Thursday, December 12, 2013

Moments

Some colleagues and I at Western State Colorado University were interviewed by one of our students, Justin Sutton (Communication Arts major/Philosophy minor) for a mini-documentary.  I think he did a great job with it, and I was honored to be involved




I write so much about space, that time can sometimes be overlooked.  I think I'll have to remedy that soon.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Good news!

It's official!  The article I've been working on, "Posthuman Topologies: Thinking Through the Hoard" will be published in Lexington Books' upcoming anthology Radical Interface: Transdisciplinary Interventions on Design, Mediation, and the Posthuman!

Here's an abstract of the the chapter:
No matter how deeply we push into posthuman explanations of technology as an underlying epistemology or ontology, “interface” remains a fundamental difficulty.  It represents a seemingly insurmountable topological space which exists between the human and the technological artifact which the human manipulates.  Posthumanism’s tendency to subsume the technological into the self as an epistemological or ontological modality reveals its vestigial humanist conceits:  (I know) through technology; or (I am) technologically.  To fully emerge from the humanist shadow, we must rethink “the human” as a function which occurs across substrates, non-anthropocentrically distributing cognition/selfhood/being through our topological environments.  Being, thinking, etc. are as contingent upon the spaces we occupy as they are upon the biological wetware of the brain.  This radical re-imagining of being requires us to start with a posthuman perspective and move on, rather than characterize the posthuman as the destination. 
To achieve this, we must -- perhaps counterintuitively -- re-emphasize technology as an artifact on equal discursive footing with the ontological self or “mind.”  When we start a posthumanist analysis of interface with the “object” or “artifact” rather than the human using it, we can more readily achieve a discourse of the “distributed self,” which takes the shape of the environment it occupies; a self which morphs across a spatio-temporal continuum and is as affected by phenomena traditionally considered “outside” of it as it is by the biological processes which sustain it.  In such a scenario, “interface” is rendered moot, and becomes a signifier for arbitrary and shifting designations of that which is and isn’t the self.  
I'm really excited about this one!  The collection is under contract right now and I'll post more details as to a publishing date and availability as soon as I know them.  

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The intensity of things -- a quick update

I apologize to everyone for the long gap between posts.  The truth is, I've had two very major things going on that have taken up all of my attention:  my application for tenure and the article I've been working on for an upcoming anthology.  The deadline for tenure was a month ago and the deadline for my final draft of my article was today.  Add to that my regular duties at my University and it made for a very hectic few months.

I'm keeping mum on the article until everything is finalized, since even when there is a press and contracts, things can shift unexpectedly.  I'll know more about the final status of the article in a few weeks.  As for tenure, I'll know the final result of that in the Spring.

I never take anything for granted.

But based on what I have written, I've been thinking a lot about "intensities" lately.  And that's the term that I've been orbiting around post-article.  I'll be thinking a lot about that through the next couple of weeks -- not just in the the scope of the intensity of objects.  I'm thinking more of the intensity that objects can help foster, or instantiate.

Yes, more about that is coming in my next posts -- and I promise there won't be such a wait for the next one.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Hide and Seek, Part 2: The Sweeping Insensitivity of This Still Life

Hide and seek.
Trains and sewing machines.
All those years they were here first.

Oily marks appear on walls
Where pleasure moments hung before.
The takeover, the sweeping insensitivity of this still life.

- Imogen Heap, "Hide and Seek"

Although inspired by Bennett's vital materialism, I'd like to think about why objects give us comfort from the position of "distributed cognition" which I've written about in previous entries (once again, owing much to Andy Clark's work).   If we follow the hoarder scenario, there is that jarring moment when the extent of the hoard is thrust into the hoarder's perception by some outside actant.  It's at this moment that the hoarder is forced to see these objects as individual things, and the overall seriousness and magnitude of the problem becomes apparent.  I think that even non-hoarders get a glimpse of this when faced having to move from one dwelling to another.  Even people who aren't pack rats find the task of having  to -- in some form or another -- account for each object that is owned.  Dishes can't be packed away in sets.  Books can't be moved in their bookcases.  Everything has to be taken out, manipulated, and handled.  The process is exhausting, no matter how healthy the individual is.

