tracing passive dynamics

What propriates is propriation itself – and nothing besides […] There is nothing else to which propriation reverts, nothing in terms of which it might even be explained. Propriating is not an outcome or a result of something else… (Martin Heidegger)

In my last post (tracing action) I mentioned in passing the idea of passive dynamics or dynamic action that is engendered by the guided momentum unleashed by interacting entities. Where the notion of this sort of dynamics originates from is robotic science. In a nutshell, the basic idea is that instead of designing robots with highly energy-consuming actuators and control systems that organize every micro-detail of their (motoric) behavior engineering should integrate forms of underactuation and self-organization in the movement of robots. Passive dynamics is a form of self-organized behavior that relies entirely on the bodily shape (morphological structure) of the mechanical system and the momentum that its dynamic interaction with its environment (gravity) yields. This way, computation emerges naturally, from the coupling of interacting entities. Thus, passive walking (for robots) is, essentially, a dance of limbs and slopes on the ground of gravity.

I like this idea of, say, ‘action with-in abandon’ because it resonates with much of what I believe is an adequate assessment of our nature as living, behaving organisms. With a certain amount of speculative licence passive dynamics can be extrapolated, in my opinion, to describe other more elemental domains of being and behaving as well. This is so because, in general, an agent’s specific interaction with its environment contributes to the enhancement and I would argue the very emergence of its cognitive (computational) powers. This is not only about pen and paper facilitating the thinking process; this is about the very emergence of human forms of thinking in the context of pen and paper. In the local terms of ontogeny, this would basically mean that an individual starts to effectively think only after s/he (by acquiring the necessary skills) manages to open to the guiding agency of (the phylogenetically established) equipment (pen, paper, notebooks, netbooks, books, ideas, the internet, etc) germane to the thinking process.

As Maturana and Varela, the Chilean biologists, argue an organism/agent specifies the objects of its engagement in the environment according to its peculiar structural determination (see my previous post). And the objects that an organism/agent thus couples with are part and parcel of its cognitive prowess. Consequentially, as the number and dimension of objects increase via the eternalization and augmentation of cognition (which is an essential feature of the technologically scaffolded human mind) the experiential range (inwardness and self-relation) expands in tandem. The more prosthetically augmented its sense-making capacities are the more object-oriented the organism becomes and the more object-oriented the organism becomes the more objects it experientially takes into account and the more it concerns itself with the objects within that range.

As a thinking human being, among other things I am open to pens and papers, words and concepts, chairs and tables, notes and keyboards, power-points and ppt files, ideas and other thinkers, as well as glasses of water and toilet rooms. (Be back in a minute…). These things do not merely prop up and channel the thinking that purportedly goes on in my head, rather the totality of these things are the very fabric that allows thinking to happen, these are the things that make up who I am. My visit to the toilet bowl a moment ago involved me and the toilet in a mutually determining loop. Apart from the fact that it shapes my comportment oriented towards it the toilet also defines part of my being in that my personality/self has a history of encounters with it. The toilet is not only a part of the repertoire of my knowledge but an actual part (even if a relatively insignificant and occasional part) of who I am. The toilet is there in my mind all the time as a dormant background (possibility) ready for my sudden or not so sudden needs. Of course, the toilet is there in another realistic sense as well, since it exists not only in my mind. If I am not around the toilet is still there yet in kind of a radiant ambience that is not picked up by me at the moment but is still open for all kinds of reciprocal engagements with other individuals or even entities (as OOO would argue).

The stuff of experience, in other words, is not inside the organism but it emerges between it and its environment as the function of changes in that dynamical circuit. Echoing this, expositors of the extended mind hypothesis (like Andy Clark, Michael Wheeler and Mark Rowlands) claim that human cognition is not restricted to the nervous system alone but it is, in effect, distributed across the brain, the body and the environment. As Mark Rowlands states in his book The New Science of the Mind, ’’cognitive processes are an amalgam of neural structures and processes, bodily structures and processes, and environmental structures and processes” (2010, 83.). In other words, the phenomenon of cognition just cannot be properly addressed without the crucial understanding that, as the famous slogan goes: the brain is embodied and the body is embedded. Let me quote Fred Keijzer here who in his Ph.D. thesis aptly summarizes this interactionist position in the following:

The neural system … [does not] … incorporate a complete set of behavioral instructions…. Instead, the neural system uses the order which is already present in the musculo-skeletal system and the environment. Behavior is the result of the interactions between the pre-existing order in these systems, and consists of the mutual modulation of neural, bodily and environmental dynamics (1997, 204).

