This brief essay is the fourteenth in a series addressing the emergence of meaning, by James Leonard.
(Please note: the following material is Â© copyright James Leonard 2006 and may not be used in any way without permission from author)
Humans have a deep desire for proof, solid answers, and stable information. Sometime in our animal past, perhaps as far as our bacteriological past, acting on reliable information proved more beneficial than acting blindly. Those ancestors who spent a majority of their time running from mirages, grossly misestimating social relationships, and eating toxic foodstuffs suffered disadvantages. Constant reinforcement through experience and selection has engendered a biologically rooted lust for fixed answers. Reliable information can lead to reliable simple rules of behavior: NEVER eat the green berries! A smile is ALWAYS a sign of good will! Don’t run from a visual cue UNLESS it is reinforced by a scent cue!
We value decidability. It makes life easier by reducing the amount of energy required to arrive at a course of action and the time taken between stimulus and response. But what happens when we can’t arrive at predictable stereotypes, like the rules in the above paragraph, based on reliable patterns? What happens if a situation reveals itself to be “undecidable?” There are undecidable dynamics that for all purposes of human perception are random. Consider superstitions about black cats for example. If a stock trader based his daily trades solely on whether or not a black cat crossed his path that morning, he would likely go bankrupt very quickly. This sort of undecidability, randomness, is often disregarded as noise.
But what about a dynamic that is neither random nor decidable? Are there systems out there that look like patterns, but never actually repeat themselves? According to the mathematical field of chaos, such dynamics do exist. A system, such as the weather, that exhibits quasi-patterned behavior that is not precisely regular but never actually repeats is referred to as “aperiodic” and is associated with a mathematical solution known as a “strange attractor.” A strange attractor is a special kind of answer. Many of us perceive math problems to have singular answers or at least a finite set of answers.
When we pay one dollar for a seventy-seven cent purchase, our change is and will always be twenty-three cents. This is a fixed, decidable bit of information. But imagine if one day, our change for the same purchase was twenty-one cents, then the next day, thirty-five cents, and the day after that, nineteen cents, and so on and so on with no exact repeating pattern. In systems whose dynamics are governed by a strange attractor, short term predictions are relatively easy and reliable. A common example is the reliability of one and two day weather forecasts. Meanwhile, long term predictions become exponentially more and more difficult to make. Consider how relatively unreliable the five day weather forecast is over the two day one.
In fact, at a certain point, it actually becomes more efficient to just update your model of the universe and refine your own internal rules. And the human intuition seems well equipped for such a task. We tend to see regular patterns where there are only quasi-patterns. And as we update our internal models of the universe, we constantly refine and revise, generating new perceptions and relationships as we go.
Right now, in the humanities, a philosophical pendulum swings. At one extreme, the world and human mind are cast deterministic cogs in a wholly knowable and mechanistic universe: decidable and regular. At the other, the universe is entirely relativistic and its inhabitants entirely unpredictable, in other words: unknowable and random. These extreme world views leave little room for a field like art theory to function. In the first universe, art must contain and transmit its meanings, like a data disk filled with information. In the second universe, the meaning of art is entirely relativistic and therefore entirely sociological in its nature.
But in his recent book Our Beautiful, Dry, and Distant Texts, the contemporary art theorist and critic James Elkins takes small steps towards finding an elusive theory of meaning. One in which meaning is neither fixed nor random, neither contained by the artwork nor solely generated by the society. He borrows arcane scholastic terms, describing this grail as a theory in which the viewer and the work of art are “equiprimordial” and “coresponsible” in the generation of meaning. And he then asserts that the first step towards moving towards such a theory requires, in so many words, a “demonstration of undecidability.” I’m still not certain as to exactly what he means by this. Nor would I know how to go about providing such a demonstration and how one would measure its success. But I think I’m beginning to understand the challenge he’s leveled. I think the undecidability he searches for is the same I’ve identified here as that “baby-bear” zone between strict linear determinism and unpredictable randomness.
(essay 1: wandering; essay 2: the whole; essay 3: news; essay 4: belief; essay 5: debbie; essay 6: consciousness; essay7: culture; essay 8: prototyping; essay 9: fitness; essay 10: exploration; essay 11: meaning; essay 12: pie; essay 13: dots)