Cognition under the high brow


High Culture: Da Vinci's Last Supper (as seen in The Da Vinci Code).

We cognitive anthropologists deal with “culture” in the broad sense of distributed mental representations widespread in a social group (and many of us don’t really believe that the terms “culture” or “cultural” pick up a natural kind of representations – but that will be the topic of another post). We do not usually have much time for “culture” in the elevated sense of high culture – the sense usually associated with the names of Matthew Arnold or TS Eliot, among others.

But we should pay some attention, perhaps. True, high culture does not occur in all human societies, it is a minority pursuit wherever it does, and there may be more important problems for cognitive anthropology to solve. But it is interesting nonetheless. Wherein lies the difference between the high and low registers? Is there any cultural variation in that difference? How does it translate in terms of cognitive processes?

We academics and other literate types are often misguided in our approach to this, as we compare the best examples of high culture with the worst of the low. This was recently and vividly brought to my attention by the request of a friend and colleague, that we both read something called The Da Vinci Code, which we would then discuss in various undergraduate classes on literature, myth and history. This turned out to be a Serious Mistake.

Despite the combined calls of duty and collegiality, neither of us could struggle through more than about sixty pages of that unreadable drivel (and only grim determination got us to that point). The author seemed to be engaged in a desperate scuffle against the English language, a fight he was doomed to lose – with every paragraph pronounced dead on arrival. Things were not made much better by cardboard characters, an asinine plot and the resolute inclusion of every cliche known to man.

Now, analyzing what made the Code so ghastly is of course amusing. But let  us not be too smug, at least not so soon. Popular culture, or low brow genres, also include many very good works, if we can allow ourselves the occasional normative pronouncement. The question is, what is the difference between (good) high culture and the (good) rest?

A not-too-interesting hypothesis would be that there is no difference at all – or none that really matters or should be investigated. In that view, the main point of high culture is that it allows members of some group to distinguish themselves from hoi polloi. The works are not really different, they are just appropriated by different social groups. Now, that kind of thing may be good enough for French sociologists, but cognitive anthropology has loftier ambitions.

More interesting, and more germane to our interests, is the notion that appreciation of high culture artifacts somehow requires more “mental work” than that of lesser genres. For instance, a lot of popular music (in which we may include a lot of Vivaldi but not all Mozart, all Glenn Miller but certainly not Duke Ellington) strives for harmonic simplicity, for the repetition of identical harmonic progressions, for fewer modulations or departures from the tonal centre. By contrast high-culture Western music, e.g. Beethoven’ quartets or Chopin’s Etudes or all of Ravel, strives for more complex, unpredictable resolutions, fewer cadences, surprising harmonic progressions, variation rather than repetition, etc. I only mention Western works because they are more familiar to most of our readers. But the difference may well be more general. In classical Arabic music some maqam series are complex and appreciated by a few while ‘Um-Kulthum (or Om Kalsoum) is a bit simpler. This difference sometimes leads self-conscious cultural traditions to the cult of obscurity and self-reference, as in the case of modernism of the Bloomsbury or Joycean kind. But that is rather exceptional – there is nothing obscure or self-referential to Bartok or Proust – but high-brow they undoubtedly are. So what is that “work” of the mind that is more essential to high than to low genres, that makes Dickens high-culture and Trollope, well, a bit less so?

People who think that all cognition is informed by the search for relevance (and, sad to say,  there are such people) would say that mental work can be operationalized as effort and effect. The effort side of the equation may seem easy to construe, as suggested above. The effect side is more subtle, but no less real. For instance, Bleak House has two very different narrators, and only some of the events are described from both perspectives – so much for effort. This creates an attention-grabbing contrast between events, that may contribute to making the novel unputdownable – but only for those who accepted to pay the price to start with. More research is needed.

The relevance interpretation – if we could only make it more specific! – would help us understand why appreciation of high-culture works can be used for the self-identification of elite groups. Far from being the case that anything goes, as far as elitism is concerned, it would seem that only some fairly limited kinds of public representations will do. They must share enough with the common genre that everyone can identify them (a Chopin waltz does sound a bit like like a waltz) but it should also be clear that they will not provide immediate or easy gratification (like a Strauss waltz).

Perhaps we need a cognitive anthropology of refinement, something that is missing from anthropological theory so far. Maybe that’s because so few anthropologists have any knowledge or appreciation of their own (high) culture! All this could be done experimentally, without at any point engaging in normative judgments.

Except about claptrap like that Da Vinci book, of course.


  • Bill Benzon
    Bill Benzon 14 January 2010 (21:18)

    [i]More interesting, and more germane to our interests, is the notion that appreciation of high culture artifacts somehow requires more “mental work” than that of lesser genres.[/i] Or perhaps mental effort involving different “computational” techniques, which would be specific to genre. This is something the late David Hays and I have thought about a bit and have published on. You might want to look at: David Hays. The Evolution of Expressive Culture. Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems, 15: 187-215, 1992. [URL=]Readable online here[/URL]. William Benzon. The Evolution of Narrative and the Self. Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems, 16(2): 129-155, 1993. [URL=]Readable online here[/URL]. You can [URL=]download it here[/URL]. William Benzon. Stages in the Evolution of Music. Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems, 16(3): 283-296, 1993. [URL=]Readable online here[/URL]. This paper explicitly addresses the relationships between popular forms and high forms in the same culture with a discussion of jazz in America.

