The Slow Thought Movement

June 6, 2010

I have been inspired to read Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things after finding an online reader’s group of philosophy bloggers.  As this book follows in the footsteps of Gilles Deleuze and Manuel De Landa, I was immediately interested, given my past focus on their work.  I am a bit behind in the reading schedule and may never catch up, but given the title of this blog entry, I guess that should be okay.

I was immediately struck by Bennett’s description of her philosophical project on the first page of the preface as an attempt “to think slowly an idea that runs fast through modern heads: the idea of matter as passive stuff” (vii).  This immediately made me think of De Landa’s reference to glass as a slow-moving fluid, one that takes centuries to flow.  Deleuze and Guattari often engage the phenomenon of speed as a way to indicate degrees of difference: “Speed turns the point into a line.”  Her chapter on “Edible Matter” references the slow food movement, which I used to conceive of “the slow thought movement.”

So how does one think slowly?  Perhaps it is as easy as paying more attention.  In the words of one aphorism, “a thing is simple or complex, depending on how much attention one pays it.”  Slow thinking would suggest the kind of attention to historical process that De Landa makes famous in his A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, a book that Bennett uses (among others) to frame her argument in chapter one.

Perhaps the claim to a vitality intrinsic to matter itself becomes more plausible if one takes a long view of time. If one adopts the perspective of evolutionary rather than biographical time, for example, a mineral efficacy becomes visible. (10-11)

She then provides a long example of such mineral efficacy from De Landa’s book, a quote which is worth repeating here since it’s so interesting:

Soft tissue (gels and aerosols, muscle and nerve) reigned supreme until 5000 million years ago. At that point, some of the conglomerations of fleshy matter-energy that made up life underwent a sudden mineralization, and a new material for constructing living creatures emerged:  bone.  It is almost as if the mineral world that had served as a substratum for the emergence of biological creatures was reasserting itself” (11,  quoting Nonlinear History p. 26).

She also quotes Adorno at one point, who writes, “What we may call the thing itself is not positively and immediately at hand. He who wants to know it must think more, not less” (13).  This “thinking more,” I believe, is enhanced by “the long view of time” Bennett mentions.  Slow thinking allows for a sedimentation, a layering of processes and matter-energy flows that make up the complex expression of the here-and-now (or the wherever-and-whenever we happen to be attending to).

Bennett discusses Adorno’s “negative dialectics” as a way to “become more cognizant that conceptualization automatically obscures the inadequacy of its concepts,” at one point quoting him as saying, “objects do not go into their concepts without leaving a remainder” (14, emphasis mine).   I wondered here again about the possibility of a different way of thinking, along the lines developed in a previous blog post trying to think beyond the concept.  Perhaps there’s something here that would allow me to develop the idea of “the incept” as a way in to an object, a kind of “becoming-thought-object,” a thinking-with or -through an object.  Such inceptual thinking would require a slowing down, a kind of phase-alignment of one’s own energy with the objects under observation (for her it was the debris that “provoked affects in me” [4]).

At any rate, Vibrant Matter is stimulating to say the least, and I look forward to following the discussion of the reading group in the days to come.

Analogical Heuretics

January 29, 2010

I just started teaching Writing for Interactive Media at Emerson College, for which I introduced Ulmer’s “Apparatus Theory” and the concept of “electracy.” Part of the talk presented two examples of “analogical heuretics,” that is, thinking via grammatological analogy as Ulmer is fond of saying and doing.  So the first one asks this question: if literacy makes conceptual thinking possible, what kind of thinking does electracy make possible?  In an essay I wrote titled “Imaging Place as Imaging Thought,” I conceived of four different answers to this question, playing with the etymologies in the same way that Ulmer suggests doing in a recent blog post:  deceptual thinking, receptual thinking, inceptual thinking, and exceptual thinking.

In the PowerPoint for the class, I expand a bit on “deceptual thinking,” drawing a connection to the famous New Yorker cartoon of the dog who, while sitting at a computer, tells another dog, “Nobody knows you’re a dog on the internet” as well as quoting from Sherry Turkle’s Life on the Screen where she writes that “You are what you pretend to be.”

While reading and commenting on Ulmer’s blog this evening, I got to thinking about thinking once again and pulled an old book (1889) off my shelf by George John Romanes called Mental Evolution in Man.  He studied and reported on animal intelligence, and when I googled “recept” at one point, references to his books came up.  And what he says about recepts (a word he coins to describe the kind of thinking that happens somewhere between percepts and concepts) resonates quite a bit with what we’re trying to do in establishing a category of thinking characterized as “electrate.”

For Romanes, the recept is a kind of compound idea that precedes the act of naming or use of language, which introduces a level of abstraction that elevates ideation to conceptual thinking.  He quotes John Stuart Mill, who invokes Auguste Comte,  who suggested that “besides the logic of signs, there is a logic of images and a logic of feelings.”  The recept, that is, is a kind of thinking before language, a thinking with images.

