Saturday, October 03, 2009

Learning and Communing

In reaction to Judith Warner's good post:
The Shame Game - Judith Warner Blog -

I absolutely support Michael Moore. But I see an addiction supported by people and media that forces statements into dichotomies. One should find a common ground because that is usually the first step to breaking apart a false dichotomy that is presented by ideologies, media, talk-show hosts and, yes, directors.

Overgeneralized dichotomies are useful for focusing on a topic or problem. But if you stop your understanding there, you are stopping at the level of chiche. Once you have a topic in focus, go in closer and see the real landscape, the real texture and anthro-poetic STUFF that you don't see from the conceptual distance. Use the dichotomy as a target that lets you destroy the myth.

People should be in school long enough to learn how to learn, and practiced enough at it to be addicted to it. Getting out after one only learns to cast or repeat cliches is a waste of time, and in my opinion, dangerous to the world culture.

Lastly: I believe that Michael Moore goes beyond his bravado--his films have matured greatly from his early work. I love his statement that communism isn't the opposite of capitalism, democracy is. The statement reframes an old argument and dares you to come inside for the argument. That is honest filmmaking.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Resonance Model of Communication, Ontic Experience, and Mirror Neurons

The Resonance Model of Communication, Ontic Experience, and Mirror Neurons

Third in a series

The worst communications model is the one that is used in almost all communications textbooks today. This is the “transportation” model, illustrated by a person’s head on the left, another person’s head on the right, and a double-headed dotted line arrow between them. The explanation is that one person has a concept, that through a medium this concept is carried to another person and deposited there. Noise is usually pictured within the medium, an element that distorts that which is transferred or transported.

This mechanical model is a major contributor to the misunderstanding of the art process, and leads to major failings in our culture as a whole.

In a slim volume published in 1973, Tony Schwartz criticized the transfer model, and suggested a model based on Marshal McLuhan’s “acoustic space”, wherein the person/recipient is within a circular field of center-moving concentric circular waves, moving from the outside in.

It should be obvious that the “transportation” or “transfer” model is just wrong. There is no physical transfer from brain to brain. The physicality is not realistic. Little object-units don’t get checked in at the station and sent to the brain where they are received. The blurriness of the human interface in this model is stunning in its ubuiquity.


I sent the following question to a number of friends:

“In experiencing works of art (and the rest of the world), there are sometimes phenomena that you find that say "I exist". It can strike the viewer/listener/etc. that the phenomenon exists, and that because of that (goin' down that old lonesome Cartesian road...), he (the viewer) also exists.

“Kant referred to the apperceptual, as the being conscious of one's act of perception. But is there a word that refers to the sensed object/event that generates the moment of self-awareness?”

Rabbi Pinchas Giller: “Soloveitchik used to say ‘ontic'...?”

Soloveitchik has a text distinguishing between ontic experience and ontic proof:

The trouble with all rational demonstration of the existence of God, with which the history of philosophy abounds, consists in their being exactly what they were meant to be by those who formulated them: abstract logical demonstrations divorced from the living primal experiences in which these demonstrations are rooted. For instance, the cosmic experience was transformed into a cosmological proof, the ontic experience into an ontological proof, et cetera. Instead of stating that the most elementary existential awareness as a subjective "I exist" and an objective "the world around me exists" awareness is unattainable as long as the ultimate reality of God is not part of this awareness, the theologians engaged in formal postulating and deducing in an experiential vacuum. Because of this, they exposed themselves to Hume's and Kant's biting criticism that logical categories are applicable only within the limits of the human scientific experience.”
(The Lonely Man of Faith, p. 32, note)

To the extent that one accepts that the aesthetic experience I’ve described is a variety of (or analogous to) the ontic experience referred to here by Soloveitchik, one can understand the difficulty of referring to a personal experience that cannot be included in a text that refers to that experience. The artist, moving to experience this for him or her self, works to manipulate the medium to spark that experience. To explain the experience, or to prove that it exists, is not a terrible thing to do. But it is not in itself part of the experience.

From the photographer Robert Polidori:

“Hard to answer your question.
I don't know "a" word.
But one phrase comes to mind.
M. Snow once wrote something to the effect

‘Do You see What I see?’

It's about trying to share perceptions.

Some times when someone is explaining with words something- a concept
or the perceptive result of something,
the listener can sometimes respond...

‘I see...’ "

Snow’s Wittgensteinian language game again separates the experience from a reference to it. That gap between the pointing and the invisible pointed-to.

