Penny, Simon. Making Sense, Cognition, Cognition, Computing, Art and Embodiment

By Jennifer Pierce

According to author Simon Penny, Making Sense: Cognition, Computing, and Embodiment  is about intelligence, cognition, and the impact of culture and technology. However, it is also a study in numerous contrasts, among them: biological being vs. computationally simulated being, civilian research vs. military research, representation vs  performance, art practice vs. media practice, and mind-body dualism vs embodied cognition.  “How do all these things fit together?” he asks, in the introduction. And the answer is, they don’t quite fit together, yet. Although the revelation of false dichotomy isn’t quite the same thing as a new paradigm, when a series of cognitive schemata break down, something new has to take their place and Penny lays the groundwork for what that new something may look like. He offers several promising areas in the biology of mind and brain that deal with the situated and embodied nature of consciousness and thinking, but his uberobjective is this: to restore the arts to a place of esteem in higher thought.

As an MFA more than holding his own among PhDs, and an accomplished artist in his own right, Penny himself is performing a test case. What would it look like if the arts were appropriately dealt with as ideal example of embodied cognition? What if artists were understood to be thinkers? It is part of Penny’s project to participate in a process of evolving consciousness about biological intelligence. The suppression of the arts and artists has not only been harmful for artists; it has impoverished thought. Because, for Penny,  examining the cultural problems that inhere in these particular false dichotomies are also the cultural problems that have relegated the arts to secondary status in the academy and within Western culture in the first place. Accepting the usefulness of the plastic and performing arts as ideal cases and postcognitivist paradigms of cognition that restore the arts to their proper status in higher thinking, Penny wants to “develop new ways to discuss the cognitive dimensions of cultural practices” (4). 

Anyone who has been looking at the arts through cognitive science has recognized that the exclusion of the arts from cognitive science points to the thought-crises that have plagued the field, thought-crises in embodiment, materiality, context, and temporal process. It is these thought-crises that led to a faulty model of cognition that viewed “thinking” as the manipulation of discrete, symbolic tokens. Penny points out that this is a model that has come apart, even as our current age of AI has come together and that is no mere coincidence. Although second-generation cognitive science has done a great deal to remedy these problems, one only has to look at “social intelligence” softwares being deployed in the Fortune 500--using Boolean logic to provide measures of market “sentiment,” for example-- to see that the models are laughably inadequate. Penny calls these problems the “cognitivist cul-de-sac,” an escape from which requires a new paradigm of being that challenges prevailing errors in thought: “Mind and body are not separate or separable; self vs. world is likewise a questionable distinction; intelligence is making sense of (and in) the world; and thinking occurs at the fingertips and in the soles of the feet in the processes of interaction with the world” (xx).

Although the term postcognitivist has been around since the 90s, (applied to people like the late Francisco J. Varela, the godfather of early, populist humanities “cognitive” scholarship) as a synonym for second-generation cognitive science, when Penny uses the term it has more impact. Why should it? Because it seems that we are approaching the next phase of cognitive science matter, a metaphor I am borrowing from Penny himself who describes technological innovation in terms of phases of matter. Penny is writing from what he calls a period of “crystallization,” that is the development of postcognitivism under the aegis of the commercially motivated technosocial revolution.  The commercial sector has forced highly specialized technologies into stultifying, “commodified niches,” while on the academic side, there is a similar narrowing into institutionalized disciplines. In my own field, I have seen a version of this evolve, where an extremely narrow range of study in a small field within cognitive psychology got marketed as a “new field” within theatre and performance studies. This was not only reductive of post-cognitivism, it attempted to eclipse other discourses with weak attempts at positivist de-validations of critical theory, using cognitive psychology to assert “hard-wired” modes of thought and rehash keywords introduced by Varela, Thompson, and Rosch. Penny decries this narrowing of the arteries in technological innovation for slowing both technological development and thinking about that development, and that forces us to think about similar narrowing in our own fields.   