The objects become more "present" in their consecutive singularities. And in each instance, we have to make an effort to justify the existence of each object. And that's it, isn't it?  It is up to us to justify that this object is worth the effort of dusting off, packing, unpacking, etc.  In this way, the objects seem dependent upon us, since we are the ones burdened with bestowing purpose on those objects.  Objects cannot justify themselves.  They are, for lack of a better term, insensitive. We, however, are sensitive; and some of us, as explained by Bennett, are more sensitive than others. Perhaps this helps us to understand the hoarder mentality, especially the tears that are shed when something that seems to be non-functioning, decomposing junk is cast away.  The hoarder has become invested in the objects themselves -- and bestowed sensitivity upon them.  To throw them away is to abandon them.

But here we come dangerously close to the more existentialist viewpoint that it is the subject who bestows value upon the object:  that is to say, the act of bringing an object into being is to automatically bestow upon it value.  But, let's pause on the moment and process of "bringing." Etymologically speaking, "bring" implies a carrying. There must be a thing (even in the loosest sense) to be carried.  The object is at least as important as the subject.  Now, I don't want to just flip the model and say it's the thing which brings "I" into being, because that's nothing necessarily new.  Hegel implies a version of this in aspects of his Herrschaft und Knechtschaft  [Lord and bondsman ... or "master/slave"] dialectic.  And there really is no way around the "I": the embodied "I" is a kind of locus of a specific bio-cognitive process.  The particular I, of itself at the present moment, is made manifest by the phenomenal environment around it.

 The objects by which we're surrounded are (not "represent", but phenomenally, functionally, are) a secondary material substrate through which our cognition is made manifest.  A "first" material substrate would be our physiological, embodied brains.  But, beyond that, our surrounding environments become an "outboard brain" which helps to carry our cognition.

I cannot stress enough that I'm not speaking metaphorically.  The phenomenal world we occupy at any given moment partially constitutes a larger, distributed substrate through which cognitive processes occur.  That environment is not "taken in" or "represented":  it constitutes the very mechanisms of cognition itself.  The process happens as instantly as thought itself, and is highly recursive -- meaning that the better and more efficiently a distributed cognition works, the less visible and more illusory it becomes. The more illusory the process, the greater our sense of autonomy.  So, if something goes awry at any point in the process (whether environmentally, emotionally, or physically ... or any cumulative combination of them), then our sense of autonomy is skewed in any number of directions: an inflated/deflated sense of one's presence, an inflated/deflated sense of the presence of objects, skewed senses of efficacy, body dysmorphic disorder, etc.  When the hoarder, or even the "normal" individual having to pack up his or her belongings, suddenly must account for each individual object, it causes a breakdown in the recursivity of the distributed cognitive process.  The illusion of an autonomous self is dissipated by the slowdown -- and eventual breakdown -- of the mind's capacity to efface the processes which constitute it.  Try to accomplish any complex task while simultaneously analyzing each and every physical, mental, and emotional point during the process:  the process quickly breaks down.  The process of constituting a viable self is quite possibly the most complex in which a human can be engaged.

What then, are the implications to posthumanism?  What I'm getting at here is something which a follower of mine, Stephen Kagen, so eloquently said in a response to my Aokigahara Forest entries: "my bias is that the artificial distinction between human, technology, and nature breaks down when examined closely."

Yes it does.  The distinction is, in my opinion, arbitrary.

Technologically speaking -- and from a posthuman standpoint -- this is very important.  Current technological development allows us to manipulate matter on an unprecedented small scale:  machines the size of molecules have already been created.  It is theoretically possible for these machines to physically manipulate strands of DNA, or structures of cells. The boundary between human and machine is now -- literally -- permeable.  At the same time, developments in artificial intelligence continue, as we begin to see that robots that are learning by physically exploring the spaces around them.

The distinction does, in fact, break down.  Posthumanism steps in as a mode of inquiry where the arbitrary condition of the subject/object divide is the starting point -- not the end point.  Ontologically and ethically, the lack of boundary between self and other is no longer just a theoretical construct.   It means viewing our environments on the micro- and macro-level simultaneously.  We must fuse together what we have been warned must remain separate.  The smart phone is no more or less "native" to the space I occupy as the aspens in the distance.  Within my locus of apprehension, the landscape includes every "thing" around me: things that grow, breathe, reproduce, talk, walk, reflect light, take up space, beep, light up, emit EMFs, decay, erode, pollute, and pollinate.  And, the closer and more recursively these various objects -- or gestalts of objects -- occupy this sphere of apprehension, the more integrated they are to my cognition.  They manifest my topological self.

