Saturday, November 3, 2012

Gelassenheit, Serendipity, and Multitasking.

A student of mine came across a Heideggerian term which I haven't thought about in along time.  He was reading an article that linked Heideggerian existentialism with theology.  I've read these things before, and the arguments of the authors usually hinge upon an attribution of purpose or telos on the Dasein which isn't necessarily justifiable. These interpretations of Heidegger are also contingent upon a general ignoring of anything and everything Heidegger has ever said about death.   But that's another post.  What struck me about this article was the appearence of the term "Gelassenheit," which the author of the article unforgiveably translated as "openness or attunement," which is -- I believe -- more than just a stretch of a translation.  Then again, the article was trying to shoehorn Heideggerian ontology into a theological perspective.  Just because Heidegger borrowed the term from Meister Ekhart, it's not a crack in his atheism.  But that's a rant for another post.

After double-checking from several sources -- including two German-speaking colleagues, I found that my own translation as "stillness" or "calm" was more accurate in that context.  The implications of the slanted translation definitely affected the arguments of the article.  But it did inspire me to think more of this term, and to track it down in Heidegger's writing -- and I've got Country Path Conversations (Davis translation) queued up on my Kindle.

But this use of Gelassenheit serendipidously worked with some things I've been wrestling with in terms of technology, distributed cognition, and a theory of posthuman determinism I've been thinking about.  I am finally getting to read Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, but from my own personal experience, I know that certain ways of using technology can mess with my concentration.  I realized last year as I started to write again that multitasking had really screwed up my ability to write.  I had to painstakingly extricate myself from multitasking and re-evaluate the way I used technology.  It took more will power than I care to mention.  But I did it.  And now I find myself much more aware of how I use my own technology than I was before -- specifically, my behaviors:  How and why do I multitask?  Was there ever a moment when multitasking was useful, or even necessary?

But as I thought more of multitasking, it became clear that we multitask even when we don't think we're multitasking:  music on in the background?  Guilty.  Screensaver on while doing something else?  Guilty.  Texting or surfing on a smartphone while the TV is on?  Guilty.  Once again, serendipity came in to play as I started reviewing McLuhan for my Communication & Theatre class AND found McLuhan cited in a source I was using for the book chapter I'm working on.  McLuhan's theory of hot and cold media, and autoamputation are still useful and valid.  But I think they have a wider application than what we often attribute to him.

But from what I've read so far of The Shallows, I think that there will be a very interesting crossover between his work in how the brain re-wires itself in light of technological media, and my own ideas of the role of topological spaces and distributed cognition.  I also think that there just might be some hope regarding more effective ways to use technological artifacts and applications with Carr believes re-wires our minds in counter-productive ways.  This idea of Gelassenheit may be a part of it, but there's a distinct possibility that Heidegger's "stillness" may itself be a red herring.

Regardless, part of this requires some experiments on my part -- some of which I'm already engaged in.  But I haven't been engaged in them long enough for them to become habit.  But I will say that the few things I'm doing differently have increased my concentration a great deal.

More soon.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

A little bit on process; and a turn of thought

There are telltale signs that I am at the "saturation point" for material for a piece I'm working on:  I have trouble finishing sentences; I cannot think of the right word for things; I sleep fitfully, and when I do sleep, I'm plagued by very odd dreams.  That's when I know that my subconscious is working overtime on the broad landscape of material I've been reading and annotating in previous weeks.  And the fact that I'm working on this at the start of an academic year, when my classes are starting out and I'm trying to figure out the best pedagogical approaches to the material is just exacerbating my overall inability to articulate myself verbally.

Wednesday morning at 5:30am, after dreams in which I was occupying two spaces at once, my eyes popped open and I could see (and hear) the complete introductory paragraph to the chapter I'm writing.  It was an odd experience, and the little pad I keep on my nightstand would never be able to handle the heft of the paragraph in question.  I ran to my study, grabbed a pen, and started to scribble the paragraph down as best as I could, knowing that only 20% of it might make it into the finished piece; but I also knew that there were some key phrases that would act as "markers" for other ideas.  After the paragraph was done, I sketched out a very rudimentary structure/flow chart of ideas.

