The Lake and the Light Bulb

(an essay on the methodology used in `The Flight of Ducks')

If truth is that which lasts, then art has proved truer than any other human endeavour. What is certain is that pictures and poetry and music are not only marks in time but mark through time, of their own time and ours, not antique or historical, but living as they ever did, exuberantly, untired.
Jeanette Winterson1

If we acknowledge the overwhelming complexity of the world, then the very idea of disciplined human inquiry becomes infused with the irony of self delusion. Intellectual work requires simplification 2 so we seldom make this acknowledgement. To do so requires humility. Reality, unsimplified, is probably only accessible through cosmic consciousness, art, or some religious insight from which we receive insights beyond any rules of intellectual conduct. 3

Even before consciousness, before language, each individual uses a particular set of neurological and physiological structures to filter information. All organisms do this but it would appear to be a particularly human characteristic that we can deliberately choose which aspects of reality to be interested in and thereby create structures within which we can interpret, explore, describe or explain our meagre experiences of the world. Sartre had the idea that it was our ability to imagine le neant (what was not) that formed the basis of this freedom of choice. Ideas fertilize our minds. They wriggle into our imaginations from the depths of the dark lake of the unknown, to lodge and gestate in the womb of our cortexes; they colour our vision and judgement and take command of our thinking. They lead us astray. Yet we are willing hosts and they run their course. Without the imagination's receptivity to ideas what sense would their be?

This essay explores the role of the imagination in research strategy. Its central thesis is that an artistic approach has little need of logical systems of inference or indeed of formal strategies. Far from being lawless, such an approach obeys the disciplines and limitations inherent in form and context. It therefore suits research within the constructed reality of a virtual world.

These days 4 the term artist can hardly be used without embarrassment. As a reference to the shaping spirit behind the forms of transcendent 5 creation, it has suffered relentless denigration. What remains is the myth of the artist as arrogant fraud or as one possessed with a single minded madness. Invert the process6 and we have the rise in credibility of the scientist as a seeker of truth archetypally specialized, in his white coat, to the point of insanity (mad scientist).

Ominously, this process of separation has paralleled the spread of electricity throughout the world. The neural flow of electrons abetted by its messengers (wireless, television, computer, net) has evaporated distance, turned night into day and subsumed regional and cultural differences to the point where, in the iconography of a bland, cinematic and often illusory McWorld, the icon for an idea has become a light bulb . The image is significant 7. It serves as a remarkably descriptive metaphor for the way in which an idea, once lodged in consciousness, once switched on, directs our vision and illuminates all sensory information.

The marshalling of sensory information to the service of an idea, or hypothesis, or theory is the work of the researcher. As with all games of the intellect, rules determine conduct. In the same way that the selection of observations involves simplifications of the world so do the rules of reasoning.

	Because I know that time is always time 
	And place is always and only place 
	And what is actual is actual only for one time 
	And only for one place 
	I rejoice that things are as they are and 
	I renounce the blesse'd face 
	And renounce the voice 
	Because I cannot hope to turn again 
	Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something 
	Upon which to rejoice 

 Ash Wednesday

Both inductive and deductive reasoning rely on two kinds of statements: singular statements for one time and one place and general statements for all times and all places. Inductive arguments move from singular observations to general conclusions following a line of reasoning that finds a general truth in specific instances. If some instances occur that disprove the general, then the conclusion can always be modified to accommodate them. In this way the general conclusion reaches out from what is known into what is unknown. Classically, science was keen to show that it was built on empirically verifiable facts gained by an almost zen-like clarity of observation rather than preconceived or biased notions. The massive simplifications of reality required by both Bacon and Mill, referred to an equally idealized world. But it was an idea whose time had come. It led to a vast accumulation of empirical knowledge. When this empirical knowledge combined with (and resulted in) technological change, it became, in itself, an object for intellectual consideration and altered our sense of reality. The act of focusing on old empirical information and deliberately attempting to generate new, became a professional occupation. A knowledge industry has evolved. Its attendant preconceptions have made it even more difficult for the classical scientist to see the world with both the intellectual equipment of a grown up and the innocence of a two-year-old or zen master.

