Chords and maps

In her excellent essay “Beauty Is Fit”, Sarah Perry redefines beauty as indicating a successful problem-solving strategy, saying it “has a unifying, definitive feature: it reflects the detection of fit between parts of a system.”

In art, I’ve noticed two basic varieties of fit: aesthetic fit, which I call chords, and abstraction fit, which I call maps. Both take advantage of “the nervous system of appreciating organisms” but in importantly different ways.

Chords are elements combined in a way that is appealing, but not because the combination describes reality. Chords exploit the many evolved sweet spots of the senses. They can be comprised of “real” things but prioritize creation of an experience over transmission of knowledge. Chords can be consonant or dissonant — the sum of their parts can elicit pleasure or irritation, or even revulsion. Chocolate and peanut butter fit better than chocolate and ketchup.

Maps describe what exists. They exploit the evolved need to understand how reality behaves. They can be aesthetically pleasing but they put the task of abstraction first. Maps “fit” when they achieve compression — when they eliminate redundancies in a pattern of real-world relationships without sacrificing essential features. Poor map fit is usually due to bad compression (irrelevant information that feels like fat on the bone) or outright misrepresentation (features that don’t appear in the abstracted territory). The Wire fits better than unedited surveillance camera footage or CSI: Miami.

Sometimes chords and maps are hard to tease apart. Fit feels like “yes, this is correct!” but doesn’t say why, so it’s easy to misinterpret a chord as a map and vice versa.

Chords are sometimes confused with maps because of their power to trigger associations. Food may taste similarly regardless of where we grow up, but the experience of eating a particular food may be more or less complex depending on accumulated personal and cultural context. Given relevant experience, food can conjure thoughts of home, status, or events in one’s life, but food by itself is generally incapable of triggering associations that aren’t already present.

For both chords and maps, fit depends on the problem being solved. In much fiction, selective distortion of known patterns draws attention to features that don’t fit. The premise “everything is the same as real life except some people are telepathic” must respect facts about reality, but only enough to solve the problem of being entertaining. This map/chord hybrid is called “suspended disbelief” and, handled properly, can be quite pleasurable.

Maps can be more or less ambitious depending on how much they attempt to compress. Technically accomplished portraits and still lifes are less ambitious than realistic portrayals of human emotions in films. In turn, emotions are less ambitious than the compression of entire political systems.

For example, films of the Person Without Lots Of Money Has To Make Difficult Choice genre are often accurate maps of a single person’s experience, and as such, encourage a particular sympathetic reaction in the viewer. Rarely, however, do these films zoom out to see the protagonist’s role in multiple nested systems, a change that can make sympathy more difficult.

Introducing…

Let’s say I need directions to a location across town, but for some reason Google Maps only offers two scales: 1000 miles per inch and 10 feet per inch. That’s the difference between national borders and half of a house.

In reality, most searches are for directions to area businesses like Walmart or Starbucks, which require scales roughly between 2 miles and 1000 feet per inch. Our hypothetical Google Maps isn’t wrong, but it isn’t helpful either.

For most human needs, neither is the study of aesthetics.

Philosophers draw and redraw national borders by squabbling about what qualifies as art, while neuroscientists peer at isolated building blocks, investigating how brains process stimuli like shape and color.

But when ordinary people reach for a concept to explain their experience of a movie, meal, or sunset, it isn’t there, so they default to words like “awesome” or “sucked” or “meh.” Even professional critics use language that is more poetic than exact.

Given the poor correspondence between the richness of aesthetic experience and the available maps of that experience, it’s no surprise that aesthetic judgments cause heated arguments.

Aesthetic experience isn’t inherently mysterious; it’s as real as your local Walmart. It’s just really hard to measure.

What would be required to map aesthetic experiences like we map streets? To resolve aesthetic arguments as easily as we resolve arguments about the location of Walmart? First, we’d need access to advanced neuroimaging technology. Then, assuming sufficiently high-resolution scans, we’d have to figure out which patterns of neural activity correlate to various experiences. Solving the technical problems of scanning the brain would be just the beginning. Disentangling cause and effect could take decades.

Which brings us to the project of this blog. While others are naming aesthetic continents and studying individual blades of aesthetic grass, we will try to identify landforms like mountains and rivers. Someday we might get to Walmarts.

Aesthetics obviously also has a social dimension. What we choose (Walmart or Starbucks?) is information about who we are. But, confoundingly, who we want to be also affects what we choose. Both affect what becomes popular or stays obscure. We will explore the dynamics therein.

Some questions we hope to tackle:

  • What people like is notoriously variable, but not infinitely variable. Some experiences are almost universally desired, others reviled. What causes human preference to cluster in the space of possible experiences?
  • Some experiences are primarily sources of sensation, while others attempt to describe reality. Is there a bright line between the two? What criteria limit effectiveness in either category?
  • Good reductionism entails carving reality at its joints. Where are the joints of aesthetic techniques? Is it possible to compare techniques along objective criteria? To establish which is a degraded or more functional version of which?
  • How do people use aesthetic experiences? Which uses are commonly considered high or low status? What makes a particular use more social than personal? What does it mean to have a “fetish”?
  • How does taste work? Why are some people said to have better taste than others? Is there a universal hierarchy of taste?
  • What is the value of connoisseurship? All else being equal, what advantage does a connoisseur have over a non-connoisseur besides “they get to enjoy more stuff”?
  • Aesthetic judgments are extremely abstract representations of real (objective) internal events. Given unequal knowledge of the processes underlying those events, is it possible for A to furnish a more accurate description of B’s experience than B?
  • Mass-production lets more people experience more things, but often at a lower quality. What does “quality” mean? Is it illusory? What factors affect its distribution?