What's most interesting, however, is that for this particular piece, some of my best nuggets have come from my more "editorial" notes -- where I comment on an author's style or rhetorical choices; or where I document my own difficulty in understanding a point, or in articulating an analysis (i.e. "This is a really tricky bit, I can avoid this argument or try to walk the reader through it").  But there was one particular essay I was reading where, after a very promising first 2/3rds, the author then abruptly stops a deep and thorough philosophical meditation to show "an example" of the philosophy in action in some obscure film of which I never heard.  I was frustrated, because it seemed he was so close to something really profound in the piece, and then there was this ... example.

It made me think of Heidegger's prolonged deconstruction of Trakl's "A Winter Evening," and also my concluding chapter in Posthuman Suffering, where I went on a somewhat meandering analysis of one scene A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.  So I put myself back in that space and tried to think about what was going on when I watched that film and when I was composing that chapter.  The short answer was: a lot.  Actually, it was that particular scene in that film, as well as the ATM epiphany in DeLillo's White Noise which became what I thought were seminal moments:  seeds for the larger book.  But after all of this reading, writing, dreaming, stammering, and procrastinating, my thinking is beginning to turn and I'm realizing that "seed" is very much the wrong word; and that, perhaps, through an elusive temporal slight-of-hand (or is that, "slight-of-mind," what we see in "perfect examples" of our theories are not examples at all -- or at least not examples of what we think they're examples of.  

So as I work though this, I'll be bumping into things and becoming even more inarticulate.

As for the blog, I'm not sure if I'll be updating during the writing of the actual chapter.  I'm playing that by ear.  So if you don't hear from me until October, you'll know why.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

quick update

Apologies for the silence on Posthuman Being lately.  I've been reading up on a bunch of things for my anthology chapter, so there's been a lot of note-taking and longhand writing, but nothing beyond that.  It is also the start of the academic year, and Western State Colorado University is starting it's "Week of Welcome" for incoming freshman.  It is an exciting and hectic time.

Rest assured, an entry is coming soon.  I've amassed a fair amount of notes for the anthology chapter and I'll probably be working through them via some posts.

So yes, this is very much an active blog.  The activity is just happening behind the scenes for the moment.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Aokigahara Forest, Part 3: Empty Spaces and Pieces of Mind

[This is the final installment of the Aokigahara posts]
"Studying how people co-exist with nature is part of environmental research.  I was curious why people kill themselves in such a beautiful forest.  I still haven't found an answer to that."

Sometimes my literary theorist upbringing can really do me a disservice.  I was initially going to jump all over this statement and say that Hayano is actually not looking to see how people co-exist, simply because he is finding the things that seem to not belong to nature.  After all, it is the objects themselves which lead Hayano either to  decomposing corpses (which, as per the end of the video, are transformed into objects or markers of pity, "Sometimes I feel sorry for them"), or to nothing.  But even if nothing is found, Hayano populates the empty space with a narrative of what might have happened.  By no means am I faulting him for this, or even criticizing him for it in an academically snarky way.  On the contrary, this is what humans do.  This is how our brains operate.  And I believe that this narrative-making is actually the manifestation of a truly human instinct. All living things have a survival instinct.  But if we're going to really figure out what makes human specifically human, it would be our unique way of creating narratives (whether literary as in the creation of myths, or scientific in the creation of theories and postulates).  I also think that the way in which humans utilize objects is also an aspect of that narrative.

