Thursday, October 27, 2005

Clark vs Strauss and Quinn

So on pg 198 when Clark is discussing human consciousness and the effects of culture and you think he would agree with Strauss and Quinn's view of how culture gets "into" the individual? Doesn't his view of language describe a mechanism for schemas and scripts?

Being late...

....and very sorry for it! What a delightful and fun reading! I very much enjoyed Clark’s clear, illustrative writing. The examples he gives to explain constructs which otherwise seem hard to grasp are great.

I couldn’t decide on a heading for my post, so I will give my choices as subheadings.

Social Psychology meets Andy Clark
Co-op living – emergence gone wild?

After reading chapter 4 and the explanation of direct and indirect emergence, I could not help but to think of the co-op where I currently live at as a case of emergence. At my co-op there are 120 people but there is no central figure who coordinates the operations. Democratic and student owned is what my housemates like to call it, meaning nobody is in charge. Tasks and responsibilities are distributed. So it seems to me that the co-op is an emergent system. However, the system does not work very well, precisely because there is nobody in charge and the local interactions which are one characteristic of emergent systems take strange forms. A good example is the kitchen. There are cleaning crews for the kitchen every day except on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings. While our kitchen is usually decently clean, by noon on Sunday, there are piles of dirty plates, heaps of trash in all corners and the surfaces look like gremlins fought a war with our fridges. That is despite the fact that everybody is supposed to clean their own mess. So, what happens between Saturday and Sunday? This is my explanation: On Saturday afternoon, an innocent individual places a cleaned plate beside the sink because no rack is immediately available. A fellow co-oper sees the plate and puts his plate on top. The next fellow co-oper runs by in a hurry, sees the hint of a pile and sets his uncleaned plate on top. Three hours later, a mess has emerged. It is astonishing to see the similarities in behavior between the co-opers and the tiny ants building arches!

Where does social psychology come into the picture? Well, there is a phenomenon in social psychology which is called bystander-effect. In German, the word denotes a diffusion of responsibility. In very simplistic terms, bystander-effect means: The more persons there are, the less likely a single person feels responsible because responsibility becomes distributed. The emergent property is that nobody takes action. This is precisely what happens at the co-op! At one time on a typical Saturday afternoon there are certainly two persons in the kitchen at the same time and one sees the other stack their uncleaned plate on top of the pile or becomes the witness of a food processor explosion splattering the walls with pieces of what was supposed to be a banana milk shake. However, the culprit and the bystander do not communicate - a local interaction, comparable to one based on an inhibitory link in a neural network, does not take place. So, my question is: The co-op seems to be an emergent system, but it does not work. How can we make such a system work without installing video cameras and inflicting punishments?

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Clark vs Varela

Ok: Eileen beat me to using this quote as a post, but I am interested in how Clark views the Embodied Mind:

Varela et al. use their reflections as evidence against realist and objectivist views of the world. I deliberately avoid this extension, which runs the risk of obscuring the scientific value of an embodied, embedded approach by linking it to the problematic idea that objects are not independent of the mind. My claim, in contrast, is simply that the aspects of real-world structure which biological brains represent will often be tightly geared to specific needs and sensorimotor capacities. (p. 173)

Clark’s “deliberate” avoidance of, presumably, the Buddhist aspect of The Embodied Mind is puzzling to me. I am not sure how Varela et. al run the risk of obscuring scientific value; as far as I am concerned, they are placing the scientific value in the wider context of other forms of human knowledge. Moreover, Clark’s claim that “the aspects of real-world structure which biological brains represent will often be tightly geared to specific needs and sensorimotor capacities” is not a “contrast” to Varela et al, unless I am misreading the text.

I am also interested in the footnote that Eileen picked up. why bring up the fact that the three authors disagreed on certain points of their thesis? It seems to me that, though a fantastic read, Clark has some real problems with the incorporation of other thought systems into The Embodied Mind. I really would like to know why; the book is so nuanced, thoughtful and clear that it is puzzling to me why he is making these distinctions. Unless, of course, I am missing some crucial part of the text (which is entirely possible).

Emergent Thoughts

The epilogue is the best part of this book. It so well crystallizes what (I think) Clark was expressing at the macro level throughout the book. I must confess, however, that I really only needed every other chapter in the book i.e. I’m a fan a DATA (reference to StarTrek), but not robots in general. That said, I must confess that Clark’s examples clearly deliver his points.

Chapter 6 and the discussion of componential explanation, “catch and toss,” and emergence really struck a cord with me. It made me see how the reductionist “part to whole” view vs. inputs/thought/actions vs. emergence all compare. It relates to how we view everything in a way. In my field (of which I’m not sure there is actually a name) language components have been very much studied part to whole, then as “catch and toss,” and dare I say I think my dissertation resembles more an emergent view. Basically, I was left thinking, what would an emergent model of second language phonological acquisition look like?

I also kept thinking of big business while reading this book. Standard operating procedures, for example, are explicit statements about processes, yet what most managers really want is an emergent self-organized system, isn't it? How restrictive to think that declarative statements are processes or can be followed to created efficient processes!

I also can’t help mention that the explanation of speech production (p. 118-119) is true but not very well explained.

Can anyone explain, after reading this book, what is a representation? Mine has apparently been disheveled and I’m having trouble re-creating it!

If 90% of life is being there, where are we the other 10% of the time? (Bad joke, I know but couldn't resist!)

This book's great! You should read it....

Okay, so Clark wins my "book of the semester" award hands down. Well, until we read Dr. Syverson's book, and then hers will win the "book of the semester" award, of course. But anyway, Clark does a masterful job of presenting the complexities of cognition in a way even education majors can understand. Good for him! Plus, he did it all while still allowing for a self, which after last week seemed all but impossible.

I really enjoy how Clark accommodates different approaches to cognition by emphasizing both strengths and critiques in a non "my way or the highway" style. For example, while Varela et. al. left me groundlessly vexed on the point of self, Clark acknowledges "conscious contents supervene on indvidual brains" though those "conscious episodes are at best snapshots of the self considered as an evolving psychological profile" (p. 216). See, you can have your self and eat it, too. His presentation of Dynamic Systems theory as a companion tool to computation and connectionism was also insightful, as it built a bridge between the work that has been done in the field and the direction research will need to go in the future.

I have been trying to apply his definiton of the emergent approach to institutions of higher education, and it seems directly connected to institutional change. In the computational approach, institutional change is caused by focusing on representations (mission, vision, the story of that one amazing faculty member) in an effort led by the president or one other campus figure. In the connectionist approach, the focus would be decentralized to the department level, looking at how each department interacts and the patterns that form in the manipulation of the mission, vision, and other legends or artifacts. The emergent approach is different, though, in that it would attribute the cause of change not to the leadership of one person (the president) or a group of leaders (the department chairs). Instead, it would focus on the arising changes among faculty: how Dr. Syverson, one faculty member in English, decided to create a learning record, while another faculty member in chemistry implemented components of learning communities in his freshman courses. It would try to understand the environmental forces at play that leads individuals to adapt and adopt instructional methods leading to cultural changes in the institution, and it would look at what other forces were hindering that devleopment. In focusing on individual faculty and larger groups of professors at the same time, it would compare larger trends to individual perceptions. Then it would attempt, using language to represent the forces into form computable by the institutions, to encourage the forces that lead to the desired change.

Have I got it? Does that make sense? Am I really just clueless and only think that an education major can understand Clark? Enquiring minds want to know....


It all comes back to Fleck

I really enjoyed Clark’s chapter on language. For me, that was where the ideas in the book came together. I also liked the way he seemed to connect his ideas to the ideas from the other books we have read. On page 212, where he describes how language works with our minds, he says that “it may . . . exhibit types of phonetic or grammatical structure that exploit particular natural biases of the human brain and perceptual system. If that were the case, it would look for all the world as if our brains were especially adapted to acquire natural language, but in fact it would be natural language that was especially adapted so as to be acquired by us.” Here he presents the question of language development in a chicken-or-egg scenario, arguing that instead of our being “especially adapted” for language use, language was “adapted so as to be acquired by us.” Though he does not mention it, it seems like the first scenario, which he seems to indicate is the one that is most readily accepted, could be the result of the kind of linear smoothing that Fleck describes, where messy processes end up seeming inevitable because the steps and missteps that led to their fruition are covered up by history.

Clark’s description of the ways in which language can be used as a tool by the mind are also interesting. The three ways he mentions are 1) to “offload memory onto the world,” 2) to use labels to simplify the environment, and 3) to use “linguistic labels” to simplify learning (201). The concept that stood out for me here is his claim that the “most obvious benefit of the linguistic encoding of thoughts and ideas, is . . . that such encoding formats our ideas into compact and easily transmitted signals that enable other human beings to refine them, to critique them, and to exploit them (204). I wonder how close this idea is to that of using language as symbols for thought to the dreaded idea of thought being symbolic. It seems like he is treading a fine line between the two. I’m not sure he is worried about that because one of his goals is bringing the two back together, but I wondered what the application of this conclusion would be.

