Wednesday 4 December 2019

Institutions, Art and Meaning

Much of what I am reading at the moment - Simondon, Erich Hörl, Stiegler and Luhmann - is leading me to rethinking what an institution is in relation to an "individual". It's like doing a "reverse Thatcher" (which is a good slogan) - there is no such thing as an "individual". There is a continual process of distinction making (and remaking) and transduction by which "institutions" - as biological organisms like you and me - or families, friendship groups, universities, or societies preserve meaning. This is a Copernican shift in perspective, and it is something that I think Luhmann and Simondon saw most clearly, although there are aspects of their accounts which miss important things.

This is a helpful definition, because it seems we live in a time when our institutions don't work very well. Life in them becomes meaningless and alienating. So what's going on?

I think the answer has something to do with technology. Technology did something to institutions, and a hint at an answer is contained in Ross Ashby's aphorism that "any system which categorises throws away information". Those words echo like thunder for me as I'm in the middle of trying to upgrade the learning technology in a massive institution.

So institutions do something with information which preserves meaning. Institutions which lose information risk losing meaning. Thanks to so-called IT systems, most of our institutions from schools to government are losing information.

I've been thinking (again alongside Luhmann) about art and music. A string quartet or an orchestra is an institution, and through their operations, there is little doubt that meaning is preserved. But what is interesting me is that this preservation process is not simply in the current operations of the group - the practice schedule, or performance for example. It is also something to do with history.

Playing Beethoven is to preserve the meaning in Beethoven. And we have a good idea that Beethoven meant his meaning to be preserved: "alle menschen werden brüder" and all that. What is the mechanism for preserving this meaning? A big part of it is notation: a codification of bodily skilled performances to reproduce a historical consciousness.

The art system preserves meaning over a large-scale diachronic period. It seems commonsense to suppose that if the skills to perform were lost, then the process of preserving the meaning would be damaged. Would we lose this stuff? But is this right? What if the skills to perform are lost, but recordings survive? Some information is lost - but is it the technology of recording which loses the information about performance skill, or does the loss of performance skill necessitate recording as a replacement?

In a age of rich media, "performance" takes new forms. There is performance in front of the camera which might end up on social media. There is a kind of performance in the reactions of the audience on Twitter. But is the nuance of "playing Beethoven" (or anything else) lost?

We need a way of accounting for why this "loss" (if it is a loss) is significant for an inability to preserve meaning. Of course, we also need a way of accounting for meaning itself.

So I will have an attempt: meaning is coherence. It is the form something takes which articulates its wholeness. More abstractly, I suspect coherence is an anticipatory system (borrowing this from the biological mathematics of Robert Rosen and Daniel Dubois). It is a kind of hologram which expresses the totality of the form from its beginning to its end in terms of self-similar (fractal) structures.

The act of performing is a process of contributing to the articulation of an anticipatory system. If information is lost in an institution, or an art system, then the articulation of coherence becomes more difficult. This may be partly because what is lost in not-performing is not information, but redundancy and pattern. Coherence is borne through redundancy and pattern. How much redundancy has been lost in the rituals of convivial meetings within our institutions, where now email of "Teams" takes over?

If our lives and our institutions have become less coherent it is because technology has turned everything into information in which contingency and ambiguity is lost. As Simon Critchley argued in his recent "Tragedy, the Greeks and Us", this loss of ambiguity is a serious problem in the modern world, and it can only be resolved, in his view, through the diachronic structures of ritual and drama. We have to re-enchant our institutions.

I think he's right, but I think we can move towards a richer description of this process. Technology is amazing. It is not technology per se which has done this. It is the way we think.

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