Tag Archives: language

NeuroIn the comment section of a previous post I made the following claim:

I’m a little worried about making a strong distinction between ‘knowing’ and ‘doing’. Knowing and communicating are also embodied actions – activities with worldly consequences. Our values and ontologies do influence our perception and our intentions/motivations.

And Dirk responded by asking the following:

I still don’t know what it would literally mean to have an “ontology?” or how such a thing(?) would actually work in/to our actual doings/projects (can someone give me a thickish example of what they mean by this, i.e. where/how would I find an ontology and how would I track its effects?)

I think Dirk’s apprehension with the terminology is well-placed. He is asking us to be more specific and to pay attention to the details. And I can certainly appreciate that and would like to make attempt at ‘thickening’ my version of what I think is going on in this regard. I never want to suggest that ideas and imaginings are somehow independent of the bodies that generate them. Ideas are not objects. Human phantasy and ideation is what knowing and expressing bodies do. We generate, project and communicate symbolically via a capacity for individualized neuronal coding and recall (memory) and social exchange. Ideation is an enacted and embodied cognitive activity always in-process, and only ever relatively stabilized and concretized in external material codes (writing). Whereas writting and symbolic artifacts are objects in the strict sense – and thus capable of affecting and being affected, and so become part of the general ecology (within which we must cope – ideation is a living sublte and imaginative human activity.

So, to begin, I think it would be useful to make a distinction between ‘ontologies’ as 1) external linguistic codes/theories (texts) and 2) as internal or embodied habits of recall (codes) and interpretive semantic association. Of course the interaction between 1 (texts) and 2 (imaginative bodies/brains) is complex and dynamic but if we can agree on the empirical basis for making such a distinction – between texts and humans – then I think we are well on our way to thickening out the details of how non-theoretic onto-logic cognition works.   

First, ontologies as textual narratives are fairly uncontroversial. We can pick up Graham Harman’s book The Quadruple Object, for example, and follow his statements and tenants far enough we begin to get a sense of a generally explicated onto-story (as Bennett calls it). Harman tells the reader a story about how the world works using particular words, sentences and sequential references. Which is to say, all texts are ‘structured’ in a particular way via the syntax, grammar and conventions of the language in which it is written in order to convey meaning. And we know from linguistics that meaning is structured by a series of differences and linkages. And so the text itself is a relatively autonomous artifact with specific codes and material characteristics capable of being transported to different locales and entering into or exiting different networks of readers. And ontology texts are assemblages/objects with particular and meaning-full narrative structures.  

Now the issue of ontological thinking is a bit more messy. When I say “our ontologies influence our perception and our intentions/motivations” what I am really saying is that our habits of thinking (both fast and slow) influence the kinds of information we pay attention to. Habits of thought flow from and recursively re-condition complex formations of neuro-circuitry that generate dispositional feelings, cognitive patterns and generalized but often obscure motivations.[1] In brief, an individual’s ‘ontology’ is the sum total of those habitual neuro-semantic associations which lead to routine assumptions and anticipations about the world. We accumulate and accommodate our experiences in memory through symbolic coding/self-organizing and differential participation in public codes/language/narratives. These neuronal instantiations and habits (potentialized memories) form neuro-cognitive-dispositions (NCDs) then generate/manifest particular behaviors, attractions, aversions, and communicative and deliberational patterns. NCDs allow us to organize our experience and make-sense of the world in order to navigate, anticipate, cope and generally adapt. And it is when external codes (texts) interact with internal codes (NCDs) through memory, recall and lived communicative action (reading, discourse, conversation, etc) that all sorts of adjustments, rationalizations, rejections, adoptions, and re-codings become possible. So when people talk about ‘worldviews’ or cognitive ‘frameworks’ they are loosely referring to these socially acquired, personally adapted and ultimately affording but limited NCDs for organizing attention, memory/coding and recall.

But why use the short-hand of ‘ontology’ to refer to these widely dispersed living neuro-cognitive-dispositions? Because I think it is useful to sort out different dispositional sub-routines within general NCDs. A person’s ‘ontology’, then, would refer to that particular set of deeply instantiated neuro-cognitive-dispositions (NCDs) which organize our experience and behavior viz. the particular symbolic contents (knowledge) guiding our assumptions about the nature of things. The specific neuro-semantic content we code/memorize characterizes the different patterns and potentials generates by NCDs. NCDs are never strictly composed or explicit ‘theories’ but rather loosely connected neural habits/networks capable of activating low grade image-associations and decision-making routines. And certain NCD modes and sub-routines lead to particular sensitivities, reactions and actions in different contexts/situations.

So to tie it all back to Dirk’s original request for clarity, I would say that ontologies influence us as both tangible artifacts and neuro-cognitive-dispositions enacted in the ecological interplay between bodies, languages, texts, and media in-action. Moreover, the human use of informal and formal conventions as coherence across strata and systems exhibits a type of temporal continuity (or basin of attraction) in exchanges and relations between cognitive function (NCDs), public language (with its syntax and grammar) and social recognition (collective memory). This systemically accessible continuity is a type of dynamic assemblage, or ‘regime of attraction’ enacted as specific bodies, materials and energies interact, impact, express and exchange information – a more or less choreograph-able ‘dance of agency’ (cf. Pickering) between things with a systemic relatedness or “structureality”.


