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Monday, June 09, 2014

Robert Sheppard: Engaging with How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement by Lambros Malafouris

Fast forward to 13.00 minutes to hear Lambros Malafournis talking about Material Engagement.

On April 30th I went to FACT to attend part of the Torque Symposium ('a day of talks, films and debate, exploring the twisting together of mind, technology and language') co-organised by Nathan Jones, one of my co-organisers of the Storm and Golden Sky readings. It was a relief to find a general sense today of a more interactive notion of human agency among the cybernetic environment, neither utopian nor dystopian. It was for this line of thinking that they invited Lambros Malafouris to speak, and speak he did. As an archaeologist he took the long view – and took a long time. Twenty minutes was clearly not long enough to articulate what was clearly an argument for the re-location of mind from the brain into the environment, a theory of embodied engagement that immediately excited me. As he writes, and may well have said: ‘Our ways of thinking are not merely causally dependent upon but constituted by extracranial bodily processes and material artefacts.’ (Malafouris 2013: 227) In short, and in Jonathan Kingdom’s differently spelt words, humans are ‘artefacts of their own artefacts’. (Malafouris 2013: 231)

Perhaps it stirred something in the archaeology of my own cognition; it took me back to my earliest theoretical days of PhD study (very early 80s), reading Merleau-Ponty, Polyani, Popper and (to a lesser extent) Gregory Bateson, reading that was supplanted quickly by the classics of the post-structuralist revolution, but leaving behind traces: a fondness for phenomenological terminology, the thought of knowledge as personal and integrated and interrelated; and I even recently marshalled Popper in an argument against self-expression in art (here). Those thinkers changed things at a deep structure in a way that (perhaps I’m recognising this for the first time) Derrida and Deleuze never did (though Lyotard and Guattari stuck in parts). In the arguments of Lambros Malafouris I sensed something similar. I didn’t immediately think of an application in my current work on form as forms and acts of forming, work in which old discoveries, like Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Herbert Marcuse, even Yuri Lotman, rub shoulders with newer ones, like Rancière, Susan Wolfson, and Derek Attridge, particularly the latter’s singular The Singularity of Literature which should be read by everyone who makes or receives art. Adorno must belong to some putative middle-period, but he’s there still, casting the dark drape of history over aesthetic utopia. Most of these last names have appeared in posts made here between August 2013 and now. This list is just to clarify, for myself, perhaps, a phenomenology of intellectual influences, to which I think – with a sense that I should return to Merleau-Ponty, Polanyi and Bateson, all three offering the riddle of the blind man’s stick to open the question of where cognition ends – that Lambros Malafouris will be added. I felt the same when I read Doreen Massey's for space.

I left FACT for work. (I had a final evening session of the MA in Creative Writing to run, where we, ironically, all had to expound upon something we’d read that had made us write. I talked about the Petrarch work,both my essay and the ‘Petrarch 3’ poems that followed; my diary records I read my unsavoury Jimmy Savile poem, which had persuaded me to stop this Oulipean versioning, as I told my students.) The first thing I did at Edge Hill was order Malafouris’ new book through interlibrary loan. The first thing I did when I received it was to buy a copy. I sensed that this book, supposedly a volume of ‘cognitive science/archaeology’ according to its back cover, would require a longer read, and would be an influence on my thinking: about thinking (‘metacognition’ as he calls it), about perception, about pre-history and history, about art and artefacts, about poesis and poetics, about writing, about creativity, and even about the teaching of creative writing… Partly this has to do with the fact that, even if every hypothesis he furnishes is wrong, the breadth of knowledge (and, I emphasise, despite my looking back to Merleau-Ponty and co, with whom he kicks off) recent knowledge in many fields that he opens up, is valuable in its own right. It’s a bit of a relief to be delivered from an intellectual environment in which people (including myself) are still spouting Roland Barthes as though it was the Last Word (no harm meant to the old aesthete there!).

To summarise HowThings Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement (MIT Press, 2013) is quite difficult, given how tightly written it is, so I’m not going to attempt that. I’m going to extract his main hypotheses and articulate them. At the back of my mind is whether I can use this material to integrate it into a reading of the cognitive nature of form (material from current researches outlined here).

