Sounds good to me.
Saturday, July 30, 2011
Saturday, July 23, 2011
I'm going to see my family.
Thursday, July 21, 2011
I have no idea.
Part of me would like to try painting. Or maybe I should draw more.
Monday, July 18, 2011
Friday, July 15, 2011
Thursday, July 14, 2011
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
This is the second section of my current essay project 'Relationships and Mediums'. In the first section I tried to explain how there was a qualitative divide in my relationships. With certain interactions I and other people are warm, open, and most importantly empathic. And in other instances people are distant, cold, and seem to be operating with nothing other than labels or ideas about who I am. In other words, sometimes my relationships are governed by genuine engagement with another mind, and sometimes they are mitigated by nothing but economically defined roles.
In order to understand this divide I am turning to the issue of mediums. Because above all else this is an issue of how minds are interacting with one another. And for me mind is nothing but what mind does. And the only way a mind can do something is through a certain medium. Therefore I can only make sense of this issue of relationships if I make sense of the mediums through which minds are working.
The goal of this whole thing is to create a historically augmented and pedagogically useful theory of mind. I think that theory of mind suffers from its ahistorical perspective. And I hope to use historical data to supplement these ahistorical accounts so as to arrive at a better picture of what minds are like in this precise moment in history. This is a line of thought I initiated in my essay 'The Genealogy Of The Modern Mind'. And this is my attempt to pick up that line of thought, albeit in a loose way.
So in any case, this is the section in which I try to understand that divide in my relationships by analyzing the major mediums through which the mind works. I chose three mediums to focus on: architecture and urban design, language itself, and economic systems. I think that these three things constitute our major mediums for choice and action. So by analyzing them I am hoping to analyze the relationships that take place within them.
This writing was hard for me, and so is a little sloppy and confused and all over the place. But that is what I was trying to do.
II. Of Mediums: Inclinations And Habits In Relationships
As I said above, I now want to focus on the question of mediums so as to move closer to creating a historically informed theory of mind. I am convinced that if we want to understand minds we need to think of them as concrete historical realities, and not as some abstract unchanging entity. This means that we need to think of minds as things that do things. We need to take seriously the idea that ‘mind is only what mind does’. So what do minds do? And how do they do it? Well the answer to the first question is less important. But I’ll say that minds have relationships with other minds, with themselves, and with things around them. Minds relate. How do they do it is the more important question. They always do it through certain mediums. And here I am defining a medium in the most general sense as a means to doing something. By this definition everything is a medium, from our five senses to the technology we use to augment them, from our economic system to the design of our cities. All of these things are mediums that our minds work through. Further, we are not dealing merely with single mediums, but with mediums that are stacked upon one another. The senses being at the foundation, and the economic system and other ones being stacked on top. And I think that a closer look at this issue of mediums will make it clear how to construct a historically informed theory of mind.
So what is it about mediums that we need to understand in order to understand our minds? For this question I would like to briefly discuss Nicholas Carr’s work in The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains. In that book Mr. Carr is trying to answer some questions about how the internet is effecting our behavior, our thoughts, and our brains. He has two foundational perspectives, the first is Marshal McLuhan’s work on media, the second being the recent advances in the field of neuroplasticity.
McLuhan is famous for coining the phrase ‘the medium is the message’, by which he meant that the form in which something is presented matters more than the content itself. This means that when studying media and communication we need to pay more attention to the way in which something is communicated and less to the actual content of what is communicated. This is the good old question of content versus form. Take poetry and aesthetic expression for example. Is it possible to communicate the same content in a different form? Or are content and form inseparably linked? I believe the latter to be the case. It isn’t enough, or even possible, to explain to somebody what a poem or a song communicates. This is because the content and the form are so intimately linked. I hear stories of musicians or poets what their work means. And in that case the best response is something like ‘if I could explain it to you I wouldn’t have to express it through music/poetry’. Hayden White also believes content and form to be intimately linked. I would really like to take a look at his book The Content Of The Form, but I haven’t been able to get to it yet. But in any case, the point is this: content and form, medium and message, are inseparably linked. And while we often focus strictly on content, people like McLuhan and White believe we would benefit from some focus on the medium or the form.
Carr uses McLuhan’s work on mediums as a starting point to discuss the way that the internet as a medium poses unique problems. If the medium is the message, then what is the message of the internet as a medium? Carr, however, takes this notion a step further by introducing the notion of an ‘intellectual ethic’. He claims that every medium contains an implicit ‘intellectual ethic’: “Every intellectual technology, to put it another way, embodies an intellectual ethic, a set of assumptions about how the human mind works or should work: (45). The users and even creators of a medium might not even be aware of the intellectual ethic of a medium: “The intellectual ethic of a technology is rarely recognized by its inventors. They are usually so intent on solving a particular problem or untangling some thorny scientific problem that they don’t see the broader implication of their work. The users of the technology are also usually oblivious to its ethic” (45). This is an important observation. We should pay particular attention to the way Carr describes an intellectual ethic as a set of assumptions about how the mind should work. This means that mediums are not simply a passive means that are completely under our control, but that they, on the contrary, directly shape what it is that we do and what it is that we are. Or, as Carr puts it, the medium appears “so much our servant that it would seem churlish to notice that it is also our master” (4). The medium as the message, therefore, means that we are actively transformed by the mediums that we use to navigate the world. Our minds change as a result of exposure to different mediums. This is where Carr’s concern with neuroplasticity comes into play.
