Prescriptive Art

24 04 2011

Prescriptivism is a new art movement that embodies the notion that art can not only act as a mirror giving us a critical view of the world as it is, but can act as a window through to a better world.

Under the near ubiquitous influence of postmodernism, art has become largely critical. For the past several decades contemporary art has implicitly sought to challenge objectivity and encourage us to reflect on the way we subjectively project meaning on to the world. Furthermore, it  has sought to reveal the forces that shape the way we see the world, challenging us to divorce ourselves from the powers that be which seek to steer our worldview to their ends.

Critical art is descriptive: it seeks to hold up a mirror to ourselves and the world, revealing the way they really are – and ultimately presenting a sceptical argument stressing there is no way they really are.

One of the main tools of critical art is subversion. It seeks to disrupt our ways of seeing, and make us aware of the way we invest objects and scenes with meaning. It challenges us to question the way we construct reality.

Critical art is important, but it is not the only role that art can play. Art can also be prescriptive. Art – as it was not so long ago in our history – can be a window through to a better world.

Prescriptive art seeks to open that window, to open our imaginations to the way the world isn’t, but as it could be; the way the world should be.

Prescriptive art is not wedded to postmodernism. It is not implicitly sceptical of reality or of perception. Yet it isn’t naive about objectivity or the difficulty or even impossibility of seeing the world as it really is. Prescriptive art is an orthogonal movement to postmodernism, and one which is both challenging to the postmodern critical paradigm and complementary to it.

Postmodernism reveals the world in an unflattering light, demanding that it should be changed, yet offering no alternative world in its place. Prescriptive art explores the bounds of the alternatives and encourages us to think actively about how we would shape the world to conform to how we believe it should be.

Prescriptive art is inherently optimistic, but not naively so. It acknowledges the difficulty and risks involved with change. But it insists that if change is to happen, we need to employ our imagination in order to direct that change.

If you wish to engage with prescriptive art, follow this simple maxim: paint* the world as it should be.

*By “paint” is intended any form of artistic practice or expression.

Reality and its Depictions

12 04 2011

It’s of interest to me that film makers, largely of the Hollywood persuasion, are inclined to modify reality in order to conform to our expectations of reality rather than, well, real reality.

In the pseudo-reality of the blockbuster grenades disgorge great plumes of flame and cause provocateurs to hurtle through the air, slowly. In reality grenades evince a short, sharp BANG and emit a cloud of smoke along with supersonic compression wave that crushes rather than pushes. And that’s not to mention the shrapnel. They rarely produce flame, nor drama. Only noise and tragedy.

What’s interesting about this is that if a blockbuster offered an accurate representation of a grenade, the audience would quite likely be thrown into confusion, jolting them out of the fantasy. “What was the puff and bang? It couldn’t have been a grenade.”

You can almost hear the effects department advising the director: “Grenades don’t look like grenades on film. You gotta use pyrotechnics.”

And it’s not just that fireballs are more dramatic than real grenade explosions. I fully appreciate artistic licence. But artistic license is intended to remove the undramatic elements of reality and replace them with dramatic alternatives. However, grenades are, in my opinion, intrinsically dramatic, at least as dramatic as a fireball. It’s just that puff-and-bang is not what people expect when a grenade goes off on screen. They do expect a fireball.

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The Poverty of Postmodernism

31 03 2011

You may not realise it, but you’ve probably been poisoned by postmodernism. No-one who lived through the 1970s would have escaped untainted. And just about anyone who underwent schooling or a university education in the 1980s or 1990s received a crippling dose. I was entirely oblivious to my own indoctrination during my undergraduate in the early ‘90s until only a few years ago.

You can blame postmodernism for the banalities of political correctness.

You can blame it for making contemporary art ugly and incomprehensible.

You can blame it for moral relativism, and the inability to criticise individuals from other cultures when they do plainly heinous things.

You can blame it for rampant individualism and greed.

You can also blame it for words like ‘deconstruction,’ ‘hermeneutics,’ and my favourite, ‘subversion.’ You can even blame it for the identity crisis afflicting the political Left.

