Feedforward by Andrew Carroll (written in parallel with the exhibition ‘FEEDBACK’, 6th June – 26th July 2024)

“Feedforward”: The Probablistic Influence of the Previous


“All things are full of gods”

– Thales of Miletus

O ye Northumbrian shades which overlook

The rocky pavement and the mossy falls

Of solitary Wensbeck’s limpid stream;

How gladly I recall your well-known seats,

Belov’d of old, and that delightful time

When, all alone, for many a Summer’s day,

I wandered through your calm recesses, led

In silence by some powerful hand unseen.

from “The Pleasures of the Imagination” by Mark Akenside, (1721-1770)


In the second epigraph above, there exists not only the emotion of awe before nature, but also a sense of nostalgia for a specific, familiar landscape. The Romantic propensity to see the artist as a lone genius – the sole source of inspiration, and of the work of art that follows – was often mirrored by a ‘powerful hand unseen’, behind Nature’s (capital ‘N’) scenes of woodlands, dells, becks, leas and all of the particularities of the wilds, that acted as lodestones for the Sublime imagination. 

Relatively recently, second-order cybernetics has conceived of another invisible force  operating behind the scenes in nature, an influence that regulates and harmonises by means of feedback loops; this is known as ‘autopoiesis’, the notion of self-creation, and amounts to a dynamic description of how an organism collects itself together, and enables its individual parts to work as a whole system. The concept of autopoiesis seems to have stemmed from the older notion of ‘ecosystems’, the belief that if change is visited upon a swath of nature, that it will automatically (autopoietically) recover the balance between all of the creatures, plants and microbes that exist within it, through feedback. ‘Ecosystems’ are an electrical metaphor for the dynamics of life as a whole; unfortunately, many – if not most –  have taken the concept as literal: behind the faith in a verbatim interpretation of the notion of ecosystems, lurks a projection of the religious instinct onto the environment. Perhaps, then – here again – we see an old Romantic trope rear its head within systems theories: the Ideal evident within the Material.

Oedipal Cult in a Golden Field

Historians of the notion of the ecosystem have emphasised that – whether taken literally or figuratively – it is an extremely mechanical idea, by virtue of its origins in electrical circuits (themselves closed systems containing feedback loops).[1] Such a mechanistic understanding is undoubtedly rooted in Scientific Materialism, and considering that root of the word ‘Material’ is ‘matter’ (mother), we might suggest that such a zealous and one-sided faith in Materialism could, in fact, be thought of as a kind of Oedipal cult. In fact, the objective existence of a self-organising force behind nature as a whole, has now been disproven (or it is at least non-discernible): the nature of nature in toto is change, and not autopoiesis nor self-stabilisation, at least practically speaking.

Returning to the image of the lodestone, we – with contemporary understanding – soon arrive at a concept that changed physics  forever: the ‘field’ (in this case the ‘magnetic field’). ‘Field Theory’ was developed by Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell in the 19th Century; the magnetic type is only one example of physical field amongst many, including electromagnetic, electrostatic and gravitational varieties. Faraday, a physicist and chemist, named and innovated his theory of ‘fields’ by using the metaphor of an agricultural tract of land.[2] A wider, everyday notion of a field is a portion of land set aside for a certain purpose, such as pasture, crop-growth or to mine elements such as coal or diamonds. There is also the idea of a field in sport, or a sphere of intellectual activity or careers, e.g. “I am in the field of economics.”. There is the field of vision, the field of battle and the semantic field. All of these uses of the term have some commonalities: fields involve given spheres and set patterns of behaviour, for example when we play soccer, players are allowed to do certain things but not others; there are rules and boundaries, outside of which the enforcement of regulations – and indeed the event of the game – do not apply. Fields organise and structure given areas, whether those be intellectual, physical, sporting or agricultural.[3] 

