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.