Friday, March 26, 2010

Gut Over Glut

In 1990 Carolyn Miller took decision science ("a theory of choice with an accompanying battery of 'decision aids' for 'modeling problems of choice' in management and public policy"(163)*) to task for both what Wayne Booth calls motivism and for what Chaim Perelman refers to as reducing "problems of action" to "problems of knowledge." Miller dings decision science for a few other things; I am interested only in these two for my present purposes (as I am likewise thinking about my Computers and Writing presentation in May): the dangers of motivism and the action/knowledge problem in public life and how rhetoric should respond pedagogically.

Troubling Decision Science
Miller defines decision science as a kind of rhetoric in that it is a "theory of choice" (163). Nevertheless, Miller argues it is a problematic rhetoric because it abdicates or avoids reasoning about values, what Booth terms motivism. My more cynical response is that those folks in economics and management who typically employ decision science are avoiding addressing values purposefully to prevent them from being challenge (but this is, perhaps, another problematic kind of motivism that Burke admonishes against).

The second issue Miller addresses is how decision science boils problems of action (what should we do? should we do something at all?) down to problems of knowledge (how much will is cost? what are the risks and rewards?). The problem is that in reducing action to knowledge decision science erases conflict and avoids the question of values.
Problems of action involve conflict between people; even solitary deliberators negotiate conflicts between possible versions of themselves. Problems of action are "essentially contestable"; problems of knowledge are not. (175)
Decision Science Troubles the World
For example of how both aspects of decision science problematically operate out in the world (one of Miller's chief concerns), I would draw our attention to the NOVA documentary "The Spy Factory". The oddly titled documentary explores the role of the National Security Agency (NSA), in combination with the FBI and the CIA, in the "intelligence failures" preceding and following the 9/11 terror attacks. In particular, the issues of motivism and problems of action/knowledge show-up in the Bush administration's response to those attacks. (Obviously, this blog post is limited and much of the work now being done within the intelligence services is to be commended. This post and the documentary it draws on have a necessarily limited perspective. That being said, I am responding to stated desires and policies.)

In brief, the Bush administration's response was to remove barriers to searches and spying so as to increase the amount or volume of information available to our intelligence agencies. Many critiques of this policy -- beyond the legal and moral ones -- persuasively point out that information or the lack thereof was not the issue -- was not the root of the problem. There was enough intelligence in terms of raw data. Indeed, the ease with which government investigators were able to piece together the events leading up to the attacks suggests as much. The problem was a problem of action, of value-laden decision-making (not "do we have enough information?" but "should we be sharing it with other agencies and how and when?"). What was required, to borrow from Miller, was an ability to reason about values, about the culture of the intelligence community, and about how information was allowed or not allowed to circulate. Most importantly, however, reducing this problem of action to a problem of knowledge has potentially threatened core legal principles and not made us all that much safer. A primary contributor to the documentary, and a long time historian of the NSA, concludes the NOVA documentary this way:
Is this flood of information making us any safer? [...] We should have been safe the way it was [...] How much information is enough -- and won't too much information end up making the world more dangerous?
At first this seems counter-intuitive: how can too much information be a bad thing? If you are a decision scientist and assume that "if our information were more complete or our calculations more accurate, we could know with complete certainty whether it will rain today" (Miller 175), then it very much is against your intuition. However, if the problem is one of action (one of human relations and values and contingencies and probabilities), which I think it is, then it is rather reasonable to question the absolute value of information. And I would suggest, as I move to conclude this discussion in rhetoric's pedagogy, that it is precisely in the direction of intuition/instinct that we should head.

Conclusion: Rhetoric's Pedagogy for Deciding
To return to Miller's assertions for a rhetorical understanding of decision science (and for an accounting of how decision science has influenced pedagogy and so impacted decision making), I would ask what all this means for rhetoric's pedagogy. How might those of us in rhetoric teach decision-making in and against the context of decision science?

If traditionally education has been about information (P. Friere's influence notwithstanding), what do we make of such persuasive arguments against decision science, which is largely predicated upon this Enlightenment ideal? I would propose (although I am far from the only one) that rhetoric draw on recent research on instincts and gut feelings. For instance, the work on Gerd Gigerenzer and his book Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious is quite informative (yikes!) in this direction. I argue that an education that would avoid motivism and the reduction of action to knowledge should focus less on "information" and more on "instinct."

