Category: Philosophy

La dissolution des mots

I have always found it challenging to write about both my software work and about my evolving philosophical notions, the latter I think primarily because those ideas are still so amorphous. For quite some time, though, I thought that my reluctance to discuss my software art was entirely due to anxiety over it not being good enough, and indeed that might be a factor. However, I also now realize that past attempts have ended up merely being descriptions of my software as something that already exists, as a sort of linear history of how I got to where I am, and to be honest, I find that type of thing to be mind-numbingly boring. A while back I claimed that I only care to write when it seems likely that doing so could lead to some kind of epiphany or catharsis, and writing about facts and details absolutely does not do that for me. Nevertheless, I have recently made efforts to explore some of my philosophical ideas, even if I’ve done so in a decidedly non-academic way, and I haven’t found myself entirely dissatisfied with the results. So maybe it’s time to try again to discuss my software.

From the moment my father brought home an IBM PC Jr one day when I was 9 years old and I discovered simple commands in BASIC that would allow me to place colors on the screen, to create imagery with my mind and a keyboard instead of with a paintbrush and manual dexterity, I was hooked. Always since then programming itself has been nothing but a basis, a mere foundation for my true purpose, which has been to create beauty. Or perhaps it’s not beauty I sought, but simply an esthetic outcome, which might mean that I have in fact always strived to be an esthetic researcher. Programming itself is interesting, to be sure, but it is nothing more than a tool that I have hoped would one day allow me to show you the awe and wonder I feel about the simple fact of being alive as a human being, and perhaps that is what the technological sublime is all about. However, that goal has forever remained just beyond my reach.

There’s nothing very advanced about my software art, if that’s even the right word for it. It’s based on just about the simplest possible generative algorithm, something that everyone starts with but then quickly abandons because it’s been done to death. It’s a variation on John Conway’s Game of Life, but also heavily influenced by Brian Eno’s ideas about what ambient music is and can be. But that’s all just something of scaffolding, something to give it a minimum of shape and form, so that it be visible at all, because I have discovered that I have tremendous difficulty with form itself, which is also why I eventually gave up my nearly decade long obsession with architecture. However, I am ultimately satisfied with that being the case, because that distant thing I have in my mind is itself entirely shapeless and without form.

In my opinion there are two enormous limitations to the Game of Life in its original form. First, it only has two states – on and off – though, yes, there are variations such as the Generations algorithm which adds a series of steps between on and off, a place to add a color gradient for some added interest. The second problem is that at its core it’s just a grid, a checkerboard. The edges are too harsh and rectilinear, and blinking the squares on and off is too staccato and jarring. But if one blurs the edges, which Leo Villareal has done with frosted plexiglass in front of LEDs, or which I have ended up doing by treating the colors on the checkerboard as points in a cubic NURBS surface, then it starts to become more serene. And if the changes that happen over time, as the cells turn on and off and pass through intermediate stages, happen slowly and traverse smooth (that is, C1 or C2 continuous) color gradients, then it starts to become even more serene yet. Finally, another lesson I learned from Villareal is that it is preferable not to show the entire checkerboard, but instead to zoom in on a small section of it. But that’s all I have. Blobs of color fading in and out. Sometimes I think, oh, that’s kind of nice. Once, exactly once, something caught in my throat as I was playing around with it, and I thought, holy shit, that thing came out of me! But then it was gone.

John Conway’s Game of Life, along with my variations, are a class of algorithms called Cellular Automata. “Cellular” basically just means the squares on the checkerboard. It could also be hexagons or any other shape that tiles. “Automaton” just means it runs without ongoing intervention by a user. Quite frankly, I don’t give a shit about any of that. I haven’t the slightest interest in any of the numerous mathematical properties of cellular automata and their so-called “emergent” properties. It’s awesome if other people care about that, but it’s also awesome if I care about the things that I care about, and math and technology and even programming do not really count among those things. Which is exceptionally weird, considering that they make up the core of what I am proposing is my real work.

One characteristic of Cellular Automata is that there needs to be a starting pattern of cells turned on and off on the grid. There isn’t any specific pattern that’s necessary, but different patterns can sometimes have significant effects on how the grid evolves over time. I choose animation parameters that are not very interesting mathematically, but instead that keep the whole thing from collapsing to a state where all the cells are either stuck in the off position or in a simple stable pattern that can no longer change among more than a few states. As a result I can be rather flexible in choosing my initial state, but I do still need to choose something. From the very beginning I had no interest in doing something like drawing a circle or a squiggle or just generating random numbers to choose which cells should start out in which state. At some point I decided that an image of black-and-white text would be absolutely perfect. Words — words would be the basis, the starting point. And from the very beginning my idea was that those words would eventually be the words of others, short quotes from the poets and musicians and authors that have been such an inspiration to me throughout my life. It would be my homage to them, a thank you letter for all that they have meant to me.

However, the starting patterns for my animations are typically not visible. Even if they can be seen for a brief moment, they still always quickly disappear as the algorithm runs. And so I have a mantra that keeps reverberating in my head – “la dissolution des mots” (“the dissolution of words”, in French because it uses a different part of my brain than my native English). It’s a similar theme to Millie quoting Lessing’s “Read in my eyes all that which I cannot say to you” (originally in German). It’s about the things that exist beyond the ability of words to express, or at least the ability of my words to express. But for me, it seems, words are the foundation, the respite, the fortification. They are the, or a, sine qua non of my real work, but they do not seem to be my real work itself.

