JB: How do you think the arts and the sciences differ?
ENO: If you asked 20 scientists what they thought they were doing, or what they thought the point of science was, I would think that most of them would come up with an answer something like, we want to understand the world, we want to see how the world works. If you asked 20 artists the same question ÷ what are you doing it for, what does art do for us ÷ I guarantee you'll get about 15 different answers, and the other five will tell you to mind your own business. There is no consensus whatsoever about what art is there for although some people will say, well, it's to make life more beautiful.
Here I am, an artist ÷ who reads mostly science books ÷ like most other artists. I know very few artists who read books about art. Why, I ask myself, is there not a conversation of that quality in the arts? Many artists normally are talking about science, they're not talking about art ÷ there is not a developed language, for having a conversation about the arts.
I'm gradually arriving at some sort of a theory of culture that is getting a few adherents now. I've been talking about it awhile, and I've slimmed it down enough that it is communicable in less than two days.
The first assumption is that all human groups engage in something that we would call artistic behavior ÷ if they are at all capable of it, that is if they are beyond the most basic problems of survival ÷ and even when they aren't, they will engage in decorative, ornamental, and often very complex stylistic behavior. This takes a big chunk of their resources ÷ it takes a lot of energy. So the first question is, why would that be the case? If it is the case, one would assume that it's doing something more than just mildly entertaining ÷ it's doing something important for us.
The second assumption is this thing I mentioned earlier about assuming that culture is in some sense a unified field, in the same sense that life is a unified field. So that one wants to come up with a language, just as biologists want to come up with a language within which you can discuss whales and amoebas without having to invent a whole new set of terms for them each of them. You want to have some structure underneath that would say, yes, we can locate those things within the same pantheon of possibilities.
JB: So is this an artistic analogue to a unified field theory?
ENO: I want to find a way of talking about culture, so therefore if I talk about it, I have to be able to include everything from what's considered the most ephemeral, menial, and unimportant version of culture ÷ haircuts, shoe designs ÷ to what are considered the most hallowed and eternal examples of it. Now when I try to think about what it does for us, I try to think what happens to you in certain specific situations. For example, let's take this pair of designer sunglasses that happen to be on the table in front of me. They're very styled. They don't have to be like that. Glasses don't have to be funny, oval, weird-shaped looking glasses, space-age type glasses. As I put those glasses on, I'm not only keeping sun out of my eyes. I'm also engaging in some kind of game with myself and the rest of the world. What I'm doing is I'm entering into some kind of simulator. I'm saying, "what would it be like to be the kind of person that wears these kinds of glasses?" What I mean by that is, I'm not actually abandoning who I am and becoming somebody else; I'm for a while entering into a game where I suddenly become this person that's a different person from the person you've just been talking to.
With all fashion, what we do is play at being somebody else. We play at inhabiting another kind of world. If I decide to cut my hair short and dress like a tank commander, I play with the resonances of kitsch, militaria, dominance, and surrender , and control, and strength and weakness and all those sorts of things ÷ I'm role-playing effectively, when I'm making fashion choices.
If I go to a cinema and I look at a film, what I do is take part in another kind of role-playing. I first of all watch a world being constructed, and if the film is any good I understand what the conditions and rules of that world are, and then I watch a few people who represent certain sets and bundles of characteristics, and I see what they do and how they relate to that world. Essentially what I'm watching is a kind of experiment that's been set up. I'm watching what would it be like if the world was like this, and what would it be like if this kind of person met that kind of person in that kind of context?
JB: Is this something one does consciously?
ENO: This kind of playing with other worlds, this ability to move from the world in my head to the possible world in your head, and all the other millions of possible worlds that we can imagine, is something that humans do with such fluency, and such ease, that we don't notice ourselves doing it. We only notice how powerful that process is when we meet people who can't do it ÷ severely autistic children, for instance, who are incapable of switching worlds ÷ who in many senses can appear completely intelligent, but they are incapable of seeing that there is any world other than the one that they perceive at this moment. This makes them incapable of two very important things: they can't cooperate easily, because to cooperate you have to understand not only your world, but the world of the person with whom you're cooperating, because you're trying to make a new common world, so you have to see where the other two worlds are. And they can't deceive. Autistic children also are incapable of deception, because they could not understand how they could create a situation in which you could see a different world from the one that they believe exists.
To a very large degree, cooperation and deception are the two things that distinguish human beings from the other animals. We have noticed now that some of the higher primates have the rudiments of cooperation and deception, but compared to ours they really are very rudimentary. My argument is that what the constant engagement in culture does for us, is that it enables us to continually rehearse this ability we have ÷ the use of this big part of our brain that is involved in postulating, imagining, exploring, extrapolating other worlds, either individually or cooperatively.
This is the point at which there is a deep connection between art and science: each is a highly organized form of pretending; of saying "let's see what would happoen if the world was like this."