2020 October: Experimental Philosophy and ‘Me’

Screenshot of my research timeline.

 

Focus

The second year of my PhD has officially begun — this makes me excited but also determined to use my time well. Accordingly, focus was the topic of a latest discussion between myself and M. Rankovic (my unofficial ‘third supervisor’), especially the idea that focus need not necessarily mean eliminating elements of a project, in the name of pruning away the superfluous. He had a very good point — that it is possible that something in the nature of the subject of my study itself might be what keeps causing my research to sprawl off into different disciplines and spread me thinly across them. It’s true that I sometimes feel daunted by the way in which my project relies on so many different disciplines, each with their different languages. Yet I’ve nonetheless felt that there’s also a kind of unity in what I do, as if the project were part of one single discipline, perhaps one that has no name yet. Rather than ignore the sprawling nature of the project, it might instead be a symptom that offers a clue as to how to approach the research. A year later and I am still trying to define my field, which I think was the subject of my journal entry last October. Is this difficulty a symptom of the research topic itself?

I’m grateful to my dad for offering me a nice way of thinking about focus — it might not necessarily entail pruning away reference materials or discourses that form my work so far; reframing these materials is an act of focus in itself. I really like this idea of framing as a form of focusing (even as a way of creating a new field of research), it seems quite evocative of my approaches so far. Our conversation took us through many historic examples of that, which result in famous paradigm shifts: Darwin’s realisation that geological processes must have taken much longer than the lifespan of biblical history reframed the question of evolution; the old heated debate of “is the world infinite or finite?” was radically reframed by the suggestion that the Earth is spherical; Mendeleev’s democritean treatment of matter concretising a previously vague alchemy into a systematic chemistry; or Lobachevsky explaining the complicatedness of Euclid’s fifth postulate by suggesting that it was the result of a choice of a certain kind of mathematics (and that you could invent other kinds of maths).

What, if anything, is the thing to notice from my observations, practices and reference materials, which might turn the question of ‘what constitutes a person’ on its head? It might already by lying there, in what I have already done, read and written. Some ideas include:

  • The person is not a container with contents (i.e. personality). A person is a wave — a pattern of disturbance playing itself out across its substratum. A person is also substratum-neutral, meaning it can be emulated on a number of different materials.
  • Character is an all-encompassing frame of reference for thought. Character is something that can be swapped on the person (I still need to figure out what the relationship between ‘character’ and ‘person’ is, or whether they are exactly the same thing). The character you assume at any given time both limits and enables the range of thought open to you — characterising the thoughts you are able to have.
  • My self-estranging performance method is a deliberate version of the character-swapping that seems to be present as part of everyday, unconscious social practices. Can this form of play with one’s own person have beneficial practical applications? For instance, if character limits and enables thoughts available to me, could deliberately taking on a different character allow me to brainstorm better? How could a wider recognition of a reframing of personhood affect interpersonal relationships — would our current distinctions between ‘individual’ and ‘communal’; ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, or ‘authentic’ and ‘inauthentic’ give way to different social relations, a recasting of Self and Other?

The first point, on the topology of personhood, is important because through reframing what ‘shape’ personhood takes, the relevancy of the question of ‘interiority’ versus ‘exteriority’ might be made redundant or be replaced by a different debate. The second point changes my intuition about thought; that thought is always coloured by character and that diversity of character (self-complexity in psychological terms) could enable a diversity of thought and encourage creativity. The final point is about creating a practical method with which to probe or observe the mechanics of this conception of personhood (maybe it’s a phenomenological method?).

 

Getting organised: Just writing Anomaline, pretty much.

One of the first things I did this month was create this research timeline (see image above). It’s proven a pretty useful tool so far. I originally made it because I wanted to create an easier channel of communication with my supervisors — a quick way of updating them, at a glance, about what I am up to. The aim was to make a timeline that could show all I’ve done in a way that was as clear and brief as possible, whilst linking each node to a bulk of work I’ve done. In that way, it is both a small and large document; it’s a timeline, but links to almost everything I’ve done: these art journal entries, artworks I’ve made, readings, exhibitions, key questions or ideas that developed. Since it’s a good way of showing my work to my supervisors, it’s also turned out to be a good way to show my research at a glance to other people too. I ended up using it as the basis of my short presentation (re)introducing my project to my cohort. And to myself! Actually, seeing the development in this linear, visual way is quite a helpful way to keep me in touch with my project — and also comforting, because I have a pretty short-term memory and keep forgetting about all my achievements and progress, ending up thinking I’ve done nothing. So it’s a good reminder as well as a documentation of the unfolding project. It also gives me a palpable sense of how much time is left (!).