  • Bill Benzon
    Bill Benzon 15 January 2010 (01:26)

    Oh, I forgot, but I don’t really think of Dickens as any more high-culture than Trollop and I doubt that many Victorian specialists would either. In any case, in their own time, the novel was thought of as a popular genre, and not as serious as The Classics, especially when read in the original Greek or Latin. It’s only in the retrospect of 20th century literary culture that a group of 18th and 19th century novels were elevated to high culture status. Jazz made the same move in the 20th century. It started out as pop culture and stayed that way through WWII. Bebop musicians began to think of jazz as high art and, in time, as rock and roll displaced jazz from the popular sphere, jazz became more and more accepted as high art until the august institutions of New York City’s Lincoln Center established a formal jazz program late in the century. But the cognitive requirements of novels didn’t change simply because a bunch of academics decided they were high culture. Nor did audiences acquire new cognitive tools for hearing jazz upon its anointment by Lincoln Center. So whether or not certain cultural products are designated as high culture does have a component that isn’t related to the mental processes they stimulate or support.

  • Andrew Hirst 15 January 2010 (16:16)

    Whilst I find the high/low brow distinction interesting, I think there are subtle nuances being glossed over in this discussion. For example, your discussion of complexity focuses predominantly on classical music (as do most discussions of this kind in the literature… maybe this is something we need to consciously move away from?). I am heavily involved in independent/underground music culture, and within this subculture there are bands producing music with varying degrees of complexity. Certain bands, eg. “math-rock” bands, produce music of extreme complexity, which only s small number of people “get” (for example Upsilon Acux – [url][/url]. Then of course there are bands producing music at the other end of the complexity spectrum. Within this subculture, however, this complexity spectrum does not correlate with high/low brow sentiments. In fact, many people within the indie subculture who like music of equal or lesser technical complexity to the average Radio 1 pop song (see, for example, Girls – [url][/url]) consider themselves to be “better” in some way to the masses. In fact, for some bands, technique and precise musicianship are eschewed completely as a pseudo high-brow artistic pretense (e.g. Beat Happening, [url][/url]). Of course, this is anecdotal, based on my experience within this subculture. There is one thing which I believe is undeniably true, however – discussions of this kind need to be informed by works from multiple sources, and need to stop using Western classical music as the basic starting point for all discussion. As a research student who is relatively uninformed about Western classical music, I feel almost like I am being excluded by an intellectual elite. Perhaps this says something about high-brow culture…?

  • Jacob Lee 18 January 2010 (09:51)

    A piece of music is judged best with respect to a listener. This statement is not an endorsement of some weak-kneed relativism in which everything can and should go, but simply a statement that the quality we are describing is not intrinsic to a piece of music but is a relation between the properties of a piece of music and the state(s) of some cognitive system experiencing it. The state of the cognitive system is crucial, and that state is susceptible to many influences coloring our experience and appraisal of the music. The connoisseur of art, music, or even wine experiences these things in ways that the less experienced cannot. One might suppose that one could turn this around and say that those with less experience can experience something in ways that those with more experience cannot, and that is true. But there is a qualitative difference between them: the connoisseur is in general, but not without exception, attuned to and can individuate various nuances in the experience that are simply inaccessible to the novice. And certain forms probably permit more ‘sites’ for appreciation than others. One difference between The Davinci Code and some other piece of more literary fiction is that the prose of The Davinci Code is not intended and/or is not suitable for appreciation- the prose serves as a vehicle for the plot. Yet, with Proust, for example, the prose is like a fine wine. And in some cases, narrative is entirely dispensed with so as to not interfere with appreciation of the prose itself. This may sound like an endorsement of the “high-brow as complexity hypothesis”, but only in a qualified sense. I’ve played drums along with country and western musicians long enough to appreciate the subtlety of the drummer’s task in performing this kind of music. The more experienced I became, the more sites of appreciation in the music I discovered. Indeed, it only seems simple until you really listen to what is going on. Nonetheless, country music is not, and in general cannot be as rich in nuance as symphonic music. There is a difference. Yet, this notion of the ‘goodness’ of music being a relation between the music and the listener suggests the possibility that listening to, composing, or performing purportedly low-brow music can in fact be a ‘high-brow’ activity. The music may be the same, but the activity might not, because the relation in which the listener, composer, performer stands is sophisticated. Indeed, it is not unknown to find that purportedly low-brow art in some form makes its way into the the galleries, the museums, and the concert halls. And, I might add from personal experience, it is possible to come to appreciate the sounds outside your door, on the street, as a kind of exquisite music, however banal one might ordinarily consider it (obviously the basis of the concrete music tradition). There is I think another set of caveats to the idea that high-brow art corresponds in some simple way to greater complexity. First, as a counter-example, minimalism is a respectable high-brow musical tradition. It is also a low-brow tradition. Second, complex music is no real achievement. A random sequence of sounds has on average (in Kolmogorov’s sense) maximal complexity, but one random sequence is not much different than another random sequence, and above all, it isn’t really all that interesting because such a sequence isn’t meaningful. Furthermore, it is doubtful that our cognitive systems are capable of much more than a surface-level gestalt experience of such sequences. Incidentally, “noise” is a genre of music squarely in the middle of the so-called low-brow and high-brow communities. Instead, we are are interested in a particular range of complexity which we can appreciate, one in which there are regularities, but that the regularities are not too obvious. For all that the distinction between high and low is hard to let go. And I’ve gone on over-long.

