|CULTURE, MIND, AND PHYSICAL REALITY:
AN ANTHROPOLOGICAL ESSAY
Center for Peripheral Studies
Palm Springs CA
published online June 2010
Culture, Mind, and Physical Reality: An Anthropological Essay
The recent debate concerning the relation between anthropology and science acquires a much-needed focus when applied to a question now engaging thinkers in a variety of disciplines: What is the nature of mind or consciousness? Although cultural anthropology has been largely dealt out of discussions of this question in prominent national forums, this essay proposes that a considerably reworked concept/theory of culture holds the key to resolving the issue. Such a reworking is necessary because cultural anthropology has lost its grip on its pivotal theoretical construct. How this curious situation has come to pass requires an interrogation of the discipline on the way to exploring the interconnections of culture, mind, and physical reality. In particular, an application of concepts now being developed in theoretical physics and chaos-complexity theory suggests the fruitfulness of a monistic theory of culture, mind, and physical reality. [mind, consciousness, theory of culture, semiospace, intersystem]
Culture, Mind, and Physical Reality:
An Anthropological Essay
Still, the situation is very surprising. Once any two photons, pets, or anything else have interacted, one cannot separate any description of the properties of one from the properties of the other. Given any one electron, its properties are entangled with those of every particle it has interacted with, from the moment of its creation, indeed quite possibly from the moment of the creation of our universe.
Lee Smolin, The Life of the Cosmos
Au contraire d’une philosophie qui confine la dialectique à l’histoire humaine et le interdit de séjour dans l’ordre naturel, le structuralisme admet volontiers que les idées qu’il formule en termes psychologiques puissent n’être que des approximations tâtonnantes de vérités organiques et même physiques. Une des orientations de la science contemporaine auxquelles il se montre le plus ouvert est celle qui, validant les intuitions de la pensée sauvage, réussit parfois déjà à réconcilier le sensible avec l’intelligible, le qualitatif avec le géométrique et laisse entrevoir l’ordre naturel comme un vaste champ semantique « où l’existence de chaque élément conditionne celle de tous les autres ». Non pas un type de réalité irréductible au langage mais, selon le dire du poète, « temple où de vivants piliers laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles » . . .
Claude Lévi-Strauss, L’homme Nu
A Troubled Sleep: surRendering Culture
Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist nicht. Just a touch of vertigo to start things off. If we are to do anthropology with a hammer (but, remember, wielded like a tuning fork), then let’s first take that hammer to the cerebral gyroscopes that direct us along well-charted, rational, and ultimately fruitless lines of thought. This essay strives to emulate the chaotic journey of life (that is, of life among the non-academic living): our craft is tumbling end-over-end; our instruments are reading gibberish; the controls are chattering uselessly in our clammy grasp; for the rest of the way we’ll be in free fall (in a free f ’all).
Since our world is composed of them, let me begin by noting two paradoxes at the heart of the present somnambulistic malaise in cultural anthropology.
In the ongoing debate over the relation between anthropology and science, it is curious that cultural anthropologists, those dedicated observers of the Other, have become increasingly self-absorbed and inward-looking. What we learn about other people seems always to return us to ruminations about ourselves, the nature of our discipline, and even the intersubjective basis of knowledge in general. If it is possible to speak of an organizing principle for a project that insists on the fragmentary nature of human experience and the systems of knowledge that issue from that experience, it may be said that postmodernism is based on the idea that the relation between observer and observed (and hence, for cultural anthropologists, the relation between ethnographer and “native”) can no longer be considered transparent. The litany of positivism, which Marvin Harris has recited through seven editions of Culture, People, Nature, is pretty much exhausted – not dead, perhaps, but dependent on some major academic life support systems to continue drawing breath (named chairs, emeritus positions, programs in development anthropology). Few graduate students beginning fieldwork get off the boat (or, increasingly, the cross-town bus) with a healthy-minded empiricism directing them to conduct observations, gather data, frame hypotheses, test theories. Instead, their young (and, again increasingly, not-so-young) minds are troubled. Their relations with local persons (no longer “informants”) begin with confusion and embarrassment, and only get messier as time goes by. The supposedly clear-cut program in which a scientist investigates objects immediately loses its transparency; the ethnographer’s relation to others becomes ambiguous, occluded, sometimes even dangerous.
Of course, even before s/he gets off that boat or bus the new ethnographer has been exposed, often fatally, to the virulent attractions of interpretivism, has come to expect thickets of description to be her/his lot in the field. What s/he does not figure out by her/himself is copiously supplied by the theoretically and methodologically exciting writings of Clifford Geertz, Jean-Paul Dumont, Paul Rabinow, James Boon, Donna Haraway, George Marcus, James Clifford, Ruth Behar, Michael Herzfeld, Dennis Tedlock, and others.
