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The Aesthetics and Multimodality of Style

Experimental Research on the Edge of Theory

von Martin Siefkes (Autor:in) Emanuele Arielli (Autor:in)
Monographie 262 Seiten


Style research has a long and venerable tradition, but its results are highly fragmented. Style exists in language and literature, art and architecture – but every discipline has its own theories. New approaches in empirical aesthetics and multimodality call for broader perspectives. This book offers an overview of experimental research on style, and proposes a common theoretical basis. How do we perceive styles? How do styles change – and why? What is multimodal style? Are style and personality really connected? How is style related to aesthetic experiences? Which cognitive mechanisms are relevant for the creation and perception of styles? Are there neural correlates for style use? The book discusses these and further questions, providing researchers with a valuable source of new ideas.


  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter I: Investigating ‘style’ as a general concept
  • I.1 Theory and empirical investigation in stylistics
  • I.2 What is style?
  • I.2.1 Definitions
  • I.2.2 Style in different areas
  • I.2.3 Style and function
  • I.2.4 Style and content
  • I.2.5 Style and information
  • Chapter II: How do we perceive style?
  • II.1 Style and pattern recognition
  • II.2 A separate level of processing?
  • II.3 Aspects of style perception
  • II.3.1 Perception of invariances
  • II.3.2 Top-down and bottom-up processing
  • II.3.3 Style and expectations
  • II.3.4 Perceptual relevance and salience
  • II.4 What does it mean to ‘recognize’ a style?
  • II.4.1 How do we perceive stylistic similarity?
  • II.4.2 Recognition on the basis of stylistic features
  • II.4.3 Perceptual qualities of style
  • II.4.4 Gestalt patterns in style recognition
  • II.5 Interpretation of style
  • II.6 Categorization of styles
  • II.6.1 Prototype theory and stylistic categorization
  • II.6.2 Measures for the distance of styles
  • II.6.3 Empirical findings
  • II.7 The role of expertise in style perception
  • II.8 Style learning
  • II.8.1 Style and knowledge
  • II.8.2 Conventionalization and formation of style categories
  • II.9 Computational models of style
  • II.9.1 Bilinear models
  • II.9.2 Principal component analysis
  • Chapter III: Creating and using styles
  • III.1 Where does an individual style come from?
  • III.1.1 Style and embodiment
  • III.1.2 Sketching
  • III.1.3 Neuroscientific research
  • III.2 Perceptual mechanisms and style
  • III.2.1 Pictorial styles and visual perception
  • III.2.2 Balance and tension
  • III.2.3 Style and the expression of emotional qualities
  • III.2.4 Musical styles and auditory perception
  • III.3 Personality and style
  • III.3.1 Cognitive theories of individual creativity
  • III.4 Generative models of style
  • III.4.1 Shape grammars
  • III.4.2 Styles as algorithms
  • Chapter IV: Does stylistic change follow laws?
  • IV.1 Early approaches to stylistic change
  • IV.2 Reasons for the diversification of style
  • IV.2.1 Effects of familiarity
  • IV.2.2 The ‘bored eye’ and neophilia
  • IV.2.3 The peak shift effect and stylistic change
  • IV.2.4 Experiments simulating stylistic change
  • Chapter V: Style and multimodality
  • V.1 Multimodality: a new approach to communication
  • V.2 Multimodal stylistics
  • V.3 Intermodality
  • V.3.1 Style in different modes
  • V.3.2 Stylistic relations between modes
  • V.3.3 Experiments on intermodality
  • V.3.4 Intermodality in film and video
  • V.4 From individual to social style
  • V.5 Style in the media
  • V.6 Multimodal style and genre
  • Chapter VI: Style and aesthetic preference
  • VI.1 The relationship between style and aesthetics
  • VI.1.1 Experimental aesthetics
  • VI.1.2 Fechner’s principles
  • VI.1.3 Aesthetic experience in relation to stimulus properties
  • VI.1.4 Meaning and preference
  • VI.1.5 Aesthetic judgment of style as a pre-conscious ‘automatic’ process
  • VI.2 Style and our perceptual systems
  • VI.2.1 Perceptual schemata
  • VI.2.2 Aesthetic properties of visual perception
  • VI.2.3 Eye movements and aesthetic pleasure
  • VI.2.4 The peak shift effect in visual perception: from pin-ups to Mannerism
  • VI.3 Style, aesthetics and cognitive processes
  • VI.3.1 Fluency
  • VI.3.2 Mere exposure effects in relation to style
  • VI.3.3 Contextual effects
  • VI.4 Style and neuroscience
  • VI.4.1 Neuroaesthetics
  • VI.4.2 What do we see in brain scans?
  • VI.5 Aesthetic experiences, emotions, and style
  • Conclusion
  • List of figures
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

