Style, Taste & Cyber-Networks
Aesthetics and Cognitive Science
JD Casten

Chapter from Cybernetic Revelation

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We live in a super-human society.  Our television shows, movies, automobiles, clothing and houses—even our jobs—are far beyond the capacity of human individuals to conceive of.  No single person can make an automobile; such complex constructions require teams of engineers, assemblers, managers, etc, all working within traditions of production which date back before the births of their own generations.  Biologically, one can see that society itself is like a large organism, with inter-penetrating and over-lapping cultural forces: fads, traditions, conflicts, and solidarities of the social body arise in global forces far outside the capabilities of its individual cells and limbs—we humans.  Perhaps this has always been the case, but never so much as today.

With pop-culture we see the effects of the larger forces which proliferate through an economy driven by consumer supply and demand.  Beyond selling out, much of what many consider their favorite "art" was formulated from the very start as a way of making money by satisfying popular demand.  We virtually have poll takers prescribing which "art" products to produce (and such is the case with focus groups).  The hand-made crafts of counter-culture folks and the folk song by the wandering guitar player are almost always eclipsed by the multi-million dollar motion picture investment.  No doubt, such mega-investments of the entertainment industry have often produced quality art that make Leonardo da Vinci look like a bore.  Yet, these may also contribute to our super-human reality; as a society, we have made ourselves out to be much more than we could ever be as individuals.  And this has discouraged many, I believe, from turning their passive-consumerism into an active creativity.  We live in an age where the medium which used to be the mere obstacle between one and one's expression has become the mass media which structures the expression of a social force so powerfully we can barely do more than gaze at its spectacle in utter fascination.

No doubt, the medium has always played a shaping role in artistic production.  A piano and a guitar lend themselves to different types of musical composition, and one may wonder to what extent the history of music has been shaped by the instruments used.  With painting the instrumental "interference" could be at a minimum: the simple paint brush worked as the cybernetic extension of the pointing finger.  Maybe it wasn't until the cut and paste collage method was used that the limitations, or rather the coercions, of the brush or pointing implement could be fully illustrated: new techniques are needed to demonstrate the limits of older ones.  And with today's technology, especially with computers, art has gone far beyond the limitations of bodily movements, allowing minds to roam through a space restrained only by mathematical possibility.  But have our bodies, in the ultra-contemporary media take-over, been dissolved into mere aesthetic mediations which only serve to interface us with the social machine?  Has the style of the body been cut out by the tastes of a consumer society?


The body is one.  It may couple with others, or grow out another, but in its integrated functionality it has an autonomy which guarantees the possibility of comfortable security.  The body provides a sanctuary from the nightmare of global responsibility, of conscience—for the actions of our bodies are by and large unconscious.  To discover this, one need do no more than listen to one's verbal soul as it bursts forth from the body.  One's stream-of-conscious is not consciously intended; one cannot decide what one is going to think before one thinks—there is a perpetual movement which one neither follows nor anticipates, but which one is effectively.  Such arises out of the over-determination of personality; the body is shaped and trained by cultural forces and a personal history, and the body's actions evidence this training as style.

The style of one's body as trained is most evident in the visual arts with gesture.  When one paints or draws, the trace left by bodily action evidences the body's history.  When one learns to write, for example, certain muscles are developed; and if some muscle is damaged, one's handwriting may evidence this.  After awhile, one's handwriting may settle upon a recognizable style—one which would be quite different than the results of initial attempts to write.  And this style of gesture is not consciously producible—one may try to forge a signature, but even this would be a modification of one's own signature style, and would require practice.

Similarly, attention to gesture, and perfecting it through practice has long been a factor in painting, and has been especially prominent in Asian traditions where the stroke has been a major mode of stylistic signification.  Just as the writing in Asian languages has been based on pictograms, special strokes have been developed to designate certain visual textures.  For example, beyond the extended post-impressionistic strokes used by Vincent Van Gogh, Asian artists such as Wang Meng have used different types of strokes respectively for rocks, leaves, or tree bark.  With practice through repetition, these strokes may gain a unique aspect akin to the style of the letters in handwriting.  The published "sketch-books" of the Japanese ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai evidence practiced strokes, as with the watery splashing "fingers" on the breaking crest of his "Great Wave off Kanagawa."  With Hokusai, practiced gestures go beyond mere strokes to entire shapes.  More than seeing some representation of a wave, we may actually read Hokusai's artwork, which is composed of arranged signifiers which loosely resemble what they signify.  Hokusai's practiced local images come close to providing a bridge between pictorial representation and pictographic language.  In western art as well, bodily style can be seen with art nouveau artists, such as William Blake and Edmund Dulac, where fluid organic lines suggest physical gesture as much as pictorial representation.

