In the Babylonian creation epic, the Enûma Elish, the world is created in the original exchange of bodily fluids by Apsu, the paternal, primal freshwater being and Tiamat, the maternal salt-water being. They mix themselves together and beget children, the first of the gods. Eventually Apsu gets tired of his offpsring and decides to kill all the gods. One of Apsu’s children, Ea the god of intellect, learns of the plan and manages to kill his father instead, laying the freshwaters of the earth still and seizing the throne for himself. Ea’s murder of Apsu is an early example of a theme which reappears in many narratives throughout history, namely the theme of patricide, the most famous example of which is the story of Oedipus, the mythical Greek king of Thebes destined to marry his mother and kill his father. Throughout history, certain themes in mythology, religion, philosophy and art seem to re-emerge time and again.
Carl Jung, the 20th century psychoanalyst, believed that the re-occurrent patterns found in art were due to the existence and influence of archetypes, which he defined as “patterns of instinctual behavior”, and the images of what he deemed the collective unconscious. The collective unconscious was Jung’s idea of an interpersonal psychic reservoir of said archetypes, shared by all people, and was able, through some mechanism, to suggest the forms of culture. Jung’s ideas had a big influence on artists and theorists who went on to use psychoanalytic ideas in general and the archetype concept in particular for the production and interpretation of artworks well into the twenty-first century. Consciously and subconsciously.
Nevertheless, the idea of the archetype is not without its issues. The main problem is philosophical in nature: archetypes and the collective unconscious lack a clear ontological basis. If they really do exist – where and how do they exist? To Jung, archetypes and the collective unconscious rested heavily on the nineteenth-century idea of instinct. Jung believed that what archetypes were, were instinctual images, transmitted hereditarily. In fact Jung claimed that “the hypothesis of the collective unconscious is (...) no more daring than to assume there are instincts.” However the idea of instinctual behavior has itself lost support in contemporary biology and has instead been replaced by a more complex understanding of the interactions between genes and environment in the formation of behavior.
Archetypes were also, according to Jung, the cause of mental health problems, and an over-expression of an archetype within an individual led to psychic complexes. In contemporary psychology, psychoanalysis has largely been overshadowed by the discoveries and influence of neuroscience and evolutionary-psychology. Emotions and behavior are understood to exist in a largely modular and chemical dimension and are themselves the results of adaptations to our ancestor’s pleistocene environments.
Perhaps Jung would have claimed that the ontological basis for the archetype and the collective unconscious was genetic, had he known what we know today. Perhaps this would be a step in the right direction since art undoubtedly has a strong biocultural basis. Nonetheless genes could not account for the whole story, just as genes do not account for the entirety of human behavior.
And so the question is: what mechanism can replace the idea of the archetype in order to explain the proliferation and successes of recurrent themes in art in a relevant way?
One candidate is the concept of the attractor. The technical definition of an attractor from its origins in mathematics is the set towards which the state of a dynamical system evolves over time. Dynamical systems can be graphed in what are called phase space or state space graphs. Phase space possesses coordinate planes just like the more familiar cartesian space, however each axis on the plane represents a degree of freedom available to the system. For example a simple pendulum can be graphed in phase space with only two axese – one for the radial degree around the center and the other for the angle of swing – producing a two-dimensional phase space. A completed graph of a pendulum, set into motion and eventually coming to a stop at its resting point, would graphically reveal this simple system’s attractor, namely its bottom most resting point (due to gravity). Using the same methodology much more complex systems can be graphed. And the number of dimensions, or degrees of freedom in phase space graphs, is technically unlimited (n dimensional). Highly structured attractors have been graphed and observed in complex systems thought first to be random: for instance, the rise and fall of the stock market or the fluctuations in animal populations.
Contemporary philosopher Manuel De Landa suggests that the concept of the attractor is the correct replacement for philosophical essentialism, such as Jung’s theory of archetypes. It is attractors within the complex systems in which art is imbedded, that give rise to thematic patterns: “The key is to think of phase space as a space of possibilities for a dynamical system (whether geological, biological or social) and attractors as special places in this space that trap systems and hence reduce the number of possible behaviors.”
While it may not be possible or even very useful to make a phase space diagram of the systems an artwork is imbedded in, it would not be a stretch of imagination to suggest that attractors do exist in such systems and are deeply relevant. For if all complex systems have under-the-hood patterns, structures and tendencies, then the complex systems of culture, history and cognition would also not be exempt. In fact, returning to genetics, there is an attractors theory of gene regulation to explain the tendencies of genes towards certain mutations and away from others. Suggesting that even the mechanisms behind evolution (selection, competition, adaptation) are guided by attractors.
To explain why a theme such as patricide appears time and time again, one could speculate that a complex interaction between our biological basis (patricide and its opposite infanticide are widespread phenomena in the natural world), cultural functions (such as the symbolic patricide of Papua New Guinea male initiation rituals for the purpose of toughening up young boys), and whatever other dimensions are involved, influence, sculpt and select the shapes and forms generated within.
The attractor model avoids the transcendent ontology of the archetype by being rooted in, and emergent from, real life events. Through this perspective, the production of art can be seen as a navigation of the phase space attractors of the systems that serve as material for art, such as culture, politics, history as well as matter-materials – stone, clay, paint etc. De Landa himself has sparse things to say about art (despite having been an artist and film-maker before taking on philosophy), but he does describe the role of the artist as a manager of complex systems: “As with most complex systems that cannot be controlled in detail, the question is to find ways to maneuver or shepherd the spontaneous behavior of a system, for example, the materials the artist uses, towards some goal.“
One idea that the attractor model brings forth is when the attractors of a system suddenly change from one to another. These are known as phase transitions or state changes. This change in attractors is what occurs in the commonly known state-changes of materials, such as when ice melts into water and water boils into gas. By extension phase transitions can occur in any system, creating space for the unexpected and novel, observable in our universe. In some ways, the phase transition lies at the heart of an artistic practice itself. The process is centered around a memetic phase transition that occurs when information is internalized by the artist and again when it is externalized into an artwork.
Originally published in in the catalogue for truEYE surView, 2011