Sunday, November 1, 2009

Proprioceptive Thought & Free Will

David Bohm suggests that concrete thinking is "in motion."  It is a tacit thinking aware of its own motion.  There's something that drives us to thought, but we're rarely able to suspend ourselves from the conviction of the thought, and its impact on us.  That is, because the feeling or affect that arrives from outside is powerful, we end up letting it direct us rather than suspending or questioning it.  We mistake the feeling for a thought and accept it as ours.  Proprioceptive thought may be less prone to this error; it is aware of its own motion, of its own body.

Brian Massumi says something similar in his Parables for the Virtual, i.e., that "the skin is faster than the word." (POV 25).  This fact has long been exploited in popular culture – from horror films to reality TV to politics.  As Ronald Reagan said: “facts are stupid things.”  Indeed, today feeling is the lure that empowers.  Stubborn facts may be limits, but they also provide opportunities. 

When someone talks about accessibility as a virtue, aren’t they really talking up instant gratification?  Impatience leads to the waning of the power of the word.  (“Heh – I can’t read your mind either!”)  Justice is flawed and at best slow and deliberative, but culture and life seem to move much faster.  In a world of object inflation and of oppressive choice, comfort is indeed, as Koolhaas says somewhere, “the new justice.”

The point is to resist those who would pin down thought, mapping it in a trajectory to guarantee its failure.  Zeno understood that his arrow on a Z-sited path could never arrive.  It’s the eros of thought that is missed, that needs to be embraced.  We need the sweep or whole motion of thought, not severable into discrete (mapped out) moments.  We need to let ourselves become, to be jolted out of the grooves of daily habit.  If a map is necessary, let’s make it uncomfortable, or at least full of surprises.

The Skin Is Faster

Recent science has uncovered some curious data regarding the split second between “the beginning of a bodily event and its completion in an outwardly directed, active expression.”  (POV, 29)  The active gesture in this instance is the flexing of a finger.  The test subject visually notes the clock-time of a decision to give the finger.  It turns out that there is about a 0.2 second lapse between the visual noting of the decision and the arrival of the gesture.  This isn't that surprising.  Reflexes aren't instantaneous and it takes a bit of time for the impulse to travel from the brain through the nervous system.  The real surprise is that a signature of brain activity occurs 0.3 seconds before the visual registration of the decision.  That is, the brain is independently doing something before we can register a thought as ours.  Stop.  Look around.  Before we can register a thought as belonging to us, something else, something outside has occurred.  This implies that there's something recursive about the nature of thought, something that isn't totally controllable. 

Stelarc in his recent Seattle talk said that new experiments have been able to predict what you’re going to do seven (7!) seconds before you do it.  [If that’s right, in our cynical neo-liberal times, it seems likely that some arbitrager will figure out how to trade on this gap soon.]  Why the case for Stelarc is so difficult to make will have to be a subject of a future post, but it relates to the fact that he is crossing boundaries that humans are uncomfortable with.  He’s a body artist who wants his obsolete body to literally become other.  To quote Massumi, “Stelarc is not a conceptual artist.  He is not interesting in communicating concepts about the body.  What he is interested in is experiencing the body as a concept.”  You can read more of this, the most convincing thing I’ve found on Stelarc, here.

It seems obvious that the brain registers all sorts of data that never make it into conscious  thought.  Unconsciousness versus consciousness is clearly a dynamic range.  In the grooves of daily habit, we travel familiar paths without consciously thinking about what we’re doing.   I go thru the motions and suddenly find myself at a destination.

One could go off here about the evils of habit.  Being aware of the present as it unfolds is an awakening.  But, e.g., sleep is a habit I’d prefer to keep.

Benjamin Libet, who did these experiments, interprets the results as a crisis of free will.  If we fail to suspend the arriving thought, to reject this as “our” thought, then aren't we becoming mere automatons, or ventriloquists of the received thought?

Perhaps the only free will humans have is in exercising a suspension – that is, in deciding not to act on the thought that arrives. 

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