Style, as evidencing the practice and training of the body, is habitual.  Repetition of certain procedures reinforces used muscles and neural pathways throughout the body and in the brain.  As with martial arts, certain actions and reactions become automatic.  Nietzsche, who claimed in The Will to Power that "all perfect acts are unconscious," (Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, Walter Kaufmann, (ed.), Walter Kaufmann and R.J.  Hollingdale, (trans.), Random House, Inc.: New York (1967), p. 163) approximates this in his own writing style with aphorisms that suggest bursts of spontaneous thought.  Automatic style can also be found in jazz music, such as with Thelonious Monk's spontaneous improvisation.  Use of medium implements or tools and techniques and the internalization of cultural customs become automatic as well—as Marshall McLuhan writes in The Medium is the Massage, "The wheel an extension of the foot"( Marshal McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, The Medium is the Massage (New York: Bantam Books, 1967), pp. 31-32).  The leading edge of spontaneous habitual action is the stream- of-conscious; a stream-of-conscious that includes not only an internal voice, but also the full spectrum of sensations—imagined or observed images, the movement of muscles, the flows of sound, etc.  Although sensation is often seen as passively observed, the brain does structure much of what is perceived.


All is not, however, smooth sailing automatic style.  Often the unforeseen occurs and stops style in its tracks.  Hesitation sets in, consciousness elevates, and lucid choices must be made (one might recall the heightened awareness of learning how to drive a car).  Here, taste refers to these moments of choice, in contrast to the automatic actions of style.  Taste is in the domain of the critic, and is often critical.  And, as a choice, taste offers a certain amount of freedom; taste interrupts the spontaneous flow of a style that is unconsciously determined in its origin, and opens up possibilities and new potential courses of action.  Taste presents the opportunity to change one's style.

For artists, taste is evident with the choice of colors, the choice of perspective or viewing angle, the arrangement of shapes, and the choice of what to illustrate.  In writing, taste is evident in selecting quotations, in using the thesaurus, in editing, and in using cut and paste options with word processors.  The poetry of e.e. cummings also demonstrates interruptions of style with the invention of new kinds of spacing and grammar.  Critical taste can be found in music too, with the use of sampling, such as in the Beatles' song, "I am the Walrus," and in modern rap or hip hop music.  The choice and treatment of subject matters may evidence a taste that can not only be aesthetically beautiful, but critical, and even sarcastic or satirical (as with works by Andy Warhol and the early Roy Lichtenstein, who both directed others in the creation of their works).

Hokusai's selection of a specific view in his Great Wave was one of many views of Mount Fuji included in his book Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji.  In line with Hokusai's multiple perspectives of one object, consider the various images of Van Gogh, in his own "Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear," in Paul Gauguin's "Van Gogh Painting Sunflowers," and in Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's "Portrait of Vincent Van Gogh;" with these artworks we can see how different styles may converge on the same, or similar, selected "object" (and one may notice how much more seriously Van Gogh took himself than Gauguin or Toulouse-Lautrec did).  That which may be the "object" of a painting—whether it be a view, an object, a person, a feeling, an idea, literary passage, historical event, etc.—offers itself to innumerable ways of being visualized.  To a large extent the "object" of concern is, to borrow Jacques Derrida's use of the term, "undecidable;" it lends itself to possibilities, and this may force an artist to make choices.  One might argue that photo-realism would offer a method of reproducing worldly objects as they "really" are; yet, Pablo Picasso's multi-perspective cubism clearly demonstrates that even methods like photo-realism already cut off certain possibilities of representing things as they "really" are.  (Besides, humans do not perceive exactly as cameras do).  Any type of reproduction requires choices which skew the way an object is seen.

However, the ambiguity of the "object" encountered may not be enough to force an artist to make a conscious choice and depart the status quo—one may simply treat an ambiguity in a conventional manner.  For a choice to be de-automated, one's action must be doubted—style castrated by taste (not that style or taste are any more masculine or feminine).  One must be stopped short and hover for awhile in an abyss of indecision before one can make a conscious choice.  There must be a moment of having to choose because one's action has been paralyzed by uncertainty.  And such a free choice is what allows one to change one's style and to affirm it with conviction as one's own.  Likewise, ambiguity and techniques of de-familiarization used by artists can compel an audience to re-examine their own perspectives.


