Recently a friend of mine, noting some of the lengthy comment section discussions on my blog, asked whether these things are the best use of my time. To be sure, these discussions can sometimes be frustrating, occasionally they can get nasty, and they do indeed take time. Everyone works and thinks differently, of course, but in my case the activity of discussion is not secondary to thought, nor is it a distraction from thought, but rather it is the thinking itself. My thought– assuming I can even refer to it as mine –occurs and takes place in an assemblage. That assemblage happens to involve other persons.
Returning to the extended mind hypothesis, Clark and Chalmers depict the example of a man Otto suffering from Alzheimer’s. In his day to day activity, Otto makes use of a notebook in which he writes down places that he’s been, things that he needs to do, important experiences and facts, etc. Here we might recall Christopher Nolan’s Memento, where Guy Peirce’s character, suffering from amnesia, tattoos clues to his wife’s murder on his body for an example similar to the one described by Clark and Chalmers. Clark and Chalmers argue that Otto’s notebook is not something outside his mind, that it is not a mere prop for his mind, but rather that the notebook itself is directly a part of his mind. Arguing from the standpoint of a functional equivalence between the mind of a person who does not suffer from Alzheimer’s and the mind of Otto with his notebook, Clark and Chalmers claim that Otto’s mind consists of Otto+notebook. The thesis that what properly constitutes Otto’s mind is what takes place in his head, under this hypothesis, turns out to be an unfounded prejudice. The notebook is an integral feature of Otto’s mind.
Clark’s work is littered with observations of this sort. What Clark endlessly strives to show– in a manner highly resonant with McLuhan and Latour –is the manner in which media are not merely tools upon which we project our own ends— ends that we had before we encountered these media –but rather how, in these assemblages, new ends and capacities emerge. My brain, as feeble as it is, is unable to solve complex multiplication problems– 3276 x 76,789 –on its own. Yet give me a piece of paper and a pencil and I am now able to solve this problem. The pencil, paper, and writing are not secondary to my cognition, they are not mere representations of brain processes, but rather the assemblage of brain+body+pencil+paper+writing is the field of thought itself.
Indeed, in the domain of something like philosophy and cultural theory, the pen and paper are indispensable. In writing something down the written itself becomes an object. Where the writing begins as a representation of the world, now the written becomes a thing in the world. As an object in its own right, critique becomes possible. That written document can now become an object to be reflected upon in its own right. We can now investigate the consistency of propositions throughout the writing. We can investigate the metaphors that populate it, discerning the functioning of a different logic at work in the thought, that wasn’t immediately apparent in the activity of thinking itself, in the manner of a Freud, Lacan, or Derrida. We can develop thoughts about these thoughts. Moreover, in the activity of writing, all sorts of new relations are forged insofar as certain elements of the writing call out for further development, further articulation, further inscription. We return to our drafts, now treating them as things rather than representations, and we further develop those drafts in much the same way that each step in the smith’s working of iron generates a new set of problems calling for responses of a particular sort. The writing, paper, and pen are not secondary to the thought, they aren’t mere traces of a thought that occurs elsewhere in the brain, but rather are central to the activity of thinking.
The media of writing and paper qualitatively transforms the nature of thought. Thought becomes something different with writing. In The Origins of Greek Thought, Vernant, for example, discusses the manner in which the nature of laws and normativity were fundamentally transformed by being written on the walls of the market place. As Derrida observes in “Signature Event Context”, writing decontextualizes. A written chain is no longer an event restricted to its moment of enunciation, the referential state-of-affairs that might have motivated its enunciation, or the person that enunciated it. It becomes a thing in the world around which all sorts of different contexts can swirl and move, many of which, no doubt, will be quite distant from the context of its first formulation. Here a new ecology arises. Now the ecology in which human thought moves is no longer simply physical things and other persons, but also written texts that swarm about us like so many gnats on a humid summer day. In being inscribed on the walls of the building that populate the market place, law itself takes on the durability of the written medium. The next thing we know we get a Plato pondering whether or not there are eternal forms or norms, for the written provides a durability independent of context that suggests something like an enduring form. Likewise, detached from something independent of a contingent context– that context falling into the oblivion of forgetfulness –the law itself becomes an object capable of being critiqued with respect to its formal properties. We get a discourse about law rather than a discourse about what law is about. Here the very nature of thought has changed.
The mediums we use are not mere props or tools that we deploy for ends that we already possessed or intended on our own, but rather change us. For this reason, it is better to say it thinks rather than I think. This can be dimly glimpsed in the case of blogging or of comment sections on blogs. It is not that I share my thoughts, and then that others share their thoughts. To be sure, something like that is, of course, going on. But there is also a much more diffuse, distributed mind at work on a blog and across blogs. The others that speak and participate are a part of the thinking. The mind is not so much something in each of these speakers, but rather is that assemblage of participants. Without these dialogues there are many things that would never occur to me and many paths of thought I would never take. Distributed cognition enriches thought with perpetual contingency, surmounting the solipsism of thought as it takes place in writing and the brain, exposing thought to the endless hazard of an alterity that sets it unfolding along unexpected vectors of becoming. In this regard, authorship becomes something different. Authorship no longer refers to the intentions animating a particular brain-body, but rather refers to a topo-geographical site where a number of elements or entities are gathered together in an unfolding– and often contentious –where thought takes place in much the same way that a city develops without any sort of centralized control or sovereign reigning over it and directing it.