We can build upon Romanes’ idea of the recept, which he posits to suggest that animal intelligence is on the same spectrum as human intelligence (“the universal continuity of ideation, both in brutes and men”).  With electracy, we don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water; we will build upon literacy and allow the electrate apparatus to enhance literate modes of thinking.  In this case, I wondered if Lakoff and Johnson’s idea of “metaphorical concepts” or “conceptual metaphors” could be considered a kind of receptual thinking insofar as they are a thinking (“conceptual”) with images (“metaphors”), a kind of thinking in which metaphors/images/analogies are brought to a level of abstraction.  In virtual worlds, we take all of this to a new level and begin to think with and within 3-D spaces, via movement through a space, almost like the peripatetic philosophers of old.

Romanes himself relies upon Lakoff and Johnson’s key conceptual metaphor of the mind as body metaphor (so that “thinking is moving through a space”) when he asks, “how far can the mind travel without the vehicle of Language?”  With this metaphor, Romanes reveals an inherent bias in favor of conceptual thought:  the mind can only go so far without the “vehicle” of language.  But I’m more interested in the fact that, once again, in order to think about thinking, we resort to the use of spatial metaphors through which the mind moves.  In my comment on Ulmer’s blog, I think through and with this metaphor to suggest that allegory has powerful potential for advancing thought along these lines…

Infinition: Thinking-Fractal

May 1, 2009

I wrote a poem a while back called “Axiom: A Mathematics of Poetry” in which I parody the opening chapters of G. Spencer-Brown’s The Laws of Form. The first line introduces a new concept that I created called “infinition”:

It shall be taken as given the idea of infinition. The idea of infinition stands in direct opposition to the idea of definition.

Then, as in chapter one of the Spencer-Brown book, I provide a definition:

Infinition is the act of making indefinite or unclear. That is to say, while some uses of language attempt to clarify, others attempt to obfuscate.

The poem then continues with instructions to make a poem, introducing “canons,” “conventions,” and “principles” much like The Laws of Form does in its opening chapters; these kind of “mathematical” moments attempt to define poetry from its moment of creation. Interspersed within these various defining moments are “infinitions,” poetic moments that obfuscate, that use metaphor and imagery to open up or make blurry what the definitions try to distinguish or clarify.

I later realized that this concept of infinition, which I playfully created for the purposes of this poem, could be introduced in the context of electracy as a simple analogue of electrate thinking. If electracy is a kind of thinking that emerges from or opposes (to some extent) literacy, and literate thinking has as its modus operandi the goal of defining, distinguishing, and clarifying, then “infinition” can be seen perhaps as a kind of electrate definition.

Or, to phrase it as Greg Ulmer might, infinition is to electracy as definition is to literacy.

As a kind of image-thinking, or thinking through or via images, electracy invites the kind of ambiguity that literacy loathes. Ulmer’s work (in Internet Invention: From Literacy to Electracy for example) steers us toward this kind of thinking that is already happening, that is at the core of inventive thinking, as in Einstein’s “wide image” of the compass:

Part of the value of Einstein as a paradigm is that his theories are imaged by a compass. The story of his compass becomes a parable for our own search , in that we must find our equivalent of the compass–the scene that we recognize as having this guiding role in our orientation to the world and to life. (27)

For Ulmer, “invention is an ecological process” and therefore we must attend to the various institutions of our lives (family, career, entertainment, community) in order to tune in to potential new ideas that can emerge from cross-over (in the way that metaphor suggests “crossing over” or “carrying across”). His books provide “heuretics” for invention, and they work: using his CATT(t) method back in his graduate theory course in 1987, I independently discovered the image of the rhizome (for me imaged as a watermelon) as a model of thinking differently, before knowing anything about Deleuze and Guattari.

If we are to think of infinition imagistically, then, I would offer the Koch snowflake as a model of a kind of “fuzzy definition” or “fuzzy logic” or “thinking-fractal.” The idea is to start with an equilateral triangle and then to let each of the sides open out into an increasingly elongated boundary. It’ll be quicker for you to get the idea if you see the animations at the Wikipedia entry for the Koch snowflake. Here is a boundary of infinite length, which seems to be a contradiction: if something is bounded, it is typically finitely bounded, enclosed by a measurable boundary.

So the question, then, is how can this fractal curve help us to think differently? Can the model of the Koch snowflake open up thought, make it an act of infinition?

Don’t get me wrong: there is a place for definition. But there is also a place for infinition.