I like a focus on instinct because instincts become an excellent way to address how we reason about values. In essence, instincts are about response-ability. They are about patterns or habits of engagement. Instincts filter what information counts as valuable and they motivate particular actions over others. Instincts are, in other words, were the rubber of values meets the road of action. Values, however, and as Gigerenzer argues, are not beyond human (pedagogical) agency and they are not automatic. Instincts, he argues, are cultivated. Instincts are neither value free nor beyond rhetorical deliberation and persuasion. Indeed, instincts must necessarily be cultivated precisely because they are not pre-specified (we could take numerous examples of this from athletics where it is the honing of instincts that is so much a part of practice and improvement. The work of Debra Hawhee is valuable in this regard).

In addition to being a call to discuss values (or patterns of response), instincts are a way around one of the oft-described problems of teaching rhetoric, which presumes to address the contingent and situational (thus making the teaching of formulas problematic). Rhetoric strikes me as instinctual (which are always geared towards problems of action) rather than formulaic (which strikes me as largely focused on problems of information). I would argue that what we (should) teach are instincts. In so arguing, I necessarily invite a discussion about what kinds of instincts. And it is a discussion of what instincts and what values we should teach that potentially protects us from the troubles of decision science and from the charge of motivism, which is as damaging to teachers as it is economists.

*Miller, Carolyn R. "The Rhetoric of Decision Science, or Herbert A. Simon Says." The Rhetorical Turn: Invention and Persuasion in the Conduct of Inquiry. Ed. Herbert A. Simon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

GUEST BLOG: Why the Happy are Nuts*

Today's blog post is from guest contributor, and sometime commenter, Thomas Rivers.

Sophist_Monster concludes:
The historian thus argues that these are not simply questions of science but are also and always moral questions as well. I would sum this up by arguing that the question is not simply/only "Is homosexuality a mental illness?" The questions is/should be "What are the consequences of asking whether homosexuality is or is not a mental illness?" "Should we ask such a question at all?" That is (what) the debate (should be) about because the rest, the science, is entelechy, so to speak. We should not use, in the words of the interviewed historian, "the rod of science to beat back those we don't agree with." Because it is about agreement, an admission few seem willing to make, we have to be able to confront sources of disagreement and do so "honestly." Science alone cannot claim to settle questions of the good life because science itself already takes place in context made possible by previous decisions, previous values. If we stop at the "scientific" we miss the complexity of any and all other debates.

Spare the rod: save the argument.
To this focus and conclusion I would add in support the following (liberally borrowed from “A Proposal to Classify Happiness as a Psychiatric Disorder,” by Richard P. Bentall, in the June 1992 issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics, published in London. Bentall then was a senior lecturer in clinical psychology at Liverpool University):

Bentall first claims that, though counter-intuitive, happiness should be classified as a disease and so included in diagnostic manuals. Using the language of diagnosis he notes the behavioral components of this “disease” including joy, smiling, and being carefree. What is noteworthy in diagnosing for the disease of happiness is that one of the most reliable ways to diagnose is to ask the “patient,” just as one does in diagnosing a person who is depressed—a good indicator or at least one in current use is the patient says they are “happy” or “sad.” It would be hard to diagnose someone as sad or depressed if they self-reported that they were not.

As expected Bentall’s proposal goes through the usual criteria including epidemiological studies (rich score higher on being happy then the poor,) and genetic studies. Philosophers distinguish between behavior that might be worthy of psychiatric attention and behavior that is not by determining whether the behavior is rational. “There is consistent evidence that happy people overestimate their control over environmental event.” In sum, Bentall notes, “that happiness meets all reasonable criteria for a psychiatric disorder. It is statistically abnormal and consists of a discrete cluster of symptoms; there is at least some evidence that it reflects abnormal functioning of the central nervous system; and it is associated with various cognitive abnormalities—in particular a lack of contact with reality.” Bentall then recommends inclusion in the DSM the name “Major Affective Disorder, Pleasant Type.”

