Plebian Book Club: An Ecopoetics of Beauty and Meaning

Turner, Frederick. “An Ecopoetics of Beauty and Meaning” Excerpted from Brette Cooke & Frederick Turner, ed., Biopoetics: Evolutionary Explanations in the Arts (Lexington, Kentucky: ICUS, 1999), 119-138.


What follows is a relatively unedited stream of direct quotations and paraphrases most salient to me while reading this essay.

Our natural aesthetic intuition for beauty, a natural capacity of the human nervous system, now incorporates a cultural feedback loop.

“…a natural capacity of the nervous system now incorporates a cultural feedback loop, and also uses the physical world, through art and science, as part of its own hardware.”

“…there is a peculiar overlap between the last phases of human biological evolution and the beginnings of human cultural evolution, an overlap of one to five million years.”

Culture as evolutionary environment:
“For over a million years the major genetic determinant in the environment of our genus was our own culture.”

“…changes in the ritual can be handed down very quickly, in only one generation; and so the faster system of transmission will tend to drive and direct the slower system of transmission. That is, cultural modifications in the ritual will tend to confer a decisive selective advantage upon those members of the species that are genetically endowed with greater neural complexity, a superior capacity for learning the inner principles of the ritual which remain the same when its surdface changes, for following and extending the ritual’s subtleties, and for recognizing and embodying the values that the ritual creates.”

The mating ritual of human and prehuman culture sharpened and demanded a capacity for both recognizing and creating beauty. Beauty was a value generated by that mating ritual that it was in our reproductive interest to be able to recognize and embody.

“All over the world human beings compose and recite poetry in poetic meter; all over the world the meter has a line-length of about three seconds, tuned to the three-second acoustic information-processing pulse in the human brain. Our acoustic present is three seconds long…”

In poetry, “the difference between the expected rhythm and the actual rhythm carries information…and that information is processed and understood not with the linguistic left brain, but with the musical and spatial right brain…the genre itself is a biocultural feedback loop that makes us able to use much more of our brains than we normally can

“The forms of the arts are not arbitrary, but are rooted in our biological inheritance…An aesthetic education that assumes that genres are obstacles to creativity, and which thus does not bother to teach old ones, deprives our children of their inheritance.”

“I want to suggest that the experience of beauty is a recognition of the deepest tendency or theme of the universe as a whole.”

“Aesthetic perception is not vague and ‘touchy-feely’ relative to ordinary perception; quite the reverse. This is why, given an infinite number of theories that will logically explain the facts, scientists will sensibly always choose the most beautiful theory. For good reason: this is the way the world works.”

“Beauty in this view is the highest integrative level of understanding and the most comprehensive capacity for effective action. It enables us to go with, rather than against, the deepest tendency or theme of the universe, to be able to model what will happen and adapt to or change it.”

A list of characteristics of that theme or tendency.

1. Unity in multiplicity
2. Complexity within simplicity
3. Generativeness and creativity
4. Rhythmicity
5. Symmetry
6. Hierarchical organization
7. Self-similarity

“4. Rhythmicity: The universe can be described as a gigantic self-nested scale of vibrations, from the highest-frequency particles, which oscillate with an energy of ten million trillion giga-electron volts, to the slowest conceivable frequency, which vibrates over a period sufficient for a single wave to cross the entire universe and return. Out of these vibrations, often in the most delicate and elaborate mixtures of harmonies of tone, everything is made.”

“7. Self-similarity: …that smaller parts of the universe often resemble in shape and structure the larger parts of which they are components, and those larger parts in turn resemble the still larger systems that contain them.”

“…the universe tends to echo its themes in different scales but with variations and interferences that give life to the whole.”

The fundamental tendency or theme of the universe, in short, is reflexivity or feedback. We are beginning to understand more and more clearly that the universe is a phenomenon of turbulence, the result of a nested set of feedback processes…It is retrodictable but not predictable, like a good—a beautiful—story.”

“Evolution is only one of a class of processes that are characterized by various researchers in various ways: nonlinear, chaotic, dissipative, self-organizing. All such processes produce patterns with the familiar characteristics of branchiness, heirarchy, self-similarity, generativeness, unpredictability, and self-inclusiveness.”

“As the most complex and reflexive product of the process that we know of in the universe, we are, I believe, charged with its continuance; and the way that we continue it is art.”

“More intense and more universal values evolved with increasing ecological interdependence, whether among whole populations of species or in those fantastically complex and swiftly evolving inner ecologies, the nervous systems of higher animals.

p. 132
A brilliant intellectual deconstruction of post-structuralist thought.

“Local indeterminacy can coexist in a perfectly rational way with global coherence; and the fact that an element of something—a discourse, a text, a society, a human body, a world—requires a context should not be cause for astonishment or skepticism about their reality.”

