Monday, January 16, 2012

The Privilege, No, The Irresistibility Of Mind

The idea of the mind occupies a strange place in conversations. There are plenty of ways to reduce the mind. Often by reference to physical processes. One could say, for example, that the mind is merely a chemical process in the brain, or that Man's actions are primarily a matter of evolution and instinct. It is hard to know how to treat mind among the plethora of physical and material processes that also determine human experience.

I, however, give mind a very privileged position. I cannot help but appeal directly to minds. I want to talk about my own mind, how I think, what I feel, what my experience is like. I want to talk about other minds, I want to understand what they feel, figure out how they work. I find mind irresistible. This does not mean that I don't pay attention to materialist philosophy or the sciences of life. I find that stuff fascinating, but I regard it useful only insofar as it helps me talk about minds, and, most importantly, how those minds can be educated in certain ways. I'm finding myself more and more convinced that all of my thinking has to culminate in pedagogical ends. I am ready to embrace knowledge of mind as the fundamental element of all knowledge. 

There is, however, a serious tension between mind and the physical reality that sustains it. The structures of the natural world and the physical structures that we create are constantly affecting our mental processes. We can get lost in these elaborate social worlds that we create. And although these physical processes are directed by people's minds, the physical structures persist beyond any one mind. I was reminded of this tension tonight when I say Werner Herzog's movie "The Cave Of Forgotten Dreams." 

The movie is about the Chauvet caves in southern France, home of the oldest cave paintings ever found. He documents the research efforts of archeologists attempting to understand who made the caves, what they thought about them, and what they used them for. The movie did a good job of not over-interpreting the cave, not claiming too strongly that such and such a site was used for such and such a ritual. The emphasis seemed to be much more on these scientist's attempt to access a historical experience radically different from our own. 

At one point they realized that two paintings that overlapped and complimented one another were created five thousand years apart from one another. The scale of time is unimaginable. That one person Thirty two thousand years about would paint one animal, and five thousand years later someone would add to it. At that moment Herzog says something like 'We are lost in history, they were not'. I see part of the tension lying in the type of creativity they were engaging in and what our creative expression is like. These people were adorning an unadorned landscape, a place modified only by natural processes was suddenly transformed through their actions. And to think that five thousand years later someone could collaborate with them, and just paint overtop and next to their painting is an amazing thing. We could never go into a museum and start drawing on someone else's painting. Our cultural and creative experience is very different. So the thing that is really shocking is the extreme difficulty of imagining an aesthetic experience like the artists of those cave paintings.

Our inability to imagine the aesthetic experience of our ancient ancestors is contrasted well with another example from the movie: the Aboriginal experience of cave art. One of the archeologists discusses a story from the 1970's where an anthropologist was being guided by an Aboriginal man. They came across a set of decaying Aboriginal cave paintings. The guide was upset with the decay of the paintings and began a process of touching them up, repainting and fixing them. When asked why he was painting the Aboriginal would respond, this archeologist said, something like 'I'm not painting, the spirit is painting through me', or something like that. The point being that for this Aboriginal man these paintings represented a spiritual-aesthetic experience that he had hereditary and direct access to. He lived in that tradition and could therefore bring the experience of the original painter back to life, re-enact the painting for himself, engage in a process that was simultaneously a simulation of a past act and a new act in its own right. His repetition of the past leading to something new. But we can't do that. Our cultural heritage took some strong turns and we can no longer re-enact/simulate the spiritual-aesthetic experience of a cave painting.

This same archeologist also said he believed that his goal was to get to some place outside the cave. That studying the cave was their starting point but the real goal was somewhere beyond it. When asked where he named other physical locations, South America, Australia, et cetera. The point being, I think, that when you understand one of these places and have really attempted to grasp the experience behind these places you need to compare that with other places. Only in this way can you hope to gain more general insights into the human experience. Something about simulation and comparison, like I wrote in my recent post. But it seems like that simulation, the recovery of that experience, was the task. 

So why is it that being 'lost in history' makes it so difficult for us to grasp a prehistoric aesthetic experience? What does this mean to be lost in history and why does it has this affect on our mental capacity? Why does being lost in history make it so difficult to re-enact the spiritual-aesthetic experience of the cave painting?

