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«Consider a potter throwing a vessel on the wheel (Fig. 2.1). Think of the complex ways brain, body, wheel and clay relate and interact with one ...»

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Chapter 2

At the Potter’s Wheel: An Argument

for Material Agency

Lambros Malafouris

Consider a potter throwing a vessel on the wheel (Fig. 2.1). Think of the

complex ways brain, body, wheel and clay relate and interact with one another

throughout the different stages of this activity and try to imagine some of the

resources (physical, mental or biological) needed for the enaction of this

creative process. Focus, for instance, on the first minutes of action when the

potter attempts to centre the lump of clay on the wheel. The hands are grasping the clay. The fingers, bent slightly following the surface curvature, sense the clay and exchange vital tactile information necessary for a number of crucial decisions that are about to follow in the next few seconds. What is it that guides the dextrous positioning of the potter’s hands and decides upon the precise amount of forward or downward pressure necessary for centring a lump of clay on the wheel? How do the potter’s fingers come to know the precise force of the appropriate grip? What makes these questions even more fascinating is the ease by which the phenomena which they describe are accomplished. Yet underlying the effortless manner in which the potter’s hand reaches for and gradually shapes the wet clay lies a whole set of conceptual challenges to some of our most deeply entrenched assumptions about what it means to be a human agent.

There are two obvious ways to proceed in order to meet these challenges and answer these questions: the first is to turn and ask the potter directly. As a great deal of cross-cultural ethnographic observation will testify, confronted with the ‘how do you do it?’ question, potters would prefer to ‘show you’ rather than simply ‘tell you’ their answer. If, however, the question gets very precise, for instance, ‘how did you decide the force of the grip?’ or ‘how did you decide the appropriate speed of the wheel’ or ‘when and how much water to add on the clay?’, they usually have very little to say. They can do it but they do not know how they do it or they simply lack the means to express or communicate this L. Malafouris McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Cambridge University, Cambridge, UK e-mail: Lm243@cam.ac.uk C. Knappett, L. Malafouris (eds.), Material Agency, 19 DOI: 10.1007/978-0-387-74711-8_2, Ó Springer ScienceþBusiness Media, LLC 2008 20 L. Malafouris Fig. 2.1 At the potter’s wheel form of tacit knowledge. No one – not even the potter himself – can have access to this type of information because no one – not even the potter himself – can tell the fingers how hard they can press the clay in and up so that the walls of the vessel will not collapse. When it comes to embodied skill, potters are no exception to the rules of action and material engagement. Potters know more than what they can tell or explain and their hands often have reasons of which their mind is not aware and which the clay may resist or accommodate. Verbal description, however detailed, can hardly capture the phenomenological perturbations of real activity and the reciprocality between the crafted and the crafter. This is also why the affordances of the wheel throwing technique need to be discovered each time, in real time and space, within the totality of the interactive parameters.

Let us now turn to the second way of answering our previous questions, namely to look for some ‘internal’ mental and inaccessible mechanism. From such a perspective, the potter’s fingers do nothing but execute the orders of the potter’s brain and it is there that we should be looking for an answer. The potter’s fingers simply receive information from the clay and transmit it to the appropriate area inside the potter’s brain; they have nothing to do with the central ‘executive’ mechanism responsible for the ‘executive processing’ and decision making. The 2 At the Potter’s Wheel 21 moment you subscribe to the above popular scenario, you have already committed yourself also to a specific agency judgement. That is, you have already implicitly answered another question, what in this chapter I shall be calling the ‘agency question’, ie, who did it? Who is the author of the act? The paradox is that although the potter may again be totally unaware about how or when his brain is making all these fine small decisions or even about what precisely they consist of, this time, he is, more often than not, going to answer that question, with the ease of a natural-born dualist: ‘I’ did it. The following example from G.

Bateson nicely illustrates this anthropocentric ‘I did it-stance’ that I shall be

calling in this chapter the ‘agency problem’:

Consider a man felling a tree with an axe. Each stroke of the axe is modified or corrected, according to the shape of the cut face of the tree left by the previous stroke.

This self-corrective (i.e., mental) process is brought about by a total system, trees-eyesbrain-muscles-axe-stroke-tree; and it is this total system that has the characteristics of immanent mind...But this is not how the average Occidental sees the event sequence of tree felling. He says, ‘‘I cut down the tree’’ and he even believes that there is a delimited agent, the ‘‘self’’, which performed a delimited ‘‘purposive’’ action upon a delimited object (Bateson 1973, 318).





But what is this agency problem really about? Subject to the level of analysis (micro-macro), the agency problem can take many different forms. However, what hold those different forms together are two categorical errors that they have in common: The first is an error of apparent mental causation and the second and correlated one is that of agency attribution. According to Wegner, both errors pertain to the fact that people tend to experience conscious will, and thus agency, quite independently of any actual causal connection between their thoughts and actions (Wegner 2004, 654). The following example can take us to

the heart of the issue:

Imagine for a moment that by some magical process, you could always know when a particular tree branch would move in the wind. Just before it moved, you knew it was going to move, in which direction, and just how it would do it. Not only would you know this, but let us assume that the same magic would guarantee that you would happen to be thinking about the branch just before each move. You would look over, and then just as you realized it was going to move, it would do it! In this imaginary situation, you could eventually come to think that you were somehow causing the movement. You would seem to be the source of the distant branch’s action, the agent that wills it to move. The feeling that one is moving the tree branch surfaces in the same way that one would get the sense of performing any action at a distance (Wegner 2004, 654).

