TELEVISION AND DISORDER:
AN AESTHETIC POINT OF VIEW
Interview to the Head of the Department of Philosophy
at the University of Haifa,
Professor Ruth Lorand
Interviewer : Dear Prof. Lorand, you are Head of the Department of Philosophy: can you describe the structure of the courses and its aims ?
Answer : The Philosophy Department at the University of Haifa is a heterogenic department. Undergraduate students have a few obligatory courses and a variety of courses to choose from. The obligatory courses are: Introduction to Logic, Ancient Philosophy (mainly Plato and Aristotle), Empiricism and Rationalism (from Descartes to Hume), The Philosophy of Kant, Introduction to Ethics, Introduction to Philosophy of Science, Philosophy of Mind and Epistemology. The obligatory courses provide the students with basic knowledge in the main fields of philosophy and of the most influential philosophers. In addition to these courses, the students have to choose from a large variety of topics and advanced courses. The variety includes analytical issues as well as continental ones. Among the non-obligatory courses are German Idealism, Applied Logic, Applied Ethics, Aesthetics, Philosophy and Film, Theory of Emotions, Nietzsche’s Philosophy, Wittgenstein, Zen and Buddhism, Moslem Philosophy, Post-Modern Philosophy, Philosophy of Physics and more.
We believe that such a variety in addition to basic requirements allow for open-mindedness and richness in ideas and styles of philosophizing. The student is not directed toward any particular style, but is allowed to form his or her own view.
Our graduate students have to participate in a didactic seminar, in which they read and criticize each other’s work. They choose courses according to their specialized fields in which they write their final research work (M.A. students) or dissertation (Ph. D. students).
I : A field of research of yours concerns aesthetics, related to art and beauty. Also you faced the problem of aesthetics on television: can you describe your study?
A : My research in aesthetics concerns not a particular kind of art, or a particular aspect of artistic activity, but the foundational concepts that I believe to be basic to any aspect of aesthetic experience in general. Therefore I focus on the concepts of art and beauty, and strive to develop a comprehensive aesthetic theory. I believe, in spite of current tendencies, that art strives to create beauty, and beauty is a type of order that provides a new understanding of materials taken from experience. I have presented this position in my recent book Aesthetic Order, a Theory of Order, Beauty and Art (Routledge 2000).
I edited a collection of papers on the aesthetic of TV entitled Television, Aesthetic Reflections (Peter Lang 2002). The contributors come from different countries and cultural backgrounds. TV is usually discussed as a source of information, as a commercial vehicle and as entertainment, but little has been said about its aesthetic aspect, that is, its ability to create new forms of art. With this book I intended to redress the balance.
Currently I am engaged in writing a book on various aspects of beauty. This project reflects the main ideas expressed in my recent work, but elaborated, and examined further in new contexts. One chapter, for instance, analyzes Darwin’s theory of the role of beauty in nature. Another chapter offers a reading in Plato’s Hippies Major. Since Beauty has been (unjustly) neglected in the last century, I see it as the main goal of my project to revive philosophical interest in this concept. Beauty, so I believe, is a key concept not only to the understanding of art, but also to some crucial aspects of human experience.
I : During the last years, there has been a big debate between paleo-television and neo-television (that is between state television and private television) in Italy, began by an Eco’s article (“Tv, la trasparenza perduta”) and developed on several contributions (Casetti, Odin, Selvaggi, Bettetini, Colombo, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Volli, Enzesberger). One of the deductions asserts that television no longer sells programs to spectators, but spectators to advertisers. What is your opinion? And what is the status of television in your country?
A : My approach to TV, as to any form of human expression, is through general concepts. Accordingly I take it that a contemporary situation does not decide the issue. I regard TV as a form of expression that bears potentials for artistic materialization. In this sense, TV is no different from any other material or aspect of human experience that art consists of. To be sure, contemporary TV is commercialized, and used mainly as a propaganda and entertainment vehicle. But these features do not exhaust all that can be done with this instrument. Consider for example that not so many years ago, the cinema was used for war propaganda.
As any product of culture and technology, TV can be used for many things, better or worse, and what we see today may be just a phase. I believe that TV has potentials that wait to be discovered by artists and people of vision. TV is no different from cinema and photography that are uses for so many purposes, but also produce good art. Therefore, I do not join the pessimistic criticism, and certainly do not agree that what we see now on TV is the ultimate and only feature of it.
