Layers of Intentionality and Mirror-ed Stages

July 6, 2007 § 1 Comment

At work this summer on a new media project, “The Hollins Community Project,” made possible initially through an outreach grant from some wonderful researchers at Virginia Tech’s Center for Human Computer Interaction.

The project plays with the boundaries of history, narrative, and place using “marginal” spaces surrounding the Hollins University campus. Just at the edge of campus exist these fascinating physical aggregators of institutional history and its discards and palimpsests — objects, inscriptions, and mappings that sit at the threshold of future/present/past; legitimate/abject; visible/invisible.

The project strives to employ technology in such a way so as not to superimpose gadgetry, but to build a very simple interface and phantom mnemonic that draws attention to the temporal, spatial, and narrative “instituting” of history. To this end, I am involved with some incredibly stimulating conversations with collaborators about structures of technology; absent and present intentions in design; the layering of temporal, spatial, and textual responses; interactions between participants in relation to one another and in relation to the technology…

After a walkthrough at one of the sites today, I went away with Lisa Zunshine on my mind. In “Theory of Mind and Experimental Representations of Fictional Consciousness,” Zunshine talks about the contributions of the new cognitive science to thinking about fictional representation and intentionality in narrative. A focus throughout the introduction is the cognitive “gap” that opens around being able to keep track of more than four levels of intentionality in reading a novel. That is, Zunshine explores how keeping track of the complexity to levels of characters’ intentionality within a novel reaches a crucial threshold at four. Active “mind-reading” of characters (or generating a Theory of Mind in cognitive speak) that reaches beyond four levels becomes a challenge for most contemporary Western readers, according to cognitive research. As Zunshine goes on to explain, this is one explanation for why a writer like Virginia Woolf, and her experimentations with the novel form, make some readers so “uncomfortable:” “Woolf not only ‘demands’ that we process a string of fifth- and sixth-level intentionalities, but she also introduces [complex] embedded intentionalities….”

Zunshine’s research is especially insightful in pointing out how contact between the mind sciences and the humanities is not some throwback to structuralist desires to empiricize the complexity of human creativity and response, but indeed promises to richen the textures of and possibilities to both humanistic and scientific inquiry (her bit on how interdisciplinary interaction between literary studies and cognitive theory could potentially re-figure the very question and concept of “history” is particularly provocative and rich; somewhere between ‘seeing thinking think’ and ‘not seeing the thought of thinking’).

What to leave in, what to leave out, and what to leave open. Some of what will emerge in the process of this piece will come down to the dynamic “intentionality” of the system.

Spinoza, from the third book on Ethics: “No one as yet has determined the limits of the body’s capabilities: that is, nobody as yet has learned from experience what the body can and cannot do….”

And never will (body; nobody; no one; experience?)

and Walter Benjamin, the most mundane moment of storytelling, when we are bored to sleep by the “safety” of the formal structure and mediating rhythm of the “story” itself; a cognitive caesura: a “dream bird that hatches the egg of experience.”


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