‘Crash Space’, by R.S. Bakker (pdf)



Reverse engineering brains is a prelude to engineering brains, plain and simple. Since we are our brains, and since we all want to be better than what we are, a great many of us celebrate the eventuality. The problem is that we happen to be a certain biological solution to an indeterminate range of ancestral environments, an adventitious bundle of fixes to the kinds of problems that selected our forebears. This means that we are designed to take as much of our environment for granted as possible—to neglect. This means that human cognition, like animal cognition more generally, is profoundly ecological. And this suggests that the efficacy of human cognition depends on its environments.

We neglect all those things our ancestors had no need to know on the road to becoming us. So for instance, we’re blind to our brains as brains simply because our ancestors had no need to know their brains for what they were in the process of becoming us. This is why our means of solving ourselves and others almost certainly consists of ‘fast and frugal heuristics,’ ways to generate solutions to complicated problems absent knowledge of the systems involved. So long as the cues exploited remain reliably linked to the systems solving and the systems to be solved, we can reliably predict, explain, and manipulate one another absent any knowledge of brain or brain function.

Herein lies the ecological rub. The reliability of our heuristic cues utterly depends on the stability of the systems involved. Anyone who has witnessed psychotic episodes has firsthand experience of consequences of finding themselves with no reliable connection to the hidden systems involved. Any time our heuristic systems are miscued, we very quickly find ourselves in ‘crash space,’ a problem solving domain where our tools seem to fit the description, but cannot seem to get the job done.

And now we’re set to begin engineering our brains in earnest. Engineering environments has the effect of transforming the ancestral context of our cognitive capacities, changing the structure of the problems to be solved such that we gradually accumulate local crash spaces, domains where our intuitions have become maladaptive. Everything from irrational fears to the ‘modern malaise’ comes to mind here. Engineering ourselves, on the other hand, has the effect of transforming our relationship to all contexts, in ways large or small, simultaneously. It very well could be the case that something as apparently innocuous as the mass ability to wipe painful memories will precipitate our destruction. Who knows? The only thing we can say in advance is that it will be globally disruptive somehow, as will every other ‘improvement’ that finds its way to market.

Human cognition is about to be tested by an unparalleled age of ‘habitat destruction.’ The more we change ourselves, the more we change the nature of the job, the less reliable our ancestral tools become, the deeper we wade into crash space.


[also see here]

33 responses to “‘Crash Space’, by R.S. Bakker (pdf)

      • That is an interesting reply. Would you say that a crash space is exceptional? I mean as informing as a space of reference against some different space that it is not, in the sense that it is ‘conceptually avaliable’ to inform solutions?

    • Yes, it is exceptional. It is a major disruption in the ability of pre-crash (pre-nihilist) cognitive styles for coping. Humans traditionally (broadly speaking) tend to cope by fashioning relatively coherent narratives for navigation. With crash space that is untenable, to say the least. Coherence must take a backseat to open-ended inquiry buttressed to deeply pragmatic (bio-social) concerns for living – a deflation of the ideological drama of certainty with an intensification of more flexible cognitive operations.

      What is available, then, are new ways to conceive and engage problem sets that might lead to innovative solutions.

      • ” Humans traditionally (broadly speaking) tend to cope by fashioning relatively coherent narratives for navigation.” not so much really, ask yourself how such a narrative could actually function as a how-to manual/flow-chart etc.
        enactivism, JJGibsonian psychology, extended-minding etc get us beyond sorts of cog-behavioral models into actually ecological (think umwelten not greenpeace) modes/models.
        reminds me I have to listen to https://soundcloud.com/edgefoundationinc/dan-sperber

      • Does “narrative” imply the ability to frame one’s navigational tactics verbally? Our daughter works in a multidisciplinary AI lab at Duke. They’re getting ready to do some empirical research on economic game theory, looking at the ways in which rational decision-making is related to social interaction, moral judgment, visual perceptions of the other player, etc. In one of the classic games, Player 1 can give some or all or none of their “money” to Player 2, who has none to begin with. The amount Player 2 receives from Player 1 is tripled. Player 2 can then give some or none or all of their money back to Player 1. After one iteration of the game, Player 1 is asked to make morality judgments about Player 2.