  • José-Luis Guijarro 22 January 2010 (10:31)

    [i][b]More interesting, and more germane to our interests, is the notion that appreciation of high culture artifacts somehow requires more “mental work” than that of lesser genres.[/b][/i] Some people may well have appreciation for “more mental work” and they might like to call (or, at least, consider) themselves highly cultured, I don’t deny that. But this does not solve the question of what is basically [i]valuable[/i] in terms of cultural richness. Couldn’t we use S&W’s notion of [b]relevance[/b] here as well? We will culturally evaluate something taking into account the effort we make in interpreting it and the positive effects we are able to get from these efforts. If the cultural artifact is a very complex mathematical formula, and I know I won’t be able to extract any positive effect, I will not even try to interpret it. Once this is settled, however, as I said in some other thread, I tendo to think that the basic and crucial value that needs always to be evaluated in the appreciation of art (high or low brow) is the merging effect of the two contexts of interpretation: the one were we are living and the one created by the art object. If someone happens to achieve that symbiosis reading the [i]Da Vinci’ Code[/i], then s(he) may well evaluate it as art (for her/him); although we would never be able to do it with that object.

  • Dan Sperber
    Dan Sperber 22 January 2010 (19:25)

    Good question! So what makes high culture different? A willingness to invest a greater mental effort in order to achieve a greater effect? A preference, in other terms for high cost, high benefit productions that people with more leisure can better afford (with, incidentally, for them, the added benefit of underscoring their privileged status)? Well, yes, this seems plausible. Unlike Pascal, I don’t see the main problem with this line of explanation being one of making it more precise (although, of course, it is a problem). It is not too hard, for instance, to think of possible experiments where the effort required to apprehend a given cultural work could be measured both objectively and subjectively and to see whether such a measure would correlate with the classification of the work as high of low culture. My bet is that we would find such a correlation, but with a bit too many exceptions. Being high or low culture is to a certain extent stipulative; it is to be so represented and classified in the society. Now these classifications are not random, they do correlate, but quite imperfectly with more objective character—ways of achieving relevance in particular—of the items classified. Still, it is quite possible for low cost-low benefit item to enjoy high culture status and conversely, and for a work initially classified as low culture to be ‘promoted’ to high culture possibly but not necessarily because it is a high cost-high benefit item, and conversely. High/low culture classifications are performative as much or more than descriptive, they are not after an objective property of the items classified. In other words-—and in epidemiological terms-—cultural items are distributed together with labels and higher order representations the distribution of which makes them the kind of cultural object they are. To understand high and low culture, we should focus on the production and distribution of these labels. (Disclosure: I read the [i]DaVinci Code[/i] to the end, but puke!)

  • Olivier Morin
    Olivier Morin 24 January 2010 (16:36)

    I fully agree with Dan. Maybe you are right – maybe labels like ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ do track some interesting properties of books, music, etc. But even if they do, there is, I think, too little consistency in the way we use these labels for the tracking to be anything but awfully noisy. We can’t even agree on whether Dickens and Trollope are highbrow, middlebrow or lowbrow (Pascal would say Dickens is high and Trollope low, Bill Benzon seems to say they are both low, I’d say that they are both high…). And remember the Poes, the Bachs and the Marivaux who went from Middlebrow Purgatory to Highbrow Heaven in a few decades. Come to think of it – to many people, Dan Brown is the closest they will ever get to High Culture. And it is indeed a honest ersatz of erudition (albeit a little overdone). So ‘high culture’ might not be totally arbitrary, it is nevertheless way too arbitrary to track anything at all with a decent signal/noise ratio. Now, what about complexity? Steve Johnson has a thesis, that he put forward in ‘Everything Bad is good for you’: the cognitive demands put on consumers of pop culture have been raising steadily for the past 40 years. Evidence cited by Johnson include things like the quantitative increase in the amount of sub-plots one has to bear in mind in order to make sense of soap operas. Maybe the particulars of his demonstration are not bullett-proof, but something in it rang true to me. Some TV series nowadays almost require you to take notes as you watch them (not to mention refreshing your memory on dedicated wikipedia pages). The fastest-growing sector of pop-culture, videogames, is about nothing but cognitive challenge. A videogame can’t afford to be too easy, and the lower limit of ‘easy’ has been steadily raising too – so much so that gamemakers today are struggling to make the difficulty flexible enough not to rebuke mediocre players. While I am at it, where is the highbrow equialent of puzzles, Rubick’s cubes, Sudokus, and Tetris ? Now this is just a rough assessment, not a comparison. Pop culture is complex, but is high culture less complex? Well, I’m not sure, but I think our reasons to think otherwise are bad reasons. These bad reasons are: 1. High culture is unattractive and 2. High Culture is sometimes obscure. 1. High culture is unattractive to many, and in that sense, it does require efforts not demanded by pop culture. If you see high culture as a honest signal that one belongs to an elite, the fact that one has to suffer in order to be familiar with high culture makes sense. But this does not make high culture more complex, quite the contrary. Watching Andy Warhol’s ‘Sleep’ is painfully boring precisely because it is not in the least a challenging or complex movie. 2. High culture is sometimes obscure (deliberatley or not): its meaning is not so much difficult to interpret as inaccessible to all but the author and a few initiates. As a result, people have to invest a great deal of effort in the interpretation, but the result of the interpretation, which might be very interesting, need not have anything to do with the original intentions of the author. These interpretations are certainly very complex cognitive operations, but this does not entail that the material being interpreted is itself complex. ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ is not difficult in the way a Sudoku puzzle may be difficult. The complexity of a Sudoku puzzle is intrinsic : it elicits effortful cognitive operations in you only to the extent that it is a thorny puzzle. The difficulty of solving the puzzle is commensurate to (and caused by) its inherent complexity. No such relation obtains in the case of, say, ‘Finnegan’s Wake’. For all we know, Joyce may have picked up some of his words at random. In High Culture, one may puzzle intensely over a random string of words, or make very clever comments on a painting made by a horse. One can write a dissertation over Andy Warhol’s ‘Sleep’. Conversely, we can enjoy the sound of Joyce’s words without bothering to interpret, or use Schönberg as elevator music. The difficulty of processing highbrow material is very imperfectly related to the complexity of the material. In short, your post might have fallen in the old anthropological sin of using ‘complex’ as a veiled synonym for ‘refined and valuable’.

