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Evolit: Week 8--Making the Transition

Anne Dalke's picture
Paul and I are glad you're here, to share thoughts about the story of evolution and the evolution of stories. This isn't a place for polished writing or final words. It's a place for thoughts in progress: questions, ideas you had before, in or after class, things you've heard or read or seen that you think others might find interesting. Think of it as a public conversation, a place to put things from your mind or brain that others might find useful and to find things from others (in our class and elsewhere) that you might find useful. And a place we can always go back to to see what we were thinking before and how our class conversations have affected that. We are looking forward to seeing where we go, and hoping you are too.

As always, you're free to write about whatever you're thinking about this week. We're now making the transition from "the story of evolution" to "the evolution of stories." How are you managing? Getting the bends? What struck, or engaged, or puzzled you, in Feyerabend's "Against Method"? In Sontag's "Against Interpretation"? In the relation between them? Or in the relation between their claims, and the ideas we've been exploring together here? In what ways do each of these clusters of ideas rub up against one another? Or fail to?
Hilary McGowan's picture

Do I prefer the shapes or

Do I prefer the shapes or the chair? Aren't they really all just flat shapes drawn on a chalkboard? I like them both, I guess. Finding a reason to prefer one over the other seems a tad strange and like I need to judge the quality rather than just accept what it is. Not everything has to be better or worse than another thing, they don't need to compete just because they are bothe drawings.

Why can't the drawings get along and why do they have to mean two different things?

merlin's picture

In psychology class, i

In psychology class, i recently learned about decision-making in the context of the court room. In a model of jury decision-making known as the 'story model,' the individual juror constructs a story to explain the pieces of information at hand using prior life experience, attitudes and viewpoints, and other such extraneous information. Regardless of whether or not the jurors are instructed to postpone interpretation, it is oftentimes the case that they do not come to conclusions only after hearing all the evidence. Inference and interpretation are both natural, automatic responses in the thought process and we construct stories to make sence of our surroundings each and every day, it is just a part of our cognition. So, although sontag is against interpretation, I feel as though her mention of the topic can be related to the judge telling jury members to hear all evidence before reaching a conclusion. We hear what she is saying and even understand its importance, but cant help but construct that story. It is good to understand this downside to interpretation and how, in english class, an art galery, a court room, or on the sidewalk, the way we process information is what allows us to make sense of what is around us. One particular drawback of story construction is that oftentimes we miss bits and pieces of information which our minds do not weave into the story. Maybe they seem insignificant at the time, but later on, it can be suprising how much we don't remember, or even misremember. Maybe this is why we reread stories. If we were completely non-interpretive, as Sontag suggests, than maybe lack of story-construction would lead to a less biased way of analyzing that which is before us. But interpretation and analysis seem to be just what allows us to understand. It seems that interpretation is closely linked with cognition. Would we actually remeber less at the end had we not constructed a story in our minds? because story construction allows us to deal with and later remember the information before us, maybe lack of interpretation would acutally have an inhibiting effect in the long run.
ccrichar's picture

Walt Whitman and Originality

I think Walt Whitman is original in that he only has five years of education to account for.  He tries to come across as free spirited and he does but I think he is original in that he cannot be less than original because he does not have a main stream education even for his day.  His originality is in the fact that he lacks education and can produce writing for the world to read.
ccrichar's picture

Walt Whitman and His Writing

I do not enjoy reading Leaves of Grass because it is repetitive and switches from prose to poetry or rather sorta poetry.  His lack of education shows in his writing.  His use of ... at the end of many sentences could have been his own words instead of continually requesting the reader to fill in the blanks.  I wonder what he is trying to convey as I read.
ccrichar's picture

Walt Whitman and His Writing

I do not enjoy reading Leaves of Grass because it is repetitive and switches from prose to poetry or rather sorta poetry.  His lack of education shows in his writing.  His use of ... at the end of many sentences could have been his own words instead of continually requesting the reader to fill in the blanks.  I wonder what he is trying to convey as I read.
L.Kelly-Bowditch's picture

Whitman and Sontag

When I began reading Whitman, my first reaction was confusion at the stilted, snapshot like images he presented to us. I couldn't figure out where he was taking me, what I was supposed to get out of this.

Then I remembered--I wasn't supposed to do that.

It seems that Sontag's argument to see art, in this case Whitman's poetry,  as an invitation to new outlooks on life, new ways of seeing things, fit together with Whitman's admonishment to stop being proud of our ability to understand the meaning of poems. 

He wasn't trying to make a point or teach us anything specific, but rather give us an outlet to reconsider the people he was passing on the street. Those brief snapshots let us reconsider how we see the world, and thus open up new and different choices for our lives.

