This is part II.2 of my collection of essays 'Art, Zen, and Insurrection'. Here is a table of contents:
II.2. Art, Status Functions, And Contemporary Consciousness
7. Art As A Means To Understanding The Present: What Is The Collective Thing That The Artist Tries to Communicate?
8. John Searle's Status Functions And Specifying The Collective Nature Of The Artist's Expression: The Artist As Expressing The Linguistic Structure Of Social Experience
9, Status Functions and The Structure Of Emotions, Consciousness, And Experience: Social Knowledge and Self-Knowledge
10. Art, Status Functions, And The ‘Corruption Of Consciousness’
11. The Artist as Enabling New Behavior With New Status Functions: Deliberately Unifying Thought And Action
12. New Status Functions as New Thoughts As New Actions As New Brains: Art and Neuroplasticity
II.2. Art, Status Functions, And Contemporary Consciousness
Now that I have explored art as an empathic, social, and historical phenomenon, I would like to try to specify the usefulness of art a little more specifically. In the previous section I was painting in very large strokes and don’t think I made it very clear why art is actually useful. All I really established was that art can help us with our emotional lives, and that it can do this on a larger social scale, and with a historical perspective. But now I want to try to explain how it can possibly have these greater cultural impacts (in the abstract).
The main thing that I want to do in this section is bring John Searle’s work in Making The Social World into the picture. I think that he will be able to help me with one of the biggest questions I have about this issue of emotional expression somehow benefiting a community: If the artist supposedly expresses something that is of benefit to all of society, what is this collective thing that is being expressed? Can we name it? Can we abstract it somehow? I suspect it might have something to do with what John Searle calls ‘status functions’. A status function is something that functions in society only because it has been declared to have that status, the best examples being money, marriage, and other social institutional phenomena. Searle believes that the existence of status functions all comes back to the human capacity for language, and language’s capacity to create the things that it declares to exist. He believes that status function declarations are the bread and butter of social reality. So after exploring Collingwood and Searle’s connections generally, I’ll try to discuss some of Collingwood’s more specific ideas through the framework of status functions. In particular, I’ll be introducing Collingwood’s crucial notion of ‘the corruption of consciousness’, which he believed was one of the greatest threats facing modern European and American culture. After that I’ll try to integrate the issue of the union of thought and action that Collingwood believed to be so important. And lastly I’ll be vaguely introducing neuroplasticity into the picture, just for my own fun. Here I go.
7. Art and the Means to a Universal Understanding Of The Present: What Is The Collective Thing That The Artist Tries to Communicate?
So as I said above, if we accept that art is a social and historical phenomenon that revolves around emotional expression and empathy, we are met with other questions. In particular, I can’t help but push the question of what exactly an artist could express that would be useful to all of society? Is it possible to name this type of expression? Is it possible to really understand what the heck an artist would be doing if he were trying to express something in the hearts of everyone?
All I can say for now is that for Collingwood artist’s should not simply be expressed their own trivial emotions, but should rather be addressing problems. Furthermore, the artist should always be using his audience as the reference point for these problems: “The audience is perpetually present to him as a factor in his artistic labour; not as an anti-aesthetic factor, corrupting the sincerity of his work by considerations of reputation and reward, but as an aesthetic factor, defining what the problem is which as an artist he is trying to solve – what emotions he is to express– and what constitutes a solution” (315). It seems very interesting to me that the expression of an emotion is in itself is simultaneously an identification and solution to a problem. But this falls in line with other things that Collingwood says about art and consciousness. Collingwood believes that it is the task of consciousness to turn our emotional problems into clearly defined issues, and this transformation of sensation into idea is in itself the solution to emotional problems. This is what he means when he says, for example, that once “we form a clear and distinct idea of a passion, it ceases to be a passion” (219). Once we have turned a feeling into a clearly defined idea it ceases to be a problem like it was.
This also seems to be why the artist is fundamentally occupied with truth. For if the artist is attempting to identify and express certain problems that he sees around him, then it must have something to do with truth. I also think that Collingwood uses the world truth in a similar sense to Foucault. Because I don’t think he means that truth is some kind of absolute or essential property, but is rather the reality of people’s experiences and emotions. Perhaps truth for Collingwood has something to do with the way that people experience their social lives. I’ll just admit that I don’t grasp Collingwood’s use of the word truth at this point. It is clear, however, that artistic expression has to be about truth. As he says, artistic expression “so far from being indifferent to the distinction between truth and falsehood, is necessarily an attempt to state the truth. So far as the utterance is a good work of art, it is a true utterance; its artistic merit and its truth are the same thing” (287).