  • Nicolas Baumard 26 January 2010 (13:12)

    I must confess that I find Olivier’s comment a bit too extreme. I agree with Dan that being high culture is partly stipulative. But the idea of mental effort is still interesting. The fact that cultural products such as Bach or Dickens go up and down do not count as a counter argument. Precisely, Dickens is more high culture now because it is less accessible than it was one hundred years ago and indeed part of Dickens’ public has moved to the Da Vinci code. In the same way, The Odyssey’s cultural level is increasing years after years because we are moving away from latin and greek’s culture. The fact that Pascal, Olivier and Bill Benzon do not agree about Dickens does not count as a couter-argument neither. They may not have the same cultural background and Dickens may be more accessible in Bill Benzon’s culture than in Pascal’s (sorry Pascal, I don’t mean to be rude…). Another source of disagreement may come from the fact that, as Olivier suggests it, we may not process cultural items in the same way. It could be the case that Dickens was mainly read for the plot in the 19th century (as the Da Vinci Code today) while it may now be read for others aspects such as his style. What counts is not the complexity of the piece of art in itself, it is the complexity of the cognitive processes people use to create aesthetic effects. Similarly, Olivier also note that Andy Warhol’s ‘Sleep’is quite painfuly not complex. The film is indeed quite simple. However, understanding the goal of Warhol and the innovative aspect of ‘sleep’ is far from simple! It requires at least a good knowledge of the art of the first half of the 20th century. And it is why it can hardly be popular. Same thing for formal works like Finnegan’s Wake or Schönberg (by the way, I bet we can’t find any elevator broadcasting Schönberg!). Again, Andy Warhol’s ‘Sleep’may be quite simple, yet processing it in intersting way requires much more effort than, say, [url=]Avatar[/url].

  • Bill Benzon
    Bill Benzon 26 January 2010 (17:37)

    [i]Precisely, Dickens is more high culture now because it is less accessible than it was one hundred years ago and indeed part of Dickens’ public has moved to the Da Vinci code. In the same way, The Odyssey’s cultural level is increasing years after years because we are moving away from latin and greek’s culture. The fact that Pascal, Olivier and Bill Benzon do not agree about Dickens does not count as a couter-argument neither. They may not have the same cultural background and Dickens may be more accessible in Bill Benzon’s culture than in Pascal’s (sorry Pascal, I don’t mean to be rude…).[/i] To the extent that we’ve offered personal opinions on whether or not Dickens in high art those opinions are irrelevant. High art status is a quasi-institutional matter. To say it is stipulative is to imply the existence of institutions that do the stipulating. In the case of literature, the educational system is perhaps the central institution, though other organizations certainly play important roles — book clubs, libraries, the film industry (making movies of “the classics”), and so forth. I’m not at all convinced about “accessibility” or “mental effort,” which seem rather vague. The vast majority of 19th century novels have simply been forgotten, not raised to high culture status because of the antique inaccessibility. Why have a small bunch been designated as art while most have been forgotten? Is it just an artibrary selection or is there a real difference between the canonical novels and the rest? I believe there is a difference, and have addressed some of that in “The Evolution of Narrative and the Self” (linked above). Consider the novels of H. Rider Haggard, some of which remain in print, though they’re not institutionalized as high art. I suppose [i]King Solomon’s Mines[/i] is his best-known work. None of the protagonists undergo any personal growth or enlargement of awareness in the course of the novel. They’re pretty much the same people at the end as they were at the beginning. The canonical 19th century novels tend to be about personal growth (or about the failure to grow, e.g. [i]Madame Bovary[/i]). Is there any personal growth in [i]The Da Vinci Code[/i] — which I have been unable to read? But mental effort, I’d think that the length of [i]The Da Vinci Code[/i] would require the expenditure of more mental resources than, e.g., the relatively short [i]The Stranger[/i]. Just what is this mental effort we’re talking about? Perhaps its the effort required to master the “code,” with the code of high art novels requiring more time and effort than that of popular fiction. But if that is the case, why should one code require more effort than another?

  • José-Luis Guijarro 27 January 2010 (12:34)

    Edward de Bono tells us in one of his books to imagine and subsequently describe a very accurate watch were nothing moves in its face. He wants to stress that some ways of asking questions or of setting problems predetermine the mental representation we make of a given object. (Of course, a possible watch to be described is one that “speaks” the time). Pascal Boyer has, I think, silently pre-determined our representation of high culture as referring ONLY to what we also know as “art”. At least, I fell in the trap (made clear by De Bono’s example above) when I said that one possible way to describe artistic evaluation was the power of the experience to merge two contexts, whereby achieving a novel interpretation. Other contributors, as well, seem also to have followed Pascal’s silent pre-determined assumption. However, culture is a lot more than art. It may be scientific discoveries that we now take for granted, technological [i]savoir-faire[/i], knowledge of our world, ways of “having fun”, and so on. Are such other instances of culture also amenable to become [i]high[/i], I wonder? Well, to me, fully understanding Gödel’s theorem should be considered very high indeed. But so would be knowing how to drive a car, typing messages, and even eating properly at a party. They are all things that we have to learn painfully in our social education. Or is HIGH only a qualifier of ART? (As Dan said above, I am sure that epidemiology is a way to learn what “high” means in every culture. What I am not so sure is whether epidemiology is [b][i]always[/i][/b] FIRST and RELEVANCE is second in determining high value, as he maintained. It seems to me that sometimes, we may extract highly relevant information from some experience which does not have a well distributed social value. This experience may be one of the reasons why social attitudes change. But, och, I dunno!)

