Overton Window

The Mind


            Friday’s (11/22/10) Wall Street Journal article by Robert Lee Holtz:  Music’s Universal Pull Studied by Algorithm.  Turns out there are some “universal patterns” in music, even correcting for biases of culture, perception, and the findings appearing in Western scholarship.  Music apparently has “bedeviled” Darwinian biologists.  Luke Glowacki of Pennsylvania State University says “If there were no underlying principles of the human mind, there would not be these regularities.”  Hmm.  Something precedes the reception of data in the human mind.  In this case it is clearly not explainable by purely naturalistic evolution. 




            Since I wrote about art a couple of weeks ago (here) I’ve been continuing to run that theme through my mind.  I ended that post with a reference to the famous urinal displayed by Duchamp c. 1920, which I read about once long ago as kicking off art variously described as surreal or postmodern, but is better described as Duchamp himself did:  as anti-art.  Duchamp was saying art is dead. 


            In one sense he was right, because according to Nietzche God was dead by then, so according to many on the philosophical avant garde there was no longer anything beyond itself to which art could point.  It would seem that this negates any understanding of our appreciation of beauty, therefore, because beauty is necessarily transcendent.  (“Transcendent” means, typically and certainly here, that which extends beyond the physical cosmos).  Beautiful music, landscapes, architecture, etc. lose their magic and become mere things-unto-themselves if we unimagine their transcendent nature.  That angelic yellow light you woke up to is just another sunrise, there’s no reason to imagine it appeals to something deeper in us.


            I look the same way at the Bauhaus school of architecture birthed in the early ideological age, with communism and National Socialism.  Housing and commercial structures were built of boxy concrete and glass, hives for locating social units rather than human beings.  Architecture is not an ephemeral art form, so we’re surrounded by these monstrosities still.  Bauhaus architecture has sometimes been called “brutalist,” because it seems to insist that matter is paramount, and the mind which might occupy this brutalist re-fashioning of material is only another property of material itself.  This art is not directly meaningless, like with Duchamp’s offensive toilet, but indirectly points to human meaninglessness by asserting material as a brute, beauty-less fact of unenchanted existence. 


            Lots of modern art is that way.  Here’s an example, from the Austin airport.  It is not to be excused on the grounds that it is “public art” and therefore the result of lobbying for your tax dollars.  What this “art installation” means, especially located here, is that materialism is the god of this culture.


Overton Window


            Do you know what the “Overton window” is?  If not, let me enlighten.  The person it’s named after described how think tanks could move public discourse from outside the window, but overt political wrangling occurs inside it.  The name for the concept was adapted to public discourse more generally.


            In the postmodern era of the last 40+ years, among the philosophical developments on the left has been a sort of meta-analysis of the nature of discourse.  I.e., it’s not about the subject matter of our conversation, it’s about the rules for engaging in it.  As with all post-modern developments, it’s not about arriving at truth, nor even about facilitating the free and fair exchange of ideas.  It’s about gaming the debate.  The discussion is bracketed so that the point of view of those not in alignment with radical left postmodernism are excluded.  That’s political correctness you smell.


            A method suggested by philosopher John Rawls is that the arena of public discourse should not be open to “comprehensive” ideologies.  His idea is that religion should be relegated to private discourse, not public, because it is a “comprehensive” view.  A “comprehensive” view is one which applies to all of reality.  Christians might call this a “worldview.”  Rawlsian thinkers tend to be tone-deaf to the ideology of naturalism being another such “comprehensive” view of reality.  As you probably already understand, Rawls’ idea is taken to mean only the religious “comprehensive” view of reality is excluded from polite conversation.  The comprehensive view of naturalism is thereby given exclusive access to the public arena of ideas. 


            The Overton window is an application of Rawlsian philosophy.  It is a window of conversation in the culture, which can shift.  Whenever you hear a news commentator talk about the “narrative,” this is what’s going on.  If you don’t hear “narrative” every time you turn on a talk program, tune in to NPR for 30 seconds.  Or read TIME magazine.  The idea for many on the left is to shift the Overton window their way; not to engage issues on the merits.  The point is to push and shove until the opposition is quite literally marginalized to irrelevancy.  This technique is the source of the rising level of rancor that everyone’s currently going on about. 


            This would be good to remember, next time you think there’s only an individual issue at stake, and that the merits are fairly in play. 







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