Monday, October 31, 2011

The Bathtub Philosopher: Objects, Secondary Qualities, Memes, Description, Ontological Cognition


No, I’ve not found it, but I think I know where to look. And I figured that out while hanging out in the bathtub, where I do some of my best thinking.

What’s been puzzling me ever since Tim Morton seduced me into thinking about object-oriented ontology (OOO) is simply: why? Why me philosophy now because I abandoned philosophy way back when and have to intention to take it up again but, damn it! this stuff IS interesting, why? Specifically, what, if any, is the relationship between my deep and abiding interest in ontological cognition and OOO? Well, I think the connection goes through description, another deep and abiding interest of mine, one I apparently share with Latour.

But I don’t want to go there now, not directly, if only because, as you’ll see, I’m not going to get there by the end of this post. But I DO think that’s where to look.



But we’re not in Kansas, anymore, Toto. So take off your red shoes, kick back, and relax.

Early Morning House Keeping

I got up at 5AM last Saturday (28 Oct 2011), pretty standard these days, plus or minus an hour, poured a Diet Coke, and sat down to the computer. What am I going to post this morning? I thought, as I do every morning.

I decided to sort through some stuff. I knew the post would be something on OOO, but just which of one or two possibilities, or, rather, just how to realize the most likely possibility, that wasn’t clear. So I opened up my main OOO file and puttered around, examining, re-arranging, house cleaning.

I decided to take my Graham Harman stuff out of that file and put it in a separate file. I’ve been reading and re-reading his recent ASK/TELL interview and finding more and more in it. I decided to copy the whole thing into a Word file. But sticking that in my main OOO file violated my sense of what should be in THAT file. So, I decided to put the interview in a file of its own. And, if I’m going to do that, why not also create a file for my Graham Harman posts and notes? as that material’s growing.

That’s what I did.

Then I decided to do some clean-up on the blog (New Savanna, not The Valve, which is technologically resistant to such things). I added a “Harman” label to my label set. Well, might as well add a Bennett label and a Morton label too. Which I did.

It’s easily done, though a bit tedious. But, and here’s the thing, to do it I had to look at the titles of a bunch of recent posts. Which meant that all that stuff passed ever so lightly in review, just like looking through my OOO file for the Harman related posts. No sustained thinking about any of it, just noting it’s there.

As I was doing this—both the file clean-up and the blog clean-up—I was thinking about this primary qualities secondary qualities stuff the pops up in Latour, here and there in Reassembling the Social, a bit more intensely in Politics of Nature, which I’ve begun to read. On the one hand, what’s that got to do with all of this? and on the other: color! Color is one of those pesky subjective secondary qualities, one of deep practical interest to me as a photographer.

Should I do another color post, perhaps OOO, photography and color? I wondered. Well, yes, I should, and I will, but not this morning, at least I don’t think so.

I decided to think it over in the tub.

Bathtub Philosophizing and Secondary Qualities

Which I often do. First I shower, but with the drain closed so that the water accumulates in the tub. Once I’ve done enough scrubbing I turn the shower off and sit down in the tub to think, but ever so gently, somewhere on the way from thought to reverie.

I’ve been doing this for years. Decades. With my new apartment—as apartments go, nothing special, but it’s been recently renovated and I’m the first post-renovation tenant—with the small Oriental carpet on the bathroom floor instead of a crappy bathmat of synthetic fiber and my great aunt’s Hans Christian Anderson needle point on the wall, well, it’s just a very comfortable place to think.

One doesn’t think concentrated thoughts in the bathtub, at least I don’t. It’s a time and place for fluidity, some stream-of-consciousness, mixing it up. So I continued my OOO thoughts: color, secondary qualities, photos, ontology, ontology, memes—what’s up with memes? Piaget, objects, objects. And Eureka, a gradually emerging Eureka.

You see, Jean Piaget spent an enormous amount of time and effort trying to figure out just how and when infants come to understand that there are objects in the world. I suppose his central work on the subject is The Child’s Conception of the Object, which I read in Mary Ainsworth’s developmental psych class when I was an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins. Really tough mind-bending work, because I had to imagine I was a pre-linguistic infant in order to make sense out of what Piaget was saying.