Where it gets interesting apropos of sophist_monster posting is when Bentall notes the objections to this. One of them of course would be that happiness doesn’t normally come under “therapeutic concern”—but this objection would then rest on the fact that the naming of diseases (which is to do something) are culturally and historically relative phenomena. “On this account, sickle-cell anemia, anorexia nervosa, and psychopathy were not diseases before their discovery.”

The second objection is that happiness is not normally negatively valued; but implicit in this objection is that value judgments (persuasion) “should determine our approach to psychiatric classification.” In sum Bentall is making the claim of rhetoric and the strong defense—that subjective values are the basis of such scientific systems of classification.

*The title of the post comes directly from a Harper's Magazine story on the Bentall article.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Let me start by saying that I have argued the following since my introductory psychology class ten years ago, I continued to argue the following as a psychology major, and I continue to argue the following within the context of rhetorical theory (and in pragmatics):
Though recurring tummy aches from irritable bowel syndrome are among patients' most common complaints, drugmakers have had trouble coming up with a safe and effective treatment. But in 2008 Harvard's Ted J. Kaptchuk devised a safe remedy that helps far more people than any designer drug ever did.

His magic cure: fake acupuncture delivered with lots of warm talk from a sympathetic acupuncturist--but no needles. In a trial of 262 patients with severe IBS, 62% of those who received the fake treatment got better, according to results published in the British Medical Journal. By comparison, only 28% of a control group of patients put on a waiting list saw their symptoms improve markedly. A third group who got the fake acupuncture, but without any warm talk, showed in-between results: 44% improved.
This according to a recent story entitled "For Nothing."

Save this kind of research, I never quite understood why the placebo effect was so routinely dismissed by medicine. It is producing a "real" effect, but because it was not producing a "real" physical effect it was not treated as real, or, as one astute commenter to the story writes, it is treated as "noise."
However, my major problem is that traditionally any results generated by placebos is treated as noise in the experiment. It's a good control, in that it accounts for the role of the action of being treated as a separate variable from actually being treated. Therefore looking for meaning in placebos strikes me as a sort of data mining.
While there are certainly concerns about doctors misleading patients, these concerns privilege a certain kind of reality. If the pill works, then to what extent are doctor's "lying." In fact, many of the negative responses to this story expressed this discomfort with doctors "lying" to patients. (I kind of have Nietzsche's "On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense" in mind here. "Lie" and "deception" assume a reality I am uncomfortable with. I am also thinking about a collaborative project I am working on with a psychologists in Holland: we are investigating "manipulation" and "deception" as social technologies.)

This is not to say that placebos always work or work equally well for everyone, but in this regard they are like any other pill. What is to stop a doctor from lying about any and all treatments? When it comes to ethical medical practices we must rely on the profession and external auditors to review and promote agreed upon ethical practices. Again, such an arrangement is what we always already rely on. A doctor wouldn't (or could just as easily and dangerously) prescribe Tylenol to treat a brain tumor. So fears about placebos in this direction seem unfounded (or at least no different from common concerns about medical treatments and professional ethics).

I think one place the fear comes from (yes, here it comes) is a particular orientation to the real as only the biological/the natural. I have posted on this issue previously here and here. The placebo threatens this biological foundationalism that has been at work in Western thought for a few thousand years. For instance, I think this distrust of the placebo effect can be traced to Plato's treatment of rhetoric as cosmetic (rather than real health, which comes from medicine). In other words, I read into the mistrust of placebo a mistrust of rhetoric.

I hear both then in the following comments on this story as posted to BoingBoing:
  • There are massive ethical issues with doctors giving something to a patient, knowing that there is no active ingredient, and lying to make them feel better. I wouldn't want my doctor doing that to me!

  • The placebo is, regardless of the intent, a lie. Using placebos as a therapy could endanger the trust in their doctor or doctors in general. This trust is crucial, however, to the function of a doctor. [the irony of arguing that trust is crucial is not lost on me: how could trust possible matter if its is the real cure you are after?]

  • There is a real and distasteful paternalism in lying to your patients to make them happy and leave your office.
Again, I think we should always be concerned with how doctors communicate with us and what and why they prescribe: these are always concerns (a doctor telling you to lower your blood pressure is being no less paternalistic). Again, what I want to (get at) know here is why the placebo is perceived as "fake" because this understanding of the effect leads to the dismissal of an effect we might very well want to have available to us. In short, and in the end, I think it is "fake" for some because the placebo effect seems to be a function of rhetoric (ignoring the fact that rhetoric is hugely important in the production of pharmaceuticals themselves). And rhetoric can't be real, can it?

