Skip to content

Artistic Improvisation and Personal Identity

Watching the French Open this morning I saw a corny bank commercial that demonstrated an interesting cultural assumption. It was one of those cloying ads that make a kitschy emotional appeal in an attempt to lend a personal touch to an impersonal industry. You know the variety– where a sharp-but-approachable looking professional gazes deeply into the camera and waxes philosophical about the company’s somber appreciation of people. The angle of this particular ad was to package investment banking for the modern self-obsessed consumer; your personal investment banking strategy can be an expression of who you are i-banking, in short.

But this isn’t a piece on advertising… What was interesting was the visual metaphor employed by the ad and the cultural assumption it represents. To strengthen it’s emphasis on individual self-expression the ad invoked the classic jazz combo; a drummer, upright bassist and pianist–each shown passionately engaged in the creative improvisation of which the jazz combo is an iconic symbol. The connection between creative improvisation and self-expression here represented by the jazz combo may seem common sense. We’re used to talking about creativity–especially improvisation– in terms of self-expression. But this is exactly the assumption I’d like to challenge. I think the relationship is exactly backward, and not psychologically basic but culturally imbued. Let’s take a closer look.

Improvisation is about spontaneity– unplanned, unreflective and unpredictable creative expression. The very concept hinges on a detachment from set, rigid or fixed determinants and exalts unfettered whimsey and caprice. If that sounds right to you then ask yourself a question: what on earth does that have to do with self-expression? Whatever our personal identity is, by definition it does not change. What could be more rigid?

I don’t mean to imply that there is a consensus on the precise definition of personal identity– in fact there is none. Modern science tells us it’s electrochemical regularities in our brains. Modern consumerism tells us it’s something to do with our taste in automobiles or the contents of our ipods. Philosophers have spilled oceans of ink trying to nail down the concept. But I don’t need a precise definition of the term– again, my point requires only one uncontroversial claim: whatever individual identity is, its most basic condition is it’s fixed, static and persistent character. Self-expression, therefore, is the articulation of this static character, a goal that is the precise antithesis of improvisation.

I can imagine folks protesting with something like the following: “”fixed systems are perfectly capable of creative improvisation. Computer algorithms have been designed to spit out original art, music and poetry [even some bad philosophy]. Cognitive scientists have even likened the human brain to an algorithmic process.”  This is perfectly true but has no baring on my claim. Remember that spontaneity is not defined by some specific result or product. It is an ideal/a value; a distant horizon point that is infinitely approached and perhaps never reached.  It’s easy, for example,  to program an algorithm to spit out a piano solo with all the stylistic hallmarks of hot swing jazz. Much harder (and I would claim impossible) to program an algorithm which intends to create piano solos that defy the rules of its own programming. This is impossible, as you might have guessed, because of the paradox at the root of this goal: any don’t-follow-rules principle that can be represented in an algorithm, is still a rule! In the case of humans, however– even if the neurological processes that yield human improvisation ARE  algorithms– there can still be genuine creative spontaneity because the system that employs them (a human mind) has the unique access to values and ideals which defy precise definition. Ironically, what algorithms ARE capable of is actually much closer to self-expression than creative improvisation; self-expression requires only the articulation of some native motivation, namely in this case, the algorithm itself. Computers, therefore, are perhaps better suited for self-expression than we are. True spontaneity–as produced by an indefinable ideal– is the uniquely human quality. If the bank commercial really wanted to invoke self-expression it seems they should have stuck with the impersonal and mechanistic imagery we already associate with investment banking.

So why does this matter? I think this false conception of improvisation relates more generally to an artistic fashion that has outstripped its usefulness: the notion of the artist hero. A relic of the romantic period, this idea originally served the noble purpose of lifting gifted creative minds into a respected, even revered status. The artistic genius was gradually romanticized into a kind of Nietzschian superman– a rogue visionary, boldly rendering the secrets of his (as it was unfortunately an androcentric archetype) heart and often suffering for it; art became not what the artist does, but who he is. Figures like Beethoven and Van Gogh were mythologized accordingly.

