Academic journal article Consciousness, Literature & the Arts

III. Acts Not Tracts! Why a Complete Psychology of Art and Identity Must Be Neuro-Cultural

Academic journal article Consciousness, Literature & the Arts

III. Acts Not Tracts! Why a Complete Psychology of Art and Identity Must Be Neuro-Cultural

Article excerpt

The act ... and not the [association] tract is the fundamental datum in both social and individual psychology..., and it has both an inner and an outer phase, an internal and an external aspect. (George Herbert Mead 1934: 8)

Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context - a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan. (Eliel Saarinen, Time Magazine, July 2, 1950)

Nature provides the 'can', but culture and language provide the 'may' and 'must.' (RomHarrél993:5)

The great British literary critic Frank Kermode once asked why we represent a clock as going 'tick-tock' when it is actually going 'ticktick.' On this observation he built an argument about human beings' compulsion to organize experience into beginnings and, even more strongly, into endings. The 'tick' of the clock was for Kermode 'a humble genesis'; the 'tock,' on the other hand, was a 'feeble apocalypse'! From the days of the Gestalt Psychologists there has been a fascination with the variety of ways in which the 'forward movement' of subjective experience is organized, whether spontaneously due to the ways in which brains have evolved, or under the active control of a culturally constituted person.1 The imaging techniques of neuroscienee are helping to deepen our understanding of how subjectivity is managed by the brain. The problem of how intersubjectivity is organized, however, is currently less amenable to these technologies. This is especially so in the case of the psychology of art. Because experiences with art are, as John Dewey (1934) argued, the most complete kind of experience - recruiting, as it does, sensation, perception, conception, judgment, emotion, memory, imagination, personal idiosyncrasy, cultural tradition, etc. - the making and the reception of 'Art' is therefore likely to be the most testing ground for the adequacy of any psychology's ontology. But what is the nature of the phenomena to be studied, and what particular categories best assist the inquiry?

A strikingly obvious feature of subjectivity, and of intersubjectivity, is the apparent seamlessness or unity of the ways in which many different neural capacities are bound together into ongoing, interwoven, subject-centered fields of consciousness. Since William James, words like 'stream' are routinely used to indicate the forward movement of such fields of consciousness, particularly when considered from the point of view of their subjects (James, 1890). The degree to which a person is not engaging in centering reflection for passages of that stream has, on the other hand, been described using words like 'absorption' (Dewey 1934; Benson 1993, 2001) or 'flow' (Csikszentmihalyi 2008). When the experience is 'aesthetic,' in John Dewey's sense ofthat term, then absorption is one of its symptoms.

We should remember that 'experience' for Dewey is not the same as is currently understood by that word. Contemporary usage tends to emphasize the subjective or private aspect whereas, for Dewey, experience is both subjective and objective and is to be understood as 'relational.' Experience is always temporally extended. Subject and object together produce experience. In this sense, it is a suitably equipped subject aesthetically engaging with an 'art object' that together generate the 'work of art.' The 'work of art' is an outcome in time of the dynamic give-and-take between a subject and an 'art object/event.' Late in his life Dewey wondered whether, instead of trying to recover and defend this understanding of 'experience,' he would have been better off using and developing the concept of 'culture.' The course of experience/culture has both public and private phases.

In this view, experience streams, sometimes as a subjective phase, sometimes as an objective phase, which can in time achieve its own kind of 'form.' This form is one that unfolds over time with a beginning and a conclusion or, as the Pragmatists would say, a consummation. …

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