On Aboutness. 28/02/2012

A new name came into my life and my thesis – Ellie Epp, a filmmaker, a photographer, and a theorist. I have been writing about her input in the arts in the forums and in my bibliography; now it is time to give an account of her impact on my thesis here, in my blog.

Ellie Epp is a BC-based artist whose films have become classics of Canadian experimental cinema. She has also worked in video, photography, experimental writing, garden design, digital graphics, and the web. The emergence of cognitive science in the late 1980s took her back to school, and she has a recent PhD in the philosophy of neuroscience. Her web book, Being about: perceiving, imagining, representing, thinking was written to work out a body-based philosophical platform for her own and others’ work in art. She teaches embodiment studies at a small progressive college in the US and is experimenting with high definition digital video.

Epp’s films “want to show… the qualities of natural motion, and, beyond that, the experience of how much can be seen” (http://www.ellieepp.com/press/presslinks.html )

In “Leaving the Land: Perception and Fantasy” Ellie Epp talks about being with the land and not knowing it and then going away and learning how to focus and see and feel.

Recent neuroscience findings support the embodied mind’s connection with the environment, with land rather than religious, philosophical or scientific alienation.

In her PhD Dissertation paper Being About: Perceiving, Imagining, Representing, Thinking Ellie Epp explains her rationale for focusing on human ‘aboutness’ – the connection of the embodied mind and its environment in the following way:

          At the core of questions about mind or cognition there has been a question about sentience. It has been hard to know how to ask it. The lingering prebiological tradition says any sentient aboutness is a property of something unusual located in parts of some living bodies. This unusual something can be about other things in the way pictures or sentences are about things other than themselves. Questions about mind and knowledge then become questions about representation: what is the relation between the representation and the thing it represents? …can we know if it is whether it is accurate or true if we never have access to the original it represents? How do we become conscious of our representations? ( Being About, Chapter 1, “Aboutness is not Representation”)


The author opines that this manner of speaking misunderstands both representation and biological aboutness. She says that representation is a “poor metaphor for biological aboutness”, because representation is fundamentally communicational and social uses of representing artifacts and events presuppose highly developed kinds of prior biological aboutness (Chapter 1). “The world is there”, writes Epp, “the living thing moves into it… Its whole state of needing and going for in a world that is there around it, is its aboutness”. She adds that in comlex creatures, aspects of structural aboutness are means of sentient aboutness.

Ellie Epp employs a term “excellence” of aboutness for the range of attunement or engagedness there can be between a living thing and its environment. (This term caused quite a stir in my group – can be easily mistaken for a judgement of value for artwork if taken out of the context). Let’s put it back into Epp’s context:

Another excellence of this way of talking about organic relatedness is that the aboutness of the world … is there along with the organism being about it. About thus evokes at one time all three parts of the mutual event: the organism in its doing, the object it wants or wants to avoid, and the background location that supports its doing by holding them related to each other (Chapter 1, “About Aboutness”)

 Ellie Epp argues that because aboutness is a relation, it cannot be localized to the organism at all. To think adequately about it we have to consider the organism and the environment at the same time. For the reason that this relation is the adapted structure of the organism, either in general or in the moment, it cannot be localized anywhere in the body. The author also offers another “order of excellence of aboutness” – complexity of contact, after Totoni and Edelman. She writes that some organisms can be about more things at once and in better-integrated ways. Living bodies she stresses continue to change all their lives. Some changes are called development and maturation, and some are called learning, but all structural changes happen in contact with the environment. Learning, like development and maturation is a structural change; it occurs in a structure already viable, it is evolutionally constrained, it requires an adequate context, and it is co-determined by occurences within that context. 

In Chapter 2, “Cortex and Aboutness” Epp investigates the traditional beliefs of the locus of aboutness: Classical dualist mentalism for example, places it as a ‘property of ideas’ in immaterial minds. The monist contemporary version has it localized in physical structures stored and processed in cerebral cortex, the most recently evolved brain structure.

What the author sees as wrong here is that “representational language, applied to mysterious something in immaterial minds or to structures in material cortex” speaks about a sentient creature is about “the representational structure rather than something in the world”(Chapter 2, “Cortex and Aboutness”).

