a research practice working at the intersection of architecture, technology, art and ecological pedagogy

Rheomode and Aesthetics; Towards a Science of Consciousness

I will be giving a paper at the forthcoming Towards a Science of Consciousness conference to be held in Stockholm in May. My paper is titled: Rheomode and Aesthetics: Towards An Ecological Cybernetics Of Mind. These conferences are legendary (this is the eighteenth), and they bring together an exceptionally wide group of disciplines, beliefs and practices. I attended my first last April in Tucson, and was delayed there with many others by the Iceland volcano. I meet neurologists and philosophers, quantum physicists and psychologists, AI researchers and Buddhists, artists and synaesthetes, including quantum consciousness theorist Stuart Hammeroff, artists Robert Pepperell and John Jupe, roboticist Riccardo Manzotti, neuropsychologist Henrik Ehrsson.

I am looking forward to the coming event, notably Henrik Ehrsson (of Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute, producing fascinating work on how we have a sense of owning a body), Roger Penrose (mathematician and theoretical physicist), Paavo Pylkkanen (philosopher and leading scholar on physicist David Bohm) and Stuart Hameroff (quantum consciousness theorist) among others.

My paper proposal:

Rheomode and Aesthetics: Towards An Ecological Cybernetics Of Mind

The quantum physicist David Bohm suggested that many of the contradictions and paradoxes that arise when we try to formulate accurate descriptions of both matter and mind, arise from the structures of everyday western language, and the ideology of modern reductive scientific method. For Bohm, western languages privilege nouns, and construct for us a perceived world of discrete subjects and objects. Our language obscures the fundamentally dynamic and interconnected process based nature of reality.

Bohm imagined a new verb-based form of language, which he called the rheomode (from the Greek flow). He hoped this might make it easier for us to see and conceive of a dynamic unfolding wholeness. In this thinking, Bohm was influenced by two philosophical schools: Whiteheadian process thought, and Hegelian-Marxist dialectics. Bohm suggested that if it were possible to reformulate quantum theory in rheomodic terms, it might move beyond the paradoxes that characterised the standard interpretation: indeterminacy, non-locality, wave-particle duality, the role of the conscious observer etc.

Describing the internal relations of an unfolding dynamic system does not just re-imagine matter. Bohm insisted that rheomodic thought necessarily redefines the other half of that old dualism: mind, or consciousness. He described his holistic account as “more quantum organism than quantum mechanics”, and in his process based concepts such as “active information”, “implicate ordering” and “holomovement”, mind and matter are radically and mutually enfolded; this thinking resonates with panpsychic, hylozoic and radical externalist approaches.

Bohm’s joint work with David Peat developed new conceptions of order and creativity that had as much to do with aesthetics as they did with science. In this paper I will extend this line of thinking, and suggest that new rheomodic approaches can be found within some art and design based research, specifically a series of experimental projects associated with the work of neocyberneticians Gregory Bateson, Stafford Beer and Gordon Pask. In his recent The Cybernetic Brain, Andrew Pickering argues that in their work “cybernetics drew back the veil the modern sciences cast over the performative aspects of the world, including our own being” and through “hylozoic wonder” and “nomadic science” staged a “a vision of a world.. in which reality is always ‘in the making’.”

Although most contemporary neurological research tries to reduce correlates of consciousness to ever smaller elements, as Alva Nöe has noted, “the phenomenon of consciousness, like that of life itself, is a world-involving dynamic process,” which must have “external correlates” too. As Bateson argued, cognition is a radically ecological “system whose boundaries do not at all coincide with the boundaries either of the body or of what is popularly called the ‘self’ or ‘consciousness’.”

At TSC Tucson 2010, several speakers proposed to explore new unification models, to bring together insights from recent neurological, psychological and philosophical research. I suggest that without a renewed (and necessarily political) appreciation of Bohm’s rheomode, and the development of a language of dynamic ecological aesthetics, such a task is impossible. Indeed, in an important sense, the project of a ‘science of consciousness’ is impossible without a dialectical aesthetics and politics of mind (and matter).

Filed under: ecology, research

5 Responses

  1. JSJohnson says:

    Fascinating, and looking forward to further study of your work. Best description I’ve read relating to the deeper structure of natural order, a structure generally ignored by the materialist perspective of science that assumes the structure implied by reduction ends with physics. What is ignored is the fact that before the first (and all subsequent) erg of energy is expressed (big bang?) it is constrained by a particular subjective quality (Noether’s theorem). The quality is symmetry, which science interprets as conservation law. But particulars are always expressions of a deeper, more inclusive constraint (abstract). Our naturally selected neural faculties tell us that that symmetry is a particular of aesthetics; the same neural faculties that guide our more constructive choices. It is rather obvious that such neural faculties are integral and essential to the larger cosmic creative process.