So how is it that the artist is trying to identify an emotional problem that is both social and true? Well, I’m not sure. So I’m going to start explicating John Searle because I think that his work on status functions will be useful here.
8. John Searle's ‘Status Function Declarations’ and Specifying the Universality of the Artist's Expression: The Artist As Expressing The Linguistic Structure Of Social Experience
Now I mentioned above that Collingwood might be using the word truth in a similar way to Foucault. That would mean that ‘truth’ is not about some essential thing lying in the world waiting to be discovered, but is rather a reality that exists in people’s minds and in their experiences. I think this is probably the case. Collingwood has been identified as an idealist philosopher, one that believes that what exists in the world exists because of how our mind apprehends it. I look forward to the day when I read his book Speculum Mentis, which means ‘mirror of the mind’. He believed that reality was not essential, but was rather the mirror of the mind. This being the case, I have to ask how this view relates to art and to artistic expression. If the artist is expressing something fundamental in society, and something in the hearts of all people, yet it is something that is not essential, and exists more so in people’s minds, then what kind of thing could this be?
Well, I think that John Searle’s work on Status Functions will throw quite a lot of light on this issue. While Searle doesn’t seem to be identified with idealist philosophy, I think that his work on Status Functions has enough similarities to make the comparison legitimate. So what I’m going to do is just explicate Searle’s basic argument (not his nuance) in its own right, and then I’ll go about explaining how it illuminates Collingwood’s claims about art.
In Making The Social World: The Structure Of Human Civilization Searle is advocating the creation of a new branch of philosophy known as ‘the philosophy of society’. He believes that philosophy has not yet adequately dealt with the existence of human society and institutions. Searle, therefore, is attempting to explain the existence of human social institutions. In particular, Searle is concerned with things like weddings, cocktail parties, presidencies, and national borders – i.e. things that have no reality except their agreed upon status. Weddings only exist because our society has accepted that weddings exist and are binding agreements. Same thing with the president; Obama is president only because we have all accepted that he is president. Searle dubs these things Status Functions, because they only function because they have been given a certain status. He believes that Status Functions are created by what he calls Status Function Declarations. Searle believes that it is a unique property of human language that it can create the very things that it declares to exist. A physical border, for example, does not exist until it is declared to exist, but that declaration makes it an institutional reality. Searle uses a mundane, everyday example, to explain how status functions exist all around us. He gives a hypothetical instance of going to a bar. Say I am with two friends, I buy three beers, one for each of us. I carry them back to our table, and I say, this is X’s beer, and this is Y’s beer. If friend Y were then to reach for the beer that I designated X’s there would be an awkward moment. My allocation of the beers would have been a Status Function Declaration that would brought a social reality into existence.
I want to quickly note that although Searle believes that human institutional reality is created by the working of language, he argues that language is the fundamental human institution. In his chapter “Language as Biological and Social”, he explains how language could have come about through evolutionary processes. From that evolutionary account he goes on to explain how language must be the fundamental institution of humanity that then allowed for the rest of our complex institutions to be created through SFDs. I’m not explaining this well because I don’t want to take the time and effort. But it seems necessary to note that Searle claims that language is the fundamental institution that then allows the rest of institutional reality to be linguistically constituted.
Searle believes that the Status Function Declaration is the single thing that has created all of our social institutional reality. He is quite explicit about the core claim of his book: “all of human institutional reality is created and maintained by (representations that have the same logical form as) SF Declarations” (Searle, 13, his italics). It is thus language, and its ability to create the things that it represents, that allows us to have things like weddings, nations, and borders. While language has many facets, Searle believes “the Declaration is peculiar in that it creates the very reality that it represents it” (16). This allows us to explain how our social lives are structured in a way so as to give us reasons for doing things that seem contrary to our desires. Language can, Searle argues, “create desire-independent reason for action if the status function that they attempt to create are recognized by other members of the community” (86). So why do I wake up in the morning and go to work to make money even though I feel tired and frustrated with my life? Well, money is an institutional reality that has been collectively acknowledged, and it thus comes along with a set of deontological rules. Deontology is the study of rules, right, obligations, and limitations. Searle believes that SFDs work primarily by creating deontic powers: “The only reality that we can so create is a reality of deontology. It is a reality that confers rights, responsibilities, and so on” (89). It is words, and the use of specific words, that allows these social realities to function. Furthermore, Status Functions are responsible for facilitating our social relationships. We think in terms of ‘friendships’, ‘love’, ‘relationships’, all kinds of other institutional facts. This is why vocabulary is so important in social relationships. Social revolutions can revolve around the reclaiming or words, or the creation of new words. Searle points out how the Soviet Union used the word ‘comrade’ to make a feeling of unification between all people, and how the use of that word constituted a SFD that tried to bring new institutional realities into existence.