        There is a naturally occurring interval midway through the game, after Player 1 has given some amount of money to Player 2 but before Player 2 has returned some amount. During this interval the philosopher and the two economists involved in this study want to ask Player 1 about their expectations: how much do you think Player 2 will give you in return? if you had given other varying amounts to Player 2, how much do you think Player 2 would have given you in return? It is presumed that moral judgments reflect violated expectations, which is fair enough. But, the psychologists on the team ask, which comes first in Player 1’s thought process: the expectations or the violation? Might explicitly asking Player 1 to state their expectations unconsciously “prime” Player 1 toward rational conscious self-reflexivity, which in turn would affect their moral judgments? The philosopher and the economists believe that Player 1 will already be running these what-if hypotheticals in their heads, so asking explicitly about them won’t influence their judgments. The psychologists propose at least one alternative: Player 1 hands out money in accord with tacit assumptions; Player 2’s actual reciprocal behavior triggers an affective response in Player 1; the affect in turn prompts Player 1 to think consciously about expectations and their violation.

        From an empirical standpoint the good thing about this disagreement is that it brings to the forefront what had been a tacit difference in hypothetical models between researchers. The disagreement also suggests an empirical method for testing the assumptions: either conduct two studies, or randomly assign half of the participants to the “ask about expectations” group while the other half are in the “don’t ask” group. Then see whether subsequent moral judgments after Player 2’s action is revealed vary statistically based on the ask/don’t ask manipulation.

      • Dirk, take the case of giving someone verbal instructions on how to find the bakery downtown. The ‘how to’ story is a narrative that helps a person wayfind. Likewise with stories about what it means to be a good person, or what one should do in general circumstances, or how the world began, etc. Narratives are real. That you even dispute the influence of stories (informational loaded schema, or codes) continues to baffle me. It’s like you completely reject the existence of symbols and information.

        Take for instance the story you have have memorized, adopted, and continuously exercise about enactivism, Gibsonian psychology, extended mind talk, etc. Its a great story. The information it marshals for triggering our CNS is useful. It’s a narrative that I enjoy and use often. It is cognitively satisfying for us both. That story instantiates particular algorithmic patterns in our brains – which I call cognitive “frames”. Your “frame” of reference guides your response to the information I post, as well as how you communicate and feel relationally.

        Narratives, metaphors, schema – whatever you want want to call the informational complexes that exist out in the world (i.e, laws, policy, religious texts, poems) – both effect and affect our cognitive actions. The different structures of memory are what allow us to enact particular relations between biological bodies and material-symbolic informational complexes/codes/algorithms. We come to instantiate/embody our relations with such information – with narratives, stories, laws, images, instructions, etc. – and draw upon them as resources for coping.

        I suggest reading Mark Johnson and cognitive scientist George Lakoff’s influential book Metaphors We Live By:

        “Metaphor, the authors explain, is a fundamental mechanism of mind, one that allows us to use what we know about our physical and social experience to provide understanding of countless other subjects. Because such metaphors structure our most basic understandings of our experience, they are “metaphors we live by”—metaphors that can shape our perceptions and actions without our ever noticing them.”

        Unless you can provide an alternative explanation (yet another type of narrative) for the existence and effects of things like books and mythologies on behavior then aren’t you really just being a contrarian?

        The anthropological literature on how humans live with stories and narratives is vast.

      • Hey John,

        That’s fascinating work. My initial reaction is that asking will influence greatly, as a kind of priming effect where attention is shifted to whatever the player implicitly associates with “moral” issues. Cognitive priming is a real complex issue.

        You ask, “Does ‘narrative’ imply the ability to frame one’s navigational tactics verbally?”

        Kinda. I think the way we biologically code ourselves in relation to narratives via memory and recall affords opportunities for recombinatorial creativity. We can sub/consciously reorient our interests through recursive “metacognitive” processes viz. verbalization and projective imagery, which feeds back on our incessant cognitive framing (mapping) and reframing of ourselves and our taskscapes.

