Its been a while since I’ve given myself the time to listen to a podcast interview. I hate that about the recent months in my life, but just listening stretches me when I usually feel like I need to be doing. And unlike many of my friends, I cannot work in the studio and listen to conversations at the same time. I get anxious when topics diverge from my interests. And unlike with reading, I cannot easily skip ahead to the parts that seem to matter, or see from the larger view that my time is being misspent. With written words you can get the sense that the author will uphold her end of the bargain, or not. Each new word spoken on a podcast is a tease for the great mystery lying on the other side. Will it be a paragraph’s worth on this topic or several? Written text can be broken by images strategically offering insight into the path ahead. You can see it from the corner of your eye. Listening to a podcast is a commitment of faith.
So yesterday I took the plunge. When I had been listening to podcasts I always enjoyed Ben Carter’s and Michael Kline’s interviews. The other guys never caught my imagination as well. Well, yesterday in my facebook feed I saw that my old buddy Simon Levin was interviewed by Paul Blais, and knowing Simon I imagined I would at least be entertained, and probably be given a thing or two to think about. I was not wrong. You can listen to the podcast here:
Anytime there is a heated debate its usually a sign that there is something interesting in the wind. Simon and Paul got into it a bit regarding the idea of quality, how that seems to reflect differently between things like science and pottery, and how pottery communicates much like a language. Simon suggested that pottery has both expression and the articulation of ideas, and that seems very linguistic. As I’ve said numerous times on this blog, pottery and all art actually IS a language, and understanding anything said in that language has all the requirements and difficulties of understanding ANY language.
I don’t want to trip over the specific ideas that Simon and Paul were putting forth, and would rather give my own take on these issues. If you listen to the podcast you can imagine me as a third party to the conversation. I don’t want to debate their points as much as offer my own insight.
So language. If you think of it, everything I’ve just said to get to this point is a demonstration of the variety and capacity of natural language. In some ways science and art/pottery are directly related to natural language. But there are important differences. You might say that science has evolved to talk about the physical world and its attributes. Science describes the world, but only the measurable parts of it. Science is inherently quantitative. The interesting thing about science done well is that it is reproducible. Its not so much a language expressing an individual’s unique perspective as it is a universally accurate way of getting at the underlying consistency of the natural world. Scientific language, it is suggested, describes the world objectively.
Of course this objectivity has been a siren song for almost every other form of communication. If science offers us ‘truth’, why can’t we have that same sort of truth with other ways of describing the world?
In the early part of the 20th Century a handful of philosophers actually imagined that natural languages were constructed in such a way that meaning was arrived through logic and empirical verification. They imagined that proper use of language was like science. a calculus for making meaningful true statements. Of course that’s utter nonsense, but it also focuses so narrowly on the idea of accuracy that it misses the point of how natural languages evolved, what we really use them for, and how we learn what we know through a variety of things we can do with them. It also misunderstands science itself (see the Feynman quote in the footnote*). Interestingly, my favorite philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was significantly on one side of this argument and then led the charge to the other in his later years.
So while these days the idea of objectivity seems a spurious claim for the basic function of natural languages, we have yet to adequately learn that lesson with other forms of communication. In art we sometimes talk about the timeless or the transcendent qualities revealed, and I don’t want to say we don’t talk about important things with art, but the objectivity aspired to falls well short of the scientific model. We can point at truths, but the language we use is never as reliable as the scientific languages for providing incontrovertible and unambiguous statements. The problem with saying things with art is that the language spoken is rarely shared to the extent that two people will have the same exact comprehension. And where precision is the goal, precise and unqualified navigation is essential.
Let me backtrack a bit. Science doesn’t just represent the ideal for ‘good’, as if looking at science gave us a clear picture of what good art is supposed to conform to. There is ‘bad’ science, science not done to standards, not accurate, or whose assumptions are unverified or unverifiable. Pseudo-science. And if anything, art resembles those things more than it does ‘good’ science.
The temptation is to think that science reveals the world as it really is, that is IS the language of the world, god’s language. Think of Pi. It seems as though nature has revealed its underlying foundation to us directly. Its as if other languages describe the world wearing glasses but science describes the world as it truly is. Accuracy has that effect on us. And yet, both Einsteinian Physics and Newtonian Physics describe the world equally well to a point, but the Einstein’s version is more accurate for more things. Its a better language. And the truth is that any language is still a description, and that its possible that no description will embrace every possibility. No matter how accurate we are we won’t actually be speaking God’s language. The best we can do is a pidgin version.
