Friday, 31 January 2014

Irritating Functional Fixedness

The objects of our world are so often secure in their place in a system of uses and meanings. They are “functionally fixed”. However, strategies can be learnt to think about objects differently by finding ways to uncouple them from these systems. Objects can irritate systems too.

In his article in Psychological Science (2012), “InnovationRelies on the Obscure: A Key to Overcoming the Classic Problem of FunctionalFixedness” Tony McCaffrey makes the following argument:

A recent analysis of real-world problems that led to historic inventions and insight problems that are used in psychology experiments suggests that during innovative problem solving, individuals discover at least one infrequently noticed or new (i.e., obscure) feature of the problem that can be used to reach a solution. This observation suggests that research uncovering aspects of the human semantic, perceptual, and motor systems that inhibit the noticing of obscure features would enable researchers to identify effective techniques to overcome those obstacles. As a critical step in this research program, this study showed that the generic-parts technique can help people unearth the types of obscure features that can be used to overcome functional fixedness, which is a classic inhibitor to problem solving. Subjects trained on this technique solved on average 67% more problems than a control group did. By devising techniques that facilitate the noticing of obscure features in order to overcome impediments to problem solving (e.g., design fixation), researchers can systematically create a tool kit of innovation-enhancing techniques.”

One example he gives is of what he calls the “two-rings” problem; a variation of the Candle Problem devised by Gestalt Psychologist Karl Dunker (1945). A subject is given the problem of fastening two metal rings together and supplied with two heavy rings, a candle, match, and a 2” steel cube. The match is a red herring in the assemblage because it points toward the wrong way to solve the problem through lighting the candle and melting the wax. The wax will not be strong enough to bond the rings. Instead, the solution is reached by recognising that the candle is comprised of a string and wax. On realising this, the cube can be used to scrape away the candle wax and the string used to tie the rings together.

McCaffrey’s strategy, then, is what he calls the “Generic Parts Technique” GPT. This involves thinking about an object independently from its normal use. To help in this he proposes concentrating on 4 aspects to an object which he claims are normally overlooked: (i) Parts (ii) Material (iii) Shape (iv) Size. Hence, by focusing on the generic and abstract features of objects participants are helped in finding their “obscure” elements. This helps in thinking creatively about how they may function in unusual ways.

The paper is clearly situated within the discourse of Cognitive Psychology and draws on the history of the problem of “Functional Fixedness” in Gestalt Psychology. Hence, it is couched in the vocabularies of: problem-solving; innovation; solutions and suchlike. However, the paper can be subjected to a version of the Generic Parts Technique itself and the implications of it rethought in aesthetic and philosophical terms.

The key to this lies in how McCaffrey identifies the inhibiting aspects of the normal functioning of the “human semantic, perceptual and motor systems.” It’s not too much of a step to move to recast these systems in the phenomenological vocabulary of intentional horizons. Then, the challenge to functional fixedness through a search for obscurity becomes an exercise in thinking outside of the “Natural Attitude” so familiar to Phenomenology.
Further, it seems that treating objects as “obscure” is precisely what artists and philosophers must do.
On the one had they might look at an object in terms of the medium through which they are re-presenting it – be that painting, or philosophical reflection. This is how Merleau-Ponty reads Cezanne’s paintings. Hence both the apple on a table and its painted counterpart become an interplay of its generic parts: parts, material, shape and size.

On the other both artists and philosophers will search out those often hidden metaphorical elements of things which are all too often overlooked. They are looking for the same thing as McCaffrey’s innovators, that is, to “create function free descriptions for each part” of objects and imagine new ways in which objects can be not useful; and discovered to be newly obscure.
And, to reiterate, the implications of this will extend beyond training ourselves in innovative approaches to solving discrete problems. Objects offer the potential to irritate social systems when they are allowed to drift free from their normal functional fixedness.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Alien Systems?

 Are we only a quarter percent human?

The following is from Marcus Chown’s popular science book What a Wonderful World, (Faber and Faber, 2013):

“The sheer number of alien bacteria in your body might actually underrate their importance. The Human Microbiome Project found that microorganisms that inhabit your body have a total of at least 8 million genes, each of which codes for a protein with a specific purpose. By contrast, the human genome contains a mere 23,000 genes.Consequently, there are about 400 times as many microbial genes exerting their effect on your body as human genes. In a sense, you are not even as much as 2.5 per cent human – you are merely 0.25 per cent human. Since the alien cells in your body are largely prokaryotes, which are much smaller than eukaryotes, they add up to a few kilograms or a mere 1–3 per cent of your mass. They are not encoded by your DNA but infected you after birth, via your mother’s milk or directly from the environment. They were pretty much all in place by the time you were three years old. It is fair to say that we are born 100 per cent human but die 97.5 per cent alien.” (pg. 17)

Yet, it seems that it’s actually exactly the other way round: the more “alien” then the more human we become. We’re born with only minimal elements of our humanity and only develop them as we become increasingly distributed throughout systems as we age. And, even if it is wrong to think of this distribution as negating our essential humanity, it does point to a key feature of this distribution, that is, it takes place across different systems: systems of matter; psychic systems of consciousness and social systems of inter-subjective meaning.