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While stylistics, the discipline that studies and discusses style in normative as well as descriptive settings, dates back thousands of years, its empirical branch is much younger. Systematic empirical investigations of style, and especially experimental research, only began a few decades ago, and are now slowly gaining momentum. The purpose of this book is to offer a general overview of empirical and experimental approaches to style, without losing sight of the theoretical foundation of the respective approaches. We will focus on psychological and experiential dimensions of style: how it is conceptualized, perceived, appreciated, and evaluated, how style is generated in the minds of an artist or designer, how it evolves in time, and how it can be understood as a comprehensive concept relating to very different domains.

Style research has a long tradition in different disciplines such as architecture, art, literature, and linguistics. This book approaches style from a somewhat different perspective that considers style as a psychological phenomenon that has consequences both in the creation and perception of cultural works, and that can therefore be investigated with empirical and experimental methods. Although style is a theoretical concept that has been applied with a wide range of meanings, it can be used to connect research in different disciplines and with different theoretical backgrounds. The present book approaches style as a term that is used in different disciplines to describe certain aspects of human creations, and focuses on research that aims to operationalize it. It offers the first overview of research in different disciplines that investigate phenomena of style from an empirical perspective.

Stylistics, the discipline that studies the use of language in different contexts in regard to its variety and adequacy, has been a part of rhetoric since antiquity. It was traditionally considered as belonging to the area of elocutio, the phase in the preparation of a speech when the orator (speaker) has to find the right words to express his or her arguments. Dignified by this central position, the use of ‘style’ for the adequate use of language in different situations and for different purposes has always been present in higher education; in this tradition, however, the normative use of the term style for ‘adequate expression of thought’ wasn’t clearly distinguished from the descriptive use for a specific way of speaking or writing.

In the European Middle Ages, the trivium which was the basis for every liberal arts education consisted of three subjects, namely grammar, logic, and rhetoric (with stylistics as a subdiscipline). The trivium comprised the language-oriented ← 11 | 12 → subjects, and its study was preparatory for the quadrivium, the mathematical subjects, which in turn was necessary for entering the faculties of theology, medicine, or law. Therefore, rhetoric and stylistics were an important part of every higher education and every university study for a thousand years.

Due to the linguo-centric approach that dominated stylistics, a general terminology that encompasses style in language, art, architecture, and other areas, has never been developed, although the term ‘style’ has been used in each of these areas for a long time. If one compares stylistics and – to take a much younger discipline – psychology, one feels inclined to think that a long and honourable tradition can be a hindrance to the adaptation of up-to-date methods and research goals.

Psychology, the study of human cognition, perception, emotion, and behaviour, is arguably less than 150 years old, whereas stylistics dates back at least to Aristotle’s Ars Rhetorica. Maybe because of its lack of tradition, right from the start psychology adapted a scientific world-view and agenda and incorporated experimental approaches and mathematical methods in its methodical arsenal. Early psychologists such as Wilhelm Wundt, Gustav Theodor Fechner, and Ernst Heinrich Weber founded experimental psychology and sought both to describe mathematical relationships and to formulate precise theoretical foundations.

