tracing actions

Where is the seat of action? I think this is the underlying question one addresses when the phenomenon of agency is at issue. Where is the actual locus of action? Where does it emanate from? Who is the agent? Flicking switches, moving chairs, opening doors, driving cars, rinsing dishes, using various tools—these all involve action which, in terms of composition, are easily decomposable into at least two aspects of their overall process. In short, (when we reflect on it) activities decompose into the intertwining of active and passive polarities. Let’s take the case of opening a door. Opening a door is a simple action which readily lends itself to the recognition of how it doubles up into an active and passive side. The event is regarded as being composed of at least two main actors that interact, one of them the active and the other the passive element. Usually, we assign the active part to the moving or animate or, in this case, the human agent and the passive part to the inanimate or inert and yielding element in the equation. Opening a door thus involves the inherent duality of the door and the agent that opens it or, for short, the direct distinction between the subject and the object. In common thought, without doubt, the subject, being the animate element, is always already privileged as the crucial component as opposed to the interchangeable and negligible objects it uses. In other words, there is a tacit sense of hierarchy between the interacting components of an action with one of them being in control and the other being merely subservient to that control. Again, the subject is privileged as the initiator and as the actual possessor of the action while the object in its service merely transpires into its function. In this understanding action belongs to the animate side of the event or it is proper to the moving agent. This is especially the case when we think of ourselves, humans. By default, action is felt as emanating from us, humans, the freest of all agents, in most of our situations.

But the scenario as the above reference to ’common thought’ suggests is much more complex than this. In line with the basic tenets of the anti-humanist tradition in intellectual history according to which all that we, as individuals, possess is, in effect, the result of standing outside of ourselves within a collective and deeply historical process involving all kinds of actors (or agents), we can reconsider the situation with significant modulations in our scheme of thought. In the act of opening a door the door, in fact, acts as an actively constraining element in its transaction with my bodily comportment. The door shapes my movements and, what’s more, it not only shapes it: it actually calls it forth. The same way, every tool and every equipment we use and every cultural artifact we encounter summons a variety of movements and demands a correlated range of skills to successfully engage them. The loop is not unidirectional. Artifacts demand specific skills and specific skills unlock specific aspects of the world. Action is caught between its composing elements, not merely within one of them. Incidentally, the more skills we adopt the more object-oriented we become…

Now, a most relevant feature of all this is the historical character of these skill-based behaviors. Every cultural skill presupposes an infrastructure or context of artifacts and equipments which are deeply historical in nature. Nothing in a culture is invented anew, culture is inherited and the repertoire of its established skills are gradually appropriated. The ontogenetic development of a human individual is basically the process of entering the circuitry of the shared world of humanity as s/he grows up and adopts the skills necessary for functioning in that world. This shared world (of human culture) is a storehouse of historically accumulated knowledge, technologies and normative structures. In the view of Michael Tomasello, the primatologist and cognitive psychologist, this ratcheting effect of cultural evolution is one essential feature that distinguishes humans from animals. Incidentally, this is what Alfred Korzybski, the famous Polish-American scientist, labelled the time-binding capacity of humans (in contrast with the chemistry-binding plants and space-binding animals).

What makes cultural scaffolding or the preservation of generational experience possible according to Tomasello is a unique ability of hominids to recognize each other as individual beings with intentions of their own and to identify with one another in a field of shared attention. The details of this are irrelevant here but there is a certain parallel in Merlin Donald’s theory regarding the evolution of human consciousness. For him mimesis, or the ability to imitate is the precipitating adaptation. In his account the mimetic skill is the key that leads to more and more complex forms of intersubjective relations and reciprocal control of attention resulting eventually in a shared world of social intentions. A human being, in essence is a cultural creature born with a brain that ’’assumes the existence of a cultural storage mechanism that can ensure its full development’’ as Donald puts it.

Donald claims that the human mind is born at the interface of brain-culture symbiosis. Hybridity and the peculiarly extended nature of the human mind is one of the main themes of Andy Clark as well, philosopher of mind and author of the (tellingly titled) book Natural Born Cyborgs. He sums up the gist of this idea when he hyperbolically states that ’’we make the world around us smart so we don’t have to be’’. (Though, this is not that much of an overtstatement if we consider the increasing concern about the possible gradual deterioriation of biological memory in the face of external forms of information storage systems.) Clark’s argument (that resonates with Tomasello’s and Donald’s) is that human cognition is (contingent on entering) the circuitry that spans brain, body and the shared intersubjective world. Humans engineer their cognitive capacities by allowing the flourishing of technology. As technologies facilitate the outward range of experience its inward depth expands too.

