2.3-2.5 Response: Mind/Body Equivalence and the Aesthetic Form of Cognitive States (Daniel Hill)

For me as an artist, embodiment is a fundamental concept. Despite what a dictionary may or may not inform us about a word or term, we can occasionally (perhaps often?) construct idiosyncratic interpretations. This is even more the case with abstract concepts. When attempting to fit the roundness of tacit knowledge into the square holes of language, an insufficient lexicon is often revealed. Perhaps this is why humans developed the visual language of art in the first place, as a proto language to both discover and express knowledge.


Decades of painting, drawing, and working with sound has led me to think of embodiment or embodied form as follows. Form is a consequence of process; process is the flow of a cognitive state in time. Aesthetic form is a visual artifact of a specific cognitive state. As we all recognize some cognitive states are better than others, hence a hierarchy becomes necessary. The creative mindset appears the gold standard, as solutions to all the problems we have ever solved and all the problems we are yet to solve, are within reach from creativity’s elevated and fruitful vantage. Cognitive states are essentially perspectives from which we have experiences as well as the ability to reflect upon them. Some individuals acquire perspectives that are paradigm shifting. History is replete with these innovators that managed to see the world from a slight, yet crucial shift of perspective. But fertile, creative cognitive states for our personal well-being are equally essential.


I have noticed, when entering a creative cognitive state, frequently it has been catalyzed by a sequence of bodily actions. My paintings require significant body movement as I hover over the surface with a squeeze bottle, carefully dropping a network of thick viscous paint lines one by one to the surface. The emergent form is a resultant of both body architecture moving in time and the cognitive state necessary to perform those actions for hours. The more body actions are encoded and sequenced within a system, the more they become a kind of language. We can think of certain kinds of dance, rituals, yoga, tai chi, or even meditation as kinds of body languages. Systems are valuable for they are not only key to making sense of our myriad and complex experiences, but they also enable complex relationships to be adaptable with a degree of precision.


Neuroscience has shown what we do with our bodies has a consequence in the brain/mind. The body promotes a state of mind, the mind follows and in turn influences the actions of the body. A beneficial feedback loop is formed through an equivalence of mind and body. In this way, we can actually rewire our neural pathways. The resulting aesthetic form then is both embodied as well as an artifact of a creative cognitive state- creating the contextual environment for promoting and nurturing that state's sustained presence. This could be interpreted as a type of metacommunication or a kind of reading between the lines or visual inference promoting the context for specific cognitive states. 

4E Cognition and Beyond the Humanist/Post-Humanist Debate? (Arthur Whitman)

Furthering the relevance, raised by Taney and Sarah, of the contemporary cognitive and neuro-sciences to the possibilities of reevaluating the role of form and meaning in art (and the arts): I'd like to put forth the idea of "4E" cognition, recently popular in those fields. The idea, basically, is that human (and animal) thought is embodied, embedded, enacted, and extended. (I'm linking below to a short video by philosopher Shaun Gallagher, which offers a succinct account of each of these intertwined dimensions.)

I can perhaps be forgiven for the naiveté of my speculations here as a non-academic (I trained as a painter and am active as a newspaper art critic). But I think a brief consideration of these "E's" might help clarify some of my misgivings, raised tentatively in an earlier post, concerning the radical critique of humanism being bandied about here. (If we are challenging binaries here, I think the humanism/post-humanism dichotomy is fair game too, especially given the moralistic shadings being offered by some participants.) 

The notion of embodiment, shared I think by everyone here, is one that clearly ties us to our creaturely, more-than-human natures. As I wrote earlier, "Our capacities for abstract and deliberative thought are rooted in those for perception and affect." I'd reckon as well that it provides directly for an at least modest human uniqueness (Gallagher, below mentions hands). I think it offers a challenge both to the rationalist-intellectualist view of the radically autonomous ego but also to postmodernist views concerning a radical decentering of self and agency.

Without going into detail, the idea behind embeddedness, enaction, and extension pertain to the fact that thought is an active process that takes place in an ecological setting--which for many species at least, is a socio-cultural as well as a narrowly physical one. We are in of our habitats and milieus. Again, and without wanting to draw a sharp boundary between humans and other animals, I would venture that what is most distinctive about homo sapiens is our elaborate and cumulatively extended cognitive ecology. I believe that this pertains to art as a human practice and I'm willing to argue further that it is not mere chauvinism to say so. 

