The appeal of Daniel Plainview in THERE WILL BE BLOOD

Recently, for the second time in my life, I watched Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood "for the first time."  What I mean is, after I see a film for the first time in the theater during its initial release, the next time I watch the film is when I really start to notice things and analyze it closely.  In other words, that second time around is when I find myself really starting to appreciate the film (given its worth appreciating).

What struck me about There Will Be Blood is not surprising: the film is incredibly powerful, largely thanks to Daniel Day-Lewis' performance as Daniel Plainview–the oil man protagonist of the film.  Lewis is positively gripping as Plainview.  I am in agreement with this author, who writes: "Plainview, has at some point we never see poured himself into a mold. He’s beside himself from the beginning, remote-controlling himself from an undisclosed location. Day-Lewis method-acts a method actor character."  And to be more precise than what I just said, what I found to be truly gripping was the character of Plainview himself (which, of course, is probably due to Day-Lewis' portrayal of him).

This led me to wonder about a simple yet interesting question: what is so appealing about Daniel Plainview?  In one sense, he is an awful human being.  He is ruthless, anti-social, envious, spiteful, and full of hate.  However, I find myself rooting for Plainview because he is so deeply aware of himself.  He is completely honest about himself, both with himself and with others.  When social convention calls for a trivial breach of the ethic of frank speech, Plainview is clearly in pain.  He knows exactly who he is and does not apologize for it.  He is resolute; authentic.  So while in an important sense–the sense of what is morally praiseworthy–Plainview is despicable, in another important sense–the sense of ethics as a self-fashioning and process of self-understanding–he is in fact admirable.  One finds oneself cheering for Plainview as he brutally pummels Eli, the conniving preacher and charlatan.

An analysis of one particular scene best expresses what I mean here.  When Plainview's "brother...from another mother" first shows up at his camp, he is initially suspicious (as he is of all), but ends up confiding in him.  Their conversation that evening after dinner is a (the only?) direct account of Plainview's psyche.  "I hate most people," he tells his new brother.  "I have a competition in me...I want no one else to succeed."  The appeal of Daniel Plainview comes from his ability to utter these words in complete honesty–he means exactly what he says and somehow the viewer can have no doubts about this. 


Empathy and Method

The mind is thoroughly embodied.  Or, an even better way of making the point would be to say that the mind is bodily.  Philosophers seem to get that now.  Books and articles on the "embodied mind," "embodied cognition," and the "bodily self," are too numerous to count.  John Haugeland articulates this line of thought with particular skill in his article "Mind Embodied and Embedded" (1995).  To sum it up quickly and generally: the mind, as we know it in our own conscious experience, wouldn't be what it is without the innate morphology of the body (embodied) and the environmental context that constitutes a causal/developmental history (embedded).  So to answer Thomas Nagel's famous question, "What is it like to be a bat?" we'd have to say, "Well Tom, in order to know that, we'd have to occupy bat bodies, do all the stuff that bats do for several years, and, well, pretty much live the life of a bat." 

Unfortunately, while some philosophers are "getting it," others are taking it too far.  Mark Johnson's book The Meaning of the Body is one such case.  Johnson offers lengthy critiques of contemporary analytic philosophy, but his basic message is clear: abstract analyses of things like "propositional content" and "reliable teleoinformatic processes" are moments in a general forgetting of the bodily roots of meaning.  But I think Johnson misses the mark here.  I agree with him that we must be mindful our essentially embodied sense-making capacities, but I refuse to follow him down his grumpy path: "Damn kids today have forgotten about what's important!"

For me, high-level conceptual work is just as much a matter of inter-personal understanding as winking at someone across the subway car.  Both are embodied forms of sense-making. Cognitive phenomenology refers to the phenomenal aspect of understanding an argument, or doing a proof and finally getting it.  David Foster Wallace called it "that click" of understanding.  Even in working alone with the curtains drawn and the fire reduced to a low smolder, one doesn't really get something until one has gotten to the point of being able to communicate just what it is one has grasped.  Likewise, a typical part of understanding something is having it explained to you, usually by a skilled teacher.  The skilled teacher doesn't just spit the facts at you and leave the rest for you to sort out.  The skilled teacher circles back on points made earlier, connecting them to what was just said.  He draws diagrams, uses examples, provides illustrations, uses different words.  He paints a picture of something such that not only does the student see what he means, but also comes to see how it could all make sense in the first place.  In order to share some propositional content, it is usually a pretty good idea to get the other to represent it in the same manner.  It's not necessary, but it tends to work.