So what makes science’s version of ‘good’ so appealing to us? What seduces us to imagining that other forms of description have the same significance? Well, of course its appealing. It is human nature to like patterns, to be drawn to consistency, to find meaning in coherence. Of course this stuff matters to us. But its not the only thing. And as seductive as that vision of purity and objectivity is, it fails to speak for all meaning and all value. What science seems to offer us is truth independent of who is speaking it. If you know the language, your accuracy will be the same as anyone else making proper use of its terms and functions.
Natural languages are shared in much the same way, its just that there is a looseness to many of the rules, and many of the connections are less secure or lead in other directions for different people. When we grow up and learn the language of our mother tongue we share many of the same practices and associations with our fellows. We learn language and the world together.
The trouble with art is that while it often does speak to universal issues and objective aspects of the world, the language is often invented for the occasion. It cannot be wholly shared because it didn’t previously exist, and few ever learn it as well as its native practitioner. It may or may not be successful in expressing its makers intentions, but that is often more to chance than the commonality of multiple speakers of the same language. Artists are the speakers, and if they do a good job communicating the listeners will pick up many and even most of the meaning. But speaking is never a one to one correlation with hearing. What I’ve been talking about will be understood very differently by most people reading these words, and yet we still share the basic language through which these ideas are being communicated. And with art its even worse.
There are at least two significant parts of language and what it communicates. Lets call it form and content. When language is ‘about’ other things the meaning we derive is mostly what its about. The language itself is the path to something else. Its a description, but the thing described is what we are after.
That’s an amazing thing about language, any language. Its the thing that makes us human. Its the thing that sets human beings apart from any other part of the known universe. Its not just that we are self-conscious, but that we abstract information. We don’t just interact with the world directly, but we know it. We know things we’ve never directly experienced.
But there is a different way we accept the world. Sometimes we interact with it directly. Sometimes our interaction is visceral and unmediated. Sometimes what is communicated is not merely a thing about something else but the thing itself. Sometimes we experience the world directly. Sometimes what matters is the form itself, rather than the content.
Natural language does this all the time, even if the more expressions entangle with other words the more tangents inevitably spring off into abstraction. Content has a habit of proliferating ( 🙂 )
And maybe its not necessarily strictly one or the other, but some measure of both. Anything that strikes us viscerally tends to be less a thing about something else and more a statement of immediacy (that’s a good word here). When someone is angry what they say isn’t necessarily about anything specific. Or at least the underlying cause may not always be fully revealed by what was said. Rather, angry words are sometimes just venting. The anger is revealed in the form of the words, perhaps the tone or the volume they were said. There is nothing literal about curse words. What they express is a feeling. This is not an unusual way that language works.
Art tends to operate on this level quite competently. What art articulates isn’t so much the literal meanings or the aboutness its maker my have invested in it. Rather, most art tends to show things rather than say them. At least from the perspective of the listener (When someone is shouting at us we often only hear the anger….). When we ‘get’ something, or ‘like’ a work of art, quite often we are relating to it on a level beneath (alongside?) abstraction. There may be ideas involved in the execution and articulation of the work, but how it gets received by the public can often arrive beyond the abstract language parts. If we don’t actually speak the language ourselves, the thing it communicates most accurately is what it communicates most directly. It SHOWS us something about the world rather than telling us a story about it.
And that, my friends, is often how beauty works. We get it, but explaining why often escapes us. The why wasn’t necessary to our getting it. It happened independently of any wherefores. We know at best how we feel, not why we feel.
Here is a TED video I saw just yesterday that speaks to this distinction:
As Maria Popova puts it:
How does one become an artist — not in a practical sense, not by some external measure, but by an invisible and intimate surrender to the creative impulse? It often happens in a single moment of recognition — a point of contact with some aspect of the miraculous in some aspect of the mundane, catalyzing an overwhelming sense of the unity of things and an uncontainable desire to emanate that sense outwardly; to share it, in some form, with others — whose otherness is suddenly dissipated by the very impulse.
So what makes science ‘good’? What is value in science? Good science communicates something accurate about the world. That at least is how most of us might describe it. What makes natural language use ‘good’, what are the things we value? Well, its certainly not just being accurate, although sometimes that is the case. When we tell jokes its something different. When we are playing games its something different. When we are passing the time of day its something different. When we are asking questions its something different. When we are angry its something different. Etc, etc…. With art the value seems more relevant to what Maria Popova described in that art bridges differences and shows us some aspect of the world or ourselves. It communicates not just information but feeling, and feeling is always embroiled with value. Why else would artists be interested in beauty?