And yet all of the above is only part of what it is that I’m actually doing with my software. I’ve described what might be considered the final product, but ninety percent if not more of the time that I spend writing software has very, very little to do with that final product directly. For some reason, I keep holding that outcome at arms length, forever writing and rewriting lower level components. And in fact, what I’m really working on is something perhaps best described as a Photoshop or After Effects (though not even remotely as complex) that I can use to create and edit animations that then run using the algorithm described above.

Perhaps I can’t go quite so far as to fully agree with Paul Valéry’s assertion that the final artistic product is nothing more than a “precious excrement”, when instead the work of creating it is all that has any real meaning. And yet that is how I have been treating my programming work. All of my focus has been on creating software that will allow me to produce and modify these animations with utter simplicity and ease. For example, don’t like that color? No problem, there’s a slider to adjust it immediately. No need to stop the animation, tweak the underlying code, recompile, and run it again. That latter process is something I could do almost from the very beginning, and yet it was deeply unsatisfying and frustrating. The delay between thinking of modifications and seeing their results was simply unacceptable to me. One could say in Boydian terms that my OODA loop was not nearly tight enough.

And so I’ve been working on my editing software, which itself has shown itself not to be the end of the recursion. I had a version working nearly three years ago. It didn’t do everything I wanted it to do, and it was ugly to look at, but it did work. And yet I keep rewriting it. Over and over, one component at a time, down and up the hierarchy of systems, components, sub-components, etc. It makes no sense. It’s maddening, and yet I believe that this type of work is exactly what I should be doing. Perhaps the end product, if I assume that the end product is a visible animation, is indeed nothing more than a precious excrement. But I also recognized at one point that the end product is most likely not that at all, but instead is me or at least my world view.

Debates rage among software developers about what is the one true way to write all software. This is of course the wrong question. It arises from the same exhaustion of internal Subject that plagues all aspects of society, and from the same Verneinung or doubling-down on the belief that there must – simply must! – exist one core, underlying, unquestionable idea, to build upon which every product can be successfully elaborated. But software and the tooling around it is one of the most effective tools that humanity has ever conceived for modeling and testing hierarchies of concepts, even if it has instead typically been used in order to create “products” that we then try (yet ultimately fail) to reason about in terms of the types of products that we’ve been building since the Industrial Revolution. That latter practice almost works, or at the very least a great many people have become extremely wealthy in attempting to do so. But a software “product” is obviously not a car or a dishwasher.

In fact it seems to make little sense even to use the term “product”, by which we mean external Object, in describing what software is, can be, or should be. I’m far from the first person to suggest that software is something like a far more complex form of human, that is spoken or written, language. Yes, one can readily imagine a “language product”, like a book, but is that really what language is or has traditionally been? I hardly think it would be controversial or even insightful to claim that language has traditionally been used as a tool by which to describe, clarify, or illuminate how life works, how it should work, or how it can work better. Epic poems of antiquity (be brave!), sermons (be virtuous!), medieval Everyman stories (follow the rules!), Boy Scout guide books, etc. Language is obviously about communication and explanation, though of course we can still sell the printed or digital versions of collections of words for a profit, that is, as a “product”, and I won’t argue that it is unreasonable to do so.

But words and language obviously don’t in and of themselves do anything. They can incite action, to be sure, but they don’t really do anything in the active, Get Shit Done, external Object sense. And so perhaps software shouldn’t be expected to do that kind of work either, or at least not always. 

Hierarchies in the sense of Commons et al’s General Model of Hierarchical Complexity (GMHC) have very clear ties to the way one tends to create software hierarchies wherein lines of code form functions, grouped together to create subcomponents, themselves making up components, out of which sub-systems, systems, and then programs are built. Consequently, the GMHC’s associated dialectic of stage change, that is, the process of vertically elaborating the next higher level in the hierarchy, would very likely have ties to how one might go about creating software. 

At least that’s how I have been trying for a while to think about and practice programming. Of course I myself have spent nearly the entirety of my career thinking there must be, if I could only find it, one true, perfect, and always applicable and appropriate process of or methodology for organizing code so as to create “perfect” systems without, as they say, having to reinvent the wheel every single time, or without having to think so damn hard every time about how to fit together bits of code that simply don’t want to fit together. Eventually I came to the conclusion that such a process could never exist, partially because everything in all of existence has both a known/knowable aspect and an unknown/unknowable aspect, that is, Object is always paired with Subject, which realization, if it can be accepted, actually feels quite amazing to consider.

So my software will never be perfect, and that’s okay. Well, not entirely okay; I still wish it could be perfect, but I try not to wish too hard. On the other hand, there are certain combinations of Object and Subject which are somehow more stable, somehow better able to withstand the forces of dissolution that are ever present in the universe. Aeons ago atoms were discovered to be a stable way to organize their subcomponents, and then molecules as a way to organize atoms. And so on up to ideas, which are still so recent, in cosmological terms, as to be almost completely flexible. However, I do believe that some combinations of software components – of ideas – are indeed more resilient – not just more robust (won’t fall apart) as Taleb says, but more able to be used as building blocks for outward expansion, which means, I guess, more “antifragile” as well.

But how does one go about finding and/or building such “more resilient” software hierarchies? It very much seems to me that one does so by doing what I’ve been doing – taking apart and reconfiguring all of the existing and past components that have made up the hierarchy of the software in question. Obviously no commercial venture, which treats its software as merely a means to an end, can afford to or would be willing to have its employees do such work. And so it is up to artists, or esthetic researchers, to do so instead. 

