More Disney than Disney World: Semiotics as Theoretical Make-believe (II)

by rsbakker

III: The Gilded Stage

We are one species among 8.7 million, organisms embedded in environments that will select us the way they have our ancestors for 3.8 billion years running. Though we are (as a matter of empirical fact) continuous with our environments, the information driving our environmental behaviour is highly selective. The selectivity of our environmental sensitivities means that we are encapsulated, both in terms of the information available to our brain, and in terms of the information available for consciousness. Encapsulation simply follows from the finite, bounded nature of cognition. Human cognition is the product of ancestral human environments, a collection of good enough fixes for whatever problems those environments regularly posed. Given the biological cost of cognition, we should expect that our brains have evolved to derive as much information as possible from whatever signals available, to continually jump to reproductively advantageous conclusions. We should expect to be insensitive to the vast majority of information in our environments, to neglect everything save information that had managed to get our ancestors born.

As it turns out, shrewd guesswork carried the cognitive day. The correlate of encapsulated information access, in other words, is heuristic cognitive processing, a tendency to always see more than there really is.

So consider the streetscape from above once again:

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This looks like a streetscape only because the information provided generally cues the existence of hidden dimensions, which in this case simply do not exist. Since the cuing is always automatic and implicit, you just are looking down a street. Change your angle of access and the illusion of hidden dimensions—which is to say, reality—abruptly evaporates. The impossible New York skyline is revealed as counterfeit.

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Let’s call a stage any environment that reliably cues the cognition of alternate environments. On this definition, a stage could be the apparatus of a trapdoor spider, say, or a nest parasitized by a cuckoo, or a painting, or an epic poem, or yes, Disney World—any environment that reliably triggers the cognition of some environment other than the environment actually confronting some organism.

As the inclusion of the spider and the cuckoo should suggest, a stage is a biological phenomenon, the result of some organism cognizing one environment as another environment. Stages, in other words, are not semantic. It is simply the case that beetles sensing environments absent spiders will blunder into trapdoor spiders. It’s simply the case that some birds, sensing chicks, will feed those chicks, even if one of them happens to be a cuckoo. It is simply the case that various organisms exploit the cognitive insensitivities of various other organisms. One need not ascribe anything so arcane as ‘false beliefs’ to birds and beetles to make sense of their exploitation. All they need do is function in a way typically cued by one family of (often happy) environments in a different (often disastrous) environment.

Stages are rife throughout the natural world simply because biological cognition is so expensive. All cognition can be exploited because all cognition is bounded, dependant on taking innumerable factors for granted. Probabilistic guesses have to be made always and everywhere, such are the exigencies of survival and reproduction. Competing species need only happen upon ways to trigger those guesses in environments reproductively advantageous to them, and selection will pace out a new niche, a position in what might be called manipulation space.

The difficulty with qualifying a stage as a biological phenomenon, however, is that I included intentional artifacts such as narratives, paintings, and amusement parks as examples of stages above. The problem with this is that no one knows how to reconcile the biological with the intentional, how to fit meaning into the machinery of life.

And yet, as easy as it is to anthropomorphize the cuckoo’s ‘treachery’ or the trapdoor spider’s ‘cunning’—to infuse our biological examples with meaning—it seems equally easy to ‘zombify’ narrative or painting or Disney World. Hearing the Iliad, for instance, is a prodigious example of staging, insofar as it involves the serial cognition of alternate environments via auditory cues embedded in an actual, but largely neglected, environment. One can easily look at the famed cave paintings of Chauvet, say, as a manipulation of visual cues that automatically triggers the cognition of absent things, in this case, horses:

chauvet horses

But if narrative and painting are stages so far as ‘cognizing alternate environments’ goes, the differences between things like the Iliad or Chauvet and things like trapdoor spiders and cuckoos are nothing less than astonishing. For one, the narrative and pictorial cuing of alternative environments is only partial; the ‘alternate environment’ is entertained as opposed to experienced. For another, the staging involved in the former is communicative, whereas the staging involved in the latter is not. Narratives and paintings mean things, they possess ‘symbolic significance,’ or ‘representational content,’ whereas the predatory and parasitic stages you find in the natural world do not. And since meaning resists biological explanation, this strongly suggests that communicative staging resists biological explanation.