Update: Here is another story on the placebo effect.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Spare the Rod (Really)

I have been meaning to post on an amazing This American Life story as it relates to one of my favorite intellectual intersections: rhetoric and science, which means it is also about everything. As W.H. reminds us:
Science, like Art, is fun, a playing with truths, and no game
should ever pretend to slay the heavy-lidded riddle,
What is the Good Life?
Looking back forty years at the struggle to change the DSM entry for homosexuality (it's very presence in the manual - and thus its status as a mental illness - was itself debated) reveals much about the relationship between politics and science (and much about what we want from that relationship and what we don't).

Introduction: Stigma
The report begins with a necessary discounting (which is not a defense) of the presence of homosexuality in the DSM. While it's definition and categorization later proved just as harmful, several of the psychiatrist who defended its place in the DSM argued that it was a defense from harmful stigmas, namely religious stigmas that made homosexuality a sin. Better an illness, they assumed, than a sin. What is unusual is that some of those who wanted to keep "homosexuality" in the DSM did so for ostensibly "progressive" reasons, which we can no doubt question now. Even at this stage, the story is a complex one.

Part One: Science "Becomes" Politics
What is immediately clear from the story ("81 Words") is that labels are never passive nor innocent. Language, Kenneth Burke reminds us, is symbolic action; it is not about labeling but about projecting, about doing something in and to the world. Thus, labeling homosexuality a "mental illness" is an action that will have results (it will cause effects), and claiming that one is merely labeling something is no defense against liability for what that label does. So here we have our first intersection of science and politics (I am assuming the intersection itself is rhetoric): to label something never happens in a vacuum away from politics. The label itself works politically (even if it is not "politically motivated" -- although in this case all the motives can be seen as political, which makes this story a good case study for all such stories).

Part Two: Politics Motivates Science
Moving in the other direction, we can see not only how the labels of science work politically, but how any scientific endeavor to label, to discover, to know, is necessarily (a priori) motivated. At the most basic level, the argument goes, a scientist chooses (has to choose) the question she wants to ask after choosing the phenomenon she wants to investigate. In this case, investigating homosexuality in the terms of "mental illness" is already a political act, just as not investigating it in terms of mental illness is a political act.

This is not to argue that all motivations are equal, that just because we can understand both as motivated that both are equally "good" or equally "true." What I am building to (in terms of rhetoric) is that neither are outside of having to make arguments for themselves. Rather than moving away from prejudice (i.e., to deny prejudice), we must make arguments for our prejudices above and beyond other prejudices and do so not just on the basis of accuracy but on the basis of effects -- not whether "true" but rather conducive to "desired effects."

Conclusion: "The Earth is Round"

Problematically (even while I agree with the sentiment of celebration), when the DSM was changed -- when homosexuality ceased to be a disease -- one headline read "The Earth is Round." This is problematic because it assumes some "Truth" had been discovered rather than that an argument had been successful. To wrap both of these threads up, then, I move to the end of the "81 Words" report, which includes an interview with an historian. This historian points out that both sides of the debate (inclusion/exclusion of homosexuality from the DSM) claimed that the other side was politicizing science, and that both insisted that other side was being unscientific. This should come as no surprise: the oldest trick in the book of rhetoric is to claim it is the other side that uses rhetoric while you are simply telling it as it is. The historian argues that this is the nature of such controversies. And I would argue that it is such behavior that plagues such controversies, as both sides move to belie rather than confront questions of value and politics in science.

The historian thus argues that these are not simply questions of science but are also and always moral questions as well. I would sum this up by arguing that the question is not simply/only "Is homosexuality a mental illness?" The questions is/should be "What are the consequences of asking whether homosexuality is or is not a mental illness?" "Should we ask such a question at all?" That is (what) the debate (should be) about because the rest, the science, is entelechy, so to speak. We should not use, in the words of the interviewed historian, "the rod of science to beat back those we don't agree with." Because it is about agreement, an admission few seem willing to make, we have to be able to confront sources of disagreement and do so "honestly." Science alone cannot claim to settle questions of the good life because science itself already takes place in context made possible by previous decisions, previous values. If we stop at the "scientific" we miss the complexity of any and all other debates.