Carr turns to the new science of neuroplasticity to show that mediums have an effect on human behavior. While for much of the twentieth century it was accepted that the brain was relatively static, recent findings show that the brain is far more plastic than people had suspected. Carr first draws on neuroscienctific evidence to make the general claim about the plasticity of the brain. He then turns to the more specific issue of how specific mediums effect the brain. He takes the book and the internet as his major concerns. He explains how the brains of literate individuals differ from the brains of illiterate individuals, and what parts of the brain are involved in reading books. He claims that the book as a medium encourages patient, concentrated, linear thought. To go from one page to another for a long time involves following and focusing on that narrative. As a result, the brain engaging with a book becomes better at focusing, on following linear trains of thought, and so on. The brain using the internet, on the other hand, is inclined to be distracted. He explains how with the internet we are always open to new pages, new hyperlinks, new tabs, and how, as a result, the part of our brain involved in judgement and decision making is engaged. While reading a book our decisions are relatively limited. We can put the book down and do something else, or we can keep reading. But with the internet we have the possibility of opening a new tab at any moment. And the activation of the part of the brain responsible for judgement is all it takes for us to be far more distractible on the internet. In any case, Carr is able to show that the internet and books both contain a unique intellectual ethic, and that they both effect the brain in different ways.
Carr makes a convincing case by extrapolating on McLuhan’s claim that the medium is the message. He shows that mediums are never just passive tools, but have a very active part in shaping our behavior, and in particular, our habits. The issue of habit has been increasingly important to me over the last number of months. And I think that Carr in many ways is getting at the issue of habits without making it explicit. When we talk about the medium being the message, or about the inclinations of a medium, what we are really talking about is the way that certain mediums instill certain unconscious habits in us. Using the internet, for example, I habitually jump from tab to tab, opening up different things and doing nothing useful. The medium encourages me to have certain habits. And this changes my brain. Habits show up in my brain probably.
Carr’s work leaves us with several lessons with regards to the importance of mediums. First, a medium is never a passive tool, but always possess a certain inclination, they always implicitly encourage us to behave in certain ways. Second, these mediums effect our brains in very real ways, produce noticeable effects in our behaviour and in our brains. Third, that we are best to think about mediums in terms of the habits they instill in us. Now that I have established these things about mediums in general, I would like to extrapolate it and reconnect it all to my discussion of minds and relationships.
So the first questions that I want to ask in order to reconnect the idea with mediums is this: What precisely is and is not a ‘medium’? If a medium is defined as ‘an agency or means of doing something’, then aren’t most things mediums? Does this mean that things like buildings, things like urban planning, things like economic systems, and even language itself, are mediums? If this is the case, and these things are ‘mediums’, then do all of these things contain something like the intellectual ethic and inclinations that Carr describes? If so, then what are the inclinations of these mediums? And how do we need to take them into account?
Well, I will just say right away that I think the answer to many of those questions is a yes: we do need to think of urban design, languages, and economic systems as ‘mediums’. And this means that we need to consider these mediums in the way that Carr describes: not as passive tools, but as things that instill certain habits in us and actively incline us towards certain types of thinking and behavior. We need to recognize, as McLuhan said, that mediums “alter ‘patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance’” (Carr, 3). Our lives, our experiences, our minds, and our relationships are being shaped on an unconscious level by mediums that are so fundamental to our existence that we don’t even recognize them as mediums. This is where I’m getting into a little bit of trouble. I have not read enough about urban design, economic systems, or language in order to understand this stuff. But I’ll try.
So is it possible to consider architecture and urban design to be a medium? And if so, what are the inclinations of this medium that we need to be aware of? Well I think that the answer to the first question is a definite yes. Human beings always interact with buildings, and buildings are always a way that we get certain things done. Buildings are almost always a means to something, and they are therefore a medium of sorts. But does this means that buildings induce certain habits in us? That, as a medium, they incline us to act in certain ways? Indeed, Walter Benjamin made this precise claim about buildings and architecture. He claims that many of our artistic mediums are historically contingent, they come and go. But that architecture has remained a consistent medium for human beings, because “the human need for shelter is permanent.” Benjamin therefore claims that architecture's “effect ought to be recognized in any attempt to account for the relationship of the masses to the work of art” (40). Understanding how the masses relate to architecture, however, is not a simple task. Benjamin believes that architecture is received in at least two ways: “by use and by perception. Or, better: tactilely and optically.” Further, that our tactile reception of architecture comes about through habit and largely determines our optical perception: “Tactile reception comes about not so much by way of attention as by way of habit. The latter largely determines even the optical reception of architecture, which spontaneously takes the form of casual noticing, rather than attentive observation” (40). I have a hard time understanding Benjamin. But clearly he regards architecture as a medium that is both artistic, and one that most people engage with. Further, he seems to think that the way people interact with architecture subtlety introduces habits into their lives. This would imply that architecture is indeed a medium as defined by Carr: a means to doing something that contains an implicit message, a secret suggestion, an inclination.
David Harvey further corroborates this idea that architecture and urban planning constitute an important medium for human choice. In The Condition Of Postmodernity he has a chapter called ‘Postmodernism in the city’. In it he discusses the change from modernity to postmodernity in terms of architecture, city planning, and urban design. He says that the switch from modernity to postmodernity in these field is characterized by the rejection of attempts to rationally organize space so as to regulate social and economic conditions. “Whereas the modernists see space as something to be shaped for social purposes and therefore always subservient to the construct of a social project, the postmodernists see space as something independent and autonomous, to be shaped according to aesthetic aims and principles which have nothing necessarily to do with any overarching social objective, save, perhaps, the achievement of timeless and ‘disinterested’ beauty as an objective in itself” (66). Clearly there is something important at stake in urban design and the management of space. “How a city looks and how its spaces are organized,” Harvey claims, “forms a material base upon which a range of possible sensations and social practices can be thought about, evaluated, and achieved” (66-67, my italics). I have emphasized the words ‘material base’ because I am trying to draw attention to the way in which the material world has the ability to govern our unconscious thoughts and habits, and is therefore a medium in the way Carr describes. And it seems that governments are aware that cities work on this level of unconscious patterns of behavior. This is why governments strive for “the rationalization of spatial patterns and of circulation systems so as to promote equality (at least of opportunity), social welfare, and economic growth” (69).
