Fixation crosses and the illusory subject

The core question of cognitive science has two ends to it: What is it to know a world, and what are we that we should know a world.  These are always yoked together.  Most kinds of realism park the question of world and labour intensively over the question of the subject, for the world is taken as a given.  Enactive approaches tend not to do this, but to link the questions. In many respects, Jakob Von Uexküll provides us with a template for thinking here, as he shows how worlds arise in conjunction with subjects who have perspectives with respect to those worlds.  Varela’s notion of “bringing forth” a world is similar, and it in turn is informed by the Buddhist notion of dependent arising.  This is at the heart of the mind and life approach to being.

Realist approaches frequently start with the study of something called perception. Perhaps unwisely, many enactive theorists take over this language and try to provide alternative approaches.  But that is to lose the war before the first battle.  If we wish to talk of perception, then we have made some initial and binding assumptions about both world and subject.  This is a perfectly fine approach for many questions, and it finds its most mature expression in the domain of ecological psychology.  There, we take a world of balls and doors and such for granted, and the subject is simply whatever is housed in a single body.  The scientific job is then to relate one to the other, lawfully.  Hurrah.

But there are many other tasks before us, and that view of world and subject is massively restrictive.  It allows only one kind of subject (the body), and deals with only one kind of world (macroscopic, material). We live among many many domains in which questions of value and existence arise, and for most, this approach will get us nowhere at all. Most of our activities are not to be explained in this way, as we partake in book clubs, football matches, education, wars, black or white masses, flash mobs, bagpipe bands, sexual intercourse, and guided tours of the Colosseum.  Nor is there a single kind of world~subject underlying these activities.

And so I want here to lament a specific kind of practice that is accepted virtually without question within psychological research.  As well as fixing our subjects through such pre-theoretical commitments, psychologists have a long history of literally fixing the subject, in the sense of tying them down, bolting them to the table, knocking them out with anaesthetic and propping their eyelids open, and using their observations under these enormously pathological conditions to make important inferences about their hypothetical subject.

In 1981 Hubel & Wiesel won the Nobel prize for Medicine & Physiology for their pioneering work on activity in the cortical system during vision.  Recording from single cells in anaesthetised kittens with their eyes propped open, they flashed optical patterns of high contrast onto screens in front of the kittens’ eyes.  What they found was spectacular, if you believe, as they did and do, that we come to know the world through the extraction of low level information on the retina, first in the form of simple edge detection, then through the inference of more complex features, arriving somewhere (inferotemporal cortex?  The soul?) at a full representation of that which is in the world before us. It is as if the world managed to squeeze in through the bottleneck of the eyeball, to be elaborately reconstructed in an interior space.

Later, as single cell recording became easier and more robust, the kittens were allowed to be awake.  The same year as that nobel prize, Margaret Livingstone and David Hubel published a paper in which it was clear that the observations made on sleeping kittens were not  going to generalise well to awake animals.  However even here, the awake animals were far from behaving, far from active, they were pinned down, they wore contact lenses that prevented normal active focussing, they were immobile.

But we come to know the world through purposeful activity, not as passive couch potatoes.  We move in and out, we approach and leave.  Our eyes are continually in motion, now independently, now coupled to the world. The active nature of perception is well established, and seeing by doing, moving, acting is the norm, not the exception.  In the absence of change, perception stops.  If we fix an image on the retina, it bleeds out.  To even have to argue this point in 2015 seems ridiculous.

Yet psychologists continue to nail their subjects to the floor.  Neuropsychologists think nothing of insisting that the head be held in place by a frame.  Usually the reasons are technical: you can’t move in a scanner or we won’t be able to record an image.  But in removing movement, they have stopped the subject behaving as a subject, as a being of fluid identity, skilfully navigating in many kinds of fields of meaning.  Only when you fix the head, the body, the eyes like this does the Cartesian theatre arise.  It is as if we inflated a mental cavern by stopping the subject moving, transposing the world from its normal place to an intracranial cave.

Within enactive theory, the term perception is, or ought to be, replaced by the term sense-making.  This is an activity, carried out by a subject. No more fixation crosses!  No more head clamps!  No more injunctions not to move.  These research practices are substantiating a myth, that there is a subject you can probe when you remove its ability to engage with the world.

This is not a technical detail.  This is political, because the view of the subject delivered by psychology is taken as a kind of scientifically established truth with reference to which we define such things as ability/disability, educational practices, sanity/insanity, neurotypicality, criminal responsibility, and ethical behaviour.  It is not enough to be unhappy with the approach of psychology to the subject. It is imperative that this tradition encounter resistance!


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