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Re: [xmca] The "mechanical OTHER" at the heart of Modernity
Let me try to defend modernism. Or rather, let me let Vygotsky try to do it. But first I want to defend that painting of Isaac Newton.
Yes, it is true; Newton is hunched over a compass; coiled like a spring. Yes, it's true, that the whole of the composition decends, with the most powerful line a painter can muster, to the circle that he is scribing there.
Blake knows his stuff--he has probably studied this similar composition by Caravaggio:
He knows that in our time we don't look at paintings as windows, but rather as texts: we "read" them from upper left to lower right. (This is also, according to Arnheim, why when you watch a movie you will see more people going from right to left than from left to right.)
But just like reading a text, we allow our eye to be arrested by important figures and parts of speech. So Blake--and Caravaggio--direct our eye along a straight line, from upper left to lower right, stopping only with the crucial object, a tool, in the bottom right hand corner, like a period.
I agree, the effect is most powerful and not a little sinister, and it does remind you of Blake's lines in "Mock On, Mock On, Voltaire, Rousseau":
Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau;
Mock on, mock on; 'tis all in vain!
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.
And every sand becomes a gem
Reflected in the beams divine;
Blown back they blind the mocking eye,
But still in Israel's paths they shine.
The Atoms of Democritus
And Newton's Particles of Light
Are sands upon the Red Sea shore,
Where Israel's tents do shine so bright.
(Newton's 'Opticks' was particularly unpopular with the romantics, and Goethe spent considerable time "refuting" it with his own theory. Goethe's theory does refrain from "analysis into elements", but it also refrains from Newtonian explanation.)
But wait a minute. The painting ALSO reminds one of this one, called "The Ancient of Days", which is Blake's image of God creating the universe!
You can see that the composition is very different: here Blake uses foreshortening to include YOU in the picture. But the actual content is completely identical in every way.
So too with the machine the heart of modernity. In the second chapter of "The HIstory of the Development of the Higher Mental Functions", Vygotsky is developing the distinction between phylogenesis and sociogenesis.
Naziism is on the rise, and he wants, above all, to point out how the very principles development change as we move from the former to the latter, and we cannot consider sociogenesis as a form of the struggle of one biological type (e.g. species or race) against another.
He explicitly says that the distinctive characteristic of sociogenesis is NO change in the biological type of man. Every member of the human race can, as a result, learn any human language. This by itself, I think, strips racism of any scientific rationale it could ever possibly have.
But then how do we account for the astonishing advances made by social progress over natural evolution? Vygotsky says that natural evolution is the result of the systems f activity endowed by natural organs, which gradually, but very uneconomically, expand their affordances in the process of transforming function into form--yes, through adapting to the environment.
As soon as we have "artificial organs"--Abraham's knife, and Newton's compass--the process is turned on its head. The tool-endowed creature does not adapt to the environment but instead adapts the environment to himself. Just as nature was taken as "given" in the earlier type of adaptation, now the human body can be taken as given and unchanging in the later type of adaptation.
(Some people have interpreted Vygotsky's argument that artificial organs "take up" where natural organs "leave off" as a statement equivalent to saying that phylogenesis comes to a halt with sociogenesis. In fact, he explicitly says the opposite, and he brings in change in the physical type of man AGAIN in the form of child growth, when he discusses ontogenesis. But what DOES happen is that biological change can be "set aside" in much the same way that environmental change is "set aside" in evolution.)
Now, where do we look for these artificial organs? That is, where do we look for the compass of Newton and the Ancient of Days and the knife of Abraham? Actually, we find them exactly where the Nazis, and even Caravaggio, would tell us NOT to look: amongst children, sick people, weak people, and the very old. It is here that natural organs give out and artificial organs are created. And above all it is HERE, with the dying off of the older generation, that it becomes absolutely imperative to create artificial intelligence--that is, signs.
You see, when I look at Blake's Newton, and his "Ancient of Days", I do not just see a mechanical line bisecting the canvas. I see a text, which to me has the same relationship to a mind that a tool has to a natural organ.
And when Blake rotates his Newton so that I am in the place once occupied by Newton's compass, I feel that I am part of the picture--not part of a machine (although I think I would prefer to be part of a machine than part of a landscape, for the simple reason that I would prefer to live in a home than in a cave). I feel I am part of text, that is, part of an ongoing dialogue, a discourse. Is that really such a bad place for a human being?
Hankuk University of Foreign Studies
--- On Wed, 1/18/12, Huw Lloyd <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
From: Huw Lloyd <email@example.com>
Subject: Re: [xmca] The "mechanical OTHER" at the heart of Modernity
To: "eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: Wednesday, January 18, 2012, 9:11 AM
On 18 January 2012 15:54, Larry Purss <email@example.com> wrote:
> Andy & Huw
> I want to thank you for your wonderful passionate dialogue on bringing the
> abstract to the concrete.
> As I'm struggling to listen in [within my ZPD] I believe this talk is
> central to my understanding.
> I also am trying to locate the "temporal" in this process as Mike is
> I did not want to interrupt the conversation between Huw and Andy but
> wanted to post a paragraph I "sense" may be exploring similar topics. It is
> by Eugene Halton in his revoicing Mead in his article "Pragmatic E-Pistols"
> as he writes to Mead to say how his ideas are NOW received. [p.46]
> Halton is talking to Mead about Peirce's idea that a SIGN has a REALITY at
> any given moment as a POTENTIAL EXISTENCE. He then writes,
> Modern materialism would consider all of this reducible to ACTUAL
> existence. Peirce claimed that such a NOMINALIST way of thinking, shaving
> OFF generality in the name of Occam's razor, actually cuts its own throat
> and ultimately renders science inexplicable. What if the modern era and its
> earnest scientists have been working for the MYTH of the macine, PROJECTING
> the subjective CLOCKWORK culture of their time ONTO the objective universe,
> truly DISCOVERING with the PRECISION of William Blake's painting of Newton,
> the TRUTH of the SINGLE-visioned PART, while sacrificing the VISION of the
> whole reality? Blake's Newton, supple but hunched over his COMPASS,
> blinded to his SURROUNDS, is a VISUALIZATION of the paradox of ACCURATE
> viewing of the PART and blindness to the whole. To put this in Peircean
> terms, MODERN SCIENCE is corrupt in its NOMINALISM, treating the REALITY OF
> GENERALITY which are the BASIS [round, foundation] of its LIFE, as
> UNREAL...... The modern worldview has been dominated by the MACHINE, by the
> universe of a giant CLOCK, and more recently the brain as a computer.
> These are NOT simply empty metaphors, but LIVING symbols of the MYTH OF OUR
> TIME, namely, that ultimately REALITY is a kind of machine and WE BUT PARTS
> of it. The mythic element in this is the IDEALIZATION of the machine as
> defining nature, OF THE AUTOMATIC [closed designed systems] AND the
> SIMULTANEOUS denigration of the SPONTANEOUS. [which becomes shadow] ...It
> [the machine model] is an ALIENATION of human PURPORT, of the automatic
> portions OF PURPORT [ DESIGNED activity???] EXPANSIVELY PROJECTED out,
> IRONICALLY [rhetorically??] in the NAME of anti-teleological and even
> anti-mythical as VIRTUAL DIETY substitute. Today that IMAGO [living
> cultural-historical metaphor] has come to DOMINATE in the diffusion of
> TECHNOLOGY [techne] and its COLONIZATION of the self through a plethora of
I think there are many ways you can relate this narration. What is central
here for you?
> I am not sure if others are linking or bridging these ideas to the
> conversation betweenHuw and Andy but I for one see "family resemblances"
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