The art thing in the brain

Sometimes I’ll be writing a poem or a scene in screenplay or novel, and I know I hit it just right. I can feel it grow heavy with symbolic meaning that will transmit and stick. Why? Because the “symbolic meaning” behind the configuration at hand is easy to name and identify? No, quite the contrary.  It’s because I’ve set it up just right to hit the symbolic generator in the reader’s brain. We all have one. Part and parcel of our evolution is an instinct to search for the meaning behind events, behind all the visual and auditory signs that make up our daily life. All animals with optic powers might take note that the raven is black, but homo sapiens by nature drives toward a second plane of knowledge, a symbolic plane that stands at a distance from the visual percept but gives it the weight of meaning. What does it mean “when a raven flies to the right or a crow to the left,” as Cicero ponders it. The quest for the meaning behind things separates us from other animals, with whom we share the raw perception. This is what I call “the art thing in the brain” – the thing that makes us want to see a depth of meaning in an otherwise simple percept, the thing that makes us want to override the pleas of poet William Carlos Williams and read his “Red Wheelbarrow” as something rich in symbolic meaning.  And when you hit it right, you get the reader’s symbolic generator pumping, giving them a scenario pregnant with meaning but without fixing meanings and pre-empting the reader’s own process of symbolic generation.

The art thing in the brain goes to the heart of one of higher education’s dilemmas today. STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) do not have to explain their value to the parents of prospective college students. (See fellow blogger, Oxford Dphile.) Nor do the subject disciplines in the College of Business. But the Humanities are on the defensive. Parents frequently seem to have both monetary and philosophical concerns about their children majoring in the Humanities. Will he or she be on a line cook’s salary in ten years? And isn’t it frivolous, anyway, for a young man or woman to choose Art History or English Literature as a lifelong vocation?

To the first and monetary question, I’d say that if you think making money is the highest form of human achievement, don’t major in the Humanities. But consider that once minimal needs are met, a deeper understanding of the riches of cultural history and of the human imagination and of human subjectivity and connection is probably more fulfilling than generating profits and buying more and more stuff.

To the second and philosophical issue, I’d say that whether a lifelong vocation in the Humanities is frivolous depends on your frame of reference. Since roughly the time of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776), homo sapiens has become increasingly defined as homo economicus. If you buy into that frame of reference, which views the human individual as essentially an economic unit, then you may conclude that such a choice is frivolous. But I’d argue that the representation of our species as homo economicus is an invention of capitalism, a modern-day mirage that serves the interest of a market economy but is itself frivolous in that it ignores the rest of our evolutionary history. In particular, it ignores the art thing in the brain. But pretending it isn’t there doesn’t make it go away. People will still crave to find deeper symbolic meaning behind the things they see and live through. Their symbolic generators will always be at work.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against the disciplines of other university colleges. We need scientists who study the first plane of information, the plane of material observation that is prerequisite to any symbolic plane of meaning. We need engineers who can put their brains and hands together and make things work.  We need people with business skills to manage the enterprises of the other groups. But we also need theater and literature and art and most of all a body of intellectuals who understand inside and out how those symbolic generators work and have worked throughout human history. You can try to dismiss the value of that enterprise, but you will only be degrading the value of the human spirit. Be careful what you wish for, because without the Humanities we might truly become homo economicus, nothing more than units in a vast economic machine, without imagination or spirit or symbolic sensibility.

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33 thoughts on “The art thing in the brain

  1. thanx for your interesting blog DRex. To be quite honest one of the things I cherish the most is when one finds that there exist mathematicians, economists (or firemen or grocery store owners) that posses that art thing in the brain, too. I understand this is your view as well, that the art thing is not a sole possession of the humanities specialists. For isn’t the true mathematician a sort of poet? That is, a man who can perceive that depth of meaning to which you allude to, but who can see it in numbers in stead of words? As for the parents who think sons and daughters that study humanities as people who are directing their lives towards misery and poverty…well, maybe they’re lacking a bit of depth in their own way of seeing life. But back to my previous question…I’d like to remember Sir A C Doyle’s a Study in Scarlet, where Mr. Holmes system is presented to the reader in an article written by Holmes himself called “The Book of Life”. Here, Holmes lets us know that the true detective is able to do what Blake would define as “to see a world inside a grain of sand”. It seems then that the art thing in the brain has been cultivated also by poets, detectives and, let’s hope, some parents as well 🙂 Thanx again!

