Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Reading :: Writing as Material Practice

Writing as Material Practice
Edited by Kathryn E. Piquette and Ruth D. Whitehouse

I ran into this 2013 collection in 2019. It's a free download, so I dropped it into Google Drive, and finally got to it -- er. maybe early 2021? It's a blur.

In any case, it grew out of a 2009 archaeology conference focused on understanding writing as material practice. I'm not an archaeologist by any means, but I'm very interested in understanding the material practice of writing as it developed, so I approached this collection as an interested outsider.

In Piquette and Whitehouse's "Introduction: Developing an approach to writing as material practice," they explain the book's focus: "This book grapples with the issue of writing and related graphical modes as forms of material culture. The diverse case studies are unified and underpinned by the notion that writing is fundamentally material — that it is preceded by and constituted through the material practices of human practitioners" (p.1). They add that "The term ‘material’ is conceptualised in variable ways in the volume’s chapters, but overall it refers to the stuff on which writing appears, and for additive techniques that which physically constitutes written marks" (p.3). 

The examples come from different places and times. For instance, in "The Twisting Paths of Recall: Khipu (Andean cord notation) as artifact," Frank Salomon discusses how "Khipu had a brief, spectacularly productive heyday as the official medium of the Inka state (established some time during the 15th century ce until 1532 ce)" (p.15) -- lucidly describing how they work, noting that they are actually pre-Inca (p.21) and possibly trace back to 1000 BCE (p.22), and describing their use into the colonial era at least up to 1600 CE (p.22). In fact, colonists first relied on them, then accepted them in courts, then required them (p.23). They are still used in some Andean areas. Salomon adds that "Inka administration itself relied on widespread khipu competence available throughout rural society, and not on a restricted clique of experts" -- but "I argue that khipus functioned as operational devices or simulators, and not as fixed texts" (p.30). 

What does that mean? In contemporary usage, "It acts as a visual image symbolizing all the data (knot) which will be resolved (unknotted) at the assembly. At the end of the meeting, the khipu is not re-cabled but rather carried to its home unbound, signaling the resolution of data" (p.32). And importantly, these khipu are not read alone, but together (p.35). 

Another interesting chapter was "Saving on Clay: The Linear B practice of cutting tablets" by Helena Tomas, in which the author investigates how clay tablets in the Aegean Bronze Age show signs of being cut down to save on materials. "Although many types of clay sealings were used for recording this administrative business, the clay tablet is the most prominent document type in Linear A and Linear B, whereas in Cretan Hieroglyphic it is present only in small quantities" (p.176). But they were not trying to save on clay per se: "since clay is not a particularly scarce substance

in Greece, saving was probably not the main motivation behind the practice of cutting tablets. A more likely aim appears to be a reduction of the size of tablets, and consequently of their weight, in order to economise on the space needed for their storage (for the maximum of one year, as numerous studies have shown)" (p.180). For most tablets, all we know for sure is that they were usually not stored on the ground floor. The exception tells us a lot: the "Archives Complex of Pylos, thanks to its placement on the ground floor. Here more than 1000 tablets were stored, probably on wooden shelves ... . The small size of the two archive-rooms and the construction of the shelves, possibly not fit for a heavy load, may have required strict removal of superfluous clay on tablets" (p.180). And: "The transport of tablets within the palace may have also required removal of unused clay. It has been suggested that tablets were transported in wicker baskets on top of which clay labels were pressed. These labels had no string that would attach them to the baskets, but were simply pressed against them while the clay was still moist, so traces of wickerwork are visible on their backs" (p.180). 

The author also notes incisions across some tablets and speculates that these were where tablets could be snapped in half (p.183). 

Other chapters are intriguing too. For instance, in "Straight, Crooked and Joined-up Writing: An early Mediterranean view," Alan Johnston considers "the extent to which writing surfaces, rather than other considerations, may be seen to have influenced the appearance of text in the early centuries of alphabetic writing in the Mediterranean world" (p.193). And in "Written Greek but Drawn Egyptian: Script changes in a bilingual dream papyrus," Stephen Kidd describes an account that switches between two writing systems: this case "helps one to begin to think of language in more material terms, and language-shifts not as purely cerebral events, but as events interconnected with physical practices and the memories of such practices. For the Greco-Egyptian of Ptolemaios’ day, the processes of writing Greek and Egyptian were highly different — while Greek was ‘written’, Egyptian was ‘painted’ — and so Ptolemaios, in his language shift, was not just choosing between two different languages, but between what were usually two very different practices of writing" (p.245). 

