[-empyre-] echo objects and Barbara Marie Stafford

Barbara Stafford bms6 at uchicago.edu
Wed Sep 24 06:39:44 EST 2008

dear all,

i just staggered back to chicago from giving lectures in italy late 
last night. so my apologies for this late posting and thanks to michele 
for her patience! have really enjoyed the discussion so far and from 

by way of introduction, i'll just say that in my  echo objects: the 
cognitive work of images book [2007]  i asked what are  the issues that 
the divided humanities and the equally riven neurosciences nonetheless 
share? for me this was the really hard problem--the problem of 
identifying what i called some of the enduring questions, the ones that 
dont ever seem to go away, the ones that stretch back in time and 
forward to now. i still think that's the hardest task facing us: 
namely, to identify a common issue/s  that is equally rivetting to all 
sides of the disciplinary divide. i took on questions ranging from 
mimesis to conscious attention--and, of course, still did not get to 
the bottom of them. but from my experience with scientists as well as 
humanists, we'll never get anywhere unless we define  a question that 
is thought to be equally gripping no matter who you are.

i confess that i have a problem with the concept of neuroaesthetics as 
a "field" or one more ism among many others. as andie murphie mentioned 
it was coined by zeki and ramachandran. but i want to underline that it 
is specifically identified with concepts of brain modularity: that 
certain areas are dedicated to specific types of processing: well, yes 
and no as the discussions of brain plasticity have brought out.
there are many camps in the neurosciences, of which the brain 
modularity group constitutes one. but that's not my concern here. it's 
do we want to establish a new field  called "neuroaesthetics"--or are 
we, or some of us, engaged in  a different project: asking more 
broadly, how can cultural surfaces [past or present] be seen more 
richly by virtue of new data coming out of the neurosciences? 
conversely, can different, more informed experiments be devised by 
neuroscientists if they incorporate the cultural findings of their 
colleagues from across the aise? isnt it too early to reify an ism 
given that the brain sciences have such different, and frequently 
unacknowledged, premises:  in addition to the brain modularity group, 
there are the global workspace theorists [baars to changeux),  the 
neural darwinists [i fall on this side with edelman] , the extreme 
phenomenologists [to the far, far side of merleau-ponty] such as thomas 
metzinger, the parallel processors and connectionists, the distributed 
consciousness group [andy clark and a host of new philosophy of mind 
philosophers0] etc, there are also the different flavors of 
roboticists, AL researchers, and the nuts and bolts machine modellers 
of behavior that come in many stripes--just look at what's emerging 
from MIT;s Media Lab alone.

this brings me to philosophy=also a riven field=primarily analytical, 
but that too covers a mulitude of sins: the new materialists, 
panpsychists, the new kantians or new empiricist humeans, etc.  gestalt 
psychology/philosophy is being opened up for historical studies, as 
well as aspects of continental philosopy: there are even a few 
lingering dualists among the mono-materialists!
so what i'm suggesting is that it's too early to get bogged down in 
field-naming. to do so is also to come down on the side of a particular 
epistemology and as well as a  specific coterie in the neurosciences. 
that appears too defined for research that is in flux and  stilli 
emergent even contradictory.

since i've spent much of my career also thinking about the varieties of 
imaging and visualization strategies, am concerned about certain 
developments in brain imaging--as outlined by joseph dumitt re. 
fmri.but not only is it problematic to talk about "portraits" of the 
brain in action. there's also the issue of automaticity in image 
processing, manipulating, storing, coloring and the conclusions that 
are drawn from this automatic sorting and interpreting of differently 
scaled data. one can also ask what are the cognitive differences 
between expert and "ordinary" perception? what role is played by 
communities of practice?
and what about the other senses in an era that has witnessed the growth 
of a "new philosophy of the senses"? there is a whole body of research 
coming out on the "19th century phenomenon" of synaesthesia, for 

this takes me to my final point: the difference between concepts like 
automaticity [coming from cybernetics] and spontaneity [coming from 
developmental and evolutionary biology] i think perhaps an area where 
the arts/humanities/neurosciences could really come together around a 
concrete problem is in exposing the pervasiveness of the metaphor of 
self-organization/self-assembly as it is currently used to undercut the 
role of everything from conscious decision-making to the role of the 
will to social responsibility for behavior, that is, from the micro to 
the macro level. we seem to hear more about the closed loop than 
patricia churchland's brain-mind opening out and incorporating the 
environment. the role of cultural artificacts in making us aware of all 
those intrinsic processes [all 90 or so % of them] and so integrating 
the spontaneo;us with the conscious would offer another point of entry.

so i guess this brings me back to the beginning. i personally believe 
that it's only by identifying a project or an issue that requires 
looking at through a prismatic lens that these very different, but 
complementary areas and people, can be somehow brought meaningfully 
together. as maturana and varella remind us; "to live is to know."

thanks so much for letting me join in--jetlagged or not!
my best,
On Sep 23, 2008, at 3:32 AM, Michele Barker wrote:

> I'd like to pursue the discussion around cognition and in doing so 
> introduce Barbara Maria Stafford into the debate. Barbara's more 
> recent work on the history of images, 'Echo Objects', offers an 
> extensive - and diverse - insight into the various cognitive models 
> intrinsic to the processes of making, viewing and interpreting visual 
> art.
> Barbara, by way of starting the discussion, I'll get you to introduce 
> yourself and your research as it relates to our theme (again rather 
> diverse) of neuroaesthetics.
> - Michele
> _______________________________________________
> empyre forum
> empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au
> http://www.subtle.net/empyre

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