Sunday, April 20, 2008

V S Ramachandran, Picasso and the Cosmic Dance of Shiva

VILAYANUR S. Ramachandran is a well-known scientist described as one of the hundred great people to watch in the 21st century science. He explores the human mind and hence fellow scientist Richard Dawkins calls him the Marco Polo of the neuroscience, venturing into hitherto unexplored areas of the vast ocean called human mind.

The grandson of famous freedom fighter Alladi Krishna Swamy Iyer, VSR speaks Tamil and has strong cultural and personal relations with Kerala. It is likely this 57-year-old alumni of a Chennai college, would be the next person to bring a Nobel plaque to south India, after Sir C V Raman.

He was in Thiruvananthapuram the other day, delivering a lecture at the AKG Center Hall, to a packed audience. He spoke about human mind in its creative splendor and this is how one among the audience described his speech: “It was interesting to hear his argument that artists, poets, novelists and other creative people are inheritors of a brain `dysfunction', due to which adequate deactivation of links between different parts of brain does not happen and hence they see many links between seemingly unrelated aspects.”

Ramachandran in his books, Emerging Mind, A Brief History of Human Consciousness and famous the BBC 2003 Reith lectures have made some interesting forays into areas of art, literature and aesthetics. His is a new way of looking at the world of art and literature, a path charted out by the possibilities opened up by modern science and technology. Naturally, it has its admirers and critics too.

Ramachandran in his BBC lecture makes his position clear:

"Now let me add a note of caution before I begin. When I speak of
artistic universals I am not denying the enormous role played by
culture. Obviously culture plays a tremendous role, otherwise you
wouldn't have different artistic styles - but it doesn't follow that
art is completely idiosyncratic and arbitrary either or that there are
no universal laws.

Let me put it somewhat differently. Let's assume that 90% of the
variance you see in art is driven by cultural diversity or - more
cynically - by just the auctioneer's hammer, and only 10% by universal
laws that are common to all brains. The culturally driven 90% is what
most people already study - it's called art history. As a scientist
what I am interested in is the 10% that is universal - not in the
endless variations imposed by cultures. The advantage that I and other
scientists have today is that unlike we can now test our conjectures
by directly studying the brain empirically. There's even a new name
for this discipline. My colleague Semir Zeki calls it Neuro-aesthetics
- just to annoy the philosophers."

Ramachandran in his Thiruvananthapuram lecture took examples from the western and Indian art history, including the famous statue of Nataraja, Shiva in one of his myriad forms, in cosmic dance from the great Chola tradition to the cubist and expressionist works of Picasso. His lecture gave rise to a fierce online debate, on how far science and technology can help us understand, and appreciate, art and literature.

I made the following points in a debate:

First, VSR is a pioneering scientist in an area which traverses the universes of science and arts, two distinct forms of creative energy in action that are products of human brain. Second, while philosophers and literary theorists did bring up such debates on these realms, what makes Ramachandran unique is the knowledge and methodology of scientific enquiry that he brings into this area. Third, it is a matter of fact that ancient Indian thinkers had achieved a high level of prominence and progress in many areas of 'pure thought' and scientific inquiry. But the West took it far ahead with their empirical methodology that we woefully lacked and that has put us far behind. Four, that should help us place scholars and thinkers like our own M N Vijayan who made inquires into human mind in their literary studies making use of Freud, as an original thinker, but what makes him different from Ramachandran is that though they may speak about the same phenomena, one follows the path of pure thinking or metaphysical speculation, while the other has science and technology behind him and that gives him vast strength and credibility.

Many scholars and academics put in their views on these points. Let me quote a few (with due acknowledgements to all of them):

Dr P K Pokker, who teaches philosophy at Calicut University, said: My argument is that he (VSR) did not confer any new information or knowledge in the realm of aesthetics. He might be a good neurologist. But in the case of aesthetics he simply presented a kind of "manichithrathazhu" model argument. His criticism of western theoreticians was baseless. Besides Rasa and Dhvani cannot explain the origin and development of aesthetic production. He either ignores or forgets about the social means of production and enjoyment. Above all he wanted to simply idealize the so-called Indian feudal art. His theory of distortion in art is not at all new. Let me ask whether he has contributed anything new to understand the origin, development and even decay of art and literature.

My response:
Dr. Pokker has brought up a serious point, with which I generally find myself in agreement. I read Dr Ramachandran's speech in The Hindu and it seems it has two parts in it. First, a scientific explanation on the new areas of neurology, undoubtedly important as areas of scientific inquiry. It explores the human mind in new ways making use of the technological advancement of our age. In this context, I remember what Dr. Craig Vintner said the other day about his genome project, that most of the work was done by advanced computers...