Again, I'm no archaeologist, so I can't provide a good evaluation of this work. But the collection makes fascinating reading. If you are also interested in the materiality of writing, definitely take a look. 

Friday, May 21, 2021

Reading :: Becoming Human

Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny
By Michael Tomasello

Recently I reviewed Tomasello's earlier book The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. This present book comes a couple of decades later (2019) and is a capstone on Tomasello's work as Co-Director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (1998-2018) as well as his previous work. In this research, he compared how humans develop during the first seven years of life, comparing them with other primates (chimpanzees and bonobos). Rather than focusing on evolution, he focused on development, and the results suggest eight developmental pathways that differentiate us from other primates: "social cognition, communication, cultural learning, cooperative thinking, collaboration, prosociality, social norms, and moral identity" (from the blurb on the back of the book). In all of these, other primates have rudimentary abilities, but our capacity for shared intentionality transforms these abilities into our uniquely human characteristics of cognition and sociality.

In Chapter 1, Tomasello says he is working within a neo-Vygotskian framework: "uniquely human forms of cognition and sociality emerge in human ontogeny through, and only through, species-unique forms of sociocultural activity." It is neo-Vygotskian because it places "human sociocultural activity within the framework of modern evolutionary theory," thus "seeking to identify the ways in which humans are biologically prepared for engaging in their unique forms of sociocultural activity" (pp.6-7). In doing so, he develops an ontogenetic account that "invokes three sets of processes that together construct particular developmental pathways": 

  1. "the ontogeny of human cognitive and social uniqueness is structured by the maturation of children's capacities for shared intentionality," starting with "joint intentionality at around nine months of age" and leading to "the emergence of collective intentionality at around three years of age" (p.8)
  2. "children's unique experiences, especially their sociocultural experiences," including two crucial ones: "interactions with knowledgeable and authoritative adults, who provide key experiences relevant to the transmitive dimension of culture" and "interactions with coequal peers, who constitute especially challenging partners for social and mental coordination in collaboration and communication, thus providing key experiences relevant to the coordinative dimension of culture" (p.8)
  3. "humans' various forms of self-regulation" (p.8): following Vygotsky's Mind in Society, Tomasello claims that "many aspects of human cognitive and social uniqueness result from the special ways in which children attempt to executively self-regulate their thoughts and actions not just individually, as do many primates, but also socially through thir constant monitoring of the perspectives and evaluations of social partners on the self" (pp.8-9). He notes that "Again age three is key" because "before age three, children's executive regulation is individual, as other primates'," but "after age three, children begin to socially self-monitor their communicative attempts to see if they are comprehensible and rational to others, and they begin to socially self-monitor the impression they are making on others so as to maintain their cooperative identity in the group"  and they "also *collaboratively* self-regulate their cooperative interactions with others" (p.9). Thus they can make both joint commitments with others and implicit collective commitments to group norms (p.9). 

In Chapter 2, "Evolutionary Foundations," Tomasello reviews some of the things we know about human evolution. Based on his comparison of humans and other primates, he postulates what we know about the last common ancestor (LCA):

Cognition: He discusses the fact that great apes possess "an understanding of others as intentional agents," probably "developed in the context of [competitive] foraging" (p.12), but they do not possess "humanlike skills of shared intentionality, such as the ability to participate in the thinking of others through joint attention, conventional communication, and pedagogy" (p.13). 

Sociality: "cooperation was grounded in competition," such as when hunting, in which each primate must "take account of the actions and intentions of others" in order to compete to capture the game (p.13). 

Executive regulation: Although the LCA "likely had the ability to self-monitor their own actions and thinking," like other primates, they likely did not "monitor their actions and thinking based on the perspectives and evaluations of others in their social group" (p.14)

Collaboration and joint intentionality: Tomasello gives an evolutionary history here, the upshot of which is that around 400,000 years ago, early humans, probably *Homo heidelbergensis*, "began obtaining the majority of their food through more active collaboration; indeed, the collaboration became obligate" and thus humans were more urgently interdependent (p.15). That meant "strong and active social selection (West-Eberhard 1979) for cooperatively competent and motivated individuals" (p.15). That yielded a "radically new psychological process," which was "joint intentionality based on joint agency .... The creation of a joint agent - while each partner maintains her own individual role and perspective at the same time -- created a completely new human psychology, spawning new forms of both cognition and sociality" (p.15). 