One type of field proposed by biologist Rupert Sheldrake are “morphic fields”, based on the older idea of “morphogenetic fields”[4], invisible expanses within which the process of the formation of biological forms, is influenced by forces or ‘habits’ stored within that field; by ‘habits’ Sheldrake means that these regions of invisible effect contain a type of memory, that exacts a command over biological formation, to a greater or lesser degree. This memory he dubs ‘morphic resonance’.[5] An example would be crystal formation: when a new kind of crystal is synthesised by scientists in a lab, it can take quite a bit of time to form: however, any attempts to create the same type of crystal after that will take a shorter and shorter amount of time, suggesting a kind of memory of past events;[6] if there is such a thing as a regulating feedback in nature, then, it might just be the influence of the past on the present, through resonance within fields. Perhaps – if we assume Sheldrake’s hypothesis to be correct –  autopoiesis amongst creatures, plants and microbes could take place in a certain sense, and in certain contexts; this would not be discernable on a global scale of nature in general, but at a more local level amongst forms of life that are at the very least identical, or at the most extremely similar: because creatures in a species can be slightly different, he also points out that these regions of influence are probability fields.[7] The influence of morphogenetic fields over particular species may be analogous to the way that ‘lines of force’ are deemed separate but parallel routeways of energy, within magnetic fields.

Maxwell declared that fields go beyond the mechanistic view of causation. Sheldrake suggests that fields have a formative ability that works in a different way to energetic causation á la Newtonian Physics; rather, the nature of their influence is one of immanence.[8] 

For the contemporary concept of the ‘field’, the Ancient Greeks – especially Aristotle – used the term ‘soul’.  We now say that the Earth has a magnetic field, but even as recently as 1600, Gilbert – in his book “De Magnete”, talked instead about the Earth’s ‘soul’. The Neo-Platonist’s talked about the same, with the phrase Anima Mundi. Aristotle even discussed what he called the “Vegetational Soul”.[9] The fact that Edmund Burke declared that proportion was “…not the cause of Beauty in Vegetables”, is potentially at odds with theories of morphic fields, but that is probably a discussion for another day.[10]

The etymology of the term ‘psychology’ points to a science of the psyche or soul, which we might now interpret as the study of the field of the mind, or of consciousness. When we consider that the mind might itself be field-like, such a conception relates immediately to areas of study such as Psycho-geography and Ecopsychology. A colourful demonstration of Psycho-geography entails how the Surrealists created a map of Paris that showed separate and contiguous areas of various atmospheres – what might these overtones have been but fields, created by the memory of what had happened in distinct places? Ecopsychology studies the emotional bond between humans and Earth, but field-theory could also be used to envision the relationship between the field of mind (psyche) and environmental damage on an – as yet – relatively unexplored level.

Faraday’s late work was based on the hypothesis that ‘lines of force’ within fields were not just heuristic devices in diagrams (as other scientists had suggested), but that they existed in actuality.[11] In fact, routeways of energy can also be observed in the patterning of iron-filings within a magnetic field; this may simply be the consequence of matter being influenced by the field – and falling into an autopoietic design of sorts, through mechanical necessity. However, it must be asked whether we should take the material reality of the filing-patterns, or the invisible nature of the field, as being the true story. Analogous to these filing-patterns, the vectors of morphic fields may just be observable as the distinct species of creatures, plants and microbes that exist within its genius: this, too, might be an effect of physical necessity. The interaction of these lines of force with the field that contains them, is curiously binary like – they are as 1s against the 0s (’emptiness’) of the invisible domain of influence that they belong to. In binary code, there is also a third position – acknowledged by Robert M. Pirsig – when the computer is turned off, and its switches are at that moment therefore neither at the 1 or 0 position., but in a third state which Shinto calls ‘Mu‘ (to ‘un-ask the question’).[12] 

It must be mentioned that we don’t really know what fields are – scientists have stated that they are themselves an ultimate explanatory principle, and so their acknowledgment leads only to a deepening of mystery.[13] Fields are holistic (you cannot have a ‘part’ of a field) and – in their most dramatic effects – regenerative (a word that will resonate with recent thinking on the now suspect notion of ‘sustainability’).

