And another thing
Sixth in a series beginning with Art in the family.
The something else I mentioned last time is that there always seems to be something else.
I do not want to give the impression that the thing that makes us distinctly human is merely a fact of logical structure. But there does seem to be an element of recursiveness and/or self-reference in a number of features humans possess. This is particularly true of features which are central to what makes us humans rather than ‘primates’ or ‘mammals’ or ‘animals’ – all of which are groups we belong to.
I am thinking of features like language, self-consciousness, numeracy, morality, spirituality.
Our languages are such that we can generate an infinite number of sentences from a finite set of words. In theory at least we can nest phrases and clauses inside each other indefinitely. Sentences can follow each other to create sequences of indefinite length and endlessly variable meaning.
By ‘endlessly variable’ I do not mean any string of words can mean anything. A string of words that could mean anything would mean nothing. What I mean is that if a string of words means something, it can generally be used to mean something else, and then something else – because it can ‘perform’ or ‘work’ in an indefinite number of contexts.
Take the six words: Our love is here to stay. This could be a statement of fact or a promise or an expression of hope. It could be ironic or sarcastic or spat out in despair. It could be the answer to a question about a Gershwin song, or of course the musical it came from: An American in Paris. It could be from the song itself, sung in countless different ways. It could be a line in a play, or another line in another play. It could have different meanings if any of the words were emphasised: Our love is here to stay; Our love is here to stay; Our love is here to stay; etc. It could be a translation from Latin or German or Mandarin or Xhosa. It could be in reported speech or thought in an endless variety of contexts: ‘When you said “our love is here to stay”, what did you mean?’; ‘There was me thinking our love is here to stay when all the while…’; ‘Suddenly I realised I was singing Our love is here to stay in my head and I couldn’t think why…’; and so on.
Related to linguistic recursiveness (and supported by it) there is the theoretical endlessness of ‘theory of mind’ statements: I know that you think I am afraid that she cares about him… and so on. And there is that opaquely transparent or transparently opaque recursion of self-consciousness itself: I know I am looking at the sky, and I know I know I am looking at the sky, and I know I know I know I am looking at the sky…
Perhaps more simply there is the recursiveness of number. Our concept of number is that of an infinite series. If it was not that of an infinite series it would not be the concept of number we know. We may not completely understand all the implications of infinity, but we understand that we can add one to one to make two, then add another one to make three, and so on. It seems unthinkable that we could ever reach a number we could not increment by one.
We have reason to think that at least some animals have at least some concept of number. See for example: Marc Hauser, Wild Minds: What Animals Really Think. But I do not think we have any reason for thinking any animals have a concept of number which accommodates being able to increment to infinity.
My next example was morality. There is the idea of moral perfection, which I’ve already covered in the sequence from Food for thought to Not I my lord. This is similar to the concept of an infinite number series – the idea that it is generally always possible to ask whether one attitude or action is better than another, and therefore ask what is the best of all possible attitudes or actions.
Another example from ethics (and edging into ‘spirituality’) is similar to the recursion of self-consciousness, and relates to the paradox of ‘spiritual pride’ – the idea that over-zealousness in following a path of goodness and selflessness can lead to a selfish pride in one’s own selflessness. Is all ‘goodness’ ultimately selfishness, wallowing in the pleasure of one’s own moral advancement? If one thinks one has eradicated every trace of self from one’s selflessness how can one guarantee there is no last vestige of pride in one’s achievement? How can one unplug the self from the self?
I must bring this back to the theme of art. I am not claiming that all art, or even all great art, has to embody or refer to these specifically human features of recursiveness and self-reference. But at the very least these are areas which are available for art to explore, and which works of art very often do explore. Douglas Hofstadter discusses self-reference in relation to Bach and canonic form (among many other things) in : Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. There is the example of the play within a play in Hamlet, and less structurally explicit equivalents in eg Macbeth:
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.
Even more explicit is Bertolt Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, whereby the drama refers to itself as drama to ensure the audience preserves an emotional distance from the performance so as to be able to reflect critically and objectively on what is being presented. For more on this see the series on Brecht and mimesis.
Perhaps one aspect is that where the artwork has a representational component, the existence of some measure of self-reference and/or recursion helps the work itself approach a mimesis of not only a world or part of a world, but of a self-conscious world or part of a world. We talk particularly of a musical or literary work taking on a life of its own.
There is no law that says an artist or a work of art has to employ or refer to specific features of what makes us human, or a specific number of aspects of what makes us human. A great artist makes his or her own rules – or no rules – when appropriate. Rules made, broken or extended do not need to be about the content of what we are as humans. They could, for example, be about what we find beautiful or acceptable, which can be about transcending what is known or ‘known’ about what we are. Part of the Impressionist vision was about new ways of seeing, akin to ‘unseeing’ – seeing the world as it really is, rather than as it was believed or assumed to be. Perhaps what Monet showed us never was, and never could have been, the world as it really was. But we love and value him for how he changed our ways of seeing, just as we love and value composers and musicians who change our ways of hearing.
Which brings me to yet another thing, the idea that art (and a fortiori great art) creates context for itself. For next time though.
© Chris Lawrence 2010.