A blurb for Anthropology of the Brain: Consciousness, Culture, and Free Will (2014) reads, in part:
“In this unique exploration of the mysteries of the human brain, Roger Bartra shows that consciousness is a phenomenon that occurs not only in the mind but also in an external network, a symbolic system. He argues that the symbolic systems created by humans in art, language, in cooking, or in dress, are the key to understanding human consciousness. Placing culture at the centre of his analysis, Bartra brings together findings from anthropology and cognitive science and offers an original vision of the continuity between the brain and its symbolic environment.”
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Understanding Media (1964)
I first encountered the concept, whereby we picture that the human central nervous system extends beyond the human body, in Marshall McLuhan’s book, Understanding Media (1964).
I speak of a particular concept. I can just as easily speak of a metaphor, or a model, that serves as an attempt to describe how human consciousness functions.
In his 1964 study, McLuhan speaks of electronic media as an extension of the human central nervous system. Roger Barta, in his 2014 essay – that is, in Anthropology and the Brain (2014) – published fifty years after McLuhan’s study appeared, notes that the model applies to more than just electronic media. It apples as well to music, ritual, dance, and all manner of other pursuits.
Electronic media is just part of the picture; the metaphor can extend to many other things as well – including non-digital realms of being including face to face encounters and other forms of analog experiences.
Understanding bullying through application of a linguistic anthropology framework
I became interested in research related to the anthropology of the brain, and in the relevance of linguistic anthropology, when I was reading a book by John Filion about the life and times of a former Toronto mayor:
In previous posts, I’ve written about the work of the linguistic anthropologist Marjorie Harness Goodwin, who has done a great job, in my view, of delineating precisely what bullying entails, and how it unfolds. Both Filion and Goodwin excel at describing bullying, from a wide range of perspectives.
It’s helpful to know exactly what bullying entails, and research such as Goodwin’s, and reporting such as Filion’s, are helpful in adding to our knowledge about the topic.
Bullying can be described vaguely, or precisely
Some of the earlier research about bullying involved accounts that people have shared from surveys. As Goodwin underlines in The Hidden Life of Girls (2006), close analysis of video recordings of bullying offers a much better way to analyze such phenomenon than seeking to find descriptions of bullying in the course of survey-based, or interview-based, research.
Among Goodwin’s research interests, as highlighted at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) website, is the use of video and audio recordings as an integral part of fieldwork focused upon the social organization of children’s playgroups, as it occurs in settings outside of teachers’ awareness.
Social organization in children’s peer groups: Ethnographic analysis of language practices on the playground
A text at the above-noted UCLA website reads:
“One of my current research projects examines forms of children’s informal social learning across peer-controlled settings on the playground. A principal concern of mine has been how, in the midst of interaction with their peers, children elaborate and dispute their notions about ethnicity, social class, and gender-appropriate behavior, as they play or work together and sanction those who violate group norms This fieldwork, situated in a Los Angeles elementary school with children of mixed ethnicities and social classes, has involved following a group of children over three years as they moved from fourth to sixth grade. In all over 80 hours of audio and video taped interaction were recorded while children ate lunch, played at recess, and interacted in the classroom. During play (and outside of teachers’ awareness) children decide who is to be included or excluded within their playgroup; through their language choices children propose forms of inclusiveness or, alternatively, differentiation among players. Through forms of ridicule such as ritual insults, storytelling, and directives, children socialize one another regarding in- and out-group membership and notions of social class. Most psychological studies of children’s friendships and ‘relational aggression’ are based on interview data; subsequently, though we know much about how children report incidents to researchers, we know little about how they conduct themselves in the midst of such episodes. I feel it is important to document ethnographically the lived practices that children use to build their social worlds, as within interaction members of a peer group collaboratively establish their own perspectives on how relevant events are to be interpreted.”
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From the perspective of Bartra’s model of consciousness, we can think of buttons that are primed to set off cascades of responses within the autonomic nervous system
Whether an “external network, a symbolic system,” as described by Bartra actually exists is beside the point, in my view. If one wishes to, one can think of such a network or system as a metaphor for how humans function in society. One can think of such a metaphor as having a heuristic function – that is, it can serve an educational purpose; it can serve a helpful function in pointing a person in a useful direction.
So, one of the features of this metaphor is that one can think of metaphorical buttons scattered throughout the system, that people press to set off responses within the autonomic nervous systems of varied individuals, who happen to be part of the external network, or symbolic system, that Bartra describes, or imagines.
Over a decade ago, when I was working as a public school teacher, it was my experience that certain stress-related responses were a key part of my daily routine as a classroom teacher. That is, certain events or circumstances pushed certain of my buttons on a regular basis. I was aware that specified events were in some way leading to regular stress-related responses, involving the autonomic nervous system. I was also aware that, if the state of affairs continued, the long-term prospects for my health would be in jeopardy.
