What’s Next for Aesthetic Inferentialism? From the Possible to the Probable 

by Jeff Perrott

Critiques contra uncertainty and indeterminacy in art are well-known and well-taken: writings by Reza Negerastani (critiquing art’s ‘longing for the outside and critical self-reflection’), Amanda Beech (who sees art as ‘an antagonist of reason’), Ray Brassier (critiquing claims to ‘free improvisation’), and Sinead Murphy (for whom art is ‘disinterested, without use or purpose’ and functions as a ‘mode of control’), among others, rightly identify spurious claims often made for art by artists, curators, and critics to a supposed openness and freedom that is gained for art by smashing the supposed barriers to that freedom and openness erected by the limitations of reason. Further critiqued is the claim that such “open” art represents or embodies a “politics” of democracy, supposedly underwritten by anyone’s given capacity to have any interaction of any kind with an artwork, which in turn supposedly guarantees its meaningfulness. These writers rightfully point out the absurdity, circularity, non-specificity, and utter lack of political and critical efficacy of these claims.

Yet these critiques are incomplete, and, in Murphy’s case, rely on generalized, undefined descriptions that lead to unclear—and possibly counterproductive—prescriptions for remedy, which damage the critique. This incompleteness and indefiniteness are in large part due to the confusion of, and thus conflation of, two distinct forms of indeterminacy: ontological indeterminacy and inferential indeterminacy.  Art, and conceptions about art, that stake themselves to ontological indeterminacy are solely concerned with art’s ontological status: what it is and what it is not.  Ontological indeterminacy serves not only as a metaphysical assumption underwriting the claims to openness and freedom for art mentioned above, but also forecloses on the capacity of art, and thought about art, to enter a space of explicit reasons—its ontological indeterminacy, then, only leads to vague and generalized descriptions and meanings.  

Inferential Futures

Art that incorporates inferential indeterminacy, on the other hand, brings terms of indeterminacy (chance, rules, contingencies) into a specified space of reasons, both to be evaluated and judged on their explicit role and performance in that space, while also—extending the pragmatic inferentialist picture developed by Wilfrid Sellars in his paper Some Reflections of Language Games—gaining the capacity to alter or ‘rewire’ the inferential rules governing that space. Ultimately, inferential indeterminacy, in this view, creates opportunities for art by what J-P Caron calls a method of “…world-unmaking that dissolves the connections taken to be necessary for a certain practice, potentially yielding practices unheard of.” 

If we think the unheard of in Caron’s formulation as constructing possible, or probable, futures, then inferential indeterminacy can be thought as a possible catalyst for their generation. In this paper I follow and try to build on Caron’s lines of argumentation in his paper On Constitutive Dissociations as means of world-unmaking: Henry Flynt and generative aesthetics redefined to tentatively sketch the picture that inferential indeterminacy can play that role in art, but only art conceived as a normative field of understanding and action, worked out through Sellars’ inferential framework:  

…we have emphasized that in an object game played as rule obeying behavior, not only do the moves exemplify positions specified by the rules (for this is also true of mere pattern governed behavior where even though a rule exists the playing organism has not learned to play it) but also the rules themselves are engaged in the genesis of the moves.

Sellars’ description of language games—particularly his discussion of the mutually constitutive relations between what he calls ‘material’ or ‘object’ language, on the one hand, and ‘metalanguage’, on the other—offers a frame that can help us to disambiguate between the two forms of indeterminacy (that tend to get conflated otherwise), and also explicate the pathways by which inferential indeterminacy can find a foothold in spaces of reasons.

Problems with Ontological Indeterminacy

If Negarestani, Beech, and Brassier fail to discriminate between inferential and ontological indeterminacy in their critiques, they partially overcome this gap by offering descriptions and prescriptions that situate art in a Sellarsian inferential frame, through which I believe inferential indeterminacy can serve as a functional term in a space of reasons. Sinead Murphy, on the other hand, in her fiercely polemical text The Art Kettle, offers no way out for an art whose foundational ontological indeterminacy renders it beyond rescue. Murphy’s description of her purpose offers a good definition of ontological indeterminacy, and, according to Murphy, its “Kettling” capacity:

…the manner in which art is constituted in our society—that is, what we understand art to be and to do, and the value we attribute to what art is and does—operates primarily as a mode of control. We are taught to shy away from the question “What is art for?”: part of the way in which art is constituted means that art is understood as, almost by definition, for nothing; art is disinterested, without use or purpose, and this is regarded, not as a vice, but as a virtue, of art. But we ought not to shy away from the question, for the answer to “What is art for?” is: “To keep us all in good order.” Hence the title of this book—The Art Kettle—for its thesis is that, just as the “kettling” techniques increasingly being employed by the British government as a way to both physically corral crowds of dissenters and, much more sinister, psychologically herd the population at large through the construction and distribution of the figure of the student-protestor-as-threatening-vandal, so what we call “art” operates to physically and psychologically contain a growing population of allegedly “free” thinkers, speakers, movers and livers. It does this by regulating the manner in which our capacities for creativity, for inventiveness, for imagination, our capacities to interpret, to judge, to experience, seek and find what is perceived to be their most fitting expression, leaving the rest of social, cultural and political life free of such unpredictable, such potentially revolutionary, capacities, all the better for our uninterrupted control by the almost-global forces of mass uniformity and constant, small-scale, change that suit so well the interests of capital to which liberal democracy seems now inextricably tied. 

