Conservative, progressive and the habitus

I am reading out of field again, struggling through the complex syntax of Pierre Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practice from 1977. He is an anthropologist-sociologist-philosopher; I saw a brief reference to him a few weeks back, specifically his concept of a habitus, and thought I would like to read about this from the source. The habitus is his anthropological take on culture; it is a group’s set of shared predispositions on how to handle socially defined situations through practiced actions. Now he formulates this concept through his study of marital arrangements in, I think, an Arab culture, where ‘important’ marriages are arranged through a careful process of intermediaries by males and ‘lesser’ marriages by females talking with one another. Of course, the important marriages are made so because they either consolidate property and material within the family or they increase political capital through alliances with other families. All very interesting, I am sure, and I can better appreciate finding myself in a culture where the marital couple determines their own match. We find our way over a landscape of love more than a political terrain, but all humans have their habitus to steer their practices into socially defined and acceptable channels according to their cultural tribe.

While Bourdieu does not, so far as I have read at least, relate habitus to a biological frame other than control of kinship, resources, and genetic pool, he does speak in terms I understand as easily translatable to neuroscientific ones. He says, “The habitus, durably installed generation of principles of regulated improvisations, produces practices which tend to reproduce the regularities immanent in [the performance in context]. Translated to BRoH speak, culture is an acquired set of learned invariable proclivities, that operate to guide our actions in key situations according to social mores and traditions. Remember the previous post about the natural history human morality and consider how we come to act in accord with our conventional notions of ethics and honor, e.g., sometimes we act humanely according to the golden rule and sometimes we abrogate that rule for strategic purpose and act disregarding the common good. The habitus, Bourdieu asserts, “harmonizes” our experiences and thus our attitudes and actions whether these are marital arrangements, workplace etiquette, hospitality towards strangers, the inclusion-exclusion of the ingroup, the mores of authority, etc.

Remember, now, a couple of things I have often mentioned here before:

  • Susanne Langer posited that society changed through a dialectic between the individual and society, sometimes learning and following the conservative traditions and sometimes creating new ways but always, one hopes, preserving the coherence and integrity of the culture. The individual also experiences a dialectic between the imaginative and practical; again balance is necessary.
  • Since the early days of psychology with Freud and James steady progress has been made in understanding that much of what we think may come from conscious deliberations actually comes about from unconscious processes. See, for a recent and most cogent example, the book, The Undoing Project, about the collaborative work between Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky on human decision making that found our conscious heuristics riddled with biases and errors.
  • Taking this further, several scientists, like Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind, have found that our political leanings and judgments stem from unconscious automatic processes, i.e., that political attitudes derive from deeper in human nature than from well-considered deliberations.
  • Mind is embodied through the soma, its brain and the MEMBRAIN. We acquire and develop our special competence, e.g., linguistic and cultural, through largely incidental experiences, a largely unremembered history of learning the cultural and linguistic invariant forms needed to act and interact effectively in the social domain.


All of these ideas are commensurate with Bourdieu’s concept of the habitus. He makes a statement that seemingly takes all these factors into account, that generational changes in the habitus, culture if you will, come about because each generation finds different “conditions of experience” and these impose “different definitions of the impossible, the possible, and the probable” and these differences lead one group to “experience as natural or reasonable practices or aspirations which another group finds unthinkable or scandalous, or vice versa”. (For some reason John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ comes to mind). Our parents’ habitus initiated our acculturation, we developed our own habitus as our own current experiences led to different practices and predispositions, and we brought this newly rejuvenated habitus to acculturate our children, and so on into the future.

As I read this I wondered about the changes in visual art affected by photography or scientific progress or in what constitutes ‘appropriate’ content from religious images to natural scenes to abstracted experiences to what some consider obscene. (Oh my, Joyce’s Ulysses is such a case in point). I also remembered something I read long ago in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which is that a change in paradigm, say from the Aristotelian solar system to the Copernican universe, is never a simple progression based upon consideration of data and the revolution is never complete until the practitioners who maintained the old paradigm have died off. And of course I wondered about my youth in the 60s growing up with the possibility of nuclear war, the upsurge in consciousness resulting from the civil rights struggle, and the changes in the workforce and gender roles engendered by females working more in WWII and then reproductive freedom helped along by birth control pills. Then what about my daughter’s habitus now with computers, internet, rapid cultural change, gender equality and the degradation of our politics along with the earth itself?

