Summary of the meeting on 17 July 2020.
By Jane Bennett
In response to Yvonne’s examination of the posthuman last month in our theme of thinking around ‘What it means to be human’, I introduced Lambros Malafouris’ essay, Mind and Material Engagement, in which he explains the concept of Material Engagement Theory (MET).
Malafouris proposes that the Cartesian mode of thinking has maintained the separation between persons and things (mind/matter) that creates a blind spot around the human engagement with tools, consequently inhibiting the acknowledgement of our reliance upon them. He suggests the human mind is a product of biological evolution as much as an artefact of our own making. MET re-thinks this duality with an approach that considers the co-constitution of people and things, the ‘constitutive intertwining of mind with matter’ (*section 5) and the processes of that engagement. As well as suggesting a way to define art research through practice, MET prompted ideas in our discussion that included ‘between’ space, Paul Klee’s thoughts about the line, poetic thinking, liu bai (Chinese concept of empty space) and what constitutes materiality.
MET presents a more holistic method of examining humanity that, rather than turning human cognition into an abstraction, extends it beyond skin and skull to include the surrounding environment. The value of MET to artist researchers is primarily in the way it brings together phenomenology, cognition, materiality and making through material engagement.
*Malafouris, L. Mind and material engagement. Phenom Cogn Sci 18, 1–17 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11097-018-9606-7
At the end of the June PIRG session we decided to collectively reflect on the question, what it means to be human. Here are the responses given by the PIRG members.
Being human is a mixed bag. The negatives of being human; sadness, anger, hatred, conflict, violence, disease, physical pain, the emotional pain in the hurt of rejection, isolation, depression, and death are very difficult. It is these negatives which the roboticists quote when suggesting human beings are worthless and that androids, with none of the above are preferred. I consider the positives of being human; caring, empathy, love, peace, compassion, comradeship, original thought, creativity, the ability to imagine, to abstract, to feel joy, excitement, fun, happiness, as gifts within humans and that man/ woman/ people / humankind is very worthwhile. I understand the horror of wars, the power struggles and greed that humans can invest in, however rather than wiping out the human race I find it preferable to engage with the gifts, and to alter the humans seeking conflict and power through the benefits of the better human qualities, by means of developing a society of posthuman subjects through Distributed Cognition held so dear by the Roboticists.…
Bringing together all information with
1) humans who bring together all the data from the across members of a social group,
2) co-ordination between internal and external (material or environment structures) data through time in such a way that the products of earlier events can transform the nature of later events;
3) the coming together of information from different sources.
(E. Hutchins. Distributed Cognition, online. Pub University of California)
Being human, for me, means experiencing inner conflicts, however the prize in being the best of human can take us creatively into the future maintaining a caring and exciting society.
What is being human is a big question. But thinking back the discussion, I believe instead to make a distinction between human and non-human. I am more interested in how to 'harmony' with nature, which means finding the centre of oneself and following the flow of the universe. However, what we discussed do help us to 'reflect' ourself within 'awareness' the surrounding.
Therefore, in the question of what is 'being' human, being is practised. On the other hand, the issues that we see today are what we made. Instead to blames others, 'how' to live with others, perhaps is the way to address the issues. The values of becoming empathy/sympathy, sensitive and awareness are what this section address.
P.S. The idea of nature could discuss further on by studying Daoist theory and Martin Heidegger's writings. As well as, the idea of flow and living together could link with Roland Barthes' writing on How to Live Together (2012).
Also see image below.
I think the drawing echoes the topic of empathy. It is a drawing while I visited England last year. I saw two of the ladies hugged. One shows empathy of the other. I also show my empathy for the lady by drawing the view.
As far as I concerned, empathy is divided into two aspects.
1. Feeling aspect, empathy is the fundamental emotion for people. I took the example, when we were child, we learn”empathy” from parents, peers or others. And then when we grow up, we have built up the certain “empathy” and then delivery it to our child or people around me. So I reckon empathy has the quality of delivery between human beings. This character allows me to recall that book I recommended.
