Alva Noë, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (NY: Hill and Wang, 2015).
In this note, I want to focus on the notion of a “writerly attitude” in the key Chapter 4 of Strange Tools, “Art Loops and the Garden of Eden.”
Let’s recap from the previous posts, where I mostly articulate Noë’s theses, but also flesh out some implications. The key distinction of ST is that between level 1 (“organized activities”) and level 2 (“reorganization practices”).
Level 1 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. Organized activities are bio-cultural; they become habits; and they are complexly interwoven at multiple scales. The resonance of these activities then provide a functional integration to our lives and their dissonance allows for innovative mixing and matching to create new patterns of activity.
Level 2 is that of the practices that provide a “perspicuous representation” of an organized activity, where “the nature of the organization at the lower level gets put on display and investigated” (ST 29). For instance, choreography displays dancing to us, as (bio-culturally informed) organized activity.
Now, for Noë philosophy is also a level-2 practice: it “stands to our level-1 cognitive undertakings – reasoning, argument, belief formation, and crucially, the work of science – [as] choreography stands to movement and dancing, or painting stands to picture-making activities” (ST 29-30).
So philosophy shows thought as organized in a particular way – as conforming to a particular image of thought, we could say – and in so doing allows for that organization to be shook up and re-organized. I would say here that, as with all activities put on display by arts, working on our thought patterns to de-/re-organize them relies on plasticity and multiple processuality. That is, in order to be organized in the first place, activities presuppose both a capacity to be organized (plasticity) and a capacity to mesh together multiple biological / neurological processes with cultural processes (multiple processuality).
To pick up with Chapter 4 after this recapping, in a key move, Noë will claim that philosophy and art are necessary because organized activities need a supplement of reflective practices. This is because “we may lack a sense of the lay of the land” the meshwork of activities prepare for us, so that art and philosophy are practices of “making sense” (ST 30). (We may also find ourselves not just dis-oriented but in situations of injustice so that art and philosophy can also indicate points of strength and weakness of the meshwork of activities we find ourselves in and hence help us make sense of how to flee or strike.)
Noë follows this with a series of reflections on writing, which for us in literate societies is the “image of language” (ST 32; italics in original). But writing doesn’t represent a pre-existing, independent language; it loops down and informs our language: “The looping doesn’t stop. The result is a dense, historical, many-layered scriptoral-linguistic structure” (ST 36).
Now comes an extremely important move: Noë generalizes from writing in the restricted sense to a general notion of “graphical practices,” such as the cave paintings “that are at least as old as our linguistic capacities (or as old as we have reason to think our linguistic capacities are” (ST 41).
But that’s not all. In an even more radical move, writing for Noë is beyond any physical, empirical graphical practice, even drawing. Let’s follow the steps.
Even before such graphical practices is a need for them based on an irreducible dimension of misunderstanding inherent in social life: “Language began with the possibility of misunderstanding” (ST 41). That is, there could never be language without the need for reflection on whether or not a communication was successful. The possibility of misunderstanding always haunts attempts at understanding, so “there was never a Garden of Eden, and so there never was a language that we carried out and made use of freely, automatically, always without need for reflection” (on whether or not misunderstanding or understanding had taken place) (ST 42).
This ever-present need for reflection on linguistic practice caused by the irreducible or even necessary possibility of misunderstanding is what Noë calls “the writerly attitude” (ST 42). And this writerliness is an essential part of speech: “We had been using speaking to model speech long before we started using drawing (that is to say writing) for this purpose” (ST 42). In other words, our ancestors would have always already adopted the writerly attitude to deal with the necessary possibility of misunderstanding as soon as they had linguistically mediated social life.
What this means is that writing, which in its empirical form comes later, is a transcendental structure interwoven with empirical speech: “My point is that whether we actually invent a way to write down our speech, we do what is, conceptually, at least, the equivalent” (ST 42). This “writerly attitude” is essential: “There wouldn’t be speech without these practices of self-organization… The second order penetrates the first order through and through” (ST 42).
So we have here, under the name of “the writerly attitude,” an interweaving of transcendental condition (universal and necessary normative reflection responding to the necessary possibility of misunderstanding constitutive of social life) and empirical production (everyday speech and writing).