Monday 28 February 2011

Sensuality, knowledge and economics

One of the principal casualties of the economic crisis is economic theory. (Maybe bad theory is often the root cause of bad things!). The imputation of rationality behind economic behaviour is something that clearly has become highly suspect with the scale of apparently irrational economic decisions made by everyone from home-buyers to hedge-fund managers. With my recent posts about sensuality, I wonder if there's a link to be made between sensual experience, rationality and economics.

In doing this, I might start by relating rationality to communication, and 'irrationality' to sensuality. This may seem a bit of a strong step in the first place... but let's see where it gets us...

1. Rationality and Communication
I think we have to ask how we judge somebody to be rational. As with all judgements, it relies on our making communications with the person we are judging - or at least observing communications they make with other people. In making such judgements, we carry expectations of what we would consider to be 'rational' behaviour. If the behaviour we experience does not satisfy these expectations then we might well consider a person to be irrational. Thus, there is a dimension to rationality which relates directly to the success of communications that a person makes. If utterances made cannot be processed by anyone else, then they will not be successful; they be deemed irrational; but they will still have some sensual import...

2. Irrationality and Sensuality
We wouldn't be surprised if an 'irrational' person responded to sensual stimuli in same way that rational people might. For example, the reaction of what we might deem to be an 'irrational' person to a beautiful sunset may not be that different to that of a "rational" person.
The 'irrational' utterances of a person will still have sensual import... we are sometimes deeply affected by the utterances of "foolish" characters... sometimes they reveal more truth than those 'saner' characters (for example, Lear's fool.. who appears wiser than Lear himself).. but often there is not a discussion to be had.. the issues are too difficult for communication. It's worth noting that Socrates 4 'divine madnesses' are all sensual: telestic madness (madness of ritual), prophetic madness, poetic madness (madness of the muses) and erotic madness.

In an earlier post, I was particularly interested in the triangulation between the topology of the 'landscape of knowledge' and the range of 'moves' that we feel we have available to us at any particular time, and I was thinking about topological game theory as a way of thinking about this.

Now I have a different sort of 'triangulation' with perhaps a bit more definition. The sensual and the rational both focus on the person. The rational is quite explicit in its functioning: utterances must be made, communications need to be successful, meaning must be established, and so. This is a fairly concrete process, although it depends on the state of the individual participating in the communications. The key thing about rational responses is that there is a set process of establishing information (thinking what to say), establishing utterance (thinking how to say it) and interpretation (thinking what was said) in the other person.

In sensual experience, this is not the case. Sensual experience can happen with different parts of the sensory system at any time: we can be shocked, tickled, transformed, love-struck or grief-stricken at any moment without any warning, before we've even had time to think about it. Damasio calls emotion the 'fast route' of cognition, and I think this fits with our experience.

The point about these two things going on is that there is one perceiving system, but it is stimulated by two quite different methods, and both those methods are present at the same time.

So that's perception. What about wealth, possession, power? I think these things are sensory impulses resulting from individual states of those who exhibit the desire for them. Why does this arise in some people? Why do bankers and city traders behave in this way and others are less inclined to? Because they can? I think the answer has to do with knowledge and the forms that knowledge takes.

Knowledge is a type of communicative performance which results (partly) in a domain of rational communications. There are sensual aspects to these performances (which I have refered to as the different forms of knowledge) but basically, knowledge communications depend on reproduction by individuals whose psychic states can process the communications in ways that are understandable by others around them. There may be something about these communications concerning what they do to individual psychic states that gives rise to the sensory impulses that then lead to social pathology. In this way, it's not so different from terrorist cells or drug addicts:
Patterns of communication ->
the need to rebalance individual viability via sensory stimulation ->
pathological social states which further support and legitimise patterns of communication.
...and so on...

When we look at things like this, we begin to see that private property and the concept of 'ownership' is not a 'property' of a thing, but rather a dynamic process, which has a social trajectory. Understanding the mechanisms of the process may be the first step to intervening with it and doing something about terrible disenfranchisement which is going on at the moment with the economic crisis.

Thursday 24 February 2011

Reflections on calming music

I was very stressed and tired yesterday, and driving home late, I turned on the radio to hear Vaughan Williams 'Lark Ascending'. I'm aware I have to be in the right mood for this, but I was certainly in the right mood yesterday. It was very beautiful.

