Saturday, 29 September 2012

Educated Guesswork

There’s a widely held assumption that education involves the assessment of learning. Not so. What teachers assess are the products of study and examination, which they take as evidence of learning. Each and every evaluation of performance is not a measure of learning but of a perception of learning.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Shallows and Depths

In the comments section of my last post, Brian makes a distinction between what he calls shallow and reassuring narratives and deeper more questioning ones. He mentions the work of the German sociologist Theodore Adorno who was highly critical of the Culture Industry (a term Adorno coined with Max Horkheimer in 1944) and its control and dumbing down of mass culture. Brian’s comments, particularly the notion of “reassuring narrative”, touches on some thoughts I’ve been mulling over recently about the nature of fantasy and escapism and whether these are as harmful or unhealthy as is often claimed. Brian’s mention of Adorno reminded me of an essay entitled “Cult of Distraction” by an friend and teacher of Adorno’s: Sigfried Kracauer who in 1926 wrote:

“The bourgeois middle classes… maintain the illusory claim that they are still the guardians of culture and education. Their arrogance, which creates sham oases for itself, keeps the masses down and denigrates their amusement… They claim the status of high art while actually rehearsing anachronistic forms which evade the pressing needs of our time.”

It might be said that these “pressing needs of our time” (then or now) are a wider social phenomena which have little to do with the often far more strongly felt pressing needs of individuals which much culture provokes, feeds, reassures, engages and sometimes even creates (as Adorno and others have noted). Many Marxist thinkers perceived such individualistic ‘needs’ as a distraction (or, in Adorno’s case, a “deception”) and instead urged for an art that would expose the ‘real’ social relations in operation in any given situation and how these function as the actual but otherwise unrecognised cause of discontent at the level of the individual.

But Marxists are not alone in this disavowal of distraction, escapism and fantasy. Freud too believed that fantasy was a form of wish fulfilment. Similarly Piaget interpreted childhood fantasy as a maladaptive pattern that is gradually superseded by more rational logical behaviours. Montessori too advocated ‘real’ play in preference to fantasy play - though, interestingly, her grandson tells of how she read fantasy stories to him at a younger age than she suggested for other children.

The bourgeois denigration of the masses amusement that Kracauer speaks of is as widespread today as it ever was. But in developmental psychology, at least, researchers like Paul L. Harris are beginning to show how childhood fantasy is a fundamental site of rationalisations about cause and effect and even of moral reasoning. In fact it is children who cannot play at make-believe who suffer the most serious developmental difficulties.

But at the adult level the attitude persists that all forms of fantasy and escapism are a frivolous, shallow, meaningless waste of time and are deleterious to insightful thinking (as Adorno claimed) and that the only culture worthy of our attention should be a challenging, thought provoking, critical and self aware one.

Presumably even the deepest thinkers need to take a break from the taxing practice of gazing into the fathomless pool of revelation occasionally. Sometimes a little reassurance is the perfect salve, especially in lives that are otherwise solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. And who is to say that such distractions do not provide other goods than amusement alone – just as fantasy is of benefit to the development of children? And, as a further point of contrast: how numerous I wonder are those unfortunate individuals that, due to their highly educated academic insight, are now unable to fully immerse themselves in the pleasures of fiction or illusion? – though fiction, it seems, is particularly prone to this malady (see here for example). 

“Happiness is the perpetual possession of being well deceived.” -Jonathan Swift 

Or, as Adorno, laying it on thick, put it:

“The phrase, the world wants to be deceived, has become truer than had ever been intended. People are not only, as the saying goes, falling for the swindle; if it guarantees them even the most fleeting gratification they desire a deception which is nonetheless transparent to them. They force their eyes shut and voice approval, in a kind of self-loathing, for what is meted out to them, knowing fully the purpose for which it is manufactured. Without admitting it they sense that their lives would be completely intolerable as soon as they no longer clung to satisfactions which are none at all.” 

Adorno’s essay “Culture Industry Reconsidered”, from which the above is taken, is not wrong by any means, but in his determination to get at the truth, he generalizes, oversimplifies and overstates the case. In fact he does exactly what Nassim Taleb warns of in my last post.

It’s probably evident by now that I’m not at all convinced that fantasy is such a harmful thing as is so often claimed (though it’s probably really just a question of degree) and I’m also not so sure that it is deleterious to insightful thinking either. As Adorno acknowledges:

“It is true that thorough research has not, for the time being, produced an airtight case proving the regressive effects of particular products of the culture industry.” 

Nor has it yet. And this is probably because insight is a two way process between a curious object and an inquiring mind, and curious objects can be found wherever one looks deeply, not just where depth has already been excavated through the insight (or deviousness) of others, whether they be heavyweight thinkers or even self-serving functionaries of the Culture Industry.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Truth and Fiction

"The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship upon them. Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding." -Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2008)

One of the first posts on this blog addressed itself to this problem of narrative (though I was unaware of Taleb’s work at the time). I have since returned to similar territory on a number of occasions (here or here for example) to examine how the form of artworks can sometimes divert attention from other more important considerations or suggest truths where none exist. Indeed, it might be argued that much politics, religion and such so called "scientific" explanations as psychoanalysis are examples of this tendency to "bind facts together" in plausible but ultimately questionable form.

Whilst I still hold with this view, I think it’s important nonetheless to acknowledge that artworks represent a special case, since narrative - or more broadly meaning - is in many ways fundamental to the understanding of art. Without an “impression of understanding” we are left with nothing but sensations and whilst these may be pleasurable in themselves they do not constitute the kind of significances that we could call meaning. But where artworks are concerned, this meaning need not be "true", it need only cohere sufficiently for significance to be perceived.

Where the “impression of understanding” is increased in relation to artworks there can be little that is explicitly “wrong”, at least in the sense that Taleb intends. And this is because artworks do not lend themselves towards the kind of totalising certainty that constitutes a singular "true" interpretation". Artworks and the ‘work’ of interpretation itself admit of multiple perspectives and whilst it is the case that some interpretations are better than others, the aim of interpretation is rarely, if ever, to arrive at definitive truth:

“Images are not the kinds of things that reduce to singular meanings, and informed interpreters of images are not the kind of responding individuals who are looking for simple, single meanings. […] Good interpretations inspire other interpretations and engender further discourse.” Terry Barrett

Artworks encourage a plurality of interpretations, and the suspension of disbelief - which is perhaps where the principal difficulty (or “propensity” as Taleb calls it) lies. If we were unable or unwilling to immerse ourselves in such fictional encounters then the experience of much art would be extremely dreary, to say the least. Fictions simply collapse if we ask too much of them in terms of plausibility or truth. Images are simulations after all and one of the wonders of the imagination is that it thrives on scant input, indeed it seems to be largely evolved to generate the impression of completeness where there exists only the most fragmentary or nebulous information.

So, whilst this propensity to believe certain forms of information may be a disadvantage for the identification of truths, it is nonetheless a distinct advantage for the consumption of fictions – in fact, such pleasures may be impossible without it.