This reveals that empathizing with others--seeing the world from their points of view--is our default means of understanding.  Empathy is more than a special object of philosophical inquiry.  It is important for both content and method.  Empathy may very well reveal valuable insight into the phenomenology of understanding.  If empathy turns out to be the phenomenal aspect (what it feels like) of understanding, then this entails the (practical) importance of collaborative work in philosophy and other modes of inquiry.  So, unlike what Mark Johnson thinks, analytic philosophers who practice conceptual analysis do “plumb the depths of the qualitative feeling dimensions of experience and meaning.”  They do so precisely through the capacity for which he faults them: “develop[ing] elaborate conceptual schemes for identifying the so-called cognitive, structural, and formal aspects of experience, thought, and language”.  Such high level intense thought elicits the most high level and intense empathy.  A strong feeling of power emerges from moments of intense understanding.  In essence, these are moments of intense connection—the feeling of communion through shared meaning.  There is something that it is like to get it.  And it is a human goal to elicit the sort of feeling that causes one to proclaim, “Holy shit! Now I see what you mean!” 

Forgive these philosopher’s, Johnson, for they know not what they do.  They are skillful craftsmen, absorbed in their latest fabrication.  You need not remind them that before they became such proficient runners they could barely walk.  Calling for a return to the “deep” bodily roots of meaning and understanding could be easily interpreted as a call to return to childhood.  True, we must be mindful of our roots, but were we always trying to return to our roots, our moral and technical understanding of the world would remain infantile.   And if Freud has taught us anything, the conscious life of the infant is far from rosy. 


Don't Mind the Plurality

 [edited 6/7/11]

When it comes to talking about plural subjects, or collective intentionality, or the philosophy of social phenomena in general, the toughest issue pertains to whether we should posit some unique ontological entity that is the bearer of these supra-individual states.  Many philosophers, such as Michael Bratman, contend that in order to properly account for social phenomena we must work within the parameters established by an ontology of subjectivity that is limited to individual mental states, their contents, and properties.  Thus, on this line of thought, social phenomena are accounted for in the “singularist” paradigm that reduces phenomena such as shared intentions and collective beliefs to the individual mental states of the constituent group members.  However, other philosophers, such as Margaret Gilbert and John Searle, have persuasively argued against the singularist account—arguing that there are good grounds for committing to the existence of shared intentions and collective beliefs that are not reducible to the mental states or behaviors of individuals.  And yet, Gilbert, Searle, and those sympathetic to their holistic view adamantly resist the idea that they are positing some unique “hive mind” or “group thought.”  Thus, the question becomes: how can we account for social phenomena in a way that does justice to the (relative) autonomy of such phenomena (i.e. that they are non-reducible), but also without over-inflating our ontology of subjectivity? 

I contend that this debate over the ontology of social phenomena would greatly benefit from some phenomenological considerations, which are largely absent from most discussions of the topic.  The phenomenal character of experience (i.e., what it is like) extends beyond merely sensuous experience, and is an irreducible aspect of the content of “cognitive” experiences such as intention and belief.  Thus, we may speak of the properties and features of a plural subject with psychological predicates, but we must be mindful that these are analogies.  Theses analogies are possible insofar as we are all intimately acquainted with what it is like to intend or what it is like to believe in virtue of the unique phenomenal character of these mental states.  We must not mind the plural subject in that we must not en-mind whatever entity ‘plural subject’ designates.  On this line of argument, phenomenal character is the mark of the mental.

Accounting for plural subjects thus becomes twofold: we must understand the conceptual limitations of reduction and describe the social phenomena constituted by plural subjects as if they were an autonomous form of agency (i.e., we use psychological predicates: we talk of collective beliefs, joint commitments, and shared trauma); simultaneously, we must describe the phenomenology of being a member of a plural subject in individualist terms (for only these terms pick out the primordial phenomenon of subjectivity) that maintain the sui generis character of this unique form of experience.  This twofold task can be achieved by paying specific attention to the classic phenomenological notion of empathy, which is treated as a phenomenon sui generis and is meant to account for the lived reality of social interaction.


The Peculiar Unity of James Franco

I've watched a couple interviews with James Franco in the past month.   Below is a short, funny interview he did with Stephen Colbert. 

For a longer, more serious examination of the same topics, watch his interview with Charlie Rose here: James Franco on Charlie Rose.
One might say that James Franco is striving to turn himself into an idea (his "persona"), but the very immateriality and hence dubitability of ideas makes him profoundly unsure of himself.  He is intensely self-aware, yet the harder he focuses on himself, the more indeterminately the object of awareness appears to him.  His form of life is tragi-comic.  He counters the deep uncertainty dwelling in the foundation of his identity by joyfully experimenting and creating alternative personas that allow for distinct varieties of expression.  Actor, film-maker, author, painter, poet...the list goes on.  Franco is extremely on-guard about being called out as a dilettante or silly playboy.  Yet he displays the typical neophyte academic honesty, strongly insisting that he recognizes his inherent limited abilities in each art form.  "I never said I'd be the best writer," he says on Charlie Rose.  He frequently allows little burps of cocky smile to erupt to the surface, only to quickly double back and qualify himself, show humility, placing his hand to his mouth and looking off into the distance, being not-stoned.