All this wallowing in interpretivist angst may sound like a distressing – and certainly depressing – way to start out on the long, slow death of dissertation research and writing, but many thoughtful anthropologists think that, as Martha Stewart says, it’s a good thing. And I pretty much agree. For reasons that I go into later, I believe the postulates (if you can call them that) of interpretivism (the relativity of observer-observed; the inevitability of thick description; the intersubjective nature of human experience and knowledge) have profound affinities with developments in intellectual fields as far-flung as theoretical physics, fractal mathematics, and chaos-complexity theory. Thick description is not intellectually naive, nor is it easy. As many of us have discovered, doing interpretive anthropology is an extremely tough, and generally thankless, job. Still, like they used to say about democracy (before George W. came along), it’s better than the frightful alternatives.
But. But . . . a promising beginning guarantees little except, perhaps, disappointment. And I believe that interpretive anthropology / postmodernism – whatever we might want to call it – has led to disappointment. There are a couple of major issues here, including the connection (as I see it) between interpretivism and science or science-like fields. I address this extremely important issue later in the essay. Of immediate concern, though, is that occluded relation between observer and observed: the angst-thing, the intersubjectivity-thing I’ve been discussing – what Ruth Behar powerfully describes as “anthropology that breaks your heart.”
The disappointment I feel and sense in others is, to turn the phrase, that virtually no anthropology actually does break your heart. It may tickle it a little, but that’s about as far as it goes – and even a chuckle is hard to come by in all the volumes pouring out of university presses and academic journals. (Even my own turgid prose has been criticized by AA reviewers as being too “casual.”) From Clifford Geertz’s 1973 clarion call to interpretive anthropology in “Thick Description,” through feminist- and Marxist-inspired cultural studies of gender, race, and nationalism, through George Marcus’s call for experimental ethnography, through Michael Jackson’s and Richard Price’s literary monographs, and on to Tedlock’s evocation of Bakhtin’s dialogic imagination and Behar’s fine-grained account of relations in the field, there is not, as far as I can see, a wet eye in the house. Nor are there many blazing eyes, fired with enthusiasm for a new vision, ready to push things to the limit to get at something like truth, something resembling beauty. If we are to operate as ethnographers of ourselves and our struggling discipline, we must begin by facing the fact that most cultural anthropology is b-b-b-boring.
In this essay we cannot remain strangers to irony, and it is bitterly ironic that brilliant anthropologists who set out to reinvigorate the field with accounts of lives as they are lived in all their passion, confusion, and tragedy should have fallen so far short of the mark. If there are occasional flashes of passion or glimmers of insight in the interpretive / postmodernist works of the past quarter century, these are mostly buried beneath stylistic and ideological posturings that belong to a secondary or tertiary literature. Geertz says somewhere that the ethnographer is a failed novelist; I fear s/he is more likely a failed literary critic. If you can’t do, teach. If you can’t teach, teach education.
How else, really, do we explain the proliferation of bloodless terms, of stylistic conceits belonging to a courtly literature only a Castiglione could admire? I cannot be the only anthropologist who has grown bone-weary of shrill accounts of the hegemonic discourse of a globalized culture appropriating this-or-that, accounts bolstered by the thinnest stereotypes when the discussion, finally if ever, gets down to flesh-and-blood specifics of the this-or-that. And I go from being bone-weary to downright alarmed when things take, as they too often do, a sinister turn, when, for example, the mild-mannered (and quite eloquent) naturalist Edward O. Wilson is treated like the victim of a lynch mob at an annual meeting of American anthropologists. Or when, in what seems to intimate a Stalinist purge, ridiculous labels are thought up, attached to individuals, and then used to denounce those individuals’ ideas.
Right now the most egregious example of this is the campaign being waged against “essentialists” by – who else? – “anti-essentialists” anxious to cast out revisionists and lackeys in their midst (a campaign recently canonized (!) by the American Anthropologist; see Rodseth 1998). But here is a question: Does an anti-essentialist believe there is something essential about an essentialist’s essentialism? This is exactly parallel to Russell’s famous Barber of Seville paradox. If the anti-essentialist is correct in her/his view that everything in human life is circumstance and context – in short, contingent on a vast edifice of hegemonic discourse (love the phrase!) – then certainly any view an essentialist espouses is, in reality (whatever that is), not actually essentialist. So the essentialist, far from being the evil enemy, is just another highly circumstanced, conflicted, confused-all-to-hell guy/gal like the rest of us. And how can we hold that against her/him? Huh? Exactly so.
It is Lilliputian almost beyond belief. You could spend months stopping the wo/man in the street, asking thousands of people about the disagreement between essentialists and anti-essentialists, and come away with nothing but uncomprehending stares. Is this what we have to show for a quarter century of interpretive anthropology?
