Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Description and the Teleome, Part 2

In yesterday’s post, Deep Learning, the Teleome, and Description, I argued the rich descriptions of art objects—literary texts, musical compositions and performances, paintings, and so forth—are reasonable proxies for what theoretical psychologist Mark Changizi has called the teleome:
the ultimate catalog of an animal’s what-it-does-es. The teleome is something along the lines of the set of all the capabilities our brains and bodies were selected to carry out. It is our set of powers, or the set of things we can do, or our function list.
I now want to say a bit more about why I think the careful study of art is central to arriving at an understanding of the human teleome.

Perception and Cognition in Context

I note first that Changizi has defined the teleome with respect to all animals and that, in his work he has considered a wide range of animal species. Thus, for example, in his work on binary vision (The Vision Revolution, chapter 2: “X-Ray Vision”), he surveyed information on eye position and orientation (side-facing or front-facing) in a wide range of species to reach his conclusion that binary vision isn’t about depth perception, it’s about seeing ‘through’ occlusions (grass, leaves) in front of the face. That is, he considered the visual system in the context of its use. It’s not merely that the eye-brain system evolved to see, but that it evolved to see in particular environments and so has become adapted to the visual affordances of those environments.

What then is the context for human artistic expression? Other people, that’s what. This is so obvious that it amounts to a truism. But in the context of 20th century academia, which, of course, is hanging on in this 21st century, that truism has a bit of a punch. In the case of literary criticism, my “home” discipline, the intellectual culture has been molded by an implicit core belief that criticism is an intimate “conversation” between the critic and the text in which the critic explores the recesses of his or her soul. The critic would then, of course, publish his or her reading and so enter into scholarly communion with other critics using literary texts to explore the recesses of their souls.

Now, few critics, living or dead, would actually subscribe to those words; most, I suspect, would object to them, and vigorously. After all, isn’t a lot of criticism about how texts form and mis-inform the minds of whole friggin’ societies? Yes, but, in my view, such moves are like the cycles upon cycles Ptolemaic astronomers had to employ to resolve the gap between their observations of planetary movement and their model, which put the earth at the center of the system. The center of academic literary criticism is the Cartesian subject, the lone mind in search of the external world and of other minds.

Given that starting point, the business of figuring out what the text means—a text, after all, that is external to the critic—is deeply problematic. It is from that difficulty that academic criticism developed a rich and elaborate array of conceptual epicycles.

Art is for Groups

When I set out to do a book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil, I simply tossed that Cartesian starting point to the winds. I didn’t even bother to mount much of an argument that against it. I simply declared that it’s not going to get us anywhere and dropped it.

I replaced it with the assertion that, when a group of people are making music, the sounds that they all perceive in common serve to couple their minds into a single dynamical system, one distributed over several physical bodies. At that time I also made the obvious generalization that all art is like that. But I did so only in my mind and my notes, not in the text of Beethoven’s Anvil. Why not go for the generalization in public? Because my specific argument about music was cut to fit the physical circumstances of music making. Any generalization would require work to refit the model to the different circumstances of, say, story telling, reading a book, looking at a painting, and so forth.

I still haven’t done that work nor, as far as I know, has anyone else. One issue, is that (films and the like excepted) visual arts are not arrayed in time. One, of course, views them in time, but the work itself doesn’t dictate the course of the viewing in the way that a musical performance does. Another problem is that, once a work has been inscribed in some more or less permanent medium (written text for verbal art, recordings for music, visual art, of course, is created in a more or less permanent medium) people can view it at different times and places. That being the case, how can we say that the work couples all those people into a single dynamical system? But, for the purposes of this post, I’ll overlook these issues.

You might, however, want to read the account of oral story telling I offer in, e.g. this post: Seven Sacred Words: An Open Letter to Steven Pinker.

Thus, as I’ve said above, the context of artistic expression is other people. The art work, whether it’s a musical performance, a poem, a story, a play, a painting, a drawing, a piece of sculpture, whatever, a work of art couples people’s minds and bodies into a single dynamical system. Given that, the question we must ask, then, is: What features must the work have in order to facilitate that coupling?