  • Bill Benzon
    Bill Benzon 27 January 2010 (20:22)

    [i]However, culture is a lot more than art. It may be scientific discoveries that we now take for granted . . . [/i] But, as a matter of usage, in the English-speaking world the phrase “high culture” is generally used to designate artistic culture — music, painting, sculpture, poetry, drama, etc. — as Prof. Boyer indicated in his opening paragraph. But, sure, science and pretty near everything else is culture as well. But, if we take just science, the problem that Prof. Boyer addressed doesn’t exist. For example, when a university curriculum designates quantuum mechanics as a more advanced topic than classical mechanics, there is no doubt that the cognitive content is, in some sense, more advanced. There’s no suspicion that such a designation is essentially arbitrary and exists only to reserve certain knowledge for an elite and thus to legitimate that elite status. Such a suspicion does exist with respect to artistic culture. FWIW, quite a bit of work has been done on the cognitive structure of scientific knowledge, which has been of interest to AI researchers. There’s also been work in folk physics and, of course, there’s the work in folk biology that’s been done by anthropologists. For that matter, there are literary critics investigating literary cognition, musical cognition has seen a lot of work in the last two decades, not to mention cognition in the plastic arts. Cognitive anthropology doesn’t have exclusive rights to the cognitive study of culture.

  • José-Luis Guijarro 28 January 2010 (10:41)

    Interesting! Note that in scientific endeavours, one does not[i] merge[/i] two contexts of interpretation as we do in artistic experiencies. Scientific discoveries [i]substitute[/i] old contexts of interpretation and produce a new one, whereby solving more problems than the old model could achieve –and therefore, meaning a step forward in our knowledge. So, maybe the problem P.Boyer was pointing to has to do with the quality of the “context merging” achieved in these artistic experiences, for different results may succeed well enough to merge both contexts of interpretation (the result of one of these mergings being, say, that we hate the bad guy in a film, although we know he is an actor, while the result of another might be, say, that the good and the bad are as insane in this world (to give a silly pedestrian example), although one is perhaps better suited to become “high” by epidemiology processes as Dan maintains. This renders the whole topic terribly complex in my view and makes it worth doing some cognitive research on it!

  • Bill Benzon
    Bill Benzon 28 January 2010 (22:56)

    What I’ve been wondering is just when at least some thinkers began suspecting that the high-art vs. low-art distinction has no significant content but is just a marker of elite privilege. That seems rather recent to me. Also, the situation of college and university literature departments, art history departments, and musicology departments is rather ambiguous with resepct to this issue. Let’s take literature departments, which I know best (I’m trained in English lit, though I did a dissertation on cognitive science and literary theory). On the one hand, part of the mission of literature departments is to preserve the high cultural texts and their presence in the culture. In that mission literature departments are part of the literary system. That’s why we had the so-called culture wars in the USA during the last quarter of the 20th century. The move to teach texts written by women, blacks, and others was seen as some by as a threat to the high cultural canon. And the same with giving attention to film and to pop culture texts of one sort or another (genre fiction, comics, TV). Yet one could easily justify the study of those texts by taking a more anthropological perspective, which sets up shop outside the culture (in effect, the proverbial Martian anthropologist studying Earthlings). People read those texts (or watch them), and so we must study those texts as one aspect of studying culture. The anthropological perspective doesn’t imply any value judgment, any “elevation” of texts to high culture. That the texts are there is sufficient reason to study them; indeed, in a sense, it is also a necessary reason. How can we understand a society’s literary culture if we only examine a small set of privileged texts? So, are college and university departments of literature part of the literary system or do they stand outside that system and constitute it as an object of study? As a practical matter they attempt to do both.

  • Hugo Mercier
    Hugo Mercier 29 January 2010 (12:43)

    There is some experimental evidence that people sometimes use the effort that has been put into doing something as a shortcut for its quality. This is different from using the effort one makes to understand the object being evaluated, but these two heuristics may play complementary roles. Here’s the abstract of the paper: The research presented here suggests that effort is used as a heuristic for quality. Participants rating a poem (Experiment 1), a painting (Experiment 2), or a suit of armor (Experiment 3) provided higher ratings of quality, value, and liking for the work the more time and effort they thought it took to produce. Experiment 3 showed that the use of the effort heuristic, as with all heuristics, is moderated by ambiguity: Participants were more influenced by effort when the quality of the object being evaluated was difficult to ascertain. Discussion centers on the implications of the effort heuristic for everyday judgment and decision-making. Kruger et al. (2004) The effort heuristic. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40 91–98

  • José-Luis Guijarro 29 January 2010 (18:23)

    Perhaps you are right, and effort is a possible heuristic to mark an object, or rather, the experience of it, as high culture. What about this simple Bach piece? Does the name “Bach” trigger in us a special attitude to interpret it in a given way? Then, Dan would be right since it is a well distributed representation by epidemiological contagion. What I was asking myself the other day was whether epidemiology is indeed the starting point of this distinction (namely, “high/low”) or whether the heuristics of effort or any other (because I think there might be others) would, or at least [i]could[/i] initiate the distinguishing process by itself, even in the absence of an epidemiological indication. In other words: suppose somebody does not know that Bach wrote this piece. Could (s)he not find it also high cultured without that knowledge?