Autopoiesis vs. Co-poiesis

One burgeoning question at this point might be, “What is the relationship between artistic creativity and Field-theory?”. John Wood confronts us with what appears to be a separate query, around autopoiesis in art: “Do drawings draw themselves?”[14] 

To address Woods’ question first: we can consider autopoiesis as the entire enterprise of a project creating itself, and co-poiesis as the interdependence of different ‘players’ within the system of creation. As Woods notes, it can be hard for artists to admit the synergy between artist, curators, public, journalists, collectors, gallerists, and critics.[15] It must be mentioned here that are many other contexts with which we are co-reliant, for example our interdependence with belief systems, which are interdependent with a particular social order, which is interdependent with a specific ecological context. 

However, as artists we should not – I claim –  read any nexus involved in creativity as we would a map, ie. from above. After all, we must be deeply involved in (enmeshed in) the exchanges and interdependencies entailed in such a network, for creativity to unfold. Lack of control leads to a perceived negation of boundedness: from this immersed perspective, even closed systems quickly lose their hermetic appearance. In such a situation, it often seems as though we are so dependent on other ‘players’ that we nor the other players exert any control whatsoever. Thus – paradoxically – such systems can appear to us to be both co-poietic and autopoietic.

One might suggest – considered in this light – that this situation of mutual reliance is a more ecological understanding of creativity.  It is Woods’ conclusion that any finite system of autopoiesis is always co-poietic with a larger system, and that our human comprehension of autopoiesis is a fallacy caused by our need to see things in a localised way.[16] Such an approach also requires what he calls “a rootedness in the present moment”, as opposed to the “dangerous” belief in teleological time, and faith in ‘progress’.[17] To jettison the ‘hands’ of the mechanical clock is to lose control. Neurologists now tell us that the left-brain is tied to the instinct to grab and to grasp, as hands do;[18] from this ‘having’ (as opposed to ‘being’) perspective, current problems – seen through a teleological lens on the temporal – must be solved by future technologies. The mechanistic soon closes down the possibility of the truly novel, through its recursive tendencies. The right-brain is associated with faculties less acknowledged under an mechanical view of the world: intuition, imagination, playfulness, &c, and as Iain McGilchrist informs us, it is the sphere that is truly ‘in charge’, even as we in contemporary Westernised societies emphasise the left-brain, and ignore the less rationalising and less controlling tendencies of the other hemisphere.[19] All this talk of brain-hemispheres begs a further question: whether the mind (psyche) is synonymous with the brain, or whether it is, itself, field-like.

And so to my own query: in the Ancient world, there were local gods (genii locorum) that – identical to souls or fields – influenced the probability of certain things occurring within the expanse where they held sway. The notion of the Genius Loci brings us back to the genius  that the Romantics thought both dwelled within the individual artist and behind the scenes in Nature. Reviewed in light of Field-Theory, perhaps the artist is as his/her most creative when he/she is optimally influenced by whatever field it is that human imagination is shaped by: in other words, does the effective artist dwell within the field of the genius (or Lare/daemon), rather than the genius being the artist himself/herself (they projecting an equal genius outwards onto the entirety of Nature)? 

Taking this assumption for granted, it must therefore be part of the artist’s responsibility to (a) show up to the ‘studio’ (b) remain within the field of creativity, even when inspiration is not forthcoming. To take an instance familiar to most artists, tidying the studio is a suitably ‘uninspired’ way to contribute to the creative process (unless you are the Francis Bacon type). Such an activity allows the artist to linger within the creative space, without requirement for an ostentatious display of creative powers, which may not at first be forthcoming. This is a form of highly conscious waiting, while the field does its influential work.

The attributes of fields are as follows: (a) they are extended in space, (b) they bring about an ordering of elements within their expanse, (c) they have a formative influence, and (d) they attract things towards goals.[20] It may be that the field-of-vision is the ‘soul’ that influences artistic endeavour and attracts it towards imagination: after all, the word ‘image’ is fundamental to ‘imagination’, and both are based on the proto-Italien ‘imago’, meanings of which include ‘echo’, and ‘apparition’. Here, within the field-of-vision, I also have to include ‘inner-vision’, because – without a doubt – there is a certain contingent of artists who work with images that rise up from within, rather than finding them in the outside world: can such images be said to be any less within the field-of-vision? All of this considered, perhaps there are, in fact, a variety of fields which differentiated modalities of creativity are influenced by: traditionally, these goddesses were known as the ‘Muses’, and catered for literature, science and the arts. The etymology of the word ‘Muse’ is perhaps came from the o-grade of the Proto-Indo-European root “men-”(the basic meaning of which is ‘put in mind’). Are/were Muses a type of collective memory (resonance-field), that cast their influence over specific areas of creative endeavour? Interestingly, there was no Muse for the discipline of painting – instead, it fell under the jurisdiction of the Muse of History, Clio[21]; therefore, that art was literally a conveyance of collective memory and commemoration.