So cultural change occurs as each generation encounters new “conditions of experience”, and what one generation finds natural and reasonable is rejected by another, e.g., Elvis and rock and roll, divorce, abortion, the right of all to medical care, the equality of opportunity and justice to all groups regardless of race and gender, or what constitutes an acceptable gap between the rich and the rest of us. While our activities will change the conditions the next generation experiences, our activities are rarely done with that strategic purpose in mind; our actions are rarely that powerful in isolation, and much change comes incidentally or as unintended consequences. That gives me pause as to how I understand human intelligence and action in all domains, e.g., marriage, justice, economic, political, etc.

Finally I have been thinking a good deal most recently about how our minds handle temporal parameters, especially the loops, you know, like feedback, feedforward or feedsideways. Our different political biases, being based more in our human nature than our conscious deliberations, also show the importance of how we handle time and change. The basic division for so very long has been conservative, i.e., slow change and preserve old values, and progressive, embrace change and improve values. We also have reactionary, i.e., go backwards (and sorry that is a strategy of failure), and revolutionary, i.e., enact drastic change (and sorry, that is often a strategy of chaos at least in the short term and a process liable to be hijacked by charismatic miscreants or ruthless reprobates). Cultural change, i.e., change in the predispositions composing the habitus, happens incrementally through an astoundingly large exchange of social quanta that sometimes organizes into social movement. The dialectic underlying human society and culture bespeaks the importance of maintaining integrity and coherence of past practices while developing and incorporating the creativity that serves human progress. In vol. 3 of Mind: An essay on human feeling Langer details many cultures that have failed to sustain this dialectic and so passed out of existence. Somehow, to this ole man, weaving conservative and progressive threads into the social fabric used to seem easier. How and why have our predispositions changed so that pragmatic, grounded action feels so alien? And will our next generation form a habitus that is more viable and if so, how? Travel on.

a positivist genesis myth

[This is a very long post. I considered breaking it down into 2 but did not like the results so here it is. Having read the previous post would be helpful and acquaintance with some of the threads running through my blog may help this post be more understandable. Thanks in advance to anyone who reads to the end.]

What do you call a genesis myth without the supernatural? Au naturel, of course. And I use the term myth loosely, meaning an allegorical narrative symbolically capturing an explanation of nature that is, when objectively considered, unexplainable in its totality. Thus we have gods creating each other and the cosmos and humans. We also have the mystic apprehension of the unexplainable universe; one of the first and to my mind still one of the best is the Tao Te Ching (and I really love the translated rendition by sci-fi hero, Ursula K. LeGuin).

I have written here about the ocean of experience surrounding each of us, meaning that domain where the two great genetic watersheds (Solving World Problems (SWP) and Conspecific Relations (CR): see post 4/7/17 ) run to confluence and form an estuarine island of life and mind. A mystic stands on the shore, a being nakedly aware of the generational and temporal flow through to this moment, then this one, and oh, you know, and watches the weather, tides and the waters wave and glisten on the shore, content with just that apprehension, finding that experience a full one, and assured that the knowledge mirroring the experience is meaningful and insignificant. A genesis myth is valuable, even necessary for carrying that apprehension forward into meeting life’s probabilities and necessities.

Though a positivist genesis myth may be paradoxical, when we consider the scientific basis of our genesis presented below, I think that mythic aspect will be apparent because our understanding has come through increasingly sophisticated mathematics and information processing. Most of us cannot really comprehend how the numbers show their truths as the mathematically keen scientists do see them. In this sense scientists are like the seers, shaman and priests who created and developed the supernatural myths: only the initiated have access to the genesis esoterica as gleaned from either the mathematical domain or that learned through communication with the supernatural divine. Scientists talk with numbers and priests with angels. (I pass over the crucial differences in replication, falsifiability, and transferability between the two). We may not usually think of science in this way but in truth the majority of the people on Gaia evaluate positivistic myths and find them much less comprehensible than their religious mythology.   Conversely those of us initiated into this scientific world view, both the lay and the practitioners, can still find some truth about humanity in the old myths but little fact, certainly not enough to guide our pursuit of knowledge. Religious myths are at this point best seen from without, i.e., as data as we seek to understand our humanity.

In my last post I talked about Monod’s ethic of knowledge, and so to journey even further above my pay grade, this constitutes an epistemological effort that needs some supporting concepts about reality; about what is it we are learning? How did it come to pass and what is my relation with it? My bias is that any statement about the ultimate nature of reality, i.e., metaphysics, ultimately and necessarily given the scale and scope of our capabilities relies upon, revolves around and devolves intellectually into mystic apprehension. The question here is how from a cold, mechanical and valueless though lawful universe can life evolve with its values, as it has clearly done here with us on Gaia? That is, how to account for both our knowledge (true knowledge formed from an ethics of knowledge based upon empiricism) about the world and our values as both are clearly, as Monod demonstrated, sociobiological in origin. So again, what is it we know and value?

