Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Book Review)

Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature by Alva Noë. Reviewed by Amy Ione for Leonardo Reviews.

Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature
by Alva Noë

Reviewed by Amy Ione

Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature endeavors to, as Alva Noë the author puts it, introduce art as “its own manner of investigation and its own legitimate source of knowledge” (p. xii) using the enactive approach that he has been working with for a number of years. According to this view, “experience is something we enact or perform; it’s not something that happens in us or to us” (p. 215), “it is something we do, or make, or achieve. And like everything else we achieve, we do so only against the background of our skills, knowledge, situation, and environment, including our social environment” (p. xii). His basic philosophical argument is that we can only understand the human mind in relation to bodily actions given that our experience is situational. Within this he claims that our lives are structured by organization and because art is a practice for bringing our organization into view, it reorganizes us.

When we consider art, Noë tells us, there are two levels we need to keep in mind. On the one hand, the defining feature of what he terms Level-1 activities is that they are basic and involuntary modes of organization. On the other hand, Level-2 activities play with and re-shape level-1 activities. The sum total is that active human experience is neither personal consciousness nor subpersonal (autonomic) consciousness. It is not personal because it is interactive and (again) situational activities add meaning to our lives in a way that does not reduce to subpersonal (autonomic) consciousness. Since technologies are a part of how we reorganize our lives, and art is an engagement with technologies, art includes a second-level manner of organization/reorganization.

Noë chose to characterize art in terms of strange tools rather than technologies because he sees art as an engagement with the ways our practices, techniques, and technologies organize us; art is not a technological practice so much as a pursuit that presupposes such practices. Essentially, Noë tells us the tools that help us organize our lives are bound up with our habits. Regular tools aid us in performing our normal habits. But, for Noë, artistic goals — confrontation, intervention, and subversion — differ from ordinary ones. Thus, the “strange tools” that artists use aid them in disrupting and reorganizing the norms of communication:

“Art always disrupts business as usual and puts the fact that we find ourselves carrying out business as usual on display. Put bluntly: the value of art does not consist in a (coevolving) fit (or dialogue) between what we make and what we like, but rather in the practice of investigating and questioning and challenging such processes” (p. 238).

The strongest sections of the book are the personal stories. In these narratives Noë eloquently communicates about the many artists he has known over the years. We learn that his parents were artists and that he grew up within the vibrant New York City art community of Greenwich Village in the late twentieth century:

“For me, art … is personal. The question of art, the question of why it matters, what it is, how it figures in our lives, is in some ways my very first problem in philosophy. … I admit that this book’s central claim — that art is a philosophical practice and philosophy an artistic one — serves me rather well. It can be understood, finally, as my defense of philosophy and its value, a defense of my work, in the setting of my family’s engagement with art. If art is the most important thing, and philosophy is art, then it turns out I’m an artist after all. Look, Dad!” (p. 208).

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Headhunters: The Search for a Science of the Mind (Book Review)

Book Review of Headhunters: The Search for a Science of the Mind by Ben Shephard. Reviewed by Amy Ione.

Headhunters: The Search for a Science of the Mind
by Ben Shephard

Reviewed by Amy Ione

Headhunters: The Search for a Science of the Mind traces a slice of history that in turn introduces us to some of those drawn to study human psychology and mental health a few decades after Darwin’s theory of evolution took root. Four of these pioneers are the focus of this book: William Rivers, Grafton Elliot Smith, Charles Myers, and William McDougall. They met at Cambridge in the 1890s and Shephard links their lives more broadly through their efforts to study the brain as biological approaches were gaining increased leverage due to Darwin’s work. The author begins the book by placing us in that context:

“How, then, did the human brain evolve? Why did it evolve as it did? In the 1870s, modern experimental neuroscience began, using electricity to stimulate the nervous system of animals and microscopes to observe the nerve cells of humans. Within two decades, researchers had established the location of functions within the brain, unraveled the way that the nervous system automatically governs the body’s functions, and begun to discover how messages are sent between neurons and synapses. But these extraordinary advances only posed further questions — about human behavior; man’s relations to his fellow primates, and the human occupation of the earth. A generation of scientists went looking for answers” (p. 1).

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Symposium: CFP: Interdisciplinary Scholarship in Land Use & Ethics: Poetics

The ESF Northern Forest Institute will hold its fourth annual symposium of interdisciplinary scholarship in land use and ethics June 10 – 12, 2016. CFP information.

June 10 – 12, 2016
A Northern Forest Institute Symposium

The ESF Northern Forest Institute will hold its fourth annual symposium of interdisciplinary scholarship in land use and ethics June 10 – 12, 2016.