Given my thoughts about an 'emotion machine' and the caressing of the senses, what might be going here? Here's my attempt at an explanation:

My stressful and anxious state was a desperate attempt to keep juggling all the things that I'm having to think about at the moment. The regulatory system that's most involved in this is System 2 in Beer's Viable System Model. Other regulatory systems are at work too - not least System 5 in trying to maintain my identity in the face of too much to do, but the augmented regulation is pretty much with System 2 (anti-oscillation).

The music has certain qualities, not least of which is the regularity of its patterns - the pentatonic scales, simple modal harmony, etc whilst all being fairly straight-forward, also contain enough on interest for it not to be boring. The regularity aspects of the music will 'caress' my perception in its function at Beer's System 3. I've equated this emotionally with 'energy' and feeling 'focussed'. So, there may be some off-setting of the stress at System 2 with this System 3 regularity.

However, the music does something else, which is to do with its harmonic movement which frequently enters unexpected territory. This opening-up of possibilities is something which relates to a different regulating mechanism: System 4. Thus, the regularity and transformation are held in balance, all of which directly affect my perception and help to rebalance my mood.

But then there is the profound feeling of one-ness which is what I experienced yesterday after a stressful day driving home. That I think is to do with my entering a state where everything becomes 'relevant' to me: nothing is excluded. This, I think, is to do with System 5: my identity. Somehow, System 5, which normally tries to balance the operations of the other viable components, relaxes so as to allow for all sorts of perceptions to become relevant. I think this particular state of System 5 is the product of everything that had happened - not just the music, but the stress before it. I think the relaxation of System 5 is where the real power of this music in this moment lies...

Monday 21 February 2011

Knowledge performances (again)

Drawing together my recent thoughts on knowledge performance, and the last few days thinking about sensuality and 'psychic systems' leads me to the following tentative conclusions:

1. Any knowledge performance combines a communication with sensual stimuli
2. The multiple descriptions of knowledge (Person-form, content-form, tool-form, purpose-form) are apprehended in the combination of sensual performances (with people, with content, with tools, with a context) and communicative performances.
3. traditional constructivist pedagogy focuses only on the communicative aspects and ignores the sensual. It does this because it doesn't possess a language for talking about the sensual.
4. By understanding a psychic system as:

  • responsible for making selections regarding communication
  • open to direct manipulation from sensual stimulae

means that we can conceive of understanding as the state which emerges as a result of combined sensual stimulation and communication.
5. Consciousness/perception/memory/etc (inasmuch as it makes sense to talk about them) is the continuous process of regulation between the psychic system and the external stimulae of communication and sensual experience.

But this raises questions about the nature of reality.

Those operations which are concerned with System 5 'dropping its guard' - for example, falling in love, are most interesting. It is at this moment we might perceive an oceanic state that one might associate with perception of a spiritual world beyond our individuality. Yet, we may be suggesting that this perceptive mode is a necessary state that the individual must be in in order to maintain viability. This is obvious for falling in love (otherwise we wouldn't be here!), but it may also be the case for religious experience. In other words, our experience of transcendence (an experience of God) is not an experience of supernatural reality. It is the result of viable operations of the individual.

My catholicism is somewhat perturbed!

However, we have to be careful here. Because in lowering our perceptual guard and making more things relevant (as in falling in love), we play our part not only in individual viability, but also in social viability. For in adjusting ourselves in this way, and taking on more communications and sensual experiences as relevant perceptions, our selection of effective communicative action is improved. We become more aware of the social trajectories of the action and the distinctions we make. In other words, there is a state of seeing the relevance of everything which opens us up to what we might see as a deep 'moral sense'.

To what extent might the 'voices of the dead' be part of this perception of all-relevance? I think we may seek to understand (or explain) what we perceive in an oceanic state as being the voices of the dead. Believing it may be part of the process which opens us up further to deeper perception. But in reality, Bataille is right: it may be just ourselves and our individuality on one side, and the vast infinity of death on the other. Loving God is simply a way we have come to understand this.