And I fear we interpretive anthropologists are largely responsible for this lamentable isolation, this near-complete irrelevance: we can’t shift the blame to the oppressive influence of Marvin Harris and his positivist minions or to the essentializing, backsliding Trotskyites in our midst. Where ethnography is concerned – I will leave the question of theory aside for the moment – I believe our problem, our failure to connect, arises from our being too timid or, frankly, too untalented to follow the exhortations of Marcus, Clifford, and others to produce experimental, literary ethnography. Although Harris and those positivist minions of his roundly criticize literary ethnography as unscientific, my own view is that the problem with literary ethnography is that it is not nearly literary enough. Our best efforts (Michael Jackson, Richard Price, Ruth Behar) simply fail to deliver a literary intensity or immediacy that draws us (even as a highly specialized audience) into their texts, that produces what Roland Barthes called a quasi-sexual jouissance of writer-text-reader.
I realize these remarks are highly subjective – my own peculiar and personal reaction to works other anthropologists doubtlessly react to differently. More is involved here, though, than simply leaving things at the “I like it and you don’t, and there’s no accounting for taste in literature” stage. It is a question of the utmost importance: How do we render culture? How do we construct accounts of lives lived by others, often in faraway places, that convey a synthesis of information, meaning, emotion, that speak to the human condition? I would hope that these questions are in the mind of anyone who sits down to read an account of others’ lives – and not just a two-pound ethnographic tome, but a daily newspaper, an in-flight magazine, a novel from the supermarket shelf. And I would certainly hope those questions are crucial to anyone sitting down to write about others’ lives.
Perhaps of more general importance (since, let’s face it, few of us have a novel, ethnographic or otherwise, in us) is what, in the role some of us have as teachers, we propose to other, younger minds as reading material.
I wrestled with this problem some years ago, when I taught a “Peoples and Cultures” course on the Caribbean. Again, irony pushes its way to the forefront. Caribbean societies are highly complex, dynamic little worlds fashioned in the horrific crucibles of Amerindian genocide, African slavery, East Indian indentured servitude, and postcolonial turmoil. Yet the professional anthropological literature on those blood-soaked, tempestuous scraps of sand is anemic and soporific beyond belief. Lives fueled by sexual passion are reduced to relationships of “consensual cohabitation” and “coital frequencies”; the hardscrabble of existence to ponderous accounts of the plantation economy; complex ethnic identities to tired debates over the plural society and multiculturalism. My selection of course readings was made especially difficult by the fact that a good number of my students had Caribbean backgrounds: a predicament ethnographers of urban societies increasingly face. In this situation, reviewing the literature with more than a theoretical interest, it became clear to me that the very best works I knew on the Caribbean were by non-anthropologists, were, in fact, by novelists, poets, literary essayists: Edgar Mittelholzer; Wilson Harris; V. S. Naipaul; George Lamming; Edward Braithewaite; Peter Mathiessen. Of these, only Mathiessen lacks a Caribbean background. Yet his Far Tortuga is extraordinary for its fidelity to the life and language of small-island fishermen, and remarkably presented in the form of loosely connected prose poems and Zen koan – the very kind of thing to give a right-thinking, just-the-facts-ma’am, positivist ethnographer a case of the fits.
The ironic predicament literary ethnography faces extends well beyond the Caribbean, and takes a rather nasty turn when we examine the place anthropological writers occupy on the national scene. For that place is pretty much non-existent; and cultural anthropologists are sharply critical of those few anthropologists whose work does attract anything like a national audience. We devour our own kind. All the exhortations to interpretivism and empathy have not given us a postmodernist Margaret Mead (there’s a scary thought!), nor even a widely read theorist (outside the rarefied atmosphere of the New York Review of Books Clifford Geertz appears to have a small national audience). To the interpretivists’ chagrin the one anthropological theorist with any sort of public following or name-recognition is Marvin Harris, whose perennial textbook and series of semi-popular trade books make him the closest thing to Mead’s successor. But Harris’s semi-popularity pales in comparison with the literary successes of two anthropologist-writers who are figures of national prominence – and whose prominence drives most anthropologists absolutely bug-hunting nuts: Carlos Castaneda and, just in the last couple of years, Kathy Reichs.