Spare the rod: save the argument.

Update: I would apply Wayne Booth's label (get it) of motivism here. Booth understood motivism to be an inability to reason about values. I hope this label moves readers accordingly.

Sunday, March 21, 2010


I have been mulling this over for a while, and as my graduate students read a book on gut feelings and decision making, I am ready to say something. As my students embark on an understand of self, agency, and cognition as very messy things indeed, I would like to do the same here.

Researchers in psychology recently published this article. In this article the authors claim that, contrary to what one might assume, online profiles (e.g., Facebook) "reflect actual personality." (Please read the article for things like research methods). Now, I do have some problems with the conclusions of the article: "Instead, [online social networks] might be an efficient medium for expressing and communicating real personality, which may help explain their popularity." I would argue we could interpret or study such networks for how they cultivate "real personality" - that is, the study treats as stable what I would treat as rhetorically unstable. That aside, their findings point in interesting rhetorical directions. The two I will deal with are:
  1. The parts of our online profiles (ethos?) we cannot control (i.e., what other people post to our profiles)
  2. The agonism (this is a term I apply here) that constrains our profiles (i.e., putting things up that others will "agree" "reflects" us accurately)
The first is interesting in terms of how our audiences become our co-authors. What this finding suggests is that we are perceived not just directly but through others. This is really nothing new ("it's a motley crew I run with"). What is "new" (at least outside of rhetoric) is that these identifications are accurate ways to assess someone -- that who you have identified with says something about you. This is, for instance, why I typically shudder when people start a conversation with "you would like this." I shudder because I am about to have something about me revealed to me (whether I like it or not -- which is not to say that that other person is always "right"). We are, to some extent, what people say to and about us. This is the social nature of ethos/identity/personality (a hard to define-parse matrix to be sure).

The second finding strikes me as another way of saying the first thing: that the "honesty" our expressions of personality (ethos?) are shaped by audiences. Not only do our "friends" reveal our personalities in what they say to us in public, they constrain what we add to our profiles implicitly. The study suggests we are not likely to put "false" impressions of ourselves up if we think our friends will see it this way. That is, we shape our profiles on the fly based on what we know our friends and relations to already know about us. Our friends, in other words, keep us who we are (online and, I would argue, in the flesh).

This is, likewise, why I never quite understand Plato's worries about rhetoric. Just because things are subject to rhetoric/persuasion/manipulation does not mean that they can, at any and all moments. become whatever. Anybody who has ever attempted persuasion knows that you don't need foundational truths to stop persuasive attempts (you just need your own argument).

Thus, here is my conclusion. Identity (as a loose and trouble stand-in for many other "self" terms) while not simply static and expressible but rather dynamic and cultivated, is not infinite. We find ourselves always in communities to whom we both present and owe our identities. And those communities help to cultivate and constrain those identities. I could certainly remake my Facebook profile to make me into Johnny Bravo, but I would have a lot of convincing to do before anyone bought it.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Census Communus

Yesterday we received our pre-Census letter, which informs us that the 2010 Census is on its way. The letter, however, does more than this: it attempts to persuade us that completing and promptly returning the 2010 Census is vital. Let me start by saying that so do I. I think it is important that everyone is counted so that everyone, in a certain way, counts. This does not mean to say that I think the Census is perfect. There are important debates about how it counts, how it organizes people into categories, etc. What I find interesting about this letter is the particular pitch it makes and what that pitch says to us about what we think democracy is all about.

A colleague of mine in the Government Department has written a book, Democratic Faith, that describes what he calls "a state of quiet crisis" in democratic theory. His introduction, which is all I have read so far, explores the tension between the idea that democracy "takes men as they are" and the idea that people must be fashioned for democratic life. "While claiming to take 'men as they are,'" he writes,
democratic theory from its inception, even to its dominant contemporary expressions, exhibits anything but satisfaction for the civic capacities of ordinary humans, and seeks, sometimes to a major extent, to alter that condition for democratic ends.
As a teacher and researcher in rhetoric and writing, I can attest to this tension, while freely admitting that I do not feel it as strongly. I very much see my pedagogy as focused on something like citizenship: that the ability to engage others rhetorically through writing and other forms of composition is vital to the life and health of democracy. I see cultivating (better) citizens as necessary because I do not find democracy (nor any other form of government) "natural." I do not feel that if only we somehow removed all external forces humans will naturally desire democracy.