From the writer Ethan Place:

The only word that comes to mind (that's MY mind, thank you very much) is self-reflexive or self-reflection. This guy, though not discussing art, suggests intellectual intuition:

“At its most basic, intellectual intuition can be described as a subject’s self-referential, performative actualization (N Pepperell would probably say self-reflexive here, but I figured, Why not be different?). It identifies the self with the self’s activity and what this activity produces such that the self, which is to be understood as activity simpliciter, actualizes and becomes aware of what it means to be a self through its own activity. Intellectual intuition, then, designates the self’s immediate, singular awareness of itself as both a producer of meaning as well as the content of what it produces. It encompasses - and unifies - the twofold awareness of the fact that the self simply is the activity of producing meaning, and the content of this activity. Intellectual intuition is, in other words, the union of process and product.”

Alexei,, Process and Product — Or the Self-Reflexivity of Fichte’s Intellectual Intuition

Alexei’s process is a production of self-referential meaning. This reminds me of the sudden bloom of a feedback loop that occurs when you point a video camera into a monitor attached to it…at first, the image shifts a bit, then suddenly the camera sees itself seeing itself seeing itself and a rushing kalidescope pours through the video image. By spatially manipulating the camera, one obtains not only this exhilarating sudden flowing, but a continual variety of colors and patterns as the feedback continues. Big hit back in the ‘70s.

Neither Ethan Place nor Alexei are making the claim that this intuition is the aesthetic experience. It may be, or it may be a special case variation of it. The activity described does seem isomorphic with the aesthetic experience, although the perception that the self is both producer of content and the content may not be a requisite take-away.

Both media maven Dan Restuccio and Video Producer John Mabey suggested the Japanese word “Mu”. I Googled the word and found a reference that said it was derived from the Chinese word for “nothing”. This sent me digging into my wallet to find a disintegrating paper scrap on which my Chinese professor, in college, drew for me the Chinese hieroglyph for “nothingness”, or in Mandarin “wu”. This is not the “wu” character for the number “5”, but one that is similar to a purely negative adjective (with a radical character that refers to fire or burning)…hence “nothingness”. My understanding of the Japanese word is that it is the answer to the koan:

“A monk asked Joshu, “Does a dog have the Buddha nature?” Joshu retorted, “Mu!”

As the phrase is in Maine “You can’t get there from here”.

John went on to suggest the word “empathy”. For me, this hit home. It not only worked for the aesthetic experience, but also for the “resonance” model of communication described by Schwartz.

The next answer I received was from Peter Matussek, the aesthetics scholar presently living in Siegen, Germany. I quote from his response here at length:

“Dear Robert,
please excuse me for being late as usual.
Your question points directly into what I also do claim as being the essence of art: creating self-awareness - in German: Selbstaufmerksamkeit. I think I mentioned this also in my writings on memory theaters.
There is a poem of Rainer Maria Rilke that expresses very clearly what you describe:

Archaischer Torso Apollos

Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt,
darin die Augenäpfel reiften. Aber
sein Torso glüht noch wie ein Kandelaber,
in dem sein Schauen, nur zurückgeschraubt,
sich hält und glänzt. Sonst könnte nicht der Bug
der Brust dich blenden, und im leisen Drehen
der Lenden könnte nicht ein Lächeln gehen
zu jener Mitte, die die Zeugung trug.

Sonst stünde dieser Stein entstellt und kurz
unter der Schultern durchsichtigem Sturz
und flimmerte nicht so wie Raubtierfelle;

und bräche nicht aus allen seinen Rändern
aus wie ein Stern: denn da ist keine Stelle,
die dich nicht sieht. Du mußt dein Leben ändern.

The poem describes a torso and the process of the substitution of the parts that are not visible (esp. the head and the eyes) by the imagination of the recipient.

In the last two lines the direction of looking is immediately turned around: "there is not a single part / that does not see you. You have got to change your life."

Kant may be a good reference insofar as he describes the perception of the perception of beauty as going along with the perception of an inner balance between mind and emotion (Verstand und Gefühl).

But even more I see a ground of explanation in the new theories that explain "empathy" not conventionally, as a vague psychic intuition, but as a coordination af gestures. If you have read about mirror neurons you get an idea of what I mean. This new founding suits to older theories of art history, for example Aby Warburg's "Pathosformeln" , i.e. gestures in pieces of art that "live on" through the history of mankind, because they meet collective memories of the body (Warburg had some contact with C.G. Jung, but more important is his contact with Richard Semon who coined the term "ekphoria": the process of recollection by feeling a similar bodily "energy". The famous neuroscientist Danile Schacter has recently written a book on Semon as a "neglected pioneer".)”