  • Bill Benzon
    Bill Benzon 29 January 2010 (21:13)

    [i]In other words: suppose somebody does not know that Bach wrote this piece. Could (s)he not find it also high cultured without that knowledge?[/i] I don’t think you need to have a very deep knowledge of Western musical styles to recognize that piece as classical and, on that basis, assign it to high culture. You might not like it, or even make much sense out of it, but you could assign it to classical music more or less on the basis of its general sound. As for the effort heuristic, any reasonably experienced musician knows that you can get a strong positive reaction from an audience by playing something that is, or appears to be, technically difficult. This is quite independent of whether or not you’re playing high-culture or low-culture music.

  • José-Luis Guijarro 31 January 2010 (13:28)

    When commenting a question like mine, one should accept that the hypothetical case where the conditions would indeed obtain ([i]i.e[/i]., that somebody had never heard this sort of music, say a [i]taliban[/i] in a little Afghanistan village, or the likes) was the one I was thinking of. However, this is not what bothers me today. I am pondering about something else, that I will try to explain below: To begin with, I have to recognize that my notion of the [i]merging[/i] of contexts of interpretation as the essential idea to be able to describe art, and the [i]substituting[/i] of contexts to naturalize scientific efforts is not mine. It really is an idea put forward by Arthur Koestler in 1967 in his book [i]The Ghost in the Machine[/i], which, according to the date given by George Miller, preceded the birth of Cognitive Science by more than ten years. I have of course adapted it to what I understand is the cognitive frame, but that’s all. Further, it seems to me that the idea that effort is the key to characterise high culture, in its turn, is still older than Koestler’s idea. In fact, I remember vaguely reading Goethe long time ago, and finding the assertion, “Genius is a long patience”, which, translated in cognitive science terms would mean almost the same as the story about effort we are debating here. Is there nothing new under the sun, then? As a matter of fact, Dan Sperber (1992) wrote:”… les sciences cognitives … ne se sont pas développées autour d’une découverte empirique; elles n’ont à ce jour engendré de découverte majeure. Elles ne se sont pas non plus développées autour d’une nouvelle méthode; leur méthodologie est éclectique et la seule nouveauté importante qu’elle comporte -l’utilisation de simulations sur ordinateur- est loin d’être d’un usage général dans le domaine. Non, le point de départ et le pivot des sciences cognitives, c’est une réponse nouvelle aux vieux problèmes des rapports entre l’âme et le corps” (“Les sciences cgnitives, les sciences sociales et le matérialisme”, chapitre 14 de Daniel Andler (1992): [i]Introduction aux Sciences Cognitives[/i], Paris, Folio, pg.400). This statement made me very uneasy at the time I read it, although [b]Relevance Theory[/b] seemed to contradict it strongly. Today, however, almost twenty years after that statement was written, I have to acknowledge that it still seems to be the truth and nothing but the truth in many cognitive fields. It’s a bit frustrating, to say the least!

  • Bill Benzon
    Bill Benzon 31 January 2010 (15:14)

    The trouble with your default case, alas, is that each musical tradition has its own grammar, its own cognitive structure. One needs to have internalized that grammar in order to apprehend the music. If you play a piece of music for someone who has absolutely no acquaintance with that cultural tradition, you might well find out that the music is largely unintellible to them. In which case, what kind of meaningful judgment can they render? But they might well expend a great deal of effort in listening to this unintelligible music. To be sure, it’s not as extreme as having someone attempt to read a poem in an unknown language, but it’s just enough like that to make you default case problematic.

  • José-Luis Guijarro 31 January 2010 (18:25)

    You may be right there, I agree. However, I have met at least one person who came from a very different cultural background and who was absolutely enchanted by Bach music which she had never ever experienced. Long time ago, attending a seminar on cognition at Cerisy (Normandy, France), I had interesting discussions with one of the participants, S. Harnard, who maintained that until Schönberg showed up, Western music had explored the natural domain of musical understanding and harmony. Thus, he claimed, Western music should be immediately grasped and felt. I am not a musical expert, and I wouldn’t be able to argue interestingly for this idea. But it really seems to have some power in my own experience (with that lady I have just mentioned and with kids that had no musical training at all in that sort of music).

  • Bill Benzon
    Bill Benzon 31 January 2010 (18:44)

    You’d have trouble convincing an ethnomusicologist that Western music is “natural” and therefore universal. In particular, the use of harmony to create large-scale musical structures was invented in the West and is not universal (I say a bit about this in my paper on music, linked in my first post). That said, I have no trouble believing that someone from another culture might well respond to Bach. But how full is their understanding? In any event, music crosses cultural boundaries more easily than literature, where language is a barrier.

