Monday, March 28, 2011

Barry's Visual Intelligence Meets Complexity Theory and other forms of Music

A couple weeks ago, John suggested that the strength of How Images Think is that it introduces a lot of issues to be explored more in depth, but leaves us this task. In a way, I think Barry's Visual Intelligence does the same thing and, for me, more than the Burnett. Its still not a masterpiece of writing and the book contains some inconsistencies and essentialist rhetoric, but, as we discussed in class, it engages some of the work done in psychology, neurology, and other sciences.

Our conversation this week seemed to center around the interaction between the sciences and the humanities, with John offering an important insight that each has its distinct methodology, but that the objects of study are not how the disciplines are defined. Barry's methodology is kind of a mix of methodology, but her framing discipline is probably gestalt psychology. A gestalt "implies a configuration that is so inherently unified that its properties cannot be derived from the individual properties of its parts" (42). This holism that Barry derives from the gestalt school provides support for Sid's observation that "visual rhetoric" may be a misnomer. If rhetoric breaks things into parts, then the gestalt considers their total effect as well as their production and formation of wholes.

Perhaps Barry's biggest strength is the physiological and neurological evidence that supports the gestalt hypothesis. Rather than looking at the eye as functioning like a camera, she considers how the eye actually interacts with the environment. The eyes is unlike a camera because the image on our retina is in constant motion and our 'mental image' (which, I take, must a be a metaphor) is created through what stays constant within that motion. Thus, movement is essential to vision because our eyes function by noticing and recording 
change (Barry 29-32). Furthermore, while the images in a camera are "bounded" what we see is "unbounded" (33). Barry convincingly argues that the retinal image is only part of the mechanism of seeing and not its product (Barry 33).

And yet, although she has shown that even the images on our eye our involved in a complex process of production and interpretation of our world, she still seems to hold onto an idea of some sort of "reality" or "direct experience" that we can see with our eyes, but that becomes mediated when some sort of technology is introduced. As Sid suggested last week, we may need to think about the eye itself as an incredibly complex technology. Indeed, Barry claims that "human vision is still the most powerful means of sifting out irrelevent information and detecting significant patterns" (34). Why is this? Perhaps because significance can only come through emotions as well as personal and cultural memory. Neurological research suggests that we frequently are affected by the visual before we can evaluate it critically. The amygdala in our brain is what detects emotional significance (see Barry 17-18). As V.S. Ramachandran has shown, however, some of the information we receive may correspond to our physical/topographical map, but does not reach the amygdala, such as the case where a man looking at his mother said "this looks like my mother but it is not her." However, once his mother began to talk he recognized her as his mother.

Why is this? Because the verbal and visual parts of our brains, although intimately connected, are also independent systems. Neurologist VanDerkolk has shown that traumatic experiences are stored in different parts of the brain. Routine thoughts tend to stimulate the 'Broca' area, which controls verbal language, but traumatic experiences do not. This is why people have difficulty putting traumatic experiences into words (Barry 40). This neurological explanation suggests to me the usefulness of certain psychoanalytic techniques to get the patient to verbalize their experience. As Slavoj Zizek has said, the first time something happens it is an intrusion of the Real but the second time is when it enters the symbolic order (the order of language).

Barry's research is drawn frequently from holistic theories such as J.J. Gibson's "ecological optics theory." For Gibson, it is the change that signals visual and the relationship that carries meaning (Barry 41). We would do well to critique Barry's language here of "carrying" meaning, but the ecological model is useful in understanding how she moves from the visual process itself, to gestalt psychology, to her musical metaphors and investigations into the creative mind.

On that note--Music is a prominent metaphorical resource for Barry--particularly when related to gestalt theory. Using Christin Von Ehrenfels argument that 'melody is relationship since it is still recognized in another key, Barry plays out this idea of melody" (see Barry 43). She continues this metaphor: "It is as if we begin by learning to put together different notes into meaningful melodies, gradually building a musical repertoire on which we come eventually to rely for all performances" (Barry 65). I find this a useful metaphor, but I also question Barry's harmonious holistic approach. While Barry, cognitive science, neurology, and optics theorists may be correct that our process of vision tends to look for patterns and creating a whole (see for instance the discussion of the 'blind spot' and filling in on pg 26), I think that we need to consider the inharmonious aspects of vision--those things that we can't quite put into a pattern--what Michel Serres has called "noise," which is as essential to communication as information (according to Mark C. Taylor).

