Wednesday, 14 January 2015

The Extended Self

Architecture, memes and minds

This is a book review.  I don't do them often, but I am honoured to do this one.  And I do it because I really do think Chris Abel writes important books.  Not many books.  Abel is primarily an essayist – in the original meaning of 'essayer', like Montaigne, he writes clearly and succinctly to try to explain the world around him.  Well, not all of the world; Abel concentrates on what is architecture, how we make architecture, and why it defines us as human beings.

As if all that wasn't enough, Abel interests me specially, because unlike most other architectural theorists, he doesn't set up an implied opposition between an architecture that does least ecological harm, and Architecture explained by some other cultural imperatives.

The seminal 1997 first collection of his essays Architecture and Identity: towards a global eco-culture set the tone.  Updated in 2000 as Architecture and Identity: Responses to Cultural and Technological Change, it signalled Abel's interest in the co-evolution of culture and technology.  
In the current book, The Extended Self, Abel clearly lays claim to an even greater ambition, trying to explain the unique abilities of the ‘third chimpanzee’, and to project the consequences of that to speculation on our likely survival as a species.  As he says, this is a problem that defies the conventional discipline boundaries of the various academics who have contributed to the endeavour in recent years.

At the heart of the problem is to bridge the gap between biological evolution and what appears to be a companion evolutionary process of technological extensions of the individual human specimen. This inevitably begins with discussions of the mind. Where it goes from there appears to depend on the preoccupations of the author.  Thus, a storyteller like Terry Pratchett will sort the available propositions and evidence to favour the role of communications and language, and propose a unifying concept of the extended self primarily as ‘extelligence’ (to accompany the intrinsic ‘intelligence’ of the individual).  For Abel, preoccupied with technology, and particularly architecture and the city, it becomes more important to come up with something that explains the process whereby those material manifestations of an ‘extended self’ transmit and develop over time.  Hence the book’s emphasis on making the case for a ‘technical meme’, and the combinatorial processes whereby such ‘units’ are both routinely and innovatively translated into the complex anthropogenic environment.

Note that I have given no link for the word ‘meme’.  The whole point is that it would be doing a disservice to Abel to point at anything other than his book for a definition.  So, does the book succeed in framing a new theory?

Let me cut to the chase.  I was tempted to judge the book unsuccessful, apparently hobbled by its transparent drive towards a predetermined conclusion.  And by what appeared to be glaring omissions.  Just to illustrate the latter, it seems strange to skip Christopher Alexander in any discussion of types and taxonomies in architecture.

But to be fair, I then set about reading the voluminous footnotes, and there found much of what had not been included in the main text.  In this, the book betrays its close connection to Abel’s recent ‘old man’s PhD’ undertaken in his period of residence in Australia.  I hasten to clarify that an ‘old man’s PhD’ is to be read as a compliment, referring to the sort of thesis old men should write…….reflecting wisdom, rather than bound by the narrower, restrictive conventions of research methodology we insist that younger candidates employ. Thus Abel has indeed simplified the main text into a readable, logical form.

It has its cost. In particular, I found the architectural connections tenuous, ironically because Abel’s own writings in the past have conditioned me to expect more.  Even the case study of the development of the ‘tall building’ is simplistic in this book, in spite of having been subject of extended workshop studios by the author.

That said, overall, in my view the book is a must read for anyone trying to keep up with the rapidly expanding discussion of the extended self.  Abel gathers together more than anyone else, just now, the threads of competing and complimentary theories.  He doesn’t point out explicitly that the field has been dominated by philosophers, and that many of the ‘theories’ are highly rhetorical with an attitude to evidence that would not be acceptable in the natural sciences.  But if, like me, you take the trouble to read the book closely, and are attentive to the footnotes, you find that Abel does point out the problems with the positions of most of the famous figures.

Most importantly, the book makes you think for yourself about how this all can play out. How our incredible, complex, exciting evolution as a species is also what in cybernetic terms has to be described as ruthlessly destructive ‘positive feedback’, and why, if we are to survive, in spite of the apparently insuperable odds we must willfully transform our extended selves.

In paperback, the book is very affordable:
The extended self: Architecture, memes and minds
by Abel Chris (Author)
Paperback: 416 pages
Publisher: Manchester University Press (February 1, 2015)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 071909612X
ISBN-13: 978-0719096129
Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches

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