The most interesting thing I've heard Franco discuss is the possible underlying unity of all his various projects.  He's on a soap opera.  He's teaching a class at NYU film school (he's not really teaching it, he's just letting a bunch of film students edit footage of him and make whatever they want while he talks to them on Skype a couple times a semester).  He wrote a collection of short stories.  He made a documentary.  He continues to take on acting roles in mainstream films.  Charlie Rose (admirably) called him out on his apparent schizophrenia:  You like contradictions, he told Franco, you like bridging all of these seemingly unrelated fields.  Yes, Franco replied, he does.  And this is where is gets fascinating.   Again and again, when asked to explain the appeal of a certain project, or reasons for doing something like play a serial killer artist named "Franco" on General Hospital, Franco's responses include the concepts of "vitality" and "energy."  He claims he's not "disrupting" anything, but he is fully aware that its his Hollywood star power that makes these disparate forays interesting.  He tells us to be suspicious of celebrities leveraging their status, yet he's doing it blatantly (Stephen Colbert's response to this is especially good).  He likes the "tension" all of this creates.  He thinks it makes for "vital" performances that generate a lot of "energy." 

I can empathize with him a bit on this.  There is some vitality to be found in the tension created by exploring different fields.  Good for you James Franco, ride that wave.


Sport : Exercise - Carrot : Stick

Fitness, lightness, agility, poise—these are some of the shared norms of sport and exercise. But sport has something exercise does not—fun. This is not to say that exercise can’t be pleasurable. I do not deny that people derive great pleasure, if not intense happiness from pushing their bodies through the disciplined forms of experience that constitute proper exercise. However, what I do want to argue, is that exercise is not fun. Thus, I take the notion of ‘fun’ rather seriously, for I feel that this is an important point.

More specifically, exercise does not involve play. It involves repetition. No matter how complex of a routine, progression, or program of exercise one comes up with, it will never be fun in its systematicity. Exercise can be rigorous. It can be exhilarating. It can make one feel intensely alive. But exercise is not playful, and thus cannot be fun.

The analogy in the title above is meant to convey the idea that sport and exercise are both valuable, just as the carrot and the stick both represent valuable, albeit different, ways of getting things done. More precisely, the respective sides of both analogies represent different ways of valuing certain ends. Sport can, and often does, involve many of the same pleasurable features of exercise. One punishes oneself by digging down a bit deeper in the final minutes of a game, or during the final repetitions of a set. One feels vigorous, powerful, and intensely alive after an exhausting competitive event. Furthermore, sport and exercise can both essentially involve pleasure derived from competition. One can feel competitive with both oneself, or with others, during both sport and exercise. Nonetheless, sport and exercise are not co-extensive when it comes to normative features, despite overlapping in significant ways. The essential difference between the lived through processes that constitute the actual movements of sport and the actual movements of exercise differ insofar as the movements of sport are playful, whereas the movements of exercise are repetitive, and—if pushed to a logical extreme—masochistic.

To me, this explains why sport is so preferable to exercise on nearly every occasion. Both can be pleasurable, but sport offers real fun.


What Pauses my Gaze? (part 2)

Part 1 of my reply to the question “What pauses my gaze?” arrived at the general conclusion that tension leading to discomfort is one way in which a work of art can grip the viewer. The work of Francis Bacon reaches out and grasps me, which is not always a pleasant experience. Here, in part 2, I will move in the opposite direction, considering how a work of art grips the viewer calmly. Whereas Bacon’s work stops me in my tracks and takes hold of me, other works extend an inviting hand, appealing to the viewer precisely because of the comfort they invite. Thus, perhaps it is better to say “caress” than “grip” or “grasp.”

The work of the gaze is bound up with what Merleau-Ponty calls the “motility” of the body—i.e., the “motor significance” that the movements of our bodies hold for us. We have a non-conceptual, pre-reflective awareness of possibilities entailed by the various ways we can move our bodies. If we approach something, its details come into view more sharply. If we move away from it, we gain a broader view of the thing and the background which makes it stand out. We walk around things with the tacit anticipation of learning more about them. Our understanding of the world is pre-figured by the motility of the body.

The various ways the movements of my body condition what shows up for my gaze, revealing the importance of depth. Merleau-Ponty calls depth “the most existential of all dimensions,” in that it “announces a certain indissoluble link between things and myself” (Phenomenology of Perception, 298). The ever-increasing “screened” existence of contemporary life sacrifices the depth of experience for the sake of presenting information or content in an efficient, uniform manner. Representing something on a two-dimensional surface—“screening”—is without a doubt a great step forward for humanity. Screening arranges content in terms of breadth, and not depth. Breadth perceived as a relation belong solely to objects, thus removing, to a high degree, the perspectival involvement of the subject. In this limited space, I will not bother fleshing out all of the pros and cons of this sort of flat representation. I will just assume it.

