09 avril 2008

Cultural Relativism

At Frieze Magazine (08/04/08), Ronald Jones argues around Sontag's notion of "cultural relativism" in funny ways I'm not sure to fully grasp... Anyway here are interesting excerpts :
The language of relativism projects power by raising doubt or casting uncertainty where none existed before. Its favoured targets are declarations of objective truth and ethical judgment.
(...)
Allergic to absolutism of any stripe, the art world overwhelmingly identifies with Sontag’s relativism, usually with good reason, and always with an open hand towards tolerance and inclusion. Just how tolerant and inclusive the art world has become – while eschewing objective certainties – can be measured by the howls over reviews or essays that draw fire as expressions of aesthetic imperialism.
(...)
Nevertheless, such uncritical relativism is the reigning lingua franca manufactured in universities, and art and design schools, where puréed ideas can be recycled for decades at a time. Once institutionalized, relativism became an acquirable skill like typing or riding a bicycle – transferable knowledge reproduced at will. Tolerance? Check. Inclusion? Check. Diversity? Check. And so it goes. These days it is possible to train someone at university in relativism or Abstract Expressionism, and to virtuoso levels, without critical judgment ever having to be engaged. But empty of critical judgment the fundamental condition of historical amnesia becomes epidemic.

7 commentaires:

dave a dit…

The way Jones uses Sontag's response to September 11 is disingenuous and misleading.

Jones' first sentence is great: "The language of relativism projects power by raising doubt or casting uncertainty where none existed before." The rest of his piece was wrong, wrong, wrong, starting with his vilification of Susan Sontag's piece on September 11. He makes his case without bothering to find good examples Sontag's is not 'relativism' of the kind he's presumably attacking. His example of sculpture student who was told how impressive his work would be in 1912 is, if anything, an example of arelativism, a barbed critique at the historically derivative form the student is using. He suggests Ann Coulter as a counterveiling force to Sontag by way of a strategy of murder and forced religious conversion (as if that level of anti-relativism were somehow a blow struck for human rights...). He never bothers to question certainty as a virtue, celebrating objective truth of the kind espoused by Coulter or others of same stripe, like Osama bin Laden.

I'd argue that objective truth was the cause of the September 11th attacks as much as American imperialism; religious certainty about owning the truth as dictated by God has been responsible for more deaths than relativism by a wide margin.

HarryTuttle a dit…

Yeah exactly. He's giving a lecture on objective "critical judgement" but he's really just being an opinionated partisan with the examples he takes.

dave a dit…

That's precisely the point: 'objective' judgment always reverts to opinionated partisanship, because opinion is the only basis for 'objectivity' in the first place.

HarryTuttle a dit…

I don't know about that, but when he opposes Sontag's article, he's being patriotic instead of considering the larger picture Sontag's touches on about universal "courage" beyond political favoritism.

dave a dit…

Harry -
I agree with your point, but I also don't know on what basis mankind can claim access to objective truth beyond divine inspiration (which is hard to verify).

One could make a claim for a Chomskyan universal moral grammar, but like Chomsky's linguistic framework it isn't falsifiable. In my mind these epistemological concerns nullify any pretensions to 'certainty' we can make as human beings, though I'm not entirely sure about it :)

HarryTuttle a dit…

Well, I do believe in certain common universal basic values within Mankind (it's what makes us equal beings, we are made from the same mould, both biologically and intellectually), the ones that allow us to contemplate morality or philosophy.
Courage to confront death (regardless for the evilness of the initial motivation) is one of these objective truth that is not the monopoly of such or such religion, such or such country.
If there wasn't any certainty, any common ground, any universality at all, we couldn't even begin to have a discussion on anything.

Of course we have to revise some of the values we thought were infallible in the past (as History has proven time and time again)... but at a given era, we deal with a decent enough amount of certainty (which we use to argue about other things that are less certain). Thankfully there are a few things pretty much everyone would agree on.

Political partisanship, for example, is a subjective interpretation of reality.

HarryTuttle a dit…

Though "cultural relativism" isn't as mind boggling as "moral certainty". So when I brought up the citation I really meant to refer to the field of art criticism, which is much more trivial. And there, relativizing the evaluations of each movie vis-a-vis other referential masterpieces is a crucial in critical judgments.