Creed part 3

Continuing from last post, the last statement.

I seek the deep aesthetic inherent in life and mind.  

         I came to this final statement recently as I worked on finishing my book (now begins the tedium of preparing for publication), but I know that I have sought something like this since mid-adolescence in some inchoate incipient manner.  This developed into a steady intellectual curiosity in college when I read Cassirer and Langer, so that in both bouts of graduate school and out in the professional world I have always listened, read and learned with this in mind.  I came to this idea once I had retired from my day jobs of serving children and families through teaching, speech and language therapy and clinical psychology; now farming infuses my philosophy, and though I have less time and energy during the growing seasons for reading and writing than I might like, winter is a joyful scholarly season, a special time for seeking the deep aesthetic.

Regular readers know I lean on Aquinas via James Joyce for the basic formula:  a beautiful form has integrity of wholeness, coherence of its elements, and luminosity of . . . .  Well, that is the critical question, I think: what is this luminosity?  Aquinas thought it supernatural and sourced from god.  Ho-hum.  Joyce, I think, struggled to go much beyond his Jesuit education and orthodoxy, but he still managed to focus on what the artist instills in his work, what the audience manages to find there, and the fine, sublime beauty of true and deep art that creates a stasis, i.e., a moment of epiphany and insight, as opposed to an emotionally evocative dynamism such as propaganda or pornography involve. The old humbug, Harold Bloom, in one of his last books, The Daemon Knows:  Literary Greatness and the American Sublime, refers to beauty, i.e., luminosity, as the sublime, an expression of the artist’s daemon, which from my perspective begs the question.

Art comes in two forms.  The first is what Ellen Dissayanke calls ‘making special’—the artist creates an artifact or decoration that is an expression by the self of the self.  This art form is akin to a bird’s plumage or song or dance in that it serves as an individual expression of some unique facet of identity.  The second is more akin to what Joyce and more rigorously Langer conceived of as art—the artist creates an art form that is an expression by the self of the self’s experience.  It expresses some import not about the artistic individual but about that individual’s vital experience.  This is Langer’s idea of a presentational symbol that renders the artistic import intuitively through the self’s vision and voice; it is a complex form composed from otherwise meaningless elements into a coherent and unified form that carries its import to its audience, i.e., it shines with its aesthetic luminosity.

Both of these art forms are a manifestation of the deep aesthetic inherent in life and mind as are, indeed, many of the other dynamic aspects we find as we seek to understand what is happening here on Gaia.  Monod gives a careful and detailed exposition of how gene regulation and protein synthesis is carried out through chains of biochemical reactions dependent solely upon thefitbetween the shape of one stereospecific molecule complex and its substrate; if the molecule fits, an energetic reaction carries forward the vital processes, i.e., it shines.  If it does not fit, the molecules lie inert and the process is stymied.  This sort of operational feature operates in genetic replication, e.g., the double helix unzips and only reconstitutes through fitting specific amino acids into the proper place and sequence, as well in the molecular chemistry involved in the cellular machinery.  While we may not think of this as an aesthetic, Monod was quite sensitive to the beauty of these operations, and as cited above, understood that the marvelous complexity, integrity, and endurance of life in this regard fully justified his assertion that this is the true nature of spirit’s presence within us.

So I argue here that one prime property of life that emerges at different levels of biological organization is this special fitness, i.e., an aesthetic, of components interacting in an energetic chain that once engaged, pressures life forward; once this property stops its operation at this basic level, life stops. Further, the reason I now include my seeking to understand this in my creed is that this pressure forward of vitality engenders and guides our sense of future experience.  It is how we feel the immanent future and its possibilities. Some examples come to mind.

Consider first listening to music, the art genre Langer says renders its import in a virtual form of complex and many layered time.  When we listen we form expectations about what notes may come next.  This is especially true when we are familiar with the music but also when the music is novel.  Some notes feel right while others feel wrong, this according to some fitness standards that are culturally shaped to some degree.  Stravinsky’s Rites of Springviolated those expectations and energetic riots ensued, but a new aesthetic was engendered.  Some modern music seems atonal or in some way not musical to old fashioned tastes and it is hard to feel the flow forward.  When the composer is working on a piece, what has come before gives him or her a feel for what could and should come next. Again, some notes feel right, others don’t, and so the composition continues until the composer feels it should end, i.e., the form is complete.  And some endings also violate expectations.  A similar example is language and syntax.  Discursive forms are different than presentational ones but still what comes before determines what can come next and fit into the syntactic frame or structure.