Sunday 20 February 2011

Luhmann, Beer and an 'Emotion Machine'

On emotions, Luhmann states:
"emotions are not representations that refer to the environment but internal adaptations to internal problem situations in the psychic system that concern the ongoing production of the systems elements by the system's elements." (Social Systems, 1995, p 274)
He goes on to say:
"In terms of their function, emotions can be compared to immune systems; they seem to assume an immunizing role for the psychic system. With unusual means, they secure the continuing performance of autopoiesis - here not the autopoiesis of life but consciousness - in the face of problems that arise, and in doing so they use simplified procedures of discrimination, which permit decisions without considering the consequences. They can augment and weaken without direct reference to occurrences in the environment, depending on consciousnes's own experience of itself."
I find this quite fascinating and powerful. However, the detail is missing for me, and I want a clearer idea of what the psychic system looks like in order that it can maintain it's viability in this way and produce the wide range of emotions we all know.

Maybe it can be represented using Beer's VSM...

What this characterisation would give us is a way of thinking how the different parts of the psychic system might 'augment' and 'weaken' and how this augmentation and weakening relate to specific emotional states.

1. Falling in love and grief
The feeling that we get when we gaze into a lover's eyes. Like Bataille's concept of 'transgression', this takes the individual out of themselves and into the infinite. Luhmann, in "Love as Passion" talks of the threshold for discriminating about relevant communications becoming lower: everything becomes relevant. That means everything related to the identity of a person becomes swallowed into the overwhelming experience of another person. This suggests that what is augmented is 'System 5': the controlling system that loosens its grip on the homeostat that controls the other regulating mechanisms and hence gives the system its identity. Grief is the converse of this process: the loss of identity which threatens viability.

2. Feeling confident, proud, excited.
This may relate to a state where communications received from the outside are entirely anticipated by the system. Nothing unexpected happens, everything is under control. This may reflect an augmentation of the capacity of System 4 in predicting futures effectively.

3. Feeling driven, focused, lustful, energized
System 3 is the organiser and motivator. Augmenting activity at System 3 would produce energy. It's interesting to think how one might feel both proud and energized: very much 'in the zone'. However, at moments of loss of self-control, where system 3 is augmented, but system 4 diminished, this might produce aimless energy: violence, lust.

4. Feeling anxious and intuitive
I think the realm of anxiety and intuition is system 2, the anti-oscillator. I think in combination with a system 5 that is augmented to make more communication relevant, maybe system 2 plays a role in intuiting things that are going on. It may be here that we have 'gut feelings'. However, an augmented system 2 can also be anxious, worrying about how the system 1 operations can be kept under control.

5. Feeling angry and joyful
What's going on in system 1 of a psychic system? If we look at the job of the psychic system as Luhmann describes it, its job is to make selections: selecting information, utterances, and decoding meaning from communications received. When this works, and selections made result in viable communications, which in turn result in effective selections, all is well. Augmenting system 1 might result in a feeling of joy. But when it is not right, where the selections are wrong, or result in ineffective communications, then anger will be the result. The system cannot communicate its identity because of the environment it is in.

This is a bit sketchy, but I think its worth exploring. What's particularly interesting is the combination of different regulatory 'augmentations' and their emotional counterparts. It's also important to not lose sight of sensual experience.  This doesn't work like verbal communication. The regulating mechanisms of the psychic system 'talk' directly to the source of sensual stimulation. Thus, music can stimulate the psychic system in this way.

The context of an emotional experience is also important. We don't fall in love with everyone. I was always struck as to how Alan Clarke could possibly find Mrs. Thatcher sexy! But that's to do with power I guess. Power would assert the individuality and separability of a psychic system possibly to a point where it might need to 'fall in love' (i.e. augment system 5) to rebalance itself.

Lots to think on....

Friday 18 February 2011

Crossing the boundary between the individual and the infinite

There's some common ground to explore between Luhmann's work on communication and Bataille's work on eroticism and transgression which is interesting me - particularly as I think about the 'caress of learning'. My principle thought, in line with Bataille, is that every caress is a boundary-crossing between the individual and the infinite. Every caress takes us from what we know to be our own, to something where our individuality dissolves. Within this, there seems to be a family resemblance between a resonant cathedral, the sound of breathing, a kiss.... all tend towards the infinite. If learning and teaching are like caressing (and I think there's something in this), then teaching and learning are also 'boundary-crossing', where we are taken from what we know to be our own and we dissolved into something infinite. Typically, we might identify such an experience and exclaim "that's cool!".... of course, in this way, iPhones, Facebook and agent-based modelling all have the capacity to caress too.

