On Filters

June 14, 2020

The reason I wrote about the relationship of “critics” or an “engaged audience” to the avant-garde is that I’m interested in how they act as an intermediary between the bleeding edge of a movement and the broader public or mainstream.

The simplest description of the model I’m proposing is that an artistic movement pushes out the boundaries, experimenting vigorously, while a larger audience or class of critics reins them in, acting as a proving ground or selection filter.

In this model, it’s not too important whether any given movement continues to innovate, or ossifies and is replaced by another movement pushing in some other direction, provided some movements occasionally overcome the inertia of the mainstream, and (over time) shift what is acceptable.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about filters. I might call the concept a low-pass filter for energy, which ends up selecting values with low entropy (which is to say highly ordered or stable) by cutting off things with too much energy. In audio, a low-pass filter just removes high frequencies, which might be hiss or just treble. In my thinking, there are many cases where too much energy is unstable in some way, just as too little energy is uninteresting. For example, too little energy might lead to never finishing an artwork; too much might lead to something so weird that the critics reject it.

The reason I think this is so important is that I see these kind of filters everywhere. It’s almost as if there is an entropy valley, a stable-ish midpoint between too little energy and too much energy. Sometimes this looks like a balancing act between too much and too little, other times it looks like an explosion cooling or annealing into disparate smaller parts. There is nothing moral or qualitative about this midpoint. We see it because it just happens to persist for longer than things on either side of it. It’s selection for stability.

It also relates to the idea of a phase transition. In complexity theory, there is interesting, often life-like, behaviour at phase transitions, which doesn’t occur on the side with too little energy (which is too ordered) nor the side with too much (which is too chaotic).

  • In star formation there is a balancing act between too little hydrogen and too much. Below a certain amount of hydrogen and the molecular cloud won’t be dense enough to collapse, but above another (much larger) amount, a neutron star or black hole will result. See this graph of the Main Sequence.
  • In the stable nuclides, there is a balancing act between the number of protons and neutrons (and maybe between the attractive nuclear force, and the repulsion of the electric force?). See this graph.
  • I’ve tried to suggest that this is what’s going on between the avant-garde and their critics, i.e., a balancing act between too much energy in the exploratory/creative impulse and too little, or too much rigidity in what’s permissible, which is the critical/reductive impulse.
  • I suspect that trade-offs between the exploratory (high energy) tendency and stabilising (energy-reducing) tendency are what play out in transitions from revolutionary governments/conquistadores to incumbent governments (e.g., Mongol invasion to Golden Horde rent extraction, French Revolution to Napoleon, Bolsheviks to USSR, early Christian martyrs to Holy Roman Empire). Probably also in the transition from startups to corporations.
  • Individual writers have long been advised to pay attention to this balance, to cultivate both an unfiltered creative side, and an utterly separate brutal editor side, who acts as a filter.
  • Presumably this is what Yin and Yang is about, with the Tao as the stable valley.
  • It is starting to look like the settlement of the Americas happened quickly (from around ~16,000 years ago) from a small population, a kind of explosion across the continent that rapidly “cooled” into a ton of different cultures (think the formation of igneous rock after an explosion of liquid volcanic magma).
  • I think this pattern happens a lot in early evolution, I’m trying to work out if this is a good way of thinking about the evolution of diploidy and sex. If that bears fruit, I may be able to argue that this pattern is a feature of increases in complexity generally.
  • I suspect that hedonic adaptation, or to put it more traditionally, dukkha, operates in this way. There’s a pattern of high-energy acquisition followed by lower-energy stabilisation/integration, after which the pattern repeats from a new stable set point (which can still be lost, but no longer feels like gain).
  • Probably relates to the movement of pivotal components in swing votes. (Thanks to Taylor Pullinger for this.)
  • This is how ambition as a technology operates.
  • Daily rhythms vacillate between novelty and safety.

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.