Saturday, 13 April 2013

Prolongation and Information

A prolongation (which is something often talked of in music, but which I think is a more general feature of conscious experience) is an effect which results from a particular structuring of events. The structure of those events is perceivable and analysable because of the presence of prolongation in the first place, but there are discernable levels of experience which successively bracket-out details, but which can be seen to be related to one another in a coherent way. The structures of prolongation integrate deep level and surface level features. This can be most clearly shown in the musical analyses of Heinrich Schenker.

In my paper "Music, Memory and Cognition: a cybernetic approach" (see I sketched out a possible mechanism whereby the phenomenal flow of music was related to the phenomenal flow of consciousness - and particularly, memory. I argued that flows of experience caused prolongations to be established which were maintained by a combination of inner-world experience and outer-world engagement. Looked at this way, conscious existence is a process of maintaining prolongations - a position not dissimilar from Ulrich Neisser's "Cognition and Reality".

Music is a kind of information. What about other forms of information? Are they similarly dependent on some kind of 'prolongation'? I find this an interesting question because much of the current work on information theory (Floridi, Krippendorff, Deacon, etc) tends to look at information in an atemporal context. It doesn't see information as 'flow', rather it sees it as an abstract, analyzable entity. Whilst to see information as 'flow' is anthropocentric, the experience of information is, I think, important. When we are in the flow of information, certain things strike us and we remember them as 'important', whilst much just washes over us.

Remembering something from a flow of information is a way of saying that we found it 'meaningful'. That part of the information flow struck us with some power and stayed with us. Yet we can't be entirely sure if the thing that caused it to stay with us was inherent in the moment of the 'important' bit of information being transmitted, or whether it was inherent in the flow in its entirety which had the requisite structure to prolong that particular piece of information. This, it strikes me, is a big problem for current information theory! It's like saying that at the end of a symphony, we can still remember the climax, and yet out of context, the climax wouldn't have the same effect. The climax is memorable because of the other things that went on around it.

Is finding something meaningful related to what we anticipate? There may be a moment of restructuring of anticipation at a climactic moment. Yet the prolongation of this requires other events to be structured in such a way that satisfies the new set of anticipations. What is this restructuring of anticipation? What happens?

Now I think what occurs is a moment of breakdown as attachments to old ideas, old prolongations are discarded, and new ideas appear which clarify which had become murky and dark (indeed, 'prolongation' may be a different word for 'attachment'). New structures emerge out of this clarified realm which serve to prolong that moment. 'Clarity' and 'murkiness' are words which describe the difference between determined and undetermined absences. What emerges in a crisis (or a climax) is the increasingly heavy and chaotic weight of things that are not there which bear upon our perception of things as we see (or hear) them.

What is meaningful is a determination of an absence.

The fact that this is a restructuring of expectation creates the conditions for the prolongation of the moment of meaning. (Deacon's allusion to the evolutionary emergence of information from Darwin is relevant here).

I need to think about this more. But what it means to me (!) at the moment seems significant. Information can only be inferred through what we find meaningful; through what we prolong in our experience. Essentially, this is a Kantian position: Information isn't real. Absence, on the other hand, which drives the process, must be real according to this logic.

When Luhmann talks about the communication of meanings, what I think he is talking about is the coordination around absences. A new piece of meaningful information may be a determination of an absence; yet the determination of an absence is dependent on prolongational processes which extend beyond the meaningful 'moment'. Indeed, what is meaningful is realised over time - and in a socio-material context.

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