Plato’s Camera, Paul Bowles Travels, and Beauty and Truth: or, Art and Junk

“My literary activities in Paris that winter were confined to the search for missing issues of certain defunct and moribund magazines of which I wanted to have a complete collection. This took more time and energy than one might expect. The publications of particular interest were Minotaure, Bifur and Documents, a short-lived review edited by Carl Einstein. These were not to be found at the stalls along the quays, but in small second-hand bookshops scattered across the city, so that in my search for them I was obliged to do a good deal of walking. This however suited me perfectly, as there was nothing I enjoyed more than wandering on foot through the less frequented streets of Paris, which I continued to find mysterious and inexhaustible.”

                     – Paul Bowles,  Travels

On Sundays I allow myself a reprieve from philosophical studies and wander through my library of lost adventures. I came across a collection of old books by Paul Bowles today and decided to read a few of his delightful essays on traveling. I lied… my travails led me into Paul Churchland’s new book, Plato’s Camera, as well as Ray Brassier, Steven Shaviro and… oh well, I did try to stay away from philosophical topics, but my mind needs satisfaction and this always seems to lead toward philosophical topics. Here we go…

Paul Bowles was the last surviving representative of a generation of artists whose work has shaped 20th century literature and music. Among those lives that intersected with Paul Bowles during the “beat generation” were Allen Ginsberg, Brion Gysin, William S. Burroughs, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Aaron Copeland and Gertrude Stein. Paul Bowles achieved critical and popular acclaim with the publication of his first novel The Sheltering Sky, in 1949 set in French North Africa. The Sheltering Sky was later filmed in 1990 by Bernardo Bertolucci. The film was shot in Morocco  as well as Algeria and Niger and features actors Deborah Winger John Malkovich and Timothy Spall. The Sheltering Sky tells a dangerous and erotic journey of an American artist couple, Port and Kit Mores, and their aimless travels through Africa in search of new experiences. In 1947 Paul Bowles settled in Tangier, Morocco, and his wife, Jane Bowles followed in 1948. Except for winters spent in Sri Lanka during the early 1950’s Tangier, Morocco was his home for the remainder of his life.

The first essay in the series is of his stay in Paris during the late 20’s and early 30’s and his meetings with both the famous and infamous artists, writers, poets, and others of that era. He relates an incident in which he was given some artistic assemblages made of wood, plaster, and bits of rope from the Joan Miro collection across the street from his small apartment on 17 Quai Voltaire:

“These were made of wood, plaster, and bits of rope, somewhat reminiscent of parts of Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau, but conceived with an eye to please. Harry visited the Galerie Pierre and came back with three of these Mirós. They livened up the place, and made me feel that I was really in Paris and that it was the year 1932. The Foujitas had suggested another era – the preceding decade. (When one is twenty years old, a decade is a long time.) We put the Foujitas into a closet. Scarcely a fortnight later I came home one afternoon to find that the studio seemed unusually dim. It took only a few seconds for me to realize that the Foujitas were back in their accustomed places on the wall, and that the Mirós had disappeared. The maid would not have done this; it could only have been the concierge or Mme. Ovise herself. I rushed downstairs to speak with the concierge. At first she had no idea of what I was talking about (or pretended to have none.) This was because I described the missing Mirós as pictures. Eventually she did understand, saying: “Monsieur means those old pieces of wood that someone had put on the wall? I threw them out. I thought monsieur would be glad to be rid of them.” A search of the cellar was undertaken, and the constructions, to which I kept referring as works of art, much to the concierge’s bewilderment, were found in a corner with a pile of kindling wood. They were not in prime condition, and had to be taken back to the Galerie Pierre for repairs. It was finally Miró himself who rebuilt them” (T 24-25).1

What was most interesting to me was this disparity between Bowles and his Land Lady over the condition of these material objects as art or junk. This double vision between beauty or truth, art or junk, aesthetic attainment or folk psychology seems to drive its wedge through much of philosophy these days. Just here comes the interdiction of knowledge and judgement. What does it mean for an ensemble of material objects to become art or aesthetic objects and not junk? Does placing them on the wall entail such an appreciation? Is it how we arrange it on the wall? Is there an order of appeal that entails our acknowledgement that this is art and not junk? I would say neither. Can we make an appeal to subjective criteria, or is there some objective set of operations going on between the observer and the observed that would qualify what is art and what is junk? Does the knowledge that this ensemble was created by an specific artists as art something that should play a part?  I would say that one the qualifier is the knowledge in Paul Bowles mind of Joan Miro as the productive agent, as the one who arranged these material objects into the order of art(i.e., arranged these otherwise ordinary things into an aesthetic ensemble), that offers us both the difference that makes a difference, as well as the distinction of judgement that comes between art and junk. The concierge knew nothing of Joan Miro nor of his found objects made into art. For her the objects were just ontological bits of flotsam and jetsam hanging on the wall that seemed out of place to her mind as junk; so, being pragmatic and reasonable, she took them down, polished the wall, and through this old junk in the garbage heap in the cellar.