Israeli TV is much influenced by American and European (mainly English) TV. Many commercials and programs are adopted from American TV. We have one non-commercialized channel, but it is not the most popular. There are many debating programs (since Israelis like to argue) and a few cultural programs. But, due to our unfortunate political situation, the central functions of Israeli TV are the news and the principal forum for political debates. The style of news presentation warrants in itself a research that I may pursue one day.
I : One more field of research of yours concerns the concept of order, with specific looks at Bergson, beauty, aesthetics and ethics. Have not you faced the problem of the order – disorder on television yet? In which terms could you talk about that?
A : I have not yet done anything in this direction, but in general, my understanding of order-disorder as related to TV is basically the same as in any other form of art. TV programs of all sorts express order: from the well tested structures of soap-operas, through news program, to music presentations. Each is based on some formula or basic principles that can be detected in most programs of the same type. These forms of order (that are not forms of art yet) can be used as materials for new aesthetic orders. As materials for new forms of art, these old and well established forms of non-artistic TV programs are taken apart and integrated in new ways.
I : Apart from television, why have you been so interested in analyzing the concept of order? What is your approach?
A : I regard order and disorder as key concepts for the understanding of all aspects of human experience. However, very little attention has been given to these concepts, especially in the field of aesthetics. For instance, many agree that beauty expresses order, but very little attention has been devoted to the question: what kind of order is it? It is obvious that not every ordered object is beautiful, but what makes the difference? And what is the relation between beauty and disorder? Is beauty a high form of order? According to Information Theory, high order entails low informative value, high redundancy and high predictability. These are the features that are typical of most forms of order and they cohere with determinism and other rational orders, including moral order. I call this kind of order—discursive order. However, it is clear that beauty (and good art) is quite the opposite: it is sensitive to details, highly informative and unpredictable, and yet, it is not a form of disorder.
Aesthetic order does not have external, a priori principles, yet it has an internal necessity that provides new insights. In a nutshell, it is an order without laws. It develops from disordered materials in many ways, but no formula can present this development. This I believe to be generally true for all forms of art including TV art.
A new form of art usually takes apart old forms, and makes use of various materials taken from our experience and re-orders them in a new, unpredictable fashion. The new order, if successful, teaches us something new about its constitutive materials and about the origin from which the materials were taken, that is, our experience.
Similarly, TV art can make use of the variety of its materials (news, commercials, soap operas, entertainment programs etc.), by breaking their well-ordered structures, and using these fragments to compose new forms of art, that is, new aesthetic orders.
I : You have published “Ethics and aesthetics: two types of order”. What is the central idea of this work? Has Kierkegaard played any role?
A : The core of my distinction between ethics and aesthetics is, that although both express order, ethics is based on principles that can be abstracted and discussed separately from the particular cases, while aesthetics is not. We can implement the same ethical principle in different cases, and the result will be the same: a good deed (provided that the principle is moral). We can imitate a good behavior and the result will also be a good behavior (we take example from other people). But when it come to aesthetics, the case is different: we cannot work out general principles that make all works of art good (=beautiful), and imitation does not help. Aesthetic order is the order of the particular case, while ethical order is general and is therefore expressed in different cases.
I have not examined Kierkegaard’s ideas in relation to my distinctions. Perhaps I should, and hopefully will in the future.
I : Still about aesthetics, your approach seems to be original in the writing “Gossip. An aesthetic point of view”. Can you illustrate it?
A : In this paper I examined the comparison between gossip and fictional story. My aim was to show, that although, in some sense, telling gossip is like telling a story, and the two activities share some aesthetic features, gossip still lacks essential aesthetic qualities. For instance, gossip, like any fictional story, is about individuality; it focuses on people’s unexpected moves, it tends to surprise, to reveal something yet unknown about the characters in question. Yet, unlike fictional stories, gossip does not have a definite beginning and ending. Its beginning is random and so is its ending. In this sense gossip is more like TV series that can go forever, or just stop somewhere without any internal artistic reasoning. Gossip focuses on the individual, and has no general bearing. A fictional story has always some general bearing or insight that extends beyond the particular case. This is why we often identify or sympathize with fictional heroes, but not with the people we gossip about. Artistic, fictional stories evoke understanding and therefore sympathy and charity, while gossip tends to diminish people and present their flaws without charity.