The Martian in John’s Head

What a great follow-up to Embodied Mind! Being There does such a good job of communicating the difference between who we think we are and the actual processing which must be occurring inside our brains. It all reminds me of the technical description of eye-sight, not the one discussed by Varela et al., but a technical description I’ve seen describing how the lenses see images and all the processing which has to occur for me to be able to say “I’m looking at a ball of approximately 12 inches in diameter, at a distance of approximately 20 feet.” Clark also had a similar example describing the procedure for intercepting and catching a ball. (By the way, can anybody explain that to me? I got the gist of it but when I reread it to get the details it kind of fell apart due to lack of knowledge of the technical terminology) On the one hand, we do so many things “without even thinking about it,” and then on the other, when one begins to consider the amount of processing necessary for a machine to do the same thing, it’s amazing.

I got to thinking about this declarative knowledge Clark mentioned was being used to program these giant expert systems. What I was thinking was, how natural that idea is, that knowledge consists of a huge store of declarative statements. After all, that’s what we get as children: first our parents, then our friends, then our teachers are constantly telling us, “That’s a bird,” “My dad says….,” “2+2=4.” What more natural assumption than we must be able to store an amazing amount of data? Although after reading Clark, it seems so simplistic to believe all our brains are, are some super-efficient storage and retrieval device!

Institutions, Collaboration and Orality in Clark

I really like the balance that Clark offers in terms of how institutions shape thought vs. how the mind takes advantage of external scaffolding. His discussion of how language may have actually evolved "so as to be easily acquired and used by beings like us" (212) and his discussion of public language (208) really got me thinking about the collaborative nature of knowledge. I didn't need to be persuaded of this idea, but Clark frames it very well.

His ideas about how institutions/scaffolding can constrain thought seemed to question our traditional forms of agency in a very useful way (maybe more useful than more nihilistic theories?) - Clark talks about "the power of institutional settings and external constraints to promote collective behaviors that conform to the model of substantive rationality" (184). That is, institutions don't hold us back or strip away our agency, but they do very carefully guide us down certain paths.

This talk of institutions leads me to Clark's discussion of orality and literacy. He quotes a study by Merlin Donald that claims

"Before the Greeks...various external formalisms were in use but were deployed only in the service of myths and narratives. The key innovation of the Greeks was to begin to use the written medium to record the processes of thought and argument" (206).

Donald goes on to claim that oral culture passed on "myths or finished theories...relatively unaltered." Clark seems to buy into Donald's distinction between "mythic" (oral) and "theoretic" (literate) scaffolding. However, I'm not sure I do. In what way are myths and narratives "theoretic"? Walter Ong's work on orality and literacy would seem to prove that such claims are reductive - that oral thought is just as "complex" and "unfinished" as literate thought. Also, why is it that words on papyrus are any more "external" than the spoken word? The claim here seems to be that oral culture passes things on wholesale while literate culture puts things on paper that are partial - then we argue about the stuff that's on paper. I don't think I buy this.

To link back up with what I mention above. I think the "institutions" of our literate culture have constrained the way we think about orality/literacy, and any claims that oral culture is somehow less collaborative and more stable would seem to ignore that all knowledge (regardless of whether the scaffolding is oral or literate) is collaborative.

Reading Clark reading Varela

An aside: BEING THERE entertained me (am I allowed to be entertained?) and (mostly) satisfied my urge for a synthesis of our recent cognitive science readings with some of the cultural anthropology earlier in the course (though it did, despite revealing, via chapter-titles, a rather insistent desire to be likeable and fun, verge at times on the dense/overly technical).

In any case, despite the wealth of material available, I wanted to call attention in my post to the passage on page 173 in which Clark explicitly acknowledges THE EMBODIED MIND as an influence on his work and elaborates a few key differences. In particular, he notes: “Varela et al. use their reflections as evidence against realist and objectivist views of the world. I deliberately avoid this extension, which runs the risk of obscuring the scientific value of an embodied, embedded approach by linking it to the problematic idea that objects are not independent of mind.” What might objective, independent reality mean for Clark, then? How exactly does he re-establish a ground beneath our feet, as it were? And how are Varela et al. “obscuring the scientific value” of an embodied approach to cognition (is this condescension at the book’s incorporation of Buddhism, or does Clark mean that questioning objects independent of mind doesn’t allow for the kind of look at artifacts/external scaffolding that interests him?)?

Clark also distances himself from Varela et al. by claiming a space for representation and information-processing in models of cognition. I wondered how effective you found Clark’s re-conception of representation as control mechanism, rather than mirror/encoder of the world; that is, as a structure rather than a description. It seems such a radical re-conception that I wondered if (and how) the word still applied.

Finally: I was amused that in footnote 41 to Chapter 7, Clark attempts to find seeds of conflict among the coauthors on the issue of representation: “I cannot help but suspect that there is some disagreement among Varela, Thompson, and Rosch on this issue for in places (e.g., pp. 172-179) their argument deliberately stops short of this radical conclusion whereas elsewhere (e.g. chapter 10) it seems to endorse it.” It seemed v. contrary to the spirit of that book to pick out strands of selfhood, but do you think THE EMBODIED MIND contains inconsistent attitudes toward representation?

I am John's Brain....hello?

In reading Being There this week, I felt I better understood the Varela text from last week. It’s strange how you can get a better grasp of a book when you read another book on a similar topic and start to realize the connections from the last text. I felt that Clark helped me to further understand how the mind can be separated from the body as Varela and the other authors were suggesting last week regarding the enactive approach to the mind.

In Clark’s book, I found the second half of the book more enjoyable and easier to comprehend than the first portion of the book. (I think I was lost in some of the robotic explanations at times.) I enjoyed Chapter 9 and how Clark addressed how the mind can experience external scaffolding as he mentions on page 192, “..if our achievements exceed those of our forebears, it isn’t because our brains are any smarter than theirs. Rather, our brains are the cogs in larger social and cultural machines – machines that bear the mark of vast bodies of previous search and effort, both individual and collective.” I found this statement to be extremely powerful to me in realizing that the concept of ourselves and the advancement of the mind has nothing to do with the lack of knowledge or brain power at any given point in time, but how much our external environment and the transition or adoption of including other minds in scaffolding knowledge, contributes to the success of the brain getting smarter by the contribution of many versus a few.

Chapter 10 was also particularly interesting to me in how Clark connected the mind to language. I was thinking of those studying English literature and Rhetoric in our class while reading this chapter wondering what you guys thought of this chapter and how effective or ineffective was Clark’s approach in communicating how language meets an end for the user or serves as a tool?

Lastly, I enjoyed the brain’s discussion of John’s thoughts in the Epilogue and how he effectively communicated how disconnected the brain is to John. The epilogue helped me understand just how much the mind can be external to ourselves and also that our mind cannot operate solely on internal activity and our own ideas (no idea is our own) but that it requires the combination of several components in the external environment. I found that this statement helped me understand how the mind is separate from ourselves on page 224, “But, to put it crudely, I do not have John’s thoughts. John has John’s thoughts, and I am just one item in the array of physical events and processes that enable the thinking to occur.” This epilogue reminded me of the computer, HAL in the 2001: A Space Odyssey movie and I kept hearing the computer speaking as I read John’s brain’s comments. For some reason, I felt that HAL in the movie and the brain in this Epilogue were effective in demonstrating their own voice. I felt this section of the book helped me understand how much we underestimate the power of our mind and how we are misled in thinking we have such an intimate relationship with our mind since it really is separate from us on so many levels as Clark communicates in other chapters of the book. I enjoyed the personal perspective that Clark added to this book through this Epilogue.

As it relates to technology, Clark gives several examples in his text of how the embodied mind can be explained in part by robotics and artificial intelligence. However, in reading this text, I was thinking how much can we touch upon the aspect of an externally scaffolded brain and wondering how much this may tie into Wikipedia ( As Wikipedia could be considered a way by which aspects of knowledge on a particular topic or subject are built on each other by the contribution of several people on the Web over time, through their experiences and knowledge of the topic, how the term is given additional context, and adjusted over time through its adaptation in the environment. Is it possible to compare a tool like Wikipedia to the aspects of the embodied mind?

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

questions on scaffolding and affordances

First, I am pretty enthralled with this metaphor of scaffolding. Wittgenstein develops it in his On Certainty, but, if memory serves, he treats scaffolding as inherently faulty--the very reason he worries about his ability to know truths, like is there a God. Clark applies the metaphor to our leaky minds and the external structures we build in order to function. Scaffolding is an enabler rather than impediment. But in a spooky and interesting way, these two uses of scaffolding are more similar than different, depending on one's mood. A glass half empty/half full sorta thing. Wittgenstein's text, like Descartes', is also a first-person reflection on the nature of thought and being. Did The Embodied Mind mention Wittgenstein? Think so, but can't remember.

Second, this entire book seems to be all about affordances. The human mind functions the way it does because of its ability to use the world as a "wealth" of affordances. I liked how this work expands the notion of affordances to social knowledge, language, culture, rather than just physical objects in an environment (a tree available for climbing). In another class, I'm working on a research project about women recovering the rhetorical tradition from a history that excluded them. Most credit the advent of post structuralism with allowing this project to even start. So, post structural theory can be an affordance? So, schemas function as affordances? I worry that I may be misapplying the term. It seems if one stretches this concept too far, it loses its power.