Above all, the artistic hero was directly responsible for his art– as an expression of himself it reflected on him alone. Today this ideal is being outmoded. The web has allowed for an unprecedented creative collectivism; its difficult to assign credit or blame for massively collaborative efforts like open-source software, Wikipedia pages with thousands of editors, or any other example of the innumerable memes and web trends we’ve all become accustomed to. This doesn’t mean, of course, that art can no longer be personal; much of the best still is. All it means is that it is no longer limited to self-expression alone. Yet the institutions of art criticism still cling stubbornly to the artist hero ideal. The most credible taste-makers still like their artists bold and heroic, baring their souls to sink or swim on the strength of their vision. Art criticism doesn’t just seek to rate and quantify artistic value, its stuck in a simplistic dualism quick to cast heroes and wannabes.

Art can be–but is not necessarily– an expression of the artist’s identity. When big media adjusts to this it will open up the space for a new kind of art criticism, one that’s more concerned with the experience of the work than the status of its maker. The sooner the better.


Book Review: Consciousness Explained by Daniel C. Dennett


Hi and welcome to Three Mysteries, my new blog about consciousness, art, technology and the relationship between the three. Check out my About page for a more detailed summary of what I’m up to here. Let’s dive right in, shall we?

The mystery of conscious experience.  We’re all intimately familiar with it. That immediate sense of our waking lives that seems so obvious we can’t deny it, yet so basic we can’t articulate it. While thinkers across time and disciplines from Renee Descartes to Francis Crick have long reeled from it’s mysteries, professor Dennett seems to have it under wraps. Well, he thinks he does. (Or at least, he did in 1991.)

I admit,  I’ve owned this book for a long time and never, until now, given it a dedicated reading– though I’ve often enjoyed perusing it’s intriguing experimental data. Having finally done so, I’m glad to report that I find it no less fascinating–even though I think its project is fundamentally confused, and its conclusion exactly wrong.

When I set out to conquer this tome (roughly five hundred pages of rigorous theory), I had every intention of doing a specific and meticulous critique. The  margins of my fraying paperback are riddled with notes– mostly flat objections defiantly scrawled in bold capital letters with an occasional exclamation point. But the deeper I forged into Dennett’s physicalist vision, the more I realized that all my objections came to a head in one problem– one that, once realized, relaxed me instantly and let me enjoy the book for what it is. Like the radio listener who sighed  to realize that War of the Worlds was not really a news bulletin, I was surprised but relieved to realize that Consciousness Explained is not really about consciousness. How could that be? Here’s how…

First some critical context. (If you’re already familiar with the problems created by an eliminative materialist view of consciousness, then skip to paragraph seven.) Human experience–and therefore all philosophy describing it–is defined and made possible by a simple feature of our existential predicament: the gap between the subject and it’s object; the experiencer and the experience; the witness and the phenomena; or–my favorite way of putting it–consciousness and it’s content. The situation is like a river with two shores. We, the conscious experiencers, are squarely situated on one side, gazing across to the opposite shore where located is everything we ever experience– not only in the world around us, but in our bodies and minds too (a critical detail). Quite unique among philosophical commitments, acknowledging this gap– this basic fact of being opposed to that which we grasp in the act of grasping it– is among the only things that simple introspection absolutely requires.  Whatever kind of a thing consciousness is, be it soul-stuff, brain-software or epi-gremlins (see Robert Wright’s classic Dennett interview),  it is precisely this opposition that a theory of consciousness needs to explain.

This predicament has one critical implication: since all the world’s content sits on the opposite shore– and again, importantly, this includes our most internal and intimate thoughts, experiences and sensations– our side of the river has none; consciousness itself has no content. We, the experiencers, are only conscious of things. That is, conscious of the things on the opposite side of the river: images, smells, sensations, thoughts, emotions, abstractions, desires– the whole enchilada. However immediate or internal a phenomenon may seem it is still ‘across the river’ in the sense that it is beheld by consciousness, and therefore manifestly not identical to consciousness; so, whenever consciousness takes an object (and forgive me for belabor this notoriously slippery but critical point), to that observer–in that moment– the object is explicitly and incontrovertibly revealed as other than the observer. Consciousness itself, in other words, is vacuous; a kind of space, a field without form or quality where all experience takes place. Difficult as this makes it to articulate, it is this elusive property with which thinkers through the ages have wrestled– one which is conspicuously absent from the pages of Dennett’s book.