And I think this also is where one can start to articulate the distinction between posthumanism and transhumanism.  More of that in another post.


Sunday, July 21, 2013

Hide and Seek, Part 1: All Those Years They Were Here First

Hide and seek.
Trains and sewing machines.
All those years they were here first.

Oily marks appear on walls
Where pleasure moments hung before.
The takeover, the sweeping insensitivity of this still life.

- Imogen Heap, "Hide and Seek"

As the editors of the collection for which I'm writing prepare their final comments and suggestions for my essay, I've been thinking about some of the possible trajectories of the "posthuman determinism" I propose; specifically, the ethical ones.  Since I used hoarding as an ongoing example in the piece, one of my editors sent along a talk by Jane Bennett.  The subject of her talk was hoarding, and its relationship to the "vibrant materialism" about which Bennett writes.  I was taken by her statement that hoarders are "preternaturally attuned to the call of things," as well as her theory that hoarders are under a kind of "animistic taboo" in their attachment to things.  Very loosely, Bennett's idea is that despite a prevalent consumerism in our culture, too much or too strong of an attachment becomes a taboo of sorts.

This made me realize that her overall approach generally skews toward artifacts rather than objects. That is to say, manufactured or made objects, rather than more natural objects.  Interestingly, however, although there is the occasional hoarder who hoards rocks or leaves, for the most part people are aghast at the hoard as a series of artifacts:  of what use is the stuff? Why are you holding onto this (useless) piece of junk?

But if we stand back and put all phenomenal objects (i.e. objects that have extension, and can be physically apprehended), on a level playing field, we find that we have a very culturally constructed -- even politicized -- hierarchy of objects.  The environmentalist values the object of the tree, the river, the field as higher than the artifact of the iPhone, the refrigerator, or the shards of lead paint.  And that, in specific circles, is desirable, right, and just.  Whereas the person who finds comfort surrounding him or herself with artifacts is "shallow," "superficial," or, in the least philosophical sense of the term, "materialistic."  Obviously, an obsession with artifacts can have detrimental effects, not the least of which are the very philosophical ones which Heidegger outlines in The Question Concerning Technology. Indeed, falling prey to a predatory consumerism can have terrible effects on us psychologically and culturally.

Now, putting all phenomenal objects on an equal conceptual footing as objects -- making no distinction between "object" and "artifact" or "natural" and "artificial" -- we can, perhaps, alter our approach.  Why is feeling a sense of well-being from one group of objects better, or even more "normal" than feeling a sense of well-being from another group of objects?  Is there something inherently better in one group than another?  Why, exactly, is it better to feel comfort from trees, rocks, and grass than it is from a big-screen TV, a warm blanket, and soft, fuzzy socks?  Is it because we have deemed one "natural" and the other "artificial"?  Because one is made of certain materials which are safer than another?  Or because one group has come into existence apparently without the aid of human intervention, whereas the other has come into existence at the cost of human health and dignity?  Fair assessments, absolutely.  However, even a cursory investigation of the "natural" scenario can transform those objects into instruments of death and destruction:  natural bacteria in the water can make a person gravely ill.  The tree can fall over and crush whoever's under it, etc.

These are reductionist, broad-stroke examples, of course.  I use them as points of departure.  Because if we simply view objects as "other," then we will always fall into a myriad of binary systems by which such objects are classified, or worse, an endless Marxist exercise in subjugation and valuation.  As a posthumanist, I see the subject-object/self-other dichotomy as the product of an obsolete worldview.  Denigrating the value of ANY objects to our well-being as humans can have negative consequences as well.

There are times when an object, for whatever reason, can, psychologically make us feel good, or give us a sense of place and well-being.  A comfortable room, a soft blanket, a childhood teddy-bear, or even a cell phone or tablet that does all we need it to do, can -- albeit momentarily -- "complete" us.  I've written repeatedly that, from a posthuman standpoint, an artifact "works" for us when we feel no boundary between it and us.  We are in union with it.  Immediately disqualifying a physical artifact as a source of an existential moment simply because it is physical,  is to cut off an entire field of study.