Thirdly, I struggled to grasp the way the author reconciles models of computational with the enactive, connectionist brain as "associative engine." I also had a hard time understanding how we rely upon symbolic processing for certain things, like advanced cognition. For Clark, like for Varela, et al., this is a layer "above" the coupling stuff happening below. So, what does Clarks's discussion add to Varela's (the is a real question, not a rhetorical one...I want someone to tell me so I don't have to reread).

Unrelated aside: I focused mostly on the first four and last two chapters to get at this text. Otherwise, the concepts tended to blur and overwhelm. I felt like Otto in A Fish Called Wanda ("what was that middle part?").

Our leaky minds

After ten more readings, I probably would not claim to fully understand Clark's presentation in Being There. However, after just one reading, I appreciate Clark's attempt to broaden our perspective and blur the lines between body, mind and world. The idea of our minds and selves leaking into the world around us fits my innate sense of things.

To explain myself, I could analyze Clark's assertion that "Much of what we commonly identify as our mental capacities may likewise, I suspect, turn out to be properties of the wider, environmentally extended systems of which human brains are just one (important) part" (p. 214). But I'd rather defer to a poem by Kabir (from p. 56 of "The Secret Teachings of Plants" by Stephen Harrod Buhner):

"I have been thinking of the difference between water
and the waves on it. Rising
water's still water, falling back,
it is water, will you give me a hint
how to tell them apart?
Because someone has made up the word 'wave,'
do I have to distinguish it from water?"

two things

particular thing:
On 161, in the process of troubling the notion of “internal representation” of situations, objects, whatever, Clark talks about a neural network with an “adaptive oscillator,” a feature that would allow the network to learn the timing of events that it perceives. The adaptive oscillator has some preexisting output analogous to the output it will produce upon perception of the event(s). The output originally has a certain frequency or period. When the event occurs and output is produced out of the normal period, the frequency of the oscillator is adjusted so that it outputs in time with the event. In this way, the oscillator learns the timing of the event the network perceives.
I like this because it suggests that, in order to know or transact in any way with what’s outside it, a system (e.g. the mind) must have some preexisting structure/feature that in some way is analogous to or resembles the thing outside of it. Avital Ronell says that this is what endorphins are: the addictive, pleasure-producing chemical inside your body that allows you to be affected by addictive, pleasure-producing chemicals that are foreign to your body. This sort of thing seems to support Clark’s claim that the boundary between body and world is not as clear as we might immediately think it is.

general thing:
In the end, I’m left wondering if we should feel any discomfort (?) at the fact that our failure to appropriately model/understand the brain and cognition in general is largely due to our affinity to language/linguaform concepts and their structure. Just as we’ve come to accept (I guess) that the brain does not operate according to the rules of symbolic logic, Clark wants us to accept that cognitive systems, the brain and the human body (separately and together) included, are not structured like a natural human language. But how, then, are we going to come to model/understand these systems, if at all? Is scientific knowledge (conscious knowledge?) absolutely dependent on natural human language? (What is the relationship between language and consciousness, anyway?) If basically everything in the world is (a) cognitive system(s) (ha! is that what any of these authors is actually saying?), and language is more or less one node that doesn't match the rest of the system(s), what is the status of knowledge that we have through/in language? And the most important question of all, I'm sure: How does this relate to a poststructuralist understanding of language as always slipping around and never landing on/grabbing the truth?

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

late-breaking Varela

I apologize for the late post. THE EMBODIED MIND was stimulating and wonderful on many levels, and, like Sean, I am eager to think about how the book’s final chapters might offer some escape from/perspective on the nihilism of much of postmodern literary criticism.

However: I am feeling a bit indisposed today, so I will add my $.02 with a rather basic question, which is all I can muster for the moment: has anyone figured out/thought through how cultural schemas fit into this model of cognition as enactment of self and world? (Perhaps these threads will come together in one of our later readings?)

NY Times Dalai Lama story?

Did anybody else see the story about the 544 Neuroscientists protesting the Dalai Lama speaking at their conference in the NY Times today? The Times called mindfulness “….topic(s) once left to weekend mystics and religious retreats.” I don’t guess the (surely millions) of Budhists practicing mindfulness in their daily lives count?The best quote, I thought, was from Dr. Zvani Rossetti of the University of Cagliari in Italy, “No opportunity should be given to anybody to use neuroscience for supporting transcendent views of the world.” God forbid! I wonder if Dr. Rossetti favors subjectivism, objectivism, or nihilism.
I’ve got to say I was pleasantly surprised by the last two chapters of The Embodied Mind. After chafing at the long, philosophical, theoretical chapters leading up to it, when they finally got down to practical application I really enjoyed. To a large extent, the philosophical discussions are over my head. But the use of the discussions of color to illustrate the codependency and coevolution of the environment and brain was helpful.
I thought the question in Chapter 11 (p. 252) “How can such an attitude of all-encompassing, decentered, responsive, compassionate concern be fostered and embodied in our culture? was a little odd though. Are these people completely out of touch with the current moral and ethical attitude, even in 1991? It seems to me that if an individual reads the book and is convinced by the arguments it contains and decides to begin the practice of mindfulness the authors have been wildly successful. I suppose if one accepts the arguments put forth here, that the logical response to the death of objectivism is nihilism and only Budhism is capable of accepting and embracing groundlessness, then one understands why the authors would hope to effect a cultural change; but, is that likely? It seems much more American to me to believe in what you know is not true.

I wanna be 'Groundlessness'

I really like the way the ideas in this book are expressed and sort of integrated versus some of the other books we’ve read. Describing evidence within the same paragraph of the argument makes it more convincing to me than having chapters on research descriptions following the ideas being put forth.

So like many of you, I’m still chewing on the idea of no Self. If it takes away all pain and suffering, I’m willing to give mine up today. But then I got stuck on if there is no self then how is there meaning and joy? Did anyone else think about this?

The Wheel of Life links were quite fascinating. I couldn’t help but wonder at what levels this could work i.e. the individual, community, society, culture, nation, humanity. For example is the continual return to behaviourism, information processing etc. just a field “grasping.” Isn’t the book for the authors a ‘birth’ but cause for the field itself to ‘grasp?’

Did anyone else find themselves laughing out loud when they kept referring back to Cartesian Anxiety – I felt I was in therapy and the shrink was saying “you are now feeling angst and that’s ok! It’s ok to feel angst but let’s ask why we are reacting this way…”

On pg. 136 at the bottom, they write “of course, each of our representations must cohere with many others….” They could have just said representations must fit into a thought collective……but did their representation of cognitive science fit in?

Embodied mind...absent spirit?

Each of our readings has explored the process and meaning of "learning" differently. A critical element seems to be missing-- one's "spirit." I'm not talking about religion or even spirituality, but the essence that is more than mind and body (emotion, "heart," energy, intuition). If this essence does not exist, if everything is a manifestation of the mind, then what do we do with students like Adam, (who was acquired by a learning disorder in a previous reading)? Much of Adam's performance seemed tied to how he felt; he performed well when he felt like he belonged or had a friend to help him, but he performed poorly and cried more when he had to work with children who were "mean" to him or didn't help him.

I (think I) understand the idea of egolessness, but I can't embrace it because it feels empty / incomplete to me. Yes, I know that emptiness is one of their goals, but if we were going to adapt our teaching methods based on Varela et al's enactive approach, how would we serve children like Adam? What would the enactive approach look like in that case?

I couldn't find any reference to the idea of spirit in The Embodied Mind, so I (boldly / foolishly / naively?) propose the following addition to Varela et al's definition of "enactive": (p.9) "We propose as a name the term enactive to emphasize the growing conviction that cognition is not the representation of a pregiven world by a pregiven mind but is rather the enactment of a world and a mind AND A SPIRIT on the basis of a history of the variety of actions that a being in the world performs."

structural couplings and object oriented programming

I've read through section IV now, and wow. That's a lot of new information for me. I haven't quite gotten my brain around a few particular concepts and one is really irking me: the concept of "cognition as a history of structured couplings" (206). In this entry, I am going to try to get at this concept by playing with an analogy to object oriented programming.

In the past I have poked fun at people who talk in amateurish ways about computer programming or technology in general and then make these wobbly parallels to huge concepts like "society today" and the "nature of thought." (Although I am a fan of Sherry Turkle, she seems to do this...) I always wonder what an actual programmer would think. They would likely roll their eyes and say "pffft, whatever." But hey, I'll try anything once, so here goes. I do not know any programming languages, but I became familiar with the concept of object oriented programming while learning Flash ActionScript some years back. Basically, you create an object for a process that is going to recur (for example, you are going to have several sound clips in a movie you are making). You build the object ready with all sorts of variables that you can set: for example, play this particular clip, sound fade in/out, and set to loop or stop at end, etc. Then, when you create your movie and have a place where you want a sound to play, you "invoke an instance" of the object and set the variables the way you want them for that particular instance. (I heard that pffft back there, let me finish!) So, let's pretend that our embodied experience enables us to construct these objects in our minds, and then we invoke them in various carnations as we use our minds. It's different than the Platonic Ideal ontology, however. We constructed these objects. Also, it's not like Gibson's discussion of "invariance," in which "invariance comes from reality, not the other way around" (203). Rather, we "enact" the objects by "coupling" them, or "invoking" them in our lived experience. The authors write, "these projections are not arbitrary but are accomplished through metaphorical and metonymic mapping procedures that are themselves motivated by the structures of bodily experience" (178).

