On Embodiment (17/01/ 2012)

On Edward Singerland’s book What Sciences Offer the Humanities

A new (or re-curring) inquiery sprang from my encounter with Lucy Lippard’s The Lure of the Local: an inquiery on the developments (after Merleau-Ponty “Eye and Mind”) in the understanding of the roles of the embodied mind. I often experience this sense of epiphany  – every time a great person or a great book comes my way just at the right time, and that was the case with the book of Edward Singerland What Sciences Offer the Humanities. Lippard’s comment on “kinetic or kinesthetic experience of a body, especially a walking body, passing trhough and becoming part of the landscape” made me feel that I want to learn more about our embodied experiences and how they influence our decision making and at a stretch, our art-making.

    In the Chapter 1, The Disembodied Mind, Edward Singerland explains that pure rationality seems to play little role in ordinary decision making. Moreover he states that “an absence of emotion  – a hallmark of the ideal moral agent for Plato or Kant – apparently transforms us into ethical incompetents”. He goes on adding that the very idea of “a unitary, conscious “I” in control of the dumb, animal-like non-self (the body, the emotions) appears to be an illusion” (34).  I learned that even such quotidian achievements as ordinary language comprehension and basic perception of our surroundings rely heavily on “fast and frugal heuristics” and and are guided by embodied and mostly unconscious emotional reactions to our environment (!) .  (Heuristics, according to Wikipedia, refers to experience-based techniques for problem-solving, learning, and discovery).

    Another powerful statement I would like to quote him was that “Perception is not concerned primarily with representation, but with action, and the concepts we acquire from interacting with the world seem to be based primarily on imagery and sensory-motor schemas”. This leads the author to conclude that concepts are not “amodal, abstract, and propositional but perception- and body-based” (34). later on Singerland recruits Andy Clark’s findings on AI systems which are based on explicit data-storage and logical manipulations – that the “filing cabinet/ logic machine” design – are “doomed from the start if their goal is to emulate biological minds, since biological “intelligence and understanding are rooted not in the presence and manipulation of explicit, language-like data structures, but in something more earthy: the tuning of basic responses to a real world that enables an embodied organism to sense, act, and survive” (36).

    If the objectivist model of reasoning and rational decision-making assumes a presence of a unitary, conscious self, writes Sigerland, than there is this locus of rationality and will in the human body. Here he quotes Antonio Damasio and his book Descartes Error, 1994, that one of the main Cartesian errors  is this concept of “Cartesian theatre: a central area of consciousness that experience the world and the self in a unified fashion and serves as a kind of headquarters of of knowledge and decision making” (39). Damasio insists that there is no single region in the human brain ecquipped to act this way.

    In his discussion of the ”body-minded brain”, Damasio points out that the mind evolved in order to assure survival of the entire mind-body unit and that the best way to do it is by “representing the environment by modifying the primordial representations of the body proper whenever an interaction between organism and environment takes place” (43). Coming out of this statement is a note on the functioning of memory: “When we recall an object… we retrieve not just sensory data but also accompanying motor and emotional data…” We also recall the past reactions of the organism to the object”. Needless to say that Damasio supports his statements with substantial data acquired from his clinical research.

How far-fetched would it be to connect this memory-based embodied experience with my painting of imaginary places that bear traces of the lands left behind – in all that emotionally charged way I do it, I wonder. 

Another subject that I felt fortunate to get some clarifications on from this book, was the subject of the role of language in our perception of the world.

    I remember an argument in the forum of our first on-line class in this program where I made a statement and then had a creepy feeling that I am virtually cutting that very branch I am clinging on in my practice of painting by sticking to it. My linguistic training that took place about 22 years ago obviously left me religiously believing that “there is nothing outside language, nothing outside the text”. That could possible be the wrongly read passage of Derrida.

    Singerland clarified that mess for me saying that what Derrida was actually denying was the possibility of human beings’ direct access to extraliguistic reality of objects. Roland Barthes explains it in the following way: “it appears increasingly more difficult to conceive a system of images and objects whose signifieds can exist independently of language: to perceive what a substance signifies is inevitably to fall back on the individuation of language; there is no meaning which is not designated, and the world of signified is none other than that of language” (1968:10) (79). Singerland says that the inextricable embeddedness of human beings – and anything resembling human experience – in such semiological networks leads Barthes to conclude that “man does not exist prior to language, either as a species or as an individual” (1972:135) (79). Singerland reports that later on Derrida had attempted to “distance himself” from that categoric statement of “there is nothing beyond language”. Singerland points out however, that “something like the model of the world as text is still very much alive and well in what postmodern theorists actually write” (80).

    The author quotes Lydia Liu as a counter-argument :”The super-sign emerges out of the interstices of existing languages across the abyss of phonetic and ideographic differnces. As a hetero-cultural signifying chain, it always requires more than one linguistic system to complete the process of signification for any given verbal phenomenon”. Singerland adds that the semiotic approach to the study of human behaviour has the effect of systematically “denying any possibile substative role to bodily or physical processes and thus leads to a sort of social constructivism and cultural relativism” (84).

To be continued…

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