Media Ecology and Bios Theoretikos

That’s the title of the paper of I’ll be presenting at the 18th Annual Convention of the Media Ecology Association, to be held June 22–25 at Saint Mary’s College of California.

It’s Part 2 of the paper I recently published in Cosmos and History. The abstract is below.

Title: Media Ecology and Bios Theoretikos: Philosophy as Extended Skillful Action

Abstract: In this paper, I discuss the media ecology of philosophy. Specifically, I explore the media environments that enable philosophical activity and the media practices that express and transform philosophical understanding. To these ends, I draw on the work of German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk and the ideas of James Gibson to suggest that philosophical ability (techné) is tied deeply to specific exercises of self-transformation (askēsis), best executed within certain affordance spaces, and to specific media practices, in this case those of reading and writing. In short, these media ecologies are immersive technologies for the installation of new philosophical visions in the eyes of the practicing. The activity of philosophy in this way takes as its condition of possibility an intricate ecology of affordance spaces—academies, libraries, monasteries, and more—whose aesthetics complement and enable the individual’s capacity to perform certain maneuvers in thought, maneuvers that make apparent the material conditions of possibility required for the bios theoretikos (the life of contemplation). To use Sloterdijk’s terms, these practice zones afford the architectural equivalent of the philosophical epoché. In other words, they are atmospheres suited for the suspension of the mundane and that support the growth of new capacities in the perceptual arena. The exercises of the philosopher are in this context not adequately described in individual or introspective terms. Instead, acts of philosophical practice, I argue, are better understood as intersubjective modes of skillful action extended amidst larger media environments.

Architecture and Epoché

tumblr_oeivjpl1za1qd0i7oo1_1280[Image: Tanja Deman]

In an earlier post, I connected typography and bookmaking to James Gibson’s theory of affordances, the idea that perception is layered less with the properties of individual objects and more with the possibilities for action they enable or afford. The basic idea of this application is that books provide a detailed and intentional set of affordances for a certain kind of understanding, and that typography and bookmaking are from this perspective intricate material practices for the installment of conversions in apprehension, for the reshaping of awareness through the mode of discursive engagement.

As I noted in the original post, on this view books are things we think with and through rather than storehouses we download from. The art of writing and bookmaking, then, is the intentional creation of affordances that make such transformations of experience possible. The book is the environment in which such affordances can endure. It’s in the context of designed affordance environments—settings created with the expressed purpose of enabling certain experiences—that I find interesting Peter Sloterdijk’s reflections on architecture and epoché.

Exploring Edmund Husserl’s concept of the epoché—which John Cogan aptly defines as “the name for whatever method we use to free ourselves from the captivity of the unquestioned acceptance of the everyday world”—Sloterdijk sees an architectural parallel in Plato’s Academy. That is to say, in much the same way that books are affordances for thinking rather than representations of thought, architecture affords something like an environmental epoché, a design space intended to produce effects in the person. Sloterdijk writes:

Plato was concerned to provide appropriate accommodation for persons in the precarious state of complete devotion to their thoughts. The original Academy was dedicated to nothing other than innovation in spatial creation. It was an unprecedented new institution for accommodating absences that occur on the quest for the still largely unknown connection between ideas and—why not?—the study of the connection between words and things, which, if you really think about it, can only be problematic. The academy is the architectural equivalent of what Husserl apostrophized as epoché—a building for shutting out the world and bracketing in concern, an asylum for the mysterious guests that we call ideas and theorems. In today’s parlance, we would call it a retreat or a hideaway. (The Art of Philosophy, 32–33)

So, the book, the notepad, the retreat, the academy, the library—these are all designed affordance spaces, mostly backgrounded in action, but often preconditions for certain kinds of thinking. The extended activity of mind in this way takes as its condition of possibility a whole media ecology of material affordance spaces, sets of architectural epoché that complement and enable the individual’s capacity to perform certain maneuvers in thought, maneuvers that make apparent the material conditions of possibility required for the bios theoretikos (the life of contemplation).

What is a Book? An Ecological Account

James Gibson’s theory of affordances suggests that what animals perceive in their environment is not so much the properties of individual objects but rather the possibilities for action they enable. There’s a sense here that what things are and what things mean show up for the animal at the same time. On Gibson’s view, an ecological niche is thus best understood as a set of affordances made available by an animal’s capacities. For example, a niche may afford climbing, sheltering, swimming, running, standing, eating, and so on.

Gibson notes that there’s a tight link between animal and niche, where the abilities of the animal and the properties of the niche mutually act to constrain the set of available affordances. In the case of humans, Gibson observes, the situation is a bit different in that we actively engage in the planned construction of our own affordance landscapes. (Had Gibson been alive today he no doubt would have paid greater attention to the niche-constructing actions of all organisms.) We can see a gymnasium as affording fitness, a town square as affording meeting, a library as affording reading, for example.  Continue reading

Spaces of Freedom

It’s been just over a year since I posted anything new here, but that’s not for lack of study or engagement on my part. Work—both intellectual and vocational—continues apace. Readers may be interested to know that I’ve started pursuit of a PhD here in the San Francisco Bay Area. Below I’m sharing a short description of my plans for the dissertation. Things may change a bit here and there as I complete various sections of the dissertation, but I expect to follow pretty closely the below summary. I’m not sure what will become of Knowledge Ecology at this point. I may start afresh with a new blog. I may continue blogging here. I might abandon the Internet all together. Who knows.

The thing about blogging—both positive and negative—is that it puts on offer a continuous stream of output, an ongoing account of one’s thinking and development. This has the double effect of providing greater context for one’s writing but also makes it difficult, at least psychologically for me, to separate oneself from earlier work in the way that writing books or articles naturally provides. The Internet tends toward a pathological amount of continuity and interconnectivity that I think many of us writing in this medium would be wise to rail against. In any case, enjoy the PhD ruminations.

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