2. Due to this character it is not hard to find that there is an “empathy” within the art practice. I take the example, briefly, when artists see the objects, the phenomenon of empathy happens, they will take the images that has already been “empathy-ed“ via experience, memories and abstract thinking onto the painting and other art forms, which is the one kind of empathy for artists.
And then viewers see the images that has been processed by artists thinking(experience, memories and abstract thinking). The viewers will begin to guess what happened in this image in terms of experience, memories etc. in here, empathy has already occurred. Such as sadness happiness, and other information about this images. But, to some degree, there will be some difference between artists and viewers because of different experience, which is similar to the story of Hamlet.
What does it mean to be human? This is such a complex question. Are we distinguishing ‘human’ as opposed to animals or plants? As science allows us to learn more about how these develop and communicate, we become aware of similarities (ie animals using tools, the co-operation of trees, the flower dance of bees). Does the category ‘human’ rely on the development of the brain or the upright body with articulated fingers, or the development of human culture? Or do we define human as experiencing feeling, emotions? If you live closely with animals you know they all have different personalities; if they lose one of their ‘family’, they demonstrate behaviours akin to mourning. What apparently distinguishes humans is self-awareness, the ability to think about thinking. Perhaps it is through our facility for empathy – seeing the world from another’s point of view – that we can learn to live with the other occupants of our planet before we destroy them – and ourselves.
“We are bodies that think” Damasio.
Human(beings)have an intricate ability to reason and solve complex and introspection problems. This ability is processed and developed in the brain through thoughts and feelings. Our emotions and feelings allow us to have the mental capacity to react, translate, and communicate these physical reactions. We communicate with advanced skills, using language, as a cognitive ability. We make choices, using morality and cultural experiences, with applied ethics and laws.
We could argue that there are other species that have similar patterns of emotions, feelings and ability to communicate choices. Other animals but also bacteria, in which has the capacity to find their own groups to move and respond (attack) within the ‘body’.
However, humans and their dependence on technology are increasingly growing and developing to the point that these machines are being advanced and created to own human’s image. Consequently, a new and valid argument raises: can these artificial intelligent (AI) machines/ androids replace humans?
 Damasio, A. (2017). The strange order of thing.
I am reading a wonderful book called Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. She not only writes beautifully but she also makes you think about what it means to be human. Here is a list that I have started to compile that defines how we can live as humans:
the list carries on…
click on the file below
Following on from Yvonne's thought provoking session that made us reflect on notions of empathy and care in relation to the post-human conditions, the group has decided to write a short text each asking 'What does it mean to be human?'. The collected texts will be shared in July prior to the next session.
Next PIRG session: 17 July 2020 (session will be led by Jane Bennett)
posted by Noriko
(Session led by Yvonne Jones on 19th June 2020)
In light of previous sessions, I was keen to focus on the junction between empathy identified as a human phenomenon and the possibility of empathy being noted in androids and the implications of this.
Texts for the discussion can be found here. To see the wide range of areas that arose see Yonat’s summary.
The fictional situation in Blade Runner gave rise to discussing different angles of empathy and how it sits with issues of androids and the era of the posthuman. We considered the fundamental human attributes, of feelings, emotions and the imagination in relation to androids and to notions of the posthuman.
A shift in humanity could go unseen, one to being more adherent to timetables and data, a shift away from the fundamentals of gifting, empathy and caring, that have been discussed in our sessions, a move away from feelings. Luisa put forward that the Covid Hibernation period gave the opportunity to reflect and that this offered her the realization that we were indeed becoming posthuman in the respect of less human towards fellow humans. I have long considered this to be happening and that there is the opportunity to develop a different posthuman future that is not android focused, NOT less caring, less feeling or less human, one that is develops the posthuman subject, using distributed cognition so important to the Roboticists, in a different way, to enhance our world, to overcome inequality and poverty.