And the interesting thing is that I’ve heard a number scientists describe what they are doing with the same sort of passion that artists are normally associated with. Scientists have their own insights into beauty. Good science is not simply accurate, it can be beautiful. If you haven’t heard Richard Feynman speak about this, you should hear him. This is one of my favorites:
A poet once said, “The whole universe is in a glass of wine.” We will probably never know in what sense he said that, for poets do not write to be understood. But it is true that if we look in glass of wine closely enough we see the entire universe. There are the things of physics: the twisting liquid which evaporates depending on the wind and weather, the reflections in the glass, and our imagination adds the atoms. The glass is a distillation of the earth’s rocks, and in its composition we see the secrets of the universe’s age, and the evolution of the stars. What strange array of chemicals are in the wine? How did they come to be? There are the ferments, the enzymes, the substrates, and the products. There in wine is found the great generalization: all life is fermentation. Nobody can discover the chemistry of wine without discovering the cause of much disease. How vivid is the claret, pressing its existence into the consciousness that watches it! If our small minds, for some convenience, divide this glass of wine, this universe, into parts — physics, biology, geology, astronomy, psychology, and so on — remember that nature does not know it! So let us put it all back together, not forgetting ultimately what it is for. Let us give one more final pleasure: drink it and forget it all!
In other words, the idea of quality, of ‘good’ is not strictly tied to the idea of accuracy or objectivity. ‘Good’ isn’t necessarily an about quality. Not in art, at least. Not exclusively, at least. ‘Good’ can actually BE quality. Not something measured but the measure itself. Finding the ‘good’ is a way of comprehending.
“Good’ and ‘bad’ are never separate from the language in which they are being framed or the language in which it is understood. The language sets forth which values are meant to be adhered to, which goals are being aimed at, and how best we can measure performance. Not every game we play with language aims at a bulls eye, and not every way of getting to that end is equally well received. Sometimes its not what we said but how we said it. Communication isn’t merely a what, but a how. And how isn’t merely by being about but sometimes by being the thing itself….. Think of the role that a cry of pain has. Its as basic and ‘primitive’ in our lives as anything in language. The things art communicates are often on that same level.
Meaning itself is language specific. A word is only a word in the language practice for which it has a role. Giving it a role makes it meaningful. The things we find beautiful have a natural role. The visual and tactile ‘words’ of potters and other artists are often simply in need of a role, and the starting place for finding that role is not always an abstraction but an immediacy. If we can unlock the beauty we have a start at least to the bridge being described by the artist. The meaning we find becomes a Lingua Artistica, “a language that is adopted as a common language between speakers whose native languages are different.”
“When I was very young, my mother took me for walks in Humboldt Park, along the edge of the Prairie River. I have vague memories, like impressions on glass plates, of an old boathouse, a circular band shell, an arched stone bridge. The narrows of the river emptied into a wide lagoon and I saw upon its surface a singular miracle. A long curving neck rose from a dress of white plumage.
Swan, my mother said, sensing my excitement. It pattered the bright water, flapping its great wings, and lifted into the sky.
The word alone hardly attested to its magnificence nor conveyed the emotion it produced. The sight of it generated an urge I had no words for, a desire to speak of the swan, to say something of its whiteness, the explosive nature of its movement, and the slow beating of its wings.
The swan became one with the sky. I struggled to find words to describe my own sense of it. Swan, I repeated, not entirely satisfied, and I felt a twinge, a curious yearning, imperceptible to passersby, my mother, the trees, or the clouds.” Patti Smith
Lots to think about 🙂
Make beauty real!
“It is imperative in science to doubt; it is absolutely necessary, for progress in science, to have uncertainty as a fundamental part of your inner nature. To make progress in understanding, we must remain modest and allow that we do not know. Nothing is certain or proved beyond all doubt. You investigate for curiosity, because it is unknown, not because you know the answer. And as you develop more information in the sciences, it is not that you are finding out the truth, but that you are finding out that this or that is more or less likely.
That is, if we investigate further, we find that the statements of science are not of what is true and what is not true, but statements of what is known to different degrees of certainty… Every one of the concepts of science is on a scale graduated somewhere between, but at neither end of, absolute falsity or absolute truth.” Richard Feynman