As the discussion has heretofore centered on a loose dialectic or juxtaposition of subjective style and taste in the arts, I will turn here to a loose, yet more scientific, analysis of objective action and its possible suspension in cognition.  The second half of this chapter, from another perspective, should interlock with the first half by offering details concerning the unconscious and automatic production of some aspects of a stream of consciousness exemplified by the spreading activation theory of cognitive science.

Mentally, ideas have connections to other ideas, and physically, neurons are connected to other neurons; and in each case, the connections can be strengthened by reinforcement through use.  If we were to give a visual representation of the logical space inherent in both types of connections, we would imagine a web of nodes with varying numbers of lines (arcs) connecting them; lines which would be weighted ("thicker") according to the strength of connection (and this is what neurological networks could be said to look like).

On the mental side of this interconnectivity, we can easily see that some ideas have consistently been associated with other ideas, and that there are specific types of connections.  Indeed, the fact that a relationship between nodes is of a specific type requires more of our visual example than simply a line connecting two nodes—each relationship (line) could be indexed and connected to a "type of relationship node" (regular nodes could designate nouns or adjectives, and relational nodes could represent verbs).  These complex webs of ideas comprise a semantic network and function as memory when developed (as introduced by Ross Quillian (Ross Quillian, "Semantic Memory" in Marvin Minsky (Ed.), Semantic Information Processing, The MIT Press: Cambridge, Mass. (1968); and also see Allan M.  Collins, and M.  Ross Quillian, "Retrieval time from semantic memory," Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 8 (1969), pp. 240-248).

We can imagine a semantic network as having first-order and fuzzy logical structures with hierarchies of concepts.  However, the unconditional variability of connection types in a semantic network (there could be connections to representations of images and sounds too) and the inclusion of connection strengths in a semantic network may offer more flexibility than fuzzy or first-order logic alone; with semantic networks containing logic within their possibilities.


Beyond a static group of nodes, a semantic network grows with use, and it can also be "animated."  Each node in a semantic network can be activated into consciousness through a process called 'spreading activation,' as introduced by Allan M. Collins and Elizabeth F. Loftus (Allan M. Collins, and Elizabeth F. Loftus, "A spreading-activation theory of semantic processing," Psychological Review 82 (1975), pp. 407-428).  The general operation for such an activity is such: the activation of one node facilitates the activation of related nodes (one thought leads to another).  Here, it would be necessary that each node in a network would require a certain amount of prompting from the nodes it was connected to in order to activate—each node would have a certain threshold level which, if met by the prompting of other connected nodes, would cause a node to activate (possibly causing a term to come to mind).

Biologically, these nodes need not be represented with single neurons, but may be represented with clusters of neurons representing a single term or idea.  Hence, it would not be necessary for every node that contributes to the activation of a term into consciousness to be activated into consciousness itself.  If each of the facilitating nodes was called a 'cue' then the more cues for a certain term are given, and the stronger the connections are between these nodes are, the more likely that term is to come to mind.

There are many types of prompts which might be called 'cues': thought words, physically given words, or even external objects and situations.  And again, it may be possible that some cues could be given that were not explicitly thought of by a person.  For example, if someone came upon an animal that was furry, had four legs, barked, and was on a leash tied to a dog house, each of these cues might contribute to the conscious activation of the single term 'dog' without each cue itself being activated into consciousness (and the activation of  'dog' might also contribute to the further activation of the dog's name, 'Fido').  There are thus semi- or unconscious activations of nodes and terms hovering on the verge of consciousness that may activate other terms.  (An excellent discussion of spreading activation can be found in chapter xi of Douglas R. Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, Basic Books: New York (1979)).


Two other types of interconnection should also be discussed—contiguity, or the flow from one lexical unit to the next; and the combination of smaller units interconnected as larger wholes.  On a small scale, these combined connections can be seen with the combination of letters that go to make up a whole word.  In turn, several words could be combined to form idioms.  This sort of sequential clustering could be seen to form even larger structures such as sentences, paragraphs, or even entire episodic memories (recalling that image and sound representations could be connected to a semantic network).

The flow from one idea to the next in a stream of consciousness requires an explanation beyond spreading activation.  Although the logic or deep structure of any train of thought might be mapped out on a semantic network, the flow of thought usually follows some syntactical or grammatical form—this temporal, and unfolding aspect of grammar, as distinct from and complementing the semantic relations involved, could be called 'rolling grammatical "progression"' (I put "progression" in quotes to note that the flow of grammar may not be going anywhere).  The fact that there is a grammatical process distinct from semantic processing is suggested by the results of people having an aphasia due to a lesion in the posterior part of the left hemisphere in the brain (the left hemisphere being more likely to be used in language usage).  People with posterior aphasia, or Wernicke's aphasia, can produce correct grammar without substantial semantic content; grammar is distinct from semantics, although there may be an interactive activation (a kind of feedback) between the two.  A simple example of rolling grammatical progression would be the sequence of "subject verb object."  And, just as one can observe a child learning new associations, one can also see a learning of more complicated grammatical styles.  Such a progression is illustrated by comparing the simple grammar of grade-school texts with the complex grammar of Henry James or Edith Wharton.

