The following paper was given at the Spatial Thinking II conference in Innsbruck 9-10th November 2012
Mediating the Ecological and the Neurological: An Architecture of the Extended Mind
Despite the widespread turn to various conceptions of embodiment in contemporary theory across the arts and sciences, many thinkers continue to default to the habit of assuming a tight and reductive correlation between mind and brain – or at least between mind and brain-plus-body. Yet as Alva Nöe has made clear, “not only can we not explain mind in terms of brain alone, we can only explain the brain, and its role in helping give us minds, by thinking of the place of the brain in the context of our interaction with the world.” Drawing upon the work of thinkers ranging from Gregory Bateson to Alva Nöe, from Marx and Engels to Clark and Chalmers and others, it seems today that that mind and consciousness must be understood as irreducibly extended and relational processes which are played out through ecological, social and neurological spaces. It is not then simply the case that new insights from the cognitive sciences can help us to ask new questions regarding how and why architecture is produced and spatial environments are experienced. Rather, I argue that much stronger questions can now be be framed regarding the roles that space itself plays in the construction of mind (rather than reducing architecture to neurology as some neuroaesthetic thinking tends to do). Indeed, we might suggest that the production of space necessarily precedes modern human consciousness (as Julian Jaynes anticipated). In my broader work in this area I have reflected upon a series of recent insights concerning the multiple neurological mappings of active bodies in space, and have offered some architectural interpretations of this material through frameworks provided by Gregory Bateson, JJ Gibson, Evan Thompson and Tim Ingold in particular. Following Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ observation that “consciousness is from the very beginning a social product”, I conclude that architecture today can be re-defined as a social interface which mediates the ecological and the neurological.
Above all, I note that the claims that we can legitimately make concerning our minds, bodies and environments, and the attempt to define an architecture of mind, is not an abstract and neutral scientific or philosophical endeavour, but always a live political project; it is a way of making claims about who and what we are, individually and collectively.
So then, what do you claim to be? Are you the physical matter that constitutes your body? Even though only ten percent of the cells in your body contain human DNA, and most of their constituent molecules are metabolised, excreted or are in other ways replaced on a regular basis? And even though you are suspended within and constituted through a dynamic web of biological, mineral, energetic, social and semiotic processes of indescribable complexity? This network of flows, ruptures, continuities and distinctions is you, in your environment. Birth gave you a distinct kind of autonomy to be sure, but one that remains radically dialectical in nature, just as it was in the womb. Yes, you are autonomous, but your autonomy derives from your very interdependence with both your environment and a political ecology of others. You are simultaneously in the world, yet at the same time distinct from it. This is, as the cybernetic biologist and cognitive theorist Francisco Varela stated, ‘a knotty dialectic: a living system makes itself into a entity distinct from its environment through a process that brings forth, through that very process, a world proper to the organism.’
Or, are you not in any simple way directly identified with the matter of your body itself, but are rather better described as radical software, as a dynamic unfolding pattern that is either perpetuated through embodiment, or ’emergent’ from it (as many contemporary theorists would have it)? But what does it actually mean, ontologically, to say that you are an emergent pattern? And what kinds of dangers are present when we imagine abstract form separated from the social and material substance of the world? These are the questions which in various ways structure much thinking around the nature of life and consciousness, the possibilities of artificial intelligence, the status of information, and so on today.
The anthropologist, cyberneticist and ecologist Gregory Bateson, whose work I argue is both foundational to, and critical of, the discussions outlined above, observed that matter (what are things made of?) and pattern (how are they organised?) have tended to be treated as distinct disciplinary areas of study within the dominant traditions of Western thought. The pattern/matter dualism represented for Bateson one version of a deep conceptual structure within our thinking which can be found in all kinds of iterations, for example as form/substance, mind/matter and culture/nature dualisms, and indeed more broadly within the idealism/materialism philosophical divide.
A similar dualism in fact structures the very way that we think about and experience architecture: we perceive built space as both a direct kinaesthetic or phenomenological bodily experience, and in abstraction, in the form of symbolic and iconographic languages, and various kinds of cognitive mappings. Moreover, we find a similar distinction in the very division of labour that underlies modern building production. Architecture is typically conceived as a mental practice, an immaterial labour which informs the matter of the world, through the embodied material labour of builders. Following feminist theory it is often observed that in these dualisms ‘pattern’ or ‘form’ is the privileged side of the pairing, one that is deeply structured and indeed gendered within our language. ‘Pattern’ comes from the Latin ‘pater’, meaning father, while the word ‘matter’ derives from the Latin ‘mater’ meaning ‘mother’.
There are many origins to the dualistic structures that can be found today in the now global legacies of what were Western modes of thought. Most notably perhaps are the origins in Platonic philosophy and Judaeo-Christian theology – in the beginning was the word of the father – and has come to structure much European thought since the Enlightenment. It can be found in the Newtonian model of a universe of inert and isolated particles of matter animated by the mind of God (which later became known as the laws of nature (i.e. forms)). It can even be seen today in the way that a particular idea about mathematics (and perhaps more recently topology) has come to be seen as the privileged and most fundamental level of scientific discourse.