Then comes the other part, which is more disputable. It is about a theory of aesthetics as he tries to explain the human mind in its creative activity taking examples from Chola art to modern masters including Picasso. He seems to suggest that these art-forms are the creations of a special kind of brain activity.

Here the problem is that science may not be able to explain human mind in its creative mood, outside its social milieu. Because we see the Nataraja in cosmic dance in a particular phase in our history, in a particular part of our country; we see the cave paintings in Ellora and Ajantha in a particular place and time; and we see the rise of novel as a particular form of fictional expression in a particular phase in the capitalist development...

That means art and aesthetics need other forms of thought to explain itself deeply and more accurately. A neural science expert may shed some light on some aspects but it would e too ambitious to attempt any comprehensive aesthetic theory purely on the basis of science and technology. That is why I tend to listen to M N Vijayan more seriously when he speaks about poetry and turn to VSR when he speaks about fantasies and itching limbs which are not there.

So let us just accept that there is something beyond mere science and technology and that everything can't be explained through its certainties.

John Samuel wrote:
Chekkutty says: "That means art and aesthetics need other forms of thought to explain itself deeply and more accurately."
What is thought? "Other forms" of thought too may be able to be explained by science. Why not? After all "thought" too is an outcome or a process that emanate through the functioning of brain. There has been number of efforts to understand the working of brain through using linguistics, or visual mapping etc. By the way, I do no think that VSR has been trying to develop or even propose any theory aesthetics. He is a scientist who is in to the business of explaining the neurological aspects of brain. He draws from art, visual mapping etc to explain or suggest and at times speculate different aspects of the functioning of brain.
While he has tried to venture into Philosophy of Mind, he is primarily a scientist who uses imaginative and insightful ways, including from art, to understand, explain and suggest multiple aspects of the working of brain. So it will be misleading to consider VSR as a philosopher or art critic.

Prof. K Satchidanandan wrote:
I would not go to VSR with the expectations I have of an art critic: then I would read Arnold Hauser or Herbert Read or Ernst Fischer or John Berger or Partho Mitter or Geeta Kapoor... I do not think the knowledge about art comes from a single source, it cuts across disciplines and even if we add up all of them, something will remain-- I do not in the least deny the irrational or irreducible in art, its mystery; I cannot as I have known it in my blood and bones; but that does not permit me to deny the possibility of explorations from different angles and disciplines.
Pokker is perfectly right in what he says about the social in art. All reductive and simplifying approaches have their inadequacies. (Even sociological reductions).

Sanil V, who teaches at the Center for Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT, Delhi, wrote:
VSR’s research is at once an invitation and a provocation to serious philosophical thought. He helps us to challenge the we-have-always – already-known-it-all attitude of some philosophers. It is the task of philosophy to recognize and respond to novelties in science, politics and art by proposing new concepts to them.

VSR tells us about the plasticity of brain. The idea of a compact and continuous substance is not suitable for understanding the materiality of brain. Brain is full of holes, dysfunctions and blind spots. Thought occurs in those holes. Brain is always a bit beyond itself and a bit less than itself! It is no longer that self identical, central, hyperactive agency which is in control of body and mind. This is an exciting result for any philosopher who learns from the materialist tradition of Spinoza, Marx and Deleuze. VSR’s views demand a serious rethinking on the relationship between perception, beliefs and action.

Philosophy should respond to specific research in sciences and not get trapped in popularizing pseudo-religious ideas like “scientific method” and “progress”. Not all scientists are positivists. But all popular scientists are!!

What is VSR’s contribution to aesthetics? Yes, much of what he says about art is pretty naïve – just as what Dawkins says about religion. However, Art is not VSR’s route to aesthetics. Aesthetics has two meanings. Aesthetics is a theory of art. It is also a logic of sensation. There isn’t much to learn from VSR on the former – in a direct manner. But VSR has exciting things to say about the latter. In my opinion, a materialist aesthetics of art must seriously worry about the nature of brain and sensations. Inputs from a non-reductionist and post-(naïve) empiricist neuroscience is necessary to disabuse the excessively culturalist and symbolist theories of art. Some of VSR’s experimental results (filling-in and assigning at the blind spots) have been enormously helpful in my own research on the ontology of the cinematic image.

Some critics might say that VSR only dramatizes the results of patient and piecemeal research conducted by many unknown scientists. Here, he may be compared to Stephen Hawking. This could be true. Fortunately none of us are in the Nobel award committee, and hence, need not bother about who –did –it- first issues. For me, the name VSR simply refers to a contemporary enthusiasm which has spread across neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, art, etc. Sorry for those who miss it!

Now, a final note on my part: This is an exciting debate and surely it will continue in the years to come, especially when VSR will bring home the much coveted Nobel for his great work in the frontier areas of scientific research.

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