Arts and Minds by Gregory Currie

Arts and Minds is a collection of essays in the philosophy of aesthetics written over the past five or so years. Many of the essays have been previously published or presented at conferences but have been revised for book publication. The essays range widely over the major issues of contemporary aesthetics; indeed, the book is divided into three sections, “Ontology,” “Interpretation,” and “Mind,” corresponding to major areas of current concern. As Currie points out in his introduction, aesthetics suffered a setback in the twentieth century in the form of “Attempts to carve out a domain of problems about the arts that could be investigated without serious help from other areas of philosophy” (1). Currie clearly eschews any hermetically sealed form of inquiry: his essays are peppered with insights from other disciplines, mainly philosophy of mind but also anthropology and cognitive science. This makes for challenging and stimulating reading, not only, I think, for philosophers but as well for scholars in other areas of the arts and sciences.

As both a teacher and student of genre fiction and film, I was especially intrigued by Currie’s discussion of genre, which comprises chapter 3 of Arts and Minds. He argues that genre is a “useful category,” though not without its vagaries, and that genre is “psychologically real.” One of the vagaries, though, is the word itself: genre is caught in the wheels of what might be called the evolutionary metaphor. Genre, kin to “genus,” invokes the categorization of genus and species “but the analogy does not go very deep” (61). This is perhaps true, but the analogy goes deep enough to raise protests from religious-fundamentalist students, who object to even the slightest allusion to “the E word,” and confusion on the part of those who pay serious attention to contemporary music. I’ll return to the latter of these concerns in a moment, after I summarize a few of Currie’s points in favor of genre categorization.

One of the most useful things about genre, Currie argues, is that it “enable[s] certain sorts of implicatures” (45). That is, we know, without having to be told, certain things about a narrative according to its genre affiliation. This seems especially clear in, for instance, horror films and mystery novels, both of which Currie discusses. Genre affiliation also creates expectations, since “genres are sets of features that narrative works can possess” (49). This, too, seems uncontroversial: a work of space opera would not be a member of the space-opera genre without certain features (space ships, ray guns, and so forth). I’m reminded of the old saw from Chekhov: “If there is a gun hanging on the wall in the first act, it must fire in the last.”

Furthermore, “expectations come in different degrees, and we can represent the patterns of expectation (understood as being the average for some population of individuals) in terms of the sort of networks that are used in parallel distributed processing…. In these networks there are links between elements, which can be excitatory or inhibitory” (49). Here we clearly see an example of Currie’s striving toward a glasnost, so to speak, with other disciplines. And on the surface, the idea of networked elements within a given work appears to be a powerful one. But there are problems here: what, precisely, is meant by “parallel distributed processing”? Except that “there are links between elements, which can be excitatory or inhibitory,” the exact meaning of this term, and the reason for its deployment here, are vague. Currie seems to be after the idea that a work that participates, to a greater or lesser extent, in a genre (or multiple genres) does so by “switching on,” so to speak, certain circuits, while damping others. My concern here is not that works display there affiliation by turning on certain circuits: Richard Brautigan’s novel (among several possible examples by that author), The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western, clearly fires up certain affiliatory circuits. My concern is, rather, this: is this really a network? Or better, why do philosophers, as soon as they approach something even vaguely cognitive, immediately head for the computer metaphor? An organic metaphor would be better (and surely in this area we must resort to metaphors, at least until neuroscience catches up with our philosophical speculations): genre affiliations are rhizomatic.

Another problem here, and perhaps a larger one, is Currie’s claim that expectations are derived as “the average for some population of individuals.” Empirically, it’s hard to see how any such average could be derived except for the most obvious of members of a given genre. John Ford’s film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, for instance, at first glance is obviously a Western. A population of individuals, upon seeing the film for the first time, would likely agree. But further viewings of the film are likely to break that consensus down: to some viewers, it becomes a member of a genre called “the critique of the Western”; to others, it’s a romance, to others a racist tract, to other still a critique of racism. So where is this stable consensus upon which rests the neat slotting of genre classifications? Again, genre seems to me to be an organic web of interconnections and a moving target. And when Currie points out, rightly I think, that genre affiliation is also historical, the movement becomes so far reaching as to make mincemeat of genre as category.