She offers here that if aboutness is relational, if a whole organism’s structural adaptedness built in contact with an environment, if nervous systems are facilitative to this contact, and if the most recent, most exclusively human additions will have to be evolved to promote effective sensory-motor through-function, it makes dubious sense to say that “a cortical structure  is about anything in particular”.

In “Another aspect of nature, which is nurture” part of Chapter 2 Epp she focuses on development of living beings: bodies adapt through multiple “reconstructions” which are ways bodies come to be about their circumstances by altering in response to them. She writes that “moment-by-moment cognitive function is itself an interactive reordering of cortical microstructure”.

Epp summons the recent work of Edelman (1998), Varela (1984), Churchland (1989), Pribram (1991), Freeman (1991) Van Essen (1991) and Zeki (1997)  – as ways of encouraging our thinking of a cognitive event in physical terms. In a non-dualist theory of cognition, neural events organizing sentient or conscious functions must be imagined as spatiotemporal forms. “We can escape the omnipresent invitations to call those aspects of physical structure that are involved in sentient function representations” she offers,  ”by saying there are structures that are central means of our momentary aboutness, and some of them are means also of our momentary sentient relatedness to things” (Part 2, Chapter 3).

In Epp’s formulation representation and cognition are not synonymous. Where other writers talk about mental representation she speaks instead about cognitive structure or structural aboutness. For her, “A theory of representation is implied within a general theory of cognition; a theory of cognition is not implied within a theory of representation” (Part 3, Chapter 6). The author explains here that representing practices can be used to organize states in the user that are like the state that would be produced in the presence of something. This amounts to a sort of functional equivalence of thing and representation, but the equivalence depends on the user’s response. She stresses that there is no external relation of environmental thing and representational object. There is no re-presenting of the thing, only a re-evoking of a state. The same representational form can evoke different states in different contexts. “Representation is ontologically complex: it uses presence to evoke simulation” (Part 3, Chapter 6, “A cognitive philosophy of representation”).

For letting us be engaged in simulation we need a physical presence of some kind to get this representational effect.

The form and the presence of the representing artifact or event are critical, but they only mediate representational effect, they do not constitute it. In representing, the effective loci are social and cognitive.

Representation is inherently social: it is a collection of social practices by which cognitive beings regulate each other’s structural aboutness. We can use representations when we are alone, but particular representing practices come into use because they work for communities. (Part 3, Chapter 6)

In Chapter 7, “Representational Effects” the author outlines a structural and dynamic way of understanding two sorts of specialized cognitive effect: abstraction and metaphor. Epp insists that both abstraction and metaphor needed an account of “sublexical semantic evocation” which is understood as “subnet activation”. While abstraction is usually studied in relation to the visual arts and has been a topic in cognitive psychology, metaphor is often considered as part of rhetoric or literary theory. Epp views both as instances of related cortical effects. She explains that both abstraction and metaphor build off basic perception-action abilities, but they are also supported and enabled by structure formed through high-cultural practices. Especially when they are simulational, abstraction and metaphor tend to require continuing management by means of representational forms, which may themselves be perceived and produced, or only imagined.

One of the general claims of Ellie Epp’s theory is that the

…humanly prestigious abilities we call thinking are culturally developed variants of base level aboutness. Abstraction and metaphor can be thought of as parts of thinking that exceed base level perception/action capabilities, and even exceed simpler abilities with language and other representational events… base level aboutness can be understood as foundation even to culturally dependent forms of cognition quite remote from base level presence (Part 3, Chapter 7)

 In this chapter Epp addresses schemas as a name for mediating structures thought (after Kant in the 1700s) to be responsible for the experienced orderedness of cognitive function. “Schemas of imagination were … said to mediate between raw nature and perception…” The author says that in a non-functionalist, non-representationalist framework that tries to imagine structure from the outset, the notion of a schema is closely related to the notion of structural aboutness. If we think of aboutness as a state of the whole body (and not just the brain), schema would be embodied in all the spatiotemporal structures that are the means of being able to do or be with something.

