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2017.05.19 Fri, by Lin Yunke Translated by: Banyi Huang
“Brains in a Vat” and the “Failology” of Art—Dedicated to Hilary Putnam

This piece is included in Ran Dian’s print magazine, spring-summer 2017 issue

The renowned American philosopher Hilary Putnam passed away last year. Even though he was a pioneering figure in new American Pragmatism, second to none in both the multi-disciplinary scope and abundance of his work, he was still, at the time of his death, best remembered for coming up with the question known as “brains in a vat”: how can we determine that we are not a brain placed in a vat by an evil scientist, and thus that we do truly exist in this world? When Putnam first proposed this allegory, perhaps he saw it merely as an alluringly provocative image in the semantic sense. But it is precisely as such that the language I used just now to illustrate this dilemma becomes problematic: if I were indeed a brain in a vat, how could I have been able “successfully” to describe the objective situation above? As a matter of fact, this is precisely Putnam’s explanation, though from the academic standpoint, we still require certain complex expressions for its verification. Putnam’s trick boils down to this: once you have used objective and grammatically correct language to describe “brains in a vat,” this act identifies demarcations of existence that could objectively be confirmed. Whether it is Heidegger’s equation of language and existence, or Wittgenstein’s claim that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” they are essentially expressing the same idea: it is impossible for Man to deny the existence of self through reason. We are at most allowed one unfounded doubt, which in itself is no more than an appropriation of a possible representation taken from the world we exist in—one that is not transcendent, but actually exists.

Philosophers like Putnam and Wittgenstein (early in his career) exhausted the capacity of traditional metaphysics to counter skepticism. Regardless of how much their methods of reasoning differed from traditional metaphysics, they still held on tightly to the argument of “essence” pertaining to Man and objects. They may have been opposed to the rhetorical methods of traditional metaphysics, but they were still members of this great tradition. Pragmatist philosophers like Putnam and Searle advise us against needless speculation about the mind-body problem (the separation thereof). Even though those who engaged with this problem earlier on, such as Socrates and Descartes, succumbed to the possibilities of the mind-body problem to a certain extent, they were engaged in an effort to more directly pinpoint Man’s limitations and render more apparent the goodness of truth and God. In Phaedo, Socrates responds (more or less) to the problem of “brains in a vat” in the following way: only upon one condition can we choose to believe in the detachability of mind and body—it is the moment when we are forced to abandon the body for the objectivity of truth.


As such, Putnam, Socrates, and Descartes each proposed different allegories for the same problem, their differences consisting only in that for the first, the transcendental real was an evil scientist, whereas for Socrates and Descartes, it was the homeland of the good soul and the power of God. For those who fail to see these two periods of philosophy as falling under the same tradition, philosophers like Putnam and Wittgenstein stand in calculated opposition against Socrates and Descartes. But such an understanding only narrowly limits the problem to within the system of philosophy. The fundamental question here is not whether one acknowledges objective transcendence, but rather that instead of reaching autonomy by resorting to “heteronomy”, these philosophers who lived thousands of years apart were all philosophers of “presence”. The most generalized form of experience is a journey of exploration and the attempt to express the self. Death, as a particularized experience, falls equally under the jurisdiction of generalized experience. Its intrinsic value, if any, still pertains to this life. What is essential is not autonomy (zilü), but independence (zizhu). For Wittgenstein, whether it is “brains in a vat” or Phaedo, it is no more than a demonstration of the fact that people ought to pursue the notion of “the world is all that is the case” (shi qi suo shi) to its limit. For Putnam, it is the limit of reason, but for Socrates it is the limit of the corporeal—as Wittgenstein had said in Philosophical Investigations: “This is where I am, this is what I’ve said, this is what I do.”

Behind these classical arguments of “presence”, however, still lurk ghosts of human realism and its anxiety. When questioning the reality of our surroundings, our efforts are in vain and our lives not worth living. All this hints at a purely concrete thing or viewpoint. Only under such a gaze can our world and that which exists in it be real and intact; only it can “succeed” in pointing to this world. Depending on the era, the goodness or evil of this transcendental viewpoint manifests itself in different forms. In our time, Putnam painted this myth as evil, implying the extent to which this anxiety about realism threatens our generalized experience. But perhaps it also indicates, in an increasingly complex contemporary society, how much Man looks forward to the promise of the transcendental.