Boundary-crossing is present in Luhmann when he talks about art. "Perception cannot communicate and communication cannot perceive"; art is a special form of communication which escapes the binary code of language's "yes" or "no" and connects directly from one perception system to another. Clearly, caressing does a similar thing; the domain of sensuality becomes a consensual domain of apprehending the infinite. But I'm being rather poetic when I want to be precise...!

What's the point? Well, Luhmann would say that the point is communication. And the fact that we have art is because it allows the perception system (Psychic system) to reorganise in such a way as to make communications more probable. That really is what we aim to achieve in education too...

Bataille's "becoming aware of the infinite" may simply be way of describing the sensation we feel when our perception is enlarged. What makes our perception larger is sensual experience. It may be sensual experience gained through religious ritual; the sensuality of silence, of awareness of breathing and life. It may be a sensual experience of seeing a naked body. It may be a sensual experience of listening to music or seeing art. In each case, it is our perception that is engaged, and through being engaged, it is enlarged. Through being enlarged, we perceive something more infinite that our individuality, which is largely defined by our communications. It is the enlarging of perception and the involvement of sensuality in the process of enlarging perception that leads Bataille to equate the religious and the erotic. But I suspect he looks at it from the wrong end... if he looked from the perspective of what goes on in perception and its relationship to communication, I think his insights would have expanded from just looking at religion and eroticism.

Thursday 17 February 2011

Luhmann and the Analysis of Form

I've just completed two papers which make use of Luhmann's theory of communication, and as often is the case, I learn new things as I look deeper into Luhmann's work. What's really hit me is the extent to which Luhmann thought about social form and how he made distinctions about it. For whilst his theory is really a theory about communication, he sees social forms as particular  bounded communication systems. What holds each system together is what he calls a 'contingency formula': a central paradox which acts as a sort of 'strange attractor' (I think) around which the communications of a system revolve.

His analysis of social form therefore involves identifying the various contingency formulae of different social systems: he does this for law, art, love and intimacy, education, religion, economics, science.. all with the intent on pursuing his main goal which is to understand the constraints of modernity. The method is quite simple:
1. look at a network of communication - sometimes Luhmann focusses on what might be considered a 'community of practice' (Law, for example)
2. ask yourself "what is the paradox here?" - identify the contingency formula
3. analyse how the communications are reproduced against the background of that contingency formula: what Luhmann would call the 'code' of communication. (at least, this is my understanding...)

So, for example, the contingency formula of education is "cultivation". Luhmann explains his thinking around education as:

“Speaking about education (upbringing/education, LQ), one primarily thinks about intentional activities that try to develop a person’s abilities and foster his/her ability for social communion”

Qvortrup has commented that "[Cultivation] is a concept for something that cannot be generally defined, but for which a word is needed that signals a mutual understanding and agreement." (see

The "word that cannot be generally defined, but for which a word is needed that signals a mutual understanding and agreement" is the essence of a contingency formula. For Law, it is "Justice". For religion, it is "God", for science, it is "limitationality" - i.e. the idea that our knowledge always requires further research.

I like this method, and it is similar to my thinking around the difficulties that  learners have with things like computer programming. Obviously, their attempt to program computers isn't a 'social' system at all, but nevertheless, there's some pattern of communication there centring around a contradiction. Similarly, I'm currently working with diabetic teenagers who are struggling to control their blood glucose: again, there are communication patterns centring around a contradiction. With the computer students, I set about trying to identify the contradiction. Learning for those students was a process of becoming aware of the contradiction and how the code of their communicative actions (practices, ways of thinking) was leading to these contradictions. This led to a redefinition of the 'code of communication' that surrounded the contingency formula: new practices, new ways of thinking. It may be that the contingency formula in these examples is still "cultivation", but there's certainly something to be gained from looking at small-scale patterns of communication which are contradictory.

Luhmann's analysis of the development of love and intimacy (which is one of his best books) over the last 500 years charts a similar development of the 'code' of love. His work on art is similar.

A lot of people find Luhmann very dense and difficult. Although he is difficult, I think he's also the most scholarly of all cybernetic writers: his reading and erudition are as fine as many literary and art historians and this coupled with his combination of very tight definitions and high sensitivity to the human condition have made him a figure of great interest to me.

Tuesday 15 February 2011

The caress of learning

In a discussion on Friday, the topic of great teaching being like a caress came up again. I want to elaborate on this because the theme of caressing brings together a lot of what I've been thinking recently.