So, it is clear that cities constitute an important medium for choice. They are designed in ways that are supposed to maximize equality. They are purposefully created so as to allow people access to certain things and not to other things. But is it fair to say that they instill habits in people? And that they meet the definition of a medium in that sense? The answer seems to be yes. And I think that Harvey’s use of Pierre Bourdieu’s work is telling. He draws on Bourdieu’s notion of ‘habitus’, which refers to the totality of learned habits and dispositions that individuals acquire in a given society. In the realm of habitus “we each of us possess powers of regulated improvisation, shaped by experience, which allow us ‘an endless capacity to engender products – thoughts, perception, expressions, actions – whose limits are set by the historically situated conditions’ of their production” (345, my italics). I emphasize the idea of experience and the idea of history for a few reason. By emphasizing experience I want to communicate that habits are not essential, they are learned from the mediums that we have around us, and for Harvey, the design of cities is an important medium for our choices. And I emphasize the issue of history because I want to hint at the final section of this essay. If these are historically contingent habits, then history will be an important place to look when we are thinking about change. But all that I really need you to take away from these last few paragraphs is that buildings and cities are mediums in the sense that they are a means by which we accomplish, and more importantly, that they implicitly incline us to behave in certain ways. So I think it is fair to say that architecture and cities meet Carr’s definition of a medium. But what about language?
So is it possible to consider language itself a medium? Language is so intimately linked to our experiences that we might not always think about it. But to me it seems like language is clearly one of our fundamental mediums. Every choice and most actions we make are mitigated by it. We often have to say something in order to actualize a choice, and you have to use linguistic categories to even conceptualize a choice. Language is perhaps the most fundamental institution. So, it seems pretty obvious to me that language must be considered a medium. The next question, then, is What is the inclination of language as a medium? What is the message of language as a medium?
Well, I think that language inclines us towards valuation and judgement. I don’t think it is possible to talk about something without implicitly evaluating that thing. Is it possible to label something without embedding some kind of value judgement in that label. Can you think of a value-free word? I wonder if I can. I’m not sure. But for the most part I would say that language inclines us towards judging something one way or another.
To really make this analysis more complete I would have to say what the most common words are in our daily language, and what kind of value judgement is implicit in that language. But I don’t feel like taking those pains right now. So I’ll just say that at some point I’ll have to look more closely at this question of language and how it inclines us towards judgement. That would really be helpful in creating a historical theory of mind. But right now I just want to finish up this section on mediums so I can move on to the issues of history and other stuff. But suffice it to say that I think language is a crucial medium for choice, and that it the language we use inclines us towards judging things in certain ways. Just a quick example: can you think of any word that can be used to describe a woman who has a lot of sex that has a positive connotation? It is tough to think of one. Slut, whore, promiscuous, etc., are the words that we usually have to describe a woman like that. But all of those words don’t simply describe the phenomenon, they also implicitly judge it. I think the same is probably true of much language: it is embedded with valuation. And a last point, I will just say that language also inclines us towards generalization, towards the violence of language that Zizek describes.
Now I’d like to ask if economic systems can also be considered mediums. This question as to whether economic system in itself constitutes a medium is a question I have less to say about. Mainly because it seems pretty obvious to me that if something like a city or language can be considered a medium, then the economic system is also a medium. In fact, it seems as though the economic system might be the most crucial of all mediums. In the past six months or more I have become more and more concerned with economic analysis. This is largely thanks to Collingwood, David Harvey, Zizek, and of course, Marx. Harvey pushed me to think seriously about Marxism, and so I picked up my copy of The German Ideology and found it engaging. Zizek then pushed me further to think about Marxism. I am still very confused by Zizek. But the one thing I’d like to note is Zizek’s claims that if we are to address social issues then we must address the economic system above all else. He says that “one can reduce all political, juridical, cultural content to the ‘economic base’, ‘deciphering’ it as its ‘expression’ – all except class struggle, which is the political in the economic itself” (IDOLC, 293). I don’t understand the end of that sentence, with the idea of excepting class struggle. But it is clear that the economic system, for Zizek, is the fundamental medium in which all other mediums are embedded.
It seems as though Zizek thinks that economics is the fundamental medium. Indeed, this is the fundamental tenant of Marx and of historical materialism: we are in the main determined and constituted by the material conditions in which we live. What people are, Marx argues, “coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production” (German Ideology, 7). The economic system is how we gain access to our basic material needs; it provides us with food, shelter, relationships, etc.. Everything is mediated through this basic care of the physical body. Furthermore, the economic system in many ways creates who we are, “that circumstances make men just as much as men make circumstances” (Ibid., 29). This means that the economic system, too, fits Carr’s definition of a medium in that it actively creates habits of behavior in us. The economic system as a medium inclines us to do certain things, it makes us into something.
So what is the inclination of our economic system as a medium? Well that is a super difficult question, and I don’t really know how to answer it. I am inclined to resort to some kind of platitude about greed and capitalism and blah blah blah. But it would make sense that the economic system inclines us to greed, towards consumption, towards conceptual interactions with other people.
And this is one thing I’d like to say that will connect all of these issues of mediums to my original questions in the first section. I was asking why some of my relationships seemed to exist based on very little other than labels. And in particular, I experience this at my job. When I have an economically defined roll, as a ‘barista’, people don’t need to worry about any of the other things that I might be. When we first meet people we ask them ‘what do you do?’, by which we typically mean, ‘what is your profession/job? how do you make your money?’. It seems to me that the economic system is in many ways does seem like the master medium that governs our behavior and our relationships.
I still don’t know how to say precisely what the inclination of capitalism is. But it seems like when the violence of language meets the violence of the economic system, then some bad things happen. We have a social system in which we can label people certain things and leave them to the violence of the economic system. Those two processes would corroborate one another. The economic system has people born into poverty, and then the language of the economic system makes it so that they are blamed for their plight. ‘They deserve to be poor because they didn’t work hard enough, didn’t take advantage of their opportunities’. It seems to me that the interaction between the three mediums I’m describing is very real. Cities and urban design play into the needs of the economic system, the language helps create the economic system and then perpetuates the economic system. It seems that the mediums contain these types of inclinations.
