DECONSTRUCTING INSTALLATION ART © 2006 Graham Coulter-Smith CASIAD PUBLISHING ISBN 978-0-9548334-4-2

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What, precisely, is ‘thinking’? When, at the reception of sense-impressions, memory-pictures emerge, this is not yet ‘thinking.’ And when such pictures form series, each member of which calls forth another, this too is not yet ‘thinking.’ When, however, a certain picture turns up in many such series, then—precisely through such return—it becomes an ordering element for such series, in that it connects series which in themselves are unconnected. Such an element becomes an instrument, a concept. (in Holton 1996: 197) [emphasis added]

Einstein clearly includes ‘pictures’ in a reasoning process that he describes in terms of a recurring picture that ‘turns up in many … series’ and thereby links these chains of image-ideas. Einstein acknowledged a debt to Hume’s  philosophy and one can detect a distinctly Humean resonance in the passage quoted above. Compare it, for example, with Hume’s assertion that:

ALL the perceptions of the human mind resolve themselves into two distinct kinds, which I shall call IMPRESSIONS and IDEAS. The difference betwixt these consists in the degrees of force and liveliness, with which they strike upon the mind, and make their way into our thought or consciousness. Those perceptions, which enter with most force and violence, we may name impressions; and under this name I comprehend all our sensations, passions and emotions, as they make their first appearance in the soul. By ideas I mean the faint images of these in thinking and reasoning (Hume 1963: 25)

Hume becomes important for a discussion of creativity when he stresses the role of the imagination in the formation of ideas from sense impressions. For Hume there are two modes of ideation: ideas of memory and ideas of imagination (Owen 1999: 67). And what is significant about this separation is that the mechanism of thought is situated by Hume firmly in the domain of imagination. David Owen notes that Hume’s ‘conception of reason explains reasoning in terms of a subset of properties of the imagination’ (Owen 1999: 11) [emphasis added]. For Hume imagination is the engine of thought not language. This is especially important when one considers that a criticism of the hegemony of rationalism lies at the heart of deconstructive aesthetics. Hume allows such a criticism without having to enter into the mystification evident in romantic aesthetics and aspects of poststructuralist aesthetics. Hume’s is a reasonable critique of reason.

From a Humean standpoint autonomous interconnections between the materials within the multimedia storehouse of the mind becomes the infrastructure for the formation of verbal concepts. One might also note that the chain-like character of language appears to recapitulate the process of the association of ideas—like most processes in the brain, these two can engage in dialogue. But unless we are both alert and in a reflective mode we can miss those occasions when original idea connections, or recombinations, come from autonomous unconscious process rather than from conscious cognition.

Appealing to a pre-semiotic, eighteenth century philosopher to address problems in contemporary art may seem anachronistic but that is far from true because Hume is pointing to a process that lies beneath the surface of language yet is intimately entwined with it. Structuralism and poststructuralism are characterised by an obsession with language which is problematic from the standpoint of visual art theory. Hume offers an interesting, and potentially more embodied, alternative.

Hume’s account of imagination in terms of the association of ideas is a also a precursor to the connectionist movement in contemporary cognitive science. Since the advent of computers the dominant model for unconscious mental activity has become that of ‘information processing’ which in the latter part of the twentieth century became increasingly modelled in terms of the autonomous association of data now referred to as connectionism in artificial intelligence, cognitive science, psychology and philosophy of mind (cf. Daniel Dennett).

As the genealogy of connectionism can be traced back to Hume’s emphasis on the association of ideas the latter can hardly be called outmoded. In significant respects Hume’s model is more productive than Freud’s dichotomous representation of the unconscious as a ‘savage’ mind that can wreak havoc if it takes over from reason and common sense. If Descartes split mind from body then Freud painted an even more fragmented picture of humankind. However, it would not be productive to become embroiled in a discourse of either/or; Freud’s thought is immensely valuable and it would be better to see Hume’s ideas as complementing those of Freud, and vice versa.

