Saturday, February 6, 2016

more fun with etymology

From the Greek Wiktionary definition for φατικός,

Ο Πολωνός ανθρωπολόγος που εισήγαγε τον όρο το 1900, ορμόμενος από λέξεις όπως εμφατικός και αποφαντικός, θεώρησε ότι η λέξη που προτίμησε προέρχεται από το φαίνω (καθιστώ φανερό, φέρνω στο φως), ενώ άλλοι θεωρούν ετυμολογικά ότι η λέξη είναι πιο συγγενής με τον τύπο φατός (και φατειός) του ρήματος φημί, όπως το αποφατικός.

Which Google translates to:

The Polish anthropologist who introduced the term in 1900, ormomenos words as emphatic and deliberative considered that the word preferred from the seems (I make clear, I bring to light), while others consider etymologically the word is more akin to the type fatou (and fateios) and the verb fimios, like apophatic.

That's interesting, and mostly confirms what we already know.  The one hint at the end that's a bit new is the term αποφατικός, which Wiktionary says "expresses refusal."  The antonym of that term is καταφατικός, which affirms, says yes, or agrees.

As "Against 'Distributed Cognition'," or, The meaning of pain

Jacoby: I’m gonna teach you the meaning of pain.
Elizabeth: You like pain? Try wearing a corset.
- Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

I've been thinking about using the discussion of navigation in Melanesia from Hutchins's Cognition in the Wild as part of a "retelling" of the story of phatic communication -- however I'm not entirely sure how that will work, and as I don't have the book in my hand at the moment, I decided to warm up with a critical look at Hutchins's theory.  The main source I'm looking at is:
  • Button, Graham. "Against 'distributed cognition'." Theory, Culture & Society 25.2 (2008).
Button describes distributed cognition as an attempt to extend "cognitivist" ways of thinking out into the world.

This cognitivist way of thinking is derived from computational metaphors and terms like memory, plans, and intentions all figure in this way of thinking with technical meanings layered on top of their everyday meaning.  Button is skeptical of cognitivist thinking per se, and views an attempt to extend it out into the wider world as a compounding mistake.

One of the key themes in "cognition" is the idea that there is such a thing as an inner world that represents things in the outer world.  (The quote from Winnicott in a recent post adds a third neither-inner-nor-outer world.)  Button doubts the usefulness of a "representational" conception of thinking, and argues in favor of shared social meanings.

To form his argument, he makes use of Wittgenstein's analogy of the "beetle in a box":
Because I cannot see into your box or you into mine I just cannot know what is in your box or you what is in mine. They may or may not be the same thing but we have no way of telling. The only thing we could say of the beetle is that it is what we are calling ‘the thing in the box’, but whether or not that thing is the same we will never know, and even then, there may not be anything inside the box. As with the beetle in the box, my inner sensations of pain are just not available to you, so become irrelevant in our descriptions of pain. In this respect, we can know that someone is in pain without recourse to their sensations; we know that someone is in pain because of the circumstances in which they are in, or because they are acting as if they are in pain. - Graham Button, Against ‘Distributed Cognition’, p. 97
Whereas communication about any private world breaks down, communication in terms of shared patterns and norms works just fine.  This opens a view on communication that can only be contextual, and this seems like a way of looking at things that is "begging the question" of phatics.  But I think we need to be a bit careful.

Specifically, I don't think the idea of phatics is making the same assumptions as distributed cognition, but it is talking about a rather similar domain.  Whereas distributed cognition would refer to shared memory that in inherent in an artifact like a chart -- for example -- phatics would refer to the means by which communication (and/or other "relations whose obtaining entail the existence of their relata", to paraphrase Harold Langsam) become possible.  As I put it in my thesis, phatics and what we're now calling "phatic techinques" does not simply rely on the concept of context but looks at how "a context" is created.

If there are assumptions here, they are not the standard assumptions of computation -- nor those of linguistics, semiotics and dialectic -- precisely because phatic studies looks into the "genealogy" of those concepts and disciplines.  Accordingly, the assumptions we make are (more likely!) those of genealogy or Simondonian onto-genesis (ontogenèse).

One place where I think Button really dates his critique is with the remark: "We cannot observe brain processing and we cannot measure it." It seems to me that if that was true in 2008, it is increasingly not true now.  Not only is brain processing observed and measured, we are seeing the rise of "brain interfaces".  Button describes the "problems" that pertain to correlating neural activity with cognitive processing, but the existence of such problems gives a raison d'etre to a certain science.  (Whether cognitive science actually takes up the challenge is another question entirely.)

