Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Bateson on "Pride and Symmetry"

I've been thinking a lot about symmetry recently, and in recommending a student read Bateson's paper on Alcoholics Anonymous ("The cybernetics of self"), I noticed a sub-heading which struck me with more force than it did when I last looked at the paper: "Pride and Symmetry". Bateson was interested in symmetrical relations - particularly social symmetrical relations. This is where his notion of symmetrical and complementary schizmogenesis comes from, and he uses this idea to explain the double-bind that the alcoholic is in:

The so-called pride of the alcoholic always presumes a real or fictitious “other” and its complete contextual definition therefore demands that we characterize the real or imagined relationship to this “other.” 
A first step in this task is to classify the relationship as either “symmetrical” or “complementary” (Bateson, 1936). To do this is not entirely simple when the “other” is a creation of the unconscious, but we shall see that the indications for such a classification are clear. 
An explanatory digression is, however, necessary. The primary criterion is simple: If, in a binary relationship, the behaviors of A and B are regarded (by A and B) as similar and are linked so that more of the given behavior by A stimulates more of it in B, and vice versa, then the relationship is “symmetrical” in regard to these behaviors. If, conversely, the behaviors of A and B are dissimilar but mutually fit together (as, for example, spectatorship fits exhibitionism), and the behaviors are linked so that more of A’s behavior stimulates more of B’s fitting behavior, then the relationship is “complementary” in regard to these behaviors. 
Common examples of simple symmetrical relationship are: armaments races, keeping up with the Joneses, athletic emulation, boxing matches, and the like. Common examples of complementary relationship are: dominance-submission, sadism-masochism, nurturance-dependency, spectatorship-exhibitionism, and the like. More complex considerations arise when higher logical typing is present. For example: A and B may compete in gift-giving, thus superposing a larger symmetrical frame upon primarily complementary behaviors. Or, conversely, a therapist might engage in competition with a patient in some sort of play therapy, placing a complementary nurturant frame around the primarily symmetrical transactions of the game. 
Various sorts of “double binds” are generated when A and B perceive the premises of their relationship in different terms-A may regard B’s behavior as competitive when B thought he was helping A. And so on. With these complexities we are not here concerned, because the imaginary “other” or counterpart in the “pride” of the alcoholic does not, I believe, play the complex games which are characteristic of the “voices” of schizophrenics. Both complementary and symmetrical relationships are liable to progressive changes of the sort which I have called schismogenesis (Bateson, 1936).
Symmetrical struggles and armaments races may, in the current phrase, “escalate”; and the normal pattern of succoring-dependency between parent and child may become monstrous. These potentially pathological developments are due to undamped or uncorrected positive feedback in the system, and may-as statedoccur in either complementary or symmetrical systems. However, in mixed systems schismogenesis is necessarily reduced. The armaments race between two nations will be slowed down by acceptance of complementary themes such as dominance, dependency, admiration, and so forth, between them. It will be speeded up by the repudiation of these themes. This antithetical relationship between complementary and symmetrical themes is, no doubt, due to the fact that each is the logical opposite of the other. 
In a merely symmetrical armaments race, nation A is motivated to greater efforts by its estimate of the greater strength of B. When it estimates that B is weaker, nation A will relax its efforts. But the exact opposite will happen if A’s structuring of the relationship is complementary. Observing that B is weaker than they, A will go ahead with hopes of conquest (cf. Bateson, 1946, and Richardson, 1935). 
This antithesis between complementary and symmetrical patterns may be more than simply logical. Notably, in psychoanalytic theory (cf. Erikson, 1937), the patterns which are called “libidinal” and which are modalities of the erogenous zones are all complementary. Intrusion, inclusion, exclusion, reception, retention, and the like-all of these are classed as “libidinal.” Whereas rivalry, competition, and the like fall under the rubric of “ego” and “defense.”