Castaneda’s work is routinely reviled (though the latest edition of Don Juan, segregated as it is in the “New Age” section of Barnes & Noble, still contains the concluding “Structural Analysis” that makes up about a fourth of the book). And his recent The Art of Dreaming, universally ignored by anthropologists, is more interesting than lots of the dreary stuff now being written about cognition and consciousness. For her part, Reichs has achieved – probably unintentionally – the ultimate comeuppance for literary ethnography. One of those physical anthropology types whom Jonathan Marks rebuked in a recent Anthropology Newsletter (39: 5: 4) for not having their ontology in the right place (A politically incorrect ontology! Imagine!), Reichs has authored a pot-boiling, page-turning mystery based on the unlikely doings of a forensic anthropologist investigating a series of murders in Québec. A colossal bestseller (probably the only people who haven’t read it are anthropologists), Reichs has put anthropology before the public in a way unequaled by legions of interpretivists.
Anthropology and/or Science
A second paradox accompanies this peculiar state of affairs: Although much of contemporary cultural anthropology has assumed a decidedly cerebral or idealistic posture, preferring texts to tool types, the mind to the material world, we find ourselves mostly excluded from wider intellectual forums now engaged in discussions of the nature of mind or consciousness. And this segregation has occurred at a time when consciousness studies are big among name-brand scholars: Roger Penrose, The Emperor’s New Mind; Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works; Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained; Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul; Marvin Minsky, The Society of Mind. Names of anthropologists are sadly lacking here. Even an apparent exception – An Anthropologist on Mars – turns out to be written, not by an anthropologist, but by the well-known neurologist, Oliver Sacks (tellingly the book’s title is a self-description by one of Sacks’s autistic subjects).
An intriguing, almost cult-like phenomenon (surely worthy of ethnographic attention) is the “Consciousness Conferences” held in Tucson over the past several years. These are interdisciplinary with a vengeance, and have attracted most of the name-brand scholars mentioned above. Anthropologists, however, have been notable by their absence from lists of featured speakers. The sense among conference organizers, rightly or wrongly, seems to be that the real action in consciousness studies is happening everywhere but anthropology: neurophysiology, computer science, philosophy, linguistics, and, that happy catch-all, cognitive science.
It has been half a century since Lévi-Strauss crossed the Atlantic to declare, at a major conference in Bloomington, Indiana, that an “uninvited guest” was in attendance at that meeting of anthropologists and linguists (1963:71). The uninvited guest, he continued, was the human mind. The guest, perhaps sensing that it was not only uninvited but also not particularly welcome, promptly hitched a ride with Lévi-Strauss back to Paris, where it received a more congenial reception.
Despite the fact that anthropology has accommodated a well-organized research interest in the problem of consciousness – witness the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness and its journal – I believe it is nevertheless true that cultural anthropologists of very different theoretical persuasions have pretty much avoided anything smacking of consciousness studies. Witness, for example, the remarkable intellectual odyssey of Stephen Tyler, who broke off mid-way from developing a systematic cognitive anthropology to proclaim an anthropological dadaism. So the invitations from Tucson do not arrive because, if anything, American anthropology itself has drawn back from the flame, has failed to extend its own invitation to that guest so long neglected.
In this vein, it is instructive that, besides Lévi-Strauss, the only other prominent anthropologist to make a theory of mind the cornerstone of his work is Gregory Bateson. An impressive pair of outcastes from the camp of postmodernist anti-essentialists (where declaring oneself “poststructuralist” is part of the price of admission), Lévi-Strauss and Bateson would not receive a much warmer reception at one of the Tucson conferences. For in their separate ways both thinkers put forward a holistic, interactional notion of mind-nature that makes the rather scientistic Tucsonians uncomfortable.
Ourselves students of marginalized “natives,” we are in turn marginalized by that well-educated, intelligent segment of society that, while keenly interested in the world, is not all that interested in what anthropologists think of it. We are all dressed up, but nobody has asked us to the prom.
The sprawling enterprise of science dwarfs the tiny subdiscipline of cultural anthropology, and so it should come as no surprise that our voices are drowned in the maelstrom of public opinion. To give a scale to this disparity, compare Scientific American (circulation around 800,000, with fantastic graphics and big-budget ads) and the American Anthropologist (circulation around 8,000, with page after page of double column text, broken only by the occasional black-and-white photo, pulse-quickening graph, or university press ad).
It would be easier to rationalize this disparity, this unhappiness at missing out on the prom, if we could persuade ourselves that the American Anthropologist is a specialized journal which thrashes out the technicalities of intellectual issues that then get reported, in diluted form, in mass circulation publications like Scientific American. Unfortunately, that is not the case. We are spared the annoyance of being misreported in the popular press; we are simply ignored.