Once I put two and two together, I really enjoyed reading Whitman's observations and have since rediscovered the joy of people watching on my way to class. 

Student Blogger's picture

The reason I was late with a

The reason I was late with a posting this week was because I wanted to see if a class discussion would help me with understanding Leaves of Grass.  However, I left class feeling as confused as I was when reading.  Like Rica, I am still trying to understand our transition from science to literature (After professor Grobstein's bridge today, I think I only now understand why we are using art as an intermediate).  Also, like Rina, I feel incapable of thinking abstractly.  I feel as though with art, I  find it easier to come up with my own meaning when I am looking at an abstract painting.  When it comes to Whitman though, I feel completely lost.  I am used to seeing poetry written with a structured form and rhythmic pattern like Sir Longsfellow and Whitman's form threw me for a loop.  By seeing this new form, any potential I had for understanding the content was gone because I was so focused on understanding why he was writing the way he was. 
Sophiaolender's picture

From starting Leaves of

From starting Leaves of Grass, I am very intrigued by this new style of writing we are reading. It is very different from the writing of Darwin and Dennett, who wrote in a more scientific way. Whitman writes poetically, every word meaning more than its surface interpretation. The part in the beginning that grabbed me was when Whitman writes, "The world does not so exist parts palpable or impalpable so exist result exists now without being from its long antecedent result, and that from its antecedent, and so backward without the farthest mentionable spot coming a bit nearer the beginning than any other spot... Whatever satisfies the soul is truth."  This has two big ideas -- the first being that every single thing in our universe comes from something before it. This goes back to our discussion on whether or not we are our pasts. I am sure this passage could be argued to aid both sides, but I really think Whitman is getting at the idea that we all come from something, and we are nothing without that something. Then, he tries to define truth, as whatever satisfies the soul. I find this reassuring. I think that people often spend too much time analyzing the world ( as we have been talking about in class), and even more than that, we spend too much time trying to figure out if there is an eternal Truth. I think all people need to realize that we each have our own Truths and it exists solely in our own happiness and self-fulfillment. Whitman gets at that idea often in the beginning of Leaves of Grass - he continually returns to what it is to be happy, or what a good life entails. He speaks of people thinking greatness is making money, and saving it, and living a "lawful life". He argues that true happiness is recognizing the world, seeing all humans as equal, honesty.

aseidman's picture

In favor of interpretation for the sake of non-exclusion

Oh good grief. I just typed a really fantastic two page post and my computer ate it. That really hurts.

 Well, you were all there last week when I made my slightly too personal reference to how visual disability can affect one's perception of art.

 The visual impairment that I'm going to use here as an example is called "simultagnosia." Although I'm afraid I can't unpack the word etymologically, it essentially means that the individual in question has trouble putting together complex visual images. The brain cannot make sense of a series of very complex parts of the same scene.

Take a look at this picture:

What do you see? Someone with advanced simultagnosia would not be able to pick out the flower, the cup, and whatever else was in that picture.

So let's apply this to Sondtag's assertion that art is to be appreciated without recourse to referencing it's content. Someone with this particular visual impairment would be unable to truly appreciate the piece as a whole, since trying to examine it as a whole would create a visual mess for them. Their best bet, then, would be to attempt to pick out some reference point that they recognize, or to interpret the work so that it falls into a category of something they can undersatnd and appreciate.

 This, of course, does not apply solely to visual impairment. A person who is strongly hearing impaired might have trouble understanding the dialogue or hearing the music in a theatrical performance. Shoudl they then stare at the stage and take in the movements of the actors, or should they find some reference to interpret the content of the performance, create their own story from it, to use in place of the dialogue they cannot understand?


Of course I hope I haven't offended anyone with this post. Obviously these are just simple examples, and disability iteslf has all sorts of cases and exceptions. But I hope you see my point.

amoskowi's picture

On of the many things that

On of the many things that has struck me about Leaves of Grass so far is that it's not consistant. As someone who has spent the last week in another class on Blake, for whom consistancy is practically if not entirely a vice, this troubles me rather little, but does give me another new insight into my continuing look into what does differ between science and literature.

First, though, to reference briefly the type of inconsistancy I'm talking about, which in themselves are discussing the relationship between literature and science. Whitman reiterates his belief in their productive coexistance, stating on page 38 that "facts are useful and real...they are not my dwelling...I enter by them to an area of dwelling...I am less the reminder of property or qualities and more the reminder of life." While this statement supports the way different ways of approaching meaning, different "dwellings" aid each other, he earlier (page 15) declares that "as soon as histories are properly told there is not more need of romances." After what we have looked at this year, the idea that history is every "properly told" seemed stifling and simply wrong, particularly in the context of one who embraces different approaches to understanding in other passages.  

skhemka's picture


Art, Philosophy, Science, infact all the disciplines in my opinion are a form of mimickry. They just that different mediums and areas of concentration. Being a form of mimickry doesn't make it boring or dull. It should still be considered as creative as an original because nothing can be original if it is derived from the idea and impressions of the world itself. The only way any artist can express originality is by the medium that he/she uses. Choosing to paint in order to express something is original, even though the thing that the painting represents isn't.


