Abstractions on the brain the other morning, jotted them down to get them out of my system, didn’t have internet access at the time. Same morning I wrote the comment on Nietzsche etc in the comments here, more stuff to get back to some day.

Rational abstraction, ignorance, perpection – getting by in the world requires ignorance, ignorance of a complicated sort. At any given moment, the perceptible segment of reality around you is greater than the subsegment perceived, which in turn is great than the subsegment occupying your attention. For example, at the moment I’m in a large room at a table with a laptop. My attention to the table and the laptop are both minimal – the feel of the edge of the table on my forearm and elbow as I lean a bit forward, the feel and mostly the sound of the keys as I type. I’m a poor typist so I occasionally look at the keyboard, more than I should, and I pay more attention than I should to the keyboard in the lower area of my peripheral vision. I’m able to avoid paying more attention to the keyboard because I have a decent but not great mental map of the keyboard telling me where to press to get what letter. Pausing a moment, trying to imagine or remember the keyboard but not looking at it, I’m not at all sure what the keys actually look like. They’re black, with the letters in whte. I don’t remember where on the keys the letters are – in the middle, off to one side, somewhere else – and I don’t remember what the font looks like. This is at least in part because that’s extraneous information for my purposes – all I want to know is that the key if pressed produces some letter on the screen. I don’t care what the key actually looks like beyond meeting some minimal functional criteria. My mostly ignoring my surroundings and not thinking about the keyboard helps me concentrate on what I’m typing. My typing and my thoughts got slower when I was noticing and typing about what I was perceving and what I was paying attention to – and this meant an implicit reference and a semi-implicit attention to what I wasn’t fully attending to or perceiving.

I like to think of the semi-perceived and semi-attended to and so on as part of a process of rational abstraction. We select where to focus. There are deliberate and conscious elements of this selection and less deliberate and less than fully conscious elements as well. Those less deliberate elements interest me — in a sense there’s a less than fully conscious sort of intelligence, or a type of thought or cognition, that makes selections or constitutes the material out of which we then make more conscious decisions about what to focus on. I perceive a variety of sensations that I don’t directly attend to, and certain perceptions rank higher than others in the order of which I decide what to focus on. This ranking can be changed by training to cultivate greater abilities and/or different habits. There is, so to speak, a sort of meta-perception, or a perceptual meta-data which helps compose material to be perceived and its ranking in terms of how much it contends for attention.

Orchestras, performances, pieces of music – A while ago I had a connection by which I was able to go to the orchestra a lot for free. That was awesome for many reasons. Orchestra performances are made up of numerous individual musicians each playing sometimes and not playing sometimes. Music over all is made up of elements including sounds (of varying pitches) and silence, the particular alternation of sounds and silence, and of course the variation of pitch and volume, form some of the basic building blocks of music. Each musician in the orchestra plays sometimes, and doesn’t play sometimes, and playing consists in rapid alternations between emitting sounds (of varying pitches and volumes) and shorter moments of silence. Each musician has their own unique qualities in their playing and each plays a different instrument with its own unique qualities. Most of these unique qualities are imperceptible, though perceptibility is relative to training – I for one have an at best mediocre ear to where I’m not always able to tell close pitches apart, let alone much more subtle differences. I also don’t have the mental map by which to identity pitches by note, again let alone more subtle determinations like tone or voice or color or whatever music people call that stuff. And the auditory component is not the only part of an orchestra – people move differently as they play, their instruments look different (and presumably they have different weight and feel as well). Listening to the music is the primary thing that you do or that you’re supposed to do — again, training of a sort — at the orchestra. One can also watch the musicians and so forth, that’s another way to focus one’s attention. I would imagine that people can train their perceiving powers and their powers of attention so as to be able to listen to more and see more and engage other senses more all at the same time – so that the total quantity of perception and of perceptions receiving attention is greater, if that’s quantifiable. But even so, you can never perceive the entire orchestra. There’s no conceiving of much at all in its entirety. Perhaps there are objects that are so simple that they can be entirely perceived, and this perception can be entirely attended to, but I don’t know about that. Generally we encounter objects and experiences that require a sort of selection in what we perceive (there are also limits in unaugmented perceptibility — for instance, I can’t hear the heartbeat of anyone around me though I’m sure they all have heartbeats) and require selection out of that perception about what we will pay attention to.

At the orchestra if you’re like me and not a well-trained listener or musician, there are elements of the music that you don’t notice. I would guess that there are elements of the music that everyone doesn’t notice — that everyone perceive more about music than they notice at any given moment. And the music you hear at the orchestra is a sort of rational abstraction relative to the performance. To put it another way, it’s an excerpt. The performance in turn is only a moment or a sequence within the larger set of activities of the orchestra as an ensemble of musicians, in addition to the various factors that enter into making the performance happen — the lights, for instance, and everything that has to happen for the lights to be on and stay on during the perforamance; another example is the selection of the music for the performances, getting copies of the music for the musicians, the musicians practicing individually and so on. And for each person who plays a role, whether as musician or otherwise, this role on the one hand involves numerous aspects — it’s analytically divisible, so to speak, into components — on the other hand makes up only one aspect of many in that person’s life (and each aspect is in turn divisible).

In a sense, an orchestral performance consists in (or is understandable as) a sequence of a great many processes temporarily coordinating or overlappping or co-existing. Most of those processes last longer than the sequence, some may be shorter (a solo, say). Our perception of the sequence is smaller than the total of the perceptible/actual sequence, and what we pay attention to is smaller yet. Attended-to subsegment is a subset of perceived segment; perceived segment is a subset of sequence; sequence is a subset of a larger set of processes. We deal in approximations of approximations.

Advertisements