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Theatre, Opera and Consciousness

How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement

by Lambros Malafouris
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2013
304 pp., 31 b/w. Trade, $40.00
ISBN: 978-0-262-01919-4.

Reviewed by Martha Blassnigg
University of Plymouth


martha.blassnigg@plymouth.ac.uk

In How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement, Lambros Malafouris approaches key questions regarding the human evolution as creative homo faber from a fresh theoretical intervention originating in the coupling of current debates in philosophy and anthropology of mind with a shift toward object-oriented archaeological perspectives. The main critique, which is lucidly developed through the presented argument for Material Engagement Theory, is directed against representational and non-extended (“internalised”) models of the processes of the human mind and the failure to address the significance and meaning of human artefacts beyond mere inductive symbolism of neuro- and anthropocentric perspectives.

The book starts off by laying bare some of the pitfalls of current cognitivism in the so-called brain sciences and related fields and their wider reverberance that impacts on the understanding of human engagement with material culture. In doing so, approaches to the study of historical artefacts that merely focus on the study of objects in their signifying, symbolic character are revealed as inductive, teleological, but most importantly as a missed opportunity to more fully understand both the cognitive life of artefacts and the significance of material engagement in the cognitive shaping of the human mind in the course of evolution.

Drawing from Humanities discourses, in particular cultural anthropology and philosophy of mind, among others the foundational intellectual pillars of the likes such as Bateson, Gell, Latour and Vygotsky, Malafouris shifts the focus from the human creative construction of artefacts and their symbolic interpretation to an equally distributed treatment of interactive engagements between humans and materials/objects/things and the consequent epistemological and ontological challenges this carries for readdressing key questions around “agency”, “intentionality”, “causality” and “action”. By building on Gell’s extension of intentionality beyond the human psyche into the ambience as a whole context of enactment, Malafouris shifts the focus away from subjective and Searle’s representational intention to “intention in action” within a non-representational treatment of material things. This move identifies objects and things as reciprocally co-constructive agents in the bringing forth of form, meaning and cognitive engagement.

Following the lucid account of the theoretical disposition that informs Material Engagement Theory with specific view to the main thrust of argument in this book, Malafouris moves in the following through an analytical and discursive exploration around Stone Age tools, prehistoric mark making and contemporary pottery to explicate the dynamic flow between the organic and inorganic in creative, artesan processes exposing the intertwinedness of mind and matter in the cognitive evolution of human consciousness. Early mark making is revealed as key facilitator or scaffolding for emergent human self-reflection, the ability to “think about thinking”. The ultimate question arising from this pertains, following Malafouris, to the “when and how” humans became fully aware of their (re-)mediations as self-reflexive vehicles rather than when they begun to leave these trails. Consciousness, although increasingly emerging in the later part of the book, appears as a frequent silent backdrop to the discussion that foregrounds the cognitive interface with materiality. A particular insightful move is Malafouris’ treatment of temporality in the way material things operate on radically different time scales “e.g. neural, bodily, cultural, and evolutionary”, which may stimulate the conceptual integration of qualitative time scales on ontological levels as, for example, Bergson had proposed in his own critique of neo-Darwinism at the beginning of the 20th century, through his treatment of extended cognition whereby mind meets matter halfway during their perceptual enactment of their heterogeneous durations.

How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement is a lucid and well presented account of the state-of-the-art in connecting an archaeology of mind with the study of material culture to develop a deeper understanding of relational ontology and the importance of mediation for human thinking and cognition more generally. This latter fertile quality of the book seems to justify some reflection beyond its immediate remit, usually taken as an asset of impact and interdisciplinary significance and in this case a reflection on the heuristic quality of the proposed theoretical challenge. In this transdisciplinary sense the book calls for further interlinkages beyond the discourses of anthropology and philosophy with some of the key discussions in the Humanities to integrate the understanding of the role of enacted perception in respect of action and interaction with matter. This could offer a compelling ally to further challenge the orthodox models of representation as already developed in the philosophies of among other Bergson or Whitehead and further on by Deleuze and Guattari as a locus to readdress the question of virtual potentiality and intentionality prior to action as a qualitative exchange between mind and matter. The book’s thrust also calls for an integration of recent developments in the theory of art and visual culture especially as they pertain to ‘cognitive media archaeology’ where artistic practice is understood as interactive vehicle to retrain perception, imagination and cognition. Malafouris’ critique of Modernism might also provoke a resituating of its programmatic differentialism as a self-reflective disruption that has been mistaken for an ontological paradigm-shift.

One of the key strengths of How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement is that whilst staying close to the practice, methodology and epistemological objectives of archaeology as a 21st century discipline, advocating the epistemological obligation of cognitive archaeology, it integrates wider perspectives to foster research into understanding the evolution of the human mind beyond the limits of neo-Darwinian perspectives by giving space for speculation to be tested and examined in the context of a rigorous grounding in the study of material culture. In this sense the book lays out an important step for bridging the gap between the current dominant materialist tendency of reductionism in the cognitive sciences and the specific assets of the Humanities disciplines in their understanding of humanness in relation to the intangible ‘heritage’ and potentialities of material culture, by reminding us that a rigorous grounding combined with creative imagination can illuminate seemingly most divergent thresholds within and beyond the domains of consciousness.

With Malafouris’ lucid writing style, sound referencing and succinct ability to synthesise complex thoughts and concepts, the book is an excellent read and study for professionals, students and for a generally interested readership alike.


Last Updated 7 November 2013

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