There are also more complex activities such as learning and employing skills, techniques, and strategies (such as playing the piano, painting, playing chess, etc).  The later Ludwig Wittgenstein investigated some of these activities with his concept of "language games," which includes local practices such as reading or naming (the "performatives" of J.L.  Austin, the "speech acts" of John R.  Searle, and the "memes" of Richard Dawkins are also related to language games).  Like terms in a semantic network, language games and skills can be associated, (as with the language games of asking questions, and those of answering them); they may have their own spreading activation; and they can be associated in hierarchies of larger wholes and parts (an account of how skills may have their own spreading activation can be found in Pattie Maes' article "How to Do the Right Thing," (Pattie Maes, "How to Do the Right Thing", Connection Science, 1:3 (1990)) a good discussion of which can be found in Stan Franklin's Artificial Minds (Stan Franklin, Artificial Minds, The MIT Press: Cambridge, MA (1997)).  At a broader level, we have Michel Foucault's use of the term, "discourse," which designates the likes of the military, democracy, or psychiatry—practices and institutions that are made up of interrelated skills and language games.  Semantic networks, skills, language games, and discourses would all also incorporate new terms and activities by connecting these with older established terms and practices.  In his Society of Mind, Marvin Minsky claims:

"Each new technique presumably begins by exploiting methods already learned in other, older agencies.  So new ideas often have roots in older ones, adapted for new purposes" (Marvin Minsky, Society of Mind, Simon and Schuster: New York (1986), p. 141).

It should be noted that these language games and discourses are not tools at hand, but operate automatically; they are not used by a subject but effectively constitute it.


The outline of cognition heretofore, concerning the automatic action of the brain, has some interesting philosophical implications.  Not only is there no need for abstract essences, platonic forms, signifieds, or mental prototypes, there is also nothing essential for the use of any term; there is no criterion necessary for the activation of a term into consciousness, but only sufficient prompting from any number of related nodes with specific connection strengths.  A given object or situation need not be compared to a mental prototype to be recognized, as the given cues or features of objects or situations would directly activate terms in a semantic network.  Similarly, skills and language games would not need essential rules of operation.  As Hubert L. Dreyfus claims in his What Computers Still Can't Do:

"The important thing about skills is that, although science requires that the skilled performance be described according to rules, these rules need in no way be involved in producing a performance"(Hubert L. Dreyfus, What Computers Still Can't Do: A Critique of Artificial Reason, The MIT Press: Cambridge Mass. (1992), p. 253).

A various number of micro-actions would be sufficient to complete a task without any one action being necessary in general; explicit symbolic rules need not be followed, as one action naturally leads to other associated actions.

Just as it was noted earlier that semantic networks provide a structure that could be broader than logic, it may be noted that skills, language games and discourses provide structures that are more broad than reason or intelligence; reason, intelligence and other goal related activities are only specific language games and discourses among many others (hence the term "artificial intelligence" already limits a scope of inquiry).

However broad cognitive structures may be though, they are limited by the structure of the brain.  This means that our ability to perceive and think about our world is also limited by brain structure; our brains project their own structure and functioning on the environment.  For example, the perceived singularity of objects may be a projection of a singular brain (differences that distinguish one object from another, like that between a TV and the table it is on, are relative to a judge); and semantic networks that have interactive activation with perception mechanisms help shape what is perceived (we often see what we expect to see, such as with optical illusions).  Of course our world lends itself to such projections; yet, there remains the possibility of other kinds of structure, or even realms beyond what we perceive as structure, which we cannot begin to conceive of.  Even our modeling of brain activity would be limited by brain structure.

In a related limitation, neural structure would not comprehend conscious qualia or sensual experience (including emotions).  There is simply no place in the brain where physical structures could turn into qualia without becoming non structural, and hence leap out of the circle of structural causality (if one were to say that structure causes qualia, then why couldn't qualia effect structure?) Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz noted:

"it must be avowed that perception and what depends upon it can not possibly be explained by mechanical reasons, that is, by figure and movement.  Suppose that there be a machine, the structure of which produces thinking, feeling, and perceiving; imagine this machine enlarged but preserving the same proportions, so that you could enter it as if it were a mill.  This being supposed, you might visit its insides; but what would you observe there?  Nothing but parts which push and move each other, and never anything that could explain perception" (Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, Paul Schrecker and Anne Martin (trans.), Monadology and Other Philosophical Essays, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc.: New York (1965), p. 150).

