The Mutation of "Cognition" and the Fracturing of Modernity: cognitive technics, extended mind and cultural crisis
We often forget that we do not yet fully know what a “body can do merely by the laws of nature” (Spinoza, 1993: 86). Just as often, we forget that we have not yet fully thought thought. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, models of thinking processes are central to cultural work. While philosophers, engineers and neuroscientists continue to explore models of cognition – as yet without resolution - culture puts models of cognition to work. From education to performance management to contemporary politics, models of cognition - with all their contradictions and irresolution - play an increasingly large part in the modulation of life. Moreover, it is not easy to determine whether science, philosophy, or cultural work come first when it comes to development of cognitive models.
This is a first sketch of a framework within which to consider the contemporary cultures and politics of cognitive models. It is a framework in which politics - whether of the state or of everyday life - is increasingly colonised by a rapid cultural propagation of cognitive models and practices. This propagation is found in many new images of thought (Deleuze 1994: 129). It is also found in the fever surrounding the many new archival technics - from cognitive devices such as databases to new systems of regulating human cognitive performance. These transform the very substance and experience of thought (Derrida 1996) . I will assume that cognitive science and philosophy are no longer just science and philosophy (if indeed they ever were). Both now play a large role in a complex, competitive “market” involving cognitive models, a market that forms a growing, and increasingly important, sub-market within the global markets of contemporary Capital.
This article asks questions about the relations between philosophy, cultural practice, politics and the current mix of cognitive models.
The main argument asserts that a significant mutation in models of “cognition” is a major factor in the fracturing of key concepts and practices of modernity (a fracturing that has little to do with “postmodernism”).
Accepting this mutation in “cognition”, the second and third arguments are interwoven. In the second argument I gesture towards the important possibility of taking “extended mind” (Clark 1997, Clark and Chalmers 1998) and embodied mind (Varela et al 1991) further. This is towards what we might call intensive, differential or virtual thought (Massumi 2002). This involves folding an intensity - of a different kind to the cogito - back into extended mind. I will suggest that this will provide not only better cultural and philosophical models for thinking processes, but also a better understanding of the politics of cognitive models.
The third argument suggests the cultural and political importance of considering the differential and micro-constitution of cognitive events, along with cognitive practices at a macro level. In some ways this responds to recent questions asked by political theorists such as Brian Massumi (2002, 2005) or William E. Connolly (2002). These are questions such as “What if many messages flowing between multiple brain regions of differential capacities ... are too small and fast to be identified by consciousness but are, nevertheless, amenable to some degree to cultural inscription, experimental research, and technical intervention?” (Connolly 2002: 85). The is a question that might be brought into contact with Clark’s extended mind and “biological plasticity” (Clark, forthcoming), and with Stiegler’s suggested “hyper-industrialisation” and “industrial exploitation” (2003a) of cognitive models and cognitive technologies (see also Stiegler 1998, 2001, 2003b, 2004). In all, this provides a diagram that maps out points of striking potential and fields of numbing crisis - often both at the same time . It is a diagram mapping out what I call a “quiet trauma” in mental ecologies.
The fourth argument is only hinted at. It concerns the cultural and political importance of this quiet trauma. Contemporary symptoms of this trauma might be general stress, anxiety and dread, the political numbness and decay of the “will of the people”, direct psychological symptoms such as depression, the more subtle repetition compulsion found in the abyssal fall into ongoing performance measures and audit cultures, or the rise of fundamentalisms documented by Manuel Castells (1997). Cognitive cultures provide both a balm and a contributing cause to this trauma - the latter especially in the way that they shift the fundamental structures and experience of cognitive events (even if supposedly enhancing cognitive practices in the process). In suggesting this quiet trauma, the aim is not only critique. It is also to gesture towards the urgency of a response within an appropriate rethinking of frameworks, perhaps via new forms of design at every level.
