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…

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Entertainment as Collective Intelligence

November 29, 2009

I’m reading the introduction to Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, which is about “the relationship between three concepts–media convergence, participatory culture, and collective intelligence” (2).   For Jenkins, “convergence” refers to “the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behavior of media audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experiences they want” (2).  This brought to mind a book I read for my Ph.D. research back in the early 1990s by Marsha Kinder called Playing with Power in Movies, Television, and Video Games:  From Muppet Babies to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  She used a phrase called “transmedia intertextuality” that I never forgot; this referred to the new strategy of deploying a story and its characters in multiple media formats.  The example I recall was the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, with which my young sons at the time were fascinated.  This was a movie, a cartoon, books, toys, even plastic plates!  And probably much more that I’m not mentioning here…

Between then and now the phenomenon of social networking has exploded, becoming much more widespread, thereby allowing the participatory and collective nature of Jenkins’ concept to emerge.  As Jenkins notes,

Convergence does not occur through media appliances, however sophisticated they may become.  Convergence occurs within the brains of individual consumers and through their social interactions with others. . . Because there is more information on any given topic than anyone can store in their head, there is an added incentive for us to talk among ourselves about the media we consume.  This conversation creates buzz that is increasingly valued by the media industry.  Consumption has become a collective process–and that’s what this book means by collective intelligence, a term coined by French cybertheorist Pierre Levy.  None of us know everything; each of us knows something; and we can put the pieces together if we pool our resources and combine our skills.  Collective intelligence can be seen as an alternative source of media power.  We are learning how to use that power through our day-to-day interactions within convergence culture.  Right now, we are mostly using this collective power through our recreational life, but soon we will be deploying those skills for more ‘serious’ purposes. (3-4)

This point about entertainment being the locus of emergent collective intelligence resonates with Ulmer’s “pop-cycle,” a heuretic, generative tool for electrate thinking that requires consideration of four institutional discourses (family, community, entertainment, career) and how these have influenced our identity formation.  Crossing over among these “popcycle institutions” allows us to employ images and modes of reasoning from one realm in order to solve problems in another.  For Ulmer, entertainment discourse has dominated since the late 20th century and therefore provides “the beginnings of explicitly electrate reasoning” (Internet Invention 126).  While school (the primary vehicle for community discourse) continues to privilege literate modes of thinking and knowing, those who experience these new media on a regular basis, as Jenkins suggests, are learning how to engage in the processes of collective intelligence as consumers of 21st century entertainment.


Writing for Interactive Media

October 8, 2009

I have been invited to adjunct teach a course at Emerson College called “Writing for Interactive Media.”  I have begun the process of researching possible text books and creating a syllabus.  I’m excited about the prospect of employing the concept of electracy as a way of organizing this class, as well as the chance to research narrative as a form of information storage and retrieval that might provide ways to maximize the communicative potential of new technologies.  There will be more to say about all of this once the course gets started.  For now, though, I’ll be busy with a lot of good ole-fashioned book-reading!


Managing Information Overload

September 30, 2009

I was just pointed (via someone I follow on Twitter) to an article in the Harvard Business Review about how damaging information overload can be. It mentions a September 2009 article titled “Death by Information Overload” and cites the stress this puts not only on individuals but, as a result, on organizations.  But as author Alex Wright tells us in his book titled Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages, this is not a new problem.  Here’s how the dust jacket summarizes the book:

Today’s well-documented ‘information explosion’ may seem like an acutely modern phenomenon, but we are not the first generation–or even the first species–to wrestle with the problem of information overload. Long before the advent of computers, human beings were were collecting, storing, and organizing information: from Ice Age taxonomies to Sumerian archives, Greek libraries to Dark Age monasteries.

I do recognize that the problem is especially intense these days.  Part of this results from the possibilities that social networking provides for expanding and enhancing our own brain:  members of one’s PLN (Personal Learning Network) become an extension of one’s own mind in a manifestation of an emergent form of collective intelligence.   This is the “memory of the future” that Wright envisions at the end of his book:  “As people find their way online, they seem to coalesce into small groups. . . .Small, self-organized communities [emerge] around common causes and shared values” (236).  I would call these “memedoms”:  a socio-political entity that exists outside of conventional markers of identity (country, political party, etc.), one that is bounded by the contours of a particular idea or “meme.”  Witness the followers of Rush Limbaugh who call themselves “ditto-heads” because they merely repeat verbatim what the master has spoken. . . The ideas that are channeled your way depend on who you’re following on Twitter, whose blogs you read, what RSS news feeds you receive, whose slideshows you favorite on Slideshare, and so on.

Information Overload has gotten so bad that there is now an Information Overload Research Group, complete with its own set of resources that point you in endless directions toward… yes, more information–in this case, about information overload!