Inductive reasoning is usually found deficient through its shortcomings as a logical process of systematic inference and also through the difficulties inherent in achieving value free objectivity in observation. A more important deficiency was identified by William Whewell in his identification of the metaphorical light bulb which he called 'inventive talent':

These fundamental ideas cannot be deduced from observations; they cannot be seen in the facts because 'all facts involve ideas unconsciously'. Facts are bound together by a new thought, by 'an act of the mind'... Before this, the facts are seen as detached, separate, lawless: afterwards, they are seen as connected, simple, regular; as parts of one general fact, and thereby possessing innumerable new relations before unseen.

When a new idea possesses us we suddenly perceive a new bright clear world pulsating with structure and meaning. Old ideas persist but their light seems to gradually dim. For the professional researcher it may be that the subject matter has been exhausted with nothing left to discover. What is known ceases to be of interest. 10 Yet to focus entirely on the unknown (language etc aside) without reference to the previously known is to engage in a form of groundless and empty speculation.

Research strategies are descriptions of how the researcher finds a way to the edge of the dark lake of the imagination. When the researcher is being most purely a scientist or an artist she is right at this edge. She is reaching into the unknown. Distinctions between art and science dissolve.

Karl Popper, the champion of deductive reasoning, recognized these imaginative leaps but modified them into a series of testable falsifications.

We must jump to conclusions, although these may be discarded later if observations show they are wrong. It is a process of trial and error, of conjecture and refutation.

His emphasis on the need for a theory to be falsifiable was an attempt to establish a system that could deal with a fear and abhorrence of unstructured lawlessness. Or, as he was later to put it: the free creations of our own minds, the result of an almost poetic intuition . Theorists such as Braithwaite and Lakatos, 12 in the interests of boldly leaping forward, expanded the logical restrictions to include the adoption of successions of theories in the hope that they might lead to a single unified theory or law. This established a kind of hierarchy of theories which instead of leading forward led back towards the simple empiricism of the logical positivists. Emphasis on falsification ironically also led back to a form of de facto inductive reasoning because a theory is only as good as its past performance.

The importance of the imaginative interface was acknowledged by Mary Hesse

There can be no set of rules given for the procedure of scientific discovery - a hypothesis is not produced by a deductive machine by feeding experimental observations into it: it is a product of creative imagination, of a mind which absorbs the experimental data until it sees them fall into a pattern, giving the scientific theorist the sense that he (sic) is penetrating beneath the flux of phenomena to the real structure of nature. 13
by Medewar

The major defect of the hypothetico-deductive scheme, considered as a formulary of scientific behaviour, is its disavowal of any competence to speak about the generative act in scientific inquiry, 'having an idea', for this represents the imaginative or logically unscripted episode in scientific thinking, the part that lies outside logic. 14
and by Feyeraband
For what appears as 'sloppiness', 'chaos' or 'opportunism' ... has a most important function in the development of those very theories which we today regard as essential parts of our knowledge of nature ... Thus anarchism is not only possible. it is necessary for the internal progress of science and for the development of our culture as a whole. 15
and brushed aside by Popper (a new idea) is irrelevant to the logical analysis of scientific knowledge...There is no such thing as a logical method of having new ideas, or a logical reconstruction of this process. 16
Attempts to combine inductive and deductive strategies have been based on their shared ontology but in the end they have been imprisoned by it. Fear of loss of credibility and intellectual anarchism threatens the foundations of the scientific knowledge industry. The structural divisions between art and science, even in the early years of institutional education, help to keep scientific theorists from awareness of the nature of the disciplines required in artistic practice.

