Sally Davis has an excellent article at Aeon t
itled 'Womens' minds matter'. The gist of it is 'Feminists never bought the idea of the computational mind set free from its body. Cognitive science is finally catching up.'
This is an article aimed at the layman or unlaid loser of indeterminate sex, such as sad to say, I, by reason of my man-boobs and bouffant- imagine a black, elderly, bespectacled, 6 months up the duff, Princess Di- now gorgeously represent.
I'm sorry. Too Much Information. Still, the fact is, because I've just got back from the gym-where I used a hairdryer to give my thinning hair a bit of bounce- I currently have an awareness of my body in a modality of alienation.
I am casting up my fast depreciating physical 'assets' which, because I lack mental distinction or refinement of character, affect how I'm viewed and used and, hence, how I am remunerated or respected.
I am calculating a 'regret minimizing' trajectory of diet and exercise while bearing in mind my time and motivational constraints. I am 'economising'. In my lineage, this is what Moms did. I'm descended from udgatrs.
Our Upanishad in the Chandogya
. Men earned what they could but their wives kept the family going by 'economising'. Sometimes this meant- as is recorded- the husband was sent away without food. The kids always came first. In this context, a few men- with a priestly or other similar vocation- might cling to the rigid path of akrebia-
algorithmic approaches to alethia encoded in an intensional rhetoric- but this was merely by way of speculation- i.e. it represented only a small portion of the family's portfolio. Yet, because the fitness landscape was so uncertain, it made sense for a few men to engage in this speculation. The fact that I am here now almost 3000 years later writing this shows that some one or two of my male ancestors were right to 'speculate' on essentially metaphysical, ontologically dysphoric, 'futures'. But, this was only possible because their wives did what was needed to keep the kids alive- even though this might mean having to tell hubby he'd to go find someone else to feed him.
I mention all this because the Chandogya tells the story of a poor and hungry udgatr
who gets fed and is taught the solution to the 'Mind-Body' problem. That solution is always the same- Occasionalism ameliorated by either Agapic Economia or Akrebic Ontological dysphoria.
Sally Davis- who belongs to a lineage which believes 'the birth of the modern study of the mind' occurred in the Low Countries- writes
The way we think about thought is political.
This is not true. Thought is generally 'a game against Nature' even when it features actions on Open Markets. There is a very small province of Thought where strategic considerations arise. However, even within this province, emotional responses dominate cognitive ones because they better capture preference intensity. 'Emotions are Darwinian algorithms of the mind'. Game theory itself tells us that that the way we thing about politics ought not to be
political. Why? There's a Newcombe Problem, a Kavka's toxin. Whatever is Political is improvable by better public signals to shift us to an improved Aumann type correlated equilibrium.
To be fair, Davis was merely making an elegant segue into this very well written paragraph-
This much was evident at the birth of the modern study of the mind, when Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia wrote to René Descartes in 1643 to question his account of cognition. Her self-deprecation will be familiar to any woman who’s dared to dispute with an eminence, and knows that the best way to begin is usually by mollifying his ego.
Unfortunately, Elisabeth writes, the rhythms of her domestic life simply don’t permit the sort of calm introspection that Descartes declares is the key to doing good philosophy:
The interests of my house (which I must not neglect) and conversations and social obligations (which I can’t avoid), inflict so much annoyance and boredom on this weak mind of mine that it is useless for anything else for a long time afterward. I hope that this will excuse my stupid inability to grasp what you want me to grasp.
helping the interests 'of her house' somewhat better than many other Stuarts. Essentially, she is saying to Descartes that Calvinist predestination is better than Occasionalism which is 'anything goes'- indeed, the Hindu and Islamic versions had become canonical centuries previously. Christianity is better off playing the 'bourgeois strategy' here- viz. defend your inheritance rather than abandoning it on a speculative whim. The bourgeois strategy is eusocial because it minimises 'wasteful' contestation.
We may compare Descartes' Elisabeth with Pierce or Brouwer's Victoria Lady Welby. Both were Christian because Christianity is a religion of Economia, not Akrebia. Julia of Norwich has spoken of Mother
Christ on the Cross, not legs, but arms splayed, giving birth to the World.
We know from the Paston letters, that it was Sally Davis's own female ancestors who made this country great. How? By that 'mysterion' of 'oikonomia' which is ever Virgin though the mother of all who live. What could men have done by themselves? Establish a brief reputation as pirates or freebooters? England conquered India because it better represented 'Ram Rajya'. Lord Ram was monogamous. That is the lesson of the Ramayana. But, born though they be in whatsoever a manner, the kids always come first. And if the first born is denied his due status for some Akrebic, or strategic, reason- a Kurukshetra holocaust will follow. That is the lesson of the Mahabharata.
Forgive me for mentioning the Hindu religion. Currently, because Modi has just got re-elected, us Hindus are decidedly in the dog house with the liberal intelligentsia.
Thus, I ask you to consider the Ashkenazi Jews. Read the autobiography of Solomon Maimon. Notice, it is the wife that keeps the husband! We can see the same phenomenon in parts of North London! It is the wife that is the economist. The Husband is free to probe the bitter 'halachah vein morin kein'
of akrebic Law. What happens at Sabbath? The same thing that happens at her, even widowed, husband's every Minyan. The Shekinah is there though she herself may be elsewhere.