I am still confused about the way we are making the transition to the literary part of this course.

unidentifiedflyingobject's picture

Week 8

I noticed rmetha's comment above regarding how she feels "abstractly impaired" when she looks at abstract art. I suppose I feel that way too, but simultaneously, I would like to say to her: you are not abstractly impaired! I don't think there's anything wrong in not having any taste for abstract art. I'm a person who is deeply logical and prefers things with structure, and you might be too. If you don't see anything in abstract art then there just isn't anything there for you.

That said, I also generally feel the same way about unstructured poetry. I wouldn't go as far as that phrase by Robert Frost about free verse being like tennis without the net, but generally speaking, I don't think I can draw much from free verse poetry. However, there is something intriguing about Walt Whitman. Most of his phrases strike me as lacking in flow almost to a fault, but when his phrases do have flow, such as in the first three lines of Leaves of Grass, he is superb.

Furthermore, there is something beguilingly modern about Whitman. Nothing about his imagery suggests "mid nineteenth century" to me. In fact, when I was reading the first page and the line "The delight alone or in the rush of the streets" the image that came to my mind was that of modern New York city traffic. I didn't even remember that Walt Whitman didn't know what cars were until several pages later. What strikes me as most interesting about Whitman is his freshness, his modernity.

aybala50's picture


I know that as a class we are transitioning from the story of evolution to the evolution of stories. This is clear to me as that is the class of the title and more and more we've been discussing literature in readings and class. Though I know this is what is happening I am still just as confused as I was at the beginning of class in january. As we talk in class it makes sense to me, what we are saying, but I just don't think that i can ever form a definite conclusion about anything we discuss. I may agree or disagree with what we discuss, but I think that's as far as I can go. 

Going back... does truth exist? To me this is the most interesting question we have debated in class and I have favored the idea of the non-existence of truth. At the same time is it "true" to assume that "truth doesn't exist". Who's to say that tomorrow something won't be true for ever. 

kcofrinsha's picture

Week 8

Our class has transitioned from the story of evolution to the evolution of stories.  I'm confused, just like I was at the beginning of this class.  I'm curious to find out how the second part of the class connects to the first part. Although I realize that there are two distinct parts of the class, it is still one class and I look forward to seeing how it fits together. I feel like figuring out what the class is about is one of the main things I will work to find out. This course reminds me of a novel because even if one knows the theme, one never really knows what will happen next or how it will end.  I guess I will just have to wait and see.
kbrandall's picture

How to talk about Leaves of Grass?

I found Sontag's rejection of interpretation interesting partly because she writes about art for a living, and so she must think that writing about art (and discussing it, etc) is a valuable pastime. She tries to give some examples of non-interpretive ways to treat art (by writing an immediate, sensual description of it, for example) but I am not convinced. If art is something new, if its purpose is simply to be something new for you to experience, what good is writing about it? What good is discussing it? Whitman gives us the same contradiction-- near the beginning of Leaves of Grass he says (more or less) that experiencing the world is far more important than anything you find in books. If so, how do we read his book? How do we look at this poem in this class? What can we say about it beyond description, and how can description be anything but a flawed reflection of the poem itself? If we can't interpret, if the point of Leaves of Grass is to see and feel it, why are we talking about it at all? Maybe we should just read part out loud, pause to let the experience wash over us, and then leave.
fquadri's picture

Week 8

I’m still thinking about the “chair” and the “abstract” that Prof Grobstein drew on Thursday. Many people in class who liked the “abstract” more than the “chair” believed the “abstract” to be more imaginary, and one was able to make it out to be whatever they want because there were more possibilities since the drawing was not concrete. Many people in class who liked the “chair” saw the drawing as something comforting, non threatening, and a part of common knowledge. However I think the most interesting imagination would come out of the drawing of the “chair”. In the “abstract” drawing, and  depending on the viewer, the viewer is  forced to interpret but in the “chair” drawing, the viewer is given something concrete but he or she, if he or she chooses, can make something else out of it… Too bad, it made more sense in my head during class on Thursday.


However, I don’t see the problem with interpretation. I think limiting interpretation is equivalent to limiting people’s minds and imaginations. Granted, I don’t think everyone should be forced to find “the meaning” or “the truth” in every piece of literary or artistic work, and I don’t think one interpretation is more right than another. However, if one person looks at a Jackson Pollock and their immediate reaction is a view of a forest or a bird and another sees “something pretty” or just a blob, what’s wrong with that? I think the problem arises when people start asking, “What do you see in that?” as opposed to “What do you see?”.


