Full Spectrum Aesthetics: Process Ontology, Normativity, and Speculations on the Category Theoretical Approach

October 17, 2015

This post was initially inspired by a recent comment by Ben Woodard, which noted a tendency to emphasize either an internal or external emergent causality with regards to the relation between the natural and normative:

“I think I’ve been slowly circling around something resembling a shared philosophical terrain in the last few months. It seems to be a territory that moves across the analytic-continental bridge to do philosophy as philosophy, and that presents a spectrum of internalists that wish to preserve ontology (this is how I see one reading of Sellars’ nominalism+naturalism for instance) and externalists who wish to preserve representation (Longo, Zalamea etc). In other terms, this spectrum could simply be that which emphasizes human action and that which emphasizes the contingent outside. But what seems very important, given recent philosophical developments, is how the starting point of the internal, and the external, is defined. In his recent talk on Sellars, Ray connects externalism with the phenomenological tradition in that it emphasizes sentience over sapience. But this seems very different from how someone like Longo would emphasize something like intentionality being built out of sentient acts (such as awareness and motility). On the other side, the deontological cut of an emphasis on normativity can be taken as overly-isolating human acts from their extra-normative consequences but only if reasonability is taken as sui generis in a very particular way. In a more continental vein, it would be a territory that sees a diverse landscape between Badiou and Deleuze, where the local efficacy of the cut is not different in kind from the experiments and discoveries of the outside which inform and resist such capacities in equal measure. This seems to suggest that an ontological dissolution of the human is not in contrast with, but is in fact made possible by, an epistemological assurance given the capacity of human reason. Thus, contemporary continental allergies to epistemology as inherently anthrocentric, as well as analytic avoidance of ontological structure as unnecessary, both overemphasize the other side’s fixing of the human in the fabric of the world.”

To briefly reiterate Woodard’s thought, as best I understand it, the divide lies with how we take the origin of the structuring relations of conscious representation. That is, while certain thinkers regard representation (including internalist forms of semantic representation) as emerging from external pre-conceptual resources such as bodily motor-sensory capacity and causal responses from the environment, the internalists emphasize the role of apperception aside from the ontological and causal structures which may instantiate it, giving primacy to the normative, conceptual, and semantic forms whose rules govern conscious thought. Neither denies the unity of mind with the natural world (thus granting it some causal/ontological basis), and neither denies the importance of concepts, language, and norms. As Daniel Sacilotto points out in his response to Woodard, the distinction seems to arise with a priority of description – that is, does one build up from some metaphysical assumptions and attempt to link the natural world into the mind through a rigorous description of the causal processes which emerge into higher level activity such as conscious representation, or must one begin from a Kantian agnosticism and methodologically approach the formal conceptual resources which allow us the posit an underlying ontology. We seem to therefore be left with the classic epistemology/metaphysics divide, though I doubt any one of the thinkers Ben mentions falls squarely into one of these camps. Sellars himself, while maintaining the primarily Kantian trajectory, was optimistic about the possibility of ontology via some future science.

This issue for me, however, raises some interesting questions as to how we view art. Oftentimes art is considered preconceptual, due to its engagement with the senses and its typically object-bound format. Nonetheless, it remains a human activity, filtered through the intellect and only fully appreciable in its cultural role. Contemporary art’s recent enamorment with Object Oriented Philosophy is just one example in a series of attempts to grapple with the bifurcated nature of artwork and squarely pen its philosophical territory. This turn to objects was, of course, an extreme reaction to the thoroughgoing correlationism that had previously marked recent aesthetics, placing art on the side of the subject to such an exclusionary degree that its entire edifice was said to consist of nothing more than human relations. As Peter Wolfendale notes, OOP simply sidesteps this issue, talking past the role of human relations in order to focus us on object relations, where the true ontological character of the artwork mysteriously withdraws from our presence, while leaving us with a residue of “allure” (Wolfendale, 385). In a sense, these two frames for art, while ostensibly opposed, are congruent, simply differing in the methodological primacy of ontology or epistemology, but neither truly working across the barrier that separates subject from object.