I don't want to admit that Jews are smarter than South Indians. I hate racism. Still, once South Indian girls refused to marry men not notably smarter (or better looking) than themselves- though I myself might have had to look elsewhere- the fact remains, our part of the world has progressed. Why? Girls did STEM subjects. Gaining financial security, they could stipulate for grooms with better genetic material. Rather than taking over the household after ten or twenty years, they create and sustain the household as they think fit. Their hubbies go to the gym. They don't have man-boobs like me. This is good from an actuarial point of view- though no doubt there is some hedonistic sexual mutual bonanza of a type I shudder to contemplate. Still, it is the kids who come first- though, nowadays, most couples can only afford to have one child.
Returning to Sally's essay-
The gauntlet she throws down to Descartes, however, is anything but feeble-minded. In his Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), he had claimed that the mind and body were made from two distinct substances, one immaterial and self-contained, the other material and extended out into the world. Elisabeth sees that this dualism poses a problem: how could such a floaty, incorporeal thing as the mind (cogito) cause a body to do anything, if each is made from quintessentially different stuff? Descartes is faced with a choice: either provide an account of some medium within which these substances interact, or admit that the mind is nothing special, emerging from matter just like everything else. The first option seems strange and unparsimonious, while the latter leaves no space for the mind to really do anything, since in principle it could be explained away by the underlying physical processes that bring it about.
Descartes and Liebniz- though bright and making a contribution to Maths- shat the bed here. The fact is, if you want a 'Mathesis Universalis' or at least Voevodsky's 'univalent foundations' (so, though not knowledge is generated algorithmically, still at least mathematical proofs are computer checkable), then you have to have to confine intensionality to a second order, protocol bound, category theoretic, language.
Sally, writing for the unlaid layman writes-
A body enervated by the duties that attend on being a woman affects one’s capacity to think.
Coz, having a big O as part of getting preggers is like so antithetical to thought. OMG! Breeders are such sheeple!
This basic framing of the mind-body relationship remains dominant in both philosophical and scientific frameworks for the study of the mind.
Nonsense. An explanation had to be found for why women- though bearing very high costs for child birth- might nevertheless form heterosexual relationships. The Price equation- kin selective altruism- did that once and for all when I was a kid.
Today, the domain of ‘matter’ maps onto the brain, fed by signals and inputs from a body that perceives and reacts to the world; the ‘mind’, meanwhile, has become a collection of intangible phenomena such as psychology or consciousness.
But 'cognitive science' is not greatly respected. It is not producing new inventions and thus isn't 'paying for itself'. Third or Fourth Wave Feminism, too, isn't paying for itself because it isn't translating into productivity boosting institutional and cultural reforms.
Since the mid-20th century, the most influential theorists and experimentalists have interpreted this Cartesian divide using the metaphor of computing.
But they have achieved nothing. Look at Chomsky's abysmal oeuvre. It is now purely defensive and cashes out as 'mysterianism'.
The brain is cast as a rule-based mechanism for manipulating abstract symbols and internal representations that somehow arrive at our awareness from the world outside via our perceptions. These perceptions are transformed into inner states such as beliefs, intentions or desires, and then translated algorithmically into actions.
Mimetic models are more persuasive because cognition is costly.
The brain needs a body, to be sure, but only the way a parasite needs a host, or software needs some kind of hardware on which to run.
But we all know software can't run on any old hardware. The latter has to be specifically designed so as to create environments where particular software modules can run. But they may still crash more often on some hardware platforms than others.
Parasites are in an evolutionary arms race with hosts and are constantly seeking ways to jump to new species. One legitimate reason for 'mysterianism' is the consideration that the solution to 'hard problems of consciousness' should be inaccessible so as to baffle predators and parasites. If you can't 'hack' your own mind, chances are your enemies can't either.
Our biohacking entrepreneur Faguet captures the essence of this view when he writes: ‘[Y]ou are a hackable, programmable biorobot constructed by evolution. You are just executing programs. Embrace the reality of what you are.’
If we were hackable, someone else would have hacked us by now. OMG, it was the Russians! That's why we voted for Trump or Brexit or whatever it is the bien pensant
elite disapproves of.
But the mind-matter split, and its cognitive-computational descendants, are not logical necessities that follow from all attempts to understand the nature of thought. They’re really more like points of departure or grounding intuitions, and not everyone is going to share them.
Actually, they are 'just-so' stories or represent phenomenological 'bracketing' so useful work can carry on elsewhere. No doubt, when a smart person gets stuck on a useful project, she may- purely as a 'displacement activity'- start waxing philosophical. But this is a meaningless ethological tic with no survival or other value.
Elisabeth, for one, told Descartes that she leant towards physical reductionism over a dualist approach: ‘I would find it easier to concede matter and extension to the soul than to concede that an immaterial thing could move and be moved by a body.’ Her vignette about housework also serves as a sly criticism. She knows first-hand that a body enervated by the duties and niceties that attend on being a woman affects one’s capacity to think.
Duties and niceties attend on being a Prince as much as a Princess. A timesuck is a timesuck regardless of your gender.
