Saturday, 11 November 2017

Ehrenzweig on Objects and Creativity: Symmetry and Entropy at the heart of the heart

Objects are important in education. Institutions sometimes seem to believe that objects are the things which they "sell": the learning content, notes, powerpoints and other media... the manufactured products of education, contact with which it is sometimes believed produces learning.

Constructivists might deny the importance of objects, but the concreteness of a cool video or a text book is hard to deny: "this is a great video!" we say. Others lose sight of the fact that it is the making of such an utterance which is the beginning of where the learning which is intrinsic to human coordination happens. Like anything of fascination or beauty, the expression of emotion, feeling, intellect or curiosity is a fundamental human reaction which is communally shared. In the art gallery, we gaze at pictures often together. In the concert hall, we all have emotional experiences which somehow in the silence and ritual of the place, we manage to convey to others, in the cinema we gasp together as somebody escapes imminent death, and so on. Today, media objects get shared online: the common expression of feeling happens diachronically (sequentially) rather than synchronically... but it still happens. "A cool game! What's your score?", and so on.

What happens in these human reactions? I think the answer is simple: we understand something more about each other. Maturana made the point that "what we learn, we learn about each other". Yes, that's it. I will refine this: "What we learn, we learn about the symmetry that exists between us". Why is learning about each other important? Simply because we cannot communicate successfully unless we do know more about each other. The better we know each other, the more effective our social coordination will be. I took two friends visiting from Russia to see the "The Death of Stalin" this week. It was a case in point - as we revealed much about ourselves in our different responses to the film.

Alfred Schutz calls this revealing process "inter-subjectivity", and Talcott Parsons (and later Niklas Luhmann) calls it "double contingency". Despite Parsons's and Schutz's disagreemnents, there is a core principle at work, but an important difference in how they understand it. In double contingency, we communicate because we have some idea of who we are communicating with, how they will respond to our utterances, and so on. Parsons is different from Schutz in that he emphasises the importance of selection of communications (what we mean to say) and the selection of utterance (how we choose to say it). Luhmann developed this further.

I've been re-reading Anton Ehrenzweig's "The Hidden Order of Art" recently (after nearly 20 years). What an amazing book! Ehrenzweig is interested in artistic communication, and he believes that artistic creation does not emerge out of selection.  Ehrenzweig draws his inspiration from the Freudian concept of the primary process - the undifferentiated formless state of consciousness from which conscious experience (distinctions) emerge. He introduces a concept called dedifferentiation where "the ego scatters and represses surface imagery" in creative acts. He also draws on Paul Klee's distinction between two kinds of attention, one on the figure and the other on the ground. Ehrenzweig argues:

What is common to all examples of dedifferentiation is their freedom from having to make a choice. Whilst the conscious gestalt principle enforces the selection of a definite gestalt as a figure, the multi-dimensional attention of which Paul Klee speaks can embrace both figure and ground. Whilst vertical attention has to select a single melody, horizontal attention can comprise all polyphonic voices without choosing between them. Undifferentiated perception can grasp in a single undivided act of comprehension data that to conscious perception would be incompatible. 

I'm interested in this from a more technical perspective - which is certainly not how I would have read it 20 years ago. From a technical perspective, the central issues is the symmetry of relations. Whilst the perception of figure - or rather the identification of the distinction between figure and ground - is an epiphenomenon, there are symmetries in deeper mechanisms which underpin perception which might become better known to us.  Parsons and Luhmann took the epiphenomenon as the phenomenon. But if we think like them, we lose all creativity (and in the process, we risk our humanity). This is however, not to put anyone off from engaging with their ideas: they are powerful - but they flatten the symmetry.

Schutz, on the other hand is much closer. His "pure we-relation" - where human beings communicate face-to-face - is a different kind of coordination which is not based on selection. Ehrenzweig calls the alternative to selection, syncretism - but that, I think, is another word for symmetry. Symmetry emerges in the space between multiple descriptions of things. It emerges in the space between my understanding (and my descriptions of my understanding) and your understanding. It emerges in the ways that a melody, a harmony, a timbre, or a rhythm all draw out the same form.

Sometimes, different descriptions adopt similar patterns. Sometimes the change in their complexities coincides: for example, at the end of a piece of music, final chords eliminate rhythmic complexity, tonal complexity too disappears with the repetition of a tonic chord, alongside the melody which now emphasises a single note. Then, everything is silent. Another way of putting this is that the change in entropy of different descriptions coincides; their relative entropy increases. Now imagine a rich and busy counterpoint: ideas are thrown from one voice to another, different things are happening. There is a rich interplay between the entropies of description.

Ehrenzweig's mode of thinking is fundamentally musical: syncretism happens across the diachronic domain of counterpoint, and the synchronic domain of harmony. Schutz, also a musician, also thought about social relations musically. The syncretic is the same as the coordination of Schutz's "pure we-relation": it is a recognition of symmetrical relations.

The more we engage with objects, the more we reveal ourselves to others, and the more we recognise the symmetry the lies between us.

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