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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Steven Pinker on modern art

War looms but life goes on. I’ve been reading Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Quite a few surprises already. I didn’t realise quite how vicious and unscrupulous the hostility towards sociobiology has been. But some of the book has been tough going, and in the toilet this morning I dipped into the later stuff I haven’t yet got to officially. I found myself in what I later identified to be Chapter 20, entitled “The Arts”, and in it I came across this (on page 416 of my 2002 BCA paperback edition):

As for sneering at the bourgeoisie, it is a sophomoric grab at status with no claim to moral or political virtue. The fact is that the values of the middle class – personal responsibility, devotion to family and neighborhood, avoidance of macho violence, respect for liberal democracy – are good things, not bad things. Most of the world wants to join the bourgeoisie, and most artists are members in good standing who adopted a few bohemian affectations. Given the history of the twentieth century, the reluctance of the bourgeoisie to join mass utopian uprisings can hardly be held against them.

What is startling is not the sentiments themselves. They are all pretty obvious stuff, certainly to me. What is pleasing is who is saying them, and in what context.

Pinker is a respected scientist and scholar, and a fearless and extremely capable defender of his scientific speciality – and scientific decency in general – against the attacks on it, both from the left (who accuse him and his ilk of being “genetic determinists”) and the religious right (who accuse him and his ilk of reducing the soul to a mere bodily function). The Blank Slate is only one of several very good books that Pinker has written. He’s relatively young, a personable and winning TV presence, and a terrific scientific synthesiser and populariser. To encounter notions that you usually expect to find only in the windy and ignorant writings of people who have swallowed the entire right-wing package and nothing else, and are booming forth with it in something like The Daily Mail or The Sun, is most pleasing. I recall the reviews of The Blank Slate when it first came out as being along the lines of: this is a rather unsatisfactory book, muddled, flawed, full of good stuff and not such good stuff. That kind of thing. If this was intended to make me not bother with it, it worked, until now. And indeed I’d say that there are a few things wrong with the book, based on what I’ve read of it so far, mostly to do with Pinker (I suspect) neglecting environmentalism as a major source of anti-science these days. So “unsatisfactory”, at least in some ways, may end up being part of my final verdict, in among much more polite adjectives such as “brilliant”, “illuminating”, “judicious”, and so forth.

But I now realise that what at least some of the reviewers of The Blank Slate wanted to say was: crypto-Nazi conservative bullshitter. But they couldn’t say that. It simply wouldn’t have stuck. So, the old-fashioned view of modern art to the effect that most of it is a load of old tripe finds its way into an important mainstream popular paperback, pretty much unchallenged, and in the company of a mass of other terrifically interesting stuff about neuro-science. The times they are a-changing.

By the way, “crypto-Nazi conservative bullshitter” is not an exaggeration of the kind of opinions Pinker is dealing with. On the next page I encountered this.

In the year 2000, the composer Stefania de Kenessey puckishly announced a new “movement” in the arts, Derrière Guard, which celebrates beauty, technique, and narrative. If that sounds too innocuous to count as a movement, consider the response of the director of the Whitney, the shrine of the dismembered-torso establishment, who called the members of the movement “a bunch of crypto-Nazi conservative bullshitters.”

I’m off to Poland for a Libertarian Conference, to give a talk about the relationship between libertarian ideas and culture, along the lines of an earlier posting here. I’ll be taking The Blank Slate with me. It’s a quite heavy book in more ways than one, despite only being a paperback, but I know I won’t regret it. Expect several more postings here in connection with this book.

5 comments to Steven Pinker on modern art

  • Timothy Sandefur

    You’ll find an excellent article about the “Derriere Garde” at http://reason.com/9707/fe.limaye.shtml

  • Millie Woods

    In the 1930’s the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset dealt with all the stuff which is presently being recycled as pomo and deconstructionist brilliance in The Revolt of the Masses. It’s a marvel but alas not that well known.

  • Millie: Jose Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses is very well known in libertarian intellectual circles. His Meditations on Hunting is far less well known, but a great work nonetheless.

    Brian: I’ve been meaning for a few months to write a review of Pinker’s The Language Instinct, which I very highly recommend.

    The term “sociobiology” has gotten a very bad and undeserved rap from the postmodernists; E. O. Wilson does a good job of tearing down their arguments in Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge.

  • Except Pinker/Chomsky and the LAD is getting a scientific drubbing, from alternative at the mo

    see New Scientist 18 January 2003 p31 The Language Bug by Ken Grimes

    RE:selection of possible language forms done by babies developing brains, as input is spares, chaotic (Chomsky’s Poverty of Stimulus turned on its head) so language is constrained by the baby’s brain’s ability to create pattern from it

    ie languages have evolved to be learnable by children

    this combined with
    some modelling has shown languages can evolve even though the speakers do not,

    and work by(for example) Terrence Deacon (_the symbolic species:the co-evolution of language and the human brain_ penguin 1997) neuroscientist and evolutionary anthropologist

    means that the language instinct is beginning to look like a piece of behaviourist neo-classicalist tosh

  • Mike Doffing

    _The Blank Slate_ is probably the best non-fiction read I’ve had in a decade. That Pinker can acheive such breadth without being (so far as I can tell) merely a dilettante is particularly impressive. The world needs more competant integrators to pull together the flood of information we are all drowning in. Highly recommended!