Connections, connections, connections; it’s all about connections

Connections, connections, connections; it’s all about connections

by Dr Kelvin Clayton, Postdoctoral Researcher

The great thing about doing research, particularly inter-disciplinary research like this project, is that you just do not know what connections are waiting to be made, and for me, improving our understanding of something (like our understanding of the potential for art and culture to develop reflection and empathy across geographical divides) is all about making connections. My plan this morning was first of all to catch up on various articles and research material that had been deposited in the project ‘dropbox’. However, the down side of research is that often you feel that you are just wasting valuable time. You have little idea as to how valuable an article may be until you have read it, and even skim reading a number of them can sometimes feel a loss of precious moments – the loss of part of your life that you will never see again. That was how I felt for the first half hour at least. The material I was reading was high on rhetoric and fashionable phrases, but low on substance.

There was though a reference to a recently published report by the Arts Council: The Value of Arts and Culture to People and Society. Skimming through this I came across the following statement: ‘Perhaps the strongest way in which arts and culture contributes towards citizenship and social inclusion is by strengthening social capital.’ Now that is an interesting connection. The notion of social capital can be traced back to Robert D. Putman’s now famous article ‘Bowling Alone’, which I had read some time ago but had not thought about for some while. Rereading it reminded me that for him ‘social capital’ refers ‘to features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit’. These social networks, he adds, ‘foster sturdy norms of generalized reciprocity and encourage the emergence of social trust’ and ‘facilitate coordination and communication, amplify reputations, and thus allow dilemmas of collective action to be resolved’. You get the idea. He then proceeds to lament the decline (in the USA) of civic engagement and mentions a few areas that (at the time, in 1995) were counter trends. There was, though, no mention of arts and culture.

Now from the above connection between ‘art and culture’ and ‘social capital’ two further connections suddenly materialised – to my own work on norms (and then onto some earlier research I had done for the project on empathy and sympathy) and to a whole body of work on social networks, particularly the difference between strong and weak social ties and the relative importance of the latter. From these thoughts on social networks (again, an area that I had not actively thought about for several years) two further connections sprang to mind that returned me to the current research project, the problem of understanding empathy / sympathy across geographical divides, and some material that I came across for the first time a couple of weeks ago about ‘connective aesthetics’. Oh, and just to really labour the point, also to an idea that appeared in the novel I’m attempting to read before falling asleep.

An area of philosophy that I am particularly interested in is social ontology – what society actually is. In previous research I have argued that what we generally regard as social structures (our norms, laws, institutions etc.) are what I term ‘expectations’ that have been codified to various degrees, and that these ‘expectations’ emerge from our developing interaction with other people and our world such that in any given situation they inform us what we think will happen or what should happen. The details of my argument to support this are out of place here, and anyway are not particularly relevant. What is relevant though is that according to this argument these ‘expectations’ develop as a result of feedback from the responses of others to what we say and do, from what G.H.Mead refers to as ‘taking the attitude of the other towards ourselves’.

The reason that I mention all this is that it connects with the work of the psychologist Martin L. Hoffman on empathy. Hoffman’s research suggests that what we term empathy is more than just an affective response, it is a developmental trait that passes through various ‘pre-verbal, automatic and involuntary’ stages before (hopefully) becoming a ‘cognitively advanced’ mode, one first requiring language and then employing role taking. Moreover, for Hoffman, ‘empathic distress’ (which is affective and self-focused) has to be transformed into ‘sympathetic distress’ (which is cognitive and other-focused) before any voluntary action to help the other can take place. In relation to the aims and objectives of this project I think that this differentiation of empathy and sympathy, and the ability to generate or provoke the latter out of the former, is important.

The other line of reflection that I referred to above concerns social networks. Much has been written over the years about the complex and dynamic nature of these networks, but the aspect that I was reminded of is the difference between what has been referred to as strong and weak social ties. Strong ties are those established within families and very cohesive groups and communities, between people who know each other well and have a great deal of common interests and shared beliefs. These, however, are not the important one in terms of ‘community health’ or ‘community flourishing’. The weak ties are those between mere acquaintances, are those that make bridges ‘into distant and other-wise quite alien social worlds’ (to quote Mark Buchanan, Small World). A preponderance of strong ties can make a community insular and slow to change, whist weak ties allow it to be open to new and creative influences. Weak ties then, between distant communities, can be good for both, not just the community that is (perhaps) being helped by the other. The question remains, though, as to how to foster these weak ties through the development of empathy / sympathy.

Which brings me to the final connection, to the aptly named notion of ‘connective aesthetics’. I came across this phrase about a month ago in a paper by Carol S. Jeffers – ‘Within Connections: Empathy, Mirror Neurons and Art Education’. In it Jeffers surveys the results of neuro-scientific research into the controversial subject of mirror neurons to explore ‘empathic social interaction’ in the classroom. Leaving aside whether there is such a particular type of neuron, this connection is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, because neuro-networks behave in a not dissimilar manner to social networks, and second because however caused imitation, mimicking the actions of others, is the first step in Hoffman’s developmental model of empathy. It appears to be well accepted that there are certain facial gestures (like fear or disgust) which are universal, and when seen can be imitated, and when imitated the feeling that produced them is reverse engineered. In this vein, Jeffers talks about ‘connective aesthetics’, an ‘imaginative and reconstructive process in the human brain.’ She suggests that such simulations ‘as induced by gesturing hands, signifying tools and strokes, expressive faces, and harmonious connections, provide the foundation for embodied learning.’ She illustrates her point by reference to a former student of hers:

Having once copied a similar piece as faithfully as she could, Molly explained that she felt a special connection to Cezanne – to the apples and bottles, to his brushwork, his knowledge – and had imagined her hand reaching into the painting to grasp one of his apples and all that it signified.

I have no idea how seriously to take this idea, but I do find it totally fascinating. Moving beyond the simple imitation of facial gestures and the reverse engineering of the emotion that gave rise to them, this suggests the possibility of producing some deep connection with another person through the imitation of the process that produced their work of art. It’s certainly an idea worth pursuing. And just to push this idea to the limit, last week I came across the idea expressed in a novel that I’m reading. Here the character speaking is referring to composers like Beethoven and Ravel:

Into their music these composers poured their fiercest beings. When a pianist memorizes a piece, he or she gets to know the dead man intimately – giving rise to all the pleasures and difficulties such an intense relationship implies. You learn Mozart’s trickery, his ADD attention span. Bach’s yearning for acceptance, his intolerance for shortcuts. Listz’s explosive temper. Chopin’s insecurity. And thus when you set out to make their music come alive in concert, on stage, in front of thousands, you very much need the dead man on your side. Because you are bringing him back to life.

Marisha Pessl, Night Film (London: Windmill Books, 2014) p199

Making connections not just with those people separated by space, but also by time? How far can we take this idea? Anyway, the connections do not stop here. Who knows what connections you will make during or after reading this? Who knows what further connections I will make after posting this? And of course, the potential connections exist in many dimensions – emotional, cognitive and social to name but a few. All that really matters is the dynamics of forging connections.