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From the Afterlife to the Atmospherics reassessing our basic assumptions


Notes: Cultured Brain Section Journal of Neuro-Aesthetic Theory #4

I think there are five points that I want to make, in regards to Barbara’s contribution, and to develop on those five points, in terms of my own research in the field.

The assumption that there is a connection between the world of the aesthetic and the world of neural activity is itself an assumption. I think that we should not go along too easily with this connection without putting it properly in the form of a question. The idea that there is some sort of symmetry and concordance between these two domains remains really quite questionable from an epistemological point of view and from the point of view of philosophical inquiry. In fact, if anything, I would suggest we begin by thinking of rather uneven connections and incomplete connections, connections of non-accordant, non-fit between these two domains. So, when Barbara speaks of the intertwining of the aesthetic and the neurobiological and the cognitive history of images, I think that we should be alert to the fact that she raises the question side by side, that they are obstacles, that this arena is driven with incremental abilities. Unless we take this on board, I think that we are moving too fast into a too packed and easy relationship between these domains.

I wanted to start, because this word ‘neural correlates’ seemed to remind me of the whole field of literally correlates and the most unlikely figure seemed to crop up, with the term correlates. T.S. Eliot and the objective correlatives brings to mind the whole, that the whole process, or the whole creative act or creative process was once formulated as this vast swimming oceanic experience in consciousness. Then. one had to search out, in the objective world, for a correlative which might take on this worked out work of art. The idea of the object correlative was closely applied to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The fact that Hamlet is an objective correlative, that the play in so many acts is, itself, simply an excuse to show certain phases and unfoldings of consciousness and emotional episodes and sequences is really the point of Elliot’s highly idealistic, philosophically idealistic theory of correlatives. Using this as a sign for the skepticism, for the questions, for the hesitations, at this point, I want to pose the question in a slightly more black and white way: What is the object of study of neuroaesthetics? What exactly is it studying? How would we establish this object of study? Of course, in the 21st century, as we think of knowledge production, we rarely talk of the objects of study, as if they are given in some Kantian form in three-dimensional terms, in terms of the three major Kantian critiques, that in a fourth dimensional or mutli-dimensional reality, the idea of the objective study is left incomplete, indeterminate, and unknown. To some extent the whole process of exploration is a process that is definitely incomplete, as Marcel Duchamp said in speaking of the fourth dimension area of discover and research. Is the object of study the neural correlatives of mental and secondary processes? Is this established as the explanatory factor for art activity, art experience, and aesthetics effects? Is it the explanatory part that we are after? Will it explain the work of art, if we have pinpointed the particular area of the brain that comes into play and has to be counted for, in this particular phenomenal information? From the other point of view of art and creative episodes of artistic practice: Is art activity, eye motion sequences and mental processes, treated as models for brain activity? So, there are two sides of this question where we cannot have an exact fit, and I think that this is something that we need to hold on to if we are, in fact, to conduct the experiment, as Warren as so boldly and so interestingly established in this college. If this experiment is to be truly one of experimentation, then we cannot conclude that there is a fit from the beginning.

If I look at some of the neural correlatives and cognitive maps that are offered in the readings of works of art by neuroscientist, I think of Ramachandran’s highly suggestive work on the one hand but highly reductive works on the other hand, if I look specifically at his reading of the great bronze South Indian sculptures of the feminine energies, of the Shaktis, of the Indian cosmic personalities, then one is astounded, and one cringes with embarrassment that the great goddesses have been reduced to schematile universal symmetries and balance. For anybody in the 20th century in the world of art, the search for harmony in art, it is really quite kitschy. There is a good place for kitsch in art and it has played a very important part. That most famous sentence that ‘kitsch is the truth of art ultimately, but, it is the poison without which art cannot survive.’ must show of how much importance one thinks of this notion of kitsch. But with Ramachandran’s readings of the Venus of Willendorf, we of course, lapse into further embarrassment. This is not to say that the concepts he has provided are not, in other ways, fruitful. If we look at the Drankensberg rock paintings of South Africa, where you can see peoples actual works which come from a period of pre-historic times to historic times, then we see again that some performative notion of these works has to be brought in mind. It has to be worked out (rather than a ‘reading’ in semiotic terms), of the representation of pre-historic art in cave paintings.