The exuberance of several years ago behind startup culture, along with Clayton Christensen’s disruption theory and ideas like “failing fast”, seems to have died down to some extent recently, but if we reconsider those ideas in the present context, then art, or at least esthetic research, is truly the most fertile and safe ground in which to make “small bets”, because one simply cannot fail to create a successful “product” if one is not truly creating a product (external Object) at all. One cannot succumb to competition, because there is no competition in the traditional, market focused sense. Of course, this is only true for “esthetic research” as opposed to trying to play the game of the contemporary art market. And sure, one can fail personally in some way to keep themself fed or clothed, for example, but the failure of one single person as compared to a large corporation on the order of Google, Apple, or GM, or even of a small startup with only a handful of employees, is very, very low stakes indeed, as long as any such person is willing to undertake that risk. Furthermore, an esthetic “product” need not fulfill any requirement to facilitate others in their effort to create even more “products”, and in fact must not do so. So then art, once again, is the safest and dare I say easiest initial laboratory for societal change.

But I still haven’t explained how to create “resilient” software hierarchies, and to be honest I cannot offer a fully satisfactory explanation, because I myself have yet to build one. However, one thing I do find over and over is that the shortcomings of my existing hierarchies only truly become noticeable and intractable once I try to extend them beyond their current use or to build another vertical layer on top of them, which is exactly what Commons et al, not to mention John Boyd, suggest would be the case. And then my intuition, which I am tending to trust ever more over time, convinces me to rip everything apart and reconfigure the boundaries all the way down and then back up the hierarchy. But it’s mostly about boundaries or connective code, to change which does often admittedly require breaking apart whole components but rarely a complete rewrite of them. I suppose even then that after splitting apart components it is often just a matter of configuring new boundaries. And I don’t necessarily have to traverse the entire hierarchy, because there are bits of code all the way down at the bottom that haven’t changed in a very long time, and might never in fact change. And I think that’s the key – there are a certain number of layers that are readily amenable to change, and then below that, especially if we go all the way down to atoms, change becomes increasingly difficult. I have a hunch, nevertheless, that the farther one is willing and able to descend down the hierarchy, the more robust or even “antifragile” that hierarchy can be made. I believe that kind of practice is a significant factor in Apple’s success, and why Alan Kay posited several decades ago that “people who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.”

Eventually after numerous acts of reconfiguring the hierarchy, the bottom-most “readily changeable” layer will have been revisited the most often and then at some point, I suspect, sufficiently often that the basic contours of “what works” will have been relatively well worked out. This then perhaps forms something like the bottom rung on a ladder, a firm base, a starting point for further upward elaboration, or at least a means of avoiding infinite downward recursion. 

But why not do this with any software? Why must the end result be esthetic in nature as one might deduce from Mario Costa’s philosophy? Why can’t I do all of this while attempting to write my own version of Microsoft Word or Google’s search algorithms? I can only assume that it is because of the incompatibility of motivations that guide each type of goal. It is the difference between the ends being an entirely Subjective experience versus focusing on an end product as a tangible external Object. It is vertical versus horizontal elaboration, and I suspect that the former is mediated by the Default Network in the brain while the latter is mediated by the Task Positive Network, which networks for the most part appear to be incapable of being simultaneously active. (And again we see hints of human beings referencing quantum complementarity-like phenomena.) Both types of elaboration are necessary, to be sure, but for some reason it must be in alternation, and none of us appears to be equally adept at each type and thus spends a relatively larger amount of time practicing one versus the other. We fall into one of them more readily, and it then becomes the dominant theme in our work, or even in our cultural era. For me personally, it seems to be predominantly about external Subject and vertical elaboration.

And so that’s how I try to work. I hold in my mind an idea, ever just out of reach, of a transcendent, or I guess I could say sublime, visual outcome with no purpose but to feel amazing and sensual, to remind me and I hope one day show you that to be alive and to be a human being is a breath-taking, awe inspiring, and wondrous thing. If the sublime does indeed mean an enjoyable kind of fear, where we feel as though we won’t actually be harmed because we now have a better understanding of the phenomenon, at this point in human history perhaps it is internal dissolution itself that we must learn not to fear, and if that dissolution can be simulated or explored by repeatedly building up, tearing down, and rebuilding conceptual hierarchies expressed in software, then perhaps software is indeed the doorway to the technological sublime.

The Last Great Iper-soggetto Was God

Fundamentally we are all just basically trying not to die, or dissolve, or fade into chaos, etc, which are all effectively the same thing. There are an infinite number of ways to die, dissolve, or fade into chaos, and I suspect that we continue to create new ones all the time. We call it evil, bad, the devil, hell, any term you like for “that which is undesirable”. But of course that rather misses the point. Heaven always lies on the other side of hell, and in order to thrive, if not simply survive, we must continuously search out and find the means to weather or even enjoy minor acts of dissolution so that we can move beyond them.

Robert Kegan speaks of Subject/Object theory in human developmental terms as the contrast between that in which we are embedded and to which we are blind (Subject) as opposed to that which we can see, hold in our hand, and measure (Object). Subject is navigable only by feeling one’s way through it, and in fact, the tool used for that navigation is none other than the Jungian cognitive function of Feeling (be it in the Introverted or Extraverted orientation), whereas the cognitive function of Thinking (again Introverted or Extraverted) is the tool humans use to navigate Object. Jung and Kegan simply provide two views into the same phenomenon.