Searle then goes on to explain how SFDs bring certain types of power relations into existence, and how they constitute certain types of human rights. He also explains how SFDs need to be backed by physical force in the case of government; how government can’t exist without the implicit threat of violence. This will be important when I reach the sections on ‘insurrection’.
I fear that I’m failing to explicate Searle in meaningful ways. His book is quite complex and quite important. I have a lot of grappling left to do with it. But there are several things that I’d like to take from Searle in order to enhance my analysis of art and its usefulness. The first is the role of language in constituting social reality. If language, in the form of SFDs, has the power to constitute new social realities, then doesn’t art (being a form of language) have the potential of being a SFD? Second, it seems like Searle’s work on SFs can help me understand how the artist’s expression is supposed to speak to the hearts of an entire community. Perhaps what the artist manages to express is the existence of a Status Function that has eluded everyone’s awareness. Third, I want to entertain the idea that our experiences, our emotions, and our consciousness is structured by the existence of SFs (which seems obvious to me). Finally, I want to explore the idea that what the artist does is to use art to make new SFDs into existence, thus creating new institutional realities, and new relationships. Before I delve into those ideas in the next few sections I want to prevent some evidence from The Principles Of Art to show that Collingwood may have embraced some of the same ideas that Searle entertains.
One of Searle’s most important claims that Collingwood seems to agree with is that language is an institution that is fundamental to human society. Furthermore, that what grammarians analyze and describe as ‘language’ is really the aftermath of the expression that really constitutes language. Grammarians take symbolism, an agreed upon meaning of a word, to be the core form of language. But Collingwood insists that language cannot exist only as symbolism, it cannot exist as something that has been settled upon, because “the supposed agreement by which the meaning of a given word is settled implies a previous discussion out of which the agreement is arrived; and unless language already exists and is already capable of stating the point at issue the discussion cannot arise” (225). Language, as expressive gesturing, therefore, must predate what we know as words and symbols. But Collingwood seems to think that grammarians have a limited grasp on language as a natural phenomenon, and rather treat it as an analyzable social phenomenon. On the contrary, Collingwood asserts that language is not simply symbolism, but is an action: "Language is an activity; it is expressing oneself, or speaking. But this activity is not what the grammarian analyses. He analyses a product of this activity, 'speech' or 'discourse' not in the sense of a speaking or a discoursing, but in the sense of something brought into existence by that activity. This product of the activity of speaking is nothing real; it is a metaphysical fiction" (254). This point is awfully confusing to me. But generally I think the idea is that language is the process and not the residue or meaning of that process. This is why it is a fiction. Perhaps this will be made clearer by another idea, that of the recurring word. “Thus we get a new fiction: the recurring word, the entity which forms the lexicographer’s unit” (256). Collingwood believes that language becomes analyzable as a codified set of symbols when we take the time to analyze it. Further, it is not that we are discovering these divisions within language, but we are creating them: "The division of the 'thing' known as language into words is a division not discovered, but devised, in the process of analysing it" (255). Collingwood seems to believe that language has been inappropriately identified as a ‘thing’, while in reality it is an activity. It is something that we do, a way that we express ourselves, and the codification of language is what brings symbolism into being: “Thus, what the grammarian is really doing is to think, not about a product of the activity of speaking, but about that activity itself, distorted in his thoughts about it by the assumption that it is not an activity but a product or ‘thing’” (255). Now this all sounds a bit too loosely connected to Searle’s work. I think it is a bit of a stretch to really say that Collingwood totally shared these views about language as a biological phenomenon. But it does seem that they line up in the sense that language is not simply words and symbols, as grammarians would assert. But that it is rather a natural phenomenon of gesturing and expression. I suppose this reminds me of Searle’s work on ‘speech acts’. I don’t understand it entirely, but the basic idea is that speech is an action, something that you do. That idea seems implicit in Collingwood’s work.