The good news is that postmodernism is philosophically defunct. Deep exhale. We can all let it go now. Let it sink to the bottom of the Swamp of Bankrupt Ideas. And we can move on to firmer conceptual territory, in doing so discovering the world is, in fact, more (and less) explicable than we probably think, and intractable problems – like multiculturalism, for one – are more solvable than we realise.

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The Revolution is Dead (For Now)

15 03 2011

There aren’t any revolutionaries any more. The closest contemporary figure I can muster from the cloudy reaches of my imagination who might qualify as a revolutionary is Julian Assange. Certainly he’s an original thinker, far more so than most people these days.

But even Assange’s revolution is incremental, if profound. He a seeks to change the landscape of democracy without necessarily wiping the slate clean entirely. His is not a prescriptive vision of a better world, but a solution to the ills of this one, underpinned by a conviction about the particular nature of corruption – or, as he calls it, ‘conspiracy.’

So where are the true revolutionaries? Where are the visionaries with a compelling view of a better world, one for which we ought to fight to bring into reality? Who’s thinking beyond the contingencies of this world to the possibilities of the next?

There was a time, not so long ago, when revolution was in common parlance and bold visions of a new world were talked about openly, debated, fought over and striven for. Only 40 years ago there was talk of building nothing less than a new civilisation.

What happened?

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Can There Be a Science of Morality?

21 10 2010

Can we have a science of morality? This question has been thrown around quite a bit of late, especially fuelled by the spirited ejaculations of one Sam Harris. Harris firmly believes there are no barriers to a science of human values, but I fear things aren’t that simple, and I’m not alone in this concern.

Sam Harris

While a ‘science of morality’ is a laudable notion in a loose sense, such a science would, by necessity, look nothing like what Harris has in mind. Harris is seeking not only a science of morality, but a science of human values. He wants a “universal conception of human values” that can be checked, verified and proven using the tools of empirical science.

But that’s just not going to work. Science doesn’t do that kind of thing. At least not without assistance from other disciplines, like philosophy. And if we try to force science alone into providing us with values, there is no shortage of traps that will inevitably spring up.

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Cartography, Pragmatism and the Liberation of Metaphysics

14 06 2010

All maps are lies. That’s one of the first lessons of cartography, particularly when it comes to the problematic task of representing our 3-D world on a 2-D plane. It just can’t be done. At least, not without some distortion. Yet, even in the face of this necessary distortion, and in the absence of the ‘perfect’ map projection, cartography lives on. Why? Because maps are useful.

I think this is a notion that could lead to a ‘liberation’ of metaphysics, and its daughter disciplines of epistemology and ontology.

To explain why, we need to venture briefly into the world of map projections. Our planet is a globe. Or an oblate spheroid, if you want to be more precise. A world map is typically a 2-D plane. There is, as a matter of fact, no way to represent an oblate spheroid on a 2-D plane in such a way that it doesn’t distort some feature of the original globe.

Mercator projection

This is where map projections come in. The one you may be most familiar with is the Mercator projection. It was developed by Flemish cartographer, Gerardus Mercator, in the mid-16th century, and (obscenely) is still used in schools and travel agencies – not to mention popular representations of the world – to this day.

This is despite the fact that the Mercator projection made a monumental sacrifice – i.e. correctly representing the true relative sizes of continents – in order to preserve ‘constant bearing’. This means that you can draw a straight line between any two points on a Mercator map and derive a bearing that will allow you to easily navigate to that destination – a useful feature for ships exploring the world during the Age of Discovery – but the picture of the world that it offers is grossly distorted as a result.

This is further hampered by the tendency to ‘trim’ Antarctica from the bottom, nudging the equator two-thirds of the way down the map (it runs just under the western ‘bump’ in Africa). The result is that Greenland looks absurdly huge, while ‘diminutive’ Australia is tucked into the bottom corner. In reality, Australia has an area three and a half times that of Greenland, and Sydney, for example, is actually at a similar latitude to Morocco rather than Reykjavík, as it appears.

This makes it great for navigating, but dreadful as a tool for giving us an appreciation for the size and shape of continents. (As such, I strongly recommend that you dispose of all Mercators in your possession – unless used for historical reference – and protest at its use as the default representation of the world. I do in public, frequently, much to my friends’ distress. But some things are more important than dignified behaviour.)