Mirror neurons are a class of cells discovered in 1990 in the laboratory of Giacomo Rizzolatti, a neuroscientist at the University of Parma, Italy. Dr. Rizzalatti observed the cells firing in macaque monkeys both when they perform an action, and when they see another monkey perform that same action.

In his findings, published in 1996, Dr. Rizzalatti writes “Mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation. By feeling, not by thinking."

U.S.C.’s. Michael A. Arbib, Ph.D., writes

"For communication to succeed, both the individual sending a message and the individual receiving it must recognize the significance of the sender's signal. Mirror neurons are thus the missing link in the evolution of language. They provide a mechanism for the sharing of meaning."

While still using the “sender” and “receiver” language from the transport model of communication, Dr. Arbib provides an understandable mechanism for how one comprehends a message. Supporting the “resonance” model, the individual, through empathy, engages his or her own corresponding internal model. This model does not just work for visual sensing, but extends to words, sounds, sensations and metaphor (V.S. Ramachandran, Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego).

The existence of mirror neurons, and the continued study of how they work, allows for a model of communication that, rather than relegating concepts of empathy, synaesthesia, metaphor and the aesthetic experience to the outer edges of normal communication, place them squarely at its essence.

The case for art education can now be more clearly formed, from within this new model for communication.

Can you see what I mean?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Myth, Self, Art, Synaesthesia, Metaphor

- second in a series -

“In general it can be said that myth, as experienced by archaic societies…is always related to a “creation,” it tells how something came into existence, or how a pattern of behavior, an institution, a manner of working was established; this is why myths constitute the paradigms for all significant human acts; …that by knowing the myth one knows the “origin” of things and hence can control and manipulate them at will; this is not an “external”, “abstract” knowledge but a knowledge that one “experiences” ritually, either by ceremonially recounting the myth or by performing the ritual for which it is the justification; …that in one way or another one “lives” the myth, in the sense that one is seized by the sacred, exalting power of the events recollected or re-enacted.”
Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality, pp. 18-19.

“I know a lot about objects, how they get to be what and where they are.”
Michael Snow, Letter from Michael Snow to P. Adams Sitney, Film Culture No. 46, Autumn 1967.

The mythic way of knowing articulated by Eliade is not “knowing” the way we know a recipe for a cake, or the number of miles to the moon. It is a knowing that exists in time, and exists while it is part of the knower’s experience. It requires someone to know it.

Synaesthesia, or the triggering of one sense by another, has many similarities to Eliade’s mythic experience. Through it the person experiences one stimulus as another; a flash of color as a sound, or an odor as a tactile sensation. And similarly, this connection between two disparate elements requires a person to experience it, or it does not exist. Recent research into synaesthesia posit anatomical structures that may provide for it:

“In a fascinating theory Maurer & Maurer (1988) suggested that normal infants are typically synaesthetic, with subsequent neural and synaptic pruning leading to more segregated senses in most of us (see also Maurer & Mondlach, 2005). Those few who are synaesthetic as adults are, then, those whose cross-modal connections do not wither in the same way. This theory provides a developmental mechanism and behavioral correlate for the hyperconnectivity proposed in a number of the theories discussed by Hochel & Milán (2008).”
Alex O. Holcombe, Eric L. Altschuler, & Harriet J. Over, A Developmental Theory of Synaesthesia, With Long Historical Roots. Cognitive Neuropsychology, accepted 8 Aug 2008.

Like the mythic experience of knowing, the vanishing point of synaesthesia is within the person who experiences it. It does not present itself as an objective fact, independent of the person. It empowers the person with a sensory knowledge that is personal and meaningful, and that is self-evident. Having a synaesthetic experience provides a personal history that enriches a person’s relationship with the world, a relationship that supports one’s trusting one’s senses to provide meaning about the world through its own act of creation.

This world of inner meaning is one that children know well, and it is a world that is rarely nurtured by our educational and parental institutions and practices. Even our art and music education often avoid developing these experiences, focusing instead on the more measurable skills that lead to professions.