Hmm, that really didn't work, did it? Ah so, it was fun anyway. In case it's not obvious from my posting, I really liked this section of the book. I wonder if the authors would object to using the concept of couplings and also affordances (Gibson's concept on page 203) to differentiate the way different people in different positions of power interpret their environments? What is an affordance for one person in one position does not apply to another...for example. It would suggest that people in different levels of a power structure literally perceive things differently. I am going to do some work with feminism's standpoint epistemology in my paper for this class (I think), and perhaps these concepts would apply.

Slow down--My ego can't keep up

Wow. Varela, Thompson and Rosch present a definitely new way of looking at cognition. While the beginning of their book seems verly clearly written for the "educated layperson" as they noted, the last chapters seems to speed up, as if the authors are afraid the reader will stop reading before they get their ideas across. This is frustrating, since their enactive approach is the one part--being new--that needs more patience in presentation. Introducing non-Western views into a very Western discussion of cognition takes a lot of preparation and explanation, and I'm afraid the book left me with the feeling that the mind as "embodied" is a great perspective I don't entirely get.

That said, I did find much of their discussion interesting. The discussion on codependent arising, using the twelve links of the Wheel of Life, is illuminating. The example helps distinguish a level of metacognition. In my own reflections, I have found that freedom is associated with metacognition in that breaking the cycle of cravings to grasping allows one to gain control of future responses and environments. That makes sense. I don't get, though, how something lacking self could separate itself to evaluate its own cognition. How do you know that your metacognition isn't just more ego focus and another layer of the percieved world? Where does the perceived world end? I get how perception is interwoven between object and perciever, and I really appreciate the example of color. For me, I fail to see how to further apply the concept.

I thought, too, that the end of the book was weak. It seems the entire book builds to show why an enactive approach is valid in the Western conception of cognitive science, focused on pragmatism, but then it ends by retreating into the highly philosophical discussion of buddhism. I almost felt like they were afraid to make too much of a connection between lived experience and theory and moved back into the safe domain of philosophy. Then again, I don't totally get this embodied mind thing, so it's entirely possible that was the pinnacle of their discussion and I missed it. After reading this, I guess I'm just not myself today...or any day?

Personality and the individual without a self?

Reading The Embodied Mind had an interesting twofold effect on me. On the one hand, several points intrigued me in a way that I wanted to raise my hand and strongly oppose the view that was presented, but on the other hand, a large part of the book left me cold, probably because this was the first time I came across Buddhism and meditation and the concepts are just too new to me. (Would Varela now say that I am clinging too desparately to constructivism and schema theory? Am I experiencing Cartesian anxiety?)

I am struggling the most with the idea of the selfless mind. If there is no self that “holds the mind together” than what makes us not feel lost in the world? What gives an overall sense to our experiences? And what makes our experiences individual? If there is no self, it seems to me that were each person in the state of mindfulness/awareness each person should make the same experiences. But maybe this is just my feeble attempt to understand a state of mind that I have never experienced. Varela et al. rob a large portion of personality psychology of its ground. Examples that readily jump to my mind are cognitive dissonance theory (Festinger), factors models of personality (e.g. Costa & McCrae), personality disorders that are explained with a loss of self-identity or confusion of self (e.g. borderline and schizophrenia) and so on. I could make a long list of the very basic ideas of personality psychology that need to be abandoned completely assuming a selfless mind. As I understood it, Varela et al. do not deny personality, but is personality not linked to a general feeling of “who I am”? How would Varela et al. account for and explain personality disorders?
Another point that intrigued me was their journey into neuroscience. As far as I am familiar with neuroscience/neuropsychology, in the past years there has been a lot of research on the functions of the frontal cortex. Functional MRI, PET and other imaging techniques have made new insights into the brain possible and researchers have attempted to determine whatever it is that can account for mind, consciousness and self. The frontal cortex has been identified as having executive functions, meaning it coordinates lower level functions. Parallel processes have also been identified, states that can only be explained when examining the overall brain functions and not simply local processes. Varela et al. speak of neuroscience as if it still focussed on sequential processes only, but as far as I know, these times have passed.

The last point I would like to make is, that on one of the very first pages where Varela et al. present a conceptual map of the cognitive sciences, I feel that there are at least two names missing. The first is that of Vygotsky and the second is that of Lave who published our previous reading of Situated Learning in the same year as The Embodied Mind was published. Although Lave comes from an anthropological background, her ideas seem to have some overlap with what Varela et al. propose as an alternative to the cognitive science approaches. They state that enactive means “cognition is not the representation of a pregiven world by a pregiven mind but is rather the enactment of a world and a mind on the basis of a history of the variety of actions that a being in the world performs.” (p.9) Lave and supporters of the situated approach also proposed that the world and the individual mind mutually constitute and change each other. They added a social dimension to these interactions, but still it seems to me that situated and enactive are not as far from each other as Varela might have thought.

using cognitive science as a "way in"

The Embodied Mind seems to be using cognitive science as a way to talk about mindfulness/awareness. That is, I wonder if this book is even really about cognitive science at all? Clearly, it gives us a review of the field and then a new way of thinking about this debate. The study case of color is a really intersting one. But unlike some of the other books we've read this book doesn't give us a number of different applications of the theory.

I raise this issue not because I think the book is bunk. I'm very interested in the connections between Buddhist philosophy and phenomenology, and this book really got me thinking about the ethics of postmodern theory/thought. However, I'm wondering how this book was received by thos in cognitive science. I seem to remember Peg saying that it was kind of dismissed, and I wonder if that dismissal is a function of the broad scope of the book. If my hunch that this book is more about western thought than cognitive science is correct, I'm not all that surprised that the field of cognitive science didn't really "deal" with this book. The refusal to even deal with this book is most likely because it raises really hard questions and messes with some fundamental assumptions. However, beyond that, I'm wondering if there would have been a way for Verala et. al. to come at their audience differently? Would more studies like the color example have helped?


On page 202, discussing flowers and bees, Varela, Thompson and Rosch say “These two broad and reciprocal constraints appear to have shaped a history of coupling in which plant features and the sensorimotor capacities of bees coevolved. It is this coupling, then, that is responsible for both the ultraviolet vision of bees and the ultraviolet reflectance patterns of flowers.” Further down on the page they add “organism and environment are mutually enfolded in multiple ways, and so what constitutes the world of a given organism is enacted by that organism's history of structural coupling.” Here it seems that the authors are dealing with the perception of an organism’s “world” being “enacted” through the process of mutual interaction between the organism and its environment. What they mean by world seems a little murky, but I think they are making the point that cognition is in effect thermodynamic, that it is made up solely of action and reaction. This seems a fine definition, but I wonder if it leaves certain parts of human cognition mysterious.

Take the bee-flower example. In this instance, VT&R’s argument would state that the mutual dependence of bee on flower, flower on bee, was cognitive. The same goes for the Bittorio on pages 151-7. Any system that develops the characteristics of coupling, that “becomes part of an ongoing existing world . . . or shapes a new one” (207) would be considered as a cognitive system.

My question is, does this description of cognition account for human self-awareness? Is self-awareness (even the awareness of no-self) a different order of cognition—more complex, perhaps—than that exhibited by bees and Brittorios, or is it something else entirely? Also, is cognition the same as intelligence? I’m curious to see if anyone else thought about this point, or if was just me. One complication, I suppose, is the question of whether or not bees and Brittorios are self-aware, which doesn’t seem answerable. However, I doubt Varela, et al. would argue that either are able to conduct the kind of self examination that is necessary for mindfulness.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The connections....

In reading the remaining chapters 7-11 of The Embodied Mind, I found that the connectionist model we have been discussing in previous weeks (with Strauss and Quinn and Shore) and now this text has shown me how much our minds work within this realm. It seems we are building toward this aspect with each week. I think the selection of texts that Syverson has selected for us at first seemed unconnected to me, but now I am starting to connect the dots. Has anyone else felt this experience as well?

I thoroughly enjoyed reading the second half of the book and I thought that Varela, Thompson and Rosch made an effective argument in demonstrating how much cognition and human experience could be tied together. Despite the discussion of nihilism in the last chapter, I found this text to be inspiring and enlightening as to how we (as future researchers and scholars) in social science can approach the world of science, research and learning. I thought the Buddhist philosophy that they referred to in the text was very helpful in getting across their perspective of groundlessness and the egoless self. I am not quite sure how else the authors could have argued their perspective without this approach. The additional appendices at the end of the book on Buddhist concepts were a nice recap as well.

Another aspect to this text I enjoyed was how the authors presented their 3 research questions of what is cognition, how does it work and how do I know it’s a cognitive system throughout the book from the standpoint of cognitivism, emergence and enactive. I found it to be a consistent structure of keeping the main questions in mind throughout the book and effective in synthesizing the gradual transition from one concept to the other. I wish more authors took this exact approach in their research studies.

I would like to pull out one piece in the text that I really felt made the light bulb go off in my mind as to the embodied mind was on page 205, “As we can now appreciate, to situate cognition as embodied action within the context of evolution as natural drift provides a view of cognitive capacities as inextricably linked to histories that are lived, much like paths that exist only as they are laid down in walking….instead, cognition in its most encompassing sense consists in the enactment or bringing forth of a world by a viable history of structural coupling.” This aspect as it is discussed throughout the book but particularly in Chapter 9 helped me to further understand the notion of the ecological or ecosystem perspective to cognition that Syverson has mentioned in previous classes. From what I could understand, we can view our minds from this standpoint of an overall actor in our lives that moves in and out of situations daily and lays pathways that later connect and encompass an existence that is reliant on the world around it and vice versa.