Still, Scientific American is a great magazine – but it ain’t got much culture. Or, to be a bit more precise and grammatical, the authors of articles in Scientific American present their material and carry on their debates with very little recourse to the anthropological concept/theory of human culture. As a life-long reader of Scientific American and as a cultural anthropologist who at least subscribes to the American Anthropologist (and in the process suffers from what Tom Wolfe calls “subscription guilt” over the accumulating stacks of mostly unread volumes staring back at me from their dusty shelves), I have pretty much resigned myself to this state of affairs. For although it rather grandiosely bills itself as the “science of humanity,” the discipline of anthropology is a notoriously “soft,” qualitative pursuit. Thus one would not expect it to have a conspicuous place in a publication devoted to the latest work in the physical and biological sciences and in mathematics. This is especially true where cultural anthropology is concerned, for practitioners of that subdiscipline have by and large allied themselves with the theories and methods of the humanities. If anthropologically-oriented work appears in Scientific American at all, it is always the work of scholars in one of the other subfields claimed by the discipline: prehistory or archeology, hominid paleontology, primatology, and certain branches of linguistics.
For all its marginality, however, I would suggest there is a very good reason why scientists and the scientifically informed public should pay more attention to cultural anthropology: its organizing principle, the concept/theory of culture, is critical to resolving a major scientific debate. That is the debate over the nature of human thought (mind or consciousness) and its relation to the world of physical reality as studied and explained by scientists.
This debate figures prominently in contributions to Scientific American. See, for example, that journal’s special issue on “Mind and Brain” of September 1992 and its “Trends” essay, “Can Science Explain Consciousness?” of July 1994. Neither of these important reviews featured an anthropological contributor nor, to my knowledge, mentioned anthropological work. Although numerous labels and theoretical nuances attach to each side of the debate, the central issue is quite straightforward: Is the mind or consciousness strictly a set of physical, organic processes, or is it a special, transcendent phenomenon, something, in the well-worn phrase, that is more than the sum of its (organic) parts?
How can the upstart field of cultural anthropology hope to make a meaningful contribution to this mega-problem that engages some of the best minds in the fields of biology, physics, computer science, mathematics, and philosophy? I think it can meet this demanding challenge by identifying a vital ingredient, in a word, culture – that protagonists of each side of the debate have ignored.
As always, though, things are not so simple as this scenario of the anthropological white hats riding into town with their quick-draw theory of culture to save the hapless townsfolk. Things are a good deal messier, and certainly a great deal curiouser (and curiouser). Cultural anthropologists today are not really in a position to export their concept of culture to other disciplines or to apply it themselves to an important interdisciplinary issue such as the problem of consciousness. And why not, you may justifiably ask, having invested much of your career in assimilating and promoting that concept? The answer to this question opens onto one of the more bizarre chapters in recent intellectual history: the concept of culture has become an embarrassment for cultural anthropologists.
Fifteen years after founding a Society for Cultural Anthropology and launching a journal appropriating that subdiscipline for themselves, American cultural anthropologists have recoiled from the implications they now read into their focal concept. Seized with the deconstructivist fervor of postmodernism, the staid concept of “culture” now seems altogether too essentializing, too hegemonic, too canonical (to use all the good bad words). To advance an organizing principle is to promote (doubtlessly with subterfuge) a social arrangement in which a few do the organizing of and for the many. Thus a theory, even an anthropological one with good liberal credentials, is simply an ideological tool of the oppressor. And yet there is still the Society, still the journal, still that almost colonial stigma of “culture.”
Just to make things even more confusing, while the standard bearers of cultural anthropology were distancing themselves from the constraining paradigm of “culture,” along came that unruly mob from departments of comparative literature, English, French, women’s studies, and area studies proclaiming an engaged if amorphous “cultural studies.” Their protagonists began doing many of the things cultural anthropologists had been doing, only better. They wrote more compellingly about contemporary issues, and placed their work before a far wider audience than professional anthropologists had been able to find. Lacking any sort of social science background, these upstarts were under no obligation to give even a passing nod to the idea that they might be erecting a theoretical edifice. In fact, the very idea of theory building was anathema, a sign of going back to work for The Man. Remember the old existential joke: We still don’t know who discovered water, but we’re sure it wasn’t a fish? In the same vein, we’re not sure what cultural studies studies, but we know it’s not culture.
As the new century begins, cultural anthropologists (at least, we might like to think, the best and brightest) find they have become an agnostic clergy, akin to those theologians who, at the beginning of the last century, had to assimilate the works of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. It is a troubling, exciting, and, again, extremely curious time. With its uncertainty it is not surprising that anthropologists have been hesitant to proselytize their trademark concept of culture, or that thinkers in other fields have refrained from looking to us for help. And yet, with all this uproar, the institution of anthropology still clanks along: I am told that courses are still being given (and taken!) in the “theory of culture.” What is taught in those courses? More importantly, what is thought of what is taught? With the postmodernist turn, it is as though the professor of a “theory of culture” course announced that “culture” consists of an endless jumble of dialogical encounters, of sub-texts and sub-sub-texts, while across the campus a physics professor (thoroughly anti-essentialist) was expounding the latest theory of matter: “We’ve noticed there are all these tables and chairs and buildings and things, all this stuff, hanging around, and, well, that’s ‘matter.’ Now, for your next lesson, please read . . .”