Penny makes a radical call for something beyond the second-generation cognitive science that has entranced some humanities scholars, calling for another revolution, a “postcoginitivist” cognitivism, one that will move beyond simply asserting that cognition is embodied. He writes: “I propose that postcognitivist cognitive science might offer a new way of speaking about and validating the embodied and situated intelligences of the arts.”  If all artists contextualized and thought through their practice the way Penny does, and were encouraged to do so in the university,  it is a hard argument to refute. As he predicts for the application of postcognitivist thinking to the performing and plastic arts, it would not be “a one-way street.” “The engagement of these practices,” he writes, “would bring rich and complex examples and research opportunities to cognitive science” (xix-xx).

Also compelling is Penny’s idea that military technologies remain tinted with that violent purpose; these technologies don’t suddenly become demilitarized and neutral. Their darker identities continue to play out in the social and cultural uses of them. Still, underscoring all these ideas remains Penny’s attempt to restore the arts to their proper domains. Among the many neoliberal forces he introduces, he describes the rise of symbolic abstraction as a cultural value that has colored technology and science since the mid-nineteenth century. A culture that values symbolic abstractions has no choice but to “other” the arts, which rely on sensual and sentient experience in the making and the reception of the work.

In a section he calls “Intermezzo,” maps and navigation are evoked to help us understand the contingent nature of world views. The example of Micronesian navigation, which operates on a completely different set of assumptions than Western navigations and maps, as well as the inaccuracies and peculiarities of the Mercator projection, both come fruitfully to bear upon understanding how abstract symbolization and representation haunt our perceptions. These haunted perceptions shape what we think we know and limit the possibility of new knowledge. Micronesian navigation and the Mercator projection also happen to be the perfect metaphor for just how we began to map intelligence into computer systems. While the computer may have been originally modeled on the brain, within philosophy of the mind, we began to model the brain on the computer. 

The book is divided into three sections, “Minds, Brains, and Biology,” “A Body of Knowledge,” and “Towards an Aesthetics of Behavior.” Part One follows the history of dualism in the West, identifying the evolution of the problems of materiality and embodiment, beginning with the infamous Aristotelian and Platonic divide. Although Part I is ostensibly about computationalism and computationalist technologies, the most interesting work occurs in Chapter 2, where Penny reviews the history of biological theories of cognition, and the biological origins of cognition and consciousness. Penny’s notable artisan’s style is to piece together disparate ideas and find commonalities between them that are illuminating; in this chapter he welds together evolutionary biologists, philosophers, cats and stroble lamps, pheromones, the gut, and the microbiome (among others) to provide a foundation for the sorts of biologically grounded epistemologies that may come in and do the work of rebuilding the crumbling edifice of cognitivism (as he explores more thoroughly in Part II).  Chapter 3’s history of cybernetics is both thorough and engaging and is the first chapter to introduce the relationship of the subject matter of the book to the “military industrial complex,” and it explains the transition of this intricate science of systems and neuroscience into the “world of symbol manipulating” AI and the rise of the insect-like robots I was first introduced to in Andy Clark’s Being There. Penny continues his detail oriented overview of the ascendancy of AI and ends with rethinking being and consciousness to expose the pernicious effects of mind-body dualism across multiple domains, and to finally understand mind and consciousness as “epiphenomena of embodied being.” (190). 

This leads the reader to  Part II, “A Body of Knowledge,” where we continue on to the formation of an account of cultural action that arises from a “reconceptualization of cognition as embodied, enactive, and integrated with the material and cultural world” (ibid).  Narrating the introduction of continental phenomenology to the Anglo-American analytic philosophy soup that produced cognitivism and all its errors, Penny introduces us to where we are now. I appreciated the section on Feminism and Embodiment, an issue that sticks out in the field.  “How is it possible,” Penny asks, “that two fields ostensibly concerned with the same issue (albeit from very different perspectives) seem not to have crossed,” (210). Admittedly, until reaching this section of the book, as a scholar with an interest in feminism and cognition, I was writing in the margins, “Where are the women?” Admitting that the white maleness of the field of cognitive science is staggering by today’s standards, Penny offers Jane Gallop and Elizabeth Grosz’s frustrations with a field that requires women to prove they are thinkers first before they can gain admittance. They also explore how difficult it is for women to take on a field that offers false archetypal equivalences between women and bodies and men with minds--but ultimately Penny stops short of further analysis, if indicating a rich area for further study. The over-extolled idols of Lakoff and Johnson did much damage with their mother-father archetypal phantasms and a fear of the feminine that pounces from the pages of an Erich Neumann volume, fully-formed. From my own perspective as a cis-gendered, female identifying scholar, the effects of a field that uses texts that carry the notion that women are other and likened to fire and “dangerous things,”  (see George Lakoff: Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind, 1987are devastating to female success in the field. Such images have subtle, subcognitive effects that lead to avoidance and a failure to nurture collegiality. As long as the field remains hostile to females, the field will remain impoverished.