As it relates to technology and text, I was thinking about this aspect of the embodied mind and how this can directly translate to the concept of the World Wide Web. The Web is a connection. A connection of our contributions via computer technology around the world and these connections rely on each other to multiply, grow and die as hypertext. It’s through our participation in the pathways (pages) of the Web that our contributions are made. The Web could be considered an ecosystem of minds on a digital platform. Did anyone else see a connection to technology in this same light?

Monday, October 17, 2005

This may be just a response to Jim's post

“The meditator now [after some practice in mindfulness] discovers that the abstract atitude which Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty ascribe to science and philosophy is actually the attitude of everyday life when one is not mindful” (25).
But, as far as I can tell, Heidegger is not just talking about the practice of philosophy and/or science. He is talking about those specialized human experiences and trying to figure out where/why they went “wrong” (i.e. how they became unmindful). He calls this part of his project "the destruction of the history of ontology" or something. But he sees philosophizing as just one example of human experience. For H. normal human experience, in general, is distracted and ignores the truth about itself; what he calls “average everydayness” is unmindful.

H. is addressing this more general “problem” with human experience. His term for the normal, “average everyday” unmindful state is the “they-Self,” which interprets itself incorrectly and is oriented toward its everyday tasks in the wrong way. The mindful alternative to the they-Self, “awareness” translated into Heidegger’s terms, is “anticipatory resoluteness” or “authentic Being-towards-death,” which is a mode of Being in which a person is not fooled about his/her conditions of existence.

This is just to say that I think Varela, et. al. give an unfair estimation of H., saying that he recognized the abstract attitude only in philosophizing. Sort of like a Buddhist, H. seemed to find something “off” about the way people go about their daily affairs. Like the teachers of mediation mentioned here on 29, Heidegger says that authentic Being-towards-death is a way of Being that we must “return” to after having, through the normal course of life, developed the “habit” of being mindless. He is trying to describe this better way of going through life (though I don't know if it does justice to H or to any Buddhist to call this other way "better").

I do have to admit though (and he does too), that H is engaged in a project of theoretical reflection. But he is reflecting on everyday experience and seems to have the goal of changing the way people are/act in their daily lives. That is, like the teacher of mindfulness meditation, H intends to “inform an individual as to how to handle his mind in personal and interpersonal situations” (22).

Sunday, October 16, 2005


Last year, I met Eleanor Rosch-in a nonacademic setting. She told me she was a professor at Berkeley...try as I might to get her to talk about herself, she never mentioned her research interests or her books. She was very friendly and welcoming, inviting me to sit with her for lunch and dinner, but I remember feeling confused and a bit disappointed that this senior professor was so reticent to talk about herself. After reading the first half of The Embodied Mind, I wonder if what I interpreted as Dr. Rosch's sense of privacy was actually an example of the "egoless or selfless" mind. (?)

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Observation vs contemplation

I think I understand the difference between observing my breathing versus thinking about my breathing to which Varela et al refer. So when I attempt to apply that to my proposed mixed methods dissertation study, how does that help me? On the one hand, I can see the value of observation versus reflection in both quantitative and qualitative methods. Naturally one wants to observe what’s “really” going on; but wait a minute, how does one distinguish what’s “really” going on from what one thinks is going on? Maybe I’m confused. In the quantitative section of my study, I’ll cite a theory, formulate one or more hypotheses, set up, run, and observe a controlled experiment, describe the results, and then explain how those results confirm or disconfirm my hypotheses. Now this seems to me to be a combination of thinking and observation. In the qualitative portion of my study I’ll observe behavior as it occurs in a limited, controlled environment (the classroom) and then I’ll think about and attempt to explain those observations in such a way as to convince others that the story I’m telling is a plausible explanatiobn of the phenomena.
But how does what Varela et al. propose differ from this? Maybe more will be revealed in the second half of the book.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Games and Fonts

Re the discussion of patterns in rule-based systems referred to in Embodied Mind: LifeLab is a game that illustrates this principle. It is pretty interesting to mess around with. (This link is to a Mac version of the game, but I'm sure you could find a similar app for Windows.)

Also, I found two companies that create handwriting fonts. Fontifier only costs $9 and you can have the font almost instantly (if you have a scanner). FontGod costs more and takes longer to acquire, but it looks like it might have a little higher quality.


turning negatives into positives

One of the more interesting phenomena I have observed since I began graduate school it the push to think negatively: when we examine a particular work, one of our first tendencies is to argue how it is wrong. Only this week, we were given before class a written assignment to criticize the book under discussion. This resulted in 15 people tearing the book apart for the guts of three hours. The instructor had to ask late in the day – “was there anything in this book that you liked?”

The move to jump on the negative appears to be institutional. How we progress and differentiate ourselves partly involves thrusting spears into the shoulders of the giants on which we stand. One of the most startling aspects of The Embodied Mind – and there is much starting news in this text – is its inclusiveness. Open practically any page and you will find synthesis rather than division. An example: “the most interesting relation between subsymbolic emergence and symbolic computation is one of inclusion, in which we see symbols as higher-level description of properties that are ultimately embedded in an underlying distributed system” (101). By looking at different, and sometimes opposing, ways of looking at the world, this book shows how it is possible to generate creative thinking that builds on the past rather than divides it.

The most radical claim in this book – that there is no self – is not new, although it is the first time we have seen it on this course. How it is presented here is certainly new to me, however. There are two reasons for this: first, the book is written from three perspectives: a psychologist, a philosopher, and an immunoligist-turned-neuro-scientist; second, it incorporates a world faith, Buddhism, and situates it in an emergent-cognitive context. I find the combination of these two elements – the interdisciplinary approach, and the inclusion of a faith-based system of knowledge – terrifically exciting. What it all means, I am not sure. The fusion of such disparate fields means that practically anyone who reads this book is going to be at a loss in some areas.

As a template for building new knowledge, however, it is an exciting step; I am looking forward to seeing what we make of it on Thursday.

but i like my self--and feminist theory, etc.

I took a survey religion course in philosophy here (long time ago), and the entire class really grappled with how alien Buddhism is to the western mind and to our concept of self in particular. The whole thought that we are "grasping" for the self, and that's the only way to understand the "self"'s just too freaky. I like the way this clinging is described by the authors, "we--that is, our personality, which is largely dispositional formations--cling to the aggregates as if they were a self when, in fact, they are empty (sunya) of a self" (80). It's funny how the struggle in my early philosophy class to get my brain around this concept is very similar to the struggle I had early in this class to see cognition as a social activity. It seems quite clear how related these "jumps" are.

Another thought: I found it useful how, rather than simply working against the dominant paradigm (traditional cognitivism with its focus on symbolic processing), the authors are able to situate this model "above" their subsymbolic model of connectionism and emergence. They write, "in other words, the symbolic description is possible at another level. It is clearly possible to treat...symbolic regularities in their own right, but their status and interpretation is quite different when we take them at face value, as if they were independent of the substratum from which they emerge" (101). The authors argue for a "complementary bottom-up and top-down" approach to understanding cognition that employs both models.

Finally, I saw some possibly interesting parallels between the Buddhist notion of the "grasping" self that we are meant to transcend, and some of the late 80s and early 90s feminist reformulations of the Cartesian/enlightenment subject. (By the way, is it okay to use these two terms, "self" and "subject," interchangeably? probably not. The latter seems to mean the "self" operating within power structures and being constructed by them. But, what the heck, I am going to use them interchangeably here.) Many feminist revisions of the self use a metaphor of mobility: Rosi Bradiotti's "nomadic subjects," Haraway's "trickster rhetorician" who slips away from fixed meaning, Anzaldua's border crossers, Butler's "turn" toward the police officer in the Althusserian hailing of the subject, and even her constant use of the chiasmus--it's almost like the self becomes a rhetorical turn for her. I guess what I'm trying to get at here, is that all these models of a mobile subject are seeking to liberate us from the "fixed" enlightenment self. Yet, the authors of this book would probably claim that they do so by reenacting the mobile, grasping self that is the very source of human suffering according to the Buddhist tradition. It would have been interesting ("would have" because this issue is sorta passé now in fem theory), to inject a Buddhist-inspired criticism of these mobile selves and see what the theorists would have said back in the day.

(an apology...It is a working project of mine to write theoretical things with the same kind of lucidity as the authors of this book. I have not achieved this here!)

situating Varela

Having read only the first six chapters of THE EMBODIED MIND, I am not yet in a position to comment on the book’s novel pairing of recent developments in cognitive science with Buddhist awareness meditation. Although I can see how both strains point to the lack of a fixed/unified self, I am not v. satisfied by the introduction of Buddhist thought as a means of situating cognition in lived practice, perhaps because Buddhism seems as remote to my lived experience as the theories of cognition being articulated. As the thesis of the book is yet to come, however, I am awaiting some illumination on how this all fits together.

