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« Immigration: Impacts on Southern California | Main | The Book-Person's Vision »

January 09, 2004

Caleb Crain on Ellen Dissanayake

Dear Friedrich --

I've mentioned Ellen Dissanayake several times on this blog. The author of such books as What Is Art For? (buyable here) and Homo Aestheticus (buyable here), she was one of the first thinkers to start using evo-bio to help put the arts back on a firm footing. (She's also -- and I suspect this is telling -- not a fulltime, PhDish, official-academia-world person; she's an independent scholar.) Wouldn't it be lovely to pass along a link to some terrific online Dissanayake resources, I thought -- but none seemed to exist.

Still, there was that first-class article that ran about her in Lingua Franca some years ago ...

Pleased to report that I just stumbled across the article, which turns out to have been written by Caleb Crain, and which he has posted in two parts at his blog, here and here. I hope you (and interested visitors) will give Crain's article a try and let me know how you react. As you'd guess, I've found Dissanayake's work impressive, provocative and helpful. So why hasn't anyone read about her in the NYTimes, or in Film Comment, or ArtForum? Wouldn't you think that arty people would --

But that's for another posting.



posted by Michael at January 9, 2004


I'm with you. I have and have read all three of the Dissanayake books and the article by Caleb Crain. I wonder the same thing.

I first discovered her mentioned in Edward O. Wilson's book "Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge."

Her last book, "Art and Intimacy: How the Arts Began" (2000) applies evobio approaches to the origins of art.

She's also a contributor in a new book (2002) entitled "New Land Marks: Public Art, Community, and the Meaning of Place"

Posted by: Larry C. Randen on January 12, 2004 05:31 PM

Hi Michael,

Thanks for reminding me of Dissanayake's books, and pointing to Caleb Crain's fine article.

I was the UCSB Anthropology Dep't. staff illustrator for most of the 90s, and had a ringside seat as the evolutionary psychologists squared off against the cultural interpretivists. When all was said and done, I remained unconvinced that any of them were doing science--the field was more rigorous documentary at best, or fabulous speculation at worst. After lending all my sincerity to understanding the bio-social explanation, I could only say, "So what?" How does any of this contribute to my ability to make more and better art?

In my case, the felt experience of donning an ev-psych mentality was ultimately disheartening, and a threat to the Imagination. In many ways the putative objectivity of evolutionary psychology is a self-serving power logic, and an effective weapon in the academic coliseum, but I don't see much artistic cultural production emerging from that direction. People who are concerned with interiority, subjectivity, and imagination are much more likely to do Art, therefore to know Art.

Posted by: Dirk Brandts on January 13, 2004 05:13 PM

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