I’m running out of ways to talk about this stuff right now. But it should be clear, hopefully, that based on Carr’s definition of mediums as containing inclinations, cities, language, and economic systems can all be considered mediums. All of these things are a means to doing something, and they all encourage us to do those things in certain ways. Cities incline us to go certain places, to do certain types of jobs, to engage in certain types of behavior. Language encourages us to generalize and value things in certain ways. And economic systems incline us to care for our bodies in certain ways, and seems to exert disproportionate influence on the other mediums. Meaning that language, urban design, and other things, are all effected by the economic system. That the economic system is the base, or master medium, in which all other mediums work through. This makes sense in that our bodies are the main thing that allow us to do anything. So perhaps the body is the master medium, and the economic system is the way the body continues to function. So anyways, that should be enough to make it clear that our minds work through many large mediums that interact with one another, and that cities, language, and economic systems are all crucial mediums for our choices. And furthermore, that the problem I addressed in the first section has to do with the inclinations of our mediums. I believe that some of my relationships have a strictly conceptual quality because language and the economic system incline us to think of people in strictly utilitarian, and not empathic, terms.
Before I move on to try and propose some solutions to the problem of conceptual relationships, I would like to say a few more things about mediums. The questions are, How do mediums get structured in this way? If everything down to cities and language is a medium, how do we change them? What is their internal logic or structure? What sort of factors contribute to the constitution of a medium? To answer this I would like to use my friends Michel Foucault, Guy Claxton, and David Harvey.
The mediums that I am speaking of consist of things that are typically regarded as mundane or ordinary. In order to understand how cities, languages, and economic systems are mediums, I think we need to focus on basic things like time, space, movement, sleep, etc.. In other words, in order to grasp the nature of our largest mediums we have to look for the significance in the mundane.
Foucault’s Discipline & Punish is loaded with this type of observation of social mediums. Foucault claims that sometime at the beginning of the nineteenth century a new type of society came into existence, what he calls a ‘disciplinary society’. The hallmark of disciplinary society is the intense regulation of individual bodies. Foucault believes that disciplinary societies came into existence for a variety of reasons, the rise of capitalist economies being one of the most important. He describes how the most basic facets of life came under the gaze of elite groups of individuals. Doctors, psychiatrists, factory owners, legal officials, and other individuals were suddenly capable of closely observing individuals. As a result it became possible to create large bodies of knowledge about individuals, their lives, their movements, their thoughts and attitudes, and so on. And that knowledge in turn allowed people to be regulated in more intense ways. Foucault would say that the creation of that knowledge, in fact, produced those individuals by telling them what they were. In particular, Foucault claims that mundane things like sleep, language, movement, space, and time were the most closely regulated. In other words, Foucault believes that a new form of political/economic culture, and thus new people, were created through the regulation of the most basic aspects of life. And for my sake, I’ll say that a new social medium (capitalist/disciplinary society) was created through the regulation of the mundane.
Claxton also offers some insights into the significance of the mundane. In What’s The Point Of School Claxton argues that a school’s culture is determined by the way it handles very basic things. Claxton, just like Foucault, identifies space, language, and time as key factors in determining the culture of a school. It matters how we arrange our spaces, how we regulate our time, how we speak about things. Claxton, for example, says that it is harmful to speak of students as ‘bright’ or ‘dull’. He argues that those labels imply that there is something inherently smart or dumb about a certain person. And instead we should be speaking of students capacity for learning. That the word ‘learning’ needs to be the crux of school culture. Claxton says that “small changes in the classroom layout and the activities on offer cumulatively shift students’ sense of ‘what we believe and value’, and they respond accordingly,” and that “Building a learning culture is not just a matter of individual teachers in separate classrooms. Every aspect of school life is important” (149, my italics). In other words, for schools, the most important things are the most basic things: the words we use, the way we arrange our space, the actions we partake in. For Claxton, schools are the medium to education, and the medium is the message. And the medium lies in the most basic aspects of our lives.
These two examples lend credence to David Harvey’s claims in The Condition Of Postmodernity. In that book Harvey wants to understand what it is that people loosely refer to as ‘postmodernity’. The most obvious question is, What is the relationship between the cultures that we call modernity and what we call postmodernity? Harvey argues that, above all else, the experience of (post)modernity is fundamentally connected with a certain experience of space and time (space-time). Furthermore, that the experience of space-time is closely tied to the economic system that is in place. Harvey claims that the rise of modernity is about new experiences of space and time that resulted from the growth of industry and capitalism. As industry grew in Europe people began exploring more, commerce grew, products could be shipped internationally, time became a more precious commodity, maps became more common. In short, as capitalism grew people began to experience space-time in new and profound ways. Harvey refers to this phenomenon as ‘time-space compression’, which refers to “processes that so revolutionize the objective qualities of space and time that we are forced to alter, sometimes in quite radical ways, how we represent the world to ourselves” (240). And the word compression refers to how “ the history of capitalism has been characterized by speed-up in the pace of life, while so overcoming spatial barriers that the world sometimes seems to collapse inwards upon us” (240). Modernity as a cultural phenomena, therefore, is associated with a round of time-space compression that was brought on by the expansion of capitalism. Similarly, Harvey argues that postmodernity arose out of another round of time-space compression that was caused by a transformation in capitalism’s structure. He argues that we have changed from a Fordist-Keynesian economic model to what he calls one of ‘flexible accumulation’, meaning that the economy now “rests on flexibility with respect to labour processes, labour markets, products, and patterns of consumption” (147). Harvey drives home the point that the most minor things in our lives, like how we experience space and time, can actually have profound consequences for our personal and cultural lives. He corroborates Foucault and Claxton’s claims that culture emerges out of mundane things like basic language, space, time, movement, sleep, and so on. And all of these thinkers allow me to understand that our must essential mediums are constituted by constellations of these mundanities. Our mediums (economic systems, languages, cities, etc.) are constituted by certain organizations of space, time, movement, and so on. The mundane parts of our life have a lot of power to determine how we think, how we live our lives, and what our habits are.