Well, I won’t attempt to run through that drill, but one of the things Piaget said is that it’s a BIG MOMENT when, at six months or so, the child realizes that this thing that she sees, say it’s red rubber ball, and this thing that she touches and grasps, that it’s the SAME THING. Bingo! An Object! BALL! Neurally, vision, touch, and manipulation are three different channels; the object, as such, emerges into comprehension as an identification across those (and other) channels.

Piaget did that work a long time ago, it’s been revised from here to Pluto (no longer a planet) yadda yadda. And we can yadda-yadda a whole bunch of other stuff too, which I did while in the tub. I mean, I’ve been thinking through this stuff for years, so I can yadda-yadda over a lot of territory, perceptual, neuro, cognitive, and comparative, not to say evolutionary psychology.

And what pops out is that the mind-brain evolved to perceive physical objects. An awful lot of that subjective so-called secondary qualities stuff, that’s about picking out objects in the world, reliably, routinely, under widely varying circumstances. Which brings us back to color.

Color is a Construction

Color is one of those subjective secondary qualities. Objects don’t really have color. Color results from the three-way interaction of light, object surfaces, and our visual system. But, here’s the thing, the visual system constructs color so that an object’s color appears more or less constant over a wide range of circumstances. That’s very useful. If you will, this subjective quality tells us something objective about the world, where a straight reading of wavelengths would leave us mired in, well, subjective impressions.

So Latour’s right to harp on that oldish distinction and its invidious consequences. And correct, as well, to emphasize the difference between competent and incompetent construction. Color is a bit of competent construction, though we, meaning us self-conscious humans, had little to do with it. Rather, color competency is one of the many things that constructed us, if you will. Color, though subject, is on the nature side of the Big Nature Society Divide.

At this point we’re deep in psychology-land, in particular, we’re deep in my interest in ontological cognition. Which, of course, is not the same as ontology proper, as in OOO. What’s at issue is the relationship between the two.

Now, when David Hays and I attempted to make sense of the nervous system, we defined five principles (of natural intelligence). We called the second principal diagonalization (after Georg Cantor’s proof technique) and defined it as follows: “Diagonalization applies information from one channel to resolve ambiguity and impose structure in another channel.” I suppose we could have called it the ontology principle, because diagonalization is what gives a nervous system its ontology of objects and events.

But what does THAT have to do with, you know, real ontology, the ontology of the world?

That’s a long story, a long one, and we’re not going to get there now. But we can take another step or two. So let’s get out of the tub and consider, as an example, this memes business.

What’s a Meme?

A few weeks ago Levi Bryant and I got into a nasty spat about memes, one that threaded through the comments sections of two posts (one on texts as factories and one on generosity and charity in discussion). The point at issue is an old one: are memes in the head, moving from brain to brain, or are they out there in the world as qualities of objects? The dispute dates back to Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, where he seemed to allow for the possibility that memes, defined as replicating genetic units of culture, could be either inside people’s heads or in the external world. In the late 1990s this ambiguity eventually became a dispute between so-called internalists and externalists.

I bring it up here, not in any attempt to resolve that question—that would be futile—but to ask: What is the nature of the dispute? It might well be a philosophical question, but it’s not obviously that. As I understand it, OOO is rather generous in what it admits to objecthood. Whether or not something is real is not an issue. What matters is whether it “is a unified entity that has qualities differentiating it from all other objects” (Graham Harman, ASK/TELL interview, which, BTW, is a really splendid interview). Well, memes qualify as objects in any version of memetics, and internal vs. external was by no means the only matter at issue in the late-90s meme wars, no, not at all.

If the dispute’s not philosophical, what IS it? For it’s not empirical either, or not quite empirical. Internalists and externalists have no trouble pointing out things that qualify as memes. And they can recognize the things that one another point out; they know what’s being pointed at. What’s at issue is whether or not those things qualify as memes. That is, to use a word I picked up as an undergraduate, most likely in an introductory psychology course, but maybe it’s sociology (I took both), is how one OPERATIONALIZES the concept.