Human culture, though composed from both knowledge gained and values held, is a virtual world imagined among group members that helps to govern or to channel how each individual goes about life and supports the group. Over the past few thousand years, cultural parsing has held knowledge as more secular and values as coming from a supernatural divine. The ancient Greeks attributed some values, e.g., hospitality to strangers, respect for the dead, obedience to the king, acceptance of fate, to their gods, while they initiated a grand tradition of intellectual effort, i.e., philosophical and scientific knowing. The ancient Israelites certainly attributed their values to Yahweh and I believe follow a more secular and pragmatic approach to knowing. The Taoists stand on the shore and seek the Way. We don’t know about the people who painted the caves 40,000 years ago, much less about the earliest Hominids who buried their dead, but we do know that from them and since the advent of agriculture, civilized knowledge and values have grown to compose today’s cultural worlds.

Accept for a moment that all culture is learned and that we acquire culture through mirroring, empathy and symbolization. Assume even further that we can understand how we benefit from experience in such a way that cultural invariants form inter- and intra-personally that then guide how we relate, communicate symbolically, conceptualize with words, use metaphor, govern individual actions and relationships, organize socially, etc. Understand that early groups form on the basis of kinship which yields a natural historical narrative through their ancestry, while other groups form through social roles irrespective of kinship, and so must bond through constructing and sharing relevant narratives, some literal or empirically based, e.g., a flood, and some mythically based, e.g., the afterlife. All this to say that our philosophy as currently conceived results from a long history of cultural development (or is that evolution? Erwin Schrodinger, for one, wondered if humans were done evolving, i.e., we would stay in roughly the same biological form now into the future, sort of like sharks and insects have been the same for roughly 200 million years, so any further evolution for us would have to be cultural).

John Locke said the human infant was a tabula rasa, i.e., a blank slate, upon which experience writes its tale. Today we understand much more about what the child brings to the table and that there is no ontogenetic blank slate. But this idea covers only a very short time scale of one life. Monod from his scientific perspective seems to endorse John Locke’s tabula rasa, i.e., blank slate, but says the blank slate has been written on by the entire history of life, i.e., “the experiences accumulated by the entire ancestry of the species.” So our capabilities flow from incipient life some 3.5 billion years ago. Yeah, it was a blank slate then, but much has been written on it since and much has been edited, erased and replaced.

As I discussed in the previous post on Monod’s book, our evolutionary experience has led to two cultural facets from which mythic values seem to arise. One is an inborn fear of solitude; we are social animals and do not do well in isolation. Our contemplation of the cosmos along with our knowledge gleaned so arduously through empirical efforts indicates that our place in the universe is indeed lonely; we are warm-blooded strangers in a cold place, each conscious of our irrevocable solitude within our own MEMBRAIN, and constantly filling our mental void with all kinds of energies. The other facet derives from the first; we have, Monod says, a “need for a complete binding explanation” of our existence, and that includes the gaps before birth and after death. How have we come here now to stand on the beach of the ocean of experience? Both of these facets are inherent in life as it has developed on earth; they are inherent in Gaia’s character, i.e., they follow from life holding forth through negentropy amidst a universe flattening out in entropy. Each soma operates to replicate the passage of genes while mitigating exigencies and exploiting chance opportunities until its lapse into the final entropy of death.   This view of life is consistent with Susanne Langer’s idea that human consciousness arrived with the understanding that our life is one act that begins and ends and that within that frame each of us lives alone. Also consider Camus’s Absurd and the myth of Sisyphus and most especially Chris Hitchens’ proposal to separate the noumenal from the supernatural (see post 4/13/17).