        In less technical terms, narrative allows us to reflect and tinker with our own semantic codes. The advent of longer form narrative (story-telling) afforded by increases in memory capacity is what allowed humans to create “culture”, and with that new forms of cognitive orientation and social practices, as well as long-term planning.

      • “[L]anguage itself, a viral system of signs that can invade the body with little or no awareness.” (S.C Hickman)

        “My basic theory is that the written word was actually a virus that made the spoken word possible. The word has not been recognized as a virus because it has achieved a state of stable symbiosis with the host, though this symbiotic relationship is now breaking down, for reasons I will suggest later.” (William Burroughs)

  1. I agree, Michael. In humans there’s probably iterative feedback between habitual behavior patterns and verbal narrative descriptions of those patterns. Rehearsing the self-narrative could serve to solidify and reify the habitual performance. Conversely, narrating one’s habitual behavior pattern in terms of a sequence of discrete steps also “affords opportunities for recombinatorial creativity” by systematically and incrementally altering the steps in the routine. As you say, the ability to frame events narratively is part of the human biological apparatus, built up evolutionarily from preverbal precursors. It’s a plasticity device, integral to the niche breadth of the species, enabling humans to adapt to “crash spaces” that weren’t part of the evolutionary ecology. Not to suggest that human plasticity is limitless, or that it can’t be augmented biochemically…

    • Exactly that John. I could not agree more. We are sentient meat-machines with an evolved, kludged, and glitchy heuristic capacity for tinkering on our own codes. Yay for recursion and iteration! Boo for the mystifying effects of surplus meaning/ideology.

    • hey JD yer pointing to something close to John Dewey (and in some sense Heidegger on tools)worked out that when our habits don’t work (we can’t grasp things as M-Ponty says) or when we make things problematic by doing new or more complex things we may start to think it thru in a more conceptual/language-using mode but that isn’t our usual approach and not what we do as ‘experts’ (not failures) in various activities, see the Sperber above around 25mins in where he takes on Dawkins/memes (or in this syn-zed context Burroughs or Morton) and or this bit of Bert:

    • But to the degree that narratives presuppose human action, which is to say, the dispensations of intentional cognition, information/attenuation that jams the function of intentional cognition will jam narrative as well. ‘Crash spaces’ cannot be papered over: the futility of thousands of years of intentional philosophy examples that! On my account, the masses will turn away from ‘coping narratives’ altogether, and embrace ‘escape narratives’ instead. (Geek culture, for me, is symptomatic of this process). Creativity is likely the enemy, here: Every prosthesis we erect to cope with the growing unreliability of intentional cognition will probably just accelerate the collapse of that reliability.

      • Hey Scott,

        You write: information/attenuation that jams the function of intentional cognition will jam narrative as well. ‘Crash spaces’ cannot be papered over: the futility of thousands of years of intentional philosophy examples that!

        That’s the thing, does it actually “jam” intentional cognition – seeing as intentional cognition as ongoing semantic patching is so adept at “papering over” crises? This is how fundamentalisms flare up to meet specific kinds of socioecological glitches. Crash space opens the door for intentional cognition to double down and create hybrid dogmas of, say, neuromancers or some mutant commitment clusters.

        The only way to short circuit the will to intentionality is something along the lines of what I propose about ‘axiomatic negation’ (radically negative culpability) supplemented with both some sort of post-nihilist schemas as well as alliances with A.Is and trans-humanist tech mesh like those your story indexes.

        The game is not to “paper over” the consequences of crash space but to accommodate it for new modes of existing.

        You write: On my account, the masses will turn away from ‘coping narratives’ altogether, and embrace ‘escape narratives’ instead. (Geek culture, for me, is symptomatic of this process).

        Escape narratives and routines are still a form of coping. Possibly a maladaptive form, depending on the nature of the crisis situation one must adapt to, but still a very human response to other human and nonhuman potencies.

        We are coping-beings through and through. Whether our narratives explicitly address it or not makes little difference to the base realities of having to breath, eat, shit, and fuck, and do so as embodied and extended cognitive wayfinders.