We are speculative, subjective, changing people and each new generation considers itself more enlightened than its predecessor; a view that science both encourages and depends on. Literature (all art) takes a different view; human nature, emotional reality is not seen as progress from darkness to light but as a communication, with ourselves and across time, so that work entirely out of date by scientific standards is as fresh and meaningful to us as it ever was. Whereas science outdates the past art keeps it present. Whereas the language of science tries to eliminate error, chiefly by the use of agreed symbols carrying an agreed value, the language of literature seems to be able to contain error, chiefly by being greater than it.
Jeanette Winterson 17

A credence given to the role of the imagination (almost at odds with the idea of logical inference) is to be found in the theories of Retroduction/Abduction or hypothesis. Pierce called the reasoning strategy Insight . In spite of the fact that he could not see how it could be self controlled or logical he persisted with attempts to establish a methodology. He went on to use the term 'hypothesis' in order to to provide a kind of parking lot for ideas. There is something almost comical about the earnestness with which he tried to invest this approach with the regalia of systematic inference. He was brave enough to identify the possessive power of ideas:

The act of observation is the deliberate yielding of ourselves to that force majeure - an early surrender at discretion, due to our foreseeing that we must, whatever we do, be borne down by that power, at last. Now the surrender which we make in Retroduction, is a surrender to the Insistence of an Idea... It is irresistible; it is imperative. We must throw open our gates and admit it at any rate for the time being.

Retroductive research strategies involve the creative construction of hypothetical and plausible models of reality. While their internal logic is often based on metaphor, the degree of plausibility is usually a function of the community's ontological assumptions or acceptance of change (flexibility). The fitness of the structure is then subjected to empirical scrutiny before an explanation is proposed. This is a continuous process and its strength lies in the layers of distinction made between the actual and the real. As a systematic research method, however, too much emphasis has been put on the taxonomy of the model rather than the harder questions of creative generation or indeed of verification. These are both traditional concerns of artists. The personified idea of the 'muse' keeps reappearing in various forms (usually when it departs). Similarly verification is likely to be more evident in failure than in success. The artist works at stretching, altering, reinterpreting and even changing rules. Changes in ideas of beauty are entirely to do with the new ways of seeing that artists offer from time to time. Verification is the degree to which the ontology of the community accepts these changes. It may not be during the artists lifetime.

For most theorists, whose way of working could be characterized as scientific, whether objective or subjective, the idea of employing an artistic approach is troublesome. It is hard to say how artists do what they do. The process appears at first to be largely driven by imagination and inspiration. Because there seems to be no forthright, dependable methodology, nor a need or desire for one, Risk is involved. Perhaps it is the split between the conceptions of science and art that has led, on the one hand, the artist to fear the restrictions of methodology and on the other, the scientist to fear the lawlessness of the imagination. It is ironic that the essential role of the imagination should be the current subject of argument by the scientist and the essential role of discipline and constraint a subject of complaint by artists. The relationship between creativity and limitation has been examined by psychologist Rollo May. In The Courage to Create:

Creativity arises out of the tension between spontaneity and limitations, the latter (like river banks) forcing the spontaneity into the various forms which are essential to the work of art ...The significance of limits in art is seen most clearly when we consider the question of form. Form provides the essential boundaries and structure for the creative act. 19
Having moved through this essay from the restrictions of rule based strategies of observation to the unstructured and subjective yielding to ideas without rules. I would now like to shift into hyperdrive and change realities. The virtual worlds viewed through the use of computers are, of course, simply part of a wider reality. However, in these virtual worlds illusion is more apparent. Simplification, rather than being a function of observation or methodology is instead a primary characteristic of the forms we use to comprehend the virtual worlds. The measure of a virtual world is not the extent to which it reflects or imitates the real world. Rather, like a work of art, it has its own shape, its own rules, its own reality. Engagement in these worlds involves a kind of playful complicity. They may have been created by logical positivists and engineers but it will be the artists who breath life intothem.

