Tue 10 Jul 2007
Thought might always have been dynamic, distributed and networked, material but in a way that makes us rethink materialism. It might even always have been somewhat hard to locate, not because it happens in a different dimension, but because of its dynamic distribution, extended through brain, body and world. Thought might not even be “us” - by which I mean you and I - and “our thoughts” might just be figments of the world’s imagination. All this is well known. However, despite literature, film and a host of philosophers telling us this, many of our most cherished models of how thinking works, where it takes place, even what it is, tend to ignore all this in favour of models that have proved to be more convenient in practice (a bit like we prefer not to think too often about the fact - in practical terms - that we are apes, not as dissimilar to Bonobos and Chimps as we might like to think).
In practice, its hard to think at all without modeling thought (in models that play a huge role in whatever thinking is) - our own thought at least, if not everyone else’s. These models pose thought as working a particular way, in particular places (in our souls, in our brains in a kind of brain-magic). As for what thought is - whatever it is, in practice these models assume it’s us! (or more importantly, on a rather crucial operational basis, my thoughts are me!). These more convenient models have, in the process, formed the basis of many cherished institutions, from democracy to the market to our sense of being our very own self, (although it is also true that even the champion of the free market Hayek in the end undermines this rational individual agent in favour of the market’s better, “emergent” “thinking”).
This doesn’t mean that we don’t like to speculate about the strangeness of thought, including our likely delusions about our own thoughts (thus the living to be made by philosophers from poststructuralists to postconnectionists or buddhists, not to mention almost any Psych 101 course). However, if we do speculate about thought, this is often in the comforting shadow of our more convenient assumptions. And for a good reason. The social and cultural institutions and practices we rely on - even those practices that ritually affirm us as individuals - in turn rely on these assumptions (think only of one individual “judging” the thoughts/actions of another, from marking an essay to sitting on a jury).
Yet now our convenient assumptions are challenged not only in theory, which was kind of fun, but in a series of new cultural practices, which is another question altogether. These practices arise in mobile and networked media (not to mention the long history of media “manipulation”), new dynamic social and technical networks, a series of cultural clashes between very different models of mind (and practices of thinking) as cultures come in constant contact with each other, the more dynamic side of cognitive science and philosophy, not to mention neuroscience, genetics and pharmaceuticals (what is mind if it can be changed by taking a pill every day?). Many of these are technics based precisely on dynamic, distributed and networked models of a mind that is extended through brain, body and world, are challenging (or even just on better neuroscientific models of the mind derived from better brain imaging technologies). Of course, our convenient assumptions about mind are also challenged by our everyday experience - when for example our attempt to manage our mind’s performance, to maximise the productivity of “cognitive labour”, eventually seems to steal our mind away from us, in insomnia, in stress, in the kind of breakdown that is rife in the workplace today, in perhaps the feeling that we are captured by “the man”. That’s before you get to the kind of cognitive dislocation faced by migrants and refugees.
The cultures of the enlightment and modernity put a great deal of effort into our convenient models of mind, and, as models, they have proved very effective. Now, however, this is arguably falling apart, as I have tried to describe in very basic terms elsewhere. The impact is being felt in many of the foundations of modern culture: I see symptoms of this in the current debates over religion and atheism, or the need to assert “intelligent design”, both of which reflect a vulnerability in the very concept of independent mind that used to stretch from God to human (although not as far as apes usually, and certainly not as far as birds). Or if that’s too obscure, consider the judicial use of brain scanning, or that our memories come from our media, even from a global technical systems of mediated memories.
More than all this, thought might not even be thought, as in reasonably rational processes separate from emotion, or perception, or action, sensations, or even our simple movement through the world.
Whether any of this true, and which of the new models are right or wrong (scientifically), is up for grabs. My questions, however, are not along those lines. They rather concern the cultural consequences of new models for thinking, of the multiplications and clashes of “cognitive models” that don’t match, or don’t confirm our necessary assumptions, and the way these models don’t just inform but transform our thinking practices. The jury (in so far as we still have juries rather than brain scans) is out on whether culture can survive the new models, with their new practices and assumptions, whether they are right or wrong or a bit of both.
So here is my question: Can we survive dynamic, networked thought? Networked perceptions? The blurring of thought, perceptions and actions in dynamic networks? Can culture in general (I know, which culture specifically am I writing about … but that’s part of my point), can art, can democracy, science, religion, etc survive the new mobilities in perception and cognition/thinking models, practices and yes - perhaps thinking processes themselves (thinking processes that now include perception, action, affect, sensation all in shifting brain-body -world dynamics, to the point that we may no longer be able to talk about, or even assume, “our cognitive processes”).
Part of this is that as thinking/perception, sensation, affect and action all become more networked, more dynamic, more mobile, they are also more “mobilized” in Isabelle Stengers’ sense of the word, in which models and rhetorics are “mobilized” in order to stabilise certain practices, interests, disciplines, (models of affective and cognitive control in the workplace for example, or education, to help maximise productivity). Can we survive this (often “scientific”) “mobilization” of thought, perception, affect and action?
Sub-question: What are thought, affect, perception and action when they are now so obviously in such complex are fully mobilized circuits? Are they anything stable or even nameable at all? (I don’t claim to be able to answer this question, but a basic beginning might be here).