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.