Having done some reflection on my project so far and lined up a series of useful readings, my plan is to put the dissertation to one side, and focus primarily on writing my novel and reading/notetaking, until my upgrade in March. Right now I am enjoying the combination of reading Dennett’s Freedom Evolves and writing Anomaline — they are in a (you could say surprisingly) coherent relationship with one another, despite belonging to different genres of writing.

I feel there is a lot to be learnt from my attempt to write Anomaline. At the same time, I must not forget that it is an artwork, and in this sense is bigger than my research project or any agenda I might give it. It is not guided by the research, but by its own concerns. However, I think my research will benefit from it.

 

Contextual Review: mindmapping reference materials

Speaking of ‘focus’, one of the things I’ll have to become more explicit about is figuring out my ‘context’ or ‘field’ — where my contribution is focused. I’ll be expected to submit a ‘contextual review’ for my upgrade, so it’s an opportunity to attempt at least a first iteration of that. Following the idea of ‘reframing’ as a form of identifying a potentially new field of research, it might be good to try gathering all my reference materials into one place and seeing if a coherent description for a field of research might emerge from that. I suppose a good way of doing this would be mindmapping my bibliography into clusters of approaches. Maybe a unified approach will emerge from that.

But another thing to attempt more rigorously is searching for journals or conferences that come close to or even satisfy the categorisation I am formulating.

 

Play is Play

Play is Play. Video, 42 min. 2020.

 

Then there was this… I made an experimental video in which I explore the possibilities of acting differently yet remaining ‘genuine’ in my disparate personas, allowing them, for the first time, to converse.​

The idea for this experiment came about as I was writing in my diary in my bedroom. As I was writing and thinking about my research on the relationship between fictional characters and the characters of persons, I began engaging with the latest part I read of Daniel C. Dennett’s Freedom Evolves (2003). This part of the book takes issue with a neurophysiological experiment by Benjamin Libet (1999), in which it was shown that there is a 300 milliseconds gap between the point at which participants report that they made a spontaneous, conscious decision (to press a button) and the point at which their brains’ readiness potential was activated — this meant that people typically reported their decision happening circa 300ms after the brain already set in motion enacting that decision, leading many scholars in the neuroscience community to conclude that we do not really have free will, but are rather under the illusion that we’ve made a decision that our ‘brain’ has already made for us. Dennett finds many ways to problematise this conclusion, but the main point is that it presupposes that ‘you’ — the ‘you’ that makes the decisions and is conscious — is located in a single point somewhere, presumably somewhere in the brain (in what Dennett calls the Cartesian Theatre), waiting on the input that will ultimately colour your decision. But there is no reason to believe such a point in time and space exists — rather, it is much more probable that ‘you’, your ‘self’, is distributed in time and space, and that in fact, decisions are essentially temporal (and spatial) events, not instantaneous nor confined within a point.

​For me, the question is then, “What does it mean for a distributed being like me to recognise this fact about myself?” I paused in my writing and tried to feel, through experience, my own distributedness. I wondered whether accepting the fact that my being is not gathered in one point in space and time might prove to be liberating or damaging. There’s always the possibility that there is an evolutionary reason why we are under the Cartesian spell and can’t seem to shake off the feeling that we are discrete, synchronous beings, and that unlearning this habit might be harmful. However, I have a feeling there might be something liberating about this acceptance; and that it might lead to positive changes in how we relate to our selves.

For instance, often we humans feel we are battling with ourselves. Over whether or not to eat an extra biscuit, for example. How would an acceptance of our distributed self affect how we manage the community that resides within a common name like ‘Katarina’, how we confront daily problems such as these, and whether we will even continue to think of them as problems?

Perhaps we won’t really know until we try, I thought. So in this video experiment, I invited one of my fictional characters to have a live conversation with me about our relationship, whether or not we both compose the same person, and the shape of our personal cosmos.

 

Further Reflections on Play is Play

As it happens, the experiment I conducted with myself on Wednesday (now known as Play is Play) turned out to be considerably interesting to me. One thing I’d like to raise here for future reference, is that it seems to be a good idea, if possible, not to let too much time elapse between having an idea to do something and doing it; particularly if it’s a new kind of thing for you, that you may over time lose motivation to try because you have no experience telling you it’s worth pursuing. It turns out that this experiment raises many a number of useful lines of inquiry for me. Only, had I not done it the same day I had the idea for it, I’m not sure I would have done it any time soon.