More information: http://www.esf.edu/nfi/symposium/  and http://www.esf.edu/nfi/symposium/documents/2016_CFP.pdf

CFP: Rethinking Pictures: A Transatlantic Dialogue

CFP: Rethinking Pictures: A Transatlantic Dialogue. An international symposium organized by the Deutsches Forum für Kunstgeschichte, Paris, and the Terra Foundation for American Art (Paris, 19-20 May 2016).

An international symposium organized by the Deutsches Forum für Kunstgeschichte, Paris, and the Terra Foundation for American Art (Paris, 19-20 May 2016).

On the occasion of the launch of Picturing, the first volume of the Terra Foundation Essays, a new publication series exploring themes of critical importance to the history of arts and visual culture of the United States, the Deutsches Forum für Kunstgeschichte, Paris, and the Terra Foundation for American Art are jointly organizing a conference that will further the transatlantic dialogue about what pictures are and what they do.

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You See More When You Draw (so stop taking photos)

In today’s world of mobile phones and media a visit to a museum is often a passive and superficial experience. Visitors are easily distracted and do not truly experience beauty, magic and wonder. The Rijksmuseum wants to help visitors discover and appreciate the beauty of art and history through drawing, so #start drawing in the galleries of the museum.

CFP: Places & Spaces: Mapping Science exhibit

The Places & Spaces exhibit invites the showcase of interactive visualization. The “Macroscope Phase” of the exhibit is devoted to tools that demonstrate the power of data analysis and visualization techniques, empower individuals to make their own science maps, and help improve data visualization literacy globally.

More details: http://cstms.berkeley.edu/blog/2015/11/14/call-for-participation-in-macroscope-tools-for-the-places-spaces-mapping-science-exhibit-2016/

Each entry must be submitted by February 29, 2016.

Carolyn Merchant on her new book: Autonomous Nature

In this interview Carolyn Merchant talks about her new book, Autonomous Nature: Problems of Prediction and Control from Ancient Times to the Scientific Revolution.

In this interview Carolyn Merchant talks about her new book, Autonomous Nature: Problems of Prediction and Control from Ancient Times to the Scientific Revolution. The book  investigates the history of nature as an active, often unruly force in tension with nature as a rational, logical order from ancient times to the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century.

Ways of Seeing: Human and Animal Perspectives

A fascinating article in Atlantic brings to mind how limited our perspective is when we focus only on human seeing.

Many of us equate the variety of ways in which we see with John Berger’s classic book Ways of Seeing, also presented as a series on BBC. His book’s focus on cultural perspectives doesn’t touch on how differently humans and animals see. Berger later wrote an essay, “Why Look at Animals?” a part his 1980 anthology About Looking, which examines how we look at animals, but not how animals see.

A fascinating article in Atlantic brings to mind how limited our perspective is when we focus primarily on human seeing. The subject of how animals see is a fascinating field study, one that warrants more attention, as a recent article titled “This Animal Has a Suit of Armor With Hundreds of Built-In Eyes” reminds us. This article introduces a group of little-known sea creatures called chitons. They have evolved armor contains hundreds of eyes.

Chitons are mollusks, related to snails, clams, and octopuses. Their oval bodies are covered by a hard shell consisting of eight overlapping plates, which makes them look a bit like a woodlouse with a skirt, or perhaps like the forehead of a Klingon. In many species, these plates are dotted with hundreds of tiny beads, each less than a tenth of a millimeter across. These are eyes. Each contains a lens, a light-sensitive retina, and a layer of black pigment.

For links to a variety of examples on how animals see, visit Christopher Tyler’s Eye Page. He also includes links to a number of other sites. The image accompanying this post is from Tyler’s site. It is the eye of a female net-casting spider from Australia. The large lens concentrates light on the retina.

Tyler Talk: Time, Light and the Nature of Conscious Vision

“Time, Light and the Nature of Conscious Vision” by Christopher W. Tyler presentation at the Institute of Philosophy, University of London, April 23rd, 2015

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“Time, Light and the Nature of Conscious Vision” by Christopher W. Tyler
Institute of Philosophy, University of London, April 23rd, 2015

This lecture will take a large-scope view of the field of vision, which has always had a significant place in the history of philosophy. Lucretius in the early days of the Roman empire had a clear view of light as a wavefront, or film, propagating into the eye, a view that continued through Robert Grosseteste in the C13th, and Leonardo da Vinci in the C15th. How far have we come in understand of light as the medium of vision since then? In fact, we have added the magnetic and polarization components, but the basic concept of a wavefront propagating through time and space has remained unchanged into the quantum era. I will propose a new post-Einsteinian view of the nature of both time and light in this context conceptualized as the fractal extrapolation of a 6D space-time kernel.

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