Epp offers this account of schemas in a section of abstraction because as she explains, there is evidence that schematic aspects of perception-action wholes can also be evoked abstractly. She quotes Edelman here who calls schemas “high order functional complexes”, “mappings of mappings that have to do with positions and states of the body as it relates to objects/events” (1987, 195).

Ellie Epp distinguishes between transient metaphor (which is referred to as lexical metaphor in linguistic contexts) and structural metaphor. In her opinion, there have been problems with lexical or transient metaphor in its long history: one of them rises from thinking of metaphor as something about representational object itself. (e.g., this phrase, this photo, this gesture, is a ‘metaphor’). Instead we could say that “a representing object or event has metaphoric effect in certain contexts” – in contexts that set us up to take it metaphorically. We can understand metaphor, she offers, “like perceiving, like comparing, like similes, like illustrations, like basic predication -one among other ways of organizing cognitive structure so that we are about particular things in particular ways by means of it” (Part 3, Chapter 7, “Metaphor”). In “Hyperenergizing a subfield” Epp writes that “polysemy is like metaphor in the sense that it has to do with unusual wordings… [it] can also be understood as an effect of shared structure which regulates emphasis” (Ch.7). She asks the reader to think of syntax as a way of routing activation to subnets of simulational structures. This way we come closer to “metaphor proper” (Ch.7).

The author describes synaesthesia as systematic but perceptually irrelevant coactivation of different subnets of a wide net, so that we feel a sensory quality as belonging to an object that dosen’t, or can’t have that quality. Interestingly, Ellie Epp calls the phenomenon of ‘voluntary synaesthesia’ (Singerland’s term) as ‘half-ascribing’ (knowing that, for example, pain is not ‘yellow’, but still describing it like that), while Edward Singerland insists that true synaesthesia is when affected people are sure e.g., that musical note G is green, or that number 4 is blue – they “just are”, no explanation is possible for synaesthetics. All other forms Singerland opts to call voluntary synaesthesia. Anyhow, in this ‘half-ascribing’ or employing ‘voluntary synaesthesia’ “imagining feels intrinsic to the seeing” or feeling in Ellie Epp’s opinion. The means by which we are capable of doing so must have common cognitive origin. (There is a clear link here to the phenomenology of imagination as offered by Gaston Bachelard – mine). 

Epp says that we are not comparing our perception of something and an image of something else and finding similarities: “We are structured in a way that enables us to see different things as similar”. Edward Singerland calls it ‘cross-wiring’ in the brain.

Thinking is described by Epp as “ontologically mixed”, most often includes simulation and is representation-dependent. Representing objects or events can be used to evoke aboutness relevant to non-present objects or events. The author insists that representation can be used to evoke simulational aboutness that is unrelated to here and now; moreover, it is possible to “organize” the aboutness of other people so that they are seeming to perceive, and to feel and understand, a circumstance that may actually exist nowhere. This ability to organize simulational aboutness is used, as structural metaphor, to organize a much more abstract play of simulational aboutness – which is abstract thought. “To accomodate the whole range, from the first stage to the last, there have had to be many changes in the physical structure of brains and bodies” (Ch.7) Every kind of thinking, Epp explains, no matter how remote it is from concrete concerns, must make use of structure evolved, developed, or learned in contact with the physical world. The embodied nature of structural aboutness and the ’wide net’ character of cortical activity is common to all stages and levels of cognitive function.

One of the most important points for my thesis that Epp makes in this chapter is condensed in the last paragraph of “Thinking as structural metaphor”, Chapter 7:

If we understand that our theoretical discourses are grounded in structural metaphors, which in turn are elaborated uses of base level schemas built into the body through the whole of a childhood, we could consider what it might cost, in terms of body-restructuring, to change the metaphors we think with, and what that cost may have to do with resistance to paradigm shift.

In “Spatial schemas in thinking” part of Chapter 7, Epp quotes Lakoff’s statement that “the locus of reason (conceptual inference) would be the same as the locus of perception and motor control” (1987, 231). This scholar accumulated significant evidence that the structure important to sensorimotor spatial function is used act-metaphorically in a very large class of thinking operations. Lakoff describes base level spatial schemas as sources of logics used abstractly. Various sorts of inference or reasoning employ neural structure that is actually part of or makes use of, the sensorimotor system of our brains. Lakoff and Johnson call that  ‘sensorimotor inference’ (199, 200). Lakoff describes base level spatial schemas as sources of logics used abstractly.  ”So-called propositional inferences” also arise from the “inherent topological structure” of schemas of spatial perception and action, Lakoff suggests (1993, 229). Basic spatial schemas used to structure verbal logics could include center-periphery, link, cycle, adjacency, straight-curved, near-far, verticality, horizontality, front-back.

