Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Preferential Treatment

An excerpt from what I am writing:

The hidden importance of the statement: “I like it.” Why like it rather than not like it? There is a lot packed into that experience. The quality of one’s experience of something varies widely for people. Beyond the level at which we give reasons for our beliefs, it is this preference which is determining for belief. Nietzsche writes about the importance of taste. Interestingly, this is the level at which most people contemplate the cultural products they experience: movies, books, TV shows, fashion. They say "I liked it" or "I didn’t like it." Very much in touch with their preferences and generally out of touch with their ability to say why they like or dislike. This is useful for maintaining aggregate demand in a consumer society, but bad for the dream of an informed, thinking, democratic public. One of the many ways capitalism and democracy contradict.

Intellectuals focus on their reasons for belief and neglect their affective preferences, yet, it’s contended here, these affective preferences, taste, play an important role in the development of a person’s worldview. So behind the ordinary persons preferences is their whole disposition toward life. One could do an interesting psychodynamic investigation of why a person likes x or y cultural product and similarly, I contend, we can do an interesting psychodynamic investigation of why an intellectual or anybody believes in x and not y when x and y are arationally assumed or felt or seem to be true.


Judith said...

A very important topic for serious consideration AND lighthearted handling. Paying attention to one's response of "I like this" / "I don't like this" is, at least for me, a requisite touchstone when formulating and re-formulating my beliefs and monitoring my intellectual growth. I've learned that my "I don't like this" response to a piece of writing can mean a host of different things. Sometimes, it means I don't understand what I have just read; sometimes it means I am sensing some kind of deficit of intellectual honesty (according to my personal code) or muddled thinking; not infrequently, it means the writing is challenging some long cherished belief that I "know" is no longer serving me but I am not yet ready to let it go and therefore, I am irritated by what is experienced as an external pressure to relinquish said belief there and then. Similarly, being honest with myself that I "like" something I've read that is clearly contrary to what, at that time, I believe to be a "correct" way of thinking about a particular topic, opens up space for honest reflection like nothing else.

I believe there is increasing evidence that we are hard-wired with an aesthetic sense that provides tangible guidance within the domains of rationality and science (Brian Greene, The Elegant Universe).

At the same time, my personal "likes" and "dislikes", visceral and immediate as they can be in their manifestation,, remind me I am,like all humans, a bundle of contradiction and paradox, shaped by my personal history and acculturation to a degree far greater than I would ever admit from a purely rational/intellectual stance.

Jeff Meyerhoff said...

Jeez, Judith! You sound like me. Very interesting reflections. Yes, there are many ingredients to the feelings “I don’t like it”/ “I do like it.” It would be good to be familiar with them. This is what good critics do. They find the words to describe their reactions, a skill that’s very difficult. The film critic Pauline Kael was a master of it. And our personal reactions needn’t be idiosyncratic. Kael had a phenomenological-like objectivity in some of her descriptions of her reactions. I would often find I had the same reaction that she did but outside my awareness. It took her descriptions to bring it into my consciousness. Sometimes I had the same reaction she did but with me liking the reaction and she not; suggesting a measure of objectivity even in preferences. We can separate the effect of something from our liking or not liking the effect.

For example I just saw the first twenty minutes of the recent movie “The Best Marigold Hotel” (it was all I could stand). There was this painful quality to the movie which is very difficult to describe. Describing those subtle reactions which are the ingredients of our opinions of art and is the basis of our aesthetic outlooks is tough. James Wolcott, at Vanity Fair, used to be very good at it.

The movie was so preciously contrived I could hear the producers behind the scenes crafting the pap: “Yeah, a travel movie for the older crowd. We’ll get a bunch of older actors and actresses who the audience just adores and send them to an exotic locale where they’ll have the adventures and learn the life lessons that the audience wishes they could experience. It will be a vicarious vacation for old people.” It made me shudder with embarrassment until I finally cried “Uncle!”

Most often we, in our unconsciousness, move right past these initial palpable, feelingful reactions that send us in one direction or another – for or against the object we are experiencing – and just develop an attitude of alliance or opposition that we then try to formulate into an argument.

In addition to your reasons for liking/not liking something, sometimes I am threatened by an assertion because it seems right but contradicts some deeply held belief of mine. But given how rational argumentation operates, I know that if I want to preserve the threatened belief I can just find the counterargument to the threatening assertion. It seems there will always be one. This is the basis of ancient Greek Pyrrhonian Scepticism in which a state of tranquility is cultivated through seeing that there are always ways to argue for and against the truth of any opposing views.