Furthermore, ignoring the very real materialism around us through haphazardly elevating any object -- including a natural one -- can have serious consequences.  Heidegger maintains that applying a "setting-in-order" to nature sets us on a path to the "standing reserve," or a blind objectification of the world around us.  I agree.  However, I also believe that the variables in this equation can be flipped: bracketing "nature" as something that is other than a materialism is to actually miss out on the authentic vitality of those objects.  To plant, to harvest, to conserve are all manipulations of the physical materiality of the objects of nature.  Weeds don't commit suicide because they are choking our our tomatoes.  Rainwater does not gather magically in the right place and irrigate our terraced garden.  Non-native vegetables, fruits, and legumes do not plant themselves.  Furthermore, the "natural" enzymes in the manure we spread over the soil will just as easily make us ill if we don't wash our hands (with soap) after handling it.  Walking barefoot, not bathing, eschewing vaccines, only myopically represent humanity's "natural" state.

Objects are objects.  They always already precede us in the world (or even the lifeworld).  This is where Bennett's work comes in really handy. In her characterization of objects as having a "vital materiality," she's not referring to a kind anthropomorphic animus; instead, she's pointing to the unique materialisms of each, and how the material character of objects affect us.  She does so without using an existential, subjective conceit: those objects are already in the world we occupy.  We do not "bring them forth." They are already there.

As for me, I take this a step further.  The "I" is manifested in a world of objects -- not the least of which is the physical body.  But that self-aware I, that Dasein, is composed by and through the physical objects around us at any given moment.  And as I write through this idea, I'm starting to understand more clearly Bennett's contention that a heightened awareness of the objects around us could be linked in some way to Freud's death-drive, or even Sartre's "being-in-itself" vs. "being-for-itself."  Perhaps we don't want the objects to be part of us as much as we want to fall back into the world of objects.

More of that in Part 2 ...







Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Posthuman Superman: The Passion of the Kent

"How changed Zarathustra is! Zarathustra has become a child, an
awakened one. What do you plan to do in the land of the sleepers? You
have been floating in a sea of solitude, and the sea has borne you up. At
long last, are you ready for dry land? Are you ready to drag yourself
ashore?"

Zarathustra answered: "I love mankind."

                                  - Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

I have to admit, I am somewhat conflicted writing a post about Superman -- specifically the newest incarnation by Zack Snyder, Man of Steel.  Superman has always been my favorite superhero for a lot of reasons, and I find that when I'm faced with a really good Superman story (which I think Man of Steel was), it's hard for me to separate the awestruck fanboy in me from the academic.  The good part about that, though, is that the conflict gives me a justification for multiple viewings.  So for the first viewing of Man of Steel, I let my inner child dominate, and watched, often with mouth agape, as this latest iteration of Superman came to grips with his humanity.  But I did make some mental notes of a few things to look for when I watched the film again, with a more theoretical eye.

My first review of Man of Steel can be found on both my Google+ and Facebook pages.  That's a good place to start.  But here I want to get into some deeper issues that the film covers, specifically those that cross into posthuman territory.  But I do want to make it clear that there is a bias in my analysis, only because I enjoyed the film immensely, and it only reinforced my admiration of Superman as a character and archetype.  This is also my first attempt at applying a kind of a "posthuman read" to it, so it's a bit rough around the edges.  Finally, turn back now if you don't want potential spoilers. 

