Colin Martindale’s The Clockwork Muse

Philosophy and Literature 18 (1994): 199-204.

Denis Dutton

I write from the standpoint of mid-career, having been working for about twenty years at aesthetics, philosophy, and (voice lowering to a self-conscious mumble) literary theory. In that time deconstruction has taken hold in literary studies and more recently gone into decline. Despite events in Eastern Europe, varieties of “intellectual” Marxism continue to cast their shadow, and have influenced the steep rise of feminism (or feminisms) in critical studies, especially the synthesized marxo-feminism which wants to see women replace workers as the oppressed class. Wittgenstein’s reputation is still intact, but Freud is fading, and expect the same with minor figures such as Foucault, Lacan, and Derrida. While Heidegger and the ghost of Being still haunt many a mind, Paul de Man’s stock has taken a dive. Charlatans such as Althusser continue to attract earnest folk (including some dear friends) who mistake obscurity for depth. However, since Althusser murdered his wife-an act of purest joissance-and actually bragged about his intellectual fraudulence in his posthumously published autobiography, he may yet become an awkward source to cite.

So where are we going? What’s next? I recently saw the CV of an exceptionally bright young academic who listed among her specialties “film anti-theory, especially of an End-of-Second-Semiology/Death-of-Grand-Theory sort.” She also said she was interested in writing on postmodernism, “recognizing how much of the postmodernism literature is basically only a rehash of familiar poststructuralist/deconstructionist themes.” Quite so about postmodernism, but all those end-of/anti/death topics are queer specialities a scholar setting out in academic life. Imagine a young physicist who specialized in the death of Bohr, or even a psychologist who was a what’s-wrong-with-behaviorism expert. The only analogue I can think of in the natural sciences are the creationists, who specialize in the death of Darwin, but who’d want to emulate them?

Which brings me to a question: were I beginning an academic career in the humanities today, in what direction would I head? First, I’d find an area that has facts, lots of little or big facts, interesting or trivial facts. Part of what has been wrong with the textualization of everything is that too much writing in the humanities has become theory-driven rather than fact-driven. Of course, the obsessives of universal textuality are familiar with the objection, and predictably respond that all writing is really theory-driven, that the call for a factual basis for theory is so much ideology, and besides that are no “facts,” etc., etc. We’ve heard it all, but the century is nearly over and this line is going stale.

Next, I think I’d look for an area where it’s possible to carry out experiments. Experimental theory is practically oxymoronic, and experimental criticism is uncommon, but so much the worse for criticism. The experiments of psychologists usually just prove the obvious, but just occasionally they tell you something you hadn’t known before, and in any event, designing a good experiment can in itself help to clarify exactly what an issue is. Furthermore, trying to put a hypothesis to experimental test can have one particularly welcome by-product: it can help us to put ideological prejudices in their place. If a disagreeable multinational drug company claims it has a cure for, say, river blindness, and double-blind experiments show that the drug actually works, we will not deny the medicine to people in Sierra Leone. In medicine, politics cannot determine the outcome of an adequately designed double-blind clinical trial, which is reassuring for people who like their theory tethered to reality. If aesthetics had such robust procedures, some of its resident ideological mantras would be revealed as the empty vapors they are. It’s not too wild to imagine it. In philosophy, examples and especially counter-examples are the thought-experiments which at their best keep thinking from being swallowed in nonsense. This goes for philosophical aesthetics as well, where there is probably even more potential than other theoretical fields for carrying out experimental procedures beyond merely relying on hypothetical imaginings.

For these reasons, were I starting out again, I think I’d want to pay more attention to the connections between philosophical aesthetics and aesthetic psychology. To get an idea of what this might amount to, consider Colin Martindale’s The Clockwork Muse (Basic Books, $29.95). For one thing, the kind of research advocated in this book might make you happier. In his typically bumptious manner, Martindale, a psychology professor and editor of Empirical Studies in the Arts, claims that humanists tend to be “negativistic, pessimistic, and melancholic.” Under the baleful spell of Derrida & Co., Martindale says, humanists go about moaning that we cannot know anything. Scientists, on the other hand, treat the world as knowable, and you’ll never discover anything “if you get mired down writing books and articles explaining the details of how and why you can’t know anything.” As for scientists, “they seem to be a far happier lot than humanists. We know things, and there is great joy in discovery.”

Whether Martindale knows all the things he claims will be contentious, but then an attraction of the book is its capacity to provoke real debate. He invites argument on every page by making clear, controversial, and challengeable claims. In this respect, Martindale’s book might be a much more useful centerpiece for a graduate seminar than some critic/theorist’s foggy ruminations. The book focuses on what Martindale calls the predictability of artistic change. Change must happen, he says, because of “the law of novelty,” which, given that it is the basis for his whole project, deserves a clearer statement than Martindale gives it. Anyway, it is the brute human fact that people crave novelty. They don’t like to repeat the same actions or the same experiences over and over again without variation. Life’s rituals, large and small, are carried on with alterations in order to maintain interest. (I started to type “variations” instead of “alterations,” in that sentence, but stopped when I saw I’d used the “variation” in the previous sentence. My action illustrates the law of novelty. Come to think of it, much of my life as an editor is spent on finding synonyms to help my writers avoid repetitions, and thus maintain a marginally higher level of reader interest).

