Guests on Volume 96: David A. Smith, on the beginnings of the National Endowment for the Arts and the capacity of the arts in a democracy for combatting atomistic individualism; Kiku Adatto, on how images, words, and ideas interact in a visually saturated culture and on how the image of a person's face in a photograph has the capacity for intimate representation of inner personhood; Elvin T. Lim, on how presidential speeches have been dumbed down for decades and why presidents like it; David Naugle, on the deeper meaning of happiness, the disordering effects of sin, and the reordering of love made possible in our redemption; Richard Stivers, on the technologizing of all of life; and John Betz, on the critique of the Enlightenment offered by Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788), and why it still matters to us.
“To the extent that art is understood just to be personal expression and therefore, in an egalitarian society, unquestionable in its validity, it seals itself off from playing these broader social roles, which is an irony because these artists who do this kind of provocative art intend for their art to be social, but it doesn't work that way when it becomes so freighted with political identity.”
—David A. Smith
Professor David A. Smith discusses the role of the arts in American democracy since the 1960’s. Smith tells the story of how the American world of art, having lost its artistic direction, was taken over by political agendas of individuals. The legislative founders of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) believed that the art they would fund would play a social role in promoting the unity of the nation. They wanted the artistic world, funded by the NEA, to combat individualism, elevate society above crass materialism, and provide a counterweight to the dominance of science. Artists, however, had a different idea of the role of their art, and showed it in the critical nature of their work. Not realizing that the trajectory of the artistic world was one of political challenge and criticism, politicians were surprised to see how politically divisive art could be. Smith argues that the artistic world neglected to realize that the very politicization of the art rendered it powerless to play a role in bringing about human solidarity for the common good.
“We might disagree with the censorship part, but the part [Plato] was right about is how potent culture is, and specifically, how primary our visual sensibility is; that images have meaning and they affect you. They get right inside you.”
Kiku Adatto talks about the rise of a new kind of image consciousness in modern society. Adatto begins by identifying how images are intelligible only within a larger narrative or context, a frame of reference on which the meaning of an image is more or less contingent. But what happens when images are subject — and known to be subject — to almost ubiquitous manipulation? Adatto explains that it is now necessary to be conscious of an additional layer of meaning that makes the image the beginning of the story rather than its totality. Yet, it is not obvious that such discernment is happening, despite our general awareness of constant image manipulation. It is basic to the human condition to be impacted and influenced by images, which are perhaps more powerful than we would rationally apprehend.
“All over the world there’s a sense of saying there isn’t simply a self there, there’s a soul there. That it isn’t a body we’re talking about. We’re talking about the dignity and respect for the person that extends to the treatment of their body, and I would extend that to the photographic image.”
Kiku Adatto continues her conversation with Ken Myers by discussing the intimacy that images can contain. She notes that a picture of a person creates and carries something more than mere color and lines, but a representation of the self that commands a sense of intimacy which is most deeply honored and appreciated by those in relationship to the person and rather not by strangers. Pregnant with the potential for intimate connection, images raise the question of appropriate use in a culture where images are displayed everywhere for everyone to see. From advertisements to Facebook, personal images are being exhibited with little concern as to the power of seeing a representation of a human being.
“Common sense is not enough for us to make the decisions that we do in life, although there are important intuitions that help and guide the intellect.”
—Elvin T. Lim
Elvin Lim talks about the decline of the content of presidential rhetoric. He attributes part of this decline to a rejection of constitutional authority in favor of an electoral mandate. Presidents who derive their agendas and draw their power not from the laws of the land but from popularity are concerned with polls and keeping their approval ratings high. But popularity is not necessarily related to the wisdom necessary to govern well, and the consequences of this presidential focus on popularity manifest in presidential rhetoric, which Lim argues has become increasing driven by emotional appeals to intuitive intelligence to the exclusion of higher order deliberations of the intellect in order to persuade more people. Lim explains that the problem with persuasion by emotional appeal is twofold. First, because emotional appeals bypass higher order thought which is necessary for the proper analysis of complex and important issues of the day, such appeals rest on reductive and oversimplified reasonings that are often false in significant ways. Persuasion based on such emotional appeals is necessarily shallow and often does not do justice to the issues at stake. The second problem with persuasion by emotional appeal arises when one considers that common sense intuitions are different from person to person. Lim points out that rhetoric that appeals to such common sense intuitions fails when sensibilities are not shared, and only higher order thought and rational disputation can bridge the divisions that exist between people whose gut reactions are different. Abandoning rational content in rhetoric entails the hardening of political divisions that might be bridged by rational argument, especially when such oversimplified rhetoric presents only one side of the story (well).
“The concept of happiness more or less lost its backbone; in the past, I think it was refreshingly embracing: a human being's greatest good, the summum bonum.”
David Naugle reviews the ways in which we understand happiness. Naugle comments on how happiness morphed from a deep and comprehensive theological concept to a political concept we could pursue as a nation to a superficial implication of the modern, sovereign self. Naugle draws on an Augustinian formulation of happiness that roots it in the blessing of God in both delight and human fulfillment. Augustine has in mind not only a subjective feeling of pleasure, but an objective conformation to the created order which loves in properly greater and lesser ways in accordance with the objects of love, God being preeminent. Naugle concludes with a discussion of “The Seven Deadly Sins.”
“Is technology just machines … or are there other types of technologies? … Several of us have talked then about both organizational and psychological techniques such as advertising, public relations, propaganda, and a whole number of other techniques—the self-help books … that [promise] greater effectiveness or efficiency in one’s relationships. If one regards these non-material technologies as technology, it’s only then that you can see the full implication, the full significance of what is sometimes called 'the technological system.’”
Richard Stivers discusses some insights from Jacques Ellul and Max Weber regarding the dominance of technology in our lives. Technologies, in the sense of “techniques” which may manifest in material forms (machines, computers, etc.) or non-material forms (practices, techniques, procedures, protocols, etc.), have as their goal the increase of power for the sake of efficiency. Technology as technique, then, is a hallmark value of modern society. Stivers comments that even our economic system of capitalism can be understood not as merely using technologies, but being the very economic form of technology. Modern society's technical language of information similarly tends to ignore the morality of practices and beliefs in its pursuit of knowledge and, fundamentally, power. The pursuit of information and power can then take on a self-justifying moral imperative of its own that denies moral limits of the pursuit of power. Under a technological regime, freedom and equality is illusory.
“It’s somehow the peculiar dialect of God that combines majesty with abasement, glory with this most incredible self-emptying. And [Hamann] sees this in creation, in Christ, and in the Scriptures, and so everywhere when he’s meditating on the Holy Trinity he sees this combination of glory and humility.”
Theologian John Betz discusses the eighteenth-century philosopher and translator, Johann Georg Hamann, critic and contemporary of Immanuel Kant and other prominent figures of the German Enlightenment. Hamann, even from the early stages of the Enlightenment, saw and argued that the project of modernity would lead to its own destruction. Hamann argued that reason could not, by itself in a pure form, give a complete account of reality, for he saw that the modern ideal of “pure reason” is a fiction. Reason, he argued, is always embedded within an historical culture and language from which one can never fully be detached. In his evaluation, Hamann anticipates the postmodern critics of the twentieth century; however, he avoids the nihilism of postmodernism by observing the revelatory character of language and history. By focusing on the divine kenosis or humility of God, who creates, reveals, and condescends to humanity through His Word, Hamann maintained that man’s pursuit of truth is always contingent on God’s Word in special and general revelation through history and creation. Throughout the interview, Professor Betz describes the centrality of God’s condescension in Hamann’s understanding of knowledge and reason. It is through the humility of God in his condescension to communicate to man that Hamann recognizes the Promethean project of modernity to attain enlightenment from man’s resources alone.