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In A Field Guide to a New Meta-field, Barbara Maria Stafford marshals a distinguished group of thinkers to forge a groundbreaking dialogue between the emerging brain sciences and the liberal arts and social sciences.
Stafford's book examines meaning and mental function from this dual experimental perspective. The wide-ranging essays included here-from Frank Echenhofer's foray into shamanist hallucinogenic visions to David Bashwiner's analysis of emotion and danceability in music-develop a common language for implementing programmatic and institutional change. Demonstrating how formerly divided fields are converging around shared issues, A Field Guide to a New Meta-field maps a high-level, cross-disciplinary adventure from one of our leading figures in visual studies.
STOICISM, NEUROSCIENCE, AND THE CONFIGURATIONS OF PHYSICAL REALITY
Among the graffiti preserved on the walls of the buried city of Herculaneum is a profile of a young woman accompanied by an apparent caption (figure 1.1):
Hermeros to mistress Primigeneia: Come to Timnianus Street in Pozzuoli and ask the banker Messius for Hermeros, the freedman of Phoebus.
Although some viewers have speculated that the narrow lines connecting the portrait of Primigeneia to the words of Hermeros's invitation depict a grotesquely distorted nose, a more plausible explanation has been offered by Jean-Paul Dumont, for whom the combination of drawing and caption illustrates the ancient Stoic account of vision as a process in which the brain is imprinted or reconfigured through unbroken physical contact with an external object. According to this view, the graffitist Hermeros expresses the hope that in extending itself to read his words, the brain (or, as the Stoics would say, "commanding faculty") of Primigeneia will in turn be impressed or reconfigured with an image of him (note the male profile within the female profile), thereby prompting her to consummate the hoped-for rendezvous. Her assent to the sense-presentation of Hermeros's scrawl ("Come to Timnianus Street") is, according to Stoic psychology, identical with the impulse, or commencement, of the corresponding action. Once Primigeneia lets Hermeros inside her head, her body will already be on its way to merging with his. The Stoic mind, we learn elsewhere, is like an octopus, each sense a tentacle grasping the external world, reshaping itself and the world accordingly. Vision is a physical connection between seer and seen, operating—with the usual Stoic fondness for paradox—like the walking stick of a blind man, through two-way transmittal of tensile motion. Mind and world communicate as if along the threads of a spiderweb. In the Herculaneum graffito, then, the lines connecting the face of Primigeneia with the words of Hermeros represent the dynamic rod of pneuma, or fiery breath, that makes sensation and perception possible by uniting brain, body, and environment. Primigeneia's mind grasps the relevant portion of the external world and is reconfigured accordingly.
The Stoic account of perception, preserved in various fragmentary texts and illustrated—if Dumont is right—by Hermeros's drawing, is more than mere historical curiosity, for it bears a striking resemblance to a leading strain of contemporary neuroscience and cognitive science that emphasizes connection, or continuity, between internal mind and external world. For the Stoics, as for continuity psychologists today, thought is as much external as internal to the individual organism, the result of dynamic interaction between mind and world; perception is distributed across the sensory and cognitive modalities through which it is synthesized (event recognition, for example, does not happen through the eyes or ears alone, but entails an assemblage from across the sensorium); and the brain or nervous system is plastic, or changeable over time, precisely in response to its ongoing integration with the objects and patterns of the world beyond the organism. As one neuroscientist explains, "We are thinking beings whose nature qua thinking beings is not accidentally but profoundly and continuously informed by our existence as physically embodied, and as socially and technologically embedded, organisms."