What Hayano is studying is our co-existence with nature, and, by his own admission, he cannot seem to rectify the beauty of the forest with what he sees as the ugliness of decomposition.  Instinctively, we should see decomposition as ugly: decomposing corpses are toxic and can pollute water and food supplies.  They can attract vermin and other scavengers which are detrimental to health.  Yet, one of the ongoing markers of "humanity" or at least advanced thought, has been ritualized burial.  And what is ritualized burial but an attempt to re-integrate the body with the earth, and simultaneously ameliorate a sense of loss.  The two are not diametrically opposed.  We memorialize the dead, as a way to simultaneously remember (bring to mind) and forget (return the body to the earth, and mythically, return the soul to whence it came, or liberate the life-force).  But we don't really want to forget,  do we?  We need that act of burial to mark an end, to find closure, and to leave a remnant behind which can focus our memories when we need them to be focused.

Now, let's think of this in more posthuman terms.  To circumvent the deleterious effects of decomposition, we find elaborate ways to either preserve or dispose of the dead.  Whether we choose a "green" burial and commit the body naked into a pit and foster decomposition; or we burn it to ash, make the ash into a diamond, and wear it around or necks; or if we mummify the dead to be unearthed millenia later and put on display in a museum, they are all, essentially, the same action:  a reintegration into the landscape as object, and an integration of loss into the conceptual landscape of self.  Mourning is a reconstitution of self in light of an absence.  Instinctively, I want to jump to the emotional/affective loss.  But I'm going to resist that urge again and focus on the physical loss.

The closer I am to the person who has died, the more likely their physical presence is attached to the idea of them.  In fact, I can actually get a visceral response when I think about the people whom I love the most simply not being there physically.  In the topography of everyday life, the physical presence of others around us is more important, I believe, than even emotional connection.  I think that existentialism may have done us a disservice in that it has elevated the concept of the consciousness to a point where it becomes unduly synonymous with the emotional, intellectual, and conceptual self.  We become so focused on getting over a loss on a conceptual level, that the sheer weight of physical absence is overlooked.  If thinking, then, is truly distributed over the specific topological spaces we occupy (as per Andy Clark's work), then the physical absence of a person with whom we've shared a specific space would have a profound effect on the mechanism of thinking itself.  The process of cognition would occur with a major piece missing, literally.  One would be thinking with a piece of his or her mind missing.

One last bit from Hayano to bring this home:

 "I think the way we live in society these days has become more complicated.  Face-to-face communication used to be vital, but now we can live our lives being online all day.  However, the truth of the matter is we still need to see each other's faces, read their expressions, hear their voices, so we can fully understand their emotions.  To coexist."

To some extent, every physical object that constitutes our immediate, regular environments is a part of the thinking self -- literally.  A truly distributed cognition system consists of the biological brain, body, and physical objects within a person's specific living environment.  One can say that the machine through which one "co-exists" with others virtually also makes up part of that cognition system, but somehow, that virtual presence is qualitatively different than having a face-to-face, "real life" interaction with someone.  A distributed cognition might explain why an online, virtual presence "just isn't the same" as the "live" alternative.

Aokigahara, and the suicides therein, gives us an albeit extreme way to recharacterize the lebenswelt  (or life-world: our lived experience in our specific, individual space and time).  I don't pretend to try to get into the minds or the inherent anguish these individuals have experienced.  But as someone familiar with the impact of loss (especially the kind involved with suicide), it is the intricacies of the physicality of loss which often remain unexplored or de-emphasized.  If we miss out on the role of physicality in the tragedy of death, we'd be even less inclined to see the role it has in our everyday interaction with the world around us.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Aokigahara Forest, Part 2: Vitally Active Debris

I don't want to get too hung up in terms of rendering people as "debris" as much as I do elevating the "debris"  -- which would mean elevating all of that which is left behind in the suicide forest on an -- and I have to take a deep breath when I write this -- equal ontological footing as humans.  But I want to do this hypothetically, as a thought experiment.  What if we were to look at those non-human objects which were left behind with the same ontological weight as human beings?  It's not easy to do, unless we begin by thinking in terms of agency first.  Can we possibly think of those objects as having the same agency as the humans who left them?