On one hand, Barry's science seems to support many of theoretical humanities' assumptions. We create meaning by our ability to see patterns in essentially disparate elements, but not so much by what we sense, but by what we believe (Barry 27). And again, Barry denies that scientific analysis can ever get to the heart of things alone. She argues that the 'phi phenomenon' shows that scientific dissection could never yield adequate answers because the principles of perception lie in spaces between the elements rather than within them (Barry 44). However, this holism turns slowly into a sort of  idealism where resistance to these processes can only be combated by "deliberate thought and active higher reasoning" (Barry 68). This sounds suspiciously to me like a reasoned criticism rather than using the "perceptual logic" found in most visuals and images itself to complicate its own assumptions and (ab)uses. Perhaps rather than hardening our experience into significant patterns we need to pay attention to what we exclude (the visual and audible noise) just as much as what we include.

This leads me to Barry's discussions of the creative temperament. I was reading this section through the recent lecture I heard by V.S. Ramachandran at UF a couple days ago. Ramachandran talks about how a neurological explanation of synethesia can help explain the metaphorical process. Barry recognizes this connection and argues that the creative mind works in metaphors (Barry 72). Indeed, I would argue (and this in no way is a unique claim) that the humanities' "methodology" to return to John's distinction between the humanities and science. Our methodology is metaphorical, creative, and inventive. However, I am not sure I can support this distinction since it is clear that such models of the atom as the "plum pudding" model or even our current model are in reality "images"/metaphors of what *really* is there. Perhaps the humanities are just a bit more honest about the metaphorical and contingent relationship between the Real and our description of it and the necessity for metaphor (see Derrida's "White Mythology" for a brilliant analysis of philosophical metaphor and catechresis).

To return to Barry's work proper: Why does she want to make such a clear distinction between the "abstract" system of language and the "visual" or the "image". In the section "Mental Images," Barry argues that we have this ability to abstract from the world to form--a concept, by the way, that has been around since Aristotle, and indeed someone who Barry relies on extensively. Strangely, its when she gets into the territory of literary works, theories, and authors that her argument becomes a bit messy and problematic for students of English. While it appeals to our literary sensibility, I sense a very conservative program here--as we have discussed in class today.

In the section metaphors of the mind, she turns to neurological researcher Zeki and agrees with him that the task of the brain is one of extracting invariant features from the continually changing information from the environment to provide a unified image, but that each area is synchronous and that there is no master area of the brain controlling the other ones (Barry 93). Drawing on the theories of Crick, we see that from a neurological perspective "the conscious mind receives information from the brain rather than directs it" and thus our sense of "unity and mental control" is an imperfect illusion (Barry 94). What I like about this insight is that we get away from this notion of the "subject" as some sort of transcendental I or some sort of "soul" that resides within us. Consciousness, a subject speculated on by many philosophers (and, I may add, which still needs to be considered philosophically) is materialized, but not in a deterministic way but through material interactions. Zeki argues that "it is no longer possible. . .to divide the process of seeing from that of understanding nor is it possible to separate the acquisition of visual knowledge from consciousness" (Barry 44).

However, I want to repeat--this does not mean that there is no consciousness or "mind" separate from the brain. For Barry and many of the works she draws on, our "mind" is less a director of the brain than an Interpreter. This reminds me of the theory of the "Focalizer," which is not a narrator nor a character but basically a 'voice' that filters and offers a certain perspective on the narrative. A friend of mind used this concept to look at the "Cyclops" chapter in Joyce's Ulysses.

But perhaps a better metaphor would be a "screen" or "filter" because the mind can only pay attention to so much of what the brain is currently doing. Barry argues that if we were to become aware (conscious) of the inner workings of our brain, we would be paralyzed by the overwhelming activity and noise or driven to madness--we may become autistic (Barry 98).

Barry briefly touches on chaos theory in her work, drawing from it the idea of "spontaneous emergence of self-organization" (Barry 96). I think that we should look at Barry and the visual intelligence through Mark C. Taylor's discussion of complexity theory and see where we end up. I will try and also pit Mark Taylor's metaphor of the musical fugue as an alternative to Barry's focus on the symphony, which I think may open up her insights into greater complexity rather than assuming our writing must be as holistic and "experiential" as our being-in-the-world or, to echo phenomenology once again, the lebenswelt (Life-World). Its this sort of generalized universalism that existential phenomenology is frequently accused of that we must get rid of in order to deploy some of Barry's insights. I think Taylor's discussion of complexity theory, particularly the concept of "between order and chaos," needs to be put into conversation with Barry.

