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Aesthetical Theory, Scientific Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art

Notes: Article presented during the first Neuro-Aesthetics conference organized at Goldsmiths University, London UK, May 2005. Neuroaesthetics: Process and Becoming Section

For this lecture, I would like to focus on the distinction between aesthetic neurobiology and neuroaesthetics. I will first outline what can be called the primary repertoire, the volumes of brain that we start out with at birth, and the possibility of the transformation of this primary repertoire into the secondary repertoire, by which the organization of new elements is the result of a process by which the primary repertoire is sculpted into patterns, or maps, by the millions of sensations which imposed themselves on us by our senses. This, of course, can be described as neural plasticity, for example, in the visual part of the brain, known as the visual cortex, where mapping takes place when neurons are stimulated together several times.

What makes us perceive a coherent outside world can be called the focus of reentry. It synchronizes selected neural networks and maps to fire together and this allows events to occur together in the world. This is interesting because, from a philosophical point of view, it transgresses the methodology of structuralism, which is always based on language. Here it is a biological process. Just like neurons, neural networks are amplified and stimulated repetitively when mapping the environment. The brain is sculpted. It is formed from incoming sensation and the spatial and temporal relation that exists between them. That means, of course, that shifting in spatial and temporal coordinates and consequences develop the brain and create new patterns and connections at the neurosynaptic level. The developing brain adapts to new space-time relations as neurons and neural networks complete new information in a process, as Jean-Pierre Changeux describes, that has been called neural Darwinism, neurobiology’s ‘survival of the fittest’, where the neurons that most easily adapt to this newly configured space-time continue to survive and show exuberant growth. There is also a process of re-mapping the second mapping, which is is a reconfiguration and displacement of fuses and dying neurons so that the neural networks that are not used that often die off.

From a neuroaesthetic point of view one can argue that the history of art is a series of re-mapping stylistic changes. Style can be understood here as distinguished space-time configurations. The whole history of art can be seen as a series of attempts to deal with the outside world, by a model of symbolical forms, that are in constant relation this changing outside world. As the various aesthetic practices are causing physical changes, they are at the same time re-designing a secondary repertoire.

Some of the philosophical implications of these neurobiological theories might be for understanding aesthetics in art. The first philosophical and methodological questions (and also one sees its political implications) that appear here include: What produces these changes within the brain? Is it, for example, new technology (like photography, cinema, and virtual reality) that changes the way neural networks in the brain are organized and reconfigured? Or, is it rather independent scientific research cause that originates these changes, as one could argue when we look at the history of the physiology of vision and its continuos invention of devices, or the invention of photography? Or is the old Marxist economical argumentation (e.g. brought forward by Fredric Jameson) still relevant, according to which the mutated spaces we in habit and their correlative conceptions of times, are simply the product of late capitalism.

And within the frame of our discussion: what is the role of art and aesthetics within this process? It is not simply the technical basis that decides the stylistic superstructure of that period, as one sometimes thinks when reading Walter Benjamin’s analysis. Then further questions follow: Do the spaces created by artists and architects and others have something of an avant-garde effect that offers up a way to transform the neurobiological substrate of the next generation of observers in order to appreciate it? Are we, for example, not yet adjusted to the perceptual equipment to match this new hyper-space? Is our present schizophrenic stages an intermediate wrong or a psychological break through? Or even on the contrary, is it the sign of the constant decline, or perhaps of incompetence to deal with the technology and demands of our times? The aesthetic variation of the same question has to deal with the apparently contradictory view of the artists (and the antithetical view of the mainstream system of visual relations) as being somehow a constant irritation, like the avant-garde theory, or, on the other hand, that the aesthetic forms, like avant-garde cinema, mimic the temporal relation already present in the culture and society at large.

Jacques Ranciere has recently expressed his concern about the heuristic value of the concept of an avant-garde, with which the Modernist tradition connects the aesthetic and the political in what he calls the aesthetic anticipation of the future. What is necessary, says Ranciere, is a differentiation between the forms of aesthetic production within what he calls the aesthetic regime of the arts of the last two centuries (this being a particularly Modern phenomenon starting around 1800) and to find a conceptual distinction between aesthetic products and, for example, their consumerist counterparts, a distinction that would at the same time review the deterritorializing strategies (which doesn’t mean liberating strategies) taking place in the sciences as well as in art.

