Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Accursed Ipsissimosity

Your vocabulary word of the day is ippsissimosity, a coinage by Nietzsche from the Latin ippsissima, “very own self”:
However gratefully we may welcome an objective spirit – and is there anyone who has never been mortally sick of everything subjective and of his accursed ipsissimosity? — in the end we also have to learn caution against our gratitude and put a halt to the exaggerated manner in which “unselfing” and depersonalization of the spirit is being celebrated nowadays as if it were the goal itself, as if it were redemption and transfiguration. 
                — (Beyond Good and Evil, p126)
It is not completely clear what the word means, but I take it to indicate something like “the characteristic and intractable uniqueness of the individual”. For some strange reason it hasn’t caught on, and Nietzsche seems to have only used it once. I ran into it as I was pondering writing something on the differences between me and the “rationalist community”. Nietzsche seems to have some issues with the analogous rationalists of his day; that is, the bearers of the “objective spirit”. Like him, I have a good deal of positive regard for this spirit but can’t embrace it wholly; there seem to be a divergence between what I seek and what it seeks.

I am not surprised to find myself both in sympathy and conflict with Nietzsche, given that he manages to be in conflict with himself in the space of this short passage. It seems somewhat shameful to admit that I am not terribly interested in objectivity. Perhaps it would be a sin in any other form of writing – academic papers, journalism, anything claiming to speak with an authoritative voice – but this is a blog, and the whole point of it is that it permits me to write in a personal mode if I feel like it. It would make me happy, I guess, if whatever insights or truths I turn up here are true for other people as well as me, and if they are true for everyone, then objectivity has been achieved. Nice, but not my goal. I am more into selfing than unselfing, at least as far as writing goes. If you want the highly processed industrial intellectual product called “objective truth”, go buy a textbook in the field of your choice. Really, textbooks are wonderful things. The problem with textbooks, and maybe with our whole system of knowledge, is that they are boring, which is why students have to be force-marched through them, and why they usually require a human lecturer to re-personalize the depersonalized contents. The ability to do that is really at the core of the art of teaching, and it doesn՚t come easily or naturally.

The objective spirit has increased its scope into many more areas than Nietzsche could have dreamed of, while subjectivity remains something of a scientific and philosophical embarrassment. We know a lot about the brain from the outside, but scientific theories of consciousness almost always fail to deliver on their promise, which is to reconcile the objective scientific view of the self (the outside view) with the experience of subjectivity (the inside view).

There have been some trends, or a variety of related trends, in cognitive science and related disciplines like anthropology, which might be crudely lumped under the term embodiment or situatedness. An embodied mind is not some universal abstract reasoning engine, but instead strongly constrained by its structure and physical circumstances. Embodied minds have their thinking closely tied to physical action in the world. Classical Artificial Intelligence sought to make chess-playing programs, embodied AI is more concerned with helping a robot manage manage a simple physical task like making breakfast. Traditional AI took its inspiration from formal logic; embodied AI from animal behavior, anthropology, and phenomenology. Traditional AI universalizes Western styles of thought; embodied AI employs ethnography to try to understand particular context and culture dependent modes of thought.

The idea of embodiment always struck me as both stunningly good and rather obvious – or more precisely, the fact that it wasn՚t obvious and needed to be put forward as a radical insurgent movement was kind of alarming. It indicated that there was some kind of culture-level sclerosis going on, a form of brain-damage that I avoided mostly by unplanned deficiencies in my education. As an approach to the mind, it promised fixes for a variety of conceptual and technical problems with the more traditional approach. It fights the tendency in rationalists to see the abstract thought as the most valuable (or in extreme cases, the only) kind. However, embodiment seems to have somewhat fizzled as an intellectual revolution, (although I am no longer involved enough with the research community to know that for a fact). Despite having its origins in fancy Continental philosophy, it seemed to me to be a more pragmatic and realistic approach to the problem of intelligence, one that should appeal to engineers. That largely didn՚t happen, and I think it՚s because engineers are just as entrapped by the standard received mindset of Western culture as anyone else, possibly more so. Our idea of what the mind is pretty much hard-coded in our culture and breaking loose of those received ideas is not easy.

It also seems to me that in one sense embodiment didn’t go quite far enough, as though it too was making some kind of implicit promise that it wasn’t quite delivering on. Consider that everybody is embodied in roughly the same way, so thinking about embodiment doesn’t really address the false universalism of the standard models. Instead of the universal (Western) mind, we have a less universal but still somewhat generic culturally embedded actor.