Incidentally, Michael Wheeler cites this passage in his book Reconstructing the Cognitive World to describe cognition in the context of dynamical systems theory and the phenomenon of self-organization (a concept that is highly relevant in the present discussion):

In cases of nontrivial causal spread, there will be no appeal to any strong instruction-issuing central executive whose job is to orchestrate the body so as to produce behavior on the environmental stage. Rather, the observed behavior will be identifiable as the global order produced through multiple local interactions between contributing components located throughout a highly distributed brain-body-environment system (2005, 245).

Behavior, that is, does not emerge from a specific locus or center of agency but it is the synergic effect of interactive agents the locus of which is widely distributed. In fact, we could descend a level in the analysis and find a similar dynamics at the biological substrate of the organism as well. In The Music of Life Denis Noble, the systems biologist, writes that “the genome or the brain […] are databases that the system as a whole uses. They are not programs that determine the behaviour of the system” (2006, 130). Note how the logic of use echoes Keijzer’s account of orders already present and available at different levels of the dynamic circuit. “All that is needed is a database that is sufficient, in the right environment, to trigger what is required” (45). Talking about the heartbeat, for instance, Noble notes that it does “not make sense to say that cardiac pacemaker rhythm exists below the cellular level. There are no molecular oscillators that generate it. Instead, an integrative activity emerges from a multiplicity of protein interactions at the cellular level” (129).

As in the dynamical account of behavior, in systems biology there is no privileged level of causality. “There is a complex interaction between genes and their environment – both the cellular environment and also the wider environment of the organism in which they exist. The organisms in turn interact with their environments, and this also will have an impact on gene expression” (33). The organism, he adds,

consists of regulatory networks of interactions at all levels [genes > proteins > pathways > sub-cellular mechanisms > cells > tissues > organs > organism], from the highest to the very lowest level, including networks incorporating genes themselves. There are no privileged components telling the rest what to do. There is rather a form of democracy, with every element at all levels having a chance to be part of a regulatory network (53).

Again, the important point in all of this is the fact that each of these levels can be the starting point for a causal chain; there is no arch-controller and no central driver of the metabolic cascade. And this is true of the mechanism of cognition and behavior as well. [example]

Now, what does this all have to do with passive dynamics? To rehearse, behavior is passive dynamic when it unfolds from the motive power afforded or released by coupling entities. A dancer is never alone in dancing, even without a partner s/he still dances with the floor. This is the idea that I would like to bring to bear on the issue of existence in general. In so far as every unfolding movement or behavior exploits structures it is embedded within, it is passive dynamic in principle. In other words, everything that an agent does is, in the last analysis, a participation in the dynamics that is engendered at the interface that loops across the entities and structures (deeply historical, discursive and technological in the human realm) that the agent couples with. No act is pure and self-initiated. All action is interaction. When I cook, my body dances with the kitchen (which is filled with all kinds of soliciting objects). In essence, to behave is to be en-meshed. And to be en-meshed is to be constrained as well as (simultaneously) guided, in other words, enabled by the history of transactions among entities that led to the conditions that allowed my appearance on the scene. In sum, since agency or, more broadly, behavior is a phenomenon that is always action- (and therefore object)-oriented (or interactively meshed within inter-agential transactions), the nature of its dynamics is inevitably going to be a relevant issue.

