Monday, December 17, 2012

Affordance, Things and the Seizing of Enablement - A ground of Formal Cause?

In my last post, I asked/posed a question, derived from Kaufman's concept of 'Enablement'. 

How does an 'enablement' become seizable? That is how does a 'possibility' become visible?  I'd like to try to answer this today. 

I've recently read a wonderful piece by Tim Ingold - an anthropologist. What Ingold explores is the question of how do we actually get 'things' done, how does knowledge arise through our engagement with the world. For him this is a creative process of co-evolving with our aims and the mater that serves as the medium.

Ingold begins his paper by speaking of Paul Klee: In his notebooks the painter Paul Klee repeatedly insisted, and demonstrated by example, that the processes of genesis and growth that give rise to forms in the world we inhabit are more important than the forms themselves. ‘Form is the end, death’, he wrote. ‘Form-giving is movement, action. Form-giving is life’.  Ingold continues: ‘Art does not reproduce the visible but makes visible’ (Klee 1961: 76). It does not, in other words, seek to replicate finished forms that are already settled, whether as images in the mind or as objects in the world. It seeks, rather, to join with those very forces that bring form into being. 

From Klee, Ingold goes to the position of Deleuze and Guattari that the essential relation, in a world of life, is not between matter and form, or between substance and attributes, but between materials and forces (Deleuze and Guattari 2004: 377). It is about the way in which materials of all sorts, with various and variable properties, and enlivened by the forces of the Cosmos, mix and meld with one another in the generation of things.

A key insight Ingold gave me was in his discussion about the difference between 'Objects' and 'Things'. 

An 'object' is an already closed self-evident fait accompli, that presents a 'congealed' set of surfaces for a pre-determined or accepted use and inspection. We generally experience this in our familiar habits of regarding the contents of our homes and other familiar places - the chair is a chair, the pot is a pot, etc. 

A 'thing' on the other hand, is a 'going on' or the entwinement of several 'goings on' - he quotes Heidegger, it is a 'thing thinging in a worlding world'. More than this a thing is also an invitation to participate in the thinging and worlding. Ingold states: "Thus conceived, the thing has the character not of an externally bounded entity, set over and against the world, but of a knot whose constituent threads, far from being contained within it, trail beyond, only to become caught with other threads in other knots. Or in a word, things leak, forever discharging through the surfaces that form temporarily around them."

Even if we pick up a stone can only call it an 'object' because we perceptually extricate it from the ongoing processes (erosion, deposition, etc.) that gave it is place, size and shape in by picking it up we participate in those processes. 


Even a building is not fixed and final but something that is never finished for it demands never-ending efforts to maintain it against the forces of its context and its inhabitants. As Ingold notes: Our most fundamental architectural experiences, ... are verbal rather than nominal in form. They consist not of encounters with objects – the façade, door-frame, window and fireplace – but of acts of approaching and entering, looking in or out, and soaking up the warmth of the hearth (Pallasmaa 1996: 45). As inhabitants, we experience the house not as an object but as a thing.



Extending Ingold's observations, what things enable in the way the 'leak' could be called 'affordances'. An affordance (enablement) can only become visible through an interaction within a context and orientation. Another example, if I'm walking through a landscape populated with scattered stones of all sizes. I will generally see these as annoyances that impede my easy passage. But then I get tired and want to rest for a bit - a stone of the right size and shape might then suggest to me - might afford - a perfect 'thing' to sit on, letting me avoid having to get my body all the way down on the ground (and the necessary effort to get up again). The context of being tired, and the orientation of view enabled the stone to serve as a chair - or another way, enabled an interaction between myself and the stone that saved me energy. 

If we understand that affordances only arise with context, orientation and interaction it is impossible to determine all the possible affordances that a thing could enable. Thus we could argue that 'things' are imbued with a field of affordances - like a superposition of possibilities - the collapse of this field into a particular affordance depends on 'observation' (as orientation, context and interaction). Because the 'field of affordances' can't be enumerated (of course with some thought 'some' affordances can always be imagined) the idea of algorithmizing them or attempting to incorporate notions of probability aren't feasible.

A key implication of this line of thinking is that we must be careful in applying the language of logic and mathematics to the world. What logic and mathematics tends to do is make 'things' into 'objects' - P is P and Not Q. There are no 'affordances' acceptable to the use of P in an argument shaped by syllogistic logic or mathematical equation. Affordance may enable a 'thing' to embody contradiction (which in logic is an accepted indication of error - only one thing can be right). Think of the classic drawing that enables a viewer to see both an old woman and a young woman, depending on the perceptual orientation. The drawing affords two opposite renderings of the very same 'thing'.

Of course that doesn't mean logic and math are not necessary tools for human progress - they are absolutely necessary. They have and will continue to be powerful in shaping our reasoning and in descriptions of the world. However, they are not sufficient for understanding how evolution of complex and living systems unfold. 

The epistemology imbued in a physics world view doesn't make room for things imbued with affordance fields - yet does afford the realization of quantum mechanics, superpositions, entanglement, etc. between 'objects' and forces. 

What emerges in living systems are the new domains of affordance fields, of meanings that are only revealed through interaction, context, and orientation and mirror the fact that matter is always matter in movement, in flux, in variation, in webs of interdependence. The domains of affordance fields may be pertinent to the more basic domains of matter and force and may enable a better grasp of what McLuhan describes as Formal Cause.


I highly recommend people reading Tim Ingolds article.

BRINGING THINGS TO LIFE: CREATIVE ENTANGLEMENTS IN A WORLD OF MATERIALS