2018 Newsletter 13: Cognitive Studies


Photo by Daniel Cheung on Unsplash

Only the west has knowledge while all other cultures and civilizations only have myths and other suspect beliefs. That division of truth (though one might ask with Stalin: how many divisions does truth have?) is replicated in the disciplinary structure of academia. The dynamics of western society is the subject of economics, sociology and political science while the barbarians outside the gate are the subjects of anthropology and various area studies programs (South Asian Studies, East Asian Studies etc). The gate is porous - some fortunate barbarians slipped through so they benefit from Gender studies and Black and Chicano Studies and Native American studies.

That’s why Science Studies comes as such a surprise. Scholars such as Bruno Latour and John Law turned their ethnographic gaze towards the alpha men of western scholarship: their scientists, technologists and economists. That encounter produced some of the most spectacular fireworks of late twentieth century academia, including claims that facts are socially constructed.

How is that even possible: isn’t the definition of a fact that it’s out there rather than being made by us?

Latour has an interesting defense of the construction of facts - he doesn’t use the word “social” since he doesn’t think it denotes anything substantial (why? because society is what’s being constructed, not what doing the constructing). He says: why would you want your facts to be anything else besides constructed? Let’s take a fact such as gravity acts equally on rocks and feathers. Do we observe such facts in the wild? No, we don’t. It takes a carefully constructed vacuum to produce a situation in which feathers fall at the same speed as rocks. It takes a lot of labor (notice the use of that Marxist term) to produce that fact; why would we want to deny the creative forces of the scientist by attributing facts to a magical and uber-capitalist nature? Facts, like bricks, are made with great care in the laboratory, i.e., the scientific factory.

I am simplifying and mangling his argument, but you get the point: if knowledge is a commodity produced by a particular laboring class, it’s products (such as facts and theories) have to be understood analogously to other products of labor. Fair enough, but I don’t want to stop there. Science studies still accepts that there’s a special kind of knowledge produced in a special kind of factory. It doesn’t equate a Yanomami Amazonian’s knowledge of the forest with that of the scientific botanist.

I believe that distinction between high knowledge and low knowledge doesn’t hold anymore. Not for romantic or political reasons, or because I am a relativist who believes each culture or person has their own ways of knowing. Instead, the real reason is because we now live in knowledge societies where we are all producing knowledge all the time. To take one obvious example, the iconic companies of our time make money out of (mostly) free knowledge labor on everyone’s part: where would google be without our searches, facebook without our updates and amazon without our reviews? Knowledge is simply no longer a specialized form of labor.

Yes, it’s true that the market compensates knowledge labor in lopsided ways: amazon doesn’t pay me anything for leaving a thoughtful review, but it pays the designer who designs the interface on which my review is based really well. There’s a new hierarchy of knowledge, but it’s not the hierarchy of facts versus myths.

All of this is to say that even the market acknowledges that knowledge no longer lives in science but in cognition, i.e., in the mental, emotional and aesthetic capacities of all humans, and perhaps a range of nonhumans as well. Those knowledges are increasingly the target of control, competition and advertising - for example, mindfulness meditation has become an instrument of productivity. Are we moving into a phase of capitalist development centered on knowledge or are we in a new condition altogether, a cyborg existence that goes beyond capital?

I am thinking the latter, but that hunch is irrelevant to this essay.

Whatever the case may be, we need a new framework for understanding knowledge as it’s being produced today, which is cognitive rather than scientific, so science studies should be replaced by cognitive studies. I use the term cognition expansively, to include emotion and aesthetics as well as reason, but even at it’s most expansive, cognition is limited. Which is a good thing. Science is limited too - it’s importance is precisely due to the fact that it’s a limited perspective that claims universal applicability. Cognition has a wider angled lens than science. With any luck it has some applicability too. Let’s see.

Talking about applicability, what phenomena are ripe for cognitive analysis? The map of the cognitive terrain is yet to be drawn, but let me mention a couple of directions. Consider the phenomenon of elite disenfranchisement - the widespread belief amongst white people in the west or upper caste Hindus in India that they are victims of a massive conspiracy. Where do such beliefs come from? How are they aggregated and turned into political platforms? What role does technology play in turning grievance into electoral retribution?

There’s no shortage of scholars investigating these questions; some approach them as political scientists, others as psychologists and yet others through ethnographic studies. I believe cognition, broadly construed, is the thread connecting these disparate research agendas. It’s only through cognitive studies that we can understand how forwarded rumors on WhatsApp lead to lynchings in India or how democrats rather than republicans have made Russia into public enemy number one. Most importantly, cognition is both abstract and concrete, partaking in both the digital and the physical. In fact, it breaks down the old dualisms between nature and society, between mind and matter etc. That too is a good thing. The central developments of our era - climate change, automation, ecological collapse, animal rights - arise at the intersection of information and energy. That’s cognitive territory which can only be explored using cognitive tools.

You will see some of these tools in action as I discuss the climate of our times in future essays. Let me correct that statement: cognitive studies will be incorporated into every newsletter for the foreseeable future; my goal is to say something useful about topics of wide interest . With that in mind, I am hiving off the technical material - such as the vatman series - into separate writing projects. Progress on those projects will be mentioned in this newsletter.

That’s what I thinking. You may think differently. Please tell me if you do!