I think that Carr is also aware of the importance of these mundane things, and how they create the mediums that give us our habits. He begins explicating his idea of the intellectual ethic of mediums by talking about the history of clocks and maps. He explains how each one of these intellectual tools, these ‘tools of the mind’, change the way that we think about the world, and thus change the way that we act within the world. Carr, however, has less to say about what the intellectual ethic of the map or the clock is. He is just saying that they are mediums that we use to understand ourselves in the world, and that they too have a set of assumptions, that they are a medium with a message.
Carr, however, does have plenty to say about the implications of the internet as a medium. In particular, Carr worries that the internet is making people more machine like, that by fully committing to the electronic world we are sacrificing something uniquely human. That by being constantly distracted by the internet and technology we are losing something. Namely, the power of judgement, empathy, and compassion. He claims that we are experiencing “a slow erosions of our humanness and our humanity” (220). That “the more distracted we become, the less able we are to experience the subtlest, most distinctively human forms of empathy, compassion, and other emotions.... It would not be rash to suggest that as the Net reroutes our vital paths and diminishes our capacity for contemplation, it is altering the depth of our emotions as well as our thoughts” (221). Indeed, the message of the internet is one of distraction, and I agree with Carr that this has serious consequences for our capacity for empathy and compassion. We are running the risk of destroying those traits that we think of as human or humane. “It may be that we are now entering the final stage of that [technological] entrenchment. We are welcoming the frenziedness [of technology] into our souls” (222). We do indeed need to worry about the way the modern world inclines us to eschew empathy, compassion, and emotions.
I think, however, that these issues go far beyond the internet as a medium. Because the disappearance of empathy and compassion is something that is happening in places beyond the internet. I fear that it is happening in our cities and urban design, in our language, and in our economic system. That is why I undertook this analysis of those mediums. Because I wonder if the message of those mediums is to abandon empathy for generalizations about people. I wonder if the message of our economic system is that we are essentially our jobs, and that as long as someone is economically defined we don’t need to take the time to show them any empathy or compassion. And this is the connection to the previous section on the difference between empathic and conceptual interaction, and why the question of mediums and their inclinations matters so much. People often habitually treat me as if I am simply a barista, as if I don’t need to be thought of in serious or nuanced ways. And I don’t think I can chock this up to stupidity, or laziness, or anything like that. I think I need to look at larger forces. And I think that I can understand this qualitative divide in my relationships by focusing on the mediums through which my relationships are mediated. And it seems to me that the message of our most prominent mediums, is that we ought to abandon empathy in favor of economic efficiency and personal generalization. And since I suspect that our economic system may be the most important medium, I will say that the message of capitalism might be greed, generalization, labeling, and a lack of empathy. And all of this happens on the habitual level.
I believe that I can only understand my relationships by understanding their mediums. And that is what I wanted to do in this section. I was asking, If the medium is the message, and if language, cities, and economic systems are mediums, then what is the message of those mediums? What habits are these mediums instilling in me and my fellow humans? And I fear that the mediums are giving us habits that are cold, and unemotional. We are being turned into beings that habitually label one another, habitually ignore one another, habitually scorn one another, habitually interact at the superficial level of words, habitually avoid empathy and compassion.
This was a hard section to write for me. I struggled to write about these mediums. I didn’t know how to approach them. But I made it through. And in the end I think I have addressed the question of relationships by focusing on mediums. My conclusions, however, are too vague. Carr believes that the internet, with its inclination towards distraction, is dulling our capacity for empathy. And I am similarly concluding that the economic system, our language, and our cities are also inclining use towards distraction and the dulling of empathy. It seems to be a fact of my experience and the world around me. I know there is still a lot of love and empathy out there. But there is also a lot of alienation, a lot of coldness, a lot of war, and probably not enough empathy. And I think that this must have something to do with our most prominent mediums.
In the last two sections I need to try and build on this work I’ve just done. I think that the only way out of this problem, the only way to understand our mediums and our habits, is through historical study. Similarly, I think that the only way to create informed policy is through historical study. And that the only way to reinvigorate our culture with empathy and love is through historical study. Thus, the next section will be on historical study, and the issue of human self-creation.
Monday, July 11, 2011
My thoughts are jumbled jumbled jumbled.
I think we all need compassion.
Sunday, July 10, 2011
Then I walked to volunteer park. I just wanted to walk and enjoy the weather while I sipped my delicious drink. I wandered through the park for a little while. I looked at people. I thought about them in vague ways. I envied them for the qualities of their life that are foreign to me at this time in my life.
Saturday, July 9, 2011
This is the introduction and the first section of an essay I have been working on. Things are changing in it. So I'll be updating it as I go along. But here is the tentative table of contents:
I. Of Minds: Empathic Versus Linguistic Interaction
a. simulation, or empathic interaction
b. theory-theory, or conceptual interaction
c. The need to historicize theory of mind
II. Of Mediums: Inclinations And Habits In Relationships
- So, we start out with mediums in general.
- I believe the notion of layers of mediums, and of almost everything down to the five senses being a medium is coherent.
- I think the best way to start the talk on mediums is Nicholas Carr.
- Talk about Gandhi and means as ends in the making - same idea.
- That stuff will establish the issue of medium as message, then we should give some real examples. Like the economic system, like Foucault and Claxton on the control of space and time and stuff.
III. Of History: The Creation Of Mediums As The Creation Of Human Nature
- In this section I think it would be wise to talk about implosive rationality. Because historical study would be a way of creating new habits, and thus a form of implosive rationality.
- We need to talk about choice and about compassion as they relate to history. Or do they relate to mediums? Maybe even the 4th section
- We need to talk about retroactive freedom too
- Human self-creation is the operative idea.
IV. Of Choice And Compassion
In this essay I am really trying to be free. In so much of my writing I think I am trying to be free.