So, how can we view Man of Steel through a posthuman lens?  It came to me during my second screening of the film ... more specifically, in its final five minutes.  I realized then that -- despite the, at times, over the top action -- I felt a more palpable suspense at the "reveal" of Clark Kent than I felt when Kal-El first dons the iconic suit and learns how to fly.  It became clear that this film was not about introducing Superman as much as it was about introducing Clark Kent.  And this is why I thought the film was brilliant.  The climax of the film was not the final conflict between Zod and Superman.  It was seeing the elevator doors open to reveal Clark Kent, glasses and all.  And that's when it all clicked to me as a viable "posthuman" story: Kal-El wishes to be human, and he creates Clark Kent in a (futile) attempt to achieve that humanity.  And in our portrayal of all manner of android and tin men, we need that character to want to be human.  But we feel safe and happy, because just like the HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Roy Batty from Blade Runner, Agent Smith from The Matrix, or David the android from Prometheus and/or A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, the character works because he/it isn't human and never can be.  Thus, we, as humans, are privileged in that we are born into a humanity that other beings can never achieve.  The messianic aspects to this are clear, and we can easily apply this narrative to the Christian mythos:  God, an omnipotent, omniscient, and lonely figure wishes to be closer to his human creations:  he re-creates himself into a human, so that he too can experience suffering and death, and thus allow his creations salvation in an everlasting union with him.  Humanity creates a character which is all-powerful, but still desires (to be human).  This is an aspect of the "posthuman suffering" I've written about in the past:  we project our humanity onto objects so that they may "suffer with us."  We wish to disembody our pain -- or lack -- and place it upon the shoulders of an other.  I customarily characterize that "other" as technological, but it doesn't necessarily have to be. Regardless, it follows a messianic pattern.  

The messianic imagery in Man of Steel is too obvious to be metaphorical, and although I've seen all of Zack Snyder's films, I don't know enough about his artistic temperament to judge whether or not his "sledgehammer symbolism" was an intentional or accidental red herring.  Regardless, it was a red herring.  Despite Clark's "Gethsemane moment" in a church, complete with a stained-glass representation of Jesus in the garden behind him; and despite the cross-like position in which Superman falls to earth to save humanity, we were not seeing a representation of a Judeo-Christian messiah. This was, without question, an iteration of the Nietzschean √úbermensch -- with a bit of a posthuman twist.  So much so, that I actually find myself hoping that Snyder purposely put the messianic references in there as a wink to the audience. 

In the film, we are introduced to Kal-El literally at the moment of his birth.  Jor-El and Lara have broken Kryptonian tradition and law by having a natural childbirth (as opposed to having a child via a matrix-like birthing process, in which every Kryptonian citizen is genetically hard-wired for a specific role in society).  Kal-El's birth is only partially natural, since he is later encoded with the genetic makeup of every potential Kryptonian in his blood.  If he is to be a savior, it is to his own race, not humanity.  And it is this alien nature which is emphasized throughout the film.  After Kal-El's ship crashes near the Kent farm, Snyder quickly cuts to an adult Clark Kent who has been traveling the earth under false names, attempting to find his place in the world, all the while helping people.  It is implied that after any show of his true strength and abilities, he disappears and assumes another life.  So, while serving aboard a fishing boat, Clark comes to the rescue of some workers on an oil rig.  He saves the men in the open, not making a secret of his strength.  But he disappears after and assumes another life.  He is not actually Clark Kent, nor is he Superman.  

What is interesting is the fact that we see his childhood framed through his moments of heroism as the anonymous, unnamed stranger: every time he shows a glimmer of what he can do as Clark Kent, he suffers for it.  In a poignant moment that will affect every 8 year old ADD sufferer who sees the film, a young Clark's senses seem to shift into their heightened mode:  he hears sounds from miles away, he sees through people, and he eventually flees to a closet to close out the world, because, in his words, "the world's too big, Mom."  A few years later, when Clark's school bus plummets into a river, he saves everyone.  One mother is convinced that it was an act of God, which is quite literally laughed off by a savvy Martha Kent.  But the interesting moment comes when Jonathan Kent chastises Clark for using his powers.  "What was I supposed to do?  Let them die?" asks Clark.  "Maybe," replies Jonathan.  

For Clark, his strength, his senses, and his super-human abilities are the very things that alienate him from humanity itself.  He is not human.  As Nietzsche tells us, the ideal of the "individual" to which Western Philosophy says we should aspire is eventually cast out and destroyed by society.  We hold the individual up, and then, in countless iterations of messianic mythology, turn on the individual and destroy it.  Snyder may be setting this up in this installment for later sequels.  After all, the final battle between Superman and Zod is on a planetary level, and leaves large swaths of destruction behind.  Zod's intention is to terraform earth into a new Krypton -- not have humanity serve him.  Humanity, for Zod, is necessarily expendable in order for Krypton to be reborn.  This is why the level of destruction that Snyder presents in the film is as massive as it is.  This is a planetary threat that would mean the destruction of the human race. Not to be cynical or callous,  but if a "planet killing" asteroid or some other threat like that showed up, and somehow we were able to deflect it with a missile or something so that it flattened several city blocks (and perhaps tens of thousands of people), we could consider that an incredible success -- tens of thousands dead rather than 7 billion and the extinction of the species. But I digress.

