Conversion Devices
From Thinking to Thing-ing

  (from)   PART ONE

Imitation. It sounds so simple at the get-go. Yet our 'imaging
impulse,' that which ignites our production of freestanding designs
and the subject of this investigation, begins with it. The concept of
mimicry in any form and by any means drives all of our behaviors as
it does for most other animals. For many scholars, the big question is
how much is built in and how much is advertised or taught. Here is
where I demure because this question is definitely not the subject of
this book, and I suggest there are other and perhaps even bigger
non-Darwinian questions at play (One might want to consider the
work of Alfred Russell Wallace, who takes a far more balanced
approach than Darwin did).

As an artist, I am infinitely perplexed and rather amazed by the
routines of mimesis. How is it that a mark made on paper, for
example, ever so sloppily or slightly referring to a shape visualized
with eyes open or closed, carries the insignia of that entity? There
must be an intrinsic mapping device that is highly catholic at
accepting categorical configurations. But it does have regulations.
Our brains know when that catholic willingness to make sense of
things just throws up its hands in exasperation and says, ‘No way!

These days, neuro-psychology labs are humming with experiments to
test the limits and formation of these regulations. But artists have
always been testing just how indulgent our brains are. We were the
first scientists, perhaps? We fiddle with the outer regions of
recognition paradigms all the time. And we ask for more and more
leniency, knowing all along that there has to be a point of no return,
when the collected elements like lines or dots, what have you, just
never convince. This is usually when you see more words spill forth
from the artist or critic in the absence of visual conviction. Every time I
sit down to fabricate an image/object, I am prodding and poking at
those regulations.

However, in primitive societies, where the functional linkage is
supreme, this kind of intellectual mischief is relatively absent. By
functional, I do not mean how to make a poi pounder more effective
in its ability to macerate, but rather how efficiently the image links
beliefs with expectations about their world. Human perception is a
balancing act of minimizing surprise, another word for entropy or
chaos. Chaos is a huge negative, which is why all of us and all
animals strive to expend the least amount of energy in maintaining

We set rules of perception, which is an inner model for the world
based on a combination of beliefs that is reinforced by sensations.
Karl Friston describes:

   …the brain (as) an inference machine that actively predicts and explains   
   sensations… a probalistic model that can generate predictions against
   which sensory samples are tested to update beliefs about their causes’
   (Friston 2010:3).
'Conviction' is the name of the game. This is the power to most swiftly
define and prescribe expectations about the world to channel
sensations effectively and apply them to our preexisting formatting
about the environment. Conviction is as relevant in private carvings as
it is for public imagery. By 'private' I mean the kind that are intended
just for the satisfaction of the maker and are often expelled,
destroyed, buried, and abandoned. This might help explain why so
many thematic 'cultural' designs, both private and public, endure
through the ages. If they have been convincing and well-known, why
mess with success?

What we are really asking is how can our physical gestures, which
themselves are really abstract movements, convert cerebral notions
into convincing interpretations of our world? There is much at work
here, but one remarkable part is our cognitive devotion to always
making sense of independent gestures or markings by aggregating
them into collections.

One 'thing' is insufficient. Two 'things' ask us to affirm linkages as
meaningful. As intentional. It is a kind of naïve belief that everything
we combine together, in other words, or that we make or discern
must be a pointer, a cognitive index finger. And a pointer that not
only asks us to concentrate, but also de rigueur, points backward to
its causes. If we didn't have this mentality for causality with attention,
which is taught very early on, we would be subject to chaos, and I
wouldn't be writing this now because there would never have been a
sustainable species to begin with.

Humans simply cannot let things lie unresolved. We just can't. But
stubbornness alone, perhaps even arrogance that we always cobble
purposefulness for anything we do, is insufficient for a complex chain
of cognitive operations. 'Meaning' is ex post facto and comes well
after what appears instinctive because those synaptic operations that
result in creativity are so fluid. These are operations that are intended
to capture (i.e., tangibly convert impressions or ideas), the completely
non-substantive stuff of cognition. Gestures must somehow be
harnessed, organized, and guided to convert the ephemeral neural
'stuff' physically into solid and detached references. In this case, 'art,'
but in all other cases, freestanding forms.

I determined that there are classifiable responses that drive our
instinct to peg ideas to forms. Or better still, to bridge an interior
motive with an exterior effect. I call these 'conversion devices.'

Broadly, they are novelty, intention, mirroring and recursion. Athough
these appear to be behavioral and even psychological responses,
they are really deeply neural idiosyncrasies that appear innate, albeit
abetted by nurturing. Each will be addressed individually as best as
they can because they interface with each other and are difficult to
separate. Extirpate one and it collapses the function of the other.

We shall lead the discussion through behaviors that reveal just how
dynamic these devices truly are. But the remarkable revelation is that
all of them exercise contiguous neural loci around the premotor
cortex and Pars Opercularis, a part of the brain identified by
Korbinian Brodmann as area 44 (Binkofski 2000; Heiser 2003; Vaina
2001). Even more fascinating is that it's an area long ago, and still
rather narrowly, defined as an exclusive driver for verbal language
formulation (as opposed to production).

Clearly it is not. But these loci of which each brain has two, are also
significant for evolution of perspectives, especially the projection of
the self as a third-party observer in the role of the actor (Shipton
2009; Tomasello 1999; Iacobini 2003; Rizzolatti 1996). This means
that 'I' am the first party, observing someone else, the second party,
and then inject my idea of self into that second party and imagine
seeing myself as if it were me instead of them. I am an actor because
I am role playing but also observing myself in that role. It is here
where the 'likeness' or mimetic concept resides in its starkest

   Conversion Devices

It all sounds awfully convoluted, which it certainly is. But it is a fluid
conversion that humans undertake with the greatest of ease, both
automatically and self-consciously. The most self-conscious industry
being those of the creative arts. Back to the Pars Opercularis, a
rather curious hub of cells. We suggest that perspective swapping,
which is the fundamental driver of mimesis, is generated here. It is
likely a behavior as innate and essential to binding us in communities
as any basic survival habit could possibly be.

If the neural clusters that instigate this interpolation of oneself as
another object were less robust or absent, communication on any
level would be highly unlikely. In contrast, it is often said that for
autists, this kind of Theory of Mind (ToM) never reverberates beyond
the personal body. For them, the simulation of otherness is often a
sense that parts of their own body and mind are those other foreign,
third-party things. It is a dialogue that rages and enrages within their
corporeal walls, a dialogue that is often characterized as their
'thinking self versus their feeling self' (Grandin 2013).