The first argument, then, is that some recent mutations in cognitive models manifest the fracturing of the modern. This is insofar as key elements of the modern have involved mobilising (Stengers 2000: 114) cognitive models and practices. I should make it clear what I mean by this. I am not suggesting an immediate or absolute break with the modern from one moment to the next. Indeed, Bruno Latour has famously noted that the modern itself was never the radical break with the past that it imagined, and that “we have never been modern” (1993) . Following Latour, I am not suggesting that modernity has ever been absolute, all-encompassing, or without fractures. I am nevertheless suggesting that certain ecologies of cognitive models have indeed been key elements of modernity in whatever forms, and to whatever extent, modernity has existed. These models have provided the ground for: the very concept of cognitive agents, or, more narrowly, of rational agents; subjects (liberal, neo-liberal and other wise); political processes such as democracy (the political contracts between free individuals); and so on. The question of the fracturing of modernity is therefore the question of what it means that new “species” of cognitive models and cultures (particularly of distributed or extended mind) are mixing in with the older, modern models (which tend to be about cognitive individuals) - in what are becoming very complex cognitive ecologies. It is true that older and newer models are often found in hybrid forms and practices. It is even true that many of the newer cognitive models and practices have developed out of older models and practices. Yet the newer models are not compatible with much that was modernity and their rise accentuates a set of major tensions within culture regarding the end of modernity.
“Reflexive Modernity” and Cognitive Instability
One way to view such tensions in broader social terms would be via Ulrich Beck’s “reflexive modernity” or “second modernity”, and my arguments perhaps run in parallel to Beck, Lash and Urry on this reflexive modernity, along with Castells on the “space of flows”.
Beck, Bonss and Lau write that reflexive modernity is not to do with self-referentiality, in which “social change is conceived of as occurring within a stable system of coordinates”. Rather,
the challenge of theorizing reflexive modernization is that the system of coordinates is changing ... the transition to a reflexive second modernity not only changes social structures but revolutionizes the very coordinates, categories and conceptions of change itself. (2003: 1-2)
As Scott Lash points out, this involves a movement from a “logic of structures” to, following Manuel Castells, “a logic of flows”, of “unintended consequences”, of a “rationality that is forever indeterminate” yet “comfortable in the logic of flows” (2003: 49). The result is a non-linearity to social practices which disrupts the efficacy of linear models. Here we could point to linear models such as those involving neat cognitive inputs and outputs, neat communication models of sender, message and receiver which also efficiently sort signal from noise, or neat models posing stable forms of representation and recognition via which we communicate. First modernity was happy with these models, with their “linear system” (50). Second modernity thrives on
dis-equilibrium ... change ... produced internally to the system through feedback loops ... open systems ... system destabilization. Complex systems do not simply reproduce. They change ... the ‘chaos’ or noise of the unintended consequences ... leads to system dis-equilibrium.
This involves a break with the Kantian form of reflection still fundamental to much mainstream cognitive philosophy. While the “Kantian subject of determinate judgment” is “reflective”, here there is the model of “non-linear reflexivity”. The latter emphasises a quick and shifting series of networked relays (for example, within cognitive processes in the workplace, global satellite systems, or often both at once). Such systematised feedback loops produce what Lash calls the relayed, “I am I”, quicker and more responsive or adaptive than the “I think therefore I am” (51). In short this “I am I” has more to do with “reflex than reflection” (my emphasis). Understanding this reflex helps us understand the politics of the extended mind (the dark side of it perhaps) . These reflexes allow a networked and, we could say, a virtualised, body-mind. This disrupts the modernity of neat categories or defined processes so beloved of modern cognitive models and their close relatives, such as models of communication.
Reflexes are indeterminate. They are immediate. They do not in any sense subsume. … choice must be fast, we must – as in a reflex – make quick decisions. ... We put together networks, construct alliances, make deals. We must live, are forced to live in an atmosphere of risk in which knowledge and life-chances are precarious. (Lash 2003: 51-52)
In these contexts, as Lash puts it, there might be still be a “subject” but it is “so constantly in motion and so involved in the world that it makes little sense to talk about a subject position” (52).
As Latour points out, this "reflexivity" has consequences for basic notions/existential territories crucial to modernity, such as consciousness.
.... the unintended consequences of actions reverberate throughout the whole of society in such a way that they have become intractable. ... In second modernity, we become conscious that consciousness does not mean full control. As to ‘risk’, it does not mean that we run more dangers than before, but that we are now entangled, whereas the modernist dream was to disentangle us from the morass of the past. (Latour 2003: 36)
This increase in uncertainty, in relay, in risk and reflexivity, in networking (entanglement), in probabilisitic and “unexpected associations”, suggests the urgency of considering the ongoing micro-constitutions of cognitive events and related political events (see also Connolly 2002). I shall also shortly suggest that this uncertainty calls for a more thorough consideration of differential forces as part of the ongoing constitution of the real, whether micro or macro, and also, therefore, of what Andy Clark calls “extended mind”. It also, in a slight deviation from Beck, Lash and others, suggests a fracturing of modernity that is perhaps not so much a second modernity, as the beginnings of a mutation into something else.