Seeing as how this essay is supposed to be about relationships in general, I need to say a few things, and ask myself a few questions. When I say relationships I am trying to mean it in the absolute broadest sense. In one way or another, every person I have interacted with I have ‘had a relationship with’. I have a certain relationship with myself and my own thoughts and emotions. I have a relationship with my material surroundings and how I understand them. In many ways I am talking about relationships the way that Foucault talks about power relations: as omnipresent interactions with things, people, and myself. So, given that I’m talking about relationships in such a broad way, I have to ask myself: What is it about the quality of my relationships with things, people, and myself that makes me feel so unfree? What is it about me and my relationships that troubles me so much?
Well, right off the bat I’ll just say that my relationships often feel out of my control on a couple different levels. On the first level is my own thoughts, emotions, and reactions to people. I don’t really mean to think the way I do or feel the emotions that I feel. I just react. I just think and feel those things. I do my best to examine and understand my feelings after the fact, but in the moment it is too immediate for that kind of insight. Furthermore, I find that I have a huge amount of unquestioned assumptions, a huge amount of concepts that interfere with me just interacting with people.
These issues of my mind as an individual object, and the issue of mind to mind interaction in relationships, the micro reality of minds, will be the topic of the first section. I’ll be using the distinction between simulation theory of mind and theory-theory of mind to guide the discussion. But I hope to avoid those terms and talk more about the way that they point to a problem in relationships that I have experienced. This problem is that my interactions with familiar people feel very comfortable, empathic, ‘simulative. But my interactions with strangers, on the other hand, feel very distant, very theoretical, very conceptually-driven. It will turn out, I suspect, that this issue of minds and their different interactions cannot be handled through reflection or any phenomenological method. From here, therefore, the discussion will move to more macro issues.
The first macro level that contributes to the world of micro interactions that I’ll look at is the issue of habit. By talking about habit I want to try and hone in on the things that make my mental interactions problematic. I think that habit is one thing that potentially compromises our ability to be free in our relationships. We sometimes, I sometimes, default to my habits and then I don’t make actual choices. I don’t make conscious choices. I just run with the ideas and behaviors that are intuitive and habitual for me.
Raising this issue of habit, however, prompts more questions. Where do these habits come from? How do they develop in people? Why do they appear to be more or less uniform in certain times and places? These questions will bring me to the issue of mediums. I will be using the word medium in its most general sense as a means of doing something. Furthermore, I will be using Nicholas Carr’s work to discuss how medium’s implicitly contain certain inclinations, medium’s encourage us to behave in certain ways, they implicitly contain certain habits. I believe that the issue of habits and mediums will shed some light on the problem of relationships that I described above.
Asking questions about mediums, however, prompts further question about their origins and the possibilities for changing them. This is where the philosophy of history will come into play. Using Foucault, Collingwood, Smith, and others, I will claim that an understanding of history would provide us better knowledge of our own mediums and habits and thus give us a greater possibility of understanding and changing ourselves, thus hopefully improving the quality of our relationships.
I see this writing as collaborating with John Searle, and with my own work on the notion of the genealogy of the modern mind.
In his book Making The Social World: The Structure Of Human Civilization, John Searle argues that philosophy needs to create a sub-discipline known as the philosophy of society. He says that just as many contemporary disciplines did not exist in the past, we need to create a branch of philosophy that does not exist yet, known as the philosophy of society: “But the sense in which we know regard the philosophy of language as a central part of philosophy, Immanuel Kant did not have and could not have had such an attitude. I am proposing that ‘The Philosophy of Society’ ought to be regarded as a legitimate branch of philosophy along with such disciplines as the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of language” (5). So, one concern I have in this essay is this idea of a philosophy of society. I think it is fair to say that if we are to have a philosophy of society we would need a philosophy of relationships. Searle’s work is a starting point for me in many ways.
I also see this essay as picking up on a line of thought that I initiated in August of 2010. In my essay ‘The Genealogy of the Modern Mind: Theory of Mind, History, And Self-Directed Neuroplasticity’ I tried to argue that theory of mind ins inadequate if it is ahistorically conceptualized. I tried to explain how Foucault’s method of genealogical history could be used to augment conventional theory of mind. My whole purpose for this historically augmented theory of mind was to try and explain how Foucault’s idea of personal transformation could be actualized. Or, as I put it then: “I believe that if we are to construct a theory of mind that is useful we need to draw both on scientific evidence to discover the universalities of the mind, but we also need to draw on history to illuminate the contingencies of the mind. Only through genealogical history could we create a theory of mind that could diagnose the present state of our own minds, and thus allow us to enact meaningful changes on ourselves through the study of the humanities.” I was unable to say, however, what types of historical information would be necessary to help us understand the state of our own minds and thus take a step towards changing them. That is one place where this essay is picking up. I think that by focusing on the issue of habits, and the way that mediums create those habits, and by claiming that habits and mediums can only be illuminated with historical study, I will be able to show how history is a necessary part of an adequate and useful theory of mind.
In short, I want to show that contemporary theory of mind is inadequate because it lacks a historical orientation and thus ignores the issue of habits and the way that mediums create those habits.
Onward to the first sections on minds.
I. Of Minds: Empathic Versus Linguistic Interaction
I want to begin this whole discussion with the issue of individual minds because it is the ground floor in which I (and everyone else) experience people. The level of minds is therefore the level of experience. And this can be the only level that truly matters to me. I want this type of thinking to make a difference in my actual relationships. I need my experience to change if I am to regard this writing as useful.