I understand that the deep aesthetic inherent in life and mind operates, then, on multiple levels in our experiential passage through time and that is what I seek in reflection and meditation.  Indeed, it engenders our sense of some future possibility as it comes to fruition in the present moment.  I think our sentience and consciousness follows along this operation, or better, along this path or way, like when our hippocampus processes what is old and what is new information or we form expectations for what will happen next. Our intellect is filled with such things going on mentally.  In this respect, then, life and mind are like water running downhill—downward in the stream of time where the past determines where we run next, i.e., what is ‘downhill’ in a negentropic energetic sense.  Our deep aesthetic, then, is seen in our vital and mental sense of life’s ‘gravity’; each life draws a next experience as its past experience warps what can come next in a fitting way.  Monod says each life abides by the law of entropy even while seeming to break it like Maxwell’s Demon.  Each life is a negentropic energy pool downhill from the rest of the universe. Like Maxwell’s Demon that mysteriously decreases entropy and increases information (negentropy), each of Dawkins’ replicators, as he conceptualized them in his book, The Selfish Gene, is also a daemon of this sort that, like art, operates to contravene the 2ndlaw of thermodynamics for its lifespan.  That is the source of the deep aesthetic I seek.

Much more could be said, but I will keep it this simple right now and travel on to the next post simply stating this creed.

Recalibrating the art history of music

So reading Robert Jourdain’s book Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy, I wondered some more about the biological roots of music. Mr. Jourdain observes that we moderns listen to music almost on demand in incidental and volitional ways and states that the special participatory nature of music has consequently diminished. Before the concert form arose in the parlors of the rich in the 17th century, he says further that musical experience was lacking for most and that to a peasant in the middle ages, music was mostly work songs and lullabies. I believe this neglects a lot of history.


We have a bone flute estimated at 43,000 years old. We have the earliest literature derived from oral traditions mentioning bards, poets, songs, lutes and lyres from 8000 years ago. Musical scenes on pottery derive from the same time. Lao-Tzu mentions music and voice in the Tao Te Ching from the 6th century BCE. Drums are more fragile with time’s passage but I think it is a safe assumption that they are at least as old as the flute. We have visual art from 45,000 years ago, so some aesthetic sense was rising. (Remember we have an estimate that modern languages appeared 500,000 years ago, fire and cooking 1.8 million years ago, and tools from over 2 million years ago—see post 5/2/15).


As discussed a few posts below on 9/8/15, A. Patel in his masterful book, Music, Language and the Brain, says that the best candidate for a distinctive musical evolutionary trait is our ability to keep a regular, e.g., metronomic, beat (though more recent research shows some of the same in bonobos). Susanne Langer in Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, v. 3, imagines that dancing to the beat provided the opportunity for mathematical advancement in the discovery of patterns, even in fractions, as some rambunctious young dancer double-timed the steps and jumped the beat. And let us not forget Pythagoras (say 500 BCE) and his followers who found mathematical patterns in tonal octaves or even earlier, Apollo as the god of music.


The development of technology for making instruments, musical notation and finally recordings are in some ways analogous to the development of glyphs with oral language—we began a new learning curve. Same with the influence of photography on painting.   My point here is really that there is a long and largely unconsidered history to music that we are actually just beginning to explore with any rigor. Yes, music is participatory in its inception and now we listen more passively but so did the Greeks listen to Homer and other bards strumming the lyre, playing the pan pipes, and beating the drum. And music is pervasive in human culture. In the mid-19th century Alexander Carmichael gathered hundreds of songs and chants from the oral traditons of the Scottish people in his Carmina Gadelica. These pieces were about every facet of daily life and spiritual practice from both pre-Christian pagan times (say <400 C.E.) and Christian times. These accompanied, no doubt, a rising tradition of the Ceilidh, a social gathering centered around music, dance, and conversation (with perhaps some whisky about). Music, especially drums and trumpets, has been martial for a good while too. The English banned the great Highland pipes (bagpipes were known in 1000 BCE) in the 1700s as instruments of war (listen to a grand piper summoning the warrior spirit and you will understand). Later, with the development of excessive zeal from the reformation and the heightened superstition of the devil and dance, preachers ordered many of the Scots highlanders to destroy their fiddles, etc.

My, my, so much to consider, and here is one last item. Remember the research, again posted below on 8/27/14, that musical memories are some of the last to go in Alzheimer’s, even after memory of others’ and one’s own identity. So now we have music as magic, spiritual, daily, ritual, repression, expressive, mnemonic, emotive, martial, social, participatory, dance, mathematical, and starkly aesthetic as in sublimely artistic (think Mozart and Beethoven). Better travel on. And a one, and a two, and a . . .