It is as I have pondered Monod’s Chance and Necessity and sought its relations to other readings, e.g., Langer, Dawkins, James, Whitman, Hawking, etc., that I have developed a frail metaphysical myth to support this ethical epistemology, keeping consistent with my basic approach to the biological roots of our humanity and moving forward through a dialectic between positivism and mysticism (see posts beginning 11/15/15). To be clear, I believe any truth of which we are capable of apprehending is a gem with many facets, some more transparent and therefore practical or at least knowable than others; the goal is to see the gem whole even given our limited access to various facets. The metaphysical and epistemological answers to the questions of solitude and significance that used to be answered by animist myth with reference to the supernatural (and these serve us well for some purposes still, like artistic imagery or, as indicated, anthropology) are now superceded by positivist myths with reference to the natural world (and these can serve us better if we develop and use an ethics of knowledge to organize our culture and civilization). So to give an abstract rendition of a positivistic genesis myth:

  • Consider the big bang, or any theorized notion of this cosmic course through time, e.g., expansion and contraction, parallel universes, multiple dimensions beyond 4, etc.
  • These refer to the void beyond our comprehension and how the universe developed in ways we can comprehend.
  • A void filled by energy that illumines no forms =>
  • Higgs field appears whereby energetic matter gains mass (see delightful illustration at:
  • Matter and mass, though we apprehend them through our senses on some macro level, actually operate on a micro level through quantum waves of probability =>
  • These waves swell, subside, interfere +/-, and break into present reality: this is the first level of chance and necessity, i.e., quantum probability reduces to a certainty, e.g., Schrodinger’s cat is either dead or alive but not both because that wave has crested and broken on the shore
  • Matter with mass coalesces and clumps even as the incipient energies undergo entropic dispersal
  • The clumps accrue in the spacetime continuum =>
  • Gravity is a manifestation we can discern of this negentropic building process, i.e., against or resisting entropy; the spacetime curves according to this history of amalgamation
  • Gravity assembles cosmic structures that become elemental forges, e.g., stars burn and synthesize heavier elements: this is a next level of chance and necessity in that cosmic structures, e.g., gas clouds, galaxies, stars, planets appear by chance and then follow a time line ruled by necessity
  • The next level still of chance and necessity is when some combination of the products of these elemental forges coalesce through a gravitational eddy to generate life, e.g., planet Earth becomes Gaia.
  • Once begun life evolves according to chance and necessity.

This would be our genesis story if it were constructed as an anthropomorphic narrative; it is more detailed than animist origin myths because it is empirical and dynamic; the big difference is, of course, that this genesis details a cold, mechanical, and valueless universe from which life evolves with its own sociobiological values. Religious people may find that a problem but those who pursue an ethics of knowledge do not, because we realize that any and all value appears through and from life. Consider these incipient values I find apparent in Gaia’s biosphere:

  • Of course the first value, though perhaps one of the last to be understood, is to understand the world through realistic means and action.
  • Life’s projection into the future through replication, e.g., procreation is good for many reasons
  • Generational replication via somas is quite conservative by necessity and its sensitivity to chance events allows evolution to proceed in two ways:
  • One, variant genes must fit coherently into the whole genome or they will not continue
  • Two, having done so these variants become invariant and must pass muster through environmental interaction by demonstrating the same or increased adaptability
  • Each and every soma operates to minimize exigencies and to exploit chance
  • Their capability to do so speaks to their evolutionary potential.
  • Somas with brains do better than those without, somas with strong social relationships, i.e., have MEMBRAINS, do the best.
  • All life is interconnected
  • All life is local and Gaia is the location; each soma participates in the ecological balance
  • We must respect Gaia, understanding that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and that our actions even if performed authentically with sound knowledge and conscious values have many intended and unintended consequences.
  • Our ignorance is greater than our knowledge, e.g., standard theory of physics about 10% of the universe and the rest dark
  • Finally, while we accrue our knowledge through scientific means, both empirical and theoretical, our values continually emerge from the ancestral history of our species. I hope to expound upon this more in later drafts.

With this first axiom of procreation (replication) and its two corollaries of mitigating exigencies and exploiting chance, our frail metaphysic grows strong enough to support a new domain of values instigated and developed through evolution with conspecific relationships. With our heightened empathy and symbolization, we become conscious of greater questions, that of our solitude and of our significance, that can find only partial answers through our ethics of knowledge and development of values.

We have no way of comprehending this richness of life on Gaia. We may work on constructing our ethics of knowledge based on a positivistic genesis myth for our metaphysics, which can lead to a knowledge of ethics and a better understanding of our values. That effort, for me, resolves to a dialectic between my biological mysticism and my intellectual pursuit of knowledge. If you have read all of this, I again thank you. Linger here if you like watching the ocean waters wave and glisten upon your shore or travel on the Way.

Crown of creation?