Feeling as a cognitive function, which must be understood as not synonymous with emotion, is a means of measuring based on guesses, hunches, heuristics, experience, intuition, or perhaps as a first-order reaction to emotion, where the question is effectively: which of Option A or Option B is better or at least preferable? It is applied to problems or contexts which are not amenable to logical Thinking, because no consistent relations have yet been discovered, if they ever will be. This is Subject. Thinking, on the other hand, is used to measure Object and is a matter of applying axiomatic or proven theoretical knowledge to determine if Option A or Option B is even true or logically consistent. Feeling deals with the unknown, which always surrounds us no matter how fervently people of a “scientific” mindset might wish or pretend that not to be the case. Thinking, on the other hand, deals with the known. Both are required, because everything in existence has known and unknown aspects. If all were known, then stasis would ensue, and stasis is just as deadly as chaos. If nothing were known, that would indeed be pure chaos, which most people intuitively understand as death itself. 

Indeed later developments of Jungian typology make the claim that Feeling is always paired with Thinking, and vice versa, albeit in the opposite orientation. There are obvious thematic relations to quantum complementarity, which is unsurprising since we as human beings, along with everything else in existence, are at our very basis quantum measurement devices. This must be true because if quantum fields underly all reality, as I understand quantum physicists to claim, then in order to do the work of surviving, how could we not in some way be attuned to and able to deal with quantum effects, even if only indirectly? However, we do still have the question: what does the Introverted vs Extraverted orientation of Jung’s Feeling or Thinking mean in terms of Subject/Object Theory?

Ken Wilber claims that the fundamental laws of evolution apply on every level of existence, from the smallest subatomic particle up through human beings. So we can use the atom as a reference point, or at least as an analogy. The nucleus of an atom is a relatively stable “thing”, an Object, or at least that could be said of protons and neutrons individually, whereas the electron cloud is very much not Object-like. It is measurable only in a probabilistic sense: an electron is likely, but not certainly, to be in this place or that at any given time based on equations that are however beyond my own knowledge. So then electrons correspond to Subject, irreducible to Object. To continue the analogy exclusively in terms of individual atoms, Thinking refers to the nucleus and Feeling to electrons. Since the nucleus is on the inside and electrons on the outside, this suggests Introverted Thinking paired with Extraverted Feeling.

The other pairing, Extraverted Thinking with Introverted Feeling, then remains to be explained, and the whole analogy cannot be completed until we move up a level in complexity, which process is the entire basis of evolution. An atom is never actually able to move its electron cloud from Subject to Object. Instead, the universe decides simply not to care so much because it has  found something more interesting to do through the discovery of a new type of Object that lies beyond the Subject of electrons, and which makes the immeasurability of electrons relatively less important than from the previous perspective. The new Object would be molecules. However, electrons remain Subject, only now they are internal, and thus the Extraverted Thinking of molecules paired with the Introverted Feeling of internal bonds can explore all the new possibilities of molecule formation.

Something similar must previously have happened to protons and neutrons themselves before they were sufficiently solidified, or in Ken Wilber’s terms, before they had been around long enough to have laid down cosmic grooves so deep that their behavior became increasingly constrained and unlikely to change. At every level of increasing complexity, from subatomic particles to atoms, to molecules, to cells, to tissues, to human beings, and all of the stages in between that I’ve omitted, the process remains the same. New Objects or “holons” or components-made-of-whole-subcomponents arise as the lower-level component on its own becomes insufficient to deal with increasing entropy in the universe. At every stage, new Objects are created or discovered by moving the previous Subject from external to internal.

Furthermore, and again as Wilber points out, the more recent the transition, the more fluid and reconfigurable the components are. That is to say, atoms are unlikely to stop acting like atoms, or from the opposite perspective, it requires enormous effort to break them apart because their internal nuclear bonds contain tremendous energy. Molecular bonds are less strong and contain less energy. Human behavior, at the far end of the spectrum, is extremely fluid and changeable. And yet, human development within a person’s lifetime as well as across generations does advance by the same underlying principles of moving to new Objects by leaping the chasm of Subject to the “simplicity that lies beyond complexity”, which, as an aside, seems to suggest some basis for the idea of punctuated evolution.

This process is rather difficult to detect within an individual human being, even if developmental psychologists have been reliably able to measure their test subjects’ position and sometimes progress along the developmental continuum. But individuals make up society, and individuals alone and together throughout time have contributed to society’s, that is humanity’s, own unfolding process as it passes ever onward through cycles of moving beyond its current Subject to a new Object and then exploring and using that new Object until it too becomes less and less capable of holding at bay the disintegrating forces of entropy, at which point a new Subject must be found so that the cycle can continue.

We are coming to or already at a transition right now, one that will eventually upend everything we have come to believe in the West since the Renaissance, which itself was an example of the previous Subject (God, among other things) moving from outside to inside, Extraverted to Introverted, as the works created as the expression of the subjective basis of individualism and related concepts became the new Object. But now we’re crossing a threshold of diminishing returns on everyone simply becoming “an individual” but progressing no further. That act no longer holds chaos at bay as effectively as it once did, and the solution is to turn inside out, as suggested by McLuhan, to make Object internal and then set out to find the new external Subject.

Fortuitously, this type of massive transition has happened previously in recorded history, albeit far enough in the past that we are left with little more than a very incomplete and low resolution roadmap of how to proceed this time around. Backing up and beginning roughly with the first atlatl, or the first tool that multiplied force in some way instead of merely being harder than a fist or sharper than a fingernail or tooth, there followed an explosion of tools based on the same underlying principle (the same underlying God or Subject). But then eventually the further usefulness of that principle was exhausted, just as the usefulness of the individualist/positivist/rationalist ideas that came to full expression in the Enlightenment are becoming exhausted now. In the earlier case, it took people like Abraham and Plato and all the great thinkers of the Classical Greek period in the West to begin the process of discovering a new Subject, and that subject was sometimes expressed as a single deity, but also as any single external idea against which to measure everything “below” it. It could be a king, the pope, the Soviet state, the corporation, any external, single authority. Or it could be Plato’s ideal forms which can only be expressed in the “real world” as shallow, imperfect imitations.