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Gombrich on Semiotics

I'm going to begin my talk on Peirce next week with Ernst Gombrich's preface to the 2000 edition of Art and Illusion. This short piece fascinated me as much as the contents of the rest of the book when I first encountered it nearly 20 years ago. Art and Illusion is about the relationship between art and nature, and the Greek idea of mimesis. The relationship between art, pictures and signs is clearly an important sub-topic in this, and this is what Gombrich wrote his new preface about - at a time when semiotics was much discussed in the art schools (late 90s, early 2000s). His aim was to correct the current fashion which argued from a constructivist position that all images were signs, that the Greek idea of mimesis was nonsense. Gombrich begins:

[the] commonsense interpretation of the history of Western art has recently been attacked on the ground that the whole idea of mimesis, truth to nature, is a will-o'-the-wisp, a vulgar error. There never was an image that looked like nature; all images are based on conventions, no more and no less than is language or the characters of our scripts. All images are signs, and the discipline that must investigate them is not the psychology of perception—as I had believed—but semiotics, the science of signs.
Gombrich argues that this reaction is overstated: the thirst for illusion is unabated - the goal of mimesis captivates the imagination. Gombrich, always ahead of his time, points out the technological advances in pursuit of mimesis:
Simulators were developed for the training of pilots, who put on a helmet through which their eyes were fed the appearance of an environment rushing past, which they were asked to control. More recently, so called "virtual reality" has been perfected, which allows us not only to see and hear an invented reality but even to touch it with specially constructed gloves. I do not know whether this device will, or can become a medium of art; all that matters in the present context is the undeniable evidence that images can be
approximated to the experience of reality
Gombrich talks about the 'mental set' - the field of expectations - through which signs are interpreted. He points out the playfulness in the interpretation of signs, and the shifts in mental set. For example, the puppet theatre which might transfix the child's imagination in a story suddenly disrupts this expectation when the giant puppeteer's hand appears in the scene to move a character.

What Gombrich appears to be talking about are the constraints within which signs are interpreted: that a sign is not a construct of some individual mind, but that it is the result of a game played within multiple contexts (or constraints) of sensory stimuli, life experiences, expectations, education, social situations, and so on. The game of mimesis is played between image, perception and illusion, among many other things.

The contributing factors in the game are additional descriptions. He says:

A string of ovals can also be an ornament purely used for decoration, as in this case: 0000. But add the word "PLUM" underneath  and you transform the mental set: the oval no longer appears to stand on a neutral background, it is surrounded by an infinite halo of space, because we expect plums to be solid, and not only to be edible, but also graspable—an effect we can further enhance by the suggestion of a foreshortened stalk and leaves.

He comes to the crux of the issue, highlighting the importance of the game that is played in recognising a sign:
We come to realize in such cases that the required mental set did not precede the reading, but followed in a rapid feedback process. Where signs and images appear together on the page the feedback works almost instantly—witness the ease with which our youngest read so-called comics, combining pictures with a simple story. 
The difference between images and signs, then, does not lie in the degree of iconicity or conventionality. Images can function as signs as soon as they are recognized. We need only think of the labels on cans to realize that a perfect iconic image can function as a sign.

Gombrich tells a story about Constable whose judgement about early photography is very revealing in both his and Gombrich's attitude to the relationship between the image and nature:
In 1823 Constable visited a sensational display, the diorama constructed by Daguerre, later the inventor of the daguerrotype. "It is in part a transparency," he wrote, "the spectator is in a dark chamber, and it is very pleasing and has great illusion. It is outside the pale of art because its object is deception. The art pleases by reminding, not deceiving."
In reflecting what Constable might have meant by "outside the pale of art", Gombrich says:

Would we go quite wrong in suggesting that, for Constable, art had become something like a game of skill, with its own rules, which must be kept free of labor saving devices? To deceive the eye is to cheat, for the painter must please by reminding, just as the playwright of Shakespeare's Prologue must work on our "imaginary forces." Fidelity to nature has to be achieved within the limits of the medium. Once this compact between the artist and the beholder is destroyed, we are outside the pale of art. Indeed, as soon as Daguerre's and Fox Talbot's mechanical methods entered the field, art had to shift the goalposts, and move the pale elsewhere. 

