Constructivism and Opacity: The Difficulty of Expressing One's Ideas


(system) #1

You know why I write so much when expressing my thoughts? For clarity (Believe it or not). The ideas I have are complex, intuitive, in-depth models constructed from my wide array of experiences and vague memories, and thus are inherently unique, subjective, and thereby difficult to express. This is, I understand, the core observation behind the philosophy of "Constructivism." Explaining my philosophical, social, intuitive, and/or emotional thoughts to you is like trying to explain how I think when doing calculus, writing a piece of music, or memorizing facts for a history test. Getting the words to connect in your mind the same way they do in mine is no easy task.

This comes to mind after reading some cultural-philosophical analysis which I'm finding to be rather opaque and/or esoteric. That doesn't happen very often when I read in English -- I'm only used to being lost in French et al. Take the following:

"The structure of the work of art thus provides an order that has vanished from the world itself. Art thus serves as a refuge from the 'crumbs and chaos' into which the world has disintegrated, from what Eliot calls 'the immense panorama of futility and anarchy that is contemporary history.' Such a conception of the work of art does easily lend itself to an elitist contempt for popular philistinism." -- Alex Callinocos, "Postmodernism: A Critical Diagnosis," The Great Ideas Today 1997, p. 223.

The mental processing required to fathom what he's trying to say is extraordinary. Of course, it's a step fairer than attempting to peruse Locke, Spinoza, or Derrida, but is it really necessary to explain so little of what you're actually trying to say?

I'll approach this like a physics problem: You have certain assumptions/given data for which you can construct a model to infer a logical conclusion. So, what we know or assume off-hand in this case is:

- "Deleuze" studied "Proust" and likened the world to "crumbs of chaos," and essentially called art the bastion of objectivity in such a world. - "Eliot" seems to concur.

And from this we infer that:

- Looking at art this way produces [in modernism] a distaste for popular culture.

My gut reaction when reading this was "uh... and the price of eggs in China?!" I do not follow his reasoning at all. Was "Deleuze" (Whoever that is) his evidence? The conclusion seems to have come from thin air, totally disconnected from the rest of the paragraph.

Not willing to let myself react belligerently simply from my own ignorance, I experimented with a few different models before writing in the margin: "I do not follow the 'refuge'=>'elitism' inference. One of us is being opaque here." But is it the author or myself who is at fault in this failed communication? He obviously had factors in his mind when writing this paragraph that I do not. Perhaps a reference to a point he made earlier which I also did not fully comprehend, or... let's see... these names. I don't know these names...

Google reveals context hidden in the names:

- Marcel Proust: French Novelist at the turn of the 20th century. - Gilles Deleuze: French Philosopher, late 20th century. - T. S. Eliot: American/British poet/critic, early 20th century.

So now we are slightly more informed: we see that Proust is a contemporary of modernism. But this still doesn't get us towards any elitist sentiment on the part of modernist thinkers.

I am further confused by Callicinos' later statement:

"Modernism gave rise to movements that explicity challenged the elitism of l'art pour l'art." -- p. 225

I'm understanding that Deleuze was describing an aspect of "l'art pour l'art" when discussing the "crumbs and chaos" imagery. Is it modern or not, if Proust was modern? This would seem to say the "refuge" image is pre-modern and challenged by modern -- by Proust is modern, so I must be mistaken. The "crums-refuge" thing must be separate from "l'art pour l'art," and the supposedly associated elitism must be challenged only by *part* of modernism, or the movements it "gave rise to," Proust himself being within modernism.

The long and short: I'm highly intrigued by this "contempt for popular philistinism" thing, because I myself am always struggling to reconcile my intellectual pursuits with apathetic subcultures. I fail to see how this author has communicated his point, however, in the selected paragraph. The article is still of value, because it covers much else of relevance to present-day culture conflict and development, but much of it is just as opaque as the hopeless segment I have described.

Doubtless I could come to understand such writing with a bachelors in Philosophy and Literature. So I hesitate to pine about philosophical authors in general -- their work is inherently complex because it seeks to be comprehensive. I would be appalled if graduate-level textbooks on Computational Intelligence -- my field of pursuit -- were to waste time explaining trigonometry, calculus, or for loops. But still, I think this author could do better for readability and discreteness, and I intend to hold on to and cultivate my ability to communicate in basic -- if far from philistine -- terms. As my sister gladly reminds me via the occasional scowl, I'm prone to just such presumptive abstraction as Callicinos and other philosophy experts and philosophers. Just Friday I had a professor tell me "I lost you at 2 + 2" when I attempted an analogy to describe my version of what I now realize is "Constructivism." I do well to remember that the model I construct may be un-obvious, or even downright ludicrous.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/943