Thinking about a caress - being caressed, or caressing - is very similar to thinking about grace: the gracefulness of motion, touch, elegance and poise. To me, all of these things are fundamentally musical. Indeed, my conversation on Friday suggested that they are fundamentally artistic. The arts - done well - teach grace. This is invaluable knowledge. The sciences are less immediately concerned with grace, although the finest exponents of the sciences know about grace. Much engineering and science tends to be taught in a rather graceless way. Often, our institutions suffer a lack of grace in their management as a consequence of graceless education: they can appear rigid, awkward, inflexible.

The form of a caress is I think tri-partite: it begins, usually softly, it climaxes, and it decays. Possibly this might be expressible as a pattern of 'degrees of variety': for example, something starts with low variety - a simple gesture. By amplifying the gesture and bringing in more gestures, a mini 'climax' might be reached with high variety (a high number of things that are going on, a high number of possible states something can exist in). Then control is regained, and variety is brought back under control - back to low variety.

If I stroke the index finger of my right hand on the back of my left hand, I feel initially a simple sensation. As I move it, I apply more pressure. I feel more signals of increasing intensity. Then I let the pressure go, but continue the motion of the finger, gradually taking it away. This envelope seems to be configurable in many ways - I might have a short attack and a longer decay, but basically its the same process. Sexual touching is I think much of this sort. Indeed, it is interesting to consider what happens at the moment of sexual climax when levels of excitement, breathing, pressure of skin, muscular spasm and mental fantasy all send multiple signals at the same time (obviously it doesn't make me popular to analyse this in situ!!).

In music, I've been wondering about the way this envelope manifests itself. The Forlane in Ravel's Tombeau de Couperin has been fascinating me. It's so sensual - both in its harmony, texture and rhythm. Looking at the extract here:

...makes me think that the first two bars build up tension by gradually introducing new chromatic harmony notes. This is released slightly in the second two bars. I think the climax is the first beat of the third bar. But there's something else going because there are 'mini' caresses happening in the dotted rhythm of the melody.
In the Bach excerpt above, the contrapuntal lines, in their overlapping contribute to a ebb and flow of complexity: caresses are piled on caresses.

These things are revealed in performance. And it is performance which I am particularly interested in with teaching. We perform our knowledge with our bodies, artefacts, our institutional context and tools. I might start talking, but then reach for a resource to amplify what I am saying; or use the resource in conjunction with a tool, or turn the class situation around and get learners to do the talking. The ebb and flow of all this seem to have a family resemblance to musical and sexual examples.

But the most interesting thing about caresses is that this is what is best to do with students who are struggling. The gently teasing-out of where the problems lie is a fundamental skill of great teachers. I think to understand how it is done, we have to understand something about what the teacher gleans from the communications given back by the learner. I think there's some sort of  model-building going on. The teacher works out where the contradictions in the learner are, for that is likely to be the root of the problem: those are points on a map and from there they can work out how to work with the student: metaphorically speaking, it is how they know where they place their hands.

Thursday 10 February 2011

Educational Aesthetics and 'Huggy' subjects

The softest aspects of education are hardest to understand, whilst also being the most important. In so many educational situations - particularly those dealing with 'widening participation' students who have had a rough time both in school, and often in home, the natural instinct of compassionate teachers is to give them a hug, if not literally (which perhaps we ought to do more of!), then metaphorically. The experience can be transformative - a 'back to basics' moment which puts everything into perspective.

Unfortunately, our instinct is not to trust our instincts. Often with good reason - physical contact between teachers and learners is like walking a tightrope: clearly dangerous but potentially remarkable. It's easy to break the trust that is necessary (and it only takes one individual to do it), and so it is easier not to trust. But this is a tragedy for education.

Some subjects 'hug' people more than others. I studied music. That hugged and caressed in wonderful ways (and still does). Art, literature, drama, dance all do the same. Engineering doesn't hug so much. But we don't trust the hugging, so we withdraw the funding from those subjects that hug and put it into those that don't. Why? Because we are told those subjects which are 'hard' are useful; huggy ones aren't. But what we mean is that we can rationally justify the 'hard' ones because they are based on reason, and we don't understand hugging.

