Thursday, December 01, 2011

A few links: creativity within constraint; when knowledge isn't power in cognitive bias; and the social conformity effect

No one who has worked in the arts any length of time will fail to grasp the significance of creativity increasing within constraints.  Igor Stravinsky famously remarked that he was most creative when he imposed the most restrictions on himself.  At a purely personal level I feel my compositional style expanded and changed as I began to explore possibilities with a few crucial restrictions on the conceptual and structural approach to my music.  I would later learn that some of the restrictions I worked with weren't altogether different from ones Brian Eno used in his songwriting career at different points. 

Of the works I have written so far arguably the single greatest restriction in a work-in-progress ended up being the catalyst for a lot of creativity.  How many works for solo guitar can you compose if you use only harmonics?  And not just any old harmonics, natural harmonics, skipping artificial harmonics almost altogether?  What could you come up with?  How does one navigate the reality that harmonics at frets 5, 7 and 12 have better intonation than those at 3, 4, 6, and 9?  How many key regions are possible?  How many key regions are desirable?  How much can you compose before resorting to an altered tuning?  After all, just because the rule is "only harmonics" doesn't mean you can't use scordatura ... but which scordaturae would be more trouble than they're worth?

My brother picked up Thinking Fast and Slow, which I intend to borrow from him and read one day. 
Daniel Kahneman's book, what I have read of it, seems like what David Zahl at Mockingbird might call a scientific examination of the extent of the bound will.  We are not as rational or self-aware as we think we are.  As the prophet Jeremiah put it so glumly, the heart is deceitful above all things, and who can understand it?  The Hebrew prophets were often all too painfully aware that self-knowledge is not even close to self-power. 

One of the grimly amusing ironies of neurological work and cognitive study is to suggest, over against the claims of certain optimists, that the human mind and the human condition have not improved quite so substantially as many of us have told ourselves it has.  Yes, many certain things in certain regions have gotten better but at a price.  As a friend of mine put it, while progressives have looked at all the strides made in political or social equality all that equality is founded on an economy driven by fossil fuels.  So progressives have been compelled to recognize that the engine that has driven increased social equality can seem, to progressives, to come at the cost of compromising the viability of the ecosphere.  Or at least the ones that actually think anything through about the connection between increased personal economic or political freedom and ecological considerations in the post-industrial West have had to give it some thought. 

For all our amazing discoveries about ourselves and the cosmos the more we learn about humanity the less we disprove observations humans have made about themselves millenia ago.  The heart is still decetiful above all things, and even when we understand the mechanisms of self-deception this does not mean we are free of them when we live our lives.  Romans 7 and the prophet Jeremiah may well continue to remain relevant commentaries on the human condition. It's not as though they stopped having relevant things to say in the last few millenia, after all.

... But our love of stories comes with a serious side-effect: like all good narrators, we tend to forsake the facts when they interfere with the plot. We’re so addicted to the anecdote that we let the truth slip away until, eventually, those stories we tell again and again become exercises in pure fiction. Just the other day I learned that one of my cherished childhood tales – the time my older brother put hot peppers in my Chinese food while I was in the bathroom, thus scorching my young tongue – actually happened to my little sister. I’d stolen her trauma.

The reason we’re such consummate bullshitters is simple: we bullshit for each other. We tweak our stories so that they become better stories. We bend the facts so that the facts appeal to the group. Because we are social animals, our memory of the past is constantly being revised to fit social pressures.

Instantly one can surmise that an atheist or non-Christian would note that this must have been how the earliest Christian beliefs and biblical narratives came about.  It most certainly would be how retroactive political narratives by political parties in upcoming elections find unified narratives, whether it's the Republicans pretending they have been about lower taxes, small and uninvasive government, and providing equal opportunity; or whether it's the Democrats pretending they have been about defending the working class, seeing to political equality and liberty for all, and not being overly hawkish in issues of foreign policy.  It can also be said about evangelical Christians in America attempting to find a suitable history from which to rationalize culture war politicking which Darryl Hart has written a bit about recently.  And it's certainly how Marxists manage to skip past the question of how Soviet atrocities could be condemned in a way that separates Marxism from the applications of Marxist/Leninist ideas in a society. 

So, per Jeremiah's grim observation that the heart is deceitful above all things what could we suggest as a crucial role a prophet can play?  The role of the prophet is not, per the notions of a dispensationalist or cessationist, that of a man or woman pronouncing new words from God that will get canonized.  No, if anything the opposite impulse is deeper in the role of the prophetic action than speaking of events that have not taken place.  The prophet's role is to question the collective narrative we put together by pointing out how that narrative we've spun for ourselves to make ourselves look good doesn't add up.  The aim was not necessarily to provide "new revelation" but to challenge God's people for a failure to live out the important parts of the established revelation.  Repression and oppression among God's people indicate a people who have forgotten the Exodus and Passover observance makes the hypocrisy and double standards worse rather than better. 

Whether or not one subscribes to or prescribes to religious belief the role of the prophet, in actual or perhaps merely literary/typological terms, is one everyone can understand, the person who calls "bullshit" on the agreed-upon narrative and identity a group of people sell to themselves and to others. The role of the prophet can be described as the person who is not just an advisor about crises but to combat, when necessary, the social conformity effect when its aims and results became fraudulent. Given how many prophetic books there are in the Bible it was acknowledged over time that the propensity for the social conformity effect (as it were) to lead to fraudulent results and character was pretty common.

Thus ends my ramble for this post.

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