It is important to point out that uncertainty, differentials, reflexes and relays and so on arise not out of a desire for crisis, for risk and so on, but precisely from their very modern opposite - the desire for control via technical progress. Beck and Lash articulate this very well, but in their apparent mourning of Kantian modernism remain perhaps somewhat Kantian themselves. This is insofar as, for them, the central tension involves the relation between the functional limits of knowledge and the desire for complete knowledge via a utopian transparency of stable functions (a transparency which is at once epistemological, ontological, operational and disciplinary - one which indeed blurs the boundaries between the first three within the enhanced power of the last). Once one moves away from this "post" Kantianism, one is perhaps in a place or time quite different to the modern. Perhaps "second modernity" in fact has one foot outside of modernity, insofar as modernity is based on individual, reflective cognitive agencies and transparent, stable functions.
“Cognition” and Modernity
Let us return, however, to the foot that remains within that modernity that survives, if in fractured form. Let us make a perhaps large assumption: modernity and a particular set of cognitive models have always been deeply entwined, even perhaps mutually defining - at least since Kant, and at least up until to early cognitive science and cognitive psychology. One might say that the very concept of “cognition” itself was a modern invention, necessary, in turn, to the ongoing invention of the modern (this is not the same as saying that modern cognition is a false concept).
How has “modern cognition” been assembled? Modern cognitive agents are agents who deploy, develop and arguably construct their cognitive faculties, even as they theorise their existence. They aim to control their own faculties of thought and those of others (whether for the benefit of themselves, their own group, or, more benevolently, “all humankind”). They direct cognitive practices and optimise (that is, reconstruct) them at the same time as they think out the “nature” of cognitive processes - within ethics, politics, and social development. They set up the “ongoing activity’ (Heidegger 1996: 53) of research into cognitive “faculties”. They develop universities and other forms of education and research appropriate to the definition and refinement of these faculties. Today, they often use the tactics, assumptions and linear models of first modernity to marshal the forces of second modernity (and the forces outside of modernity). Examples can be found aplenty in the contemporary success of basic linear cognitivism within the dynamic reflexivity of workplace performance management. Or, one need look no further than the use of linear cognitive technics (the definition of individual production targets or learning outcomes, the reduction of these outcomes to representations and forms of recognition in “quality measures”) and so on within the otherwise very reflexive global education markets.
The modern “discovery” and furthering of cognition have tended to require the assemblage of sub-concepts. The most notable of these are recognition (of one separate entity by another) and representation (in order to transmit forms of recognition between entities and to carry/signify recognition itself within any entity). And often what are taken to be recognised and represented first of all - perhaps recognised because they are represented - are cognitive models and their elements themselves. This forms the basis for further sciences, philosophies and cultural work. This is not just a matter of abstract work - it is a matter of technological development, industrialisation, art practices, and political cultures (for example, democracy as a rational means of cultural agreement between individuals minds, just as the faculties of the mind itself can be brought to some sort of agreement).
Perhaps the extreme mode of this set of tendencies is summed up in one word/model - cognitivism. This is a model of a cognition as discoverable (that is that we can recognise and describe it) and manipulable internal processing, of a cognition that is logical, locatable and communicable, of cognition that is made of representations and is representable. Cognitivism is so well-adopted culturally (in education and cognitive psychology for example, although cognitivism does have many challengers) as to perhaps provide the orthodoxy that all other models challenge. One might argue that cognitivism’s increasing ability to micro-manage cultural activities (education is one major example) creates a self-fulfilling prophecy in which “cognition” as a concept is almost indispensable.