The method in which Kant substituted the “real” with “reason” has vastly changed the realm designated by the “pure”—a word charged with the weight of power: instead of being a simple “given,” what we experience can only be shown on the basis of an a priori acknowledgement and subject to a prior contrivance. Yet just like Searle’s later critique, an acknowledgement that precedes testing is nothing but a justification for how empirical experience could constitute objective knowledge: Kant’s solution sowed the seed for Hegel’s later quote, “the rational alone is real”; by providing evidence prepared in advance, he has ensured the legitimacy of human experience. However, if human experience can only unfold under such legitimacy, by virtue of which the unknowability of material object itself has eliminated all questions pertaining to “all that is the case” (shi qi suo shi), Kant is precisely Putnam’s evil scientist: in responding only to “successful” representation and defending it, he has in effect wiped out those failed experiences that are too minuscule to be perceived, and thus are unable to be represented.

Based on this, we can understand how many schools of philosophy closer to our time, be it Husserl or analytical philosophy, have more or less placed Kant in the position of critique, for he was the first to introduce the myth of skepticism to the real world. To employ Adorno’s logic from Dialectic of Enlightenment, Kant’s disenchantment with pure reason—equally the disenchantment with the evil scientist—has instead evolved into a “myth of a myth.” Much like a legal show that elaborates excessively on criminal methods, it has equipped us with the rational methods with which one can seize the authorization for legitimacy. Putnam’s “brains in a vat” is not, in fact, a fictional story, nor is Robert Nozick’s “experience machine” put forward in his 1974 book Anarchy, State, and Utopia (a hypothesis now realized by VR technology). These concrete apparatuses, which appear within reasoning that was originally intended to better our lives, are problems and even potential enemies that we must confront at any moment in time. However, aside from phenomenology and analytical philosophy, those who resort to “sociology,” “anthropology,” and “science” have not exceeded the boundaries of “legitimacy.” Michael Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu, the two most quoted theorists in Western academia, planted “legitimacy” and “power” right at the core of their discussions. Bourdieu, in particular, used coordinate axes to identify entities that could be successfully recognized, allowing them to occupy a specific position within the supreme court of power. This is where all human activities, art included, appear to reside—it is also where the evil scientist resides.


In comparison, Foucault’s greatness lies in his excavations of the conditions of knowledge prior to Kant; his explication of “hidden histories” is also the ”all that is the case” (shi qi suo shi) of human experience, which is often delirious, chaotic, and corporeal. In Discipline and Punishment, the guillotine is revealed as an apparatus that separates life from the bodily experience of pain. At the same time that it prevents pain, concretizing existence into a power through the meticulous deprivation of the right to live, it also prevents the material body from revealing the limits of “all that is the case” in its tolerance of pain. Foucault’s archeology of knowledge, along with his ardor for the politics of life, is in fact telling us: the crisis of legitimation is not our true crisis; rather, our existence and “well-being,” having been incorporated into the defense of legitimation and the reflection thereupon, are subject to the control of law and the logic of evidence. Such is our true crisis—Socrates’ “know thyself” has now been replaced by sermons as along the lines of “know your place.” Though as far as the attainment of success is concerned, we are still able to compete for the power that occupies such a real position.