Likewise, writing two years later from a Belgian hot-spring town, Elisabeth’s experience of illness makes her doubt Descartes’s assertion that virtue is largely about having the mental fortitude to follow the cool dictates of reason. ‘I still can’t rid myself of the doubt that one can arrive at the beatitude you speak of without help from things that don’t absolutely depend on the will,’ she says. Surely doing the right thing depends on many things beyond our control, Elisabeth argues – freedom from too many burdens, the correct upbringing, good health.
It’s not that Elisabeth simply rejected Descartes’s views without critical reflection, or fell back to simply asserting her subjective opinion. It’s that her particular life experience inclined her to develop different intuitions to him, and gave her good reasons to doubt the plausibility of dualism.
But her 'particular experience'- as described above- applies equally to men. She wasn't whining about her period or going into graphic detail about the horrors of giving birth.
As the philosopher Amia Srinivasan at the University of Oxford has argued, the contingencies of what happens to us in life – the people who have shaped us, the challenges we have overcome – invariably shape the sorts of claims that we’ll find persuasive or the arguments we’re inclined to doubt.
Amia finds bizarre claims persuasive despite having had a very conventional upbringing. The challenge she overcame was that of doing useful, highly remunerated, work in a STEM subject, or a business enterprise, in favor of joining a worthless University department and zeroing in on the craziest types of interlocutors- people like Jason Stanley
- within that paradise of fools.
Here, it seems to me that Elisabeth’s experience as a woman meant that she did not have the luxury of entertaining anxieties about the stark separation of mind and matter.
Then why bother corresponding with Descartes? The fact is she was a Calvinist committed to Augustinian predestination. She was keeping abreast of a challenge to Christian orthodoxy. No doubt, being an Aristocrat, she was careful to write in an 'amateur' manner. It would never do to come across like some sort of pedant whose place was below the salt.
One might think that her concerns – as for many women, in fact, and other oppressed peoples throughout history – were not really about how to bridge a gaping chasm between some enclosed inner world and a remote outer one.
The trouble with saying, as some Feminists do, that the Queen, Gor'bless'er, is oppressed because she lacks a penis, is that Feminism then becomes preoccupied with the problems of Queens. It loses any possible social utility it might have.
The problem of 'chorismos' had a 'once and for all' solution in the Calvinist 'TULIP' doctrine of election. Elisabeth went on to become the Abbess of the Lutheran convent of Herford and as such was a forerunner of the ecumenical movement.
Rather, Elisabeth’s worry might well have been about how to preserve an inner sense of self against the relentless pressing-in of the world’s demands;
Christianity did this for her to such good effect that she became a very distinguished figure within the Reformed Church.
Why speak of Elisabeth as an abject creature? She made her own choices and led a good, a worthwhile, life.
about how to assert an entitlement to be a full person with distinct projects;
Being a 'Princess-Abbess' aint exactly chopped liver. Elisabeth asserted her entitlements very successfully.
and about how to carve out space to flourish in a society that relies on exploiting you.
Right! Coz, the Queen, Gor'bless'er, is being remorselessly exploited. Theresa May uses her as a foot stool. Boris Johnson, on becoming P.M, will declare her to be an ottoman, because he is of Turkish descent.
While philosophers are inordinately fond of comparing humans to entities that are different to ‘us’ – zombies, bats, AIs, octopuses, aliens – they’ve been rather slower to show an interest in the complex lives of certain creatures who already live alongside ‘us’ day to day, who can walk and talk and describe their subjectivity, but who until recently have been shut out of the category of full and proper personhood.
Oookay- philosophers be kray kray. Fair cop, Guv. But why pretend Princess Elisabeth was shut out of the category of 'full and proper personhood'. She had more, not less, of that than Descartes under the Laws of the period.
Feminist theory, concerned with the operation of patriarchy and the liberation of women, is a powerful tool for revealing the pernicious effects of setting women to the side – including how such exclusion might permit the persistence of unexamined assumptions and questionable theories.
Why has this 'powerful tool' achieved nothing except provoke what Susan Faludi has described in her book 'Backlash'? One reason is that it concentrates exclusively on flogging dead horses which, had they lived, might have eaten even the pathetic semblance of strawmen they assemble to attack but, mysteriously, are defeated by so as to revel in their own abjectness.
In her classic text The Second Sex (1949), the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir performed just such a move against the bedrock of Enlightenment philosophy, the knowing human subject. ‘Man is not a natural species: he is a historical idea,’ she said, paraphrasing her fellow philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The very idea of the Human is not some universal given, de Beauvoir claimed, but a byproduct of how societies have systematically degraded women:
The devaluation of woman represents a necessary stage in the history of humanity; for she derived her prestige not from her positive value but from man’s weakness; she incarnated disturbing natural mysteries: man escapes her grasp when he frees himself from nature.
Beauvoir was 'second wave' and part of a struggle which did tangibly improve things for everybody. She was writing in the post-war period when women were seen as 'proletarian'- child bearing- and their highest duty was considered to be having plenty of boy babies for the next big War.
France gives a higher status to Philosophy- you have to do it in High School in order to get to an elite College- and so Beauvoir had a useful role to play. Her work could be used against the Church, the Communist Party as well as the vulgar Poujadist strain even in Gaullism.
The English speaking world has a different, 'empirical, 'Law & Economics', tradition. There is little to be learnt from French thinkers though, no doubt, it is a gold mine for satire.