It was really surprising. Difficult to maintain, in some sense, (the distinction between characters), but also liberating. Some of the theories of my work were visibly playing out — that, in conversation between two characters, I could have thoughts I’ve not had before, at least not put in that way. It also felt like I was free to dwell on areas in our discussion that were ambiguous, without worrying about hesitating. I was free to air and think aloud about things I’m not sure or confident about.

Furthermore, the invocation of ‘splitting’ of personality really doesn’t come across, I think, as pathological in the video. It looks benign, and had a certain truthfulness about it throughout that suggested neither delusion nor disingenuousness. I could even reflect on the terms of the experiment itself via my two characters. We cooperatively worked through ideas from two different perspectives.

I guess there are two ways of deliberately or intentionally altering character. It can either be gradual — so, one persona gradually morphs into another with no clear distinction between personal ‘units’ — or, it can be like the experiment here, where I ‘switch’ between characters A and B. Perhaps the next thing to try is the ‘gradual’ version.

One thing to note, though, (and it was a topic of discussion between my two characters in this experiment) is that in Play is Play, there is some visible ‘blending’ that occurs, and when I switch, it can take a moment before the other character ‘comes back’. I would say this is even true of the more habitual of my two characters — it takes a while to remember how to be even one of your more habitual selves.

Some possible variations of the experiment include:

  • Repeating it with different characters
  • Run a ‘gradual’ version of the experiment (blended character)
  • Repeat with more than two characters conversing
  • Repeat with changing environment (e.g. changing the virtual background of the video)

I also have ideas about potentially positive ‘applications’ of this practice. Political agendas emerge, such as fighting for the suspension of overinflated attributions of persons to certain ideas, and vice versa — protecting the space of hesitation, doubt and lack of resolution as a valid place to adopt in a sustained way. That is a political gesture I would actually be willing to make with this work.

Some practical points:

  • I am going to present this work as an Art Research Presentation on 27 Oct.
  • I think I could write a chapter of the dissertation that reflects on this work and might start soon while it’s fresh.
  • I will want to repeat this experiment, maybe with some variation

When Dennett (2003) describes personhood, he ultimately describes it as a set of practices: we teach children to ‘give and ask for reasons’ and this is enacted through the practice of communication. A practice, both as something one ‘does’ and as something one does ‘repeatedly’ is what personhood is, but also art is based on a set of practices. My intended innovation here is perhaps simply to more closely align art practices with the daily practice of being. I don’t mean ‘life as art’, which usually alludes to ‘lifestyle’. I mean recognising practices of being — those most intimate practices of being-with-yourself — as subject to artistic authorship such as that of any artistic practice. This does not mean you can ‘author yourself’ as if you had foresight and control over what that entailed — the artistic, or playful, revisions of how to be with yourself offer outcomes that you must wait and see play out.

Another way of approaching the subject is that ‘roleplay as thinking’ presents the possibility of something akin to running simulations on your self. After generating some ideas, you can decide which you like, which you don’t. This is ‘hypothesising/speculating through being’. You have the freedom then, to entertain trains of thought — even opinions — that you can then readily discard or keep. Could this flexibility expand the breadth of my thinking powers, and encourage better decision-making? The key terms here may be ‘humouring’ or ‘entertaining’ thought — welcoming ideas as if they were worthy of attention, but suspending commitment or loyalty to them, for a while. (Another term may be ‘bracketing’ the space of thinking).

 

Even Further Reflections on Play is Play

Two areas of study that may be relevant are:

  • The fact that the ‘bulk’ (M. Rankovic) is fundamentally unknowable. Related are ‘black box AI’, ‘explainable AI’ and ‘recursive’ (as opposed to forward-feeding AI)
  • Attractor landscapes (Rewatch the Meteoric Theory of Art lecture (M. Rankovic) for a start)

And more generally

  • The following parallel concepts: the ‘bulk’ and the ‘conspicuous’ (M. Rankovic); the ‘distributed’ and the ‘linear’; ‘influence’ and ‘decision’/‘articulation’/bottleneck output
  • Networks and computation
  • Thermodynamics (decisions ‘heat’ the universe)

I have spoken of the process of adopting characters as ‘tilting the landscape of my mind’ — but attractor landscape theories might offer more sophisticated descriptions of this.

To be as radical as is required, it may be possible to reframe the ‘linear’ vs. ‘networked’ binary as a false or unnecessary binary.