For the time being, I’d like to learn more about how Varela’s later work in the field of cognitive science fits into/diverges from his early collaboration w/ Maturana on autopoiesis.

Also: I wondered where linearity/historicity fits into these circular models of cognitive science and the wheels of Buddhist philosophy. What role, if any, does memory play in our insistence (however faulty) on a central self?

Phenomenology and Mindfulness/Awareness

Reading the first part of Embodied Mind at the same time as Martin Heidegger's Being and Time made me realize that maybe Heidegger was a Buddhist at heart...

Okay, maybe not.

However, the discussion of the "I" and the self in this book sound a whole lot like Heidegger's Dasein (this is H.'s word for the structure that allows for our Being). Heidegger often talks about how Dasein has a tendency to get lost in the everyday hubbub of regular old being (he calls it getting caught up in the "they") - that is, latch on to a some version of a self. These versions of the self are "inauthentic."

While the authors of Embodied Mind are probably more interested in awareness of our tendency to locate a self, I think Heidegger might at least see part of his program in this book. The main difference seems to be that phenomenology (or at least Heidegger) wants to lay out an ontology while Verala et. al. are interested in intertwining ontology with cognitive science (possibly science as a whole?).

The authors might take some exception with my comparison though, since it seems they draw a definite distinction between "high theory" and "real experience":

"We could, of course, redefine the self in all sorts of ways to get around these problems, perhaps even by following contemporary analytic philosophers who use quite sophisticated logical techniqus...but none of these new acounts would in any way explain our basic reactional behavior and everyday tendencies" (72).

I wonder if others think this theory/practice split is entirely fair. It would seem to me that those theorizing the self do think that they're talking about experience and "everyday tendencies."

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Diversity of Thought

Varela, Thompson and Rosch took me to another level of what cognition can mean from this week’s reading. I found the Buddhist approach they take in analyzing cognitive science an interesting perspective to understanding our minds and how they function. Reading the first six chapters of this book, I became educated in certain Buddhist concepts that I never heard of before that was really interesting (from the five aggregates to the nidanas). In the past I have read some books by the Dalai Lama and his Buddhist principles, and I found myself thinking back to those books and what I had gained from them. However, I found this text much richer in giving me a better understanding of Buddhist teachings.

I thought Varela, Thompson and Rosch offer a refreshing look at how we can understand cognition, how it works and if we know it is working adequately as they position these questions in Chapter 3 and 5. But, the main aspect I think that the authors provide in this text above all else is diversity. Diversity in how we can look at the mind and its abilities by combining aspects from the fields of psychology, philosophy, linguistics, and non-western thought. I like the way they structured the book by taking the reader along one step at a time from cognitivism to emergence to enactive concepts. I thought this slow build-up from chapter to chapter helped me with getting the concept of the enactive state and embodied approach.

Another aspect that I did find refreshing was the lack of studies or anthropological studies of cultures and other groups in this text. I found it to be a nice break from the previous texts we have read that have applied a concept to a particular study or community. Whereas in the first six chapters at least, the authors spend much of the time scaffolding the ideas of the enactive program.

I found the chart the authors provide on page 112 of the Wheel of Life was a useful visual in demonstrating the 12 links and how they connect. In this same section, the authors helped to debunk for me the myth of Karma and what it is not in Buddhism. (Karma constitutes a description of psychological causality – of how habits form and continue over time.) I found this aspect to be so interesting and really it helped me to understand the 12 links on the Wheel of Life so much better than thinking it was our predestined nature to go through the motions of these 12 links. One aspect I did wonder in this Wheel is where the role of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation would play out? Would this fall under the link of grasping or craving? Or not at all?I was trying hard this week to think of how this text could tie into technology and I was having some difficulties since the concept is much more oriented on a different plane than other literature we have read thus far in the class that has been more readily applicable to technology.

But I will give it a shot – the authors mention that we should view cognition more as an embodied activity with open-ended reflection. (27) If this is the approach that I understood correctly in the text, when we are working with technology on a daily basis – whether talking on a cell phone, designing a website, sending an instant message to a friend, or surfing the Internet for research purposes, is the technology a part of us as we are a part of it and is it only through understanding this embodied experience can we demonstrate that our learning of the technology is really occurring? How far do we need to be from the technology and the world mentally to engage in this enactive state of cognition?

Self and Noself

I think my main question about the reading is where Varela, Thompson and Rosch come down on the issue of the “self.” There seems to be a tension in the book between “the ongoing sense of self in ordinary experience” (61) and their assertion that the self cannot be identified through investigation. In other words, we all feel that we have a self, but we cannot say if it resides in our bodies in general, in our brain in particular or in any other place. This inability to locate a “self” is called by the authors “noself.” The reason I call this discontinuity a tension, rather than noting that it is merely a discontinuity, is that the authors use the lack of continuity between cognitivism with experience as a way to criticize it, but they seem to ignore this discontinuity when the posit their theory of noself. I’m not trying to say that this theory is wrong; on the contrary, I find their description of it very convincing. I do wonder, though, how we are to deal with the feeling that we do have a self. It is certainly correct to question the validity of this feeling (and, as the authors do, to note the manifold problems that result when selfhood is asserted), but I would guess that cognitive science would be deeply concerned with the source of the feeling of selfhood.

I half expect the authors to answer this question by the end of the book (I’ve only read part-way through the section on emergence), though I wonder if it is answerable. Did anyone else have similar questions (or do you have an answer for my question)?

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Shore and self-identity in Rowlandson's and Kaysen's autobiographies

(Sorry for this extremely late posting!!!)
It seems hard for me (with no background in anthropology) to critisize Shore’s Culture in Mind. With his model genres, his positioning in the midst of all past and present research traditions in anthropology and psychology and his rich description of examples of culture in mind, his assertions seem so all encompassing, that it is hard for me write from a distant critical point of view.

However, while reading the book, a paper came to my mind that I wrote in an English literature seminar a couple of semesters ago and I started to think about how differently I would interpret the two books now after having read Strauss & Quinn and Shore. The paper was on Mary Rowlandson's A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson and Susanna Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted – two American autobiographies, the first from the 17th and the latter from the 20th century. I compared the changes in both authors’ self-definition with regard to their cultural experiences.
(I’m so sorry, this won’t make much sense to anybody who has not read these books, but it would take too much time now to establish a “common ground” and I do not know what else to write about.)

In my paper I interpreted that “Hospitalization and captivity share the fact that both Rowlandson and Kaysen were brought up in a society and culture that defined civilization on the one hand and mental normalcy on the other hand, thus defining who belonged to the in-group and was classified as ‘us’ and who was regarded as belonging to ‘the other’.” Today I would definitely leave out the word “define” and interpret the concepts of civilization and mental normalcy, which are central in the struggle of both women with their experiences, as cultural models or schemas that originated from interactions among individuals and were internalized by both women as they grew up. When I wrote the paper, I assumed that these cultural models (as I would term the concepts now) existed somewhere “out in the world” and were unchangeable and fixed. What I did not realize when I wrote about how their experiences changed both women’s perceptions, was that what actually changed was their mental versions of the cultural models that they had internalized.

I also wrote about the crucial importance of the concept of “the other” in autobiographical writing in the United States. “The general idea of self-identity is that the self is defined contrasting it with the traits and social behavior that it does not encompass, which means that the self is positioned in an in-group and an out-group is defined which is termed ‘the other’.” How would Shore explain the formation of self-identity? My understanding/interpretation is that he would define self-identity as a personal mental model that has emerged from the interactions between internalized cultural models and idiosyncratic interpretations of these models and personal experiences. Or would Shore assume that self-identity is more flexible and consists of several models? One could assume e.g. that there are culturally shared models of self-identity that are displayed in public and a personal model of self-identity that exists in parallel with the salience of the models changing from situation to situation.

Also, I now question my assertion that “the line between ‘us’ and ‘the other’” as experienced by Rowlandson and Kaysen “is a mere social and cultural construction.” I now assume that this “line” is both a cultural construction, a cultural model maybe functioning as a social orientation model, and an individual interpretation guided by personal and conventional mental models.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

neuromantics w/o neuromancer?

The only thing that I can say about this book with any kind of authority at all, is that you simply *cannot* have a section addressed to “Cyberpunk and the Borderlands of Meaning Construction” and not mention William Gibson’s Neuromancer??? Gasp.

Seriously, first comment: I really liked the resolution between culture as either “fully fixed” or “universally shared.” Culture is both; it’s “constrained but not determined” by other factors (36). It seems like such an easy and logical compromise, that “cultural phenomenon are better characterized as conventional arrangements that may or may not be arbitrary” (37).

Secondly, this compromise of conflict trope is all over this work, much as it was Strauss and Quinn’s. I’m starting to feel curious about how many books published during the mid- to late-90s are into this rhetoric of compromise and integration. It’s like the day after a post-structuralist tornado leveled a town—everyone is standing outside their piles of rubble looking at each other’s stuff. The new ethos is to rebuild and reconcile. Or maybe not. Hmm.

