Thursday, October 8, 2009

Perhaps not quite so asymmetrical after all

I commonly write and speak of the relationship between neuroesthetics and the arts and humanities as being highly asymmetric. By this I mean that we have a great deal to learn from the artists and the humanists but little or nothing at all to teach them in return. I would doubt very much whether Cézanne would have improved on his paintings if he had known what we know today about the visual brain and visual perception or that Beethoven’s music would have benefited by knowledge about the auditory cortex. In the same way, I would be surprised if our present day knowledge about brain mechanisms would do much to improve or modify the output of many currently active artists. I am also not sure that we have much to teach philosophers or historians of art, although we have a great deal to learn from them.

But perhaps the relationship is not quite as asymmetric as I think, or should not be. In preparing the lecture I am to deliver in Dublin on Francis Bacon, in connection with the celebrations of the centenary of his birth there in 1909, an acquaintance recommended that I should read one of the greatest works ever written on Bacon – a book by the French philosopher, here doubling as art historian, Gilles Deleuze. He exhorted me to read every line, digest it and then meditate on it, to gain important insights into the work of the master.

This was enticing and my enthusiasm was fortified by the exciting title of the book, The Logic of Sensation. I have been studying visual perception and sensation all my life, and here is a book, written by a philosopher, addressing the issue through the art of Francis Bacon. I lost no time in obtaining it.

The great American writer, HL Mencken, once wrote of an actress – probably Sarah Bernhard – who could instill fear and even terror in a recitation of the multiplication table. This same talent, magnified to the nth degree, is present in Deleuz’s writing. The effect of the windy and bombastic phrases is to produce a numbness of the senses, a general cognitive paralysis; its portentous ignorance adds a further intellectual shock.

He tells us on page 34 that “The Figure…acts immediately upon the nervous system, which is of the flesh, whereas abstract form is addressed to the head and acts through the intermediary of the brain, which is closer to the bone”! What could this mean, since the brain is part of the nervous system? My friends assure me that it is a metaphor. But a metaphor for what? Aren’t metaphors meant to help one understand better, to clarify? It makes no sense. Perhaps it would be worth learning a little neurobiology here. He might have clarified his thoughts and told us what he meant.

Fast forward to page 81, where we are told that “In Bacon, primacy is given to the descent” But this fall is “not necessarily a descent in space…It is the descent as the passage of sensation, as the difference in level contained in the sensation”. And “Why is the difference in level not experienced in the other direction, as a rise? Because the fall must not be interpreted in a thermodynamic manner, as if it produced an entropy…Kant laid down the principle of intensity…and concluded that the plurality apprehended in this magnitude could only be represented by its approximation to negation = 0…Consequently even when sensation tends toward a superior or higher level, it can make us experience it only by the approximation of this superior level to zero, that is, by a fall”.

The ellipises are all mine, but they do not alter the meaning significantly, because there is no meaning.

And so it goes on.

I have indeed tried to re-order the words in two paragraphs. This did not improve the passages, I admit at once. But even more interestingly, it did not make the passages any worse.

I am urged to have patience, to read and then re-read. Ultimately, I am told, I will gain the impenetrable insights. This implies that my inability to understand is really due to my somewhat limited capacities. This, alas, may well be true.

But if the price to pay for gaining these insights is to spend interminable hours trying to gain them, I will forgo the pleasure. After all, there are other art historians who have written far more eloquently on Bacon and other artists, or at least have written in language that I and others like me can understand.


Robert said...

Hi Professor,

It's interesting to read taht you believe we have more to learn from artists and musicians that they can learn about neuroscience.

I wonder if you think this also applies to advertising? I work in marketing and frequently have people and agencies coming to me offering to help be produce better marketing and better evaluation of marketing based on their understanding of neuroscience and "how the brian works". Can this be so?

Do you think we have anything to learn about how to advertise or how to evaluate advertising based on what is know about how the brain works? Or does neuroscience have more to learn from how people market and sell brands?

I'd love to read a post on the blog about that!


PsyArch said...

It's an accepted (though not respected) tactic of the critic to claim not to understand certain writings, thus allowing the critic's readers to align their own lack of comprehension (of say, existentialism) with the accepted intelligence of the critic.

That said, Deleuze is full of crap.

Professor Zeki said...

Thanks for your comment. I will perhaps write on that.

Mertxe said...

I suppose that you have read Fashionable nonsense by Bricmont and Sokal? It’s a book plenty of examples like this about Deleuze. I’m working in an article about neuroesthetics and art and your book, Inner vision, is absolutely clear and full of rich information, without any kind of pretentious language. Congratulations, you make easy the difficult things!

Professor Zeki said...

Thanks for your nice and encouraging words.

Yes, I have indeed read some (but not all) of "Fashionable Nonesense". The second passage I quoted from Deleuz's book is worse than anything I have seen quoted in "Fashionable Nonesense". I was actually so startled by it that I missed my Underground station trying to make sense of what it all meant.

Actually, it means nothing. SZ

Professor Zeki said...

Thanks, PsyArch.

You are quite right.

But I think that it is even worse when a critic or writer pretends to understand what he or she does not actually understand, just in order to align themselves with intellectual opinion

Lourdes said...

Dr. Zeki,
I have been very curious about something and wanted your opinion on this. I'm a practicing artist and art teacher in a public high school in Chicago. My students come from all over the city and are from various ethnic and socioeconomic groups. When I read that there are 30 locations in our brain that relate to vision, I can't help looking at how my students can look at the same piece of art in different ways.

For instance, I notice that when I ask my students to write down the first thing they see in a piece of art (i.e., Wyeth's "Christina's World"), students will point out at least three areas.

My question: Is it possible that some people are more sensitive in in perceiving form, others more sensitive in perceiving shape or detail, others more sensitive in perceiving shape, and because of that focus on those areas first?

I've noticed some students who prefer line over color (not color-blind). So I have another question: Is it possible that some people are so sensitive to line, for instance, that their aesthetic sense is focused on line instead of color?

I appreciate your thoughts on this.

Professor Zeki said...

Thanks, Lourdes.
There is no doubt that some prefer line to colours, or vice versa. But I do not think that the underlying reason for these preferences lie in the organization and functioning of the early visual areas, by which I mean the visual areas that are responsible for early processing of visual attributes such as colour, form and motion. My experience, and I daresay that of other physiologists, is that the responses of these areas are pretty uniform from one individual to the next. One should perhaps look elsewhere in the brain for these preferences.