Things are not that droll. Are they? There’s got to be a better way. There’s got to be more to it. That’s what this essay is about.
I propose that the way out of the current impasse is to fashion a considerably reworked theory of culture. Such a theory would do two things: enable cultural anthropologists to produce significant contributions to major intellectual debates, such as the nature of mind or consciousness; and inject anthropological perspectives into the forum of public opinion, where our pedanticism has heretofore excluded us.
Let me illustrate this argument by applying an anthropological perspective to an extreme position in the debate: the physicalist theory of mind advanced by Francis Crick in The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul (1993). The kernel of Crick’s argument (like that of “strong AI” theorists in computer science) is that an understanding of neurophysiological processes is sufficient in and of itself to explain the phenomena that other, fuzzier thinkers take to be distinctive properties of “mind” or “consciousness.” The human brain is an object, it occupies a discrete place and time, and so whatever goes on inside it is the entire working of the system – whether we want to call that system “mind,” “consciousness,” or some other lofty term.
What is wrong with this argument, which has the admirable goal of focusing research on specific, down-to-earth problems while discouraging flights of speculative fancy? I believe there are three very serious shortcomings with it, all interconnected: it leaves unanswered or simply unaddressed the question of boundaries, the role of peripheral systems, and the reflexivity or iterativity of the system.
The Brain’s Boundary
The brain, as Crick emphasizes, is a physical object that houses the welter of neurological processes we gloss with the terms “thinking,” “feeling,” “knowing,” and so on. But what – and where – is the boundary of the brain? This is not an easy question. Obviously, the skull contains all the brain’s gray matter where neurophysiological events occur. It neatly packages and separates that gray matter from what is outside it – the environment. But the skull is a defective container; it is full of holes. And it is through those holes – the eye sockets, nasal passages, mouth cavity, ear canals, and the base of the spine – that bundles of nerve fibers continually carry a vast number of signals to and from the brain. This permeability of the brain, its acute sensitivity to an incredibly diverse and ever-changing stream of signals, is its distinguishing characteristic. That, after all, is what the brain is for, and that is why we can speak of its boundary or integrity in only the most circumspect terms.
The brain’s sensitivity to signals that impinge on it is evident when we consider the complex effects even the most minimal signal can have on its workings and those of its human host.
Suppose, for example, that you are attending a professional conference in a small city you have never before visited. At the conference you meet someone who lives nearby and who invites you to dinner at his home. He tells you he is also inviting a number of other conference-goers, most of whom he has just met.
The next evening you find yourself seated around your host’s table, in the company of strangers. A sumptuous meal is served, featuring an excellent breaded cutlet with grated Parmesan. As you and the other guests consume this dish, you compliment your host on the delicious veal. Your host smiles at your remark and says, “Oh, actually, that’s the neighbor’s cat.”
“It’s what?” you ask incredulously.
“The neighbor’s cat,” he replies again, matter-of-factly.
At this the dinner party erupts in pandemonium. You put down your fork, which still holds a piece of the suddenly repulsive flesh, and push away from the table, a wave of nausea sweeping over you. A couple of your companions, evidently with more delicate constitutions, jump up from the table and rush out of the room, making horrible gagging sounds as they go. Among the ashen faces around the table, though, you notice two other guests who appear quite nonplused by your host’s revelation, if puzzled by all the excitement.
Note that all this commotion is produced by an infinitesimal bit of speech: the final “t” of “cat” as uttered by your host. There are a number of possibilities here. Perhaps your host – whom you’ve just met – speaks English as a second or third language, and sometimes has difficulty with words ending in aspirated or sibilant sounds such as “high,” “rose,” “muff,” and so on. In speaking he tends to clip off the endings of these words, breaking the aspirated flow of the consonants and imparting a “stopped” feature to them. In this way, an aspirate-final word such as “calf” may sound a good deal like a stop-final word such as the allophonic “cat” – differing only in their terminal consonants. Your host’s neighbor may be a farmer, who has provided him with some excellent grain-fed veal for his dinner party. And his remark to you that the meal featured the neighbor’s “calf” was simply his (earthy) way of acknowledging your compliment.
Another plausible explanation for the disastrous turn of events is that your host is rather more exotic than you had supposed. He may well hail from a society in which cats are routinely featured on the menu. His only failure as a host thus lies in not having recognized the very different standards of edibility his guests bring to his table. Or some of his guests at any rate: the two members of the dinner party who appeared unconcerned by his revelation may be fellow exotics who share his taste for kitty cutlets.