I : You are interested in Kant as well. Looking at the Kantian ethics, what is your opinion about ethic pluralism? How do you consider a normative ethics in such a context? Which has to be the place of norm in ethics?
A : There is an important difference between philosophical analysis of morality and everyday demands. I agree with Kant, that morality expresses human’s autonomy, and therefore it is something between a person and his conscience on the one hand, but universal on the other hand. However, social order depends on norms that are mutually accepted. Social order cannot be maintained on individual’s good will. Therefore, norms are important, even if they do not express morality in the strictest sense; they express utiliritarism. Social norms have to protect not only social order in general, but also assure the well-beings of individuals. In this sense, pluralism is somewhat problematic, because it allows for contradicting norms that destroy social odder, and eventually the well being of individuals. The ideal state is the state in which no constraints are imposed on individuals, as long as these individuals do not interfere with one another. However, in reality social orders are far from being so simple to describe. The balance between pluralism and social order needs constant mending.
I wish to add that cultural pluralism is, in principle, a different issue altogether. However, cultural and ethical norms are often amalgamated. Therefore, we must achieve a compromise between cultural pluralism and common ethical norms.
I : One of the questions that we use to ask concerns the outlook of the future of philosophy. Prof. Mordacci (interviewed by us) affirms that its future is in risk if no innovation is operated to the academic courses and no valid connections are established between philosophy and biomedical and psychological sciences. What is your opinion?
A : Philosophy, at least western philosophy as I know it, has developed as a theoretical, non-applied discipline. This is how I understand Aristotle’s distinction between theory and praxis. Philosophy in general expresses the human desire for understanding complex array of phenomena. It is a reflection on phenomena, not necessarily an attempt to change them or affect them.
Why connect philosophy with biomedical and psychological sciences in particular? If these disciplines inspire each other, fine, but they are still different and independent disciplines that have different goals. What would be ‘valid connections’ between philosophy and other sciences? There exist all kinds of connections between different disciplines, but ‘valid connections’? I am not sure what that means. I suspect that in fact it means the annulment of philosophy as a theoretical reflecting discipline.
I hope therefore, that the future of philosophy will be the same as its past, that if remains the discipline of the thinkers that reflect upon our experience and enlighten it without seeking directly to change it.
Will this be the future of philosophy? I wish, but I cannot predict.
I : As last point, I refer to you for one more study of yours, hermeneutics. The past and present dramatic situations in the whole Middle East seem to suggest that, besides other factors, a significant role is played by the distance of the cultural frameworks, by the difficulty to enter the other’s one, because who interprets always takes a bit of own world. Do you think that it could be a problem of interpretation? Or what else?
A : I take it, that by ‘The Middle East problem’ you mean mainly the Israeli-Palestinian issue. This problem is not a problem of interpretation. Both sides, I believe, understand very well each other. The problem is not lack of understanding but a clash of interests. There are clashing interests with regard to oil and control of economics, and there is the tragic clash of interest of two nations over a land. Each party sees its own interest and its own cause. I believe that only a compromise between the two parties mediated by an external power, may bring peace to the region. I dare say, that it depends on the Americans and the Europeans more than on the nations involved.
I : Dear Professor Lorand, we thank you very much for your cordiality. We are glad to have interviewed you and we hope to have you as welcome guest of our journal again. Also we invite you for a possible and interesting meeting in Italy and we wish you to enjoy our hospitality a day. We believe that our journal can be an interesting space to join all the Mediterranean cultures.
A : Thank you for the interview. It made me re-examine my views on various issues and condense them into a few and hopefully clear sentences.
As for visiting Italy: let me say that I love your beautiful country. I visited Italy many times on different occasions and will be happy to visit it again. In fact, I love almost everything associated with Italy, and mainly the language. I made an effort to study Italian a few years ago, but I do not dare speak the language for lack of practice. Yet, I always enjoy listening to its music.
Prof. Ruth Lorand
is Head of the Department of Philosophy
at the University of Haifa
Interviewer : Massimo Vittorio
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