In 1982 as she finished the third and last volume of Mind: An essay on human understanding, Susanne Langer noted that our symbolic capabilities were both powerful in rendering reality exploitable and destructive when our symbolizations exceed the capacity of our reality testing, i.e., we tend towards BS. She discussed several civilizations that declined in part because their symbolizations and cultural constructs became maladaptive. One example was the Maya, who sacrificed so many people, especially young ones, in their bloodlust belief that such a ritual brought great power that they used up all the slaves they could conquer and steal and their own youth. Ouch!

Consider in this regard psychiatric illnesses, such as depression and schizophrenia, that involve symbolization run amuck. In the former a self-sustaining feedback loop of negative thinking dissociated from reality based processes debilitates the energy needed for positive action, while in the latter the symbolization process itself runs unconstrained and generates internal experiences incommensurate with objective social reality, though these can contribute to social reality, e.g., Joan of Arc or Joseph Smith and many others. Not saying that religious beliefs are crazy, just that they exceed the usual constraints imposed by reality testing, sometimes adaptively and sometimes not (e.g., see previous posts about Atargatis).

So our symbolic capabilities allow us to formulate conceptions with great precision, such as when we send the Rosetta spacecraft many millions of miles to orbit and study a comet for two years before softly landing on it at a speed of 2 miles per hour. Our symbolic capabilities also allow us to leave positivist reality behind and render experience in aesthetic forms that can nurture the blossoming of our humanity. And, as Langer suggests, our symbolic capabilities, when used to impress, say through exaggeration, or manipulate, say through falsehood, begin the journey to fraud and demagoguery.

And that brings us to the fragile psychological and social processes underlying political discourse. Not that I am cynical this election season, oh no, but I remembered an old Jefferson Airplane song, “Crown of Creation,” and reflected on Frans de Waals’ wisdom in rejecting humans as the top rung in the ladder of life, and our persistent belief (and it is only a belief) that mankind is progressing towards better ends. Maybe our evolution has brought us to the place where further random mutations, as almost all mutations are, even those effected purposefully by us, will increase our adaptive powers even more. But I would not rush to judgment on that one, not when I consider our history and then look down the road ahead from where I sit and see what I see. Better travel on.

Garden thought

I have been spending a lot of time in the garden this summer. Sometimes I think about what I am doing and sometimes my thoughts wander. Sometimes they wander someplace interesting but sometimes not. I believe research shows that the mind’s negativity bias grows stronger with age. My defense against that is to think about what I have been reading and what I might write about when I get time and energy enough. Our weather turned hot and dry about 2 weeks ago so I have had to water every few days for the first time this summer, and when I water, I put on my ipod. It is the perfect activity for music listening. I can get our gardens watered during Dvorak’s 9th and one more movement of another symphony or it takes around 2/3 of Bob Dylan’s greatest hits. Yesterday I finished in the time it took to listen to Beethoven’s 5th and the first two movements of his 7th. Great stuff for communing with your plants, monitoring the water flow and enjoying our beautiful farm.

My mind wandered during the 5th symphony. My 8th grade music teacher in Minot, N.D., introduced me to this piece and used the trope of ‘fate knocking on the door’ for the opening notes. I found that distressing as I listened to this fabulous work. First of all, the knocking notes are an all too effective ear worm and tend to distract from the beautiful later movements, but my mind came to rest when considering the difference and interplay between the music and the verbal trope, between the art form and the verbal label, between Langer’s presentational and discursive symbols.

Briefly, because I have discussed this so much before, presentational symbolic forms, epitomized by art, carry import through gestalt-like forms composed from elements that have no significance outside of that form, while discursive symbolic forms, epitomized by language, carry meaning through linear syntactic combinations of elements which bear their semantic load independently of any new combination. The vocabulary of art, so to speak, may be culture bound but is otherwise unlimited, variant and intuitive with their creation limited only by the creativity of the artist; the vocabulary of language is established through social convention and though invariant, may be used in novel constructions.

So the artist’s work is not really ‘translatable’ to the work of art educators and critics. Art appreciation is more the apprehension of artistic import, though given the creatures that we are, we try to supplement this through discursive thought.   The boundary between art and the critical, i.e., talking, effort to express thoughts about it, is, I think, impermeable, and that was the real source of my distress when thinking about fate knocking while listening; the trope interfered with my appreciation of the import (and also while I find most critical efforts uninteresting).

Suppose those opening notes are not fate knocking (and what about fate? Not exactly a modern meme except in literature and drama, and oh yes, the theology of John Calvin). Suppose the notes are any number of things, the sounds the fetus hears made by the uterus’ first contractions of birth or the flap of sails in the first gust of a storm or the banging of an anchor being raised to the deck or the Western Union man at the door or well, you get the idea. The notes signal an opening literally of the musical piece and then symbolically of some experience. These are all suppositions and music is music, the lovely symbol of time and vital experience as a complex flow, multidimensional, and human and available only for direct apprehension.