Woman, in other words, is humanity’s foil. She is the ‘Other’, bearing the brand of the not-quite-Human, which lets man point at her and whisper: 'We know what we are, because, thank god, we are not that'.
Yup! That's what happens when a young woman walks past a building site, true enough.
Thus when de Beauvoir makes the oft-quoted point that ‘one is not born, but rather becomes, woman’, she is not just saying that women’s minds and selves are socially constructed. More trenchantly, she is arguing that women become women precisely so that men can become Human.
French people are human? How come they jabber away in an incomprehensible lingo? Why do they wear a string of garlic around their necks? If they really were human, they'd speak English and wear bow ties and shower occasionally. Also, their cheese wouldn't be smelly and look and taste like plastic- as God intended.
While the Human has access to Cartesian qualities of reason, truth and clarity, the Other is linked to irrationality, emotion and vagueness; where the Human has civilisation and culture, the Other is aligned with nature and matter; and where the Human has a honed and powerful mind, the Other is at the mercy of the body. De Beauvoir writes:
Man vainly forgets that his anatomy also includes hormones and testicles. He grasps his body as a direct and normal link with the world that he believes he apprehends in all objectivity, whereas he considers the woman’s body an obstacle, a prison, burdened by everything that particularises it.
Men don't forget their testicles. They take great care to protect them. Most men- or at least, inveterate losers like me- do spend a lot of time considering women's bodies. If it is a prison, it is one they long to break into. After that, they want to be looked after and protected from the big bad world out there.
The American philosopher Martha Nussbaum extends a version of de Beauvoir’s analysis in her book Political Emotions (2013). Drawing on child and developmental psychology, Nussbaum says that the human condition is framed by an awareness of vulnerability on the one hand, and the desire to change and control our reality on the other.
Awareness of vulnerability cancels out the desire to change things. The safer course is to get to somewhere you won't be so vulnerable. Thus, if a fire breaks out, we run away. We don't stand around saying 'OMG, I am vulnerable to getting burned to a crisp. I desire to change and control this environment. I feel an impulse towards narcissism and disgust. I will now take a selfie and post it up on Instagram.'
This inescapable bind creates a universal impulse towards narcissism and disgust, she says. We feel disgust at our own mortal and fleshly nature, and at any reminders of our finitude and fragility as creatures.
Very true. Being burned alive will do that to you more particularly if everybody else ran away.
So we subordinate others in order to project onto them all the qualities that we wish to deny in ourselves – that they are base, animal, Other – while we imagine ourselves as transcending to the realm of the mighty, truly Human.
I don't know about you, but when I feel vulnerable, I run away. So do most people. It may be there are one or two people who don't run away when the building is on fire. Before being burnt to a crisp, they may imagine themselves as transcending to the realm of the mighty, truly Human... thus becoming a pile of ashes. But, evolution weeds out such people.
Armed with these arguments, feminists appear to face a stark choice.
These arguments are not armaments. They are self-inflicted wounds. The only stark choice here is between going further down the road of stark raving madness and quietly going home and changing your course of study to something utile and remunerative.
They can argue that women should be allowed to ascend from their denigrated state to the domain of the fully free and rational human, the move of a classic liberal feminist such as Mary Wollstonecraft.
This involves changing laws and institutions in a manner which raises productivity and creates a virtuous circle from which all benefit.
Second Wave Feminists did an excellent job of this- even in some Communist countries.
Just as men are not defined by their bodies, nor should we be.
If men are not defined by their bodies, how do we know they aren't women or cats or items of furniture?
Alternatively, a feminist might reject this standard of humanity as hopelessly tainted and patriarchal, and suggest instead that we embrace the particularity of ‘female’ qualities.
Why not? Amia Srinivasan's ancestors did so, which is why the Iyengar community is now doing very well. Sally Davies's ancestors had a concept of 'Mother Jesus' and they did extremely well- which is why Amia now speaks better English than Tamil or Telugu.
Mahatma Gandhi embraced 'female' qualities as did Ramakrishna before him. This proved a great boon for Indian Nationalism and is one reason the country is a stable Democracy under the Rule of Law.
This latter strategy is evident, for example, in the American psychologist Carol Gilligan’s landmark study of women’s moral reasoning, In a Different Voice(1982), in which she argued that girls tend to think about ethical problems in terms of relations of care and emotion, while boys typically look at them through the lens of justice, reason and individualism.
'Economia' is female, 'Akrebia' is male. The Eastern Church argues that the former is superior to the latter.
A separate point is made by the Jain religion which valorizes 'many pointedness' in cognition. The first female Jain Acharya in millennia has established a branch of her 'Veerayatan' Ashram here in London. Some of the most successful people of Indian origin, regardless of gender, listen to the sermons of the Jain Sadhavi in charge. They quickly understand that 'many- pointedness' is similar to 'multi-tasking' and 'horizontal networking' (both of which are considered female work-skills) and that these ways of functioning must be cultivated to ensure the viability of the enterprise or research program they are engaged on.
Third and Fourth Wave Feminism lack precisely this 'many pointed' type of cognitive flexibility. It is an adversely selective academic availability cascade which has crashed as a Credentialist Ponzi scheme. Its chief function is to provoke a backlash so as to keep the likes of Trump in power. If the thing did not exist, Fox News or the Daily Mail would be forced to invent it.
