What we call the beginning is often the endAnd to make an end is to make a beginning.The end is where we start from.- T.S. Eliot
In Time Depletion I argued that the feeling of mental effort is a mechanism designed to stop any one task from monopolizing your fungible mental resources. Subsystems of your brain have different goals and compete for higher-level general reasoning capacities (a.k.a. your system 2).
The idea is that the effort of staying on task is a signal of opportunity cost— how much better or worse off would you be if you switched to another task? It makes sense to have sensations motivating you to switch tasks even when your explicit desires differ, since explicit desires are often maladaptive. In the environments humans evolved in, it would make sense to stop when a task became too effortful, because there was usually something else you needed to attend to. Sitting looking at the same thing for eight hours each day would have been a horrible idea. It only became a good one as the ecosystem of humanity grew to support highly specialized labor-niches.
On the other hand, mental effort is a drag. There needs to be some way to shut up distracting voices so you can get your job done.
The outside view: you want to switch tasks when the marginal return on investment drops below zero. The inside view: you switch when you're (somehow) finished. What signals your mind that a task is done? What cues tell you it's time to switch tasks without that constant drag? The key is the idea of resolution.
Parallel Stop Signs
Resolution is the opposite of effort. It is a signal that allows you to let go of mental processing on a particular task. Depending on the content of the "task" (in this case, consuming a work of art), you might feel drained or elated, but you can move on without exerting willpower. Resolution, ideally, allows you to spend your mental energy more efficiently and on more important things. Instead of asking superficial questions like "What is this movie about?" or "Is this movie over?" resolution allows you to ask questions like "What do I think about what this movie is about?"
We care about at least two types of resolution: resolution of properties internal to a work ("What is this movie about?"), and resolution of properties external to it ("Is this movie over?"). The first, which I’ll call “semantic resolution”, answers a concrete question posed by the work, such as “Does the hero succeed”, or “How do these social conditions influence the lived experience of the characters?” Semantic resolution is a signal you have the information necessary to figure out what a work is about.
Rhythmic resolution is the feeling of ritual completion. In film, cutting to credits is an unambiguous signal you've reached the end. In theater, the lights come up and everyone bows. In musicals, songs usually end with a “button”- a loud note combined with a light shift and a sudden stop on stage that tells the audience to applaud. Novels have blank space and blank pages. There are obviously so many of these patterns that there's no point in making a compendium, but I leave it as an exercise to the reader to think how their favorite medium (artistic or ritual) expresses endings.
This duality of resolution may be based in neurobiology. Brain lesions in the left hemisphere can cause aphasias, periods in which you can either not produce or not receive the meanings of words. Lesions in corresponding regions of the right hemisphere can cause aprosodias, issues producing or interpreting prosody. The natural interpretation is that meaning and prosody are processed in parallel and only later combine to form the gestalt experience. My claim is that we should expect this to be true not just for language, but for all modes of temporal experience.
That said, semantic and rhythmic resolution are frequently substituted for each other. A curiosity stopper is an answer with rhythmic, but not semantic, resolution. An unsatisfying answer is one with semantic but not rhythmic resolution. You have an answer, technically, but it just doesn't feel right. Information without semantic or rhythmic resolution is irrelevant fluff, quickly forgotten. High school writing advice to end every paragraph with a concluding sentence is cargo-cult enforcement of semantic resolution, preventing students from learning how to effectively place paragraph breaks at natural points of rhythmic resolution. My friend Alex Cronis often says a good sentence should have a sense of stretch and snap; so should a good paragraph.
Non-artistic interaction systems as simple as Facebook and Twitter also have resolution patterns: "likes". A post or conversation thread has a natural energy to it which can either be continued by replying or resolved by liking without responding. This process can take the place of head-nods and murmurs of agreement in providing a rhythmic resolution with minimal semantic content. Slack’s interface for responding to messages with emoji expands this to allow arbitrary “internet body language” responses. Again, the fact that the emoji are contained within a separate interface means that conversational response-energy can be channeled effectively without breaking the main flow.
