Wednesday, 3 February 2010

It’s Just a Book - A Problematic Gestalt


- the titanic was built by professionals,
the ark by amateurs - anon -

I’ve been fascinated by deluge myths since I read Fingerprints of the Gods with all of it’s glorious weirdness mixed in amongst some equally wonderful history. The above quote just made me chuckle, and it seems a lot more good humoured than all the physics message boards online trying to refute thousands of years of theology by demonstrating the tensile strength of ancient building materials. Maybe hearing it’s what brought metaphors to mind.

In Metaphors We Live By George Lakoff and Mark Johnson attempt, in one chapter, to pick apart our knowledge of causation, a conception many theorists, philosophers, and cognitive scientists would consider to be a fundamental building block of meaning - that effects have a cause, and that the latter precedes the former. This knowledge is not uniquely human, any animal we would recognise as intelligent has grasped some variation of “if A then B,” but it does seem to be logically elemental to the way we think; we need such a concept in order to understand our bodies and physical interactions with the world, our sense of time, and our social being, as well as the millions of subsections of these broad divisions. But, what seems atomic, in the ancient Greek sense of indivisible, to our cognition Lakoff and Johnson show to be made up of at least one of a number of smaller parts, of which they list 12 (including knowledge that a change of state is physical; that an agent has a goal of changing some state in the patient; that the agent knows how they will carry out this goal; that the change in the patient is perceptible; and the agent monitors the change in the patient through sensory perception - p70).

We experience these further divisions of causation (which are themselves produced through acquiring knowledge of ourselves and our world during gestation and our subsequent ontogeny, when we practice being us, when we see what we can do with the minds and bodies we've been given), we experience these as a gestalt - “[t]hey recur together over and over in action after action as we go through our daily lives…[T]he complex of properties occurring together is more basic to our experience than their separate occurrence” (Lakoff 71).

That our thought comes in bundles of information drawn from all over our development seems, in hindsight, not that surprising. We never understand things in isolation, we have an experience, we form an inkling of how that experience functioned, we have another experience, and any similarities or crossovers between the two events reinforce, while any dissimilarities or irregularities remain unsupported, and if never repeated will fade away entirely. In this way the common experiences of the world are cumulatively built up into apparent ‘rules’ such as causation, but they are actually useful composites to which we can refer, and which actually intersect with numerous other rules at multiple points, mutually reinforcing one another's elements as experiences reinforce perceptions.

But it’s not just concepts such as causation which function as composites which we experience more regularly than their individual parts in isolation. Objects, or rather artifacts, and let's take the example of bound books, also function as gestalts.

Printed work has come to seem like a fundamental way of presenting information: we receive a book, it is a thing. But the digitisation of texts reveals the book’s assumed gestalt nature in our culture; books are form, they are function, they are typography, paper, and bounded space, they represent printing history, reading history, tactile and haptic development, they stand for elitism, intellectualism, democracy, and accessibility.

This is obvious, of course, book history has long studied all of these aspects of the artifact, and many more. But for most of us, all of us when we’re not studying them in such a way, they remain ‘just books,’ a functional gestalt which frequently, if not mostly, seems fundamental.

Lakoff and Johnson argue that when we have an experience we attempt to attach a gestalt to that event in order to ascertain how we should act. For instance

“being in a conversation is a structured experience. As we experience a conversation, we are automatically and unconsciously classifying our experience in terms of the natural dimensions of the CONVERSATION gestalt: Who’s participating? Whose turn is it?...What stage are we at? And so on. It is in terms of imposing the CONVERSATION gestalt on what is happening that we experience the talking and listening that we engage in as a particular kind of experience, namely, a conversation. When we perceive dimensions of our experience [of an exchange] as fitting the WAR gestalt in addition [i.e. the conversation feels combative with ground to be won or lost, etc.], we become aware that we are participating in another kind of experience, namely, an argument. It is by this means that we classify particular experiences, and we need to classify our experiences in order to comprehend, so that we will know what to do” (Lakoff pp82-83)

Digital reading operates similarly. We have a default gestalt for bound-book reading that has emerged out of ontogenetic experience in a print-led reading environment. We are initially forced to apply that paradigm to reading on digital devices, but electronic reading is capable of interactions which don’t fit in with our p-book experience and we must suddenly use a history of interacting with computing and televisual media in order to modify our reading practices. The READING gestalt, in Lakoff and Johnson's terms, is being modified by its interactions with the COMPUTING and TELEVISUAL MEDIA gestalts; we must apply these frameworks in order to understand how we should interact with digital reading spaces.

Digitisation, like any disruptive agent, forces us, and at unexpected moments, to confront the unfamiliar constituent parts of our composite forms. When a digital book "doesn't feel right" we are reminded of how a bound book's form functions. When an electronic text is reproduced and pirated and sent across the world in a second we are reminded of print's legal history, its fixedness in space, its immutability, its scarcity. When you read materials which would otherwise would have been unavailable, when you see a first time author able to publicise their work to an ideal audience in 50 countries, when you can look up a word or reference that you'd never normally have made the effort to, then things start to seem different. Do we have the right gestalt? Or rather is the default always correct?

I think this is how change occurs, when we are forced to see the item for what it is, not what it has become. But we are also led to see what functions well and why, what parts of the metaphorical 'whole' we need to keep at all costs. Disruption is good.

Best

_m