Thoughts on Art, Theory, and Idealism – part three

I have decided part three should be dedicated to a useful philosophical concept with a very silly name, “The Gem”, a concept introduced into the philosophical lexicon by the late Australian skeptic David Stove.  Stove introduced the term so that philosophers could talk easily about a family of arguments for idealism that start from a tautology about mental phenomena – thought, language, consciousness, discourse, etc – and end by concluding we can only know ideas. A tautology is an argument that repeats itself needlessly, usually in an attempt to sound more profound or informative than it really is. An example that Stove uses is”Whatever will be will be” which doesn’t tell us much at all, it is merely true, and we can’t derive non-tautological conclusions from tautological statements. In other words, there is no way for us to take “Whatever will be will be” and draw from that the non-tautological conclusion that, “Everything anyone does is ineffectual” (fatalism). The only valid conclusions we can draw from “Whatever will be will be” are just variations of “Whatever will be will be.” So we can’t deduce much of any use from the statement “Whatever will be will be”.

It is the same for the initial premise of any Gem. These are always a tautology along the lines that we can only think our own thoughts, we can only speak our own languages, we can only be conscious within our own consciousness, or we can only know what we know. This information is only roughly as exciting or useful to us as the fact that we can only walk with our own feet, or taste with our own tongues. We might just as well say, without repetition, that we taste things, we think about things, we talk about things, and we can walk. To use Stove’s own words,

“Any argument is a Gem if it pretends to deduce, from a tautological premise about knowledge or thought or consciousness, that the only possible objects of knowledge, or that the only possible objects, are internal or mental or spiritual.”

– p148, Idealism: a Victorian Horror-story (Part Two), The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies. David Stove. 1991.

Stove introduced the Gem in a long essay tracing the history of idealism throughout the Victorian era, but Gems live on today, especially in the sort of pseudo-intellectual postmodernist theories that dominate in art academia.

For example, setting aside that psychoanalysis itself is pseudoscience, the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s concepts like the Real, the Mirror Stage, etc, all rest on a Gem. Lacan’s “Real” is not functionally different from Kant’s “things-as-they-are-in-themselves”, although Lacan, coming from a school of sophistry, uses a great deal of jargon and odd metaphoric language that could fool an uninformed reader into thinking he was saying something clever and new. Lacan’s position that our language structures our known reality is a fundamentally idealist conception that works in a similar way to tautologies like “we can only think our own thoughts, we can only speak our own language, or we can only be conscious within our own consciousness.” His conclusion that once we have acquired language we are disbarred from direct knowledge of the Real, it hopefully should be obvious to you now, makes his whole position into a Gem, and it also means that Lacan is an idealist in the Kantian tradition (there remain important differences, though, hence I say “tradition”, and not just that they are Kantian Idealists). Likewise many followers of Lacan, even those who pretend to be Marxists and materialists at length and very pompously, such as Slavoj Žižek, are very obviously idealists in the Kantian tradition. There is no other explanation for how Žižek can say such ludicrously anti-materialist things as “[…] as soon as we renounce fiction and illusion, we lose reality itself; the moment we subtract fictions from reality, reality itself loses its discursive-logical consistency.” Only by idealism could anyone seriously allege our engagement with reality depends merely on our ability to create fictions!

Very similar passages, disguised by excessively-jargoned prose, appear throughout postmodern works, for example Gilles Deleuze’s The Fold informs its reader that “Every perception is hallucinatory because perception has no object. Conscious perception has no object and does not refer to a physical mechanism of excitation that could explain it from without: it refers only to the exclusively physical mechanism of differential relations among unconscious perceptions that are comprising it within the monad.” The effect is to scare, by the sheer snobbishness of the chosen language, the unprepared reader into thinking that they might have read something more deep and meaningful than a riff on the same old Kantian theme (albeit by incorporating Leibniz’s concept of the monad). Of course conscious perception has objects. We perceive the material world around us, often rightly, and sometimes wrongly (eg, when we really are hallucinating), and we perceive it by material means, consciousness being formed out of material processes. It is not hard to find the Gem underlying all this Deleuzian nonsense.

Likewise, setting aside the fact that Ferdinand de Saussure’s linguistic theory of semiotics is outmoded in the field of linguistics, semiotics as art academics tend to employ it amounts to a Gem due to the alleged relationship between “signifiers” (basically: words/appearances) and the “signified” (again, something amounting to Kant’s “things-as-they-are-in-themselves”). I am hardly the first to notice any of this, and it is only by isolating themselves intellectually, and reading inappropriately narrowly, that art world academics can remain oblivious to it all. If you have access to JSTOR then Dieter Freundlieb makes this case in much more detail in his essay Semiotic Idealism, published in 1988. If you are working in the art world, and feel you’ve got your head around Kant’s position reasonably well, then I cannot recommend this essay highly enough.

At any rate, I want to sign off this post with a reminder that, really – as should be pretty apparent – an artist ought not need to know all this philosophy to be a good artist, and it is only the enormously backward and miseducational theoretic environment of art academia that is forcing me to go to this trouble. Given my theory lecturers seem (politely) impervious to criticism – as well they would be, it tends to hold a subtext that criticises their personal career choice and their qualification to hold the positions of authority that they do – blogging like this is liable to be my sanity’s only outlet. I cited Freundlieb in an essay last year, putting forward the same case, and my lecturer simply asserted, without making any case for the assertion, that she still thought it wasn’t idealism. Another of my lecturers both teaches this kind of idealism, and pretends to be a Marxist – a philosophical position that implies materialism (central to Marxist philosophy is the concept of Historical Materialism). Again, it is only by profoundly narrow and self-serving reading that such incoherent positions are tenable.

I need to go off and decide how to make this series informative and useful. I have at least two more posts I need to make 1) materialist philosophies so you’re not stuck with a dismantled idealism and little else 2) reasons why nobody should be tempted to think idealism is a decent way to go.  I don’t think it’s enough just to regurgitate analytic philosophy, that could take up a lifetime, and as I said in my very first post… I’m not a philosopher. I don’t want to have to be a philosopher, I just feel rather forced by what’s going on in an industry I may have to try to survive within. I might yet replace this series with a weekly-or-so unpicking of a lie, misrepresentation, or fallacy that is popular in the academic world of art and design. Idealism is only one in a vast catalogue of postmodernist errors and outright lies stretching back into the 1950s, although it’s good to get idealism explained early as it’s one of the preconditions for so much of the sophistry that follows.

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2 Responses to Thoughts on Art, Theory, and Idealism – part three

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on Art, Theory, and Idealism – part two | Oily Mud on a Piece of Cloth

  2. Pingback: A slight intermission in that Thoughts on Theory series. | Oily Mud on a Piece of Cloth

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