Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Book Review)

Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature by Alva Noë. Reviewed by Amy Ione for Leonardo Reviews.

Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature
by Alva Noë

Reviewed by Amy Ione

Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature endeavors to, as Alva Noë the author puts it, introduce art as “its own manner of investigation and its own legitimate source of knowledge” (p. xii) using the enactive approach that he has been working with for a number of years. According to this view, “experience is something we enact or perform; it’s not something that happens in us or to us” (p. 215), “it is something we do, or make, or achieve. And like everything else we achieve, we do so only against the background of our skills, knowledge, situation, and environment, including our social environment” (p. xii). His basic philosophical argument is that we can only understand the human mind in relation to bodily actions given that our experience is situational. Within this he claims that our lives are structured by organization and because art is a practice for bringing our organization into view, it reorganizes us.

When we consider art, Noë tells us, there are two levels we need to keep in mind. On the one hand, the defining feature of what he terms Level-1 activities is that they are basic and involuntary modes of organization. On the other hand, Level-2 activities play with and re-shape level-1 activities. The sum total is that active human experience is neither personal consciousness nor subpersonal (autonomic) consciousness. It is not personal because it is interactive and (again) situational activities add meaning to our lives in a way that does not reduce to subpersonal (autonomic) consciousness. Since technologies are a part of how we reorganize our lives, and art is an engagement with technologies, art includes a second-level manner of organization/reorganization.

Noë chose to characterize art in terms of strange tools rather than technologies because he sees art as an engagement with the ways our practices, techniques, and technologies organize us; art is not a technological practice so much as a pursuit that presupposes such practices. Essentially, Noë tells us the tools that help us organize our lives are bound up with our habits. Regular tools aid us in performing our normal habits. But, for Noë, artistic goals — confrontation, intervention, and subversion — differ from ordinary ones. Thus, the “strange tools” that artists use aid them in disrupting and reorganizing the norms of communication:

“Art always disrupts business as usual and puts the fact that we find ourselves carrying out business as usual on display. Put bluntly: the value of art does not consist in a (coevolving) fit (or dialogue) between what we make and what we like, but rather in the practice of investigating and questioning and challenging such processes” (p. 238).

The strongest sections of the book are the personal stories. In these narratives Noë eloquently communicates about the many artists he has known over the years. We learn that his parents were artists and that he grew up within the vibrant New York City art community of Greenwich Village in the late twentieth century:

“For me, art … is personal. The question of art, the question of why it matters, what it is, how it figures in our lives, is in some ways my very first problem in philosophy. … I admit that this book’s central claim — that art is a philosophical practice and philosophy an artistic one — serves me rather well. It can be understood, finally, as my defense of philosophy and its value, a defense of my work, in the setting of my family’s engagement with art. If art is the most important thing, and philosophy is art, then it turns out I’m an artist after all. Look, Dad!” (p. 208).

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