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UnthoughtReview - Unthought
The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious
by N. Katherine Hayles
University Of Chicago Press, 2017
Review by Maura Pilotti, PhD
Jul 13th 2017 (Volume 21, Issue 28)

In the book entitled Un-thought: The power of the cognitive non-conscious, written by Katherine N. Hayles, a serious attempt is made to put forth a comprehensive model of the cognitive activities performed by a variety of organisms. The model has three interactive components, which together are to be conceptualized as a dynamic, rather than linear, hierarchy: (a) modes of awareness (including conscious and unconscious processes), (b) non-conscious cognition, and (c) material processes. If the term organism is used loosely to refer to biological and technical autonomous actors (also known as cognizers in the language of the author), then the proposed model has considerable theoretical clarity and empirical utility. In it, the unconscious constituent of modes of awareness refers to an organism's scanning of the environment, within which attention operates and by which events of relevance can be fed to consciousness. The term non-conscious cognition, instead, refers to processes that are largely unavailable to an organism's awareness, but whose contents may occasionally enter consciousness. Not surprisingly, it comprises the important neurological processes that mediate between the frontal cortex and the rest of the body. Lastly, material processes are those that involve neither choice nor decision, both properties of cognition. As such, they may not express much flexibility, adaptability, and evolvability, which are obviously possessed by the other layers, but are nevertheless relevant because they are the foundations upon which all other processes rely.

A large portion of the book is devoted to the author's effort at defining cognition within her tripartite model. She applies her model to a variety of subject matters, including organization and functioning of brain structures and social networks, with particular attention to modeling/simulation of complex systems. Her narrative is interspersed with analyses of fictional creations, scientific works, and artifacts of complex systems. The goal of such narrative seems to be uncovering fundamental similarities of ostensibly different systems and connected realities as well as testing the validity of the proposed model. Applications generally yield support for the model and illustrate its short-term and long-term benefits. Ethical conundrums are also raised and cleverly discussed. In fact, if ethical principles, such as fairness, truthfulness, non-maleficence, and beneficence, are to be protected now and for generations to come, each of the systems and artifacts she analyzes in her multifaceted narrative has consequences that demand consideration.

As a result of the author's fine-grained approach to scientific and literary knowledge, readers are given no choice but to comply with her effort to define, re-define, and further demarcate semantic boundaries in a whirlpool of information that challenges their critical thinking skills and demands a seemingly endless re-structuring of new and already grasped knowledge. Undoubtedly, the book does not ease readers into the issues that are brought up by the author's definitional aims. Often, the wealth of unresolved puzzles offered by the findings of key scientific studies in cognitive psychology, social psychology, and related fields, either receives brief coverage or is mentioned in a concise language that deprives procedures and findings of their power to compel. Hayles's choice of dedicating a considerable amount of her writing to the analysis of some works of science fiction is puzzling. Can the issues that such works raise be more finely elucidated and more precisely captured by works in the peer-reviewed literature of key scientific endeavors? Indeed, one may expect scientific findings, viewed through the lenses of their contribution to current knowledge, including their limitations and the future directions they advocate, to be as attention-grabbing as fictional works, but more compelling because they are grounded in reality.

Readers are literally flooded with precise references to, and keen commentaries on the works of illustrious scholars and writers, all of which are undeniably relevant, but translate into a cold shower for the curious, but less informed readers. Of course, the author's endeavor to share her knowledge and practice critical analysis is both refined and significant. Yet, the narrative is often so meticulous that it fails to convey matters in a transparent and alluring manner to those who are yet to be as excited and engrossed as she is with the issues at hand. To this end, consider for comparison the narrative of The selfish gene by Richard Dawkins. Since it was first published in 1976, it has made an invaluable contribution to the scientific literature by expounding a paradigmatic shift in the way evolution is understood by not only scientists, but also the public at large. Besides its undeniable valuable scientific content and notwithstanding the polemics that it has generated, Dawkins's work has made the complex matter of evolution easy for all to understand by offering readers from all walks of life a tool through which to understand life on the planet earth. Thus, his narrative has had the effect of captivating the attention of a vast number of otherwise uninterested readers, encouraging further systematic explorations in several scientific fields, as well as making a compelling argument for the accessibility of science. In sum, it has made a splash. Un-thought: The power of the cognitive non-conscious is a good read, but of a different type. It is not an introduction to unconscious or non-conscious cognitive processes and contents. It is mainly for readers who are already familiar with most of the matters mentioned by the author. Yet, it offers readers a tool to understand cognition in biological and technical autonomous actors, which readers can freely use or disregard at their own peril. Thus, her narrative may be ideal for the reading list of a graduate seminar covering the role of cognitive science in the humanities (broadly defined). It may also be of interest to scholars who are intrigued by the author's viewpoint, which includes thorough analyses of the key attributes of cognition (i.e., flexibility, adaptability, and evolvability) as well as applications to organisms viewed as systems in transition (i.e., cognitive assemblages).

Important to note is that Hayles's viewpoint is expressed openly, but always in a carefully crafted universe of paragraphs, generally well-researched and finely presented. Her writing dutifully recognizes other viewpoints, those that fit her stance and those who appear to disagree with it. In her exploration of the tapestry produced by existing accounts of a given issue, she is not shy to insert her viewpoint, but she does so with humility accompanied by a careful chronicle of key facts and theories. In my modest opinion, her most notable contribution to the scientific literature is the section of her work devoted to the concept of cognitive assemblage. The author's lucid narrative of the properties of cognitive assemblages within the flow of information that defines them is commendable. It seems to me that the value of Un-thought: The power of the cognitive non-conscious is not so much the author's call to go beyond awareness to understand cognition, and, in doing so, to avoid treating the human species as the preferred object of study. Rather its value rests on the author's ability to combine into a coherent and detail-oriented narrative several ideas, proposals, and findings of many different intellectuals. In this sense, Un-thought: The power of the cognitive non-conscious may even be considered the groundwork for a paradigmatic shift that the author fruitfully advocates within the humanities. It is a valuable call, but a call which many intellectuals may have already anticipated.

 

© 2017 Maura Pilotti

 

Maura Pilotti, PhD


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