Freud has been more influential on deconstructive aesthetic theory than Hume especially in France where Surrealism remains a philosophical force—one can cite the considerable influence of Georges Bataille on contemporary French philosophy. But from the point of view of the attempt in this chapter to moderate the irrationalistic emphases of Freud’s intrinsically pathological model of mind one can note that the ideas Freud uses to analyse dream processes are remarkably similar to the basic principles Hume identified as informing the association of ideas.
Freud posited two processes: condensation and displacement. ‘Condensation’ refers to the connection of the conventionally unconnected and displacement is characterised by substitution. These two processes parallel two out the three principles of cognitive association that Hume identified: contiguity and similarity (Fieser 2004). Hume’s third principle is cause and effect, which seems rationalistic; but in a manner that pre-empts Friedrich Nietzsche who argued that metaphor was the substrate of language, Hume contends that our perception of causality is an effect of imagination. In a period in history swamped by recherché French philosophy it is extraordinary to find that some of the most fundamental notions informing poststructuralism were preempted in the work of a plain speaking, eighteenth century empiricist. Hume’s account of the autonomous association of ideas is a prime instance of how one can be both rational and creative. From the standpoint of a Humean aesthetics the artistic aspirant does not have to delve into mad love, schizophrenia and drugs in the manner of the Surrealists, because the autonomous association of ideas is quite simply an everyday operation of the mind. It is, according to Hume, the fundamental mechanism of mind to the extent that it feeds reason.
We forget that this is the case because, like metaphor, the products of imagination that become accepted into social currency become treated over time as if they were natural and God-given, and not the products of a creative process. Accordingly, reasoning should not necessarily be equated with convention-bound rationalism. Reasoning, as a process, can be quite as creative as the dream and daydream beloved of romantic aestheticians.
Hume’s account of the autonomous association of ideas—and especially his account of causality—is useful to this discussion because it blurs the distinction between creative thinking and reasoning. In effect it deconstructs the orthodoxy of French deconstruction by imploding the binary opposition between creativity and reason implicit in the writings of theorists such as Jacques Lacan, Derrida, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. While Lacan, Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari hurl the tool of reason that is language into the romantic abyss of the unconscious (Derrida even uses the term abyss in describing deconstruction) the plain-thinking empiricism of Hume brings creativity into the light of the everyday.
It is significant, therefore, to note that the dichotomy that Freud tried to delineate between the ‘primitive’ thinking with images (dream) and the logic of language soon imploded. Freud’s principles of condensation and displacement quickly melded with the discourse of semiotics that arose in the early twentieth century leading to Freud’s successor, and Surrealist fellow-traveller, Jacques Lacan’s famous observation that ‘the unconscious is structured like a language’—which Joël Dor notes is ‘rooted in the Freudian theory of the dream’ (Dor 1998: 11). The realisation that condensation and displacement parallel linguistic processes is reinforced by Silverman who quotes the semiotician and film theorist Christian Metz observing that ‘the basis for the frequent association of the terms “condensation,” “metaphor,” and “paradigm” would seem to be that all three derive from the perception of similarity. In much the same way, displacement, metonymy, and syntagm are all seen as involving the principle of contiguity.’ (in Silverman 1984: 87) [emphasis added]. It is significant that without any reference to Hume, Silverman’s meditation on the semiotic ramifications of Freud’s condensation and displacement leads to two of the three ‘principles of association’ identified by Hume: similarity and contiguity.
The parallels between metaphor and similarity, and metonymy and contiguity help identify a connection between language and creative process. This is a crucial step towards establishing a postmodern concept of artistic creativity congruent with the postmodern concept of the viewer as reader. Turning from the viewer-reader to the artist one can conceive of creative process as occurring in the synaptic universe of the brain where information is fragmented and recombined by autonomous creative processes that are fundamentally unconscious. This schematic account of artistic creativity is a fusion Humean cognitive atomism with the Freudian concept of the unconscious mind.
The brain is a biological computer that first emerged in reptiles half a billion years ago. We know little of how the human brain works even now, which is why philosophers such as Hume remain useful. But we do know that it consists of a massively modularised and interconnected synaptic universe within which enormous amounts of multimedia data (linguistic, visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, kinaesthetic etc.) are stored in a dynamic, nonlinear distributed system. It is within this extraordinary synaptic manifold—the unconscious dimension of which is informed by reality but is, simultaneously, detached from reality—that the autonomous association of ideas can take place.
But crucial to a deconstructive model of creativity is the notion that the unconscious must first be informed, be loaded with information before the process of decomposition and recombination can take place. Whereas romantic aesthetics understands creativity as arising out of nothingness, deconstruction requires pre-existing systems that can be taken apart and recombined.
When considering creativity it is also necessary to admit that it is not exclusively contained within the unconscious. In order to lead to a creative product, the autonomous association of ideas that takes place in unconscious cognition must enter into consciousness. And when this happens the idea fusions of unconscious process are judged according to the genre or artistic language game that the artist is working within. And this process keeps on iterating because a work of art is usually created or built up over time. It consists of a series of micro-creative acts that are subjected to conscious reasoning and judgement and assembled into a whole.
At this point we can join up the discussion of the congruence of the postmodern concept of the viewer-as-reader with the concept of the art game first mentioned in the introduction and elaborated upon in chapter three. If the viewer can be understood as a ‘reader’ then the artist can be understood as both a designer and player of art games. In order to define the art game more precisely we can compare it with sport. The crucial difference between art and sport is that in sport the athlete plays a game with fixed rules. The athlete is celebrated for his or her prowess in playing a specific game according to the rules. In art, the situation is quite different because the rules of the games played are not fixed. It is the case that some artists play art games with hardly any change to the rules, and we say their work is ‘derivative’. That is a criticism based on the fact that we expect artists to change the rules of art games, or genres. But fundamentally it seems reasonable to suggest that when we are speaking about artistic creativity we are speaking about art games or art-language games.