As for science without method…I’m still a little lost. Even loopy science has a similar method to traditional science, so I don’t see how you can study science without some simple procedures.

LS2's picture

week 8

Last week's discussion about the mimetic strategies of both science and art made me think about the role representation, in general, plays in our society. I'm not convinced it would be possible to analyze the merits and limitations of either art or science without some recourse to an agreed upon "real." I think the more interesting question is how that "real" is formed, how we come to agree on what something is representing, and how meaning of that thing, and/or its representation is made collectively. 

When we went around the room and discussed our reactions to the Pollock painting, in some ways we treated the work like a Rorcharch onto which each of us projected our own imaginations. Despite the fact that it was interesting to see such a diversity of responses, I found that when Dr Grobstein drew on the chalk board and we all agreed he drew a chair a more provocative exercise. One only has to spend some time on the IKEA website to know that chairs take many forms, yet we all recognize some fundamental elements in the one Dr Grobstein drew. How is this kind of collective agreement facilitated, and would it be possible to practice or analyze and and science without it?

kgould's picture

Science and Literature CAN be friends!

I've been thinking a lot, recently, about the links between science (or, in our case, evolution) and literature. I don't see the two as very far apart. In order to communicate an idea or a theory, we as humans have to use language and, more often than not, in writing. 

But there seems to be this insane notion out there that all science in literature has to be dry, dull, by-the-book lab write-ups that causes a lot of self-implemented concussions and screams of fury.

Why can't science writing be interesting? And why is it so hard to integrate science and literature? I guess I want to know what YOU all think "science writing" includes: textbooks, lab reports, articles from the newspaper and science magazines, etc.

Also, try reading "Stiff" or "Spook" by Mary Roach. Maybe that'll change your view of science writing.

dshanin's picture

Chairs or blobs?

Dr. Grobstein drew a chair and a strange shape on the board and asked which one people preferred I had no idea there would be debate. Both of the figures contained the same basic elements; less than ten short, straight lines and a bit of shading. What impressed me was how much more the drawing of the chair was able to encompass. The chair has two levels: it can be viewed as a chair or as some other shape. The blob, however, only has one level. I feel like this ability to be both expected and totally new is a key compenent for artistic expression and literature. By containing elements that we can recognize and identify with it pulls us in. Once there we realize that there is a whole world of new connections and perspectives just waiting to be explored. I like the chair; not because it is a chair, but because it can be whatever I want it to be but the person sitting next to me will still agree it is a chair.
sustainablephilosopher's picture

non-representational science

During Thursday's discussion, we laid out the questions that the rest of the course would attempt to answer: how to do science without method, and how to do art without interpretation? The latter seems reasonable enough; however, we are all stumped on what the former would even mean, let alone how to accomplish it. It seemed to me that the fundamental drive of science is to know how the world works the way it does, which seems to imply that it is representational at the core. Art, of course, can be generative and otherwise non-representational; it seeks to create and celebrate beauty, to re-arrange what is physically present, to find meaning behind and within what is physically present, or to generate meaning beyond what is physically present. But isn't science all about seeking to accurately describe nature/ the universe to become privy to its laws and orders, making models to accurately represent this?


However, as I thought about it, science does perhaps also use what is there for something different - engineering allows us to take raw products from nature and transform them into things such as machines that can manipulate the laws of aerodynamics for our use. Science frequently exapts materials that serve one purpose in nature for entirely different human purposes. It uses what it knows to conceive of what might be. For example, with the atom bomb, we thought from certain theories in physics that something crazy might happen if we force two atoms together. When we did, we created something the likes of which had not existed before, based on purely speculative scientific theory. As Dan pointed out, it could be said that we created a really bad star, but nonetheless we created something new under the sun from science. In this way, it is just as generative as art.

enewbern's picture

Week Eight

I feel that this week has been a leap into a different direction. Not the unkown exactly but a new frontier. Instead of looking at things throught the lense of biology we are moving towards the literature view. Which I have come to learn isn't as different as oen would imagine, but it is different enough that it is a bit disconcerting at first. I did enjoy the readings for this week, I think that they worked nicely together in order to show that the two extremes of either side, biology or litterature, both have the aim of trying to prevent method or order into a person's perceptions of a new or different idea. I can't wait to find what more is in store next week. 
Rachel Townsend's picture

Art, science, interpretation...

