Wednesday, June 30, 2021

I discovered something new today. Latour, Chalmers [repeats of repeats of..], and now, Lambros Malafouris: "Material Engagement Theory"

The only way for pedants raised with the assumptions of liberal individualism to escape atomization is a return to religion. I'd originally added "animism" in this case, but he hedges. The thought of formative relations with other people is impossible.

Switch out the pot on the wheel in the first paragraph with another human being on a bed. "Focus, for instance, on the first minutes of action..." Imagine fucking.     

Consider a potter throwing a vessel on the wheel. Think of the complex ways brain, body, wheel and clay relate and interact with one another throughout the different stages of this activity and try to imagine some of the resources (physical, mental or biological) needed for the enaction of this creative process. Focus, for instance, on the first minutes of action when the potter attempts to centre the lump of clay on the wheel. The hands are grasping the clay. The fingers, bent slightly following the surface curvature, sense the clay and exchange vital tactile information necessary for a number of crucial decisions that are about to follow in the next few seconds. What is it that guides the dextrous positioning of the potter’s hands and decides upon the precise amount of forward or downward pressure necessary for centring a lump of clay on the wheel? How do the potter’s fingers come to know the precise force of the appropriate grip? What makes these questions even more fascinating is the ease by which the phenomena which they describe are accomplished. Yet underlying the effortless manner in which the potter’s hand reaches for and gradually shapes the wet clay lies a whole set of conceptual challenges to some of our most deeply entrenched assumptions about what it means to be a human agent.

There are two obvious ways to proceed in order to meet these challenges and answer these questions: the first is to turn and ask the potter directly. As a great deal of cross-cultural ethnographic observation will testify, confronted with the ‘how do you do it?’ question, potters would prefer to ‘show you’ rather than simply ‘tell you’ their answer. If, however, the question gets very precise, for instance, ‘how did you decide the force of the grip?’ or ‘how did you decide the appropriate speed of the wheel’ or ‘when and how much water to add on the clay?’, they usually have very little to say. They can do it but they do not know how they do it or they simply lack the means to express or communicate this form of tacit knowledge. No one – not even the potter himself – can have access to this type of information because no one – not even the potter himself – can tell the fingers how hard they can press the clay in and up so that the walls of the vessel will not collapse. When it comes to embodied skill, potters are no exception to the rules of action and material engagement. Potters know more than what they can tell or explain and their hands often have reasons of which their mind is not aware and which the clay may resist or accommodate. Verbal description, however detailed, can hardly capture the phenomenological perturbations of real activity and the reciprocality between the crafted and the crafter. This is also why the affordances of the wheel throwing technique need to be discovered each time, in real time and space, within the totality of the interactive parameters.

Let us now turn to the second way of answering our previous questions, namely to look for some ‘internal’ mental and inaccessible mechanism. From such a perspective, the potter’s fingers do nothing but execute the orders of the potter’s brain and it is there that we should be looking for an answer. The potter’s fingers simply receive information from the clay and transmit it to the appropriate area inside the potter’s brain; they have nothing to do with the central ‘executive’ mechanism responsible for the ‘executive processing’ and decision making. The moment you subscribe to the above popular scenario, you have already com- mitted yourself also to a specific agency judgement. That is, you have already implicitly answered another question, what in this chapter I shall be calling the ‘agency question’, ie, who did it? Who is the author of the act? The paradox is that although the potter may again be totally unaware about how or when his brain is making all these fine small decisions or even about what precisely they consist of, this time, he is, more often than not, going to answer that question, with the ease of a natural-born dualist: ‘I’ did it. The following example from G. Bateson nicely illustrates this anthropocentric ‘I did it-stance’ that I shall be calling in this chapter the ‘agency problem’:

Consider a man felling a tree with an axe. Each stroke of the axe is modified or corrected, according to the shape of the cut face of the tree left by the previous stroke. This self-corrective (i.e., mental) process is brought about by a total system, trees-eyes- brain-muscles-axe-stroke-tree; and it is this total system that has the characteristics of immanent mind. . .But this is not how the average Occidental sees the event sequence of tree felling. He says, ‘‘I cut down the tree’’ and he even believes that there is a delimited agent, the ‘‘self’’, which performed a delimited ‘‘purposive’’ action upon a delimited object (Bateson 1973, 318).