Regarding my ‘appearance on the scene’, without doubt, I could not have ever been the person who I am right now without plugging into the quickened circuit of the symbolic world of humans. The interiority that by the adoption of linguistic and cultural skills I tap into is contingent on the self-assembling transactions among entities that precede the emergence of consciousness. By the time I come to self-reflexive awareness I already find myself within a meaningful world fraught with objects and horizons of significance. At the same time, self-reflexive consciousness itself is an autonomous process or a kind of loop within the self-assembling scheme of things that is not independent and external to its relations and, contrary to felt sense, not at the disposal for the deliberation and wilful acts of individuals. Rather, consciousness is a process, a kind of vortex within the becoming of being.

As it is noticeable, I invoke the idea of consciousness in an ambiguous way here. In fact, I am toggling between its ontogenetic (local) and ontological (global) dimensions. On the one hand, consciousness is a vibrating membrane that intensifies with the individual’s interactions with other (external) human and nonhuman agencies while, on the other hand, it is an intractable dynamic process that is autonomous, self-organized and ’passive dynamically’ driven. Hence, passive dynamics can be addressed (at least) from two fronts of analysis, which describe, perhaps, only different zones on the same sliding scale of being. On the local scale consciousness is an actively enmeshed principle in its dealings with agents of different order, while on the global or more primordial scale it is pure spontaneity, an aspect of being in general.

This latter aspect of the phenomenon of consciousness is what Gerald Edelman, the famous biologist, gestures towards when in Second Nature he states that “even though consciousness is a process without causal powers itself, it is faithfully entailed by the complex activities and causal powers of the neuronal groups that make up the reentrant core” (2006, 37), (where the reentrant core is the ’’dense meshwork of reciprocal connectivity between the cortex and the thalamus as well as among different cortical regions’’ (29)). Consciousness is thus entailed by a process that unfolds according to its own autonomous accord.

To make the point clear, let us define C’ to be the integrated pattern of neural activity that makes up the dynamic core at a particular time. C’ entails a conscious state we call C and which involves a particular set of discriminations [or objects it couples with]. C’ not only entails C but contributes causally to subsequent C’ states as well as bodily actions. The relationship between C’ and C is faithful, and for this reason, in most cases, we can speak of C as if it is causal. Indeed, C states are informative of C’ states […] The traditional horror with which epiphenomenalism is met by philosophers can be abated once the faithful entailment mechanisms of reentrant core states are understood (92).

(As for the issue of free-will, which is a tangent here and quite a heavy one, I would argue that perhaps the category of free will itself significantly delimits our understanding of what agency really means and how it exactly functions. Agency, I believe, has more to do with the ability of modulating trajectories (of behavior, mentation, etc.) rather than initiating them. On a concrete level, for instance, when one chooses to come into contact with “the right” books and “the right” individuals their in-fluence, however minute, will manifest in altering the ever-shifting trajectory of our life…perhaps).