For Collingwood, however, this is issue of language being misunderstood as a thing rather than an action is fundamentally tied to the issue of art and craft. He believes that language has been misidentified in this way because it is approach from the standpoint of the philosophy of craft, and not the philosophy of art. Language as a thing, he claims, “is believed to exist only because the theory of language is approached from the standpoint of the philosophy of craft, and the assumption unquestioningly made that any activity is essentially a kind of fabricating. That being so, the activity of expression will be essentially the fabricating of a thing called language, and the endeavour to understand that activity will take the form of an endeavour to understand its product” (254-55). Then what are we to make of the analysis of language? If language is being misunderstood as a product and not as an action, then what is the usefulness of analyzing the aftermath of language, these ‘metaphysical fictions’ that are symbols. Well, this is where I lose Collingwood a little bit. Because symbols undoubtedly do exist, and they do have a social reality to them. But Collingwood does seem to recognize this. He says that the analysis of language as symbolism “may seem like a futile undertaking. What possible result, good or bad, can come of trying to understand a thing which does not exist? The answer... is that these metaphysical fictions are in one sense real enough” (254-55). Does this have some echos of the idea of status functions? To me it does. When he talks about ‘metaphysical fictions’ that are ‘real enough’, what does this mean? It means to me that although they are linguistically constituted realities, they are still realities that are capable of structuring our lives and our experiences. Status functions are precisely this: linguistically constituted realities that still make us feel certain things, think certain things, experience life in certain ways.
Now, when Collingwood goes on to specify the task of the artist as speaking the heart of his community, and more specifically, speaking the parts of their heart that they are unaware of, could this have something to do with status functions? Well, me thinks yes. And I think this based on something Searle says, and also based on something Collingwood says. Searle says that status functions have the tendency to stay below the radar, to defy people’s awareness. Searle claims, “We live in a sea of human institutional facts Much of this is invisible to us. Just as it is hard for the fish to see the water in which they swim, so it is hard for us to see the institutionality in which we swim. Institutional facts are without exception constituted by language, but the functioning of language is especially hard to see” (90). These linguistically constructed realities elude are awareness, and this is probably how they like it. This prompts some questions about the artist’s expression. If the artist is expressing the hearts of the community, and it is a part of their hearts that they are unaware of, then perhaps what the artist is expressing is the status functions that are structuring our lives without knowing it. This quotation I’m about to present rings with this idea. It seems implicit that the artist is expressing some sort of status function that is eluding the apprehension of the masses. I fear I’m projecting, or making silly connections. But you tell me: “As a spokesman of his community, the secrets he must utter are theirs. The reason why they need him is that no community altogether knows its own heart; and by failing in this knowledge a community deceives itself on the one subject concerning which ignorance means death” (336). How is it that the community doesn’t know their heart? Perhaps it is because their experience is structured by status functions that are below their awareness. Sounds silly, doesn’t it? Yup.
In any case, I feel frustrated with the way this section has been panning out so far. I don’t think I grasp Searle’s work enough to draw its full implications. I suspect this is because the implications are quite large. Also, I don’t have enough of a command of Collingwood’s claims about language to fully bring together him and Searle. But I’m trying here. The general conclusion that I suppose I have reached is that if the artist is attempting to speak the unknown emotions of his community, then there is a chance that these collective ineffabilities have roots in the social structure, and might therefore be identifiable as a status function. Searle’s work on status functions can therefore help us conceptualize the collective ineffables that Collingwood says the great artist articulates. But why does this matter? Why are status functions important? What bearing does this have on anything at all? Well, in the next two sections I want to explain why it is important to take status functions seriously. In the two sections after that I hope to explain how we can try to create our own status functions.
9. Status Functions As Structuring Emotions, Consciousness, And Experience: Social Knowledge And Self-Knowledge
The main reason that I think that status functions matter for this current writing is because they provide the structure of our social world, which in turn gives a structure to our subjective world. Status functions shape the way we live in the social world, they shape my individual life. If self-knowledge is in any way important (which Collingwood believes it is), then it would do me well to understand exactly what was structuring my life. If I really want to know myself I need to know the status functions that govern my world. I think there are three things I can talk about in order to make this clearer: emotions, consciousness, and experience. So the questions are, How are my emotions structured by status functions? How is my awareness, my consciousness structured by status functions? And what does this mean for the whole of my experience, how is that structured by status functions? I intend the notions of emotions and consciousness to be subsumed under the larger category of experience.
So how are my emotions structured by status functions? Well, in one sense there are things about emotions that are essential. That facial expressions don’t vary between cultures attests to this fact. There seems to be a universal thing that we could call ‘anger’, or ‘sadness’, or ‘happiness’. There also exist, however, things about our emotions that are not universal, but are rather historical and social. There are undoubtedly things about my emotions that have to do with the existence of status functions. These would be not the emotions themselves, but the things that set off our emotions, that make us feel certain things strongly. If we were robbed, for example, we would feel a variety of emotions; we would feel angry, sad, frustrated, hopeless, and so on. But we would only feel those ways because the status functions of ‘property’, ‘theft’, ‘money’, and so on structured our existence. Or if a romantic partner were to cheat on us we would feel sad or angry or so on. But we may only feel those ways because of status functions like marriage, relationships, monogamy, so on. This example runs tricky ground, I know. I suspect people thnk jealousy is an essential attribute, something apes feel. Perhaps it is. But I also suspect that marriage and other status functions structure our emotions, make them different. Now what about happy emotions? We would be very happy if we won the lottery. Again, this is because money is such an important status function in our society. Winning the lottery would mean that we would have enough money to bypass the status function that is the working world. Well, we would still be engaging with the capitalist world of status functions, but we would bypass its drudgery, so to speak. In any case, it seems clear to me that while emotions may be essential, what sets them off in a social context is structured by status functions. If we were to examine our emotions, wonder about their causes, we might be aided by knowledge of status functions.