What's more, the Stoic account of cognition, of which perception forms the key component, is sustained by an explicitly articulated physics that is comparable to the physics implicit in much modern science. For the Stoics, the universe is a single organism with all parts interconnected. More than one scholar has described Stoic physics as being, in effect, "cosmobiology." In the Stoic system nothing exists but the material universe, which is a dynamic entity, subject to recurrent expansion and contraction. Because the universe is continuous, boundaries between bodies are in effect useful fictions. We are asked to think not of discrete entities united through compounding or composition, or separated by void, but of configurations of matter pressing against each other to form fuzzy edges, or commingling in a process known as krasis, or total mixture. The octopus and the sea floor are one; the substance of Primigeneia's eye and brain really connects with Hermeros's words, and vice versa. Where the modern physicist speaks of vibrations, waves, and force fields to describe the dynamism of the universe and the relatively stable entities within it, the Stoics hypothesize the ubiquity of pneuma, an exhalation of fiery air whose varying tenor accounts for the observable differences in density, mobility, hardness, and animation of all bodies, including the human mind.
The convergence of key strands of ancient and modern thought about thinking opens up exciting possibilities—and profound challenges—for interaction between humanistic scholarship and scientific inquiry. No longer occupying an intellectual universe composed of discrete bodies of disciplinary knowledge, those who seek a more encompassing understanding of the processes and products of human cognition are faced with various options ranging from total mixture to the blurring of disciplinary edges and reconfiguration of inside through contact with outside. Not on the table, if we follow the ancient Stoics and their modern counterparts, is simple compounding, which by merely adding types of knowledge to one another confirms their separation and presupposes a void through which they approach or diverge. Instead, we are asked—to use another metaphor appropriate to a universe of interpenetrating bodies—to consider disciplines as metastasizing into one another, perhaps even blending entirely in the great mixing bowl of modern intellectual life. Indeed, we might note in passing that the identification of the boundaries of cancer tumors is a notorious medical difficulty, the solution of which has been hampered in part by the persistence of the Aristotelian assumption of the reality of two-dimensional edges, an assumption now being challenged through the application of fuzzy logic or fuzzy set theory to the visual representation of malignant growths.
Stoic thought, together with its misconstrual by a long and distinguished line of interpreters, provides an excellent case study for both models of convergence. What might we gain by drawing neuroscience into classics, or by extension into any historical discipline? And what challenges and opportunities would ensue from something more like total mixture; in other words, from a recognition that all of us—humanists, social scientists, artists, and natural scientists alike—are interested in the same material, the processes and products of the human mind, and are ultimately answerable to that material's intrinsic logic or laws?
Let us begin with the introduction of at least some types of neuroscience into the closed field of Stoic studies. For several decades now, scholars of Stoicism, especially in the English-speaking world, have resisted a fairly straightforward interpretation of the ancient evidence pertaining to Stoic physics, perception, and psychology. Schooled by Aristotle to think in terms of a categorical distinction between form and matter, still beholden to Plato for unshackling the observer from the observable world and for inventing the realm of the ideal, and disciplined by their own experience of academic genealogy to define the history of thought as each generation's answers to its predecessors' problems, many scholars of Stoicism persist in denying the radical alterity of Stoic physics in comparison with its leading ancient rivals—or, if they grudgingly acknowledge it, they fail to follow through on the implications for understanding other branches of Stoicism, such as ethics and psychology. Stoicism is seen at best as a deviant or ameliorative Aristotelianism: its physical worldview ambitious, if incoherent, and its psychology highly intellectualized. Even the best interpreters tend to run afoul of their own inability to think physically—that is, to accept the Stoic principle that the universe consists only and entirely of matter.
Consider an allegedly "difficult" bit of Stoic teaching: the attempt to explain how an incorporeal entity such as a lekton (on which more momentarily) can affect a body. Here is the relevant text, taken from the writings of the Skeptic philosopher Sextus Empiricus, an opponent of Stoicism:
The Stoics claim that, just as the teacher or drill sergeant sometimes takes hold of the boy's hand to configure him and train him to make certain motions, but sometimes stands at a distance and, moving to a particular rhythm, offers himself for imitation; so too some appearance-causers touch, as it were, and manipulate the commanding faculty to place their cast upon it, as do white and black, and body in general; whereas others have a nature like that of the incorporeal lekta, and the commanding faculty acquires a new appearance in relationship to them, not by them.