  • José-Luis Guijarro 2 February 2010 (11:34)

    [b]Bill[/b]: I have read your paper on the three or four ranks you divide the (cognitive?) history of music. I thought it was quite interesting, although I am, as I said, an intellectual ignorant in music and some details have surely escaped me. In order to see whether I have understood it (more or less), let me use an example of flamenco music: the type of piece ([i]palo[/i]) called [b]martinete[/b]. You may find an introduction to it in WIKIPEDIA: The “essence” of this [i]palo[/i] (the things that distinguishes it from other [i]palos[/i]) is the rhythm, which you may find almost bare in this video: In this other video, there is a mixture of rhythm and melody which shows up at one moment: Whereas in this last video, there’s apparently only melody, but flamencos do hear the rhythmic pattern in it: Two things: (1) According to you, this [i]palo[/i] would show rank 2 characteristics in all three illustrative instances? Or would it? (2) As you may well feel, it is an extraordinarily difficult type of music to follow and enjoy. A very sensitive lady friend of mine who is making occasional visits to these threads, who is Spanish too and who, therefore, has an epidemiological knowledge of what Flamenco is, admits though that she cannot appreciate that type of music. Is it because it is to “high brow” for her? I wouldn’t think so, for she is a very musically cultivated person, and gypsies in Spain do not belong normally to the cultivated social classes (there are exceptions, though, of course). My question is, if we make all the effort required to appreciate that sort of music, would that mean that it becomes “high brow” in its own merit ([i]i.e[/i]., without taking account of were the music started from)? I am really confused by the requirement some people here seem to be claiming ([i]i.e[/i].,a lot of effort = high culture) in this thread, for it somehow doesn’t match my social appreciation of this sort of cultural object!

  • Bill Benzon
    Bill Benzon 2 February 2010 (19:14)

    José-Luis, Yikes! Interesting examples, complicated questions. First, at the moment I don’t find claims about effort terribly useful. At the very least the notion of effort required to apprehend a given performance has to be distinguished from knowledge of the appropriate musical grammar. I can imagine that the effort required to apprehend, say, one hour concert is the same regardless of whether or not the music is rank 1, rank 2, or rank 3, provided, of course, that you have mastered the musical grammar. If you haven’t, then you are going to have trouble regardless of what the music is or how sophisticated you are in general. Second, I’m reluctant to make judgments about music I don’t know very well. As soon as I saw the word “flamenco,” and before I listed to your examples, I thought, “perhaps rank 2.” What I had in mind was a few recordings I own — Carlos Montoya, the Romeros — which feature sophisticated guitar improvisations. But I also thought of the late Astor Piazzolla, who had developed Argentinian tango at rank 2, if not rank 3 — it’s hard to tell. Having said that, I’m guessing that your three examples are all rank 1. Note that the issue is not the simultaneous presence of rhythm instruments (examples 1 and 2) and melodic line (examples 2 and 3). What’s important is whether or not rhythm and melody are treated as independent channels for musical elaboration and development. It’s not clear to me that that’s going in the second case, but it might be; I’m just not sufficiently familiar with the musical language to tell. Further, in the first two cases the music is used to accompany the dance so that the whole performance is, in fact, music plus dance. Depending on the relationship between the music and the dance, the combination might well be rank 2, but not necessarily so. Finally, in your third case, yes, the performance has only the single voice, but it certainly is a highly rhythmic performance. Now, “high brow” or “low brow”? I take it as given that such a distinction presupposes a complex society with some class stratification where: 1) there is an elite or ruling class and one or more lower classes, and 2) the cultural expressions of the classes are somehow differentiated. Contemporary Spain certainly qualifies, but surely must be more complex than just that. I note that one thing that has been happening in Western countries over the past two centuries is that elites have been “discovering” various “folk” cultures within their borders. This has led to the incorporation of folk elements within high culture but also to efforts to preserve and promote those folk cultures. I would assume, more or less on general principle, that something like this has been going on with respect to flamenco for some time. In particular, I bring this up because your second clip looks like a preservationist effort. How many of those performers are gypsies performing their own music and dances and how many of them are artists interested in preserving that aspect of Spain’s culture? I have no way of knowing, but the issue needs to be stated. Next, in English, the notions of “high” and “low” culture belong in a contrast set that also include “middle brow,” “pop” or “popular” culture, and “folk” culture. The notion of “authenticity” is likely to crop up in such discussions. Just what it means, that’s tricky. Folk performances for the tourist trade are likely to be dismissed as inauthentic, and maybe they are and maybe they aren’t. And maybe the true authentic stuff has simply been lost. I know the American writing and thinking about the blues has had to contend with false notions of authenticity that have more to do with the cultural needs of elites than with what the performers are doing and how they experience their craft. As for your friend and her inability to appreciate the martinete, I don’t know what’s going on. Maybe she is unable to internalize the music’s grammar sufficiently so that the music makes sense to her. Or may she has, but she just doesn’t like it for whatever reason. I have no way of knowing. Yes, it’s complicated.

  • José-Luis Guijarro 4 February 2010 (19:09)

    Yes, it’s mighty complex indeed! But as I said in my first posting to this thread, there seems to be a way to sort out the cognitive mechanisms that operate in the characterisation of efficient interpretations of given cultural phenomena. The mental principle posited by Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson which they called the [i]principle of optimal relevance[/i]. When a person facing a given phenomenon extract some cognitive gains from it, this phenomenon becomes relevant. Optimal relevance has to do with the efforts one is prepared to make in order to get those cognitive gains. As soon as the effort employed achieves enough cognitive effects for the person doing the interpretation, optimal relevance is reached. I am not prepared to do any effort whatsoever in deciphering the original formula of Gödel’s theorem, because, among other things, reasonable and fully understandable versions of it are available which achieve the cognitive effects I am going to need when talking about it. In the same way, the [i]martinete[/i] song which I gave as third example in my last posting, but which in fact should have been the first one, for it is by singing like that that [i]martinetes[/i] arose and developed in the world of Flamenco (whereas the dancing was a later contraption that has more to do with a Spanish native sort of Reader Digest’s version of that [i]palo[/i] to make it digestible for non gypsies, like you, my lady friend and myself), the [i]martinete[/i], I said, can be disposed off as representing too much effort to achieve a very little cognitive gain. However, if you take Koestler’s idea about merging different contexts of interpretation and you find out that by merging the effects that this “horrible” voice and melody makes on your everyday context of interpretation with a context where you hear, say, the suffering yell of a human race with all its modulations, then, perhaps you may be able to find some cognitive gains by making that effort. If, as Dan himself pointed to above, in response to my first question, the listening of that “awful” melody is mentally represented as culturally interesting object in your social group then you may well use the epidemiology approach to explain why you started being interested in it in the first place. However, as I have tried to argue above, sometimes this approach may not be that helpful. Imagine that in the times of our King Philipp the Second, when gypsies were considered a pest to be eradicated from the land by killing and expulsion (as the Nazis did with the Jewish race sometime later –humans never change!), a sensitive person would have been able to merge the two contexts of interpretation that I have suggested above for that sort of melody. Where would epidemiology fit here? Optimal relevance would, of course. However, in the social consideration of what is [i]high/low [/i]culture, the epidemiology approach would be absolutely necessary. Now, if I understood Boyer and some of the contributors rightly, high and low cultural objects should show some inherent characteristics that would match the epidemiology analysis results –namely, the amount of effort employed, as if this amount could be measured universally and in one go. And this, I find hard to swallow.

