Part 5: Is art a spandrel?

Art works composed about experience also played a more subtle role in this extension of trust.  Within the family intimate communication could be more freely expressed than without.  This includes sharing of hopes and frustrations, loves and hates, and the wise lore gathered by the elders about life, its necessities and possibilities.  Not all lessons of vital experience are simply expressed through words, even in narratives that verge upon the parable or mythic.  Humans eventually developed the impulse to express the inchoate deeply felt subjective musings on one’s experience, akin to what the Japanese call ‘aware’ or the fleeting nature of life symbolized by the cherry blossoms or to ‘yugen’, the experience of profound feelings.  These are difficult to express for two reasons.  First, these are highly personal and intimate ideas.  One may find a way to express them to someone close but to share them beyond the circle of intimacy is a challenge of a different order.  Secondly, with the development of art not as an expression by the self about the self but as an expression by the self about one’s experience came a new possibility.  The person who made art took on a role different from other pragmatic, practical considerations, and their art work, though based upon personal experience, now conveyed the idea of felt experience in a less personal, more objective way, a way not didactic or organizational or efficacious but, if the artist was both skilled in rendering his ideas in an artistic medium and in composing the art symbol in a culturally competent way, was more a form luminous with being, that luminosity deriving from the internal compositional process interacting with the moment of social and cultural receptivity.  (Consider the modern version of what music becomes a ‘hit’ and what becomes a classic).  Art then became the way one expressed intimate ideas to a wider audience, and this contributed to the creation of powerful subjectively based landmarks that many took on trust, i.e., the artistic or presentational symbol, in the cultural field.

Returning to the first challenge, the cultural field helped to channel symbolic creativity into traditional forms and thereby to constrain the possibilities of untoward creations.  Art in this regard is both a conservative anchor and a dynamic agent of change.  The critical feature here, though, is how these cultural forms and art works in particular operate to promote both behavioral and subjective synchronicity.  Consider first the early arts of dance and music.  Langer called these occurent because they occur in time and then may pass into memory; I would prefer to call them performative, focusing on our active participation in their enactment.  Dance and music were and are participatory in inception and nature.  Their power or virtue, as it were, come from the behavioral and subjective synchronicity they engender in the participants; this is also the power of ritual, which is partially a derivative of these art forms.  Their vitality as art works comes from the participants’ experience of moving forward in time.  Indeed, this is their hallmark where past movements or notes guide not just what comes next but what may come next i.e., some developments feel fit or grammatical while others do not feel fit.  (I will neglect here the modern attraction to cacophonic or awkward forms.).  Dancing and music making, then, when done properly involves ‘feeling the future’.  The participants are flowing or moving in time synchronically.  They share a moment when time flows from the future into the past—that is their communal experience of virtual, vital time.

As humans developed their symbolic capabilities and our umvelt grew to include so many subjective forms created independently of autonoetic experience, we needed new ways to gain accordance in these culturally shared mental compositions.   The evolution of our mental life as it became transformed through our symbolic capabilities posed this challenge:  “What was the other one thinking about when they said or did that?”, because our topics became increasingly less about the concrete immediacy and increasingly more about our virtual abstractions displaced from any current time and place.  We became distracted by what was going on within and so needed new means for organizing our communal minds without.  One key in meeting that challenge was to develop the means for synchronizing our mental processes according to some temporal parameters, whatever they might be.  One way language does is this through tense and mood markers.  As described above, dancing and music synchronize our somatic experiences moving in time.