What brings Man of Steel into the posthuman age is the fact Superman's saving of humanity is incidental to his establishment of his human persona.  I think that this might be, subconsciously, why many were turned off by the massive destruction portrayed in the film.  To a lesser extent, that's where my own critique comes in: there did need to be a few more moments of danger on the micro-level.  The moment of danger with Perry White and Jenny Olsen, coupled with the "moment of truth" toward the end of the film when Zod is about to incinerate a family with his heat vision, were almost enough.  But on a deeper, less apparent, psychological level, Snyder inverts the usual, more casual, Superman formula.  Some enjoy the Superman  story because they see it as a metaphor for overcoming human weakness.  The stumbling, stammering Clark Kent in us all hides the true power within.  But this is a Superman who longs to be human.  This plot-line is okay for cyborgs and errant A.I.s, but not for an established superhero. If one is looking for Jesus, but finds Zarathustra instead, there's bound to be disappointment. Imagine a Jesus forfeiting his divinity and refusing to resurrect. Then again, I've always been more inspired by Zarathustra than Jesus.

I used to say in my Philosophy of Communication classes that there are certain "essential" elements of various mythologies that must be there in order for them to be accepted as that specific mythology:  Vampires must have some weakness (either to the sun, wooden stakes, or silver); zombies must crave flesh; there must be the iconic Spider-Man swinging pose; Batman's origin story must involve a scene containing the slaying of his parents, complete with Martha Wayne's pearls falling to the pavement.  For Superman, I used to say that there had to be at least one scene where Clark Kent rips his shirt open revealing the iconic S shield underneath.  When I screened Man of Steel the second time, I realized that I was partially wrong.  The closest thing to the classic "S reveal" in this film was the first time we see Clark Kent at the daily planet.  He pulls on his blazer; he straightens his tie, an then he puts on his glasses. And he does so milking as much suspense and anticipation as possible.  This was the actual "hero reveal."

Manifestations of posthumanity don't necessarily have to revolve around artifactual technology.  Although we could say that Kal-El was escaping a Krypton that had destroyed itself by exhausting its environment (in this iteration, Kryptonians have tapped into -- and spent -- the core of their planet for fuel, causing the planet to become unstable and eventually implode).  They had also "overtaxed" themselves via genetic manipulation.  But that's not really what constitutes the posthuman aspects of the film.  If we think about characters like HAL, Roy Batty, David, and even the Judeo-Christian God, they all have in common abilities that clearly make them superior to humans in every way; but each of them desires, and thus, each is aware of a lack.  What they desire is irrelevant (although many times they actually desire a human flaw -- old age; fear of death; or the capacity to love):  it's their capacity to desire which points to their origins as human cultural constructions.  And it's our capacity to desire (to self-reflexively be aware of a lack in ourselves) that characterizes our humanity.  We reinforce our humanity be creating characters who aren't human, but have a human awareness of a lack in themselves.  We want those constructions to "suffer with" us.  If the character has incredible mental and/or physical strength, it shows that their own (human) lack/suffering cannot be satisfied with those qualities alone.  Thus, if something more physically/mentally powerful than us cannot overcome itself, then how can we -- as mere humans -- be expected to do so?  In a Nietzschean fashion, we re-center our humanity around the striving for an ideal, rather than the Apollonian conclusion.  The point is to always be striving.  Death comes no matter what; it is neither a goal nor an impediment to overcome.  We must strive, and our human desire allows us to do that.

So, the most posthuman aspect of this film is nothing technological:  it is very much that Superman -- the god, the alien, the other -- strives and aspires to be Clark Kent.  And since Kal-El was raised on earth, Clark Kent is our (human) creation.  In Man of Steel, Superman is a hero because he unceasingly and unapologetically strives for an ideal that is, for him, ultimately impossible to achieve: humanity.  This is the posthuman Superman.  