Yet cognitivism’s central concepts and practices can often seem at odds with each other. So much so that the cultural triumph of cognitivism may precipitate the cultural fracturing of “cognition”. Modern cognition (cognitivism and its variants) has powers that are today perhaps at their most pervasive and most visible because they are about to implode - just as stars expand, before they fall apart, to consume the systems they have supported during their life. In many of the cultural deployments of the tools provided by “modern cognition” there are increasing tensions between cognitive enhancement and diminution, between representational acts and acts of force, between agency and the redistribution of cognitive agency in favour of “the system”: in performance management, audit cultures, increasingly complex systems of evaluation in the workplace, even what Paul Virilio has called “cognitive ergonomics” (Virilio and Madsen 1995: 80), the contemporary synthesis of media representations, or the science of cognitive framing and political cultures, often strategically tweaked by the well-named “think tanks” (Lakoff 2004).
In short, a widespread cognitive disempowerment (Virno 2004) at the hands of cognitive technologies and models challenges both “cognition” in the modern (that is, reflective, functionally stable and individualised) sense, and ultimately the construction of modernity itself. This is seen, for example, in the well-known tensions within contemporary models of political representation, classical economics, neo-liberal ethics, or neo-conservative morality. On the one hand, there are models concerning individual agents processing internalised representations via stable faculties that they can call “their own”. On the other hand these individuals - and their perhaps overdetermined internal processings - often seem by-products of powerful external systems that are radically unstable, or at best metastable, within an external distribution of forces as much as, or more than, representations. There are, of course, many examples of tensions between cognitive models from within cognitive research. Old-fashioned models of cognition, if still prevalent, based upon the internal processing of symbols, propositions or representations, are in tension with connectionist models, in which distribution provides a different model for processing to that of the more direct inputs and outputs of earlier models. This in turn makes dynamical connectionist models possible. Here there is a development of the idea of a “fluid inner economy in which representations are constructed on the spot”. This takes even further “flight from the (static) inner symbol” towards “a much wider range of dynamic and time-involving properties” (Clark 2001: 72).
There are similar tensions within related areas, such as concepts and practices found in media and communications and work on/with living processes - for the obvious reason that the models are related (Murphie 2005).
Models as Technics within the Real
To reiterate, none of these models are just supplements to "real events". The models feedback into events. In short, these models are themselves a technics at large in the real . As Paul Edwards has noted with regard to computers:
Not only as tools but also as models and metaphors, computers connect cognitive psychology and artificial intelligence to high-technology warfare and to the institutional structures of the modern state. (Edwards 1996: xv)
On the one hand, despite the dominance of cognitivism, the formulations of these models and metaphors during the last 60 or so years have been tremendously diverse. On the other hand, as Edwards points out, the historical contexts in which "cognition" has arisen are sometimes remarkably narrow .
For example, there is the problem of "communication/information” and “noise” - of neat signals or thoughts in relation to the problem of contamination by a messy world. This is a problem we now take as presupposed in areas from communications to cognition. Yet, rather than the general problem of cognition/communication it is now taken for, this was initially was a problem of literal noise and communication during WW2 (the noise for example, interfering with effective commands in the height of battle). Research into precisely this problem at Harvard’s Psycho-Acoustic Laboratory during WW2 was to prove influential within the development of cognitive psychology (Miller and Licklider both worked there [Edwards 1996, chapter 7]). The problem is that such specific contexts were generalised after WW2. The powerful metaphors or models that emerged from these specific contexts were quite different "machines" to those dealing with the specific contexts from which they emerged - bigger, more abstract, we could say more "potentialised". Yet they carried their history with them - and this history of assemblage is an important part of a politics of cognitive models. For example, the cognitive models arising, at least in part, from Harvard’s PAL, generalise the problem of giving and receiving accurate “commands” in the face of an “enemy threat” - giving a particular structure to cognitive experience when these models are put into operation in general culture.
At the same time, in none of the contexts of cognitive events are the changes in models and cultural practices smooth, absolute or completely linear. It can be observed that, with each move towards broader contexts, systems and differential forces, forms of recognition become less sure, and representations and stable, non-contradictory propositions become less central to the processes involved. At the same time, the intensities of differential distribution - always perhaps the crucial part of the processes, if previously hidden behind the more “modern” cognitive models - are rendered more visible.
Differential intensity here refers to the active difference that can be taken as constitutive force within any event. In this mode of thinking, events (or even individuals, precisely as events) are considered first as an intersection of a series of differential relations. Thinking in terms of differential intensity leads us to a more ecological consideration; of media (Murphie 2003) and cognition, or of the dynamics of the politics of a life merged more and more with technics (Murphie 2005).