Thinking About Thinking: Post-Continental Philosophy

January 28, 2009

I recently received from inter-library loan a book by John Mullarkey titled Post-Continental Philosophy: An Outline. This looks at four contemporary philosophers: Gilles Deleuze, Alain Badiou, Michel Henry, and Francois Laruelle, all of whom, according to the author, deal with the topic of immanence in different ways in order to renew thought. The common denominator that Mullarkey identifies is that they all “show” rather than tell via diagrams, and he proposes a “diagrammatology” (W.J.T. Mitchell’s term) as a mode of philosophical discourse to “think immanence”:

And such images are never mere ornament — they are often frames around which whole arguments are set. . . . Diagrams have long been useful in teaching and learning logic . . . but now their foundation to all understanding has been highlighted through research in cognitive science and visual studies. Diagrams are ‘problem solvers’ because they ‘automatically support a large number of perceptual inferences, which are extremely easy for humans. (162)

Mullarkey’s conclusion points to the changes that a “post-continental philosophy” might induce in how we think:

What we are saying — and what a Post-Continental thought indicates — is that philosophy must take up the challenge of renewal and acknowledge the possibility that art, technology, and even matter itself, at the level of its own subject-matter, in its own actuality, might be capable of forcing new philosophical thoughts onto us. With that, however, there might also come a transformation of what we mean by philosophy and even thought itself. (193)

The transformation of thought itself: this is the theme of this blog and of electracy as a description of what becomes possible when fundamental changes occur to the communicative apparatus of a society. Mullarkey’s book, I am suggesting, offers thinking with and through diagrams as one way of of manifesting an electrate form of thinking.

The Speed of Thought

May 18, 2008

I am reading a novel titled The Speed of Dark, told from the point of view of an autistic man trying to decide if he should take an experimental cure for his autism. In the process of making his decision, he researches how the brain works, and at one point he reflects on what he’s been reading:

The book answers questions other people have thought of. I have thought of questions they have not answered. I always thought my questions were wrong questions because no one else asked them. Maybe no one thought of them. Maybe darkness got there first. Maybe I am the first light touching a gulf of ignorance. Maybe my questions matter. (40)

The reference to light and dark ties in to the primary metaphor that the title invokes: “the speed of dark” vs. the speed of light. The character thinks that darkness must be faster than light, since it is always out in front of light, the frontier which light is penetrating.

I found this quite powerful. So much of academia is about distinguishing between those who have a right to answer the questions they ask, and those who do not–between those who even have a right to ask questions in the first place. The thought that my questions might matter, despite my lack of expertise, is heartening. I am reminded of Greg Ulmer’s pep talk on the meaning of acquiring a Ph.D. He called it “a license to teach yourself,” an indication that you have gone as far as the institution will let you go and that you are now in charge of your own education.

Later in the novel, the character speaks of thinking in terms of speed:

I do not know what the speed of thought is. I do not know if the speed of thought is the same for everyone. Is it thinking faster or thinking further that makes different thinking different? (240)

I have considered the question of thought-speed in the context of Deleuzian philosophy in my other blog:

I actually woke up this morning and, while in that half-haze of sleep and waking, starting thinking with Deleuzian concepts. I thought of how schizophrenic thought happens at high speed and wondered if the speed of thought could be measured. It’s probably not so much “fast” thinking (as neuronal firing is an electrical phenomenon that probably happens at speeds defined by the laws of physics) as truly rhizomatic thinking, as thinking that branches out into new areas, creating new connections in the mind of the schizophrenic that are “abnormal.” It would be a kind of “cinematic” thinking along the lines of Deleuze’s “movement-image” (as described by Clare Colebrook in her excellent introduction to Deleuze, which I am reading now). But there is a kind of “speed” to it insofar as it creates an “intensity,” both in the more common sense of “being intense” (like wow, he’s intense, man) as well as the sense that DeLanda develops in Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy, in which something approaches a phase transition–starts to boil, for example. The schizophrenic as boiling-brain.

The real question, then, is how to boil our brains to schizophrenic intensity without “losing our minds”–a very real danger, as I have discovered for myself.

Imaging Thought as Imaging Place in Heidegger

September 23, 2007

I just finished reading Heidegger’s What Is Called Thinking? and found it very interesting and, for the most part, accessible (they are transcriptions of lectures he delivered). Of interest to my “thinking about thinking” and the work done for the Imaging Place conference are Heidegger’s references to thinking as being on a journey or a path:

Thinking itself is a way. We respond to the way only by remaining underway. . . . In order to get underway, we do have to set out. This is meant in a double sense: for one thing, we have to open ourselves to the emerging prospect and direction of the way itself; and then, we must get on the way, that is, must take the steps by which alone the way becomes the way. . . . Only when we walk it, and in no other fashion, only, that is, by thoughtful questioning, are we on the move on the way.

