Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate is as thorough a refutation of the premises underlying radical social constructionism as the proponents of a Darwinian-informed view of human culture and behavior could hope for. In his characteristically lucid style and buoyant manner, Pinker convincingly, and one would say definitively, demonstrates the implausibility of the social constructionist’s belief in the all-encompassing effects of environment in the shaping of behavior, a belief inseparable from such essentially metaphysical notions as the “blank slate,” the “noble savage,” and the “ghost in the machine.” And although one could question the degree to which he demonstrates the correspondingly determinative effects of genes, or what Pinker generally refers to as “human nature,” that genetics are determinative of many human characteristics and activities seems ultimately uncontestable.
However, in the chapter on the biological origins of art and the appreciation of art (easily the weakest chapter in The Blank Slate), Pinker comes close to suggesting that art and literature are necessarily restricted to fulfilling biological functions assigned by human nature and that any artists or writers failing to meet the terms of these requirements are thereby derelict in their duties. Pinker’s implicit defense of representational art, tonal music, and traditional narrative is unmistakable, and at times even strident, as if Pinker’s impatience with those who persist in their ignorance of the imperatives of Darwinian selection has finally broken through his usually charitable manner (as revealed in his previous books). It seems a peculiar overreaction to the transgressions of these parties, and it almost invites closer scrutiny. In Pinker’s account, the culprits here are not merely the usual postmodern suspects so frequently identified by critics of contemporary art and literature, but can be traced all the way back to the early modernists: the painters and their “freakish distortions,” the fiction writers, with their “disjointed narration and difficult prose,” the poets who “abandoned clarity,” the “dissonant” composers unable to appreciate rhythm and melody, the whole lot producing nothing but “weird and disturbing art.” Given the public’s presumptive preference for the familiar and comforting, the work of modernists and postmodernists alike is characterized not only as artistic failure but as a kind of moral decadence as well.
This is only a slight exaggeration of the animus Pinker seems to feel toward the unconventional in art and literature. And although one might agree with him that much twentieth-century art—but not only twentieth-century art—represents a rejection of the mass audience’s preference for the recognizable pleasures of the pictorial, the harmonious, or the dramatic, this hardly seems a wholesale rejection of “human nature.” The denial of inveterate human desires and predispositions in social science and public policy surely does have baneful consequences both for intellectual inquiry and for the general welfare, as Pinker spends much of his book demonstrating. It is hard to see, however, how the iconoclasm of modern artists yields similar consequences. As Pinker himself argues, the mass audience manages to find the art it needs anyway, despite the misguided labors of the highbrow artists. Can it really be said that these artists have in any significant way truly endangered the public weal?
Pinker further muddles the case against experimental art by entirely collapsing what ought to be an obvious distinction between artists and writers on the one hand and, on the other, the theorists and scholars in the academy who claim authority over the critical consideration of art and literature. Manifestly, his quarrel is with “postmodern” theory (itself an overly capacious category mixing different and conflicting intellectual approaches) far more than with the works of art often tagged with the postmodern label, scarcely any of which are actually cited by Pinker as examples of the kind of harmful art he has in mind. Pinker is certainly not alone in reflexively associating serious art with the academy; all of the arts, but literature especially, have indeed been firmly affixed to, if not completely subsumed by, the academy and the protocols of academic study, perhaps even to the point that we can no longer think of the arts or humanities as anything but “subjects” taken up by the university.
Nevertheless, one might still presume that individual artists and writers could break convention, reject established methods, even attempt to shake readers or viewers out of complacent habits, all in good faith and without any intention to deny human nature or participate in a political crusade to enforce rigid or radical doctrines. One might even presume that such artists could consider these kinds of efforts to be in the interest of art in a purely aesthetic sense, not because art will thereby “progress” in some dubious and implausible fashion but because art includes as part of its own nature the capacity, if not the imperative, to explore the boundaries of the human imagination. Pinker comes close to suggesting that any art that does not confirm the hypothesis that art originates in other human attributes—adaptations that helped us to navigate and control what Pinker and the evolutionary psychologists he cites like to call our “ancestral environment”—is perforce bad and irresponsible art. But how could this be? Why should otherwise serious and creative works and art or literature be disparaged because they allegedly do not reflect the use of faculties developed to confront conditions our ancestors confronted hundreds of thousands of years ago?