Unlike Freud, Hume does not consider thinking with images as necessarily conjoined with overpowering passions and primal desires. He refers, in contrast, to the power of association as ‘gentle force’, ‘a kind of attraction, which in the mental world will be found to have as extraordinary effects as in the natural, and to show itself in as many and as varied forms’. (Hume 1963: 34, 35–36). For Hume, evidently, the forces of nature that lay within the human psyche were not reducible to savagery (Freud) or madness (Locke, see below). As such his concept of imagination as a gentle or subtle force of attraction serves to complement the more pathological states of mind referred to by Freud. And, although Hume does not use this concept, one can note a similarity in tone, at least, between the concept of the ‘gentle force’ of imagination and the contemporary concept of creativity as play (Derrida 1981).

Hume’s ‘gentle force’ also serves as a foil to the some of the more dramatic portrayals of the struggle between the linearising regimentation of society and the flux of desire promulgated in aspects of French philosophy such as  Georges Bataille, Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome metaphor, for example, describes the flux of desire that is the engine of creativity as akin to schizophrenia (1984; 1987). These are compelling and dramatic formulations which echo the drama of human experience but can also be used as an ideological apotheosis of the individual creative genius to a level above what Nietzsche referred to as the ‘herd’. I also quoted Derrida earlier and noted that the notion that artistic creativity arises out of an ineffable nothingness is fundamental to the romanticist mystification of artistic genius. It belongs to a period in history when artists rebelled against mechanisation, and it seems utterly anachronistic in the age of the computer—especially when the computer is becoming such a powerful creative tool for musicians, video artists, animators and interactive artists; and when the Internet is becoming a sphere for the formation of digital creative communities such as youtube.com and flikr.com.

Peter Bürger has noted (1984) that deconstructive art emerged as a backlash against nineteenth century aestheticism and its doctrine of l’art pour l’art (art for art’s sake). It is ironic, therefore that, bolstered by aspects of French theory, deconstructive art at the turn of the millennium seems to be softening its stance towards aestheticism and the mystification of creativity. The object of bringing Hume into the discussion of deconstructive aesthetics is to argue that there is absolutely no need to subscribe to the romanticist position that creativity arises out of a mysterious nothingness. Such a notion is not a key, or essential, component of deconstructive art, indeed it appears to be thoroughly detrimental to deconstructive art. The fundamental argument in this chapter is that neo-romantic mystification of creativity detracts from the long overdue consideration of the creative role of the reader and the relationship of such a consideration for our understanding of the artist’s creative process.  

Hume’s philosophy builds upon that of his predecessor Locke who pointed to the mental phenomenon of an autonomous association of ideas. Significantly, Locke’s attitude to this cognitive phenomenon is not unlike that of Freud’s attitude to dream. Charles William Hendel Jr. observes that in 1700 Locke focused on:

complex ideas arising in the mind independent of our will. He seems to have been impressed by what [Nicolas] Malebranche [1638–1715] had described as the chance or customary connections of ideas. These compound notions were the source of most of our errors. … Locke called it ‘the association of ideas.’ It is ‘a sort of madness,’ ‘something unreasonable in most men,’ a ‘connection of ideas wholly owing to chance or custom’ (Hendel 1925: 100)

Notice Locke’s reference to ‘madness’ which was to be a central premise of romanticist aesthetics evident in modern art in the forms of symbolism and expressionism. What is remarkable about Hume is that he takes an entirely different standpoint. Hendel notes that Hume was much taken by Locke’s notion of the association of ideas.

Hume seized upon this phrase ‘association of ideas.’ It seemed a happy designation for all activities of mind whatsoever that are not voluntary, … What appeared to be such an anomaly to Locke was in reality the very rule throughout the realm of human understanding. Our most important conceptions were produced not by our deliberate will as rational beings but by our natural or instinctive imagination. (Hendel 1925: 101)

Hume’s position is not only radically different from Locke but also from Freud who, like Locke, understood the autonomous association of ideas as inherently irrational. For example, Kaja Silverman quotes Freud discussing what he refers to as the ‘dream-work’:

The dream-work is not simply more careless, more irrational, more forgetful and more incomplete than waking thought; it is completely different from it qualitatively … It does not think, calculate, or judge in any way at all; it restricts itself to giving things a new form … Little attention is paid to the logical relations between the thoughts  (in Silverman 1984: 61) [emphasis added]

The phrase ‘giving things a new form’ is instructive because it implies a creative process and, indeed, this notion becomes the focus of psychoanalytically based theories of creativity such as Surrealist automatism. The crucial notion is that there is a mysterious form-giving force (libido or desire), which might be conceived of as a surrogate for God in the wake of the death of God that followed the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species in 1859. This surrogate God consists of powerful and primitive forces that can engulf the rational ego. The human drama of Freud’s ‘savage mind’ narrative appeals to the romantic sensibility to the extent that it ignores the degree to which Freud also understood the mind, like Hume, in terms of cognitive processes.

