The Self, the Field, and the Logic of Uncertainty: A Talk with Roy Ascott
Roy Ascott is an artist, theorist, and educator who has pioneered and instigated countless investigations at the nexus of art, technology, and consciousness for five decades. His unorthodox approach to arts education, beginning with the radical Groundcourse in the 1960s, has been influential worldwide. His provocative essays about the implications of the convergence of telecommunications, computing, and biological technologies on the evolution of identity, aesthetics, and perception can be found in Telematic Embrace: Visionary Theories of Art, Technology, and Consciousness. Ascott is currently the President of the Planetary Collegium, an international transdisciplinary network researching the practice and theory of new media art.
DM: I want to start off discussing how many dichotomies are breaking down. Can you talk about your concept of “technoetic culture” and how it’s affecting the move beyond East/West and North/South dualistic distinctions between mind and matter, object and process, and self and other?
RA: Well with the word "technoetic," I’m combining techne - in the fullest sense of the word of art, technique, technical procedure, and so on, and noetic from noûs - mind or consciousness. So I’m interested in the way in which there is a relationship between mind and technology and consciousness and perhaps in the way that technology changes consciousness - as well as the way that consciousness has affected technology development.
I’m not simply talking about 21st-century technology, computers, and engineering - I’m also talking about very precise technologies that earlier cultures have used in so far as they’re accessible to us. And particularly the technologies that are intended to enable a mind to explore itself or to explore the regions that it inhabits. I have in mind from my own experience the use of plants, particularly Ayahuasca, as it’s used in the urban setting in Brazil and as it’s used in the forests of Brazil; not quite the same thing, in the sense that in the forest it’s used as a healing agent and a knowledge source. It’s rather like digging deep into a databank to retrieve knowledge.
In fact, the shaman says that to see the knowledge that he seeks, he will meet with entities who enable him to understand the problem of whatever it is he’s consulting on. So there is a world that the shaman inhabits – he describes it as existing in entities and as the journeys he has to take to get to that knowledge. In the urban setting it’s used - perhaps not quite so precisely - to enable users to have a religious experience or a more philosophical understanding of the world and of themselves and the ability to actually move through other fields of consciousness. We don’t have the vocabulary to describe it, but it’s very real. So my interest has very much been to bring these two cultures together because I think there’s an enormous amount to be learned yet about the chemistry of the mind. This is what has to be looked at. This is what I mean by technoetics.
Now in the course of one’s study of that, it becomes more and more apparent out of personal experience and observing what’s happening commercially in the world that the sense of self is under extreme consideration. First of all, one does experience a different sense of self with Ayahuasca, for example. But it is also possible to understand the self, particularly in the sense of memory and recall and location, through simply using a computer, especially in engagement with the metaverse, where there really is an extensive play with self. It’s certainly one of the principal challenges and forms of entertainment of people in Second Life that one can become many selves. And I think the issue of the self is where we can locate the differences and the potential for interaction between Eastern and Western ideas. This is because, broadly speaking, the Western tradition sees itself as impermeable, fixed, and in some instances a "given" at birth, and in others a kind of "learned" self. But it’s not very mutable – it’s certainly not meant to be multiplied or divided. In fact, we get very concerned about the so-called "divided" self. And of course a great deal of money has been spent over the past 80 or 90 years by people trying to become “whole,” as the mantra goes. This idea of a unified self, it seems to me, is the least desirable form of self we could want.
You mean in the context of psychotherapy?
Exactly. And we treat schizophrenia as a disease. I mean we do know that there are consequences for what we describe as schizophrenia that lead to rather tragic experiences in life. But we also know that we all live in a schizophrenic state, which is exhilarating and is absolutely necessary, particularly if you’re involved in any sort of creative activity. Or even as lawyers - you know - their ability to see three or four or five sides of an issue. So the question of the self is all-important. We do have this model, this idea of the self – one that was particularly reinforced in the 19th century, just as learning was brought in, to teach the common people to read, write, and add. It has to do with the idea of the module, the industrial unit - that you could move around politically or you could move around corporately. How do you pigeonhole people? How do you fix them? How do you control them?
Since the early 20th-century discoveries in physics, particularly Heisenberg’s observations, the idea of the immutable “objective observer” has encountered a fundamental crisis within Western science. So much of the reflexive questioning of knowledge ironically sprung from the depths of its own pursuits. The further we try to divide reality into something that can be quantified, we more we uncover the intimate connection between the act of perception and the object of perception. I’m curious how you see this affecting the contemporary perception the self and the processes we’re going through now.
Well, when we say “we” in this, we have to draw some distinction between those that have been enabled to pursue the consequences of these discoveries and those who are highly restricted. We know that physicists don’t follow through with the consequences of quantum science, and often live in total denial of the metaphysical implications. Though they prove it on a daily basis in terms of instrumentation and experiments, they are often at the same time led to deny the metaphysics that flow from it.