My hope to bring the human-machine relationship and the posthuman discussion into the wider public, in order that we can choose our future rather than be walked blindly into a future we would not want, took one step forward today, during this session.
posted by Yvonne
The June PIRG session will be lead by Yvonne. We will be reflecting on what it means to be human in light of post-human theory and notions of empathy.
Click here to access the texts which will be used for the session.
Our second group art activity, Empathetic Grid, involved each PIRG member creating a 4 x 4 grid that became filled by the other members as the grid was passed on. The last person on the list (the fifth person) was then allowed to complete the artwork by altering or transforming the filled in 4 x 4 grids. Below are the 5 separate grid artworks that resulted from this activity.
Image 1: Luisa - Jane - Yvonne - Noriko - Yonat
Image 2: Noriko - Yvonne - Jane - Yonat - Luisa
Image 3: Jane - Luisa - Yonat - Yvonne - Noriko
Image 4: Yonat - Noriko - Luisa - Jane - Yvonne
Image 5: Yvonne - Yonat - Noriko - Luisa - Jane
Empathy and care are meaningful topics to reflect on in the current situation of the Covid-19 pandemic. We are made to think about others who may be more vulnerable, help your neighbours, re-engage with community values, appreciate key workers and also to 'look after oneself'. The conversation that developed around the notion of 'looking after oneself' was insightful as we all reflected on the what and how of 'taking care of oneself', particularly as mothers. We all agreed that it was actually quite a difficult thing to do. How do we become empathetic to yourself? I suggested we could listen to Elizabeth Day's podcast 'How to Fail'. In one particular recording, philosopher Alain de Botton talks to Day about vulnerability in the time of Coronavirus.
We also discussed about whether empathy could be connected with creative activities such as painting, drawing, sculpture and dancing.
Is it possible to empathise with materials?
Can we also see our group art activity (the previous one being the Gentle Act in Isolation) as a form of care?
So we decided to embark on a new art activity 'Empathetic Grid' to develop the notion of art as form of care. The activity involves each participant creating a 4 x 4 grid (of any size) then filling in 4 spaces before passing on to the next participant. By the time the drawing reaches the fifth person, all of the grids would be filled. The fifth person then responds to the images/texts/drawings that fill the grids in whatever way she likes to create a final artwork.
The final art works will be uploaded on this blog page before the next PIRG session (19 June) so watch this space.
Posted by Noriko.
Session led by Luisa Menano
Text: 'The Joys and Sorrow of Empathy' by Eagleman, D. The Brain - the story of you (2016). Canongate Books, pp. 157 - 163.
Following our previous session, when we discussed the subject of 'care as value', there were several relevant keywords that came to my attention, and I felt that it might need more thoughtfulness, such as: ‘gift-giving’; ‘care’, ‘exchange’, amid others.
Our brain connects with our own personal experience and therefore with the world we live in; therefore, I proposed a reflection on the way we perceive things, for instance: why does it matter to care? Is it for the ‘joy of empathy’? or is it for the “sorrow of empathy'? In sum, I brought to our discussion the subject of ‘empathy’, which is crucial in our emotions. This ‘control’ of empathy is located in our prefrontal cortex and other areas of our brain. ‘Empathy’ helps to clarify what makes us be more ‘humanising’ people and/ or ‘dehumanising’.
The text “The Joys and Sorrows of Empathy’ reflects on the subject of ‘empathy’ and helped us to discuss, to be more self-aware about ‘empathy’. Our senses are also an essential part of ‘empathy’ because it helps us to feel that we belong to a niche/ a group, makes us feel that we are accepted in the society, we live in. The strategy of propaganda, made by politicians and others, are very good at ‘manipulating’ our senses/ our vision, if and when we don’t have the capability to control and turn off our own our medial prefrontal cortex. “Empathy is, literally, feeling the other’s pain as if that were your pain.’(Eagleman)
Next session: 15 June 2020
Resulting from the conversation we had on care as value and thoughts on gifts, exchange and reciprocity (PIRG session 20 April 2020), Luisa suggested the group to conduct a small 'exchange' art project. The project asked each participant to create an original piece of artwork that would then continue to be worked on as it got passed on (via email) to the other group members. The finished artworks resemble a palimpsest of sorts, capturing the unique interpretation of each of the participants.
