Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Introduction: I. The Problem

The Modern Era split the world asunder. First Descartes split us in two: a body and a soul. And that appeared to be enough of a division for philosophers to elaborate on for centuries, whether they called the split body and soul, the noumenal and the phenomenal, the body and the will, or Being and Becoming. But Nietzsche introduced the West to even more divisions with perspectivism, and postmodernists have taken up this idea, and have divided the world into a plurality of perspectives, all unconnected and unable to communicate. Postmodernism sees the world through multiple perspectives only, rejecting any unity. But this gets only half of Nietzsche’s thought. Perspectivism is a way to get to knowledge, so the drive for a perspectivism-only view is the unlimited knowledge drive Nietzsche criticizes. Nietzsche does not favor taking up perspectivism for perspectivism’s sake. Nor does he find equal value in all perspectives. By considering different perspectives, we can then more ably judge how each of these perspectives aid us in our understanding, helping us uncover more about a subject. Different perspectives give us different ways of knowing about a thing, but bringing together as many perspectives on the thing will help us to better understand it. “The sea is the purest and foulest water: for fish drinkable and life – sustaining; for men undrinkable and deadly” (Heraclitus, K. LXI). Art and literature and philosophy are as valid ways of knowing and understanding the world as are the sciences, psychology, economics, history, and sociology. Each provides us with perspectives that together only work to help us better understand the world.

But some contemporary philosophers have abandoned some of these perspectives, saying they are not legitimate ways of knowing. Many postmodern thinkers have been very anti-science (another misreading of Nietzsche), and the only “legitimate” economic theory for such scholars of literature and philosophy has been Marxism. But science is a legitimate part of philosophy – it was once known as natural philosophy. Why have philosophers abandoned natural philosophy, leaving it to the scientists, whose theories (the Big Bang, quantum, string, relativity, natural selection, sexual selection, etc.) are in fact philosophies – natural philosophies? The only difference – which should be no difference – is that these theories are in constant negotiation with the discoveries being made by various scientists using the various methods of science. Philosophers could make considerable contributions to science through theoretical work that takes into consideration both the findings of science and the wisdom of the arts and philosophy. It is the philosophers in particular who should be bringing knowledge together. To the extent a person’s work does not bring knowledge together, that person cannot legitimately be called a philosopher – as philosophy comes from the Greek for “love of wisdom,” and wisdom is the unifying of knowledge, or seeing the world as a whole. If one simply studies and writes upon the works of other philosophers as philosophers, that person is a scholar of philosophy, not a philosopher. Philosophers cannot abandon any perspective on the world. Nor can the artists. Artists and philosophers must consider as many perspectives as possible, if they are going to make truly great works of lasting quality. In the realm of the novel, this is the novelist using Bakhtin’s dialogics. Consider the following poem:

Perspectives on the Setting Sun


The blue retreats into the dark –
The planet’s orbit makes the sun
Appear to disappear beyond
The edge of the earth until one
Last sliver slips from its blue bond
To the sky, the moon its one mark.


The lovers sit beside the lake
And watch the sun slip behind trees
That border the distant shore.
The colors dazzle them and please
Them into love – they each adore
The other – their hearts rise, awake.


The sun sets on the horizon,
The extra atmosphere the light
Must shine through now stretches and spreads
The light from white to shades of bright
Rose, spreading the sky in light reds,
Clouds in purples by the dozen.


The sunset on our love today.
You left me before you left me,
I know you never had your heart
With mine. Why did you want to flee
From all I wanted to impart
To you? Why can’t we find a way?


The scattered sunlight shines too bright –
The setting sun is all I see
Through the windshield of my old car.
I cannot see for the bright glare
I clipped the runner at the knee –
Her blood was redder than the star
That killed her with my blinded sight.


I fear the coming setting sun,
The darkness that it will herald
In, my darkest night, a new moon
That, on the other side, has pulled
Down my tides to their lowest tune –
The moon and sun eclipsed, as one.


How do you skip from orange to blue?
The atmosphere’s not like a cloud –
The spectrum’s missing the middle.
An absent center’s been allowed
To make this evening a riddle
And a mirror of all that’s true.


Blessèd Ra once rose high above
The Nile flowing brown and green
Past the sphinx and the pyramids.
But Ra has set, too pale and lean,
As all the gods who lost their bids
To the hawk disguised as a dove.


From the space station window I
Look out at the planet I love
Now that I see it from this place
We built to orbit high above
The rest of man, first foot in space –
The sun sets, a bright, sparkling eye.

Which of these perspectives is “correct”? The scientific? The romantic? The tragic? The one that expresses fear? The one that sees a riddle? The religious one? The one from space? Each perspective is legitimate. But all of them together create a whole that is itself a different view than each of them separately creates. I am not going to claim my poem is one of lasting quality just because it takes into consideration multiple perspectives (many poems especially take only one perspective into consideration at a time – though many poets do take multiple perspectives into consideration in their body of work – and the poetic perspective, the perspective of any one poem on its subject(s) is itself valuable). The value of my poem is for others to judge. I included it as an example of multiple perspectives one could take on one thing, unified through and as a poem.