Here I would suggest the importance of thinking through the presence of intensive differentials within cognition itself, and subsequently within models of cognition. This is, of course, suggested in the ambiguity about the nature and status of “cognition” found in the development of distributed computing, which, particularly in robotics, suggests a distribution of forces or intensities as much as representations or even intelligence (Brooks 1991a, 1991b). These differentials become the more important - and perhaps more obvious - within the newer networks (on the politics of networks, see Terranova 2004) , disturbances and feedback loops, the non-linear reflexes of “second modernity”. And there are an increasing number of operative differential models of cognition (Brooks, Clark, Massumi, Terranova). Differentials might always have been the major component of thinking, despite the attempt to tame or hide them via the assumption of linear inputs and outputs, representations, recognitions, smooth communications.
It depends on your choice of model as to whether a move towards considering differential intensity as primary seems a better move philosophically (it does to me). Whether it does or not, however, it is certain that the rendering visible/ongoing construction of these forms of differential distribution via new models allows culture to put the differential intensities involved to work as never before. In fact, this often occurs in tandem with the cultural deployment of practices derived from older (representational/individualist) models. Strictly speaking, this tandem deployment might involve propositional contradictions or a series of misrecognitions, but that is seldom a technical obstacle. In general, the mix of models provides new opportunities for cultural work - by which I mean opportunities as much for increased exploitation of “cognitive labour” as for escape from regressive cultural practices. At the same time, the contradictions within the deployment of cognitive models do create cultural tensions.
I briefly sum up these tensions via three questions. The first involves control. Konrad Becker suggests that 'Whoever controls the metaphors controls thought' (Becker 2004) and there is little doubt that this is often the aim - for better of worse - of the development and deployment of cognitive models. They are metaphors put to work as frames for control . Control also informs the manner in which cognitive models in philosophy and psychology justify their existence in the market. Yet, ironically, cognitive control - even over “our own” cognitive processes - undermines “cognition” as a concept. The reflective individual, who provided the stable site and structure for cognitive processes, becomes a more of a relay for an extended technics of reflex involving thinking processes.
The second question involves the possibility of pinning thinking processes down at all. What if thought pre-exists metaphors, or escapes them in situ? Or if the finished models by which we recognise thoughts come “after” the mess of thinking? William E. Connolly writes that “nature itself is unfinished and full of micro-differentials that periodically accumulate to generate new things” (Connolly 1999: 24). Recognition (and many early theories of cognition are really theories of re cognition rather than cognition itself) seems less than adequate as a model for thought when cast against the unfinished and shifting fields of often tiny forces that Connolly calls micro-differentials. In this respect, Deleuze and Guattari write of “microbrains” - “everywhere there are forces that constitute microbrains, or an inorganic life of things” (1994: 213). Control would be very difficult, if not impossible, amongst these microbrains - or rather control has to be rethought in terms of the modulation of differentials rather than recognition.
The problems involved are as much of the individual brain as of “extended mind”. Gregory Bateson writes that
… if we consider a series of neurons, each firing the next, then the firing of each neuron is a transform of the firing of its predecessor. We deal with event sequences which do not necessarily imply a passing on of the same energy. (2000: 416)
How are these micro-differentials to be brought back into systems of cognitive regulation and performance? This has arguably long been a foundational, if compromising and somewhat hidden, question for cognitive philosophy. As such a question has come out into the open, as a functional question, it has perhaps become a central issue in contemporary politics .
The third question involved in considering the tensions surrounding cognition is that of technics (technologies and techniques, rules, systems, rituals and so on). Bernard Stiegler puts this question this way.
Technics and its translations in social structures constitute memory supports which are not found in the brain and without which the brain is nothing at all. (Stiegler 2004)
What does this make the brain? What does it make technics? Where do these three questions leave a consideration of the pragmatic politics of cognitive models?
There is not the space here to answer these questions, so I hope I can be forgiven for a very quick summary diagram via which to consider them.
An Ecology of Extended Mind
This is a diagram with "two axes".