Goode Homolosine

Thankfully, cartographers are well aware of the shortcomings of the Mercator as a general representation of the globe, and there is a flourishing industry in producing new projections of the world that are less obtuse. There are hundreds of alternative projections, from the Peter’s projection (equal area, but distorts shape and bearing), Goode homolosine (equal area, but interrupted), to the Robinson projection (an appealing compromise developed by National Geographic in the 1960s), to the spectacularly named Winkel Tripel (another compromise projection currently endorsed by National Geographic) and many, many more.

You can play around with them, or roll your own, with a brilliant piece of freeware called Flex Projector. My favourite (this week) is a synthesis of the rectangular Equidistant Cylindrical (Plate Carrée) and Sinusoidal (Sanson-Flamsteed). While fiddling with the various knobs and sliders, you’ll soon notice that no matter how hard you try, it’s just not possible to create a projection that doesn’t harbour some compromise somewhere. That’s to be expected.

In fact, one the the main jobs of cartographers is to pick the most suitable projection for your purpose. Need to sail from point A to point B (without GPS)? Perhaps a constant bearing map, like a Mercator, is the most appropriate. Want to see the correct relative sizes of continents? An equal-area projection is what you need. Maybe you need something that simply shows all continents in a reasonably realistic and aesthetically pleasing way. Go for a projection with gently curving meridians, like the Robinson. And so on. But remember, there is no ‘perfect’ map projection of our world.

Now, on to metaphysics.

The world-as-it-is – the ‘objective’, ‘noumenal’, ‘concrete’ world, whatever you want to call it – is our 3-D globe. The world-as-it-appears – the ‘subjective’, ‘phenomenal’, ‘abstract’ world etc – is the map projection.

As such, the pursuit of a ‘perfect’ systematised, abstract, propositional representation of the world is folly. But that doesn’t mean we should abandon all hope of understanding, or representing, the world-as-it-is.

Robinson projection

Making the concrete world intelligible inevitably requires us to enforce distinctions, to carve things up into x and not-x, to abstract away particulars, leaving us with generalisations. Doing so inevitably results in us shedding some of the unique detail that is fundamental to the concrete world. It flattens the spheroid.

Yet metaphysics and epistemology still strive to find the abstraction that best represents the world – or that is the ‘perfect’ representation of the world. The failure of metaphysics and epistemology to achieve this goal lends evidence to the notion that, like making the ‘perfect’ map projection, it just can’t be done.

However, this doesn’t necessarily lead us to a skeptical conclusion. This is because there’s a difference between ‘distortion’ and ‘error’. An erroneous map projection would seek to represent some aspect of the world in some way, and fail to do so. Placing Australia in the northern hemisphere, for example, would be an error. But ‘distorting’ Australia’s shape in order to preserve constant bearing is different. Providing supernatural explanations of natural phenomena is an error. Employing the empirical method to infer laws of nature that can be used to predict future phenomena is a distortion.

While we may never have an intelligible metaphysics without distortion, that doesn’t mean all metaphysical systems will be in error.

And we choose which distortion we’ll live with depending on the purpose we have on hand, like in cartography; the Mercator is good for navigating, bad for representing the relative size of continents.

I take this to be my (roundabout) definition of metaphysical pragmatism. It’s an approach that is non-skeptical, but acknowledges our inability to perfectly represent the world in an abstract system. Yet it also acknowledges the use of skilfully applied distortions – such as by carving the world into forms, or x and not-x – in order to achieve some practical end.

Moreover, it rejects the claim that the world-as-it-is, the ‘objective’ world, is somehow fundamentally separated from the world-as-it-appears, the ‘subjective’ world. Instead it sees the subjective as being a part of the objective. We are in-and-of, the world, not external observers to it. The subjective is just one projection, but it’s a projection of the objective world.

That is what I call the pragmatic liberation of metaphysics through cartography.

American History Through the Conservative Lens

4 04 2010

Noted American Historian, Eric Foner – noted as much for his scholarship as for his vilification by radical conservatives – has written a wonderful analysis of the new social studies curriculum recently approved by the Texas Board of Education. Foner leans left himself, but he’s an esteemed historian and expert on American history, unlike the members of the Board of Education.