And so Greek, Roman, and Medieval European philosophers, along with their cultures, are probably a very good place to look for hints as to how to navigate the next several hundred years, so long as one focuses on deep underlying thematic concepts while viewing specific details as nothing more than placeholders. There will also be countless useful examples from other cultures in the same timeframe, with which I am simply far less familiar. I’m not particularly excited about undertaking such a study, and there’s a good chance I won’t even do so, because I have absolutely no need to develop this theory to doctoral-thesis levels of rigor and completeness in order for it to be effective as a personal guiding star in how I go about doing my own creative work.

However, there is a contemporary philosopher who has already written extensively about aspects of what I present here. As part of his theory centered on the “technological sublime”, Mario Costa repeatedly makes the claim that the individual-focused and subjective basis of art since the Renaissance is no longer an effective means of making art in the current and coming era. Instead, he claims, the individual subject of the “artistic personality” will be replaced by a hyper-subject or iper-soggetto, the details of which are either beyond his ability to fully clarify or my ability to understand from his description alone. However, framing his observation in terms of Robert Kegan’s Subject vs Object, Jung’s Feeling vs Thinking, and all of developmental psychology’s notion of stage change, it follows immediately that Costa’s iper-soggetto is nothing more than a renewed focus on Extraverted Feeling paired with Introverted Thinking, on an external Subject paired with internal Object (or epifanìa rittratta in sé) instead of an internal Subject paired with external Object.

By analogy, we’re winding down with the usefulness of our exuberant and fruitful exploration of molecular bonds in all their multitude of combinations, and now it’s time to start thinking about and exploring how to rearrange molecules into higher ordered structures. That is what the ancient Greeks did, along with those who followed them for two thousand years in the West, and that’s what we must begin to do again. Costa mostly writes in terms of art and technology, and then identifies that those things affect humanity, but mostly his emphasis is on the former. So he claims that “artists” in the Renaissance or interior-Subject sense must transform into ricercatori estetici or esthetic researchers, and in fact I believe he is absolutely correct.

Art is unmeasurable, even immeasurable, as opposed to science which is by definition measurable. So art is Subject/Feeling, and science is Object/Thinking. The goal of art is to advance to the point of no longer being art, but instead to become or at least give birth to new science. But art always precedes science, a compelling example of which is linear perspective in Renaissance painting, which was a shot across the bow at the Enlightenment’s scientific process of measuring observable and repeatable phenomena, a process which to this day most westerners consider to be the one true means of learning about and understanding the universe, at least, that is, if they have moved beyond a traditional religious point of view. Concurrently with those scientific developments, art has been primarily a matter of refining interior Subject using Introverted Feeling paired with Extraverted Thinking, with Object on the outside or as the product, exploring all the myriad combinations of objects based on the underlying, unifying concepts derived from an abstract internal God or authority, which for two millennia previously had been expressed as the external monotheistic or authoritarian leader. 

But again, that foundation of an internal authority is becoming less and less effective, and it is time to begin exploring directly and in earnest all of the objects/Objects that have arisen from that traditional mode of enquiry, and in exploring them try to determine what type of super-structure might allow us to coordinate and make sense of them all, which unifying idea is or will be the theme of the next great external Subject, and which will most easily be navigated via Extraverted Feeling (iper-soggetto) paired with Introverted Thinking (aseità). That is exactly the type of work that Plato did in his own time, and as wrong or simply incomplete as his philosophy has been shown since then to be, in his era he was one of a tiny handful of the most advanced thinkers yet to exist, at least among those who left a record. Art produced without relying on the heretofore taken for granted “artistic personality” as derived from an internal Subject, together with a far more complex extension of “Plato-like” philosophy, is what humanity now needs going forward, and as far as I can tell, an attempt to do such work is exactly what Costa means by esthetic research, though I am decidedly less certain as to whether he would in any way agree with my interpretation of this subject matter.

To the best of my ability to understand, and in fact given his discovery of this phenomenon over thirty years ago this makes a great deal of sense to me, Costa seems to focus primarily on the transition of Object from external to internal, along with the attendant weakening, exhaustion, or debolimento of its previous interior Subject, while the consequent establishment or discovery of a new external Subject is left as something of an exercise for the reader to work out for themself. I personally, on the other hand, am far more fascinated with and motivated by the latter part, the attempt to discover some new external Subject, though I do specifically mean the attempt itself without any real hope of a full and conclusive discovery, which I suspect is beyond my own means or possibly even the means of humanity at this time, just as ancient Greek thought needed to be elaborated and explored for some two thousand years. And yet as I’ve written before, to be present at the beginning of this new chapter in human history is an amazing and wondrous opportunity.

The General Model of Hierarchical Complexity (GMHC) as elaborated by Michael Lamport Commons and his associates has been an extremely useful conceptual tool for me in how I organize my thoughts around the phenomena I have been trying to understand and sometimes write about for several years now. What I failed to realize for some time is that the GMHC, along with its corresponding theory of stage change, focuses primarily on one half of the equation. Definitely it focuses on the half of the equation which is most salient for me personally, but through its being incomplete (as must any- and everything be), I was previously unable to see its full applicability, the other half of which I could also not previously see as being provided to some extent by Costa. 