(Here the word "perception" could designate qualitative sensation.) Such reassures us that robots would be no more sentient than a rock (they might have personality or spirit), but it raises problems concerning the claim that neurons can activate terms into consciousness.  (A contrasting view point on this issue of qualia can be found in Daniel C. Dennett's Consciousness Explained (Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained, Little, Brown and Company: New York (1991)).  No doubt though, some neural activity would be consciously experienced and some would be unconscious—this might be decided, unconsciously in the brain, by an attention system; a system that would also limit the number of thoughts or perceptions entering into consciousness.  Some claim that consciousness is the ability of a system to have a model of itself.  If this were so, then how conscious could we be without constructing artificial intelligence, without having a complete model of ourselves?  Perhaps the qualitative consciousness involved in this, however, is such that it eludes neurological comprehension—it is something radically other than structure as our brains' projections can know it—our efforts to know qualia may be like groping for air with our hands.


We can now bring together the two parts of this chapter.  As spontaneous action, style designates the activation of nodes into consciousness and the automatic performance of skills and language games.  These activities can be learned, practiced and refined, creating new neural connections and strengthening old ones.  Taste most likely arises with the creation of new connections—in situations where neural habit is challenged by unexpected circumstances, choices must be made in a confrontation with uncertainty.

Taste affects the choice of which style to exercise; taste shapes style.  Yet, taste can also be automatic, as simply another pre-determined action, or as a choice implied by style.  In ordinary language, the use of the words "taste" and "style" are often synonymous—the difference between the two terms may collapse.  But their interrelations can be made more complex, as with contemplation.  When contemplation occurs there is a wavering between style and taste—inspirations arise spontaneously only to be called into question by "thinking twice" as one works thoughts over the subject matter at hand.  Contemplation can be exercised if one chooses to pursue language games that employ critical strategies like being skeptical, raising questions, exploring options, finding assumptions, and identifying prejudices.  One can practice language games that will question habitual norms and open up possibilities for further free choice.  Moreover, use of metaphors and learning new word usages can create new semantic connections—poetry can help free the soul.

Conversely, just as there are both style and taste in contemplation, there is neither style nor taste in meditation—one may try to suspend the activity of the mind without falling into doubt.  This too would require much practice.  Contemplation and meditation (which are especially relevant in an approach to Zen and its koans) may provide a way to strike a balance between style and taste, a balance between action and free choice (although there is more likely to be a balance between balance and imbalance—we will always have artists, musicians, and writers that lean one way more than another).

On a greater scale, people could be considered as nodes in a social and environmental network.  People have relations with other people and the environment, and these relations become stronger through reinforcement.  Via communication and worldly occurrences, spreading activation crosses brain boundaries as ideas circulate and proliferate.  With technology, spreading activation operates through the mass media and cyber-space, and enters the realm of super-human society where hype and mass-produced commodities explode in a dazzling array of hypnotizing spectacles.  Here personal tastes and styles combine to form social trends.  The individuality that is lost in super-human team projects is supplanted by new super-individuals—actors, athletes, and politicians are constructed as super-star celebrities and heroes.

All hope for individual artists to compete with super-human group collaborations is not lost though.  As evidenced by Michelangelo, who worked for four years on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and by James Joyce, who worked for over a decade on Finnegans Wake, it is possible for a person to create works that may even out do the super-human; yet, even these works were not created in a social vacuum; paints and books are manufactured by groups.  At any rate, it still remains the obligation of individuals to (1) question or accept social styles and tastes with their own choice of conscience, a conscience that possibly bears the overwhelming weight of global responsibility, and to (2) critically direct actions accordingly with a freedom based on examining one's options rather than bulldozing one's way.








Van Gogh -
Starry Night

Wang Meng

Hokusai -
Wave on Hato Coast

Hokusai -
Great Wave

Hokusai -
from 100 Fuji Views

Blake -
from Europe

Dulac -
from The Little Mermaid

Hokusai -
from 36 Fuji Views

Hokusai -
from 36 Fuji Views

Gauguin -
Van Gogh Painting Sunflowers

Toulouse-Lautrec -
Van Gogh

Van Gogh -
Self -Portrait with Bandaged Ear

Picasso -
Weeping Woman