In a more overtly activist mode, traditions of ‘ecofeminism’ draw a connection between the generative features of ‘mother Earth’ and embodied, ‘maternal’ qualities such as fecundity and a capacity for nurture. (In the ecologically unstable era of the Anthropocene, however, we might be more inclined to view Gaia as ‘a tough bitch’, in the mordant phrase of the American evolutionary theorist Lynn Margulis.)
Margulis had a vision of the entire biosphere being in communication through gene transfer of a recondite type. This could have operationalised an eco-feminist version of Dawkin's extended phenotype. The thing may still happen.
Yet both camps fall into the trap of thinking that the body is somehow primeval and immutable – a substrate, a ‘given’ that can’t be changed or questioned.
Fair point. Less bilge might have been written if soi disant
savants had spent less time cashing the pension checks of Dead White Men and more time paying attention to developments in Evolutionary Biology. This would have been collectively rational but would have prevented individuals gaining a rent by publishing nonsense. This is an example of market failure.
In the 1980s, this presumption helped to push feminism’s focus towards gender, the set of social roles and practices that women are encouraged to perform, as distinct from their biological sex. The partition of women’s condition into sex and gender gave activists a way to demonstrate the effects of social norms and to wrest authority away from ‘the natural’. This strategy was undeniably transformative, but it also came at a cost.
In the Third World, this meant that NGOs doing useful work had to pay some idiot like me to translate their 'Women in Development' Mission Statement into fashionable 'Gender and Development' jargon. This 'second order', purely gesture political, work crowded out first order activism. It was 'transformative' in the sense of turning everything into bureaucratic shite.
For one, the body began to occupy some sort of liminal state, at once profoundly important and oddly obscured.
I recall attending a GAD conference. My body began to occupy a liminal position- in the downstairs bar. So did many other bodies. However, genuine activists were to be found occupying the even more liminal place of the public toilets barfing their lungs out because of all the shite they'd had to regurgitate.
Feminists wrote about how it was policed, represented and symbolised, but it became difficult to talk about embodiment in overtly scientific or material terms, as if that would let some sort of malign, deterministic genie out of the bottle.
Feminists wrote stupid lies. These could not be represented in 'scientific or material' terms. That is the problem with telling stupid lies. You have to tell even more stupid lies- like, don't try to verify our lies otherwise an evil genie will escape- so as to have an insanity defense against the charge of being a stupid liar.
Critics had rightly observed that biology and technoscience had been weaponised time and again to serve the needs and desires of men.
So has Reality. That is why we must have no truck with Reality. Evil genie will escape and eat you if you try to verify anything I've said.
These practices certainly deserved corrective doses of skepticism and critique, but the decision to do so ended up trading away feminist influence on the scientific process from within.
Telling stupid lies does
tend to trade away your influence on scientific processes. So what? There's an Evil Genie that could escape from its bottle any second now! Screw scientific processes, we must journey to the 14th dimension to find Solomon's ring. The Nicaraguan horcrux of my neighbor's cat can help us. But first we must get down on all fours and say miaow.
Moreover, it meant that if some area of the relations between men and women was to be transformed – childrearing, the workplace, sexuality – feminists had to accuse gender, not sex, as the underlying cause of the problem.
But only because to do otherwise would release an Evil Genie before the Nicaraguan horcrux of the neighbor's cat opens the dimensional portal to Solomon's ring.
In this way, we transformed an anxiety about a determinism of nature into an equally untenable claim about the determinism of culture.
Ex falso quodlibet. From a stupid lie, all sorts of stupid lies logically follow.
Meanwhile, as feminists turned their attention away from the life sciences, deeming them suspect beyond redemption, biologists and evolutionary psychologists continued to expand their influence and capture the attention of the public and policymakers. Sex became the ‘Achilles’ heel’ of feminism, as the American biologist and feminist theorist Anne Fausto-Sterling wrote in 2005:
We relegated it to the domain of biology and medicine, and biologists and medical scientists have spent the past 30 years expanding it into arenas we firmly believed to belong to our ally gender. Hormones, we learn (once more), cause naturally more assertive men to reach the top in the workplace. Rape is a behaviour that can be changed only with the greatest difficulty because it is wired somehow into men’s brains. The relative size of eggs and sperm dictate that men are naturally polygamous and women naturally monogamous. And more.
In other words, a feminist suspicion of instrumental scientific reasoning about the body – especially the sexed body – was totally understandable, but somewhat shortsighted.
Belief in Evil Genies is understandable- if the bottle in question contains a liquor you are partial to. Uncorking it leads, through some malign magic, to your waking up the next day face down in a pool of vomit.
In the face of this ‘oil spill of sex’, Fausto-Sterling thought that feminists face a different sort of choice.
Doing something useful? No.
Either they can push back against each claim about the causal role of the biological body. Or they can grapple with the reality of a body made up of cells and nerves and tissues, but still look critically at how bodies absorb and are inscribed by culture – how physiology and society, nature and nurture, are constantly co-creating each other, to the point where it doesn’t make sense to look at either of them in isolation.