Finally, one thing I found a little unconvincing was…not necessarily the theoretical foundation or goals of the book, but its structure. The “application” chapters seemed to reinforce the very split that Shore is proposing to reconcile. First, there are the case studies focusing on culture (I focused on the one on modularity as a foundational schema that informs different cultural models). Afterward, starting with 13, he tries to focus on the “in mind” part. I will have to take a look at these last two chapters again tomorrow (when I can do more than move my eyes across the page). But, it seemed like this latter part of the book was more a summary of existing theories and debates in cognitive science and other fields with little explanation of how they gel with previous chapters. I feel a little oppressed by his inclusion of so many different theoretical frameworks, almost as if his methodological approach was to give a massive overview of issues in cognitive science for his audience in anthropology, and then tell them the ball’s in their court (or perhaps I should have said, they’re up to bat?) Shore writes that “to make the case for culture in mind we need to turn these diverse bodies of research in anthropology and psychology on metaphor and on the psychology of analogy formation” (339). Elsewhere, he writes, “to study the place of culture in mind requires more than just a coordination of concepts from different disciplines. It also means relating models at very different levels of abstraction and organization” (343) So, here is the answer to my criticism. This book aims to envision and propose the research needed to conceptualize “culture in mind.” I think I need to revisit this last part again before assessing how the project is actually attempted here.

We've been "framed"

The more we read in this class, the more I feel it's a set-up, and it's a good one at that. Every book is framed, or "situated," within the context of previous books. For example, as we read about the individual nature of cognition, my mind still wonders to what extent that cognition is limited to the breadth of ideas in our thought collectives. Shore tells stories of different peoples, and I wonder how much of his analysis is "situated" in his own personal experiences. And immediately when he mentions "schemas," I define that as Strauss and Quinn did. My reading of Shore is so entirely framed within the context of this course so far that I wonder how different my take on his ideas would have been had I read his book first....

That said, I struggled to take Shore too seriously. His style was nice to read, but that meant it lacked the feel of "scientific rigor" found in the previous readings. I know that shouldn't have influenced me, but it did. I felt like shore did a good job of providing historical context and making me feel "good" about linking culture and cognition instead of polarizing the two concepts, but it seemed to lack the "bite" of previous works. If so much of cognition is situated in experience, how does that affect psychic unity? I like the idea of psychic unity, but what forms the underlying, shared foundation?

Golly, it's only been a few weeks and I feel so jaded. I should say that I loved reading Shore--it was really an enjoyable read.

Truth in Advertising?

By the time I finished the introduction to Culture in Mind I was very excited. Shore tells us his book is structured around the following questions: “…5. How are public forms of knowledge transformed into personal forms of knowledge? How do cultural practices connect models in the world to those in the mind? What happens to this knowledge in the process?” (p. 11) The mechanism whereby culture enters the mind; at last! Unfortunately, by the time I got through chapters 9-10 it still all seemed somewhat allegorical. Was I unrealistic to expect more? Am I unimaginative? Did anyone else share my disappointment?
Maybe I need to read Vygotsky to receive this information from a psychologist rather than an anthropologist. While I do appreciate the narrative, the story-telling quality of the ethnography, I’m having difficulty accepting it as “the truth.” Maybe that’s revealing my naiveté, my scientism, giving credence to a psychological account of phenomena and not an anthropological account; or maybe it’s a result of my training in psychology and limited exposure to anthropology? I don’t know; but, whatever the reason, and as much as I like Shore’s book, and laud his effort to explain culture in mind, I just cannot get past the nagging question: What is the connection between the events witnessed, and the analysis of the events? Particularly, in Ch. 9 Shore is analyzing analyses of events which purportedly took place among the Australian Aborigine in the 1930’s witnessed by other anthropologists.
I like Shore’s theory. It makes sense to me that cultural practice must be internalized and passed on from generation to generation through the process of externalizing the internal thoughts and feelings of the previous generation to the new. It also makes sense to me that this information would be stored as a piece. And schema and connectionist theories seem to account for how this could occur. So overall, Culture in Mind seems to me to be an elegant story of how these processes could occur. But in the final telling, I would be more persuaded by a more meticulously documented story with evidence gleaned in a more controlled, experimental environment, rather than second- or third-hand observations analyzed from a distance of over 50 years.

Shore and techno-totemism

This is an extremely interesting and well-written treatise on psychic unity vs psychic diversity. Shore marshals so many diverse sources into a compelling and clear argument. One of the core tensions of the book - the processing of information and the creation of meaning is extremely compelling; however, I want to flag one particular aspect of his argument that does not seem to make sense. The technology chapter focuses primarily on the development of technologies that process information. Shore argues that the worlds generated by what he calls "techno-totemism" results in "the loss of integrating contexts for experience" (159). He also describes word-processing as transforming our experience of language to the degree that "it is the loss of the poiesis of creation, a loss upon which this new technology of the word is founded" (144).

Granted, the chapter is way out of date with regard to technology, but what he is arguing seems to go against the grain of the rest of the book. If meaning is created analogically by processing information in the context of elements such as environment and memory, then surely technology and the representations of the world that it produces function in a similar way? Simply, rather than a purely information-crunching apparatus that creates a false simulacra of the world, doesn't technology blend into our meaning-making processes in a more organic fashion?

Shore's rather contradictory view of technology stands out among the other more convincingly argued ethnographic chapters. Maybe he just did not really have a good handle on the topic at the time of writing. In any case, it brings up an issue that I think is pertinent to the class: How do we figure technology into cultural modeling and schemas? If anyone has ideas about this, I would love to hear them!

The Question of Universals?

Psychic Unity – love this question. Shore makes it easy to see how/why cultural variability and human psychic unity were divided in anthropology. However, is Shore basically saying that humankind is psychologically “universal” with culture as the diversifier? He states this finally in chapter 13 but I couldn’t tell if I was reading in my personal schema or taking in objectively his ideas. Does everyone believe this?......and if we do, does that mean there other universals – linguist have argued for language universals for years or is this just a part of psychic unity?…hmmm, I like this idea. ….anyone have thoughts on this?

pg. 58 “The role of narrative meaning construction becomes especially clear following anomalous or otherwise disturbing events.” – was anyone else reading this and thinking about the hurricanes and 9/11? This whole section on models was fascinating and overwhelming at the same times. Who knew we could label all these things MODELS (that’s one power-packed word, I tell you)!

I’d really like to know Shore’s view on how baseball fits into Japanese and other cultures. If it’s sooo tied to that which is American, why has it become so popular around the world? This makes me go back to the whole psychic unity idea…the ritual that is the game becomes fitted into other cultures. They play the Japanese national anthem at the beginning of the games instead of American…..and they eat “obento” (lunch box with rice, meat, veggies) instead of hotdogs. Time and space, however, are very different constructs in Japanese culture. The aspects of individualism, although certainly exists below the level of the collective, doesn’t seem to fit.

Time According to Shore..

I enjoyed this week’s reading more so than the text from last week. I thought Shore did a much better job in explaining connectionism than Strauss and Quinn when it comes to cultural knowledge. He explained it on such a different level that I felt connected with what Prof. Syverson has mentioned in class several times that really made it click for me, “..connectionist models have an ecological character, modifying themselves in response to changing conditions.” (348) Cultural models are always changing. The cultural knowledge that we gain is socially constructed and is internalized and externalized on a continuous cycle in our daily lives.

I felt though that Shore really should have had Chapter 14 earlier in the book – he even mentions reading Chapters 13 and 14 before the case studies in his introduction. I did follow his advice and read these two chapters first which gave me a good foundation to understanding the case studies and examples he gave throughout the book. But I still feel that he should have moved the chapter and the concepts discussed earlier in the book so that his concluding chapters could be devoted to how future studies or research could be done in this area.

Throughout the text, I felt Shore had a strong animosity toward his cohort of anthropologists and how they have looked at cultural models and their lack thereof. It’s a strong text that effectively argues how much anthropology should reconsider how culture and cognition are understood and analyzed. Of all the case studies that Shore details in his book, I found the baseball and the dreamtime chapters the most useful in helping me to understand how cultural models are created and how different they can be from individual to individual.

In another class I am taking we are discussing the concept of time in groups and how this impacts the communication between individuals in groups. I started thinking about this as it relates to Shore’s text and how from a cultural model standpoint, he mentions temporal models that can help structure examples of how we view time. The example of the Wawilak sisters and how the myth that is described in that chapter touches upon time and life stages was an interesting way of showing this concept of time culturally.

It made me wonder how much of our time is culturally constructed depending on the life stage we are at (graduate students now) to when we all go into academia as professors later. I also was wondering how much the concept of time is influenced by our experiences from meeting deadlines for research to the way the institutions have structured our time (by semester) and how much this may change over time. Shore mentions that cultural models are socially distributed and contextually distributed so if that is the case, what does everyone think of the idea of the virtual academy from a distance learning standpoint? Since in some cases distance learning programs are not as finite in timing with some having self-paced courses and the idea of the group being remote and not together – how do you think time could be crafted or constructed from a cultural standpoint? I am curious what everyone thinks about this….

the "big question" in anthropology

Shore gives us a really interesting history of the field of anthropology, and in doing so lays out how the idea of psychic unity never really stops haunting the anthropologist. As we've seen in other texts, the struggle is between psychology and anthropology. Shore explains how pioneering work (by Boas and Rivers) struggled with the relationship between culture and mind, and that they eventually created a "theoretical split" between the two (24). This made the relationship between individual motivaion and cognition "problematical" by reaffirming a mind-body split.