However, as Merleau-Ponty’s words indicate, something important is lost amidst this screened existence. The basic motor significance that things hold for us is the result of the inextricable connection between our bodies and the world. Thus, the second part of my reply to the question, “What pauses my gaze?” is this: the promise of depth. Rather than grasping me in a state of tension, as Bacon’s works do, art that reaches out and offers the experience of depth pauses my gaze with a calm caress. How can artists, or designers of artifacts in general, achieve such an effect?

I think that a certain group of artists, designers, and fabricators are taking the phenomenological principles outlined above seriously. This can be found in the work of Simon Penny, namely his Fugitive 2, where the work of art envelops the viewer in an experience imbued with the motor significances prevalent in everyday experience.
The movements of the viewer have direct and immediate consequences for what appears. An essential feature of this sort of work is an emphasis on calmness, insofar as there are little to no instructions required. In other words, the viewer or user is not faced with a daunting learning curve. The learning is intuitive rather than laborious.

A perfect example of this feature I am calling “calmness” (or perhaps simply “intuitiveness”) can be found in the design of systems like the Nintendo Wii and Microsoft Kinnect. Think of how the gaming experience for these systems differs from the experience of a typical video game. Typical video games rely on behaviorally pairing finger movements with images on a screen. It takes a while to master such games, and there is no way to learn them other than to memorize which combination of buttons is appropriate in a given situation. One instructs a novice Kinnect user, on the other hand, on how to play, say, a boxing game, by simply saying: “Act like you are boxing.”
How can this existential mode of interaction be elicited by the work of art? I have already mentioned Penny’s work, but it relies heavily on expensive technology. Sculpture affords walking around to better understand. Certain sculptural forms invite various kinesthetic, sensori-motor based perceptual attuning. Can painting do the same? I have difficulty answering this question. I would love to hear from others on this, especially painters. Can a painting appeal to one’s gaze in the same manner described through Penny’s works and Microsoft Kinnect? Is its flat objectual existence inherently limiting in this regard? Perhaps it could be said that painting grip the viewer in that they are best viewed from a single, stationary perspective; whereas sculpture and video-art installations such as Penny’s pause one’s gaze by calmly caressing the viewer. These works of art work through a certain intuitive appeal, based on the motor significance an object holds for one’s body. These works engage our bodies. We explore and understand them through the motility of the body. Where we were once gripped, we are allowed room to play.


Me and my Memes

In one sense, this blog is meant to be impersonal, and as little of a diary as possible. In another sense, the primary subject matter of this blog is me. As Montaigne said, "I myself am the matter of my book." Part of understanding me is understanding my style. And to understand my style is to become attuned to the mental states being conveyed by my words, gesture, personal habits, and general manner of comporting myself.

Memes are precisely those phrases, turns of phrase, or simple little jokes that I use again and again. If they spread, ultimately, I'm flattered. But often times, they are not mine to take credit for, as I have most likely picked them up from other sources. Little phrases like: "I ain't afraid;" "I'll fight a man;" and "We're just walking!" all have specific contextual meanings. Thus, any use of these phrases is not only meant to loosely apply in terms of content, but is also being said in order to evoke a past context. Evoking a past context is to implicitly gesture at a common feature of the temporally distinct occasions. On the one hand, when I say "I ain't afraid" during conversation, the literal meaning of the phrase makes sense in the context of the conversation. However, as I am most likely saying this to someone I already converse with regularly--or at least intend to--it is already known that this is meant humorously. It is humorous precisely because it gestures at the inherent absurdity of a singular phrase being coined in a particular context in a spur-the-moment fashion--a phrase so utterly perfect for that occasion--resonating with the current occasion. Thus it is meant as a creative gesture. One which actively judges of the current situation, predicating a feature of it by way of analogy. But this is a specific form of analogy--mimesis, because one literally imitates what was said in the past.

You may have noticed that one of my tags is "We're just walking!" This refers to a specific occasion (of course) in which a friend was walking through a campsite and a camper asked him to quiet down. "We're just walkin' here lady!" was his indignant reply. Regardless of who was in the right, the phrase goes down in history. What's a man to say when he's doing his thing, just being himself, slightly unaware of what that means in a given situation, and someone points out what "just being me" actually means in that situation? Well..."we're just walking!"