On the standard interpretation, which echoes that of Sextus, the Stoic answer doesn't address the challenge. After all, by standing at a distance, the drill sergeant keeps his body separate from that of the trainee he hopes to affect. But this is to miss the point that in the Stoic view, the bodies of the trainer and the trainee are part of one continuum. The trainer's reconfiguration of his body reconfigures that of the pupil through the intervening medium, much as Hermeros's script aims to reconfigure the mind of Primigeneia. One body does not in itself touch the other, but that does not mean that the relationship between the two is any less physical.
Now imagine a contemporary neuroscientist describing the same scenario as recounted by Sextus. She or he would almost certainly invoke the mirroring properties of certain neurons: the experimentally observed fact that the same patterns of neural firings characterize an individual's commencement of an action and his observation of another individual undertaking the same action. We may no longer believe in fiery pneuma, but we accept that something is allowing one body to get inside the other. And if we believe that only matter exists, then that something has to be material, and thus is subject to the laws of physics.
Contemporary neuroscience restores and deepens an otherwise evasive coherence in the Stoic physicalist worldview. Indeed, it seems reasonable to hypothesize that Stoic theories arose in part as an attempt to explain observable aspects of perceptual experience, social learning, empathetic identification, and so forth. To take but one example: the Stoic insistence that edges or boundaries are not real corresponds to recent experimental evidence indicating that the human eye tracks the movement of objects, not edges, through the visual field (see figure 1.2). The Stoics knew a fair bit about the circulatory system of the human body, and in time came to learn about the nervous system as well, but a segregation of anatomy from psychology, or even simple derivation of the latter from the former, would, in antiquity as today, contradict the key Stoic insight concerning the unity of matter. The resurfacing of that insight in the context of contemporary neuropsychology allows us to see how rigorous, coherent, and modern the Stoic view actually was, especially with respect to the ancient thinkers' distinction between sensation and perception, their recognition of communication between and among sensory and perceptual modalities, and their anxiety over the ritualization and fossilization of perceptual pathways (what we might regard as the dark underbelly of neural plasticity, the tentacle turning back to grasp the mind).
On sensation versus perception, the Stoics were clear. Sensory inputs just happen. Phantasiai (not to be confused with representations or the hallucinations of early modern psychology) appear to the relevant sense organs, which are themselves aspects of the unified mind. They make an impression (as in the passage from Sextus) or cause an alteration (as in the language of other Stoic writers) of the mental or neural material, but only if "assented to." The phrase "assent to" is the standard expression for the process among classical philosophers, but it obscures the physicality of the Greek term synkatathesis, which implies the alignment or matching of two actions, as in placing a pebble to mark a vote or making a deposit in a storehouse. The sensation becomes a percept only if the mind aligns itself with the object that prompted the sensation. As the unidentified Stoics cited by Sextus indicate, sometimes that realignment takes place in relationship to the object, and sometimes it is brought about directly by the object. Either way, the process is physical, but it becomes helpful to differentiate between the two variants, then as now.
Consider again Hermeros and Primigeneia. The dark marks on the stucco wall present a phantasia of just that, dark against light (color, as the founding Stoic Zeno put it, is the first configuration of matter). But the dark marks present a host of other phantasiai to Primigeneia (should she see them), and at least some of these phantasiai can be articulated as propositions—for example, that the marks constitute words, that the words mean something, that they refer to Hermeros, that Hermeros is inviting her, that he is sincere, and so on. Equally, what we call the profile of Primigeneia presents itself to the viewer as a pattern of dark and light on a flat surface, but that pattern too can be organized or articulated as a series of increasingly abstract propositions. To the Stoics, a sensation articulated into something meaningful or graspable is called a lekton—a word usually translated as "sayable," although its root form, legein, in fact refers to any process of picking or gathering a distinct entity from an array—for example, bones of the dead from a battlefield, stones suitable for construction of a wall, or perhaps (although I've found no examples yet in extant Greek) the octopus's grasp of its prey. Yes, the lekton may be something that can be expressed in language as a proposition, but there's no reason to think it has to be. It is similar to, if somewhat broader than, what we today would consider a percept: not the registering of a sensation on neural receptors, but the integration of that sensation into something meaningful within the given sensory modality, or between and among modalities. And of course it, in turn, like the percepts of modern cognition, can generate its own sense-presentations.