Perhaps the Ramachandran concepts, lend themselves more to the work of Olafur Eliasson, who was here earlier today, and his work with our Berlin Unwetter Group, who have produced the theory of the discursive picnic. Perhaps, these concepts are more applicable to the theory of the discursive picnic and to the weather reports that the students of Berlin have undertaken, the pathic comes in clear. And, in fact, in reminding us about pathic that Barbara reminds us often extremely important domain of communication. Of course, as unlikely again as the Elliot connection, the concept of the pathic were most developed in Oxford language philosophy. Nowhere else (in Austin for example), is the best way of keeping a conversation going in England, whether introduced or not introduced to the person you are speaking to, is to talk about the weather. So, the conversations around weather in England are the best examples of happy communication, where the meaning is not important in itself, where the semantic level is not as important as the tonalities and atmospherics you are exploring with the other, in talking about the weather. Who cares? The weather is the same twelve months of the year! But, we place tremendous importance on the subject in England (much more than Scotland). This really my way of saying that perhaps with the classical works, such as the Venus of Willendorf and the South African cave paintings, there is already a mythography and a heavy iconographical terrain that has to be cut through, in order to be able to begin to think through the neural correlatives of this area. The explanation turns out to be not that strict. I would therefore suggest, with these opening moments of caution, that we use the phrase that Giorgio Agamben used to describe the work of Aby Warburg in his celebrated 1975 essay on Warburg. Agamben speaks, I think using Warburg’s own words that we enter the domain of the nameless signs and it is at least, in the spirit of the nameless signs, [I believe in Samuel Beckett’s time, the un-namable signs], of a way of signaling the kind of space that we are talking about when we want to bring together the explanatory force of neuroscience into play with the world of art practice. You see how I am hesitating over using the word aesthetics itself, which for about a century has been a little bit of a cringe-making word itself in the world of art.

Warburg, who by 1918 suffered from what is called a mental break down, was institutionalized in the clinic at Kreuzlingen. In 1921, at Kreuzlingen, doctors and clinicians got together to see if he was fit enough to undertake a journey, which would repeat a journey that he had made 27 years before, to the Hopi Indians in the United States of America. So, you could imagine poor Aby Warburg, the great art historian, sitting, putting his lectures together, showing his slides. For 27 years he hadn’t thought about his journey he had made in 1895 to the Hopi Indian reservations, where he had performed many of the shamanistic rituals with the Hopi Indians, and the other groups, and then returned to Europe and devoted himself to Renaissance studies. Of course, the group of clinicians were watching whether he was not mad anymore, not whether he was trying to present for the first time an understanding of the Renaissance, in terms of it’s non-European ‘Other’. After 27 years of silence on this engagement with the other, with the native, he brings this experience into play in reading the fabulous intermedii performances of the Medici court of 1585. He turns to the writings of Bernando Buontalenti and looks at Buontalenti’s designs, looks at the way that Buontalenti had set up the great performances in the court of the Medici 1585 (to celebrate the marriage of the daughter of one of the Medicis). It was to take away this notion that Renaissance art and Western European art of the Humanistic period, and of the Modern period, could only be studied as some sort of textual thing, that you have literally text, and you have words and then you have the great Renaissance paintings, and they have to be decoded  in terms of pre-given text which contained the meaning of the Renaissance paintings. He tried to break open, to pry open that gap between the textualization of the art experience and the aesthetic itself. In fact, he called it a de-aestheticization, a de-textualization to bring art, and art studies, out of the library and into the performative domain, into the shamanistic domain, so that we saw through is two major concepts, the Nach-leben, or afterlife the survival of forms, the afterlife of forms, and the pathos formelen, that the notion of pathetic. The pathetic, the sympathetic, become crucial elements in the study of works of art and their relationship to the body, and their relationship to consciousness, since he is talking here about the great trance dances and the trance phenomena that he saw in the United States. This reading, that he offered in that lecture, did convince the clinicians, and they did not allow him to undertake the journey to the United States. Six years later he would get very ill, he would die and this whole body of research and thinking would eclipse as Germany entered the Third Reich. The works would flee to England and his collection of literature would find its way to Bloomsbury and the University College London which makes it part of the Warburg Institute. The point for us to take is that we move away from the notion that art is a representation of simple semiotic reading and move toward a notion of active knowledge that art gives us. I think that this is the point that I was impressed with in Barbara’s vast synoptic synthesis of many domains, of study and idea. We have, perhaps, come to understand Derrida’s point, that has been so reductively read outside the text, which, in fact, has been responsible to a great extent for us moving away from art’s connection with the body and the understanding of products of consciousness as being related to the experience and the enacted. I would like to say that these, however, were not entirely developments in the history of art and aesthetics, in England after the war. They were not entirely in the region of the the semiotic value terms of a representational model.