[1] For example recent neuroimaging studies of conditioned fear, attention to threat and interpretation of emotionally ambiguous stimuli indicate common amygdala–prefrontal circuitry underlying these processes, and suggest that the balance of activity within this circuitry is altered in anxiety, creating a bias towards threat-related responses. Anxious individuals show increased attentional capture by potential signs of danger, and interpret expressions, comments and events in a negative manner. The biological mechanisms and neural circuitry underlying the acquisition and extinction of conditioned fear-based cognitive biases have been widely explored:

pdf get it while it lasts…

‘What is a Minor Literature?‘,by Deleuze & Guattari

Deleuze and Guattari outline the three characterizing elements of a ‘minor literature’:

1) the deterritorializations of a major language through a minor literature written in the major language from a marginalized or minoritarian position;

Discussing the first element of a ‘minor literature’, Deleuze and Guattari explain that it does not arise from a literature written in a ‘minor’ language, or in a formerly colonized langue.  Rather, a ‘minor literature’ is written in a major language, or as in the case of formerly colonized countries, the colonizers’ langue.  According to Deleuze and Guattari, “the first characteristic of a minor literature in any case is that in it language is affected with a high coefficient of deterritorialization”.

2) the thoroughly political nature of a ‘minor literature’;

The second characteristic of a ‘minor literature’, according to Deleuze and Guattari, is its political nature.  Everything
in them is political,” they explain.  The individual is inextricable from the socius, the subject linked to the political: “its cramped space forces each individual intrigue to connect immediately to politics.  The individual concern thus becomes all the more necessary, indispensable, magnified, because a whole other story is vibrating in it”.

3) and its collective, enunciative value.

This political nature of a ‘minor literature’, then, is inseparable from the third characteristic of a ‘minor literature’, its collective value.

Robert Brandom (born 1950) is an American philosopher who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh. He works primarily in philosophy of language, philosophy of mind and philosophical logic, and his work manifests both systematic and historical interests in these topics. He earned his B.A. from Yale University and his Ph.D. from Princeton University, under Richard Rorty and David Kellogg Lewis. Brandom is broadly considered to be part of the American pragmatist tradition in philosophy.

Brandom’s work is heavily influenced by that of Wilfrid Sellars, Richard Rorty, Michael Dummett and his Pittsburgh colleague John McDowell. He also draws heavily on the works of Immanuel Kant, G. W. F. Hegel, Gottlob Frege, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

He is best known for his investigations of linguistic meanings, or semantics. He advocates the view that the meaning of an expression is fixed by how it is used in inferences (see inferential role semantics). This project is developed at length in his influential 1994 book, Making It Explicit, and more briefly in Articulating Reasons: An Introduction to Inferentialism (2000).


Robert Brandom, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, University of Pittsburgh, argues that genealogies (Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Foucault) present the revenge of naturalism on rationalism. Hegel teaches us how to replace the genealogical hermeneutics of suspicion with a hermeneutics of magnanimity that allows us to see naturalism and rationalism as complementing rather than competing with one another.

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This is a brilliant post from Brian Holmes on Guattari and our struggle for sensible self-determination within and among the contemporary regimes of dominance. How are we to navigate such layered complexities which both afford our mode of existence as well as limit our possibilities? How are we to even begin to think this?


“How can we escape from the subtler encoding machines that would scan our neuronal mesh at the molecular level, and synchronize it with the algorithms of computers? The flexible economy confronts us with the paradoxical trap of our own freedoms. What I’d like to do with the help of Guattari’s later works is to spark off some conversations about the models of existence that we bring into play, in hopes of leaving behind the dominant patterns that shape our destinies. The question is how you rearrange the stars above your head, to open up unexpected paths on the ground beneath your feet.” – Brian Holmes

* See Also: How does Schizoanalysis Work? or, “how do you make a class operate like a work of art” – via deterritorial investigations unit

Continental Drift

or, the Pathic Core at the Heart of Cybernetics


[This text was developed through a large number of improvised presentations. Thanks to all who listened and responded. The very first, in Chicago at the invitation of Jon Cates,  is archived here. – BH]


A desiring mind seeks infinity, and finds it today in a proliferation of signals: electromagnetic waves beaming down from the skies, fiber-optic cables emerging from the seas, copper wires woven across the continents. The earthly envelope of land, air and ocean – the realm of organic life, or biosphere – is doubled by a second skin of electronically mediated thought: the noosphere. It’s a vast, pulsating machine: a coded universe grown complex beyond our grasp, yet connected at every pulse to the microscopic mesh of nerve cells in our flesh.

Such is the contemporary circuit of communication. Its existence raises two basic questions. What…

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