Let’s get esoteric here, just for a moment

I have written some about ‘memes’, the smallest units of cultural replication as named by Richard Dawkins. I don’t think I have mentioned ‘trope’ before now, but I am reading The Daemon Knows by Harold Bloom, and he has used the term seriously and playfully. The book presents his view of the genius, the daemon lifting some of the great American writers to write sublimely. He is both knowledgeable and passionate, so his perspective from up high given his study over the past many years is illuminating. He is a great reader and passes some of that in this book. He is over 80 and is keenly aware of mortality, so this also feels like a true culmination of his intellectual life.

Anyway, as I was reading about Ralph Waldo Emerson and Emily Dickinson, I wondered how ‘trope’, i.e., an artistic image resonant with intuitive, symbolic meaning, and ‘meme’ might be related. Looking at the dictionary, a trope is a figure of speech used artistically (but I think there are visual tropes in painting as well) and can be a fresh creation or a cliché, so tropes vary in freshness or vitality. Memes are passed on or replicate throughout a cultural group and pass in and out of the meme pool over various periods of time. Reading Shakespeare requires understanding the different memes of his time and tropes of his language. One meme would involve the divine status of royalty, e.g., king=divine=sun=god=do what he says. One trope would be Romeo’s “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east and Juliet is the sun.”

So how are these related, or more relevantly, how does a biological creature like us produce both? At first I wondered if a trope were a specific kind of meme, a sub-category of memes specific to artistic expression while other sub-categories of memes operate within other domains, e.g., governance, religion, science, etc. And while that may be the case, I focused on how the MEMBRAIN might process them differently. Sure both operate between minds. A meme can be used as a trope and a trope can become a meme. Both would seem to involve some imitative process, as Dawkins and other mimeticists think, or better termed, I think, they would be an elaboration of the mirror functioning I have discussed before. Briefly said, mirror neurons, which, in response to seeing another perform an action fire up preparatory to performing that same action, are one manifestation of our powerful empathic, mirroring engagement. We feel, and can think, the same in response to another’s affect, etc.; this is basically how we come to understand one another.

From this perspective, this view into one facet of our being, memes and tropes would both be expressions used in our communication, empathic, symbolic, and cultural, and would still be different from each other. So how to understand this? I am going back to my Soma, Brain, and MEMBRAIN diagram as a broad reference.


A trope is an element of aesthetic construction; in its most powerful expression a trope helps induce our feelings of beauty, what Dr. Bloom terms the sublime, and further he understands that an artist’s demon, that individual ‘spirit’ that rises from within and is different from the usual cultural maxims, is at the source of good and great art. The art object, Langer’s presentational symbolic form, conveys through mirror functioning, these feelings which arise from soma into brain until the MEMBRAIN composes the figure. Art, e.g., a trope, involves the self’s expression, the self as biologically, vitally embodied.

A meme functions between bodies on a cultural level; selves are involved in mirror processing the manifestations of memes in a socially regulated process. A meme is a social construction that promotes, hopefully, group cohesion, identity, and activity; it is not basically an aesthetically embodied product. It is a more prescriptive form of symbolic information, and as such, we deal mostly through mimetic communication. A trope is produced as an individual differentiates his or her stance towards life experience from the socially engendered or cultural mimetic forms. We operate with the MEMBRAIN most prominently during the day, as it were, and then we operate as an embodied self during the night, meaning our moments of private reflection and intuition.

So the difference between meme and trope lies somewhere here: a trope serves the organization of the individual’s symbolic capacity and a meme serves the organization in the society’s need for cohesion. Both are part of the biological mirror functions that help us be together. I will leave another view of this difference until a later time (that tropes serve as the coin of the individual subjective dialectic between somatic necessity and symbolic creativity and that memes are the coin of the social dialectic between an individual’s creative needs and society’s need for regulated participation. Both of these dialectics come from Langer in Mind, v.3, and I have discussed them in little bits over the past year or so).

And now, remembering the importance of art promotion, education, and sharing, it’s time to travel on.