The relations provided by the synaesthetic experience are isomorphic with metaphor. Synaesthesia provides a mode of knowing that and how two disparate phenomena share an essence. Metaphor places one language object in the syntactical space of another, leaving the individual to make sense of the unexpected displacement. Often this making sense invokes internal sounds and images, memories and imaginings, meanings and humor.

With art making, the artist engages a medium and becomes more sensitive to it, more aware of its subtleties, What is it that the artist moves toward in art making? The artist navigates, through a medium, toward the mythic state of creation, in order to experience that creation, to cause it to be, and to sense it becoming. It is not an objective truth that the artist finds. The art work is not the final object. The artist is no more a factory than Warhol was.

It is the focus on consumable product that has anaesthetized the American culture from valuing or even knowing these related experiences: the creative moment in art work, the ritual re-enactment of myth, the sensory meaning of synaesthesia. It is as though these states don’t exist, as if they are meaningless.

The desperate need this culture has, as we head into this darkest of times, is for art practice.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

The Rarified Art of the Individual

Here’s the kick: those people who stole your money? Under cover of the culture of illusion, and through the products they sold you that delayed your own self-creation, they stole your lives.

-First in a series-

With the deflation of the consumer culture that is happening all over the world today, Americans have a chance at adapting for the resulting environment.

Americans (and certainly other cultures, but certainly Americans) have for years accepted the practice of delaying the construction of a self, by spending their money—and lives—purchasing distractions. Art has been capitalized and made into objects for purchase, created by a small and distinguished tribe of specialists.

With the loss of purchasing power—so people have less ability to purchase distractions—preceded by a surge in the availability of low-cost media production tools (video and audio production, post-production and that folk-art distribution system the web) we have a corresponding surge in art making (with a lower-case “a”).

Younger generations who have grown up with computers create media easily, without a clumsy “always learn before you do” approach that was so helpful to the mechanical universe. Those at ease with computers jump right in and probe, trying one thing, learning its effect, and then trying another, burrowing into the web to find what it has to offer, or the software to find what they can produce. Alan Kay has rightly despaired of the loss of pre-planning, of an architectural approach to problem solving, in this dive-right-in approach. But the computer environment is one that rewards digital spelunking.

Instead of simply watching television for hours at a time like their parents and grandparents, a larger group is able to make their own and share it in online society. The online sites for displaying one’s own videos, or the thousands of sites for distributing one’s own musical tracks—these are the real killers of the music companies and movie theaters. That which had been the creative domain of Artists now have the floodgates open and the artists pouring their creations into them.

It is important to note that once someone has a minimal set of equipment and software, one can create for only the cost of one’s time. While every audio and video professional will argue that the quality that consumer and prosumer products can’t match that of the truly professional (and hugely expensive) equipment and software, it is absolutely the case that with today’s prosumer equipment one can produce media of higher resolution and lower noise levels than could be professionally delivered in the 1960s. Compare a HD video on with a playback of Bonanza on any CRT.

What is more important than the resolution of the new technology is the ability to produce in media iteratively. As a film student in the mid 1970s with a disabled father and a mother who was an art teacher in a public school, I didn’t have money for multiple answer prints. Filmmaking was a process of trying something, then trying something ELSE. Even editing in video, which could be done for free where I was studying, was a long and painful process involving grease pencils, two reel-to-reel decks and multiple reels of video tape that had to be wound and rewound to start points for each edit. I worked in film and video with every moment of my free time (and still do), but today the ability to revise as one goes is incredibly supportive of quick learning and quality improvement, especially when combined with a distribution and social review system that allows the creator to obtain informal and instant feedback on work in progress. And all work is work in progress.

What happened, though, was the domination of the culture of the specialist, the pouring of money into huge Hollywood projects where, by concentrating the work of hundreds of people into the production of stories of individuals, we have a slight-of-hand that further supports the unobtainable hero. Hundreds of minds and specialists are not one mind, and we addict society to watching the magical existence of screen stars to appear to make their own decisions, and overcome their own problems.

It’s not that I don’t like Benjamin Button or even Hollywood films in general. But the illusion that it has always used as its attraction has created the illusory economy and culture that is now, for a moment, shown its real structure. Here’s the kick: those people who stole your money? Under cover of the culture of illusion, and through the products they sold you that delayed your own self-creation, they stole your lives.

The aging generations who now have time but no money will logically experience mostly their loss. But a child who doesn’t have paints will scribble in the dirt. And before aboriginals were taught to paint on canvas, they painted on sand.

The desperate need this culture has, as we head into this darkest of times, is for art (small “a”) education.