But if not consciousness, then what is the book about? You guessed it: content. The book is a laudably thorough and scientific exploration of the mechanisms of mental content: how the brain generates and tests perceptual hypotheses, how  it builds and manipulates visual structures that we describe as mental images, how apposed mental faculties compete for influence on the formation of memories;  Consciousness Explained is really an explanation of the mental content encountered by consciousness– not consciousness itself– all packaged in a witty and highly stylized narrative charasmatically inviting us to forget the most obvious fact of human existence and redefine consciousness as the stuff it illuminates.

When faced with this challenge Dennett has a stock retort. “well,” he will say (I’m paraphrasing a typical reply) “you see, everything we experience has a totally mechanistic underpinning in the brain that is so explanatory and interesting that there is simply no need to invoke some additional entity.” What he’s doing here can be clarified with an analogy. Imagine a book called Computer Monitors Explained, purportedly about computer screens, but which upon examination contains only a detailed description of the mechanical workings of a computer’s CPU. Now imagine that– when baffled readers inevitably protest “this isn’t about monitors at all!”– the author invokes Dennett’s defense: “Well, you see, everything you observe on the monitor has a totally mechanistic underpinning in the CPU that is so explanatory and interesting that there is simply no need to invoke some additional entity.”  In this case two obvious absurdities leap out at us. One– there plainly is an additional entity, called a monitor, on which we observe content generated by the CPU. Two– if you don’t believe in monitors then why title your book Computer Monitors Explained?! Both absurdities apply equally, if less obviously, to Consciousness Explained.

You might be wondering, if the book’s mistake is so egregious, then how on earth does he get away with it (to whatever extent that he does); If the book is about content, not consciousness, then how does he disguise this simple category mistake as a revolutionary insight? The answer is to do with the curious character of consciousness. You may have noticed a seeming contradiction in my river analogy: it characterizes the subject/object nature of consciousness as both blatantly obvious and elusively counter-intuitive. Though this sounds contradictory, it isn’t. Consciousness behaves something like eyeglasses, which for many people are–not just required for–but  the very means of vision. The perception  that glasses allow is itself a property, yet one that is so transparent to daily life that eyeglass wearers tend to forget about them. Consciousness is similar; in one sense something that is so ‘close-up’ or inextricable from the act of perception that it’s easy to disregard, even though– in another sense– there is nothing more obviously real. But unlike eyeglasses, the radical transparency and maliability of consciousness is so extreme as to render it totally unique among philosophical problems. So unique that consciousness becomes hard to analyze– or even talk about. This unique difficulty makes the issue ripe for confusion, or even deception.

So which is it? Is Dennett pulling a fast one on us, or is he simply confused? I think the answer is somewhere in between. A seasoned and distinguished philosopher, Dennett is well aware of the unique issues presented by consciousness. Even the book’s straw-man characterizations of the conventional view often ring with the sympathy of an informed proponent. The man did, after all, write a book titled Content and Consciousness In one sense the sheer scale of the  rhetorical treatment employed by Consciousness Explained betrays an acknowledgement of the problem’s unique difficulty. The fact is, Dennett has built a career on demystifying the mysterious. The essential approach and over-arching theme of his catalog has been “looking under the hood” to “reverse engineer” and thus reduce mysteries to a scientific, material explanation. My guess is the decision to commit himself to this view required of Dennett the same cognitive dissonance it asks of us. I’m willing to bet that, a bit like Darth Vader, though he won’t admit it  he was (and possibly still is) privately conflicted.  With Consciousness Explained, he simply buckled under the weight of his own reputation and took his deflationary method one mystery too far.