Curiosity stoppers are particularly important for the cognitive function of resolutions. In explanations, “God” or “The Way” or “The Godhead” all form explanatory stops. “God” is a cognitive black hole from whom lines of thought never return. To a rationalist this sounds necessarily bad. But it can work as a garbage collector in your mind, preventing memory overflow from attempts to explicitly model too many things. The question is in the cost/benefit tradeoff of continuing to think about something or not. Tunneling through curiosity stoppers is rarely actually useful- almost everything that you do is mediated by automatic starting and stopping procedures.
A Section Title That Indicates The Previous Section Is Over
When people get annoyed at movies or plays that are longer than expected, it is not because of a general “short attention span,” but because they have entered an implicit agreement with the piece to suspend other behaviors for that period of time. They feel the agreement has been violated when it goes too long. Too many desires are sacrificed for the sake of this one experience. Think of this as your council of sub-selves signing a “ritual contract”: where the metaphor of short attention span implies a failure of the “central self” to keep others in check, the metaphor of contract violation indicates a failure to respect other desire-patterns or self-patterns.
The most profound and important rituals are designed to be transformative, but can only do that if components of the self that don't resonate with the imposed behavior are appeased or eliminated. A composition must be extremely engrossing to be tolerated for longer than anticipated (although this can be bypassed by targeting an audience who treat attention to artistic experience as sacred).
Sometimes, endings open possibilities up rather than shutting them off. The end of Inception is supposed to throw the viewer into doubt about the reality of everything preceding. But there is still an ending- the cutting off of further possible information. You move from sympathizing with the unfolding action to analyzing a complete work. Similarly during the curtain call in theater, the audience is cued to break their suspension of disbelief and thank the actors as artists rather than as characters.
Ending is a way of externalizing, of turning what was subject into object. It is a transition from being the computation to examining and reflecting on its outputs. An ending retrospectively defines what the subject and object were for the time leading up to the end. Endings are thus more ontologically interesting than beginnings. Endings define beginnings more often than beginnings define endings. Consider lightning. The electricity goes down local gradients until a connection is made with the ground, and only then does the massive current flow through. The arc is only obvious in retrospect.
Definitions coalesce out of conversation in a similar way. The possibilities branch and twist and many avenues of thought are pursued. At some point, a definition is produced, which if good retroactively encapsulates the interaction energies that led up to it. Naming wraps a thing in a socially transmissible container. You can use the word and pass it to other people in a way that does what you want, even if you don't really understand what it means (handwaving past the not-really-understood notion of “really understand”). Naming ends a thought in the same way that the end of a movie allows everyone to treat the movie as an atom of discussion.
As Above, So Below
Resolution occurs at all timescales and levels of description. In fact, resolution defines the boundaries between levels. Words, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters; notes, phrases, and movements; lines, scenes, and acts-- these divide works into roughly hierarchical chunks of meaning, where meaning flows both up and down (take for example garden path sentences).
A lot of contemporary/modern/postmodern art attempts to have as few endings as possible. However, it's impossible to eradicate endings entirely since we live embedded in time. Plays that eschew standard narrative structure, like Waiting for Godot, still have temporal structure. There is a reason why Beckett's stage directions are almost entirely pauses. He wants to structure the silence just as much as the language. Even in a piece as open as John Cage's 4'33", which consists of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence, there are motions to delineate three different movements. The only rhythmic resolutions are the signals that the performers give that a performance is about to occur and end (such as opening and closing the lid to the piano). It's impossible to eradicate endings entirely since we live embedded in time, and since our brain is at some level always looking for ways to ditch what's happening at the moment. The best you can do is to prune endings at one frequency in the hierarchy to reveal endings in other parts of the hierarchy. Poets and playwrights will often eschew capitalization or even punctuation in the hope of pulling focus to individual words and the fluid ways they might be strung together, instead of insisting on a particular tempo of interpretation.
It's impossible to eradicate endings entirely since we live embedded in time; it's impossible to eradicate endings entirely since we live embedded in time. It's impossible to eradicate endings entirely since we live embedded in time. It's impossible to eradicate endings entirely since we live embedded in time; impossible to eradicate entirely endings since we live embedded in time. It's impossible to eradicate endings, entirely since we live embedded in time.
It's impossible to eradicate endings entirely, since we live embedded in time.