        What seems clear, however, is that the old proscriptions are obsolete in crash space. We need designs for post-intentional functioning that buttress, bootstrap and/or augment our cognitive heuristics in ways that enact better life conditions. This is largely an infrastructural dilemma: again, in terms of how we might better niche-construct for assembling and installing networks for survival, sustainability, and flourishing.

        The narratives matter very little outside actually enacting of complex ecologies (praxis) of survival and health that attenuate our cognitive deficiencies while activating new capacities within (augmentation) and without (supplementation) .

        You write: “Creativity is likely the enemy, here: Every prosthesis we erect to cope with the growing unreliability of intentional cognition will probably just accelerate the collapse of that reliability.”

        I mostly agree. That’s why a post-intentional/post-nihilist approach to delimitation, shifting registers and references, and creating new tools is necessary. The point being is that we don’t need intentional cognition to be reliable to hyperstitionally design new nodes in a network that creates the background conditions for sustainable existential adventure.

        We can ‘use our illusions’ to carve out more adaptive niches in alliance with the coming A.I. We have been doing just that since at least homo erectus. We have gone from hunter-gathering nomads to space-travelling cyborgs with our limited and glitchy intentional cognitions.

        That is if we desire continue as a species and not hand over our trajectories to some ‘alien’ non/posthuman intelligent systems.

        What you wrote elsewhere is the real crux: the kind conceptual innovation we really do require, which is to say, the creation of a novel post-intentional way to model our experience, behaviour, and sociality. What we want is an understanding that will not become irrelevant when we do.

        I agree; but I also think models and concepts will change, and we will always be racing to create some semblance of coherence for coordinating our actions. I think its more important to continually tinker on and update our tool-kits – our tech, the infrastructure, and our social practices than anything going on primarily at the level of intentional cognition.

        First step: negative dialectics? Next step: imaginative innovation? Then: coordination of general interests with ecological possibilities opened by such technic and imaginative innovation?

      • Michael: Well, let’s look at the short story, which takes the crash space of autonomy as its topic: How does narrative resolve the incompatibility between technical knowledge/mastery over ourselves and our intuitions of autonomy?

        Crash spaces are *biological*, what happens when our problem ecologies no longer serve the heuristic systems cued to find them. They are facts of our cognitive relation to our environments that obtain no matter what narrative we happen to take as our catechism.

        You speak of them as if they were mere semantic artifacts possessing semantic solutions, when they are the unravelling of the semantic. This is precisely why escape into in fantasy narratives amounts to a deepening of the dysfunction. If everything counts as ‘coping’ for you (because everything, even suicide, can be interpreted as such) then it’s a profoundly dysfunctional ‘coping,’ one bent on destroying our civilizations ability to maintain collective values.

      • I like where you are going with this. First, narrative does not resolve nor remediate those types of questions. That is what I’m attempting to covey. Narrative and intentional cognition cannot solve certain kinds of “philosophical” lines of problems because, as you point out, they were never evolved to do so – so let’s stop asking them to do that..

        Intentional cognition and narratives are based in broad communicative coping-mechanisms (heuristics). They allow us to do things – to use our illusions and biases and neglect – to more or less successfully achieve goals and coordinate behaviors not fashion some definitive code that unlocks the figurative door to all problem sets. It all cognitive simulacra: an irreducible glitch of aberrant sapience generated by meat-machines. And it is with which (and in awkward dint of) we try to organize our lives (existenz), for better or worse.

        Again, as I have hinted before, the incompatibility of technic acceleration and our current intuitions and narratives of autonomy isn’t something merely to be solved, outside the basic requirements of self-esteem and coordination of behaviors, but rather opens up as zones of proximal contention where voluntary and involuntary changes in the conditions for human existence will be negotiated, controlled and sorted via a) socioeconomic status (“access” to resources), and b) the distribution of random effects. We need better ways (praxis) of knowing and relating not more ingenious ways of talking about (theoria) knowing and relating. What I’m suggesting is that we carve out functional niches for human survival that do not depend on inflated semantics and communicative networks nor even the resolution of all forms of cognitive dissonance. Communicative action is not about doxa but about wayfinding.