Pinker has elsewhere discussed the fallacy of thinking we cannot in some cases overcome or simply ignore the prescriptions issued to us by our genetic inheritance. Referring specifically to the biological command to bear children, Pinker advises that it is possible for us to metaphorically inform our imperious genes to “go jump in the lake” (How the Mind Works). In her bookHomo Aestheticus, Ellen Dissanayake, herself a well-known proponent of a Darwinian approach to art (and cited by Pinker in The Blank Slate), puts it somewhat differently: “Unlike cats and dogs, we are not prisoners of either our aggressive or our sexual drives. Our more complex abilities to remember and foresee, weigh alternatives, imagine, and reflect allow us to think of our long-term interests and choose not to do what our natural’ (or short-term) interests and inclinations might first suggest.” At the very least, it seems worth asking why, if we are capable of redirecting “drives” as powerful as these, we cannot also similarly modify, even ignore, the effects of those biological prompts Pinker considers the ultimate sources of art: “hunger for status,” the “pleasure of experiencing adaptive objects and environments,” as well as “the ability to design artifacts to achieve desired ends.”
This last-named endowment (no doubt itself originating in other genetic expressions) in particular seems an odd sort of feature to emphasize in an analysis that essentially maintains there are limits on what artists and writers should try to achieve. Of course, one could quite plausibly believe some “desired ends” are more desirable than others, but Pinker’s argument all but reduces itself to the proposition that only art appealing to an audience evincing the preferences with which natural selection provided it can really be called art. It is difficult to distinguish here between Pinker’s own taste in art and literature and his need to find a place for “the genes” in all human activities, but it can’t be the case that popularity is the final arbiter of what can be considered art, even if what is popular coincides with the Darwinian account of the provenance of art favored by the evolutionary psychologist—or the psycholinguist (Pinker) sympathetic to this account.
Ultimately, then, Pinker’s underlying argument is that due to a confluence of genetic attributes, not through a simple “art gene” but through a contingent intermeshing in our genetic wiring, human beings are predisposed to take pleasure in symmetry and proportion, harmony and progression, structured drama and linear narrative. Plenty of great art and literature has exhibited these characteristics, without question, but if one takes Pinker’s attitude toward such accomplishments, their greatness would seem to have little to do with the genius or even the mere creativity which they embody but is more a matter of the art lessons written in to our genetic code. It doesn’t finally seem much of an achievement to fashion supposed artworks one couldn’t help but produce anyway—and if not produced by one artist then surely, eventually, by another.
It might be possible to embrace an argument like this while also, for example, acknowledging that opinions about such things as “beauty” or “coherence” might differ and that there is room for disagreement about what comes off as compelling in works of art and literature in specific instances. In my view, however, Pinker doesn’t much care to affirm this possibility; he conveys the distinct if cursory impression that successful art can only be so not merely because it taps into the source of possibilities provided by nature but because it carries out the original directives communicated by the genes in the most pristine and ingenuous way. That human artistic abilities might be rechanneled in a modern environment, where those directives have at the least a more muted urgency as instruments of “fitness,” seems an idea not worth considering. Certainly art cannot escape its evolutionary origins; but must it be strictly coterminous with them?
Any plausible philosophy of art must of course start with the biological/genetic foundation of the creative impulse. To this extent Pinker and other writers seeking to relocate the study and criticism of art and literature on more scientifically credible ground are providing a salutary and needed service; as manifestations of the exercise of human imagination, works of art and literature are unavoidably expressions of how the mind works. In some ways, in fact, since acts of the artistic imagination are a kind of deliberate (if not exactly deliberative) synthesis of various of the more immediate functions (Pinker likes to refer to them as “modules”) of the brain, works of art might be seen as particularly illuminating of human mental processes. Similarly, since such processes have evolved in accord with the logic of natural selection, they are undeniably the product of the working out of genetic imperatives.