Despite Barry's use of chaos theory, she does not take chaos theory seriously throughout her entire work. She makes reference to it, but when distinguishing between the visual and the verbal, she argues that "verbal language is essentially a linear system imposed on a non-linear experience" and that language is a static system. This is patently false and seems to only serve her interest in maintaining a distinction between the visual and the verbal based on human "experience" (which she never really defines in any systematic way). As we have said in class, this essentialist rhetoric without any sort of theoretical justification seems to continue through the work. For instance, in the section "Image Affordance," she argues that "essential characteristics that define the essence of things become meaningful through what they off use as useful within our everyday experience" (Barry 79). This is almost pragmatist in the Deweyian sense, but there is no mention of this theorization, preferring to claim an essence without qualification. Strangely, though we could read Barry as entrenched in a kind of Husserlian life-world approach, she does tend to separate appearance and "reality" without realizing the implications of doing so. For instance, "In Western art we pay attention to appearance rather than the meaning images take on through experience" (Barry 81). This metaphysical opposition is more apparent in her reference to the medieval philosopher, Maimonides: idolatry is "missing the whole concept of the image" and to mistake "surface appearance for essence" (Barry 126). And so we arrive at a different kind of interpretation of gestalt  psychology than say, Merleau-Ponty: Barry still seems to maintain this distinction between appearance and reality that doesn't take the phenomenological critique of this metaphysics seriously. She is speaking of the life-world, but ignoring an entire tradition and making the mistake of creating these useless oppositions.

Everything has an agenda and I in no way meant to critique Barry merely for having an agenda (although I think the arguments she makes are conservative in the worst possible way), but its interesting to me that Barry discusses repetition only from a neurological and psychological side. While this may seem an obvious insight, it is nonetheless important for her engagement with the humanities: more repetitive thinking patterns, the more these patterns become entrenched neurologically (Barry 63). While she is insistent that patterns are how we make meaning, she is aware that these patterns can become habits and create stereotypes. Thus, she argues that the more "open and flexible a person's abstract thinking remains, the more open the person is to new learning and change" (Barry 64). Repetition seems to be at once confirmed by the making of "patterns" but also vilified as something that creates stasis. Repetition of something, however, is always repeating within a different context or moment in time and so it is never truly repetition (i'm sure I could cite some theorist on this insight). Barry doesn't seem to outright reject repetition because patterns are in some ways based upon it, but there does seem to be a focus on this concept of "creative thinking" that, while I am not against it in principle, is once again not explored in depth.

But the meat of my question comes down to how her musical metaphor, with its emphasis on melody contains a certain commitment to consistent and holistic narrative without taking into account other disruptions of our productive and interpretive moment outside of critical reflection and interpretation. For Taylor, following Heidegger, distinguishes scholarship from thinking: "Writing is thinking, but scholarship is not writing" (Taylor 807--JAC 24.4). Although he at first denies that he can make the distinction, he seems to say that not-writing is writing that is accepted in scholarly journals while "writing" is creative: "Writing, by contrast, is transgressive. It violates accepted codes and crosses boundaries guarded. Creativity and invention occur, if at all, in the gaps between disciplines" (Taylor 808). Taylor actually agrees with Barry in her focus on the importance of visual, but the visual in Taylor is meant to be disruptive and transgressive, not a holistic integration: "We can no longer write merely with words but now must learn how to think and write with images and sound. Design--visual as well as graphic--becomes integral to writing" (808). But is this really an accurate distinction? Barry does seem to worry about the ways that images are used to stabilize meaning and stereotypes, but she is so reliant on gestalt theory and holism that she doesn't think about how her musical metaphor may not recognize the potential of writing (in Taylor's broad sense) to disrupt this stabilization without a sort of "active higher reasoning" that she attributes to Spinoza (once again, without a detailed consideration of Spinoza's philosophy).

In Sid Dobrin's soon to be released book Postcomposition, he argues that writing is violence and not just disruption:

Postcomposition works to create tremors in composition studies’ ground,
with the intent of violence. It works within what Victor J. Vitanza would call
the “terrorism of theory” specifically against the “will of the field” (143). It
is a work of disruption and discomfort; it is a work against the discipline’s
pedagogical imperative toward the contingency of writing. (Dobrin 2)

I don’t mean violence as
a negative, destructive act; rather, violence operates to change the object
upon which it is enacted. That is, violence does not work toward destruction
in the negative but instead creates possibilities through disruption or,
at minimum, through Foucault’s notion of thinking “differently.” (Dobrin 113)

In a way this is a bit of a digression, but I do want to consider the sort of "violence" done to music by the likes of John Cage, Webern, and Schoenberg. Indeed, I think that this kind of hyper-order (in particular of Schoenberg) that approaches mathematical theorems is an important metaphor for complexity theory. I'd like to explore this further in another post or in a paper. But for now, I want to look at Taylor's choice of musical metaphor in comparison with Barry's: Fugue as opposed to Symphony.

