EXTRACT FROM DECONSTRUCTING INSTALLATION ART
Since the 1980s it has been de rigueur to use French poststructuralism as the principal frame of reference for addressing deconstructive art. But although there is much that is beneficial in this framework vestiges of romanticist mystification indicate that a more empirical approach to creative process could be of advantage. In this paper I will attempt to shift away from the orthodoxy of French theory and deploy an alternative model of creativity in the form of David Hume’s foregrounding of the autonomous association of ideas.
The concept of ‘the association of ideas’ originated in the empirical philosophy of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), and was elaborated and clarified by Hume (1711-1776) via the philosophy of John Locke (1632-1704). Moreover, the notion of the association of ideas had a significant impact on the evolution of the modern discipline of psychology via Hume’s contemporary David Hartley (1705-1757). And with regard to deconstructive art, there is also a significant intersection between the association of ideas and the development of automatism in Surrealism. André Breton was a medical doctor prior to becoming the leader of the Surrealist movement and Sigmund Freud’s ‘free association’ word tests appear to have played a role in inspiring the technique of automatism. Louise Tythacott observes: ‘Freud replaced hypnosis with his own technique of “free association” as the key for unlocking the unconscious and unravelling the mystery of dreams. The Surrealists, too, utilized the idea of “word association” to map in their own way the chance irruptions of the unconscious mind.’ (Tythacott 2002: 52).
What is especially useful about Hume’s thinking is that he suggests that the autonomous association of ideas (an unconscious cognitive process) is intimately interconnected with our everyday reasoning processes. Which makes a great deal of sense-unless we subscribe to the trance theory of creativity.
A prime instance of everyday creativity-often referred to by philosophers-is our use of language. In the course of speaking or writing it is possible to create unique idea combinations. I will take an instance of an association of ideas that appeared in an earlier draft of chapter four in the form of the phrase: ’social locus of self’. A search on Google for this phrase obtained no hits across literally billions of web pages. Which is to say this particular phrase is (Google) unique, original and therefore creative. The phrase ’social locus of self’ is also an instance of an association of ideas, which is to say the everydayness of creativity as opposed to the overdramatised and mythologised accounts evident not only in romantic aesthetics but French poststructuralism. One can also cite the way in which a narrative such as this book is assembled over time by an accumulation of idea associations. Each association is a micro-creative act but the accumulation of this micro-acts can lead to a more complex construction. We are noting here the way in which creativity involves time, conscious reflection and selection. This is an important point because it indicates a critical difference between the creative engagement of the artist and the viewer due to the fact that the latter is usually considerably shorter in duration.
In this and the following chapter it will be argued that a turn to a more practical, everyday, concept of creativity than that offered by Romantic aesthetics is essential if the long-standing goals of activating the viewer and bringing art into life are to be attained. Otherwise the mystification of genius will continue to separate art from the everyday. We need to reconstruct our concept of artistic creativity by moving away from romantic aesethetics towards a framework akin to the concept of the viewer as reader.
Hume’s philosophy is useful because of his foregrounding of everyday imagination as the principal mechanism of mind. The Humean association of ideas also connects with the concept of narrative because the chains of association produced by imagination ultimately coalesce into contingent narrative constructions such as those which the reader composes to makes sense out of a work of art.
But before continuing with a theoretical consideration of the importance of Hume’s philosophy for deconstructive aesthetics I would like to examine an actual instance of installation art that highlights the interrelated notions of the role of the reader, creativity, the association of ideas, narrative and ‘making sense’.
Associationism and Creativity: Hume and Freud
It is notable that the chain of associations made by the artist Jennifer Pastor concerning her work The Perfect Ride are visual whereas the connections made by myself in my commentary on the work were verbal. She works with visual materials whereas I mostly work with words, but one is no better, or worse, than the other, especially in Hume’s scheme of things. For Hume both verbal and visual and indeed any mode of what he calls ‘ideas’ are grist for the mill of autonomous association that is, in his view, the fundamental mechanism of mind. For Hume the principal faculty of mind is imagination which makes his approach especially appropriate for aesthetics.
In my account of The Perfect Ride I mentioned the Surrealist dictum concerning the ‘juxtaposition of distant realities’ and in this chapter I will also address the work of Simon Starling who has described his work in terms of ‘connecting the previously unconnected’. The reference to Surrealism is apt here on two grounds: firstly, because the reference to juxtaposition and connection are similar to what Hume termed association; and, secondly, because of the relationship between Surrealism and Freudian psychoanalysis.
Considerations of creativity within the world of contemporary art remain predominantly informed by the intersection of Freudian psychoanalysis and Surrealism’s development of techniques such as automatic writing and painting and montage. But there are problems with using Freud as a basis for a theory of creativity because he believed that imagination was inherently driven by primal and potentially ‘savage’ desires. This leads Freud to posit a clear dichotomy between the ‘primitive’ unconscious and ‘civilised’ reason. Robert Bocock observes:
Freud assumes that there has been some progress in rational thinking which has been made by Western peoples, and shares with Max Weber an interest in this unique form of rationality. He does not assume that it is easily achieved or maintained by either individuals or in whole societies, but he does assume that there is a significant qualitative difference between primitive thought (la pensée sauvage) and rational thought. (Bocock 2002: 82)
For Freud the autonomous association of emotionally charged image-ideas in dream points to the primal nature of the unconscious mind. In contradistinction to this savage mind stands language with its capacity to classify the world, promote social intercourse and weave cultural discursive formations. Thinking with images, epitomised for Freud by dreaming, becomes understood as less evolved than language. One might extrapolate on this premise and suggest that higher beings than ourselves may think entirely in mathematics; but it is also possible to observe that many mathematicians think with images. Take, for example, Albert Einstein’s thoughts on the topic:
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 affective 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 the 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.
If we combine 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.
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, olefactory, 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 two. 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 ques 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.