The concierge did not know of  the material connection between the ensemble of wood, plaster, and rope and the artists Joan Miro. It is this relational connection that is not in itself external but internal to the material participants that makes the difference, and it is the knowledge of that difference that allows us to make distinct aesthetic judgements concering material things as either junk or art. It is not the things themselves that make that difference, it is our knowledge of and our epistemic or aesthetic judgements through the power of making distinctions that make a material object either art or junk. Paul Bowles knew the material connection; the Land Lady did not. It is not the ontological that is important here but the epistemic. What allows us to make such distinctions? How do certain material things become aesthetic and others junk? What is the difference that makes a difference? What kinds of judgements allow Paul Bowles to see these material things on a wall as art, and yet allow these same things to be seen by the Land Lady as junk to be thrown away? How to we learn the difference? And, most of all what type of learning processes are involved in making these distinctions between material things as art of junk?

To answer such questions I must once again travel among the books in my library: a traveling of the mind into strange texts in search of knowledge that might help me understand the process described above. Paul Churchland in a recent work tells us that the idea of the eye being a camera has been known for a long time, but that the mind itself might be one too is less well known:

“The eye constructs a representation, or ‘takes a picture,’ of the landscape or configuration of the objective spatiotemporal particulars currently displayed before its lens. This picture-taking process is completed in milliseconds, and the eye does it again and again, because its target landscape is typically in constant flux. The learning brain, by contrast, very slowly constructs a representation, or ‘takes a picture,’ of the landscape or configuration of the abstract universals, the temporal invariants, and the enduring symmetries that structure the objective universe of its experience. That process takes months, years, decades, and more, because these background features take time to reveal themselves in full. Moreover, the brain of each creature typically undergoes this ‘picture taking’ process only once, so as to produce the enduring background conceptual framework with which it will interpret its sensory experience for the rest of its life. And yet the brain manages to pull that abstract information— about the universe’s timeless categorical and dynamical structure— from its extended sensory encounters with that universe, no less than the eye manages to pull a representation of the fleeting here-and-now from its current luminous input.”2

In the above passage there is a great deal of philosophical presuppositions left unsaid: “abstract universals”, “temporal invariants”, “enduring symmetries”, etc. This structural or scientific realist is set within a naturalist framework and is very much a debated topic both in analytical and continental philosophy.3 As Ray Brassier in his excellent work tells us the  “trouble with Churchland’s naturalism is not so much that it is metaphysical, but that it is an impoverished metaphysics, inadequate to the task of grounding the relation between representation and reality” (NU 9).

Churchland describes his scientific realism as an “account of cognition” which is “claimed, by me, to be a novel incarnation of what philosophers of science have long thought of as Scientific Realism. Specifically, and on the present view, a theory is a conceptual framework or high-dimensional cognitive map that purports to be, and sometimes succeeds in being, an accurate or faithful map of some domain of objective features and the enduring relations that hold between them” (Ibid. PC 215). In his work he describes three types of distinct learning processes that go on within three levels, these are  described as structural, dynamic, and cultural changes go on within the material brain: the first, is primarily in the microconfiguration of the brain’s 1014 synaptic connections; the second process of dynamical change in one’s typical or habitual modes of neuronal activation, change that is driven not by any underlying synaptic changes, but by the recent activational history and current activational state of the brain’s all-up neuronal population; and, in the third we find a process of cultural change, change in such things as the language and vocabulary of the community involved, its modes of education and cultural transmission generally, its institutions of research and technology, and its techniques of individual and collective evaluation of the conceptual novelties produced at the first two levels of learning (PC 33-34). This final cultural learning process is the one that most decisively distinguishes human cognition from that of all other species, for the accumulation of knowledge at this level has a time-scale of decades to many thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of years. Its principal function is the ongoing regulation of the individual and collective cognitive activity of human brains at the first two levels of learning (PC 34).

