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Soma-Aesthetics: Constructing Interiority


Notes: Article presented during the first Neuro-Aesthetics conference organized at Goldsmiths University, London UK, May 2005. Cultured Brain Section

As I mentioned when I got up, I really will almost be speaking in aphorisms, quite mathematically. Let me first say that this is part of a larger project; which will be coming out in Configurations called “Towards a Culminative Image History.” I’ve been working on this for quite a while. The subtitle is “ Romanticism and the Genealogy of Thought,” and that is exactly my problem. How can we get –it seems to me it’s a very old problem and, as we’ve heard in the past two days, it’s also a very new problem. How can we get Biology and Culture back together as it were in a serious fashion and, more precisely, how can one get the historical, how might our historical investigations, broadly construed, be influenced, even though it’s a field driven by the rather extraordinary findings coming from the neurosciences –which it seems we can’t ignore, everything from mental representation, which absolutely shifts our very concept and representation certainly shoots the Lockian theory of mind totally out the window, theory of mind among many other things. How can we, as it were, enrich our field of study and vice versa, that is the problem I put to myself and I’m going to try and take a little piece of this issue and try to make it both an exemplum and a demonstration. So let me begin with little prologue and then get to it.

I’m not going to get to my beloved Romantics, particularly the Romantic Systematizers who I think have an enormous amount to do with those people who are interested in crimes, sexual crimes, all range of things, the logic of composition and the formal in a deep sense… Earlier, I said that you really needed to re-conceptualize our concept of formalism, make it a richer and deeper thing. It was so, particularly for the Romantics, but earlier on in the history of art as well. So, let me just go to a little prologue and then say something about associations and inferences: It seems to me that is exactly the synaptic world of connections that has been alluded to many, many times. As I don’t have to tell this audience, across the arts, theory of design and new media studies a history of the senses is springing up and I think the last session was extremely pertinent, in the sense that [André] Leroi-Gourhan was of course very much interested in what I want to call mantics as opposed to hermeneutics– that is: ritual, shamanism, the enactments, the performative. I’m interested in performative structures and it seems to me this is something that is coming to the fore and perhaps in the work of Warren [Neidich], I think this is perhaps a problem with Terrence Deacon’s, otherwise  rather wonderful book, that is so inflected by combative linguistics. The question I would like to ask, and I’m not the only one asking it, is: can we think without using words in a language, and I think there is evidence that indeed one can.

Simultaneously, on one hand I say across the arts, theory of design and new media studies we have this history of the senses developing, emerging. Simultaneously, as we have heard the multiplying brain sciences are developing a finer neurobiology of feeling. And I’d like to give Antonio Damasio a little more due because he takes that wonderful concept of Spinoza, the pathema. The pathema which is that melt of the emotions that exists prior to higher order experience of the emotions, and he makes a very fine-grain distinction between feelings and the emotions, which I think is very supportive, that we’d bear that in mind. I can’t go there now, but certainly Damasio is not the only one. There’s an enormous amount of work on the very logic of affect, and so these two things are already out there. Still to be provided however, this is my little entrée; still to be provided is a combined story of the emergence of subjectivity. We need to formulate, and here I draw on the lovely work by Thomas Metzinger, I give you my predilections right away, I belong to the more phenomenologically inflected school. Thomas Metzinger in “Being No One” who, I quote, “calls for truly internalist state-space semantics”, one based again on the non-verbal performative account of what is happening to the self. And here I want to point out that actually there’s a brilliant mathematician Sha Xin Wei, who has actually developed a whole theory of differential geometrical performance, that is, the way in which a practicing mathematician performs a diagram, simply with chalk and blackboard, and the way in which, out of that, those two events are coming together. A situation is constructed, and it seems to me that this too is a way of getting at something that is not necessarily reducible to linguistics. I want to propose that exploring this deep corporeal capacity for forming images, or even deeper neural patterns –and I prefer patterns and pattern recognition– using the elementary representational tools of this century motor systems, it’s that that I think I’d like to get at with this concept of soma-aesthetics.

