Art Is a Tool for Reorganizing Our Lives: A Conversation With Cognitive Philosopher Alva Noë

“What is art? Why is it so important?” In his new work, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature, cognitive philosopher Alva Noë works to rescue art and aesthetic experience from merely cultural or reductively biological explanations, suggesting instead that art is both “an evolved expression of human nature” and “a broad capacity to participate in a whole suite of culturally beholden responses and evaluative attitudes.” Art, in this definition, is very much like philosophy, and both are preoccupied with “the ways we are organized and with the possibility of reorganizing ourselves.”

In Noë’s work, art and philosophy act upon and recontextualize our organized activities —  like breastfeeding or dancing — and in the process they “disclose ourselves to ourselves.” In this way, the work of art becomes a strange tool — like a urinal, for example, that is turned upside down and placed in a gallery. Flavorwire spoke with Noë about his book.

Flavorwire: The name of the book is Strange Tools, and, specifically, you call works of art themselves “strange tools” — in the sense that art takes one thing that makes sense in its own setting, and it removes it from that setting, rendering it alien or strange. I immediately thought of Duchamp’s Fountain. But you also mean “tool” in the sense of the things that we use to organize our lives, right?

Alva Noë: I start off from this appreciation that tools and technologies are central to our lives. And one of the things I’m interested in is the way they become habitual and organize us, and it’s hard us really to conceive of ourselves apart from all of these tools that we use. Tools including language itself, or pictorial technologies, and of course writing and email — and hammers and nails and doors and door handles and floors.

Tools, I think, can only have this meaning they have for us in our daily lives, in our lived experience, thanks to the way they’re embedded in a whole background of needs and expectations and ways that we live. For us, doorknobs are these really self-evident kinds of things. But if you imagine an anthropologist from a remote planet, who didn’t know that we have bodies like the bodies we have, it might require a certain amount of thought and inventiveness and intelligence to think of the doorknob, to imagine how the doorknob is used.

For this alien anthropologist, the doorknob (or whatever tool) is estranged…

When you do take a tool or technology and extract it from the setting in which it has the sense that it has for us and make it strange, one of the things you do is throw into relief, or bring into the foreground, what has up until then been sort of invisible or in the background. How very much is presupposed in our organized living. To make a tool strange is in a way to reveal something about us to ourselves.

How does this idea of the strange tool show how art and philosophy are similar, or even the same in many ways?

This idea that works of art are strange tools connects to this other idea that runs throughout the book, namely that art itself can be thought of as a kind of research practice, indeed a philosophical practice of precisely unveiling us to ourselves. Letting us catch ourselves in the act of taking everything for granted that we do take for granted. How that revelation or revelatory thing that art and philosophy can achieve also has a further effect of transforming us, or as I say in the book, reorganizing us.

But to your question, if you think of something like Duchamp’s Fountain — in a way it’s a paradigmatic case because he’s taking something, the significance of which is intelligible in a setting, and he’s extracting it from that setting. And then he is confronting us with the question: What is this, then? What did we think it was, and what conditions the way we think it is what it is?

Duchamp is also doing something else, and in fact all artists are probably always doing something else. For him (and I’m not a Duchamp expert), by taking a prefabricated plumbing equipment by turning it upside down and signing it, he is not only putting the object status of this thing in the foreground, but also the whole question: What do we think art is? What do we think we’re doing when we’re engaging with art?

Another example of a “tool” or organized activity you discuss is dancing. But dancing is not necessarily the art itself. It’s more like dancing is an organized, biological activity, and choreography is the art of “revealing” how we dance. Is this right?

Dancing is like conversation. It’s like breastfeeding, and it’s like walking down the street. I think dancing is habitual, and it’s bound up with our needs and our interests and our goals — maybe we’re dating, maybe we’re celebrating. It has all of these aspects: it involves letting oneself go, for example, we get caught up in dancing, and we find ourselves organized in dancing. It’s a fact about us that we are dancers, that we are danced, in a sense.

Then the thought is that when a choreographer stages a dance, they’re not just doing more dancing. They’ve shifted the frame. What the choreographer is doing is putting that fact about us on display. And they’re showing something deep and profound and extraordinary; namely that we are dancing animals. Not all choreographers are interested in that — a lot of choreographers are interested in movement, in kinesthetics, some are interested in drama and theatre, some are interested in certain aesthetic ideals, and they just happen to be doing it in relation to dancing. So, I’ve slightly simplified what choreography is by tying it to dancing.