That's what I'm doing here. I am a peculiar unity of style, habit, aims, interests, idiosyncrasies, moves, and gestures. I'm just trying to intimate a sense of who I am and what I care about. But you, dear reader, are an essential part of this endeavor. In this sense, we're here, together, attempting to understand one another. We're just walking.

Art as a way of Knowing

This weekend I attended the Friday morning session of a 2 day conference in San Francisco called "Art as a Way of Knowing." This conference brought together a very interdisciplinary crowd of artists, designers, museum curators, theorists of various kinds, popular writers, and more. The general theme, precisely formulated by the title, was the idea that the principles that inform art and design can be adopted by the sciences to present science to the public in an engaging manner. This topic is of special interest to science museum curators, and was fittingly sponsored by the Exploratorium in San Francisco. The discussions ranged from the very pragmatic--how should artistic folks engage the NSF through grant writing projects?--to the theoretical--how can the art experience be an experience of knowing? While both topics are interesting, I was particularly drawn to the latter. I attended primarily in order to listen to two talks: one by my professor Simon Penny (to whom I owe the privilege of being allowed to attend), and the other by philosopher Alva Noe, of UC Berkley, who is well known in the areas that I focus on--phenomenology, perception, consciousness, etc.

I will focus on Alva Noe's talk, which was very stimulating and prompted me to reply to him at length. I found his thesis ambitious and engaging, and his response was respectful and enthusiastic. This was a great experience of philosophizing.

Noe claimed that the essential features of art are the essential features of philosophy. They are:
1. Art has no subject matter.
2. Art is process, not results.
3. Art is fundamentally problematic.
Of course, these all require expansion. I will proceed by explaining how these features are supposed to be shared by art and philosophy in order to further elucidate their general meaning. As for (1), art and philosophy can, in principle, be about anything and everything. Anything that could be the possible object of human cognition could be the subject matter for art or philosophy. (2) means that "art" is not "art objects," but rather the process of making art. Similarly, "philosophy" is not a bunch of books, but rather the process of philosophizing. (3), I think, is a safe assumption. Both artists and philosophers are constantly justifying their existence. Art and philosophy are both "inessential" in the purely survival-oriented practically minded sense in which that term is used, and thus have to perennially explain themselves.

I objected to Noe, slightly on principle and slightly in order to play devil's advocate. I thought, shouldn't we say that philosophy is more like science than art? Both scientists and philosophers attempt to draw general conclusions. Both seek out formal features of phenomena that could, in principle, apply to an indefinite number of particular instances in space and time. Both are interested in ideal objects of thought. Both overlook, quite eagerly you might say, the concrete particular uniqueness that reveals a given phenomenon as a mere approximation of an abstract property or law.

The artist, on the other hand, is precisely concerned with the concrete, material, particular phenomenon. The artist is concerned with this piece of clay or this canvas. The artist certainly cares about process, but is also oriented towards a result. The artist's activity is aimed at some work's getting done.

Now, we might better understand Noe's claim by considering the experience of art rather than the artist and his productions themselves. In viewing the work of art, the theorist or critic attempts to pick out properties or features that make the work meaningful. The viewer seeks to come to some sort of understanding of the work. Even if the work "resists understanding," this is a sort of way of assigning it signficance--of getting it. Thus, as it turns out, the experience of art is akin to philosophizing, insofar as one seeks to understand a concrete particular by connecting it to other experiences one has had, or could have. In this way, the experience of art--the attempt to understand the work of art--is a way of knowing not unlike philosophy. But does this modify Noe's thesis? Can we correctly say that the philosopher is a kind of artist, or the artist a kind of philosopher? I don't think we can.


What Pauses my Gaze? (part 1)

An artist friend has posed an important question:
As a figurative painter I wonder, what is interesting and important in art to my friends and fellows. What images and artists pause your gaze?
I want to give a two-part reply to this question, but will limit this post to the first part. I will consider the paintings of Francis Bacon, who has certainly made me pause my gaze on numerous occasions. In a separate post, I will consider some alternative principles for considering this question that are taking root in a sub-community of artists and designers who concern themselves with the notion of "embodiment."

First of all, let me be clear: I do not particularly like or enjoy Bacon's paintings (I mainly refer to his portraits--he was primarily a portrait artist). I do, however, find them fascinating. They stop me in my tracks. What causes this? Dfynt's description of himself as a "figurative painter" made me think of Bacon and his paintings' affect on me. The great 20th century philosopher Gilles Deleuze wrote a book analyzing Bacon's paintings called The Logic of Sensation (TLoS).

In that book, Deleuze draws an important contrast between the figurative and the figural. The figurative is the “illustrative, and narrative” character of representation (TLoS 6). For Kant, a representation is something before the mind that we synthesize in order to connect it to the rest of our experiences. This definition of representation fits Deleuze as well: “The figurative (representation) implies the relationship of an image to an object that it is supposed to illustrate" (TLoS). Within the order of representational thinking, or as Deleuze will now call it, figurative thinking, “a story always slips into, or tends to slip into, the space between two figures in order to animate the illustrated whole” (TLoS 6).

