Wednesday, September 21, 2011

“Vitalism” is in Play

And all’s right with the world

Under ‘pressure’ from Jane “Vibrant Materials” Bennett, Levi Bryant speaks for a strategic vitalism. Tim Morton seconds the thought. And Graham Harmon concurs.

What’s Up?

Change, my friends, change. It’s a new world emerging on the horizon.

Can machines, like, think?

It goes without saying that we are undergoing a culture-wide upheaval that is changing how we think about and, thus how we experience, the world. One obvious source of conceptual pressure is the rise of the digital computer, which has forced us to consider the possibility of an elaborate electro-mechanical contraption that can, somehow, think. Well, if such a thing can think, what does that do to the once-firm distinction between mind and matter? Kind of knocks the feet out from under it, doesn’t it. Does that imply, as well, that the computer is somehow alive?


With those boundaries in peril—between mind and matter, mechanism and living organism—then, who could have been surprised when Jane Bennett brought up the topic of animism at the recent OOO meetings. Her book, after all, is titled Vibrant Matter. In her talk last Tuesday, “Powers of the Hoard: Artistry and Agency in a World of Vibrant Matter”, she noted in passing that ontology is written in the grammar of our language; which is to say, it’s written into our basic modes of thought. This is something I’ve blogged about recently:
There is this technical paper as well, Ontology in Knowledge Representation.

The world IS the world, independent of our perception and conception. But we cannot know it directly. We know it only through the means currently at our disposal, and those means are, in part, cultural. We can change them, and have done so in the past. We are doing so, once again. And not for the last time.

Better well than poorly constructed

In acknowledging that scientific thought about the world IS constructed, Latour points out that there is a world of difference between poorly constructed and well constructed thoughts. But he has relatively little to say about such differences, at least not in Reassembling the Social.

Let me offer a thought. Assume that constructing an account of the world is a bit like playing a game of chess. Chess is played according to a small fixed set of rules that are easily learned. But the sequences and combinations of moves is quite open ended; becoming expert in their assemblage is not so easy. Some sequences are better than others.

The point is that we’ve got a basic vocabulary that’s fixed. Given such a fixed vocabulary, effective differences arise only through varying the combinations of basic moves. That corresponds, I suspect, to what Thomas Kuhn has called ‘normal’ science (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions). But there are times when normal science fails. The community has been unable to fit theory to evidence solely by combinations of the basic vocabulary moves. Under these circumstances, new moves must be invented.

It is no longer the old game of chess. It may not even be a new kind of augmented chess. The situation calls for a new game entirely.

That, I argue, is the situation we now face. And not only with respect to science, but with respect to all thought. That is why ontology has emerged into the scene as such a vital discipline. We’ve got to come up with new conceptual moves, and ontology’s the name of that game.

Now, one might imagine that basic conceptual moves are more or less independent of one another, as though each were in a specific hole or drawer in a vast cabinet. Coming up with new moves could then be seen as adding a new row or bank of drawers to the cabinet and placing new ideas in each one. The old order is still preserved.

Thought is relational through and through

But that’s not how thought works, at least not as it’s depicted in the best models, such as the relational model advocated by Syd Lamb (Pathways of the Brain) and others, including David Hays and myself (cf. David Hays, Cognitive Structures, Benzon and Hays, Principles and Development of Natural Intelligence). In such models concepts are conceived as nodes in a vast network of concepts. When you add to or subtract from the net, tensions and relationships must be adjusted across the net.

Let me present some indicative neural findings, from Walter Freeman (How Brains Make Up Their Minds, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1999). Freeman works with the olfactory system of rats. Rats are trained to recognize a suite of odorants and their brain waves are recorded during the recognition process. Each odorant is associated with a particular pattern of amplitude modulation (AM) in an 8 by 8 grid of electrodes place on the cortical surface. These patterns, these odorant signatures, of course, vary from rat to rat.

What happens, then, when a rat is trained to recognize a new odorant? A new AM pattern is, of course, added to the existing suite of odorant signatures. But, and here’s the deep point, all the other signatures are changed, if ever so slightly (p. 82):
. . . AM patterns in the bulb are selective and specific for learned odorants, but that they lack invariance with respect to the chemical structure of the odorants. Each AM pattern depends on the history of exposure not merely to one odorant, but to every odorant. Moreover, each new learned odorant and new contingency of reinforcement leads to a change in the entire ensemble of AM patterns.
The signatures, the concepts if you will, of individual odorants are not independent of one another. They are mutually interdependent and so all must change to accommodate the addition of a new one.

A brave new world

My suggestion, then, is that it’s all like that. Those basic ontological notions that are built-in to our thought and our grammar, they’ve been under extreme pressure for decades now. We can no longer get by on the Cartesian quartet of (inanimate) matter, thought, god, and sensory qualities. The whole ensemble must be reconstructed.

The emergence of ‘strategic vitalism’, if you will, is a symptom of this reconstruction. Our attempts to construct an effective account of the world under even the most generously extended Cartesian rubric have become baroque and unintelligible. The old ontology must be scrapped. That is to say, all the terms must be reconceived and mutually adjusted and new beings, such as computers, must be admitted at 'ground level' so as to afford us a deeper and more satisfactory understanding of old and no longer quite so familiar beings, such as the animal, the vegetable, and the mineral.

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in't!

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