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.

Memes, mirroring & tropes

Since Richard Dawkins coined the word ‘meme’ in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, we have had some difficulty defining the word more specifically. Despite the intuitive sense that the word does capture something meaningful, the smallest unit of cultural replication, a science of mimetics has not gained widespread traction. Of course, knowing what culture actually is would be a big help. Other primates show cultural differences between groups. Chimpanzees and bonobos are different species, though very much like genetically, and their ‘cultures’ are quite different. We can even see such differences between different groups of chimpanzees. By we I mean those who study and are very knowledgeable about these animals. Other scientists have documented that some species of birds have different songs characteristic of geographically isolated groups. Do these animals operate with memes? Human culture also varies according to geographical isolation as well as by temporal change. Five and six hundred years ago Western culture comprised some memes supporting the divine right of kings, i.e., royalty=sun=god=supreme power=do what they say or else. Some cultures continue to transmit such memes about their leadership, while we now scoff at the notion (and hopefully argue against those who challenge the separation of church and state).

Of course we know roughly what human culture is, even though we have difficulty breaking it down into the measurable, empirical units that are memes. And of course, our culture is different from those of other animals’ because ours in composed through our superb empathic capacity and especially through our distinctive symbolic ability. Part of the difficulty defining memes comes from just that: our protean symbolic abilities that foment society wide memes to form our culture. While we electronically enhanced humans quickly think of emojis and emoticons as memes, these are actually just icons, simple signs standing for one thing, e.g., happy face=happy, LOL=humor maybe ironic, etc. Our culture is a much richer phenomena; it is more an ecology of memes that regulates social relationships than cartoonish marks that serve as shorthand for social niceties or the thoughts punctuating communicative transitions. Like the ones of royalty’s divine right, memes are the coin of exchange between individuals and their society and they change and shift with cultural evolution. Individuals take in societal expectations for cohesion and contribution and then social developments slowly modify what those are. Take, for example, the meme of ‘women’s liberation’ from the 1950s on. This change of role expectations resulted from a complex of factors, i.e., contraceptive medicine, employment patterns, educational advances, voting, etc. The meme operated across society in this change of cultural roles.

So memes mutate and culture evolves through a complex dialectic of symbolic interaction. No wonder they are difficult to define very precisely, and this is only one side of the problem. We also need to understand how our brains receive, produce, and process memes psychologically. Memes are only as effective as they structure or regulate our mental processes; they provide guidance for each individual in that social group. Someone who rejects the memes (“the King is a man same as any of us” sort of thing) is a rebel or at worse, unsocialized, or at best, a leader of cultural change. How do we understand this process of meme transmission and meme mutation? In answering this question we look to psychology, sociology and neuroscience hoping to find a bridge between biological science and cultural exchange. We are explorers here; no map shows the terrain between evolutionary biology and the social sciences. The liberal arts must be close by, but where, oh, where?

In place of ‘replication’ Dawkins and others generally use the term ‘imitation’, an old stand-by from the dawn of psychological science. Memes are transmitted through imitation and change through imperfect imitation, much like the old whispering game. While this helps some to clarify, it also limits our view. We may have no map connecting evolutionary biology and the social sciences but neither do we need obfuscation, especially when we have a better alternative. In the 1980s Giacomo Rizzolatti and colleagues discovered neurons in monkey brains (a finding since extended to other species) that lit up when the animal performed a particular action, e.g., cracking a nut, and also when the animal observed another performing that same action. Instead of naming these ‘imitation neurons’, they felicitously called them ‘mirror neurons’. Imitation is ‘monkey see, monkey do’; mirroring is ‘monkey see, monkey do but only in the mind’. That is an important difference, the difference, as it were, between Skinner and Freud.

Mirroring comprises imitation and even the distorted imitation like the fun house mirrors at the fair, but the truly important feature here is the silver backing that represents or brings forth the endogenous, autonomous and autogenic impulses of a vital mind. We humans, and indeed other animals, bring as much to the image as our sensory organs do, even more in our case. This is a mirror more akin to the Mirror of Erised in Harry Potter that shows viewers an image of their own desires. This is a mirror wherein reflections may come from without, may be held and changed, and even more may come from within.