In her inspirational Computers as Theatre Brenda Laurel draws a line from the dramatic theories of Aristotle to a theory of computer interface design. While doing this she attempts to establish an artistic methodology. She too is wary of the dark lake. Unfortunately her synthesis of dramatic theory and virtual design becomes laboured, but there are bright moments. To return to limitations: people engaged in human computer activities are subject to special kinds of constraints. Many of these are hardware related and arise from the technical capabilities and limitations of the system itself. Brenda Laurel identifies two often overlapping kinds of constraints: Explicit constraints are straightforward and expressed `on-line' as error boxes or system 'crashes'; implicit constraints have more to do with an evolving theory of engagement or the theatrical notion of the 'willing suspension of disbelief' where context is the most effective medium of limitation.

At the very core of her theory is the idea that most interface researchers have been looking in the wrong place at the wrong things. They have been representing what the computer is doing rather than what we are are doing with the computer. For lack of a more suitable word she uses the Aristotelian term to describe this as - the action. Within the constraints of an artificially constructed world, the most pleasurable, the most desirable, even essential experience, is the first person experience of engagement. In order to avoid terms such as 'user', player or 'actor' Laurel identifies agency as a key component of first-person experience. This is quite simply, having the power to take action. It is an emotional feeling of being in control. Imploring a computer system to do something in a highly constrained formal language usually engenders the feeling that someone else is in control.

When we participate as agents, the shape of the whole action becomes available to us in new ways. We experience it not only as observers or critics but also as comakers and participants. Systems that incorporate this sensibility into their basic structure open up to us a whole new dimension of dramatic pleasure. This is the stuff of dream and desire, of life going right. It is the vision that fuels our love affairs with art, computers, and any other means that can enhance and transform our experience.

She sees this as occurring almost identically in drama as in computer games and activities. However, the complexity involved in creating first-person experiences involves a seemingly impossible task of emulating the sensory and experiential bandwidth of the real world. Here she sees artistic selectivity as the countervailing force, capturing what is essential in the most effective and economic way.

Information communicated as facts loses all its contexts and relationships, while information communicated as art or as experience maintains and nourishes its connections.
Bender, 197321

The observation is so similar to that of Whewell (see note 11) that it is necessary to point out that in a virtual world the central components of information are source, purpose and 'point of view'. Objectivity is often confused with lack of point of view. Information becomes a form of representation. The notion of the metaphor as a structure from which to launch the representation of an idea or an action, has partially replaced the notion of the computer as a tool, with the idea of the computer as a virtual world. Some virtual tools such as the cursor have no clear referents in the real world and provide a glimpse of what these virtual worlds might become. In Brenda Laurel's terms the shortcoming of a metaphorical interface is that its design is influenced by the representation of the object (say our light bulb) rather than representing an action (illumination).

It is from here that I step into the area of my own research and leave behind the discursive voice of this essay. I am investigating, through production, how a digital mise en screen can best support the presentation of an historical collection. I want this material made accessible and compelling, yet at the same time retaining its authenticity as an archival source. On almost every level this process involves the extraction of imagined forms or structures from the material itself. The research strategies are purely retroductive in that I reach into the dark lake for ideas, then try them to see if they work. The idea of working is a notion from drama, from theatre, from enactment, from engagement. It involves recognition. It relies on an intuitive sense of verity, on the fitness of the part within the whole. It is difficult to define. The Spanish call it duende. It is a resonating feeling of connectedness and of integrated wholeness. It reaches into the core of being and when perceived comes from behind, tingling the spine or the hairs on the neck. It comes from the discipline of maintaining a unified conception. It comes through tenacity. It is true to itself and is rarely achieved.

This essay begins and ends with truth because the process of imaginative construction is so similar to the fabrication of lies. There is a difference and truth is the ultimate verification. But truth is also the most subjective form of knowledge and the most difficult to nail down.