Amongst those who have followed in Sellars’ footsteps, Joanna Seibt has proposed a normativity gradient, which frames the ontological and normative aspects of Sellars’ philosophy in a process ontology. What follows will be an abbreviated read on parts of Sellars philosophy, and so will not catch all the nuances and implications: Recall that Sellars begins in the deontic mode, specifying the limits of knowledge: his attack against the given is intended to cleanly sever the grounding discourse which directly links causes and concepts, as causal inputs do not serve as the right kind of things to act as knowledge. Direct experience or knowledge from the senses is impossible without a battery of concepts within which to frame that experience. For, to make a judgement of something as something, we must already have the conceptual resources for considering it to be such and so. Sellars argues that we acquire our concepts from being trained within the rules of a language game by a language speaking community. The tokens of the language are only meaningful, in so far as they relate to the other tokens in the game, and it is the system of their deployment in relation to one another which generates the coherence and rules of the game. However, since Sellars is at pains to distance the conceptual capacities of language from empirical grounding, there arises the mystery of how it is that the words we speak seem to relate to the world. He proposes an isomorphy between the structure of the world and what he calls “picturing”. Picturing is the production of a pre-conceptual signifying acts (in the Peircean sense of “sign”) in three-dimensional space. Sellars deploys the analogy of a robot with an advanced logic system punching a tape as it traverses its environment, gradually building a more and more detailed map of the features of that environment as it continues to come across new data. The syntax of the robot’s logic functionally relates the patterns on the tape in a manner analogous to our own language. While the real objects of the environment are not recorded on the tape, the functional mapping comes to match the pattern of the environment, as new points of reference correspond to new logical relations. (Johnson)

Seibt proposes a spectrum of behavior between what she calls Humean and Aristotelian navigation (Seibt). While Humean navigation is identified more with motor-sensory response, the Aristotelian system is driven by inferential resources and the abstract capacities of concepts and opening more broadly to language and normative construction. While she is careful to remain perspicuous about the exact ontology involved, for Seibt, this spectrum allows us to formally identify the features of a range of potential dynamic navigational systems, which may present different, overlapping, and functionally coupled means of responding to environmental changes. This distinction between Humean and Aristotelian navigation should not be taken as a hard ontological division, absent any scientific backing, but rather a bracketing of a gradation of multiple levels of cognitive capacity for analytic purposes.

Seibt picks up the dynamic elements in Sellars’ speculations on a future ontology, recognizing that there are two types of physical systems described — those which feature into our mechanistic approximation of the world (particles, and other entities which are regarded basic in our scientific descriptions), and those which form the more generalized fabric of the underlying reality as an ongoing process, including the dynamic activity of conscious beings. Sellars is hopeful that the latter may be more fully captured as we reach the ideal image of science, but whatever the case, Seibt’s point is that the linear causal explanation which has too long figured into our existing framework is inadequate for capturing the dynamic emergent processes which characterize consciousness. The reliance on objects and mechanistic-causes misses certain features of complexity theories which are more open to emergent processes and downward causation, suggesting a dynamic structuralism (see: Ladyman’s Structural Realism, for instance). We should therefore characterize certain local regions or levels of processes in relation with one-another. To turn back to the earlier consideration of the Sellarsian picturing relation, Seibt offers a means of conceptualizing this analogy in multiple dynamic layers. Humean navigation, or sensory awareness might provide pre-conceptual dynamic maps of our environment, and feed into the lowest layer of Aristotelian navigation: awareness as. Up from this level of understanding we begin to pierce the processes which characterize language and rule-governed normative behaviour. Importantly, the various levels of these navigation systems, though constrained in distinct ways, can influence one another. This should be clear when she notes both the dependence of Aristotelian navigation upon Humean pre-conceptual awareness, and its supervenience in characterizing certain episodes as awareness of something in conceptual terms. This low-level Aristotelianism could be seen as analogous with the moment of Sellars’ robot indexing features of the environment which it recognizes as distinct from previously recorded features. Indeed, Seibt recognizes that this conceptual (but pre-linguistic) threshold of representation may be a cognitive capacity shared amongst non-human animals and potential AIs.