The question then– and I’m going to leap over– of course we have this deep divide between contrastive cultural turn in culture and media studies and the interest in the architectonics of the brain or innate human responses, and there has to be a way of bringing those two things together. Again, I think my romantic generation, the little bit I’m going to do with my prehistoire of associationism, shows that there is a deeper way of getting the biological, the physiological and the historical together; and that one can actually root it within certain historical moments. The question, then, is how might humanists studying images  (which has always been my concern) contribute to this bridging project? How might we formulate a question, an issue that is burning and pressing across areas? Not that we don’t bring different things to it, but at least we have to have a question or an issue that engages both sides or the multiple sides of the aisle, with the same intensity. And, what I’ve chosen as my issue is this thinning of the concept of form in the concept of formalism, as a kind of absence, negation, always spoken about in the negative, which is a relatively recent phenomenon. Obviously, contemporary artists have been un-doing that thinness, we’ve certainly seen, from Marcos [Novak] and a number of other artists, we’ve certainly seen that un-doing. But, I also want to cite someone like Andreas Gursky, and also someone like Thomas Struth who is constantly, in his photographs, asking us to become aware of our internal ordering system vis-à-vis a historical order, whether it happens to be the frescoes in the Vatican, whether it happens to be the Raft of the Medusa, and what is brilliant it seems to me about his photographs, is those fine-grained adjustments that he captures that an audience or viewer makes to situate themselves within the structure of the composition, even if they belong to Notre-Dame, for example. When one looks on the side of Notre-Dame, in his photograph, this constant adjustment of our internal architecture with that perceptual architecture, with that which belongs to another curio, I’m sure there’s an enormous amount of thinking about these morphological issues. I also want to propose and I’m not going to show all the images that I brought, but for example the way in which at Marfa Texas one might totally recontextualize, it seems to me, minimalism, while never says about early Robert Irwin or for example James Turrell when they were floating in UCLA’s anechoic chamber –usually you can stand it, probably, for only about a minute or so, maybe three at its maximum and they were in there for an hour- doing sensory deprivation experiments. The way in which, for example, I’m thinking about Irwin’s early discs where he erased the smudges on the wall, where he too –for example this is the link to the generation of Olafur Eliasson- where what they were interested in is what I want to call the situational, that is where form, the issue of form, becomes something that emerges out of a situation that is created. What, for example, something like William James or Dewey would call the object-event, in other words it’s not the subject, it’s not the object, it’s those two things moving between two poles. So, that’s just to put it within a larger framework. I want to do my little historical piece to say how we might, in case we have any historians of an earlier period in this audience, how might our histories, our various histories be inflected.

And so, as my epigrammatic introduction to this problem, I want to suggest that this more enriched, I want to enrich, I want to say that knowing something belonging to the University of Chicago’s workshops on computational neuroscience where we can sit and read, but it’s better than reading books– anyway, I’ve been there for about five years- where it seems to me it has enriched the way in which I look at historical materials and I’d like to think this process also works the other way around. You’re all of course familiar with Alexander Cozen’s blots, and I want to take the process of association, the process of difficulty, the difficulty of interference– quite seriously, I simply put it up here to remind you of that. Where I ultimately go is of course Romantic systematics and the symbolic logic of composition that is this incredible interest, this has allowed me, given the enormous literature on William Blake, the enormous literature on somebody like [Johann] Heinrich Füssli, written about in many different trajectories, it’s given me a different way of posing this question, the way in which the construction of a kind of logic of composition, where form and affect– as we know going back to Gerald Edelman’s The Remembered Present, just like memory and the present are always wrapped around one another, they’re braided together, they don’t exist in separate strata- in the same way affect and thought are braided together and the way in which certain structures, structural components, whether it’s yours in the quadrangular pose and also, of course they were also interested in colored line universals, and before anybody gets on my case about universals, let me say that what I think they were after is the way in which, for example, the embedding of certain experiences, this deep embedding, repetitive embedding, of practices, material practices and experiences over time can lead to something that they called the real symbol or the universal, which is nothing transcendent in the sense…but something that is always made, constructed. They were also interested in what was a period that was rife with what I’m showing you here, this is Hubert de Superville from his essay on Unconditional Signs from Art and the Word; “unconditional” comes from fichte, from that very important post-Kantian generation. But this fascination with grammars of expression, and, in spite of what I said about the linguistic, what is interesting about this is that what they were doing was constructing what, well Deacon gives us the term, but Steve Pinker as well, mentalese the way in which one can, as it were, get prototypes or primes that give us also a glimmer of a history of mentalité. That is that we have an understanding, not only from past physiology from our own current reactions to certain things, but we also have that opening into a moment in history.