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    • Well said, Señor Villar! I agree with what you’ve said, and it pushes me to further renegotiate the relationship between Humanities and poetic temperaments as deployed in STEM fields and elsewhere. Einstein would certainly figure in as one who valued imagination above all else. Gary

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      • weeeeell a little bit of late night philosophy! 🙂
        Sure thing about Einstein…I love a quote by him…”we must learn to think with the sensations of our muscles”…a strange one for a physics theorist

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        • Sí, sí! O esta del Señor Einstein: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

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  2. Excellent essay; I quite enjoy your talents here, you capture something of the joyful curiousness of our brushes with normativity. I also like your term “symbolic generator”; it gets at that certain something that those glimpses of normativity feels like.

    I do wonder though whether the sciences might not give us some insight into “how those symbolic generators work and have worked throughout human history”. One might debate whether the question of how the agent adds secondary meanings to the world is of the hard or the soft problem of consciousness, but if its of the soft sort then it would seem the sciences might contribute to our understanding of how our symbolic generators work. But you might have something different in mind when you speak of how they work — questions of what background socio-political and economic facts about a culture shape our reasoned cause and effect narratives. That would add to reasoned narrative such that that would amount to meta-symbolic meaning. The question I suppose then would be whether neurobiological theories for how there is symbolic meaning amount to this same sort of meta-symbolic meaning. It certainly seems it would feel different enough to warrant saying it is of a different sort, and would justify us saying that the sciences cannot contribute to what are the most rewarding and fulfilling (in terms of understanding one’s place in a grand narrative) explanations for how we reason out narratives.

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    • Thanks, ausomeawestin. I believe science can contribute to but not eclipse the hermeneutic theories and symbolic economies that emerge within the arts. See my reply to Steve Morris. (Being a former academic in Humanities who saw funding battles increasingly lost may color my perspective.)

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  3. STEM students are driven by the same symbolic sensibility too. Why did Darwin collect species? Why did Galileo point his telescope at the heavens? Why did Einstein squiggle over blackboards? It was to view this second plane of knowledge that you talk about. I firmly believe that creativity is in all of us, and is central to the human experience.

    The only exceptions would be lawyers and accountants.

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    • I agree, Steve, that there is a shared principle that drives artists and biologists. I also believe there are differences (else I’m back to “Why do we need Humanities?”). It may be that a fascination with all the intricacies of how the physical world works (and I share the fascination here but not the expertise) may operate differently than a fascination with how putting a certain kind of pressure on that factual, physical world can generate a non-factual, purely intellectual world of symbolic meanings. Still working this out.

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    • well, here I’d like to share an old intuition of mine…ever since I was told all of Newton’s ideas about the universe were wrong, I couldn’t help but feel respect, not for the accuracy of Newton’s Laws, but for the immense creativity (if that’s the right word) it must have taken him to create all of those false theories. Is it totally unfair to cal them poetry? I dunno, but still, I think we human beings create constantly…after all, if Socrates was right and there is nothing we can be certain about, then…I suppose the only road left is that of our imagination…

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      • Well, Newton wasn’t entirely wrong. His theory of gravitation captured a lot of truth, but it wasn’t the whole truth, as Einstein showed. Einstein’s theories themselves are incomplete and are a stepping stone towards a greater theory that is not yet complete.

        But you have absolutely hit the nail on the head when you talk about his creativity and imagination. He conjured his ideas and his equations purely out of his own head. In fact, he invented an entirely new branch of mathematics (calculus) to do it. He really was a genius, and he’s the perfect demonstration of creativity in science.