As a cautionary note Churchland tells us:

“A close examination of the processes at all three levels will reveal a fractionation into sundry subprocesses and substructures. Most obviously, the third-level process is going to display a hierarchy of interlocking regulatory mechanisms, depending on the particular human culture, and on the particular stage of its history, that we choose to examine. Less obviously, but no less surely, the first-level process is a knit of architectural, developmental, neurochemical, and electrophysiological activities, which neuroscientists and neuromodelers have only begun to unravel. Similarly, the dynamical or second-level process will reveal its own variations and intricacies. The tripartite division sketched above is a deliberate idealization whose function is to provide a stable framework for more detailed exposition at each level, and for an exploration of the major interactions between the three levels” (PC 34).

Without going into the full details, or providing a reading of Churchland’s new book – which I will return to in future essays – I want to concentrate on the details of his project that touch my own neo-materialist perspective. As he tells us the central idea that his new model of congnition recognizes is that many important forms of cognitive activity are not confined to the brain alone, but reach out to include, as an integral part of the cognitive activity involved, various forms of external ‘scaffolding,’ such as pencil and paper, slide rules, electronic calculators, dividers/ compasses, drafting equipment, instruction books, human interlocutors, and external mathematical manipulations of all kinds. A complete story of the nature of cognition, accordingly, must take all such ‘extensions’ of our native cognitive equipment into proper account. (PC 274-275)

One of the keys that touch base with a neo-materialist perspective is in statements like this:

“We not only think: we are alive. We not only cognize: we metabolize. That metabolic activity,  as modern biochemistry has been teaching us, is extraordinarily complex, although it is basically uniform across all terrestrial animals. It is also confined primarily to the internal milieu of any animal’s body. That is where food is digested, temperature is regulated, proteins and other chemicals are produced, invading bacteria and viruses are attacked and destroyed, damage is repaired and growth regulated, reproduction is conceived, canceled, or brought to term, and so forth. All of us are situated in the physical world, of course. But the mechanisms that subserve any animal’s metabolism are located primarily inside its skin” (PC 275-276).

What he is describing here is the material proecesses that go on all the time within any organism. These material regulative processes serve as the seed bed for cognition. He tells us that one might construe his new model for a romantic Hegelianism:

“At this point, a romantic (or cynical) reader might suppose that I am here trying to resurrect some novel form of Hegelianism— that is, to portray the organized machinery that sustains our metabolisms as some kind of giant living organism, and to portray the organized machinery that sustains our cognition as some kind of giant mind. But that is emphatically not my purpose, for two reasons. First, I do not believe that our classical, prescientific conception of a “living animal” will throw any light at all on the nature of those supra-individual metabolism-regulating mechanisms. And second, I do not believe that our classical, folk-psychological conception of a “mind” will throw any light at all on the nature of our supra-individual cognition-regulating mechanisms” (PC 277-280).

Instead he tells us that what we need in the first case, and already possess, is a new and scientifically informed conception of the complex metabolic activities that make any animal a living thing. This has allowed us to appreciate in greater detail the regulatory mechanisms that humans have long employed. It has allowed us to appreciate how they do their nourishing and reequilibrating work, and it has allowed us to generate new regulatory practices on a continuing basis. Similarly, what we need in the second case is a new and scientifically informed conception of the cognitive activities that make any animal a thinking thing.  And this will allow us to appreciate in greater detail the regulatory institutions that humans have long deployed. It will allow us to appreciate how they do their regulatory and evaluative work, and even, perhaps, to generate new mechanisms— think of computer technologies and the Internet. Old myths and folk conceptions are not what we need at this point, and especially not for redeployment as Hegelian metaphors. Where cognitive theory is concerned, what we need is a comprehensive and revealing theory of brain activity. Then, and only then, will we be able to understand in detail the very considerable role that our secondary social institutions play in regulating and amplifying it. (PC 280).

Even if Churchland can ultimately produce a cognitive theory that obviates the folk pyschology or in Sellar’s terms “folk image” of our common sense conceptions are not is not to the point, what is important is that it opens new avenues of scientific practice and allows for a stringent set of guidelines to follow in any search for answers. Yet, it does not provide us with the answers we need concerning Aesthetic Judgement, and why a person’s knowledge of a material object and its relations to other material entities can form in one creature a sense of appreciation of that object as art and for another as junk. For we know now that once the Land Lady recognized the relation of the object to the artists that she could cognize it as art, but before that relation all she cognized was an ensemble of junk (wood, rope, plaster) on the wall that needed to be thrown out. What is it that makes this kind of distinction within the mind? How do we define such distinctions? Is it part of this third order of learning as Churchland argues? Is it a cultural qualification?