On one axis of this diagram we could map out a new ontology of thinking processes. This would include: a dynamic ecology of extended mind, in which fields of forces, or micro-differentials, come into their own; an ongoing and temporary micro-constitution of "insides/outsides", or more often, some other transversal micro-constitution; a "defunctionalisation and a refunctionalisation of the brain … inscribed in the becoming of technics", and in relation to body, organs (and libidinal drives) and world (present as differential affects) (Stiegler 2004); accompanied by "a defunctionalization and a refunctionalistion of the social – a re-engineering"; a “biological plasticity” (Clark forthcoming, p.1) that allows for what we might call "potentialised bodyminds"in circuits with cognitive networks. At a macro level, cognitive metaphysics and models become a kind of technics - some, but only some, of the technical transducers involved in this potentialising of circuits within ecologies of thinking practices (Stengers 2002) . At a micro level, recognitions, representations and symbols, become impermanent and changeable micro-metastabilities, micro-constitutions or mini-durations that are some, but only some, particular forms of capture of differential intensity (much like voltage differentials produce 1's and 0's in computing). Symbols, inputs, "processings" and outputs are subject to much more radical variation than would be tolerated by models needing to predict how things will turn out. Sense and sensation are reconfigured, with “ an open conduit allowing environmental magnitudes … exert[ing] a constant influence on behaviour ” (Clark forthcoming, p.7). In this “open conduit”, “arepresentational content” is the key, even within symbols or signs. This is content that organizes “force relations, rather than ... a linguistic or ‘mental’ structure” (Bogard 2000). In the end, the important terms here might not be symbols, representations, recognition or even perhaps information so much as relay, modulation, transduction (on transduction, see Mackenzie 2002). This is all complicated further by the global technics of memory or “global mnemotechnics” (Stiegler 2003a) described by Bernard Stiegler. In this, “the [global] industrial synthesis of retentional finitude [via tele-technologies or mnemotechnics]…directly challenges consciousness as such” (2003a). Technics, always already at the heart of the human (Stiegler 1998), becomes more obviously and powerfully so. Tertiary, that is technical, retentions, dominate Husserl’s “real human" memory (Stiegler, 2001: 244). A "fourth synthesis" (Stiegler, 2003a) – a powerful technical synthesis – interferes in Kant's syntheses of understanding, imagination and reason (and of course in passive intuition). The unconscious is networked (Stiegler, 2004). All this marks the end of the functional separation of world and mind, and of course, questions any neat or predictable separation of “faculties” or other cognitive elements. It questions even the materialist metaphysics of "thought in the brain".
On the other axis of our diagram for considering the contemporary politics of cognitive models, we could map out the history and present of the need, in culture and politics, for a kind of broad cognitivism. Operationally, the result is a complex, working metaphysics (often denied as such) of isolated “mind” or at least of "thought in the brain", in what I have called elsewhere “brain-magic” (Murphie forthcoming). Such cognitive models have, in the past, precisely by virtue of their relative simplicity, proved to be a major technique of recuperation of the complexity that constantly escapes the ‘world pictures’ and orders of modernity. Yet the complexity of the relations now involved – between the mix of contemporary cognitive models, global mnemotechnics, and the circulation of differential forces through thinking processes themselves – seems at a critical threshold.
Is this the end of the modern? At the least, it indicates a series of crises in 'an ecology of the mind' (Stiegler 2003b: 166). It might also indicate a general, if strangely quiet, trauma surrounding thinking processes.
A Quiet Trauma in the Ecology of Extended Mind
The crisis involved is not necessarily, or only, a crisis of belief in God, or even Humanity. It’s not even just, as Deleuze would have said, a crisis concerning belief in the world, here and now. This is a crisis concerning the possibility of belief itself. Stiegler writes, “belief and fidelity today assume such as convulsive form as to nothing but announce the advent of total incredulity and infidelity” (2001: 238). In this situation, the concept of crisis may now be inadequate to describe what is happening. This is partly because of the destructive side of what Derrida calls “archive fever” (Derrida 1996) – the frenzied and often global deployment of cognitive, mnemonic and media technologies. In this context, any crisis in an ecology of mind occurs at the foundational level of thinking-technology syntheses themselves. And this is the level which subsequently makes belief possible (or not).
In this situation of incredulity and infidelity it’s hard to experience a “crisis” in that the figure and ground of this experience are one and the same. Our cognitive models, whether accurate or not, are themselves some of our prime resources when it comes to thinking with the world, of separating figure and ground, and this in terms of both the macro and micro-constitution of thinking events via which we habitually live. One unfortunate side of this is that questioning our own models brings the real threat of de-constitution of the basis of political formations, institutions such as educational institutions, disciplines such as classical economics, assumptions within communication practices, not to mention practices of the self, whatever that may be taken to be (and precisely when we feel we need all these things most). Even if our assumed models are “inaccurate” they possess the advantage of making the differential fields in which we live habitable. Or so it was in the past. In the contemporary condition, as thinking itself is synthesised more rapidly by global technical systems, our position within this synthesis become extremely unstable, less amenable to many of the cognitive models we cling to.
