I’m not a group person

I don’t know why I’m so bad at joining groups. It could be circumstantial – maybe I just haven’t found the right group. Maybe my spot on the border of the Autism spectrum makes human connection too hard. Or maybe my standards are too high, both for myself and for any group I have the potential to join. Whatever the reason, my distaste for group immersion is an important part not only of my personal life, but also of my general ideology.

Two things happened yesterday which reinforced this notion.

The first is that I read my brother’s post about art. Art is a community, he says, and the deeper you dive into that community, the more perceptive of art you become. This is the institutional theory of art, and it is to aesthetics what moral relativism is to ethics. I could write a much longer essay about my problems with this (and, in fact, have done so), but I’ll try to keep it brief here. There are certain types of art – music, literature, and painting, in particular – that have evolved independently in many different cultures. So obviously, there’s something universally appealing about them. They’re different in different cultures, sure, and even within a culture, different things will appeal to different people. Still, it’s not hard for a European to find something appealing about an African drum circle, or for a fan of classical music to find a heavy metal song that they like. My brother would argue: yes, anyone can enjoy the entry-level stuff, but it takes inculcation (his word; I would probably use “indoctrination”) into an art form’s culture to appreciate the deeper stuff. There’s some truth in that; I’d trust the opinion of a critic who’s listened to a lot of music over one who listens to the same double-digit number of songs over and over.

But that’s just it, isn’t it? I said I’d trust someone who’s listened to a lot of music, not of heavy metal music – even if the song in question was of that genre. Heavy metal is my example because if you get really deeply immersed in that genre, you encounter a lot of music that is just unlistenable to normal, sane people. (In my experience, heavy metal fans tend to be abnormal, insane people.) Perhaps some aspects of it are universally appealing – despite my snark, I do get the appeal. But once an idea becomes a group of people, it’s hard to separate the merits of that idea from the group’s arbitrary criteria. And most of the criteria will be arbitrary, because that’s how groups work. Tradition keeps the fiddler from falling off the roof; that is, groups need a certain amount of commonality to stay alive, and the people in those groups will accept any point of commonality that helps the group thrive. This is fine and dandy if you think artistic value is arbitrary, but I don’t.

I suppose this is easy for me to say, what with my aversion to group identity; but most people are the opposite, and always will be, probably for good reasons. Still, I can’t help but feel dissatisfied by the way strict adherence to groups and labels warps our perception. My favorite genre of music is prog rock – but I use the term “genre” lightly. Its initial appeal was in its lack of genre, its indefinability. But then people decided to call it “prog rock”, set out a list of features, and then bands who wanted to be “proggy” went about adhering to and exaggerating those features, and the whole idea fell apart very quickly.

Since my promise to “keep it brief” was apparently a lie, I’ll add one more thing. The institution of art killed itself once it decided that it was free to define art however it liked. It started with modernism, in which the artworld asked, “What is art?” After decades of excited experimentation, they answered, “The hell if I know,” and gave up. As some random guy on Twitter once said, “Post-modernism wasn’t so much a fling the humanities had as the STD it woke up with afterwards.” It’s a hard position to get past because once you’ve stripped away all criteria and scales of merit, where is there left to go? Now we’re stuck in a world where the arbiters of the artworld will insist that John Cage’s silent “composition” is art, but haven’t decided whether video games – a whole artistic medium! – are art. The general artistic community is more irrelevant to art right now than they’ve ever been, although they don’t realize it.

Art isn’t a community. Or, at least, not entirely. Art has a community, because a culture will arise for any shared interest. Actually, art has many communities, a different one for each society; and those communities have many sub-communities, and those have many sub-sub-communities, and so on ad infinitum. In my view, the best artists tend to come from outside of these communities, or at least, apply perspectives from outside of their community. For artistic communities, change comes from outside, not from within.

The second thing is that I read this review of Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance, a book whose thesis is, basically, that racial traits are genetic expressions of cultural traits, because natural selection will favor genes that fit in with the culture. I’d love to hear alternative theories, and would be pretty easily persuaded by them – but Michael Eisen doesn’t provide any. He just notes that this hasn’t been totally 100% proven, and is therefore unscientific, and also racist. With emphasis on the racist. Tyler Cowen posted a brief, but very good and substantive, critique of the book, but he’s alone there; most reviews I’ve found are laced with emotion, from Eisen’s scorn to Charles Murray’s glowing praise. Many people seem uncomfortable with how much intuitive sense the premise makes, while some people seem a little too excited about it.

I don’t know if Wade is right – no one really knows for sure – but let’s assume for a moment that he is. What does that change? In my view, it doesn’t have to change anything. But because we’re human and we’re so desperate to gravitate into groups, further evidence that race is based on genetics (rather than a social construct) could lead to a lot more division and conflict than it ought to.

Imagine a hypothetical universe in which 50% of whites have an IQ of over 100, but only 33% of blacks. In this imaginary universe, the Flynn effect does not exist and does not undermine attempts to link IQ to genetics; in this universe, race is entirely genetic, and so is IQ. Is it now okay to judge people based on race? Of course not. If you’re walking through the halls of Harvard, you can safely assume that any black people you see will be considerably more intelligent than the average white person. (Side note: Thomas Sowell has some interesting thoughts on the supposed race-intelligence link.)

Actual racists – and I mean real, dedicated racists, the kind that call themselves “racialists” or “race realists” or believers in “human biodiversity” – believe that genetic racial differences (which they take to be fact) create a wall around the races, and any attempt to breach this wall is foolhardy and possibly dangerous. These people are a tiny minority right now, but they might not always be. I think there are a lot of people who fear that, if race is even a little bit genetic, the racists would turn out to be right. If Wade’s thesis is racist (as a lot of critics imply), then scientific evidence for it – which we may or may not see in the near future – will prove that racism is the way to go. Such arguments make the same sad assumptions that the racists themselves make – assumptions that only take existing group identity into account. It’s true that humans evolved among different groups, separated by geography and time. But if you look at individuals, the ethnic group to which they belong says only one thing about them, and possibly the least important thing. Talk to American kids in the same neighborhood, who go to the same school and watch the same shows and play the same games – and if you don’t look at them, you won’t be able to tell which one is black or white or Indian or Japanese.

Humans need groups and labels, so I can’t argue against their existence. And I suppose that, if we need groups, we need some purists and hardliners who fight to keep their groups distinct and whole. I’ll leave that to others. I prefer looking at every group from the outside over looking at one group from the inside.


One thought on “I’m not a group person

  1. Sindar

    Let me argue about one small thing you bring out. You say:
    “There are certain types of art – music, literature, and painting, in particular – that have evolved independently in many different cultures. So obviously, there’s something universally appealing about them.”
    But here is a thing. If you look at how varied any of those genres tend to get in different places in different time periods, it seems that the border is set by artist’s abilities, and not by some form of aesthetics. If you take all the different styles of painting, all the pictures that were created over time, what would define them as a set? Let’s say there is a clear definition. A definition that would say what is a painting and what is not. I would guess such a definition would require an object to be a two dimensional surface with some form of paint applied to it to be called a painting. What other requirements can we add to this definition, without arbitrary making it too narrow for some form of artistic expression to fit in? So my point is, as long as the idea of art is broad enough to fit in all the art that was created by humans, of course it would have universal appeal, it follows from the way we defined it.

    Sorry if I am not very clear in my arguments. Also, I hope I didn’t make it look like I am trying to argue for or against this institutional theory of art that you discuss here.


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