        What seems most advantageous for those of us not resigned to escaping the human (or even whatever is next for us homos) is to design niches where automation, ambient cuing, A.I guidance, and reliable informational streaming affords more adaptive human-swarm decision-making and cognitive ease, on the way to an accommodated co-existence with nonhumans. We tinker with the mangle of those “facts of our cognitive relation to our environments”. All catechisms be damned. From this motivational cluster crash space is seen as an opportunity to reorganize the human project in post-intentional ways. Consider William Gibson’s post-jackpot society of “aunties” and “assemblers” in the novel The Peripheral.

        So we stop asking intentional cognition to do something it is not up to the task of doing, namely understanding completely and controlling how crash space plays out. It doesn’t need to. Sapience is not about forming a complete index of things and processes, and it certainly doesn’t need to solve imaginary problems (of identity and religiosity). Human cognition is geared towards two broad and essentially heuristic outcomes: enhancing the quality of experience (joy v. suffering) and wayfinding (survival). That’s it. All semantic and intellectual pretensions aside, we are simply coping-beings. And we can develop more flexibly adaptive cognitive styles to facilitate those guiding primitive imperatives in relation to crash space. Or we won’t and become extinct.

        SO I ask: within the various zones of proximal contention (ZPCs, or “crash spaces”) that are being generated what assemblages of accommodation are you willing to pursue? Triage? Contestation? Acquiescence to the the great Landian blur? You seem to suggest that we are fucked and there will be no way to cope. I say there is something valuable about our species, and if our intuitions don’t fit crash space then we actively change BOTH the content (our onto-theologies) and orientation (neurocognitive structure) of our intuitions to adapt. We can find ways to work with and support the continuance of relative autonomy (individuality) in new forms, through technics and evolving new semantics. But that is fight we have to be willing to make.

        You write: You speak of them as if they were mere semantic artifacts possessing semantic solutions, when they are the unravelling of the semantic.

        That’s not at all what I suggest. Mere semantics gets us, well… here: embedded in pathological civilizations. Semantics are just some of the ingredients required to bake a better ecology of praxis cake. That is the whole gist of my post-nihilist praxis (PNP) show and dance routine, and why I don’t add ‘isms’ to my references. We need a radical (apocalyptic) deflation of intentional cognition and traditional semantics such that it changes the whole game. We need to remake the human cognitive ecology and the external infrastructures which support it. But in a way that retains the best of what we are and can be.

        This is where your work is sooo important. We need have some conception about how kludged and limited and neglectful our cognitive systems are – and accept it – before we can project and then enact positive outcomes (for us humans) after collapse, from the ruins, and with-in crash spaces.

        Again, I agree with most of what you write Scott, I just don’t agree on the interpretation of possible outcomes.

        You Write: This is precisely why escape into in fantasy narratives amounts to a deepening of the dysfunction. If everything counts as ‘coping’ for you (because everything, even suicide, can be interpreted as such) then it’s a profoundly dysfunctional ‘coping,’ one bent on destroying our civilizations ability to maintain collective values.

        Agreed. Narrative escape and retreat into fantasy simply won’t do. So let’s deflate those fantasies (thru axiomatic negation and technics) and then use our illusions in novel ways to work with our biases, afford smoother neuroflexible operations, and circumvent cognitive errors. Let’s work on the dysfunction and facilitate some alliance with nonhumans and A.I. It’s all in the attempt and the approach.

        That is if we even want to contest crash spaces and carve out some mutated and mangled role for our species in the future. As desiring-machines some of may not want to contest and fight to carve out those possibilities to continue the project of desiring. Existenz is a fickle thing.

      • Tell you what, Michael: I have the conclusion to my scriptural experiment coming out this summer, so I could use the exposure, but I think my concerns regarding cognitive ecology could use the exposure far, far more. You still owe me an interview from way back, if I remember correctly. Why don’t you confer with the others and send me some questions (the harder the better) and we can work this into a Synthetic Zero feature interview…

        We’re pretty much doing this anyway across boards!