The blind man’s stick is a fairly mundane example of the ‘zone of material engagement, i.e. the zone in which brains, bodies, and things conflate, mutually catalyzing and constituting one another’. (Malafouris 2013: 5). Internalist views of mind are contrasted with operations in this zone at ‘the intersection between cognition and material culture’, and externalist views are entertained, involving theories of ‘the extended mind, the active sign, and material agency’. (17) ‘For active externalism, marks made with a pen on paper are not an ongoing external record of the contents of mental states’ – which is a widely held belief now – ‘they are an extension of those states’, like the blind man’s stick. (74) ‘Cognition has no location,’ he observes. (85) But things are also mobile, their affective states largely unrecognised by various social sciences, ‘The sensual properties of things and the aesthetic experience of things permeate every aspect of our cognitive activities and permeate our social and emotional relationships.’ (87)  The use of objects in mourning, or the use of religious ikons to access absent beings or to concretize abstract entities, would be powerful examples. (Would a poem?) Discussing what he calls the enactive sign, Malafouris reminds us: ‘Cultural things provide the mediational means to domesticate the embodied imagination.’ (105) It is worth noting that he prefers a Peircian semiotics to a Saussaurean model and rejects the linguistic analogy that has been both generational and distorting for the social sciences, the notion that ‘X’ is structured like a language, for example.

It is surprising, given Malafouris’ range (from sociology to neuro-science, for example), that he doesn’t make some supportive use of Bakhtin (or Vološinov). However, when he says, ‘Meaning does not reside in the material sign; it emerges from the various parameters of its performance and usage as they are actualized in the process of engagement,’ (117) he sounds like an unconscious echo of Derek Attridge on forming objects in our perception of them as art. This is encouraging for me, but we mustn’t lose the big picture.

‘Material signs do not represent; they enact.’ (118) Malafouris is suspicious of representation, largely I think because of its use in internalist neuro-science to describe the mind looking out at the world in a detached Cartesian way; it kind of scribbles down an image of the outside, in a philosophic version of locked-in syndrome, monadic, instead of engaging with, and interacting with, learning from and with, it. Indeed, one of the cornerstones of his Material Engagement Theory is expressed by Malafouris in his frequent enaction of italics: ‘If there is such a thing as human agency, then there is material agency; there is no way human and material agency can be disentangled.’ (119) ‘Agency and intentionality’ belong exclusively to neither humans nor objects; ‘they are emergent properties of material engagement’ (149) for homo faber, as he wishes to designate human kind. (154) What this human kind makes is tools, of course, which he dubs ‘enactive prostheses’. (154) Well and good, although agency and intentionality cause him some problems later on.

Malafouris is an archaeologist and his quest for the cognitive function of things is part of his quest to discover when that faculty was born and how it was born, and he has to counter a number of orthodoxies, which I am going to leave to one side for the sake of expository clarity, as I am going to leave much of his specific archaeological evidence alone. However one example is instructive to summary. ‘Knapping stone’ in pre-history is regarded as ‘an act of thought – that is, a cognitive process that criss-crosses the boundaries of skin and skull, since its effective implementation involves elements that extend beyond the purely “mental” or “neural”… The flaking intention is constituted, at least partially, by the stone and the marks left on its surface.’ (19)  How does this happen? (Or did.) Malafouris is particularly helpful with this example (with diagrams as well as words, some of which he used as slides at FACT and on the video above). ‘Intention .. comes … in the action…’ as the stone and knapper take turns to become the extension of the other. ‘The stone projects toward the knapper as much as the knapper projects towards the stone, and together they delineate the cognitive map of what we may call an extended intentional state. The knapper first thinks through and with the stone before being able to think about the stone and hence about himself as a conscious and reflectively aware agent.’ (176) Metacognition was achieved. Consciousness at this point changed, and perhaps even the brain changed. (Malaforouris makes use of some studies that show that taxi drivers and habitual musicians develop different neural pathways to those not driving or playing. ‘Things change the brain. They effect extensive rewiring by fine tuning existing brain pathways, by generating new connections … or by transforming what was a useful brain function in one context into another.’ (247) What must be happening to writers, I wonder, speaking as one and as the teacher of hundreds? As he says of visual art: ‘The artist’s sketchpad isn’t just a storage vehicle for externalizing pre-existing visual images; it is a tightly coupled and intrinsic part of artistic cognition itself.’ Ditto the acct of writing. (237))

Interestingly for my project this has a formal aspect. ‘Form is not imposed from the outside; it is, rather, brought forth or revealed from the inside. What we call “form” exists as a surface property rather than a static mental event. It exists,’ as we might expect now, ‘where the projective mind meets the material at hand … More importantly, “form” is always “informed” by the properties of the material to which it gives shape.’ (177) Of course, Malafouris’ main point is that cognition develops in interaction with the external world, and it is a good one, but ‘surface property’ probably sells form short in the sense in which I am developing it. An artefact is produced in dialogue. ‘Mark-making action and thinking are the same,’ he remarks of early inscriptions, (190) which, he points out with care, may not have originally been depictions; the marks and lines may ‘externalize nothing but the very process of externalization’ which would develop into depictions (over breathtaking lengths of time). Even then, ‘those early pictures bring forth a new process of acting within this world and, at the same time, thinking about it’. (203) This is nothing less than a story about how we became human (and how we know we are human).