More than that, if we get back to this question of the self, and it’s in permeability and extendedness, which I would describe in the broadest of terms as the model of the self in the East, then we see the way that field theory was developed in the early part of the 20th century. This allowed for an understanding not just of the self but of the material world in relation to forces and fields. Field theory proved to be extremely useful in the understanding of the human organism. But in the 1930s after a great deal of experimentation had taken place, with new ideas and models of organicism coming forth, molecular biology stepped in and - bang - back to materialism. It just sort of cleaned the whole thing out.
Thereafter, all research grants went into that very materialist model of the body. And it was hugely successful within certain limited domains of the physical. The whole research into field theory was more or less jettisoned. It was forgotten, and has only been revived in recent decades. It seems to me that it’s there that a great deal of our attention should be focused, both in terms of electromagnetic fields, or what we would call physical fields, and beyond that the very metaphor of field in terms of psychic relationships.
Are you referring to the research of Rupert Sheldrake?
Well, that would be one. I’m thinking particularly of Fritz-Albert Popp. There is a superb description of the value of field theory and its understanding of consciousness, and particularly a kind of connected consciousness, by the Hungarian astrophysicist Attila Grandpierre. I find his description of what constitutes a field extremely illuminating and extremely useful as a way of defining consciousness. He sees consciousness as a sort of universal field property. Fritz-Albert Popp’s interest is in the communicative, you could almost say the cybernetic, function of photons in the body. He talks about biophotons and the way that DNA molecules signal to each other, so to speak, how the steady state of the body is maintained through a sort of signaling system of photons being emitted from molecules. He shows how one can measure both the quantity and frequency of the emission of photons to indicate the presence of an incipient tumor for example. He has developed equipment enabling the observation of biophotons.
You mentioned Sheldrake, and we could identify other models of what constitutes, as a whole, the move towards a new kind of field theory. This would, in a way, replace reductionist, materialist theory - but there are many ways of apprehending that and defining it. I would say field theory is of our time. It’s going to enable us to deal with the new, complex questions of self and consciousness that are arising.
What strikes me is that within our model of the universe, we understand that we are traveling at incredible speeds all the time. The illusion that we have of this static reality is really generated by gravitational fields, by our atmosphere, by the fact that we simply cannot perceive we’re moving at hundreds, if not thousands, of miles per second through space. When we can visualize this, it seems that we can break out of many of the assumptions that we’ve had for so long, because of the relativistic illusions of space and time.
I think there’s a lot for us to investigate, though it probably won’t be by any Western method of investigation. What is actually happening in these other fields of consciousness? Who is there? Of course it’s very vivid when you’re there – in a way like a dream – but when you’re not in that state, it’s very often difficult to recall the specificity of the experience. What goes there? Where is there? I think these are things we’ve chosen not to examine. The extent to which Western technology might help us to do that is another question. In the same way that we have an array of devices for measuring the body within hospitals, I can imagine an array of technologies that will enable us to understand what is happening to the self in these other sorts of spaces that Ayahuasca, synthetic drugs, and other types of approaches give us access to.
There are Tibetan Buddhist meditation practices that involve attempting to pinpoint the discursive mental voice that is so frequently associated with the “self.” Of course the epiphany occurs when that little voice which we are so accustomed to claiming - the “I am here” - can’t be found. You say that technologies might help to pinpoint or visualize what’s happening with the self, but what if this analytical voice - this “monkey mind” – is all there is?
When I’m talking about the self I’m talking about a focal point – a moving point that is in another space. At the moment there is a sort of ownership attached to that, as you’re implying, in Western thought. At the same time, what’s interesting now within new media technologies is that there’s an opportunity to play with the self, to divide the self, to multiply the self, to have many selves, and I think that’s another area that technoetic culture will explore. I see a great desire in people to be more than one self, and I think you find this struggle in any part of society that has been liberated from the daily grind. If you look back at aristocratic society, you’ll find a great deal of interest in how the self can be constructed.
I think we’re sitting on the edge of a very interesting situation in which the self can be constructed, in which many selves can be constructed, and many histories can be built. The questions will then be: How can we account for the evolving consciousness of these selves? Will there be such a consciousness? Or will the self disappear? We must then talk about sheer awareness, sheer experience in multi-faceted forms.