Below are images of the 'before' and 'after' of the artworks:
Image 1: Luisa - Jane - Yvonne - Noriko - Yonat - Luisa
Luisa - I initiated my image because I heard that a colleague of mine lost her husband because of Covid-19. I chose these geometric shapes to represent the world and its ‘shadow’ the lines represent the net/ connections, emotions/communications…
Yvonne - Felt disconnected, with the isolation and sadness we are all in currently. I needed to connect them, to sense we are all in this together.
Noriko - The image that I received had green and purple oval shapes, some texts and a bright pink squiggly line. The text read ‘the husband of a colleague just passed away’. I wondered whether the death was due to Coronavirus. During one of my early morning walks (one exercise a day allowed during the lockdown) I happened to come across a field of ‘forget-me-nots’. The dainty but intense blue of the flowers in the local churchyard had caught my eyes and I took a picture. I decided to offer the flowers to the sad text. There is so much ‘death’ in the air at the moment. I thought about all the people who had been affected by it recently. The pink squiggly line seemed to disrupt the clean edges of the purple and green shapes and it reminded me of the steps going up St Catherine’s Hill and its mizmaze. I have a whole collection of ‘sky’ pictures that I had taken on top of St Catherine’s Hill. The addition of the semi-translucent sky, I hoped, captured the atmosphere of the strange times we are all living through at the moment.
Image 2: Noriko - Yvonne - Jane - Yonat - Luisa - Noriko
Noriko - Over the Easter break, the PhD students were asked to take part in a Easter Challenge activity. One of the challenges involved making a drawing of the view from our desks. I liked the pink almond tree and made a drawing using oil pastel and tracing paper. I taped the drawing on to the window to create a layer of the ‘actual view’ and my interpretation of it. The process of photographing 'flattened' the layers. A laughably analogue process. I decided to reuse this image for the Gentle Act in Isolation activity. I thought it would be interesting to see how the image would become further processed digitally.
Yvonne - Came across to me as both isolated yet with an oppressive sky bearing down., so I chopped it all up, offering some clear spaces, to breath.
Yonat - This group drawing was initiated by Noriko. By the time it reached my inbox it already went through Yvonne’s and Jane’s interventions. I knew that after my intervention the drawing will continue its morphing journey with Luisa’s final intervention. I was thinking of being between, as well as being part of a chain. I was also thinking about change; I remembered a collaboration long time ago with Noriko where cultural particularities (Japan, Israel) surfaced; but most of all I was thinking about the screen as a medium of communication and expression. The latter got more prominent with COVID 19 and lockdown here in the UK since March 2020, as well as in many other countries. Looking at the etymology of the word ‘prominent’: ‘Latin … from pro- forward + -minēre (akin to mont-, mons mountain) ...’ Also ‘standing out or projecting beyond a surface or line’ (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/prominent). As this group drawing was done through screens I wanted to make the screen visible in the drawing. After playing with different possibilities, I finally attached a lamp to my desk, positioning the screen to get the reflection within the drawing. I then filmed and edit it, playing with the effects of appearance and disappearance. The moving image’s undertone was determined by its structure: a second for each still. This evoked an association of the Japanese flag where the red circle in the middle of a white rectangle represents the sun, a strange interpretation where, rather than a slow, organic movement of the sun rising there is a mechanical movement. Luisa’s intervention – positioning a ticking clock partly covering the projection – intuitively responded to this mechanical rhythm. How could we carry on thinking about what is now simply described as a ‘group drawing’ with ideas that were discussed at PIRG’s sessions? Ideas such as relationship between image, line and word; care, time and thinking; care as value and gift; autoethnography methodology; and material thinking, amongst others.