Our quicksilver brains carry out mirroring in many ways through different systems and for different purposes. Consider the initial discovery. We, along with other primates and some other animals, monitor others’ actions more or less automatically and sometimes quite closely and consciously. We see someone pick up a cup and drink tea, our tea drinking motor cells light up. We see someone put their hand down as if they were going to drink tea and our drinking mirror system lights up. We see someone glance at the teapot and fix them some tea. Psychologically such a system makes cooperating easy to do and it helps us to learn by imitation, e.g., how to knap a stone for a sharp edge. It also lets us modify the motoric protocols for a better performance. Some animals can use this system in a playfully false manner, like one dog feinting one way and then going another in order to trick the other dog or sort of like a football or basketball player with the ball faking out the defensive player. Sometimes we mirror too closely and lose points in the game.

Mirroring systems are more ubiquitous than we might suppose. We mirror each others’ faces, thereby taking in information about another’s mood, manifest intention, etc. Our good dogs do this with us as well. Family members and intimates communicate without communicating, by communing empathically, cooperating (or not) in a variety of tasks without explicitly planning it. Being familiar together brings with it a wealth of engagement in countless small ways and often unappreciated until later. I am thinking of watching a grandfather with his young grandson, who is rather unconsciously though perhaps admiringly striking the same pose as his elder or those living with a loved one over a long time whose shared context and current empathic communication almost creates a unity of mind making it easier to finish the other’s thought or to remember what the other forgot. Our phenotypic personality develops as our brain’s mirroring systems mature and we internalize features of our important persons even as we bring our own native abilities to our relationships.

Our mirror systems operate across sensory modalities and with both concrete and symbolic information. The arcuate fasciculus (AF) is a long fiber system that connects Wernicke’s area (auditory understanding) and Broca’s area (expressive speech); it helps us to mirror what we heard the other say. When the AF is severed, the person cannot repeat what they just heard. The AF carries the auditory signal to the speech articulation system in a way that facilitates the motoric mirroring of speech. In conduction aphasia due to brain injury when the AF is disrupted, the person may understand and even answer but cannot repeat what they heard. Then we have the opposite when some children with autistic spectrum disorder are echolalic and can repeat anything clearly but understand very little. Mirroring starts the process of deeper social connection and understanding. What is true of the left arcuate fasciculus for language is also true of the right AF for affective communication. Even more basically some might posit that our sensory organs ‘mirror’ what is out there, reflecting the sensory information in the virtual figures of neural processing.

Memes are the figures of cultural mirroring. They are the means whereby important social/cultural information is brought forward easily into the members’ minds. They are like echoes sounding through the group that enable us to dance together. Memes are socially constructed and shared, and to be effective, they must channel individual efforts to contribute to group responsibilities. Here we come to the difference between memes and tropes. Memes replicate and function well only when they spread accurately, i.e., the cultural contagion of these information viruses spreads as our mirrors reflect with little distortion, etc.  Tropes are an artistic element; they function well in the individual’s composition of the artwork and then with any other individual culturally similar enough to understand the trope’s figure. To comprehend Elizabethan literature, we must understand the meme of royalty=divine=sun=better do as they say. To appreciate Shakespeare, we must mirror and feel fully the tropes he wrought, e.g. “It is the east, and Juliet is the sun”. Tropes are not standardized or culturally mirrored, or if they are, they function as clichés. Ho-hum. Tropes are vital, intuitive renderings from the depths of the mirror; they are not reflective but generative, and they express some important feeling about our particular, individual experience. Tropes, indeed all art, provide the silver backing of our mirroring; without them we would just be imitators with an astonishingly impoverished culture by current standards. And that is really why I like the term ‘mirroring’ more than ‘imitation,’ and that is why the study of art is so important to biology and neuroscience. We may never understand the quicksilver creativity of intuition; we certainly won’t in the positivistic sense of understanding, which is bent upon exerting control, but I hope we come to appreciate more this manifestation of life’s vitality, as uncontrollable as it may be! Our science is not limited to empiricism, as necessary and important as hypothesis testing and data are, but also includes the paradigms we creative Humans bring to our endeavors.  Here is a place of rest before I travel on, but coming in the near future a post about the dual loop model of language, its wider context and the temporal parameters of mental information.

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.