As is well known (not least through the examples given in Lacan and Merleau-Ponty) a child begins to differentiate itself from its environment from between 6 to 18 months. It becomes materially, psychically and socially independent. Quite obviously it doesn’t become more alien. On the contrary the child’s humanity develops as it becomes a self-reflexive system distributed throughout other systems. This development continues as the child enters into other systems: language; culture; technology; history; nature.

As Andy Clarke puts it in Supersizing the Mind (Oxford, 2011): “cognition leaks out into body and world.” And when it does so this leakage takes our humanity with it. As we become enmeshed in all of our world’s complex systems the more we can realise our human-ness.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Systems Seminar continues with 1000 Plateaus

The Systems Reading Group is starting up again.

This year we’ll focus on the single text: A Thousand Plateaus.

This blog can be used as a hub for activities in much the same way as before here, and here.

Running up to Christmas the meetings are on these Wednesdays:

16th Oct.; 6th Nov.; 27th Nov.; 18th Dec.. All at 6pm at NCAD.

For the 1st meeting we’ll discuss Introduction: Rhizome (pg. 1-27)

All welcome, email me for more details.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Collecting Dust

During a recent trip to Istanbul we found ourselves in the Sultanahmet Camii. It was one of those sticky, prickly days when your clothes and skin feel like they’re being laminated together. So it was a relief to be inside the cooling air of The Blue Mosque – as it is commonly known.

The famed blueness of the interior comes from a combination of the decorative schema of over 20,000 hand-made ceramic (Iznik) tiles; and the stained glass windows which modulate the light as it flows inside to give it the quality of a calming mist.

The space was, unsurprisingly, busy and filled with that admixture of the curious and the bored; the informed and the ignorant; initiates and onlookers which you’ll find in any popular tourist attraction. Yet, despite this, it was still and quiet. Almost completely, except for a constant, somewhat melodic drone. A sonorous hum damped down the harsh edges of any noises which didn’t belong in here. It was a meditative thrumming of the air which addressed itself to all the senses - not just the ears – and demanded contemplation.

Perched, as we were, on a platform of almost total ignorance we launched ourselves off into a sequence of speculations. My fellow visitor proposed that this was the reading of sacred texts. Perhaps, we wondered, there is always a reading taking place in here, no matter what time of day, as means by which to retain the sanctity of the place by filling it with words of devotion. Obviously, I argued, we were hearing the prayers of the devout. As I warmed to this theme I imagined that above us sincere acts of adoration were taking place as they had done for hours, days and generations before and which shamed my own irreligion and indiscipline. And how better to worship, we agreed, than through the physical, aesthetic act of giving a public voice to private faith? We weren’t sure what was going on but we knew that it was beautiful and significant.

It was only as we were leaving that a distracted glance caught the source of the sound. A small man was diligently and patiently wheeling a very large, antiquated vacuum cleaner over the elaborate carpets which adorned the mosque. The transcendent had begun with the quotidian; our reverie emerging from collecting dust.

Monday, 24 June 2013

OOO discussion at Nottingham Contemporary

Video of the whole discussion here

Thanks to Emma Moore for organising a great event in the context of the show, "The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things" curated by Mark Leckey.

19 Jun 2013, Nottingham Contemporary, 6pm - 8.30pm

Free, The Space
6pm Screening:
Elizabeth Price User Group Disco

6.30pm Discussion:
With Graham Harman, Michelle Kasprzak, Kevin Love, Andrew Goffey and Francis Halsall
What does it mean to imagine that everything exists equally in the world, and that human beings have no more status than atoms or alpacas? Object-oriented ontology (“OOO”) puts things (rather than human beings, science or social relations) at the heart of studying what it means to exist. It is a new philosophical movement that has had a decisive influence on the work of both artists and exhibition-makers. A discussion with philosopher Graham Harman, curator Michelle Kasprzak and lecturers Kevin Love and Francis Halsall will address implications for the artwork as object.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Mala and Blossomest Blossom

 “Below my window in Ross, when I'm working in Ross, for example, there at this season, the blossom is out in full now, there in the west early. It's a plum tree, it looks like apple blossom but it's white, and looking at it, instead of saying "Oh that's nice blossom" ... last week looking at it through the window when I'm writing, I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it. Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn't seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous, and if people could see that, you know. There's no way of telling you; you have to experience it, but the glory of it, if you like, the comfort of it, the reassurance ... not that I'm interested in reassuring people - bugger that. The fact is, if you see the present tense, boy do you see it! And boy can you celebrate it.” (Dennis Potter, CH4, 1994)

