From the Afterlife to the Atmospherics: Reassessing Our Basic Assumptions

The following edited transcript is based on a lecture presented at the Conference of Neuroaesthetics, Goldsmiths College, University of London, May 2005.

There are five points that I would like to make in regards to Barbara Maria Stafford’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 and incomplete connections, connections of non-accordant, non-fit between these two domains.

I wanted to start—because this word “neural correlates” seemed to remind me of the whole field of literary correlates and the most unlikely figure seemed to crop up—with the term “correlates.” T. S. Eliot brings to mind “the whole”—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 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 Eliot’s highly philosophically idealistic theory of correlatives.

Using this as a sign for the skepticism, for the questions, for the hesitations, 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 twenty-first 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. 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 discovery and research. Is the object of study the neural correlates of mental and secondary processes? Is this established as the explanatory factor for art activity, art experience, and aesthetic 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 accounted for, in this particular phenomenal information? From the other point of view of art and creative episodes of artistic practice: Are 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 this is something we need to hold on to if we are, in fact, to conduct the experiment, as Warren [Neidich] has so boldly and 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 neuroscientists, I think of V. S. Ramachandran’s highly suggestive work on the one hand, but highly reductive works on the other hand. If one looks 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 cringes with embarrassment that the great goddesses have been reduced to universal symmetries and balance. For anybody in the twentieth century in the world of art, the search for harmony in art 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 ultimately the truth of art, but is the poison without which art cannot survive shows how much importance one gives to this notion of kitsch.1 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 Drakensberg rock paintings of South Africa, where you can see people’s actual works from prehistoric times to historic times, then we see again that some performative notion of these works has to be brought to mind. It has to be worked out, rather than a “reading” in semiotic terms of the representation of prehistoric art in cave paintings.

Perhaps Ramachandran’s 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 becomes clear. (And, in fact, in reminding us about the pathic, Barbara reminds us of this often extremely important domain of communication.) Of course, as unlikely again as the Eliot connection, the concept of the pathic was most developed in Oxford’s philosophy of language. In England, nowhere else is the best way of keeping a conversation going than 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! Yet, we place tremendous importance on the subject in England (much more than in Scotland). This is really my way of saying that perhaps with 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 correlates of this area. The explanation does not turn out to be that strict.

With these opening moments of caution, I would therefore suggest that we use the phrase that Giorgio Agamben used to describe the work of Aby Warburg in his celebrated 1975 essay, “Aby Warburg and the Nameless Science.”2 Agamben writes (I think using Warburg’s own words) that we enter the domain of the nameless science, and it is at least—in the spirit of the nameless signs (I believe in Samuel Beckett’s time, the unnamable signs)—a way of signaling the kind of space that we are talking about when we want to bring 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 in the world of art.

Warburg, who by 1918 suffered from what is called a mental breakdown, 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 that would repeat a journey he had made 27 years before to the Hopi Indians in the United States. So, you could imagine poor Aby Warburg, the great art historian, sitting, putting his lectures together, showing his slides. For 27 years, he had not thought about the journey he had made in 1895 to the Hopi Indian reservations where he had performed many shamanistic rituals with the Hopi and the other tribes and then returned to Europe and devoted himself to Renaissance studies. Of course, the group of clinicians was checking to see whether he was still mad, not whether he was trying to present for the first time an understanding of the Renaissance in terms of its 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 Bernardo Buontalenti and looks at Buontalenti’s designs, looks at the way that Buontalenti had set up the great performances 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 literary text, you have words, and then you have the great Renaissance paintings, and they have to be decoded in terms of pre-given text which contains their meaning. 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 it two major concepts: the Nachleben, or afterlife—the survival of forms, the afterlife of forms—and the Pathosformel, the notion of the pathetic.

The pathetic, the sympathetic, become crucial elements in the study of works of art and their relationship to the body and to consciousness since he is talking here about the great trance dances and trance phenomena that he saw in the United States. This reading that he offered in that lecture did not 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 and 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 to 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 the 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 [Jacques] Derrida’s point that has been so reductively read outside his texts, 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 semiotic value terms of a representational model.

In a celebrated exhibition, This is Tomorrow, by the Independent Group at Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1956, the section done by Richard Hamilton, John McHale and John Voelcker was called “Fun house.” It has often been read purely as a semiotic sign of the forthcoming affluent consumer society. But it is important for us to remember how deeply influenced and shaped—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—how much the whole of the “Fun house” was about Derrida and the body and inscription through performance; its productive presence in the world through his passages, through the particular uneven floors of the “Fun house,” which, in fact, gave off all kinds of smells 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 Adelbert Ames, and his Ames Room itself was the model for this particular “Fun house,” so that’s to be remembered.