One way to do this is to follow Jane Bennett's lead in Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, and think of the role that "vitality" plays in how human beings separate themselves from other objects. In her book, Bennett calls for a reconceptualization of what we tend to consider inanimate matter into something with more agency -- to think "beyond the life-matter binary" (Kindle location 422 of 2417).  As much as I enjoyed Bennett's book, trying to find a solid definition of "vitality" or the "vibrancy" of which she speaks is difficult; but I do not think that's necessarily her fault.  To think about what is traditionally thought of as inanimate matter (or objects, or instrumental technology) on equal ontological footing with the human subjectivity which "knows," "experiences," or "utilizes" such matter is intrinsically counter-intuitive.  It's not easy to do, and less easy to explain.  But I think the following section sets up some parameters, and helps us to at least figure out a sense of what she's getting at:
"Why advocate the vitality of matter?  Because my hunch is that the image of dead or thoroughly instrumentalized matter feeds human hubris and our earth-destroying fantasies of conquest and consumption.  It does so by preventing us from detecting (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling) a fuller range of the nonhuman powers circulating around and within human bodies.  These material powers, which can aid or destroy, enrich or disable, ennoble or degrade us, in any case call for our attentiveness, or even "respect" ... The figure of an intrinsically inanimate matter may be of the impediments to the emergence of a more ecological and more materially sustainable modes of production and consumption."  (Kindle location 36 of 2417).  
I chose the quote above because it stands in contrast to the objects we're seeing in Aokigahara:  Those objects seem to be poignant reminders of life.  But if we think about the objects which the individuals have left behind, they themselves would seem, by traditional standards, to lack a certain "vitality."  In fact, the only way they do gain some kind of "life" is by another living witness's granting of agency upon them.  In other words, a person such as Hayano comes across an object; the object is granted a kind of subsidiary vitality via the connection (by another) to its imagined "owner" (i.e. human agent).  The vitality of the object seems contingent upon human subjectivity.  It only means something if there is a human witness there to give it such a meaning.   But, from an alternative -- but not opposite or reciprocal --  view, the object itself does have a real impact on the vitality or agency of the human.  That is to say, my instinct here is to flip the sentence rhetorically and say 'what if  human subjectivity were contingent upon the vitality of the object?'  But in doing that I'm still kind of stashing a little human ontological nugget into the object itself:  "vitality of the object" does nothing for the present discussion, because "vitality" here still has human connotations.  It is difficult to think of vitality any other way than in human terms.  So "vitality of the object" simply means "object with human agency projected onto it."

But, a slight tweak may get us on the right path.  Perhaps, "what if the vitality of human subjectivity were contingent upon the object?"  To achieve what Bennett calls for, I believe that "vitality" must always be associated with humanity; vitality is a placeholder for "humanness."  It's a kind of anthropomorphization-lite.  If we think of objects having vitality, according to Bennett, then we aren't giving into that hubris-feeding, earth destroying fantasy of conquest and consumption.  Human subjectivity works as human subjectivity because it must bestow a vitality on objects it comes across within its field of experience.  Even if we see an object as something to be destroyed, used, or otherwise exploited, we must imagine it as such -- visualize it.  It must come into our field of experience.  This, I believe, is the vitalization Bennett's calling for, and if this is the case, then her call becomes an existential one -- albeit a very reformed, avant-garde existentialism, in which the centrality of subjectivity is de-emphasized to pull the importance of the objects/matter into the foreground.

So then, if we take that vitality as a kind of neo-existentialism (perhaps a materialist-existentialism?), then we can more easily occupy the "object" space in a kind of inverse eidetic reduction.  How does this object "activate" my subjectivity.  How does it "ping" the self?  Getting back to Hayano in the forest, the objects he's handling are not really acting as reminders of the humans who left them there.  In reality, those objects are bringing Hayano's self-reflexively forward out of the forest, allowing Hayano to think of the possiblities of the people who may have left these objects behind.  These objects are not direct links or reminders of people, instead, they are actants which activate Hayano's subjective experiences, and thus his epistemological processes which provide a series of possibilities as to where these things came from, who they belonged to, and even the more involved -- and presumptive -- narrative origins of how they got there.  The objects activate the thinking-Hayano; the self-reflexive Hayano who is aware of himself being aware of his spatio-temporal position amid the environment of the Aokigahara forest.  The objects reinforce his imago in extremely complex and manifold ways.

