[-empyre-] Cognition and Andrew Murphie

Andrew Murphie andrew.murphie at gmail.com
Wed Sep 17 19:03:57 EST 2008

First up - many thanks to Michele for inviting me to this discussion,
and I remain grateful to all those who have contributed so far. It's
been fascinating and I have learnt heaps - about neuroscience and
about the specific art practices people have been developing. I'm
going to label sections because I'm aware this is a long post. So you
can skim and skip ... I have to admit I'm a wee bit tired so I hope
this makes some sense.

1. Providing an Overall Framework for Thinking "Neuroaesthetically"

I guess I'm going to try to provide an overall framework, and a
general one at that, if I can be forgiven. It might even be a bit
obvious. This is a framework for thinking the relations between
neuroscience (and "cognition"), art and everyday life. By which I mean
the real relations, not the "scientifically or philosophically"
approved relations. So here we might include the wacky, the quirky, or
even just the incorrect (which for me might include most of the
deployment of cognitivism). The material effects of the traffic
between science, art and culture, when it comes to cognition, are
complex and gigantic. They arguably overwhelm, or at least seriously
recontextualise, medical or scientific data. In short, how we take up
models of cognition - and now those drawn from neuroscience - is a
huge issue, but one that only has a little bit to do with questions
concerning the  "truth of cognition" ... by which of course we are
necessarily fascinated, for all the obvious reasons.

Another way to put this is that the power of cognitive and
neurological models - and data - lies in their neat fit with the
dynamics of some of our deepest exercises of power in any immediate
moment of living (and this, whether these models are correct or not).
So to take this issue of the traffic of models on, as many here are
doing, seems difficult. This is not because it involves some very deep
questioning (we love questioning our thinking processes). It is
because it often involves the abandoning of some models fundamental to
our active take up of the powers of modeling itself in daily life.
Nobody likes to give this up, or to give up the powers given to them
by the taking up of powerful, cultural models and diagrams of
thinking/feeling processes! Not scientists, not artists! Certainly not
educators, bureaucrats, performance managers, etc. So, although there
is a long history of those willing to see what happens if you do try
to approach these issues differently (from Bateson to this discussion
on Empyre), things are more often reduced to giving "ethical
pronouncements", or using neuroscience for self-help or management
best sellers (I'm probably selling too much short here, but .... ).

2. Remodelling (metamodelling) Models of Cognition - The
Neuroaesthetic and Fractalization

So, more positively, I've been very interested in how, for example,
Ben Bogart takes up models of memory, and then remodels these in a
series of technical practices and aesthetic experiences. Or Michele,
Anna Munster and Tina Gonsalves, in their different ways, question the
whole assemblage by which diagnoses take place. Justine Cooper has
done the same with medical imaging itself. And of course all this work
makes one realise how key is the aesthetic remodelisation of
functions, practices and models in all practices - from art to science
to everyday life - and especially the remodelisation that is ongoing
concerning it is we think goes on in and around the brain. For me, the
fluid, "neuroaesthetic" cultural machine for the working of cognitive
processes is key far beyond neuroscience or art ... as is the way that
these machines are re-diagrammed, via sensate practices, in aesthetic
practices. This once again show you how important the aesthetic is:
that is, the aesthetic now gone "neuro" ... perhaps considered as the
production from the synapse up of sensation, and in this sensation, of
the power to affect and be affected (although it is not of course so
unidirectional as "from the synapse up"). Thus Guattari wrote of the
importance of the "synaptic" in general culture, and of a
"fractalization" of experience via the opening out of microsensations,
together with the need to understand the models and metamodels by
which culture deals with this.

So, what I'm interested in is quite different to that Michele began by
framing as "the issue of active perceptual engagement with the work of
art in order to create, compose, receive and *complete* it" - that is,
what we might already call "traditional neuroaesthetics".  I've
nothing against this of course, but agree with Michele that, "Now
perhaps the time has arrived to look more closely at what processes,
concepts and metaphors have been deployed  within the neurosciences."
Although, as I hope has been clear in the above, and as Michele so
carefully suggested, these questions are never going to be clearly

The question of the model is, in reality, several questions.

4. The Question of the "Correct Model"

Once again, for many the crucial question here is rightly that of the
"correct model", of how close a particular model might be to "what is
really happening". From this point of view, the question of
neuroaesthetics is one of trying to find the correct model -- in
accordance with neurological events -- for what is occurring within
aesthetic experience (as per Zeki, Ramachandran, etc). Here science
comes before art. Or, an artist might say it is a question of finding
the correct model for an understanding of aesthetic experience first,
one that might feed back into an understanding of the neurological.
Art comes before science.