In a celebrated Independent Group exhibition at White Chapel, the section done by Richard Hamilton, John Voelker and John McHale, was called Crazy House. It has often been read purely as a semiotic of the forthcoming affluent consumer society, but it is important for us to remember how deeply influenced and shaped it was from the beginning and…in fact, just a few days ago, I looked through the letters exchanged between these three figures, and was deeply impressed all over again at how much they were talking, not about art, but about perception and how much the whole of the Crazy House was about Derrida and the body and his inscription through performance, and its productive presence in the world through his passage…through the particular uneven floors of the Crazy House, which in fact gave off all kinds of smell as one walked along and pressed against a Dunlap rubber floor (I think that is the company that gave them this little matting on which they built this particular perception apparatus). The idea was also deeply stimulated by looking at the cognitive work of Ames and his Ames Room itself was the model for this particular Crazy House, so that’s to be remembered.

One of the things that comes out of what Barbara was saying is that vision is a series of drafts, a series of models. Ultimately, we settle for something that is appropriate for the occasion, that the notion of drafting is an important one in vision as it is in understanding consciousness. that we run by the various versions, and that variousness is something, as it were, in correspondence with the visual cortex. This is largely to offset the Cartesian theatre image of what is happening in vision. I think that here we have to bare in mind that one of the leading philosophers of the United States in this area, Daniel Dennett, was, in fact, to give a very positivist account of how consciousness functions. In offsetting the Cartesian model, where the pineal gland, he says, is not the fax machine to the mind, it is not the Oval Office (these Americans are interesting, they are so suggestive of how one sees the administrated nature of the self and of the person) or of this individual that imagined to be the Cartesian theatre as a recipient of this fax saying, ‘I am here’ and I am this self. I think that is what has been deeply dislocated and dissolved in the understandings given to us from the field of neuroscience, the notion of the substantial self, sitting in the Cartesian theatre, molding it over, that the body is somehow a kind of model of consciousness and self that we have departed from to a great extent. Though Daniel Dennett speaks of these drafts that are given out as versions of consciousness and versions of vision, he, in fact, sees consciousness entirely in discursive terms. Consciousness is at its most formulated. As someone who is a James Joyce-nut like myself, I would zoom into the fact that he uses a particular way of describing, a way of modeling this fax machine, or that he puts off the discursive. He calls consciousness a Joyceian machine. A Joycian machine which is entirely discursive would just does not make sense. How much of Finnegan’s Wake could we call discursive? How much Ulysses is discursive? We would have to chuck out 500 out of 575 pages perhaps, of Finnegan’s Wake, in order to fulfill this definition of consciousness as a Joycian machine? And, therefore, what Barbara alerts us to in speaking of the pathic, of the soma, of the nonverbal, what I call very loosely here the whole of the limbic system of the brain? That in reminding us of the role of memory, and I think someone has already referred to the madeleine of Proust here, that moment of crumbling, of the cape in the mud, that moment that actually breaks down and there is a stickiness and there is a sense of the body smelling and tasting and going down memory lane and as part of the city of Combray, emerge from nowhere in the mind of the person who is tasting this. Then, I think that we have a much more complex view of consciousness and of vision and of thinking that the kind of reduction, or mannering down of it simply to the discursive is something questionable. Therefore the notion of the soma that Barbara brings into play here is crucial for us to take onboard. Again, I think in terms, however, of the limbic system and in terms of other areas of the brain that are stacked beneath the neural cortex.

