Have you ever been driving and gotten so lost in thought or some preoccupation that you found yourself already home, as if you had just lost ten minutes of your life? We often say that the driving route home is just so routine that you can do it in your sleep. I have no profound insights on this process, per se, but I would like to distinguish it from another kind of inadvertent behavior: artistic inadvertency. What is this? As discussed by William Shatner on the Star Trek IV commentary (not that I was actually listening to such a thing):

There is a line between improvisation and the necessity of saying the words that have been written and going through the progression of what needs to be done for the story. On top of that, there is an application of something else, some other reality– it’s hard to put into words– that the actor can bring. Sometimes, at your best, it has an improvisation, it’s almost escaping out of you and when you hit that… where it’s almost a surprise to you the actor as it is to the audience it is like archery where the ideal time to loose the arrow is when it surprises you. Or the time to take a shot with a rifle is you’re on the hair trigger and suddenly the trigger is pulled by breath almost. And so an actor should breathe the words out and they happen almost inadvertently, if you can achieve that the inadvertency, the artistic inadvertency, you’ve gotten to the peak of what an actor does. I’m always looking for that.

Shatner suggests that mindlessly reading the lines is one thing, like driving your car back home at night, but filtering the lines through the actor’s creative lens can lead to more dynamic, artistic, and perhaps even correct expressions. A better description might come from a surgery analogy. In Atul Gawande’s Complications, he likens surgeons to artists but says that their skill comes just like an artist’s: through practice. By this constant effort, their work may seem effortless in the face of any obstacle — a sudden, unpredicted hemorrhage or some other crisis — but it is still a result of master artistry. Just so, in artistic inadvertency, an actor reflexively utters the lines true to the character for a given scene. This led to much script intervention on the part of both Shatner and Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock) during the original run of the Star Trek cast from 1966 – 1991.

Just as with the frontier of economics moving slowly but surely into the domain of neuroscience, so too must the study of aesthetics. We must learn to distinguish between these types of inadvertency, to determine if art is truly the entire domain of that which is not nature, or if it is delimited by the intentional. If it is something akin to the later, then we will need to find translations of our terms and concepts in terms of neuronal firings (P600 or N400?) and the structure of cerebral cortex layers. Of course, eventually beyond these studies, we may find very little meaning for the way we live, instead implying an ever more deterministic structure of human decisions. For in describing neuronal firings, we may learn very little about consciousness, and perhaps little of why we make the choices we do.

Worst of all, they will say nothing profound about paradox, which I will argue in future posts is the ultimate and most powerful domain of human expression.

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