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        • I wouldn’t say Newton was wrong. As Newton himself said, he saw what he saw by “standing on the shoulders of giants.” Every step up the ladder of scientific knowledge rewrites the previous steps … but the guys on those previous steps are the giants on whose shoulders the guy on top stands.

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  4. I must respond on behalf of lawyers! Believe it or not there is a law review article written on my law school class in which the author tracked all 350 of us by college degree (Only 40 of 75 in my section graduated and 5 of those who graduated were dead in a few years). The folks with non liberal arts degrees did the poorest. The folks with history degrees did the best—as I recall. As a liberal arts major I often said to my business degreed colleagues ( who started out ahead of us in classes like contracts) in law school that they were taught the Rules. I was taught how to think.

    In part what I think underlies the Goat-roper’s analysis of the ever growing hostility to humanities is the systemic anti-intellectualism that has long existed here. Recently an Op-Ed piece in the WSJ by the head of a small liberal arts college tried to address this and convince Conservatives that they should embrace liberal arts education as being good for the cause. Good luck with that. As Goat-roper indicates Capitalism is more interested in producers and not in thinkers. Non-thinkers are not usually the revolutionaries and accept the status quo (As Jackson Browne sang: “gonna be a happy idiot and struggle for the legal tender, where the ads take aim and lay their claim to the heart and the sole of the spender.”) And, I might add that this works very well for the Conservative cause and in the over the top information age. The less one is able to think independently the more likely one will believe just about any non-sense put out there on a blog or Fox news show. MTT

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    • Thanks, Mike, for situating my piece politically in such an interesting way. I appreciate the law review backup and the oft-neglected overlap between Law and Humanities. Still hard not to laugh at the Swift passage though 🙂

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  5. Michael, please accept my apologies to all lawyers. My comment was below the belt. Let me rise to the defense of Capitalism however, by saying that the economy depends on people who think. This is especially true of Capitalism, whose motor is innovation.

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    • Steve,
      No need to apologize. I am not that sensitive. As Gautier knows I rarely admit to my profession in public gatherings. I think your correlation between capitalism and thinking is correct for those at the top. But not for the worker bees. If I can take on the conspiratorial tone of some of my more right wing friends, the worker bees/drones should not have an independent intellect. And let’s face it, capitalism or not, most people are just not that interested in anything beyond the superficial. The mass of men prefer to have someone else do their thinking for them and tell them what to believe. This gets re-enforced politically by the move away from liberal arts education. It is also re-enforced religiously by the anti-intellectualism that is inherent in most religions. And there is the overlap between religion and politics on the same point: “Don’t think for your self.” When I was young I was told this was a marine corp saying (not sure of its actual genesis): “Ours is not to question why, ours is just to do and die.” That is the motto of the worker bee—-and in exchange Capitalism strives to give them as many superficial distractions (think Becker’s denial of death) as possible. I am reminded of the poll taken a few years ago of Republican voters in Louisiana where something like 37% believed that Obama was responsible for the levee failures during Katrina. Wonder how many were in liberal arts?

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  6. Steve,
    I am not advocating a different form of government—on that you and I can probably agree. I think, as I believe Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” It is flawed but gives us the best chance at some form of limited freedom. I am probably an anarchist at heart; hate restrictions of any type, but a realist that it would never work because I do not find my cell mates to be as ethical or smart as we would need. I do find many of the things which I think Capitalism promotes to be dehumanizing and to move men and women away from self knowledge (which most are only too happy to accept). I assume you would concede that we are too materialistic, too consumer driven as a society. And the promotion of material things as the goal over an independent intellect is at Capitalism’s doorstep. Honestly, history shows that in general no governmental or economic system wants its people to think too much. The system wants them to just accept it. In totalitarian systems one can get killed for an independent intellect. Democracy/Capitalism does not usually do that (unless you are in a foreign country and we don’t like your agenda—ask the deceased Patrice Lumumba etc).