Stylistics, on the other hand, was still mostly in the grasp of the hermeneutic tradition a hundred years later, in the middle of the 20th century. Eminent scholars such as Leo Spitzer and Benedetto Croce1 regarded aesthetic principles and style as inherently normative, and built their theories on the assumption that style was beyond descriptive approaches, let alone experiments. Neither should we hope to find clear-cut rules of good style (in a way that everyone could learn it), nor could real stylistic understanding and sensibility be taught and learned. Both production and reception of style were ultimately beyond clear-cut explanation: excellence in style was just as inaccessible to the scientific method as a full understanding of the styles of the great artists, in all their richness. In both production and reception of style, Spitzer and Croce, as well as other exponents of the hermeneutic school, wanted to reserve the finest achievements for ‘genius’, an intuitive and ultimately unexplainable special gift that could neither be understood nor imitated by laypersons. The concept of the ‘ineffable genius’, not amenable to explanation or description with rules, was the basis for later theoreticians to strongly and polemically argue against the usefulness of an experimental aesthetics (cf. Allesch 2001). ← 12 | 13 → Finally, in the 1960s quantitative stylistics began to emerge (Bolz 1984), which marked the beginning of the use of precise empirical methods in stylistics.

However, systematic approaches that looked for laws and regularities have also played a role in stylistics. For example, theories explaining historical developments in the visual arts were influential, particularly from the end of the 19th century to the mid-20th century. Scholars such as Alois Riegl, Wilhelm Worringer, and Heinrich Wölfflin explained the dynamic of stylistic development in painting, ornamental arts and architecture as an expression of general laws of cultural evolution. Later in the 20th century, Erwin Panofsky proposed an iconological method of investigation that considered the symbolic aspects of recurring motifs, and Ernst Gombrich and Rudolf Arnheim developed psychological theories of art perception. These traditions aimed for a more scientific description of stylistic development in the art, and supported their theories with empirical, albeit not strictly experimental, findings.

Aesthetics, a discipline just as old as stylistics and just as firmly rooted in the humanist tradition, fared somewhat better with regard to experimental approaches. Experimental aesthetics was founded in the 19th century by Gustav Theodor Fechner, one of the psychologists that introduced experimental methods to the young field. Why did it take so much longer for stylistics to develop an experimental branch? One reason may lie in the general nature of style, a phenomenon that exists in many areas of human creation and human behaviour, whereas its study was conducted by disciplines that concentrated on specific areas. Until recently, the development of a general theory of style has not been attempted.2 The disciplinary nature of style research presented a limitation for interdisciplinary research, since it precluded an adequate theoretical foundation.

For all these reasons, experimental stylistics has not been defined as a separate research program, but studies on style have repeatedly been conducted in experimental aesthetics. Even apart from experiments explicitly designed to investigate ← 13 | 14 → style, a significant number of experiments and conceptions developed in experimental aesthetics have consequences for stylistics. Empirical and experimental research on aesthetic questions often partly concerned stylistics; a substantial part of the results synthesized in this book has been taken from studies that were not explicitly designed as research in stylistics. In these cases, a common terminology and theoretical foundation is proposed that allows for the comparison and integration of results from these different studies and sources.

Empirical aesthetics, as a discipline far more advanced on the ‘road to experimentalization’, is the natural starting point for experimental stylistics. It is important, however, not to stop there, since style is not limited to aesthetic productions and perceptions, but occurs in other areas as well (e.g. the style of driving a car, or of running and walking). To cover the whole extent of style phenomena, experimental stylistics has to emancipate itself from aesthetics and become a discipline in its own right. This book is therefore not an introduction to the broader field of experimental aesthetics, but only considers a part of this larger field. At the same time, we differentiate this approach from the traditional field of cognitive stylistics (and cognitive poetics), focusing on the empirical works that has been done on style and not too much on conceptual models describing the cognitive processes of style interpretation and production. Rather, we propose to define experimental research on style as the intersection of two areas, comprising three disciplines: style research (= stylistics), experimental aesthetics (for style in art, design, literature, etc.), and cognitive psychology. All three disciplines are well-established by now, but their intersection has garnered little attention. Experimental research on style, as it stands today, gives the impression that it is highly fragmented, takes place in different disciplines, and lacks a clear research program and publication organs (journals, book series, blogs or dedicated websites).