Cognition: These new skills "created a new kind of agent, one in which two distinct individuals, in a sense, perceived and understood the world together while still not losing their own individual perspectives" (p.16). This "created a shared conceptual world" and thus "the pragmatic infrastructure upon which early humans' new skills of cooperative communication could be built" (p.16). These included "socially recursive inferences -- in which the individual conceptually embeds one intentional or mental state within another," yielding "joint intentionality" in which partners could form "a joint goal with joint attention" and thus "perspectival cognitive representations and socially recursive inferences" (pp.16-17).  

Sociality: These humans "were socially selected for collaborative foraging" and thus "had strong cooperative motives" including cooperative goals, sympathy, cooperative rationality leading to a sense of fairness, and "role-specific ideals (for example, in hunting antelopes the chaser must do *x*, and the spearer must do *y*)" (p.17; cf. Leontiev). 

Modern human culture and collective intentionality: Small-scale collaborative foraging was destabilized by "competition with other human groups," leading to a "more tightly knit social group," and increasing population size," leading to "so-called tribal organization" in which smaller social groups split off from larger ones but still shared a "culture," thus necessitating ways to recognize others from one's cultural group (pp.18-19). These led to marking group identity through conforming to social structure, meaning that conventions became critical to survival (p.19). 

Cognition: "The cognitive skills needed for functioning in a cultural group were not just skills of joint intentionality but skills of collective intentionality" (p.19), meaning that individuals could share "common cultural ground" with others they had not met as well as the collective perspective ("a kind of 'objective' perspective, independent of any individual" -- fortified by institutions such as marriages; p.19). Combine those cognitive skills with language and you get arguing cooperatively (i.e., deliberation, although Tomasello doesn't use that term). Individuals assumed an objective view and argued about beliefs and actions, and "by engaging in this process individuals' thinking became organized in a much wider and more reason-based 'web of beliefs,' structured by the group's normative standards of rationality" (p.20). 

Skipping forward to modern humans: "humans' specialized social-cognitive skills are not things added onto the end of ontogeny in adulthood, but rather they emerge relatively early -- sometime before two-and-a-half years of age," and "all other aspects of human cognitive and social development are built on this unique foundation, leading to unique outcomes" (p.28). 

To understand how this ability interacts with skills that vary across human societies (such as riding a bicycle or reading a book), Tomasello draws on Vygotsky's basic distinction between natural skills (developing "through maturationally structured individual learning") and cultural skills ("via imitative learning from others in the culture via adult instruction") (p.34). Thus he presents a typology of learning:

  1. individual learning
  2. observational learning
  3. pedagogical or instructed learning
  4. social co-construction (pp.34-35)

Importantly, in addition to interacting with culturally more advanced individuals such as adults -- Vygotsky's emphasis -- children also learn from interacting with peers. This interaction "who are no more knowledgeable or powerful than they are ... engenders perspective-taking, dialogic thinking, and reciprocity" (p.35). 

In terms of executive self-regulation, children learn normative self-government, which entails self-regulation on the basis of cultural structures or norms (p.38). 

In Chapter 3, "Social Cognition," one insight we learn is that "of all 200+ species of nonhuman primates only humans have highly visible sclera that basically advertise the direction of their eye gaze to others" (p.51)! These sclera thus facilitate joint attention. 

In Chapter 4, "Communication," Tomasello asserts that in ontogeny, children acquire cultural heritage by conforming to expectations around them. One avenue is through grammar: grammar constraints symbolize events from a particular perspective (p.92; cf. Bakhtin). Tomasello also notes that executive self-regulation of discourse yields discursive negotiation (e.g., repairs), and after some experience, children "begin to self-monitor and anticipate when their listener may have difficulties," meaning that "they have internalized the dialogic process and used it to executively self-regulate" (p.122). 

This question of internalization is taken up in Chapter 5, "Cultural Learning." Tomasello argues that "internalization is nothing other than role-reversal imitation used in a flexible way: the child imitates others directing her behavior or, alternatively, imitates herself teaching others, with herself substituted as learner" (p.153). 

In Chapter 6, "Cooperative Thinking," Tomasello notes that "reasons and justifications serve to connect beliefs causally and logically and, in the end, to ground them in the culture's rational norms" (p.161). And as mentioned earlier, "when the more coordinative dimension of cognition is the issue, of special importance are interactions with peers of equal status, to whom the child does not defer," because "the equal status enables them to engage in a true dialogue in which either individual's point of view may potentially prevail, based not on power but on reason" (p.166). 

There's more, much more to this fascinating book, but I'll stop there. If you are at all interested in the questions of social cognition, cooperation, and what makes us human, I highly recommend this book.