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[evol-psych] Art & Literature

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  • Jose Luis Guijarro Morales
    Hola, buenas! A few days ago I asked about ideas on mind/brain activities and the description of ART (LITERATURE). Some pointed out the _Journal of
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 1, 1999
      Hola, buenas!

      A few days ago I asked about ideas on mind/brain activities and the
      description of ART (LITERATURE). Some pointed out the _Journal of
      Consciousness Studies_ issue of June/July. I have read the first two papers
      now (and the commentaries on the first one) and I must say I am a bit
      disapointed. If you are interested in knowing why, here is my own commentary:

      In my cultural environment we say that the human being is the only animal
      that stumbles twice on the same stone. It certainly looks amazing that,
      after more than fifty years of cognitive studies, when at last some
      scientists try to bridge the gap between art and science they repeat old
      misconceptions. These misconceptions are, to my knowledge, almost eradicated
      in cognitive linguistic studies on figures of speech, such as metaphor,
      metonymy, etc. (Lakoff (1993), Gibbs (1994), Sperber & Wilson (1986/95),
      etc. etc. and etc.). Nobody pretends in these fields that they are the "laws
      of Literature". On the contrary, they have been proved ordinary ways of
      human communication that some writers use, of course, in communicating their
      artistic messages. And yet, when we come to the visual arts, there seems to
      be a new stone in which people keep stumbling once and again. What really
      astonishes me is that these scientists are either neurobiologists or
      cognitivists, people who study the human brain or the human mind with strong
      causal constraints in their methodology. An yet, many (if not all) miss the
      first requirement that Noam Chomsky proposed more than forty years ago for a
      research to be considered scientific: the level of OBSERVATIONAL adequacy.

      To what object/event are the authors referring to when they speak about
      "art"? Are they talking about the (mental and/or social) behaviour of the
      artists when they engage in creation (?), or about the reactions of the
      beholders when they watch the results of that behaviour, or is it the
      quality of these results themselves that are at stake? To tell you the
      truth, after a few readings of the paper (and the commentaries) I could not
      make it out -maybe the real reason is my poor English or, worse, my
      deficient brain /mind!

      The first thing to do, from my point of view, is to be sure wether we are
      all thinking about the same thing here. This is the problem I find with some
      of the criticisms to the central paper: they are really talking about
      something else which, unluckily, they do not try to pinpoint either. As it
      is, I think that a lot of ideas (most of them, actually, as far as I can
      judge) in both the central paper and in the commentaries are indeed
      interesting and might be very useful if they be properly framed in a true
      cognitive hypothesis about art.

      Let me try to show what I understand could be a way to start a cognitive
      (i.e., scientific) hypothesis about ART. I am, professionally, a linguist of
      the Chomskyan persuasion. Maybe this is the reason why I tend to view human
      social phenomena as deriving from human communication. My first idea, then,
      was to think art was a kind of communicative behaviour that might be
      describable (in some algorithmic way) and, later, explained (in the natural
      selection framework). Now, cognitive studies in human communication
      received, from my point of view, a tremendous benefit from the work of
      Sperber and Wilson.

      It became apparent to me that art could not be considered a type of
      communicative behaviour, they way Sperber and Wilson masterly describe it.
      They make an exhaustive account of the effects communicative behaviour has
      in order to be relevant for people. But what is more important, they study
      the ways of the mind in directing this sort of behaviour. And this was the
      light that affected my turning point in considering the object/event "art".
      Let me give you a couple of linguistic examples to illustrate their idea.

      Suppose we have the following two statements:

      1. I will come tomorrow
      2. John has always been very intelligent

      Ever since Austin and Searle, we know that (1) can be a promise or a threat,
      among other things, according to the context in which they are processed.
      Austin and Searle said they could be different speech acts. But, although
      they explained how one could distinguish them, they never tried to explain
      why they were different. Anyway, it was a beginning. Ever since Grice, we
      know that (2) can mean what it says (i.e, that John has a positive mental
      quality) or imply the opposite (that John is some kind of mug) if we are
      able to use the flouting of the maxim "be true" in this particular case for
      communicative purposes. Again, Grice did never explain why this happened
      that way, although the importance of the context was mentioned here as well.

      Sperber and Wilson are cognitive researchers (which, neither Austin, Searle,
      nor Grice were) and so they describe, not only how those two messages and
      many others work like they do, but also why indeed. I am not going to go
      into all the details, but only in the essential part of the argument. For
      Sperber and Wilson, we are able to treat information in different ways. This
      ability is what they call attitude. So, humans have different attitudes that
      change the way we process incoming information. Thus, in example (2), if the
      contextual information is for instance, the idea that John, who is already
      forty, still believes in Santa Klaus, the apparent contradiction is solved
      by processing (2) as if it came with an implicit injunction "process this
      message with an ironic attitude". They then explain the selective value of
      some of these attitudes.

      I propose to consider "art", from a cognitive point of view as an (or a
      series of) attitude(s) in Sperber & Wilson's terms. The very same process
      that changes the above message meanings into different speech acts or senses
      is basically at the origin of what we call art. Only in this way, mind you,
      can one explain why we are able to perceive art in a broom hanging from the
      walls of a modern art museum, or in a war report (my favourite example!) as
      Caesar's De Bellum Civile. It all depends on your attitude to it. There is a
      very poignant example of this in a De Sica film of the early fifties,
      Miracolo a Milano, in which the protagonist, Toto, convinces his very poor
      neighbors of one of the derelict slums of that northern Italian city to
      gather and watch the sun go down as an artistic performance. He succeeds so
      well that when the sun disappears, everybody starts applauding with great
      relish. You need not have a "peak shift law" to explain this kind of
      artistic experience, though I am sure this effect may appear in many
      examples of art, as anything else might!

      A scientific discussion on art, at least one that would make any sense to my
      poor understanding, would have to agree or disagree FIRST on the concrete
      object/event I have tried to name with that abstract word art. I am certain
      that there might be disagreement even on that first move, but I want to know
      why and, also, if there is a better object/event for the picking. Then, when
      we would have agreed on that, we should proceed to describe it as clearly as
      possible. Algorithms that order representational transformations (i.e., a
      kind of Turing machine) would perhaps be an acceptable way. However, some
      might prefer PDP approaches. I know of no other possible explicit means to
      describe mind processes, though I admit they might exist and be explanatory
      in a full sense. If they do, they should be explained as well. I have, of
      course, my own ideas on the development of this research, but my main
      purpose here is to ask interested people in finding a common ground where
      our efforts might be of any collective use. It is the only way I can think
      of to start building a workable cognitive theory of art.

      Hast'adios! (this is the popular and slang version of "bye-bye" in my part
      of the world)


      Jose Luis Guijarro Morales
      Departamento de Filologia Francesa e Inglesa
      Facultad de Filosofia y Letras
      Universidad de Cadiz
      Bartolome Llompart s.n.
      11002 Cadiz (Spain)
      TfÂș (34)956.015.526
      Fax (34)956.220.444
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