The two main claims here are 1) that art is de facto “for nothing”, “disinterested”, “without use or purpose”; and 2) that this ontological status—its ontological indeterminacy—in turn secures art’s capacity to control, by (presumably, as terms are not well defined) regulating our capacities for creativity, revolutionary politics—anything that might challenge the “interests of capital.”  The ontological claim is bound up necessarily with the pragmatic one, in a way that seems irrevocable: if art is for nothing, then it must (does) control the population, its consciousness, and behaviors.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917.  Readymade sculpture, photo by Alfred Stieglitz (wikicommons)

Murphy traces ontological indeterminacy and its deleterious effects back to the debate ‘It’s not art’/’It is art’—inaugurated, she claims, at the 1863 Salon des Refuses and cemented as art’s central concern by Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 Fountain:

We might say then, that art is stuck in a loop of staking a claim to itself then having that claim contested, in an intensity of naval gazing that prevents it from seeing anything but itself…an art whose parameters are the loop of ‘It’s not art’/’It is art’ functions precisely as that kind of safety valve for a potentially dangerous creative energy.

The loop ‘It’s not art’/’It is art’ is, in a sense, the master sign of ontological indeterminacy.  Extending the critique, Murphy targets one-time Tate Gallery director and critic Nicolas Bourriaud, who claims to sidestep the ‘It’s not art’/’It is art’ loop with his Relational Aesthetics:

The “space” of the artworks Bourriaud admires is, as he describes it, “devoted entirely to interaction.”  “It is a space for openness,” he says, “that inaugurates all dialogue” …he describes contemporary art as “the opening of a dialogue that never ends.”

To which Murphy rightly responds:

But…human interaction is never inaugurated in a space straightforwardly ‘open’ and human interaction is never endless.  Why? Because human existence is finite and historical which has the effect of channeling it in all kinds of ways that map out, square off, and rearrange the ‘open space’ that for Bourriaud is so significant, and which gives rise to those inevitable trajectories, those particular purposes, those given projects, that always bring to some ends those interactions that Bourriaud fashions as endless.

Murphy exposes Bourriaud’s claim for Relational Aesthetics as an “open dialogue” that “never ends” as just one more version of ontological indeterminacy—a version we might call anything goes—and further points out that Bourriaud’s claim that “contemporary art is really pursuing a political project when it attempts to move into the relational sphere” is simply another version of Art Kettling, in which anything goes plays at politics in order to divert would-be revolutionaries from their task.

When Murphy extends her definition of ontological indeterminacy to include the intentionally indeterminate works of the Surrealist poet, artist and performer Antonin Artaud (and friends), who, she says—

…recommended, among other things, the practice of automatic writing as a means, effectively, of taking mere human rationality out of the creative process: the pursuit of divinity, or, at least, the contempt for humanity; this is the “freedom” that constitutes art in our time… Artaud’s Surrealists [also] recommended a form of truly unreasonable art, the wandering around the city without aim or agenda, that they call a derive; this wandering, they held up as a challenge to the merely rational order with which we usually negotiate the city’s streets and a consequent tapping into that which lies outside of the too ends-oriented activities of our so human lives. 

—and concludes— 

Here, again, we have the application to a purposefully non-purposeful activity as the truest mode of critique; a setting at nought of all those interests and engagements that regulate the directions of our lives in favour of a disinterest and disengagement that juxtapose themselves with interests and engagements in order to use them as pretexts as what Bataille would call ‘byways to profundity.’ 

—this critique resembles her critique of other forms of ontological indeterminacy, in that the “disinterest” and “disengagement” she ascribes to these works mirrors that which she ascribes to Relational Aesthetics and the ‘it isn’t art’/’it is art’ loop.  Murphy, then, takes Artaud’s intentional indeterminacy as a form of ontological indeterminacy: its purpose is purposelessness, or, rather, to only inhabit and maintain its ontological status (supposedly or the purposes of control, etc). It amounts to a claim about art, that’s all.  But Murphy is mistaken, for Artaud intends indeterminacy as a method, or a term, in an artwork taken not as an ontological entity or sign—not as defining art itself—but as a field of understanding moored, and activated by, normative rules of engagement. 

