A&O Class Notes for Jan 22, 2019

A&O Class Notes for January 22, 2019

At our last class meeting  I spoke of how the idea of DEEP ETHOLOGY will provide the biological “backbone” for our reading and discussion this Spring …  And then  I tried to emphasize the importance of CONNECTIONS, the problems with (and the power of)  WORDS (and the value of new words, with some examples).    I now want to discuss howEXISTENTIAL PHENOMENOLOGY structures some of our thinking in class–these intimidating terms are actually quite simple.   We should appreciate how WEIRD we are–how a collection of key biases that has permeated scholarship in psychology.  (Read  how WEIRD we are at BIASES – Congenital and Acquired)

Withe respect to MEANING (I hope what we say has more-or-less meaning, but is the meaning the same for me?  i.e., how well do we understand each other?) … to push this, let’s read Mark Johnson on “meaning and the body”

Of course, all this is about the problem of communication (a special form of “connecting”) … and so this is at the root of what it means to participate in a culture  (such as that of ART or SCIENCE), from observing artists or scientists or their works and being affected (or not) by information being communicated — to integrating these experiences with previous experiences (now nicely tucked someplace in your brain, but eager to be corroborated and/or to be enlarged), and hos this new you will ACT in the world.  (More soon when we discuss COGNITION and INPUT-INTEGRATION-OUTPUT model that structures communicating from cells to civilizations –an how that works in us as individuals)

Speaking of Communication: I think the FIRST order of communications with one’s self –tucking new information into your “text” (think of weaving a textile) and creating the most satisfying connections:  Read an excerpt from Oliver Sacks’ writing on memory, narrative, and personhood

 PREVIOUSLY POSTED by e-mail:  Two items that emerged on Jan 15 that I wanted to visit are

  • “Turner’s Red Dot.”  about how a tiny fragment of a large painting can affect a viewer’s perception. I saved a story about this famous incident in art history (with some connections) at https://neilgreenberg.com/ao-anecdote-turners-smudge/   The story became more generally well-known after a popular move (“Mr. Turner”) was released in 2014.  (Our class site MAY force a password challenge—(I can’t yet tell at my end) .. if so, please let me know)
  • Larger issue is how small variables can nonconsciously affect what you perceive and/or the order in which you see them–both can profoundly affect meaning.

KNOWING-to-REALIZING [Visit “the parable of the two French philosophers.”] –this is a vocabulary issue about the depth of one’s consciousness about a phenomenon. (Art is often judged by the depth from which it was retrieved within the artist and the depth to which it can penetrate within the observer.)  The way I’ve used the term (after some research into convention & tradition) builds on the distinction.  So that is what I did in a recent publication where it refers to a phenomenon in education theory called “transformative learning.

“An awareness of a change in one’s worldview that imparts a sense of mastery of new ideas; a conscious accommodation of new information, rather than mere assimilation (sensu Piaget); a paradigm shift from merely knowing course content to realizing its relevance in one’s personal and professional life (Greenberg et al., 2015 and also in a new book by my research team)

We can talk about “accommodation” versus “assimilation” in class next week: it’s a key distinction in child development theory but (I think) can obviously can occur throughout one’s life.  Also, you can see that It is a little like an epiphany—the  “AHA!” or “EUREKA!” experience of sudden understanding.  You might be searching for such understanding  or it might suddenly occur unbidden.  Also, many artists use the term (as in “this project I’ve been working on is now fully realized”—“It’s finished”) and it seems connected to the idea of “making real” (as opposed to merely hypothetical).  (we can talk later about whether works of art are ever really “finished.” … Is a research project a “work of art?”) (philosophy majors: this bears on the famous dichotomy between “IDEAL” and “REAL”) (just to kick off a possible conversation on this, one artists perspective was developed in a statement at his blog: https://rynoswart.wordpress.com/2010/09/26/ideal-v-real/  –think about the implications of painting from nature or from memory—we will have important information on the biology of memory later)



INFORMATION.  Sometimes we will look at a work of art and consider the biology; sometimes we will look at biology and  consider how it affects the creation or perception of works of art.  In particular the paths that information follows as it flows in and out of us…and what happens to it along the way.

STIMULI (sensory exploitation): read notes on the INPUT of information: sensations, perceptions.

MUTUAL UNDERSTANDING:  Let us MIND-MAP a couple of familiar ideas to see how different our conceptions of them are.  This exercise underscores the difficulties of definitions (versus personal meanings),  the imperfections of communicating with words, and gets us more deeply into PHENOMENOLOGY (where it is closely related to the idea of “intersubjectivity”).  We will try to steer around the “Fog of Philosophy.”


The BIOLOGY of ART and AESTHETIC EXPERIENCE begins with the NATURAL HISTORY of ideas –look at the website on DEEP ETHOLOGY:   

To see how we look at things in this class, take a look at some recent writings on EXISTENTIAL PHENOMENOLOGY.
Look also at the our A&O website and click on CONNECTIONS )
  • WORDS: Considering the pros and cons of communicating with words, check our website on words: [WORDS (https://neilgreenberg.com/ao-words/] –it includes links to a collection of NEW WORDS:  ideas and examples and some words you may never have seen or heard before but which are strangely useful.  

Look into 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, wordsare 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)

 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 important to me. A few Japanese terms for aesthetic qualities not easily otherwise described.  (can you find some specific real-world situations where these terms apply?)

·        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)

A few other terms new to me that I’ve encountered in recent months:

·        Flâneur: like a tourist exploring new territory who is passionately interested and yet disconnected (does that mean more objective?)    ( link to essay in Paris Review ) Are you a flâneur in A&O?

·        Razliubut: Russian to fall out of love;  and Toska: Russian for insatiable longing (homesick? Lovesick?).

[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

Professor Emeritus, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville.