Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Self-Reflexive Bjork

Not that I'm a big fan or anything, but Bjork does make some creative and intriguing videos, and here is one that a friend brought to my attention, one that wonderfully illustrates the Principle of Self-Reflexiveness, the third of Alfred Korzybski's Non-Aristotelian Principles of Thought.

Self-reflexiveness refers to the fact that symbols do not necessarily represent actual phenomena or "things" in reality, but can also refer to themselves, or more generally to other symbols.  That is, we can have symbols that stand for things, but also symbols that represent other symbols, and then symbols that represent symbols that represent symbols, and so on, ad infinitum, at least in theory or as long as patience holds out.

In mathematics, we can say let x=y, then let y=z, then let z=a and let a=b and, well, you get the idea.

I can make a statement about reality.  I can make a statement about a statement.  I can make a statement about a statement about a statement, etc.

I can ask a question.  I can ask a question about a question.  I can ask a question about a question about a question, etc.

We have maps of territories, but can also make maps of maps, and maps of maps of maps, and so on.  And a truly accurate map of a territory, if it were situated within that territory, would include a map of itself, and that map would also have to have a map of itself, and so on and so on and so on.

Self-reflexiveness underscores the capacity of symbolic representation to take us farther and farther away from reality.  And it is the source of many a paradox, which is what the Theory of Logical Types put forth by Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead (important influences on Korzybski) sought to solve (see the Wikipedia article on type theory).  But rather than get tied up in paralogisms, let's check out the video:

The book that writes itself, isn't that a blog?  Well, some aggregators or feed readers actually are books or periodicals that write themselves, or at least edit themselves, sometimes aggravatingly so, as they may appear to be stealing content from other sites.

But self-reflexiveness is very much a part of communication and mediation in general.  We can talk about talking, give a speech about giving a speech, write a book about writing a book.  There are books that are nothing more than bibliographies, and there are bibliographies of those bibliographies, and I recall the great historian of printing, Elizabeth Eisenstein stating that this actually goes up a number of levels.

There have been movies about making movies, and anytime you see a character going to the movies, watching a film on TV, making a reference to a movie, or anytime we're shown a move marquee, poster, etc., that's a form of self-reflexiveness.  The same goes for TV (remember how Seinfeld, the "show about nothing," had a show within the show?), and other media.

Self-reflexiveness is a theme that comes up in literature, film, and media, and is especially characteristic of postmodernist style.  It's effect then tends to be ironic, breaking the frame and illusion of realism, waking us up, at least in theory, to the fact that we're reading or listening or looking at a representation (shades of Bertolt Brecht!).  In this sense, self-reflexiveness is indeed non-Aristotelian.

For Paul Watzlawick, self-reflexiveness puts us on the relationship level rather than the content level, it's about metacommunication rather than communication, pointing to the lower level and providing us with a context for making sense out of messages.  

Doublas Hofstadter calls self-reflexiveness recursion, and sees it as the basis of consciousness, the mind as a map within the map, and thinks that this could possibly be the basis of artificial intelligence and consciousness.

But for Bjork, and for a film like Being John Malkovich (1999, directed by Spike Jonze), self-reflexiveness is about creativity, about creation, about art, and most of all, about ourselves.


Bruce I. Kodish said...

You've done a beautiful job introducing with the utmost simplicity one of the most central and profound of korzybskian formulations (which he attributed to Josiah Royce).

Indeed, in his 1948/1949 'credo' —"What I Believe"— Korzybski wrote of the the significance of “self-reflexive and circular mechanisms” as “the uniquely human types of reaction which made our human achievements possible.”

Lance Strate said...

Thank you Bruce, you are very kind to say so.