When Dennis Potter gave this interview to Melvin Bragg he casually sipped morphine directly from a bottle to mitigate the pain of the cancer that was killing him. The closeness to death had gifted Potter a great privilege; that of being able to attend to the aesthetic richness of living with the relish of a glutton and the meticulousness of an obessesive. The fullness of everything in the world, he seemed to be saying, was too much to be contained by words alone.  The experience of living life in the present tense causes language to become stuffed to bursting point. It begins to split at the seams and irruptions like “blossomest”  - a word that shouldn’t exist - spill out.

A few years ago I found myself in Beijing enjoying the hospitality of philosophy students at the university there. They invited us to a lavish lunch on campus and, inspired by a mixture of generosity and institutionally sanctioned greed, ordered plates and plates of food until there was no room left on the table. Some of the foods were familiar; other less so such as a fungus broth served in a log (as I remember it.) Our hosts took great delight in explaining what was in each dish and how we should eat it. But amidst the flavours and textures both familiar and strange there was a taste I couldn’t place. “What’s the ingredient in this?” I asked. I struggled to be more specific. In the end the best I could come up with was a face in which I pulled my lips back over my teeth: “the one that makes my mouth go sccchhh and tchkk” I said. Our hosts thought this hilarious, “How can you not have words for these tastes?” someone asked, puzzled that something so ordinary could fail to be named. I’ve since worked out that the flavour comes from Sichuan Pepper a common and popular ingredient in China. It provokes a particular and peculiar sensation in the mouth. It’s called málà in Chinese which roughly translate as numbing and spicy.

Quite obviously the world that I savour with my whole body is not one that can be limited to linguistic approximations of if. Wittgenstein was wrong: the limits of my language are not the limits of my world. The world is richer than the words I find in it. And I can taste as much. The numbing spiciness of blossoms will always exceed their descriptions.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Why drawing is like phenomenology (and why I cant do it)

I’m not very good at drawing and any of my efforts to date have been pretty clumsy. The main reason as to why I can’t draw well is that I haven’t learned to look in the appropriate style. David Hockney calls this particular style of looking to draw “eyeballing” which he says is,
The way an artist sits down in front of a sitter and draws or paints a portrait by using his hand and eye alone and nothing else, looking at the figure and then trying to recreate the likeness on the paper or canvas. By doing this he ‘gropes’ for the form he sees before him. (Hockney 2006, p. 23)
Also, I can’t seem to make my hands do what I’d like them to in order to make a satisfactory drawing. I don’t have the technical facility to use the drawing materials effectively. In short, I don’t have what Ernst Gombrich calls a “schema” for drawing.

A colleague once gave me a drawing lesson and I, apparently, made the classic mistake when trying to draw an object. In this case it was a beer glass. I first imagined the immediate experience of the glass as a conceptual object, which in this case was a transparent, open cylinder. I then attempted to rotate that cylinder in my mind’s eye to bring it parallel with the picture surface in order to represent it through drawing lines. The reason that this does not work as a strategy for drawing is that it is the wrong style of looking. This style of looking takes first hand expe­rience and attempts to mediate it conceptually according to a pre-existent shape (such as a cylinder) before attempting to re-present that shape according to the material of the drawing (pencil, paper and so on) and parallel to a picture plane.

The successful drawer, on the other hand, must attend to the specific experience of the object as it is experienced. In short, they have to become a phenomenologist (even if they didn't know it.) They learn to attend to the gaps between things and treat the spaces between elements as something rather than nothing. They must then match their observations with a set of learned procedures and physical actions. The good drawer uses their arms and hands and thumbs and other parts of the body to relate the proportions of the viewed object to their own body. They must bracket (put out of action) a conceptual consideration of the object in favour of grasping its concrete particularity. The drawer must then translate this experience into the medium they have to hand according to the techniques they know.

I find such a style of “eyeballing” and close looking – what I call the drawing style – actually very difficult to do. It is certainly the case that this is not how I experience the world on a day to day basis whereby my natural attitude to things is as something ready to hand to be used or understood. I rarely attend to door frames or tables as significant aesthetic experiences or perceptual conundrums. Even many works of art do not present themselves in such a way too. Recently, for example, I spent a considerable time looking at the Ghent Altarpiece or Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by van Eyck and marvelling at its complex ico­nography of saints, patrons, angels and so on. I was absorbed by the lustrous surfaces of oil paint. And puzzled by its weirdness. But I did not imagine myself drawing it. I was not in the drawing style of looking. There seemed to be too much going on, a surfeit of richness perhaps, to allow for this.