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Rob van Gerwen

May 21, 2016

Index Supervenience Agency Lanzmann's ban Propaganda Cave Gaze
Grammar Memory Schopenhauer Art practice Music Art's Morale Issues

Philosophical Directions
The effort of understanding

The Agency of Representation

Abstract of the argument on this page

We standardly assume that getting our representations right is a value in itself, next to being the politically and morally right thing to do. In Cultural Studies, we think that not only representations' truth is important but also the way they present these truths: in this, one assumes that representations act on themselves.
How should we conceive of such agency of insentient entities?

1. The Issue

The issue I shall address here, starts from an "Representations, moral agents?assumption often made in so-called Cultural Studies, that the way in which events are represented will have social or moral consequences. It is not immediately clear, however, what is entailed by this thesis.

  1. Either this is a highly contingent, perhaps causal thesis that identifies particular ways of representing as the cause of certain social developments. Taken thus, Cultural Studies, must be conceived of as an empirical descriptive science (assuming it works according to scientific methodologies) [which ought to see as its major challenge the task to identify the causal laws that connect the representations to the relevant developments, so as to be able to provide the arguments with which to hold those who use certain representations responsible for these developments].
  2. Philosophically speaking, the more interesting interpretation of the thesis attributes to representations a power to act, in a moral sense. Seeing how proponents of Cultural Studies view their research as politically relevant and as socially liberating, it is clear that, whether explicitly or implicitly, they assume the appropriateness of this second interpretation.

[I recently addressed this issue in a lecture on the afterlife of slavery, but of course, this is by no means the only interesting philosophical issue associated with slavery. Most notably, slavery entails a disrespect for persons' autonomy--a philosophical minefield. I chose to abstract from that and other issues, and to concentrate on the idea that slavery still has its consequences in contemporary society, especially for the descendants of the former slaves, and that these consequences can, perhaps, be amended by devising new ways to represent the actual events of the slavery.]

2. Some approaches and models

Tradition: epistemology

One problem with representations of slavery may be their falsity. Traditionally, this problem is interpreted in terms of correspondence-theory of truth, but one might also seek correction from coherentism. "Context as crucial as truth To correct our stories historians might collect facts and rewrite their stories. What is crucial for my argument now, is that this is an epistemic approach which starts from en epistemic analysis of the issue: the falsity of our representations should be corrected. This is an obvious, and obviously important approach. Let us call this the traditional approach.

Speech-act theory

Speech-act theory views truth-saying as merely one among the several things that can be done by uttering propositions. Among the other things are: promising, ordering, asking, baptizing, marrying (by saying 'yes, I do'). All these speech acts know of their own peculiar felicity conditions, or right-making circumstances (or rituals, as with the baptizing and marrying examples). The point of this approach is that such felicity-conditions rely on the context wherein the utterance is made, instead of on the truth of the proposition to the reality related. Truth is merely one among the standards. [Read Austin's How to Do Things with Words, or John Searle's Speech Acts.

Cultural Studies

Cultural Studies (broadly conceived, i.e. including semiotics, and the movement for Political Correctness) approach the matter by analysing the relevant representations about African-Americans through the years [and some irrelevant ones as well, because: who is to say beforehand which are the relevant ones?]. Semiotic analyses seek for regularities in the representations and these they describe and interpret as 'codes' or linguistic conventions, implying that certain systems of depiction lie waiting for people to use and convey particular meanings which are taken as nondescript if existant outside semiotics.
We say things in our manner of depicting, in the way in which we show how the world is; and, since saying is a way of doing something, or so it is implied, semiotic analyses have political relevance.
In short, in Cultural Studies (broadly conceived) representations are assumed to have a political and a moral impact on people.


