Tuesday, October 27, 2015


This time of year a high prairie community is clenching for the winter, getting braced for profound cold, deep snow, high wind.  Last minute preparations are underway.  The festivals of unification and plenty -- Halloween and Thanksgiving -- are in preparation, which in this culture means buying a lot of stuff.  The schools have been humming along for a month.  And this year we have elections which may be undoing all preparations by accusing, worrying, withdrawing, blaming -- all that human struggle.   So my remedy is to focus on the most erudite and marginally comprehensible scholarly material I’ve got downloaded waiting to be figured out.  It’s my version of Sudoku puzzles.

Here’s a good one that will require so much concentration that I’ll stop worrying about the leak in my water line.  Leo and Roger are out there with the backhoe right now.

Waterline Archeology

This is the article being reviewed:  Malafouris, L. (2010). “Metaplasticity and the human becoming: principles of neuroarchaeology.” Journal of Anthropological Sciences 88: 49-72.

Here’s the review title:  * The introduction of “neuro-archaeology” and the synthesis of biological and neural aspects within the fields of neuroscience and archaeology. 

This is an excellent definition to chew on:  “Malafouris writes that the human mind is an “interactive, embodied, and distributed autonoetic system” and argues for the incorporation of this concept in archaeological studies.”

“Interactive” responds to the concept of ‘experience-dependent plasticity’.  This means that the brain is NOT a container that learns unyielding facts and precepts.  Rather, it is a kind of dance in which what happens is met by the brain reaching out to understand it.  One way I appreciate this concept is abandoning the idea of education as “units” or eggs of knowledge that are installed in the pockets of the brain, whether the students like it or not.  GIVE me an education assumes that it’s an object rather than a process.  Therefore, the learner has no obligation except to open their mouths or ears.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, looking curiously like a cowboy.

Here’s Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who intuitively knew what science is proving -- that we build our brains from our lives.  To live one way or another is a choice that creates us.  The idea has been around, just ignored.

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!

A quote from the review:  “Neuroarchaeology aims at constructing an analytical bridge between brain and culture by putting material culture, embodiment, time and long term change at center stage in the study of mind. This paper presents a critical overview of this new research field and introduces the notion of ‘metaplasticity’ to describe the enactive constitutive intertwining between neural and cultural plasticity.” 

“Enactive” means you have to do something, that something is happening.
“Constitutive” means there are various parts that are coming together.
“Intertwining” implies that the forces and parts that are coming together are still separate enough to belong to one piece or another.  This is not merging, so identity needn’t be sacrificed but rather put in relationship with something else.

I’m not going to use “metaplasticity” in an archeological way, rather in a sociological way, but you might like to read the whole article, so here’s how you can get to the article.  (I seem to be in sympathy with English thinking, or maybe it’s that I subscribe to English sources.) 
Lambros Malafouris: this is what scholars look like now.

Metaplasticity and the human becoming: principles of neuroarchaeology by Lambros Malafouris, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Downing Street, Cambridge, CB2 3ER, U.K.  
e-mail: lm243@cam.ac.uk, l.malafouris@gmail.com 

“Mirror neurons” -- cells that provide empathy with what someone else is thinking/feeling.

“Embodied simulation” -- if you watch someone dancing, your brain will provide a dim echo in your own muscles.

“Social cognition” -- awareness of the group

“Neural exploitation” -- emphasizes the role of sensorimotor systems in the formation of abstract concepts, providing new perspectives on how the brain facilitates and supports the transmission of cultural values, beliefs, and practices.   This may be the single most major concept.

The formal thesis to be pursued is expressed as a little triangle.  Rather inscrutable.

(a)The hypothesis of extended mind, which explores the constitutive intertwining of cognition with material culture, 
(b) the hypothesis of enactive signification, which explores the nature of the material sign not as a representational mechanism but as a semiotic conflation and co-habitation through matter that enacts and brings forth the world, and finally, 
(c) the hypothesis of material agency, which explores agency not as a human property but as the emergent product of situated activity. 

“At the centre of investigation is now the question about how these abilities (e.g. language, symbolic capacity, theory of mind (ToM), causal belief, learning by teaching, ‘we’ intentionality, sense of selfhood, working memory, autonoesis, ability to plan and innovate) relate to the embodied character of human experience.” 

This sentence translates (I think) as follows:  the thinkers are not worrying about content but about how people get to their content, what we might call their method.  They are considering the following:

“Language” means that they need terms for what they talk about.  Even grammar can affect what you can say.

“Symbolic capacity is the ability to think of metaphors, which is similar to knowing terms but also a way to package an idea.  For instance, “taming the wilderness”.

Theory of Mind” (often abbreviated ToM) is the ability to attribute mental states — beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc. — to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one's own.

Causal beliefs” is what you think key forces come from: in medicine it might involve believing that evil spells, germs or bad attitudes make you sick.  Obviously, the different causes imply different cures.  A mismatch can make trouble, maybe fatal.

“Learning by teachingmeans being in relationship that asks for interaction, attention to the steps of evidence, and confirmation that information was conveyed.

‘We’ intentionality” is the sense of belonging to a group and how one defines that group, what it means in terms of entitlement, obligation, and other expectations.  Shared goals.

“Sense of selfhood” is the terms of identity: your body, your mind, your close relationships, your abilities. 

Working memory” is the system responsible for the transient holding and processing of new and already-stored information, and is an important process for reasoning, comprehension, learning and memory updating.  Your dashboard.

Autonoetic” consciousness is the human ability to mentally place ourselves in the past, in the future, or in counterfactual situations, and to analyze our own thoughts. Our sense of self affects our behavior, in the present, past and future.

Ability to plan and innovate” is one of the most obvious items!  But far from the easiest.

These terms have been developed in order to think about obvious and ordinary things.  For instance, Leo is out there with the backhoe, which demands an interface between operator, and machine and an understanding of the combining physics of earth and water.  He is excruciatingly aware of the need for this since a few months ago a trench collapsed on him.  Vulnerability and suffering are a part of this work for him, more than is usual.  Our material culture is based on big machines that can push earth and water.

The frame belatedly bought by the Town to prevent trench collapse.

The entire community is sharply aware of these dynamics since dust, water (snow) and gumbo are things we struggle with all the time.  This struggle requires money, esp. when it is done through group-funded engineering specialists.  Many people here are farmers who own big acreages and are used to dealing with them on their own terms.  They are not comfortable delegating control of infrastructure, since on their own homesteads they often get by in their own inventive ways.  Everyone has a pile of old pipes and discarded mechanisms, to say nothing of a row of ancient machines, and they sometimes succeed in saving money by making them fit some new need.  Improvised money-saving is a basic principle of survival. 

An Eastslope community like this means that even with big machinery one is in direct contact with prairie and prairie weather which is vast -- you can see it rising behind the mountains and sweeping over the land.  Little humans face overwhelming challenges.  More than in some places, religion needs to provide protection, consensus, and an assurance of virtue.  The hand that is gripping the shovel, which must inevitably be used even when big machines are present, has to be operated with both skill and determination.  Too easily it can become a fist; too easily focused determination can become tyranny.

This has become relevant to Eastslope irrigation and its politics.  It isn't an idle puzzle after all.  it is material culture.

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