Again, like everyone, I am interested in such questions, but they are
not at the centre of my work. In this respect I'm not even, as the
current misguided fashion has it, a "cultural scientist". I am a
cultural theorist. However, if you want to know what I think is a
correct way to think about thinking processes (not that anyone really
knows in the end), my theory of "cognition" will probably find itself
in three places at once, which I'm not sure are compatible. First, I
side, rather fashionably, with post-connectionist series of
embodied/external/extended mind, as per Francisco Varela, Yvonne
Rogers and Andy Clark, for example. Second, I side, rather less
fashionably perhaps, with "post-poststructuralist theories", largely
derived from the work of Guattari and Deleuze, and from the work of
Brian Massumi, William James and Alfred Whitehead, or Eric Alliez
(whose book The Signature of the World I found terrific), Katherine
Hayles, Donna Haraway, or John Protevi and here Anna Munster's notions
of materiality and new media are also important). All of these
thinkers tend towards questioning the very notion of "cognition", or
even simple or direct "perception", even if some of them might
subsquently balk at this because of disciplinary considerations (that
is, they might be kicked out by their colleagues! once again showing
how basic assumptions about cognitive models are to disciplines and
powers ... as a side note, I think most of the silly arguments about
postmodernisms supposed destructive effects upon the world are really
about cognitive models).

Where does neuroscience fit in? Well it seems to me that, despite the
influence of Varela and others on cognitive philosophy, neuroscience
has far from a comfy fit with a lot of cognitive science and
philosophy, precisely because of the different kind of
empiricism-model relation involved. So I am becoming very interested
in the way in which neuroscience, especially contemporary
neuroscience, even as it tries to pack data and theories back into the
cognitivist cage, seems to question much of what was given in the
frameworks of cognitive science, psychology and philosophy.

5. The Uses of Models, regardless of whether they are True, Correct or Not.

All that said, my main interest is cultural theory, that is, what
happens in culture, not which science is right. One simple aspect of
this is the way in which cognitive and neuro - or pseudoneuro -
assumptions have informed much else, for example Hayek's theory of the
supposedly free market that, in its own connectionist way, knows best
(and it should always be remembered that the Hebb model for neural
learning is often called the Hebb-Hayek model,  and that Hayek himself
wrote a book titled The Sensory Order). Again, the key here for me is
the question of how models -- however accurate or inaccurate, right or
wrong -- come into culture (by which I mean everyday life, such
interaction and also specific cultural activities such as in the
arts). This is a critical question - in every sense of the word.

It is also a question of the ways in which cognitive models -- and now
"post-cognitive" models drawn from neuroscience -- proliferate, mutate
and in many ways dominate the ongoing dynamics of everyday culture or
life. In this respect I think we need to develop a kind of
genealogical account of the evolutionary dynamics of cognitive models
in their everyday habitats. There are many thinkers working on this
(again Katherine Hayles, but also Barbara Maria Stafford, Anna
Munster, Paul Edwards, Jean-Pierre Dupuy, the list is now growing
interestingly long). For culture at large, however, all this remains
simultaneously perhaps the most obvious thing in the world, and also
still something of a necessarily hidden history. The latter is perhaps
precisely because cognitive (and now sometimes neurological) models
are so key to the naturalization of cultural events. Again, the only
questions dealt with in any depth are ethical or self-help questions
(well, I'm excluding the highly important medical-cultural issues
about which Lucette has written so much of interest).

At the same time, this works out strangely in the arts, where it
sometimes seems to be that neuroaesthetics, as a new discipline, can
attempt to naturalize - via modeling - precisely that which is
designed to allow - via sensation - for the creating of new
transversal links. These links disrupt given diagrams of experience:
in short, they denaturalize models .. I have called this elsewhere,
perhaps somewhat pretentiously, the "shattering of aesthetic syntax",
so that for example, the assumed order of events in the Kantian model
of the sublime is turned on its head by actual aesthetic events.

The artists in this discussion have provided many examples of this
shattering of supposed aesthetic syntaxes (although I have to admit
that in another sense, these syntaxes are as real as supposed ...  in
that they have been taken up as expectations within perception, or
within what Whitehead called the 'causal efficacy' in events of
perception, the way in which a take up of sensation is pre-situated
by expectation, even at the level of given neural connections, of the
simultaneously "synaptic" and "fractalizing").