“A word’s meaning is the inner structure of a highly complex feedback system involving a human nervous system and some part of the rest of the physical universe.”

“[Sacrifice] is related to the whole history of the universe as a cumulative and nested set of contradictions solved at each higher level at the cost of new, emergent contradictions. Those existential tensions express themselves at teh physical level in the turbulences and bifurcations of nonlinear dynamical systems, and at the psychological level as shame, the fear of death, and beauty.”

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5 Responses to “Plebian Book Club: An Ecopoetics of Beauty and Meaning”

  1. Alita says:

    i really respect you and your friends [man especially..] coz all of you actually READ and THINK. i don’t know how many of my guy friends can ever spell READ or THINK, the only thing that they will ever read or get their notions are from comics, romance novels (in malay language only), and porn.
    if malaysia ever have a playboy , that will be the first to sold out..and they might learn English much faster…instead of watching Mind Your Language sitcom ;p
    We [malaysian] really need more libraries/book clubs gathering/e-library around here instead of using our National Library route as a detour from heavy traffics. Is there not enough awareness about the beautiful of reading and sharing? hmmm…i guess not ;p

  2. [...] the world and myself in it have been reshaped through an absorption of scientific theories. Take Turner’s proposal that “the universe can be described as a gigantic self-nested scale of vibrations” and [...]

  3. dan says:

    a slightly random thing i’m reminded of…
    Have you seen “The Manual (HOW TO HAVE A NUMBER ONE - THE EASY WAY)
    ” by the KLF?
    It’s an interesting compression of the aesthetics of pop music. A couple nuggets:

    “As we have already mentioned, the Golden Rule for a classic Number One single is intro, verse one, chorus one, verse two, chorus two, breakdown section, double chorus, outro.

    Each of these sections will be made up of bars in groupings of multiples of four. So you might have an intro containing four bars, a verse sixteen bars and a chorus eight bars. At times the first verses can be double length verses, or the second chorus a double length. These sort of decisions are not going to have to be finally made until you reach the mixing stage of the record, when the engineer will have to start editing the whole track to make it work in the most concise and exciting way possible within three minutes and thirty seconds.”
    “Black American records have always been the most reliable source of dance groove. These records down through the years have inevitably laid so much emphasis on the altar of groove and so very little into fulfilling the other Golden Rules that they very rarely break through into the U.K. Top Ten, let alone making the Number One spot. A by-product of this situation is that gangsters of the groove from Bo Diddley on down believe they have been ripped off, not only by the business but by all the artists that have followed on from them. This is because the copyright laws that have grown over the past one hundred years have all been developed by whites of European descent and these laws state that fifty per cent of the copyright of any song should be for the lyrics, the other fifty per cent for the top line (sung) melody; groove doesn’t even get a look in. If the copyright laws had been in the hands of blacks of African descent, at least eighty per cent would have gone to the creators of the groove, the remainder split between the lyrics and the melody. If perchance you are reading this and you are both black and a lawyer, make a name for yourself. Right the wrongs.”
    ** “The lyrics for the chorus must never deal with anything but the most basic of human emotions. This is not us trying to be cynical in a clever sort of way when we say “stick to the cliches”. The cliches are the cliches because they deal with the emotional topics we all feel. No records are bought in vast quantities because the lyrics are intellectually clever or deal in strange and new ideas. In fact, the lyrics can be quite meaningless in a literal sense but still have a great emotional pull. An obvious example of this was the chorus of our own record:

    “Doctor Who, hey Doctor Who Doctor Who, in the Tardis Doctor Who, hey Doctor Who Doctor Who, Doc, Doctor Who Doctor Who, Doc, Doctor Who”

    Gibberish of course, but every lad in the country under a certain age related instinctively to what it was about. The ones slightly older needed a couple of pints inside them to clear away the mind debris left by the passing years before it made sense. As for girls and our chorus, we think they must have seen it as pure crap. A fact that must have limited to zero our chances of staying at The Top for more than one week.

    Stock, Aitkin and Waterman, however, are kings of writing chorus lyrics that go straight to the emotional heart of the 7″ single buying girls in this country. Their most successful records will kick into the chorus with a line which encapsulates the entire emotional meaning of the song. This will obviously be used as the title. As soon as Rick Astley hit the first line of the chorus on his debut single it was all over - the Number One position was guaranteed:

    “I’m never going to give you up”

    It says it all. It’s what every girl in the land whatever her age wants to hear her dream man tell her. “

  4. Betty says:

    Beauty has been a gift for women since ancient times. Though it sounds partial, beautiful women have always been given preference over an average looking woman. Every woman is born beautiful in some way or another. What we need to do is focus on our strong triats and enhance them and they will take care of our traits that do not resemble us in a very beautiful manner.

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