One of the things that comes out of what Barbara was saying earlier 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 as important 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 theater image of what is happening in vision. I think that here we have to bear 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. Offsetting the Cartesian model, 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 administered nature of the self and of the person)—or this individual that imagines the Cartesian theater 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 theater, mulling 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 Joycean machine. A Joycean machine that is entirely discursive would just not make sense. How much of Finnegan’s Wake could we call discursive? How much of Ulysses is discursive? Would we have to chuck out 500 of 575 pages perhaps of Finnegan’s Wake in order to fulfill this definition of consciousness as a Joycean machine? As well as 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? In reminding us of the role of memory—and I think someone has already referred to [Marcel] Proust’s madeleine here, that moment of crumbling of the cape in the mud, that moment that actually breaks down where there is a stickiness and there is a sense of the body smelling and tasting and going down memory lane as part of the city of Combray, which emerges 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 vision and thinking that the kind of reduction of it simply to the discursive becomes something questionable. Therefore, the notion of the soma that Barbara brings into play here is crucial for us to take on board. Again, however, I think in terms 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 is that we should pay just as much attention to the bottom-up structuring of the neural network, that neural network of computational 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 embedded into the hardware of consciousness and of neuron structures and that this tacit way of operating (because of Frank Rosenblatt’s contribution to our understanding of the perceptron) need not see the entirety in opposition to what is loosely called computational thinking.

In terms of computational thinking, I think that we need to distinguish between neural computation and symbolic computation. By symbolic computation, of course, we mean a top-down as opposed to a bottom-up kind of reach, of symbolizing and dealing with the world. Here I have in mind the work of Marvin Minsky, who started off as a bottom-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. I think it is important that we remember that we cannot simply classify all thinking in terms of the binary division between computation and 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, whose 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 a precious bit of hard evidence of this evolution traced at 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 Sweden. They begin 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) the idea that the pre-Cambrian early world was made 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 meat-eating predators of the post-Cambrian evolution. The point that they hope 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, he still did not want to make a connection between the stickiness, the coupling between organisms.) Autopoiesis is not, as I am afraid someone perhaps overly dramatically reduced it to be, a self-enclosed bubble. Autopoiesis is about the introduction of a relationship between organisms in which the identity of the organism is preserved in the process of interacting with the other. This I think further emphasizes Jakob von Uexküll’s contribution from Aarhus University in Denmark. In the Scandinavian region he did a lot of interesting work around the idea that we cannot treat the brain of the other—of the bird, for example—as though it would fall short in some way in relation to the human brain. Recently in Berlin, there was a big exhibition about 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 does this notion of the Other, through understanding the difference of the bird brain that von Uexküll shows us, relate to the fact that we are aroused into an awareness of the Other through a million neurons? 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 exists before even a single word is uttered? So, the terrain of the non-discursive, the non-linguistic, becomes extremely important in understanding the relationship between the self and the Other and begins to create the rudiments of an ethics of difference.

What exactly is a concept?—if we are talking about the cortical region 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. [Gilles] Deleuze [and Félix Guattari], of course, makes three distinctions between philosophy, sciences, and art in trying to understand this problem having to do with the brain. In [their] last work What is Philosophy?, it is interesting that the model they choose is Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau (1923–1937); that thinking, processes of consciousness, must be compared to the great work of art made by Schwitters—first in Hanover, 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 [and Guattari] as a way of understanding thinking in philosophy and art, if not in science.3 Science they 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, if the Merzbau had been rescued (it was destroyed by 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 [and Guattari] meant. But for them, this bedding down, as the neural network set 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 they called “Urdoxa,” the formulation for opinions, and all art has to go against this kind of consistency and predictability. Here they use D. H. Lawrence to describe this relationship between the brain, art, thought, and memory. There is chaos, by which Lawrence means infinite ungelled reality, and against it, he says, we open an umbrella. (How English to refer to the 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 to constantly slash through the roof of the umbrella, to make contact with chaos again. Of course, the term Deleuze and Guattari use is “chaosmos,” which is Joyce again, from Finnegan’s Wake.

What sort of creativity did Deleuze [and Guattari] 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 they are talking about? What is the singularity of it that they demand 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-inscription (although it is a heuristic process that is constantly learning and relearning)?

  1. “It [kitsch] is like a poison mixed in any art; to pour it out of itself represents today one of the most desperate efforts of art.” ​​Theodor W. Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 1995), 383.
  2. Giorgio Agamben, “Aby Warburg and the Nameless Science,” in Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, ed. and trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), 89–103.
  3. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What is Philosophy?, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).