    To me, one most relevant and enlightening work on this was Julian Jaynes’ “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.” He describes the constructive effect of emerging language on our earlier animal nature resulting in a ‘Golden Age,’ a guileless constructive period guided by hallucinated voices (of leaders) until mass migrations and resulting wars naturally selected emergent (modern) subjective conscious mind with its guile and doubt. It also resulted in the emergence of the several monotheistic religions as nostalgia for the hallucinated voices of the ‘gods,’ now fallen silent. The results enabled the rise of science and pursuit of objective means. As Jaynes points out, what was unique about the several emergent religions of that time was that virtually all subscribed to the Golden Rule; a symmetry principle if ever there was one, giving most constructive direction to human choice. Again, all things considered, it seems apparent that the deepest, most fundamental reality of all existence is Subjective. The objective physical, stars, planets, bodies, etc, are but contrived means to a reasonable, constructive, challenging and sustainable purpose. As a first approximation to a theory of all (TOA), in the most elemental terms, we might model the larger creative cosmic process as – not just a meaningless burst of energy but —

    The Eternal Subject on a journey from eternal sameness into eternal novelty, where novelty is not possible without the perceptions of the Subject Agent being constrained by the imposed limits of time and space amid the endless wonders and challenges of the boundless contrived theater of the physical

  2. monnoo says:

    I always find it astonishing that people forget about the simple fact that they are using a language. Cybernetics as well as any kind of dialectics (Hegel, Marx, Adorno) suffers from this neglect. The result is (mostly) nonsense.
    Due that forgetfulness with respect to language, people get “bewitched” by the language (Wittgenstein). It’s a shame that apparently only a few people known his thoughts.

    • jongoodbun says:

      David Bohm of course referred to Wittgenstein on precisely this point on several occasions. Much systems theory can neglect this, as you say, though certainly not the more reflexive and humanities based forms, such as Gregory Bateson (who also refers to LW on this), or indeed someone like Gordon Pask. It is probably fair to say that Hegel and Marx – writing prior to Wittgenstein – do not explicitly think through this issue, though.
      To say that it is “astonishing” that people forget this is a bit of a “bewitched” thought itself though, as of course the whole point is that we construct ourselves and our world through language, and are on on the inside of what Jameson describes as the “prison-house”!

      • monnoo says:

        Bohm was right in critizing language which refers to subjects and object in the first place. Streesing the verb, rheomode as he calls it, introduces the relation as the primary “element”, which is a step forward. This step arose in a number of disciplines between (roughly) 1900 and 1960.
        Yet, the concept of the rheomode cannot heal the problem. We still are inside language (but NOT as a prison… things are more abstract), and language is not directly responsible for paradoxes, I mean in this “phemonological” manner… just getting rid of objects in language, everything will be ok? No, certainly not. The issue is a different one.
        By “Forgetting to speak” I refer to LW PI $201, where he stresses the point of the “necessity” of regulating the rule-following. Conventions are not a simple thing, as thinking, too. Where do you think? Just in your brain? Certainly not. Since meaning is not a mental entity. Rheomode cannot evade here. It is even not possible at all to “implement” it. You cannot change the language in a way to avoid paradoxes, and you would have to change the whole culture (Lebensform, form of life)

        It is ok to emphasize that there is no such thing as a single mind (as Varela implicitly claims). yet, I think the notion of “Ecological Cybernetics” is transferring us into a very inconvenient area. I do not deny that we can think of “information flowing around”, and also not that we can observe (within the limits of our theories & models) kind of influences. But both, information and causality are concepts. There *is* no such thing like information, or causality. Its language games. I also do not deny that there is surroundings of individual *brains”.
        Yet, I would deny that the world is near to anything to which we could assign the label function. Without function, no cybernetics. Cybernetics, regardless the order you take it, requires an instance setting the goal BY DEFINITION. Similarly, it does not help to take it ecologically

        Where do paradoxes (e.g. in QM, or sociology, or math [eg Cantor, Tarski, etc.]) arise from? From an abuse of language games. In QM it is measurement. Measurement is pretending to be be able to observe independently, but in QM we cannot (Heisenberg). We leave the realm of “causality” and enter the realm of “information” (see Schrödinger eq). If we use a device which acts on the same “scale” as the entity intended to observe, we find the breakdown of measurement. We are not measuring any more, but we pretend to do so. Extending the QM formalism to the universe does not help, because it is not a physical or conceptual problem. It is a problem with concepts. We need them, but we cannot determine them. Inversely, we need models, but we cannot determine them independently from conventions and concepts. We are back in language again.

  3. Melissa V. says:

    Hello Jon! wonderful blog. I am very interested on this article. I am a designer and was very interested on what you said about new rheomodic approaches being found within some art and design based research’. Did you ever publish the paper you referred to on this article? 🙂 I would love to read some more! Thank you very much!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: