February 4, 2010


Filed under: Uncategorized — dhi @ 3:10 pm

by Timothy Morton, professor of English

Think of a perspective painting: it has vanishing points that tell you how to look at it. In some sense, the attitude the painting wants you to assume is already “in” the painting. In the same way, all statements (ideas, images, whatever) come bundled with implicit attitudes.

That’s the trouble with ideas in general: they code for how to think about them. Getting rid of one is harder than people think, because the attitudes they convey are not “in” your head—they’re hardwired into stuff “over there” like the shape of a Coke bottle or a language proficiency test.

We humanists (see, I used a bad word already) are in the business of making explicit the attitudes that come bundled with statements.

Once you have made an attitude explicit, it becomes something you are thinking about—in short, an idea. This idea then codes for attitudes of its own. So it looks like we have a job for life.

You can call the business of explicating attitudes many things: ideology theory, dialectics, archaeology of knowledge, memetics—whatever you like. We can argue about whether it’s counter-revolutionary, progressive, contemplative, praxis … Each idea about making attitudes explicit also has its own set of implicit attitudes.

For my money, a good dissertation is as explicit as possible a rendering of the attitudes that come bundled with the ideas under investigation, as little subject to time and brainpower constraints as possible. This is why a dissertation isn’t a book. A book is a product that must perforce be shapelier, and thus somewhat more implicit, than a dissertation. A dissertation is like a well loved teddy bear, covered with old vomit and with the stuffing sticking out of its ears: a well used transitional object that turns you from a student into an expert. The product is you, not a nice shiny book-like thing.

No one likes it (including us) when you mention the unconscious, so we don’t get paid very well. And we sew together these nasty looking teddy bear things. And we ourselves (let alone talk radio hosts) have a lot of resentment about our job and our position. We are also likely to suffer from the side effects of explication, such as thinking that we have seen through everything and no longer suffer from any side effects. But we should be proud of what we do (“Who is this guy? Has he no shame, no sense of irony?”).

It’s a bit old fashioned of me to quote William Blake: “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s.” Blake was on to this explication thing when he wrote Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul—or, in my terms, attitudes that come bundled with things we think. Blake’s “experience” isn’t about knowing more things—“experience” is an attitude of disillusionment and cynicism that might be even more troubling than any particular idea it’s thinking. That’s why I always tell my students to put Blake’s songs in quotation marks: it makes it easier to decipher the attitude implicit in the lyrics.

We are also constantly told—by Them, whoever They are (sometimes They are us), that what we do is insignificant, in particular because it isn’t like science. This statement is of course a vector for a certain attitude: scientism. We should be in the business of studying scientism, and rigorously distinguishing it from science as such. Science means being ready to admit that you might be wrong, so scientists are prone to be on our side more often than not, as David Simpson’s post argued in another way. Even science and scientists, however, can be afflicted by scientism.

Humanists should therefore immediately:

1) Receive remedial math and science lessons to get them up to speed with Einstein, quantum theory, evolution and genomics (and so on).

2) Propose research projects to scientists. Don’t just study science, start telling scientists what to do!

1) will enable 2) to be well formulated, and it’s jolly good fun—and amazingly like the most non-essentialist humanities stuff out there. Come on in, the water’s lovely. And it’s too good to leave to scientists who like all of us are prone to carrying implicit attitudes around.

Humanists would make ideal framers of science research projects, just like Columbo makes a great detective because he asks irritating questions. This is precisely because humanists appear not to have anything to do with things that science discovers—things about shiny little ping-pong balls that exist outside your mind, over yonder, right? Humanists are all about subjectivity and nonutilitarian things, no? Isn’t our reflex on hearing such tripe—“Wait! Who ever said empiricism and utilitarianism were hardwired into reality?”—isn’t that just the right one for formulating a really good science research project? Put it another way. If you know how to ask an exam question that will get undergraduates to talk interestingly about Beowulf, you already know how to formulate a science research question.

We are in the attitude explication business, remember. So our questions will be designed to do just that. Here’s the one at the top of my shortlist:

Is consciousness intentional?

If I get a crack at doing another post I’ll tell you why it’s number one—he said, not very explicitly …


  1. Is consciousness intentional? Your asking this reminds me of a game that I used to play with friends “back in the day” as a sort of ritualized ending to a night of psychotropism (usually at about dawn on the roof of a tall building). We laughingly called it “Chase Your Consciousness,” and it consisted simply in trying to locate that pinpoint in your mind whence your thoughts are–at that very moment–originating. Call it a skeptical test of cogito ergo sum. (Oh yeah? Prove to me that I am thinking! I’m waiting.) If successful, it resulted in a very strange and pleasurable sort of tumbling after oneself that could go on and on unless broken by some external impulse. We couldn’t quite sneak up behind ourselves well enough to convincingly intend our own thoughts, nor could we fail to intend them in the sense of “setting them going” in the chase. What’s that, the sunrise? Mike, Mike, the cops are coming….

    [I have been spending altogether too much time with Calvinist theology this week, so please “indulge” my nostalgia for the trippier moments in life…. ;)]

    Comment by Mike Ziser — February 5, 2010 @ 1:44 am

  2. I cannot tell you how long I have been waiting to read something like this. As a poet, I find myself out on the lawn with ideas, staring at the coding and wondering what the heck is up. I admit it does spark the muse and I do follow.
    Your list of what we should do is excellent yet they all seem to point us at getting out of our own way and hanging on to the language to see where it takes us.
    Glad you are out there Tim

    Comment by D.R. R. Wagner — February 5, 2010 @ 10:29 am

  3. Back to Husserl? But seriously, I am all for your message, and have had a few happy experiences talking with scientists, enough to make me feel that we can occasionally contribute to as well as learn from what they do. A lot of smart scientists are very aware of the boundedness of what they do and why they do it- and are curious to explore it. They are not philosophically naive, many of them. Mike Turelli (Biology) invited Allen Orr last year and included several humanists in the event- which I thought was a success, Darwinism being such a good example of what you are talking about. The sociobiology debate also did this well some years ago. The pressure we all work under however makes it very hard to find time and space for learning and talking across practices (let us not say disciplines). And that I am sorry to say is likely to get worse. So it is good that you hold out the possibility. It likely needs an institutional base (grant project?) of some sort?– however minimal.

    Comment by David Simpson — February 8, 2010 @ 10:44 am

  4. A good example of a discipline where humanists (specifically, historians) are formulating many of the initiatives and then proceeding apace with “Naturwissenschaftler” is archaeology. Any team worth its spit has “hard” archaeologists, philologists, art historians, biologists, and geologists on hand and involved at various stages of the project.

    Enjoyed the distinction between “dissertation” and “book” – fair to say that most academic monographs serve the purpose of the former, no? I for one am very interested in probing the stuffing and vomit bespeckling the souls of my colleagues and forebears. My ruminations on them are called “footnotes.”

    Comment by barbeloh — February 9, 2010 @ 3:31 am

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