What about our consciousness? How is that structured by status functions? When I use the word consciousness I am using it in the sense of awareness, the things that we notice, and the things that we don’t notice. Clearly we don’t notice everything all the time, our awareness only picks up on certain things. So why is it that we notice certain things but don’t notice other things? Because our consciousness is structured in certain ways, likely by status functions, by language. One time that I first really was convinced of this idea was when I read How To Read Foucault by Johanna Oksala. Oksala uses the example of Inuit categorizations of snow. The inuit have more than 100 words for snow, all different types, different shades and qualities. Further, they register these differences in snow in their daily lives, they simply notice that yesterday the snow was like this or like that. But for us there is simply snow, and so our consciousness doesn’t register much nuance. Now this idea extends to culture at large. Norman Doidge confirms this in The Brain That Changes Itself. He says that culture determines what it is that we do and do not notice. We notice the things that our culture has deemed important, the things that our society has categorized for us. Because when something has been articulated, when it has been named, labeled, categorized, it becomes very easier for us to assimilate it into the things that we notice. Have you ever been told of a certain thing and then suddenly you see it everywhere? Is it really that they are everywhere now? Or has the structure of your consciousness been altered and you are now noticing different things? I think that the structure of our consciousness has likely been changed. And because it is categorization and labeling that structures our consciousness, it seems clear that status functions would be the things that are structuring our awareness. Anything in society that has been named is potentially a status function.
What kinds of things do you notice? What do you notice about people? Their gender, their height, their weight, their race, their age. What else? All of those things are status functions and structure our awareness. What do you notice about spaces? Their color, their size, their ‘class’ and ‘style’. What do you notice? Why do you notice those things? What is the structure of your consciousness?! What kinds of things come to mind and what kinds of things don’t? These seem like exciting and important questions to me. If you want to understand yourself you may have to reckon with the structure of your consciousness. I want to understand myself. I don’t fully understand the structure of my awareness. But I try to be vigilant about what I notice and why. Especially after writing this paragraph, I’ll be very careful about what I notice. The woman in front of me: I notice she is old, I notice she has a bottle of war, Deer Park. I notice she looks concerned and tired as she tentatively drinks from her bottle of water. I notice this airport and the people all watching the T.V.. I notice the rainbow book in front of me and I wonder if it is about something new agey.
Look at all the concepts that just informed my observations! I assume the timidity of the elderly, I notice bottled water because I find it repulsive, I notice people watching tv because I myself am averse to T.V. I notice the rainbow book because of my past with reiki and yoga. The structure of my consciousness comes from my history, my individual history. But it also comes from my collective history and the history of status functions.
We are structured beings. Status functions have something to do with that.
Now what about our experience as a whole? It is obviously structured by our emotions and by our consciousness, but what else structures it? Well, there is also a structure to our physical actions. And here again I keep coming back to capitalism as one of the ultimate status functions. Money as one of the ultimate status functions. Because lets face it, I get up every day, I go to work, I think of my time in certain ways, all because of this idea of money. An idea that has become real enough. That is why Discipline & Punish is such a fascinating book to me; it looks at the way that ideas contribute to the physical regulation of he body. Because status functions change the way I move and use my body. There is a structure to all of my physical actions that goes beyond me. I was thinking, oh but what about when I dance, isn’t that less structured. But the notion of dance is also a status function, we dedicate certain spaces to it. The structure of my physical actions also has to do with the way that space and time are structured by status functions. People can’t come behind the counter at my job because there exists a status function around that space. I wake up in the mornings, monday through friday, because the calendar tells me those are work days. I was able to fly home and see my family because the calendar said these were the holidays, and because families are valued, and we should be with our families on holidays. All of that is status functions. If we want to understand ourselves and our experiences we have to look at the way that status functions regulate our physical actions.