This more motor-involved form of I-it relation used in whole-body behaviours such as e.g., object-targeting, says Epp, can be used when we organize thinking as a trajectory in a scene: we can aim for a solution and submerge ourselves in the specifics of a question.

 In “How thinking is thought” part of this chapter Ellie Epp emphasizes that our thinking about knowing, speaking, thinking, and metaphor is itself metaphorically structured: it means that our abstract talk about knowing and speaking is based on ways of talking about base level social and physical doing. In the concluding paragraph of Chapter 7 the author offers that

  …shared substructure may be just the explanation we need for cross-contextual effects like metaphor. If the very same structure can participate in sensing or imagining two different things, nothing need be transferred or projected. Even conceptual or structural metaphor may be understood as a dynamic effect of shared substructure.

The next chapter deals with pictorial perspective, among other topics. Here Epp recognizes understanding that pictorial media have been developed tostructure light so that it will set up simulational structure in the viewer as a “crucial new move” made by Gibson “…a picture is always a physical surface… [that] has been treated or processed or acted upon in such a way that the light causes a perception of something other than surface itself” (1982, 263). The author comments here on human ability to see and also “seeming to see”. Photographic technologies, for example, focus on and record just those structures in reflected light that will evoke the responsive organization by which we can ‘seem to see’. When we look at a photograph we disregard the technical labour and the deployment of materials with ‘ease’.

A similar ease about our use of drawings and paintings lets us disregard the millennia of technical experiment that allow us to make marks whose overall organization will reflect light to fictive effect. The technical experiment has been experiment with materials, but more importantly it has been cognitive experiment; we have had to discover the visual system’s weaknesses, along with the devices we can use to exploit them.

We are not confused, we know that we are looking not at a real object or place – but our perceptual attitude, a gaze-based orientation to a something located at some particular place, is common to actual and imagined circumstance, Epp explains.

When we add a horizon line to the drawing, we add an illusion of the object’s placement in an enclosing environment. We also add a sense of being ourselves oriented to a background as well as to the object. Drawings use perception to evoke simulation. Backgrounds can also be evoked with an abstract but exact specificity of this sort. Line perspective drawings can be thought of as outline drawings of whole environments. As with object outlines, there is nothing in the drawing to evoke materials, lighting (source direction, intensity, color) or atmosphere.

In Conclusion Chapter: “Constructing Persons as Knowledge” Ellie Epp states that the framework she had constructed in this paper to accomodate an artist’s sorts of knowing is based on the concept of “aboutness” of enitre bodies in environments and on the “wide net” vision of cortical activity. The wide net vision of this activity is related to the whole-body vision of organic aboutness in that complex body tuned to its environment. The nervous system in conjunction with the rest of the body and the environment is “the organ of this integration”.  In Epp’s opinion, this view of ‘integrated net’ allows us to begin to account for the integrated nature of the experiences of knowing. Knowing thus described, Epp emphasizes, is not “in accord” with classical contrasts of mind and body, sensing and perceiving, thinking and believing, language and the non-verbal, concrete and abstract, literal and metamorphic. But, if we make the unified single body and its widespread network of integrated neural function the sites of aboutness and knowing, we have a means of thinking that these functions may happen simultaneously and may include one another necessarily.

 Since body in world is the locus of all the kinds of knowing there are, a vision of knowing based in situated aboutness becomes the basis for a comprehensive unified epistemology. A unified epistemology such as this also gives us a unified theory of representation itself. Epp insists that:

Within such a theory we can see all representational media as manifesting characteristic blends of presence and simulation, and as sharing evolutionary origins in joint attention and a continuing inherent sociality (“Conclusion: Structuring persons as knowledge”)

(Account of Being About completed March 3, 2012)

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