Nonetheless, it is exactly under the guidance of Kantian philosophy that the autonomous position of art can truly be revealed. To systemized philosophy, art and aesthetics are the remnants of that which cannot be tamed. In Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten’s initial definition, aesthetics, as “the study of sensations,” is a sort of “lower epistemology,” and not the evaluative mechanism for “appreciation.” “Beauty,” a natural progression in human experience based on sensibility, is not a tangible thing that we can pursue. At the obvious rupture between “purposiveness without purpose,” “sensus communis,” and “the sublime” in Critique of Judgment, Kant is converted from being the advocate of legitimacy into a heroic figure. Just as Thomas Nagel has said in View from Nowhere, this is a will that attempts to leap across “the great gap under a realist interpretation.” Up until today, our “well-being” is still stuck in the gap of such a system of philosophy: the value bestowed upon art and beauty can still be obtained through certain defenses—“purposiveness without purpose” implies that fame and gain given to artists is but a confirmation of the latter’s non-utilitarian creation; “sensus communis” denotes the legitimate result of art market operations—but, from the fundamental standpoint of man, the meaning of art and beauty lies in its ability to guide us toward failure in our pursuit of the transcendental real. Consequently, if we take the purest perception as departure point and exploration as the only want, and channel them through unlimited understanding, we will undoubted encounter failure at some point, and become a loser. At my limits, I am still not bound to “brain in a vat” by any legitimacy and transcendent real: I am what my eyes can see. I no longer have any doubt. This is an alternate answer to Putnam’s story, essentially serving the same goal as Wittgenstein’s response, as what the latter sought to explain in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus—the long odyssey wherein the most microscopic “state of affairs” ultimately enters into the “world”: it is only when “What can be said at all can be said” that we can be silent in regards to “whereas one cannot speak.” Wittgenstein’s understanding of “well-being” asks us to throw ourselves into the mundane everyday with all the nobleness of the former, to live a kind of “daily life” deluded neither by the idols of metaphysics nor by holders of vested interests.

The reason art has been regarded by many theorists as the source of man’s possible salvation is that upon the sites of our failures, art gives us not only with consolation, but also a kind of pride. True art and romanticism are in fact even more rigorous than Kant’s system of philosophy, for whether it is within the limits of reason or the meaning of transcendence, art has never deemed itself capable of grasping the “absolute”—that absolutely objective gaze capable of staring “brains in a vat” right in the eye. Take, for example, Arthur Schopenhauer, who denounced Hegel for using the certainty of the “absolute” to cancel out the experiments and discoveries of “metaphysics”; his approach to art is to see it as that which could offer us consolation in the face of tragedy, when we are inevitably confronted with failure in our irrepressible quests for knowledge. Temporary pauses and “self-denial” do not bring about simple happiness and all-powerful satisfaction, but a supreme compensation for man’s resolute and non-utilitarian explorations. Art is what we encounter at the limits of exhaustion, in our endless pursuit for well-being and cognition—it will never claim to be a completely successful philosophy. In ancient Greece, artists were never granted high positions. This is not due to a certain discrimination from philosophers, but to an attempt to put it in its adequate place: as practitioner, the artist must blend impartially into daily life. He is not qualified to dictate the measurement of value by virtue of his accomplishments alone. His position must fluctuate according to the rise and decline of the city-state, never surpassing the mid-level. The artist should embody the following paradox: on the one hand, a remarkable talent soaring above others, on the other hand, the metaphysical responsibility performed at the cost of the humble origins inherent to art itself. As such, in The Republic, Plato had to give artists much lower status than they had in reality. The positioning of the artist as loser is perhaps an overcorrection, but it nonetheless has kept art within the bounds of its corresponding moral scope, thereby becoming “free artistry.” This failure has in turn released the artist back onto the soil of individuality. At art’s most fundamental level, just as Robert Venturi, in his History of Art Criticism, noted to the effect that If the individuality most unique to every artist should attain its own state of perfection, then there would not be a perfection that determines people’s pursuit of either a successful or non-successful abstraction of art. Techniques could improve, but not art.

In the earliest art, artists were not praised for the life-like qualities of their work, but rather the noble concepts they represented—they were the heroes behind the scene. The Polish literary theorist Roman Ingarden has in contemporary times called yet again for this ancient mode of being—what he calls “metaphysical quality.” In The Literary Work of Art, by outlining four heterogeneous strata, he conveys how a literary work of art continuously immerses us in the adjective-like values commonly shared by man by way of relentless “offerings.” Its ultimate goal is to dissolve itself in this “oceanic feeling”: the only rivers are those that flow into the ocean. Just like our refutation of “brains in a vat,” the function of intelligence lies in its ability to drive present-world cognition; otherwise, we would not be able to support an organ such as the “brain.”