Shaun Gallagher's video Q&A, recommended. 

Response to 3.6 (Deborah Barlow)


Taney’s question asks about how form might actively engage in the “religio-spiritual-ethical dimension.” Her question sounds rational and reasonable. But in my experience it is anything but.

I don’t want this to veer too far into the personal, but this is as close to home as it gets. Like someone born with six toes that are carefully hidden from public view in a good pair of shoes, I have had another conversation going on right from the start. “Mystic” and “spiritual intuitive” are outsider terms and aspersive, but there really isn’t a proper name for what this is. When you realize early on it isn’t normal, you find a sturdy pair of shoes and hope you can pass.

Maybe it is just the process of getting older that makes passing less interesting. And certainly there is more space regarding these issues these days, just as Daniel pointed out on Day 2:

“Re: mystic: This is a word I struggle with as it carries much baggage. The lure of the unknown- this fiery, passionate desire to understand that has driven us through the millennia holds a sense of mystery implicit. This is essential. I agree with you and yes, it is a difficult position to defend. Both (word and position) need to be expressed in a way that science can understand or contribute. Otherwise, it is too easily dismissed. However, I think we live at a fortunate time as interesting things are happening in neuroscience and consciousness studies for example. The near future may yield common ground atop which we may build.”

Aligning with science is not necessarily my primary goal. And this symposium has been full of reminders that knowing/being/consciousness exist outside the scope of current science practice, one that is still highly determined by the limitations of its current instrumentation.

Aside from winning science over, let me concentrate on what I do know: how an art practice comes into being by relying on an undefined array of influences, inspirations, guidance systems and visions. And given that I have been trying to articulate this for about 50 years—and feel I have been unsuccessful at making my point comprehensible—I will use the words of others to suggest some of the dimensions of the landscape Taney identified. These insights are more lucid than my own efforts would be.

“Given the vague, and sometimes trivializing, uses of the term in recent decades, I appreciate the artist Richard Tuttle’s comment to me on this matter: “What I want more than anything is a definition of spirituality that is trustworthy.” Indeed—and to be so it must necessarily extend beyond a focus on the self to a sense of our embeddedness in the larger context: the exquisitely dynamic interrelatedness of existence, the vibratory flux of the subtle realms of the material world, and the ultimate creativity of the universe. The cosmos is infused with an unfolding dynamic of becoming and a unitive dimension of being. Spirituality is the awareness of and engagement with that unity and those dynamics.”

--Charlene Spretnak, The Spiritual Dynamic in Modern Art


“Intuition is a feeling that comes out of total freedom, being one with cosmic energy. It’s knowledge before knowledge. It’s understanding before understanding…Intuition gives us new ideas and doesn’t always tell us where those ideas come from.”

--Axel Vervoordt (co curator, Intuition, Museo Fortuny)

“The artist lives this indescribable feeling that is inaccessible to words as a reflection of all that has been present, of what will be present, from the beginning and forever. Freed from the need to depict the visible world, the artist becomes the receptor through whom the echoes and reflections of an irrational elsewhere flow freely and take form.”

--Daniela Ferretti (co curator, Intuition, Museo Fortuny)

When I’m drawing I feel a little closer to the way birds navigate when flying, or to hares finding shelter if pursued, or to fish knowing where to spawn, or trees finding a way to the light, or bees constructing their cells…


Drawing is a form of probing. And the first generic impulse to draw derives from the human need to search, to plot points, to place things and to place oneself…


We who draw do so not only to make something observed visible to others, but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination.”


--John Berger, Bento’s Sketchbook


“This is an exhibition about the intimate and the infinite: about the tiniest fruits of the earth and the stars above; about a single stitch, and the great web of creation; about the simple passage of a brush across canvas, and the unfolding eternity of being…it is the most human of urges to look to the heavens and contemplate our place in the universe, to try to find a connection between our earthly selves and the boundless expanse of the stars. Each work in this exhibition is an attempt to bridge this divide: to provide an intimate encounter with an ‘ancient endless infinity.’