 

Art Research Presentation Play is Play

I was excited about presenting this new work as an Art Research Presentation but was met, I think, with very mixed responses to the aims, methods and outcomes of that work. I was also surprised to find myself pretty emotional about it — how strange! I really cared, and I felt it really mattered, to be true to what I thought this work seemed to be suggesting. For the first time I also feel I was met with some slight doubt as to my credibility; or whether or not I was being honest about what happened in the video. I say that because there was mention of things like ‘verification’ (the suggestion that I do this again live, with input from audience to ‘verify’ that the spontaneity of the performance was for real), and cautious mention of ‘manipulation’. I had taken for granted that it was obvious that what was happening in the video was ‘genuine’, or that there wasn’t anything calculating about it and no attempt to control the results. In future, will I have to ‘prove’ that I am telling the truth about the absence of any premeditation besides the setup of the experiment itself?

Another way in which I interpret some of the responses to my work is that some found it a little jarring that the performance video didn’t seem to settle on either side of the research/art fence, and that for that reason, it was maybe not easily legible. I say this because in the discussion, it seemed at times as though the value or purpose of the work was being measured by certain conventional criteria related to performance, e.g. failure to delineate and meet the expectations of an audience; the wobbly nature in which some felt my ‘delivery’ oscillated between ‘performative’ and ‘not performative enough’; whether or not the length of the video was appropriate or not; and finally, whether my decisions about certain details in the video were the right ones (i.e. should I have moved left-to-right when switching characters or not?).

I realised then that perhaps I see such choices about the work in a significantly different way to the people that found it jarring. My aim is not to depict, illustrate or represent any premeditated manifesto, politics or ideology of the self. My aim is to design an experimental setup for my performances in the strictest sense, and then by playing out those performances I can discover, for instance, that there is such a thing as “politics of ‘inner’ self” in the first place; that there is some power dynamic between my different would-be characters (behavioural ‘expressions’ of self). The key decisions in designing an experiment, as opposed to an illustration, are which variables to control and which not to control. For me, the question of whether or not it’s necessary for me to ‘move right-to-left when switching character’ is an interesting one, but I do not think the performance-experiment is itself more or less resolved depending on whether I go with one or the other. That choice is not a choice of designing the performance (I don’t want to design the performance! I want to design the experiment through which the performance takes place); instead, it is a variable; when I do the experiment again, I might abandon the moving left-to-right and see what happens. In short, for me there are many such variables in the work that others might criticise as needing ‘resolution’, whereas I see them as dials that need turning.

 

Online Performance Festival

On a final note, I participated in the Autumn edition of the 2020 Online Performance Festival earlier this month… this was my first attempt to livestream a performance (Pseudo), but I think it went smoothly.

 

Practice Sharing: Language-based Practice in Artistic Research

Two of my projects will be featured on Practice Sharing, ‘an online presentation of expanded approaches to language-based practice within the field of artistic research.’ (ed. Emma Cocker et. al). These include brief expositions of A Ritual Resuscitation of Eternal Lovers and Fictional Politician (from Stolen Faces), in which I present how language functions in these practices.

‘Practices of Phenomenological and Artistic Research’: Phenomenology and Practice

Before I finalise my contribution for this special issue of Phenomenology and Practice (due Feb 2020), I want to brush up on my understanding of phenomenology as a field. My contribution will be a video, part artwork and part essay, that will probably be an evolution of my video work, Self-Estrangement as Method. I’ve also been advised to look into Bertold Brecht’s use of the concept of ‘estrangement’. Here are some courses that might serve as a good introduction:

https://hiw.kuleuven.be/en/study/prospective/OOCP/introduction-to-phenomenology

https://courses.edx.org/course_modes/choose/course-v1:TrinityX+T009x+3T2020/

https://www.udemy.com/course/introduction-to-phenomenology/

The Body in Algorithms: Zero Corners (proposal)

A forthcoming book edited by Georgia Perkins and Ashley Middleton, I have proposed a chapter about A Ritual Resuscitation of Eternal Lovers that challenges or opposes the stance that the ‘algorithm’ should be perceived as antithetical to the chaos and spontaneity of living organisms. I’m not sure whether what I’ve proposed will fit the editors’ agenda, but if it does then I intend to use this as an opportunity to write about Dennett’s ideas (on deconstructing intuitions about the relationship between determinacy and free will) and how some analogues of those live in works like A Ritual Resuscitation

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