Mind/Body Blown

In honor of a relationship fifty years strong, the School of Humanities and Claire Trevor School of the Arts hosted the Creativity, Cognition, Critique Symposium last Friday and Saturday. This meeting of distinguished minds continued UCI Humanities’ ongoing development of an intersectional discipline coined “the digital humanities,” a project that seeks practical applications of art and humanism in the digital age.

These diverse lectures, led by cross-disciplinary exemplars, all in some way aimed to trace how technology — its interfaces, aesthetics and culture — literally molds our cognition and creativity. In this circle of contemporary philosophers, mind-body dualism is a dirty, dirty word (poor Descartes). But the ultimate humanistic question still persists: Where do our minds lie in relation to our bodies and the world of physical reality?

Acclaimed philosopher Catherine Malabou provided a guide for thinking about our interactions with the physical, beyond dualism. Drawing on Derrida and critiquing Kant, she concluded at Saturday morning’s roundtable that cognition can be understood as the constant harmonization between mental and physical experience. Perception is a process, and knowledge does not simply arise theoretically; it forms through direct experience. In her terms, a microscopic neighborhood of our neural cells welcomes objects of our continuous gaze by structurally accommodating them, mapping neural pathways in response to them — a progressive adaptation deeply rooted in our evolutionary biology.

Claire Trevor’s in-house mechatronic artist and cultural theorist Simon Penny added that the mind itself bears influence over the object of appraisal. But to him, the evolution of digital technology has exponentially outpaced our comprehension, and thirty years of physical accommodation for increasingly novel tech has lapsed without critical, thoughtful adaptation. Uncritically, we’ve accommodated our devices and their app-stuffed graphic user interfaces — “the glob of mayonnaise” ever-obscuring their software — but the way we understand ourselves in relation to our technology is certainly stunted. In this context, he reasons that rampant cognitivism privileges the logics of analytic STEM schools over the embodied cognition of the arts. The “excesses of cognitivism” have created a philosophy that cleaves the mind from the body, resulting in an academy that prizes analysis over technical experience.

Penny poses the opposite: that the mind and body are one unified system. “We are not minds that have bodies, but we are bodies that just happen to have minds,” he concluded.

Knowledge diffuses throughout our bodies and is etched into our muscles and joints and the mind, then, is just a part of a mechanical network. David Bates expanded upon the two previous speakers and sees our intuition as the dividing factor between us and mere automatons. This intuitive creativity exists within illogical gaps in our cultural programming, making us “dangerous” automatons who dare to risk irrationality, resulting in creativity.

How can we find power in these gaps? Media studies scholar Anne Balsamo and prolific theorist Jodi Dean emphatically agreed that it is derived through subversive art.

Balsamo denigrated the ad-glutted, capitalist vision of a Times-Square-inspired Internet that has spawned an attention economy. Engineered distractions like clickbait articles and Dadaist memes vye for our eyeballs promising satisfaction, but deliver impotent content at best and an advertisement at worst. Her AIDS Quilt Touch Memorial project subverts the attention-needy interactive design of commercial spaces to force pedestrians to remember the repressed cultural trauma of the international AIDS epidemic.

The Quilt originated in the tumult of LGBT activism in the ‘80s, culminating in an act of peaceful protest in 1987 when San Francisco artists blanketed the National Mall in Washington D.C. with a patchwork quilt covering an area larger than a football field comprised of 1,920 panels memorializing victims of the Reagan-regime’s silence in the face of the plague. Now, the quilt is 48,000 panels strong and archived into a 25 gigapixel mammoth digital photo. The sheer scale of the project demands the viewer’s attention and a touchscreen interface provides a familiar gestural experience in the service of substantive cultural memory.

Dean subverts the monied spaces of New York’s museums of natural history by organizing with an art collective benignly called The Natural History Museum. This two-year old accredited pop-up museum sets up shop within the walls of established museums across the country, providing a political space that has stoked world-renowned scientists into political action. Part artistic parody, part radical politics, the collective aims to kick David Koch, notorious oil industry magnate and climate change denier, off the board of executives at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History where he sponsors exhibits that censor the destruction of the Koch-funded industrial oil complex.

Merging humanistic theory and art in practice is the ongoing mission of UCI’s School of Humanities, and these lectures embody the goal of the university: to mix disparate ideas into unexpected, important results.