For Barry, symphony and melody is the primary metaphor. True, she does argue that symphony is actually created by silences which in turn creates rhythm (Barry 125). And indeed, Oliver Sacks has argued in a podcast lecture on one of his books that rhythm is something humans are predisposed to, but the experiments by Schoenberg, et. al. show that music does not necessarily have to contain a consistent rhythm (We might also look at what Muckelbauer has said in his recent book about "singular rhythms" and see if this offers a way out of 'rhythm' in the sense Barry is getting at). As Dobrin argues in Postcomposition, we might want to look at writing in terms of its viscosity, which I think complicates our traditional notions of rhythm. I'm not sure how yet, but I think that we might be able to look at Dobrin's concept of saturation and viscosity of writing in terms of the irregular "rhythms" and "rules" (that are somewhere between order and chaos) of these composers I'm suggesting.

As I mentioned above, Barry seems to think that repetition implies a solidity of thinking patterns, which is indeed supported by neurological research. However, repetition (with a difference) is a key aspect of Fugue, particularly a Bach Fugue. The Fugue, like the rigor (and apparent chaos that is actually regulative) in Schoenberg, was considered at the time "too austerely intellectual for the common ear" (Taylor 158). I quote Taylor at length on what Bach's fugue "Musical Offering":

In a canon, the same melody is repeated by one or more voices overlapping in time, "in order for a theme to work as a canon theme, each of it snotes must be able to serve in a dual (or triple, or quadruple) role: it must first be part of a melody, and secondly, it must be part of harmonization of the same melody. When there are three canonical voices, for instance, each note of the theme must act in two distinct harmonic ways, as well as melodically. Thus, each note in a canon has more than one musical meaning; the listener's ear and brain automatically figure out the appropriate meaning, by referring to context." the complexity of the canon increases as the pitch of different voices or 'copies' is staggered, their speed varied, or the theme inverted by making the melody jump down wherever the original jumps up. The most complex canonical structure results from the inclusion of "retrograde copies" in which "the theme is played backward." Named after the creature that moves backward in space, this type of composition is known as a 'crab canon." What Hofstadter finds so fascinating about Bach's Musical Offering is the way in which the different parts fo the score work together as a whole. He alerts listeners: "Notice that every type of 'copy' preserves all information in the original theme, in the sense that the theme is fully recoverable from any of the copies. Such an information-preserving transformation is often called as isomorphism (Taylor 157-158, all italics mine except the final one)

Thus, the "melody" is indeterminate--no "original" melody can really be discerned unless one appeals to the first "melody" played. Everything cannot be integrated in the same way, but the music only provides a set or a potential combination of ways to formulate the piece rather than foregrounding one particular pattern and creating a figure/ground, gestalt relationship.  Or perhaps this is misleading. The gestalt is created by the subject (like the 'melody' created by the listener). This is another issue I'd like to explore further.

To complicate the music metaphor even further, we have to introduce Jean-Luc Nancy's work Listening into the mix, a work that I have already created a long, involved post on. However, I feel I am now prepared to engage Nancy's relationship to Taylor's reading of complexity. If timbre in psychoacoustics is "In music, timbre (pronounced /ˈtæmbər/, like the "tambour" of "tambourine", and spelling pronunciation /ˈtɪmbər/; French: [tɛ̃bʁ]) is the quality of a musical note or sound or tone that distinguishes different types of sound production, such as voices and musical instruments. The physical characteristics of sound that mediate the perception of timbre include spectrum and envelope. In psychoacoustics, timbre is also called tone quality and tone color" (wikipedia)