But what is this agency problem really about? Subject to the level of analysis (micro-macro), the agency problem can take many different forms. However, what hold those different forms together are two categorical errors that they have in common: The first is an error of apparent mental causation and the second and correlated one is that of agency attribution. According to Wegner, both errors pertain to the fact that people tend to experience conscious will, and thus agency, quite independently of any actual causal connection between their thoughts and actions (Wegner 2004, 654). The following example can take us to the heart of the issue:

Imagine for a moment that by some magical process, you could always know when a particular tree branch would move in the wind. Just before it moved, you knew it was going to move, in which direction, and just how it would do it. Not only would you know this, but let us assume that the same magic would guarantee that you would happen to be thinking about the branch just before each move. You would look over, and then just as you realized it was going to move, it would do it! In this imaginary situation, you could eventually come to think that you were somehow causing the movement. You would seem to be the source of the distant branch’s action, the agent that wills it to move. The feeling that one is moving the tree branch surfaces in the same way that one would get the sense of performing any action at a distance (Wegner 2004, 654).

The above example embodies the crux of Wegner’s famous ‘illusion of conscious will argument’ (Wegner 2003; 2002) which directly relate to the crucial questions about ‘what is the origin of an event we need to explain?’ (see Law, this volume) and about ‘who is the author of an act’? However, I should clarify that despite using Wegner’s example as my starting point to the agency problem, my strategy for tackling this problem and my interpretation of the reasons behind it would be rather different and to a large extent contradictory to Wegner’s account. In particular, following the Material Engagement approach (Malafouris 2004), I will suggest that the agency problem is not so much the product of human illusion or some other attribution error of our left hemisphere ‘interpreter’ (Gazzaniga 1998) but of a certain acquired imbalance between mental and physical causality that destabilises the human cognitive equation.

To redress this imbalance at the root of the agency problem in this chapter I shall be introducing the notion of material agency. The concept itself, that is, material agency, is to some extent a misnomer, yet I believe it serves well my basic hypothesis which can be very simply expressed as follows: If human agency is then material agency is, there is no way that human and material agency can be disentangled. Or else, while agency and intentionality may not be properties of things, they are not properties of humans either: they are the properties of material engagement, that is, of the grey zone where brain, body and culture conflate.

To explore my working hypothesis and develop the argument for material agency, I shall be looking in between, rather than within, persons and things. Specifically, I shall be focusing on the brain-artefact interface (BAI) and using the potter’s wheel as a good illustration of such a bio-interface....

"the brain-artefact interface (BAI)" Always a new concept. 

Why not? From the manuscript, p 52, at least for now. 

[T.J. Clark] quotes Picasso later in his life saying he preferred The Three Dancers to Guernica because he painted it “sans arrière-pensée”, without ulterior motive. Clark refers to this as cryptic.

Maybe he meant, again with Rimbaud’s dictum in the background, that the work happened essentially without him –him the thinking individual- and all that he could do was look at it as baffled (and admiring) as the rest of us.

Rimbaud’s dictum is not his. Picasso is following Rimbaud only as Rimbaud followed Baudelaire, and as Baudelaire followed Homer: “Goddess, sing me the anger of Peleus' son, Achilles.” A craftsman follows his training and his reflexes. A dancer follows the rules of the dance, and in performing them, hopes for more. A batter at the plate has no time to articulate thought, but in the moments before swinging the bat, he’s thinking. When Soccer players from Catholic countries look up and cross themselves after scoring a goal, it’s not just faith or false humility, it’s an acknowledgement of their own surprise. This is how most decisions are made, for better or worse, and in the arts it’s standard practice. You don’t have to indulge in romance, 19th century or otherwise, to understand how these acts function in relation to philosophy and morality. It’s the history of art, contra pedantry, that I’ve laid out here before.

Humility doesn't require religious belief beyond faith in free will, only the awareness of something bigger than yourself that's nonetheless constitutive of what you are—the relation of a writer to a language and the distinction between writers and reporters. Also as I've said, determinism doesn't mandate individualism. I haven't read Wegner but I hope he's better than Alex Rosenberg, who defends determinism and still thinks "he" "thinks". I hope he has a sense of humor—or that fate granted him one.

Another example of the same argument, the product of the same drift, without the scholastic's need to separate philosophy from literature, pretend theory precedes practice. In both the religiosity is just under the surface, but rationalism is always the religion of mandates, looking down, and the metaphysics of empiricism looks out and up: iconic/hieratic vs narrative/demotic.

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