Commons et al describe the first step of stage transition as requiring a rejection of the previous stable view of the world. He does mention something along the lines of that rejection coming about as the eventual result of the loss of reinforcement felt after repeatedly undertaking the actions that were representative of the previous stage or world view, but I have found very little further clarification on his part or on the part of those who have worked alongside him. In their dialectic of stage change the new starting point, the negation, is effectively the same as the old ending point, when in fact there is an intense, lengthy, and productive period of exploration and elaboration that happens in between. It is not wrong, necessarily, that in the vertical direction there might be little to distinguish the previous hierarchical endpoint from the next starting point, but it downplays the expansion in the horizontal direction, much like those who, believing that the horizontal elaboration since the Renaissance represents the one true view of the world, might belittle the largely vertical development that occurred from Ancient Greece until the Renaissance. Both orientations are necessary, though at any given time or throughout any given era, one or the other might be more fruitful to explore, and by fruitful I mean capable of or necessary for holding off the decaying effects of entropy or, more realistically, whatever is the underlying phenomenon that we refer to as entropy.

Costa, on the other hand, primarily focuses on trying to explain the very diminishment of the reinforcement of previous-stage (or previous era) actions, even if he largely limits his references to the dominant Western worldview that began with the Renaissance. However, putting together the two lines of research greatly helps in making sense of the larger phenomenon, which, again, at this point in human history has to do with beginning the search for the next external Subject.

In explaining his Esthetics of Communication, with many references to the work of artists Fred Forest and Maurizio Bolognini, Costa often repeats his assertion, rarely understood by others, myself included, that in estheticizing communication, the content of that communication is empty and has nothing to communicate. Bolognini has demonstrated this idea in works in which computers are networked together and communicate with each other, but have no monitors or displays of any type such that the effects or results of that communication are never visible to the human spectator. However, I believe this line of reasoning only works if “having something to communicate” is forced to mean only that which arises out of an internal Subject, because the very communication which Costa asserts “has nothing to communicate” is, in fact, Subject, but again, external. To be sure, it does not give rise to any kind of Object in the traditional sense, but instead coordinates or attempts to coordinate already-existing objects by searching out their boundaries and also or eventually, I believe, their similarities, or at least some means of meshing them together, again, in order to create higher-order structures. That being the case, it has a great deal indeed to communicate. The last great example of such an iper-soggetto in the West was the Judeo-Christian God, though not every external Subject need be so grand, and as well the next great one will almost assuredly look nothing like God in any discernible way.

It’s really a matter of perspective. In arguing the exhaustion of the usefulness of Renaissance through Modern ways of being in and seeing the world, Costa appears to make the mistake of taking that seven hundred year old mentality as a given, as being how things naturally are, when in fact it is only one way of how things can be, a way that was appropriate for its era, and no longer is. But we don’t need to invent an entirely new way of being in order to manage and move beyond that exhaustion. No disumanizzazzione on the one hand or transition to some kind of ultra-umano on the other is necessary. We simply need to return, albeit in far greater complexity and with far more knowledge behind us, to the underlying thematic (but not specific) way of being in and seeing the world that was introduced by the Greeks and explored in the West until the Renaissance, and which we see partially explained in more modern terms by the GMHC’s dialectic of stage change, which focuses on vertical elaboration instead of horizontal.

This vertical elaboration involves a reexamination of existing objects/Objects, which are taken as a starting point instead of an ending point or product, followed by a dissolution or breaking apart of their internal connections and boundaries (internal Subjects) in order to reconfigure them into a coherent greater whole (external Subject). Commons’ dialectic of stage change describes a fractal-like re-elaboration of all the vertical layers of mental connections that we have built up throughout our lives, with a negation or rupture of each connection in the hierarchy preceding its reconfiguration. John Boyd described a not-dissimilar process with his example of how to build a snowmobile. In my own work, both in writing words and in writing software, I find myself constantly attempting, sometimes with success, to break old connections and make new wholes out of the pieces, always ending up with something thematically similar at the end, and yet having a different, sometimes wildly different, feel to it.

Always for me it seems to be a matter of trying to be, to write words, or to write code such that the result of each attempt or experiment is logically compatible with some distant, diffuse, and felt but not known target or idea. It is a frustrating and laborious process, and in terms of my software work it has yet to prove in any way fruitful. Psychologically and in terms of my fiction writing (fragmented though it be), on the other hand, I have found this process to be immensely productive. The theories and ideas I present here only came about as a result of having done that work. Beforehand, despite years of fascination with Jungian typology and its descendants, with developmental psychology, and with the work of Mario Costa among others, I simply had no means whatsoever of being able to see the worlds they described as anything but entirely disjoint and unrelated. And yet now it seems entirely obvious, even if only to me, and even if this too is just one more incomplete theory in a lengthy history of incomplete human theories. But that’s how it works! Everything is simultaneously complete and incomplete, or in the process of becoming so, and that, my friends, is not only amazing, it is life itself.

Psychological Aspects of Conceptual vs Experimental Art

David Galenson’s brilliant insight that artists and other innovators tend to work using one of two distinct creative processes — on the one hand an inductive, experimental, uncertain, and searching approach, or on the other hand a deductive, conceptual, certain, and decisive approach — is, like everything, both utterly true and simultaneously incomplete. He admits as much throughout his treatise Old Masters and Young Geniuses, often pointing out corners of his theory that require further elaboration and/or further evidence. I do not recall seeing his mention that some of that further evidence might include the subjective, lived experience, in real time and longitudinally, of creative people who fall into each camp, but such data would unquestionably be useful.