So what is the problem that I am having in my individual relationships? If I am writing about this issue of relationships, then clearly I see a problem with how my relationships function. I stated the problem above: there is a huge disparity in the quality of my relationships. With people I am close with I am (hopefully) friendly, caring, curious, interested, and involved in their minds. Ideally, there is a very serious engagement and give and take between minds. I feel that when I am close to someone I really enter into their mind, into their world, and I enjoy it. And hopefully when people know me they truly enter into my mind, get a sense of me as a person, and enjoy that immersion in my mental world. In short, with close relationships there is a serious attempt to enter the mind of another person. When I don’t know someone, on the other hand, interactions can feel curt, distant, and utilitarian. The perfect example of this is my interactions with customers. As a barista, people are interested in getting in and out of a cafe with the coffee and treats that they desired. This isn’t always true. There is a gray area. Some people are vaguely interested, or are simply polite. But there are definitely people that interact with me simply to get something from me. It seems that some people are interacting with me on a purely conceptual level. It seems that the only thing standing between me and them is bits of knowledge: they know that I have a defined role, and that if they tell me what they want that they will get it. That is roughly the problem. My close relationships feel empathic: they involved intimate mental exchanges, and a genuine understanding of the content of each other’s minds. While many of my relationships feel purely conceptual: there is no genuine attempt to access emotions or thoughts, but only an interaction that is meant to produce a certain result.
I would like to say again that this is by no means a clear dichotomy, it is a very gray and blurry area. Sometimes I have customers that are super fun to interact with, we joke and talk about stuff, but I might not know their names or anything about them. But there is still some sort of genuine engagement. Other times I talk to someone I’ve know for a while and things can proceed along these conceptual lines. So this is by no means a clean divide between empathic and conceptual interactions. But I think it is there enough to justify the analytical distinction.
So, this is the moment where I try to make hay of this problem. I need to try to parse and explain this qualitative divide in my relationships. I plan on doing this by drawing on two major schools of thought in American theory of mind: simulation theory, and theory-theory. I will generally be identifying this idea of empathic interactions with simulation theory, and the issue of conceptual interaction with theory-theory. I think that a quick summary of these two schools of thought will make this divide in my relationships more understandable.
I think that an understanding of simulation theory will make it clear that human beings have the potential to mentally interact in intimate and empathic ways. In philosophy of mind it is assumed that human’s are fundamentally minded creatures, meaning that we experience the world as one full of meaning, intentions, obligations, relationships, etc.. Further, philosophy of mind assumes that human interaction and relationships are always a matter of mindreading: of understanding each other’s mental states through different means. So the central question that theorists of mind grapple with is how do humans make sense of one another’s minds? How are we able to understand one another even though we only have access to our own thoughts (and perhaps we don’t even have that).
In Simulating Minds Alvin Goldman argues that humans understanding one another through empathy and extended forms of empathy, which can all be referred to under the umbrella category of simulation. This claim is justified primarily based on the existence of mirror neurons, and the existence of what Goldman calls the Enactment-imagination (E-imagination). Mirror neurons are motor neurons that are activated not only when an action is performed, but any time that an action is perceived. So when we see someone making a facial expression our brain activates the same neurons that are necessary for making that same facial expression. The brain then understands what emotion is being expressed based on what mirror neurons have been activated by the perception of a facial expression. Mirror neurons are also activated anytime we see someone grasp something. But the crucial point here is that mirror neurons are essentially the brains way of simulating the actions that it perceives, and thus its way of understanding other people around us. This is very similar to what Wolfgang Prinz called the ‘common coding theory’, which claims that “there is a shared representation (a common code) for both perception and action” (Wikipedia for common coding theory). Mirror neurons are the part of our brain that allow us to feel empathy for other people. So, mirror neurons demonstrate that simulation is one of the crucial ways in which we understand other people. The E-imagination is another neurologically documented phenomenon that shows the importance of simulation in social interactions. The term Enactment-Imagination refers to the fact that when we consciously attempt to imagine a certain experience we can enact certain qualities of that experience. When we try to imagine the pain we felt when a loved one died, for example, we can in part reconstitute the emotions that we felt at the time when that event actually took place. Or if we try to imagine what it would be like to have a spider crawling on our skin we can in some ways feel it on our skin. The existence of the E-imagination is evident not only in phenomenological accounts, but is also neurologically verifiable. Goldman does a good job drawing on the relevant science to show that there is neurological overlap between an experience and the imagination of that same experience. In any case, this notion of the E-imagination probably sounds very abstract. But think about when you have met a new person and they tell you about the time they broke their arm, and suddenly your skin crawls with the pain you imagined they felt. The E-imagination has the potential to be a very powerful component in our relationships with people. With both mirror neurons and the E-imagination we are engaging in forms of simulation. Both of them are a means to simulating and thus understanding other people’s thoughts and feelings.
These are two of Goldman’s major analytical pillars. But the heart of his theory is much more humane and emotional than I am able to convey in this short space. He wants to show that people engage with one another by really deeply entering into each other’s minds. That empathy is at the core of what it means to be a human, and that without it we have no hope of truly engaging with another person. And that what we are doing with all of this empathy is simulating other people’s thoughts and feelings in our own mind.
So this account of simulation theory is probably too brief, and probably too abstract. But I can’t bring myself to give a really good summary of simulation theory. I’ve written on it too many times. But what I want you to take away from this brief account of simulation theory is that there is empirical evidence that humans can engage in very empathic relationships. That there is a very real form of human interaction that is personal, empathic, and in technical terms, simulative. I believe, however, that there are other ways that people engage with one another. And I think that this other mode of engagement is captured in the notion of theory-theory.
I am very uncomfortable with my understanding of theory-theory. I have never read the work of a theory-theorist. I have learned about it primarily from Goldman’s summary of it in Simulating Minds. So I’ll just say that I am not confident in my references to it. But that I think that what I have learned about it, even if my understanding is misguided, will shed some light on the qualitative divide in my relationships that I am trying to address.