So I have to go water the garden again and practice listening to music while forgoing the intellectual fog of talking about it even to myself. The plants know all about it but can only model it, not teach it.

Back to the connectome

So re-reading Edelson and Tononi’s book, A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination, I began thinking about the connectome. In previous posts (5/31/15, 6/29/15, 9/23/15) I have talked about how the connectome is the dynamic set of connections and neural activity that is ongoing, shaped by experience, flexible enough for cogitating new circumstances yet set deeply enough to maintain personality, cognitive skills, and autobiographical memory over a lifetime and even beyond when you consider the young lady (see post 1/10/15) who was chilled to death for some hours and then revived well enough with therapeutic help to recover her self more or less completely over time. She put the ‘om’ in connectome.


Connectome picture

Now as best I can understand, Edelson and Tononi’s model for conscious functioning is that some large and specific portion of the connectome organizes into a dynamic core of activity where neural systems in the cortex and their perceptual motor systems switchboarded in the thalamus sustain patternings that then shapes them as needed. Here is where their concept of re-entrance comes in because it is through feeding forward (and backward and sideways) to enhance and diminish certain facets so that the dynamic core is sustained, i.e., by ‘re-entering’ processed results into the same systems to support both invariant information structures and then editing needed variants. The scope and specificity of their conceptualization of a general process capable of operating on many levels is mind-boggling and the reason why I am reading it again slowly.


The thalamus has many divisions that relay and integrate perceptual-motor information with their corresponding cortical areas.

Two things re-enter my mind here. The first is the PLOS article by Eve Marder (see post 5/31/15 & 6/3/15 & 6/29/15) wherein she discusses her rigorous work developing a technique for stimulating, i.e., delivering an electrical pulse, a small number of neurons, even just one, and then studying the resultant spread of excitation. Looking at the image of the connectome, imagine kicking one node and figuring out what changes, i.e., discerning the variance in the patterns. In her article she says something to the effect that the ongoing connectome activity is so powerful that one change is quickly drowned in a sea of complexity and the connectome’s momentum, like a single drop into choppy waters. Change large enough for the dynamic core to be a re-frame comes about through specific events, e.g., startled by the lion’s roar, or through the intelligent re-entrance as the brain clarifies, apprehends, understands, considers and acts.

What I find especially important here is the autonomy and flexible independence of the connectome because this smacks of the animal’s own determinate life impulse.   Living forms are the compositors of their own experience, and we humans are distinctly talented primates in this regard. We not only compose and re-compose our experience as we live but we also compose what is beyond our experience. I do not think we could do this without a well-organized self agency and a virtual mental context generated through symbolization. Further I do not think doing this would matter at all if not connected empathically with other minds.

Here I come back to what has kept my interest for a long time, Susanne Langer’s characterization of mental action as either impactive, i.e., incipience felt from without, or autogenic, i.e., incipience felt arising from within. For example, I startle with the impact of the lion’s roar; my emotional energy rises autogenically to energize and direct my actions. Consider the connectomes and which information or processes were re-entered, i.e., kept in mind, prevalent in a hunter-gather society, in a pre-literate one, in farmers, with the advent of writing, in shaman organizing metaphysical activity, in scientists dedicated to understanding our world and ourselves, and here’s the most interesting one to me, in artists composing their works as an expression of their felt experience, some invariant form communicable to others composed from the variant images, thoughts and feelings of their lives.

Each person’s connectome must absorb much impactive energies to maintain reality orientation and adaptive success, and every person’s connectome is an expression of the autogenic energies from within; indeed, the genome of a fertilized egg is the chemical spark igniting each life that then burns for awhile before exhausting its run. Understanding this life energy as the basis of artistic endeavors is the task I took from reading Langer long ago and again recently as I re-read Edelson and Tononi. Travel on.

Review: Homo Aestheticus

I finished Ellen Dissanayake’s Homo Aestheticus: Where art comes from and why (1992) about two weeks ago and have been pondering over what to write. It seems an important book and I wondered why I did not find it sooner. I first became aware of her and her writings in a more recent book, The Origins of Music, which I have mentioned here before (see posts 1/11/16, 3/12/16, 3/26/16). I appreciate several of her ideas but am puzzled (at least) by one aspect of her thought, and she is dismissive about Susanne Langer for some reason so of course I have a quibble there. Onward.