I remember wondering upon first reading his book several years ago whether the inherent and learned aspects of an artist’s personality coupled with the field of their endeavors might work together to determine the creative process under which they most easily work. For example, depending on their personality might an experimental painter be a conceptual writer? Might a conceptual sculptor likewise be an experimental poet? Might a conceptual fiction writer need to take an experimental approach to writing non-fiction? Such a question applies across fields, as well. Galenson’s theory is just as readily applicable to scientific creativity, though my personal focus is on art, and thus I am only speaking to art here.

In the meantime, unsurprisingly, I have been quite unable, even as a thought experiment, to come to anything approaching a satisfactory conclusion about how personality and domain of work might interact to determine one’s creative process. What I failed to take into account was a developmental perspective, or if I did, I considered it only in terms of wondering about any given artist’s active level of cognitive or ego development, not in terms of the very existence of cognitive and ego development itself, or of how different a personality can look at different stages of development.

The process of cognitive, moral, and ego development is a laborious and time consuming process of mentally and emotionally resolving paradoxes about our place in the world, though this process is typically not conscious. The attendant pain, confusion, and frustration is definitely apparent, but its cause is often not. To be somewhat more concrete, the process of development, which often goes by the name of personal growth or self actualization, is largely concerned with recognizing and accepting, that is, integrating, aspects of our personality that live in our so-called “shadow”, those traits which we define as something that “I am not”, that which is ego-dystonic. It might even be more accurate to say that it is those traits which we tell ourselves “I could never be”, which in its very formulation indicates nothing less than a fear of and longing to be exactly that.

Such shadow traits are polar opposites of the traits which we believe to be truly who “I am”, and as such, they seem incommensurate, irreconcilable, even loathsome. For example, one might consider oneself to be a logical, thinking person and thus consider their very real feelings as something “other”, and “not me”. They might then heap disdain upon feelings within themself and within anyone who actually believes themself to be primarily a feeling person, and who possibly has an equal and opposite disdain for their own very real thinking traits. Our shadow aspects feel unreal, unattainable, untrustworthy, and at the same time extremely, albeit shamefully, alluring.

Our shadow is nothing more than the opposite, split-off end of a polarity which includes and completes, at the other end, our conscious self. Both sides together form a unity, or at least they can: coming to recognize and be able to “see” that unity is nothing more than what cognitive, ego, and moral development is all about. It’s also harder than hell to do in practice, because there is no roadmap, no guaranteed recipe to follow. It’s a less esoteric reading of the concept of transcendence in Eastern religions, on which subject Ken Wilber says, “Transcendence only happens by accident, but meditation makes you more accident-prone”. Not that Eastern religions have a monopoly on the phenomenon of transcendence, or quite simply growth, but they certainly speak of it far more extensively than we do in the West.

Now, I contend that experimental artists are chasing desperately after their shadow, that which they cannot see, whereas conceptual artists don’t feel the need to do so, even if perhaps only in relation to the specific effort in question. Consider a sculptor who since childhood has been fascinated by and adept at manipulating objects in the real world, who feels at home in the physical world and trusts their abilities. If they have an alluring vision of a new sculpture they might create, it is entirely conceivable that a lifetime of experience developing manual dexterity might give them all the confidence they need in order to bring the work to completion exactly as they have envisioned it. This would be a conceptual artist. On the other hand, someone who has spent their childhood reading stories of fantasy and adventure, who lives more in their head than in the real world, such a person might envision the exact same sculpture, but their great skill is dreaming, not manipulating objects in the real world. It is highly likely that they will not be able to “see” and thus not be able to trust their hands or their materials to do what their intuition wants. As such, they would probably need to undertake an extremely time consuming and frustrating experimental approach.

Now consider the opposite: the conceptual sculptor envisions a story they would like to write, but might not trust the abstract, ethereal, dreamy side of their nature, possibly then requiring an experimental approach to novel-writing. The experimental sculptor who spent their childhood in their own head might, on the other hand, be able to trust their ability to see the abstract layout of the characters and plot and then readily work as a conceptual novelist. Each of the hypothetical artists in this example is adept at the other artist’s shadow, but cannot see their own, cannot reconcile it, and must search for clues about how to proceed. Neither approach precludes nor guarantees excellence in any given domain. It is simply a different path with differently prioritized goals and means.

What if, however, each of those artists in their experimental field were to undertake the torturous path of “growth”, “self-actualization”, “transcendence”, whatever you want to call it, and then come to recognize, own, and even love their shadow? Even to trust it? The frustrating and laborious search in each case where they worked as an experimental artist might then become something different, because they will have found that hidden, ineffable thing that drove their search, that thing just beyond their vision but not beyond their Sehnsucht, beckoning them onward with no means of knowing where they were going, and yet feeling so deeply that something was there.

Everyone requires certainty of some sort. If it’s possible through conscious, rational, decisive means to achieve that certainty, that is most likely what a person will choose. But if one has no ready means of making such a clear decision, if the call of Sehnsucht, of one’s shadow, is the loudest voice in one’s head, then chasing after it is itself a kind of certainty, and that chase is the very hallmark of an experimental approach to art. It is a search to find a new perspective from which to be able to make clear decisions of the type already available to the conceptual artist. It is a process of growth beset by frustration and crushing uncertainty. Sometimes, though, that very search can be the source of powerful and meaningful works, discovered along the way. Sometimes, as well, and perhaps in some cases for the remainder of a lifetime, each of us discovers and integrates some yearned for aspect of our shadow, and then the search can end, at least temporarily. Each reintegration gives us the ability to discern some new aspect of our work, pushing us ever closer to the possibility of a conceptual, measurable, deductive approach.

Certainly all of this is nothing more than conjecture, at best another incomplete theory whatever its merits otherwise, and the kind of long term empirical study necessary even to show whether it has any validity at all is something far beyond what I am willing or able to undertake. Graduate degrees in art history and developmental and social psychology, along with a tenured professorship, almost definitely stand between me and such a study, and I can already declare with absolute certainty that I will not be going that route.