Button is (after all) aware of direct observation of brain activity, he just doubts if it is relevant or useful.  Note the classically "phatic" example embedded in this quote:
Correlating data about brain processing with data about the social world does not tell us anything about how that social world is made up and organized. It is merely to say that, when engaged in an activity such as greeting someone, there is a pattern of electrical activity going on in the brain. It does not tell us anything about the organization of greetings in our culture.  The problem with ‘distributed cognition’ is that, like many other explanatory frameworks in the human sciences, it looks outside of the setting in order to explain how the setting is being organized. It thus looks to the brain rather than to the setting itself. - p. 102 (emphasis added)
The anti-brain stance is a bit misplaced (the brain is, after all, a part of the situation), but that's a relatively small point.  The basic idea is summed up well in this way: "[Harold] Garfinkel’s point is that settings are self-organizing, that the social action is ongoingly ordered as it is conducted."


From the third note in this paper:  "The point I want to hold on to is that the inner sensation of pain is not at issue in the description of pain."

To put it otherwise,
Morty: Well, I got news for ya — he's saying it ironically.
Bird Person: No, Morty. Your grandfather is indeed in very deep pain. That is why he must numb himself. - Rick and Morty, S01E11

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

recapitulation theory: transitional objects

Although largely discredited in biology, the idea that "Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" has been re-used in other areas; for example, in art criticism it has been reformulated by Richard Taruskin as "ontogeny recapitulates ontology."  Roughly speaking, this suggests that contextual effects can change the "meaning" of a work.

What I'm interested in here is the micro-developmental version of the phatic (and especially φωτιά-centric) history from Vitruvius.  Sloterdijk is certainly interested in micro-development and most of Spheres I is focused on this topic.  However, he looks primarily at prenatal life, whereas I think there is an interesting parallel to be found in Winnicott's perspectives on early childhood.

(Also, entirely as an aside, it also occurs to me when writing the above that photo- is part of the phatic complex, so "phatic image" may be just as redundant as "phatic speech".)

Looking into the Winnicott's "Playing and Reality", here's how he describes the transitional object.
Of every individual who has reached the stage of being a unit with a limiting membrane and an outside and an inside, it can be said that there is an inner reality to that individual, an inner world which can be rich or poor and can be at peace or in a state of war. [...] My claim is that if there is a need for this double statement, there is also need for a triple one: the third part of the life of a human being, a part that we cannot ignore, is an intermediate area of experiencing, to which inner reality and external life both contribute.  It is an area that is not challenged, because no claim is made on its behalf except that it shall exist as a resting-place for the individual engaged in the perpetual human task of keeping inner and outer reality separate yet interrelated.  It is usual to refer to 'reality-testing', and to make a clear distinction between apperception and perception.  I am here staking a claim for an intermediate state between a baby's inability and his growing ability to recognize and accept reality. (p. 3, Routledge 2006)
Or, much more succinctly:
I am concerned with the first possession, and with the intermediate area between the subjective and that which is objectively perceived. (p. 4)
It seems to me that the fire in Vitruvius is the first posession of human societies, and that the supposed macro-history he gives is directly parallel to the micro-history of each (healthy) infant with respect to "the breast" (in quotes, because in psychoanalytic terms the breast is often a symbol of more than the literal breast) and the transitional object.

This "intermediate area" seems to parallel the "envorganism" discussed by Paul Kockleman and Tim Ingold (and as I understand it they are reformulating ideas from Bateson).

To come back to my thesis -- and insofar as one exists, it's a doozy -- it seems to me that the "intermediate area" or "intermediate state" that Winnicott refers to is the primary locus of contextual effects that allow the living being to "make meaning" (in Ingold's terms). In other words, the "first posession" -- which is perhaps also "the channel" -- is what makes possible the "adoption" (Stiegler's term) of the world.

Ingold refers straightforwardly to "perception" -- and I think with the reflections on "phatic speech" and "phatic images", we can agree that perception is related.  But perhaps the phatic is more accurately in an intermediate state between perception and apperception.  It carries with it a bit of the magic of fire, or of music, or of cinema.  If I wanted to be poetic I might say "an illusion that is more real than the real".

Phatic Objects

So I finally stumbled upon something that reinforces the alternative etymological interpretation of "phatic", specifically in the sense "to show":
During a performance in front of an audience, 3D printers often produce useless objects that serve as pretexts for operating the machines [Figure 3(c and d)]. Usually, these samples are downloaded from the Internet. Known as “crapjects”, a contraction of “crappy” and “objects”, they are printed to make up for a lack of inspiration; the idea that we can print anything petrifies people far more than it liberates them. These objects, created by default, should be referred to as phatic objects from the ancient Greek word phanein meaning “to show”. They represent a ready-made lyophilised version of the possibilities of personal production. The Russian linguist Jakobson (1963) defined the phatic function of language as language for the sake of interaction. In the technical situation imposed by 3D printing, this means maintaining active contact between the operator and the printer. Phatic objects are objects that are printed with no real purpose, a sort of cheat sheet that hides a lack of ideas (Figure 4).
From: Bosqué, Camille 2015. "What are you printing? Ambivalent emancipation by 3D printing. Rapid Prototyping Journal 21(5): 572-581.