In The Selfish Gene, sociobiologist Richard Dawkins describes persons and their bodies as mere carriers of genetic material. The genes are the individuals of the world, and the animals merely guarantee their survival and spreading. I am not concerned with sociobiology here, but with an analogy Dawkins defends in his book.
He thinks our ideas, which he renames as memes, developed a similar strategy of survival and spreading, as our genes have. Memes are individuals too, belonging to the mental aspect of reality, not to the minds of individual animals. "Representations: survival of the fittest
The approach resulting from this analogy is a semiotics without politics and ethics (as the human individuals are irrelevant for the lives and afterlives of thoughts, ideas and feelings, of memes, in short). [This goes to show that taking semiotic analyses of representation as politically relevant is an addition in need of an extra argument.]
Meme-theory answers only to the logic of evolution: survival of the fittest. People's acting does not enter this picture. However, if one wants to conceive of present-day circumstances of particular groups of people as after-effects of the ways in which we thought about them in earlier times, then meme-theory seems failing from the very beginning. What might, perhaps, result from Dawkinian approach is a bloodless, maybe even dangerously reductionist, but at least silly, objectivist description of semantic units, which failt to take into account the people who hold these units in their minds while doing things to people.
Some conception of the political relevance of devising and uttering representations must be preserved in an adequate theory of representational agency.

3. Representations and the Attitudes they Demand

In this section I develop my thesis, which starts from an aesthetic approach. An aesthetic approach begins with a phenomenological analysis of the perceptual confrontation of an audience with a representation (or work of art). It precedes any epistemological or semiotic analyses.

1. Representations demand a certain attitude from their audiences

Representations of whatever kind require their audience to take on particular attitudes, distinct from the everyday attitude where one takes whatever one sees happening before one as issuing direct moral demands.

Works of art demand an artistic attitude (wherein one is to abstain from morally relevant agency, and to abstract from the question whether what one is looking at exists or not. [Kant famously analysed this attitude in terms of disinterestedness; in Critique of Judgement, sections 1-5].
Pornography demands an attitude that aims at sexual gratification. One in which one fantasizes, interestedly, about the consumption of the depicted. [If we cannot possibly succeed in fantasizing the depicted as existing, the picture cannot possibly be pornographic, i.e. it is not just what is in the pciture that defines its pornographic nature.]
Propaganda requires a halfbaked attitude, one, intermediate between the artistic and the pornographic attitudes. Propaganda is a halfbaked type of representation. [Whatever we see in a propaganda representation we relate straightforwardly to our present social surroundings.]
Journalistic reports require a believing attitude. [We are supposed to assume that what they convey is the truth about reality.]

2. Representations act by requiring these attitudes

It is morally significant, generally, to require of people to refrain from an ethical (everyday) attitude, because it requires the beholder to think and feel morally, but not to act accordingly. It is, likewise, morally significant for representations of whatever kind to require the beholder to take on non-moral attitudes. Thus, representations act, and as a consequence, representations can be morally assessed.

3. Standard of Moral Judgement

Primarily, moral evaluation is about the agency involved.
In case of representations, we either judge the agency that led the maker to produce the representation, or the representation itself. In the latter case, the agency consists in a requirement towards the audience. The standard for our moral judgement of a representation should be the measure in which the representation merits the attitude it reauires us to take on.
This standard pertains to the particular performative of the object in question. The contents of the representation merely form part of this performative; it is merely an element in the material with which the representation or work regains our attitudal switch. Instead, what is at stake is the succes of its performing.
Thus, in journalistic or scientific contexts representations merit our attitudes by telling the truth.
In art, they merit our attitudes by their artistic merits.
In pornography, our attitude is merited by the way in which they sustain the beholder's drive for sexual satisfaction.
[Time and again, artists produce pictures the images of which derives straightforwardly from pornography. This does not mean that these pictures, then act as pornography; nor does it mean that, here, pornography has become art. Think of Jeff Koons' Made in Heaven series, or Courbet's L'Origine du Monde.]

In case of propaganda, the way to judge it morally, deviates from the preceding examples, on account of the halfbaked attitude it requires its audience to take on. A work of propaganda not only asks its audience to take into account the appropriateness of a certain story, or ideology, but, also to immediately act accordingly. Therefore, a work of propaganda should be judged morally exclusively on account of the moral ramifications of its contents.