Opposed to the figurative is the Figural. The figurative is characterized by intelligible relations, whereas the Figural presents us with ‘matters of fact’. For Deleuze, a fact “acts immediately upon the nervous system, which is of the flesh, whereas abstract form is addressed to the head and acts through the intermediary of the brain” (TLoS 31). The figurative is defined by intelligible relations (of objects or ideas—connectedness), whereas “the relation of the Figure to its isolating place defines a ‘fact’” (TLoS 6-7). Thus, in order to move away from figuration, away from the intelligible-relational order of representation, toward the Figure, Bacon uses the method of isolation in his paintings.

Deleuze thinks that painting has two options for escaping the overly cerebral/cognitive realm of figurative representation: it can move "toward pure form, through abstraction; or toward the purely figural, through extraction or isolation” (TLoS 6). Painters such as Mondrian and Kandinsky use abstraction,

whereas Bacon (along with Cézanne) makes figural attempts to paint pure sensations. Bacon’s method of isolation employs “asignifying traits that are devoid of any illustrative or narrative function” such as involuntary free marks, isolated scrubbing with a rag or brush, and large monochromatic fields (TLoS 8).

Bacon's paintings enact an epic struggle between the figurative and the figural, and this, I feel, grabs my attention. The tension of this struggle emanates from the canvas, particularly localized in the faces of Bacon's subjects. The face is a great cliche in figurative painting, portraiture specifically. The face is an organizing structure. A face tells us something about the person to whom it belongs. This is our typical way of looking at faces. In fact, it is so ingrained that we are accustomed to equating faces with thoughts and emotions. They are a window into private mental life. We see the anger on the face of the other. We see the joy in his smile.

But in the work of Bacon, all of this is shat upon. The tension I mentioned above, created by Bacon's use of isolating and deforming techniques, is best seen in the faces of Bacon's paintings. In these faces, the typically figurative manner of representation is locked in tension with Bacon's attempt to paint figurally rather than figuratively. Rather than painting faces, Bacon paints heads. He attempts to dismantle the face, rendering visible forces that deform the face as the head beneath it attempts to emerge. Bacon’s adamantly insisted on painting “the scream more than the horror” (TLoS 34). He wanted to paint the sensation of the scream devoid of the figurative narration that connects it to a cause, to a reason for its existence. This is the meaning of ‘painting’ for Deleuze, as opposed to mere ‘illustration’.

The key to Bacon’s faces, for Deleuze, is the tension that he maintains between the isolating, deformative, dissipative movements of the figural and the illustrative, narrative, representational movements of the figurative. Bacon’s faces are not symmetrical. They appear as faces, yet geometric forms invade from the materiality that is presented along side them. Noses curve up and out. Eye sockets are split apart, or completely absent. Mouths occur where they should not. Animal traits invade the comfortable regularity of the facial schema. One is uncertain about these faces, but they nevertheless ‘appear facially’.

So as I said, I do not enjoy the work of Francis Bacon; but I am able to recognize its significance, as it makes me pause my gaze in a much more profound way than many of the things I actually do enjoy. To answer the initial question in the most general terms possible: tension causing discomfort is interesting and important; it pauses my gaze. This, however, is only one possible answer to this wonderful question.


The New Philosophy of Mind

Despite the popularity of criticizing Descartes’ understanding of the mind, philosophers and theorists remain in the shadow of Descartes. This is evident from the fact that endorsing a theory of mind largely means congratulating its author for being “thoroughly anti-Cartesian,” while criticism typically amounts to a theory’s remaining “too Cartesian.” Amidst the contemporary rush to de-center the mind and overthrow the Cartesian paradigm, two distinct trajectories emerge: the body and the environment. These days, there is nothing particularly radical to the assertion that the mind is thoroughly embodied. This is accepted as fact, with debates focusing on the conceptual particularities and the empirical substantiations. Slightly more radical is the idea of “the extended mind”—succinctly articulated by Andy Clark and David Chalmers in their 1998 paper by the same name—which de-centers the mind not only from the skull, but from the entire organism. Key to both trajectories are analyses of the complex set of causal relations that constitute cognition. In these analyses, something counts as a component of cognition if it plays a significant role in the causal network that enables a certain cognitive task. Debates in this field have largely focused on how significant a certain feature of the body or the environment must be in order to be counted among the causal components of cognition. For instance, the presence of oxygen is obviously an enabling condition for cognition, insofar as an organism requires it to be alive. For Clark and Chalmers, however, oxygen is not sufficiently proximal to the cognitive functions in question to actually be counted as a component of mind. Were we to extend the criterion of causal proximity too far, we would end up with a rather trivial insight, as all of the basic laws of nature would be included in cognition.