It doesn't make sense for stupid people to look at stuff far beyond their ken. It does make sense for them to get proper jobs and do something useful for Society.
Imagine that someone presents you and a friend with a box, and asks you to take turns picking it up. According to the computational model of the mind, your brain takes in perceptual inputs from the body about the weight of the box, which then produces the feeling of how heavy it is when you lift it. Provided you and your friend are equally strong, then your sense of the weight of box should be similar. But that’s not what happens, according to a study in 2014 by the psychologists Eun Hee Lee and Simone Schnall at the University of Cambridge. These researchers found that people who felt themselves to be socially powerful experienced the physical burden as lighter than those with less social power.
Even if this study is replicable- which is highly unlikely- the fact is its statistical methodology is flawed. This is Junk Social Science.
Similarly, participants in other studies who faced an uphill climb accompanied by a friend perceived the same slope to be less steep than those who had to go it alone; those who consumed glucose thought an incline looked shallower than those who’d had a calorie-neutral sweetener; and those in negative moods perceived the slant to be steeper than those with a more optimistic outlook.
The intuition here is plausible, but the fact remains the studies are worthless because their methodology is flawed.
Computational thinking remains dominant within cognitive science and philosophy of mind.
But both are useless.
But new frontiers are opening up that view the body as something more than just a brain-carrying robot. In doing so, they have created the potential for alliances with feminist thinkers influenced by the likes of Fausto-Sterling.
So this is an alliance between the useless and the useless. Why not broaden it by getting on board with Alien abductees who have been anally probed? Why stop there? A broad alliance between feminists, Rosicrucians, cognitive scientists, Yogi Bears and votaries of Chthulhu might get their own Netflix series.
Within a broad church that can be called – not uncontentiously – embodied cognition, a growing number of psychologists, scientists and theorists are approaching mental life as something that is not just contingent on, but constituted by, the state of our bodies.
But these guys aint inventing cool stuff. They aren't incubating the next great start-ups. They represent failed research programs and a Credentialist Ponzi scheme which has already collapsed. It's a case of 'collect your sheepskin and application for a job at Starbucks. Thanks for all your tuition fees- sucker!'
In the place of a Cartesian computer, the mind becomes more like a clay pot thrown on a wheel, to use the philosopher Michael Kirchhoff’s metaphor.
A terrible metaphor. Everybody knows the ghost of Patrick Swayze will start fingering them if they buy into it.
The wet clay spins on a rotating disk, shaping and reshaping itself under the potter’s hands, arms and muscles, which in turn respond to how the material is moving. The mind is moulded by forces operating both within it and upon it, but also linked up to the world and the body as a single, dynamic yet mostly stable system.
But the potter's hands obey a mind. So this cashes out as 'the mind is moulded by Patrick Swayze's ghostly mind which is fingering Demi Moore who is still hot which is so unfair coz she's older than me.
It takes only a small leap to see the political potential of embodied cognition for feminists seeking a path out of the quagmire of sex and gender – or indeed any other critical social theorists keen to overthrow falsely naturalised and unjust hierarchies.
The political potential of linking up with the Flat Earthers or Climate Deniers would be greater still.
Embodied cognition allows us to recognise the agency of biology without ceding the significance of power or politics.
Being alive allows us to recognise the agency of biology. Being stupid involves ceding or not ceding biology significance with respect to power or politics. One may as well babble about how Quantum Mechanics inevitably gives rise to Totalitarian States. Bacon said 'either we must put Nature on the rack or Man'. Them evil scientists dun bin torturing sub-atomic particles! OMG! The Black Helicopters are coming for me!
In her essay ‘Throwing Like a Girl’ (1980), the American philosopher Iris Marion Young cites empirical research suggesting that women playing sport are more likely than men to perceive a ball to be coming at them, aggressively, rather than towards them; they also tend not to trust their bodies, and to experience their limbs as awkward encumbrances rather than tools to help them realise their aims.
Sadly, this also describes my own sporting career. Some people are good at throwing things or hitting things thrown at them. Being very short sighted, but quite heavy in build, I preferred getting close to and then thumping anyone who chucked things at me.
Drawing on the work of de Beauvoir, Young suggests that female bodily experience is often rooted ‘in the fact that feminine existence experiences the body as a mere thing – a fragile thing, which must be picked up and coaxed into movement, a thing that exists as looked at and acted upon.
Mum did have to coax me into movement- coz I iz is a big tub of lard- but no one had to coax her into movement. That's why I didn't starve to death. Mum even managed to get the LSE not to keep me back for failing to show up for my Second Year Exams, by telling my tutor the horrendous history of my toilet training. Her hints were scarcely subtle. If I were held back, I'd probably regress to pooping all over the place. Given that I was a fat sack of shit, the LSE authorities made sure I got my degree without having to show up for classes and lectures and other such opportunities for aggressive incontinence.
But Young denies that this state of affairs is in any way natural, or that it flows from something intrinsic to female biology;
Very good of her, I'm sure.
instead, she says, such feelings are byproducts of how women learn to live in their bodies.
How do they learn they are women? And how do they learn they are women learning to live in their bodies? What is to prevent them learning they are cats living in women's bodies?
One therefore doesn’t need some essential definition of ‘female’ to accept that embodiment matters, and to see how it shapes and can be shaped by culture.