The collection

	Lamplit I work in the shoals of the night 
	collating sources with currents of facts, 
	pounding at keys to make surfeits of type 
	in turbulent folders around me in stacks. 
	Luminent ghost light emerges from screen
	as digitized pixels wash out of date stains
	from chemical imprints in sequence unseen;
	the wreckage of memory diluted and changed.

	What really happened? And who was this man? 
	Insights new-lived that are just out of reach.  
	elusive reminders of footprints on sand  
	removed by invention like wave-wipes on beach.  
	pilot this story through the narrows of proof  
	the wisdom of hindsight contaminates truth. 


  1. Jeanette Winterson, Art Objects - Essays on Ecstasy an Effrontery , (Jonathan Cape, 1995) epigraph.

  2. Lawrence B. Slobodkin, Simplicity & Complexity in Games of the Intellect (Harvard University Press, 1993) Why did it take so long for the practice of science to develop ? Slobodkin speculates that science is such a simple thing that it is difficult to do except under very special circumstances.

  3. These doctrines usually share the assertion of their own validity. I suspect that the prevailing paradigms of logical consistency are the same. In any case the gamelike nature of intellectual inquiry is obvious and many people have written about it. It was, I'm reluctant to admit, the subject of my 1972 honours thesis in which I attempted to apply the rules of game theory to the evolution of dramatic structure. Plus ca change ...

  4. Unlike the fifteenth century i.e. Leonardo da Vinci.

  5. I wouldn't presume to define art here. For me the experience of art can only be told in stories. It is very special to me and very rare. I quite like Slobodkin's description of a work of art floating free from its attachment to the tools or rituals from which it was created. op.cit. P.94.

  6. Interestingly, (for linguistic purposes) I recently saw a book of methodological practice entitled The Art of Science by Joseph Carr (Hightext, 1992)

  7. Of course this is not the only parallel. The effects electric lights are worthy of study. My wife and I lived for years in the bush without electricity. Without being new age our physical and mental lives were ordered by lunar cycles. When I go back there for any length of time I notice changes in my use of time. This may seem a bit way out but I think light has a significant effect on behaviour and thought. I am surrounded by powerful street lights where I live now. It never gets dark. I have never felt so removed from reality. This might explain the shortcomings of this essay. I blame the lights.

  8. I love these lines. Since my adolescence they have provided me with a joyous retort whenever I hear the dogs of nihilism howling what's the point - what's the point. Eliot rejoiced. When he published this poem (this is also noted by Jeanette Winterson) he put nine blank pages in front of the first line which was: Because I do not hope to turn again.

  9. Norman Blaikie, Approaches to Social Enquiry, (Polity Press, 1993) P.24.

  10. True to his time and romantic inclinations, Thomas Kuhn describes this transitional process as periods of 'normal science' and periods of 'revolutionary science'. The image of a lighthouse sometimes appears on Marxist posters. We could call it a variation of the light bulb iconography.

  11. Quoted by Norman Blaikie, op.cit. P.25.

  12. Ibid. P.146-7.

  13. Ibid. P.153.

  14. Ibid. P.152.

  15. Ibid. P.151-2.

  16. Ibid. P.152.

  17. Jeanette Winterson, op.cit. P.166.

  18. Quoted by Norman Blaikie, op.cit. P.165.

  19. Brenda Laurel, Computers as Theatre, (Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1993) Quoted on P.101.

  20. Quoted by Brenda Laurel, op.cit. P.120.

  21. Ibid. P.119.


Norman Blaikie, Approaches to Social Enquiry, (Polity Press, 1993).

Brenda Laurel, Computers as Theatre, (Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1993)

Lawrence B. Slobodkin, Simplicity & Complexity in Games of the Intellect (Harvard University Press, 1993)

Jeanette Winterson, Art Objects - Essays on Ecstasy an Effrontery, (Jonathan Cape, 1995)

(CC) reserved S.Pockley Feb 1995 The Flight of Ducks 323