The divisions in contemporary studies of art and literature show the extent perspectivism has been taken to heart. Art/literary theory has been divided into New Criticism/close reading, history of art and literature, culture studies, structuralism, poststructuralism and deconstruction, genre studies, and psychoanalyical (of artist and fictional characters), philosophical, biographical, political, economic (especially Marxist), philological, rhetorical, linguistic, hermeneutical, cognitive, etc. approaches. Recently chaos theory and complex systems theory, information theory, and game theory have been applied to art and literature, contributing to the perspectives. But each perspective alone cannot tell the whole story about a work of art or literature any more than one can understand an organism by knowing about it through only one of the perspectives through which we study organisms: biochemistry, biophysics, molecular biology, cell biology, evolutionary biology, ethology, ecology, population biology, genetics, anatomy, physiology, etc. If we are to more fully understand a work of art or literature, we cannot abandon any perspective any more than we can claim to understand an organism if we abandon any one of the biological perspectives – say, ethology. “Just as the fact that an élite has played a vital part in the history of civilization is distasteful to many people today, so the fact that the laws of supply and demand have a bearing on the history of poetry may be found disconcerting by readers whose aesthetic is more romantic than they know” (Ian Jack, The Poet and His Audience, 2). To understand art and literature better, we have to study more economics than Marx (who is not an economist). Nor can we take an ahistorical approach to studying literature. “When we read a poem in an anthology or in the artificial situation required by the demands of ‘Practical Criticism’, it is reduced to the condition of a cut flower. It we wish to understand the poem it becomes necessary to try to see it, in the manner of an ecologist, in its natural habitat” (Jack, 3). Audience and patronage should be taken into consideration because “the history of European music, painting and sculpture cannot be intelligently studied without reference to the overwhelmingly important part played by the patronage of Church and aristocracy” (Jack, 3).

By taking into consideration as many different perspectives as possible, we can come closer to having a more objective understanding of works of art and literature. Though “Objectivity” [ought to be] understood not as “contemplation without interest” (which is a nonsensical absurdity), but as the ability to have one’s For and Against under control and to engage and disengage them, so that one knows how to employ a variety of perspectives and affective interpretations in the service of knowledge. Henceforth, my dear philosophers, let us be on guard against the dangerous old conceptual fiction that posited a “pure, will-less, painless, timeless knowing subject”; let us guard against the snares of such contradictory concepts as “pure reason,” “absolute spirit,” “knowledge in itself”; these always demand that we should think of an eye that is completely unthinkable, an eye turned in no particular direction, in which the active and interpreting forces through which alone seeing becomes a seeing-something, are supposed to be lacking; these always demand of the eye an absurdity and a nonsense. There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective “knowing”; and the more affects we allow to speak about a thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can lend to the thing, the more complete will our “concept” of this thing, our “objectivity,” be. (Nietzsche, GM III: 12)
This is the approach we should be taking when studying art and literature, a historical figure, or an object of scientific interest. This is the approach we should be taking when studying anything. The more perspectives we can take into consideration, the better. Of course, not everyone can do this. We still need those who more fully develop one particular perspective on a given object of study. What we need are those who can both see these multiple perspectives, and yet bring them together – even when those perspectives come into conflict. In fact, it is when those perspectives come into conflict that the philosopher and the artist becomes creative.

A theory of art and literature should be built upon as many perspectives as possible. One must establish a (meta)physics, ethics, epistemology, etc. if one is to develop a theory of art and literature relevant for humans, who exist in a field of changing objects, ideas, and perspectives. A good theory of art and literature cannot exist in isolation – it cannot be decoupled from any of the perspectives one sees and can see the world through. This has not stopped many 20th Century philosophers from trying. Heidegger thought he could do away with metaphysics and develop a theory of art and literature without it. But Heidegger attempted to do away with metaphysics by being more metaphysical than anyone else. Which shows us what happens when one adopts a particular metaphysics – in Heidegger’s case, making a metaphysical connection to the German language that led to his becoming a Nazi, and in postmodern theorists, adapting his philosophy of language to language as a whole, developing political correctness. To avoid such problems, I find it necessary to establish a (meta)physics so my ideas on art and literature can be better understood and seen in proper relation to my views on (meta)physics, ethics, and epistemology.

Such work to demonstrate unity in diversity is hardly unique to me. There have been a number of recent works by people attempting to demonstrate the unity of knowledge: Consilience by biologist E. O. Wilson, The Blank Slate by linguist Steven Pinker, The Culture of Hope by poet Frederick Turner, The Power of Limits by architect Gyorgy Doczi, and the works of the philosopher of time J. T. Fraser. I also argue in this work that Nietzsche himself, though in great part responsible for the fracturing of scholarship into unconnected perspectives, is interested in creating unity of perspectives, as the quote above suggests. These works (and other works by these same authors) act as answers to contemporary postmodern perspectivism – including Nietzsche’s works. It is appropriate that Nietzsche, having indirectly created the problem of disconnected perspectivism, acts as the answer to the problems created by 20th century thought as a whole, and postmodern thought in particular.

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