It is often stated that a mechanistic, deterministic and reductive materialism took hold of Western thought at some point during the industrial revolution. There is no doubt much truth to that, although other very different and often non-dualistic cosmological models were also active throughout the enlightenment period. More holistic approaches abounded, in alchemical, pagan and medieval folk philosophies, and at certain historical moments, through complex relationships with other cultures. Important in this regard would be the significant synthesis of aspects of Asian belief systems with more vernacular pantheistic cosmologies in the work of European philosophers since the seventeenth century, notably perhaps Spinoza and Hegel. Just as important has been the consistent production of new ideas that were both distinctly modern, but which were also critical of the dominant scientific and nostalgic ideologies of their time.
Since the mid-nineteenth-century the sciences themselves – first biology and ecology, and later quantum and relativistic physics – have suggested new conceptions of matter and life, which can often be characterised by being less about a search for fundamental parts, and more about recognising the relational systemic processes that are active in the world. More recent contemporary sciences of complexity and dynamic systems theory are predicated upon such thinking, while in today’s life sciences, autopoietic patterns of organisation are key to definitions of life.
One of the most important modern philosophical attempts to re-imagine how we think about matter and nature can be found in the work of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Their outline of a dynamic and dialectical new materialism implied a new ‘relation to nature’ in general, and they claimed superseded both idealism and ‘all hitherto existing materialism’. Alfred North Whitehead soon after defined organisms as ‘structures of activity’ and for him this process-based definition held true at all scales, so that ‘biology is the study of large organisms, whereas physics is the study of small organisms.’ Around the same time, interesting co-developments took place around the idea of ‘form’ in both biology – as embryology and morphology, concerning what is the information that give plants and animals their physical shapes – and also in aesthetics – concerning how we experience form – and in particular in architectural theory, around form, empathy and space.
Throughout the twentieth century a series of attempts were made to explore new ways to describe the relation between, matter, life, the self and mind in general, and suggested new modes of thinking. The quantum physicist David Bohm wrote some fascinating texts, arguing that we need to replace our static object/noun-based worldview with a new verb based language – the rheomode – which might better allow us to perceive a universe of processes, while the psychologist J J Gibson developed an ecological account of perception as a process which co-defined both subject and object. In more recent years a plethora of new approaches to these same questions have emerged: notably perhaps the various self-proclaimed new materialisms, and broadly defined as ranging from Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory to Graham Harman’s speculative realism.
It is against this intellectual background that we can begin to understand the continuing importance of Gregory Bateson’s work for us today. Bateson was in some sense present at the end of one scientific worldview and at the emergence of another, and reflecting upon his work reveals opportunities and tasks not yet taken on. Bateson’s thinking is also I argue directly and indirectly relevant to current architectural concerns.
Born into a family which contained several generations of radical Cambridge academics, Bateson’s distinct social class defined much of his career. Bateson moved across disciplinary boundaries in his study of how organised systems – mental, social, biological and ecological – evolve, change and learn. He started his career in biology, but shifted into anthropology in the thirties, working with Margaret Mead. After the war, they were key participants in the seminal Macy cybernetics conferences, the unique interdisciplinary events which brought together mathematicians, physicists, biologists, neurologists and psychologists, to formulate the study the behaviour of organised systems. This staggeringly influential work forms the foundation of much of today’s thinking around complexity, ecology, perception, computation and cognition – and directly anticipated much of today’s discussion around extended mind, embodied and embedded cognition.
After Macy, Bateson went on an extraordinary intellectual journey. He worked with schizophrenics and inspired much of the anti-psychiatry movement, notably RD Laing and Felix Guattari, and indeed later inspired Guattari’s work with Giles Deleuze (indeed the title of their seminal Mille Plateaux was coined after Bateson’s use of the term). He mentored Richard Bandler and John Grinder as they founded neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), and as the leader of the Palo Alto Group, he formulated the influential concept of ‘double-bind’. Bateson would go on to document experiments with LSD, and along with John Lilly he studied learning and communication in dolphins. He came to consider all complex material systems as immanently language- or even mind-like, insofar as they respond to differences in their environment. He called this approach ‘an ecology of mind’, an attempt to move beyond the dualism that had, he argued, resulted in worldviews that were either ‘excessively materialistic … (or) totally supernatural’.
Inevitably, much of the twentieth century’s thinking about organisms, and organisations in general – including ecology, cybernetics and systems theory – was ultimately developed around the needs of capitalism and nation states, notably the need to control and manage organisations ranging from ecosystems to individuals to companies.
This is certainly accounts one aspect of the engagement between architecture and the systems sciences. The repeated and ongoing engagements of architectural theory with organic and biological thinking and metaphors can only be comprehended within the context of broader social and economic conditions, where all aspects of architectural production are undergoing constant and ongoing transformation. As a means of dealing with this, architects have repeatedly turned to various kinds of organic and biological metaphors taken from systems and complexity theory as both a practical and ideological means of managing the social and economic demands placed upon them, and we must ask today to what extent our turn to reflect upon cognitive sciences is concerned with both extended a new understanding of space, but also is a part of shifts within capitalism more broadly.