If this sounds a little mystical, I would like to suggest that on the contrary, it is both profoundly human and insistently contemporary. The world in which we live is more connected than ever before…it is no surprise that ‘webs’ and ‘nets’ have become such fertile tropes for contemporary artists… for these are the operative metaphors of our age.”

--Henry Skerritt, curator of Marking the Infinite: Contemporary Women Artists from Aboriginal Australia 


“The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mystical. It is the power of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness.”

--Albert Einstein

“The closer and more carefully we probe, the more [the universe] seethes with what looks like life—runaway processes driven by positive feedback loops, emergent patterns, violent attractions, quantum leaps, and always, as far ahead as we can see, more surprises. There may be no invisible creaturely “beings” afoot, either symbionts, parasites, or predators. But there are uncountable algorithms at work in the physical world, writhing and reaching, pulling matter and energy into their schemes, acting out of what almost seems to be an unquenchable playfulness.”

--Barbara Ehrenreich, Living with a Wild God



“We scientists are taught from an early age of our apprenticeship not to waste time on questions that do not have clear and definite answers. But artists…often don’t care what the answer is because definite answers don’t exist to all interesting and important questions…for many, the question is more important than the answer.

There are things we believe in that do not submit to the methods and reductions of science. Furthermore, faith and the passion for the transcendent that often goes with it have been the impulse for so many exquisite creations of humankind…The strong sense of the infinite, the belief in an unseen order in the world, the feeling of being in the presence of something divine are all personal.”

--Alan Lightman, theoretical physicist and author of The Accidental Universe


“A signal does not necessarily mean that you want to be located or described. It can mean that you want to be known as Unlocatable and Hidden…


Weakness, fluidity, concealment, and solitude assume their place in a kind of dream world, where the sleeping witness finally feels safe to lie down in mystery.”


--Fanny Howe, poet


Response to Sarah concerning reason and emotion: continuing a line of inquiry (Jon Sakata)

Completely with you, Sarah, concerning the "relationship between sound/ear and emotions" and I wish to particularly focus in on your use of "why music moves us so deeply." To pick up on an earlier post that involved the French term sens with 'directionality': the movements of mind/body/imagination/emotions/etc. in ways that are not wholly predictable, controllable, explainable, comprehensible -- how sound (not just 'music') can get so directly on to our nervous system, into our veins and brain stem, our entire physiology, affect our biochemistry so intensely and subtly (pharmaceutically?), without necessarily going through any form of narrativity or conceptualization, let alone other gradients of linguality. I feel I carry around sounds far more powerfully and with greater longevity than any lingual sign or form of signification.


On a completely different track concerning reason and its relation to human emotion and action, a Foucauldian intervention:

“All human behavior is scheduled and programmed through rationality. There is a logic of institutions and in behavior and in political relations. In even the most violent ones there is a rationality. What is most dangerous in violence is its rationality. Of course, violence itself is terrible. But the deepest root of violence and its permanence come out of the form of the rationality we use. The idea had been that if we live in the world of reason, we can get rid of violence. This is quite wrong. Between violence and rationality there is no incompatibility.”

Reason and emotion: continuing a line of inquiry (Sarah Robinson)

I am also a fan of Mark Johnson's work in general and in particular The Meaning of the Body. Johnson's own thoughts on the emotion/reason continuum stem from two thinkers: John Dewey and Merleau-Ponty. Both he and George Lakoff acknowledge their mutual indebtedness to them in The Philosophy in the Flesh. Their mantra in that book was that: The mind is inherently embodied, reason is mostly unconscious, abstract concepts are largely metaphorical and reason is emotionally engaged and evolutionary and is rooted in perceptual and motor repertoire that we share with other animals.

In his essay in Mind in Architecture, Mark Johnson speaks of how radical John Dewey's understanding of emotion actually was. Emotion, for Dewey was not only personal and internal it is endemic to the situation at hand, emotions are simultaneously an expression and an attunement to the situation in which we are embedded. Dewey called the ear the emotional sense for this very reason—sound moves us directly. Emotion is not strictly an internal condition but a coextensive awareness gauging inner and outer situations. This relationship between sound/ear and emotions likely accounts for why music moves us so deeply, Jon Sakata, are you with me?  