All of these problems are normal for an emerging field of research that is on the verge of emancipating itself from well-established and broader ‘parent’ disciplines. This book is intended as a first step, outlining this promising new research area and giving incentives to move into experimental research on style, to think about its challenges and promises, to define its outline, to establish discussions on its methods and goals, and to debate on its core questions. We present an overview of the research that has been done, which is, in fact, surprisingly wide-ranging.

However, all this is not intended to imply that experimental research on style could, or should, become a separate discipline with its own academic structures and scientific organizations. Style research has, and will in all likelihood continue to be, done mostly by experts in the specific disciplines (e.g. in linguistics, architectural theory, design research, and art history), as well as by psychologists and ← 14 | 15 → cognitive scientists. For empirical and experimental research on style to gather valid results, it is important that it is connected with the respective disciplines. The present book hopes to strengthen the communication between style research in these diverse disciplines and fields.

As noted above, current style research is still dominated by theoretic approaches, and a close connection between theories and experimental testing has not yet been achieved. For that reason, we will concentrate in the following on experimental studies and empirical research on style in different areas. The theoretical background of these studies will only be taken into account where it is necessary for understanding them (Chapter I).

For that reason, the approaches that are reviewed will not be systematically compared as to their validity and general plausibility. The present book rather presents what might be called a ‘concentrated extract’ of experimental and empirical stylistics, as it stands today, without a thorough consideration of the theoretical background. This allows the presentation of a broad range of studies and results, with the aim of showing the potential as well as the limits of the emerging field. In the following chapters, the material will be ordered according to general cognitive categories such as perception of style, generation of style, neurological processes, and emotional response, without limitations by disciplinary and theoretical boundaries. By organizing the material in this unconventional order, it is hoped that the presentation in this book suggests possibilities for a new theoretical approach that concentrates on aspects of style that can be investigated empirically and experimentally.

Chapter II focuses on a central aspect of styles, namely their perception and recognition. The questions raised are: How do people learn to recognize styles? What enables us to perceive stylistic qualities? What are typical biases and shortcomings in style perception and recognition? The basic idea is that the perception of style is a special case of pattern recognition, but unlike the recognition of shapes and objects, the identification of styles is a more subtle matter that has only recently become the subject of thorough research. Humans have a high ability to grasp different stylistic nuances (e.g. in texts or buildings) without necessarily being aware of the specific features that led them to make these distinctions. They can compare similar styles across different domains (for example the common style of a building and of a piece of furniture), and detect stylistic qualities that involve different modalities: we may understand the ‘baroque’ style of a church’s facade and of a musical composition, and understand in which respect both styles are similar (e.g. both may be highly ornate, or may possess similar expressive qualities such as ‘representative’ or ‘elegant’). The chapter will address ← 15 | 16 → possible cognitive processes connected with style perception, with the aim of answering how styles are learned and remembered.

Chapter III discusses how style is generated, asking how individual differences lead to the development of distinct styles, in the form of ‘individual signatures’ of an artist, a performer, or a designer. It will investigate the connection between style, emotion, and personality, and investigate the possibility of describing style as an algorithm.

Chapter IV deals with comparable questions, but on a collective and historical level. Are there general principles that can be used to describe and predict the development of styles? What models have been developed to describe style dynamics? The idea that there are ‘laws of style evolution’ has a long tradition, but the development of predictive hypotheses that are empirically verifiable is complex and the results are often problematic.

Biographische Angaben

Martin Siefkes (Autor:in) Emanuele Arielli (Autor:in)

Martin Siefkes teaches at the University of Technology Chemnitz. His research focuses on the theory and applications of multimodal linguistics as well as museum studies in the context of digital humanities. Emanuele Arielli teaches aesthetics at the IUAV University in Venice, Italy. His research interests include the connection between aesthetics, communication and media theory, both from a philosophical and a psychological point of view.


Titel: The Aesthetics and Multimodality of Style