I’ve one more thing to say about the Romantics, it’s hard for me to get away from them, and I want to say something about the neural correlates of consciousness, this is what I’m saving in terms of what we put on the table. When you go, for example, to the Hamburger Kunsthalle and you look to that premier collection of Caspar David Friedrich paintings, what you are struck by is a resolved dualism, that is, paint that is so thin, so transparent, that you can actually see the caliber lines that were used underneath in the under-drawing, so that what you get is the architectonic. When you look at that picture something comes towards you, a duo of things comes towards you, when these things come together and then they become fused, that is you get the geometry that underlays it and the sense of a landscape that transparently floats over the sea and those two things become fused. That is, in William Blake, in Caspar David Friedrich, in Humbert de Superville, these artist make us realize what we think is so…now, that is, that the material world that we live in is both real and unreal, a plausible fiction, set-up, imposed as it were by something more basic and prior to what we see –yet mysteriously corresponding to it. And it’s that other quality, among many many others, that speak to a more enriched concept of where form can get us– that is a deep seriousness around morphology.

Now, the contemporary research for a neural, in addition to a cultural basis of meaning, is spurred as we heard wonderfully by Martina [Wicklein] yesterday about the discovery of the brain’s self-projective feel, that extraordinarily important pattern of synaptic connections. Cognitive meaning derives from such cell-to-cell junctions, those linkages made among these streams of information, that incredible reign of synapses that produces excitation and inhibitory patterns across the brain, creating in the cortical system a vast associational network. And it’s that system of association– I want to take association seriously, not just as Umberto Eco as we know of course ridiculed it, but I want to take it as a quite serious process, as something that undergirds everything we heard about facial recognition but the way in which we constantly make inferences unconsciously to ourselves about what it is that we see in the world, and that is linked to the faculty of judgment. That of course gets us back to the original concept of this thesis, which is sensory knowing which is also wrapped up with making a judgment, making some set of judgment about that which we see. Perhaps the best way that I can show you the failure of that, I mean how much it goes on, the fact that we don’t recognize it, that it’s really rare, […] about how we are suddenly made aware of this activity, both In everything from face painting physiognomic theories, of course totally riddled with it, and I take that reaction quite seriously, and also landscape formations, the importance of landscape is not accidental and the culture of sensibility as in eighteenth century culture, but I think we can re-think that culture of sensibility, which is often trivialized, in a much deeper and serious way. And here I show you, these I saw in Basel, this is from Adolf Wölfli, these extraordinary drawings in Basel, in the Kunsthaus, and it seems to me they show the failure of this associative process which is quite so interesting, both in this sort of board game, chart-like look where each thing is there and we heard about detail in as it were gory detail, and the linking mechanism is not operational, just interesting I think to look at with that in mind.