To get a picture of how the internal dimension emerges through the process of externalization let’s invoke A.R. Ammons and his poem ’’Small Song’’:

The reeds give
way to the

wind and give
the wind away

I like this image because in applying it to the phenomenon of externalization it conveys a sense of a natural, unforced kind of dynamics, almost a passive form of dynamics. From the perspective of agency, action is not located in any one of these entities, action is in between, it is something these entities both participate in as they mutually bring it forth. As for how the internal dimension grows in tandem with the degree of its exteriorization, it can be approached from many levels of analysis. On an abstract level it could be argued that the self develops as it splits (via shared attention, mimetic skill, etc.) and enters itself through the other it recognizes as other. This is very much present in child development. Self-identity and feelings like guilt and shame emerge through (the the field of shared attention with) the others. The ego-sensitive sense of self and the issue of self-esteem emerges with the more and more nuanced social dynamics the individual is embedded within. In the words of Immanuel Levinas, “the exit from oneself is the human, and this exit from oneself is always the relationship we have with the other man”

On a more concrete level I would venture some speculative examples: taste and culinary fancy arises as the stomach is externalized by the use of fire and seasoning. Or perhaps, today in the electrical age, amidst the presence of all sorts of technologies and social media with the more and more fractured and multi-task geared attentional capacities and the decreasing power of biological memory and the simultaneous increase in the dependence on external memory systems newer and newer apsects of our emotional repertoire emerge. There was never such pressing demand on public accessibility and never such degree of accountability for one’s lack of response prior to mobile phones and facebook, for instance. Friend requests, comments and like buttons present new forms of social relation. For good or ill, YouTube and blogs and podcasts sped up the speed of my intellectual journey as well. The utter addiction to the screen in this day and age cannot be overexaggerated. In sum, embedded within these highly distributed networks of social interrelation and information there is a definite shift in the patterns of our attention. Information overload nurtures an advanced capacity for splitting attention and (somewhat unfocussed) multi-tasking. (Again, these examples are tentative at best, I would welcome any feedback from future readers of this blog).

In fact, exteriorization is the defining feature of technology and in this sense the spiraling loop of increasing self-awareness and social interrelation is a deepy technological affair. Enculturation, time-binding and hybridity as the essence of thehuman mind is contingent on the technological prostheticization of the human. This is, essentially, the basic idea behind Bernard Stiegler’s notion of epiphilogenesis. The human is the technical form of life. The phenomenon of hominization is nothing other than the technicization of life. Epiphilogenesis, in my understanding, refers to the way the tehnically preserved and transmitted collective memory (and attention patterns) of humanity transcends the space and time of natural evolution. This collective memory is preserved and also contemporaneously engineered in more and more sophisticated forms of technologies.
An individual is born (for the second time) once s/he inherits, taps into and adopts the knowledge and the skills and the norms encoded in these technically retained reservoirs. It is understandable why, in Stiegler’s view, Heidegger had a rather limited understanding of technology. Technology is not simply the enframing of being through the human (who participates in setting this enframing in motion) as a result of which things become reduced to objects or mere items in and of a standing reserve, but it is the very essence of humanity. For Stiegler, technology is the various technics of exteriorization that scaffolds the process of self-relation or hominization. Technics makes possible the ecstasis of being (the way nature folds back upon itself) in the human. This is the way “Being [can be] farther than all beings and yet nearer to man than every being” to co-opt a powerful statement from Heidegger.