So, what is the call here? The call here is that we should pay as much attention to the down-up kind of structuring of the neural network (that neural network of computation thinking, parallel neurons) through experience and learning, a heuristic model where we have tacit understanding of perceiving how we see the world which is then inscribed and embedding into the hardware of consciousness. and of neuron structures. That this tacit way of operating, because Rosenblatt’s contribution to our understanding of the Perceptron, need not see the entirety in opposition to loosely called computational thinking. By Computational thinking, I think that we need to distinguish between neural computation and symbolic computation. By symbolic computation, of course we mean that top-down, as opposed to a down-up, kind of reach, of symbolizing and dealing with the world. Here I have in mind the work of Martin Minsky, who started off as down-up person and then became a hostile figure who went into top-down and then of course, we have the comeback of the bottom-up model all over again. Barbara, in questioning the a priori theorizing and in putting that as a question to us first… I think that it is important that we remember that we cannot simply just classify all thinking in terms of the binary division between computation and the non-computation, and I think that that is one of the points that comes through there.

The last point then: Is vision as innocent as it makes itself appear (in all of our artworks especially)? Here I simply wanted to look at the research between Oxford and the University of Lund, between the two great thinkers based there and who names I should leave unmentioned. From Oxford, the studies that vision and the evolution, of the retina in particular, is a long process out of a kind of eyeless pre-Cambrian world, eyeless in God’s scenario. Within the pigment patch, the light projector, the spot of pigment begins to develop into the eye and different forms of eye then begin to evolve.  At the University of Lund there is precious bit of hard evidence of this evolution traced by Oxford, a fossil, a Cambrian catacomb fossil, which shows this moment in the evolution of the eye and vision. The research in Oxford links this development of the eye from the moment of the Cambrian evolutions, whose evidence is taken from the Burgess shale of Canada, and the Swedish evidence is taken from some of the most well formed and well preserved fossils to be found in in Sweden, He begins to relate the whole area of predation to the emergence of a particular kind of eye, that vision is in fact given so that one could kill, murder, prey and eat. So we have (and this is rather a warning to us which he has pushed to the limits), that the pre-Cambrian early world was made of up of rather short sighted vegetarians. With these short sighted organisms (I hoped that they might have been vegan, but, well, not everyone can be perfect), with the evolution of the eye, we arrive at the actually meat eating predators of the post-Cambrian evolution. The point is that he hopes to raise with this is to what extent the evolution of the eye has to do with some notion of understanding more fully the presence of the Other, that with this particular predation and vision, the notion of pain and the notion of the person that is escaping, we begin to create the arena of the struggle of life. Therefore, we begin to ask what are the basics in which one might think of an ethics for life.

Here Barbara has spoken of the mirror neurons and I think that we will bring them in generally to link them to the question that I have been asked about autopoiesis. I do remember that in my last conversations with Francisco Valera that he did not want still to make a connection between the stickiness, the coupling between organism. Autopoiesis, is not, as I am afraid someone perhaps overly dramatically reduced it to be, a self-enclosed bubble. Autopoiesis is about the introduction between organisms in which the identity of the organism in preserved in the process of interacting with the other. This, I think is further emphasizing Jakob von Uexküll contribution from Aarhus University in Denmark. In the Scandinavian region he is doing a lot of interesting work, that we cannot treat the other brain, of the bird for example, as though it would fall short in some way to the human brain. Recently in Berlin there was a big exhibition about beauty that has just closed on beauty. What do we mean by beauty when it has been so absent from the field of art in the last century? And, to what extent this notion of the Other, through understanding the difference of the bird brain that Andreas shows us, the fact that we are through a million neurons aroused into an awareness of the other? …that we are in a scene of stickiness and coupling? Or (to take whatever terms, Duchamp’s term), that a kind of arena of arousal prevails between self and Other and that this arena of arousal, before even a single word is uttered? So, the terrain of the non-discursive, the non-linguistic, does become extremely important in understanding the relationship between self and the Other and begins to create the rudiments of an ethics of difference.