First, this reference to color makes an interesting connection to synaesthesia, but also the attention to timbre adds a new layer of complexity to the strands of instruments. Now, when we consider the material instrument being played, we realize that the same melody with different instruments--though a repetition of the silences and the notes--are actually repetition with a difference. While I don't wish to appropriate Nancy's particular interpretation of this 'resonance' in terms of the subject and the self (even though he strives to separate this talk of the subject from the subject as a stable entity--see pgs 8-9 of Listening--Dobrin's Postcomposition suggests that we need to move away from this notion of the 'subject' and 'self' completely to focus on writing as such--I believe Raul Sanchez also moves in this direction) I do want to call attention to the relationship between noise and timbre, with an aim to extending this connection with Serres' (and Taylor's reading of him) conception of noise. Nancy writes,

Sound in general is first of all communication in this sense. At first it communicates nothing--except itself. At its weakest and least articulated degree, one would call it noise. (there is noise in the attack and extinction of sound, and there is always noise in sound itself.) But all noise also contains timbre. In a body that opens up and closes at the same time, that arranges itself and exposes itself with others, the noise of its sharing (with itself, with others) resounds (41).

Thus, by looking at these smaller *almost* silences at the beginning and at the end of a sound we come to realize that these "silences" between the notes are echoes of the past--perhaps in the same way that Mark Taylor engages with the ghosts of his own writing:

"Rewriting does not merely repeat but also transforms in a way that complicates the parasite/host relationship. As the work takes shape, it becomes the host for ghosts now appearing as parasites [. . .] My words remain ghostly because they are haunted by others who have gone before and will haunt other yet to come. Writing always involves the screening of this spectral interplay of parasites and hosts" (Taylor 196).

And so we arrive at Taylor's idea of the "screen." Like Barry's use of the "interpreter" to describe the mind and like the concept of "focalizer," the "screen" both "hides while showing and shows while hiding," a concept that can be traced back probably to ancient wisdom, but which recalls to me some of the late Heidegger when he discusses truth and error among other things. Taylor writes, "In network culture, subjects are screens and knowing is screening" (Taylor 200). While this may seem like Taylor is saying "then, this was this, and NOW this is this" (a la Burnett) Taylor is aware of historical precedents, citing Augustine's Confessions and going all the way back to Plato's concept of ananamisis: "Augustine finally concludes that cogito (to think, reflect) is, in effect, cogo (to bring together, collect)" and a Heideggerian might add to gather (Taylor 201).

Barry supports this kind of thinking with cognitive psychological research--as cited above--with the idea that we cannot be aware of all the activity of our brain. For Taylor, this extends to the information society: "Though there are multiple sources of turbulence, one of the most important factors creating unrest in today's world is the unprecedented noise generated by proliferating networks whose reach extends from the local to the global" (Taylor 202). Dealing with noise in a way that recalls Nancy's analysis of timbre, and drawing on the work of Norretranders, Taylor distinguishes between information and "exformation."

Exformation is perpendicular to information. exformation is what is rejected en route, before expression. Exformation is about the mental work we do in order to make what we want to say sayable. exformation is the discarded information, everything we do not actually say but have in our heads when or before we say anything all all. Information is the measurable, demonstrable utterances as we actually come out with it" (Norretranders qtd. in Taylor 203)

Taylor reads this in a way that suggests Nancy's "communication" as such, which also recalls D. Diane Davis' attempts to get at the sayable rather than the said, which she gets from the thought of Levinas and, as she says in a recent interview, Nancy. Taylor writes,

"Exformation, in other words, is what is left out as information is formed from noise. As such, exformation is not simply absent but is something like a penumbral field from which information is formed. Since information is constituted by what it excludes, it inevitably harbors traces of noise" (203).

Are the traces of noise that Taylor discusses the inevitable echoes, reverberations, and resonances that result from any material embodiment of musical notes? In this sense, performed music never (or rarely) contains utter silence--there is always some sort of noise in between the notes that itches for acknowledgment. Of course, the question is--does writing echo? Does it reverberate? Or is it something particular to sound? Does writing contain a timbre--an attack and a fade such that the spaces between letters or words are really (here we have the I heart huckabees moment) echoes of the words and letters past and future?
Writing does seem to have this self-reflexive, echoing quality, with each echo simultaneously a repetition of the initial sound as well as a completely new element. Does writing contain reverb or delay?

Perhaps this noise within the notes is what John Cage tried to get at with his 4:33:

The point is not the silence of the written piece of music, but the experience and the minute noises that accompany the piece of music--the idea that the audience is not a passive consumer of the music and that the context (a concert) matters as much as the written piece of music itself. This mirrors writing because some pieces of writing are only validated in a certain context within a certain performance/material situation.

Returning to my example of Schoenberg:

Is this chaos or complexity? I leave this question for another post or another night.

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