On the other hand, I can offer some anecdotal evidence, from my own experience. I am that kid who grew up living in his head. I have never trusted the physical world or my ability to make any difference within it. My parents sometimes tell the story of my having said as a child that “the real world is an okay place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there”. And yet I have been obsessed with the beauty and sensuality of music and visual art since a very young age. Most of my life I have just listened to other people’s music and lied to myself that I had no artistic aspirations, because that desire to create beauty in the physical world has always been buried deep in my shadow.

Fortuitously, there was a more proximate shadow, my profound emotionality and sensitivity. That was not buried quite as deep, and yet deep enough to be a tremendous struggle to identify and own. Once I had done it, though, writing, oddly enough, became something I could do on a relatively conceptual level. When I argued that I was not an author, I think that a great deal of what I was actually saying was that I could write with something nearer to a conceptual approach, which made no sense to me and seemed somewhat unreal, because everything, absolutely everything, that I had ever tried to do artistically in my life had involved the immeasurable uncertainty and frustration of an experimental approach.

It’s not up to me to say whether my own writing is any good or not, but I can say how I feel about it, and what I feel is confidence. Not confidence that it’s good, because I am surprisingly unconcerned about that, but confidence that it adequately reflects what I want to say, because I more or less know what I want to say, even if only after I’ve said it, and if you’ll pardon the circularity. I don’t feel the need to go back and rewrite and edit and futz with my words. Sometimes I do semi-extensive editing, but not self-consciously, not because my original words feel wrong or because I feel uncertain about them, but because I just thought of a construction that I like somewhat better. And I could never, ever have done this before I recognized, owned, and came to love my sensitive, emotional shadow. I had already tried my hand at writing a couple times in the more distant past, but I always gave up immediately because my output was awful and I had no idea even where to begin to understand why it was awful or how I might improve.

But I was never driven to improve my writing, because the more elusive and yet more tantalizing goal for me has always been visual art. Even since I started writing seriously two years ago and have felt confident about it, even still there has been no change in my experimental approach to visual art. Two years of still being completely unsure of how even to proceed, while continuing to be driven forward nonetheless. The call has been so amazingly powerful, so unrelenting. I think I can look back across the years and say that I have often hated it, that Sehnsucht, and even hated myself sometimes for having it, or more likely for not being able to find it, that thing just outside my vision that I could nevertheless feel, and feel as more real than anything in the physical world. It turns out, of course, that this aspect of my shadow, it was in reality nothing more than the physical world, or the acceptance that I live in it. And I just recently discovered, among other things, that I do in fact live in the physical world. I have always thought that was a curse, but it’s not, it is the most profound gift I could ever receive. For a child and even an adult whose head had always been in the clouds, standing now as a man with my feet on the ground, my god, it feels amazing, and I suspect it feels amazing in a way that would be incomprehensible to anyone who has already known and cherished their physical being for their entire life, just as I could never understand such a person’s joy to discover that the clouds are their home as well. And in fact, I think that might be a significant source of the power of art: when an artist discovers the magic hidden in their shadow, which might be mundane to someone else, and yet still that feeling of magic can be conveyed, can be felt by others, and it can change the world. Like Prometheus’ fire, an artist’s responsibility might be little more than to show the world their personal experience of pure magic and wonder to have discovered something that was always hidden in plain sight.

So does this mean I can now become a conceptual visual artist? No, I don’t think that will be possible just yet, but maybe one day it will be, or at least maybe I can move in that direction. I still have so much to learn, skills of sensory perception and evaluation, of composition, and so much more that previously I was always unwilling to learn because I could never believe that I was capable of it, and thus disdained it, thinking instead that I could solve everything by dreaming or by intuiting something into existence. I couldn’t see a way towards trusting that a pleasing sensory perception might be a valid means of judging the worth of something. I honestly thought, my entire life, that everything of value must be shot through with deep intuitive meaning and cosmic grandeur. Head in the clouds, to be sure. But now, well, maybe I can develop some confidence and do some work that’s both more and less and quite simply different from searching and yearning.

Addendum

Of course all of the above is entirely provisional and open to major revision if not outright being discarded, though I do think there is some merit to it. One of those revisions, though, already presented itself once I had stepped away for a few minutes. I feel relatively confident that I will not soon become a conceptual visual artist, because that’s still quite a bit more advanced than where I am currently at. What I can, do, however, is use my newfound trust in the value of sensory experience as a yardstick for determining whether the software I write to make my visual art is moving in the correct direction. How could I have forgotten to consider that?

My visual art is nearly synonymous in my mind with the software that I’m writing to produce it, but it is quite fair to say that because I have not had a clear, measurable goal in my mind for what the output should be, thus I have also taken an entirely experimental approach to writing software, which feels really weird because I’ve been programming professionally for 20 years and have in the past written some rather complex if imperfect systems. But in those cases I always had a means of determining the correctness of my work, or at least how to approach making it more correct, because I always had either a template, a specification, or a request from a customer or superior to guide me. This has not been the case in my own work with its elusive, undefined goal. Now, though, I have a means of measuring, even if that means is nothing more than “does it feel nice, even sensual, to use this software?”, but just as a struggle for a new perspective is the hallmark of an experimental approach to art making, so is measurability, even if subjective, the hallmark of conceptual art making. As such, I think I can probably move towards a more conceptual approach to writing my software, and I have some very small hints that I might already be starting down that path, which feels really quite nice, I must say.