2014-15: Cognition as Computation

Symposium: Cognition as Computation: From Cybernetics to Neuropolitics

February 6, 2015
FHI Garage (in the Smith Warehouse, Bay 4)

The premise that all mental processes are forms of computation was first proposed in the nineteenth century by experimentalists such as Hermann von Helmholtz, and became increasingly important to many natural and social sciences in the post-WWII period, as actual hardware computers provided concrete models for thinking about how thought-like processes could be understood as a form of computation. This premise that mental processes are forms of computation is now essential to many contemporary sciences, including versions of cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and economics. This symposium seeks to help us to better understand the nature and implications of this premise by focusing on its Cold War and post-Cold War fortunes. We hope that this effort will also enable us to consider more closely what "computation" and "cognition" mean for those who have proposed that cognition is a form of computation, and to consider as well alternative conceptions of cognition.

  • 9:00-9:20: Introduction (Robert Mitchell, CISSCT Director)
  • 9:20-10:50: Bernard Geoghegan (Institut für Kulturwissenschaft at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin), "Minds of Embodiment: Cybernetic Psychiatry as Prelude to Postmedia"
  • 10:50-11:00: coffee break
  • 11:00-12:30: Orit Halpern (History, the New School for Social Research and Lang College), "The Neuro-Political Condition"; Abstract: This talk interrogates the relationship between temporality, memory, and reason in cybernetic models of mind to excavate a historical shift in knowledge and governmentality. Cyberneticians reformulated ideas of reason to reimagine both minds and machines as logical circuits; in doing so, early pioneers in neural nets and computing such as Warren McCulloch, Walter Pitts, and John von Neumann also created the epistemological conditions that underpin contemporary concerns with data visualization, big data, and ubiquitous computing.
  • 12:30-1:45: Lunch (provided) and Concluding Roundtable with Robert Mitchell, Bernard Geoghagen, and Orit Halpern

Upcoming Related Event: The Biological Turn in Literary Studies

February 27-28, 2015
Video of the talks can be found here.
FHI Garage

In The Order of Things, Michel Foucault explains how the redefinition of life in terms of “biology” around 1800 not only implied that human beings were immersed in the natural world but also made that world of living beings intelligible in a radically new way. One could no longer look at living beings as instances of ideal forms or species; rather they had to be understood as participants in dynamic temporal processes.  This amounted to a shift from concepts of stable form to concepts of dynamic formation, and from being to becoming. But Foucault’s account of “the biological turn” goes only so far in explaining why literate people agreed to imagine their world in these terms, especially since these terms were decidedly hostile to all the assumptions wrapped up in the concept of human exceptionalism. 

Our shared premise is that if the biological sciences altered the terms for understanding life, then literature gave vitality to that theory by making nature newly intelligible as it expanded the human sensorium to accommodate these new terms, showed exactly how they modified human exceptionalism, and questioned whether it was valid, much less a good idea to do so.

Friday, February 27
  • 1:00-1:30: Welcome and Introduction (Nancy Armstrong and Robert Mitchell)
  • 1:30-2:45: Warren Montag (Literature, Occidental College), “‘The Common is of no Use’: Property and Life in Locke’s Second Treatise”
  • 2:45-3:00: coffee break
  • 3:00-4:15: Nancy Armstrong (English, Duke University), “How American Novels Think in Biopolitical Terms”
Saturday, February 28
  • 9:00-9:15: Welcome and Introduction (Nancy Armstrong and Robert Mitchell)
  • 9:15-10:30: Tim Campbell (Italian Studies, Cornell University), “Adorno's Tatikos Technē: Parataxis, Gratitude, and Biopower”
  • 10:30-10:45: coffee break
  • 10:45-12:00: Robert Mitchell (English, Duke University), “Biopolitics, Population, and the Nineteenth-Century Novel”
  • 12:00-1:15: lunch break
  • 1:15-2:30: Amanda Jo Goldstein (English, Cornell University), “'We Want the Poetry of Life': Physiology and Trope in Romantic Zoonomia”
  • 2:45-3:00: coffee break
  • 3:00-4:15: Ian Duncan (English, University of California, Berkeley), “After Natural Man: Buffon, Rousseau, Kant, Herder”

This symposium is sponsored by Duke’s Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, the Department of English, and the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Science and Cultural Theory.