Now, after this slight detour into the trans-individual aspects of human existence (or ek-sistence as Heidegger would formulate it, referring to its ecstatic character) let’s ask once more the initial question. Who acts? In light of the foregoing discussion I would say that when I open a door, in a sense, there is a spectral presence of the past in which I participate. In Stiegler’s formulation ’’a past grounds expectations, forms horizons of expectation that are proper to the past and that receive events and render them sensible to those to whom they happen’’. My action is performed on a stage set by the past. Of course, the past is not totally determining my actions since the performance is open-ended, we are standing on a stage already set yet with a script that is open to revisions. It’s a matter of opening to the call of different destinites, of navigating towards alternative horizons or projections (futurality) of the past. Another tangent…

One last crucial aspect of the phenomenon of action is the way it gathers different orders of beings in one field of mutual determination. Actually, the phrase ’different orders’ must be understood in a qualified, neutral sense. The largest portion of this blog was taken up by describing the way action is spectrally diffuse in human existence but the inanimate element was not yet adequately framed in this scheme of thought. The categories of the active-passive polarity and the hierarchy entailed therein as I have indicated is a highly problematic approach to the matter. As the technical augmentation or prosthetization upgrades the repertoire of our skills novel objects are unlocked in the world and these novel objects and their imperatives act back upon us; the loop is reentrant. In other words, objects shape subjects shaping objects and so on. To have an adequate sense of the democratic nature of this loop we need to flatten the different orders (presupposed) among the elements in this loop. It is Graham Harman and object-oriented ontology (OOO) that will provide the necessary conceptual tools for this. In Harman’s account the subject or the human being is an object like any other being in the universe is an object. Humans are not special in any respect, we are not even special kinds of objects. We are sentient objects who, when it comes to the question concerning action, can not be privileged above other non-sentient objects since in action animate and inanimate objects all gather in a field of mutual determination by ceaseless transactions among themselves.

The objects we unlock through our skills range from concrete to highly abstract entities. The door I enter is just as consistent an object as the spiteful affront my psychosomatic body reacts to. The more technical and the more tightly socialized we become the more that objects abound (and the more object-oriented we become). Objects are contingent on some form of skill or capacity to take them into account (or caricaturability in Harman’s word) and it takes skill to recognize objects. One characteristic feature of the human, according to Merlin Donald, is our ceaseless capability of adopting novel skills (or demons as he would put it). As (the poiesis of) technology brings forth various gadgetry we are capable of learning and adapting to the objects those tools disclose in our world.

Speaking of objects in terms of action inevitably invokes the idea of affordances since, allow me the following formulation, objects gather, embrace and shuffle on the floor of a dynamic affor-dance. Affordance is basically the idea, proposed by J.J. Gibson the ecological psychologist, that we perceive in terms of action. We do not simply perceive stuff out there that we then represent and interpret internally but rather perception is direct, always already meaningful and object-oriented. What we perceive is opportunities for action; the climbability of steps is perceived in terms of ability. In short, our abilities (skills) gear us towards object-oriented actions.

As Varela and Maturana the famous Chilean biologist-philosophers and expositors of the theory of autopoiesis claim “perception should not be viewed as a grasping of an external reality, but rather as the specification of one” since “the structure of the system determines its interactions by specifying which configurations of the environment can trigger structural changes in it”. The difference among the species as a difference in the physical structure of their body and nervous system means that every species couples with and is oriented towards different ranges of objects. In humans the hybridization and externalized augmentation of this structure releases an increased range of objects which individuals engage with.

The relevant import of OOO is the idea that coupling (structurally) with affordances (or agent-specific caricatures of objects) is not restricted to animate beings alone. Coupling with the qualities that objects afford one another is the way entities interact in general. As Harman argues the difference between my relation to the door-knob and the door-knob’s relation to the flecks of dust resting on it is one of degree, not kind. In Harman’s words: “The fire affects the paper only in a certain sense (flammable object) while never coming into contact with its other properties at all (blue, flagrant, and smooth object). In this sense, even inanimate objects objectify each other”. Objects, be they animate or inanimate, relate to one another sensually, through the medium of affordances. (Sensual objects are action oriented…? Since the recognition of an object triggers the partial activation of the motor experiences preserved by our body we perceive objects dynamically. Analogously, objects perhaps interact in so far as they relate dynamically based on a record of prior associations and transactions…)

So, to answer the initial question I would say that action is emergent at the interface of trans-acting(animate and inanimate) objects. In essence, action is an interobjective affair. The tree, for instance, shapes the technics that a carpenter adopts and the carpenter shapes the tree in accordance with the demands of the ecological niche of humans which in turn shapes human needs that shape the objects humans orient themselves toward, etc.


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