These developments seem to me to suggest that a complete re-thinking of the nature of mind is not just possible but perhaps is imminent. Now whether the Buddhist model of the self, or absence of self, is going to be useful or not, I don’t know. I think it probably will be, though I’m not well versed in it. Certainly it’s clear we’ll be reaching out beyond Western philosophy and metaphysics to embrace very ancient fields of knowledge, from the realm, for example, of Vedic thought in which the many selves are portrayed within the iconography. The more we examine these other modes of thought, the more of a chance there is these new technologies can be really understood. For far too long we’ve neglected all of these other practices from Africa, South America, and the Far East to pursue this very narrow, controlling, Western metaphysic. I simply don’t know enough about Eastern religions as a whole to be able to sort out from all of their complexity where value will be found, though I assume value will be found there. Our scholars, and ultimately our scientists, will no doubt begin to look there after a major breakdown in the efficacy of Western thought and our approaches to engineering the material world.
Similar to Buckminster Fuller’s idea of “emergence through emergency”?
Precisely. But how all of that relates to 2012 and whether the Mayans knew a thing or two, I don’t know! Certainly we can be encouraged to believe that we are moving very quickly towards something momentous. When you think of the array of scientists and research grants which have gone into understanding the environment, only to find that the whole world is taken by surprise at the speed of the warming of the oceans, clearly we’re headed for a crisis.
I’d like to address your concept of the Three VRs: Validated, Virtual, and Vegetal Reality. How do you think these modalities are informing or perhaps even merging with each other? And how do more endogenous states, such as those induced through meditative practice, fit into this framework?
I invoke the concept of syncretism in trying to understand how this operates. In Western thought we’ve sought balance and certainty through a habitual approach to perception – the validated reality – in which cause and effect have predictable and reliable outcomes. And then we have virtual reality – the environments in which the possibility exists of action and thought to break the constraints of the physical world that we have actually created out of habit. If you can break the habit, you’ll have a new reality. Of course this is present within many Eastern practices, but our way has been to do with this technologically-mediated virtual reality. And thirdly, there’s the vegetal reality that appears to be non-causal and completely out of our control; we don’t have the language to describe the relationship between one’s consciousness, the self, and whatever happens to the self, and what it inhabits. Whether indigenous cultures have that vocabulary, I have no idea. I suspect that there probably is another discourse that shamans employ, but I have no access to that.
The closest understanding probably being Jeremy Narby’s work.
Of course, his ideas related DNA and consciousness. So there we have this array of experiential fields, so to speak. If there would be an evolution of consciousness, I think it will lie in our ability to move seamlessly between these worlds of the three VRs. In this way, we should not stand for philosophers or scientists telling us that “this is how it is – these are the limitations on being human.” We will make sure that we can construct worlds in which we can do what our consciousness is leading us to want to do, which is to relate more intimately to the level of mind and even physically to move around the Universe in other sorts of ways.
So do you see the post-biological apparatuses that we’ve developed to allow us to conceive of phenomena beyond our unaided perceptions within validated reality to be an evolutionary step? We seem to be externalizing these technologies in order to expand our own conscious awareness.
Evolution is such a loaded word. Emergence, happenstance – there may even be teleology at work. It may be that the whole thing is set down in some peculiar way. I’m very wary about adopting any Western orthodoxy where consciousness is concerned because we have ignored it for so long. As for the East I have no idea now – we possibly have a romanticized idea of that as well. But I do know through direct experience and studying the accounts of others that plant technology does transform consciousness in particularly notable ways.
Similarly, we’re on the edge of realizing nanotechnology tools. I hate to mention it since it’s almost become a mantra before it’s been realized. But the potential consequences of nanotechnology are absolutely immense. I find great hope in the fact that a nanotechnology scientist like Jim Gimzewski has a view of the technology that he deals with that is extremely enlightened. His position is Buddhist, and he understands that he’s dealing with forces and fields of a completely different order of thought than that of the materialist society that gave rise to this new science.
Of course any investigation into and dissection of materiality eventually leads to these other sets of relationships, these other fields and flows, which we call the quantum world. What is it that stops the material scientists from going deeper? What I think is beautiful about the thinking of Jim Gimzewski is this ability to understand that he’s dealing with something that is both utterly material, with material consequences, and utterly immaterial at the same time.
The Romanian quantum physicist Basarab Nicolescu argues in his Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity that scientists need to acknowledge these multiple levels of reality, but that this act requires fundamentally transforming the dominant logic models of Western science. It requires moving beyond the mutually exclusive, non-paradoxical model in which all contradictions must be resolved.
That of course also applies to the self. This sums up what I have to say about mind, identity, and so on. It’s not going to be multiple in the sense of: Here’s Jack, here’s Jill, here’s Mary, and here’s me. There’s a whole complexity of relationships which uncertainty covers, rather than the certainty that we’ve always strived for in Western culture.
So it sounds like the 21st century will be a time to become comfortable with the logic of uncertainty.
That’s rather a nice way to put. We’ve come full circle!
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