So what do theory-theorists claim? Well, they generally argue that mindreading is accomplished by the existence of tacit psychological theories. People supposedly use these tacit psychological theories to make inferences about other people’s behavior. In other words, theory-theory maintains that people understand each other much in the same way that scientists make sense of the natural world. The only difference is that we theoretically mindread people in a tacit or implicit way, and that science uses the same methods but in an explicit matter. Goldman quotes Fodor arguing that “When such [commonsense psychological] explanations are made explicit, they are frequently seen to exhibit the ‘deductive structure’ that is so characteristic of explanation in real science” (Fodor, 1987, quoted in Goldman, 2006). Goldman continues: “Fodor’s account of commonsense psychology posits an implicit, sciencelike theory featuring generalizations over unobservables (in this case, mental states). People are said to arrive at commonsense mental attributions by using the theory to guide their inferences” (Ibid., 96). So, as you can see, theory-theory believes that people operate like unconscious scientists, using tacit psychological theories to make logical inferences about what people behave the way they do. And, according to Goldman, these theories are presumed to be an innate human capacity. This ahistorical approach to mind is one major problem I have with theory-theory. But, again, I’m not at all comfortable with my knowledge of theory-theory. But at first glance it seems crazy to me.
I don’t want to dwell on the technical issues of theory-theory. Instead, I want to use it as a way to transition to the problem of relationships that I am trying to address. And I think the best way to do that is to use some personal reflections and anecdotes.
When I’m at work I worry about how people engage with me. Sometimes people will come up to me and will just mumble something and throw a dollar on the counter. Sometimes people will ignore all my attempts at saying hello or making small talk. People just spout orders at me, spout numbers at me. When this kind of thing happens I feel as though I have been denied some basic part of my humanity. I feel hurt when I go completely unacknowledged as a person. So how is it that people are able to engage with me in this way? How is it that people can approach me, buy something from me, and feel no concern or interest in who I am as a person? And how is it that I am able to interact with people in this way? This seems to conflict with the notion of simulation theory. There seems to be no attempt, or even need, to simulate one another’s thoughts. It seems that all me and my customers need to interact is labels and concepts.
And this is what it is about theory-theory that worries me. The Fodor quotation above shows that one of the crucial things about theory-theory is that it supposedly works in terms of generalizations as opposed to particulars. I have a big problem with generalization, categorization, and labeling. I think that they make things understandable by simplifying them. Once we have a label for something, once we have generalized it, there is no need for us to think very hard about what it really might be. This is especially true with people. Once we label someone ‘insane’, or ‘a criminal’, or ‘a barista’, for that matter, we don’t have to wonder about them. Their role, their essence, is already defined for us. And in the case of baristas, or any other service worker, they are functionally or economically defined. In short, I think that humans understand one another not simply through simulation and empathy. We can also understand one another through language, through classification and labeling. Both of these things, empathy and language, are innate properties for humans. And I think that they conflict with one another. I think there is tension between these two properties of the mind. In fact, I wrote about this in my essay of December 12th 2010, ‘Empathy And Language’.
I think that Zizek’s notion of the ‘violence of language’ can shed some light on the tension between language and empathy (between theory-theory and simulation theory). In Violence Zizek explains how there is an element of violence that is inherent to language. He refers to it as symbolic violence. He claims that every time we label something we disfigure it, we remove it from its natural and nuanced state and we reduce it to something else. He takes gold as an example. When we call gold gold we change it from being an ordinary mineral and we imbue it with all our economic notions of greed, desire, value, beauty, et cetera. I think that this notion of the violence of language holds true in many situations. When we label a certain group of people an enemy we do the same thing. We dull our sense of empathy towards them, because the label is enough. As long as we know that someone is ‘an enemy’ we don’t have to think very seriously about their thoughts, about their feelings, their experiences. The same thing holds true in more mundane examples. When someone is labeled as a barista, a server, a doctor, etc., we don’t have to think about them as a person. All we need to know is captured in that label.
This is what I worry about myself and my interactions. I worry that people just think of me as a barista, and if I don’t make them think of me in other ways, then they would be content to let me remain a mere barista. That is why I value small talk so much. It is an opportunity for me to assert myself as a personality, as a unique person, and not just as a barista. I resent those economic and social labels that make people think of me in those ways. I try to do my best to defy people’s labels for me and assert myself as a real mind that they have to think about. I refuse to be generalized about, I want to be thought of in particulars.
I’m grasping for straws trying to speak about this divide in the quality of my interactions. I am trying to understand how it is that with some people I have very nuanced and empathic interactions, and with other people my interactions are governed entirely by social and economic labels. This is why I chose to turn to the debate between simulation theory and theory-theory. It seems as though they do represent this divide within the human mind. Clearly we are capable of engaging with people in terms of simulation, in terms of empathy. But there is another side to our interactions with people that is characterized more by labeling, by concepts, by generalizing, by theorizing about people. And when I look around me I often feel as though this theoretical or linguistic interaction is far more common.
I’m not sure if it is entirely appropriate to frame this as an issue between simulation theory and theory-theory. I guess one thing I am suggesting is that simulation theory and theory-theory are both correct. That the human mind possesses both of those capacities, and that they interact with one another. It is possible for one to triumph over the other. In other words, it is possible that labeling could complete extinguish our capacity for empathizing with someone, or that our sense of empathy could completely negate our need to generalize about someone.
I’m really not happy with the way I have explicated this. But so far I have sloppily laid out the major problem them I am trying to address. I tried to use the divide between simulation theory and theory-theory to explain the divide in my relationships. Sometimes I have wonderfully empathic and simulative interactions with people, and sometimes I have interactions with people that are governed entirely by labels, that are completely lacking in a genuine connection with people. So the question from here is how to make sense of this divide. Why is it that my interactions are divided like this? How can a theory of mind possibly account for this contradiction? I propose that these questions can only be answered if we are willing to think about minds in their concrete historical actuality. I find theory of mind to be remarkably ahistorical. Goldman and others speak of minds as if they are completely ahistorical, totally generalizable things. But thanks to Collingwood, I believe that minds are only what minds do. There is no mind at rest, no mind beyond the flow of history. Theory of mind, therefore, needs to be augmented by historical study. Furthermore, I think that there are types of historical study that can help me answer this question about the qualitative divide in my relationships. This is what I now want to try and do. I have chosen the notion of ‘mediums’ as the central analytical concept for the next section. I believe that by focusing on the issue of mediums I will be able to explicate a historically informed theory of mind.