  2. I read the Lakoff and Johnson way back when it came out, Lakoff has continued down that path to ever more cartoonish ends and Johnson has taken a very interesting Deweyan counterpath, you might look at the many critiques of Geertz style theorizing in and out of anthro. the work after Wittgenstein on rule following, ihe related work by Bert Dreyfus from a more M-Ponty/Heidegger view, the research in science studies by folks like Pickering and Hacking, and as I said the varieties of accounts against representationalism/TOM/etc. The best book along these general lines is still Brains/Practices/Relativism: Social Theory after Cognitive Science by http://faculty.cas.usf.edu/sturner5/Papers/CogSciencePapers/17WebCogSciSocThryEthicsSoundings.pdf

    • I’m not sure what any of that even means Dirk. All those names you drop need to be stitched into a coherent narrative or model, or index of positions or arguments that I can respond to. I’ve read most of those people too and find nothing I’m saying above inconsistent with any of it. If you have specific quibble about a particular point please present it.

      My position is not consistent with representationalism. I’m talking about brains, practices, media, and actual information. Without specific ecological conditions, actual flows, cognitive habits, and neurological patterning meaning and symbols have no reality. You seem to be associating my words with a preconceived notions.

      I wasn’t referring to “grand narratives”, but to how narratives (as repeatable stories, cookbooks, instructions, policies, laws, etc., as well as normative habitual semantics) do in fact shape lives. Advertising wouldn’t exist, cults wouldn’t form, and religions wouldn’t function without shared informational content instantiated through biologically operant neuro-semantic patterns. People have a neurologically instantiated repertoires of semantic habits (habitus) and cognitive-emotional styles with/as which they experience and cope with-in the world. That is not even questionable, unless you deny the relatively independent existence of laws, mythologies, religions, etc. Do you deny that these complexes exist in the world?

      It is true that transmissions of information between brains are not directly “copied” (YET), but it is equally true that informational transfer still happens. Hence hermeneutics. There are differences in capacity and style of information processing between bodies, and motivational priming and attentional aptitude, and thus in variation in all transmission of semantic information. Hence the neuroscience of animal communication.

      Humans thin-slice and “extract” and recall and organize sensory and linguistic-semantic information differently, so come to embody variations of cognitive orientation – individually (“personality”) and across populations (“culture”).

      Cognitive orientations or styles are heuristic organized informational-biological patterns (attractors?) embodied within the central nervous system enacted with, and more or less tuned into, all those ambient social and ecological orders/systems and structuring forces, feedbacks, and cues we live with. Differences in coping and adapting, and as John talked about “mastery”, are a result of complex causal relations, but nonetheless reflect the capacity of humans to develop, deploy and augment our biological oriented routines and repertoires through expression, use, deliberation reflection on more or less coherent narratives, diagrams and models.

      As John indicates below,

      “while mastery isn’t practiced through retrieval and deployment of semantic or procedural rules stored in the head, aspects of mastery can be described and evaluated in language or math as well as in behavioral routines, in theory as well as in practice.”

      Rules, routines and patterns are implicit parts of the structural organization that obtains between (extended mind) symbols, language, and brains viz. semantics. To deny the diagrammatic reality of information and narratives comes off as radically anti-empirical.

      • “That is not even questionable, unless you deny the relatively independent existence of laws, mythologies, religions, etc. Do you deny that these complexes exist in the world? ” yes that’s the point none of that has been found to exist, with just us critters and our manglings with/in our material environs we can account perfectly well for all that occurs to us. I can see now at least in part why we’ve had this here confusion, this has been my position for a long time and I had mistakenly remembering you siding with me in one of my parting of ways with Larval-Levi over his embrace of Luhmann as an explanation for this kind of reification/mistaken-concreteness

      • So you deny the existence of written documents, written stories, and information bundles like codes?!? Im speechless. What are libraries and policy manuals then? Phantoms?

        There is no such thing as structured external information nor relatively stable cognitive neural-attractors then………. How is coherence and coordination between bodies (“meaning”) even possible possible then???

        Please provide a link to any research that argues codes, narratives, and brain patterns don’t exist. Saying it doesn’t make it so.

        You write “just us critters and our manglings with/in our material environs we can account perfectly well for all that occurs to us.”

        That’s all I’m talking about! That and the various external compositions/assemblages of information that clearly exist in our media ecologies. You are reading one right now! This comment is a narrative that would continue to exist even after I died!

