Welcome to Emerging Futures — Volume 10! Affordances -- a Creative Life Lives in the Middle...
Part One: Insight Into What Things Are
In last week’s newsletter we shared a story with you of how a creative act might emerge while cooking eggs for breakfast.
It was a story of someone following a strange accident where they notice a small amount of egg white leaking out of a boiling egg because of an invisible crack. And in following this accident with a particular form of attunement and curiosity they become involved in the creation of perhaps the “first” poached egg.
The physical properties of the egg, the pot and the boiling water as well as the set up of the kitchen all played critical roles in this invention:
What should we make of all of these dispositions, capacities, propensities of things? Often when doing an activity -- cooking an egg or making coffee -- it can feel like we are being invisibly led or guided by the “nature” of the things we use.
The propensities or dispositions of things can seem magical. Why does an egg crack just so?
Why does your hand just find the right tool in the middle of a task?
It’s as if we live in a world where inanimate things are alive and seemingly, deliberately, nuge us more in certain directions than others. As your hand reaches out for the coffee cup the cup meets and gently but precisely guides your hand without any of this activity reaching our conscious reflective awareness. There is a continuous subtle dance and dialog between us and things that we are hardly ever aware of.
These capacities of things are called “affordances”. On monday we published an article: Creativity: “and what else can it do” introducing some of the more interesting qualities of affordances for creativity.
Affordances make up our immediate world. Look around you, everything is “affording” you effective streamlined action. The very floor under your feet being smooth affords unconscious efficient movement without looking.
All living things are directly enmeshed in their environment in this manner. They are embodied beings in action connecting with what is around them by what it directly affords them. This is not done via thoughtful introspection but directly and immediately: a squirrel ducks under a rock, and we lean our elbow on a table to rest our head.
This is a critical point most of our knowing and understanding is of this kind: it is our skilled know-how directly engaged in activity with what the environment directly affords us. Conceptual thinking emerges from the middle of this field of affordance-supported activity.
Affordances, as a technical term, means: the latent opportunities for a particular set of actions of a correctly skilled subject “in” an environmental feature.
Think about the coffee cup you are holding as you read this on your device of choice. It affords many potential actions: grasping, tilting and sipping. It also affords easy stable placement. It affords keeping the coffee reasonably warm and not burning your lips.
But is the affordance really “in” the cup?
Could you have this affordance of grasping if you had cat paws or crow claws?
The coffee cup affords us, with our particular physical bodies and skills, grasping.
The Gibsons, who developed the concept of affordances and co-founded the approach of Environmental Psychology, were adamant about this point: An affordance is neither in the thing nor is it in us: it is the outcome of a situation. Affordances step out of, or negate the subject-object divide. Affordances are the relation -- the dance and dialog that has stabilized between us and things.
“Features” can only show up as what they “are” in action. Environmental Features are relational. It is as if part of “us” is in the feature and part of the feature is in us:
This is precisely why the Embodied tradition of cognition talks about how we are Embodied, Extended and Embedded:.
AND when you put it all together what emerges is not simply a coming together of neutral physical elements -- but the ENACTMENT of a directly meaningful environment -- a holistic world of affordances. A seemingly magical world that “works”.
It is precisely an Enacted World because one cannot “see” it -- or them (the affordances) by being a disinterested neutral observer of reality (if such a thing could even exist) — this world only emerges -- is enacted -- in action.
The dance and dialog is worldmaking. A world that emerges from the middle. Literally: once we put together Embodied + Extended + Embedded the “system” snaps into a new state: a world of affordances emerging and always growing from the middle.
Think of how often in the course of the day we use whatever is handy to do things: we step on a chair to change a bulb, or a dishcloth to grab a hot pan, or a large mug as a smartphone speaker. In these moments we see the world around us directly for what it affords and we can sense the web of a world -- our world.
Tools are Stabilized Affordances
If the world around us is experienced directly in this manner that means everything we engage with is experienced in this manner. A coffee cup, the table, the chair -- look all around you: everywhere affordances -- opportunities for potential action.
Things -- objects that we have designed with a purpose in mind are transformed and stabilized affordances. We move from a noticed affordance to stabilizing them via tool making.
And if objects -- tools -- are stabilized, transformed and materialized affordances, then concepts (what some might call “ideas”) are abstracted and stabilized affordances that accompany stabilized and transformed environments and tools.
Part 2: Cognition = Surfing a Dense Web of Affordances
We live in an environment that we have transformed to be totally loaded with affordances. But we are not unique in this: All living beings live in similar environments that they have played an active role in shaping. All life is to some degree enactive -- it is intimately and irreversibly conjoined with an environment that it co-shapes. All life lives as coupled beings: subject-environments in the dance of action and co-shaping. Our habit is to see things as discreet. But this is, as we shall demonstrate shortly, a dangerous mistake.
We humans are hyper environment shapers. We have shaped every part of our immediate worlds. This is not inherently a bad thing or a destructive thing, for after all to be alive is to be and to co-shape an environment. To be able to act whatsoever is to be an environment-in-the-making. To be able to think whatsoever is to be an environment.
It is worth pausing on this for a moment. You are not a discreet individual.
You’re an individual [+] environment [=] coupling.
And you’re a very, very, integrated couple -- you and your environment.
Don’t believe us? Want to try and feel the real pain of separation? Here is a simple practice, we were trying all this week -- there will be pain and there will be a slight pulling apart -- but nothing too terrible (we promise):
Try making a meal on the floor of your kitchen. Seriously.