Maurice Merleau-Ponty insisted that an angry gesture does not make us think of anger, it is anger itself. Which is akin to the poet Jane Hirshfield's observation that one cannot skip while angry or rage in a tender voice. When understood this way, emotion suddenly seems reasonable, that is, ia reasonable psycho-bio-chemical embodiment of the situation in which we find ourselves. A leading thinker in affect and emotion is the philosopher Giovanna Colombetti, who studied with Mark Johnson, Evan Thompson and Shaun Gallagher and her book The Feeling Body, is a must read. 

Response to 3.5 (Jon Sakata)

 Not sure if there is a better word than 'spirituality' for what I shared during the weekend's talk about my experience with Christine's UNE at LACMA: the suspicion and dismissal of what I saw as an 'industrial' object, how this transformed into the 'cosmological' as I passed through it, the sense of portal bringing me to the dissolving of 'object' and even 'objecthood' to a state of transport that defied -- and still defies -- explanation, formulation, bearing, belief (yes, dis-belief at the heart of the spiritual)...

Emergence from UNE: 'material/force' eclipsing 'form/matter' only to avail a second eclipsing of 'material/force' by the ineffable, dematerialized wonder of it all...


Another emergence (via Kandinsky's didactic gem):

Today I am going to the cinema.

Today I am going. to the cinema

Today I. am going to the cinema

Today I am going to the cinema 




Introducing Session III: Aesthetic Form, Posthumanism, and the Spiritual Dimension (Taney Roniger)

With so many of the threads begun in Session II still active, I’ve delayed my post introducing Session III until just now (see below). Although Session III takes us into a new angle on our subject, I want to encourage everyone to continue with any of the older threads that call for further exploration. Also, do remember to check the comments under your previous posts; people may be responding days after the posts were made.

Session III

Aesthetic Form, Posthumanism, and the Spiritual Dimension

Tuesday, December 8 – Wednesday, December 9


With the waning of humanism and its deification of the human, some of the more hubristic assumptions of secularism have also been shaken. In this session we will explore how emerging understandings of humans’ embeddedness within a larger whole might reinvest art with a spiritual and/or cosmological dimension and what role art might play in this nascent identity of the human.



3.1 Is there a spiritual dimension to the language of form, and if so how does it differ from the kind that might be conveyed through discursive content?


3.2 Is there an ethical dimension to aesthetic form?


3.3 Is there an ethical or spiritual dimension to matter itself, even before it is shaped by the art-making human organism?


3.4 Is there an inherent relationship between form and “interbeing,” Thich Nhat Hanh’s word for the relational nature of the physical world? In what ways might form open us to a spiritual experience of this reality?


3.5 Can a new sense of aesthetic form help shift conventional assumptions about spirituality and religion that invariably invoke a paternalistic sky God? Can it pull us into greater awareness of a spirituality of immanence?


3.6 Are there other approaches to the religio-spiritual-ethical dimension that aesthetic form might actively engage?




Response to 2.1 (Carrie Rohman)

    In case it hasn't been obvious from my posts so far, my most recent book Choreographies of the Living: Bioaesthetics in Literature, Art, and Performance (2018) makes exactly this case, through the particular lens of animal or creatural becomings-artistic and the vibratory forces that all creatures self-perform.  There, I look at writers (D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf), dancers, performers and musicians (mainly Isadora Duncan, Rachel Rosenthal, Merce Cunningham and John Cage).  I essentially argue that the artistic impulse should be viewed as a creatural or animal impulse, not as a later, human one.  

   While I obviously can't summarize the entire book here, I end the book with the following claim:  "... one of our challenges and tasks for the 21st century is to see aesthetics even more broadly as "creaturizing," so that our artistic undertakings—those we have traditionally viewed as exclusive and "elevated"—are framed in ways that truly resonate with strangers, in a shared system that is fully more-than-human in all its fragility, but also in all its creative aliveness and improvisation.  The transporting power of art, the becoming-intense of aesthetics, the felt vibrations of aesthetic forces, and the taste for certain affect-circulating performances all have their "ancestral" lineage for us in animals' aesthetic engagements.  Bioaesthetics thus reminds us that the world of art includes hordes of other creatural actors and living assemblages—that these beings always have been artistic.  And finally, I would submit that all this makes the artistic, in every permutation, even more extraordinary."