It might seem that literature in particular—both fiction and poetry—is especially destined to reflect its genetic origins, given that its medium, language, is so obviously an example of a human faculty produced directly by natural selection and deeply rooted in the physical properties of the brain. Further, because the evolved function of language is plainly as a tool of “communication,” literature might be said to be tied more securely to its physiological foundations even than the other arts. And indeed there is little point in denying that poets and fiction writers begin with a medium whose immediate object is to represent the real world of experience in an orderly and coherent way and, more to the point, as transparently as possible. However, precisely as a consequence of these apparent constraints inherent in the use of language, literature is actually by its very nature an effort to escape the habitual and ingrained assumptions about the status of language that are involved in its ordinary applications.
Both poetry and fiction—the latter increasingly so over the course of its history, as distinctions between the two modes become less significant—are most immediately the deliberate assertion of language as something other than ordinary communication. While language is certainly not always simply a medium of plain speaking (even in everyday usage words are often employed for figurative or expressive effect in a manner that calls attention to the very fact that language can be made to perform in these ways), works of imaginative literature insist on the potential for all words to be parts of an entirely artificial discourse in which language is free to explore the limits of what it is capable of disclosing. One might say that literature makes systematic this ability of language to transcend its innate function and to become in a specified context self-reflexively the “material” for artistic creation.
Most works of literature, at least prior to the twentieth century, call attention to language as a potentially malleable medium (as an instance of what Dissanayake calls “making special”) in a relatively conventionalized way, such that most of us simply accept this somewhat more plastic quality of written language when employed by poets and novelists. Moreover, in many cases such “crafted” writing continues to be taken as a mode of communication, albeit one whose meaning is imparted indirectly and in a stylized manner that marks it off from both speech and other forms of writing (as in most “realistic” or “well-made” narratives). Yet, finally, it is very difficult to see how, once literature is granted this special exemption from carrying out the work assigned to language in its “natural” state, it is plausible to insist that it may go only so far in asserting the purely aesthetic potential of writing but no farther. We have indeed moved substantially toward what Dissanayake calls a “hyperliterate” culture (a designation she does not intend kindly, especially toward the literary-intellectual examplars of the trait), one in which all of our language-use has become increasingly self-conscious. But is it possible or even desirable that we somehow relinquish this culturally evolved disposition?
Indeed, we would need to relinquish as well the whole enterprise of literary criticism, at least in its modern form, unless we were to agree that any attention to form and style in works of literature is not to be considered. Granting that much current academic literary criticism is ideologically driven in the “postmodern” direction Pinker deplores, such a moralistic content-focused critical approach is arguably more consistent with Pinker’s own preference for readily assimilable art than more “old-fashioned” formalist or rhetorical criticism. One suspects that Pinker objects precisely to the ideology of postmodernism rather than any particular method of critical analysis it might employ, since in fact his consideration of “the arts” shows almost no serious concern for what might legitimately be the function of criticism, if anything implicitly dismissing it as an unnecessary imposition on the immediate response elicited by art in its authentic state. Perhaps those proponents of art-as-biology less inclined to regard criticism as a wholly marginal activity would find compelling instead the model offered by Frederick Turner in his book Natural Classicism: literary criticism as a kind of mutual performance between reader and text, a model that preserves both the organic essence of art and a way to bring a degree of unity and definition to the interpretation of literature.
Like Dissanayake, Turner fears that too much emphasis has been placed on the textuality of literature, in the process allowing us to lose sight of the “ritual” qualities someone sympathetic to the Darwinian/anthropological account of the role of art would predictably enough choose to highlight. Pinker, who finally seems less convinced than either Dissanayake or Turner of the human centrality of art in the first place, does not belabor the anthropological confirmation of the impulse to make art, but his impatience with modern literature seems no less consistent with the charge both Dissanayake and Turner bring against unconventional or aesthetically provocative work of literature without ever quite stating it explicitly: such works fail to remain in their proper place, their authors revealing themselves altogether too willing to engage in too much writing. To use language to create poems and stories that “reflect the perennial and universal qualities of the human species” (Pinker) while conforming to equally “perennial” and formulaic patterns is one thing, these authors seem to agree, but to do so, in part, at least, in order to potentially augment the resources of imagination and of writing itself is, well, unnatural.