Artistic creativity should not be understood entirely as the juxtaposition of distant realities within the synaptic universe of the unconscious mind. One must also include the processes of reasoning and judgement that put the various micro-creative acts together to build up a whole, to construct a particular gamespace of ideas: disarranging and rearranging the components of that gamespace. In other words the nonlinear cognitive process that is the autonomous association of ideas is complemented by a more linear, chain-like construction process.
And this chain-like process of construction can be understood in terms of Hume’s third principle of association which is cause and effect. We might assume that cause and effect is a quintessentially rational mode of cognition. But for Hume cause and effect are the product of imagination not reason; a conclusion that points to the intrinsic contingency of our causal models of the world. David Owen notes that for Hume the autonomous association of ideas is the fundament of what we call reason:
Whereas Locke seemed to rely on the notion of the faculty of reason, God-given for the pursuit of truth, to fill out his account, Hume realizes that the causal story is all there is. (Owen 1999: 63) [emphasis added]
In other words, the linear chains of ideas, the narrative constructions that we use to explain the world around us are built on the shifting sands of imagination. Owen continues, noting that Hume:
denies that reason is an independently functioning faculty. Instead, he explains reasoning and the formation of belief in terms of causal principles of the imagination. (Owen 1999: 63) [emphasis added]
The Humean imagination is a foil to the dark abyss of Freud’s unconscious. Understood from a Humean perspective creativity is part and parcel of the everyday. It is quite simply, for Hume, the fundamental mechanism of mind, the substrate of language and reason. This is not to say it is the principal mechanism of mind because conventional common sense and conscious and conventionally determined thought processes seem to outnumber our creative insights. Creative insights appear to demand more mental energy to activate the associative process (the juxtaposition of distant realities) than does the more stereotypical, conventionalised mode of conscious cognition where the associations only need to be re-membered. Imagination is not simply re-membering which is to say combining fragments of memory into a coherent narrative-like memory. Instead, imagination entails putting those fragments together in a new combination, a new narrative..
As noted earlier Hume’s focus on imagination as the association of ideas resonates with contemporary explorations in artificial intelligence and artificial creativity (e.g. Stephen Thaler’s ‘Creativity Machine’). The major difference evident between contemporary connectionism and Humean associationism is that contemporary cognitive science accepts the role of chance—or, more exactly, probability—whereas Hume did not. In this sense Dada and Surrealism were remarkably prescient. And with regard to my use of an eighteenth century philosopher to reconstruct aesthetics at the turn of the millennium, it can be noted that one of the most effective systems of probabilistic inference used in the cognitive science/artificial intelligence communities at the turn of the millennium was devised by the eighteenth century mathematician Thomas Bayes (c. 1702–1761), a contemporary of Hume. The search engine Google uses Bayesian inference. It seems unfortunate that Hume was not acquainted with Bayes’ ideas.
Associationism and Narrative
Returning to the aesthetic issues, another important feature of Hume’s subsumption of causality into imagination is that it indicates the possibility of creating chains and trains of thought. Owen quotes Hume emphasising that association occurs not only between two discrete ideas but also in sequences:
That we may understand the full extent of these relations [of association between ideas], we must consider, that two objects are connected together in the imagination, not only when the one is immediately resembling, contiguous to, or the cause of the other, but also when there is interposed betwixt them a third object, which bears to both of them any of these relations. This may be carried on to a great length; tho’ at the same time we may observe, that each remove considerably weakens the relation. (in Owen 1999: 78)
Owen notes that this passage is ‘extremely important’ because ‘reasoning, for Hume as for Locke, is a chain of ideas’. More explicitly, one can add that language is essentially a chain-like mode of constructing sense, and so is narrative. The significance of such observations is that the chain-like structure of language may be the mark of its origin in the autonomous association of ideas. Talbot J. Taylor is informative on this point when he quotes Hume’s contemporary the French philosopher Étienne Bonnot Condillac (1715–1780) who treated the subject of language directly:
If a thought is not linear in the mind, it has a linear order in discourse, where it is analysed into as many parts as it includes component ideas. By this means we may observe and even understand what we do when thinking; consequently we may learn to control our reflections. Thinking thus becomes an art, and it is the art of speaking. (in Taylor 1997 139)
Condillac clearly associates thought with language, which is a somewhat restricted notion of cognition, but what is interesting is his use of the terms ‘linear’ and ‘not linear’, where the ‘not linear’ describes what happens in the mind and the linear what happens when we construct a discursive object whether it be literal or metaphorical. Condillac’s comments indicate that the linear construction of ideas in language (and one can add narrative) allows the conscious mind to compare and contrast the products of nonlinear (creative) process with the edifice of conventional knowledge in order to evaluate whether such products are a contribution to extant knowledge or simply useless mutations. A similar process is also evident in visual art..
The unconscious cognitive processes described by Hume and by Freud (albeit with different emphases) have the ability to take ideas apart and recombine them—which is a nonlinear, deconstructive process. The conscious faculties, in contrast, appear to be linear and constructive, in the sense that they seem principally concerned with referring to and maintaining the stable (albeit inherently contingent) picture of reality that convention offers.
As noted at the start, the point of this discussion of creativity is to draw -parallels between the creative engagement of the viewer-reader and that of the artist. Consequently, I will now examine some case studies of artists whose practice can be understood in terms of an artistic language game.