In this way, the objects are vital as per Bennett's definition, but only because they are actants upon the vitality-bestowing capability of the human being itself.  I think the objects are "vitality"-inducing.  I'm tempted to say that these objects -- really, any objects -- act as a kind of ongoing efficient cause of selfhood.  All objects perpetually trigger, reinforce, and reiterate the self.  But, the most important thing to remember is that it is a self which is composed of the objects around it.  It is a self that is unique to that specific topology and temporality.  How is this different than a Husserlian model of consciousness, where the self is dependent on phenomena (it's own biological phenomena as well as the phenomena around it)?  Husserl implies that phenomena allows the self to come into being -- as a raw material -- that fuels the consciousness; and that the overall modality of experience is contingent upon the internal structure of the consciousness.

Let's try that another way.  For Husserl, what we experience "out there" in the world around us is actually occurring internally -- within our consciousness.  So, the distinct qualia of our own, personal experiences is determined primarily by the consciousness itself.  The phenomena (of our biological functions, as well as the sense data from the external world) is always already filtered through the process of consciousness.  For me, however, I feel that the very processes and mechanism of consciousness itself is determined by the external.  So, it's not just the shape of thoughts ... it's the mechanism and shape of consciousness which is determined by what we traditionally call the external world.  So, how the consciousness functions, and the qualia of experience, is a tapestry in which the biological phenomena of thought, memories, emotions, etc, are woven together with the specific topography that particular human being occupies.

This isn't that difficult to conceptualize, actually, when we think about extreme examples of how we experience the world.  When we are obsessed to the point of distraction with something, it's the emotional phenomena which rises to the surface and affects experience the most, pushing the "external" to an almost dangerously low level.  It is an aspect of "self" which takes center stage, and seemingly detaches us from the world we physically inhabit.  Conversely, when we are completely subsumed in the external world ... say, in those moments when we are "running by instinct" alone,  or are completely in the moment, that "self" is subsumed to the point of not even being able to form a coherent temporal schema (i.e. "The car hit a patch of black ice, it started spinning, and the next thing I knew, I was upside-down in a ditch").

I think that each of the individuals who enter Aokigahara doesn't just experience the forest differently, I think they are the forest according to their individual experiences.  As soon as they step into it, they become all that the forest is, including what they know of it before they enter.  For those that enter determined to die, they leave no trace of themselves, but instead willingly subsume their "selves" into the topology of the Aokigahara itself.  They disappear.  Those who step in with doubts must find a way to assert their "selves" against the topology of the forest, and thus leave behind lifelines, notes, and other marks distinguishing that self -- either to save their own lives, or to leave a bit of themselves to be found by an other.  Not to be morbid (probably too late, I know), if a person wants a part to be found, then there was always doubt -- always an aspect of them which desired to live.  The debris -- or remnant -- is an inanimate surrogate of self; as if to say, "I cannot bear the prospect of living, but nor can I bear the prospect of nothingness."  That object left behind (whatever it may be), isn't alive, but it's not nothing.

Ironically, to leave something behind becomes the final mark of the human survival instinct.  The object is what remains of the human.

This is all leading somewhere, and I'll wrap up my Aokigahara thoughts in the next post.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Aokigahara Forest, Part 1: You Always Find Something

I came across this video recently. It's been making the rounds on various blogs and Tumblr, mostly in the context of suicide prevention and various religious discourses. On an emotional level, it's quite moving. On an intellectual level -- especially in the context of posthumanism, it's fascinating. Watch the video before proceeding. Heed the disclaimers, though, because there is some imagery that might be disturbing to some.