Before I further unpack the implications of primordial drift, autonomy and self-assemblage let me address briefly the ancillary issue of trajectories that anchor different orders of interacting agents. To demonstrate the (local) poiesis of passive dynamics in our cultural milieu consider the role that uniforms and particular dress codes play in the institutional framework of civil life, or consider the peculiar rituals practiced within the classroom and the church, for instance. Within set temporal and spatial limits (the duration and location of the class) what mostly happens in classrooms is the preaching of teachers in some (bodily and/or verbal) way elevated above the students who sit in silence, absorbing the message. Admittedly, sitting in silence is not total silence since it includes contributions on the part of the students yet these contributions are mainly a reactive mode of expression (subsumed by authorial expressions). Most importantly, the underlying model that characterizes the process of learning in this particular setting is the rather outdated understanding of information-transfer wherein information is conceived of as some important and valuable stuff (knowledge) from an outer source of authority that passes via the teaching (or authorized expression) to the inner container of the student’s cranial reservoir. Indeed, this model of learning is reflected in the orchestrated choreography of the classroom itself. There is a clear hierarchy of voices and arrangement of bodies. In a church such choreography is much more pronounced: for instance, you are made not only to stand up to the relevant cues but, in effect, to kneel down and whisper prayers with your head bent down and your eyes submissively averted from an external to an internal field of vision. All these ritualistic movements, in turn, are embedded within the architectural and ornamental ambience of churches that engender the feeling of awe and meekness (less and less compellingly in today’s society, though). Or one could easily think of the army along similar lines. Saluting, standing at attention, in a line, and falling into rank and wearing uniform are all essential elements that tailor people’s behavior there. In short, authority (be it political, religious, military, scientific, pedagogic, work-place related, etc.) is always enacted, in part, by the (agency of) fancy dress (service-caps, smocks, suits, etc.) and (by the agency of) all sorts of protocol that compose (one could say, author) people’s behavior involved in it. Just ponder the possibility of maintaining the army without all the military paraphernalia and choreography involved in its functioning. It is quite probable, I think, that without the masquerade and the ritualistic rules of our social games the institutions sustained by those games would begin to crumble and dissolve entirely. Perhaps – to apply the same (passive dynamic) logic – being crippled with timidness and a low self-esteem inclines some girls to wear bland, baggy clothes that in turn engenders a kind of positive feedback loop where the outward display of homeliness serves as a form of reinforcement or reaffirmation of their felt unattractiveness. The clothes are agents just as their wearer are. Effects ripple nonlinearly. I could also mention the whole industry of stuff that people participate in in the more and more hypermarketized zones of urban life. The infinite variety of design and packaging of commodities (like the endless variation on the scintillating wrappers on snacks), are all manufactured in order to exploit the passive dynamic potential in them. The very presence of stuff and the peculiar display of that stuff hales the consumer and shapes (and by shape I mean actually fashion) his/her consuming behavior.

Granted, these examples evince passive-dynamics on a micro-scale merely, as an individual agent flows through its negotiations and associations with other (human or nonhuman) agents. The practices and the material props or paraphernalia of those practices that we are caught within trigger the behavior that relies on those practices and props. The loop is recursive but not closed off from innovation and change at all. The enmeshed agent is never entirely appropriated. Institutional and marketing techniques do not entirely zombify the behavior of individuals. On the local (social) scale, there is always space for irony and defiance. The individual voice is forever potent and potentially subversive. One can decide to not join the army (as the hippies in Hair) or facebook, one can decide to not attend school or apply for a regular job. Teachers (if they can pull it off) can be really radical in their methods and people can be fairly indifferent to the tacit norms and unspoken rules that govern everyday life (so poignantly foregrounded in Larry David’s tv-show Curb your Enthusiasm). Etc., etc., etc.

On the abstract level I am addressing, though, we are nothing but marvelously graceful zombies. Nothing but a throb, rushing through the vein of being. On the macro-scale of things we all participate in organic and historical processes that are larger than us. There is no other way to say it than by straightly stating that events come to pass, things simply happen, and we simply participate (with sometimes more and sometimes less agency) in the self-assembling scheme of thing.

The nature of the self-assembling scheme of things (that sets us in passive dynamic motion) is what Martin Heidegger, in part, dedicated his whole philosophical career to begin to untangle. In his assessment being, the very principle beyond all appearance, escapes and inescapably withdraws from understanding. Being is always already absent from its traces. In fact, the blatant error of the entire philosophical tradition, according to Heidegger, lay in the persevering attempt of defining being in terms of a specific being (a presence) like God, instead of engaging it from the dynamics of withdrawal and concealment as it manifests itself even in the phenomenal experience in our everyday life. The equipments we use, for instance, transpire into the activity they are used for. When we use a piece of equipment its being is not there before our consciousness, rather our consciousness opens onto the world through it. Similarly, being cannot really be there in front of our consciousness, since it is the very condition that animates consciousness. “Being is essentially broader than all beings, because it is the clearing itself” as Heidegger formulated. The lure to identify being with its appearance (in beings) is compelling but it is always in error, mistaking the traces for the actual steps that stamped and left them behind…