Cage’s Functional Indeterminacy

What Murphy misses is that Artaud—like John Cage and Henry Flynt will many years later— deploys indeterminacy as a function of a work’s material enactment. In the case of the derive—walking in the indeterminate fashion instructed—the indeterminate term (“random” or “as one wishes” etc.) is deployed in a specified, normative, rational space (“walking” in this city, at this hour, etc.) that then by inference both (re)describes our use of that rational space, while (re)inscribing it as something else—something that both plays a normative role within that space, while augmenting that role, the part enacted, or performed, when the indeterminate term is added into the specified space of reason.  Artaud’s work deploys an inferential indeterminacy.

When, like Murphy, we fail to disambiguate between ontological and inferential indeterminacy, we will not witness the inferential implications if Artaud’s work.  Even so, we might also share her judgment that Artaud’s is a work whose material enactment doesn’t add up to much, and that this not much ends in the same sort of generalized and non-specific signs of ‘freedom’ and ‘openness’ that Relational Aesthetics describes for itself, rather than, say, an expanded understanding of what walking in a city can be for.  But this is exactly the kind of intelligible judgment—as opposed to a generalized, ontological judgment—we can expect to be afforded by inferential indeterminacy

John Cage, 1988 (photo: Jan Bogaerts/wikicommons)

Richard Kostelanetz understood this when he outlined the contours of an inferential approach to considering John Cage’s methods of indeterminacy, in his 1969 article Inferential Art

Among the more profound intentions of contemporary vanguard art is the continual questioning of traditional definitions, procedures, and values—in music and poetry, painting and sculpture, as well as even “Art” itself.  In a radical metamorphosis, this traditional critical task has been assimilated by a particular kind of creative work, which, though negligible in itself, manages to imply (and thus, have inferred from it) a challenge to conventional rationales…In inferential art, as I shall call it, the work’s aesthetic implications, which are usually deduced by reasoning, are many times more significant than its ontological interest or perceived craftmanship. 

In addition to sketching a primitive distinction between inferential art and art’s ontological concerns, Kostelanetz makes room for a consideration of John Cage’s iconic 4’ 33” as more than the ontological status claimed for it:

Cage’s piece implies that the “music” consists of all the accidental noises in the room, whether humanly produced or not.  Therefore, whereas a spectator originally observed that the piece contained no music at all, once [they grasp] the implications of 4’ 33”, [they] can infer that literally everything [they] hear within that frame of four minutes and thirty-three seconds belongs to the piece…a single hearing…can provide someone with a description of the piece—the absence of declarative content—that is perfectly accurate and yet superficial; for such summary hardly explains, or even confronts, the real meaning of the work.

I take Kostelanetz’ superficial here to indicate the tendency to ontological indeterminacy, or the reduction of inferential terms to sheer difference, rather than the engagement of inferential analysis, within a normative field of understanding (‘it isn’t art’/’it is art’ or ‘it is music/it isn’t music’). Even the further inferential corollaries he claims for the work—that silence is impossible, that the reperformance of a work is always different, and that accidental and intentional music have equal status—would tend to fall back on ontological indeterminacy in the absence of an adequate frame of understanding that can accommodate not just inferentialism per se, but the specific inferential content at stake.  If that frame is taken to be given, immutable, or one-way (the field ‘concert music’ or ‘concert performance’ etc. is considered the neutral and stable backdrop against which 4’ 33” exerts its inferential claims), then the unheard of quickly becomes the well heard, as Kostelanetz himself alludes to when he quips “…were I to stage four and one half minutes of no sound in 1969, everyone au courant would justifiably accuse me of plagiarizing ‘Cage’s piece’.”

Henry Flynt’s Inscrutable Indeterminacy

It was in response to the tendency of  “Cagean” art to fall back on ontological indeterminacy—despite its inferential potential—that philosopher, musician, writer, and artist Henry Flynt, himself a strong critic of Cage’s uses of indeterminacy, attempted to ground a more robust and resilient method of inferential indeterminacy, in his theory of Constitutive Dissociation:

I find a principle running through these cases which I call constitutive dissociation. Constitutive dissociation presupposes a genre with a standard protocol. In the genre, situations are established by ordainments. (A reality exists because of somebody’s rule.) Moreover, it is customary in the genre for situations to have certain aims. A constitutively dissociated situation comes about because the instigator of the situation alters the aims of the genre from the customary aims, without declaring so. Since the traditional aims are foregone, the instigator can evade or replace standard protocol with an inscrutable protocol (a contrived enigma).

By explicating the how at work in inferential indeterminacy—indeterminate terms (rules) deployed in normative fields of understanding to alter the customary (normative) aims of the field, in order to install an inscrutable protocol—Flynt describes a methodological framework in and through which indeterminate terms can function as definite (albeit enigmatic) terms in that field, not just to (as in the case of 4’ 33”) bring attention to the normative rules of the field itself, but also to affect and alter that field: to critically impact and so change the field, opening up new pathways of inferential possibility.