From a posthuman perspective, I was struck the most by geologist Azusa Hayano's statements regarding the tape that had been wound around trees and tree-limbs:

"People who are indecisive about dying, wrap this tape on trees along their way so they can find their way out ... In most cases, if you follow the tape, you find something at the end. Either you find a dead body, or you find traces that someone was there. You always find something."

Hayano's statement here is telling. For him, indecision and doubt are marked by the existence of physical evidence/objects. He later implies that those who are determined to commit suicide walk into the forest without any kind of objects to leave behind. They seem to walk in and "disappear" completely. From a posthuman perspective, it would make sense that doubt would be marked by objects. Objects have the quality of holding one to a specific time and place. On a practical level, they can mark goals or destinations (literally, a starting line or finish line, or monument, or landmark). On an affective level, they become representations of a specific moment in time and space, and take on the a kind of emotional burden. As I've said previously in Posthuman Suffering, we seek out technology as a means to "lift out" pain and suffering from our human selves. We want technology not to alleviate that suffering, but to actually suffer with us. Note, that's with us, not for us.

For objects, the relationship is similar, I think. But because of the physically simple nature of a single object -- in this case, the tape -- the practical/affective boundary is indistinct. The tape in Aokigahara Forest allegedly serves a singular practical purpose: to allow the individual to find his or her way out should they decide not to kill themselves. But how can we not assign a more profound, symbolic purpose to them as well: traces of lives; tendrils that anchor the individual to the possibility of living. The tape becomes, literally, a lifeline back to the world. And, given Japanese technoculture, that 'world' is one represented by technology, or that which is not nature (Hayano discusses this toward the end of the video, more on that later).

I can't stress enough exactly how important the affective/practical nature of that lifeline is. For the individuals who want out of the Aokigahara, the tape is their only way to navigate back to the main trail system. Furthermore, it seems as if those who do actually decide to leave the forest still leave objects behind. Granted, those objects may simply be trash, but they are evidence of their presence nonetheless. Even the tape remains behind. Are these texts? Testimonials to moments of despair? I wonder how many of those who decide not to kill themselves ultimately pick up after themselves and take the tape with them. I would be inclined to believe not many at all; but that is pure speculation. The objects seem anonymous enough to not specifically identify an individual (and thus not bring the potential for some kind of public shame), but are personal enough that they represent an individual life or path. I'm reminded here of Sting's "Message in a Bottle." At the moment of despair, "100 billion bottles washed up on the shore," testaments of lonliness for 100 billion castaways.

On the other side, however, for those who do succumb, these lifelines are only lifelines in the past tense. For the living, the life-lines represent the final moments of a person, and mark the final trajectory of a life. And, in such a fashion, what is found at the end of the line are "things." As Hayano stated, "you always find something" whether it's scattered objects, or a corpse. And in that moment, the person is now definitively a "thing." That thingness is even more emphasized by the state of the human found.  And it's up to the people on the other end to bestow upon the corpse its human-in-the-past-tense status.  If the corpse is never found, it becomes indistinguishable from the forest itself. In a similar register to the Heideggerian "they," the corpse-as-thing, devoid of a certain essential "human-ness" (very problematic term here, I know), becomes obfuscated by the otherness of the forest itself.  It is only found when there is someone else there to find it; and furthermore, it is found because it is not of the forest -- but is distinguished in the same fashion as the other artifacts which themselves are markers of a once present human.  Poignantly, the suicides of the forest are rendered into debris; the debris of modern life.

More in the next post.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

The shape of thoughts, part 2

The old house was a one-floor, low ceilinged, 70s, wood-paneled pre-fab. One bathroom. Two bedrooms. We converted the master bedroom into a study, where the two of us would work. The 2nd bedroom became our master bedroom -- and we shoehorned various dressers and bureaus in there along with our full-sized bed. All but the kitchen and 2 other walls were ensconced in dark wood paneling. The house itself was conveniently located. The rent was low. We had a yard. When all was said and done, it wasn't a bad temporary place. We figured that within 5 years, we'd either get other jobs and move elsewhere, or establish roots here and buy a house of our own. As soon as my wife was tenured, we realized that our next move would be to a house of our own in town.