I think I’ve said enough to make this point clear: status functions, although mere linguistically constructed realities, have the power to shape much of our lives and our experience. They change the way that our emotions are expressed by giving them a social context in which they acquire new meanings. They structures our consciousness by making it so that we notice certain things and so that we don’t notice certain things. And it structures our physical actions by giving us reasons for doing things, by regulating space and time, and by giving us faith in money. All of this contributes and structures our experiences, our lives, and our thoughts. If self-knowledge matters to us, if we think it important, we can’t ignore the way that status functions constitute our own identities. I think that understanding status functions would give us a whole new set of tools with which to understand ourselves. Social knowledge is inseparable from self-knowledge.
Now that I’ve made these claims about how status functions structure our lives, I’d like to connect this to a specific issue that Collingwood raises. He calls it ‘the corruption of consciousness’, and I suspect that status functions have something to do with it. Duh.
10. Art, Status Functions, And The ‘Corruption Of Consciousness’
Now one of Collingwood’s major concerns in The Principles Of Art is what he calls ‘the corruption of consciousness’. He thinks that people in early twentieth-century England were incapable of facing down their own emotions. For Collingwood, art is useful because it helps us get a grip on our emotions: it is all about using consciousness to raise our raw emotions to the level of imagination and idea and thus making them expressible. Collingwood believes that when we use consciousness to express ourselves we alleviate any emotional pressure or anxiety that our raw emotions may have caused us.
Collingwood, however, believed that people were losing their ability to show down their own emotions. He thought that people were being run down by the working world, and that they were turning more and more to amusement as a way to escape their unhappiness. Instead of expressing the dissatisfaction that they felt with the capitalist world, Collingwood believed they were using alcohol, drugs, popular fiction, movies, and pornography to escape their unhappiness. This is what Collingwood means when he refers to the corruption of consciousness: the proliferation of amusement that is a sign that people are dissatisfied with their basic means of living. Furthermore, Collingwood believed that art is useful because it combats the corruption of consciousness. “The corruption of consciousness,” he argues, “in virtue of which a man fails to express a given emotion makes him at the same time unable to know whether he has expressed it or not. He is, therefore, for one and the same reason, a bad artist and a bad judge of his own art” (283). It is the task of art proper to relieve people from the corruption of consciousness, to show them that they can express their dissatisfaction, and that they don’t have to simply turn to amusement. This is why the “corruption of consciousness is the same thing as bad art” (285). If we could make art a more prevalent factor in people’s everyday lives then perhaps we could combat the corruption of consciousness a little more effectively. Perhaps we could push people towards self-knowledge, and not be so overrun by amusement. Collingwood really thinks that embracing art can help us overcome the corruption of consciousness: “For the evils which come from that ignorance the poet as prophet suggest no remedy, because he has already given one. The remedy is the poem itself. Art is the community’s medicine for the worst disease of mind, the corruption of consciousness” (336).
I’ll have more to say about amusement in Part IV, but for now I’ll say a few things. I think that contemporary American culture is overrun by amusement. I think that the internet, video games, alcohol, television, movies, and little cell phone games that are played for only a few minutes, makes it so that we never have to be unoccupied. We never have to be bored because amusement is constantly at our fingertips. But I think this detracts from our ability to pay attention. It prevents us from having serious downtime to reflect on ourselves and our actions. There have been a whole slew of articles that have addressed these issues in the NYtimes and other publications. But when I read these sections in The Principles Of Art on amusement and the corruption of consciousness I freaked out a little bit. Collingwood was diagnosing his own era, and not ours. But I think it has only gotten worse. Amusement is only more rampant, and I fear that consciousness is that much more corrupted.
But what about status functions how does this fit in with the issue of the corruption of consciousness? Well, to me it seems that the corruption of consciousness undoubtedly exists because of larger social factors, because of status functions. Collingwood does seem to single out the economic system as one of the ways that the corruption of consciousness has come about. He talks about how our social lives have become referred to as ‘drudgery’, and how we seem to think of our means of existence as not worthwhile. “When this reaches a point of crisis,” he claims, “practical life, or ‘real’ life becomes, emotionally bankrupt; a state of things which we describe by speaking of its intolerable dullness or calling it a drudgery. A moral disease has set in, whose symptoms are a constant craving for amusement and an inability to take any interest in the affairs of ordinary life, the necessary work of livelihood and social routine.” (95). How many of us take a genuine ‘the necessary work of livelihood and social routine?’ My recent foray into the working world has definitely lit a fire in me. It has me feeling what it is like to work 40 hours a week, to struggle to find the time to do what I want to do, to not make a lot of money and to not find my work to be socially useful. I struggle everyday to maintain my awareness, to stay positive and intellectually vigilant. As I said before, capitalism exists because of status functions, my life is structured this way because of status functions. The corruption of consciousness, therefore, must be a matter of status functions and how they structure our experience.