There's something very profound in what is it to remind rather than deceive. I wrote something about this with regard to music a few years ago: http://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/abs/10.1108/03684921111160304. Art reminds by overlaying descriptions on top of one another. I think its interplay of multiple descriptions reminds us of the interplay of multiple descriptions in our lived experience. To deceive us of reality is to identify and reproduce as faithfully as possible the descriptions of actual experience. Since the actual experience of one person and another is different, this deception necessarily abstracts from individual experience the principal descriptions which it sees to be universal - some of these abstracted descriptions can be taken as 'signs'. The complexity of the interaction of abstracted descriptions is never the same as the overlaying of multiple descriptions to produce complexity.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Semiotics and Symmetry

Next week I'm giving a talk about Peirce and Quaternions at the Alternative Natural Philosophy Association. It's a fascinating group which was introduced to me by Peter Rowlands at Liverpool, and I've quite enjoyed getting stuck in to thinking about Peirce long after I'd thought I'd left all that stuff behind.

The thing which has dragged me back to Peirce is his interest in quaternions, which Peter Rowlands introduced me to through his physical theory. It was a coincidence that I discovered that Peirce had been fascinated by Hamilton's work too - largely because of his father who was quite an eminent mathematician. In Peirce's writing, the quaternion tables are quite prominent, and I'm pretty convinced that his obsession with tripartite structures derives from this.

What put me off Peirce is a kind of semiotic dogmatism which analysed the stuff of the world as Symbol, Icon and Index, obsessing about Interpretants, signs and representamens. There didn't seem to be any ground for the dogmatism. But of course, this was the fault of those who jumped onto the Perice bandwaggon, not the man himself. Even within more thoughtful scholarship, and emphasis on semiosis as process  (which it clearly is), the Peircian categories are overlaid as if to say "this sign is produced by this process".

What does it mean to say "this sign" anyway? This has got me thinking about contexts, and whether Peirce's sign theory is really a theory about the context of signs.

A tripartite, anticommutative, symmetrical idea like the quaternions is an interesting way of thinking about contexts. We detect sameness and stability through a continually changing context. To say "this is a sign" is to make a declaration about something remaining the same despite changes in the context of its perception. Peirce's distinction between Sign, Representamen and Interpretant are different dimensions of the context, and within each dimension, there are a further three subdivisions. So "sign" breaks down into Icons, Indexes, and Symbols, for example. His firstness, secondness, thirdness feels like the three dimensions which hold the structure together.

This has significance for the way we think about analogy, sameness and induction (which is dependent on analogy) - Peirce was doing logic after all.

Sameness, counting, induction and analogy are all declarations: we say "this is a chair" because of its sameness with other chairs. We say "there are three chairs" because of the sameness between them. Of course, in making declarations like that, we are producing signs; but the declaration itself is necessitated by the differences between the context of the perceptions of the objects. Nothing is ever really "the same".

However, things may be symmetrical. To make a sign and say "this is a chair" is to respond to the differences of context in which chairs are perceived. Might those changes in context result from an anti-commutative rotational symmetry? I'd like to explore this. What of the anti-commutative rotational symmetry of the statement "this is a chair?" - are the changes in the contexts related? What are their dynamics? How might we investigate it?

The best way we have of investigating a context - or a constraint - is information theory. It's a crude instrument. However, what it does do is allow us to look at the many descriptions of something (the statements people make about something) and see how they relate to one another. The most interesting context to do this is over time-based media like music or video. constraints change over time, and it is possible to explore the dimensions of constraint over time, and particularly the way that changes in one constraint relates to changes in another.

The technique for doing this is known as relative entropy. A similar technique is used for exploring the presence of entanglement in physics. There, the descriptions of charge, mass, space and time seem fixed - and yet, do these properties also change the context for observation?

Questions like this are intriguing because they hint at a closing gap between the physical and the social sciences.


Sunday, 30 July 2017

Ecology

A bit more work to do here (I'm using Yumpu.com which is great at hosting and updating the versions of documents. It means that this chapter will magically improve over time!)