“In postmodernist literature,” Pinker sneers, “authors comment on what they are writing while they are writing it.” Putting aside the fact that writers going back at least as far as Shakespeare and Chaucer have committed such an offense, it is to say the least unclear why in itself this strategy (as well as similar self-reflexive gestures in the other arts) should be regarded as an aesthetic outrage. Is it (barely) acceptable for literary critics to reflect on the processes or techniques involved in composing works of literature but required that the author of these works must agree to maintain the illusion that they are never the result of such processes but rather sprang full-born from the brain, or better yet, composed themselves?
It’s taking the principle of “suspension of disbelief” pretty far to insist that all awareness—on the author’s part or the reader’s—of the artifice inherent in all works of literature be suppressed. Not only have indisputably great writers, of whom Pinker would presumably approve, indulged in various forms of “breaking the frame,” but the nature of art and of the “literary” have always been among the subjects these writers have treated, especially the nature of artistic representation as a way of organizing experience. We need only think of Shakespeare’s digressions on theater, the Romantic poets’ incessant lyrical celebrations of art and of poetry itself, Henry James’s stories about artists, or Hawthorne’s stories about creation, artistic and otherwise, to know that this is true. Such recursiveness, one could argue, is not an unnatural imposition on an otherwise unmannered art form, but is inherent in the effort to use language to create literary art in the first place.
Quite frankly, one gets the impression in reading Pinker that he doesn’t have much use for either art in general or literature more specifically unless they are taken simply as diversions for the multitudes, a nice way of illustrating how the human mind is equipped to create symmetry and order out of raw experience, but not to be valued beyond that. It’s as if Pinker, and to a lesser degree Dissanayake and Turner, are almost offended at the notion that artists and writers might want to challenge accepted if unexamined assumptions about the function of art, that some of them might even presume to create works manifesting qualities sadly inconsistent with the biologically determined dictates about what proper art will be allowed to do.
This impatience with more adventurous art and writing is even more perplexing if we consider art in other than purely aesthetic terms. All art, perhaps especially literature, is also a means by which the human mind enhances its own ability to have meaningful experiences, to experience experience, as it were. As John Dewey in Art as Experience describes our encounter with art, it is an effort both to approximate the kind of experience the artist or writer went through in creating the work (in order to understand the work itself as thoroughly as possible) and to clarify most intensely the very nature of experience as a human capacity. In a very real sense, an attentive consideration of a work of art in all of its particulars is the act most revealing of what the human mind has evolved to attain: a level of consciousness by which the mind becomes aware of itself and its own operations, is able to understand what it means to undergo an experience and to self-consciously appreciate it. One would think that a psychologist such as Pinker might be interested in this activity, but one might as easily conclude from The Blank Slate that where aesthetic experience is concerned the mind might just as well be a blank slate.
Furthermore, the cumulative effects of such intense acquaintance with works of art and literature can only work to sharpen this ability of the mind to take stock of experience, both the more concentrated awareness provoked in our encounter with art but also our mundane and otherwise less accentuated alertness to the world we live in. In this sense, it represents an amplification of consciousness itself, in effect an aggrandizement of the biologically developed mechanisms that Pinker or Dissanayake seem to insist are the limits of the human capacity to make and profitably comprehend works of art and literature. Moreover, such an educated familiarity with the particulars of aesthetic experience might even—ideally, in fact, would—perform the additionally useful service of the more brightly illuminating the distinction between our experience of works of art—experience that is highly organized and artificially induced—and the very different kind of experience in which we find ourselves occupied in our ordinary, much more disorderly and prosaic reality.
