Soma-Aesthetics: Constructing Interiority

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

My remarks are part of a larger project adumbrated in an article published in Configurations entitled “Towards a Cumulative Image History: Romanticism and the Genealogy of Thought.” (Its full articulation was made possible during my residency at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin in 2005/2006 and the resulting publication, in 2007, of my book Echo Objects: The Cognitive Work of Images, published by the University of Chicago Press.)

The vital problem raised by this prophetic conference organized by Warren Neidich is both a very old problem as well as a very new one. How can we transdisciplinarians bring biology and culture together in a serious fashion? Specifically, how might our historical investigations, broadly construed, take account of the unignorable and extraordinary findings now coming from the neurosciences? More precisely, how might we enrich our humanistic fields of study and also deepen the research questions posed by the neurological sciences? Today, I focus on a small piece of this larger correlational issue. I’d like it to serve as both an example and a demonstration of the kind of insights that might be gained from a neuroaesthetic perspective.

Consider how learning from the neurosciences might help in reconceptualizing our currently thinned and anemic concept of formalism, that is, offer a new point of entry into analyzing the  complex operations and functions of non-linguistic patterns, shapes, configurations as meaning-laden, allusive, and gestural forms. Certainly, at various historical junctures, they were understood as such. Note the sophisticated algebraic fragments of the Jena Romantics and the pictographic sign theorists they influenced. Even earlier, recall the hieroglyphic-smitten Baroque of Athanasius Kircher, Giambattista Vico, and Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Our synaptically connected brain is amply prefigured in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century fascination with cosmic correspondences as well as being more generally visible in the development of associationism—based on the realization that the sight of varied objects impels the observer to forge inferences that correlate the subject’s mind with external things.

The previous session [organized by Lucy Steeds] is especially pertinent to my theme. For example, André Leroi-Gourhan is interested in what I want to term mantics as opposed to hermeneutics—that is: ritual, shamanism, enactments, the performative.1 Performative structures, elements that show their hidden processes shadowed by affect, are coming to the fore. (For example, in the work of Warren Neidich.) The sharpened question I would like to ask regarding this development is: Can we think otherwise, without using words in a language? I believe there is evidence that we can.

Undeniably, a history of the senses is emerging across the arts, theory of design, and new media studies. Simultaneously, the multiplying brain sciences are developing a finer neurobiology of feeling. I want to give Antonio Damasio a little more due here than he has already received because he takes that wonderful concept of Spinoza’s, the pathema—that meld of feelings existing prior to the higher-order registration of the emotions—to draw a fine-grained distinction between surging feelings and categorizable affect. There is already an enormous body of scientific work on the logic of affect. So these two distinctive phenomena (the chaotic meld and the singular experience) are already out there. Still to be provided, however, is the manner by which this combinatoric contributes to the shaping of a unified sense of subjectivity.

To this end, I find the thought-provoking book by the philosopher Thomas Metzinger helpful. In Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity (2003), Metzinger analyzes the phenomenologically inflected school of thought that “calls for truly internalist state space semantics.” Importantly, this approach entails giving a non-verbal performative account of what is happening inside the self.2 Analogously, the mathematician Sha Xin Wei has developed an eye-opening theory of differential geometrical performance. He demonstrates how a practicing mathematician performs a diagram (simply with chalk and blackboard) in order to think, in order to discover how these two events (motor systems and synaptic connectors) come together both as a gestural situation and unifying brain event. Here again is a case of comprehension that bypasses language. The concept of soma-aesthetics, I propose, thus suggests transdisciplinary procedures for exploring this embodied capacity for forming images. It addresses the cognitive creation of autonomous neural patterns and the innate as well as culturally learned operations of pattern recognition.

Of course, we are wrestling with the divide between the contrastive socio-cultural turn in culture and media studies and the neurobiological investigation into the architectonics of the brain, its hard-wired functions and excitatory and inhibitory systems of response. Martina Wicklein also spoke to this need for a cultural as well as neural basis of meaning spurred by the discovery of the brain’s synaptic cell-to-cell junctions activating linkages among streams of information and creating a vast associational network in the cortical system.3 A new look at the Romantics may help to bring these currently antithetical worldviews together around shared issues. A double-barrelled study (of not just British associationism), I believe, would reveal how serious this psycho-physiological movement examining self-projection was, in fact, knitting together the biological, the cognitive, and the historical.

Think of cognitive scientist and philosopher Andy Clark’s groundbreaking book Being There (1998) and its illuminating analysis of distributive cognition. Surely this is a concept already in evidence in the empiricist epistemology of David Hume. Hume proposes that the mind draws on the morphological aspects of nature that were already intrinsic to it (as exemplified, for example, in architecture parlante or “speaking architecture”). 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 (nature, the human body—including the passions—and morals.)  Because we are all human, we possess a certain expertise when it comes to looking at one another that is actually a profound recognition. By morals, he means sympathy-empathy, exactly those interrelational capacities that are essential to the construction of a social world and social experience through a kind of emulative aesthetics.

