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Primary questions with RCA students

Nicholas Moloney attended the presentation by Royal College of Art students of their work on Primary Questions. This elective (supervised by Sheena Calvert and Leah Fusco) addressed questions such as representation, creative practice and creative thinking, and was broken down into What is an image? What is Materiality? What is Colour? What is Language? Nicholas gave a guest lecture on What is Language? from the point of view of maths and physics in March.

In his talk, Nicholas chose Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic (1936) as a starting point. Scientific language is typically used to make two kinds of statements: formal and empirical. Formal statements are essentially analytic tautologies (i.e. recastings of axioms via rules of inference). Empirical statements are asserting facts about the world that can be falsified or verified (such as “colliding black holes emit gravitational waves”). We might say that Ayer is interested in the certification of scientific knowledge, and maintaining its integrity by policing the use of scientific language (the job of philosophy). However, Ayer does remark that how we arrive at our knowledge is an interesting problem in itself.

In addressing this last question, namely how knowledge is arrived at, a number of points are worth raising. First, of all the possible mathematically correct things we could say, we only end up saying a small subset of them. To use an analogy from chess, there are already about 800,000 positions after White’s third move, but in practice chess players only revisit a small fraction of these. In the same way, the mathematical sentences that do end up being said have been selected according to some scheme. Second, there is obviously a context for scientific activity, and a lot of modern science should be set against the backdrop of the Enlightenment. Take, for example, Francis Bacon. His agenda for science was to interrogate Nature first hand, rather than relying on the authorities of ages past. Contemplating the world is not enough. We are enjoined to be proactive in discovering its secrets. In fact, our duty is to take up our rightful claim to the bounty of the Earth — in this respect God has left us a providential world.

This is consistent with a Promethean attitude to Nature: we are to become masters over Nature. But other attitudes are possible. For example, in The Veil of Isis, Pierre Hadot discusses the Orphic attitude. Orphic because one imagines that Nature is a story of coming into being (a story that can be recounted with the help of lyre and poetry, hence Orpheus). In this attitude, a scientist instead promotes an affinity with Nature. That is, a scientist might recognise the coming and going of natural forms and mimic them in corresponding mathematical forms. This a contemplative and curiosity-driven activity that does not set up Nature as something to exploit. An Orphic attitude is an end in itself. In the words of Rainer Maria Rilke in Sonnets to Orpheus (1923):

Song, as you teach it, is not covetousness
or the quest for something one might finally obtain.
Song is existence.

With language so often used instrumentally, we can understandably become mistrustful of it: My whole body puts me on my guard against each word, as Franz Kafka wrote in a letter to Max Brod (c. 1910). This mistrust runs alongside our impressions of the world arrived at through other means. John Dewey talks about this in a number of his books: empirical first-hand knowledge (i.e. the accumulations of sensual experience with the physical world) ought not to be dismissed out of hand in favour of theoretical knowledge. Just because certain things about the world are expressed with difficulty does not mean that they must by symptomatic of muddled thinking. An illustration of this is given by Caliban in the Tempest, as he fumblingly tries to describe the sense impressions he is bombarded with. His rudimentary vocabulary comes from Prospero, who has enslaved him with the sorcery of his language. Although Caliban cannot always find the most precise words, we find the authenticity of his experience compelling nevertheless:

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That if I then had waked after long sleep
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.

In fact, we might even speculate that language, rather than empowering us, can sometimes lock us in or out of experience. It therefore pays to keep our intuitive sense of the world sharp.

Returning to the student presentations, the primacy of the experiential process was striking. The students answered the Primary Questions by critically engaging with their senses within the experience of a practical task. This can be undertaken rigorously, even though it is difficult to isolate wherein the rigour lies. In explaining their works, the students time after time described the process of arriving at the final work, which to the viewer appears as if born into the world fully-formed. The viewer, not having gone through the same creative experience, is tempted to receive the art work as something to interpret. But the exchanges that follow from having the artist present give rise to a parallel process, which unfolds once more as a mediated experience. In this sense, it is in fact “rigorous” to ask what a rock sounds like, or what a colour smells like. In Ayer’s framework, such statements are nonsensical. But
the reality is that when we grind up, say, basil leaves, we will sense the smell of that particular green within seconds. In other words, rather than requiring precision from our language, we are instead releasing the associative potential of our senses. For green in fact smells differently according to whether it is ground up or blended, or according to whether it is released in a room with north-facing or south-facing windows, as found by Yoonjeong Oh in her project on the colour green. These empirical observations are not narrowly intended for a chemist’s log book. These are observations about ourselves, as people embedded within sensual experience.

Exchanges between art and science are informative about ourselves. Physics sometimes makes a virtue of its disdain for the arbitrary and contingent, or for the feeble range of our senses. But this is to misunderstand what our senses are trying to do. The question, How does the eye work?, is not randomly chosen from all the questions we could legitimately ask about the empirical world. While we are reviewing our embedded assumptions, let us also imagine that there are paths to knowledge, not necessarily certifiable in language, that are generative of further questions. In this way the functioning of the eye is ever the open-ended question. Let the multivalency of our senses be a guide to the multivalency of our language, and vice versa.

And what of the arbitrary and contingent? Tae Ho Kim had a good answer: In explaining how he used a wine bottle and a digital scanner to create his images, he told us after a while not to worry about the wine bottle, for it was only a material that would distort light in an interesting way under the random vibrations of the scanner. His motivating guide was to investigate materiality and immateriality. The contingent process was an opportunity to perform this investigation, using the real world as a “lab partner”.

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