Malafouris and the motley crew

In my previous blog entry I noted the reservations that some cognitive scientists have about the hypothesis that the process of thinking should be construed as having constitutive elements outside of the brain. Essentially the reservation, as Shapiro presented it, could be boiled down to ‘it’s messy’. That is, if you start to include these extra-cranial elements then you are no longer ‘merely’ concerned with the brain but with a motley crew of things (e.g. other people and objects) that need to be studied and such a motley crew cannot be subjected to scientific study in the way that the brain can.

Ironically, just before I read this (in Shapiro’s book ‘Embodied Cognition’) I had read Lambros Malafouris’s book, ‘How things shape the mind: A theory of material engagement’. Malafouris explicitly wants to engage with the motley crew and subject it to analysis. The analysis might not be ‘scientific’ in the terms used by cognitive scientists but, employing the methods of ‘cognitive archaeology’ and drawing on other sociological domains, the motley crew can be analysed in a manner that is rigorous and consistent. (To be clear, Malafouris is arguing from an embodied cognition position and I suspect that there are parts of it which Shapiro might want to call into question.)

Part of Malafouris’ concern is to establish that it is legitimate to consider objects as agents. In any given situation, objects might act to change what we think about, the way we think or even the cognitive processes needed to achieve a certain goal. Malafouris draws on Actor-Network Theory and is persuasive in arguing that we should think of ourselves as being situated within networks of agents, both human and non-human.

Coming from an archaeological background, Malafouris uses primarily archaeological examples to illustrate his argument. The most striking is that of the Linear B tablets from Knossos (p68-86). The clay tablets were part of an accounting process in the Mycenaean society around the 15th century BCE. In this part of the book, Malafouris endeavours to shift the reader’s attention away from ‘what do the tablets mean’ to ‘what do the tablets do’.

This is not necessarily a new idea. A well-known example of this which compares 2 people who want to get around New York; one of whom relies on their memory and the other who relies on notes in a notepad. This shows very clearly how objects can change the intra-cranial cognitive processes that are needed to achieve a certain goal.

However, Malafouris broadens out the reader’s perspectives from 1 person and the objects in their hands: He describes the processes that took place in the ancient accounting room in Knossos, involving 3 or more people, the tablets and the rooms themselves. For Malafouris, a successful description and analysis of the cognitive act of counting and accounting for things must involve the processes that are outside of the scribe’s head.

Malafouris wants to use the phrase ‘distributed cognition’ but this runs the risk of overly blurring where the thinking is taking place. Shapiro argues for a more precise way of talking wherein the actual cognitive activity only takes places within the people involved but that a successful account of the cognitive process must involve extra-cranial elements, or agents.

The cognitive scientists have a point: if you only think about the brain, you can draw a nice thick line around the brain, confidently talk about inputs and outputs and then ignore the world. If you start to take the world into account then the line becomes a dotted one and it is no longer clear what is in and what is out. However, Malafouris (and others) argue persuasively, that if you want to deal with people’s lived experience in all its richness then you’ll have to put up with a shifting, dotted line.

Messy though it is, the ‘motley crew’ approach gives me a stronger framework for thinking about object-based learning in museums with young people and memory-laden encounters of older people with museums and historic spaces.


About Bruce Davenport

Museum educator and researcher.
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