Against the backdrop of the study of failure, we are compelled by the necessity to rethink the proposition of “art for art’s sake.” Today’s art finds itself in the struggle between two kinds of understanding: one is the approach of George Dickie, who conceives of art entirely within the framework of legitimacy, restoring this intractable thing back to the realm of sociology. In a perspective that returns artistic production to the culture industry and systems of art, art becomes none other than “brains in a vat,” or the striptease girl of Roland Barthes: they are packaged ever so neatly, only to offer themselves over-eagerly to the world of capital. The other kind is analytical aesthetics in the true sense, with Nelson Goodman and Wolfsheim as representatives. In the attempt to reintegrate art into phenomenology and the study of sensations, they do not treat art as a rigid pre-given subject, as systems theory and art sociologists do, but rather focus on how art reveals itself in human perception as a way to identify where human perception breaks down. In When Is Art, Goodman refuses to understand art through “position” and “spatial circumstance,” meaning that art is no longer subjected to the determinations of what Bourdieu calls the “relational,” or the determinations of numerous material field relations: the fields of power, art, and culture could indeed control art’s value from the outside, but in terms of art itself, the “relational” cannot explain why, for an artist like Van Gogh, his artworks could escape capital for such a long time before becoming idols of worship in the art world. Certainly, Bourdieu interprets this phenomenon as “hysteresis”—as manifestation of the mismatch between subject and changing fields. While it could bring disaster to an individual’s personal life, this cultural lag is perhaps, for art, the failure that occurs after a long period of resistance, persisting much longer than individuals do in social relations, long enough for it to become a memory for art: for much art pursued by capital, even capital cannot completely efface this memory of art as separate from the realm of capital. Non-utility is what art had fought for in its autonomy (zizhu). As Goodman pointed out, it is through the most basic materials such as density and symbols, immaterial yet perceptible by the senses, that we form a “memory” for art: we approach its limits only by way of our distinction, using the limits of our senses to discern art, whether it is figurative or abstract, movement or melody. Just as the contemporary phenomenologist Jean-Luc Marion said, art originates from various “crossings of the (in)visible,” which can also be seen in Foucault’s “hidden histories,” Wittgenstein’s “silence”: art is the traces and evidence left by each failed revolution of sensations, time and time again.

Our understanding of art is largely an understanding of this type of failure. “Successology” (chenggongxue) today is in essence an expression that aspires towards a legitimacy, using archive, curriculum vitae, and identity to verify the actual position occupied by an individual, as we can see from scenarios in The Archaeology of Knowledge and Distinction. In today’s world, however, art should provide us with a “failology” (shibaixue)—a satire of “successology.” If the mimesis championed by art of the past mimics the noble, then that of contemporary art is to display art itself as a loser, showcasing “imbecility.” The task of art in counteracting systems and control is so urgent that it could not simply lie in wait for unexpected encounters with limits. By feigning “imbecility,” art reveals its loser’s countenance at the limits of its capacity in the shortest amount of time and with the least trace. The painter Monet imitated (or perhaps he indeed was) a highly shortsighted patient suffering from eye disease; Kandinsky and Mondrian traveled only the shortest cognitive distance to go from point, line, plane, and light to arrive at linearity and blocks of color; for Andy Warhol, exposures or monotypes of the failed “Marilyn Monroe,” as well as batches of discarded packing boxes, were really his means of imitating a failed industry worker; as for Pompidou, he gave a giant unfinished building… Compared with the banality of successology, the novelty of such mimesis of failure is able to make capital fall flat on its feet, at the same time exposing the absurdity of capitalist logic. In the investor relations of contemporary art, capital and successology’s appropriation of contemporary art is the simultaneously the appropriation of its opponent—failology. Just as Putnam could negate “brains in a vat” by resorting to language, his accomplishment was not to escape from anxiety, but to confront the gaze of that potential evil scientist. We are not in awe of his existence, for regardless of whether he exists or not, we have to live a good life in this world. While contemporary society has exercised to perfection the judgment of “winners crowned, losers vilified,” only art and its loser’s countenance could allow failure to confront success, elevating well-being—developed from individual consciousness—to the level of a serious topic that could compete with the legitimacy of sovereignty.