Eric Foner

His summary of the new curriculum shows it as being an exemplar of the conservative world view. It stresses the values of individual enterprise, self discipline, group conformity, religious obedience, in-group favouritism; and explicitly dodges issues of racism, secularisation, criticisms of capitalism and any values that promote communitarianism, pluralism of values or multiculturalism.

While I acknowledge the value of some aspects of conservatism and I’m critical of some aspects of (particularly post-modern) liberalism, the history class is not the place to have these issues fight their battle – not that there’s even a fight going on here now the Board has had its say along party lines.

History is a tricky subject to arbitrate; there’s arguably an infinite amount that can be said of history, not just covering the facts of events but interpreting their significance. But the crucial aspect is to provide the facts about historical events in as impartial a way as possible while acknowledging the various frames and influences on the interpretation of these historical events and then to engage in debate over the significance and the lessons learned. Neither should we be viewing history through the lens of conservatism as we should through the lens of radical liberalism.

He Said, She Said: Gender and Pronouns in Academic Papers

13 10 2009

The Feminist Philosophers blog has an interesting post on gender discrimination in philosophy. It raises some important issues and, helpfully, cites some empirical research to support its points. This kind of stuff is crucial for philosophers – and academics of all stripes – to keep in mind. No-one likes being told they’re biased; better to detect and deal with your own biases on your own terms.

man-womanHowever, one aspect that isn’t mentioned in that piece is the use of personal pronouns in academic papers. It has become the fashion over the past couple of decades to frown on the exclusive use of “he” in academic papers. However, it’s not that “she” has replaced “he” in its entirety. Instead, we now have an interesting, and complex, mix.

To see what that mix might look like, I conducted an entirely unscientific experiment on my own repository of over 200 downloaded academic papers, covering topics including animal behaviour, economics, evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, political science, political psychology and a number of disciplines of philosophy, namely ethics and philosophy of mind.

I conducted a comprehensive search within these papers for the words “he” and “she”, and the results are quite surprising, even if you did expect to see an imbalance:


“he” – 4,413 instances in 163 documents

“she” – 997 instances in 101 documents

Philosophy only

“he” – 252 instances in 18 documents

“she” – 114 instances in 9 documents

So, of the overall number of personal pronouns used in all my saved academic papers (5,410), 81.6% were “he” and only 18.4% were “she”. That’s some bias.

In philosophy it’s a little more balanced. Of the overall personal pronouns (366), 68.9% were “he” and 31.1% were “she”. However, I should add that a few of my stored papers concern the knowledge argument, a thought experiment that heavily involves a fictitious neuroscientist named “Mary”, so frequent references to her might account for the inflated “she” figure.

I should also add that while many of my stored papers were authored in the last decade, I have a fair number authored prior to 1970, and one would imagine there’d be less awareness of personal pronouns in those authors’ minds.

What does all this mean? Well, I’d like to know. One experiment I haven’t seen done is whether a balanced use of personal pronouns has any impact at all on gender perceptions or gender equality in academia.

I suspect the reason that balanced usage of personal pronouns became an issue at all was because of a social constructionist notion that our language shapes the world around us. Thus, usage of the word “he” to the exclusion of “she” actively contributed to making our world more male-dominated.

As it happens, social constructionism is a thesis to which I do not subscribe, and I suspect many others in academia also hold reservations about the theory. However, I’d be very interested to see some experimental results testing the hypothesis that usage of personal pronouns influences the way we perceive gender equality in academia.

In the mean time, I suggest we might hedge our bets: male lead authors could always use “she” where a pronoun is required that isn’t referring to a specific individual; and female lead authors could always use “he”.

Then, we’ll have parity on the day we have the same number of male as female academics publishing papers. And until that day, if social constructionism is correct, we’ll be influencing social reality in such a way as to encourage more women in academia. And if social constructionism isn’t correct, at least we have a simple model that doesn’t rely on our poor randomisation abilities.

Reconciling Continental and Analytical Philosophy

4 07 2009

There are two types of people in this world: cat people and dog people; Beatles or Elvis; tissues or hankie. And there are analytic and continental philosophers.

Why is this? And why do continental and analytic philosophers have such foucault08difficulty understanding, let alone appreciating, each others’ work? And why the latent (and sometimes not so latent) animosity between adherents of both traditions?

