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Statuary Alteration as Prediction Error: A Cognitive Theoretical Approach to Reuse

Diana Y. Ng

University of Michigan-Dearborn

This paper investigates the phenomenon and implications of secondary intervention, such as recarving and reinscribing, to Roman-period public sculpture by applying the concept of predictive processing to ancient evidence of reworking. Whether it is characterized as recycling or damnatio memoriae, reworking was a common occurrence throughout the entire Roman imperial period (Ng and Swetnam-Burland). The historiography of alteration often highlights that the practice engenders comparative evaluations based on preexisting associations. This paper argues that changes to a statue monument are also capable of cognitively shaping beliefs and behavior going forward.

The prevalent underlying premise of reworking statues—that the sight of a disrupted artifact provokes new evaluations of the artwork—has not received enough attention, perhaps because it is taken for granted. It is worth deeper exploration, because it can lead to a fuller understanding of the basic rationale for altering an existing work, rather than creating ex novo. By treating secondary intervention as the impetus for new ways of thinking rather than simply as a way to reconcile with the past, we can restore a prospective emphasis to reworking that likely factored into ancient creation and interpretation.

This paper probes this crucial idea through predictive processing, a framework originating in cognitive and computational neuroscience (Hohwy; Friston; Clark 2015 and 2016). Predictive processing posits that human mental activity is guided by prior internal models, such that sensory inputs conforming to these preexisting models are quickly processed without drawing much on cognitive resources. The mind anticipates, or predicts, its engagement with the world based on its earlier interactions. Cognitive resources such as attention are directed towards “prediction errors,” that is, sensory inputs that deviate from prior models. The errors must be resolved through cognitive tasks that can include the revision of prior internal models. The resulting adjusted model then guides future behaviors. This is, in essence, prospective memory.

From this perspective, this paper maintains that ancient viewing and interpretation of public sculptural displays were based on prior internal models—not just of formal characteristics and spatial relationships, but also of social and political conventions giving rise to these monuments. It argues that, as visual perceptions of physical changes presented prediction errors to ancient viewers, they were forced to revise their prior models of social relationships, political power, or ideologies. Reworked statues and bases from Roman Athens documented and analyzed elsewhere (Shear 2007; Keesling 2010; Keesling 2017) are useful hypothetical examples. The prediction error signals of new names on obviously old works require the viewer to revise prior models of what a public statue communicates and of how prestige is denoted. These revised models, that foreigners can occupy exalted positions in a city and that the antique can be valued just as the new, go beyond reckoning with the past towards guiding future honorific patterns.

As a result of these cognitive processes instigated by prediction errors, uncomfortable realizations or acknowledgment of certain realities could occur. To illustrate this, I analyze Dio’s Rhodian oration (Or. 31) as a verbal explication of the mental work associated with altered objects, such as the reworked statue bases from Athens, in the first century CE. Dio attributes to these objects the capacity to shape future behaviors, not just in the viewing of public portraits, but in the understanding of obligations and social validation. While this text’s rhetorical articulation of anxiety associated with metagraphe, or reinscription of bases, has been examined (Platt), Dio’s claims, including that Rhodians are violating longstanding, implicit social contracts and that elites would limit their civic participation based on the rededication of honorific statues, describe the new ways of thinking spurred by deliberate and visible alteration to a public monument.

What is described in this oration, combined with the evidence of metagraphe in practice, serves as a powerful argument for physically disrupting an existing monument to effect prospective memory, thus highlighting the motivations for reworking rather than creating anew.

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Prospective Memory in Ancient Rome: Constructing the Future Through Text and Material Culture

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