This has some implications for battling the corruption of consciousness, which I will now explore.
11. The Artist as Enabling New Behavior With New Status Function Declarations: Deliberately Unifying Thought And Action
Now one of Collingwood’s concerns, in general, is the unification of thought and action, the unification of moral philosophy and moral behavior. Now, if our actions come about as a result of the status functions that structure our social lives, and if the corruption of consciousness is one of our key concerns, then how do we go about aligning our thought and our behavior? Well, an unrealistic conclusion, but one which I fear I must tentatively talk about right now, is that the artist attempts to create new status functions that would allow people to behave differently. This could in a sense be conceptualized as enabling a freedom of sorts. Because I’ll be frank, I don’t feel free in my own life. I feel that the things around me, the status functions that structure my life, restrict me. I am not free to do whatever I want. I am free to do what I am capable of doing within the already established status functions. I am only free in the sense of ‘meta-strategy’. I can develop my own strategy, but it must operate within the already existing social strategies that structure my life. Freedom within a social determinism. Relative freedom.
So could new status functions enable a new freedom of sorts? Well, if status functions are what already structure our lives, then would it be possible to restructure them by creating new status functions? The answer is yes, but the scale matters. A small example. When I drove a car in high school everyone followed the rules of the game ‘shotgun’, so that if you yelled ‘shotgun’ then you got to sit in the front seat of my car. I didn’t tolerate that. I thought it was dumb. I enforced a rotational system in my car. People would exchange front and back seats. I pointed this out to people, I made the declaration. I was in effect making a status function declaration about my car. Interesting, because my ownership of the car was in itself a status function. And having that status function of ownership gave me the power to make a new status function declaration that would change the way that people behaved. So in this example it is clear that I was modifying the way that people behaved with the way that I spoke, with the things that I declared. By Searle’s definition, I was creating a new institutional reality.
So sure, on a small scale, new status function declarations can enable new forms of behavior. But how to create status functions that function on a larger scale? Seems like a much more difficult task, frankly, like the task of a government. I already used the example of how the Soviets called everyone comrade in an attempt to create a new set of status functions and relationships. Perhaps if the artist is simply exposing status functions for what they are, that would be enough to create new status functions. If the artist is truly capable of empathizing with his community, and capable of speaking their hearts, then perhaps that is enough to bring new status functions into existence. It seems that the artist can’t go about creating new status functions, he can’t be prescriptive. All he can do is express and expose the status functions that people are unaware of. This is why “Art is not contemplation, it is action.... it requires of the artist that he should participate in his public’s emotions, and therefore in the activities with which these emotions are bound up” (332). So if the artist is sharing his people’s emotions then he will be able to express what they feel, and alert them to the structures of their lives.
Perhaps this type of expression should simply make people more aware. Perhaps this is how art can battle the corruption of consciousness. By exposing status functions for what they are the artist will jar people out of complacency, he will make them see their lives in a new way, he will reinvigorate their awareness, re-spark their consciousness. Perhaps this will be something like a mindfulness. Hmmm. Curious. It reminds me of something Searle says in Making The Social World: “My main strategy in this book is to try to make the familiar seem strange and striking” (106). The corruption of consciousness comes from a complacency with life, and a sense that our way of living is boring drudgery. To make the familiar seem startling sounds much to me like the reinvigoration of consciousness. It seems, therefore, that the artists task is not to create new status functions, but to expose existing ones, thereby giving other people a chance to create new ones. Expression that precedes social creativity.
This would be how the artist would open people up to new behavior. She would display to the public the status functions that structure their lives, and thereby give them chances to behave in new ways, and give them a chance to restructure their lives. But this could breakdown into a loop of restructuring. Perhaps that would be for the best.
The last thing I want to do is make some vague connections to neuroplasticity.
12. New Status Functions As New Thoughts As New Actions As New Brains: Art And Neuroplasticity
So, I am hopelessly interested in the idea of neuroplasticity. The idea that when we think differently and behave differently we change our brain. Why am I so drawn to this idea? Why does it matter so much that thought can change the brain? Well, I suspect I feel overwhelmed by the prevalence of scientistic thought. Science is regarded as the pinnacle of knowledge it seems. So I don’t know, I’m drawn to connect things to scientific evidence as much as I can, as poor as my grasp on the stuff is. But nonetheless I think it is important. I think that it can help us understand how it is that our culture effects our behavior. I think it helps us demolish the notion of ‘essential’ or ‘hardwired’ aspects of ourselves. It shows us that we are plastic, that we can change, and that we can change as the result of thought. So this section can essentially be stated in a single sentence: if new status functions enable new categories, then that enables new thought, and if new thought enables new actions, then that undoubtedly means we would have new brains. If we behave differently that will show in the brain. Art, therefore, has the power to change the brain for the better. I think that this is doubly the case if we regard art as a source of synthetic experience.