Go into your kitchen, sit on the floor. Now let's sauté some vegetables. Start grabbing what you need. It is impossible.
But let’s say you do persevere and eventually manage to somehow grab a good chopping knife, the cutting board and some onions and carrots and have it all on the floor (remember you cannot get up, stay sitting/kneeling). Now, just try chopping -- it is crazy hard. The angles are all wrong, nothing fits and nothing “works”. Keep going as long as you can.
Now stand up and bring everything back up to the counter with you. Just sense how that feels: a deep deep relief -- the relief of rejoining and refitting of coming back to the dance of your “self”.
We, the self-environment unit -- lives, acts and thinks via the dance of affordances . This is why, for example, we strongly sense that mindfulness techniques are misguided: They produce an illusion of a discreet self via exercises that force us “inside” our bodies in a way that hides and undermines our connected intra-dependent being with our total affordance environment.
We need alternative practices of “worldfullness” that help us sense the fullness and expanse of our beings. We need practices that help us sense that our thinking -- our “minds” so to speak are not “in” anything -- especially not our heads -- but emerging from the true middle of our beings -- that in-between space. (We have a “worldfullness” practice at the end of the newsletter for you to try and connect with all this.)
While this idea might strike one as crazy -- it certainly goes against the historical western tradition of brain-based individual identity.
Anthony Chemero an important researcher of Enactive Cognition (whom we shared a video this week) puts it this way:
“I reject the idea of neural correlates of consciousness. There are no correlates of consciousness because consciousness, like thinking more generally, happens in brain-body-environment systems... Claiming that consciousness doesn’t happen in brains alone might strike many people reading this as crazy… In today’s brain-centric intellectual climate, the claim is undeniably counterintuitive… The advantage of rejecting the idea of neural correlates of consciousness is that... it makes it possible to claim, to adapt a phrase from Ryle, that consciousness is neither nothing but brain activity, nor is it something else in addition to brain activity…. [we] argue that consciousness is best understood as the activity of nonlinearly coupled brain-body-environment systems.”
Ways of sensing ourselves such as minds, mindful, mindsets, brains, discrete individuality, separate, and internalized essence are practices that we need to move away from to get back in touch (literally) with our much more dynamic, distributed, environmental, collaborative, intersubjective, affordance weaving selves.
A big part of what is also missing from our self-understanding is how intersubjective our self-hood is -- we are not simply coupled with environments as solitary individuals -- we are deeply connected to others as a weave of participatory sense-making (we shared another great video this week: Hanne De Jaegher: An Introduction to Participatory Sense-Making -- it is worth watching).
Why Does All of This Matter for Creativity and Innovation?
Creativity -- change making happens at this level -- at the level of environments and affordances.
If thinking does not happen in our heads, but emerges from the middle -- so too does creativity and change.
It happens out in the world. It emerges from the middle.
As we remake our environments, shifting habits and practices, new patterns of thought and action co-emerge.
Far too much of the focus and efforts of change making is centered on mind focused education -- changing people's “mindsets.” (Mindsets are another term that is really misleading and perhaps best avoided).
But, if our concepts are intimately connected to, and arise out of, our enacted affordance environments -- shouldn’t this be the focus of our efforts?
If we change the field of affordances we shape a world in which education happens directly in the spontaneous attunement to a new field of dispositions, capacities, and propensities.
As “creatives,” innovators and change-makers - we need to fully recognize that most cognition or knowing is not conceptual (in the realm of “ideas,” and representations) but is felt/known directly in the body as affordances. And that these affordances are emergent -- enacted -- arising from the middle of a dance between two sides of the same coin -- the self and the environment.
With this approach we can effect more, deeper and lasting change by changing the environmental space of affordances. This can be done both positively and negatively - removing or blocking certain affordance pathways.
Are affordances limited to “simpler” or so-called lower cognition? How can a coffee mug, a bike lane or a kitchen teach us philosophy?
The short answer is yes, your kitchen will teach you philosophy. And affordances are part of all cognition (there are really not two distinct realms of a “lower” and a “higher” cognition).
Sadly, the longer answer is beyond the scope of this newsletter, this week, (but here is a good article on this).
Next week, on the other hand we are going to go further into this topic and even more importantly we are going to get into how affordances are also radical engines of disruptive creativity.
So we leave you with a Practice:
In the midst of whatever you are doing, stop and sit on the floor. Right there and then. If you are cooking in the kitchen, stop and sit on the floor. If you are writing or zooming at the dining room table, stop and sit on the floor.
Notice how nothing is available to you -- connections are severed. Practices disappear. Stay with this without doing anything for a moment.
Now, there on the ground, start to make whatever you were doing work again. Do this in a provisional manner -- can books prop up your computer to afford you typing or zooming. Or do you need to lie down fully to afford typing. Feel how you are sensing new affordances in things and reweaving your being back into pathways and actions.
Do this slowly, savor each added affordance. Welcome it and acknowledge it as part of yourself.
As you expand back into yourself, feel and hold in awareness the extended nature of yourself. Stay with this for a while.
When it feels right, stand up and take with you this new expanded self.
Let us know how this feels. Hit reply and share what you did and what the experience was like…
Finally, here is a link to the images as PDFs in Hi-Res.
Till next week we stand alongside,
Iain and Jason
Emergent Futures Lab
We’re How You Innovate
📚 P.S.: Go deeper down the rabbit hole with our book Innovating Emergent Futures
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