Art, Relevance and Saturated Phenomena

João SilvaSymbolic World Icon
November 7, 2023

1. Relevance and Saturated Phenomena

The world is complex. From a simple raindrop to the complicated order of a city, whether we scale up or down, we find an infinite amount of complexity. Every object we perceive hides in itself infinite details and, if one closes in on those details, a vast array of new ones blows in. There is simply too much information encapsulated in the world, too many possible ways to act, too many paths to take, too many things to attend to.

A rather arithmetic — and, thus, simple — example from chess exemplifies this. In a usual board, there are 30⁶⁰ possible pathways. This is greater than the number of atomic particles that exist in the known universe.1 It’s so large a number that it would simply be impossible to account for it every time we play — and this is true even for the most powerful computers. Thus, a rather simple game that even kids can understand soon becomes a combinatorial explosion. That is, complexity grows at a level that is so exponentially high, that it becomes impossible to act on it.

But we are able to play chess. We are able to avoid combinatorial explosion — and this is a central part of intelligence.2 Some of us even excel at chess. And we are also capable of building machines that outplay even the best chess grandmasters. How come?

In short, we — and our best computers — are able to do it because we never account for the whole space of possibilities. We instead focus on a tiny subsection of the whole space to find a solution, the path to take. As finite creatures with finite capacities that are thrown into a world full of detail and possible courses of action, we are able to act because we can zero in on the relevant information. This is what cognitive scientist John Vervaeke calls “relevance realization”, the capacity to constantly restructure what we find relevant and salient in the world.

But we customarily deal with things that far surpass the level of complexity of a chess game. The very fact that we can compute and calculate the level of complexity of a chess game shows much about its simplicity. The majority of things we encounter in the world simply resist this sort of algebraic reduction.

Drawing on the work of David Lewis, David Weberman stresses that, on top of their intrinsic properties — “those properties that an object or event has in virtue of the way that thing itself, and nothing else, is” —, objects have extrinsic or relational properties — “those properties of an object or event that depend wholly or partly on something other than that thing”.3 These make it so that even highly complex events — for example, historical events such as the Russian Revolution — can get new properties because they “come to bear new relations to new events”.4 And these are “not merely changes in the epistemic makeup or descriptive activities of persons”,5 but real ontological properties of the event.

This means that the chess example is, actually, rather trivial. More than that, it shows us that even a trivial chess game can come to bear new properties, growing infinitely more complex. This, Weberman argues, points us to Gadamer’s thesis of the undetermined character of understanding, to the fact that “understanding is not complete or in itself but in a state of constantly being formed”6 or, going back to Vervaeke, in constant reshaping of its salience — or relevance — landscape.

This overwhelming complexity of the world is perfectly captured by Jean-Luc Marion’s concept of “saturated phenomena”. According to Marion, some phenomena are filled with meaning and intuition to the point of exceeding any concepts or limiting horizons that one can impose on them. They are, to use our previous terminology, saturated with relevance and thus inexhaustible, always undetermined.

Marion contrasts the “saturated” or “rich” phenomena with “poor phenomena”, “those constituted by consciousness which employs intention in order to add to the little intuition given by [them] … perceived by an intentional subject who constitutes them as objects by providing whatever is lacking in the intuition received from them by consciousness”.7 Saturated phenomena, on the other hand, give “abundant data to intuition yet any intention that might be directed at them or any attempt to impose signification upon such phenomena always fails or at least falls short”.8 This excess of intuition renders the “saturated phenomenon” unconditioned, irreducible, impossible for thought to “govern it exhaustively”.9

2. Art as a Saturated Disclosure of Relevance

While the concept of saturated phenomena was initially deployed to refer to religious phenomena and other extraordinary bits of our experience, Marion soon expanded that idea beyond the mere margins of phenomenality. In “The Banality of Saturation”, Marion argues that saturated phenomena are not rare, only seen by very few people or merely arbitrary snobbery. He claims that they are actually “banal” and — this is the most important thing for us — suggests that a phenomenon might actually move from “poor” to “saturated”:

The banality of the saturated phenomenon suggests that the majority of phenomena, if not all can undergo saturation by the excess of intuition over the concept or signification in them. In other words, the majority of phenomena that appear at first glance poor in intuition could be described not only as objects but also as phenomena that intuition saturates and therefore exceed any univocal concept.10

This seems to follow what has been said before. The world is complex, full of details and, on top of their intrinsic properties, relational properties guarantee that everything is ultimately saturated — or “saturable” — and undetermined. However, Marion’s suggestion that a phenomenon might move from “poor” to “saturated” also illuminates a crucial aspect of our cognitive apparatus: relevance realization is never univocal nor unilateral; that is, there are several ways in which something may be relevant. This is what grants us the possibility to saturate all phenomena. As Marion puts it, “the majority of phenomena, even the most simple (the majority of objects produced technically and reproduced industrially), opens the possibility of a doubled interpretation, which depends upon the demands of my ever-changing relation to them”.11

In setting up this strong hermeneutic claim, Marion gives us the example of the “poor” “female voice over the loudspeaker at the airport or train station which only conveys information” contrasted to the “rich” “voice of the diva to which no critic can do justice”.12 However, there is a problem with Marion’s example. As Christina Gschwandtner rightly points out, “it is not really the same phenomenon that is experienced in one case as poor [and…] in the other as rich. […] The voice over the loudspeaker (even if it is pleasant) obviously is not the voice of the diva”.13

But one could easily make Marion’s case stronger. Just look at a typical image of a Netherlands wheat field and then compare it to one of Van Gogh’s wheat field paintings. Or look at a Google Street View of the streets of New York and compare it to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. In contrast to Marion’s case, we are indeed experiencing the same phenomena but, in the latter cases, the artwork vastly enriches our experience.

