Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Nothing to do with anything except language

I'm reading another book entitled How We Became Posthuman by Katherine Hayles and I found something interesting about language that I thought y'all (If I may be allowed to return to my Southern roots momentarily) might appreciate. The particular thing that I'm reading is in regards to the historical progression of the disembodiment of information (or the idea that this is possible) that has been going on since WWII.

This disembodiment idea happened across three distinct phases and the phase we are concerned about is the reflexivity stage. Essentially, reflexivity is the idea that a system can observe something that will modify itself. Given the vast complexity of our own systems, this isn't too hard to imagine. But essential to the language problem that I'm about to share is the study of frogs that was done by Maturana (and others) in the early 70s. They discovered that the world viewed through our senses isn't representational as much as constructed by a complex language that exists between our senses (eyes in this case) and our brains. For example, the frogs neural activity was measured in many different states. They noticed that the brain became very active when small, fast-moving, erratic objects were in the field of view. When large lumbering objects were in view, hardly any activity went on. Okay... there's a little assumption going on here, but I'm not going to point it out as the story is still a good one. The startling implication here is that while there is something undoubtedly out there that we might call reality, there is no description possible of an absolute reality. Well, that may not be so startling to us philosophers. The result, though, is that if the consequence (or action) of the nervous system is brought to be because of the way that it is constructed or organized, then the reality of that situation is that the system is reflexive or autopoietic (self-making). Now here comes the interesting part! Sorry for all the background, but I think it's necessary.

What Maturana came to find is that there was such a realist bent in not only scientific tradition but social tradition at the time that he ended up having to invent a new vocabulary to express the propositions that he was making in order to escape these theoritical pinnings. "It was then... that he discovered that 'language was a trap, but the whole experience was a wonderful school in which one could discover how mute, deaf and blind one was... one began to listen and one's language began to change; and then, but only then, new things could be said'"(Hayles, 137).

I think we get a two way explanation of what Heidegger is saying about language in this story. First, that our whole ontological predisposition is based upon the organized system that we are. We have not only sensory organs that deliver information to our brains about what we see, but an extremely sophisticated language that constructs that world. That language defines what we can and what we cannot see.

The other example is the language struggle that Maturana had. The conceptions that he had were so new and so foreign to anything we had thought about before that he had to invent a whole new lexicon specifically designed to deal with these concepts. Before he did that those things did not exist, could not be thought, were there but not for us to see.

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