I’d suggest it’s because the two approaches represent fundamentally opposite approaches to philosophy. However, when taken together, they actually turn out to be complementary, much like Niels Bohr’s motto: “Contraria non contradictoria sed complementa sunt,” (“opposites are not contradictory but complementary”).

See, the world of experience is a strange and chaotic one, and it’s the job of philosophy to make sense of it. The question is: how?

For the continental philosopher, the starting point is the world of experience itself. Continental philosophy takes as its task the mapping of the phenomenal world. It involves itself with perception, language, culture, emotion, history etc. It seeks to make sense of the phenomenal by determining its very contours.

Analytic philosophy, on the other hand, takes as its starting point the desire to describe the smallest number of moving parts – the very cogs that underlie the phenomenal world – that, when working together, produce the seemingly chaotic phenomena of every day life. The analytic philosopher is less interested in the dozens of ways a word might be used than in what all usages of the word have in common. They wish to abstract away the individual phenomena to get at the underlying eddies and currents that reinforce and annhiliate each other to produce the contours of experience.

DavidLewisYet the continental philosopher is wary of this approach, for it is suspicious of reductionism and the notion of objectivity, and is sceptical about our ability to know when we have actually discovered the underlying moving parts. The analytic philosopher, on the other hand, is irritated by the slippery nature of continental discourse; to them it’s like trying to herd cats.

One thing I’ve noticed is that most philosophers don’t strictly choose which side of the fence they’ll pitch their tent; the discover one day their tent already pitched and simply make home, realising later the fence some way distant.

Personally, I find myself firmly in the analytic camp. I’m interested in systems, although this not not so much from choice as a consequence of my psychology; I’m a high systemiser – to the point of being close to the ASD range. (In fact, I think a fascinating experiment would be to test a sample of analytic and continental philosophers to see where they fall on this scale – I predict they’ll all be higher than average on the systemising scale, but analytic philosophers will top out the systemising scale, while the continental philosophers will be higher on the empathising scale.)

The take home message from this whim and speculation? Continental and analytic philosophy are just two sides of the same coin. And the very fact that they diverged at all is perhaps a sign that both sides have taken their approach to extreme. Regular readers will remember that I’m critical of both sides. As philosophy has been shrunk and become overshadowed by its offspring, it has retreated to the extremes and become less relevant to the real world. As a matter of priority philosophy – of all persuasions – needs to make itself relevant again. And philosophers going head to head at cross purposes doesn’t do anybody any favours.

Breaking News: The Author Lives

16 01 2009

Reports of the death of the author have been greatly exaggerated. (How suitable to quote one of the all-time greatest authors in this context.) It still boggles my mind (which, I admit, is easily boggled) that anyone could have subscribed to the notion that a piece of work is only loosely associated with its author. But that’s what arch-post-modernist, Roland Barthes, posited.

Who wrote these? Who cares? Barthes doesn't!

Who wrote these? Who cares? Barthes doesn't!

But then again, it stands to reason that Barthes’ would suggest such a theory. He was a strong proponent of language being a fickle and malleable medium, and one that cannot be unshackled from experience or culture, whether that be the culture of the author or the reader. He was also writing in a charged time, with structuralism giving away to post-structuralism care of Derrida’s deconstructionism.

Oops. Look at what I just did… I just interpreted Barthes’ work by considering the context in which the author wrote it. Silly me.

But turning post-modernism on itself isn’t the only way to reveal its deep banalities – which disciples of po-mo somehow manage to hurl about while keeping a straight face. Cold hard science also weighs in to deconstruct deconstructionism.

Apparently not only does the author matter, but their genes as well. This is not necessarily new stuff. Just two posts back I linked to a fascinating book that takes a Darwinian approach to literature. But what is interesting is the angle this research takes in suggesting that literature “could continually condition society so that we fight against base impulses and work in a cooperative way.”

While I don’t doubt that literature does serve to encourage deep rooted notions of eglitarianism, I do wonder whether this interpretation might be arse-backwards. Is it literature that encouraged the spread of altruistic genes? Or was it the presence of altruistic genes that encouraged the authoring of literature with pro-social themes?

I suspect it’s the latter. But I only think that because of my personal beliefs about evolutionary psychology and social science. (Barthes apologists can ignore that last sentence.)