Friday, September 27, 2013

Reflections on First Encountering Ethnomethodology

Human cultures are composed, in large part, of concepts and stories (the former often being the latter compressed into metonymic or metaphoric form). These are expressed in language and seem to be the most important parts of language. Translation between languages is surprisingly easy to accomplish, suggesting that the concepts and stories used in language largely reflect the same underlying reality that is independent of culture - a reality seated in a human being and including the minds of other people.

A concept may be used in two ways. First, it may be pulled out to give meaning to experiences in the past (including the very near past just seconds ago). It helps make the experience comprehensible and relatable to others. "That was a bear attack." "That was sex." "That was fun." "That was World War II." "Stupid fairies!" Second, it may be used to give meaning to experiences in the future. As such, it both orders action and provides a framework for experiences in the future. "Let's have breakfast." "I am married." "I have a job." "Are we at war?" Frequently, concepts do both - the concepts of "love" and "global warming" both interpret experiences in the past and plan and order experiences in the future. Without expressing experiences in concepts, it is impossible to bring one's linguistically-based faculties to bear on it. To understand something is to link it up with a concept or story; to communicate it is to link it up to a concept or story that is shared (and includes the process of building these shared concepts).

Bill Ellis' "When is a Legend? An Essay on Legend Morphology" (in The Questing Beast) outlines a possible life cycle of the legend. At its first stage, a legend is an experience - though it need not be a personal experience of the creator or narrator himself. Second, it is initially translated into language, quite unpolished, with many verbal stalls and formulas. Third, it is polished into a finished narrative and shared as such. Then, when everyone in the relevant community has heard the finished narrative, it exists as metonym - a reference to the story, though the story itself is no longer performed. Finally, the legend becomes a "legend report" - no longer performed as a story, hence often collapsing into incoherence when narrative devices are removed, and lacking detail and truth-negotiation. Concepts exist in the same way when viewed across time, though the word suggests something frozen at the metonym stage.

It's In The Way That You Use It

Concepts are socially created and maintained, but they are real enough to affect the world by ordering human thought and behavior. The concepts that best reflect reality - again, reality including the mutually-aware minds of human beings - will be those concepts that have been ground against the rough stone of this reality. (The excellent example given is that the person who knows most about concepts like femaleness and womanliness is the genetic male who is passing as female. This was also Dave Chappelle's joke in the selection of "contestants" in the game show skit "I Know Black People.") When a concept has frequent contact with reality, with fast feedback and a lot at stake, it will be honed to the shape of reality. The universal phenomenon of the formation of jargons reflects that frequently, when ordinary, widespread concepts rub up against a particular reality, they do not express its important parts and processes adequately. Becoming better at expressing reality, within a specialization, means becoming more opaque to outsiders. Synthetic concepts - concepts that are built out of other concepts, including other synthetic concepts - are particularly difficult to translate into the ordinary language of non-specialists.

Religions and aesthetics are composed of concepts and stories. These frequently touch on subjects not ripe for meaningful reality feedback. As they are not regularly pruned by reality, they instead optimize for other things, such as social transmissibility, organizing behavior, and providing experiences. It may be good (in terms of our own interests as experiencing beings) for them to optimize for providing experiences; it can be seen as unfortunate that frequent honing by reality probably shears off the most fun, interesting, satisfying outcroppings. It should be noted that this type of honing operates at a completely different level from the honing that natural selection accomplishes on the physical organisms that maintain the religion, aesthetic, or concept, though similar losses must have occurred on that level as well. The most fun way to perceive the world is not likely to be the most accurate.

This process of culture reaching into our minds and organizing our experience and thinking is creepy, horrifying even. But luckily our experience of this has the positive quality of averageness, everydayness, to make it work smoothly.

7 comments:

  1. Brilliant (unsurprisingly)

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  2. "Fun" in the sense of enjoyable play seems to be closely related to learning in young mammals, so there's no reason why it should be particularly inaccurate or be selected away. It does seem to decline with age though.

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  3. Great article, but I feel I have to push back on two of your points:

    "...this type of honing operates at a completely different level from the honing that natural selection accomplishes on the physical organisms..."

    I'm not certain I agree: I think there are realities of human cognition that have a physical origin and impose selection criteria on sets of memes. The most recent Archdruid Report mentions convergent evolution of culture, and the pattern Greer describes of monasticism in three cultures ends up reminding me of naked mole rats, termites, and ants. He even mentions aesthetics:

    "..the clean, simple, spare esthetic that the Shakers made famous in their furnishings and architecture has a great deal in common with the elegant simplicity that Zen Buddhism introduced to Japanese art and design, or the close equivalents in Christian monastic traditions."

    He talks about features that seem to have doomed other communal living efforts, and toward the end he mentions another particular feature of monasticism, the lack of which seems likely to cause the Shakers' extinction:

    http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2013/10/reinventing-square-wheels.html

    Secondly, you say:

    "This process of culture reaching into our minds and organizing our experience and thinking is creepy, horrifying even."

    Uh...isn't this like the process of chemicals reaching into our bodies and organizing our anatomy (e.g. via the hedgehog pathway) and physiology? I mean, the results of tampering or anomalous variation can seem monstrous sometimes, but I really don't find either process intrinsically creepy.

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  4. I'm afraid I must disagree with the statement "The most fun way to perceive the world is not likely to be the most accurate."

    Perception is always 100% accurate to those experiencing the stimulus, who can say otherwise?




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  5. You might be interested in my theory of the Adam and Eve story here.

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  6. Translation between languages is surprisingly easy to accomplish, suggesting that the concepts and stories used in language largely reflect the same underlying reality that is independent of culture - a reality seated in a human being and including the minds of other people.

    basically, we're all part of the same culture (industrial). hunter/gatherer concepts are hard to translate, and harder still to understand. i think.

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  7. The last paragraph made me think of how concepts adapt through media with the function of making reality tolerable. Look at any hijinxy sitcom and essentially it is a conceptual lens for interpreting everyday life positively.

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