I think that Steven Shaviro is correct when he says, speaking of aesthetic judgement:

“There is no criterion that can serve as the stable and objective basis for a system of judgments. This is why the only form of valuation, or “graded envisagement”, that Whitehead accepts is an aesthetic one. For aesthetic judgments are singular, unrepeatable, and ungeneralizable. They may be exemplary, as Kant suggests; but they cannot provide an actual rule to be followed. Or as Whitehead puts it, “there is not just one ideal ‘order’ which all actual entities should attain and fail to attain. In each case there is an ideal peculiar to each particular actual entity. . . . The notion of one ideal arises from the disastrous overmoralization of thought under the influence of fanaticism, or pedantry” (1929/1978, 84). Whitehead always opposes the actual to the ideal; but just as actualities are all different, so must the ideals be as well. This is why the only ideals are aesthetic ones” (WC 152).4

Each of us goes through these three learning processes described by Churchland and developing over time, as Whitehead suggests, a spectrum of aesthetic attainments and ideals that are not the same for each material entity but provide alternative approaches to the way we approach objects through ontological or epistemic categories. We are not formed or shaped to one unique view except under the duress, as Shaviro states, of the “disastrous overmoralization of thought under the influence of fanatacism, or pedantry”. If truth is what Churchland seeks, then aesthetics offers none according to Shaviro and Whitehead, instead as Shaviro comenting on aestheticism: “Beauty is a wider, and more fundamental, notion than Truth” must be maintained, not in spite of the current capitalist recuperation of the idea of beauty, but precisely on account of it—or at least in recognition of it (WC 155)….Whitehead’s aesthetics may seem at odds with much of twentieth-century modernism. But such an aesthetics is strikingly relevant to the culture of the present day, which locates creativity almost entirely in practices of sampling, appropriation, and recombination”(WC 158).

Shaviro reminds us that the difference between ethics and aesthetics is the difference between someone like Spinoza for whom the need for a ‘spiritual contentment’ that arises from the comprehension of “eternal necessity,” and Whitehead for whom the “insistent craving” for novelty and adventure is supreme, marks the boundaries between a substantive and a formalist view of life and art. (WC 161) This difference between beauty and truth in our judgements of material entities is the difference that makes a difference.

As Shaviro again attests in Whitehead there is a linking feeling to beauty, rather than subordinating it to truth, Whitehead unites the two senses of the word “aesthetic” that we find in Kant (WC 67). He goes on to state that for Whitehead as for Kant, the question of beauty pertains not just to the creation and reception of works of art, but to sensible experience more generally.:

“The connection, unremarked by Kant, between the Transcendental Aesthetic and the Critique of Aesthetic Judgment is that acts of sensible intuition and judgments of beauty alike involve feelings that are receptive and not spontaneous, and for which there can be no adequate concepts. In both cases, there is a certain act of creative construction on the part of the subject; yet this construction is responsive to the given data, and cannot be described as arbitrarily imposed, or as merely subjective. Neither the attribution of time and space to phenomena, nor the attribution of beauty to phenomenal objects, can be justified on cognitive grounds”. (WC 68)

In this I think Shaviro and Churchland would agree regarding the statement that beauty cannot be justified on cognitive grounds, since to do so would be to turn beauty into truth. So in the end we have learned that the rehabilitation of Beauty and aesthetic judgements are what makes this difference that makes a difference, one that shows us how the concierge can see the material object as junk and Bowles as an aesthetic art object. Yet, this only tells us one part of the story, the internal aspect of aesthetic judgements, it still does not qualify my earlier questioning of the art object or material entity as it is related to the artist, Joan Miro, as the extensive link between Bowles who knew the art object was created by Joan Miro and was therefore to be construed as an art work; and, the Land Lady, for whom there was no such knowledge of the artist and construed the material entities on the wall as mere junk. What kind of aesthetic appeal, here? I think this judgement belongs to the realm of truth, and is part of Churchland’s understanding of judgemenmts of truth. Why? Well, if the Land Lady had known that the object on the wall was made or constructed by Joan Miro as art, would she still have assumed it was junk? This kind of question would not be an aesthetic question, but a cognitive one in which our knowledge of what can be qualified as art is defined by a certain logic subsumed within the history of learning processes as stipulated within Churchland’s third category of learning.

I’ll have to ponder this more at a future time… but it has me thinking, hopefully it will spur you curiosity as well.

1. Bowles, Paul (2011-08-30). Travels. Harper Collins, Inc..

2. Churchland, Paul M. (2012-03-09). Plato’s Camera . MIT Press.

3. Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction. (Palgrave McMillian 2007)

4. Steven Shaviro (2009-05-29). Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics (Technologies of Lived Abstraction). The MIT Press.

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