Luisa - I inserted the clock in the video that I have received because there was a ‘light’ that was ‘disturbing’ the balance of the image… I felt that the clock meant time, order and space.
Image 3: Jane - Luisa - Yonat - Yvonne - Noriko - Jane
Luisa - When I received this drawing, from Jane, I wanted to print it out to play with it in the space, as it came with instructions; instead, I decided to use it electronically. I started drawing on the top of the flowers, but then decided to use the empty squares and wrote some letters, forming words that are imperceptible to read. (heart; care; love; lone; gone) all these words represent my feelings, at this isolation period. (I do regret not have print out this work and played with it).
Yvonne - I could see the flat box and how to construct it, the image moving around the space frustrated me, I wanted it to stop and to balance somewhere on the page. I also wanted to set it free, I played with abstract shapes until it felt free.
Noriko - The colourful artwork that came my way contained large circular shapes, a purple star and some pixelated images of plants or some kind of vegetation. The image looked more or less complete…I just felt that it needed something on the right hand side to finish it off. I had been working on a ‘self-assigned’ project of creating an A to Z list of words from the daily Guardian Opinion section. The list of words seemed the perfect thing to fill the strip of pale purple space. Although the words have no correlation to the shapes and colours that already occupied the image, it was interesting, nonetheless, to observe how they start to influence the ‘reading’ of the artwork.
Image 4: Yonat - Noriko - Luisa - Jane - Yvonne - Yonat
Noriko - I was intrigued with the various qualities of the marks on the image that I received. I started to crop and enlarge them to see if I could see them better, like inspecting with a magnifying glass. I wondered what would happen if I were to sandwich the marks by layering the images. The resulting picture reminds me of gazing into a pond and seeing leaves and other materials floating in water.
Luisa - The drawing that I’ve received was very gentle and reminded me of the refection of the water. I wrote a few words, using the colours of the painting: “the nature of; emotions; Empathy; feelings; VOICE; isolation; culture; thrashed; vision; gift; thinking”.
Yvonne - This image felt complete in itself, it was profound. I chose to make an intervention, a gentle, grey line that weaved quietly across the circles. Bringing gentle influence of its being into to the energy of the circles and benefiting from its visit through the circles being able to take something ‘good’ with it as it meanders on its way.
Image 5: Yvonne - Yonat - Noriko - Luisa - Jane - Yvonne
Yvonne - As the author of this beginning, I played, what I saw when I looked at the played scribbles were bluebell flowers, an unintentional field of bluebells. I had been looking at the bluebells in the garden.
Noriko - The expanse of creamy white and the dots made me think of the Milky Way, which then made me think of stars and constellations. Using the drawing facility in Photoshop, I tried to connect the dots to make my own star signs. The lines are awkward and clumsy but I was happy with the way I was able to create new images within the existing image, connecting different elements together.
Luisa - This time, I decided to print out the work sent to me. I went to pick up some threads and stitched it onto the paper, using colours to match the lines that were transparent when I received it.
Jane - Initially, I was procrastinating about making interventions into the images passed on to me. I hate to change other people’s work and get too precious about my own work. The only way I could get around it was to treat it as a game and be a bit playful, but still in a gentle way.
In the last PIRG session (23 March 2020), the group discussed broadly around the topic of 'care', which Lisa Baraitser describes as 'the ardous temporal practice of maintaining ongoing relations with others and the world' (Baraitser, 2017, p.4). There was one particular paragraph that Yonat had chosen where Baraitser comments on care as 'often assumed to be a value' (ibid., p.14). I was curious to reflect further on this notion of 'care as value'. What kind of value are we talking about?
I introduced the text: 'Mothering, Co-muni-cation, and the Gifts of Language' by Genevieve Vaughan, in The Engima of Gift and Sacrifice, Edith Wyschogrod (ed.), New York: Fordham University Press, 2002, pp.91 - 113. I thought it would be interesting to reflect on what Vaughan talks about as 'unilateral gift giving' in relation to ideas of care as value.