Friday, December 25th, 2015

Carnival Fun-House: Alva Noë’s Strange Tools

Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature by Alva Noë

Henri Matisse, La danse, (first version) 1909. Oil on canvas, 102-1/2 x 153-1/2 inches. Museum of Modern Art, New York
Henri Matisse, La danse, (first version) 1909. Oil on canvas, 102-1/2 x 153-1/2 inches. Museum of Modern Art, New York

Strange Tools is a strange book. It is a self-described work of philosophy by Alva Noë, a UC Berkeley professor who is best known for his theories of perception and consciousness. For many, that description alone would deter the curious reader, since it suggests a footnote-laden, scholarly slog through prose understandable only to a narrow circle of initiates.

However, it is not that kind of philosophy book. Noë offers his ideas about the nature of art, technology, and philosophy in a spirited and highly personal series of reflections on his subject. While he does engage, glancingly, with other academic theories, Noë here seems to be reaching back to an older, pre-institutionalized form of philosophical writing, in which the author is not constrained by the pretenses of objectivity, formality, and dispassion. And yet Noë steers too far in the other direction, on the strength of his considerable authority, to offer a series of provocative assertions that rely more on personal hunches and breezy digressions than informed argumentation. The result does little justice to his subject or his reader. (This is particularly strange for a book that does not hesitate to point out when the other philosophers and neuroscientists whom he cites make assertions without a supporting argument.)

Noë rose to prominence with earlier works, such as Out of Our Heads, in which he argues that consciousness is not something we have or that happens to us, but rather something that we do. It is an activity rather than a condition. In Strange Tools, Noë makes a similar move with respect to art. Art, he says, is not a phenomenon that stands in need of explanation, but should be understood as a kind of technology. Noë recasts art as a tool, albeit a “strange” one, that we use in order to investigate the world and ourselves. He goes on to argue that this is also the case with philosophy: it does not do anything useful; it does not teach us new facts about the world that we can then apply in order to navigate it better. Rather, both philosophy and art have a kind of meta-cognitive value. Philosophy is a form of thinking turned onto itself: it is thinking about thinking. Art, too, is intrinsically self-critical, in so far as it is always engaged with the question of its own nature, limits, and possibilities. In both cases, this self-referential turn sheds light on the human condition itself. For example, he writes, “When a choreographer stages a dance, he is representing dancing. That is, he puts dancing itself on display. Choreography shows us dancing, and so, really, it displays us, we human beings, as dancers . . . Choreography puts the fact that we are organized by dancing on display.” But, in addition to the repetitive prose, there are two problems with this theory of art: first, it merely repeats a modernist theory of art that has been common currency for the past century; second, it ignores and excludes most of the art in human history. Some art, particularly contemporary art, may indeed serve as a kind of self-reflection, but that hardly captures the diversity of purposes that art serves. In the quote above, for example, Noë seems to be suggesting that other forms of dancing, such as social or ritual dances that are not staged by an artist-choreographer for the contemplation of an audience in a formal setting, are not art, at least not in this deeper sense of the term. And that is a profoundly problematic claim for a text that promises to tell us something about the essence of art and human nature generally.

Noë further makes the curious and unconvincing move of claiming that, because both philosophy and art are “useless” in this way, philosophy is art, and art is philosophy. But that latter claim, that X is Y and Y is X, simply does not follow from the observation that X and Y share some important similarity, Z. Such flimsy argumentation will not be lost on Noë’s readers, whether or not they possess a degree in philosophy.

In addition to these considerable problems, for me the fatal flaw of Strange Tools is the author’s own unrelenting self-referentiality. Reading the book feels a bit like being in a carnival fun-house: at every turn, one is confronted with another version of the author’s own reflection. Personal anecdotes from Noë’s life are woven throughout the book from opening preface to endnotes; we learn of his artist father, and his father’s many artist friends; we are told about Noë’s son’s piano recital, of Noë’s childhood trips to the museum, of his interest in blues music. Such digressions, when judiciously incorporated, can help to make a theoretical text more lively and accessible to a general audience, but here they often come across as gratuitous.

Indeed, in some cases, Noë’s focus on himself seems downright solipsistic. In his chapter on boredom, for example, the author observes that we experience a great deal of it in childhood, but that our workaday adult lives are woefully lacking in idle time. While that certainly seems true for Noë himself, and is probably the case for many of his readers, it is shortsighted to generalize from his experience to all of humanity. An internationally recognized public intellectual has a busy and fulfilling schedule, to be sure, but what about adults who are unemployed, underemployed, retired, or who have monotonous, unfulfilling jobs?

My point here is not to chide Noë for his insensitivity to his own privilege, but to point out that such sweeping generalizations from the author’s admittedly interesting and full life can be alienating to the reader, who starts to wonder whether the real subject of this book is not art, but Noë himself. Strange Tools is less a work of philosophy and more an autobiography describing the author’s experiences with art and the nature of his life, with some interesting digressions about the neuroscience of pictorial seeing, or the significance of pop music thrown in. Works of serious philosophy do not have to be impossibly difficult or unpleasant to read. But they do have to offer something more than the wishful thinking and unreasoned assertions that Noë provides us in his latest book.

Alva Noë, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Hill and Wang, 2015). ISBN: 9780809089178 $28