The law of novelty is based on well-known psychological principles of habituation-the gradual loss of interest by an organism in repeated stimuli. It applies as much to sea slugs and slime as to people and Picassos. Martindale calls habituation “the single force that has pushed art always in a consistent direction ever since the first work of art was made.” His point is not so much one of seeing art in terms of an avant-garde frontier, as simply of pointing out how quickly people get bored. The book is hence about ennui, and persistent, recognizable strategies for overcoming it, for it is this phenomenon which causes change in art. Opposed to habituation is the principle of least effort, according to which artists and their audiences opt for the least bothersome ways to achieve novelty in art. These two forces tug against each other, and so slow the impulse toward radical and immediate change in art styles.

One of Martindale’s first example concerns similes in French poetry. In the eighteenth century, André Chénier writes, “Beneath your fair head, a white delicate neck / Inclines and would outshine the brightness of snow.” The connection between the white neck in snow is closer than Laforgue’s later line to the effect that the sun “lies on top of the a gland torn out of a neck.” Sun and gland are more remote images, but not as far apart as the relations given in two lines from André Breton: “I love you opposite the seas / Red like the egg when it is green.” This increase in metaphorical outlandishness is one of countless examples in the history of art of “a historical movement of similes and metaphors away from consistency toward remoteness and incongruity.” Historians of ideas may find in all of this a grand expansion of human consciousness; Martindale sees complex processes of habituation and the relief of boredom.

Perhaps it’s just that I’ve become so habituated to the literary journals, but not only did I fail to find The Clockwork Muse boring, it was for me full of all sorts of revelations. Martindale writes with a calculated, in-your-face insolence, heaping contempt on critics, humanists, behaviorists, Marxists, philosophers, sociologists. He credits Harold Bloom for having half understood, in his bumbling English professor’s manner, the law of novelty, but doesn’t have much nice to say about many others except psychologists in his own field. He uses his various theses to analyze the histories of British, French and American poetry, American fiction and popular music lyrics, European and American painting, Gothic architecture, Greek vases, Egyptian tomb painting, precolumbian sculpture, Japanese prints, New England gravestones, and various composers and musical works.

A major lynchpin of the investigation concerns what he calls “primordial content,” roughly the emotional or emotionally expressive aspects of a work. Martindale argues that the arousal potential of works tends to require more primordial content as time go on in a particular art or style. Thus the natural progression will always be from classic to romantic, for greater musical forces, for more violent metaphors, larger, more extraordinary paintings, and so forth. The (Dionysian) primordial is contrasted with (Apollonian) conceptual, which involves, if I understand him, the stylistic mode of an art. Within an established style, primordial content in time must increase. When a style changes, primordial content will decrease. Thus art evolves.

So when audiences and artists become satiated with old styles, they increase the kick by inventing new ones. Once the novelty of the new style wears off, the impact of the style has to be turned up by increasing density of words, loudness of sound, vividness of images, making things more emotional, erotic, or shocking. There are limits to this, so a new style must be found. Martindale uses computer analysis of words in texts, drawn with systemic randomness over periods of time to establish curves which he can then mathematically describe. Here, for example, is the equation that describes the primordial content in John Dryden’s poetry for each year from 1659 to 1700:

PC = 2.73 - .37t + .01t 2 - .32PCt - 1 -.36PCt - 2

No need to agonize over the equations, and anyway the graphs from which they derive are much more illuminating. Along with occasional silly generalizations (“Outside Italy, few people have ever liked opera.”) there are many intriguing provocations. He says that styles in living room furniture change faster than bedroom furniture because people are around it more and apparently get bored with it faster. Is that so? Mightn’t it be that we normally invite other people into the living room but less frequently into the bedroom? I’m not sure, but at least I’ve been giving thought to something I’d not considered before.

Much of the book involves historical analysis, but Martindale also reports on experiments he and others have conducted. For example, he proposed to recapitulate hundreds of years of the history of Italian art by recording on a like/dislike scale reactions of a series of paintings. Liking for the series of works was stronger when they were shown as a chronological group than when they were placed in random order, and much stronger than when they were shown in reverse-chronological order, presumably because of the increasing arousal-potential of the chronological sequence. There are other possible reasons for this response-habituation to a stereotyped historical understanding of the paintings, for instance-but once again you cannot get around Martindale’s conclusion without having to think up another unconsidered factor, or to design a refuting experiment.

The data on which his analyses are based was collected, he says, by naive observers: “Since I rather like my own theory, it would not do for me simply to give you my own impression of what happened in the history of art. I would have an unconscious tendency to twist the data to fit the theory. Unfortunately, most art historians, though well aware that this sort of distortion is a danger, do nothing to avoid it.” But even if we trust the objectivity of his initial data, there are statistical questions, especially about noise, with some of his beautiful curved lines plotting a precious few points. But then Martindale is claiming to to have verified cold fusion. Besides, so much of what he says seems so intuitively correct that little argument will be produced anyway. He ends with an analysis of PMLA in terms of primordial content, with samples drawn at ten-year intervals since 1885. Critical vocabulary becomes increasingly lyrical till 1925, and then decline sets in with a deep trough (the New Criticism) in the 1950s. A big primordial peak of the 1960s tapers off by the 90s. Martindale says, “The data do not bear good news for those of use who find annoying the sentimental effusions of many literary critics.” The level of emotional content in criticism from 1975 to the present was roughly than twice that of contemporary poetry. “Literary criticism does seem to go through paradigms or styles-though to what end is not clear. It has not become more abstract or, apparently, more complex across the last century. It is like poetry and pure science in that it is useless. It is unlike them, though, in that those who write it do not seem to know this.” Colin Martindale has got some nerve, but his book is far from useless.


Copyright © 1994 Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.