I think a way of dealing with this is to work towards a deeper rational understanding of huggy subjects, and the efficacy of hugging in general. For most artists, reaching a rational understanding of their art is something they wrestle with as they create. There are good rational places to start. Somehow we have to sort out the relationship between the inner-world of experience and its relationship to the outer world of material and social life. This feels like a 'game'... both Kant and Gadamer thought so... but what's the game? what are the rules? what does the board look like? Harre's Positioning Theory helps me here, as does work on Distributed Cognition.

Maybe with some better models that try to explore the 'game' might we begin to understand what the hugging is all about. Maybe one day we will realise what a terrible mistake we are making in not trusting our instincts!

Tuesday 8 February 2011

Should the UK sell its forests?

The UK government is planning to sell off UK forests. It is interesting to see this move as part of a broader trend in servitisation of the economy, for it has resonances with the way we think about education. Basically, the deal is to sell the land to private companies on condition that those companies maintain rights of access, ecology, and leisure facilities. In effect, it will turn those private companies into 'service organisations' who will provide access and ecological services for the benefit of the public. For now, there is no suggestion that those services will not be provided for free. The move has been prompted by criticism of the Forestry commission, which both regulates the care of forests and guards accessibility and sells the wood they contain.

Under the deal, private companies can expect to profit from the sale of wood, whilst potentially exploring ways of profiting from other diversified opportunities which might arise from owning the forest. But what's wrong with this?

I think this is a clear case of where the intrinsic value in a commodity passes to the few. The forestry commission may not terribly effective in managing forests, but it matters that our government owns it. It is an asset whose value lies in what it is, a value which can be passed from one generation to another, which can be maintained and kept by one generation for another. Collective ownership guards against commercial exploitation and slavery in the interests of a few. For it is the principle of good government that "government prevents injustice, other than that which it creates itself." If a government is unjust - or a government agency like the Forestry commission, the people can take it to task in a democracy.

If a company is unjust, it is more difficult for the people - consumers of services - to take it to task. Indeed, it can sometimes appear that the people can only take a service company to task by consuming more services (legal services, for example) which serve to amplify individual complaints to give them greater effect. (to what extent are all legal services 'complaint amplification services'?) Collective ownership on the other hand, means that collective political action (the realisation of the power of organised labour) can effect change without recourse to legal amplification services.

It may be that this is how things have to be. I think however, it is better to know this is how things are becuase only by understanding how things are might an effective way of dealing with the world in this new form be found.

Saturday 5 February 2011

Libraries as 'home'

My eye was caught by an article on the BBC about libraries vs. the internet ( If I imagine the places I would go to feel 'at home', the library would be top of the list. From Luton public library, where as a teenager I worked my way through the record and sheet music section (before Spotify!) to Manchester's Henry Watson Music library - which is famously significant for so many musicians, to Manchester University's John Rylands library (where I spend much of my time now), all of the attributes of home and 'dwelling' are found in libraries. There is a degree of privacy and intimacy in a library which is curiously absent when I am browsing the web. But how can that be? Does that mean there is something about the phenomenon of privacy and intimacy which is distinct from being 'personal' or 'alone'?

This may be the case. Maybe it depends on what we think thinking is, and what we think the difference between 'intimate' thinking and being and 'public' thinking. (this is very reminiscent of the blog posts I made a couple of years ago about the difference between public and private: see I've been thinking a lot about Edwin Hutchin's work on cognition. I've been making an argument based on Hutchins that "thinking isn't in the head": the brain regulates a continuous process of interaction with a material and social environment, with the viable operation of individual biology. Under these circumstances, the material environment is causal in this regulatory process. Thought and the environment within which thought occurs are not separable. This has implications for our thinking about 'home'. Whether homeliness and intimacy and privacy are 'in' the material environment of libraries or drawing rooms or bedrooms (which is clearly problematic), what happens in the inter-relationships between individuals in a society (which creates and maintains the environment) and particular material forms (like libraries) is a common and real experience. Destroy the libraries and you destroy part of the thinking of those individuals. You may destroy something of the thinking for generations to come (but this is more complex, for we are always immersed in history which too is part of our thought). The latter I find particularly dangerous.

But all this only holds true if something like Hutchin's mechanism is correct. I think it is. If we hold to 'traditional' cognitive formulations which see 'brains in vats' or 'brains as computers', then there is no consequence to the destruction of libraries (or any other part of the material environment). By taking a position on cognition which agrees with Hutchins, we take a political position. Our thoughts and knowledge are tied up with our environment. We must fulfil our responsibilities to uphold knowledge by acting as custodians of the environment within which knowledge is maintained through the thoughts of those who inhabit it. For knowledge, thinking and the maintenance of civil society are entirely inter-dependent.

