Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Flood of Phenomena in the Common Sense World

Terence Blake put up an interesting post the other day: BRUNO LATOUR’S TABLE: Cognitive Dissonance and the Limits of Scientism. As the title indicates, Blake takes aim at scientism. But that’s not quite what interests me now. I’m interested in a passage he quotes from Latour’s new book:
Bruno Latour writes about the “popularizer…gauping at the multiplicity of worlds of quantum physics” (ENQUÊTE SUR LES MODES D’EXISTENCE, p127, my translation) believing that the common sense world has the simplicity of Euclidean space filled with familiar solid objects.... the “popularizer” of quantum complexity believed in the simplicity of our common-sense world because “it cost him nothing to believe that the microphone into which he speaks, the chair from which he pontificates, his own body, his genes, the walls of the room, the assembly that he inducts into his vertigo, all this too is immersed in Euclidean space”. It costs him nothing to believe this simple fable because he does not do the work necessary to explore the contours of the commonsense world, to investigate its multiple dimensions.

All the “popularizer” has to do, remarks Latour, is “begin a little seriously to take the measure of what he is saying…take out of his pocket a carpenters’ rule, set square, paper and pencil…draw the piece of furniture in perspective…get hold of a colour chart to decide on the colour and another set of samples to decide on the quality of the wood” (EME, 127)... Latour “hopes…that after interrupting his talk for several minutes to take some measures, he will have modified his conclusion and admitted that the quantum world is childs’ play in relation to the multiplicity and the complexity of dimensions simultaneously accessible to the smallest experience of commonsense” (EME, 127).
It’s this “simple” common sense world that laid artificial intelligence (AI) to waste in the late 60s and early 70s after its initial successes in modeling mathematics, chemistry, medicine and other deeply rationalized discourses. They proved to be child’s play compared to modeling the perceptual and motor capacities of a five-year old.

It’s not clear to me that philosophy yet knows how to take the measure of this common sense world. After all, philosophy has a long and widespread tradition of treating this common sense, this phenomenal, world as an illusion masking a deeper world that is also, in some sense, simpler, though the mathematics of that simpler world can be complex.

Graham Harman sees the objects of the common sense world, like all objects, as black holes of infinite withdrawal, always retreating away from us, defeating our attempts to know and comprehend, to grasp. I prefer to see the same common sense objects, like all objects, as gushing wells of ever-morphing abundance. It’s the abundance that defeats attempts at computer models, not the withdrawal. Withdrawal leaves you with nothing to model. Abundance floods you with too much; it’s not clear just what to model and, in any event, the computer can’t crunch all the numbers.

* * * * *

Here’s an example from the common sense world. When hurricane Sandy blew through my neighborhood she floated some 30 or 40 small boats at a near-by dry dock. They had to bring in a crane to lift the boats and move them about. I took photographs of men moving one of the boats, the sloop just to the right of center in this photo:


Here’s crane being moved into place:


Notice that the truck has four round “feet” that will be lowered to the ground to steady it in place, two are just in front of the flat bed and two just behind it.

Here you can see top of the boat’s mast flanked by the crane and the cables:



Two men will put slings under the boat and attach the ends of the slings to the hook suspended from the crane. They’ll then maneuver the boat by hand as a third operates the crane from a cab on the bed of the truck. This takes place in the world of plain old Newtonian kinematics and dynamics. These men have to judge the motions of the boat and crane as it’s gradually lifted off the ground (and the two other boats next to it) and swung around so that it can be lowered onto the bed of boat carrier.






Finally, the boat has been deposited and secured in its cradle and the truck can drive away to a place where it can be safely stored. There another crane will have to lift if from the truck and deposit in on supports.



  1. Harman claims that the world of common sense is a world of utter shams, but as you show his world of real objects is a world of flatus voci. My target is not so much scientism as the horrible simplification that "school philosophies", as Feyerabend calls them, give sway to in the image they create of the common sense world. Harmanian "withdrawal" like its ancestor Lacanian lack are typical examples of the negativity of school philosophies and of their incapacity to cope with the abundance of the world.

    1. Back in the day, Terry, Merleau-Ponty was my man, and I keep the Phenomenology of Perception around and look into it every now and then. I'm not so much interested in what he says so I can adopt his position (or, for that matter, oppose it). My intellectual world is very different from his, the requirements are different. But I find him useful as a point of reference: Here's what a deep thinker though about X Y or Z.

      I did this just the other day while I was thinking about Bryant. And they aren't in the same business. Merleau-Ponty was thinking about the world. Bryant is just playing with words; a "school philosopher" indeed.

  2. Yes, Merleau-Ponty is a feast to read, LB and GH are post festum

  3. This interests me in light of a conversation I had just last night, about computer-generated imagery vs. older effects. I argued that, however unconvincing, the older effects - be they puppets, models, or even mattes - had a texture, a physicality that one intuitively responded to (via the photography of the medium of course). CGI does not and no matter how sophisticated it gets, it can't quick capture the phenomena of the, as you put it, commonsense world.

    Neither does animation, of course - but animation is its own beast. When CGI tries to ape live-action too thoroughly, I think it mislays its own potential.

    Hope you and your neighborhood are doing ok in light of the storm.

  4. Thanks, Joel. I'm fine and my neighborhood, well, some folks are fine, but some are not.

    But I'm glad you brought up FX and animation. I think they're quite relevant to this issue, though I don't have a quick and easy comment on hand. Animation, traditional hand-drawn and CGI, interest me a great deal. Do you have any quick and dirty thoughts?