    As far as the intelligence of the population, we probably disagree. I think that there is a long history of anti-intellectualism in this country and that its roots (though not exclusively) are, as Hofstadter detailed, in religion. How else to explain polling like the one on Obama being responsible for the levee failures? or the opposition to evolution? or the opposition to the science of climate change (though Capitalism plays a role here)? I also think that Bukowski was right and the mass man’s art is hatred (often painted on a religious canvas to make it appear more important). Hatred can only exist in a small mind/small world. That is why Karl Rove is the genius of Republican strategy as he figured out how to turn dress up an appeal to hatred in finer raiment. I think it is noble—in a naive Buddhist sort of way— to believe that everyone is smart and interested in knowledge, but my real world experience with people in all walks of life tells me it is not so.

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    • I don’t claim that everyone wants to read philosophy and question the status quo. Most have other interests. But to say they are not interested in anything beyond the superficial is unfair. They might equally complain that you and I have no interest in anything practical, and instead waste our time discussing abstract concepts on blogs.

      But I agree with you totally on anti-intellectualism. This is one of many diseases that afflicts society. Religion is another. There are probably hundreds of such diseases. The problem with all such diseases is that the human mind seems to be rather susceptible to them, and they spread easily from one person to another, like a virus.

      But I am optimistic. Religion is in decline. Human rights are on the increase. Actions that were once acceptable are no longer accepted. I am convinced that Enlightenment thinking over the past couple of centuries is responsible for this change, and that it is in fact accelerating.

      I also think that technology is driving far-reaching changes that most people can’t even begin to contemplate. This is going to cause a lot of upset and strife, but at the same time it is going to lift the world out of poverty and disease and give us extraordinary freedoms. And I absolutely believe that technology will have the most beneficial impact on the poorest and most disadvantaged in the world, and not be something that benefits just the elite. In fact, the global elite (middle-class Americans, for example) might find many of their certainties tumbling around them in the next 20 years.

      Even at the end of all that, Americans might still believe in evolution.

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      • I’m with you on the significance of the 18th-century Enlightenment. I’m 1/2 and 1/2 on your optimism about technology — I’m waiting to see who harnesses it most effectively. It could turn out to be a tremendous marketing tool for those eager to churn through the world’s resources at an exponentially increased rate in pursuit of quick profits. All of us with blogs, Facebook accounts, etc., are becoming part of that vast marketing machine, whether we like it or not. There’s the good side too — the vast potential for decentralized modes of organization and for SAVING resources, but the jury’s still out for me. Using your tongue-in-cheek litmus test, polls show that 60% of Americans believe in evolution and 42% believe God created all species in their current forms within the past 10,000 years. That 60% is above half favors your optimism, but that 60% is an abysmally low number after 150 years of post-Darwin science might favor a more pessimistic view.

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  7. I think the Enlightenment was a historical aberration. For most of humanity’s history we have knelt on the altar of things other than reason. As to technology it has its uses and is now part of our evolution. I suspect it will result in the shrinking of parts of our brain and perhaps the enlargement of others. Who knows how that will ultimately affect our species. The immediate noticeable impact in my world is that people are less social.

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    • Oh, Michael, nooo! The Enlightenment was relatively recent, true. Democracy, free speech, human rights are far from universal, true. But an aberration? It’s an unstoppable process, surely.

      As for technology, I think you are focussing on the pinnacle of the iceberg – the iPhone and its ilk. Technology has given us clean water, electricity, medicine, transport, communication and computing power. It has freed ordinary people from serfdom. No?

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  8. I hope you are right on the inevitability of the process (so you are one of Gary’s optimistic friends!) , but I see many ways it can and is being sidetracked; religion being one of those many ways; politics another. (Just listen to the Republican candidates for President!) On technology you are probably right; I cast the net too small. I was not thinking of the big uses but the personal uses. And I do think it is now tied up with our evolution as a species and it will affect our brains. Maybe Gary can do the research and get back to us on that one. But probably not my brain as I am too dimwitted about technology—still use a paper calendar; no facebook account, no twitter account, still don’t use or understand all the cutesy anachronisms in text messages like LOL, etc…

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