As one tries to understand the event, unrecognized complexities inherent in the situation come rushing to the surface – a welter of possibilities that vitiate any simple this-happened-and-caused-that-to-happen explanation. Because so much (if not all) of human life is like our abortive dinner party, Clifford Geertz (1973c) has argued that ethnographic research inevitably yields a thick description of social life: a careful elucidation of the discrepant ideas and expectations that participants bring to and take from an event.
For present purposes, the important aspect of Geertz’s claim is that it forces us to give due weight to the vast edifice of mitigating circumstances that impinge on and determine an event. You were perfectly happy, sitting there munching on your cutlet, your taste buds registering only pleasure with the substance presented to them. Then your ears detected the tiniest of sounds, a /t/ where there should have been an /f/, and things changed abruptly. But what exactly changed? If we try to couch this in terms of Crick’s physicalist theory, do we say that the taste buds suddenly began sending a different signal? Or that the taste signal “into” the brain was somehow rerouted to produce the antithetical message of disgust with what the tongue was tasting? How can the same physical stimulus produce, in an instant, contradictory responses?
And there is still the matter of that /t/ /f/ contrast – a difference so very minimal that it easily eludes speakers of many languages. If the guest sitting beside you at that ill-fated dinner party happens to be a native speaker of a language that lacks final stops (compare the French chat and cat for example), does he hear /cat/ or only /ca-/? Presumably identical acoustical signals were registered in your inner ear and that of your neighbor, so how is it that you “hear” the /t/ sound and he does not?
For an anthropologist, the answer to these troublesome questions lies in a direction that takes us away from Crick’s physicalist theory of mind and toward a conception of the brain-environment relationship as an exceedingly complex boundary phenomenon. The ear does not simply perceive raw, “natural” sounds, nor does the tongue simply react to the intrinsic molecular properties of substances; the activities of listening to speech and eating a meal involve your prior assimilation of cultural systems that have no strict physiological basis in the brain. For you to hear a meaningful difference (and how very meaningful it was in our example!) between /cat/ and /calf/, it was necessary for you to learn from the cradle the phonology of a language such as English, which incorporates a distinction between the /t/ and /f/ sounds. Some languages may utilize one of these sounds but not the other; and some languages may have neither. Of some one hundred twenty distinct speech sounds identified by the International Phonetic Alphabet for languages around the world, English contains only thirty-five or forty. In a similar vein, cat flesh would be a perfectly acceptable protein source, but for the all-important fact that we are taught, again from the cradle, that whatever qualities cats may possess (cuddly companions, vicious predators, witches’ familiars), being edible is not among them.
When you sat down at that dinner table, you brought a great deal with you in addition to your physical self and its 1600 cc of gray matter. You brought, in a word, culture. Your speech, gestures, dress, and appetites are less attributes of your physical self than they are items in a tool kit which you have been given or selected, and which you use in your own, perhaps distinctive, fashion.
These observations may seem rather obvious, but pushed just a bit farther they get us to the important issue of the boundary of the brain. For if your speech is not strictly a part of your physiological being and yet the abstraction of the “English language” depends on you to bring it to life, then just where is this elusive speaking subject? I would suggest that it is impossible to get very far with this question while operating within the physicalist theory of Crick because that theory rests on a simplistic topology: it insists on a clear separation between the brain and its environment (see Figure 1). Common sense and habit lead us to suppose that the brain, tucked away inside the skull, is one physical system while the environment “outside” the skull is another. In this way we get drawn into arguments over what happens “in here,” versus what happens “out there.” Whatever is going on, and however much we differ in our interpretations of what is going on, we still put our faith in a fairly distinct line that separates brain and environment. But what if that line is far from clear (as Figures 1a and 1b depict)? What if instead it is infinitely convoluted (as Figure 1c depicts)?
Figure 1. The Brain's Boundary, as Enfoldings/Unfoldings of Semiospace.
Three modalities of a brain-environment system. Physicalist theories of mind or consciousness assume that a distinct boundary exists between the neural functions of an organism and its surroundings ("environment," "nature," "physical reality"). That assumption may yield useful results when the organism under study is extremely simple, such as a bacterium (a). It becomes progressively unworkable, however, as the complexity of the organism increases (b), and is quite useless for understanding the human brain-environment system (c).
I would suggest that Figure 1c is a far more accurate representation of the human brain-environment boundary than Figures 1a or 1b. Figure 1a, which corresponds to our commonsense notion of that boundary, is probably a fair depiction of how an extremely simple organism, a bacterium say, interacts with its environment. The unicellular bacterium has relatively little internal differentiation, and its environment is correspondingly undifferentiated. It does not receive a great variety of stimuli, and those stimuli it does receive are not subject to a wide range of responses. Introduce a heat or light source and the bacterium moves toward or away from it. Introduce a particle of agar and the bacterium approaches it and feeds. The bacterium doesn’t have to worry about following dinner party conversation, or about knowing whether a particle of agar was produced from the body of a cow or a cat. It doesn’t have to deal with a phonology or a dietary system.