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Beer and Illich on Institutional Change: Uncertainty at the heart of the system

Stafford Beer's "Platform for Change" is an extraordinary book which sets out  diagrammatically to document the processes by which the world might move from pathological institutions, markets, exploitation and environmental destruction, to a viable world which lives within its means. The diagrams get more complex, as the book goes on, culminating in this:
Which is a bit daunting. However, there are things to notice. Within each of those boxes, there is a smaller box at the bottom with a "U" in it: this is "Undecidability". I think it could equally be called "Uncertainty", but it is worth noting that around every heavy-type box (in bold), there is a lighter type box which is connected to the "U" box, and which is labelled with things like "Metasystem", "conscience", "reform", and so on. 

Beer's point in platform for change is that the way society manages its "undecidability", or uncertainty, causes pathology. This is most clear from his diagram about the difference from old institutions to new institutions:
What manages uncertainty in the pathological "old" institutions at the top? The "Metalanguage of Reform". This is the drive for "restructuring", "privatisation", "outsourcing" and so on. What does structure mean in the first place - it's in the middle of the box - the hierarchical organisation of most institutions. 

Feeding in to the whole thing in the pathological institution is "Homo Faber" - the maker of increasingly powerful tools which dictate how people should live and drive people into increasing technocratisation. On the other side, we clearly see that this comes at the cost of the "Exploitable earth", with exploitable people, and cost-benefit analysis. On the right hand side at the top, Beer sees the "conservation" movement as the management of uncertainty about the exploitable earth with a metalanguage of "conscience" which is managed by the conservationist's discourse. Of course, this is a reaction to the pathology, but it also appears as part of the overall system of the problem. 

What do to about it?

Uncertainty (or undecidability) has to be managed in a different way. In the lower part of the diagram, Beer imagines a different kind of institution which facilitates the coordination of uncertainty among the different people who engage with it. The Undecidability box is connected to a "Metalanguage of Metasystem" - a way of having a conversation about the way we have conversations. 

Technology works with this not as the continual pathological product of Homo Faber who produces ever-more powerful tools, but as an appropriate response to establishing synergy in the system. Feeding it and monitoring it is "Homo Gubernator" - whose actions are dedicated to maintaining viability, providing safeguards and monitoring the eudemony in the system. 

Of course, it all raises question - but they're good questions. But I've been struck by the similarity between Beer's thought and those of Ivan Illich in his Tools for Conviviality.

For Illich, the problem of the pathological institution (the top of the diagram) is the declaration of "regimes of scarcity": the need to maintain institutional structures in the face of environmental uncertainty, which often takes the form of increasing specialisation, educational certification, division between people in society, and the ever increasing power of tools. This is a positive feedback mechanism whereby increasingly powerful tools generate more uncertainty in the environment which entails a need for more institutional defence, more scarcity declarations, and so on. It is this pathological way of dealing with uncertainty which is the underlying mechanism of the appalling inequality which we are now experiencing. 

For Illich, education lies at the heart of the means to transform this into what he calls a "convivial society". The education system we have produces scarcity declarations about knowledge, and supports professionalisation which alienates people and creates division (we've seen this with populism). 

The solution to this is to invert education - to make knowledge and learning abundant rather than scarce, and to create the conditions for conviviality. Conviviality is an alternative way of managing uncertainty. Its diagrammatic representation is in the "New Institution" box at the bottom of Beer's diagram. Quite simply, conviviality is where each person manages their uncertainty by engaging directly with each other person. Intersubjectivity is the most powerful mechanism for dealing with uncertainty that we have. We do not have to create institutions to manage uncertainty, nor do we need to create ever more powerful tools.

Illich closes the system loop because he sees the limiting of tools as the critical factor in the establishment of a viable convivial society. This limiting is a politicising of technology: it is where a convivial society determines through dialogue what tools are needed, what should be limited, and how it should manage its resources. In effect it is a communitarian approach to managing the commons of education, environment, tools and people  - very similar to that which was studied by Eleanor Ostrom. 

To do this, educational technology is a critical component. We need abundance of information and skill. We need open education and open resources for learning. 

But the most important thing is to see that the route to viability (and the root of our current pathology) is uncertainty.