How then, are we to determine a criterion of causal proximity for determining whether a feature of the body or environment is to count as a component of cognition? This question exposes the shaky ground that theories of embodied and extended mind stand on. Malcolm MacIver, who argues that the unique structure of bat ears is responsible for a kind of non-neural cognition, falls prey to the same (ultimately Cartesian) presupposition as Clark and Chalmers when he reasons that “although we may not have a clear definition of cognition, we have some intuition about when we are closer to it or further away from it.” Indeed, we do have “some intuition” about proximity, but it is more likely than not based upon a Cartesian presupposition about what counts as cognition in the first place. I propose that we build on Descartes' insights rather than seek to demolish them. More specifically, I wish to focus on Descartes' conclusions concerning the consciousness that characterizes our cognitive states. Strictly defining cognition in functional terms (as contemporary rhetorics of embodiment and environmental embeddedness typically do) leaves out an essential property of mind--its irreducible qualitative and subjective character. The phenomenological tradition, especially Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, have never lost sight of this essential feature of mind, and thus provides a logical starting point for the reorientation that I am calling for. This is not to totally discount the value of functional analyses of cognition. To deny functionalism is not to deny function (as David Woodruff Smith often reminds us). However, if we wish to have an adequate understanding of cognition, we must account for its embodiment and environmental embeddedness without losing sight of what it is like to think--i.e., we must do the phenomenology of embodiment and the phenomenology of being-in-the-world. Only in this way can we gain a clearer understanding of our intuitions regarding what cognition is, thus putting us in a position to evaluate precisely how Cartesian we ought to be.


On Planning for the Future (part 2)

In my previous post I discussed the essential difference between retention and protention, with the intention to extend this analysis to the difference between recollection and thinking about the future (I have alternatively referred to thinking about the future as 'planning', which may be too narrow a term. From here, I will try to consistently use 'thinking about the future' or 'futural thinking'.)

Retention and protention are the bookends of what I call the micro-structure of time-consciousness. Recollection and planning are parts of the macro-structure of time-consciousness, which is more complex. The macro-structure of time-consciousness is accomplished through our "narrativizing faculty." That is, the narratives one constructs about her past and potential future constitute her autobiographical sense of self. Recollection and planning both participate in the phenomenological form of this narrativizing activity. Thus, when we think about the future, we are essentially "recalling memories" that we do not have (but wish to have; fear having; etc.)

As I said in my previous post, an essential difference between retention and protention can be cashed out in terms of their differing levels of determinateness of the content and context. Whereas retention has a determinate content and context, protention has a more or less determinate context but a necessarily unfulfilled content. However, this "essential difference" does not exhaust the difference between retention and protention. Protention, with its unfulfilled character, is affective. That is, the content of protentions is made determinate through the unfolding of time in a uni-directional manner. The phenomenal character of this "filling-in" is thus affective in the sense that we experience it as happening to us. Thus, protentional contents have a certain valence, or power to affect us, to varying degrees.

The reason we must be cautious with our thinking of the future is precisely because the emotional/valence aspect of protention is narratively affective on the level of maco-temporal consciousness. We view, and thus (e)value(ate) ourselves in light of our pasts and in anticipation of some future. The past is determinate but the possibility of the future is delimited by the context provided it by our past. Thus, it makes sense to say that we think of our future--through planning, hoping, fearing, desiring--in a formally similar way as we think of our past.

We are greatly affected by what we perceive to be our potential futures. The power of this affect only makes one more prone to self-fulfill the 'motivated' and thus delimited possible path through life. The more one becomes attuned to the infinity of logical possibility, one is able to become infinitely more hopeful; but also potentially infinitely more wrought with despair.

There is a danger here, however. While it makes psychological sense to assert that our fantasized futures are constrained by, even dependent upon, our past experiences; this runs the risk of forgetting or covering over the logical truth by virtue of which our futures are generally much more open and indeterminate than we typically imagine them to be. Our everyday understanding of what "could" happen is really just a misunderstanding of what will "probably" happen.

Notice that this forgetting is not necessarily good or bad for any particular group. Some individuals probably conceive of their futures in much too positive a light, while others are generally much too negative. Those unfailing optimists should recognize that a vast horizon of misfortune potentially awaits them, while those miserable misanthropes need to learn to see the light a bit more.

Our consciousness of the future generally conforms to how the future unfolds. This is more true for protention than it is for macro-level anticipation/planning. The further off into the futural horizon one abstracts, the broader the transverse horizon of meaningful possibility expands. As a subject approaches a fixed point in the future, the phenomenological horizon of possibility contracts, while the logical horizon does not. While it would be absurd to always pay heed to the logical horizon of possibility, it is wise to pay more attention to it more often than not. It is a humbling viewpoint which makes one cautious with words, thoughts, and deeds.