I want to say something about this problem; I want to go back to the one little problem I put before us, which is the problem of recuperating the historical dimension of sensory perception and affect-laden spatial reasoning. This incredible effort in spatial reasoning that I think we see in Picturesque theory, we see it in British Associationism and by looking particularly at the empiricist epistemology of the Enlightenment, usually so denigrated, which, it seems to me today’s new philosophy of mind and I think of somebody like Andy Clark “Being There,” wonderful book by Andy Clark, which brings forth the workings of distributive cognition, which to me is already in nuce in the empiricist epistemology of somebody like [David] Hume, but not just Hume. I’m going to take just this one quote, I’m going to go back as far as [Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of] Shaftesbury who realized as well that perception, learning, memory, imagery and symbol systems are somatically as well as culturally embedded and that they co-evolved, that those things are the product of a co-evolution. Shaftesbury in Second Characteristics, talks about this herding principle and associative inclination in the very origins of the human species, the tendency of the natural affections to incite a physical union between the sexes and for this intimate kinship to extend itself outward, aggregating into the primitive clans or tribes, from which the general society of mankind first proceeded. What’s significant is that pleasurable or painful states of mind were conceived by him, already by Shaftesbury, as simultaneously physiological and as historical or civil states, that those two things are already coupled together. In various ways, because obviously these people have different ideas, but we can find, worked out, from Locke early on, through Berkeley, through Caines, Reed and Allison, all these people were variously intrigued by how brains represent. A baffling question in the past and the present certainly was, how does the brain map and model its own bodily functions, mental states and features of the world to itself? But these philosophers of an experiential, or lived reality, were equally, if not more intrigued by the spontaneous human inferential capacity to use simulating processes, to find structure in the world. How do you find structure in the world, what is it that you respond to? And to discern –and to me, because I’m also interested in inter-subjective functions, that is what is interesting is not only what we think stuck solipsistically within our own systems, that would be sheer autism, but how is it that we ever manage to have anything in common, that we ever have any commonalities, and the finesse with which… Again it’s not accidental that portraiture is one of the premier eighteenth century arts, but I’m thinking also of the whole fascination coming out of travel literature for evocative natural formations and conversely mapping also nature back into cultural artifacts, this is a kind of dual motion, that is, speaking neuronally, an incredibly complex process, this bi-directional constructional process, because it involves effective spatial cognition and both landscape and portraiture entail a vast number of sensory experiences that are feeling suffused, that is this porosity of sensory experience, that are feeling suffused and how we constantly try to recognize, we remember as I said a vast number of those sensory experiences and then try to recognize recurring bits and pieces of our past as we negotiate a fast changing open-ended present. Beyond its subjective perceptual functions, the empiricists, I’m arguing, also were trying to understand what were the minds’ cohering or inter-subjective functions, the cross-cortical relational kinetics among firing neurons, as Steven Pinker says, must somehow be behaviorally useful, immediately responsive to effective feedback from the body, but also from its surroundings. And it was this period too that, it seems to me, deeply understood that we are primarily spatial beings and our entire conceptual scheme is shot through with spatial notions. Eighteenth century Associationism was an attempt to undo Descartes’ famous dictum that the essence of the body is spatial extension, while that of the mind in unextended thought. Importantly, such attractions are more than rote habit, I want to spend just few minutes on Hume. Hume is I think a much more deeply serious philosopher than Kant would have given him, because Hume suggests that the mind draws on morphological aspects of nature that were already intrinsic to it. And here I evoke the entire world of Architecture Parlante, the way in which for example at the way in which the infamous basalted column evoked the basaltic columns at Staffa. In other words, these kinds of connections that were meant quite deliberately to be evoked in the viewer, these morphological stimuli, Hume explains that we draw on, as it were, certain architectonic properties of the mind that are already intrinsic to it, and we also recognize it in the outside world. And he does this when he reasons that the imagination constructs the world in accordance with what he calls his three laws of the association of ideas. Association in Hume thus, becomes a type of non-linguistic expertise– that is as expertise specific to the domains to which we have had the most exposure. Now what are those domains? Nature, the human body –and here he includes the world of the passions– we are all human, and in that sense we have a certain expertise when it comes to looking at one another, that’s actually profound recognition- and the final category is morals, and by that he means sympathy-empathy, exactly those inter-relational capacities that are so important in the construction of a social world, of a social experience. Consequently noticing contiguities and contingencies is an act of sensory knowing, prior to rational or analytical thought.