I believe these questions can be answered with a little help from Foucault. Foucault, too, believed that we had become lost in history. He believed that our culture and its ways of being had reached a critical mass where signs and representation were merely replicating themselves, no longer moving towards a union with reality. Representation was finally able to become a representation of representation, or something. In The Archeology of Knowledge he refers to 'discursive regularities', that is patterns of language that form a constellation of tacit assumptions that form the necessary basis for all thought. He believed that we could study these discursive regularities in their own right, tracking the historical progression of unconscious structures of thought. This, however, means that Foucault often had very little to say about individual minds. He himself says that he wishes to study statements "not from the point of view of the individuals who are speaking, nor from the point of view of the formal structures of what they are saying, but from the point of view of the rules that come into play in the very existence of such discourse: what conditions did Linnaeus (or Petty, or Arnauld) have to fulfil, not to make his discourse coherent and true in general, but to give it, at the time when it was written and accepted, value and practical applications as scientific discourse.... " (The Order Of Things, xiv). The focus, therefore, is not the individual mind, but the historical conditions that make that mind possible.

What Foucault is doing, I claim, is shying away from the subject in his recognition of the mind's intense historical conditioning. Our society, more than others past and present, has highly developed and codified rules about how we live. We talk about everything, our clothes, our money, our living, our sex lives, our gender presentation. As Foucault said, "Surely no other type of society has ever accumulated–and in such a relatively short span of time–a similar quantity of discourses concerned with sex" (Volume I, History of Sexuality, 33). We are a society overrun with historically dense prescriptive language. This realization, as I said, invites us to distrust the mind. If my mind is so historically conditioned, one might ask, how can I be sure that I really know what I'm doing? Foucault himself said that people know what they do, but they don't know what they do does. It is logical to distrust the mind in response to some of Foucault's work. I will show, however, that this stage is only preliminary to a return to the mind.

There is undoubtedly something problematic about the historical density of our moment. For one thing, the minds historical conditioning makes us incapable of accessing certain experiences (such as the problem of the cave paintings). In other words, the historical conditioning of our mind makes it exceptionally difficult to simulate certain types of experience. We can lose a certain capacity for empathy when we are ignorant of the historical conditioning of our mind. The tension between mind and historical/natural processes, therefore, is about the way that changing natural-cultural situations affect our capacity for empathy or, more generally, simulative thought. 

I think this tension between history and simulative thought is played out in Foucault's work. For many years Foucault did not engage in conversations about minds, about the role of subjectivity and volition. Historical conditioning outshone the subject in Foucault's early work. In his late work, however, we see a return to the mind. Foucault begins speaking about how an individual can shape themselves within the context of their situation. Suddenly the mind is a factor again. The subject, of course, was always present in Foucault's work, but much more subtly than in his late work.

There is much to be said about this problem of history and simulative thought. We get buried on our culture and our history and we lose a certain capacity for mental simulation. We lose touch with the past and with other communities because our mind has become locked into a certain way of thinking. 

But the mind must be reckoned with. We must take seriously the minds of the past and the minds of the present. Both the minds around us and the ones far away. And this requires a certain capacity for simulative thought. This capacity, further, rests on a certain awareness, which can be cultivated through historical study (but not exclusively there). Something going on here.

This is a weird series of reflections. But what I'm really getting at is the necessity of simulating other minds in your own mind. We need to take minds seriously. Only from them do we gain the synthetic experience necessary for our own experience. Only through minds are we able to repeat something to make something new. And only by taking minds seriously, I hope, can we begin to take compassion seriously. Can you logically work yourself into a state of compassion? Or does that take a real attempt to engage with, simulate, another mind? You can logically work yourself into a state of simulating another mind, I believe (to some extent). So if you can logically work yourself into a simulation you are, I suppose, reasoning your way into compassion. But only by means of simulation.

I conclude that privileging mind is most useful because it provides us with the best approach to morality. Direct engagement with minds is simulative and therefore leads to compassion. Life has no end other than the process itself and therefore the simplest things like compassion matter a good deal. Unfortunately I don't think we are often taught how to empathize.

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