Shore presents this struggle as something that haunts anthropology, a sort of nagging question that won't go away. But what if this IS the question of anthropology? Some of the theorists we've read seem to think that if we could just get past this pesky idea of internal/external, culture/cognition, etc., we could get on to some real work. But what if this struggle is the real work of anthropology?

I think Shore would almost agree with this, since he describes how the work of Boas and Rivers closes off the question of how culture and mind influence one another. However, he says that these scholars made the relationship "problematical." I wonder if they did just the opposite - that is, I wonder if they decided the culture/mind thing was just too damn HARD to think about. So, they stopped thinking about it. They made it not a problem anymore. They solved it. I should say that this might be what Shore means when he says "problematical" - that these scholars gave us a legacy of a mind/culture split that is "problematic." However, I think my larger point stands. I'll restate:

Shore and others present this struggle to define culture in mind vs. culture "out there" as something anthropologists must get past, and I'm saying this question is IN ITSELF the "big question" of anthropology.

Shore is not a relativist.

That is, he seems to think that not all cultures work well. I'm thinking of what he says about his/our culture. Shore is skeptical, at best, about the ability of the “postmodern frame of mind” (134) to continue to make meaning. He admits that “no one really knows for sure,” but that he suspects that his culture is pushing the limits (158). “Meaning integration” (159) requires a natural/organic context, which he believes is utterly lacking in the modular, digital (post)modern schema. He gives the example of “cyberpunk” movies, such as Alien Robocop, etc. which are “without organic shape or vegetable presence” (158). I have to just say, keeping up the spirit of saying that some stuff is just no good, that this is a serious misstatement in regard to the Alien series, in which the organic/vegetable presence is quite excessive. The same is true for David Cronenberg’s (cyberpunk) movies.
But setting aside the “he soooo wrong” thing… I don’t know if he explains how serious this fear about the contemporary West is, and he may soften his position about it at some point that I missed. But I have to say the more serious he is about this -- that a society drawing on a particular set of cultural models could come to an inability to make meaning -- the less consistent he seems with his account of the incredible adaptability of the human brain. In a way, I feel like this negative assessment of contemporary Western culture repeats the old assessment of irrational natives, only on the grounds of “meaning” rather than “reason.”

One thing he really seems to fear/dislike is the postmodern/poststructuralist cultural model of the “surface.” On page 55, Shore mentions, not for the first time, that few people have reconciled “the idea [of] cultural models with an agent-centered poststructuralist vision of culture,” and goes on to lament that those who have usually describe what happens in terms of discourse, speech and surface. Elsewhere, however, he seems to lapse into such a description. Sounding a bit like Lave and Wenger, in Chapter 10, he describes how Murngin learn the foundational “walkabout” schema “not by direct transfer of a narrative model to novices but by the translation of the narrative into a sequence of kinesthetic experiences and performances. These symbolic acts do not so much recount the model of knowledge creation in the myth as actually enact the model in the very forms of knowledge transfer” (315). He sounds like L and W because he gives some sense of learning as practice/performance which is a surface phenomenon. But he still calls what happens in learning “internalization,” although he does not offer a description of this process, saying instead that this is “One of the central problems for cognitive anthropology” (314)….

I’m not sure where I’m going with this…. I could say that Strauss and Quinn’s book can be read as a response to this call for a theory of internalization. But that’s not where I wanted to go. I wanted to say something about Fleck and the pervasive thought collective/cultural model that says that humans have relatively, relevantly distinct insides and outsides and “Would it not be possible to manage entirely without something fixed?” (Fleck 50).

barthelme on the shore

First: Shore’s book was a mighty engaging read after the leaden prose of some of our recent forays into psychological/cognitive anthropology. He moves through such a wide range of material with such ease that it is difficult to keep up and muster more than a gape-mouthed sense of awe.

Onward: I am offering a couple of half-baked ideas, so please forgive me if this doesn’t all cohere. I’ve been reading some short stories by Donald Barthelme for a class in Postmodern American Fiction. It would seem to me (not having read any poststructuralist criticism of B.), that poststructuralist critics would have a field day w/ him; his sentences are slippery; language is definitely at play here. Yet, I think there’s something in Barthelme’s stories that amounts to more than the internal play of signs, and somehow relates to Shore’s critique of structuralism/poststructuralism as failing to account for empirical and psychogenic motivation (330).

In Barthelme’s “The Balloon,” (1968) an artist temporarily exhibits a floating balloon that covers the sky over a large part of Manhattan (eerily prescient in light of Christo’s “The Gates” exhibit in New York earlier this year), in a way that transforms the landscape/cityscape, forcing New Yorkers to confront its reality and to reorient themselves w/r/t the balloon (e.g., “I’ll be at that place where it dips down into 47th St…”). Also, note the way that the poststructuralist stance that “meaning” (in scare quotes, of course) is passé is parodied:

There was a certain amount of initial argument about the ‘meaning’ of the balloon; this subsided, because we have learned not to insist on meanings, and they are rarely even looked for now, except in cases involving the simplest, safest phenomena. It was agreed that since the meaning of the balloon could never be known absolutely, extended discussion was pointless…

I guess I read the story to be the fictional analog of some of the ideas in Ch. 14, which emphasizes “the experience of symbols rather than their formal properties,” so that they are “infused with psychogenic motivation” (360). The balloon has come unmoored from its signified, but it is still out there in the world, a shared experience that must be confronted, and in grappling with it the New Yorkers individually reconceive/remodel their environment.

Anyway, I wondered how artwork would fit into Shore’s conception of meaning-making (and forgive me if this is addressed in some of the middle chapters), especially for adults, whose “individual development manifests a movement from physiognomic to conventional apprehension of symbols” though “the transformation is never complete.” Can art be considered such a restructuring experience, a way of giving us (as individuals) agency/motivation to remake both language and the world (maybe something akin to reader response theory)?

Monday, October 03, 2005

Shore and Technology

I feel that Shore’s book adds a lot to the our general discussion of the topic of the mind and learning in one particular way: he seems to be the first writer we have read who gives a clear model for how new ideas (schemas) replace old ones. On page 49 he says that “it is reasonable to suppose that dominant cultural models are often accompanied by widely shared but not highly cognized or publicly symbolized alternative models,” meaning that the culture contains many models, some of which are dominant while others are less visible (especially to outsiders). His conception is kind of like a town with a red-light district. The folks who are respectable live their lives as if the red-light district does not exist; they may not acknowledge it or openly condemn it, but, though seem to ignore it, they are all aware of it, and that it offers an alternative—though psychically dangerous—mode of living. This particular conception helps explain why cultures, though they demonstrate widely similar traits, are not completely homogenous.

Shore’s distinction between social and cognitive models explains how cultures can adopt radically new social models. Shore explains the phenomenon this way:

It is conceivable . . . that under certain conditions, members of a community will fail to fully internalize a cultural model because their personal experiences are incompatible with the conventional model. For these people, the cultural models have become “dead models.” These individuals may well have alternative mental models, models that may be highly idiosyncratic or socially manifested as marginal cultural representations or as cultural innovations (52)

Take the example of T. S. Eliot. Did Eliot’s widely popular poetry—expressing a fractured sense of modern life and the despair that accompanied it—really indicate a new feeling on the part of the post-WWI, Western European, English-speaking population, or did he merely find a way to articulate a feeling that was latent in people, an alternative model, that had not been given a popular, representative voice? Or to put it another way, did life stink before the dawn of the 20th century, or was that a modern phenomenon?

I wasn’t as pleased with Shore’s chapter on technology (chapter vi), however. His description of modular living that is the result of digital technology seemed to be spot on, but his analysis of this shift—from analog to digital—is about as clear as a record junkie defending his or her refusal to switch to CDs. He sums up the chapter with Heidegger, noting that the author’s “technologically inspired crisis may be understood as the loss of analogically grounded and organically mediated cultural models that can serve as sources for meaning construction” and that “[t]he loss of such models amounts to what Heidegger called ‘the darkening of the world’” (160-61). First, I’m not sure that Shore proves that “meaning construction” is impossible in a digital world or with what he calls the “postmodern mind” (161). Second, I have no idea what he (or Heidegger) means by “the darkening of the world” and why we should fear such a thing. Perhaps someone else can explain that to me.

If one can put aside his fears of word processing, however, Shore’s point about the effect of technology on thought (or schema making) is fascinating. I think the effect of technology on though has been established (Ong, Havelock, and others) but Shore’s emphasis on how it can create culture-wide schemas that dominate our living is relatively new, I think.

Shore made his case

Wow, I'm pretty convinced of the inextricable connection among cognition, meaning and culture. Each informs the other, so how could any researcher claim to study just one?

Shore definitely made his case with me. His use of examples that were both familiar (TV, furniture, technology) and unfamiliar (the concept of liminality, totems, stories from other cultures) helped me grasp the breadth of his argument. Reading the modularity section, it occured to me that American culture has become even more modular--now we have modular careers instead of long-term relationships with one employer, and we even have modular families.

In a previous class session, the topic of more women in their 20s and early 30s leaving the workforce to stay home with their children was brought up. I wonder how Shore would connect this apparant trend to the "extreme" modularity of the American culture. Is it just a case of history repeating itself (circa 1940s & 50s) or is the US culture shifting in response to new/revised meanings related to female self-concept and family?