Finally, in the third section, “Towards an Aesthetics of Human Behavior,” Penny reaches the true project of the book, exploring the way a diffusion of mind that is distributive we not only find more accurate models of consciousness and thinking, we restore artists to their appropriate position in the academy and the world, forcing reflection on disciplinarity, and embracing what Penny calls via Pound and McLuhan “early warning systems” and “antennae” for the culture. As a Performance Studies trained scholar I am particularly interested in the way Penny finds performativity as a crowning concept for the book, opening the door to further investigations on how the cognitive revolution and dawning postcognitivism can push us toward what he is calling an “aesthetics of behavior.” If I have to have a quibble with Penny, although he mentions Butler, Schechner, Turner, and Goffman,  it would be to look more closely at the betwixt and between of theatre and anthropology.  For it isn’t just the disciplinarity of the university that needs re-examination but the disciplinarity of the plastic and performing arts as well.  “Theater” being kept discrete from other performance modalities, and performance in general considered as entirely separate from the plastic arts are also pointing to the same thought-crises.

The uninitiated may find their patience tried with this book at first. Could it really be true that neoliberal militarization is somehow intimately connected to paradigmatic conflicts in the plastic and performing arts? Yes, and perhaps even more so than Penny’s book is able gets at within the scope of his project.  In my field,  Jon McKenzie has alluded to RAND (short for Resarch and Development), the ultimate military think tank that brought us game theory and complex systems theory, and the fact that RAND has quietly developed a branch dedicated to studying cultural performances. McKenzie theorizes that those interested in military power understand that cultural performances have legitimizing and organizing power and want to understand its undeniable efficacy in culture building. However, those of us who have been looking at the problems in Philosophy of Mind will greet the topics he introduces with great excitement. It also helps to remember that Penny is an artist who spends a great deal of time building interactive art environments with custom robotic and sensor-based systems. As a maker and a tinkerer, he is placing like materials, together with like materials and seeing how they fit together. If there is to be a pitfall in Penny’s book it is what he himself recognizes as the problem of specialization. Admittedly, he is in danger of dilettantism. Ironically, that itself would be a telling accusation, as the history of the word dilettantism, shows a worldview hostile to feeling and experience. Csikszentmihalyi wrote about this in his book Flow: Something About Optimal Experience. He points to the way that dilettante,like amateur, have only recently become derogatory.  However, both words are taken from positive embodied experiences with biological foundations: dilettante is from the Latin declctare, to delight in, and amatuer from amare, to love. Csikszentmihalyi notes that the earlier meanings of the words focused on interior experience and not on achieving status in a commodified field of endeavor. In the past, those now pejorative words spoke to subjective rewards, now those words refer entirely to material success and status. This also points to a relegation of subjective experience (like making, tinkering, and thinking-by-doing in the arts) to secondary-status.  I absolve him of the secondary meanings of the words dilettante and amateur, but not of their original meaning and value.


This review previously appeared in Consciousness, Literature and the Arts 19, No. 2/3 (August/December 2018): http://www.dmd27.org/penny.html

Purchase Making Sense: Cognition, Computing, Art, and Embodiment at the MIT Press website

Dr. Jennifer Pierce is a scholar of consciousness studies and performance studies and a theatre artist, curator, and dramaturg. Her work has appeared in Richard Schechner’s TDR, in Consciousness, Literature and the Arts, and volumes published by Routledge and Cambridge Scholars Press. She is currently working on a multi-media installation inspired by Mary Shelley’s monster that equates the monster’s experience of regaining consciousness, memory, and language, with our coming to new consciousness in the digital media revolution. She is also working on a manuscript on neurophenomenology and performance studies. She is also co-author of three children and curator of a dog named Mabel.