Our discussion on Thursday really got me thinking about the two examples Paul put up on the board.  It was interesting to me that I preferred the drawing that we ended up deciding was abstract because I generally don't find myself like abstract art over representative art.  But this got me thinking about representative art... I think that representative art is "mimetic" as we were saying but that it also attempts to go beyond that.  As someone mentioned during our discussion, the chair could also have been interpreted as a waterfall and I think that this is what still makes representative art interesting, that it goes beyond the surface mimetic image.  Art is about imbuing those things that it represents with feelings or emotions or other associations.
eolecki's picture

Week 8


Inour group discussion on Thursday we talked a lot about art and what its purposeis.  Someone offered up that is wasjust for pleasure, just to look at and feel.  If that were all art was then what would be the point, itwould just be a luxury with no real purpose.  A lot of people would argue that art is a necessary part oflife.  One way in which we identifyintelligent beings is by their creation of art.  Art was a component that lead to civilization and was thenenhanced by it.  If art were justfor pleasure and enjoyment then it wouldn’t be this important to humanexistence.    

Marina's picture


I agree with Susan Sontag and her essay "Against Interpretation." I think Sontag's main goal in the essay is to get people to look at art with a completely non-interpretive eye. Basically, she shuns us from finding any meaning in art. I don't know if it's possible to completely shut off the interpretive eye, but I think it is worth trying. But why shut off the interpretive eye? what's the harm in finding meaning in something? Sontag argues that it ruins the experience and feeling one gets when they interact with art. In her essay she states that "in place of hermenuetics we need an erotics of art." I agree with Sontag here, if it's possible to turn off the interpretive eye than we should try to experience art as cathartic rather than insert meanings and interpretations. Interpreting art also cuts out a large portion of other views toward the art. For example, if someone expresses that they see a tree in an abstract work of art another person with them will probably see the tree as well and never had the opportunity to interpret it themselves. So in a way interpretation cuts out a lot of conversation that could have come out of the piece. Sontag's essay reminded me of this Billy Collins poem...

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

eawhite's picture

What do they mean?

Against Method and Against Interpretation were confusing and thought provoking essays. If I understand them correctly I would say that science is an activity which mirrors reality and art is a mirrored interpretation of reality and the best that both have to offer is to be the best mirrors they can be. However, something creatively new and interesting in art and/or science would be a spin-off of those mirrored interpretations and activities. These spin-offs open new possibilities of what might or could be. 


I also think that both Feyerabend and Sontag are asking us to ‘sense’ our way as opposed to using the canned method or interpretation. ‘Sensing’ one’s way to understanding can bring a creatively new and interesting perspective and discovery to what is and what could be.

Tara Raju's picture

I still think that Sontag's

I still think that Sontag's main purpose of telling us not to interpret was to take an extreme stance on something in order for us to see the "light" in not interpreting a piece of art, text, etc. It seemingly reduces the possiblity of a different story to come out it exponentially. As soon as someone mentioned that they saw a bird in one painting it was hard to shake that image from the painting and immeadiately it seemed that the image was a bird and nothing else. The interpretation was made and all other possibilties of what it could be were seemingly inhibitied, at least in my case.

Also, at the conclusion of class on Thursday alluded to the notion that literature's purpose, like science, was to broaden the number of stories available. I understand that we need a myriad of stories in order to have the ability to excersise free-will and choose the one that best fits our beliefs, etc. but I still am not embracing the idea that there is no "purpose" or end goal in sight for any of these subjects.  Its extremely disconcerting to think that Professor Grobstein doesn't think that there are any "right" answers. I just don't think that belief system would be conducive to a very comfortable living if one was constantly calling into question even the most basic of things.

jrlewis's picture

I would like to propose an

I would like to propose an alternative to Sontag’s theory of art, a twist on the mimetic theory of art.  Maybe art mimics the reality experienced by the individual artist.  I am asserting that everyone has unique internal perceptions of reality or that there are multiple (possibly infinite) admissible interpretations of reality.  There is a neurobiological basis for this idea; variations in brain structure imply variations in sensory input, memory, and thought.  Neurodiversity is the idea that variation in human brains is as essential to human existence as biodiversity.  The individuality of experience is also consistent with our class discussions about human nature.  Humans are neither determined by their history nor by their genes.  The newness associated with an artwork comes from the newness within each artist. 

Art is an expression of the internal environment of the artist, their emotions, memories, and thoughts.  Containing not only the artist’s past experiences, but also their predictions for the future. When one engages with a work of art, they are entering a reality different from their own.  Engaging with a work of art is an act of free will; it is the willing suspension of disbelief.  The audience must accept the artist’s reality, or the rules of their world, in order to explore it.  The interaction between art object and viewer is story sharing.  The best artwork teaches the audience a new story.  Experiencing art is attempting story revision; the evolution of our personal stories.  