Monday, March 11, 2013

Place and resistance

I've never been a real fan of Kant, but every time I cover some of his philosophy in any of my classes, I always keep coming back to his more poetic turn of phrase about the dove thinking that if there wasn't resistance, it could fly higher:

Mathematics gives us a shining example of how far, independently of experience, we can progress in a priori knowledge.   It does, indeed, occupy itself with objects and with knowledge solely in so far as they allow of being exhibited in intuition, but this circumstance is easily overlooked, since this intuition can itself be given a priori, and is therefore hardly to be distinguished from a bare and pure concept.  Misled by such a proof of the power of reason, the demand for the extension of knowledge recognises no limits.  The light dove, cleaving the air in her free flight, and feeling its resistance, might imagine that its flight would be still easier in empty space.  (from The Critique of Pure Reason)
In many ways, one could say that we need our own topological spaces as a kind of "resistance" for our embodied cognition.  Importantly, I'm not using the term "resistance" pejoratively.  I'm thinking of it in the same register as Kant.  The spaces give our biological cognition something to "push against" that is more than simply the body in which it (primarily) seems to be housed.  Of course, too much resistance can be counterproductive.  But too little can be equally problematic.  "Too much" resistance would be a space which has too many distractions -- whether they be things which are superficially distracting (i.e. noise, uncomfortable environmental conditions, etc); or more subtle, emotional distractions (good or bad memories).

But what would "too little" resistance be?  At first I thought that a space that was too comfortable either physically or emotionally would provide little of the resistance I'm thinking about.  Then I wondered if it would be a space that was somewhat empty -- devoid of objects and distractions, similar to a topological tabula rasa.  The latter, however, is not feasible in the practical sense of the word, really.  Unless we're talking about exceptional situations such as prolonged solitary confinement or sensory deprivation.  But if we remain within the confines of the Geneva accords, I'm thinking that the former is more suitable:  where too much comfort or even familiarity offers little resistance.  And, when we're too comfortable in a particular place, where does our motivation come from?  What do we "push against" in order to really think?  On top of that, we also need to consider that the desirability of these two aspects is situationally contingent.  Sometimes, we need a bit of ease.  We need to also take into consideration the fact that certain types of people will rely more heavily on the physical  "outer" spaces around them than others.

It's important to note, however, that it's not so much the presence of the "stuff," as it is how effectively it's utilized:  how efficacious is the environment to our thinking?

Regardless of the degree of integration with our topological spaces, those spaces act in a similar fashion to how Kant's "experience" provides a priori knowledge with something to push against.  Even though I'm not one for a priori knowledge, I think that Kant's metaphor is useful.  Affectively, no resistance = no ambition; no drive; no motivation.  Topologically, the spaces we occupy provide that needed resistance for our biological cognition.  The phenomena around us provide the stimuli through which a distributed cognition is woven.


Tuesday, February 26, 2013

On cities, mountains, and hoarding.

I wrote this entry over two days while I was on my semester break in Denver.  I was sitting in a Starbuck's, amid the traffic noise, reading through articles to help with a revision of an anthology chapter I was working on. I found myself thinking again about place and topology. And I came to an unsurprising, but somewhat disappointing conclusion: I think better in cities. My mind can make high-end and productive connections so much more quickly when I'm surrounded by a more urban landscape. I find my thoughts more centered, more precise, and less encumbered by counter-productive meanderings.

The reason this is "disappointing" is a more personal one. For an academic who lives in the middle of the mountains, to know that my best thinking doesn't happen in the place where I live is concerning. What would I be like if I taught in an institution located someplace else? How different would my teaching be? I already know that my research would be more productive. So yes, there is something a little concerning there.

But academically, and in the scope of the chapter I'm working on, this is really par for the course in terms of the topological nature of distributed cognition. This also helps to prove an important point that I think a lot of scholars working on "thing theory" may be overlooking. It's quite tempting to look at the types of thoughts analogously with the types of spaces we're occupying at that moment. That is to say, it seems to make sense that if we're in someplace that is quiet, serene, and pastoral, that our thoughts should be similar. But think for a moment about people who visit places that are serene and quiet and find themselves even more stressed and agitated than they would be if they were in their more "native" environment. For me, being in downtown Denver doesn't give me more "cosmopolitan" thoughts. More accurately, the downtown atmosphere seems to match up to, and be more conducive to, a more native modality of thought. That is to say, i can concentrate on things more easily. I can sustain deeper, more complex thought for a longer period of time. At least -- and this is a very important caveat -- it seems that I can. It feels like that's the case. I feel more "me." It would be interesting to perform a more formalized study using various memory and concentration tasks. Perhaps in May.

