On Boredom and the Arts

I believe that artistic production, including literary production, is a spontaneous order. That means artistic production is an epistemic ecosystem–it creates knowledge. Artists all attempt to solve artistic/aesthetic problems within the artistic ecosystem and create artistic knowledge as a consequence. The one objection–which isn’t a small objection–is what regulates this process?

In the system of trade–properly called the catallaxy, but more commonly mis-labeled the economy (which is a complex system that includes the spontaneous orders of money and technological innovation)–it is profit and loss that (primarily) regulates the order. It is reputation which regulates the scientific order. In technology, it’s simply “does it work?” But what may it be in the arts?

I want to suggest that it’s a combination of boredom and interest. “Boredom” is one of the self-correcting aspects of the artistic order. Enough people get bored, and nobody listens/reads/views the work any more. A work that continues to stimulate people to producing more work–that maintains “interest”–continues to be heard/read/viewed.

Of course, this regulatory process is a slower one than you find happening in the catallaxy, technology, or even the sciences. But speed is no objection. Scientific ideas can lie untapped for decades or longer. Reputations of long-dead scientists can rise and fall. The fact that a poet may have little influence on several generations of poets, then be re-discovered and influence later poets doesn’t mean the process isn’t a spontaneous order.

In fact, we would expect a power law of influence/boredom if it is a spontaneous order. We would expect a few poets to have longevity, or even to be rediscovered long after they were seemingly forgotten, while we would expect the overwhelming majority of poets to be mostly unread in the lifetimes of the poets and for pretty much the entirety of the time anyone anywhere will read poetry. And there will be a medium number of poets with a moderate amount of influence. It’s entirely possible for a poet to have immediate influence and no long-term influence, except through the influence they had on the more important poets they influenced.

The fact is that most art produced by most artists is boring. Most works are uninteresting, uninspired, and uninspiring. They don’t help us see things in a new way or remind of of aspects of being we have forgotten and keep forgetting (Kundera). Or, they may help us see something in a new way that then becomes so widely adopted and “obvious” that the work becomes cliched after the fact and people lose interest. I would think, as an artist, there would have to be fewer worse fates than that–to show the world something that’s so obvious once you’ve shown it to them that its truth is from that point obvious and your work becomes kitsch.

Regardless, such is the rise and fall of artistic influence, of the discovery and promulgation of artistic problems and solutions. No matter what the reason, the worst sin you can commit as an artist is to be boring. Whether or not your work remains boring, though, only time will tell. The same is true of interest–if you create it, you’re golden, while if you lose it, you’re lost. And how do you create interest? By solving artistic problems–and in solving them, creating new ones.

Jazz and Spontaneous Orders

Today my piece with Kevin Currie-Wright on the ways in which jazz is a spontaneous order, and the relationship of jazz to the extended mind and biological self-organization came out. It is published in Cosmos + Taxis, which is a great place to keep up with the latest spontaneous order research. I have actually published a few things through both them and their predecessor, Studies in Emergent Order.

In C+T I also have a book review of Matt Ridley’s The Evolution of Everything.

In Studies in Emergent Order, I have pieces on The Spontaneous Orders of the Arts and on theaters as organizations in overlapping spontaneous orders. I also published a piece with Euel Elliott, as assistant dean at UT-Dallas, titled Innovation, Complex Systems, and Computation: Technological Space and Speculations on the Future.

Those interested in seeing my more developed ideas should find these works of interest.


Libertarianism and Communitarianism

The argument over the moral underpinnings of libertarianism basically boils down to the fact that there is necessarily a communitarian element to ethics. If we accept that libertarianism means radical individualism, then libertarian ethics appears to be an oxymoron. And for those libertarians who do believe in the Cartesian form of individualism as the basis of libertarianism, it likely is an oxymoron. I’m not sure a libertarianism whose philosophical underpinnings are the same as those that gave us the French Revolution (especially the Terror), Nazism, and Communism is the kind of libertarianism we really want.