But let’s press on, daring theorists that we are, and see how far our ‘zombie stage’ can take us. The fact is, the ‘manipulation space’ intrinsic to bounded cognition affords opportunities as well as threats. In the case of Chauvet, for instance, you can almost feel the wonder of those first artists discovering the relations between technique and visual effect, ways to trick the eye into seeing what was not there there. Various patterns of visual information cue cognitive machinery adapted to solve environments absent those environments. Flat surfaces become windows.

Let’s divvy things up differently, look at cognition and metacognition in terms of multiple channels of information availability versus cognitive capacity. On this account, staging need not be complete: as with Chauvet, the cognition of alternate environments can be partial, localized within the present environment. And as with Chauvet, this embedded staging can be instrumentalized, exploited for various kinds of effects. Just how the cave paintings at Chauvet were used will always be a matter of archaeological speculation, but this in itself tells us something important about the kind of stage we’re now talking about: namely, their specificity. We share the same basic cognitive mechanisms as the original creators and consumers of the Horses, for instance, but we share nothing of their individual histories. This means the stage we step onto encountering them is bound to differ, perhaps radically, from the stage they stepped onto encountering them in the Upper Paleolithic. Since no individuals share precisely the same history, this means that all embedded stages are unique in some respect.

The potential evolutionary value of embedded stages, the kind of ‘cognitive double-vision’ peculiar to humans, seems relatively clear. If you can draw a horse you can show a fellow hunter what to look for, what direction to approach it, where to strike with a spear, how to carve the joints for efficient transportation, and so on. Embedding, in other words, allows organisms to communicate cognitive relationships to actual environments by cuing the cognition of that environment absent that environment. Embedding also allows organisms to communicate cognitive relationships to nonexistent environments as well. If you can draw a cave bear, you can just as easily deceive as teach a potential competitor. And lastly, embedding allows organisms to game their own cognitive systems. By experimenting with patterns of visual information, they can trigger a wide variety of different responses, triggering wonder, lust, fear, amusement, and so on. The cave paintings at Chauvet include what is perhaps the oldest example of pictorial ‘porn’ (in this case, a vulva formed by a bull overlapping a lion) for a reason.

chauvet vulva

Humans, you could say, are the staging animal, the animal capable of reorganizing and coordinating their cognitive comportments via the manipulation of available information into cues, those patterns prone to trigger various heuristic systems ‘out of school.’ Research into episodic memory reveals an intimate relation between the constructive (as opposed to veridical) nature of episodic memory and the ability to imagine future environments. Apparently the brain does not so much record events as it ransacks them, extracting information strategic to solving future environments. Nothing demonstrates the profound degree to which the brain is invested in strategic staging as the default or task-negative network. Whenever we find ourselves disengaged from some ongoing task, our brains, far from slowing down, switch modes and begin processing alternate, typically social, environments. We ‘daydream,’ or ‘ruminate,’ or ‘fantasize,’ activities almost as metabolically expensive as performing focussed tasks. The resting brain is a staging brain—a story-telling brain. It has literally evolved to cue and manipulate its own cognitive systems, to ‘entertain’ alternate environments, laying down priors in the absence of genuine experience to better manage surprise.

Language looms large over all this, of course, as the staging device par excellence. Language allows us to ‘paint a picture,’ or cue various cognitive systems, at any time. Via language, multiple humans can coordinate their behaviours to provide a single solution; they can engage their environments at ever more strategic joints, intervene in ways that reliably generate advantageous outcomes. Via language, environmental comportments can be compared, tested as embedded stages, which is to say, on the biological cheap. And the list goes on. The upshot is that language, like cave paintings, puts human cognition at the disposal of human cognition

And—here’s the thing—while remaining utterly blind to the structure and dynamics of human cognition.