As soon as the two of us reached the mutual conclusion that we were in Gunnison for the long-haul, the house suddenly felt much, much smaller.  We'd bang into doors, doorknobs, and walls.  We'd get frustrated by our lack of space (and privacy) in the shared study.  We found it increasingly difficult to keep the place clean.  What was once a sheltering little island in the midst of uncertainty had become cramped, dark, and annoying.  In one of our deeper intellectual conversations, we realized that we had "outgrown" the house.  I think my exact words to my wife were "we're bigger than this house now."  In retrospect, I should have said, "our thinking is bigger than this house now."

Suddenly, the term "big ideas" became a bit more literal.  My wife was about to become the Chair of my department, and I was on the verge of some major changes to the Philosophy program -- as well as moving full-steam ahead on tenure.  The things we were thinking about -- logistical, professional, personal, and intellectual, had a broader scope.  And that might explain why the house with which we ended up falling in love (something you're not supposed to do), was brand new, had an open floor plan, and an interior composed of dramatically high ceilings, sweeping angles, and was flooded with daylight.  We never envisioned ever liking a place like this.  We had always been attracted to darker homes with lots of nooks and crannies, filled with alcoves and hidden spaces.  Luckily, all the houses like that we saw in town required a least $100,000 worth of remodeling.  We stepped into the new house on a whim and some advice from a co-worker.  As we walked in, I expected my wife to immediately hate it, since neither of us was really into the open floor-plan model.  But as I turned and saw her more wide-eyed than I'd seen her in years, walking and making a complete 360 while staring at the cathedral ceiling, I thought we might be onto something.

I have thought a lot about whether or not the effect of living in the new space was just an emotional response.  It was our first house.  It was so dramatically different than our old one.  We had budgeted for new furniture as well -- so there was just such a sense of new-ness to everything; of course we'd be more psychologically happy.  It had been a very long and hard road through grad school.  We had "made it."  On top of that, our building on campus had just received a complete renovation.  So every space in which we worked or thought was completely different than it had been.

But, for me at least, there was a clarity in my thinking that I hadn't had before.  I was able to think about more things without getting too freaked out. Even the fact that we had just written the largest check of our lives and committed to a mortgage that my feeble math skills said we could afford didn't send me into any panic attacks.  I had a better perspective.  And the scope of that perspective seemed to grow steadily as we settled in at the new place.  In retrospect, my thinking changed most dramatically in my capacity to make connections.  I was now more able to connect my own research with class material.  I was also better able to help students dealing with their own topics in my philosophy classes.  I was even seeing improvements in my pedagogy, and seemed to spontaneously emerge from a few "teaching ruts" into which I knew I had fallen.  There was -- for lack a better word -- a different texture to my thinking.

It's out of this desire to describe that "texture," or the topography of thinking in material spaces which is currently driving my work.  This is also why Andy Clark's work is so resonating with  me now.  I don't think the new living/working space(s) I occupy are affecting my thinking in a way one object affects another.  I think that the spaces I'm occupying comprise my thinking itself.  I'm working with the idea that what we call a "self" is actually woven into the material spaces our bodies occupy.  What we call thinking is as contingent upon topological spaces traditionally located "outside" of the self as it is on our biological bodies.

So these last three posts have served as a kind of extended introduction to how I got where I am.  Time to move beyond the explication.  And there's so much beyond it.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The shape of thoughts

After I wrote Posthuman Suffering, I wasn't exactly sure where to go from there.  Since the core material of the book was my dissertation, and my dissertation took years (and years and years) to write, My ideas were already evolving from my key argument that technology is more of an ontology than an epistemology.  What I hadn't realized at the time was that my own idea of "ontological" was heavily influenced by an existential perspective.  The world "out there" was always already filtered though the consciousness.  So, as I'm so fond of saying in my philosophy classes, "the world is out there in our consciousness."

