Economics, Literature and Scepticism

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I am a PhD student in Economics. I am originally from South Africa and plan to return there after my PhD. I completed my M. Comm in Economics and my MA In Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Cape Town, where I worked as a lecturer before starting my PhD.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Philosophy of Fiction and Art

Posted by Simon Halliday | Thursday, August 10, 2006 | Category: | 3 comments

I attended a seminar today by a Professor from Temple University in the US. The seminar was on whether Art (capital A) can convey knowledge. The arguments centrally revolve around aesthetics and epistemology, i.e the accepted modes of interpreting these kinds of questions.

[An aside: I had a concern from the outset that the question we were interrogating is itself constructed and fallacious. The reasons for this are multiple. Firstly, there seems to be an ordinal approach to Science, Art and various other disciplines. This stems from the early dispute between poets and philosophers in the Greek tradition where Art was above Philosophy (i.e. Aristotle more important than Plato – shock horror). From these philosophically different ideas came the disciplines of ethics, aesthetics, epistemology, etc. In contemporary society the issue is whether Art is on a lower rung than Science in terms of a socially acceptable and useful discipline. The argument to say that Art provides knowledge is to try to get it higher on the social ladder so that it can be legitimate relative to Science. My personal feeling is that, regardless of the practicalities, this is a constructed and historically determined dichotomy, rather than an extant one with considerations of which we need to take cognizance. What this means is that putting Science and Art on a social hierarchy in the first place is irrelevant and fallacious. They are dramatically different disciplines and trying to compare particle physics with poetry can lead to some fairly problematic ideas. I concede that in monetary terms, or governmental budget allocations, the difference and the hierarchy are considered, but this does not mean that the hierarchy itself should exist. I also concede that my argument here is not at all useful in terms of policy making, because for that we need (by virtue of the economizing problem) to allocate resources for society to be operating optimally.]

Back to the seminar. Noel Carroll presented his paper and basically sat there reading to us from the paper. In that way I didn't feel that it was that professional, nevertheless the content was interesting. Quite thankfully, his voice was also not soporific regardless of the US twang. So yes, the arguments against Art conveying knowledge are to do with the following:

1) Common Denominator

2) Expertise

3) Banality

4) Evidence

The common denominator argument comes down to an idea that form is the only common denominator that is shared by all Art. This would then mean that if we are to gain knowledge from art then said knowledge would have to be from some cognition relative to the form itself. Moreover, if all art does not convey knowledge through its form, this would then mean that it should not be incumbent on any art to attempt to convey knowledge. This is an aesthetic argument. The refutation of this is based on the idea that it is inherently essentialist, it conveys some kind of necessary condition in certain circumstances, but it does not mean that if there is some sui generis form then we cannot gain knowledge from such. Moreover, the knowledge that we gain need not be formally provided for us in fiction (specifically from NC, of realist fiction). What this means is that we can gain knowledge of social phenomena and social realities from art and from the milieux in which art is presented. Essentialism is flawed.

In terms of expertise, the idea is that artists are trained in the specific skills needed supposedly to create art. As such a visual artist is taught perspective, a poet prosody and forth. We should not then expect such artists to be able to offer valid critiques of society, they do not have expert knowledge in that area and hence their presentations or representations are unlikely to impart knowledgeable information or processes of cognition to the reader of such art. If you are unsure of this then think of a different argument, we do not expect a lawyer to be presenting works containing good perspective to their client who is asking about a divorce – they have not been trained as such. To a large extent this argument is valid, it is also more of an epistemic argument than an aesthetic as the prior argument is. It should also be noted that I agree with this argument to a large extent, both in terms of the training necessary to be an artist and the training necessary to comment on social phenomena. Both require specific training and should be viewed as areas of expertise. This does not mean that an artist cannot gain knowledge, nor that a lawyer cannot draw a good piece with perspective. What it does mean is that in many, more naïve, cases there will be situations in which people present inferior knowledge. However, this does not mean that Art and Artists irrelevantly present knowledgeable portrayals of events. As an artist gains knowledge and expertise in specific areas then they can present knowledgeable portrayals of such (back to the whole thing on social realities being presented by realist authors).