I believe this, in large part, because much of my research is centered around the idea that much of what we take as "natural" in human beings is cultivated or inculcated. Forms of government do simply arrive after the fact of subject formation and then are either accepted or rejected (America's recent efforts at "nation building" certainly point to this fact). Societies, with their cultures and forms of government, fashion their own subjects both implicitly and explicitly. I see my pedagogy as in largely in the "explicitly" category. A government is not simply added to already existing subjects, but is, in many important ways, the sub-stance of subjectivity itself. But this moves me in other directions.

So I return then to this pre-Census letter:
Your response is important. Results from the 2010 Census will be used to help each community get its fair share of government funds for highways, schools, health facilities, and many other programs you and your neighbors need. Without a complete, accurate census, your community may not receive its fair share.
Obviously, one would take more time and care in conducting a fully rigorous rhetorical analysis, but a few things strike me as obvious here:
  • "get" and "receive" are prominent (essentially, the same notion of "getting" appears twice in a very short letter)
  • what we get are "funds" (for important things, mind you)
What isn't mentioned, or what is implied we could say generously, are notions of representation, a sense of gaining an understanding of the changing demographic landscape of the United States, and many of the other things Census data can be used for. Also, no appeals to citizenship are made: "fill this out because you live here." "Freedom Isn't Free - All True Patriots Complete the Census."

What is valuable about democracy, this letter argues (as I have haphazardly read it) is its ability to satisfy individual or group interests. I want to be careful here, obviously. Fair and equitable distribution of resources is about more than self-interest. Indeed, the allocation of government resources is one of the primary ways we manifest our values. What I focused on is the appeal made here. The appeal is not social (I recognize the use of community and the "your neighbor" line) in any meaningful way. In fact, as I read it, "community" in the first line is always about "your community" in the last line. What about communities that are not mine--neighbors that are not mine? The 2010 Census, and thus, I would argue, democracy, is about you getting what you want. There is no sense here (or not enough for me, at least) of what my colleague in Government calls "civic excellence."

In conclusion, I am not all that impressed with this letter and the perspective on democracy it bellies (I would not, however, automatically attribute these values to the author of the document--many civil servants are clearly not just in it for themselves). Nor would I say that I am surprised. I will not, however, despair; I have a rhetoric and writing class to plan.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

My Son the Cyborg?

As of late, I have been paying increased attention to the moments when my son attempts to incorporate my wife and I into his actions. For instance, when Will reaches over and grabs my arm and directs my hand to:
  • the bag of Goldfish that is just out of his reach
  • the box full of blocks that he just can't seem to pry open
  • tickle mommy's feet
With the exception of the last one, which is really just for fun but still just as clever, all of these strike me as moments of (or, at least, candidates for) genuine cyborg extension. Will works actively to augment his own abilities by tapping (into) various external resources. My interest in these moments is informed by Andy Clark's most recent treatment of extended cognition. Now, Clark is particularly interested in how cognition is extended, but that sort of extension is not opposed to or without connections to what we might call "extended embodiment." In the case of Will, it probably makes sense to think of what he is doing as both. Many of things my wife and I are asked to do Will is probably physically capable of doing himself; there is just one aspect of the task that he hasn't quite mastered. He certainly could have the dexterity to turn to crank that raises and lowers the elevator in the Bat Cave. However, reliably turning it in the directions that either raises or lower it is difficult for him. It is in these cases that Will makes our hands his hands.

Clark advances the following criteria "to be met by [...] candidates for inclusion into an individual's cognitive system" (79):
  1. "That the resource be reliably available and typically invoked."
  2. "It should not usually be subject to critical scrutiny."
  3. "easily accessible as and when required."
  4. "That the [source] has been consciously endorsed at some point in the past."
The first three are met rather easily, I think. Although, at times, Will does shoot us looks that indicate we are indeed being scrutinized. Nevertheless, we are typically invoked in many matters, we are quite reliable, and we are easily accessed whenever he requires us. The forth, however, is somewhat of a stumbling block both for my application of Clark's criteria and for my assessment of that criteria.