It is also about how we are still human (rather than post-human as some of the contributors to the FACT symposium went on to tell us, having not learnt that man has always been a cyborg, and doesn’t need to throw himself down that stairwell). Malafouris has been watching contemporary potters (doubtless he is drawn to pottery for its archaeological parallels, though he doesn’t say so, but the actions he describes are happening in the present). ‘The being of the potter,’ he rather nicely puts it, ‘is co-dependent and interweaved with the becoming of the pot.’ (212) We really can’t tell the dancer from the dance, as Yeats suggested, or perhaps even the poet from the poem. To do so is to question, or complicate, the kind of causality that any creative artist lays claim to when he or she authors, or claims to author, an artefact. (Leach made this pot; Jo Blowers danced that dance; Yeats wrote that poem. Interestingly, Attridge argues that it is important for us to regard an artistic work as authored.) This is a question of agency too, and it is not clear how causality works here. In fact, at this point in the argument it becomes more conjectural and even morally complicated. ‘Discerning the causal links and determining the direction of causality is not as direct and straightforward as we might initially think. The wheel … subsume(s) the plans of the potter and itself define(s) the contours of activity.’ (217) A good potter, of course, would know this and use ‘this self-as-agent knowledge … to fill in or interpret the gray zones in the phenomenal experience of action.’ (217) Unaware of the ‘decisions’ made, the potter nevertheless declares that he or she made the pot. This is an ‘agency judgement’ and while artificers can conceive of the act as enactive, something happens to us in such an act and we nevertheless claim authorship. (218) ‘Unfortunately,’ laments Lambros, ‘although a good phenomenological description can pull us inside this seamless flow of activity and agency,’ which is what we get, with increasing intensity throughout the book, ‘when we cut the flow and press the question of agency our inner Cartesian self or “interpreter” wakes up to take control of the situation.’ (220) This is true: I claim to play That’s Life; I don’t claim it on the guitar’s behalf. That’s life I guess and the question of agency in the case of man + gun = gunman is raised and leaves a perturbing conclusion: ‘Action involves a coalescence of human and non-human elements, and thus responsibility for action must be shared among those elements.’ (221) A round of applause for my guitar; life without the possibility of parole (I watch too much FBI Files) for the gun.

The conclusion to the chapter dealing with the potter (which may be read here in an earlier version) is more tentative than for others. ‘Some of the most interesting questions about agency in the context of embodied mediated action can be found only “in the wild”,’ (226) he says, for example in the distinction drawn between ownership and agency in the potter’s (and clay’s) actions. ‘Although an experienced potter immersed in the shaping of a vessel will often report that the sense of ownership (that is, the sense that it is his hands that touch and move the clay) is experienced throughout the activity, the sense of agency (that is, the feeling that it is he that is causing the movement) is often disrupted.’ (224) He or she owns his or her body but is not always conscious of its actions. If Malafouris is to ‘put back together’ the active and passive parts of a creative act, ‘and account for their ongoing and irreducible causal coupling’ he admits, ‘it remains to be seen whether agency can offer a way to bridge the neural and cultural correlates of our bodily selves’. (226) He is still inspired by a ‘vision of the cognitive life of things’ which involves ‘the distributed and compositionally plastic image of the potter skillfully engaging the clay’, rather than by ‘the linear architecture of a Turing machine’, but admits to not having forged that link. (238) ‘It remains to be seen,’ is, I hope, a passive formulation to indicate that this research has not yet been done and that Malafouris will conduct, or inspire, it.

In terms of my work on cognitive form I can argue that to regard cognition as being capable of existing outside the brain is not a mystical or magical formulation, indeed it can be conceived of as a variety of ‘material engagement’ in the light of this theory that takes that very name as its own. But that’s a separate argument (and an opening sentence). It’s the next argument and (I should say) only one of the speculative branches of thought that have been provoked by my engagement with the thing that is Malafouris’ book, with which (I should also say) I have not completed my engagement or it its enactment with me.

The Book: The Man
To access a description of my current project, and to access all the links to posts on Pages relating to The Meaning of Form, click here.

For those who can buy The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry, or order it for libraries, here are the places