Since contemporary art is the manifestation of “imbecility” and “failure,” it will always occupy a state of immaturity, which is also the ultimate fate of sensations. Through the failure of art, sensation eliminates certain hidden subjects of reference. Art is such a thing that, while it might obtain “victory,” it cannot “succeed”; for while the former is temporary, the latter signifies my working towards becoming an Other. In addition, the promise of “success” also hints at the existence of a certain mature “condition,” revealing the dual nature of successology: one is a substitute for the transcendent real, a transgressive substitution, while the other is the repression of impulse, one that awaits the consent of vested interest holders. Art, in employing failology, resists the false mobilization of successology: revolution is always engendered in immature conditions, and real change always comes from a moment in the future in the form of a retroactive nod towards the past. Embodying this past, art is not a mechanism that preserves the legitimacy of representation, as prescribed by Kant, but rather a concrete thing that arises from our natural ascent from the level of sensation to that of reason. What I see in theorists like Benjamin and writers like Borges is the search for corpses haunted by sensations. For Benjamin, the “aura” of art can only be recognized in its “dissipation.” It is the sparkles of fire where the representations of art fail, the light of truth seeping through the gradually closing gate of reason. In The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, people tend to ignore the reserve that Benjamin held before unconditionally surrendering to the mechanically reproduced distribution of the senses. He said: “The whole sphere of authenticity is outside technical—and, of course, not only technical—reproducibility. Confronted with its manual reproduction, which was usually branded as a forgery, the original preserved all its authority.” In fact, through the failure of art, Benjamin was able to sever Fascism’s politicized aesthetics—in the form of successlogy—from the essential roots of art, thus paving two paths towards failure: what we’ve come to know as the equal distribution of senses, made possible by mechanical reproduction that equated technological production with art, is not, in reality, due to mechanical reproduction. The scale-and-placement reproduction of Mondrian and Warhol, as well as the mass application of photographic techniques, all intend to strip from art its objective real value in order to constitute it as an equal means of realizing sensations. It is the destruction of the experience of art itself, unleashing the extent of the power of failology, and paving the aesthetic communist path that erodes the foundations of successology: what we’ve also neglected is the free exploration of individual perception; just as Benjamin himself said, individuals’ affirmation of the “original” over the “forgery” is thus the pursuit of reason through empirical sensations. Though destined to fail, it could nonetheless attain “all its authority” at the sites of failure. In another work, One Way Street, Benjamin singularly described the quest for such an individual experience. Setting off from “gas station,” he writes: “The construction of life is less under the control of belief than facts, many of whom had never served the basis for belief.” On this experiential street of no return, Benjamin passes through basic living needs (living room and restaurant), the overflow of capitalist power (the panorama of empire and currency over-issue), and the legislative phase of artists, ultimately making his way towards the planetarium. He locates the end of individual experience in the cosmology of the Middle Ages: before the invention of observation instruments, man could only rely on the naked eye for perception and knowledge. Benjamin said: “Men as a species completed their development thousands of years ago.” This is still the fundamental man that we see today, that which the things that lurk behind “dehumanized” artworks urgently attempt to show.

The failology of art seeks to bring about man’s “well-being.” Such a task is undoubtedly fraught with difficulty. When we turn around to re-examine the story of Putnam, we can see that although he offered a solution, the evil gaze still remains hovering above us, and therefore we cannot eradicate the negative connotations of the word “failure.” Nagel noted that once the door is open, it can no longer be closed, Yet he also suggested that the best that we could do is to construct a possibly correct description…it will not stop us from pursuing certain things such as knowledge. Man’s desire for absolute objective knowledge originates from the yearning for equality, but an equality that precedes freedom could also give way to the ambition of overnight accomplishment, which, under the guise of self-transcendence, eliminates perception and the fundamental nature of art itself. Such is the alluring aspect of successology. The dehumanization and anti-representationality of modern art is in fact more akin to what Giorgio Agamben described as the “face.” Points, lines, planes, color blocks are all such ubiquitous features of experience. As attribute and characteristic, none of them belong to each other, nor could they be commanded by one another: this is an equality granted by sensorial autonomy. It is neither the reality of external power, nor the thing bestowed upon us by the stare of the evil scientist, but that which we have been able to earn in our direct confrontation with failure.

“Be only your face,” said Agamben, who clearly recognizes what Nagel had referred to as the door that cannot remain shut. But he has more lucidly put forth the same suggestion that was expressed by Nagel’s gentle language, to the effect of: Walk through that door. Do not be the property or function of your subjects, do not pause behind their back: take action, with them, through them, transcend them.”

Li Yunke
Li Yunke is a doctoral candidate in Literary and Art theory at East China Normal University. Li’s major research areas are analytical aesthetics and ordinary language philosophy. Li’s essays and translations appear in Shanghai Art Review, New Arts, among other publications