Cognitive Technology? What?

Years ago, my doctoral advisor advised me to think of a quick definition for use in casual conversation, a response to a question like , “Flaneur? What is that? A fancy French pastry?” Much as I was tempted to leave it at that, I normally countered with a quick and bland explanation that “This was a solitary stroller in a 19th-century urban metropolis.”  This was an efficient enough response, but it generally left doubters wondering just how I got paid (through fellowships and such) to write on such a thing.

Now that I’ve updated my general thesis about flanerie as a cognitive technology, I have to be ready again. Using a French term is bad enough, but getting science-y  means that many’s an encounter will feature a quick change of subject.

Hope not.

Let’s start with the most basic translation of the word technology: The Greek term, technología, combines the concept of téchnē, meaning “art, skill, craft”, and  logia meaning “study of-.” Fair enough. The term implies the study of useful arts, which would seem a pedestrian occupation for authors and artists, but was actually a preoccupation of the pre-industrial and industrial age.  Science was formerly a gentleman’s pursuit, but applied science was connected with many less savory things such as the “Satanic mills”  of capitalism, the pauperization of the poor, and various other phenomena that caused much consternation.

However, there are other ways to think of technology, since not all tools are bad.  Factories and steam engines are inhuman, as the philosopher Bernard Stiegler famously put it, “organized inorganic matter.” In many ways, the salvation of the human spirit and the sanity of man could be found if naturally occurring human tools could be leveraged.  Reason, vision, and emotion were available to every man, woman, and child, if the proper method could be found to use them properly.

Foucault’s “technologies of self”  would cover these aims. In his “The History of Sexuality” he conceived the idea in the concept of the self-abnegation practiced by the early Christians. However, it’s clear he felt the idea could be applied much more broadly. He explains:

As a context, we must understand that there are four major types of these “technologies,” each a matrix of practical reason: (I) technologies of production, which permit us to produce, transform, or manipulate things; (2) technologies of sign systems, which permit us to use signs, meanings, symbols, or signification; (3) technologies of power, which determine the conduct of individuals and submit them to certain ends or domination, an objectivizing of the subject; (4) technologies of the self, which permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform  themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality. (From Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault, 1988

The goals of technology #4 might seem hopelessly romantic for the difficult task of surviving industrialization. But by combining the old mechanical concept of technology with this one, it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to apply it to the many 19th century projects to reconcile art and general humanity with industry and capitalism. The skills and tools to solve cultural and individual crises were promoted in almost every society. The nomadic optic was championed by a select group of aesthetic thinkers who knew about such things. This is not to say that any of them had a clear idea of what cognition would be in the modern sense. But their instinct about the crucial role of vision and the manipulation thereof, was, by modern standards, spot on.


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