If we look here at the field of vision in cognitive economics (including historical and aesthetic processes), the way objects and their relations affect changes in the brain, I would like to call them aisthetic, in relation to the greek word aisthesis that means sensation or perception. For a long time aesthetics has been seen dealing with the problem of perception, but the invention of our understanding of aesthetics as a philosophical discipline took place in the mid-eighteen century and even later. Around 1800, the first avant-guardists (and later the romantics), put aesthetics into a framework of reflection on specifically of Modern art. In that sense, Modern aesthetics has to be distinguished from the investigations simply on the aisthesis of perception. That is also why we see a huge gap that since the 19th century between the romantics (or artists in general) and their orientation towards the world of purely aesthetic imagination (or the sublime), and, on the other hand, their counterparts at certain times in scientific aesthetics, with their post-Continental methodology and large interest in understanding beautiful symmetry, in understanding aesthetics as part of psychology. Of course, many artworks are objects of the cultural industry and objects of the cultural industry have been designed and engineered with the scientific knowledge of the human nervous system in mind. And, of course, these products can affect or capture us… because they use the knowledge provided by experimental psychology or other disciplines. But this should not, in my mind, itself be seen as relevant for aesthetic theory, and is even less as a sign of aesthetic value.

Of course, there is no time here to develop the whole biopolitical dimension of the discourse between aesthetics and physiology, psychology, biology, and other disciplines, but I would like to summarize it with a quotation by Jonathan Crary. He states that, “collective achievement of European physiology was part of biopower. Life is a new object of power surveying previously unknown territory.” His biopolitical dimension is by no means is just a historical one. On the contrary, beyond all of methodological disciplinary and historical differences, the sciences mentioned above also share a common methodological ground with contemporary aesthetic neurobiology that I see in opposition with neuroaesthetics. The central idea of neurobiological aesthetics is (i.e. Semir Zeki’s physiological or Vilayanur Ramachandran’s neurological theory of aesthetic experience), as Zeki openly admits, the platonic idea of universal rules or principles, like symmetry or purity of form, that are historically independent and aesthetically identical to those of, for example, gestalt psychology from around nineteenhundred or even human psychological ideas of beauty in the eighteenth-century. I am by no means denying the observation of, for example, evolutionary biologists detecting that violations of symmetry may have for animals, and for us, helped to detect unhealthy animals such as parasites. What I do think is that one should not translate these scientific results onto aesthetics.

I hope with these juxtapositions I made the difference between neuroaesthetics and aesthetic neurobiology has been made more clear. Neuroaesthetics deals with, in my understanding, the repressive and destabilizing elements of artistic production. So I think the implication of scientific research in art should not go into the direction of a research of anthropological (or somehow organic) laws, because this kind of research brings with it a conservative attitude towards spatial temporal progressions which are typical for Modern art. Zeki, for example, thinks that from a neurobiological point of view, representation in art was a good deal much more successful in meeting the brain’s sensory demands for consistency. His aesthetic conservatism goes together with reflecting the progresses of heterogeneous temporalities that are so significant for the aesthetic regime of art. He showed several examples, like a comparison between an eight-year old autistic girl’s drawing of Michelangelo’s that was so close to each other they give us the same kind of sensation, or how African art produced the same spatial temporal constructions as Picasso, only strange enough 700 years earlier. It is against these very reduced understandings of the capacity of art that nueroraesthetics continues a long ongoing theoretical fight.

(please note that this is a transcript of a lecture and should not be quoted)

Armen Avanessian (FU-Berlin) studied philosophy, politics, and comparative literature in Paris, Vienna, and Bielefeld. Co-editor of the philosophical journal Le Philosophoire (Paris), his book Phänomenologie ironischen Geistes will be published at the end of 2005.