Much of what Currie argues for in genre might be better reconstituted as mode. Modes, like the concept of genre, are expectational (and formulaic, too). In music, a mode is simply a certain arrangement of notes (as in the major and minor scales, the best-known modes in contemporary music, but far from the only ones: almost all of rock ‘n’ roll, for instance, employs one or another version of a pentatonic mode). A mode invokes a certain mood; to put this simply, minor modes invokes the mood “sad,” while major modes are “happy.” We might like to have an aesthetic understanding of narrative that is neatly schematized and that can be used to reveal a given work’s generic affiliations, but creative production always resists Aristotelian categorization. This is true despite the best efforts of marketing types who, it seems to me, are the source of many of our contemporary “folk” classifications. Ray Bradbury’s short stories must belong to some genre or other and since many are set on the planet Mars, they therefore must be “science fiction.” But the genre classification “science fiction” falls flat on its face when one considers that most Bradbury stories don’t have even a whiff of science in them. Bradbury’s Mars stories are, modally speaking, mid-western Gothics. That is, those stories create a mood (through, among other things, the use of an “exotic” or Gothic landscape), which does indeed invoke certain expectations. Likewise, Raymond Chandler’s novel, The Big Sleep, is, by contemporary understanding of the “murder mystery genre,” not a mystery at all: at least one of the murders (that of Owen Taylor) in the novel is left completely unsolved (which critics consider the flaw in an otherwise jewel-like work of fiction). Moreover, Marlowe hardly acts like a detective: he barely searches for clues and performs few if any acts of deduction. Nevertheless, Chandler invokes the “hard-boiled” mood beautifully: the modal affiliation between, say, Hammett, Chandler and Walter Mosley (which also comprises a 70-year long historical affiliation) emerges in the attitude of the detective.

This problem of genre emerges again in Currie’s next chapter, a brilliant discussion of documentary film. Against the current of much contemporary film criticism, Currie argues that documentary does exist and that is a useful category. What’s intriguing here, especially in contrast with his chapter on genre, is that Currie leaves behind the strained analogy to a computer network and looks instead to actual features of films, namely “traces and testimonies”: “To understand the contrast between trace and testimony compare a painting and a photograph…. a photograph is a trace of its subject, while a painting is a testimony of it” (65). A “photograph,” like a “footprint” or a “death mask” (65), is independent of intention, while a painting, like a written description, is dependent on intention. Documentary filmmakers strive to make films composed of traces, though Currie of course does not claim that “photographs never mislead” (67). To the contrary, documentaries, like fiction narratives, are, if not exactly misleading, very leading. But documentaries exhibit what Currie calls “coherence”: the images cohere to the narrative content being represented. This contrasts usefully with fiction narratives. In a film about Watergate, for example, we would expect a documentary to depict actual footage of Nixon and other players in that drama. In the film All the President’s Men, however, we see professional actors portraying the participants in that drama. I find this an extremely useful distinction, and appreciate Currie’s discussion of the complex entanglement of documentary and fiction.

But what makes this a problem for the concept of “genre”? Again, it is a matter of marketing. Documentary film is placed, by both filmmakers, studios, video-rental stores and so on, on a par with, for example, “comedy,” “tragedy,” or “horror.” This creates for documentary an expectation of truth and factuality. But what happens when a documentary falsifies? Currie raises this issue with Michael Moore’s film, Roger and Me, where the narrative timeline presented in the film differs from what actually occurred. Viewers sensitive to the modal expectation of documentary then dismiss Moore’s film from that category. The same problem exists in the literary “genre” (again, better described as a mode) of “creative nonfiction.” Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, for instance, begins “I used to have a cat”—the problem is, Dillard never did own the cat in question; she borrowed the image from another writer (with that writer’s permission). Some readers find they can no longer trust anything Dillard wrote (just as certain viewers no longer trust Moore). In generic terms, Roger and Me and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek are simply kicked out: they become some sort of fiction, or merely despised. This is bizarre, though, as both works strongly retain their autobiographical mood. The categorization needs of scholars and critics have become confused (or conflated, or polluted) with those of marketers, and this is a problem that nowhere emerges in Currie’s book.

Arts and Minds is arranged like a ladder, and I’ve only dealt here with a couple of the lower rungs, ones which happen to be of particular interest to me. Currie moves on to issues of interpretation, and, in the book’s last section, to what might be called the cognitive foundation of artistic production and interpretation. The highlight here, for me, was “The Representation Revolution,” in which he examines the issue of a Paleolithic “revolution” in technology and creative production. This essay draws on much that has come earlier in the book and works as a test of many of Currie’s ideas. As he says in his final essay, “Aesthetic Explanation,” “the history of art shades off into a story about the evolution of aesthetic capacities.”

Art and Minds is a useful, provocative and mostly elegantly written book. It is, however, thickly veined with the philosopher’s jargon; perhaps this is unavoidable. Then again, when he wants to (as in his discussion of traces and testimonies, with is full of clarify analogies), Currie dispenses with jargon in favor of more accessible language. I realize that philosophers, like other scholars, value precise language and that this necessarily entails the coining of words or the redeployment of familiar terms in new ways. This book, though, would be much more useful to a much wider audience if Currie had employed less technical language. The philosophy of aesthetics is, after all, a scholarly endeavor that potentially bridges the gap between the arts and sciences. I can only hope that Currie will soon exert his intelligence and talents toward work intended for a more general scholarly audience.

This review was originally published in Consciousness, Literature and the Arts, vol. 6, no 2, Aug. 2005, University of Wales Aberystwyth, Dept. of Theatre, Film and Television Studies

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s