Being self-assembles itself. Living is a self-organizing movement. On the bodily level, hearts throb on their own accord and lungs pump the air autonomously. The body self-organizes its processes. On the mental level thoughts and feelings arise automatically in the context of the historical conditions for their role in human societies. In terms of conscious awareness, bodily and mental movement is, in a sense, always already ahead of itself, passive dynamically engaged. When I get up from the computer in order to visit the loo I barely (if at all) notice the intervening door-knobs and door-steps and light-switches. Usually, I am still pre-occupied with my current projects, like the activity on the computer. And even if I decide to focus on every microdetail of my movements it is still not something that I do, rather it is something that I participate in (only mindfully at the moment). When I involuntarily react to an affront or verbal abuse I (or rather my self-image) automatically lock into the psycho-somatic circuit of the ego and its over-sensitive and exquisitely subtle scales of give and take. And even if I detach from my reactions and realize how spontaneously and incessantly they arise the very act of detaching from their ceaseless undulations is a “decision” I merely participate in.

We live forwards and only recognize backwards. Not a cause but a result, we are the con-sequence.

In this sense everything is way ahead of our conscious register. The felt sensation that we own and possess our movements, actions, expressions, thoughts or emotions is only a retrospective sensation. As a rule, we appropriate our bodily and psychological acts retroactively. The thinker of our thoughts exists only in this sense but not in actuality. Our experiences don’t have an experiencer in our person, rather we are the very stream of our experiences. (In terms of qualia: we are qualia). Self-reflexive experience, thought of as the defining feature of being human, is a process ahead of “its-self”, entailed by the processes it is enmeshed within. Our bodies, our movements and our overall engagements within which all our bodily and mental movements are embedded carry us. We are the ridge of a wave that leaps ahead into the surge of living.

Nothing really belongs to us;

we belong to the surges

that carry us.

On a side-note (another free-will tangent), this is not to deny the existence of autonomy and self-identity, though. As I have already suggested above, on the level of analysis that deals with human individuals in social circumstances and in the context of concrete day to day life the deliberating self clearly exists. Rather what I am trying to point to here is the insurmountable character of our being that animates that autonomous self. (Furthermore, I claim that the grounding dynamics on the basis of which we can enact the deliberate composition of our lives is passive).

“As such, Being remains mysterious, the simple nearness of an unobtrusive governance” (Martin Heidegger). Being cannot be overtaken, cannot be superseded and thus controlled or governed. When someone feels depressed and can hardly convince himself to get out of bed and just do something, anything, even then getting hold of oneself and making the effort is not proper to the individual, it is something s/he (manages to) drift into. Being is always in the background, animating everything that figures on its ground. Being withdraws but always in an active, animating way.

Now, as I understand it, in his questioning of being Heidegger tackled the phenomenon of intelligibility, the very horizon that opens Dasein (the quintessential human being) to beings and its own being as such. Being, for him, refers to the clearing that allows for the presence of beings (for Dasein). And yet the expression ’allows for’ is quite essential and almost literally meant by Heidegger here. In point of fact, this is the sense in which I am invoking Heidegger’s tracings. In probing the essence of being he sometimes refers to the German expression ’es gibt’ which conveys the sense not only of ’there is’ but also of ’it gives’. Hence Heidegger’s peculiar way of phrasing where being (in relation to Dasein) calls, affords, admits, claims, sends, favours, enables, hands over, grants, assigns, dispatches, etc. In my discussion, basically, this is the sense of being that I am extending to refer to an ultimate principle (beyond a narrow Da-Sein correlate): the principle that sets us in passive dynamic engagement with the world. “This ‘there is’/’it gives’ [es gibt] rules as the destiny of Being’’.

In understanding or adequately addressing the issue of passive dynamics as it pertains to the nature of agency and behavior the conceptual shift to the notion of self-giving and withdrawal (and hence invoking Heidegger) is essential. In his essay “Letter on Humanism” (whence the previous litany of phrases are taken) he writes: “Man does not decide whether and how beings appear, whether and how God and the gods or history and nature come forward into the clearing of Being, come to presence and depart. The advent of beings lies in the destiny of Being”. Which is to say: “Dasein itself occurs essentially as ‘thrown’. It unfolds essentially in the throw of Being as the fateful sending”. Or breifly: “Man stands ek-sistingly in the destiny of Being.”