Her central hypothesis is that art is best conceived as ‘making special’ and that art is an important evolutionary factor in our successful adaptation. She brings forth many examples from her own and others’ ethological studies to show that art is a phenomenon of everyday life, or has been until recently (very recently in our evolutionary past) when we began to segregate art into some category of fine art produced by few and enjoyed by a few more of the privileged. Not just making special, I guess, but making extra special (or all too precious, isn’t it?). Western culture, especially I think in the more mercantile, industrial and commercial aspects, e.g. USA, has minimized the importance of the arts, looking down on artistic activity as a lower form of intelligent activity or as simply a financial transaction. Of course, this is nonsense and Ms. Dissanayake does a wonderful job of correcting it.

She also resurrects what she says is an antiquated notion of ‘aesthetic empathy.’ Art, i.e., making special, involves not the pleasure of perceived forms but the pleasure of the feelings evoked or carried by those forms and more especially, making those forms. Regular readers here will understand when I say I did not know the concept was antiquated. I am not up on art theory or criticism but evidently, like so much of our cognitively oriented theorizing, the idea that feelings or emotions are important is also downplayed there, even shunned. As I have done here in the past she poses the parallel between the surface and deep structure of language (sound and meaning) and the surface and deep structure of art, e.g., music or painting or dance and their import.

What puzzles me is that Ms. Dissanayake rather insists that art need not be symbolic. In its inception ‘making special’ is akin, to use one of her examples, to a male bower bird’s nest making in which he ornaments his bower with stones, shells, and other found objects; the ‘prettier’ the bower, the more success he has in mating and passing on his (and her) genes. And much of our art is ornamentation, whether it be shaping a tool to a pleasing state or decorating skin etc. Likewise singing can be an enlivening accompaniment to activity with little seeming import though it seems to me still to express feelings.

I have written before about bower birds (see post 11/12/14). Consider this: when does a bowerbird know the nest is finished? For that matter, when do any birds know when their nest is finished? I have never heard this being discussed before but I suspect that the birds fuss about until the eggs are laid, or at least the mate selected, because after that the effort would have little payoff. Human ‘making special’ covers many creative activities in a variety of modalities the boundaries of which, i.e., the beginning and finishing of the action, come from within the mind of the artist. Does the ornamentation indicate social status or tribal membership or its workman or does it result from whiling away a moment? At some point early on in the development of this way of acting, i.e., making special, form (and necessarily the more or less complete rendition from a mental gestalt) became important, and that form expresses some complex of feelings and thinking. This is not the empathic or kinesic communication of current emotional states or even the signal of reproductive vitality, but the symbolic rendering or representation of something more complex, a conveyance of subjective experience. I am sure that even ornamentation does this for humans; I am not so sure that some proto-symbolic process does not operate for bowerbirds—that is the message of Frans de Waals most recent book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are.

bird bower

A few more shells placed just so and I can put this nest on the market.

It seems to me that two different definitions of symbol are at play here. One is that idea of an art symbol, e.g., a cross symbolizes the crucifixion, Jung’s archetypes, Godot whoever he is, Eliot’s wasteland the human condition, Picasso’s screaming horse in Guernica, etc. These are really like tropes (verbal or otherwise) where elements are used artistically to represent or signify particular ideas or feelings. The other definition of the symbol comes from semiotics, say from C. S. Pierce on to Ernst Cassirer and modern linguistics. These are symbols that result from neuropsychological processes to represent ‘things’ and thereby allows us to control abstract information mentally and to communicate specifics either linguistically or artistically. I think maybe Ms. Dissanayake talks more about the first type when the second is the more relevant.

This issue brings up what I think Ms. Dissanayake misunderstands about Langer when she says that, for Langer, “aesthetic experience is a response to ‘presentational symbolism’.” (page 237) No, for Langer, aesthetic experience is rendered and communicated through presentational symbols. The symbol’s import is an aesthetic experience, i.e., the symbolic elements composing the symbol are the felt significances of the colors or sounds or words in the composition. These are not ‘responses’ but symbolic forms a person has composed from his or her subjective, vital and particular experience so that others may comprehend this work of their subjective space, i.e., their mind. Sounds without meaning are not words and tones or colors or forms or body movement without import are nothing special. And yes, this is clearly an evolutionarily important biological trait of our species, at the least.