Even earlier, consider Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury, who argued that perception, learning, memory, imagery, and symbol systems are somatically—as well as culturally—embedded and coevolved. In his Second Characteristics (1712), Shaftesbury locates this herding principle and associative inclination in the origins of the human species, noting 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 humankind first proceeded. Pleasurable or painful states of mind were thus coupled, understood as being simultaneously physiological and historical, that is, incarnated as civil states.

Mirror neurons (see Vittorio Gallese’s important research) provide a useful way of thinking about the complex operations driving the interactive impulses fueling this earlier associationism. Gallese’s, as well as other cognitive scientists’, discovery is that classic pre-motor neurons exist that are 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 or person. This emulative—even physiognomic?—performance or integrative urge spurs our inclination to visually and emotionally reach out to another being or thing. Apparently, we routinely generate virtual models of possible motor behavior on which our higher selection processes unconsciously operate. This phenomenological notion of self-extension by emulation—or visually shared motor-representation—indicates that one cannot separate the work of the visual cortex from its connection with motor movement and, indeed, from the motions of thinking.

To be sure, many other questions loom beyond formalism. Excitingly, these remain to be identified and pursued. What remains difficult is finding a new method to tackle them, one that formulates an issue so that it is recognized as pressing in both the arts and sciences. Of course, different disciplines bring different kinds of expertise to a project. Nonetheless, it would seem that each side of the aisle must learn something essential about the other. At a minimum, the issue must be framed in such a way that it engages all sides with equal intensity. What I’ve chosen as my issue today, then, is the abstractive thinning of the concept of form in the concept of formalism. To speak of form now is taken to mean the absence of social context, the negation of the culturally rich in favor of the “mere aesthetic,” the emptiness of a beautiful design—as if forms were rigid abstractions, denials of meaning and not condensed symbols and compressed signs. Contemporary artists, importantly, have been undoing this misperception, ranging from the architect Marcos Novak4 to photographers Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth.

By conspicuously flaunting the contrived composition of his photographs, Struth constantly asks us to become aware of our internal, hard-wired system of spatial ordering—the bodily and cognitive position we instinctively take to regard other historical ordering systems that mirror or disturbingly depart from our own. Recall his images of the geometric distribution of tourists facing Renaissance frescoes in the Vatican or diagrammatically aligning themselves with the compositional thrust of Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa. What strikes me as neuroscientifically informed about his photographs is precisely his registration of the collective, as well as individual, corporeal adjustments viewers make in order to reflect and internalize the structure of the composition they behold. The painted objects (Gericault’s picture or the medieval architecture of Notre-Dame in another photograph) physically and cognitively assert their underlying organizational system upon our responsive perceptual system. Struth makes us feel the subtle sensory adjustments, the mirroring associations made by our brain as it coordinates with the suggestive forms of the external world.

This co-construction of reality by co-disciplines also opens up the contrastive possibility of rethinking minimalism. Consider how we look at Donald Judd’s work now installed at Marfa, Texas. The vanishing of Judd’s solid steel edges in dissolving light recalls, for example, Robert Irwin’s and James Turrell’s sensory deprivation experiments conducted while floating in UCLA’s black anechoic chamber. Normally, one can stand such radical absence of sensory input for about a minute or so, perhaps three at a maximum. They were in there for an hour. If we were to take Robert Irwin’s early monochromatic discs (involving his erasure of any smudges on the white museum walls) as analogous to the visionary richness of Judd’s minimal luminous particles or the shining hallucinations generated by Turrell’s imagining brain, we find that what previously had been considered less is cognitively more. Formalism is not mechanical but situational, like Struth’s co-created viewer and her object. It performs a situation configuring what William James or John Dewey would call the fusive object-event.

Let us return for a moment to the earlier reference to British associationism by considering Alexander Cozens’s blots and remind ourselves of the difficulty of the cognitive linking process involved in imagining and inferencing. Like finding the perfect analogue, not just any connection will do. How do you find structure in the world? What is it that you respond to? How do we manage to have anything in common with others who are like us but not identical? It is not accidental that portraiture is one of the premier eighteenth-century art forms since it is fundamentally about the to-ing and fro-ing of self-projection and the problematics of viewer reception. One might consider the eighteenth-century rhetoric of landscape improvement also in terms of making that which is concealed and hidden in the environment—that is, what is in potentia—visible by making it rise up into form and so become accessible to human comprehension.

What is William Hogarth’s line of beauty but a graphic schema? The two compendious plates from his Analysis of Beauty put pressure on the viewer to intuit or infer—based on his or her judgment—one’s moral stance before the efficacious signs provided by this world. One of Hogarth’s aims, through caricature, is to have us see, as well as flesh out, the rudiments behind our choices so we might knowingly undertake to change. As we know from Horace, the role of satire is ultimately to make you revolve, to make you turn, to alter the course of your decisions based on having truly beheld and understood both yourself and them. So here we witness mirror neurons in the service of mockery to produce concrete character reform. Graphic art thus serves as affective gesture alluding to an implicit moral narrative requiring a physical and psychic alteration of position.

Portraiture as well as the second chief contender—landscape painting—rest on an intrinsic mirroring or “in-betweening” (Charlie Gere’s term5): the data returning, transformed, yet still possessing a life of its own. This echoic reverberation corresponds to the inferencing leaps of analogy and is not reducible to language. Both genres are especially porous, conjuring up sensory experiences that are feeling-suffused. Nonetheless, it required the formulation of a Romantic systematics and what might be called the symbolic logic of composition to undo Descartes’s famous dictum that the essence of the body is spatial extension while that of the mind is unextended thought.

What is pertinent for a neuro-approach to this big problem is that we now have a different way of asking how and where such a logic of composition is mentally constructed, joining even the simplest forms to affect. Gerald M. Edelman’s The Remembered Present (1987) argued that just as a memory and the present moment are always wrapped around one another, so the present and the past are braided together. Even the most rudimentary forms come to us surrounded by auras of meaning. In the same way, the Romantics realized that emotion and thought are bound together even in the most basic structures, the most minimal components—whether it’s the quadrangular pose or directional lines, or the color universals that preoccupied Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and William Blake. By universal was meant the profound embedding of certain fundamental moving experiences as signs in our collective ancestral memory. This repetitive embedding in reduced form (that is, abstract in a contoured and compressed sense) of a limited number of dramatic material practices and remarkable experiences led, over time, to the Real Symbol, or the universal, lodged within the human sensorium.

The Romantics were also engaged with constructing “grammars of expression.” The early nineteenth century was rife with attempts to anatomize Spinoza’s meld of feelings into visible signs. See David Pierre Giottino Humbert de Superville “Essay on the Unconditional Signs in Art,” where the term “unconditional” comes from that theoretically important post-Kantian, Johann Gottlieb Fichte. What is remarkable about this outflow of “grammars” of expression is that they were conjuring with imagistic signs and intent on discovering what Terrence Deacon and Steven Pinker call our shared human “mentalese.” These root forms were the minima, the basic prototypes or primes that offer a glimmer of the history of mentalité.6 The (epigenetic) assumption was that we gain understanding both individually and collectively, not only from past systems of ordering but from the fundamental embodied logic on which these systems were grounded and that still, however dimly, continue to inform present-day reactions. Hence, they provide a new cognitive method for opening a transdisciplinary path into the history of consciousness.

From this perspective, one final word about the Romantics and the neural correlates of consciousness. Having recently visited the Hamburger Kunsthalle to look at that premier collection of Caspar David Friedrich paintings, I was struck by how contemporary, how Struthian, in fact, were his revelations about how the brain resolves dualism. By laying paint on so thinly, so transparently, the viewer actually sees the compass lines surfacing from the underdrawing. Strikingly, the observer is simultaneously aware of the linear logic of the composition, addressing our hard-wired systems with its schematic forms, and the phenomenal landscape that glistens above it. Not unlike Donald Judd’s light-eroded boxes, Friedrich gives us a minimalist geometry and its undoing, solidity and the phantasmal conjoined, yet distinct. William Blake, Caspar David Friedrich, and Humbert de Superville make us realize that the material world we live in is both real and unreal, a plausible fiction, a set-up—imposed, as it were, by something more basic and prior to what we see, yet mysteriously corresponding to it.

It’s that mysterious correspondence that speaks to a more enriched concept of where thinking about form can get us. Inferencing puts the presentational, not the representational, back into formalism. When the representational is stripped away in formalism, the performative, the mantic, the enactive step forward. These visual and physiological gestures should remind us of numerous agentic objects abounding in antiquity: the talisman, the amulet, and the charm are tokens of interactivity. Ritual objects are material forms with powers, but they require performance to activate them. David Lewis-Williams’s book The Mind in the Cave (2002) memorably evokes this shamanistic environment—the vast material and cognitive archive where our sensory system, biology, and evolving mind first encountered the stuff of the world.

Postscript (2021)

For further reading see Barbara Maria Stafford’s more recent books Echo Objects: the Cognitive Work of Images (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2007); A Field Guide to A New Meta-Field: Bridging the Humanities-Neurosciences Divide (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2011), based on John Templeton’s lectures, “The Big Questions,” delivered at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles in 2008; and Ribbon of Darkness; Inferencing from the Shadowy Arts and Sciences (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2019). Also see Note, in particular, the exhibitions and cross-disciplinary neuroaesthetic projects developed at Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta.

  1. See Lucy Steeds, “André Leroi-Gourhan: Neuroaesthetics?,” Journal of Neuroaesthetics 5,
  2. Thomas Metzinger, Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), 93.
  3. See Martina Wicklein, “The Brain on Drugs,” Journal of Neuroaesthetics 5,
  4. See Marcos Novak, “Alloaesthetics and Neuroaesthetics: Travels through Phenomenology and Neurophysiology,” Journal of Neuroaesthetics 5,
  5. See Charlie Gere, “Can Art Go Without a Body?,” Journal of Neuroaesthetics 5,
  6. See, for example, Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language (New York: William Morrow, 1994) and Terrence Deacon, The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Human Brain (London: Penguin, 1997).