But you also point out that choreography, or dancing that has already been displayed or that already exists, can reorganize our lives…

So the first thought there is that the art of dancing — dancing is this thing that comes before the art of dancing. Then I try to point out that (and this is something I learned to appreciate in my conversation with dance artists) is that in fact the relationship and dancing is altered by the fact that the existence of choreography changes the way we dance. We grew up in a culture where we’ve seen Michael Jackson or West Side Story. We have very vivid pictures in our mind of what dancing looks like. And those pictures are transferred to us through choreography, so that the simple idea of dancing ends up sort of subverting itself. You have this idea that even when I’m dancing by myself, just dancing around in total privacy, I’m still in the space of significance that is shaped by art.  

I think something really interesting happens in terms of vision, too. Obviously pictures are one thing and seeing is another. I’m interested in the way in which once there are pictures — as a matter fact, there are have been pictures for about as long as there have been modern homo sapiens, for at 30,000 years (or so) — but when there are pictures they also change the way we see.

Is this what you mean by “looping back”?

Yes, exactly. In a way we’re always influenced by our own representation of our activities to ourselves.

Your background is in cognitive science, too, and although you give a biological argument for the place of art in human nature, you are against what you call scientism. What do you mean by this?

I’m critical of the idea that you can somehow reduce the aesthetic or the artistic to something biological or neurobiological or evolutionary biological. But I don’t want to be read as one of the people who somehow thinks that art is culture and that culture is somehow this free domain that is unrestrained by biology.

I’ve been really interested in my positive work as a philosopher of cognitive science trying to develop new ways of thinking about where biology might be — that it could do a better job of accounting for human nature. I don’t think we need to believe that we are separate islands of consciousness, that we’re isolated from each other or from the world around us. I’ve tried in my work to suggest that to really understand experience — the experience of human beings or any animal — you need to think about animals as whole organisms that are situated in an environment that includes others, and that experience is something they enact or perform in a dynamic with each other.

In this work, this process of rethinking the biological extends to art and the aesthetic…

One of the ideas I have in this book is that if I’m right, art and philosophy are from the beginning grappling with a fact about the human condition that deserves to be thought of as biological. It has to do with the way in which we are organized, the way in which we are creatures of habit in a very profound sense. How do you change if you’re a creature of habit? The thought is that art and philosophy are reorganizational practices. They are domains in which we both try to understand ourselves and change ourselves.

But what about these arguments that say your equation of philosophy and art is too dryly intellectual? That it doesn’t reckon with our biological need for wonder and awe that presumably art provides?

So I want both to put philosophy and art in the vicinity of biology, but without accepting an account of biology which I think is too individualistic and too internalistic. I think that experience of being captured by, or lost within, embeddings of different organizations of which we are not the author is a powerfully emotional state. The impetus that drives philosophy, and I think the impetus — whether or not it works at the conscious level — is behind what artists do, has to do with being trapped or lost.

An interesting thing for me is that people sometimes think that emotion and the intellect are somehow divorced from each other, that either it’s an intellectual issue or an emotional issue — that one is mental and the other physical. One is biological and the other is somehow cultural. In one of the chapters I discuss [another philosopher’s view] that the passion we have in relation to art is so palpable that it couldn’t be cultural. That also means that it couldn’t be intellectual. Those are false oppositions to me. I can be moved to tears by the written word. What’s cultural if not the written word? And what is more immediate than tears?

Another idea in the book is that both philosophy and art “are practices bent on the invention of writing.” How does this work?

Earlier I compared writing and choreography. The word “choreography” means “writing.” And one of the really fascinating things that people in the dance world are always trying to do is figure out how to score movements, how to transcribe the movements of dance. If my dance company wants to perform a ballet, there is no text that enables us to do it. If we want to dance Balanchine, somebody who was taught Balanchine by Balanchine has to come — that’s the transmission. There have been many attempts to create notation throughout history, but none have anything like the autonomy that we think writing has, or even that musical scores have. So what is the score, then: it’s a way of representing ourselves or what we should do to ourselves.

And, in some ways, what is philosophy but an attempt for thought to represent itself, and to understand its beginnings and its endings and its criteria as it should evolve?

It’s sometimes said that philosophy begins in conversation, and in the Socratic conversations that Plato recorded in his early dialogues. These conversations between Socrates and his interlocutors. What’s so interesting is that, first of all they are written conversations, but their model is something more like the interruption of conversation, the demand that we stop just talking and start defining the terms we’re using, and start justifying ourselves. In other words, you can almost read them as insisting that we need to write this down. We need to understand what it would be to write it down. Defining these terms: What is courage? What is justice? What is love? We should write it down.