Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Abstract: Paul Cobley - Autopoeisis, Modelling Systems Theory and aesthetic behaviour

Any time before the last decade, the idea of "systems art" and an event dedicated to it, taking place in an art gallery, would have been unthinkable. In fact, so strong has been the liberal bourgeois Romantic individualist theory of the artist that "systems art", or "art as system", remains a surprising conception today. Luhmann’s notion of "art as a social system at an operative and a structural level" (2000) is a forthright statement of art’s status as a reified bourgeois concept, albeit a highly complex one relying on art’s maintenance of a putative quasi-autonomous relationship with its social environment, purporting to elude operative closure and, therefore, its own bearing as a system arising from autopoiesis. Luhmann’s skepticism regarding the efficacy of "steering", in particular, sits uneasily with traditional notions of art and artists.

This paper largely concurs with the idea of "art as system" put forth by Luhmann, but proposes a more searching analysis in respect of art’s functioning in social and cultural systems and, particularly, with regard to art’s autopoiesis. It suggests that systems need to be re-thought according to the qualitative characteristics of the signs that constitute them and proposes Modelling Systems Theory as a means to begin to understand the autopoietic basis of art work. Derived from the endeavours of the Tartu-Moscow school, but given the beginnings of a systematic basis by, above all, Thomas A. Sebeok, Modelling Systems Theory posits three levels of sign functioning (Sebeok and Danesis 2000). Primary Modelling Systems, corresponding to the realm of Peirce’s dicent, icon and qualisign, and are identified as being based on the singular sign. They constitute the realm closest to the roots of qualia. Secondary Modeling Systems, on the other hand, are "extensional" and based on the dicent, index and sinsign. They are spatiotemporal in orientation. Tertiary Modelling Systems, the sphere in which culture is played out, are extensional and are characterized by arguments, symbols and legisigns. They are abstract and projective in orientation. The remit of art works traverses all three modeling systems but second-order observation reveals that art is frequently associated most strongly with the Tertiary Modelling System in general (Luhmann 2000: 100-1, 132, 212). Arguably, since the eighteenth century at least, this has been the key obstacle to the cogency of art’s self-observation and has been instrumental in art’s entanglement in a series of critical contradictions that have served to alienate those outside the artistic elite.

As an evolutionary and synechistic perspective embodying "the paradoxical probability of the improbable" (Luhmann 2000: 214), Modelling Systems Theory offers a means of ameliorating the contradictions revealed by second-order observation of art, especially those which have entrenched art within Tertiary Modelling. In his unfinished major project, inaugurated by the long essay, "Prefigurements of art" (1979), Sebeok demonstrated the continuities of aesthetic behaviour across the animal kingdom (including, of course, human animals). This paper will attempt to show how Sebeok’s vision in that essay points to the multifarious functioning of aesthetic work and its central paradox. The latter is, namely, that aesthetic work by any animal (human or non-human) in itself constitutes no evolutionary advantage and, indeed, is the "opposite" of "instinctual behaviour" precisely because it seems to offer nothing to the project of survival of species and the passing on of genes. Yet, simultaneously, in its very autonomy from natural selection, aesthetic behaviour constitutes part of the semiosis which actualizes an Umwelt. In this way, its autopoiesis is part of the project of cognitive differentiation which has been instrumental in the survival prospects of the higher species on Earth. As such, art is to be understood not simply as a preserve of the socially valorized dimensions of the Tertiary Modelling Systems of humans, but as constituted by sign functions within all three modelling systems ranging across the zoosemiotic realm.

1 comment:

  1. originally posted by Anonymous on 29 Oct 2007:

    'Any time before the last decade, the idea of "systems art" and an event dedicated to it, taking place in an art gallery, would have been unthinkable.'

    Given that this event harks back to the ideas of the 1960s this is a somewhat hyperbolic statement.