Action and behavior is not initiated by the individual, but rather they are dynamics that the individual (passive dynamically) participates in. In ‘’The Origin of the Work of Art’’ Heidegger posits that “in existence, man does not proceed from some inside to some outside; rather, the essence of Existenz is out-standing standing-within the essential sunderance of the clearing of beings”.

In this sense, thinking is not only enmeshed within pens, papers, chairs, tables, toilets and the history of ideas, but, more primordially, it is animated by something beyond the individual thinker. “Thinking accomplishes the relation of Being to the essence of man. It does not make or cause the relation. Thinking brings this relation to Being solely as something handed over to it from Being’’. In other words thinking “is the thinking of Being. The genitive says something twofold. Thinking is of Being inasmuch as thinking, propriated by Being, belongs to Being. At the same time thinking is of Being insofar as thinking, belonging to Being listens to Being”.

Thinking is not a private matter and neither what is integral to it: speaking. “Only when man speaks, does he think – not the other way around”. In the essay “The Way to Language” Heidegger says that in “speech, as listening to language, we reiterate the saying we have heard”. Again, speech does not proceed from some inside to some outside, rather “it is language that speaks”. As for the extent to which we hook up with words, phrases and expressions in a passive dynamical manner Richard Poirier (in another context) captures the phenomenon aptly when he submits: “Most of us talk all day and say nothing worth repeating or repeatable […] It has mostly been sound, efforts to create the gel of human relationships even as the gel is forever melting away”. James Guetti says something similar in his book Wittgenstein and the Grammar of Literary Experience, where he observes that “usually we speak as if we were citing language, frequently our remarks to each other take the form of definitions or redefinitions or of logical extensions from them, they are not devoted to any particular case in question, they do not advance whatever verbal sequence is in progress”. In other words, most of the time we just chatter and jabber and patter and prattle and rattle and tattle and twaddle and yabber, etc. But even when we engage in serious dialogue there is no way of getting outside of it: “Language itself has woven us into its speaking”. Apart from the fact that the language we are caught up in dictates the grammar of our intentions and sets us in motion within discursive practices that are going to define who we are (yet still being open to the ironies and subversions of the individual speakers), language, in a primordial sense, is something beyond its practices. “To speech belong the speakers, but not as cause to effect”. The means by which being sets (human) beings on the course of thinking is through language which is “the clearing-concealing advent of Being itself”. Instead of issuing from some inside to some outside language “is the house of Being, which is propriated by Being and pervaded by Being”.

Enough now!

To conclude: behavior which can be motoric, affective, conceptual, verbal, etc., is a sort of assemblage that self-assembles passive dynamically in the nexus of an individual agent through the distributed contribution of associated agents, where

“Being is the ‘quiet power’ of the favouring-enabling”

of those associations…

Works Cited:

  • Edelman, Gerald M. 2006. Second Nature: Brain Science and Human Knowledge. New Haven: Yale UP.
  • Guetti, James L. 1993. Wittgenstein and the Grammar of Literary Experience. Athens: University of Georgia.
  • Heidegger, Martin 1889-1976., and David Farrell. Krell. 1978. Basic Writings from Being and Time (1927) to the Task of Thinking (1964) / Martin Heidegger; Edited with General Introductions, and Introductions to Each Selection, David Farrell Krell.London: Routledge & Kegan.
  • Keijzer, Fred A. 1997. The Generation of Behavior: on the Function of Representation in Organism-environment Dynamics. Utrecht: Printed by Drukkerij Elinkwijk BV.
  • Noble, Denis. 2006. The Music of Life: Biology beyond the Genome. Oxford: Oxford UP.
  • Rowlands, Mark. 2010. The New Science of the Mind: from Extended Mind to Embodied Phenomenology. Cambridge, MA: MIT.
  • Wheeler, Michael. 2005. Reconstructing the Cognitive World: the next Step. Cambridge, MA: MIT.

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