What exactly is a concept (if we are talking the cortical regional and its draftings of consciousness)? We are talking about a highly conceptualized form of thinking based in discourse and based in a highly formulated heuristic register. Deleuze, of course, makes three distinctions between philosophy, sciences and art in trying to understand this problem having to do with the brain. In his last work on What is Philosophy?, it is interesting that the model he chooses is Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau, that thinking, processes of consciousness, must be compared to the great work of art made by Kurt Schwitters, first in Hannover, which filled up nine rooms of his house, where he took everything he could find and simply stuck it to the other and that this assemblage method was what struck Deleuze as a way of understanding thinking, in philosophy and art, if not in science. Science he kept clear as a kind of creativity that expressed in terms of propositional statements, as opposed to those non-conceptual and conceptual precepts.

What I just wanted to say is that, if we take this model of thinking, that if The Merzbau had been rescued (Kurt Schwitter’s works were all destroyed by the a bomb in the war) and brought to somewhere like Newcastle University, or perhaps the gallery that exists here, then everyone might have seen what Deleuze might have meant. But, for him this bedding down, as the neural network sets learns a lesson, writes it up as it were, into the neural network, is also the production of repetition, of the refrain, of memory. This is also the production of pasts, of experience, which he called Urdoxa, the formulation for opinions and all art has to go against this kind of consistency and predictability. Here he uses D.H. Lawrence to describe this relationship between brain, art, thought, and memory. There is chaos, by which he means infinite un-geled reality. and against it, Lawrence says, we open an umbrella. (How English to refer to weather, the umbrella protects us from the chaos of raw reality!) Under the umbrella we paint a very safe kind of landscape painting in the warp of the umbrella. But, the artist and the philosopher and the scientist have constantly to slash through the roof of the umbrella, to make contact with chaos again. Of course, the term he uses is ‘chaosmos,’ which is Joyce again. from Finnegan’s Wake.

What I wanted to just close with was in saying: What sort of creativity did he think philosophy, science, and art were? What kind of creativity would it be that goes against the grain of that kind of inscription and that inscription and encrustation of meaning that happens with the neural network? What is this ‘onceness’ of the art experience and creativity that he is talking about? What is the singularity of it that he demands as a criteria of creativity? It doesn’t have this repetition, on which the whole of the neural network as it were operates. We once used the phrase ‘epiphany’ with this, some great opinion and orthodoxy some sudden information of reality through new light, a new scientific model, a new philosophical thought and new work of art. But can we use the term ‘epiphytic’ still today without lapsing into the classical humanist model of thinking? How would we understand it in our attempt to speak of singularity, uniqueness and ‘onceness’ in the region of the neural networks, which deal with repetition and re-inscribtion (although it is a heuristic process that is constantly learning and relearning)?

Sarat Maharaj

Sarat Maharaj was born in South Africa and educated in one of the segregated universities during the Apartheid era. He is a research professor at Goldsmiths’ College in London and is currently professor of Visual Art and Knowledge Systems in Lund, Sweden. He was the first Rudolf Arnheim Professor at Humboldt University, Berlin, and Research Fellow at Jan Van Eyck Akademie, Maastricht. His art historical work centres on Richard Hamilton, Marcel Duchamp, and James Joyce. His research covers cultural translation and difference, textiles, sonics, and visual art as knowledge production. He was co-curator of Documenta X1, 2002. With Ecke Bonk and Richard Hamilton, he curated retinal.optical.visual.conceptual… at the Boijmanns, Rotterdam, 2002. He is curator of the Knowledge Lab (Haus der Kulturen der Welt), 2005 and Berlin/Munich 2006, as well as sound.image.movement experiments with Liu Sola (Beijing/NY) and Kofi Koko (Benin/Paris).