In terms of the chapter I'm working on, however, I think it's important to move beyond what I mentioned above, and move away from characterizing types of thoughts per se and instead concentrate on the specific thought process that brings forth a specific self-ing one's specific lebesnwelt. Actually, a more accurate way to put it would to simply say "brings forth a particular, individual lebenswelt."

So, let's take the cultural construction of hoarders on reality television, for example. In most of the shows I've seen, the hoarders themselves seem to fall into two categories: 1) the hoarder who has come to the conclusion him or herself that he or she can no longer live the way in which they are living; or 2) the hoarder who has been thrust into an intervention due to some outside circumstance (i.e. a health/fire scare where rescuers could not get into the dwelling in a timely fashion; or a local municipality is threatening to condemn the property due to neighbors' complaints). In the former case, the hoarder is more self-aware and knows that how they are living is -- within the larger cultural framework -- "wrong." Even if they don't see their existence as uncomfortable or unsanitary, they have had some kind of insight or interaction that tells them that their own sense of "home" or "comfort" is somehow sociopathic. In the latter case, however, one can usually see a complete lack of awareness on the part of the hoarder that what they are doing is "wrong," "unhealthy," "sick," or "crazy." In fact, interventions for these hoarders have an added facet of difficulty, in that the hoarder fully and actively works against the team's efforts to help them clean things up.

But in both cases, there is a disconnect between the perception of it being wrong in terms of how "society" sees the issue and what the hoarder is actually feeling. That is to say, the hoarder feels at home in his or her hoard. It feels right to put more things in the home. The squalor and decomposing matter around them doesn't affect them in the ways it does an outsider. Yet, the hoarder is told that it is wrong and feels a certain kind of socially-instituted shame about their condition. And I'm sure that much of that is engineered as well by the reality television industry itself. If we were to really think about it, in many cases, the thing that separates a hoarder from a collector is socioeconomic standing and/or the perception of a culturally-constructed notion of "squalor." The millionaire who owns multiples of the same car, or who has a facility filled with "collections" is simply that, a collector -- probably because he or she can afford to keep the collection in perfect condition -- sans mummified animal carcases and rodent droppings.

But, in terms of the hoard itself, for whatever psychological reason, the hoard is intrinsically related to a sense of self and well-being. The stress from the removal of the hoard comes from the breakdown of that self and well-being. The hoarder's own habits and highly personal and protected "being" is suddenly held under scrutiny, and deemed "abnormal." Shame and/or resistance follows. Removal of the hoard becomes a highly stressful enterprise, causing the hoarder to often just shut down as the hoard is removed, or to actively thwart the efforts of the removal team. As viewers, this is where we often feel the most sense of superiority and when we get to judge the hoarder as being "crazy" or pity the mental illness that brings them there. However, we might be able to find a bit more compassion if we found ourselves having to voluntarily remove one of our own limbs. The "oneness" of our physical bodies is, in most cases, intrinsic to our senses of self. For psychological reasons, the sense of that bodily oneness for hoarders -- pathologically -- is more acutely distributed among the hoard.

I am hesitant, though, to put too much credence in the way in which reality television portrays the hoarder. That being said, the fact that the situation is specifically engineered by the producers of the show to bring about as much "drama" as possible, it is the very fact that the situation is so artificial that makes it compelling and useful to look at the role of the hoard. To present the hoarders' living situation in such an artificial, constructed manner -- constructed for consumption by an audience -- further highlights its pathology through multiple frames.

This entry has spanned two days. And now I find myself sitting in the same spot in the same Starbucks, facing a 4 hour drive back to the mountains. As I drive back over snow covered mountain passes, I probably won't be able to keep track of the shifts in the modality of my thinking. I'll just know that when I sit at my desk at home and look out over the breathtaking landscape, that something will be missing.