Accepting embodiment matters as little as accepting the propinquity of the post Kristevan Chora's heteroclite anality considered, not under the rubric of the scotomized subject of Neo-Liberal hegemony, but, more daringly, under the aegis of post-scotomized hyper-Governmentality.
While embodied cognition has grown in popularity in recent years,
it flows from a long history of counter-Cartesian philosophical psychology that predates the mainstream model of the computational mind.
But that long history of Cartesian or counter-Cartesian nonsense was still nonsense. Witness Chomsky's abysmal career.
De Beauvoir is often read
as a deeply anti-biological feminist who inaugurated the sex/gender divide avant la lettre, but this overlooks her explicit acknowledgement of debt to the embodied phenomenology of Martin Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty.
Both of whom were utterly useless.
These thinkers were committed to the importance of the body, not as a mere thing in the world, but the ground and origin of each organism’s own reality, the very means of thought.
And this commitment enabled them to invent cool new stuff, like the iPhone- I don't think.
‘Because the body is the instrument of our hold on the world, the world appears different to us depending on how it is grasped,’ de Beauvoir writes. ‘[T]he body is not a thing, it is a situation: it is our grasp on the world and the outline for our projects.’
Unless you happen to have painful haemorrhoids. Then you have to go see a proper Doctor, though- admittedly- displaying your anus to Doctors of Philosophy can be a fun way to pass the time.
In phenomenology, the body becomes the reference-point for an individual’s experience. It is something that doesn’t simply record or register abstract representations, as if they are shapes being pressed into inert plaster; rather, it draws forth aspects of the environment that a particular creature deems meaningful at that moment in time.
Does anybody find this shite meaningful at this
moment in time?
Heidegger’s favourite example was a hammer. Recognising that hammer, in terms of understanding what it is and what it can do, will depend on your prior bodily experience with a hammer. Only if you’ve hefted something like it in your hand before will you be able to guess whether it’s too heavy or too light for a task. To recognise a hammer is to grasp its significance to you, in that moment, which requires you to have some prior feeling of the action of hammering.
Nonsense. The thing is purely mimetic. You see other people using it in a certain way and follow suit.
The case of Mike May, an American professional skier, shows what this might mean in practice. At the age of three, May lost his sight when a chemical explosion from a lantern destroyed his left eye and scarred his right cornea. Remarkably, in 1999, at the age of 46, his sight was restored by a corneal transplant. But that did not mean he could see, in any standard sense of the word. Instead of cars, cats, people and trees, May saw only moving lines and blotches of colour. It’s unclear what accounts for May’s struggle to see after a 40-year hiatus; after all, he would seem to have access to all the same visual data as any other sighted person. According to the psychologist Louise Barrett and the neuroscientist Moshe Bar: ‘These ideas also suggest the intriguing possibility that exposure to visual sensations alone is not sufficient for visual experience.’ They thought that the reason for May’s continuing problems was because he had been denied the chance to connect the sight of objects to other bodily sensations at a crucial stage of childhood development. In their view, humans do not use our senses to develop an abstract representation of objects in the world, and only then graft on our feelings about such things. Instead, we see ‘with feeling’: we learn to see a cat or a tree by linking it to our history of bodily engagements, such as their smell, touch or the emotions it evokes when we see one. We do not reason from a position of detachment, but rather with a history of embodied encounters under our belts that allows us to make sense out of the world, quite literally.
Sadly, this example supports the computational view. May didn't have the software to process the signals his new hardware was sending his brain.
Like Heidegger, the American philosopher and psychologist William Jamesalso believed that our core cognitive processes were afterimages of the ebb and flow of our various bodily states as we navigated the world. Take fear: without the feelings of ‘quickened heart-beats nor of shallow breathing, neither of trembling lips nor of weakened limbs, neither of goose-flesh nor of visceral stirrings,’ James argued in 1884, we’d be incapable of grasping the concept. Likewise for grief, for ‘what would it be without its tears, its sobs, its suffocation of the heart, its pang in the breast-bone?’ Against Descartes, the body indeed thinks; it’s the very tool by which meanings are offered up to consciousness.
It is one of the tools but, by training, not the one that predominates. I run away from a fire. A member of the fire-brigade is trained to suppress his bodily responses and enters a blazing building in a cool and collected state of mind.
No doubt, academics have foolish ideas and spend a lot of time dissecting each other's folly in equally foolish terms. But why should the rest of us bother with a field which can't 'pay its way' in terms of inventing cool stuff or raising productivity in some other way?
All this talk of expectations and affordances leads to a potentially troublesome consequence: cognition can no longer be cleaved apart neatly from politics.
When could it? Under slavery in the antebellum
South? Or under Jim Crow prior to 1965?
If I am black, my prediction of what a police officer might afford me is likely to be very different to that of my white friend, as well as eliciting very different felt responses and perceptions.
I am black. My prediction of what an English police officer might afford me is precisely the same as that of my white friends of a similar age and class. Actually, I'm better treated because I might turn out to be Lord Desai or the Sri Lankan Ambassador.
America may be different, but that's an American problem to do with bad mechanism design. It has nothing to do with 'embodiment'.
Undoing such expectations (which it might well be reasonable for me to hold) is not just a matter of changing my beliefs, but of modifying longstanding embodied reactions.