Henry Flynt performing (date unknown, Wikicommons)

But the inscrutable and enigmatic outcome Flynt ascribes to the Constitutive Dissociation method still seems problematic if we wish to avoid backsliding into ontological indeterminacy.  How exactly, in other words, can the results of indeterminate moves, which alter the very frame of understanding through which we situate their function and value, appear intelligibly?

Inferential Indeterminacy’s Possible Futures

Building on Flynt’s theories of Constitutive Dissociation and “Concept Art”, J-P Caron, in his paper On Constitutive Dissociations as means of world-unmaking: Henry Flynt and generative aesthetics redefined, responds:

The workings of the art system are also the workings of the Concept as a guide to action…Normativity in this sense is not just that which conditions action, but that which is also conditioned in return: the transformative vector of practice is opened once the rules that guide our practices are not only themselves given proper Forms but also become Content. Thus, our rules themselves become the materials subjected to a structuring intervention.

Caron’s insight, and augmentation of Flynt’s theory, is that the conditional reciprocity of an object language and meta-language in the normative (Sellarsian) inferential framework makes room for constitutive dissociative instances—instances where inferentially indeterminate terms can function and perform simultaneously on the material and theoretical frames. This capacity is what enables inferentially indeterminate art to ‘rewire’ its material and theoretical frames, building a platform for the construction of unheard of worlds:

…reconceptualization is not here the work of an overt attempt at bringing about logical consistency and relative closure, but, contrarily, it is the result of the unbinding of inferential pathways that compose the practices. If we understand, as was briefly exposed, the ontological status of for instance an artwork as resulting from some specific forms of doing that are always conceptually laden, constitutive dissociations are a means of world-unmaking that dissolves the connections taken to be necessary for a certain practice, potentially yielding practices unheard of. Thus the unmaking of worlds offers an occasion for the rewiring of the inferential links that formed an anterior practice into a (still undetermined) posterior one. 

The question for any schema of inferential indeterminacy, though, is how Flynt’s ‘inscrutable protocols’ and Caron’s ‘still undetermined’ undertake the construction.  How can inferential indeterminacy function not just as a catalyst for an abstract and to-be-known possible future, but as a ground for the intelligent unfolding of a probable one.  Here is where Sellars’ description of the role of modal sentences to bridge possibly unconnected worlds—by bracketing or suspending final decisions while deciding to build with the terms that would make them—grounds the mutually occurring movement of object language and metalanguage Caron describes:

But philosophically more interesting are those cases where we decide to introduce new material moves into non-theoretical discourse. Thus, suppose that "A” and "B" are empirical constructs and that their conceptual meaning is constituted, as we have argued, by their role in a network of material (and formal) moves. Suppose that these moves do not include the move from "x is A" to "'x is B". Now suppose that we begin to discover (using this frame) that many A's are B and that we discover no exceptions. At this stage the sentence "All A's are B" looms as a "hypothesis," by which is meant that it has a problematical status with respect to the categories of explanation. In terms of these categories we look to a resolution of this problematical situation along one of the following lines. 

(a) We discover that we can derive "All A's are B" from already accepted nomologicals. (Compare the development of early geometry.) 

(b) We discover that we can derive "If C, then all A's are B" from already accepted nomologicals, where C is a circumstance we know to obtain. 

(c) We decide to adopt-and teach ourselves-the material move from "x is A" to "x is B". In other words, we accept "All A's are B" as an unconditionally assertable sentence of L, and reflect this decision by using the modal sentence "A's are necessarily B". This constitutes, of course, an enrichment of the conceptual meanings of "A" and "B". 

I take this schema to be the necessary condition for instances if constitutive dissociation, in Caron’s sense, and one in which the outcome of an artwork’s deploying inferential indeterminacy would be intelligible, and offer meaningful prescriptions for action. If we take an instance of inferential indeterminacy as a “new material move” in a network of material moves constituting an empirical construct, then the move from an existing normative frame ‘A’ to possible future ‘B’ earns probability when we move to teach ourselves—to engage and investigate and construct that probable world, another way of describing the process of the inferential “testing” Caron describes in his conclusion:

In this abductive form of realism, a place exists for constitutive dissociations as a means of reconfiguration of our social and perceptual data—in the sense that every unbinding gives way to new bindings that reconfigure our global aesthetic, political, philosophical and scientific worlds, without necessarily entailing the destitution of realism as the dimension of testing against constraints we are not responsible for but to which we must answer. 

The ‘testing’ afforded to us through inferential indeterminacy is what moves us from possible to probable futures.

Read More Writings by/on Jeff Perrott