It should be noted that the above also relates to the banality and the evidence arguments. In terms of banality, many truisms are found from reading literary works. These can be found in, say Death of A Salesman where we can say that the truism is that 'looks and being well-liked aren't everything'. Or, if we were interrogating Pride and Prejudice the truism could be 'don't rush into things'. As much as these truisms are banal, and as much as the knowledge of them is required beforehand in order to interpret them from the text that one reads, there is more to the story. The counter-argument is that as much as these pieces do offer said truisms, in reality they offer a nuanced and particular view of specific characters, social realities and a vehicle through which we can begin to understand certain contexts of action. Death of A Salesman isn't only about the truism I presented earlier, it is also about familial relationships, the problems of consumerism, the idea of a nuclear family, father-son relationships, suicide and so much more. Attempting to dismiss the entire play as a 'banality' is missing the point of the other psychological and socially informative knowledge that it can confer.

Lastly, in terms of the evidence debate, we see several situations worthy of consideration. Firstly, we know that fiction, and in most circumstances Art, does not attempt to present specific evidence to support some thesis which the piece itself may be progressing. However, these days, specifically in fiction, pieces of evidence, and by inference, evidence based knowledge, is presented through referencing, research discussions and on occasion footnoting. Apart from the usefulness of these, the question is whether this idea of 'evidence' is a necessary bar by which to measure fiction in the first place as well as the knowledge that it can confer. Fiction's virtue is that it can convey knowledge to the reader through a process of personal corroboration of events that take place in a fictitious setting. I know that what happens in a specific realist novel is not (by any stretch of the imagination) factually real, but I can glean knowledge of a location, of people and of psychological phenomena through reading such a work. The question that we then ask is at what level we want to set the bar for evidence to be a criteria for the gaining of knowledge from a work. We know that in scientific work it is absolutely necessary to reference, produce experiments, etc. Does Art, do fiction and visual art, require the same from us as 'readers' of such in order for us to accept that there is knowledge to be gained from them?

Anyway, I just thought that I would present some of these interpretations of mine as a point of interest. Some of the arguments interest me, others are arb. I often laugh at how young artists attempts to make sweeping statements about world poverty, trade, Karl Marx and the like without any specific knowledge about them. Ho hum. Life goes on. Comment if you feel the interest bubble within you, don't if you don't.

Inside and Out

Posted by Simon Halliday | | Category: | 0 comments

Reading Jeremy Cronin's Poetry is a perilous affair for me. Of the three times that I have tried to get into the collection Inside and Out I have ended up crying all three times. I'm am not at all far into the collection, which makes it even more frustrating I suppose. Frustrating in a good way though – such that it reminds me why I read and write poetry (rather than, of necessity, fiction). I can also link my weeping to certain poems - “overhead is mesh”, 'Walking on Air', 'Motho ke Motho ka batho babang (A Person is a Person because of other People)', and 'Death Row'. I also have a habit of trying to read poetry out loud these days, even when I am just reading to myself. Sometimes, if amongst others, this elicits some strange reactions from people, but it elicits even more of a response from me often.

Poetry is so intrinsically about the words, about the way we express ourselves in language. The poetry listed above is all from Cronin's collection Inside (a note: Inside and Out collects some poetry from that portfolio as well as others). The poems were written during his imprisonment, consequent to his arrest in 1976 under the Terrorism Act.

I recently had the privilege to hear him read some of his more contemporary work. He read along with Ingrid de Kok and Antjie Krog. He read one poem, a fairly lengthy affair all about Cape Town, the creole and hybrid nature of it, a saxophonist's left shoulder and various other things. His reading was energetic and infused with a wish to communicate everything that this poem meant to him, to convey some idea of the significance of this guy's left shoulder and everything that surrounded it (emotion, context, area, politics). Reading his other work, the watching of that performance (because he really did perform rather than read) has gained more significance. I waited a long time afterwards to shake his hand and thank him. I did not think he would want to converse (there were several other people there who were more significant to him than I who were present). His face was genuine and his smile was encapsulating and just so physically expressive. Anyway, I wrote the poem below the other day after reading “overhead is mesh” (it is in quotation marks rather than inverted commas because of the poem being genuinely untitled) and 'Walking on Air'.

Reading J.C. 04.08.06

I cried today


Jeremy Cronin


though I'd

like to read 'the man'

(physical smiling man)

I read 'the poetry'

(physical smiling

maybe sometimes)

I wondered what

I'd have thought of


(my hands look


could I have stood

on two bricks only

for three day-nights?

(i have terrible knees,

could I knuip?)