As our symbolic abilities developed along imaginal lines, thus embracing what came to be experienced as fantasy, mythic, spiritual, religious or something that I will term the ‘mystic realm within and beyond any one consciousness’, our deep culture then included compositions from/of a shared dream world.  Here temporal parameters became elusive yet still necessary if we are all to share in the dream. This may not seem such a challenge to modern minds because we are encultured almost from conception on with stalwart cultural forms that have steadily evolved over 10,000 years and stood explicitly on empirical footing for over 400, and because time for us means well understood natural rhythms and more importantly, what a clock ‘measures’.  As Susanne Langer noted, a clock is metaphysically suspect; what we call time by the clock is actually codified passage that we internalize as a gauge for our utilitarian actions.  Before the ascendance of large-scale civic governance, science and temporal regulation, however, humans experienced life in a less prescripted manner.  The world and time were multi-dimensional and those dimensions varied along cultural lines.  Art provided an important way society could organize and regulate individuals’ imaginary creations into a cultural landscape, i.e., we all shared a dream world, and came to provide the means by which such imaginal forms were kept in mind and memory, i.e., art forms reinforced past orthodox compositions, for the current generation and transmission to the next.

Here we come to the other category of artwork described by Langer.  The first as described above is the performative; the second she called the plastic because they were constructed of material, e.g., paint, stone, etc.  I want to refer to these as ‘artifactual’ because they exist stably in time for anyone’s leisurely examination, in contrast to performative arts that advance and depart without a trace except in memory.  The artifactual arts constitute ongoing reminders of experience both individual and cultural; they help keep past compositions alive in the present.  Consider the earliest known paintings and sculptures found in caves and dating from around 35,000 years ago.  These are representations of powerful animals, e.g., bison, mammoths, etc. and images of humans—the earliest are the silhouettes of hands, rough pictures of humans come a bit later.  The artists clearly wanted to keep the experiences with these animals present in the minds of others, whatever any other motives operated for their production, such as spiritual or religious or magical purposes.

As the cultural landscape was filled in, i.e., the shared imaginary forms came to compose an ongoing tradition, these early artifactual artworks, and to some unknown degree performative art as well, began to serve religious purposes and our cultural world became populated with gods and other mystical forces.  When oral narratives extended this tradition through myth building, art became increasingly a means to reinforce the understanding of the gods and their stories, to make concrete and immediate what was extant only in the minds of the people, and to anchor these conceptions in the history of the group.  This purposiveness, i.e., to keep virtual ideas extant, conserved, and socially/psychologically salient, continued and grew in ancient to modern times.  Walk through almost any art or archeological museum or religious building and marvel at how much of the art work before the Renaissance was given over to religious imagery.  For the Christian tradition consider how the surfeit of madonna-babe pictures and of crucifixion pictures served to reinforce and extend key narratives that played an important part in the religious milieu consequent events such as the Inquisition and Jewish pogroms as well as holidays such as Christmas and Easter.  Other traditions, e.g., Islam, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., have similar art-narrative interactions.

From this perspective, then, the early Paleolithic art laid the groundwork, alongside the utilitarian habitus of tool-making, cooperation, and social regulation, for the cultural growth based upon the shared subjective structures of deep culture.  As an aside, the hand silhouettes would seem to be an early manifestation of art as making special, i.e., the subject making art about the self, while the paintings and sculptures of animals would be a manifestation of what we today call the fine arts, i.e., the subject making art about the self’s experience.  Again, art, including mythic narrative and drama as well as artifactual artwork, enabled the sharing of material information that would otherwise be lost in time.  Art rendered the elusive and ephemeral experiences in accessible form.  It continues to do so today, though no longer constrained by religious orthodoxy.

Returning to the two challenges of art, the social regulation of individual’s symbolic fecundity and the extension of trust so that delicate musings could safely be shared beyond one’s intimate circle, we find another feature of art making that is critically important to the modern mind.

Last part coming up next.

Damasio’s Strange Order of Things

I actually finished reading Antonio Damasio’s book, The Strange Order of Things:  Life, Feeling and the Making of Cultures, a few weeks back.  While reading I thought of several things about which to blog but I was very busy on the farm.  Now I have gone back over my highlights and will write a review about it, but I seem to have lost several of my ideas from before.  Let that be a lesson to me—write down thoughts even if not enough time to work up a proper post.

