Becoming Beside Ourselves by Brian Rotman (2008)

This is one of a trilogy, which includes Rotman’s writings on the semiotics of zero and on infinity and the illusion of the disembodied Agent.

Timothy Lenoir’s introduction references Andy Clark, who I’m going to be looking at, Stanlislas Dehaene, ditto, Peirce (of course) and Deleuze & Guattari. He talks about symbolic communication in early humans and the power of symbolic reference because of its three attributes of virtuality, shared deployment and externality.

Rotman begins by discussing different sorts of ‘I’ – such as a spirit evoked by the spoken I, as opposed to the more embodied gestural I (see also written and virtual).

Chapter One focuses on gesture and language, and the secondary status given to gesture and sign languages. Think of those mind-body dualities we’re so used to, one definitely privileged over the other. He talks about emblems, gesticulation and prosody (p. 17-26) introducing ideas, metalingual glosses, showing what the speaker deems most salient. Writing loses most of that – loses the body! He describes that as possibly requiring a “neocortical override of the midbrain”.

In Chapter Two he briefly discusses Lakoff & Nunez and then moves on to “more directly empirical” studies such as Nemirovsky and Ferrera (2004  – must check these out), and then on to Merleau-Ponty and Chatelet (“the concept of gesture seems to us crucial in our approach to the amplifying abstraction of mathematics”). He makes the point that the obsession with foundations (poor Russell) was a move away from the body. Chatelet compares diagram and gesture to metaphor – this is great! He suggests that in fact the mathematical ‘Platonic Realm’ could in fact be a memory of the body…

Rotman moves on to Gesturo-Haptic Writing (p. 39) and digital technology, and then notating vs. capturing – writing as “a-symbolic mediation – a direct sampling or capture rather than a coded representation”, indexical, like a dictaphone. He talks about abstract expressionism and motion capture.

INTERLUDE – Technologised Mathematics (p.57)

Rotman asks whether, unlike alphabetic writing, electronic mathematical writing might have paradoxical, de-virtualising effects…? He describes the mathematician as an assemblage of entities as in “..semiotics of mathematics” and notes the effect of the computer on the possibilities of the Agent, and the implications of this: local – machine reasoning (p. 62), and global – simulation not proof (p. 64). He suggests that a more empirical mathematics frees the Person of the burden of proof and so opens up other ways of mathematical thought or activity.

Four: Parallel Selves – parallel and serial

…technological media constitute subjects and reshape psyches in particular, medium-specific, directions.

Narrative is serial, presentation is parallel.

Mathematics is an entire subject organised around and predicated on the serial/parallel opposition. (p. 85)

He talks about correspondence and succession in forming the numbers – ordinal and cardinal. He examines Western classical music, arithmetic, and infinite sets (p. 86-87) and describes the computer as a simulacrum of the Agent (p. 90). He discusses text and the monad, and digital image manipulation, and the effect these have on a sense of self (very interesting but I’m short on time to really get into this now).

Five – Ghost Effects. Here Rotman returns to the question of the different Is evoked in different media and the relationships between them.


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