Sunday, January 06, 2008

The Language of Cranes

Over at there is an excellent essay by Daniel Dennett on the possibility of understanding human creativity in Darwinian terms. In it, he expands on his famous “crane” and “skyhook” metaphors. Although the essay is foremost an intervention in the cultural evolution debate, it also touches upon other important issues. Among them is the question why it is so difficult to reconcile the humanities with a Darwinist perspective – to which it also, albeit only implicitly, provides some kind of an answer.

To recall: Dennett uses the metaphor of the crane to capture the painstaking mechanisms of R[esearch] and D[evelopment] through which human creativity is tried, tested and expressed. Its processes and scope derive from a naturally sculpted mental structure and thus have a solid grounding in evolutionarily relevant functionality. “Skyhooks,” by contrast, are explanations plucked out of thin air, suspended from nowhere and hence in all likelihood metaphysical. While Darwinians adhere to the former, anti-Darwinians endorse the latter.

From this distinction derives the “mutual suspicion” that Dennett detects between “Darwinians” and “Anti-Darwinians”:
Darwinians suspect their opponents of hankering after a skyhook, a miraculous gift of genius whose powers have no decomposition into mechanical operations, however complex and informed by earlier processes of R and D. Anti-Darwinians suspect their opponents of hankering after an account of creative processes that so diminishes the Finder, the Author, the Creator, that it disappears, at best a mere temporary locus of mindless differential replication.
Dennett’s notion of “genius” is materialistic to the core: “It is important to recognize,” he points out, “that genius is itself a product of natural selection and involves generate-and-test procedures all the way down.” And it is precisely for that reason that a Darwinian point of view may lead to a critique of “the old essentialist, Cartesian perspectives” that uphold a more metaphysical concept of art and creativity.

Now all this sounds strangely familiar, although we are used to hear the terminology from a very different camp. After all, “anti-essentialism” has been one of post-structuralism’s many rallying cries. In this context, it has tended to mean the denial of any form of reality (material, biological) outside of textual/discursive constructions.

To a naive observer it would seem that Darwinians and post-structuralists might here find a source of strategic solidarity, based on the old wisdom that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” The potential is there: I mean, don’t the words Dennett uses to describe the fears of the anti-Darwinian camp, even echoing Roland Barthes’ famous proclamation of the “death of the author”?
We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. (“The Death of the Author” in Image, Music, Text, 146.)
Somehow, however, people who would quite happily use this citation as a springboard for a nifty little literary deconstruction are irritatingly wary to go the whole hog and rethink their anti-essentialism from the Darwinian angle suggested by Dennett. On the one hand, this has to do with an all too frequent general distrust, in the humanities today, of the very concept of explanation. On the other, it might also be down to the fact that – for all its avowed anti-essentialist street cred – much post-structuralism, deep down, remains essentialist in its inability to part with the last vestiges of a human specialness divorced from “nature.”

Hence Dennett is slightly myopic in suggesting that a Darwinian’s only enemies are old-school essentialists dreaming their Romantic dream of creative genius: the people who believe in “the Author,” his (of course) intentions and the good old spark of (often divinely inspired) superhuman creativity. For, as said Darwinian is bravely battling that lot, he or she is simultaneously obliged to ward off critics from the opposite faction at the same time.

Here, a brief report from my frontline:

I have an ongoing debate with a dear colleague and friend of mine who considers herself a “radical constructionist” – a stance which for her not only appears to be an academic identity but also the royal road to a better world. Our discussions tend to follow a predictable pattern: after the ritualistic opening gambits (she suggests that I might be a “biological reductionist,” I point out the thin line between benevolent constructionism and totalitarian social planning), we inevitably agree that the solution might lie somewhere on the level of the individual.

While this kind of shift of focus is entirely in keeping with the (i.e.: my) Darwinian perspective, it creates a troubling dilemma for my post-structuralist friend. According to her theory, culture supersedes nature as the power determining human identity and society; however, she also – like most other self-avowed post-structuralists – is adamant that individual agency can subvert and transcend cultural limits. Needless to say that the terms “individual” and “agency” on which these perspectives are based, are never really defined. How culture gets processed, how agency manifests itself, and what ends individuals seek (whether consciously or not) with their actions are questions that are not so much accidentally overlooked as deliberately avoided.

In this critical context, crane-like explications that might go a very long way towards solving these questions are rejected as banal, deterministic and positivistic. At the same time, the cultural determinism posited against them poses a problem in itself: where does it differ from the “determinism” typically laid at the door of biology? Some post-structuralists quite elegantly skirt this problem by slipping in a few skyhooks into their otherwise anti-essentialist line of argument – for instance by the use of esoteric concepts such as “individual agency.” We’re culturally determined, but not quite – and this “not quite” must not be investigated. Never. Ever.

The discussions I have with my colleague tend to reach their absolute nadir when I not only ask The Questions That May Not Be Asked, but also make suggestions as to how to answer them, usually by tentatively bringing in adjectives like “Darwinian” and “evolutionary.” By my friend’s embarrassed silences whenever I do so, I realise that to ask “why” and “how,” especially in conjunction with said adjectives, is about the biggest intellectual faux pas one can commit these days. And this is usually the point when we stop talking shop and start telling each other what we did at the weekend.

Coming back to Dennett’s “mutual suspicion,” it seems to me that the most important intellectual battlefield is not between Darwinians and Cartesian essentialists, but rather between the deep, complex and differentiated anti-essentialism that a Darwinian perspective would allow and its more shallow and contradictory post-structuralist counterpart. Right now, it would seem that the latter represents the intellectual and moral majority in Western academia. And I while I appreciate that, after decades of producing tortured prose flagellating the Cartesian paradigm, too many critics resist opening up to different world views, I find their resistance annoyingly unproductive. I really am fed up with having to waste the little time that I have on this planet reiterating the same old (to me obvious) truths.

But I suppose I'll have to.


Anonymous said...

Woher kommt eigentlich die seltsame Annahme, dass die biologische Evolution teleologisch respektive deterministisch sein soll?


The Wife said...

Guter Punkt, Nele.

Die Annahme kommt von Menschen, die eigentlich keine Ahnung von Evolution haben (und auch nicht haben wollen), sich aber offensichtlich schrecklich vor ihr fürchten. Der Spruch kommt immer, immer wieder und ist, scheint's, nicht totzukriegen.

Oh well, what's new ....