If you have read any of Damasio’s other books or any of my posts about them here, you already know that he thinks that we conceptually slight feelings and emotions, that these are really the foundation of our mental life and that thinking follows feelings’ lead.  This is quite in line with Susanne Langer’s notion that our minds are based upon feeling, thus the title of her magnum opus, Mind:  An Essay on Human Feeling, so I really appreciate Damasio’s conceptualization.  (He does not cite Langer; very, very few do and I find that regrettable). And in Strange Order he makes an even stronger statement, oh boy!

A couple of quotes will frame his view for us.  Damasio sees “the roots of human cultures in nonhuman biology” and he finds that “the conventional contrast between affect and reason comes from a narrow conception of emotions and feelings”.  His understanding rests upon the central importance of homeostasis, that function wherein life maintains itself within healthy parameters.  Our emotions and their mental derivatives, feelings, are in his view our response to changes in homeostasis.  For example, consider how our impulse to be sociable varies with our homeostatic status.  When we are sociable, our homeostasis becomes more stable, and when we feel unsociable, our homeostasis grows more vulnerable.  Thus, a key factor in the health and continued longevity of elders is their social contact.  Remember as well that married people (really those in a close, stable relationship) generally enjoy greater health.  Damasio even makes the argument that  religious beliefs and practices function to ensure that humans are sociable and thus enjoy more stable vitality.  That is what feelings and culture do for us.

Damasio sees such phenomena as basic to life, i.e., evident throughout different evolutionary complexity.  Bacteria in a resource rich environment that enables easy homeostasis go their own individual ways, but in a resource poor one they clump together for support. Some use chemical signaling to monitor how many conspecifics are around just in case.  Likewise, human “cultural instruments first developed in response to the homeostatic needs of individuals and of groups”.  Damasio understands that “feeling and subjectivity are old abilities” and not dependent upon the evolution of brains with cortex.

He gives a complex and sophisticated explanation of how our mental subjectivity developed.  He says that the basic unit of the mind is the image and that our particular (I want to say ‘special’ but this is fraught with anthropocentric connotations.  I would mean ‘special’ in the sense that it denotes a feature specific to a species.  Thus I could also write about the special feelings and subjectivity of planaria) subjectivity comes from our talent for imaging our own internal workings, e.g. our gut has an enteric 2ndbrain with many neurons and more dopamine, and our external world, and then integrating the two into one mental image of our experience as we incidentally form a narrative with our feelings as our life unfolds.  I must say this is a rich and concise formulation of our mentality.

I see life functioning to mitigate exigencies and exploit chance; that is what we animate beings do (this following Heraclitus and Monod).  Damasio formulates it slightly differently, that life sustains itself by countering, i.e., he says ‘resisting’, entropy and continuing the life stream into the future.  And he emphasizes that our humanity is yet another iteration of this. “In the end human creativity is rooted in life and in the breath taking fact that life comes equipped with a breathtaking mandate:  resist and project itself into the future”.

This book covers a great deal of scientific and philosophical ground and that gives me plenty to ponder and learn.  Damasio is a big fan of Spinoza (see his earlier book on this) and he also cites Nietzsche saying that humans are “hybrids of plants and ghosts”.  That is a lovely and funny metaphor.  Damasio discusses our evolution and appreciates our control of fire not just to cook food and so support our homeostasis that way but also to provide the hearth environment for socializing and so support our vitality thusly.  One more point: he discusses anger as a negative emotion that has functioned quite well and adaptively over the course of our evolution but asserts that it now poses diminishing returns for our species, i.e., our anger is more destructive of our ability to live together than constructive in maintaining our lives.

An interesting and richly rewarding read. Keeping with my tradition, I will mention a small quibble about how he verbalizes sometimes about the relation our brains have with our somas, e.g., our brains as independent units. Ugh!  Never will I succumb to that view, nor does Damasio, I think, as he discusses the embodiment of our minds.  Why use that phrasing? I do not know.  Apart from that I found myself extending his analyses by formulating what he wrote into how I see our individual minds as a function of our social and cultural group. That, however, suits my purposes, not his, which was to enrich our impoverished understanding of emotions and feelings.  Wonderful.


fluid culture

A shorter post here before a longer one.

