is bound to stir the noodle. I've been in a bit of a slump lately. I haven't been that motivated to think, study, debate, or anything like that. Maybe this is just what I need.


At 1/17/2006 12:37 PM , Blogger Paul said...

Steve, yes I have a high view of God's sovereignty, so I believe that there was a purpose in the plight of John Merrick. However, this does not mean that he was "beautiful" in the conventional sense of that word, otherwise we would not say, "Poor John" and see him in need of our mercies. If John was "beautiful," then we might expect him to be "deformed" in heaven as well (assuming he will be there), rather than his "corruption putting on incorruption." John's body was not in the form of a well and functional human, which it is intrinsically good and beautiful to be, so we can say that it is ugly in that sense. However, we can certainly say that his person (or soul) is intrinsically good, and the "good" is in a certain sense "beautiful," just as God's plans are good and thus beautiful. But we should not equivocate the concept of "beauty" in its different applications.

At 1/17/2006 4:55 PM , Blogger Steve said...

so basically, God created him ugly here but when he dies he'll fix him? No matter how you slice it Paul, God doesn't make a mistake (according to the Bible), he intended everyone to be as they are, which means they are beautiful as they are. And in case you've thought otherwise, read John Chapter 7, verse 24

"Do not judge according to external appearance, but judge with proper judgment"

At 1/18/2006 9:47 AM , Blogger Jeff said...

Steve, you are trying to create a philosophical problem where one doesn't exist.

Paul admitted the point you try to make with that verse.

At 1/18/2006 2:34 PM , Blogger daleliop said...

God doesn't make a mistake but God also can't control everything. Even if things are a certain way, that doesn't mean God intended it to be that way. If I rob a bank that doesn't mean He wanted me to do it; He just couldn't stop me from doing it.

And if he does intend something 'bad' to happen, that doesn't mean he doesn't intend to also fix that thing at a later time, or that he didn't have a good reason for it. This includes Elephant Man, who has made a noticeable impact on this world (look, we're still talking about him).

At 1/18/2006 2:49 PM , Blogger Jeff said...

Dale brings up a perspective that differs from mine. This is a theological argument between various Christians.

Steve will probably counter that an ominipotent, omniscient God is absolutely inconsistent with the statement that "God can't control everything". To which I would agree.

At 1/18/2006 7:53 PM , Blogger Steve said...

Jeff - I agree that God is omnipresent. But I dont think Paul discussed this verse, which specifically says you should not judge a person based on physical appearance. Thats not the same thing as "your soul is pretty, but your face looks like a donkey"

I dont think this creates a Philosophical problem, to not judge people based on their appearance - where does this create a problem? Im referring to the downward looking attitude of some people towards others whom they dont consider beautiful.

Christianity is and should be a faith that views humanity as perfect just the way it is, not flawed or skewed in any way from some archetypal norm.

At 1/19/2006 1:31 AM , Blogger andrew said...

Sometimes good writing is not just about communicating a point but about stirring the pot, opening up new possibilities, encouraging the reader to think for themselves or simply igniting the imagination.

At 1/19/2006 3:14 AM , Blogger daleliop said...

an ominipotent, omniscient God is absolutely inconsistent with the statement that "God can't control everything".

And an omnibenevolent God, then?

The purported solution to the Problem of Evil is that God can not control the wills of free creatures because that would entail a logical contradiction. But if God really does have control over everything, then this makes the solution invalid. How, then would you reconcile God's goodness with evil in the world if you say that God truly controls everything that goes on, including that evil?

At 1/19/2006 4:07 AM , Blogger Steve said...

I agree with that this presents a contradiction, and hence, my belief system. I dont believe if God exists there is free-will, assuming of course you believe that God knows the outcome of any situation before it occurs (omniscient). If there does exist true free will, then God isn't really all powerful , and cannot completely control the universe nor can he know the outcome of every situation (which would imply we have no control in the situation and hence aren't responsible).

At 1/19/2006 1:49 PM , Blogger Jeff said...

Steve, I think you are correct and that's why I and many theologians throw out the free-will theodicies.

The one I like is here: A New Perspective on the Problem of Evil" (note this site was down when I posted the link...hopefully it comes back up).

At 1/19/2006 6:02 PM , Blogger Paul said...

I've got too many irons in the fire to start down this very long and interesting road (on the problem of evil and free will).

Steve, to begin with the John 7:24 verse is not even dealing with the problem of physical appearance; it is dealing with the problem of the Jewish leadership mistaking the letter of the law (and misapplying it) for the spirit of the law. But even if it were, it seems to demand that there is a dichotomy between the outward appearance and something else. It seems to be suggesting that there could be something wrong with the outward that would cause one to mistakenly devalue some sort of true worth, otherwise there would be no admonition to be wary of the outward.

Again, I would make the case that there is a difference between aesthetic beauty and the worth/goodness/value of something. I think you are equivocating the meaning here. Something can be ugly, like a trash can, but be useful — two different things. Or something could be beautiful, like a supermodel, but be shallow and petty. You might think Paris Hilton is attractive, but you might call her behavior "ugly." This may be a culturally meaningful way to use the word, but it crosses categories in reality.

At 1/19/2006 6:25 PM , Blogger Paul said...

Something interesting and relevant I just came across:
Pisteuo: Justin Jenkins' Weblog: Once Again It's Time for "What Art is Not"


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