4. Art's Art-External Moral Agency

Q. When is a work a moral action?

Starting with a minimal approach: An event is an action when the agent physically interacts with other persons [in the same space and time].
a. Within art practice, works of art act according to this criterium.
This assumes the artificial demarcation of an autonomous art practice from the moral realm. So:
a2. As long as the boundaries with the moral realm are not transgressed, within art practice, works of art act according to this criterium. Apart from these art-internal acts [whose moral judgement listens to art-critical standards--see my paper on Ethical Autonomism.], a work's moral agency depends on some or other art-external performance.

Q. When is art's artificial demarcation transgressed?

When is some aspect of a work also active outside art practice so as to become directly morally evaluable, i.e. indepedent of art-critical standards?
A. This is the case when this aspect is succesfully embedded in a particular practice within the moral realm.

Q. When is an art-external performance succesful?

An example may help.
According to Speech-act theory, utterances can be acts when they answer to certain situational restrictions.
Thus, the utterance "Go, read Joyce's Ulysses" is an order and, hence, an action when spoken to a person
1. who knows English, and
2. Knows how to get a copy of this book, and
3. knows how to read (English).
4. Lastly, but this is hard to conceive of: the person issuing the order musst have an authority in the eyes of the other.

A literature professor

A literature professor making this utterance to his students certainly issues an order, his performance will normally be succesful.
However, if that very same professor comes home, and utters these words to his two-month old son, this situation changes dramatically. If he is serious then his utterance most certainly is not succesful. Yet, he might be making a joke to his then audience. The utterance can then still be succesful, but not as an order, but as a joke.
What we need for some work's aspect to succefully issue an order outside the artistic practice, is something dependent on the nature of te relevant art-external practice.

A work's art-external performance

Whether the art-external performance of a "work" [which conceptually speaking now no longer is an art work] is succesful fully and exclusively depends on the considerations that rule in the moral realm--since art-criticism's power of judgement is now suspended. [Because of the--hypothetically--succesful transgression of art's boundaries.]

The moral realm

The moral realm, however, tends to be very careful in its judgements of works of art, for a reason. It has exempted the artistic practice from moral judgements for a deep-seated reason. So it won't do to just pick any aspect from a work, preferably some statement with an immoral content, and treat it, literally, as a recommendation, an order, to act immorally.
Were morality to treat works like this, this would mean a return of our culture to strong moralism, as well as, the end of art [only this time for real!--pace Hegel and Danto]

Legitimate moral judgement

Hence (the moral argument ought to go) if the relevant moral practice is such that a work's contents (or parts thereof) will, of an intentional necessity that comes with the relevant practice, be treated as an order to act, then it is succesful as an art-external performance and to be treated morally.
This is where the assessment of propaganda and pornography come in, as well as the debate about Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will--more here.

Western self-relativization

Hence it makes a real difference whether it is a Muslim or a Christian rapper who raps that a particular politician should be murdered. Muslims all over the world [I do not say or imply: "all Muslims .."] appear to consider seriously such an order.
If, however, we take into consideration the fact that our national psychopath, Volkert van der G., killed Pim Fortuyn on account of similar considerations these rappers may have, "Christians" too may be vulnerable to act on the basis of a song.
The difference, however, are illuminating. Where Muslims can take recourse to deeply-entrenched religious notions such as "fatwah", "Holy wars", and personal Martyrdom, a Western person with a Jewish-Christian background, like Van der G. can only refer to sociological analyses and historical predictions, to scientific methods, in short. These latter analyses and predictions stand to be corrected within the scientific (or journalistic) community, which has a strong tradition of self-relativization in the light of evidence.
Mind you, my argument says nothing about the penal measurements to be taken in any forthcoming case. I have to leave these to juridical debate. I do hope participants in such debates take arguments such as those provided here into consideration.
Nor do I imply that Western conclusions are necessarily more true than "Muslim" conclusions, far from that.


Gerwen, Rob van. 2004a. “Ethical Autonomism. The Work of Art as a Moral Agent.” Contemporary Aesthetics 2. Internet