        To shift metaphors (which apparently don’t exist??) you only acknowledge the existence of computer hardware and completely deny that software exists?? How do CPUs process information without software?

      • “brains as prediction machines – complex multi-level systems forever trying pre-emptively to guess at the flow of information washing across their many sensory surfaces. According to this emerging class of models, biological brains are constantly active, trying to predict the streams of sensory stimulation before they arrive. Systems like that are most strongly impacted by sensed deviations from their predicted states. It is these deviations from predicted states (‘prediction errors’) that here bear much of the explanatory and information-processing burden, informing us of what is salient and newsworthy in the current sensory array.” – Andy Clark

        How would we “know” what is a deviation if there wasnt a baseline structural difference…?

  3. In prior exchanges here, dmf, the two of us have generally agreed on how people acquire habitual and expert performance of practices. As Turner observes in the linked article, expertise isn’t a static end-state achievement. He uses the term “mastery,” which he characterizes as “a more or less continuous process in human linguistic and social interaction and interaction with the world that is never fully complete and that is never fully identical for the same person.” Becoming more masterful needn’t imply failure to live up to an a priori standard of excellence; it’s an ongoing extension into new capacities, new situations, new ecological contexts. And while mastery isn’t practiced through retrieval and deployment of semantic or procedural rules stored in the head, aspects of mastery can be described and evaluated in language or math as well as in behavioral routines, in theory as well as in practice. Turner notes that the role of theory “is not to replace what has been learned. It is rather to rely on, revise partially, and to complement. Cookbooks, similarly, have their uses, as reminders for the expert and as guides for the neophyte or unpracticed. And explicit theories may help correct for cognitive biases or mislearnings that we have learned, in another way, that we are prone to.”

    The cookbook example is useful here. Using a cookbook as a novice depends on having some a priori knowledge of measuring, stirring, turning on the stove, etc. It’s also possible to learn to cook through observation, trial and error, reverse engineering, and so on. But one can learn by following explicit step-by-step instructions. Attaining mastery involves not just memorizing the recipe but also tinkering with it, not to correct failures but to explore creative variations.

    • indeed that was my point about affordances/extending-minding but cookbooks, lists of directions, etc aren’t grand (life shaping) narratives which was my point in relation to Michael, and as Sperber notes in listening (or reading etc) I don’t take in a copy of what the speaker is saying but rather extract from it what is useful for my purposes as I do with all other inputs, Burroughs is wonderful fiction but not so good for (literally) making sense of the human-being.

  4. Michael — I woke up at 3 a.m. thinking about how your two quotes (from Hickman and Burroughs) followed from the preceding discussion of narrative and practice. I came up with a tentative assemblage of my own, but if you’re amenable I’d like to hear what you had in mind before I do my reveal.

    • The quotes were meant more as suggestions rather than as an attempt to provide any type of argumentative “proof”. As post-nihilist neuro-pragmatist (i know, i know lol) I try to use language in a self-consciously flexible manner that evokes as much as constructs argumentative sequences.

      With the Hickman quote I wanted to index the viral nature of informational complexes – its affective diagrammatic nature. With Burroughs the intent was similar, but with an additive air of mystery re: how the symbolic and the real can fly apart a little (ie., in cases of the algorithmic independence of A.I?).

      I’d love to get your take though!

    • As evocations the two quotes worked on me. We had been exploring the possibility that narrative “affords opportunities for recombinatorial creativity,” an ability that in subsequent discussion is integral to the ongoing process of mastery. But mastery also entails the compilation of previously achieved abilities into unconscious habit. But while I might deploy a habit as an efficient means of mastering a situation, the habit also exerts control over me, locking me into stereotypical patterns of which I might not even be aware. Habit can be regarded as a kind of invasive virus, using me as its host to project itself into the world. So now here comes language. Its potential for recombinatorial creativity is limitless — a field ripe for ongoing mastery. But the fluid dynamism relies on a vast body of linguistic habits, most of them formed and repeated unconsciously. Recombinatorial linguistic mastery becomes a kind of viral mutation of language itself, using me as its vector. And it’s not just linguistic habits; it’s the way language habitually links to reality, signifier to signified. One can perceive and experience the world only in ways channeled by linguistic convention. And so you get guys like Burroughs, feeling trapped by words, delving into delirium, hallucination, psychosis, trying to break free from the viral habitual constraints that limit not just his creative expression but his encounters with reality.