6. Modelling without a Model

So we have models as engaged with "truth" or empirical data on the one
hand, and the work of models in culture on the other, with only a
tenuous link between the two at the best of times. There is a third
sense in which we can consider modelling, and this is where science,
the arts and everyday life come together. This is simply modelling in
itself - as a quintessential - and affective, which is here to say
simply pleasurable or painful - activity ... I was going to say within
human, but of course it extends far beyond this. This is, if you like,
to think of modelling as a dynamic that never quite falls into one
particular model. For some (one thinks of William James "terminus" or
Massumi's take up of this for an entire theory of experience),
something like a model is a link between experience and its fringe
that does not so much bring things to order, as to bring a movement
between experience and fringe into some kind of travellable

An ongoing activity of modelling - taking up big cultural models or,
quite differently, what I am describing here as modelling without a
model - is something in which we are always deeply immersed, and in
which all activities of thinking, perceiving, feeling and so on are
immersed (and of course the tie in to the empirical question of
modelling in itself as a fundamental function of the brain is
interesting). To *be part* of the modelling process, at the furthest
and most exciting extreme, to be modelling without a model, seems to
me to be a huge motive force for much that occurs in science, art and
even just everyday experience (macro and just as importantly micro
levels of experience - in unconscious joy, perhaps addiction or new
neuronal or synaptic freedoms). It is here, in modelling rather than
in given models per se, that empirical testing, the free play of
models, and culture come together, for better and for worse.

Here also we might point to another side, even of empiricism, but
certainly of the kind of work that artists are doing within the
"neuroaesthetic". The dream of the neuroaesthetic (as with
neuroeverything, from neuropolitics, to neuroeducation, to
neuromarketing) is precisely the simultaneous promise of final access
to *The Model* of experience, and - completely at odds with this,
although again in a promise of final access - access to the most
interesting sandpit ever created, in which there is an ongoing play of
modelling without a model. Of course, power lives here, in all its
forms. So there really is a great deal at stake in neuroaesthetics.

7. Escaping the Kant-osphere .... ?

Finally, Michele asked about the relation between older and newer
models of cognition, from the dualism of the mind/brain to what is the
key set of Kant-ian assumptions that form the basis not only for
cognitive science, but for what was to become democracy, theories of
perception, education, media theories and so on, not to mention the
arts ... and through to more recent computational and digital media
engagements, particularly with cognitive psychology (I have to say I
find myself very much as odds with cognitive psychology, and
cognitivism in general, if that is not obvious from the above). It
seems to me that cognitive psychology has dominated so much of the
second half of the 20th century, from massive impositions on
educational practices to psychotherapy in the workplace, to
performance and management systems and so on. I'm not sure that
culture "at large" has ever really adjusted very well to distributed
or connectionist models of the brain, likewise an autopoietic
approach, and certainly not to a more political understanding of the
modelling of thinking processes.

In short, cognitivism still triumphs - it goes hand in hand with "the
modern". Perhaps this is because, as Brian has outlined, many of those
involved in alternatives were less deeply immersed in what was the
undeniable militarist context of the development of cognitivism (even
here, Jean-Pierre Dupuy has argued interestingly that the take-up of
cognitive psychology was a weakening of much more interesting earlier
cybernetic paradigms that were too dynamic, open perhaps, to gain
direct cultural purchase as operational cultural models). And
militarism and culture ....

Yet here neuroscience is again really interesting. It almost
inevitably tends towards something of a connectionist or distributed
model of thinking processes. So my question might be something like --
given that the neurosciences are currently producing a wide range of
models, alongside interesting if ambiguous forms of imaging of what we
take to be the basic processes of what we used to call "metaphysics",
what do people think is the current take-up of these models, the
current understanding of them in culture, the current distortion of
them in popular culture? Or is there in fact much take up at all, or
are they just being returned to much more accepted Kant-ian,
cognitivist models?

a bit of a rave I know ...

all the best, Andrew

2008/9/15 Michele Barker <M.Barker at unsw.edu.au>
> We've had a lot of discussion about media arts relation to both perception and cognition, as well as thinking through some of the issues around the actual imaging processes of the neurosciences. I now  think it's an opportune time to introduce another dimension to this month's discussion in the form of Andrew Murphie.
> Andrew, could you perhaps introduce yourself and say a little about your work in the area of the relations between cultural theory, cognition and new models of thought that might spring out of the neurosciences. What relations, for example, do you see between older models of cognition (already mentioned in this discussion around the dualism of mind/brain) and computation or digital media? Additionally, what can new media and new media arts do with newer perhaps more distributed/connectionist models of the brain?
> Over to you
> - Michele
> _______________________________________________
> empyre forum
> empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au
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"Take me to the operator, I want to ask some questions" - Barbara Morgenstern

"A traveller, who has lost his way, should not ask, Where am I? What
he really wants to know is, Where are the other places" - Alfred North

"I thought I had reached port; but I seemed to be cast back again into
the open sea" (Deleuze and Guattari, after Leibniz)

Andrew Murphie - Associate Professor
School of English, Media and Performing Arts, University of New South
Wales, Sydney, Australia, 2052
Editor - The Fibreculture Journal http://journal.fibreculture.org/>

fax:612 93856812 tlf:612 93855548 email: a.murphie at unsw.edu.au
room 311H, Webster Building

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