Later in this essay I’m going to be exploring the issue of neuroplasticity and synthetic experience more fully. But I guess I’m just dropping this note on neuroplasticity now so that it isn’t a total curveball later on. To restructure our consciousness by creating new status functions would be to restructure our neural circuits.
Concluding Part II.2
This section was awkward, difficult, and a bit frustrating. I tried to connect Searle’s work to everything that I was saying, and don’t really know if I did it successfully or not. But generally here is what I tried to do. I tried to ask about what type of thing the artist could be expressing that would be valuable to an entire community. How could one person’s expression have something to do with the hearts of everyone who lives in that society. I concluded that Searle’s work on status functions could help us understand how a whole society could feel something yet be unaware that they were really feeling it. Status functions fit the bill perfectly: they are linguistically constructed realities that structure civilization and our individual experience. I tried to explain how they structured our emotional reactions, our consciousness, our physical behavior, and thus the bulk of our experience. Having established the importance of status functions generally, I tried to connect it to Collingwood’s notion of ‘the corruption of consciousness’. I claimed that the social disease that Collingwood diagnosis probably has something to do with status functions, and more specifically, with capitalism and its associated status functions. If Collingwood is correct, and art is the antidote to the corruption of consciousness, then doesn’t art therefore have something to do with status functions, their exposure, and their restructuring? I concluded that yes, that artist must be in some way exposing status functions that are structuring our experience, and thus making it possible for new status functions to come into existence. This is one way that the artist would be able to introduce new types of behavior into the social world; she could reveal the linguistic structure of experience and thus allow people to overcome rutted ways of thinking and acting. This would, I think, constitute an antidote to the corruption of consciousness. If you were to reveal status functions for what they are you could then reinvigorate consciousness, bringing new things into people’s realm of awareness. The artist’s task, in some way, is to raise consciousness (shout out to Mary). I then made a vague (and probably useless) connection to art and neuroplasticity, briefly telling you that if artists were there to raise awareness, and to change behavior, then they would in essence be changing brains. A mishmash of reflections on status functions, art, and social change, I know.
Concluding All Of Part II
In all of part II I was generally trying to state what the use of art could potentially be. I handled it in two sections. Part II.1 I was trying to explain the relationship between empathy, society, and history. Art is about emotions, and therefore it has to have something to do with empathy. I ended up explaining how art as the expression of emotions and experience, must be about a pedagogically useful empathy: it has to be a sharing of experience that helps other people learn to feel things for themselves. What I described was an empathic loop in which the artist empathizes with his community and expresses their emotions for them, and the audience in turn empathizing with the artist’s expression, thereby learning to express for themselves. Finally I tried to explain how this was a historically situated process by which the artist was trying to diagnose and express the condition of his times, thereby making art a ‘modern’ or ‘genealogical’ process.
In part II.2 I tried to take these questions of art, society, and empathy into a more technical realm by introducing John Searle’s work into the picture. I summarized that section above. But basically the question was: If the artist empathizes with the community and expresses their heart, thereby giving them self-knowledge, what type of thing could the artist possibly be expressing? It now seems somewhat clear that the artist is expressing something that has to do with status functions and the way they structure life. In his own time, Collingwood believed that the greatest issue for art to tackle was ‘the corruption of consciousness’; by which he means society’s inability to engage its own emotions due to the plethora of amusement that was distracting people. Collingwood believed that this had to do with the working world, with economic organization, which I explained, is one of the most important status functions that is still around us today. Furthermore, I also believe that the corruption of consciousness is a serious problem, and that amusement is rampant. It seems to me, therefore, that art as the empathic expression of the social effect of status functions may still be a viable means of combatting the corruption of consciousness in contemporary society.
In the next section I will be elaborating the full claim that all of this has been building towards: the notion of an aesthetics of existence; the idea that all of life can become an art form. Whether existential aesthetics has the same pragmatics as art as Collingwood describes it is yet to be determined. But I will tentatively say that I think that these ideas about the empathic exposure of status functions will still apply to life as an art form. Here I go.
I think that my writing in this section became a bit self-deprecating at times. I was frustrated. I am not informed enough for this stuff. I’m writing about things far too serious for me, things far beyond my grasp. But that is why I’m reaching. If I’m not confused I’m not working hard enough. If I’m not confused I’m not thinking clearly. If I’m not confused I’m probably not learning. I want so badly to learn and to be a good person. I want philosophy to help me live a good life.