Monday, January 21, 2019

The Narratives of Things

Each of us lives according to our own narratives of self. Various traditions of philosophy treat those narratives differently. Some will celebrate it, that if we think positive thoughts or visualize what we want, that it will come to fruition. These traditions will put thoughts front and center as the way to progress, all stemming from a Cartesian way of looking at the world where we literally are (that is, we exist) because we think. The most watered down version of this comes in pop philosophy/psychology that we often see celebrated by celebrities and talk show hosts. "The Secret," which basically says (spoilers) that if you visualize something hard enough and long enough (aka think about it enough) you will achieve it. Adherents will say that it's much more complex than that; but it really isn't.

Other traditions see thought as more of a peripheral aspect of existence. Thinking is a result of the specific structures of our brains, and the stimuli that our embodied brains perceive and process. All thoughts have causes; those causes are materially based. The thoughts we have are determined by those causes. That's not as bleak as it sounds, however, when one thinks of the myriad stimuli to which we are exposed on a daily basis. We have enough of those, in fact, to make us think that we have free will. Our narratives of self have causes, and are not self-generated. In other words, we are not the prime-movers of our actions, per-se. But just because our thoughts and actions have causes, that doesn't mean we can't and don't make choices. Those choices are determined by causes, but that doesn't negate volition (the ability to choose between the myriad options we have).

For those who have been following my blog and/or my research, you know that I take a philosophical approach that expands the above to include the physical environments in which the embodied mind finds itself, as well as the artifacts we use to negotiate and mediate that environment.

As I've been thinking a lot about, well, thinking, I find that I often fall back on my old training in the field of literature and literary theory. In fact, the first bridge I built from literary theory into philosophy was that we use narratives to understand the world and our place in it. We create narratives not just to explain the unknown, but to integrate ourselves into that world. Even if our narratives are ones of the solitary lupine nature (i.e. the lone wolf), it is a story of solitude. It becomes a narrative through which we understand our place. And, if we're not careful, these narratives can dictate how we will behave. I find it ironic that people who often flinch at the aforementioned implications of determinism are often themselves enmeshed in their own deterministic narratives. They feel themselves "destined" or "cursed" to be [insert emotional/financial/psychological/academic state here].

I think, however, that it is just as philosophically valid to look at "things" -- that is to say, actual physical objects -- with the same, if not more weight than the thoughts that define our narratives. What stories are we creating and telling ourselves through the things that we both passively find ourselves surrounded by and the things we actively surround ourselves with?

The temptation is to think about these objects as "traces" of ourselves; as markers of past achievements; mementos to remind us of events or periods in our lives. And yes, that is true, but in emphasizing that view, we don't think of the effect those objects have on us in the present. I do think, however, that we see glimmers of that when -- usually after a trauma of some kind, either the loss of a relationship, the death of a loved one, or the failure of some major project -- we suddenly decide it's time to redecorate our personal or professional spaces in some way. But we get an interesting shift in perspective if we ask ourselves -- in moments of calm (or at least non-trauma/panic) -- "how are these objects defining and supporting my current narrative of self? What story of self is this object, this space, this environment making possible?"

In a more philosophical mode, we can ask "How does my being supervene upon these physical objects?" Or, "How is my being brought about by the objects around me?"

Most would think that was a psychological issue: objects affect emotional responses. Of course they do. But oftentimes when we think that way, we are looking at the self as a static object. An existence rather than an exist-ing.

If we want to dig deeper into the idea of distributed cognition and the object-oriented-ontology I'm getting at here, we need to think of the self as a dynamic, ongoing process.

How do these objects constitute, intervene upon, determine, or otherwise affect the process by which my "existence" unfolds or manifests itself?

So, I'm not asking "what stories are we telling through the artifacts we use and the environments in which we use them in?" I'm asking: "How do these artifacts and environments constitute the meaning-making process through which these stories are told?"

At least I think I am ... or maybe it's just time to redecorate.

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