In humans, this pre-linguistic, but nonetheless conceptual activity may be related to the suite of behaviours typically captured by mimesis. The critical theorist Theodor Adorno attempted to hold the line between mimesis and linguistic representation, the latter of which he regarded as instrumentalist; an exchange medium tainted with the dominance of enlightenment rationality. Jameson notes that Adorno’s conception of “mimesis” is somewhat idiosyncratic, which functions for him as a ‘primal relationship of subject and object’, and is bordered, on the one hand, by an instinctual and animalistic mimicry, and on the other, by the animistic metaphoricalism of “sympathetic magic” (James George Frazer). For Adorno, art incarnated mimesis as the refuge in which the free play of expression formed a dialectical subtraction of the dominant rational order and produce a new difference. However, Adorno’s critique of rationality is complex, and recognizes both a “good” and “bad” rationalism (dialectical and analytic, respectively). Art is also considered to have a rational character, and displays a positive rationality by working against domination through its demonstration of the dialectical interplay of mimesis and rationality. This is not wholly objectionable (and would seem to fit well with the process perspective I have been developing), except that, in his attempt to superate mimesis from language, Adorno sacrifices the very conditions to knowledge which Sellars methodically prys from giveness. As Jameson remarks:

“The central tension in Adorno’s aesthetics is that between his central project of desubjectifying the analysis of aesthetic phenomena and his commitment – inevitable, one would think, in any attempt to prolong the traditional framework of philosophical aesthetics – to the description of aesthetic experience:. some last remnant of absolutely subjective categories which the desubjectifying impulse cannot wish to dissolve. What happens, of course) is that under these circumstances aesthetic experience retreats into the ineffable and the unsayable: since anything that can be said or formulated or thematized about it at once fails into the force field of the desubjectifying dialectic and is transformed into symptoms and evidence of objective processes” (Jameson, 123)

Adorno’s insistence upon the vital place of mimesis as a rupture within the normative order is finally translated as a theology of the objectivity of the art work, a position which, though it arises from a deontic injunction towards the thing in-itself, finally forsakes any transcendental reconstitution of the object under a rule-based practice. The conceptual content which could bind the recognition of the object as a concept is considered tainted by the very constraints which language must impose upon its expression, and therefore inadequate to offering even a partial solution for the aporia of the object. Unlike Seibt’s position, which sees the space between different levels of cognitive navigation as traversing and reinforcing one another’s capacities, Adorno attempts to frame mimesis in a position beyond both the merely animal and the calculative cuts of reason. For Adorno, art occupies unique puncture in the veil of human thought, mediating the mystery of the real by virtue of its negative signification. Art finally only appears as a symptom of the failure of thought’s ability to grasp its object. We must therefore accept the artwork as a given object, for anything which could conceptually contextualize it can only be registered as a sign of its significance, but one has no better reason for judging it worthy of attention other than the enumeration of its interpretants (in the Peircean sense).

Consider it this way: Shannon entropy is often used to measure the amount of information in an object, by calculating the degree of randomness contained within any given string of information. Very random strings may have more Shannon entropy than very structured strings, since it is difficult to predict the appearance of new bit of information in a random string. But, even though long random strings could have more information than very short well structured strings, they may not be very relevant or interesting. Without a capacity to decide the relevance or structure of various interpretations, the sheer number of interpretations tells us very little about the significance of the object at hand.

Ray Brassier critiqued Adorno’s attempt to parse mimesis from nature in his book Nihil Unbound, arguing that the bulwarks Adorno erects to fully disentangle the unique access of this cognitive behavior do not sufficiently register the inorganic base which remains its substrata. I will attempt a different tact here – arguing that anthropic mimesis must also be considered in light of the linguistic and normative capacities of the human. To go still further, I speculate that it is the transversal between the inorganic and the synthetic products of reason, constituted as a complex process, and achieved as a rational synthesis of that process, which allows us to judge the significance of an artwork.