I'm not American, but if I were visiting that country and a cop points a gun at me, I've watched enough TV to know I should raise my hands, get on my knees or 'assume the position' against a wall.
I imagine that a black person in America who 'modifies longstanding embodied reactions' in such a context would be in danger of getting his head shot off.
Similarly, as a woman, I might not expect a dark and deserted street to afford me walking down it at night, while my male partner might feel entirely at ease in that space.
I wish I had such a partner- male or female! I take great care not to walk down dark and deserted streets in certain locations. That's why I'm nice to my Uber drivers so as to have a good feedback score. I don't want to end up having to walk home past the Council Estate at two o'clock in the morning. I might not be raped, but being knifed for my watch is not a pleasant prospect.
The fact that I feel myself to be vulnerable, in a very visceral way, means that I will avoid putting myself in that position, and so my predictions will be tacitly reinforced.
This is also true of animals. What point is the author making? It is a foolish one about taking illicit drugs or maybe turning into a cyborg coz that would be super cool.
Perhaps it would be super-cool. But it isn't political at all. It is merely spectacle.
The embodied world, as each of us encounters it, is a product of such self-reinforcing causal loops. Does embodied cognition get us feminists any closer to a recipe for women’s emancipation – one that avoids an unappetising choice between the unmoored human universal on the one hand, and an essentialist concept of ‘the female’ on the other? There are certainly hints of what a more malleable and creative feminist biopolitics might look like. In Testo Junkie(2008), the Spanish activist and writer Paul Preciado, previously Beatriz Preciado, gives a vertiginous account of his illicit application of topical testosterone.
The truth about sex is not a disclosure; it is sexdesign… I don’t want to change my sex, and I don’t want to declare myself dysphoric about whatever it may be; I don’t want a doctor to decide how much testosterone a month is suitable for changing my voice and making me grow a beard; I don’t want to have my ovaries and breasts removed.
Preciado is clear that he’s not after any kind of ‘standard’ transition from one sex or gender to another; he does not take himself to be peeling away the female to reveal some concealed, genuine, male essence:
The body becomes a malleable substance – something that Preciado can toy and tinker with, rather than control and engineer.
Preciado displays neither a nostalgia for biological fixity, nor some techno-fantasy of embodiment as something that can be simply cast aside. His image of himself is closer to the transgressive feminist being that Haraway calls a ‘cyborg’: a co-evolving hybrid that emerges from a mosaic of technology and biology, thought and feeling, the material and the mental. These entities are a far cry from the demigods that Silicon Valley has in its sights. Instead, Haraway’s cyborgs revel in their own ragged borders, the cross-pollination and pollution of their biological and technological components, their entanglement and reliance on other creatures, their leakiness and unpredictability. ‘It’s not just that “god” is dead; so is the “goddess”,’ Haraway exults: there are ‘great riches for feminists in explicitly embracing the possibilities inherent in the breakdown of clean distinctions between organism and machine’.
Some Silicon Valley types get to talk stupid shit coz they are very rich and may have invented or be about to invent cool stuff. If poor people who haven't invented shit mimic the stupidity of Silicon Valley types, they make themselves a laughing stock.
Embodied cognition offers a way out of a false choice for a future feminist agenda: between a politics grounded in an essentialised notion of the female body, and one that risks quashing the particularity of women’s experience by forcing it to measure up to some falsely universal norm. Instead it leaves us with a view of women’s condition as being a biocultural artifact, enmeshed in tangled relationships with nature and matter that can be moulded and rewired, if not upturned overnight. In the place of Faguet’s invincible and omnipotent transhuman, embodied feminism might yield a figure more like Moon Ribas, a Catalan artist with a sensor permanently implanted in her arm that allows her to feel earthquakes anywhere on the planet.
Wonderful! Sign me up for one of those gizmos! That will make me the life and soul of the party- for about 5 minutes. Then everybody would shun me as a monumental bore whose arm keeps trembling and spilling red wine on their cashmere sweaters.
To recognise that our bodies are steeped in and fashioned by culture also means facing up to the unpleasant fact that we are vulnerable to manipulation and control.
Very true! I've been on a very strict diet for the last twenty years. Yet I keep gaining weight. It is because my body is being manipulated and controlled by Evil Multinational Corporations like McDonalds, KFC, Dunkin' Donuts & so forth.
The infiltration of digital devices into the most intimate crannies
speak for yourself dear. My intimate crannies are still cherry.
of our lives makes it harder and harder to cling to the belief that humans possess truly autonomous, bounded, sovereign minds.
Shoving your smartphone up your anus will do that to you.
Maybe we don’t need to look on this development with alarm, but see it as history granting us a form of permission – a licence to experiment with new kinds of empathy, fresh identities, and a range of more interesting, hybrid selves.
You are welcome to experiment with your own smartphone. I don't want to void the warranty on mine. Also turning up at Accident & Emergency with an A.R Rahman ringtone coming out of your ass is so like Nineties dude.
As for hybrid selves- have you ever met a Homi Bhabha type hybrid? They are as boring as shit. Take it from me, but for my problems with incontinence, I too- being fitted for nothing else- might have turned into that stupid sort of academic. Perhaps I should have done. Mum would have been so proud.