Lisa B.'s picture

Week 8

It was interesting to learn during my visit to the current "Cézanne and Beyond" exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art that Paul Cézanne claimed that he painted without concern for art critics. I thought that this emphasis on artistic motivation tied in with Susan Sontag's "Against Interpretation." Sontag might have thought that the comparisons between other artists, such as Ellsworth Kelly, and Cézanne were an example of defending art. Although Kelly is a well-known artist, his abstract works may be challenging to interpret and he might benefit from an association with Cézanne's established paintings. Maybe Kelly is an example of Sontag's "overcooperative author"? 
eglaser's picture

science and fiction

How does literature and science intersect? Some would say that they don't, that they occupy two different levels of the human experiance. I would like to disagree with that statment. To aid in my arguement I would like to use a quote that I included in my paper from the book The Science of Discworld.

"Because a lot of science is really about this non-existent world of thought experiments, our understanding of science must concern itself with worlds of the imagination as well as worlds of reality. Imagination, rather than mere intelligence, is the truly human quality" (12).

This book is an excellent one to read along with this class as it weaves a creative short story writen by the ever clever Terry Pratchett and a scientific narrative written by mathematician Ian Stewart and biologist Jack Cohen. The idea behind the book is to unite the fiction and non fiction as a way to both explain and parody the science. In this literature and science support one another by supplying each with material to work with. Literature comes up with creative guesses (some absurd but some accurate) while science responds with even stranger theories. Science and the world of human imagination feed into one another to further humanity in every respect.

rmehta's picture

I think I am abstractly

I think I am abstractly impaired.  It is not that I don’t like looking at abstract art such as those Pollock pieces we examined in class, but my negativity stems from extremely frustrated confusion.  When looking at abstract art I feel like I’m back in sixth grade, nodding along with the crowd when someone would finally figure out what picture you were supposed to be able to see in those Magic Eye books.  I thought if I crossed my eyes or turned my head a certain way I would see what everyone else was seeing. Sadly, I still only saw blobs.  Just as in this scenario, looking at abstract art makes me frustrated because I have this fear that my analysis will be incorrect; that by looking too deep to find something anew in the painting is not what the painter actually intended for the viewer to see.  Here in lies what I believe Sontag was saying in her critique on interpretation.  Each of us brings our own evolved stories to the front when we confront a painting.  Because of this, what we initially see is consciously different and rooted in different previously experienced histories.  So, in this sense, is our divergent evolution detrimental to our ability to interpret? If so, Sontag is correct is saying we should not rely “so much on questions about what elements in a work of art mean”.  However, I also see her argument of looking at functionality prone to personal interpretation.  How we perceive the elements in a work of art functioning seems to me to be another form of analysis and interpretation. Our experiences dictate our initial reactions and how we perceive the world around us; our personal evolution dictates our analytical abilities.  I don’t think we can ever escape our evolution when approaching interpretation. If this is “true”, can science never escape art and can art never escape science?

epeck01's picture

On a different note...

I am loving Leaves of Grass.  I feel like it is just so true.  Other books we have read in this class have been so determined to prove a point that they almost force you to be on the lookout for mistakes and fallacies in logic, however Leaves of Grass doesn't try to prove something, Whitman is simply telling the reader his interpretation of life and its wonders.  It occured to me that Darwin, Dennet and Whitman are all talking about the meaning of life and the realities of life, yet in such different ways.  With Whitman however, I don't feel defensive or combative, even though he doesn't really offer up concrete proof besides his own somewhat vague experiences and beliefs.  Whitman might be the ultimate non-foundationalist because he doesn't try to base his experiences and beliefs in any one structured way of thinking.  Instead, he seems to take life as it comes at him and experience it with no thought of how he should be experiencing it, only with whatever emotions and feelings come to him at the time.  This idea also relates to "Against Interpretation" in the sense that it discourages analyzation (and especially over-analyzation).  Although the article doesn't seem practicle or possible to me, somehow Whitman seems to make it work.
mcurrie's picture

The first question that

The first question that thought was Am I predictable?  If I knew everything about myself, my genes, cultural influences, etc. could I figure out my next move?  I don't think I could because with every discussion I have some choices.  Even knowing my background I could suddenly decide that I want to change and instead choose a different path than the one I have been following.