Clark himself argues that it is only in rare cases that "other people" would be considered part of one's extended cognitive network. So, we are in good shape here in general. However, given the attachment behavior of infants, on which I am not much of an expert at all, I think it is safe to assume that whatever definition of "consciously endorsed" we might develop, Will would in all likelihood not meet it (and we probably wouldn't even need to be psychoanalytic critics to say so). However, if the forth criteria is indeed an important and necessary "step" for inclusion, then much of the nonbiological resources Clark identifies would seem to be out. Couldn't we think of many technologies that we use that we are not fully aware or choosing? The first to go (and one that Clark himself devotes significant time to), it seems, would be language. I know of few children who reasoned out for themselves consciously whether or not they would like to acquire language. Nor, as Clark himself argues, is language acquisition automatic or innate. So, we cannot get around criteria #4 by claiming language is simply automatic and subject to neither conscious nor unconscious thought. Language is inculcated, which is not an entirely conscious activity. In fact, we might even argue that language, as an engine of thought, is properly seen as an engine (not the only one mind you) of consciousness itself: how can we choose without the means we often use for choosing.

In other words, I would argue that not only am I a part of Will's extended cognition and embodiment, but also that Clark's forth criterion is unnecessarily strict. So many of the nonbiological resources that become embedded in our extended cognitive processes are neither automatic nor conscious. We incorporate them out of necessity (good luck getting around without language) or by virtue of societal norms (everyone uses pens and paper). These incorporations are neither entirely unconscious nor entirely conscious (or at least we don't remember choosing them).

This is what a colleague of mine in psychology and me are interested in exploring. What kinds of manipulations, cultivations, or even deceptions are at play in the incorporation of nonbiological elements of extended cognition? The iPhone can certainly become such a component of cognition, but why does anyone buy one in the first place?

And why or when did Will decide to make my arm his arm?

Friday, March 5, 2010

Biological Identity

A recent story about a father and son being reunited after 32 years has me thinking, as always, about nature and culture. His parents were political dissidents in Argentina and they were targeted the by authorities. The mother, then pregnant, was abducted and, thus, the son was kidnapped in utero. The mother's story after her abduction is, as of yet, untold. The story of the father's life since then is incredibly heart-wrenching. After the abduction he fled Argentina and lived in exile.
"At times I wondered what the hell I was living for. I had to find a way to continue, thinking about everyday things, hoping for this moment of happiness," the elder Madariaga said. "Hugging him that first time, it was as if I filled a hole in my soul."
The son's story is equally tragic, and it is the nature of this kind of tragedy and the cause of that tragedy that interest me in particular. In this case, the sons adopted parents were fully aware of and participated in stealing the son from his birth parents. And the son's childhood appears to have been anything but positive. His adoptive father was abusive, for one thing.
Francisco Madariaga's [the son] doubts increased, until finally he confronted his adoptive mother. "She broke down and was able to tell me the truth," he recalled, adding that he can't say he blames her. "There was so much violence — physical and mental — and she suffered. She also was a victim."
So the particularities of this case are hard to extrapolate to other cases of adoption. However, the story ends this way:
"Never again" will I use this name, he said. "To have your identity is the most beautiful thing there is."
His trauma and search for his "real" parents evidences a particular attachment to the "natural" as the "real": that his real identity is his biological identity. This is certainly not demean this man's pain: his life is a testament to man's inhumanity to man. It is also not to devalue the physical or biological (many of my other posts clearly demonstrate my commitment to an embodied understanding of just about everything). However, the narrative of children being reunited with their "real" parents and discovery their "true" identity belies what I believe is particularly problematic equation of the "natural" (read genetic and biological) with the "real." This equation is problematic, in the case of adoption, because of the emotional burden it places on children who "don't know who their real parents are" even if they have been raised, often happily and healthily, by adoptive parents or guardians. I want to ask, in other words, if we shifted the emphasis away from the biological and genetic would the experience of adopted children be different, less emotionally and psychologically fraught?

There are consequences to how we frame identity, and I would argue in this case that the emotional pain that confronts adopted children can (perhaps) be traced to a deep-seated cultural belief that biology is "reality."