Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Luhmann, Music and Symmetry

Asymmetry played a large role in the thinking of Karl Popper: not just the asymmetry between verification and falsifiability, but the deeper asymmetry between perfection and imperfection. I've been thinking about this with regard to music, particularly as I've been playing a lot of Bach recently. Whatever symmetry which gives this music its transcendent perfection is something which is at once precious, fragile and rare but also essentially fundamental. In the hands of great performer, its power is breathtaking.

Our inclination logically is to think of music as a sequence of events which produce a certain effect (or affect). This view is conditioned by a certain thinking about the causal relationship between making the sound and feeling a feeling. But is this really what's going on? Because, what is apparent in the experience of the music is an emerging sense of one-ness brought about through the revealing of a harmony between personal being and an outside environment. The one-ness is the bringing together of the inner-world and the outer world. And the feeling of balance is, I wonder, precisely to do with symmetry.

Which is odd. Because we tend to think of such phenomena as being about time. And in thinking about time, we become aware of what we expect to happen next, and what we think has just happened. This was the subject of my paper for Kybernetes here: Memory, cognition and music are all inter-related in ways which demand new thinking about how the inner-world and outer-world relate. I want to go further now, and suggest that the key to this view is understanding the nature of anticipation. In my paper, I characterised anticipation as the natural consequence of reorganisation in response to environmental stimuli (even if those 'environmental stimuli' was the twitch of an eyeball, or an itch, or a breath). The essential question is what drives the reorganisational response to behave as it does? The answer that I am thinking through is "symmetry between internal regulation and external perturbation".

What might that mean? What I think it means is that the reorganisational response is a 'harmonic' response both to inner-world states and outer-world states, and as a harmonic response its focus is on maintaining the symmetry between the two. In this way, anticipation has less to do with thinking through what's happening next (which in itself is a function of symmetrical regulation), but more to do with tuning into the balance between the outer-world and the inner-world. What's particularly interesting me (although I haven't looked at this in much depth yet) is the relationship between this harmonic response and the idea of multiplier feedback as it was presented at the ASC conference by Faisal Kadri (and its relationship to 'hysteresis' - see

My paper references Luhmann (although I struggled to get  this accepted by the ASC who don't like Luhmann very much - I suspect he's too much of a realist for them! [ironically, he's too much of a constructivist for the realists!]). Recently, I noticed an interesting paper by Wolfgang Fuhrmann on Luhmann and Music in Acta Musicologica. There needs to be more stuff like this! Luhmann's work is all about the balance between outer and inner worlds (what he's calls social and psychic systems). However, Luhmann does not go into the details of anticipation. Leydesdorff has done this, and it does seem to be the key thing to understand and where important work can be done.

What's exciting me most is the fact that anticipation is such a 'holy grail' in the social sciences. If we can produce models that provide reasonable short-term forecasting, then the institutional control that will result will be a major social shift (the economic crisis may be precisely the result of lack of anticipation and control of social institutions). In essence it is the ability to 'listen' at the social level. Music is where anticipation most clearly reveals itself as an object of study. So just for once perhaps, musicology and sociology might produce something useful (just as Hermann Hesse always thought it would - the two most important disciplines in the construction of the "Glass Bead Game" where mathematics and music!).

1 comment:

Chris Harper said...

I like this idea of symmetry - it resonates with the idea of the "prosumer" - I sit in my home studio, I listen to cool music, I create music influenced by this, I pump it down the Internet, you listen to it in your home studio and enjoy it because of the way it's produced and so on. This creates a network of like-minded consumer/producers that is capable of sustaining a cottage industry.