Follow by Email

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Robert Sheppard: The Tight Little Paragraph for my Introduction on Form, Cognition and Material Engagement

This is how the contents of the previous two posts (here and here) were chanelled  into a concise paragraph for my work in form. There is some repetition but I thought a few people might be interested in how I square my circles. RS

………………………………………………………experience.’ (Jarvis 2011: 7) His first axiom is that ‘technique is the way art thinks’ (Jarvis 2011: 7). Elsewhere in an incidental attack on Creative Writing workshop methodology, Jarvis affirms that ‘Technique … is itself cognitive and critical, not purely instrumental craft’, which broadens his analysis to all levels of artifice and form, and to poesis and praxis generally. [1] (Jarvis 1998b: 108) In other words, ‘technique knows something about the world. Yet it knows it, Adorno suggests, just by the most obsessive, and perhaps even the most fetishistic and solipsistic, absorption in its own proper stuff,’ that is, in its form. (Jarvis 2011: 7) Form, Adorno reminds us, is ‘the objective organisation within each artwork of what appears to be bindingly eloquent’, but it has an eloquence of its own. (Adorno 2002: 143)
To regard cognition as having independent existence outside the brain, inherent in things in general (or in form in particular), is not a mystical or magical formulation. Indeed it can be conceived of as a variety of ‘material engagement’ in the light of a cognitive theory that takes that very name as its own. Lambros Malafouris’ How Things Shape the Mind (2013) contrasts internalist views of mind, in which a Cartesian entity computes and calibrates a world it cannot enter, with his own externalist one that recognises ‘the intersection between cognition and material culture’, (Malafouris 2013: 17) that sees the mind as engaging, and interacting with, learning from and with, the world, entering it via means of what he calls ‘the extended mind’. (Malafouris 2013: 17) ‘For active externalism, marks made with a pen on paper are not an ongoing external record of the contents of mental states; they are an extension of those states.’ (Malafouris 2013: 74) It follows that ‘Cognition has no location,’ or not fixed location between brains and things. (Malafouris 2013: 85) Malafouris is an archaeologist and his examples are prehistoric as well as historic. ‘Mark-making action and thinking are the same,’ he remarks of early stone inscriptions (Malafouris 2013: 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’, pure external cognition. As such artefactual actions developed towards depiction (over breathtaking lengths of time) ‘those early pictures bring forth a new process of acting within this world and, at the same time, thinking about it’. (Malafouris 2013: 203) This is nothing less than a story about how we became human (and how we know we are human), through the agency of this radical interpenetration of mind and world: ‘Our ways of thinking are not merely causally dependent upon but constituted by extracranial bodily processes and material artefacts.’ (Malafouris 2013: 227) But things are also mobile, though their affective states have remained largely unrecognised by the social sciences until now. ‘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.’ (Malafouris 2013: 87)  The uses of objects in mourning, or the uses of religious ikons to access absent beings or to concretize abstract entities, are powerful examples. Arguably a literary work might be one of those objects, and its formal properties, its form, could be thought of in this way as a material cognitive entity. When Malafouris comments that ‘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,’ he sounds distinctly like Derek Attridge on the way we form objects as art. (Malafouris 2013: 117) More importantly, and from the position of poesis, ‘“Form” is always “informed” by the properties of the material to which it gives shape.’ (Malafouris 2013: 177) The result of this, in the case of a potter, is revelatory. ‘The being of the potter,’ as Malafouris nicely puts it, ‘is co-dependent and interweaved with the becoming of the pot.’ (Malafouris 2013: 212) The cognition of the potter, and even his or her neural pathways, are changed by the cognitive function of the artefact. Form in a literary work is arguably cognitive – whether through de Bolla’s active aesthetic experiencing, Wood’s ‘hunch’ about knowing forms, or Jarvis’ affective prosody – through the processes of material engagement, through the apprehension of actual forms that embody cognition and through a reader’s involvement in perceptible acts of forming.[2]
            Angela Leighton’s On Form: Poetry, Aestheticism, and the Legacy of a Word (2007) has the benefit of coming relatively late to the debate and she judiciously accounts for Wolfson, de Bolla, Attridge and Wood. (It is perhaps symptomatic of the state of current British criticism that the sources referred to above connected with linguistically innovative poetry, Forrest-Thomson, Bernstein, and Jarvis, seem beyond her scope.) Her book offers useful readings of the history of the term form and of…………………………………………………………………………

Quite a lot of this 'work on form' as I call it above has appeared on this blog and a description of it and links to all the posts in order may be found here.

[1] Jarvis identifies another instrumentalism to guard against, that of value-free reifications of technique, particularly in terms of discussions of poesis and in the teaching of creative writing.
There are some unresolved problems with his theory, and they emerge from his study of the poesis of contemporary potters. 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. (Malafouris 2013: 218). ‘Unfortunately,’ laments Lambros, ‘although a good phenomenological description can pull us inside this seamless flow of activity and agency, 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.’ (Malafouris 2013: 220) 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’. (Malafouris 2013: 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 in his work thus far. (Malafouris 2013: 238) I should also record that the discovery of Malafouris’ book occurred late in the writing of this book.

Work Cited

Malafouris, Lambros. How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement. Cambridge, Mass. and London: The MIT Press, 2013.