As one neuroscientist puts it with respect to vision, "A representation is synthesized [i.e. from multiple bits of sensory information] rather than determined by a pure analysis of the retinal image." Features from different submodalities must be "bound together to segregate figures from their surround and to create object representations;" as a result, "factors such as attention and expectation gain importance even for the very first steps of visual pattern analysis." Language can serve as one of the factors that is not just produced by but also productive of perception. In the well-known McGurk effect, "individuals are presented with two syllables ... simultaneously, one in the auditory and the other in the visual modality. When the syllable presented in one modality does not match the one presented in the other modality, the individual may perceive a syllable different from both those presented. There is no reason to doubt that both visual and auditory stimuli are correctly analysed (that is the sensation is correct), yet the percept is different."
But what if a significant portion of life consists of something like the McGurk effect—that is, modalities interfere with one another, or parents, teachers, inherited language, cultural institutions, video art, and so forth are all falsifying the relationship between sensation and its cause or are distorting the construction of successive levels of percepts, restructuring percepts in such a way that they no longer correspond to sensations or to the reality they present? For the Stoics this is, tragically, the ordinary course of human affairs, the reason why almost all of us end up living our lives as fools or slaves. Such a condition can, however, be guarded against in two ways. First, be certain that a phantasia is itself kataleptike—i.e., that it grasps or comprehends (katalambano) the reality of which it is a presentation. Second, assent, or reconfigure one's mental substance, to such phantasiai and such phantasiai alone. If we stick to these two principles, we gradually align ourselves with material reality to the extent that we and it become indistinguishable, an outcome celebrated in the remarkable doctrine of ekpyrosis, or conflagration, which denotes both the periodic collapse of the cosmos into originary fire and the ultimate homecoming of the sage. The core of Stoicism can thus be understood as the application of a physical insight concerning the oneness and continuity of matter to all aspects of our encounters with the world. Like contemporary psychologists who describe thought as a dynamic trajectory through multidimensional state space, unifying brain, body, and environment, the Stoics insist on the individual's capacity to appropriate the substance of the external universe, which is not in any relevant way different from his own substance. They would have agreed with modern thinkers who argue that it is those who exclude culture, language, and experience from biological accounts of cognition who are the real dualists, in that they implicitly or explicitly posit a realm that does not need to be taken into account in the identification and observation of physical and biological laws. Paul Dourish's distinction between cognition as "inhabited interaction" and as "disconnected control" exactly captures what is at stake in the Stoic resistance to alternative—and, for much of history, more influential—models of thought. Indeed, "inhabited interaction" would be an excellent translation of the Stoic term oikeiosis, which refers to the lifelong process of situating oneself within the universe while making more and more of it one's oikos, or home.
Excerpted from A Field Guide to a New Meta-field Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Barbara Maria Stafford
Crystal and Smoke
Putting Image Back in Mind
Stoicism, Neuroscience, and the Configurations of Physical Reality
The Extended Mind
An Anthropological Perspective on Mind, Agency and “Smart” Materials
Naoum P. Issa and Ari Rosenberg
Peripheral Mechanisms That Underlie Sensory Illusions
Philip J. Ethington
Vision and the Forms of the Human Past
Ayahuasca Shamanic Visions
Integrating Neuroscience, Psychotherapy, and Spiritual Perspectives
Anne C. Benvenuti and Elizabeth J. L. Davenport
The New Archaic
A Neurophenomenological Approach to Religious Ways of Knowing
David Michael Bashwiner
Lifting the Foot
The Neural Underpinnings of the “Pathological” Response to Music
Sarah Williams Goldhagen
Alvar Aalto’s Astonishing Rationalism
Toward a Neuroscience of Cultural Change