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.

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