On Planning for the Future (part 1)

While watching a fascinating TED talk last night on the difference between the "experiencing self" and the "remembering self", I was struck by the connection I could draw to some recent reading I've been doing on time-consciousness. I'm almost done Evan Thompson's Mind in Life, which is an ambitious work on phenomenology, cognitive science, and the philosophy of biology. Thompson covers everything from cellular biology to Husserlian analyses of empathy, enculturation, visual perception, and, as I will discuss here today, time-consciousness. The line from the TED talk (btw, check out the compendious collection of TED talks, they are great!) that really struck me was along the lines of: "When we think about our future, we think about memories we anticipate having." This means that one's form of thinking about the future shares in (some, if not all of) the essential features of recollection. As someone who has thought time-consciousness and the phenomenal character of recollection before, this really got me thinking. I will proceed with two posts: this one will cover some of the "nuts and bolts" of Husserl's analysis of time-consciousness; the next one will be more speculative and probably conclude with some sentences using the word "ought".

The analysis of time-consciousness occupies one of the most important places in phenomenology. The syntheses that constitute both the objects of experience, and the experiences themselves, are temporal syntheses. Husserl shed a great deal of ink analyzing both types of constitution; the former are constituted in "objective time" while the latter are constituted in "immanent time." Both levels of temporality are constituted by an underlying, bedrock "absolute flow," which is essentially forward moving, unfolding in a three-part structure. "Primal impressions" are the absolute now-point of consciousness--the "knife-edge" of the specious present. Primal impressions make no reference to what-has-just-passed or what-is-about-to-come. But we don't experience the present as a series of "knife-edge" moments. We experience the present as a "duration block" (William James). That is, while time flows along, our experience of it is "chunky." The present chunk of temporal experience is constituted by the primal impression and its relation to what has just passed but remains in consciousness--retentions. When one hears a melody, her experience of the presently sounding note is affected by the note that has just sounded. Similarly, one's experience of the present note is conditioned by her anticipation of what is imminently to follow--protention. Thus, the threefold structure retention-primal impression-protention is a formal invariant structure of our experience of time.

In a chapter titled "Primordial Dynamism" in his Mind in Life, Evan Thompson considers protention's essential difference from retention:
"In thinking about time-consciousness, it is easy to assume that protention is simply the reverse or inverse of retention and thus that the threefold structure of temporality is symmetrical. But this can be the case for several reasons" (360).
The principle difference between retention and protention can be articulated in terms of the determinateness of the content of these respective time-phases. The retentional character of temporal experience takes the form of "what's-having-just-been." If one were to cash out a retention in propositional form, both the context (conditions necessary for determining the meaning of a proposition) and content (immanent meaningful object of experience) would be determinate. That is, what's-having-just-been is not subject to change. It is contingent in the sense that things could have gone otherwise, but it is necessary in that the past is fixed. The protentional aspect of experience, on the other hand, takes the form of "what-has-yet-to-come." If one were to spell out a protention in propositional form, the context would be more or less determinate, but the content remains necessarily unfulfilled. Here, I say the context is more or less determinate in that when we are experiencing the specious present, background conditions such as physical location, surrounding objects, natural laws, etc, are operant such that any change in them would result in massive shock to one's temporal consciousness. The content of the what-has-yet-to-come remains necessarily unfulfilled in that there is an openness to a horizon of possibility underlying the forward flow of time. Thus, while we may have a very good sense of what is about to happen, we can never be sure.

Here's an example to clarify some things:
As I sit here at my desk typing away, the background conditions defining the context of my experience are "sedimented" as they define my experience with great regularity. I do not find myself instantly teleported to another location. The furniture in the room does not start floating. Nothing dissipates into thin air, etc. Were anything like this to happen, it would cause massive shock to my temporal consciousness. I.e. "what the hell!!!" Whereas, let's say all of a sudden I see a spider crawling up the wall next to me. I was not expecting this, but it does not come as a shock, only a mild surprise at best. The difference between the two scenarios (the first being "shocking" and the second being "unexpected") is that the first involves an alteration to the context of the proposition that would be used to articulate the meaning of a protention, whereas the latter involves a uniform context inherited from my retentions while the content is filled in with something I didn't expect (the spider).

In my next post, I will consider whether the necessity of unfulfilled content characterizing protention fully exhausts the phenomenological difference between protention and retention. I will argue (following Thompson) that protention is a necessarily affective experience, thus involving emotion and valence. I will go on to consider the implications of this analysis for the difference between recollection and fantasizing about the future, and if this tells us anything about how we ought to think about our futures.