Here we’ve got an idea, that culture evolves. That’s an old idea, one that goes back at least to the 19th century. But this time around we want to think of cultural evolution as being, in some deep sense, like biological evolution, which has been under intense and far-reaching investigation and elaboration over the past century-and-a-half. Evolutionary theory in biology talks of genes and genotypes, but also of populations of phenotypes in an environment, and postulates certain kinds of relationships between those entities. So, when we’re saying that the meme is the cultural analogue to the gene, we’re implicitly dragging a whole conceptual structure along with it. How do we match that whole structure, with its various objects in their manifold relations, to the cultural world? That’s what’s at issue, how to match a conceptual structure operative in biology to the objects and relations that are operative in human culture and society.

That’s a very complicated problem, one that’s generated a complex mess of disputes.

Competing Descriptions of the World

How will those disputes be resolved? Not easily.

Let’s look at linguistics. Chomsky revolutionized the discipline by construing it in a certain way, by analogy to proof theory. In this construction, the sentence is the conclusion of a proof and the rules of grammar are the axioms and postulates of the system in which the proof is made. In effect, let’s describe language as though it were a mathematical system—that’s what Chomsky did.

Some people refused to go there. But others did, and so the Chomsky school was born, with its various divisions and offshoots. But oppositional schools arose as well, the West Coast cognitivists, Prague School functionalists (with deep pre-Chomsky roots), Syd Lamb’s stratificationalists (with roots in Hjelmslev), David Hays and dependency theory (rooted in Tesnière), M. A. K. Halliday’s functional grammar, and others. Each school has its own formal models and its own body of empirical work. Each has projected its own description onto language and managed to create a successful intellectual enterprise on that basis. And none has yet been able to convince the others of its superiority.

While I certainly have my sympathies, I don’t see how that’s going to shake out, much less when. All of the theories can account for observational evidence. We’ve got competing world views, competing paradigms (to use the word Thomas Kuhn made prominent).

That’s how it is with memetics. Except that memetics has failed to gain substantial purchase within the academic world. The study of cultural evolution, which predates memetics, is becoming a booming academic enterprise, and an empirical one too. But memetics has played little role in this. Everyone, I’m sure, knows the term “meme” and where it came from. Few take is seriously. Why should they, as empirical and theoretical work can proceed without it?

But, I’m wandering. Which is what memetics has been doing for three decades. My point is simply that memetics disputes are neither philosophical nor empirical. They’re somewhere in the vast swampy grey zone in-between.

My sense is—and here I’m tap dancing and hand-waving like mad—that the problem (the one in the vast swampy grey zone) is a deeply descriptive one. How do we abstract a certain conceptual structure from one domain, biology, and use it, that structure, as a descriptive frame in another domain, human culture?

Description and Ontological Cognition

And description—again, tap-dancing and hand-waving—is intimately linked to ontological cognition. Ontological cognition tells us what kinds of entities there are in a given domain, how they’re to be related one to the other, and how they participate in actions and events. In the world of common-sense thinking plants and animals have different qualities; but they are also ontologically different. In the world of biology, they also have different qualities, but they ARE NOT ontologically different. The biologist, however, is likely to hold on to the ontological difference between living things and inanimate things.

The common sense world is constructed differently from the world of biology. These constructions, of course, are about perception, action, and cognition. The biologist is necessarily is quite familiar with the common sense world, and lives and acts in it when not being a biologist. And so it is with the physicist, with physics world and common sense world, but also with the seamstress, the magician, the blacksmith, the ballerina, the computer programmer, and the mountain climber, and their respective specialized worlds. Each world has its own cognitive ontology and those ontologies all resist being collapsed into the common sense cognitive ontology. Mappings are always possible, but there is an arbitrary element to these mappings, and something is always lost.

[To the object-oriented ontologist, all worlds are equally worthy as life worlds. None merits ontological privilege over the others.

Not even the specialized domain of object-oriented ontology.]

No comments:

Post a Comment