Ipsissimosity goes a further and necessary step beyond embodiment. It acknowledges not just that minds are bodies, and bodies are situated, but that we are all inescapably and radically unique, we see the view from different places, our minds are not going to be the same because we don’t have the same problems to address.

Unfortunately this is also a radically unscientific position; not in the sense of being counterfactual, but in that it goes against the grain of the scientific process which is to generalize and regularize. You can’t have a science of the unique. [2016-12-05: OTOH: ‘Pataphysics will be, above all, the science of the particular, despite the common opinion that the only science is that of the general. ‘Pataphysics will examine the laws governing exceptions.]

Maybe this has always been psychology’s problem. It wants to be a science and it also wants to be liberatory, but the universalizing and abstracting tendencies of science are inescapably set against the self՚s assertion of its individuality. This doesn՚t have to be a war to the death between science and the individual, although the culture seems to encourage this, probably because war sells newspapers. It՚s more a matter of each knowing their place, and of knowing what intellectual territory they should cede to the other.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Embodiments of the Word

True to the nomadic roots of Judaism, our community is pulling up its tents and setting up elsewhere. Unlike the richer and/or more established San Francisco congregations, we have been borrowing our space, and now will be borrowing a different one. So to ceremonialize this move, we did a ritual thing a couple of Sundays ago where we took the Torah from the old home to the new, marching down 19th Avenue in the unseasonably clear weather, with music and a chuppah like a Jewish wedding. Although I՚m a very occasional participant in the ritual life of this community, this was a unique event that I could not resist, and I even took a turn at carrying the scroll.

It was an odd experience and it engendered some unorthodox (haha) thoughts. We Jews have all these sacramental rituals that revolve around a book, a text, a set of written words – the most holy object we have. Some religions worship persons or places, we revere a document. Honestly, I am a pretty lousy Jew, and don՚t care so much about the contents of this book, but the act of reverence towards symbols is something I can get behind, something that draws me in. The words themselves – well, they are sacred to the community, and so to me insofar as I am a part of it, and certain passages are amazing as literature or otherwise culturally significant – but really, it՚s a bit too much of a stretch for my rationalist mind to treat these particular symbols as anything metaphysically special. But the fact that something so insubstantial as language can be captured in a physical object – perhaps that is not exactly holy, but it certainly seems important and mysterious, and worthy of some degree of reverence. Some foundational aspect of reality is being thus indicated. So my personal holy of holies is not the physical document, or even the ancient text that it is a physical instance of, but semantic embodiment itself.

I work in a field that deals with the technology of embodiment of symbols, in new forms made out of bits and silicon. Certainly it doesn՚t treat them in a very reverential way. We don՚t put texts up on an altar, rather the reverse: documents are treated as a mass of bits, to be pushed here and there like so many truckloads of soybeans, trivialized to mere “content”. Like any other commodity everyone is eager to make a buck off of it in some way.

It is not so much the embodiment of words that is a mystery – in a material universe, how else could we encounter them? – but the opposite, the way words apparently have the power to transcend their physical medium. Words encode thoughts, thoughts float around in thought-space, to be be caught and embodied by other people in other forms. Meaning (and ourselves) seems to exist outside of materiality yet deeply embedded in it. This is hardly a new observation, but too often the oddness of it gets trampled by simplistic philosophical debates. I don՚t have an answer to these philosophical questions, all I have is an attitude towards them that I am trying to cultivate, explore, and describe.

And because I have an advanced degree in something called Media Science that I would like to retroactively justify, one way to do this (that hasn՚t already been worked to death) is to focus on the different technologies of embodiment. Talk is different from writing, writing is different from print (and books and newspapers are different themselves) and digital social media are all different from earlier forms and subtly different from each other. The medium is not quite the whole message, but it՚s a huge chunk of it. Every technology of the word represents a kind of settlement (a Latourian term) between matter and meaning, a way in which they have managed to fit together, to cooperate with each other while dividing reality between them.

Of course, human beings are similar compositions.

So I briefly took my turn at carrying the words of God down the street, cradling it in my arms like a child. Like a child it needs to be protected, gentled, housed. Like a child, it makes demands, it wants to be and is at the center of things.