I know I worry:

the concepts

(un)productive labour

regardless, while reading

I cried and it made me

both jealous and inspired.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Private Schools and Weak Ties

Posted by Simon Halliday | Thursday, August 03, 2006 | Category: | 2 comments

One of the main thrusts of my thesis is towards an idea, attributable to Mark Granovetter (1973), called ‘The Strength of Weak Ties’. The idea here is that if you take an individual and the people to whom they are connected, friends and family constitute strong ties and acquaintances constitute weak ties. To give a brief review of the idea, if I have a strong tie to an individual, it is likely that we have similar friends, tastes, motives, etc – we belong to what is called a Gemeinschaft or community which has similar mores and values. The thing is that this can constrain me as an individual if I want to tap into social resources, if I have specific resources it is quite likely that others to whom I have strong ties, or who are in my Gemeinschaft, will have access to similar resources. What this then implies is that if I have weak ties that connect me to other social contexts, or other Gemeinschaften, I can then tap into other social resources.

While reading a later paper of Granovetter’s, a 1983 review of the decade of work after his seminal work in ’73, he narrows his idea, stating that it is not only weak ties that are important, but weak ties that bridge social groups – basically giving further emphasis to the original idea he had. Moreover, what he and others have subsequently showed is that education often plays a role in providing one with the bridging weak ties necessary for things such as labour market participation (finding a new job through a weak tie), or other such activities. In addition to this idea on education level was one about wealth level – those at higher wealth levels seem to have more bridging weak ties than those at lower wealth levels.

This got me to thinking about schooling, specifically schools like Bishops – private schools with the rumoured ‘Old Boys Clubs’ that provide for individuals in the school. My intuition is that schools like Bishops not only provide individuals with strong ties in their friendship groups, but they also provide tacit weak ties to people who aren’t even acquaintances. What this means is that even if you have not met someone, because of a shared experience (i.e. having attended Bishops, or other such schools) you share a bridge weak tie with that individual. This then means that social mobility for these kinds of individuals can be much swifter and much easier than it is for others who don’t have this kind of historic resource. Not only do you garner more actual acquaintances who can act as bridge weak ties, you collect others who you do not even know.

This is not to say that the strong ties that one cultivates at school are not going to be useful in fact, in a wealthy environment, Granovetter asserts that institutions such as private clubs, elite schools and such will be created by the upper classes in order to facilitate the growth of such strong ties. There are additional reasons for this to do with class sociology and frequency of interaction, etc. But what made more of an impact to me was the possibility of the exploitation of bridging weak ties that could exist because of these institutions’ existence.

The one word that comes into my head is ‘Gnarly’ (like a tree). Anyway, the random thoughts that one has while working on a dissertation hey?

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Moving, the World

Posted by Simon Halliday | Tuesday, August 01, 2006 | Category: | 1 comments

Just so you all know, I have moved! I now stay in digs with my longstanding friend Seraj. Our digs is called Castle Pebble on account of it being the cottage at the bottom of the property of the house Castle Rock. It’s in Constantia, very close to the top gate of Kirstenbosch Gardens – in fact I am looking forward to frittering away many of the hours of summer in the Gardens. I have taken my laptop to work there previously and my proximity now can only facilitate further enjoyment of the idyllic setting that it provides.

The move itself was chaotic. It was all really on account of the attempted hijacking (née armed robbery) at my old digs. Although it is sad to leave that place, it is also a dramatic relief. I was often paranoid driving into the parking bay, the play of the shadows often seemed to me to replicate the form of a person. I am told that such replaying is a fairly typical example of post-crime stress, or simply PTSD. Ah well… it is occasionally reassuring to be a textbook case and to follow some of the textbook patterns (for example it is good and ‘purging’ to discuss these kinds of things on an open forum such as this).

Otherwise, like everyone I have been thinking on Israel and Lebanon, the wonders of Western-Middle Eastern politics, world power, Condi Rice, the UN, sovereignty, the Geneva Convention, poverty, economics, war. All of these are tied up.

Anyway, I was sent a mail by a friend of mine in protest to the war in Lebanon. It contained photos of the innocent victims. I wrote the following poem as a result of one of the photographs. You can read it beneath this message.

Anyway, I love you my dear friends. Peace.


Danny the Champion of the World1

children should not be

held up by their feet

like dead pheasants


can sear us so

a man was holding

a boy by his feet

having picked him

from the wreckage

of a bombed truck

his skin was ashed

his navel clean

his hair hanging

my seared brain

is ashen now

my hair hangs

wet as I cry

I did not know him

I knew Danny: my memory

of fat pheasants, shot well.

1In reference to the children's story by Roald Dahl.