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03 February, 2012

Real Creatures in a Symbolic World: Part I

Today, I'd like to revisit affordance psychology. I promise this will pay off: stick with me and I'll feed you I-blame-the-*archy cookies.

First, definitions. These will start at a basic level but stack up and level up into an illuminating whole. What does "affordance" mean in this context?

Affordance psychology, or its evolved form ecological psychology, is a school of thought with its roots in basic perception research. An affordance is way to conceptualize perception. Affordance psychology argues that we don't directly perceive just any arbitrary energy (touch, sight, hearing) or chemistry (taste, smell), but that we directly perceive (PDF) features of our environment in terms of opportunities for action. This is both a perceptual and an evolutionary theory. The idea is that our perceptual faculties give us opportunities to notice a certain subset of the information available in our environments, and a subset of that subset is useful information: colors that covary with the ripeness of fruit is a good one; humans faces have certain common shapes, and infant responses to similar shapes demonstrate how those common patterns draw their attention; and, as we learn to interact with our environments, we learn things like what visual experiences correlate with grippability (e.g., the shape of a handle), with sharp or dangerous objects, and so on.

It's important to emphasize that, in this theory, our primary perception is of affordances (rather than of physical reality in its real form, as energy). Have you ever looked at the mouth of an animal that scared you and felt a physical reaction, like a shrinking back, or looked at a pest you can't stand and felt your skin crawl? I have, and to me, the experience seems consistent with the idea that we are perceiving possibilities for action: the mouth's possibility for biting me, the pest's possibility for getting all up in my grill with its icky business. In sum, affordances are the hooks that allow subjective experience to connect with the real world. Our understanding of what we perceive as objects, as members of categories, as agents, as persons, is a higher-level process that occurs after we string the affordances together and assemble them on the symbolic level.

It's the same with other perceivable things: sound, for instance. A word is an affordance because our evolved ability to distinguish nuances among sounds and to form associations between a sound and an experience or concept allows us to pair sound with thought, forming language. Language, in other words, is a system of affordances. Words are conceptual affordances: they help us to become conscious of categories and to have a common reference point on which we can rely when communicating. Through consistent covariation between a weird noise that we make with our bodies (or a gesture, or a string of printed symbols, or a code) and a concept, whether it's as simple a concept as "apple", as general as "fruit", or as abstract as "original sin", that percept comes to afford us an opportunity for action -- it takes on symbolic value. You'll see this understanding-through-labeling at work everywhere.

Cultural labels are based on affordances, too. Thomas King, in the printed version of his Massey Lectures, recalls a story from Genesis in which, having created the creatures of the world, God has Adam name them. Sounds like busy work to keep the kid happy, right? King, upon reflection, disagrees: naming is a meaningful act because it creates a set of categories that will influence how we discuss the things we've just categorized (or failed to categorize). If we have no name to afford us the chance to discuss a thing, that makes communicating about it not impossible, but difficult. George Orwell knew this when he wrote about Newspeak; Sapir and Whorf intuited that something along these lines might be true, but they conceptualized it in a way that didn't pan out; people who use identity politics use names for political leverage. The project of Adamic naming continues today.

There is a reality to named categories to the extent that the experience of the categories is a real thing. There's also necessarily a disconnect between the symbol's being real and the signified-thing's being real: take, for example, the concept of race, which breaks down along lines that might seem reasonable to folks who haven't investigated the situation in depth but which turn out to be ultimately arbitrary, as far as biology is concerned. Likewise with gender: many cultures draw the lines of gender in different places, having non-binary gender roles or essentializing in a way that simply does not reflect strict natural categories. It becomes clear that there are several senses in which one might mean "real", and that there can be conflict among them: reductionist reality, the reality of physics, is one to which humans do not have direct sensory access but which we can infer through careful experimentation; symbolic reality is our subjective experience of the world, and while that experience may not be directly reflective of physical (reductionist) reality, the experience itself is real; and then there is pragmatic reality, the reality of affordances -- of taking a gamble on coherent covariation -- the sense of reality in which one knows that the sun will come up tomorrow not because one has studied astrophysics and planetary motion but because the sun has come up every day before. Affordances exist at the tenuous, correlation-based link between symbolic and reductionist reality.

Symbolic reality can rest comfortably on top of affordances, but by the time we get to that level of distance from the physical world, our terms might not bear much resemblance to physical reality. That's especially true because, for the vast majority of human history, we have had a toolset for exploring reality that's limited mostly to our own senses and our inferential ability. For example, let's say that a person with the urges of a psychologist is born in the early Christian era -- a few centuries after Jesus died. That person might watch hir neighbors, friends, and self struggle with their priorities, make choices that they didn't really want to make, and cause each other pain when all they want is to be happy. It's as if they weren't themselves -- and, importantly, the idea that one was temporarily not oneself (and that one thus won't do the same thing later on) can facilitate forgiveness. That person might take a label from the available terms and say, "The thing that influenced you is called 'demon'. When you learn how to control your emotions and refrain from lashing out at people you love and who love you, you're 'inviting Christ into your heart'." Having terms to talk about these phenomena can be an important part of engaging with them in the first place, and although I might use labels like "irrationality", "emotional disregulation", or "neurochemical feedback loop", the result might be equivalent.1

Does this have anything to do with polyamory? Yes, sort of, in that it has something to do with everything. All that, in time.

Next post, part II: fun with labels and affordance psychology on objectification. Plus, those cookies I promised.

1: There are consequences that follow from either categorization, of course. With some branches of Christianity, as with many other systems of value, has come dogma, literalism, evangelism, and absolutism. With reductionism, one can risk a crisis of meaning and one requires a huge amount of detailed education. Other systems have other drawbacks. I'll save that digression for a later post, however.

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