Then Thursday we began our discussion about the articles that we read.  That in order to truly take in the goal or meaning of something you don't try to find a representation.  Although I now feel like I have to break another of the rules that was taught to me in school.  Beginning in art class, the teacher will tell us look at a painting, listen to music, tell me what it represents, and tell me the story.  Now I can't even try to find a story within a picture.  Right when Professor Dalke showed us the painting by Pollock I immediately tried to find some picture.  I have done this many times when going through an art museum, I want to make the picture interesting, and I want to find my own thoughts about it, my own representations.  It is like when I lay out on the grass in the summer, look up at the sky and point out the different shapes of the clouds, seeing bunnies, dragons, etc.  For art really I couldn't care why the artist painted it, or try to take in the whole painting without representations.   I just want to enjoy the painting make it my own game of guess the blobs.  Maybe that's why I like science, it's a game to me, a quest in trying to figure out the unfamiliar blobs and make sense out of them.  It doesn't matter why something was created but just if I can't understand it, I can enjoy the wonders of the world and the things I can explore.  I'm still keeping my mind open to figuring out how to do interpretation without representation and science without method along with the connection with Whitman's writings.

amirbey's picture

The true purpose of art

Sontag says that interpretation is not allowing ourselves to be open to art itself.  Indeed, she does not want us to even try to interpret art.  But why is this?  If we do not interpret art, then what is its purpose?  Can art be only for our pleasure and entertainment?  But then, if it was, would there really be a point to art?  Indeed, in Thursday’s lecture we came to discover that art could have another purpose if it was to create something new.  In fact, Sontag does not want us to interpret art because this does not let us find a new way of seeing things since we are trying to interpret it with what we already know so with our past and history. 

Is see that Sontag is a bridge to this transition because she says that by not trying to interpret art, we see what is new, we let newness invade ourselves, which can then lead us to a whole new evolution.  However, doesn’t evolution have a past?  So, could we come up with something absolutely new or is it still influenced by our history? 

Paul Grobstein's picture

history and beyond, in both science and art?

maybe influenced but not determined by our history?  For both art and science?
Rica Dela Cruz's picture

I am still a little

I am still a little confused about the bridge between evolution/science and literature. The parallel we made in class was from the articles by Feyerabend and Sontag. Feyerabend says that we should do science without method and Sontag says that we should read literature and see art without interpretation. Are we creating this bridge from evolution to literature using this parallel as a guide? For me, I feel that a bridge would be to talk about how biological evolution is not the only type of evolution and that there are many other things in this world that have also evolved. In our discussion on Thursday, we talked about representational and non-representational (or abstract) art. Talking about the differences in the pictures Professor Grobstein drew on the board, I realized that what we were seeing was an evolution of art. Abstract art is a more modern form of art and representational art (although still exists today) have been the main (maybe even only) art pieces of the past. It seems because of the invention of the camera, humans can now capture images (or represent them) directly so creating paintings of things around us is not useful anymore. Therefore, people have created this new kind of art more recently, non-representational art.

Besides this bridge, I have been having troubling accepting Feyerabend's proposition of doing science without method. As a biology major, I feel that you cannot really do science without a method. One needs some form of method to answer the questions she wants to answer. I think that without method, one would not be able to learn as much and our world would not advance.

For literature and art, however, I feel that one would be able to do these things without interpretation. Looking at a painting or reading a poem, I usually take them as they are. For example, when reading "Captain, Oh Captain", I did not try to interpret it. I accepted it as a person morning for his captain. I did not think to see it as a metaphor. For me, at least, I am able to read literature without interpretation. Maybe, I am bias because I am majoring in the sciences and have learned to question aspects of science and social science more than aspects of the humanities.

Paul Grobstein's picture

beyond representationalism, in both science and art?

Here are the pictures drawn on the board (click for larger and more complete images):


Perhaps one actually can do science without a fixed method?  And one can't do/appreciate art without some interpretation, that also is subject to change?   Perhaps for both Feyerabend and Sontag the point is to "let newness invade ourselves, which can then lead us to a whole new evolution"?

Jackie Marano's picture

Dreams, Science, and Art

     This conversation that we've been having about science, art, and their 'mimetic' nature has made me think really hard about dreams. I think that dreams always based on our experiences in some fundamental way. Whether we see faces, unknown creatures, colors, shapes, if we hear sounds, if we are perceiving what is around us in the dream...these experiences somehow mimick our conscious life or at least parts of it.

      So, when we dream in our sleep, are we doing science? Are we summarizing our observations to make a new discovery or to lead to further inquiry? I have actually had some dreams that have taught me things, and I am pretty sure that many songs, inventions, and discoveries were motivated by the odd summary of observations that occurs in dreams.

      But don't our dreams also make us artists? We are mimicking reality in our dreams, but we're also distorting it (unconsciously, right?), sometimes to so great an extent that we cannot distinguish 'realistic' meaning in them. But other times dreams can be so shockingly 'real' and so noticeably mimetic that, when awake at any subsequent point in time, we might look back on this dream as a memory from some 'conscious' experience! 

So, in this sense, I think it would be really difficult to consciously go 'against method' for science or 'against interpretation' for art/literature because even our dreams we have the tendency to conduct and realize science and art by mimicking and/or distorting elements of our conscious life. To demand that we do something different (and consciously, as Feyerabend and Sontag suggest) than thinking and acting within the confines of our own subjectivity seems to demand the impossible.