The cognitive scientist Merlin Donald identifies mimesis simply by its associated functions: “The term mimesis describes a cluster of capacities that were made possible by a single neuro-cognitive adaptation. They go together historically because they share certain key neural components. The four central mimetic abilities are mime, imitation, gesture, and the rehearsal of skill.” He recognizes the bundling of these basic abilities according to their observed activity in the frontal-cortex, which in most social mammals is associated with motor-control. The expansion of the frontal-cortex in human beings refined control over action and behaviour, greatly improving self-regulation and metacognition. The development of these abilities provided a new field of cognitive capacity, where fine-motor control could be linked with working memory, allowing for potential self-reflexivity and rehearsal of action, rather than merely outwardly directed response. Donald recognizes mimetic capacity as an early feature of human evolutionary adaptation to the environment, and a scaffolding precursor of language. We might therefore identify this position on mimesis with the upward dependency of higher levels of Aristotelian navigation on more basic forms of cognitive activity.

Similarly, but appealing to the opposite direction, the philosopher Stephen Levine discusses ‘habits’ as forms of bodily action, which require skills and gestures of sensory-motor control learned from the environment. He critiques the account of rationally-informed rule-derived action as inadequate, because it is unable to account for the flexibility of practical bodily action without halting reference to rationally informed rules of conduct. Since many rationalist accounts are based upon avoiding Sellars’ giveness, this criticism is directly relevant to the question of how social-semantic oriented accounts of the scientific image could have any bearing on the embodied action which mimetic practice engages. While Levine admits that habits may seem to be a unsuited to locating any social dimension, when we consider that they are not isolated but informed by the environment, they become much more amenable to a social account. He argues that these habits are not only causal/genetic, but also normative. This habit inflected view on mimesis modifies it from one of phenomenological realism, and instead presents it as an evolutionarily adapted cognitive technology, open to norm revision. Referring to the normative dimension Levine states:

“According to the first dimension, habits and sensori-motor skills involve the environment because the very acquisition of these skills is a product of the interaction of one’s body with an environment. In the human case, it is the social environment that is most important for the formation and organization of our habits.” (Levine)

Levine goes on to argue that it in engaging in a specific project or practice, our skills and motor abilities are geared towards a particular performance ‘optimization’, derived from social development: “there is a ‘downward organization’ of our habits and bodily skills that is determined by the logic of these practices.”

Linguistic and normative concepts provide a synthetic form of navigational response whose modes of abstraction allow for a more complex and robust guidance, especially in terms of intentional response. In arguing against the “affective turn” which has recently taken psychology (and art) by storm, the psychological theorist Ruth Leys responds to claims made by the affect theorists which are similar to those under which Adorno frames mimesis and to escape the dominance of rationality:

“They suggest that the affects must be viewed as independent of, and in an important sense prior to, ideology—that is, prior to intentions, meanings, reasons, and beliefs— because they are nonsignifying, autonomic processes that take place below the threshold of conscious awareness and meaning.” (Leys, 437)

She critiques a well-known study by Benjamin Libet, cited by the affect theorist Brian Massumi, which measured the difference between muscle-response and conscious awareness of that response. The study found that there was a missing half-second between when a participant, after prompted to make a particular movement, had proceeded to do so, and when the participant’s brain responded to that movement. Massumi takes this to be evidence that “thought lags behind itself,” and uses it to bolster the ineffability of affective responses. Leys argues that, as a number of respondents to the initial study pointed out, there is a “conscious level context” framing the action. She offers the example of piano player, who if they had to consciously indicate every exact movement of their fingers as they played a piece, would stumble constantly over the music. By disassociating the moment of motor-reaction from its intentional framing, the affect theorist misses the entire complex fabric within which that action becomes coherent. Similarly, while I agree with Adorno that mimesis is an important structuring concept in for the function of art (and the specific arena of human behaviour it acts upon), the isolation of mimesis from the full spectrum of cognitive capacities risks producing a false dichotomy, in which we are left with nothing but a mysterium.