How quick and subtle we are

When I worked as a speech-language therapist many years ago, I led parent workshops to help them understand and promote healthy language development. One facet of this was to present how complicated articulation was and how normal development of articulation varied a great deal. For example, many children say “tow” for “cow” early on in their speech development and self –correct (grow out of it) after some months. I always emphasized how complicated and how skilled a linguistic performance was. A common issue was how chronic ear infections affected development; speech is not easy to understand with the distortions resulting from middle ear congestion and from 6 months to 18 months, the brain is learning to process the auditory stream in a very specific manner in order to understand speech with facility. Likewise, speaking is a highly skilled behavior. A simple sentence, such as, “I want to go outside,” takes less than a second to utter and involves the articulation of around 14 phonemes, each requiring its own positioning of the vocal tract, i.e., lips, tongue, pharynx and larynx. Precise movements made in milliseconds with finely modulated breath control. Even our laughing is different from chimps’ laughing because of our breath control. I found it amazing that some 2 year olds, mostly girls, spoke with great clarity and was not amazed that some 4 year olds, mostly boys, still spoke with an errant phonemic pattern. speechsignal So speech is quick and subtle—I haven’t even broached topics of individual voice and interpersonal effectiveness and persuasion. (Remember Walter Cronkite saying, “And that’s the way it is” and we knew it was). And while we are discussing quick and subtle, let’s consider musical performance. I started reading Music, Language and the Brain by Aniruddh D. Patel, a comprehensive review of research on the topic. I can understand the linguistics and brain well enough but I struggle with some of the musical concepts. Dr. Patel discusses some research made possible by computer technology over the past decade or so into the timing of piano playing. Wow! Looking at one classical piano sonata, a researcher measured the length of all the eighth notes. Theoretically these are all of the same length and when computer reads a score, all the notes are the same, thus the flat, machinelike quality of some computer music. When a good pianist plays the score, however, the notes vary in length, with the average eighth note lasting 652 milliseconds with some lasting only 400 msecs and others going over 800 msecs. This variation is intentional as it results from the human player’s interpretation of the piece—these tiny variations convey the pianist’s musicality and expressiveness.  It is his  or her art. music-notes Other researchers manipulated musical pieces to approximate various degrees between very standardized computer plays to natural human performance. People were able to detect very subtle differences and always preferred the one closer to the natural performance. Yes, computers are fast and helpful; human art is quick and delightful. John Henry wins this one. Travel on.

Aesthetic analogue?

Consider the bower bird.  They are known to be great mimics and the males build bowers, structures of twigs and found objects, by which they attract a mate.  More involved than singing where some males sing very potent songs and attract females.  This has been well studied by playing the songs and counting the number of copulatory postures in a female’s response.  Bowerbird males, however, must construct their bowers and the ‘better’ ones attract females who then build a nest for the mating and egg laying, so the bowers are actually just a pretty place.  Here is one:

And here is the handsome bird that builds such a thing:

The males build their bowers from twigs and each genus makes a different size and style.  They also gather objects such as shells and colorful stones, sometimes stealing them from another’s bower, to place at the entrance.   Now here are my questions.  How does the male know when he is done?  Certainly if a female comes over and confirms that he is the one for her, but before that blessed event, how does he decide to keep on going, rearranging sticks and the foyer objects?  Instinctual guidance for sure based upon reproductive success, but the question of immediate decision still remains.  And by what criteria does the female judge the bowers and select her mate?  Presumably some features of construction relate to reproductive success.

Human art is symbolic so the degrees of freedom in the artistic choices are much, much greater, and the judgements of both when the artistic production is complete and how to appreciate the work are much more complicated, but a similar instinctual process, albeit through an intuitive and symbolically mediated choice, lies at its inception.  I think both artist and bird must go by some feeling for what they want the object to become.  In any event, well done, bower bird.

cooking and civilization

I have long said that civilization began at the hearth.  Watching Anthony Bourdain’s recent episode of Parts Unknown about Lyon, France, I remembered some other thoughts.  Over the past 10 years some evolutionary thinkers have proposed that human brain size is related to the discovery of fire and cooking.  Our brains relative to our body size are significantly larger than our relatives and they consume 20% of our energy.  (Remember that, dieters, think more and you will burn more calories).  A primatologist, Richard Wrangham, proposed that our brains grew in association with our ability to extract calories from food, and that is done by cooking it.  The site reported studies on diet, energy extraction, and energy needs to our evolving brains that concluded that cooking and eating meat were critical to that growth.  So while salads are beautiful, delicious, and light, they were not a major force in our evolution.


These studies suggested that cooking and eating meat were important over the past million years of so of our evolution.  No doubt that the control of fire was integral to our development and there is some paleoarcheological support for its beginning long ago.  My old anthropology professor told of a South American tribe, the Bororo, that threw meat on sunny rocks for a few days because “putrefaction is nature’s way of cooking,” so that once the bacteria have finished their job, the meat protein is more readily available.  Cooking certainly seems preferable and our taste organs, tongue and nose, have evolved a preference for umami, a savory flavor from cooking distinct from salty, sweet, bitter, and sour.


So from the humble beginnings around the communal fire, culture and civilization developed to include not just nutritious family meals but cuisine, food prepared with an aesthetic feel for special flavors and presentation.  Bourdain’s show about the cuisine from Lyon shows a marvelous appreciation for this cuisine, its culture, and its creators such as chef Paul Bocuse.  A very special show.

Civilization began at the hearth.  I also have said it will die in committee, and looking at the debilitated state of American political discourse, I see no reason to change that,  But I also have to add that processed food would also seem to be a sign not of technological progress but of devolution.  Bon appetite.