I suggest one way to deal with this in a presentation about a concept I developed called “mnemonomics“:  the management of memory.  If we think of ourselves as part of a larger, emergent collective or group intelligence coalescing around certain memes or concepts, then we become part of a larger whole, doing our part, whatever that happens to be, to perpetuate the meme (as when I published a letter to the editor about the upcoming international day of action for climate change organized by 350.org).  As the idea of mnemonomics suggests, we need to learn how to manage this larger, socially-networked memory that we now have available to us.

The problem is similar to the age of print literacy, when people walked around with shirts that said, “So many books.  So little time.”  Now the shirts say, “So many social networks.  So little time.”  Same difference?


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.


Liquid Theory

April 1, 2009

Just after posting my extended comments on “how concepts function,” which mentions a desire to explore fluid-flow principles and de Bono’s concept of “water logic,” among other things, I came across this post on liquid theory, inviting us to contribute to a liquid book, a call-for-collaboration in a wiki-book of philosophy: Liquid Books. Here we go!


How Concepts Function

March 31, 2009

I started reading the IEP (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy) entry on “Concepts,” which starts by laying out “tasks for an overall theory of concepts,” one of which is to determine what the metaphysical status of a concept is. As I thought about Deleuze and Guattari’s theories, it occurred to me that they are not so much concerned about what a concept is so much as what a concept does: how it functions in a particular context or assemblage, what it accomplishes in solving a particular problem.

In fact, the way that this line of thinking started was by thinking, “If you stop to think about it…” But stopping is artificial: there is no stopping: the mind is going going going, a model of Bergsonian duration, and it’s when we “stop” to think about thinking that we develop a metaphysics of thinking, a model of the “being” vs. “becoming” of thinking. Deleuze is about thinking on the go, thinking as going, and going implies a direction, possibly even a destination (unless you’re a nomad, that is) and/or an agenda: are you stratifying or destratifying? Are you becoming more complex as an organization or is there a kind of chaos-ification occurring?

Thought, that is (to repeat myself), requires a context (what are you thinking about? what problem are you trying to solve?). I see this in their concept of the machinic assemblage: things themselves have fluid ontological categories depending on the role they play in a temporary assemblage of parts/wholes that come together to fulfill a particular purpose or desire. A bicycle tire on a bike, for example, serves as a mode of transportation; in a work of art, however, it serves as a mode of self-expression. In a different context, faced with a different problem to solve, it could be/come something else (in the way that car tires are used as the soles of shoes in third-world countries).

For D&G;, it seems that the problem they want to solve is the question of how to think differently, how (ultimately) to think creatively. Beyond this (and with them there always seems to be a beyond), they want to capture the boiling roiling moment of a phase transition, whether the moment when water freezes or when water boils… In the words of Jeffrey Bell, in his Philosophy at the Edge of Chaos: Gilles Deleuze and the Philosophy of Difference,

A dynamic system. . . presupposes both the stable, structured strata that are in some sense *complete*, and it entails the unstable, unstructured, deterritorializing flows. As Deleuze and Guattari proceed to develop the implications of this thinking, or as they develop a philosophy ‘at the edge of chaos,’ they neither create concepts which solve, once and for all, philosophical problems, nor do they slip into a state of anarchical relativism. Rather, philosophy, as with a living organism ‘at the edge of chaos,’ must maintain both its stable strata and its unstable deterritorializing flows. Without the former, a living organism dies (or a philosophy slips into disordered nonsense and says nothing), and without the latter, an organism is unable to adapt and will also die (or a philosophy falls into a mindless repetition of cliches and platitudes). (4)

So there should be a give and take to thinking, one that allows for this kind of freezing (stratification, striation) then flowing (destratification, smoothening). Philosophical concepts, according to Deleuze and Guattari, function to facilitate such vacillations.

With all of this in mind, I declare once again my intention to investigate fluid/flow principles. An initial peek at the Encyclopedia of Science and Technology points to Newtonian and non-Newtonian fluids, “rigid body dynamics,” viscosity vs. “viscoelasticity,” and the like.

And before closing this entry, I need to mention Edward de Bono’s Water Logic, in which he opposes the “rock logic” of the “Greek gang of three” (i.e. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, “who hijacked Western thinking”) with his concept of “water logic”: “Traditional rock logic is based on ‘is’ [identity: What is this?]. The logic of perception is water logic and this is based on ‘to’ [flow]. . . “What does this lead to?” De Bono concludes in a passage that might have been penned by Deleuze: “I write about the huge importance of concepts for water logic. It is concepts that give movement and flexibility in thinking. Such concepts do not always need to be precise because we are using water logic rather than rock logic, which depends on precision” (189).