A&O at ORICL – day 1/5


Friday Feb 8, 2019



BY NATURAL HISTORY I mean the perspectives embraced by DEEP ETHOLOGY:   

·        DEEP is an acronym for four main perspectives of biology (Development, Ecology, Evolution and Physiologists) and

·        ETHOLOGY is comparative psychology with a (very) strong emphasis on behavior expressed in a natural environment. 


Our interest in human behavior appreciates that at any level of organization (from cell to society) our behavior-of-interest occurs at the INTERSECTION of the four disciplines.  That is, to most fully understand the causes and consequences of a behavioral pattern we must be able to appreciate its development, ecology, evolution, and physiology.


To see how this way of looking at behavior articulates with our class and discussions take a look at some recent writings on EXISTENTIAL PHENOMENOLOGY


Look also at the our A&O website on CONNECTIONS

To understand the problems and possible solutions we will play and/or wrestle with in class,  I hope we can become familiar with some ideas from both art and science (as traditionally viewed) that have stood out to me over the years. (“over the years” = we have to be wary of getting stuck in the past: knowledge has a half-life, like drugs or atoms undergoing radioactive decay)

To get ahead of questions you may have, this is a seminar and its focus is on conversation about our theme, the biology of art and aesthetic experience.  We all read some core readings to have  shared experience, we all discuss, and we will all pursue the tangents we find personally attractive.  We are hunters and gatherers. 

The greatest problem we have is communications:

  • We want to KNOW and be KNOWN
  • We want to establish a community of understanding
  • We can use our culturally received ideas about ART and BIOLOGY as a though they constituted a converging spiraling helix of threads of information from inside ourselves and from outside as we balance our INDIVIDUALITY with our SOCIALITY.


Sometimes I use obscure words—they have less baggage, especially applied out of their usual context—and since words are the principal medium we are stuck with, we can try to make the best of it.  For example:

Last year, I Asked people to look at article on Marina Abramović’s 700 hour performance at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in a piece called The Artist is Present. (Arthur Danto compared his time with Abramović to ‘a shamanic trance’, and described the show as ‘magic’ in The New York Times. More than 1,500 people came and sat with Abramović, and 750,000 attended as observers.)

 LINK: marina-abramovic-at-moma-in-2010


This brings up issue of WORDS  and my gloss on the article was words might refer to things with more-or-less precision, but can never be the things (unless the thing is the word); we are satisfied when for practical purposes we agree sufficiently to move on in a mutually satisfying way ..the understanding is “good enough.”   In other words, words are not the things they represent: “The map is not the territory.” (“A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness—Alfred Korzybski 1948:58)[i] and see Borges on the map-maker [ii] 


 [all experience may be ineffable – we simply look for the best approximation of what we believe – and (to minimize dissonance) either what we perceive or think or express can be “tweaked” to make the imprecision less uncomfortable.]   [BEST APPROXIMATION of TRUTH can refers to the highest ambition of all communications –particularly in SCIENCE; sometimes spoken of as an asymptote of truth –always approaching but never touching the lines that frame it.]

 “But what about the ineffable knowledge that we might gain during a performance by Abramović, or in a moment of religious ecstasy, or when we are moved by a piece of music? [or when a scholar goes AHA!] Chasing the origins of the unsayable doesn’t account for how inexpressible experiences can affect, enable and transform us. Perhaps there is no universal answer, but that shouldn’t stop us from reflecting on the question. ‘If philosophy can be defined at all,’ Adorno said, ‘it is an effort to express things one cannot speak about.’”  [I believe that the effort itself affects—enlarges the repertoire and competence of—the perpetually developing person.  In the maelstrom of continual disintegration and renewal which is a sentient self –always changing and yet the same> how does that work?] [appropriate connection: In Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous attempt to clarify the relation between language and reality, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922), he concluded: “What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.]


The Abramović art “performance” at MOMA, also brings up the very interesting ETHOLOGICAL issue of EYE CONTACT.  We affect each other by eye-contact, even physiologically (the oxytocin-gaze positive loop) and even with (some) other species (e.g., dogs: see Nagasawa et al., 2015)    Take a look at a recent BBC article, “WHY MEETING ANOTHER’S GAZE IS SO POWERFUL” by By Christian Jarrett (8 January 2019 http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20190108-why-meeting-anothers-gaze-is-so-powerful?ocid=ww.social.link.email )  (compare the ideas emerging to what Eugene Delacroix said of painting as a means of communication)

Gratuitous philosophical allusion: “We know more and more about less and less until we eventually know everything about nothing” —Einstein

 Soon we will speak about DESCRIPTION and its sometimes subtle but always critical contribution to insight about a phenomenon … but always keep in mind, words constrain as much as they enable expression and thinking about experience—what you see and feel and think. 


As an art student I learned words that had no baggage– their meanings were completely new to me but referred to ideas that were nevertheless important.  A few Japanese terms for aesthetic qualities not easily otherwise described.  


  • Wabi: a subjective feeling evoked by an object; unassuming, solitary, calm, quiet, still, impoverished or unpretentious; melancholic, lonely, desolate (classic image: abandoned fisherman’s shack on a lonely beach buffeted by a strong wind on a gray wintry day)
  • Sabi: ancient, mature, seasoned, serene, mellowed, antique; lonely, solitary or melancholic (classic image: patina and signs of age/wear on a treasured antique)
  • Shibui: restrained, quiet, composed, understated, reserved, sedate; refined, elegant (classic images: a single delicate flower breaching cracks in a sidewalk; the quiet understated elegance of a formal tea ceremony)
  • Yugen: profound, uncertain, subtle; dark and mysterious (classic image: moon shining behind a veil of clouds, or the morning mist veiling a mountainside)

[i].  Alfred Korzybski 1948:58)  Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics. (3rd edition) The International Non-Aristotelian Publishing Co, Lakeville CT)[ “The map is not the thing mapped” epigraph by Eric. T. Bell to Korzybski’s Chapter XVIII; also, “an ideal map is self-reflexive” (Royce) in Supplement III, p 751.


[ii]  “On Exactitude in Science” by  Jorge Luis Borges…In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.”  link

Collected Fictions, translated by Andrew Hurley.  —Suarez Miranda,Viajes devarones prudentes, Libro IV,Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658   https://kwarc.info/teaching/TDM/Borges.pdf