      So is it important to heed the warning: that mastery is built on habit, and habit is both hard to recognize and hard to escape? I do. Is it possible successfully to pursue mastery of a domain without ever coming to this reflexive realization that the domain masters you? Yes, I believe so. Is it necessary to dismantle the domain, if not in the world then in the head, in order to escape its shackles? No, I believe not.

      ” how the symbolic and the real can fly apart a little” When I first read the Burroughs quote the guy who came immediately to mind was Derrida, who in one of his deconstructive moves asserts the priority of writing to speaking. Now you’re invoking Lacan in the symbolic-real distinction. I suppose this distinction is compatible with dmf’s eliminative impulse regarding the non-reality of language, society, etc. It’s also intriguing for me as a writer of fictional narratives — a categorization that might be a redundancy. So I write something like this:

      “Just then the slow muffled ascent lifted him above the swirling terror and onto a plateau of inconceivable brilliance. Infinite angles of refraction enshrouded him in a diffuse pale glow, and it came to him that he had climbed above the clouds and reached the pass. With rare exhilaration he eased slowly along the invisible highway, but it wasn’t long before the thought of coming down the other side of the mountain began to fill him with dread. Understand: these experiences were real; they were taking place in a material world that confronted him with a very tangible menace. Surprisingly, not once while he was undergoing this ordeal did any possible metaphorical interpretations come to his mind, however obvious they might appear to the disinterested man in the floral shirt and loose-fitting linen trousers reclining in the rattan chair under the large umbrella sipping his cool drink from a straw.”

      What does it mean to distinguish between the metaphorical and the real in describing, via the symbolic order, a fictional adventure of a fictional character to the fictional reader? So yes, thanks for the evocation.

    • “Burroughs is wonderful fiction but not so good for (literally) making sense of the human-being.”

      A fictional narrative tends to operate as a kind of simulation or thought experiment or hypothetical demonstration. Bakker’s “Crash Space” is a good example: a few people rigged with experimental cognitive mods are placed into a situation involving a non-modded person: what’s going to happen? Burroughs is an odd hybrid, describing his own autobiographical participation in thought experiments that veer him away from sense-making.

      • the veering away from sense-making is always interesting, harder perhaps (see the by and large failures of Wittgenstein like his oddball builders or shoppers) to get folks to see the non-sense that comes with our bewitchments by grammar, more in an uncanny vein than the outright alien/monstrous.
        was at my first reading of a novel the other day and it struck me in a visceral way how the usual form of the novel seems to be like the breaking of the 4th wall in theater, no one has that kind of narration going on all the time, part I guess of the struggles of modernists like Will Self to have some plotting at work to keep the reader following while generally giving the impression of a collection of tangential occurrences of one damn thing after another.

  5. From a recent NY times article on Sperber’s new book; as supplement:

    “The vaunted human capacity for reason may have more to do with winning arguments than with thinking straight… Humans’ biggest advantage over other species is our ability to coöperate. Coöperation is difficult to establish and almost as difficult to sustain. For any individual, freeloading is always the best course of action. Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.”


    Then Sperber himself:

    “Reason is an adaptation to the hypersocial niche humans have evolved for themselves.” -Dan Sperber

    Pragmatism by any other name? Enactvist-interactionist perspectives are the only way to fly..

  6. Interaction between agents is reverse brain engineering. It is now the commodification of this as technology that should be the contested grounds. Disagree with slag of Wittgenstein above. Consuming and shopping is precisely what Elon Musk is trying to do with his Neurallink TM abomination. I think is was the bombastic Frank Herbert who intoned against creating machines in the image of man.

    • Yep, many such zones of proximal contesting. The capitalistic controlling of access to augmentation and new tech being foremost. Different crash spaces for different folks. Acceleration always comes with conditionalities.

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