The saturation of phenomena is a fundamental aspect of art and our relation to it. In fact, one could easily use Marion’s definition of the saturated phenomena as a description of any great work of art: “its bedazzling excess, its overwhelming splendor, its giving more than we can possibly bear, and the impossibility (or at least inadequacy) of reducing it to a mere object”.14 Art is one of the prototypical forms of saturated phenomena.

A great work of art has the capacity to direct our attention to what was previously hidden from us. This is what Robert Delaunay meant when he said that “impressionism is the birth of light”. Of course, Monet and Renoir didn’t create light (not even Plato’s demiurge managed to do just that). But they “taught” us how to see light, they gave us a new perspective on the most mundane of experiences. Their short, thick and quickly applied brush strokes managed to capture details of objects that we usually don’t consider, portraying a new sense of movement and spontaneity, thus, renewing what was before perceived as merely ordinary.

Art has this capacity to fill even the most basic and, to some, “poor” phenomena with a new meaning and sense of wonder. Impressionism is the birth of light in the sense that it gives us a new relevant way of approaching light. It enriches our experience; it reframes our salience landscape. To use Hubert L. Dreyfus’s terms in describing Heidegger’s ontology of art,15 one could say that the work of art has the capacity to “manifest, articulate, and reconfigure” phenomena by saturation.

As Marion puts it, art crosses from the invisible into the visible, that is, it manifests and articulates what was previously hidden. Just as the impressionist painting reframes our sense of light, art is able of producing “new visibles” that enrich the phenomenality of the world. Art has the ability to “cross the visible”, to disclose the concealed:

Creating a work of art is actually a process of making visible, transferring a phenomenon from one reality to another, even a kind of popularizing move in which a phenomenon so far inaccessible is made accessible for a larger group of viewers.16

In doing this, the work of art enriches our perception of relevance, it increases “the density of the visible”.17 And this density grants the inexhaustibility of the work of art that constantly drags us back to it. One has to continually return to great works because their relevance can never be fully drained, we can’t ever wholly encompass their abundance of significance and meaning. And this is why art, on top of its capacity to manifest and articulate, also has the power to reconfigure. By pointing us to new forms of relevance, and new angles on the visible, art holds the ultimate aptness to enrich our salience landscape, reframe our relevance realization and thus meaningfully structure — and restructure — experience.

Art thus gives us the key to understanding the difference between the mere combinatorial explosion of possibility that freezes our being and the “saturated phenomena” that enlighten our being. While both point to the inexhaustibility of reality, the latter does so in a deeply significant and relevant way. Saturated phenomena — of which the artwork is a paradigm case — “push [us] towards an opening, an ongoing accommodation, a sense of the inexhaustibleness, the combinatorial explosive nature of reality and the ongoing, evolving adaptability of [our] Relevance Realization to that explosive potential within reality itself”.18 While the mere combinatorial explosion of possibility detaches us from the world and prevents us from acting, the artwork puts us deeply in touch with the world and gives us a sense of participation.

Consequently, according to Marion, the “creation of art and our response to it become the way to approach all phenomena, the paradigmatic ways of receiving phenomena per se, not only aesthetic experiences”. Art does not give us merely “trivial” cognitive value.19 It rather organizes and participates in the very process of structuring what we regard as “trivial” or “relevant”.

This article is currently being edited and will be reposted soon

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  1. Vervaeke, J., Lillicrap, T., & Richards, B. Relevance Realization and the Emerging Framework in Cognitive Science (Journal of Logic and Computation 22(1), 2012), 79-99.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Weberman, D., A New Defense of Gadamer’s Hermeneutics (Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 60:1, 2000), 54.
  4. Ibid., 55.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., 57.
  7. Gschwandtner, C., Degrees of Givenness: On Saturation in Jean-Luc Marion (Indiana University Press, 2014), 6.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Marion, J.-L., In Excess: Studies of Saturated Phenomena. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2002), 30.
  10. Marion, J.-L., The Banality of Saturation. In J.-L. Marion, & C. Gschwandtner, The Visible and the Revealed (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 126.
  11. Ibid., emphasis added.
  12. Gschwandtner, C., Degrees of Givenness: On Saturation in Jean-Luc Marion (Indiana University Press, 2014), 22.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid., 8.
  15. See Dreyfus, H. Heidegger’s Ontology of Art. In H. Dreyfus, & M. Wrathall, A Companion to Heidegger (Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2005).
  16. Gschwandtner, C., Revealing the Invisible: Henry and Marion on Aesthetic Experience (The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 28: 3, 2014), 309.
  17. Ibid., 308.
  18. Vervaeke, J. (2019). Awakening from the Meaning Crisis – The Spirituality of RR: Wonder/Awe/Mystery/Sacredness.
  19. See Stolnitz, J., On the cognitive triviality of art (British Journal of Aesthetics 32 (3), 1992).
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