Books new materialism

carving cognition at its joints

I’ve started reading Katherine Hayles’ Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious. I have to say that I recognize (and am sympathetic toward) the difficult gyrations this topic demands in the humanities as one is called upon the establish various boundaries. In the first chapter, she creates a three-step pyramid comprised by (from top to bottom) conscious/unconscious (that’s one), nonconscious cognition, and material processes. In the prologue, she makes certain to differentiate herself from those who might argue for vitalism or panpsychism:

One contribution of this study is to propose a definition for cognition that applies to technical systems as well as biological life-forms. At the same time, the definition also excludes material processes such as tsunamis, glaciers, sandstorms, etc. The distinguishing characteristics, as explained in chapter 1, center on interpretation and choice—cognitive activities that both biological life-forms and technical systems enact, but material processes do not. A tsunami, for example, cannot choose to crash against a cliff rather than a crowded beach. (3)

She then goes on to differentiate herself from those who argue over the human/nonhuman binary and observes that “It is fashionable nowadays to talk about a human/nonhuman binary, often in discourses that want to emphasize the agency and importance of nonhuman species and material forces” but that “there is something weird about this binary.” Instead she prefers “cognizers versus noncognizers. On one side are humans and all other biological life forms, as well as many technical systems; on the other, material processes and inanimate objects” (30). For Hayles, this difference ultimately boils down to choice: cognizers have one, and noncognizers don’t. All of this work then seems oddly deflated when she then writes “The better formulation, in my view, is not a binary at all but interpenetration, continual and pervasive interactions that flow through, within, and beyond the humans, nonhumans, cognizers, noncognizers, and material processes that make up our world” (32-33). Still there is this matter of “choice” to deal with, which Hayles defines as an ability to interpret information rather than as “free will.” For example, an autonomous automobile interprets information and makes decisions about how to drive. This makes the car a cognizer, unlike the tsunami.

ahhhh, decisions, decisions.

I’m going to have to see how this all plays out in Unthought, but for now I’m guessing that Hayles would agree with the following. First, that cognizers arise from material processes/noncognizers… i.e., that we are not ontologically separate even though we have different capacities. Second that whatever loose bonds tie together a human, a worm, and an autonomous drone as cognizers, the material processes and cognitive capacities associated with each have little, if anything, to do with one another. That is, until they encounter one another: when the drone sets its sights on the human or when the human figures out the worm is good for his/her garden soil, then there are obvious associations.

My inclination is more toward the “continual and pervasive interactions” approach. I don’t think there is a class of cognizing objects (human, biological, and/or technological) that is distinct (except in an abstract/conceptual way) from a class of noncognizing objects. E.g., if we say a drone is a cognizer, then what about when it’s turned off? Is an unconscious human a cognizer? I certainly agree that a tsunami does not exhibit the kinds of cognitive capacities we observe in worms or iphones. That said, I’m not too concerned with establishing an absolute, ontological boundary between that which cognizes and that which does not. Instead, in conceiving of cognition as a capacity I mean to suggest that thinking arises in an encounter among objects. As Delanda points out, a knife has a capacity to cut but that capacity might never be realized unless it encounters another object that can be cut by the knife and third capable of wielding it. From a broad perspective, capacities for thought arise from encounters within material processes. Among biological objects those are evolutionary processes, or at least they start as evolutionary processes. Later they become social and technological processes. Of course Hayles is coming from the other direction, imagining an audience that will object to her expansion of cognition rather than one that will question its limits.

I should note, as an aside, that I find Hayles’ chapter on new materialism somewhat mystifying, except as a somewhat typical example of straw man argumentation at work. First new materialism is so broad and discontinuous that the notion that one can make sweeping claims about it is just irresponsible. Second, making claims about Deleuzian scholarship is probably even worse on the same grounds. One can have a conversation (not here) about whether Hayles’ particular critiques of the particular texts she chooses to treat are valid. My concern here is with the broader claims. For example, she writes, “Despite their considerable promises, the new materialisms also have significant limitations. Conspicuously absent from their considerations are consciousness and cognition, presumably because of the concern that if they were introduced, it would be all too easy to slip into received ideas and lose the radical edge that the focus on materiality provides” (65-66).  This is a claim that is fairly central for the argument she wishes to make about new materialism and the (corrective) relationship of her work to it. From my perspective the assertion that consciousness and cognition are “conspicuously absent” from new materialism is just plain wrong. I mean, if you want to disagree with the treatment of these topics that’s one thing, but saying it doesn’t exist just strikes me as oddly (suspiciously, cagily) ill-informed for someone like Hayles.

But I want to get back to her connection of cognition with interpretation and choice. It is an admittedly low bar in terms of choice. E.g., the autonomous car “chooses” the safest, most efficient route to its destination. It’s not an expression of will or freedom. If there were different inputs, they would result in different interpretations, which would lead to different choices. It’s difficult to narrate human choices any differently. Conventionally, we call a choice any conscious cognitive experience in which we feel/believe we have options to choose among. In my view, choices emerge from relatively indeterminate encounters. As we know from experience, rhetorical situations are a common example for humans. Should we speak or not? What should we say? Often there are many different ways one might say roughly the same thing, and it can be hard to know how an audience will react to a rhetorical act. However, I would say that the capacity for thinking and choosing emerges in this rhetorical situation. Part of it has to do with the specific objects. Not every object can read Hayles’ book. If it wasn’t in English, then I couldn’t read it. Not every English literate person has the disciplinary background to read this book. Not every disciplinary reader has the capacity to blog about. Not every reader who might have sufficient access to and ability with technology to be able to blog has a long-standing blogging practice that would make writing a post about reading Hayles’ book a likely option. Still in that context, I might have decided not to write a blog post (or write it and not publish it), and I could have written something different. In fact I did write some other things that I later deleted; that’s part of the process.

But to what extent are those choices coming from me? I won’t deny the experience of making choices. Of deciding right now that this post is really too long already, but that I still need to wrap it up. I guess what it comes down to is that I am very intrigued by Hayles’ concept of nonconscious cognition, but I find the way she sets it up to be very odd.



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