I would suggest that this sometimes begins to look, not so much like a crisis, as a general cultural trauma. (Here I can only gesture towards the important role of cognitive models in trauma studies, and to the undoubtedly political relation between individual and cultural trauma. Paulo Virno’s discussion would also be helpful here, in which he writes of “dread-panic, angst, pathologies of various kinds” in either “an ‘I’ that no longer has a world or a world that no longer has an ‘I’” [Virno 2004: 78]).
If a crisis is something, despite its difficulty, that one can frame, know and feel, in which figure and ground can still be constituted, a trauma is something that cannot so easily be reconciled to frames of knowing (or feeling). Yet traumas still have particular modes of expression (precisely an active expression of the difficulty of constituting figure and ground, therefore memory and so on). There are symptoms such as repetition compulsion, anxiety, dread and so on, all of which are precisely, unlike the framing of crisis, not so much framings as expressive of the inability to frame. Even here, however, I would argue that the mutation of cognition and the fracturing of modernity have, at least to some extent, transformed the symptomatic expression of associated trauma - the ability to express what cannot be framed. We therefore live with what I am calling a “quiet trauma”. The current or coming trauma is a "quiet trauma" in the sense that our modes of registering or expressing trauma, such as they are, are, along with everything else, being fairly dramatically modulated by the "hyper-industrialisation of retentional devices" (the repetition of images from 9/11 is a well-known example). These modes of expressing trauma are not silent but they are muted, seeking new modes of expression.
It would be an understatement to say that this is one of the basic conditions of contemporary global politics. Although much of the rhetoric of mainstream politics is still that of identity politics, of figure and ground, much of the substance is a politics of intensive differentials that are as potentially savage as they are promising. Politically, trauma involves clinging to the mast of identity politics while surrounded by the rising seas of differential intensities.
Adapting Models of Mind
Have I over-stated the case? As I have suggested, our cognitive models are responding, when we let them. Many of our contemporary models and practices of thought are highly complex and open. Yet I think it is also true that many of our models and everyday practices of thought are reduced to a basic sets of stark and simplistic “markers” (slogans even, such as “best practice” or the “war on terror”), assumed processes, or measures around which to gather cultural activity, as if around a fire in a darkness that threatens to overwhelm us . Simplistic cognitive models are still prevalent and strong, so that we are often trapped between the strength of reductive contemporary cognitivisms and their complete functional upending within global mnemotechnics. As John Protevi puts it, the task now might be to pursue 'the point at which consciousness and its phenomenological articulation in what we call the 'conscious body politic' opens out onto a world of force' (2001: 20).
In this situation, new models of thinking processes such as Clark’s become crucial , as much for the promise of new designs for cultural life, as for critique. For this is not only a matter of critique (which, too easy, often merely extends the neurotic symptom of judgement). Extended mind, a deconstructive approach to technics, and a notion of differential cognition, can all contribute to the more ethical pursuit of a necessary opening out onto a world of force. A large part of this might involve a direct rethinking of design, or more engagement by cultural theorists with the work being done in various forms of design. Here I mean, for example, engagement: with design architectures - whether of cognitive practices, computers or buildings, with the design of actual thinking practices in areas from education to media forms.
In all this there is the philosophical and political urgency of adapting models of mind to the new forcefields of macro-relation and micro-differentiation in which thinking takes place. In suggesting a quiet trauma within contemporary cultures, then, the aim is to gesture towards the urgency of a response. This is a response with an appropriate rethinking of frameworks and of their impact upon the design of everyday life (a cognitive Bauhaus for after modernity, perhaps). It is a response that is increasingly going to mean a willingness to step outside the bounds of modernity when it is necessary to do so.
Bateson, G. (2000) Steps To an Ecology of Mind, Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Beck, U., Bonss, W. and Lau, C. (2003) “The Theory of Reflexive Modernization: Problematic, Hypotheses and Research Programme” in Theory, Culture & Society vol. 20 no. 2 pp. 1-33
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