The reason for this is simple: the biological complexity required to cognize environments is simply too great to be cognized as environmental. We see the ash and pigment smeared across the stone, we experience (the illusion of) horses, and we have no access whatsoever to the machinery in between. Or to phrase it in zombie terms, humans access environmental information, ash and pigment, which cues cognitive comportments to different environmental information, horses, in the absence of any cognitive comportment to this process. In fact, all we see are horses, effortlessly and automatically; it actually requires effort to see the ash and pigment! The activated environment crowds the actual environment from the focus to the fringe. The machinery that makes all this possible doesn’t so much as dimple the margin. We neglect it. And accordingly, what inklings we have strike us as all there is.

The question of signification is as old as philosophy: how the hell do nonexistent horses leap from patterns of light or sound? Until recently, all attempts to answer this question relied on observations regarding environmental cues, the resulting experience, and the environment cued. The sign, the soul, and the signified anchored our every speculative analysis simply because, short baffling instances of neuropathology, the machinery responsible never showed its hand.

Our cognitive comportment to signification, in other words, looked like:

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Which is to say, a stage.

Because we’re quite literally ‘hardwired’ into this position, we have no way of intuiting the radically impoverished (because specialized) nature of the information made available. We cannot trudge on the perpendicular to see what the stage looks like from different angles—we cannot alter our existing cognitive comportments. Thus, what might be called the semiotic stage strikes us as the environment, or anything but a stage. So profound is the illusion that the typical indicators of informatic insufficiency, the inability to leverage systematically effective behaviour, the inability to command consensus, are habitually overlooked by everyone save the ‘folk’ (ironically enough). Sign, soul, and signified could only take us so far. Despite millennia of philosophical and psychological speculation, despite all the myriad regimentations of syntax and semantics, language remains a mystery. Controversy reigns—which is to say, we as yet lack any decisive scientific account of language.

But then science has only begun the long trudge on the perpendicular. The project of accessing and interpreting the vast amounts of information neglected by the semiotic stage is just getting underway.

Since all the various competing semiotic theories are based on functions posited absent any substantial reference to the information neglected, the temptation is to assume that those functions operate autonomously, somehow ‘supervene’ upon the higher dimensional story coming out cognitive neuroscience. This has a number of happy dialectical consequences beyond simply proofing domains against cognitive scientific encroachments. Theoretical constraints can even be mapped backward, with the assumption that neuroscience will vindicate semiotic functions, or that semiotic functions actually help clarify neuroscience. Far from accepting any cognitive scientific constraints, they can assert that at least one of their multiple stabs in the dark pierces the mystery of language in the heart, and is thus implicitly presupposed in all communicative acts. Heady stuff.

Semiotics, in other words, would have you believe that either this

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is New York City as we know it, and will be vindicated by the long cognitive neuroscientific trudge on the perpendicular, or that it’s a special kind of New York City, one possessing no perpendicular to trudge—not unlike, surprise-surprise, assumptions regarding the first-person or intentionality in general.

On this account, the functions posited are sometimes predictive, sometimes not, and even when they are predictive (as opposed to merely philosophical), they are clearly heuristic, low-dimensional ways of tracking extremely complicated systems. As such, there’s no reason to think them inexplicably—magically—‘autonomous,’ and good reason to suppose why it might seem that way. Sign, soul, and signified, the blinkered channels that have traditionally informed our understanding of language, appear inviolable precisely because they are blinkered—since we cognize via those channels, the limits of those channels cannot be cognized: the invisibility of the perpendicular becomes its impossibility.

These are precisely the kinds of errors we should expect speaking animals to make in the infancy of their linguistic self-understanding. You might even say that humans were doomed to run afoul ‘theoretical hyperrealities’ like semiotics, discursive Disney Worlds…

Except that in Disney World, of course, the stages are advertised as stages, not inescapable or fundamental environments. Aside from policy level stuff, I have no idea how Disney World or Disney corporation systematically contributes to the subversion of social justice, and neither, I would submit, does any semiotician living. But I do think I know how to fit Disney into a far larger, and far more disturbing set of trends that have seized society more generally. To see this, we have to leave semiotics behind…