Several news outlets have recently posted stories updating our research into whale songs.  We have big questions here:  Why do they sing and why change their songs over time, do their songs travel underwater for thousands of miles with purpose, etc.  Whales are intelligent, conscious creatures, of that we can be sure, and still we are caught trying to understand them between anthropomorphism and anthropodenial.   Our rather weak conceptual basis for understanding their psychology depends upon their being mammals, big brains, once land animals, social, etc.  The difficulty comes from the usual mystery of another’s species’ mind and from their lives in the ocean; what must that be like?

I have several stories that I remember when I ponder their lives and minds. Their world is getting more polluted by human trash and noise.  Our navy performs underwater sonar experiments that are excruciating to them, yet we blithely complain that our diplomats in Cuba suffer brain injury due to sound waves.  We have hunted them cruelly for oil and meat, and indeed, Japan recently pulled out of a treaty banning whaling so that its ships could harvest more, they claim for research but what has been published? and besides they value and sell the meat as an expensive delicacy.  I have seen a video of a whaling ship killing a female blue whale, and then when its mate came charging at the ship, they killed him with their exploding harpoon gun. Remember that the story of Moby Dick was based in reality as a large sperm whale destroyed the whaler Essex in 1820.  That it was whitish is explained by the more recent finding that blue whales grow whiter with age, so Moby Dick was a vengeful elder.  Some whales feast on plankton, others on small animals, even seals for the orcas.  Some cooperate to blow a cylindrical ring of bubbles to corral the fish for their feeding. And many frolic and play.

My favorite story is the one a few years back when divers discovered a large humpback whale fatally encumbered by tangled fishing lines.  They teamed up to cut the whale free and when they had succeeded, this whale, remember now it is 20-30 tons of graceful and fluid power, went up to the divers and tapped its nose on their face mask in what the divers saw was clearly an expression of gratitude.  Google ‘whale gratitude’ and you will see several examples of similar actions.  Finally consider that whales have been known to support sick brethren in reaching the surface to breathe and that they are capable parents.

So this new research shows that whale songs develop over time:  Consider this quote:  “Male humpback whales within a population tend to sing the same song type, but it’s continuously changing and evolving over time,” said Melinda Rekdahl, the study’s first author and a marine conservation scientist with the wildlife society. “It’s thought to be one of the best examples of cultural evolution in the animal kingdom.”

While their songs seem to be specific to each group, there are indications that songs might be shared between groups or that they influence each other.  Some whales travel long distances through several oceans, singing away through the deeps, so a cross pollination of sorts is easily conceivable if hard to document.

And now for something really interesting.  In one paper, Jenny Allen, who was a doctoral student with lead investigator Dr. Noad, found an unexpected pattern among humpbacks. Once their songs reach a certain level of complexity, humpbacks drop that tune entirely and pick up a new, simpler one. Her study, the first to quantify the complexity of the songs, was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. So like the best jazz musicians, whales begin a song simply, develop it to a crescendo of complexity, and then drop back to the simpler, perhaps more lyrical pattern.  (Yes, I did see this very thing with the fabulous Joshua Redman quartet in concert last night and they are some of the best jazz musicians playing together with such artistry—catch them if you can).

Art, says Susanne Langer, is an expressive symbolic form rendering some portion of the vital experience of the rhythms of life.  In her later work she explored at length how organisms are born of rhythms, so of course, art, especially music because it presents a virtual image of time lived, portrays waves rising, building to crest and roll over to break and foam, subside and begin to swell anew.  I don’t know exactly why whales sing but I bet their songs express in some cetacean way their experience living in the ocean, and that, whether your bias is against anthropomorphism or anthropodenial, must be considered beautiful and a cultural sharing of their lives with their kin.

My next post, I think, will be a longer one about a debate among biologists about beauty and evolution.  Listen carefully while you travel on.