With humans and their brains it is a different story. We do utilize phonologies and dietary systems, and these can only exist in a highly dynamic, differentiated environment, one that contains an infinity of folds, crevices, twists and turns. It may be convenient to refer to such an environment as a semiospace (Drummond 1995, 1996). As Figure 1c illustrates, a distinguishing feature of semiospace is its blurring of figure and ground: the multiple convolutions, or interaction sites, between figure (brain) and ground (environment) are so extensive that it becomes impossible to distinguish which is which. They become elements of a single synthetic, and highly dynamic, system.
In such a system the line that does the separating has acquired some unusual, if familiar properties: in its infinite complexity it resembles nothing so much as those lines Benoit Mandelbrot describes (1983), lines that comprise boundaries such as the coastline of England, the fractal patterning of a tree’s branches, or the outline of the Mandelbrot set itself. Intriguingly, this formal property of the brain-environment boundary is also present in the physical structure of the brain, an organ whose creases and folds increase its surface area exponentially.
Perhaps the most curious feature of Crick’s book is that he should have chosen to title it “the astonishing hypothesis,” for in its strict adherence to a physiological model it is both dated and backward-looking. For whatever reasons, he has proceeded without discussing a contrary model with its own considerable literature that stretches from the earliest works in philosophical psychology to present-day research. That is the tradition established by Vygotsky, Wittgenstein, and Bateson, whose otherwise disparate works concur in maintaining a necessary unity or synthesis of brain and environment. At a time when other psychologists were resolutely embarked on a strictly behaviorist program based on the unquestioned assumption that readily identifiable stimuli produce readily identifiable responses, Vygotsky proposed that mental events and physical actions are inextricably connected. There are not two things going on, one acting unilaterally on the other (stimulus/response, cause/effect), but a single recursive, mutually implicative process.
Writing at almost the same time (in the early thirties), Wittgenstein similarly maintained that thinking is an artifactual process, involving the eye, hand, and implement as much as the head. In this respect he and Vygotsky are direct precursors of Bateson and his “ecology of mind.” Wittgenstein’s position is spelled out early on in The Blue Book:
Let us go back to the statement that thinking essentially consists in operating with signs. My point was that it is liable to mislead us if we say, “thinking is a mental activity”. The question what kind of an activity thinking is is analogous to this: “Where does thinking take place?” We can answer: on paper, in our head, in the mind. None of these statements of locality gives the locality of thinking. The use of all these specifications is correct, but we must not be misled by the similarity of their linguistic form into a false conception of their grammar. As, e.g., when you say: “Surely, the real place of thought is in our head”. The same applies to the idea of thinking as an activity. It is correct to say that thinking is an activity of our writing hand, of our larynx, of our head, and of our mind, so long as we understand the grammar of these statements. And it is, furthermore, extremely important to realize how, by misunderstanding the grammar of our expressions, we are led to think of one in particular of these statements as giving the real seat of the activity of thinking. [[1933-1934] 1958: 15-16, emphasis in the original]
These pioneering works did not turn back the contrary tides of behaviorism and physiological determinism. Those bastions of “normal science” still swallow up tens of millions of NIH and NSF research dollars through the practice of what Richard Feynman, characteristically acerbic and straight to the point, termed “cargo cult science.” However, Vygotsky, Wittgenstein, Bateson, and others formulated ideas that are bearing fruit in sophisticated contemporary work on “distributed cognition” and “situated learning.” Like the two sides of Saussure’s piece of paper, the two topics explore aspects of a common (monistic) phenomenon. Studies of distributed cognition (Cole 1996; Cole and Engestrom 1993; Bechtel 1993; Wertsch 1991) explore the “connectionism” between mental event and cultural practice. Paralleling these psychological studies of cognition are ethnographic works that document the sociocultural situatedness of learning. Brown et al. (1989), Lave (1988), Lave and Wenger (1991), and McLellan (1995) demonstrate that most learning is not the abstract exercise of classrooms and rat mazes (whose similarity would permit us just as well to call them ratrooms and class mazes). Learning in the walking-around-in world (life among the non-academic living) is a cultural practice, inextricably bound up in a complex pattern of social interaction and cultural belief. Yucatec midwives learn to be midwives, navy quartermasters learn to be quartermasters, and drunks learn to be drunks through close association with experts in those disparate pursuits as they go about their daily lives (Lave and Wenger 1991).