  • Bill Benzon
    Bill Benzon 5 February 2010 (13:06)

    Ah! Every musical tradition has a sense of the proper sound quality for the human voice and for the various instruments. If you have internalized the timbres of this or that tradition it may well be difficult for you to “hear” the timbres of some other tradition, and so you won’t be able to appreciate the music of that other tradition. Note that this is true of instrumental as well as vocal sounds. For example, I play trumpet and have been trained in both classical and jazz trumpet. If you listen to a wide variety of trumpet players, jazz and classical, you’ll find that the tone qualities of the classical players fall in a much narrower range than those of the jazz trumpeters & that sound that is permissible in jazz, is not permissible in classical music. It’s difficult for me to see that this is a matter of effort. If someone has internalized the conventions of [i]martinetes[/i], then the vocal quality in example 3 presents no problems; little effort is required simply to hear the music. If not, then appreciating 3 is impossible. But the same is true of, say, Frank Sintatra and his musical tradition, or Placido Domingo and his. If you’ve internalized the tradition, then appreciation of the voice is easy and natural. If not . . . . Well, you may be able to learn to appreciate a different tradition, and that will take effort; but that’s different from the effort expended by those who appreciate a tradition. And, of course, one can always pretend to appreciate, say, one of the European opera traditions if one wishes to enter a certain social circle by being seen at the opera. This requires no cognitive effort at all. No doubt there are those who pretend to appreciate opera. But it is difficult to believe that the opera could exist on pretense alone.

  • José-Luis Guijarro 5 February 2010 (18:01)

    Long time ago, my [i]AmY 6[/i] citroën car broke down when travelling through London on my trip from Edinburgh, where I was staying at that time, to Spain. I had to take the wretched car to a nearby garage and, as they told me it would only be fixed next day, I had my day free in London. I love painting and I decided to visit the (old) [i]Tate Gallery[/i] where I could appreciate the Blakes, the Turners, the Bacons, and a lot of other painters which don’t have a place in the Prado, which I knew almost by heart, since at that time I lived in Madrid. [b]First step[/b]. I decided to go and admire the work of some people that were well distributed in my culture. And sure enough, I enjoyed my visit quite a lot. However, at one given moment, I came into a huge hall full of enormous canvasses which showed differently sized red squares blurring themselves off into black backgrounds and differently sized black squares showing the same effect into red backgrounds. I felt as if the painter had insulted me. I was really furious and began to mentally (thank goodness!) use awful language to insult that guy who had so attacked me. I left the hall in absolute disgust. [b]Second step[/b]: I had not been able to interpret those paintings in two, as it were, merging contexts, but only in one: the enormous waste of space (and of my time) in painting those huge canvasses with that simple and easy scheme. What a cheek one must have to present those idiotic creations into a museum and, what an imbecility on the part of the Gallery to have accepted them! [b]Third step[/b]: I went away and calmed down by watching other very attractive art pieces which I could easily interpret as canvasses and as something else at one go. That is, according to Koestler’s idea, I was experiencing art with no difficulty. [b]Fourth step[/b]: eventually I came back to the same hall and … I stayed in it for more than one hour, absolutely entranced, as if struck by an mystic illumination. Somehow, the [i]other[/i] context of interpretation had finally come through in my mind and I could feel all the immense effect of that merging. My explanation is that, as my second possible context was non-existent on my first contact, it did not find any relevance in this second contextual field of interpretation. However, as I came slowly back to it, my unconscious curiosity had inadvertently created (or whatever) a very open context in which my interpretative power just exploded. It was marvellous! [b]Step five[/b]: from then on, Mark Rothko is one of my favourite modern painters. It has turned into a well established set of expectations in my mind, and I have absolutely no problem in interpreting his work as Koestler said we do in the art experience. But I have never ever felt that shock and subsequent illumination with his paintings. Now, my claims all along this thread are, first, that effort is not really necessary to go through this sort of experience. You may grasp it in one go, with no apparent effort at all, pace Boyer; and, second, you don’t have to be already infected with a given cultural set of expectations, pace Sperber. Now, perhaps I am wrong in trying to use a personal experience in my attempt to show why I believe that this is a question of finding relevance in two merging contexts, and that epidemiology maybe useful to round up the description, but not always to mark which phenomena are prone to be processed in that dual way. The interesting and as yet unanswered question is, how on earth does one arrive to that sort of illumination. If we would find an answer to it, even my Lady friend might one day discover that the [i]martinete[/i] is a heavenly music after all!