Throughout the modern period the sciences have become ever more entwined within the economic processes of capitalism, and have been radically transformed and shaped by it. As Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin note in The Dialectical Biologist, science is ultimately ‘the product of a specific social structure that supports and constrains science and directs it towards the goals of its owners.’ Ecology for example became increasingly important with the rise of the Dutch and British East India companies’ need to manage large landscapes, and the spread of the ecological thinking today into industrial ecology and urban ecology and so on no doubt represents its full integration into and reflection of both capitalistic as well as ecosystem networks. Ecological thinking in this respect contains multiple and often contradictory components, and as David Worster has noted, ecology has roots which are part arcadian and part imperial, and is as much a product of enlightenment thought as it is a critique of it.
Bateson’s project was in fact a radical re-imagining of what ecology might be. Instead of a science concerned with controlling complex systems, Bateson led a radical tendency amongst some cybernetic theorists who argued that the very insights of systems thinking and the sciences of complexity showed that control was often neither possible nor desirable. Peter Harries-Jones notes that ‘Bateson became the single most important reformer of cybernetics. He was the intellectual leader who most thoroughly and continually opposed its dominant face – that of determinism and control.’ Others would include Stafford Beer, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, and Gordon Pask, [pask slide] who of course worked with the architects Cedric Price and John Frazer, and who found in architecture a vehicle for staging a series of experimental studies into what Andrew Pickering has wonderfully described as ‘ontological theatre’. Bateson’s aim, like that of Bohm, Marx, Engels, was to re-imagine the project of science, and how we think about both technology and the non-human world. Like Bohm, Bateson associated himself with a curious mix of non-orthodox Marxists and counter-culture new-age scientists. However, his writing, though socially engaged, never directly engaged with more overtly political theory.
In Bateson’s work we find evidence that maybe all material processes themselves are semiotic and mental, in particular all highly organised and living material systems. By this he means that complex material processes, in so far as they are structured according to a responsiveness to relational differences in their surroundings, are mind-like. In this regard – and in his corresponding call for an ecological aesthetics that is capable of transforming the very way in which we think about science and technology, and indeed architecture and design – I argue that Bateson’s ecological-semiotic materialism has a vital contribution to make to contemporary debate.
He argued for a new kind of science built upon relationships rather than just objects, a science which would combine first and third person perspectives articulated through an explicit aesthetic (rather than unacknowledged ) use of metaphorical systems in reasoning about our relation to the world. At the same time, Bateson argued for a completely different conception of what the human self is, stating that ‘the total self-corrective unit which … “thinks”, “acts” and “decides”, is a system whose boundaries do not at all coincide with the boundaries either of the body or of what is popularly called the “self” or “consciousness.”’
Ultimately for Bateson the human self can only be understood as an ecological phenomenon, both embodied and moreover extended into its environment, and his thinking resonates with more recent concepts such as the various embodied and extended mind theories in contemporary cognitive science, only some of which directly reference their debt to his approach.
In a short but incisive text Bateson did outline possibilities of an ecological urbanism, arguing that cities needed to be understood as complex eco-mental systems. More generally, Bateson developed an idea around ecological aesthetics which brought together in a new way thinking about form, mind and recursively structured (autopoietic) living matter. The co-definition of form in biology, aesthetics and architecture is not by chance. As many commentators have noted, not least Forty and Ingold, there are important relations between biology and architecture around the development of the concept of form in the nineteenth century, and much of Bateson’s thinking is driven by this – not from architectural discourse per se (though it is notable that he is drawn to the concept of empathy which originated in architectural aesthetics)
Bateson became increasingly involved in the environmental movement, arguing that the emerging environmental crisis was in no small way the result of an epistemological failure to see how we see correctly see how human relations are embedded within a broader web of life. In a highly suggestive passage he wrote that ‘you decide that that you want to get rid of the by-products of human life and that Lake Erie will be a good place to put them. You forget that the eco-mental system called Lake Erie is a part of your wider eco-mental system – and that if Lake Erie is driven insane, its insanity is incorporated in the larger system of your thought and experience’. Bateson can be criticised for failing to sufficiently acknowledge the more direct economic and social ecologies that also shape our minds and bodies, and this is one area I see where his work can be developed today. Equally by ultimately privileging mind Bateson never fully escaped the dualism that he was so cautious of, although as the contemporary social anthropologist Tim Ingold has suggested, we might think of Bateson’s conception of mind as ‘ the cutting edge of the life process itself, the ever moving front of what Alfred North Whitehead called a “creative advance into novelty.”’
Whitehead suggested that organisation might provide a unified model for both physics and biology, and it is here I suggest that we might find a specifically architectural contribution to thinking about mind today. If today’s neurological insights increasingly document the exceptionally plastic development of the brain through its coupling via an enactive body to the dynamic differentiated mental ecology that is the material world, then it would seem that neuroscience in itself is in no way equiped to fully engage with its own subject matter. Indeed, meta disciplines such as philosophy and anthropology have continued therefore to provide a metadisciplinary space for discussing consciousness. It seems clear to me that architecture too can provide a knowledge space that spans the neurological and the ecological, and can stage experimental enactments of an eco-ontological theatre of mind.