[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]
[xmca] The Non-modular Mind
Bradd Shore argues (in his book "Culture in Mind") that the "mod" in "modern", or "postmodern" really stands for "modular", that is, the belief that the world is basically made of blocks that are not functionally dedicated but simply structural units, and function arises out of the way that modules are combined. The productivity of nature, as Phillip Morrison says, is in the combination and recombination of a very small number of neutral units, like atoms and subatomic particles, and the way we understand nature is simply a reflection of that modular structure in the thinking brain.
Shore's problem, then, is to account for the radical diversity of human minds we see both within and between human cultures. Now, he does this by arguing that although certain structures such as language might be modular, the mind itself is non-modular; the way in which the various units of human mental functioning fit together are not at all content free but culturally dedicated. (Despite what Jerry Fodor says, I think language is a VERY poor candidate for modularity; it turns out that even at the level of the phoneme everything gets connected to everything else! Shore would be much better off making his argument the way Morrison did, by looking at that function which in any given society allows human beings to create mental models of material reality.)
When we look at them carefully, mental models, but not minds themselves, always involve some kind of modularity. Even the use of "totems", as Levi-Strauss pointed out, is modular in the sense that categories are freed of content and allowed to recombine without any functional restrictions (e.g. "human" and "nonhuman"). Shore says totemism did not die out died but proliferated in the form of "techno-totemism", or the identification of particular tribes of our societies with superhuman technical means that are omnicompetent and based on the idea of interchangeable parts (computers, cyborgs, plastic surgery, etc.).
Shore takes a position that Richard Shweder would call relativist (as opposed to universalism, which says that everybody is really the same, and developmentalism, which says that some of us are better than others). He is arguing that cultures, and the subunits of culture we call minds, really are different; there is no such thing as psychic unity. But because they are functionally differentiated, it is pointless to try to argue that some are more developed than others; it's like saying that an iPhone app is more functional than a tooth filling, or a prosthesis is more efficient than a pacemaker.
I am not so sure. We know, for example, that some kinds of language (those that developed with universal literacy) are more democratic than others, and they are not the more modular, insular, self-contained ones. In the eighteenth century, Newton and Galileo made it possible to radically democratize scientific knowledge by writing in the vernacular and by constructing sentences that looked a little like mathematical equations (complex concepts but very simple "X is Y" grammar structures). By making science middle class and even working class, they exponentially increased the number of people doing science and vastly expanded the amount of science that could be done.
Soon this vernacular, simple language was extended lengthwise into long works by Darwin, Marx, and the great ninetenth century novelists. James' first lectures on "Varieties of Religious Experience" were three or four hours long, without any breaks, and they were extremely well attended. By reconstruing complex vocabulary as simple, everyday concepts and transferring the complexity to the discourse, the great nineteenth century artists and scientists once again made it more accessible, and once again vastly extended its reach.
I can see this expanding of complex concepts into complex sequences even in things like painting and music: it's in the nineteenth century that we get realism, that is, the idea that a completely everyday scene is as complex and as worthy of extended treatment as an epic, in both areas. Of course, Aristotle had always advocated "temporal unity" and insisted that all the action on stage should correspond to a single day. But it was as a purely modular, content-free dramatic dogma, not as a statement about the complexity and ineffability and artworthiness of everyday life. Only in the twentieth century does it really become possible to write things like Joyce's Ulysses or Strauss's Alpine Symphony, where a single day represents not a module, but a completely non-modular, context-specific, and ineffable moment of real time.
The problem is that these works require an ATTENTION SPAN. And just as the number of human languages really does seem to have dwindled from several hundred thousand to less than four thousand, it seems to me that the ability of our own culture to deal with long stretches of text is really shrinking. Some people have speculated that the 19th Century was really an abberation, and that people are really more like Andrew than like George Eliot. So the mind really is modular, and when it distractedly glances from one piece of information to another without bothering to integrate them into wholes it is simply reverting to its modular self.
But that view too seems to take an aberration and make it into an essence. Short-windedness is not at all a property of oral, face-to-face cultures. The longest poem ever "written" in any language, at least so far as we know, is the Saga of King Gesar, which is (in some parts of Sichuan and Qinghai province in China) still recited in the eighth century Tibetan in which it must have been first composed.
Seoul National University of Education
xmca mailing list