My interest in describing works of art follows directly from that question. I want to craft descriptions that set forth the various features, the affordances if you will, that allow the art work to be a medium for coupling between physically distributed minds. In the case of music the single most important feature, but certainly not the only one, is music—which I explicated at some length in Beethoven’s Anvil.

This approach, it seems to me, is consistent with and complimentary to Changizi’s work in both The Vision Revolution (the work on writing systems in particular) and Harnessed. The general form of his argument is like this: The visual and auditory systems evolved to perceive certain kinds of features, ones most relevant to surviving and thriving. When humans decided to create these artificial systems, writing and music, they necessarily crafted them to fit the perceptual capacities of the visual and auditory systems. That’s why writing and music have certain features but not others.

My approach to art is, in effect, an extension of that approach. Art exists to connect individual minds with one another, thus: What features must it have in order to do that? I look at formal features because they’re the ones the perceptual system seeks out in order.... Well, you know, it’s tricky.

Let’s consider a crude analogy. Determine the value of the following arithmetic expression:
23 – 10 * 2
The expression is ambiguous. Its value could be 26 or it could be 3 depending on which operation you carry out first, addition or multiplication. The ambiguity can be resolved by inserting parentheses, which clarifies the expression’s form.

The problem with simply carrying that analogy over to art is that it’s not at all clear to me just how we partition art works into features of form and features of content. But that’s a big and complicated discussion. Suffice it to suggest that many (most? all?) formal features derive from the nature of the artistic medium and so dictate how an art-work is taken up by the mind. As a practical matter, there will almost always be features that are obviously formal. We can start descriptive work there. Beyond that, we just have to wade in and see how things work.

Art as Simulation: The Teleome Revealed

Now, let’s return to the notion of art as simulation, which I introduced in my previous post. The general idea is that we use the same mental capabilities in understanding art as we use in understanding and acting in real life. It’s just that those capabilities are being run in VIRTUAL mode, not REAL mode. Given that, I assert that, if you want to understand how a wide range of human capabilities interact in a real setting—for art is something that humans really do and value—you can’t do any better than to investigate how the mind comprehends art.

What we’d really like to know is: How does the mind work in real life, millisecond by second by minute by hour by day by week by month, by year, by lifetime. But there’s no way we can get sustained and detailed observations of the mind inn operation, much less create controlled experiments. Yes, anthropologists live among a people and observe what they do and talk with them. The fill up scads of note books, make voice recordings and video tapes, and so forth. But, rich as that record is, it’s no where near complete—as if we can even image what a complete record would be like. Psychologists can ask people to keep diaries about this or that experience, and they can give people devices that chime at more or less random times and ask them to note what they were doing at that moment. Things like that. But again, nowhere near a complete record.

Imagine, for a moment, that we could somehow magically get a complete record of a person’s life and that we could somehow magically cope with a pile of data whose magnitude rivals the collected contents of the world’s libraries. What would it tell us? Because that record is inextricably intertwined with the world in which the person moves and acts; it shows the teleome in interaction with the world. Are we going to extend that record of a single individual into the records of all the people he or she comes in contact with? What about the animals, and plants, and the rocks and lakes?

The point of about art is that its environment is people, not the whole world, but just people. In some sense the artistic medium is transparent. The sheet of paper doesn’t care what the writer puts on it, nor does it care what the artist draws. It knows no difference between a historical novel and a fairy tale, nor between a portrait of a king and a drawing of a chimera. But language has its own properties which the writer must deal with and the artists must deal with the visual properties of the image. The medium, if you will, imposes form, but not content.

As far as content goes, the artist is free. The mind can do whatever it wants FREE of pressure from the external world. The teleome is on its own.

But, of course, as any artist in any medium will tell you, the mind is not completely free. But the constraints imposed in art are not those of living in the world, but those of the artistic medium and of the mind itself. Those constraints reflect the operations of the teleome itself.

It follows—as the night the day—that our best bet for understanding the mind in all its richness and complexity is through understanding artistic expression. And that understanding requires that we compile a body of rich descriptions of works of art. That’s not sufficient, not by any means. But if we want to advance our understanding much beyond its present point, it is necessary.

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