By learning about the application of mindfulness, even as it turned out for a second or two at a time I was able, gradually and in small increments, to learn to that the buttons, that used to lead to automatic responses, could be turned off.
John Filion’s book, about a former Toronto mayor, underlines the fact that there are buttons everywhere. They can be pushed by anybody. However, whether or not a cascade of responses lights up a particular citizen’s brain, and/or autonomic nervous system, or does not light it up, will depend upon a wide range of factors. The buttons, and the factors at play in the pushing of them, are at the core of Filion’s excellent summary of recent Toronto history.
Insights from reading Goodwin, Filion, and Bartra
From my study of work by Goodwin, Filion, and Bartra I have learned that:
1. Great stories can be told, and all the requisite buttons can be pushed, by skillful storytellers who seek out an audience that lacks an interest in factual evidence, with regard to any topic.
2. Conversely, great stories can be told, and all the requisite buttons can be pushed, by skillful storytellers who seek out an audience that respects and understands the value of evidence.
3. Bullying entails the application of instrumental reason.
4. Civility, cooperation, and collaboration entail the application of instrumental reason.
5. One can speak, as Bartra notes (p. 23), of two neural networks in the human brain – the syntactic-grammatical system and the lexical-semantic system.
6. Noam Chomsky’s formulations about innate language functions are not sacrosanct.
7. Bartra argues (pp. 24-25) that the brain is not a chaotic internal space.
8. Bartra argues that the coherence and unity of conscious mental processes are provided by what he calls the exocerebrum – his term for a neural network that exists outside of the brain.
9. Bartra adds that the coherence and unity of conscious mental processes is provided, as well, by linguistic structures that have become stabilized in the cultural environment over long periods of time.
10. Neuroscience experiments can be cited as offering support for determinist theses; or they can be discussed with equanimity by neuroscientists who believe in the existence of free will.
11. Batra asserts (p. 39) that normal consciousness is located in networks that connect neural circuits (I assume he refers to brain-based circuits) with exocerebral circuits (that is, circuits in the larger cultural environment).
12. Batra argues (p. 56) that you can find conscious and intentional communication circuits in the interior of the brain, and you can also find them out in the open, in what he describes as the sociocultural spaces that surround humans.
Barta’s overview is highly valuable, and enjoyable to read, with many practical applications of relevance to community self-organizing.
I’m very pleased that my reading of John Filion’s study about recent political happenings in Toronto have prompted me to read Roger Bartra’s book in some depth, and to reflect, as I have in the past, on the insights that I have gained from reading The Hidden Life of Girls: Games of Stance, Status, and Exclusion (2014) by Marjorie Harness Goodwin.
A post addressing populism among other topics is entitled: Venezuela continues to move deeper into economic disarray: Feb. 9, 2016 New York Times article.
A March 1, 2016 Atlantic article is entitled: “Who Are Donald Trump’s Supporters, Really?: Four theories to explain the front-runner’s rise to the top of the polls.”
An Aug. 30, 2016 Tyee article is entitled: “Think Trump’s Impossible? I Have Two Words for You: ‘Rob Ford.’”
On the topic of populism, a Feb. 3, 2017 fivethirtyeight.com article is entitled: “14 Versions Of Trump’s Presidency, From #MAGA To Impeachment.”
A July 2017 Los Angeles Review of Books article is entitled: “Conversational Philosophy: A Forum on Richard Rorty.”
The introduction reads:
AFTER DONALD J. TRUMP was elected president of the United States, the American philosopher Richard Rorty (1931–2007) returned to the pages of many of the major newspapers of the world as one of the few thinkers who had predicted the election of a “strongman” with Trump’s homophobic and racist features. The relevant passage can be found in the lectures Rorty delivered on the history of leftist thought in 20th-century America at Harvard University in 1997, and published as Achieving Our Country a year later. While reprints of this book were hitting several political philosophy best seller lists, Rorty’s Page-Barbour lectures — titled Philosophy as Poetry — were also released. If in Achieving Our Country, Rorty predicted the election of a right-wing populist, in the latter he stresses how valuable the imagination is for the future of philosophy, which is, in many ways, an imperiled discipline. Although these are not his most important books, they indicate that Rorty was a philosopher ahead of his time, a philosopher for the future.
The goal of this forum is not simply to remember Rorty 10 years after he passed away on the June 8, 2007, but also to continue the conversation which he urged all philosophers to pursue. I have invited Marianne Janack, María Pía Lara, Eduardo Mendieta, and Martin Woessner to cover specific aspects of Rorty’s thought, including feminism, social hope, and post-truth. Their concise contributions underscore the significance of Rorty’s writings for the 21st century. My introduction recalls important moments of the American thinker’s life as well as his outstanding contribution to continental philosophy.
— Santiago Zabala