Strange Fruit

This post will be another ramble. Be warned.

I would define the claim to theory in the humanities as impatience systematized. Out of Judaism grown impatient at the everlasting delay of the messianic came strange fruit. Today, this impatience has taken on extreme, nihilistic urgency. It questions the very concepts of meaning and of form. It queries the possibility of any significant relations between word and world. It exalts the myth of theory above the facts of creation.

—George Steiner

“The argument is rarely about what the argument is about.” This was the topic of discussion in a recent Philosophy of Ethics class I teach. I was trying to explain to the students that without the ability to discern hidden or unstated premises, argument quickly devolves into bickering (the more prevalent type of discourse today, I think).

Take whatever controversial issue you want. The propositions argued by any particular side depend upon other propositions rarely shared by “the other side.”

Thus in modern debates—I’ll let you choose which ones—regarding how we define aspects of society, the real issue is not, I think, what are the definitions themselves; the real issue is what tools we will use to determine definitions. In short, what rules will govern our thinking, our perception? Because those (often unstated, often unperceived) rules will themselves dictate how we play the game, how we live, what we actually do.

Are our decisions about definitions entirely (or largely) a matter of will? Is perception ‘free form’, a great big whatever? Are we existentially free?

Or must are perceptions be grounded to something external? Can they be? Must we at least assume they must be?

Now, how does the artist tackle similar questions in the realm of Art? Are there forms, or is art completely “free form”? What happens when there “are no rules?” Is there more beauty? Or to put it another way, what happens when there is no frame, physically or temporally?

On the other hand, what happens when form becomes mere constraint, mere procedure?

(Or need the question be dichotomous? Isn’t there a way to conceive of form as an invitation to beauty?)

In the meantime, theory trumps execution.

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