Friday 4 February 2011

Britten, childhood and home

Benjamin Britten's music has always fascinated me. He uses very simple patterns which are almost childlike and naive - it portrays a kind of 'melancholic innocence': a feeling which takes me back to the roots of 'home': security, privacy, intimacy. What is it to be in a place all of your own.

Privacy and intimacy are not features of social technology. Facebook and the like are precisely about popping the bubble of intimacy. What is lost? Britten reminds us. The world of social action and politics take us away from the intimate world. Even the sexual roots of intimacy are to hand (!) online as a public performance. No mystery.

Home may be the root of all mystery. It is where concern and love combine in the chaos of daily life. Where no dogma or ideal can survive the unpredictabilities of individual behaviour. Yet home is where we care and love enough to keep on trying despite the continual (and sometimes joyful) frustration of our expectations. Home doesn't enframe us, we continually make it;

The web is not home. We may use it to explore our ideals and pretend to be the people we would wish to be. But precious few care enough on the web to set us straight by showing us what crooked timbers we really are. And if someone really did care, they wouldn't express that care through the web!

But the transparency of information available through the web can drive concernful homely action. We can pick up signals of those around us which might help us to care for one another better. And in leaving signals for others, we can teach how we feel and what we think in ways that might help us to look after others by bringing the example of our own personal being to-hand. But more importantly, the agency of expressing personal things online is a way of making pointers for ourselves, helping us to chart our own psyche with little pointers for memory of how we were and how we changed. Technology does something to our memory.

But much as all this is good, I am not home online. This is a subtle distinction which I think is very hard to make sometimes. I think I use my being online to explore 'home' within myself: the childlike, naive, secure, private and intimate are always there...

Tuesday 1 February 2011

Home, Technology and Concern

What is it to 'be at home'? How does technology affect our 'being at home'? I think I would be at home if I had my family, a piano (important), my books and an internet connection. What is that? How is my experience of home different from previous generations or from other people? What is the relationship between home and geography?

I have been familiar with the patch of ground in Manchester on which I live for over 20 years now. Some of my happiest memories are associated with it. I love the things and places that surround me: gallery, library, church, etc. I also have fond memories of Luton, where I grew up (I am unusual in having fond memories of Luton!). That is a sort of home too, but not one which is actual for me now. It is part of my 'homely' family. Similarly I have fond feelings for London which go deep into childhood: The South Bank, Bloomsbury, Moorgate, Merton Abbey. There is some family resemblance to my home-ness here too.

For me, the essence of being at home is being concernfully engaged with the world around me - where I care most deeply about my actions and their consequences on other members of my family. I see this concernfulness reflected in the Vermeer interiors that we saw in the Rijks Museum at the weekend. But I think it's a dynamic balance between being at home and being 'away from home'.

Is 'play' being away from home? But what about when I play the piano? That is concernful and homely (like Vermeer's Music lesson). Or playing a game of cards with family and friends... What about playing on slot-machines at the seaside? Maybe I'm wrestling with the elasticity of it all...

Going to University is a conscious going 'away from home', where concernfulness is focussed on something new. The relationship between exploration and discovery is one of reaching-out and bringing-back. If we only reach-out, we risk getting lost.

I wonder if social technology takes us away from home too. The risk with technology is that we really can get lost; that we never return home, that we convince ourselves that home is amorphous, unreal, a construct. Is concernful action with Facebook  (or this blog) the same as concernful action with a jug of milk? I'm not sure it is, and maybe the distinction is to do with whether the concern is at home or away. I need to think more about this. When I do this blog, I "reach out to bring back home." I do it because I need to do it. Reaching out is often fun, but I've never really done it simply because it is fun.. I do it because I recognise my need to do it for the sake of a happy 'homeliness'.

Maybe this is another way of expressing the relationship between the inner and outer worlds. Maybe it's got something to do with the discussions around 'dwelling' and 'enframing' that we had when doing the Personal Learning Environment work a few years ago. Concernful action and dwelling are both Heideggarian phrases...Certainly, if I never reached out from home, I think home would drive me crazy!