The memory that is deemed to exist within fields, would implicitly be a form of information; it is likely that whatever field imagination emerges out of, also contains a similar form of cache. Borges, in his short story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, explored the idea that the more we imagine something, the more it can begin to manifest itself in the world around us. Jungians often emphasise that the Archetypal Image – a hallmark of deepest imagination – is a new form patterned by an underlying, ‘eternal’ Archetype (genius or god) that itself never becomes visible; in other words, there is a kind of human collective memory that we relate to through psyche. The Archetypal image is defined by Jung as the instinct’s self-portrait, giving credence to the idea that under the right circumstances and with the right approach, the artist himself/herself becomes a merely a channel, perhaps one amongst many. The attitude taken by artists in this mode is one of curiosity, and the resultant unfolding of the creative process is an experience of discovery.

The language of Communication Theory may also be that of a creativity of discovery: after all, information is characterised by its ability to provoke or induce surprise – if something is not unexpected – is calculated – then it does not truly inform, whether conceptually or tacitly. This is most likely why Derrida emphasised that true decision-making does not orient itself towards a horizon of expectation.[22] Perhaps the notion of ‘channels’ (routeways along which information is communicated) might be a future possibility, as we consider a hereafter synthesis between Materialism and the invisible nature of fields. Channels by nature would themselves be ’empty’ conveyors of information, and yet they are directional, unlike the fields in which they would exist; they therefore partake of the nature of both Material and Ideal entities, a kind of Mu or third position between previous categories. 

                                                                         Andrew Carroll, 2024

[1]   Peder Anker (Historian of Ecology) in “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts” as part of  Adam Curtis, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (TV mini-series), 2011.

[2]   Rupert Sheldrake in podcast “Force Fields, Behind the Fog of Maths”, as part of podcast series The Sheldrake Vernon Dialogues, Spotify, 8th of May 2024, accessed 29th May 2024 on Spotify.

[3]   Arnold Mindell, Quantum Mind: The Edge Between Physics and Psychology, pp 79-81.

[4]   Rupert Sheldrake, Morphic Resonance: The Nature of Formative Causation, Park St. Press, 2009, pp. 65-78

[5]   Ibid.

[6]   Rupert Shedrake, “Fields of Mind and Body” on YouTube (https://youtu.be/aEQ7WNKJLig?si=bTCKl80gOPW6NJ6_), accessed 1st of June 2024.

[7]   Rupert Shedrake, “Fields of Mind and Body”, Ibid.

[8]   Rupert Sheldrake in podcast “Force Fields, Behind the Fog of Maths”, Op. Cit.

[9]   Ibid.

[10] Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry, Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford, 1998, p. 84.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values, Vintage Classics, 1991.

[13] Rupert Sheldrake in podcast “Force Fields, Behind the Fog of Maths”, Op. Cit.

[14] John Wood, “Do Drawings Draw Themselves?: Art, Co-poesis and Ecology”, in Drawing Texts(Jim Savage Ed.), Occasional Press, Cork, 2001, pp. 199-210.

[15] John Wood, Ibid, p. 202.

[16] Ibid.  page 210.

[17] Ibid. page 206.

[18] Iain McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, Yale University Press, 2019.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Rupert Sheldrake in podcast “Force Fields, Behind the Fog of Maths”, Op. Cit.

[21] “The Muses”, In Our Time Podcast, BBC Sounds, 19th May 2016, accessed on Spotify 01/06/24.

[22] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/derrida/, accessed 3rd June 2024

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