We might consider intentional framing in respect of our beliefs about the constraints provided by the tools or uses of the environment in which we are conducting an activity or behavior. J.J. Gibson theorizes affordances as ecological features which enable or constrain an animal by virtue of their invariances. He distinguishes them from the phenomenal theory of gestalt psychology, in so far as affordances are not dependent upon the observer, but are invariant features of the environment:

“The theory of affordances is a radical departure from existing theories of value and meaning. It begins with a new definition of what value and meaning are. The perceiving of an affordance is not a process of perceiving a value-free physical object to which meaning is somehow added in a way that no one has been able to agree upon; it is a process of perceiving a value-rich ecological object. Any substance, any surface, any layout has some affordance for benefit or injury to someone. Physics may be value-free, but ecology is not.” (Gibson)

Artworks have a definitive plastic form around which they revolve, and we can locate particular affordances based upon an externalist picture of science. These theoretical concepts are not “given”, as Sellars puts it, but constructed, and must be learned in relation to our given perceptual schema. Furthermore, it is not only our conceptual relation to the world that must change, but also the re-organization of our habits in connection with the new scope of our knowledge. As our awareness of the affordances of our material world provides new liberties, we must seek ways to realign our own inherent phenomenal bias in respect of the non-trivial access which theoretical knowledge implies. That is to say (without delving into Kripkean semantics), so far as we know that “water” is “H2O”, we have a non-trivial conception of what water is in relation to theory of chemistry. Insofar as the discursive practices of science provide a new understanding of the affordances of materials, they take on a new theoretical cast which ramifies our understanding of how they might be not only be interpreted, but also what value may be extracted from them. To rely solely upon immediate perception is to be willfully blind to the systematic development of modern knowledge, and in fact, we now find it hard to even think of water in terms of anything other than “H2O”. The updating of our descriptive knowledge of the world implies the development of new affordances — new ways in which we can conceive of how we ought to view the world, and thus, of new normative prescriptions. Knowing “that” requires the continual updating of our commitments in respect of our coherent body of knowledge and practices, and thus the construction and confrontation of new problems outside the scope of our existing commitments.

Grasping relations between theoretical entities whose complex structure is still unknown requires creative mapping strategies. The gesture rich resources of mimesis can come into play here, providing mediators through which to represent problems in our scope of perception, translating the structures of semantic description into new gesture rich structures which are more accessible to cognition and from which further construction is possible. Mimesis may engage a heuristic efficacy then, aggregating and compressing cross-level complexity for finite organisms, locating correspondences across boundary-conditions for cognitive orientation. Heuristics are not necessarily the correct solutions to a problem, but they are often useful rules of thumb for sketching out the trajectory of a problem when we are unsure of the precise mechanisms involved. As Reza Negarestani puts it

“As synthetic operators, interventive heuristics treat materiality as a problem. But they do not break the problem into analytical elements for the purpose of study, explanation and devising solutions. They literally transform the problem into another problem by manipulating and interfering with its parameters. If the invariances of the problem are preserved over the course of transformation, then they can be approached, analyzed and solved on more optimal levels. The synthetic transformation disperses the epistemic fog that prevents us to coherently approach and solve the problem.” (Negarestani)

So, while macro-level descriptions of theoretical abstractions like capitalism may not immediately be tractable within the understanding of the organism, this complex system can be gestured towards, and brought into dialogue with other entities at lower and higher levels through heuristic operations. Art offers a means through which to capture and represent the complexities of society and nature, if its mediatic capacities can be brought in line with modern systems of knowledge. It would be incorrect to overstate the relation of these heuristics to the type of knowledge which they model, however, since the specific content which they refer to is reliant upon the external knowledge of some community. The resulting interpretation of the affordances of material representations, requires a careful investment in institutional knowledge, and the construction of disciplinary tradition. We must create new norms which provide frameworks by which to judge the effectiveness of what it is that art claims it is doing if it is to continue to contribute to our understanding.