Paul Grobstein's picture

more on dreams, science, art

Very intriguing link between dreams and science/art.  Yep, there are elements of "mimicry" in our dreams and elements of going beyond mimicry ("beyond history"), to create from the past new things. So dreams are, like evolution, rooted in the past but capable of moving beyond it?  have, perhaps, some skyhook character to them?

So perhaps dreams are both science and art, because both science and art are not solely about representation but also about "a new discovery ... further inquiry"?  Like evolution, dreams and science and art are not about getting to a particular place but rather about moving beyond wherever one is at a given time?  The objective isn't representation but creation? 

My guess is that both Feyerabend and Sontag would actually be quite comfortable with that conclusion.  What they are each suggesting, I think, is not at all that we shoud move beyond "the confines of our own subjectivity," but rather than we should use our consciousness to move beyond the confines of our consciousness as it exists at any given time.  "Method" and "Interpretation" were, I think, for both Feyerabend and Sontag, terms for the existing conscious approaches to inquiry.   And their critique was, I suspect, of that rather than of unconscious subjectivity and its associated processes.

Jackie Marano's picture

Dreams and creativity cont'd

       Ah okay, thanks for the clarification. Actually, I find what you have mentioned about dreams and evolution quite interesting. It makes me wonder whether evolution as a process has favored dreaming, or whether dreaming has fueled biological and cultural evolution, it's probably both (loopy). Perhaps we have evolved to create, and, in turn, we must create to continue evolving. Maybe Sontag and Feyerabend are suggesting that we're not currently maximizing our creative abilities, and thus we decrease our chances of ever becoming more creative (evolving to be such)?
eawhite's picture

What about people who don't

What about people who don't dream? I happen to be a very active dreamer who remembers many of them whereas many people I know don't dream or if they do they never have any recollection. What about induced dreams, where might they fall on the evolutionary or creative scale?
kapelian's picture

What is this class. After

What is this class. After session on Thursday, I just walked out insanly annoyed at it, because I feel like we keep going in circles.

Talking about science and art and philosphy as ways of thinking trying to reach a goal to talk about the world around us.  But with new inventions being created, how can we say we're just trying to copy the world? I can't remember the artist's name, but he autographed a toliet seat and it sold for millions as art. Art has such a wide breath of stuff under it, it's impossible to say all of it is trying to represent our reality.  I can see the ideas in reality as a tool to perfect or help art change or evolve, but like Professor Grobstein said, art can only be just as good as the real thing.

I think science is the same way as art. It's applied in many different ways, such as the invention of the phone to the internet, but also to understand chemical reactions and the large hadron collider looking for bosons. Science mimics the world around it in order to understand certain systems, but I think in other ways the ideas and functions of reality are only a tool to try to perfect whatever creative idea the inventor is making or using science to do.

Anne Dalke's picture

sight unseen

I want to keep in play here the description, made during class yesterday, about what it's like to encounter abstract art when one is visually impaired. I've been wrestling with the idea that not being able to see clearly might actually enable one to see the way Sontag is inviting us to--that is: by experiencing art sensuously. Sontag said that

"'Against Interpretation' was a polemic against one reductive way of accounting for art…treating a work as if it were equivalent to the account that could be given of its 'meaning.' This practice…weakens and corrupts our direct appreciation of a work’s 'thingness.' Instead of relying so much on questions about what elements in a work of art mean...we could rely more on questions about how they function—concretely, sensually, and formally—in the work."

If you want to think some more w/ me about this, check out Georgina Kleege's collection of essays, Sight Unseen, which has a great chapter about the "blind gaze" in the art museum.
mfradera's picture

Climb the unclimbable mountain.

In concluding whether Sontag’s claims against interpretation were possible, (I think they’re impossible to achieve), I never gave much thought to whether it was a good idea. It may be, but I’m still having difficulty understanding how it works; it seems a little like that illustration we’ve all been shown of the physically impossible structure engraved with the words “I stand corrected.” I can’t even imagine what a sustained engagement with art looks like in Sontag’s eyes.

Let’s suppose it’s a good idea. It seems like an unattainable perfection. It makes me wonder why perfection is so often unattainable. Why do people make things so difficult for themselves? Very Man of La Mancha.

In regards to the two paintings we looked at in class, my reactions, developing from instant impression to interpretive meaning, were as follows:

The first painting gave the impression of space and air. I began to see an aged map of Japan which turned into an extreme close-up of a torn knit sweater.

The second painting gave me the impression of distress and chaos. It became a fray, changing between the pre-Genesis battle for heaven and Beowulf’s pursuit of the Grendle’s mother.