The above example embodies the crux of Wegner’s famous ‘illusion of conscious will argument’ (Wegner 2003; 2002) which directly relate to the crucial questions about ‘what is the origin of an event we need to explain?’ (see Law, this volume) and about ‘who is the author of an act’? However, I should clarify that despite using Wegner’s example as my starting point to the agency problem, my strategy for tackling this problem and my interpretation of the reasons behind it would be rather different and to a large extent contradictory to Wegner’s account. In particular, following the Material Engagement approach 22 L. Malafouris (Malafouris 2004), I will suggest that the agency problem is not so much the product of human illusion or some other attribution error of our left hemisphere ‘interpreter’ (Gazzaniga 1998) but of a certain acquired imbalance between mental and physical causality that destabilises the human cognitive equation.

To redress this imbalance at the root of the agency problem in this chapter I shall be introducing the notion of material agency. The concept itself, that is, material agency, is to some extent a misnomer, yet I believe it serves well my basic hypothesis which can be very simply expressed as follows: If human agency is then material agency is, there is no way that human and material agency can be disentangled. Or else, while agency and intentionality may not be properties of things, they are not properties of humans either: they are the properties of material engagement, that is, of the grey zone where brain, body and culture conflate.

To explore my working hypothesis and develop the argument for material agency, I shall be looking in between, rather than within, persons and things.

Specifically, I shall be focusing on the brain-artefact interface (BAI) and using the potter’s wheel as a good illustration of such a bio-interface. Besides my ethnographic and experiential familiarity with the task domain, there is an additional, perhaps even more important, reason behind my choice of the potting process as the focus of my discussion: I consider pottery making as a prototypical exemplar and one of the best and diachronic models of the active mind. Not only do I see the ways of potmaking as ways of thinking but I also believe that one can find few other diachronic and cross-cultural examples where all major ingredients of the human cognitive recipe are brought forth and actualised in such an explicit and to a large extent empirically accessible manner. Specifically, for the Material Engagement approach to the study of mind the potter’s wheel is as the thermostat is to cybernetics or the computer is to computationalism. Moreover, and in addition to seeing at the continuum of potter’s brain-body-clay-wheel what others are seeing in a Turing machine or a centrifugal governor, I also consider clay to be one of the earliest truly neurocompatible materials in the history of humanity. Neuro-compatible here refers to materials that afford the flow of noetic activity beyond skin and skull thus bridging neural and cultural plasticity (Malafouris in press; Malafouris & Renfrew, in press). It is this flow that enables the hand of the potter, as I will argue below, to navigate upon the surface of clay with a minimal need of storage and internal processing. It is this meeting which, with a little help from ‘active externalism’ (Clark 1997; Clark & Chalmers 1998), can transform a prehistoric potsherd from a mute inert piece of matter to an index and constitutive residual component of the prehistoric mind (Malafouris in press).

–  –  –

in (pottery-) making. I start with the one I consider the most basic of all: Let us say that the chosen clay was too porous, resulting in a vessel of low quality or causing the pot to crack during drying or explode during firing; who is to blame?

Do not think of a scenario where no good quality clay is available but rather think of clay preparation as a ‘technical choice’. The term ‘technical choice’ is used in archaeology and anthropology to describe the activity chain in material procurement and manufacture and by employing the term ‘choice’, we presume alternatives in this sequence that did not get chosen (Van der Leeuw 1993, 241;

Schiffer & Skibo 1997, 29). So, one way to approach our previous question is to ask who or what is responsible for those choices? At first sight, it may appear that it is the potter who made those choices, but a closer look will reveal that, for example, the causal link between the crack, the choice of clay and the potter who made that choice is not as direct and straightforward as we might initially think. And if we accept that agency is essentially about doing and that the problem of agency is essentially about who or what is the cause of the doing, then what we need to try first to understand is the relation between agency and causality.

To this end it is necessary first to clarify an important distinction between the sense of agency and the sense of ownership (Gallagher 2000, 2005; Tsakiris & Haggard 2005). By sense of agency we refer to the potter’s feeling that it is he who is moving his hands spreading out, pounding and shaping the clay. By the sense of ownership we refer to the potter’s feeling that it is his hand that is moving. Two important points need to be underlined here: (a) The first point is that although our sense of agency and ownership are usually closely associated this does not necessarily have to be the case all the time. For example, although an experienced potter immersed in the shaping of a vessel will very often report that the sense of ownership, the sense that it is his hands that touch and move the clay, is experienced throughout the activity, the sense of agency, on the other hand, the feeling that it is he that is causing the movement, is very often disrupted. (b) The second point is that we are speaking about a sense and not about agency or ownership per se. That means that we may well have a very real sense of agency or ownership without in reality owning or causing our act whatsoever. It is one thing to say that only humans have a sense of agency, that is, the ability to refer to oneself as the author of one’s own actions; it is another thing to say that only humans are agents in the sense of being able to initiate casual events with intentional character. I shall be returning to the intentional character of human experience in a later section; for now I want to yours upon the issue of causality. Whatever sense the potter is or is not having the question to be answered remains ‘who’ or ‘what’ is causing the act, or more specifically, the making of the pot.

Attempting to answer that by taking agency as a fixed human property it is to take as the starting point of analysis what should have been its end. The only available starting and obligatory point of passage for the emergence and determination of agency is that of material engagement. First the hand grasps the clay in the way the clay affords to be grasped, then the action becomes skill, 24 L. Malafouris Fig. 2.2 Elsie searching for light (Candles were fixed to the turtles’ shells and long exposures were used. The light streaks show the path of the turtle, # Burden Neurological Institute) skill effects results and from those results that matter agency emerges. As I also discuss elsewhere (Malafouris 2004, see also Knappett 2006) the potter and the task-environment display a dynamic coupling between mind and matter that looks like a dance of agency not dissimilar to the one performed by Walter’s ‘turtles’1 (Fig. 2.2).



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