He continues in this vein, invoking the quest-motif:

To answer the question ‘What is called thinking?’ is itself always to keep asking, so as to remain underway. This would seem easier than the intention to take a firm position; for adventurer-like, we roam away into the unknown. Nevertheless, if we are to remain underway we must first of all and constantly give attention to the way. The movement, step by step, is what is essential here. (168-170)

Later he writes of the “thinker’s quest”:

The wish to understand a thinker in his own terms is something else entirely than the attempt to take up a thinker’s quest and to pursue it to the core of his thought’s problematic. The first is and remains impossible. The second is rare, and of all things the most difficult. . . To speak of an ‘attempt at thinking’ is not an empty phrase meant to simulate humility. The term makes the claim that we are here taking a way of questioning, on which the problematic alone is accepted as the unique habitat and locus of thinking. (185)

In a different book, Heidegger invokes even more radically the notion of a region in which thinking occurs. In his Discourse on Thinking, according to its introduction, Heidegger speaks of two kinds of thinking–“calculating thinking” and “meditative thinking”–and in focusing on the latter he speaks of the horizon of consciousness, our field of awareness, calling this “the region” and “that-which-regions”:

In the opening of the region, its regioning, we have what supports and manifests itself in part as the opening of man, his meditative thinking … the nature of thinking [has] an origin prior to thought. And what is this origin? It is the nature of that-which-regions. (Introduction p. 30, 35)

This looks like challenging stuff, but I was immediately drawn to the conceptual metaphor of the Mind as a Body Moving Through Space that is in play in both books. Again and again this recurs, and I am once again curious about what it might mean, what might be the ultimate significance of such reliance upon bodily metaphors of navigating a three-dimensional space as the way that we are able to think abstractly (for is not thinking about thinking the most abstract that we can get?!).

The Stuff of Thought

August 24, 2007

I just read an interview with Stephen Pinker in the recent Discover magazine (September 2007), which introduces his forthcoming book titled The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature. From what I read, this sounds like one I might have to read (among all of the other ones!). One nice new perspective that supports one in George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant is his definition of framing as different perspectives of the same actual event. The example he uses comes from linguistics, the study of verbs (which he has been fascinated with): “Fill the glass with water” vs. “Pour water into the glass” vs. “Load the wagon with hay/Load the hay into the wagon”. He asks about how kids are able to learn these distinctions and suggests that framing an event in multiple ways is “one of the key talents of the mind.” He then talks about the “superhero” of metaphor and how it allows us to “leach the content from [one domain] and use them as abstract structures to reason about other domains.” This sounds very familiar to the work of Lakoff and Johnson, which I have mentioned in previous posts (e.g. see post from June 13th, 2007). Then he writes,

When we put together the power of metaphor with the combinatorial nature of language and thought, we become able to create a virtually infinite number of ideas, even though we are equipped with a finite inventory of concepts and relations. I believe it is the mechanism that the mind uses to understand otherwise inaccessible abstract concepts. It may be how the mind evolved the ability to reason about abstract concepts such as chess or politics, which are not really concrete or physical and have no obvious relevance to reproduction or physical survival (my emphasis).

When I read this, I wondered what exactly is an “abstract concept.” If metaphor (i.e. some concrete thing or experience) in the world is the only access we have to an abstract concept–or is that which an abstract concept is based upon, then what is an abstract concept? What is “abstract” about it? These questions take a different spin when considered in the context of Deleuze’s definition of a concept, which is something that makes something happen in the world.

I also noticed that Pinker himself uses a metaphorical concept (how can he avoid it?!) when he describes gaining access to “otherwise inaccessible abstract concepts”. This resonates very much with one of the key moments in Greg Ulmer’s keynote speech for the 2007 Invent-L Conference on Imaging Place, when he invokes an early childhood memoryof being unable to open a door but was left there to do it on his own (“tough love” he quipped), when his mother refused to do it for him. He suggests that this childhood memory can become an “image of wide scope” (i.e. an image that invoked all four “quadrants” of the “popcycle” and thereby ties together these disparate realms of human experience) that we store into the “ka-ching database,” a kind of computerized I-Ching that will enable us to get answers to burning questions. The goal of such a database and this strategy is to have “memory guiding intuitive judgments” and to generalize this (use of images/memory) into a feature of thinking. As the keynote continues he invokes Socrates’s daemon: Socrates stops at the door and consults his daemon (e.g. the voice of his body, a.k.a. Lorca’s duende), which electracy will augment and support in the new apparatus. He mentions a couple of other examples of the door as pivotal image (Kafka’s “man from the country” and Nietzsche’s “dwarf at the gateway”), but it’s his own original experience that calls forth and organizes this “new image of thought,” this new constellation of gateways and doorways that suggest how thinking can or will be in the age of electracy.

And that makes me think of my own doorknob experience, the one occasion I was on the inside of a mental hospital and was put into a room with no doorknob at all. What does that suggest about thinking?