Alva Noë, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (NY: Hill and Wang, 2015).
In this brief note, I want to focus on the idea of “organization” Noë puts forth here in his wonderful new book.
He opens the book with a discussion of breast-feeding as an activity that “organizes us. The task itself shapes, enables, and constrains us; we find ourselves put together and made up in the setting of the activity” (ST 5; italics in original).
Organized activities have 6 features: they are 1) naturally rooted, 2) cognitively demanding, 3) temporally / rhythmically structured, 4) emergent from endogenous dynamics [in the case of breast-feeding neither nurse nor infant is in charge], 5) functional, and 6) potentially pleasurable.
First of all, I think the example is important, for, following Colwyn Trevarthen, we can see breast-feeding and other infant/caretaker rhythmic interchange as setting up “primary intersubjectivity” which lays the ground for later turn-taking behavior characteristic of “secondary intersubjectivity” in conversation (Noë’s next example at ST 6-7), dance (ST 11), and so on.
For developmental psychology research here, see the essay collection Communicative Musicality (OUP, 2009); for philosophy see, inter alia, Thomas Fuchs & Hanne De Jaegher, Enactive intersubjectivity: Participatory sense-making and mutual incorporation, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 8 (2009): 465–486 and Shaun Gallagher, Two problems of intersubjectivity, Journal of Consciousness Studies 16, No. 6–7 (2009): 289-308.
Next, such organization happens in and enmeshes into the characteristic activities of our culture: “To be alive is to be organized, and insofar as we are not only organisms but also persons, we find ourselves organized, or integrated, in a still larger range of ways that ties us to the environment, each other, and our social worlds” (ST, 6).
Organization, Noë insists, cannot be understood by neuro-reductionism or by hyper-intellectualism, but needs to be analyzed at the “embodiment level,” which is neither sub-personal nor personal; AN refers here not to Merleau-Ponty as might be expected but to Dana Ballard of UT Austin. The point he’s trying to make here is that not all organized activities are social; perception is a case whereby “the environment itself organizes us individually” (ST 8). I’m not sure about this with regard to seeing anything other than just objects; I would think that our concrete perception (“this thing isn’t just a thing, it’s a table”) is irreducibly social.
But leave that be; the interesting thing for me comes next: “Our lives are one big complex nesting of organized activities at different levels and scales… We are always captured by structures of organization…. And crucially, these structures of organization are not of our own making” (ST 10). This is key to our radical historical sociality: our growing up is a process of being organized into evolving structures of organized activity. I’d like to put in a plug here for variation in practices: I don’t think we have a culture, but rather we have cultures, in the plural, and it's the resonance and dissonance of organized activities that lets us achieve both comfortable habits and creative novelty.
In shifting to his discussion of art, Noë distinguishes dancing as organized activity from choreography, which is a practice that “puts dancing itself on display” (ST 13), that aims at producing a “perspicuous representation,” something that “illuminat[es] the ways we find ourselves organized, and so, also, the ways we might reorganize ourselves” (ST 17).
So at this point I want to thematize plasticity and process.
Plasticity has to be as the ground for organization / re-organization. But re-organization implies as well a capacity for de-organization as an intermediary between a state of being organized and a later state of re-organization.
But I also want to inject a process perspective here: aren’t we just always ratios of processes heading toward (re-)organization and de-organization? A fully organized (fully habituated) state is a limit; no one, no thing is ever so locked into repetition without a difference that it just rolls along with no bumps, no variation. On the other hand I fully agree that there’s no life without some degree of organization, some resonance, some habituation: the heart just has to start up again and again and again after each one of its cycles and its rhythm has to get enmeshed with a multiplicity of other processes.
I think this biological necessity for harmony in multiple processes scales up to the level of organized activities: “talking, walking, eating, perceiving, driving” are Noë’s examples (ST 10) but we can extend the list. They have to harmonize to some extent just so we can get through the day, but there’s enough dissonance to open possibilities for experimentation with the interplay of those activities.
I’m tempted to a pun here to conclude. Can we call this experimentation with organized activities – underpinned by plasticity and multiple processuality – and resulting in de-organizing ourselves for novel re-organizations, can we call this the “art of living”?