But there is another option: the option of the Scottish philosophers, and the communitarian individualism they espoused. In the Cartesian version, the person is a radical individual who defines himself, preferably apart from society. In the Scottish version, the person is an individual embedded in a nested hierarchy of communities, including nuclear and extended families, churches, workplaces, schools, neighborhood and communities, towns and cities, counties, states, and nations (in a power law relation among them). We are defined in various ways by each of these things, and we are different people in each of these different situations. Thus is our individuality defined within our social situation. Recent studies in anthropology, ethology, and primatology have shown that the Scottish philosophical tradition is much more accurate than is the Cartesian tradition.

At different levels within the hierarchy, we should expect different levels of communitarianism. Those levels wherein we can have the most information about the members within the level can and should be the most communitarian – and should therefore have the strongest moral rules. The family is a good example of this. No one in their right mind would want to run their household according to libertarian principles – this would be a recipe for disaster in raising children. As Walter Williams once said in a talk I saw him give: Marxism works, it’s how one should run one’s household. You should expect more from your spouse, and give more to your children. At this level, it is easy, as it is easy to keep up with the names. But when you cannot keep up with the names, when you can no longer recognize what is best for each individual (which you cannot do for someone whose name you do not know, and is hard enough for people you do know, as any decent parent understands), then you have to ease the communitarian principles.

Churches, workplaces, and schools –- and, to some extent, neighborhoods, communities, and towns –- are places we voluntarily become members of. By joining these groups, we agree to their set of rules. Here we have a level of voluntary communitarianism -– and if you are not a child, all communitarianism should be voluntary. That is why all communitarianism should also be highly local –- if we do not like the rules of the group we have joined, and we feel like our voices aren’t being heard, we can always vote with our feet. The problem with having communitarian states and nations is precisely that when we are talking about the size of a state or a nation, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to vote with one’s feet. Also, at these levels, it becomes increasingly difficult for the leaders to know the names of those they rule –- and as such, they become increasingly ignorant of what is actually best for the citizens.

As the system becomes larger, as more and more people are included in the social system, as we have in a state or nation –- or even in a large city –- the ignorance of the leaders increases, and the only ethical form of governance is  libertarianism. It is here where individualism should be taken into consideration, as it is the individual who is most affected by the laws passed at this level, even though they are farthest away from the leaders. At this level, one cannot make ethical choices for others, as you do not know the people well enough to know everything about them, to understand their overall circumstances. This is not to say that we should not have any ethical laws: what else are laws against the use of force or fraud, which are basically the only laws libertarians think governments should have? But these are laws that make sense to apply to everyone, across the board, regardless of race, religion, economic situation, etc. These are laws that are laws in every society, throughout human history and pre-history. But those ethical issues for which there is any debate should be avoided by states and nations. Those are values that can and should be taken into consideration closer to home. They are the communitarian values.And communities differ.

Excellence and Democracy

There are two kinds of equality: equality of outcomes and equality under the law. To get equality of outcomes, you have to have inequality under the law–you will have to treat everyone differently. After all, because people are inherently unequal in interests, intelligence, drive, etc., if people are living where the rules are equally applied, there will be inequality of outcomes.

The problem is that, much like with the two different ways one can be powerful, people confuse the two different kinds of equality.

“Everybody keeps calling for Excellence — excellence not just in schooling, throughout society. But as soon as somebody or something stands out as Excellent, the other shout goes up: ‘Elitism!’ And whatever produced that thing, whoever praises that result, is promptly put down. ‘Standing out’ is undemocratic” – Jacques Barzun

The problem, then, is that the pursuit of excellence is made increasingly difficult, as I’ve already observed. If we believe that equality means equality of outcomes, then democracy will inevitably drag everyone down into the mud. That’s why it’s so important that people understand that not all kinds of equality will result in equal outcomes. And, more, equality of outcome isn’t at all fair for that very reason.

Equality under the law, where people are literally treated the same through the rules of that culture/social systems/civil society, will result in unequal outcomes, but everyone will be treated the same. It also has the benefit of rewarding excellence rather than causing resentment toward it.