Gerald C. Cupchik
Siegfried Schmidt: Founder and Facilitator
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It is always an interesting task to examine the development of someone’s ideas and place them in the context of personal intellectual growth. What were their primary influences and what changed the direction of their work? I had occasion to engage in this kind of exercise in 1986 ten years after the death of Daniel Berlyne (1928-1976) the founder of modern experimental aesthetics (Cupchik 1988). I examined some of his ideas in relation to an autobiographical interview that he gave to Roger Myers of the University of Toronto psychology department. Following a similar strategy, I have asked Siegfried about the emergence of his notion of polyvalence, and about relations between his constructivist approach to reception processes and the information theory perspective that was popular in the 1960s and 1970s.

Information theory took hold of the empirical imagination in the 1960s partly because it encompassed behavioural/cognitive psychology and the mid-century technological explosion centred around television and musical reproduction. Berlyne (1971, 1974) himself was very much influenced by the Franco- (Moles, 1958/1968) German (Bense, Gunzenhäuser) information theoretic school. For Moles (1958/1968), »the essential fact of all deterministic psychology remains the perception-reaction cycle« (p. 4) which of course is the stimulus-response model of behaviourism. Perception is shaped by »messages« which are conveyed to a receiver from the environment through a »channel.« »A message is a finite, ordered set of elements of perception drawn from a repertoire and assembled in a structure. The elements of the repertoire are defined by the properties of the receiver« (p. 9). Thus, technology creates transmission channels which are directed at sensory channels within the organism which are governed by psychophysiology.

»The essential fact here is that information must be considered as a quantity« (Moles 1958/1968, 19) that results in a representation of the world and which can be conceived in terms of originality, a concept of central importance for determining aesthetic value. Berlyne (1971) was attracted to this concept of uncertainty that »depends solely on probabilities or relative frequencies of events« (p. 39). The »actual amount of information conveyed cannot be specified until it is clear which choice was made« (p. 40). Therefore, »To have information about a particular object or event means to identify which of various forms it might take if actually realized« (p. 295). One sees the actual event against the background of what might have occurred; the lower the probability of the event, the more informative the selection is seen to be.

This approach to the notion of informative communication is limited by the fact that it is essentially probabilistic; the lower the probability of the choice (i.e., more options available), the more meaningful the particular selection. Further, the dual notions of information »channel« and »transmission« imply a kind of reification whereby aesthetic information is a thing that is somehow separate from the creator or the receiver. This brings to mind both New Criticism, that favoured a formalist analysis of structure in the literary work, and medieval notions of aesthetic communication in which aesthetic value, a kind of thing, was transmitted from the object to the receiver. The closed nature of this model stands in striking contrast to the open-ended approach favoured by more holistically oriented scholars in the 1960s and 70s who argued that systems are »multileveled« (Kreitler & Kreitler 1972) or »polyvalent« (Schmidt 1982), and »open« (Eco 1989/1962) to continuous interpretation.

Siegfried Schmidt (1992) has consistently argued against a simplistic notion of information transmission. Working within a constructivist paradigm, he maintains that »the perceiver and perceived interact and are reciprocally constitutive of each other. Given the theory-laden nature of perception, it cannot be rigorously distinguished from interpretation« (p. 218). The main point is quite simple: »the living system constructs its environment« (p. 218). As individuals within social systems, people incorporate a set of normative models of reality« (p. 219). Aesthetic conventions encourage people to treat particular events as having »values, norms, and meaning rules that are considered...to be constitutive of literature« (p. 221). Further, the polyvalence convention »accords an exceptional degree of freedom to agents operating within the literary system...to pursue what they believe to be the optimal realization of their own subjective capacities for expression and response« (p. 221). Siegfried’s emphasis on aesthetic meaning as a relational product of text/reader interaction stands in marked contrast to Berlyne’s (1971) inconsistent views as to whether collative structural properties, such as complexity and orderliness, were formally in the stimulus or in stimulus/subject interaction.

This broader systemic approach to literary life distinguishes »between the system and its environment (Umwelt)« (p. 216). Pivotal to this analysis is the idea that »Social systems are self-organizing, for they establish, govern, and further develop themselves and are relatively autonomous as a result« (p. 217). This self-organizing tendency of a system also makes it self-referential because »it deals only with the conditions that it itself creates, and each instance of behavior becomes the basis for further behavior« (p. 217). Siegfried’s conceptual structure fosters an historical analysis incorporating literary production, mediation, reception, and processing. It is also of sufficient generality to accommodate »not only books but radio plays, videoclips,...and television images« (p. 216).

This overall analysis provides for a productive reconceptualization of the fixed text that is formally analyzed under New Criticism. Schmidt (1982) has emphasized the distinction between the aesthetic object as a surface text and as a communicative text. The surface text is a »physical apperceptual presentation« which consists of »distinct units that can be connected into chains, sequences, complexes...« (p. 26). It »constitutes a means of communication produced and recognized by the participants to which meanings, sense relations, and relevance can be assigned and which may be followed by further actions. If the uttering of a surface text by one participant actually brings others to carry out the above operations, we can designate the surface text as a communicative text« (p. 26). This lifts from us from any illusion of the physical text as the whole story. Rather, the physical text is left as an object which can be very large and illuminated or small enough to sit on one’s lap for a private reading. It can deteriorate over time or be converted into an image that degrades with lightening speed on the surface of a liquid crystal screen. What is left is of crucial importance; meanings that may be implied by the author using particular techniques (Iser 1978) and understandings that reflect the socialization and private experiences of recipients.

It is important also to appreciate that original ideas reflect emerging zeitgeists and this lends added confidence to their value. While Siegfried’s account of polyvalence is tied to a sociologically oriented analysis, Kreitler and Kreitler’s (1972) notion of multileveledness is more gestalt and psychodynamically oriented. They defined multileveledness as »the capacity of a work of art to be grasped, elaborated, and experienced in several systems of connected potential meanings, each of which allows a meaningful, clear, comprehensive, and sometimes autonomous organization of the major constituents of the work« (p. 295). Accordingly, the content and structure in works of art and literature are carriers of »a multiplicity of meanings and significations whose wholeness persists in the face of a variety of multileveled integrations« (p. 294). This complexity is parallelled by the observer who is able to grasp the »multileveled structuring« and »polysignification.« Further, »..regardless of whether the different levels complement one another, represent hierarchically more comprehensive meanings, remain autonomous, or tend to fuse within the framework of a more general conception, each level affords a view of the whole, without impairing the wholeness quality of the work« (p. 297).

The issue of multilevel processing is central to all areas of psychological and empirical aesthetics. Even information theoretic aestheticians like Moles and Berlyne have described the stimulus as multileveled. The fundamental level of physical/sensory information forms semantic or denotative information at a higher level. An alternative idea about multilevel actions was expressed by Hauptmeier, Meutsch and Viehoff (1987) who followed Kintsch's (1977) analysis of operations which are performed during an encounter with aesthetic objects. They provisionally accepted Kintsch's »levels as levels of sub-ordinated cognitive steps in the process of constructing coherent meaning and sense« (Hauptmeier, Meutsch & Viehoff 1987, 44). Higher levels provide the reader with a means »of mastering situations and events of a more complex and, of course, more abstract nature« ... »the more the process of understanding approximates the top-level, the more the degrees of freedom for mastering unexpected problems increases« (p. 44).

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