Mittwoch, 20. Dezember 2017

Opening Talk: Archaeology, Mind and Material Engagement: On the Cognitive Ecology of Marks, Lines and Traces

A Weblog Entry by Aimee Miles

Our international workshop, “Resurrecting the Ancient Mind,” opened with a talk by Dr. Lambros Malafouris. His central query: How do the artistic and technological achievements of early prehistoric cultures help us interpret the interactive relationships between brain, body, and nature that have conspired to shape human cognitive evolution over millennia? 

This is the territory where archaeology and cognitive sciences converge, and it remains terra incognita in the field of archaeology, where few attempt to bridge the divide between the material and cognitive realities of the past. That must change, says Dr. Lambros Malafouris, who dares archaeologists to inquire: “Where is that mind that we cannot excavate?” 

In his talk, “Archaeology, Mind and Material Engagement: On the Cognitive Ecology of Marks, Lines and Traces,” Dr. Malafouris invited colleagues to think about how the conception and production of material culture, as well as physical engagement with it, inform the organization and constitution of human minds. The aim of the opening talk, he said, was to challenge the line of reasoning that divorces the mind from the material world. 

Dr. Malafouris is Johnson Research and Teaching Fellow in Creativity, Cognition and Material Culture at Keble College and the Institute of Archaeology, University of Oxford. Together with Professor Colin Renfrew, a pioneer of social and cognitive archaeology based at University of Cambridge, he has been developing an integrative analytical approach to the archaeology of mind, which he outlines in his 2013 book, How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement (Cambridge). 

Mind meets matter: Material Engagement Theory 

In a nutshell, Material Engagement Theory (MET) codifies the feedback processes connecting mind, matter, and agency. Its basic premise is that human minds develop relationally, meaning that our modes of physical action and collaboration with elements of the material world have gradually reordered our thought patterns in the course of human evolutionary history. To put it another way: We humans sense, conceptualize, and orient ourselves with respect to the material world, and when we make things or act on the environment, we also shape our own intelligence through habitual mental action that is linked to our embodied behaviors. 

“Humans construct signs, draw lines, and leave memory traces”, Dr. Malafouris elaborates. “Importantly, they maintain a transactional and creative relationship with other things, human and nonhuman, that surround them. This applies to the modern forager of digital information as it applies to the Paleolithic hunter-gatherer and tool-maker.” 

This Theory of Material Engagement, as presented by Dr. Malafouris, derives from three core tenets: First, the concept of the extended mind holds that elements of the material world are intellectually assimilated by minds in action, so that the former become “consubstantial“ with the latter. Second, the hypothesis of enactive signification holds that abstract concepts emerge from embodied experience with the material world (i.e. making things), and that artifacts (material signs) have a dual nature as both conveyors and receptacles of meaning. Finally, the principle of material agency holds that objects can themselves behave as agents that influence human thought and action. 

Dr. Malafouris cites the classic example of the blind person‘s stick first put forward by Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Michael Polanyi, whereby tactile sensation is projected from the environment to the tip of the walking stick, and the brain treats the stick as an extension of the body. In this scenario, it is difficult to say where the blind person‘s self begins and where it ends, as the stick is employed as a perceptual prosthetic. The takeaway is that human experiences “are mediated and often constituted by use of technology and artifacts,” Dr. Malafouris says, and should therefore be considered to be a “continuous, integral and active part of human mind.” 

“Whatever actual form the stick might have taken in the history of our species,” he continues, “from earliest Paleolithic stone tools to the latest technology, its primary function was that of the pathway instead of the boundary. Through the stick the human species, much like the blind man in our example, feels, discovers, and makes sense of the environment, but also enacts a way forward.” 

Dr. Lambros Malafouris delivering the Opening Talk (photo by Sandra Hofert).

The ontology of lines in Paleolithic cave art 

To underscore what this interplay of mind and matter meant for early human cognitive development, consider the Upper Paleolithic (Aurignacian culture) cave paintings from Chauvet, in southern France. Dr. Malafouris devotes particular attention to the "Panel of the Horses" on the north wall of the Hillaire Chamber, which was inscribed in charcoal ca. 32,000 to 30,000 years ago. In the lively tableau, horses and aurochs gallop in profile across the limestone wall and a pair of rhinoceri clash in the foreground, rendered in fluid black lines. 

But there is more to an image than its visual content. Dr. Malafouris focuses on the kinds of lines that are employed in early cave art, drawing inspiration from the work of Tim Ingold (2008), who points out that a circle could be perceived either as a static perimeter, or as a trajectory of human movement. He also follows in the footsteps of Carole Fritz and Gilles Tosello (2007), who attempt to decipher painted walls by diagramming the order of line-making that resulted in formal pictures, thereby re-enacting the interaction of mind and matter. In that vein, Dr. Malafouris proposes that a close study of individual, intersecting strokes – the isolated gestures that compose a line drawing – should be the first move towards empirical characterization of the cognitive processes implicated in the creation of early prehistoric images. 

Taking this enactive perspective, lines are no longer viewed as solid boundaries, but rather as dynamic interfaces between thought and action. A picture is a combination of lines presented as meaningful information, which serves to transfer information across time and space, Dr. Malafouris continues. But a picture is also a form of “representational illusion”: it depicts something identifiable — like a rhinoceros — and yet the viewer easily intuits that the image, however evocative, is not the real thing. It is this phenomenology of perception that interests Dr. Malafouris, who observes, “Every image embodies an analogous perceptual puzzle.” 

Early pictorials are not to be interpreted merely as passive representational objects, he reasons, but rather as an “active prosthetic means through which humans learn to perceive and make sense of world around them” – akin to the blind person‘s stick. In this case, the Paleolithic cave painting is the probe that extends our visual perception and permits us to build perceptual consciousness. The image itself can question or challenge the way its audience experiences the world. The emergence of image-making thus goes hand-in-hand with that of image reception, representing an important inflection point in our cognitive evolution – and indeed pointing to the question of when we became human, he says. 

“The image makes it possible for the visual apparatus to interrogate itself and thus acquire sense of perceptual awareness not previously available. More simply, the image provides the scaffolding device that enables human perception to become aware of itself.” 

The more pressing question for cognitive archaeologists, according to Dr. Malafouris, is not when we began creating representations of our world, but when and how we began to comprehend what we were doing; thus, reaching the shores of meta-cognition and meta-representation. 

Dr. Malafouris’s challenging lecture set the stage for subsequent thematic discourses that structured the workshop; encompassing cognitive theory in archaeology and the study of art, cognitive approaches to natural phenomena and landscape, and cognitive linguistics and philology.

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