Ms. Dissanayake writes that “Langer does not consider art as a selectively valuable behavior in human evolution”. (page 242) This misstates Langer’s position a good deal; following Feeling and Form in 1953, she spent decades writing a 3 volume work, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, arguing that art is one of the highest forms of biological activity. Her effort was premature historically, i.e., she was ahead of her time and developments since then have changed our paradigms a great deal. Just before she died she half finished volume 3 in 1982, a few years after Jacques Monod made the case in Chance and Necessity for molecular biology as the exclusive basis of life and several years before E.O. Wilson and others laid the basis for sociobiology. Furthermore, she was also too early to incorporate the profound developments Chomskyian linguistics and information science and technology engendered in our understanding of psychology and neuroscience. (This makes all the more remarkable Langer’s elevation of virtual information back in the 1950s). So, yes, Langer did not understand modern evolutionary theory but she certainly did understand that the human mind was a biological product of evolution. Likewise she did not understand that the human mind, while distinctive (or species-centric in Dissanayake’s term), is not that different from the minds of other animals. As I heard Frans de Waal say on the radio last week, it is not that human intelligence needs to be lowered but that we need to elevate the place of other animals’ intelligences.

Finally, the last chapter in Homo Aestheticus presents a refutation of sorts to post modern art theory and criticism. I was mystified by some of the concerns here; it is not within my ken, but I think I understood from her account that post-modernism is rather sterile, elitist, and counter to any view of art as vital, organic and evolutionary. If that is so, I certainly hope her refutation is taken seriously, and I hope I can keep better company than those who espouse such poppycock.

Anyway, read Home Aestheticus. Ms. Dissanayake aptly discusses that the variety of ways humans make art, think of art, and consider the world is truly spectacular, that art is clearly an important biological result from evolution, and that art is, after all, following Langer, one of the highest organic responses. Travel on.

A very thin slice of musical

history (less than 10 calories).  My buddy Jack wanted to play a song for me but first apologized that it was a remake, something that he generally does not like.  I share this aversion but I have also just re-read Langer’s Feeling and Form chapters on music, so here is the slice.  Music is an occupant art, one that must be performed anew to be complete, as opposed to a plastic art, like painting or architecture, which remains for all to experience once completed.  Viewed in this way, music can only be appreciated through remakes.   Of course she was thinking more about classical music and live performances.  The composer finishes writing his or her piece but it is not complete until performed, whether by the composer or a performer matters little to its artistic integrity.  Our distaste for remakes must stem more from the modern phenomena of recordings, radio and now iPods.  We hear the same version repeatedly and our memory of the piece coalesces around that one performance (or the conglomerated performance of today’s sound engineering).


I recently had the great pleasure of hearing Joan Osborne live accompanied only by her husband-keyboardist.  Wow, simply presented, elegant, and powerful.  Never to be replicated in exactly the same way.  Buying her new album and listening to the songs I loved live, I found the engineered version with orchestration, etc. rather overdone. I still like it but I must concentrate on the song and her voice and leave the other stuff in the sonorous background.

Some may remember other ‘remakes’ and the criticism that they caused even when the composer made them.  Bob Dylan caught holy hell for going electric with his songs.  And I still remember my reaction when, after hearing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence” on the acoustic first album, Wednesday Morning 3 AM (?), I heard the electric version on their next.  Oh, aren’t we persnickety listeners?

And now Jack plays another remake of “Sounds of Silence” by Disturbed, a heavy metal band, and oh my, it is good.  I continue to listen to it and note with delight the slight changes in timing, tone, and notes that characterize a new vital performance.  The ‘original’ was mostly somber and mournful with just a hint of feistiness.  This new version is almost martial in tone with just the slightest undercurrent of sobriety.  Try it–I hope you like it too.

By the way, if you were wondering about what might be a silly but important bit of knowledge, I submit this.  From the Origins of Music book and Walter Freeman’s piece in it entitled “A Neurobiological Role of Music in Social Bonding” I learned that the ancient Greeks categorized music in 3 ways:  Phrygian music was martial, Lydian music was solemn and plaintive, and Ionian music was joyful.  So I guess the song “Sounds of Silence” in its original take was Lydian and in this more recent one, Phrygian.  And I hope this post feels Ionian.  Just saying.

Better travel on here.

P.S. I can’t help but add that my wife listened to the new version and did not hate it, saying it was a bit melodramatic and that the singer, who growled and yelled more than sang, seemed slightly tone deaf, which I might not notice given my keen lack of auditory discrimination.  All of this may be (ok, a high probability) true but still . . .