Speculative Postscript

As denuded as it has become, the critical model of aesthetics presented by Adorno, which argues for ruptures in the fabric of normative appreciation, according to existent historical, social, or political models are unable to reconnect the fabric of continuous experience within its own axiomatic (or decisional) frame. Consider that, as Jameson remarks, Adorno’s theoretic contrast between high art and the products of the culture industry is not an attack on “culture”, but on “industry” (Jameson, 144). That is, the valuation of mimesis and high art, is in part dependent upon its construal against the vulgar technologizing forces of capitalism as it is conceived within Adorno’s Marxist and psychoanalytic melange. The difference of high art remains negative and is never positively reconstituted into a higher level framework which might bind the various modalities of possible experience. It therefore loses sight of the dynamic architecture of the aesthetic experience, and its implications beyond domains already cited by the critical framework. Furthermore, decisions cannot be made about the triviality or robustness of the rupture in respect of other ruptures which may present on the same plane of criticality. Under the critical model, the respective methodological practices of various artworks cannot be bound into any set of coherent procedures which might allow for a comparative study of their effectiveness.

Merlin Donald writes that, “[M]imetic expressions can potentially engage any part of the body. Unlike the songs of birds, they are not limited to one sense modality. Rather, mimesis is truly amodal, and can map virtually any kind of event percept onto virtually any set of muscles, using many different specific readouts. This leads to flexible analogue motor expressions, or action-metaphors.”

This is a tentative comparison, perhaps beyond my current ability, but I will venture it in the hope that it may be productive. These final ideas have evolved from recent experiences in a seminar with Fernando Zalamea, and his introduction to the mathematics of Grothendeick and a more general philosophy of “transmodernism”. Grothendeick was one of the major founders of category theory, a field of contemporary mathematics, which synthesizes new solutions in mathematics by creating a more general space of abstraction from which to dissolve the problem. That is, the creative construction of a new global perspective, through careful attention to the transits and obstructions between the general and particular, allowed him to envelop a problem, ascending and descending from the abstract and concrete.

Zalamea positions Grothendeick’s synthetic project in opposition to the prevailing analytic methods of his time. Though the back and forth between these two methods of working is actually quite complex, I will follow Zalamea’s illustrative lead, and take a broad view of the transformative potential of a category theoretical perspective through the example of analytic logic. Analytic logic, to the degree that it tracked the philosophy of mathematics, absorbed the foundations of set-theory, but based upon these axiomatics, a number logical problems become undecidable. Modal logics introduced new axiomatic frames to the basic machinery of analytic logic, though the verifiability of their semantic modelling was also in doubt. When combined with category theoretical models, modal logics is able to reveal a beautiful and consistent framework with classical logic from this more abstract topological space. Furthermore, entire neighborhoods of the structure of modal logics are able to be drawn out and explored, verifying local identities which are epistemically indeterminable from the perspective of more basic modal and classical logics (Kishida).

By analogy to the case of logics, I find Donald’s suggestion of a modality of mimesis to be a fruitful arena for abstract exploration, and perhaps a category-theoretical inspired investigation of mimetic cognition may provoke further study. This can only be accomplished, however, by moving to further abstraction, from which we can characterize this region of behavior. The generalization of this form of cognition may allow for further transversals in respect of its position with linguistic and normative behaviour, providing a broad synthesis of the terrain which art engages. The transversal of the hierarchies of cognitive navigation, and the binding of their local and global horizons through a relentless ascent and descent may have much to tell us regarding the structure of art, its capacity for engendering human thought, and the methodologies which it utilizes.

Works Cited

Brassier, Ray, Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction
Donald, Merlin, “Art and Cognitive Evolution”
Gibson, J.J., The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception
Jameson, Frederic, Late Marxism: Adorno, or the Persistence of the Dialectic
Johnson, Joshua, “Notes for ‘Stereoscopy, Exit, and Escape'”
Kishida, Kohei, “Generalized Topological Semantics for First-Order Modal Logic”
Ladyman, James, “Science, Metaphysics, and Structural Realism”
Levine, Steven, “Norms and Habits: Brandom on the Sociality of Action”
Leys, Ruth, “The Turn to Affect: A Critique”
Negarestani, Reza, “Frontiers of Manipulation”
Seibt, Joanna, “How To Naturalize Sensory Consciousness and Intentionality Within A Process Monism with Normativity Gradient: A Reading of Sellars”
Wolfendale, Peter, Object Oriented Philosophy: The Noumenon’s New Clothes
Zalamea, Fernando, Synthetic Philosophy of Contemporry Mathematics