But after I gained some distance from the book, and after teaching several classes and having a lot of very good class discussions with the students in those classes, I began to feel that this "primacy of consciousness" often presented a conceptual brick wall of sorts, especially when it came to otherness.  In Heidegger's The Question Concerning Technology, instrumental technology (that is to say, technological artifacts themselves -- aka, "stuff") and technology-as-concept are very quickly separated.  As I've said in my book, Heidegger implies that "the technological" is itself an epistemology.  It is a way that humans "know" the world.  At the time, I fully supported this opinion, but even then knew there was a bit more to it.  But thinking about technology at the time of his writing, I doubted that Heidegger could come to any other conclusion.  The ubiquitousness of virtual, "always on" technology (I'll get into that in another post) was not yet visible to him.  Yet, taking into account the ideas of Donna Haraway in A Manifesto for Cyborgs and N. Katherine Hayles great How We Became Posthuman, I started orbiting around the idea that how we "are" -- our "Be-ing" -- is itself shaped by the technological.

What I couldn't see then was that I was still putting consciousness first.  How we express the self is dictated by our technological systems -- but in a more traditionally existential way.  I had located that expression of self in terms of mindedness, and not something greater.  Like many existentialists, I gave myself a pass by always inserting some disclaimer about the physicality of the "wetware of the brain" (Hayles' excellent phrase).  No matter how many times I said it, though, there was always something gnawing at me.  Materialism became that pea under the mattress.  Simply cordoning off a more materialist perspective into the biological body was not enough.  There was just too much stuff.  And that stuff had more than an affective pull on us.

I was able to keep all of that at bay for quite a while, actually.  I had a Philosophy program to help develop, maintain, and grow; classes to teach; and tenure to worry about.  But then, around the time that my wife and I bought our first house, I could no longer ignore that gnawing feeling.  We had been living in the same rental for six years before we moved into our new place.  It was the move into the new space -- a dramatically different space than our old rental -- which affected not only my thinking, but the way in which that thinking unfolded.

That's when I started thinking about the shape of thoughts.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Space Between

For my latest project, I've been thinking a lot about the concept of the interface -- that elusive space which defines the "human" from the "object" which it is manipulating.  The simplest and most successful type of interface, in Heideggerian terms, is one which disappears as the object is manipulated.  Some interfaces are so intuitive or effective, that we don't even conceptually think of them as interfaces.  Think about the handle of a hammer.  Normally, we see the handle as part of the hammer, and not as a handle in and of itself.  Why?  Because it intrinsically works ... until you have a blister, or have the first pangs of arthritis, or are forced to use your non-dominant hand.  Then you become very aware of the hammer not being a hammer, but instead being an impediment to what you want to do.  Oddly, though, more often than not, the "impediment" is localized in person/limb wielding the hammer and not the hammer itself.  If you have a blister on your hand, and you need to do some work, do you tend to think "this blister is killing me" or "I can't do this because of this blister", or do you think "I could do this if the hammer handle were softer and padded"? Chances are, you go for one of the former ideas first, and the latter comes only after figuring out how to supplement the handle to make up for your pain/deficiency.

There are several roads I can take with this idea, and in the past I've found myself torn between looking at interface on the smallest, most basic of level (where a specific aspect of the body meets an object), and looking at it from a broader, conceptual level (where we think of ourselves in relation to the object, on an epistemologoical and ontological level).  I've usually opted for the conceptual only because that was more comfortable.  But, as I've started delving into some new texts, I'm realizing that focusing on the conceptual pulls away from the physical, and potentially privileges thought and thinking in Cartesian ways.

So I'm purposely paying attention to the ways in which I interact with objects on a daily basis, and specifically thinking about how the physical interaction with the object changes the "shape of thinking."  I was inspired by Andy Clark's Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension, and am now reading Jane Bennett's Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things.  I want to be careful, though, because I don't want the piece on which I'm currently working to become a critical analysis of either.  I want to take the idea of posthuman topologies in a new direction.