Here, in Ledoux, I think one can totally rethink the eighteenth century, emphasis on what is called architecture de character, a character of logical architecture, and as well in this architecture parlant –and the word parlant is not architecture ecrite– it is parlant, it is like a speech act in the sense of… But I want you to be more in my magic performative sense; it’s these kinds of deep-associations that we understand. I’ve argued elsewhere that this in-between, this requires –and I want you to think about Andy Clark and Being There- it’s a kind of in-between emotion I wrote about in my Visual Analogy book, that is that we’re going back to the Pre-Socratics who asked this very important question –which is still apt today- why is anything connected to anything else in the universe, how do we know – Umberto Eco -I think the Pre-Socratics were a little deeper in their questioning there- but it requires an in-betweening mental motion, a going out, but also, I think Charlie Gere said, also the data somehow coming back in. Having, as it were, a life of its own, also returning in. This in-betweening motion corresponds to the inferenc-ing leaps of analogy and is not reducible to language. As a prototype of d-sense, distributive sense, and e-sense, extended sense, analogy was an intimate and scalable way people extended their senses outward– and their sensibilities outward. This flair for effective gesture, let’s take a look—William Hogarth is quite brilliant in this, one can look again –and I will say something again about mirror neurons because it makes my logical conclusion just for this little segment- [one can look again] that this flair for effective gesture and for intuiting implicit visual narrative… Before that, I’ll also say in passing that one can maybe rethink the whole rhetoric of landscape improvement also in terms of making that which is concealed and hidden in the environment, that is what is in potentia, to make it surface, to make it rise out of form. [Back to Hogarth] Marvelous things have been written about Hogarth, but it seems to me there is still more that can be said. If one looks at this enormous flair for affective gesture and the particular pressure with which Hogarth -this is one of two plates from The Analysis of Beauty-, the enormous pressure that it places on the viewer to intuit or to inference, that is to become absolutely engaged, to model one’s self, that which one sees, before one, in order of course to get the moral core. That is to do what, to change. Satire, as we know the word from Horace, the role of satire is ultimately to make you revolve, to make you turn, to make you change. That is, you take it in and you change. Such inferential graphic efforts at getting inside the feeling theatre of the mind of others, is part of a larger eighteenth century development of an emulative aesthetics, in David Harding there’s a whole materialist aesthetics of sensibility. I want to say something about mirror neurons, because Vittorio Gallese who initially did the work, but there’s an enormous amount of work that has happened since, which it seems to me is a really interesting way to think about, the complex operations driving the interactive impulses fueling this earlier associationism. This is the discovery, that classic, pre-motor neurons exist that are only optically activated, not just when we are performing an activity, but amazingly when another agent is observed engaging in the same purposeful way with an object. It’s this emulative performance that I want to under-write or undergird. The integrative urge to reach out visually and emotionally to another being, or to a physiognomic landscape feature, fundamental to the eighteenth century culture of sensibility, is illuminated by the neurological theory that Hume’s self-modeling, consists in running mostly unconscious at automatic internal simulations. That is, apparently, we routinely generate virtual models of possible motor-behavior, on which our higher selection processes unconsciously operate. And I want to suggest that the converse is true, that cognitive scientists in many stripes might also find it useful… In other words if we go back to my issue, that we can be speaking on parallel lines forever, I suppose, but it would be wonderful if we could define some common issues and areas where we intersect. But, it seems to me, that cognitive scientists who were occupied with this might find it useful to understand the configurational ways in which mimicry and mimesis, the congruence between the actions we observe and their internal motor-simulation by us, make visible the subtle cultural processes of inferencing, observing and matching. This phenomenological notion of self-extension by emulation, or visually shared motor-representation –the whole thing I kicked out is the absolute importance of emotion in British Associationism, that, and we’ve heard about this, if you can’t separate the visual cortex from the importance of motor, movement and the way one negotiates space- these things also come together, that is visually shared motor-representation holds the promise of linking ancient bio-systems to evolving cultural systems.

I will stop here, I will just have one sentence of conclusion– again, please excuse the aphoristic delivery. Exploring our intuitive responses to schematic, what this generation calls schematic signs, if one thinks, what is Hogarth’s line of beauty, but a schema in the schematic sign– that is the actual symmetry, the verticals, the horizontals, the wavy lines, the roughness or smoothness of the landscape, the faces that were constantly detected, the physiognomics in stony massifs, all of this is more than just the self-indulgent constructs of politeness in the eighteenth century culture of sensibility. In other words we can deepen our view of this culture of sensibility. This generative process reminds us that our mental vocabulary is deeply historical. My last sentence then is, it seems to me we can learn as historians of whatever stripe and vice-versus, I hope cognitive scientists as well, an enormous amount from inferencing and, by extension, this associative work. I’d like to conclude by suggesting that inferencing puts the presentational, not the representational, back into formalism. That’s what emptied out, the representational emptied out formalism, but the presentational, which is the performative, the mantic, the enactive– actually going back to late-Antique symbols, the concept of talisman, the amulet– all these forms, that are material forms but at the same time require a ritual to activate them. Inferencing also reminds us also of the long tradition of interactivity, fed from a number of vulnerable sources including direct experience, live performance, participatory ritual– we just saw a cave painting, I think from David Lewis-Williams’ wonderful book “The Mind in the Cave”- and also optic phenomena, which speaks precisely to that, that is that in that shamanistic world. So, it goes back, way back. Sensing then suffuses biology with mind and mind with biology, it defies it seems to me the post-Structuralist body-as-text paradigm and cognitive science, and I mean the hard A.I. model of the brain as a coding computer. Of course I realize their theories of categorization have far been superseded, but I think this was a very valid insight, we tend to project body parts onto the world, and this vast archive really opens up, this whole process opens up an entire world.

Dr. Barbara Marie Stafford is William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Art History. She is the author of many books, including Body Criticism: Imaging the Unseen in Enlightenment Art and Medicine (1991); Artful Science: Enlightenment, Entertainment, and the Eclipse of Visual Education (1994); Good Looking: Essays on the Virtue of Images (1996); and Visual Analogy: Consciousness as the Art of Connecting (1999). In 2002, she curated an exhibition at the Getty Institute entitled ‘Devices of Wonder: From the World in a Box to Images on the Screen.’