Like Freud, Hume also noted the relationship between imagination and emotion but, crucially, his object of enquiry was not people who are in psychological distress. His was a phenomenological investigation of his own, by all accounts, remarkably balanced state of mind. As has been noted, in stark contrast to Freud, Hume described the affective power that drove the autonomous association of ideas as a ‘gentle force’ (Hume 1963: 34). For Hume, evidently, the force of nature that lay within the human psyche was not necessarily savage, today we might describe it as ‘playful’ in addition to being capable of more aggressive expression.

Importantly, the term ‘gentle’ in Hume’s usage also implies that the ideas that are autonomously combined by the mechanism of mind are not necessarily welded together permanently. Freud, in contrast, focused on neurotic and psychotic ideation in which the association of ideas is extremely difficult if not impossible to dissolve due to the power of its cathectic bond. Hume, in contrast, observes that the ‘uniting principle among ideas is not to be considered as an inseparable connection’ (Hume 1963: 34). This makes sense if we shift our attention from neurotic and superstitious ideation to processes of reasoning.

Hume’s account of imagination as a fundamental cognitive process contradicts the romantic proposition that creativity is the sole preserve of exceptionally sensitive or tormented individuals. Unsurprisingly, artists exhibit the same range of personality types as do any group of human beings. Another critical feature of the mechanism of imagination conceived by Hume is that it not only fuses ideas but also breaks down complex ideas (e.g. impressions of objects, or memory traces) into simpler components. Hume’s atomistic concept of memory and cognition can be compared with the concept of a free play of signifiers within a universe of difference that informs poststructuralist theory; in particular, Derrida’s concept of deconstruction. In the Humean model of mind imagination deconstructs sense impressions into memory-fragments that become free-floating idea-fragments that can be recombined into new ideas. The beauty of this model is that it is supported by very contemporary research in the field of cognitive science.[41]

If we accept the notion of imagination as a process of breaking down complex ideas and recombining them into new idea complexes, then we have a model of cognition that is an eighteenth century precursor of  late-twentieth century deconstruction. But the notion of the deconstruction and reconstruction of ideas is also an intrinsic part of early modernism as is witnessed by Walter Benjamin’s 1936 eulogy to the miracle of cinema in his landmark 1936 Work of Art essay:

Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly. Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling. (1973: 236)

Benjamin also focused on the capacity for montage that is such an intrinsic feature of the cinematic medium. Reality is broken into thousands of photographic fragments that can be recombined in a multitude of different ways. Benjamin’s delight in cinema resonates with his revolutionary Marxism and the notion that old ways of understanding the nature of society can be deconstructed and recombined to create a new society. But the notion that tradition and convention are social constructions that can be taken apart and rebuilt  is also evident in Hume’s theory of mind. As V. C. Chappell notes:

Hume realizes that the philosophical position he has been developing is not only destructive of the metaphysical views of a few philosophers, which is after all a mark in its favor. It also subverts, or threatens to subvert, common sense, the common beliefs that all of us hold and the common principles that all of us employ, and indeed cannot help employing, in our everyday dealings with one another. (Chappell 1963: xxxiii)

Belief systems, like neurotic fixations, are not easy to take apart due to the emotive power that binds their idea formations together. When it comes to religious and political beliefs we no longer dealing with a ‘gentle force’, we are dealing with obsession. But in principle Hume’s notion that all idea complexes are contingent and capable of recombination is extremely modern it is, indeed, postmodern—emphasising, if it needs to be emphasised any longer, that postmodernity is nothing other than a heightened mode of modernity.

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