Making Sense -Cognition, Computing, Art and Embodiment

by Simon Penny

in press with MIT Press (release date Fall 2017)

The goal of this book is to encourage the reconceptualisation and retheorisation of arts practices based in concepts arising out of the post-cogntivist revolution of the past quarter century. Key to this agenda is the following problematic: The internalism of the reigning cognitivist theories of the last century have minimal explanatory power regarding embodied, enactive and situated cognitive practices. Cultural practices are characterised by embodied, enactive and situated cognitive practices. Because conventional twentieth century theories of cognition can say so little about embodiment, theories of cultural practice based in these ideas provide a profoundly distorted representation of such practices.


Central to this book is a set of humanist structuring dualisms formulated during the enlightenment, prime amongst them the mind/body dual. This dualism is seen as a regrettable error of western humanist philosophy, which has resulted in an incapacity to address performative, situated and material practices, of which arts practices are an epitome. It is ironic that while we value works of culture as pinnacles of human achievement, the cognitive science community has tended to avoid such topics. The advent of digital computation and its infiltration into diverse realms of human practices is seen as reinforcing dualistic and mechanistic conceptions of cognition – namely, computationalism. It is also of note that the rise of congtivism/computationalism has had the effect of eliding biologically based and embodied theories of cognition, in ethology, in pragmatist philosophy, in autopoietic biology, in ecological psychology, in phenomenology and in cybernetics.


The rise of post-cognitivist approaches to cognition – approaches which embrace embodiment and challenge internalism in various ways – are seen as providing new ways to speak about arts and cultural practices which re-valorise the embodied and situated nature of these practices and potentially provide terms for a new kind of aesthetic discourse. Engaging emerging post-cognitivist theories of cognition provides a tantalising opportunity to begin to be able to speak in a useful way about the intelligences of the arts, in terms which validate those intelligences in terms compatible with contemporary discourses of cognition.” Intelligences of the arts” is my term. It is intentionally provocative in the sense that it claims ‘skills’, and sensibilities as intelligence proper. The question of how we definer ‘intelligence’ as opposed to other human capabilities is precisely what is in question here.


This new language has particular application to digital cultural practices, as those practices, in their modalities of immersion and interaction, engage qualities of human behavior which are not only different from conventional modalities of designing, making and experiencing in the arts, but are modalities of behavior to which analysis in terms of embodied, enactive and situated perspectives is singularly applicable. However, computationalist cognitive rhetoric, thoroughly reified in society at large, renders invisible or irrelevant the quintessentially performative qualities of dynamical, generative and interactive digital practices. Indeed, one might posit that theoretically, the entire field of interaction design is stymied until it can shake off the internalist paradigms which characterise the rhetoric of their native technologies.


The book addresses the issues outlined above, arguing that postcogntivist research provides the basis for the development of a new language with which to discuss arts and cultural practices. This is done in three stages. First, it is necessary to rehearse the history of theories of cognition, and related ideas, as they have arisen in biology, in computing, and in philosophy, over the twentieth century. This is Section One. Section Two outlines and explores the qualities of various post-cognitivist schools. Section Three focuses on the application of these ideas to theorization of cultural practices generally and digital cultural practices in particular.


This book draws widely upon philosophy, history, biology, psychology, anthropology, cognitive science, neuroscience, critical theory and other fields. The dangers of ‘a little knowledge’ of such radical interdisciplinarity are recognised. Yet a very broad casting of the net and an attempt to integrate heterogenous material seems to be the only valid way to proceed. Discursive discontinuities are inevitable and not to be elided. While this project is, admittedly, somewhat polemical, every attempt has been made to maintain scientific and historical rigor.