Literature especially ought to provide us with the ability to distinguish adequately between aesthetic arrangement and reality, between fiction and life. Novels, stories, plays, many poems give a shape and direction to an imagined reality that frequently stands in sharp contrast—either favorably or unfavorably—to reality as we live it. While on the one hand the kind of order to be found in works of literature is an attractive alternative to the disorder of real life, might even be exactly the sort of thing the human mind has evolved to perceive, on the other hand the appeal of such constructed patternings as are made available in literature ought to be regarded with caution, especially when this patterning explicitly presents itself as “story.” The power stories have in seeming to “make sense” of experience (although not necessarily always in a reassuring way) is sufficient to influence us to propose organizing ordinary reality in ways that give it the more consistent shape of fiction. (Chronicling all of the various ways this happens might require a separate essay, but most strongly-held ideologies partake of this tendency.)
Taking literature seriously in this context means being alert to the formal organization, narrative and otherwise, that defines it as literature, and equally alert, not merely to the absence of this kind of organization in reality as we know it, but to the incommensurability between the necessary distortions by definition required by literary narrative and the contingent and cumulative nature of the circumstances in which we are irretrievably implicated, between the manifestly make-believe and the unavoidably real. Indeed, the more familiar one becomes with the narrative strategies and aesthetic designs employed in works of literature, the more apparent it becomes when such strategies are used in interpreting the world (inappropriately, as with social constructionism) and to devise schemes that force reality to conform to more convenient and more satisfying stories—an invading army of benevolent liberators, for example, being greeted by the natives with grateful praises, leading to the transformation of a lawless land into a Westernized paradise, a democratic oasis in an autocratic desert.
I would contend that the simplistic and passive appreciation of the kind of unexamined storytelling that Pinker valorizes in The Blank Slate only encourages an approach to literature that sees it as offering lessons for life, intimations of a better way to arrange things. (Although Pinker himself does not suggest this; he’s clearly more inclined to regard art as mere entertainment.) Rather than understanding literature—all works of the imagination—as a potential tool of consciousness, helping us both to clarify the nature of aesthetic experience and to dispel the illusion that we cast over the rest of our experience, this assumption about what literature can do for us arguably allows consciousness to become the acquiescent screen on which fanciful stories are projected—another version of the blank slate. I don’t claim that only art and literature help us, in effect, to face reality—certainly science remains the most direct means of coming to terms with the real—but the converse view, that art is an escape from reality, arises primarily from a lack of interest in discovering the potential of art in the first place.
Surely the human mind is not destined to remain undeveloped beyond its adaptation to the ancestral environment, unable to use in new ways those capacities with which it is equipped, incapable of exploring its own possibilities, possibilities that might be at odds with the purely utilitarian functions its primordial environment programmed it to serve. Is self-referential or iconoclastic fiction and poetry to be condemned because it represents an attempt to seek out these possibilities, to examine and interrogate the conventions that, no matter what biological process has influenced their development, are taken to define the very practice of these forms of writing, that supposedly identify them as literary? Such an effort is probably inevitable in almost all artistic endeavors, and might even itself be an unavoidable result of the human impulse to create art and thus just as biologically natural as the prettiest picture or the most compellingly told story. Is it really possible to maintain that artists and writers ought to observe some preconceived instructions as to what their chosen media might be employed to accomplish, solely in order to demonstrate that Stephen Pinker’s insistence that the human brain comes pre-equipped with an artistic paradigm is correct?
Ultimately, where art and literature are concerned, neither side in this version of the nature/nurture argument does much justice to either the demonstrated or the potential reach of human creativity. In this way they are remarkably similar. Both the view that artistic creativity is the sum of different biological functions and the view that it must be socially constructed want to reduce the creation of art to a conjunction of forces working on the artist in ways of which he/she cannot be aware, something that accounts for the complexities of art in a neat and seamless formulation that requires no further debate or needless elaboration. Both views, when considered not as tentative explanations of an otherwise irrepressible human activity but as final and all-encompassing truth, finally have very little to say about what artists and writers really do, although they might provide insight into how difficult it is for a mass audience to appreciate what these artists do. But perhaps if scientists and social scientists didn’t encourage this audience to accept the idea there ought properly to be normative standards for the creation of art, standards based on the most unreflective assumptions it is further encouraged not to question, for the creation of art and the violation of which is not only an offense against the acceptable in art but a violation of the laws of human nature, perhaps both artists and audience would stand a better chance of finding common cause.
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