/ From the Archives: Instability

Drifting and Navigating: Part 3

By Anthony Marcellini July 14, 2010

A Consciousness We Perform in Our Stage Setting of the World: An Interview with Alva Noë

In his most recent book, Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brains, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness, philosopher and theorist of cognitive science Alva Noë overturns a Cartesian conception of the brain that claims consciousness arises in the brain separate from the world. This concept, which persists in neuroscience and other natural sciences, suggests that the brain is an evaluating organ that simply calculates, contemplates, and makes sense of what it sees. Noë, a writer and philosopher at UC Berkeley, argues that the brain is actually part of a larger system, and that consciousness is not a separated but an embodied phenomenon.

This theory seemed to complement much of what I have been reading in social and political theory, concerning the individual and social space. Could the idea of embodied consciousness change an individual’s political relationship to society, as well as change a reading of art’s role and effect on society? How might we understand ourselves differently as individuals if we realize that everything we experience, including the things that we create in life, structures our conscious experience of the world? How does an embodied consciousness affect the individual’s role in and relationship to society?

I posed these and other questions to Noë. What follows is a discussion on the politics of his position, the potential impact of his thesis on the role of art, and how his recent collaborations with dancers and choreographers are attempting to enact, exhibit, and further his hypothesis.


Anthony Marcellini: Your premise in Out of Our Heads is that consciousness is embodied or built through the body’s experience. You state, “The brain gives rise to consciousness by enabling an exchange between the person or animal and the world. The brain’s job is that of facilitating a dynamic pattern of interaction among brain, body and world.”1 You continue later by stating that the brain is not the seat of consciousness but rather an organ that “coordinates our dealings with the environment…. [Thus] the world can be described as belonging to the very machinery of our own consciousness.”2

You make this clear with your examples of newborns. We grow, learn, and are produced by our environment and the exchanges that take place. That in turn enables us to understand that environment is a necessary part of our development. You also talk about tools, which are an extension of our bodies, and, in that sense, our consciousness. I thought specifically about how our understanding of space is transformed by the car, airplane, and the train.

Alva Noë: Or the cell phone.

AM: Yes, all these things transform how our mind/body understands and experiences space. The environment is itself something that transforms how we act and react in our everyday lives. You offer examples of how our living situation can disrupt or transform our daily lives by making things easier. In my practice as a writer and artist, I am concerned with how individuals understand themselves in relationship to the world, and how one’s understanding of a world in which they are an active part gives them agency to perhaps even construct the world.

AN: I don’t like the phrase “to construct the world.” The world is only available to us thanks to what we do, and the way it is available to us depends on what we do. I am very interested in education, in the way that we cultivate skills in a child, whether it is the skill to play baseball, karate, mathematics, or whatever. The problem of consciousness is the problem of how the world shows up for us. It shows up for us based on what we can do, thanks to our abilities to pick it up. If my hands are paralyzed, there are things I cannot pick up or have contact with.

AM: Perhaps “constructing the world” is a loaded phrase that I was using a bit too casually. To clarify by way of example, I will use your book. If I function differently in life because of reading it, if others who have read it change their actions, and the things in life which they produce also change as a result of this book, then this is how one constructs the world. There are politics to my interest in this phrase, which has to do with the position of art in society, often placed to the periphery or margins, as a passive leisure activity. Artists do really construct other worlds and other ways of seeing things. (Of course this happens in other sorts of productions as well.)

AN: I like what you have said. Part of what makes art so important to us comes from our encounters with artworks, which give us opportunities to rediscover these facts about our lives in general. In your sense, the idea that we are constructing a world, or mine, that we skillfully bring the world into focus. I go into a gallery and I struggle to understand a work that is unfamiliar to me, in order to make sense of it. At first, I don’t get it and then I get it. I am basically recapitulating the fact of our consciousness.

Artists are very often concerned with creating opportunities in any number of imaginative ways—creating opportunities to catch us in the act of being human. That makes art very important. It is a special form of critical activity, maybe comparable to mathematics. It is an opportunity for a certain kind of reflection along any domain or dimensionality that you want. Mathematics is, of course, confined by its concern: relations of quantity or metrics of different kinds. But the challenge of art can happen with the humorous, the beautiful, the ugly, the dancerly, the religious, the masturbatory, whatever. You name it; it is open. And it is open—going back to the point that you made earlier—in exactly the way that philosophy is open.

AM: I am curious about the political repercussions that might result from the positions that you take in your book. By political, I mean an individual’s relationship to power and status in society. How does the idea of embodied consciousness affect the individual, their performance, and their objects, either culturally or practically? At the beginning of chapter four, “Wide Minds,” you state something that correlates very specifically to my interests: “Our bodies and our minds are active. By changing the shape of our activity, we can change our own shape, body and mind. Language, tools and collective practices make us what we are.”3 Your statement might suggest that the individual is not so much structured by external forces, but produces them as well; these two things go hand in hand.

While you don’t talk much about politics directly in the text, I think there is a political position that is hinted at. And certainly the production of this book is a political gesture in the world of neuroscience.

AN: That is certainly true. In a way I wrote it to be confrontational. At one level, I would say, I wanted to attack the authority of a certain conception of our selves, and that is a political act. But the reason I want to attack it is because it stands in the way of full actualization.

There is a political ramification regarding power and self-determination. At one point I thought of calling the book At Home in the World—the idea that our relation to where we are is one of comfort and integration. There is a freedom that comes through knowing one’s way around, how to get things done, and how to bring things into focus through action, movement, and thought. The view that I am recoiling from is an individualistic view, which presents us as radically separated from each other and from the world around us. As if we are submariners locked out of being at one with the world around us because we are stuck inside a ship and all we can read are the signals on our dashboard.

Historically, those ideas came down to us out of the Enlightenment. At one time, this kind of naturalistic celebration of the individual was a source of freedom, power, and emancipation. But it is not anymore. Now I think it is a burdensome and alienating conception of what we are, one that is implausible and cedes control of the project of what we are to biology. The theory of life is not the theory of things happening inside of organisms. Even in the purely biochemical sense, organisms are integrated with their worlds. There are complicated reciprocal and causal dynamics between the world and the individual. I think we can meaningfully talk about the individual and the environment, but it’s crazy to think of the individual as alone in the locus of its being.

Natural science really needs [to] free itself from these internal, individualistic prejudices in order to frame a conception of itself. For instance, you mention tools. We don’t just use tools as if there is our nature and then there is this cultural fact about us. The use of tools in an extended sense—clothing to keep us warm, houses to keep us from the weather—is an absolutely essential part of our mode of being. So any conception of biology has to recognize that we are tool users by nature; that is, we are cultural by nature. And once you do that, you need a new concept of biology.

I think it is worth noticing, and I make this point in the book, that neuroscience is really the last stronghold of this type of individualism. In other fields of biology there is greater sensitivity toward the integration of our species and the environment.

AM: You mentioned alienation earlier. Can you talk more about your use of that term?

AN: This is why I objected to your use of the term construction. In traditional Cartesian philosophy, all I am given are ideas or sense data, and through the critical powers of my own mind, I construct a world outside of me.


Alva Noë is a writer and philosopher at UC Berkeley, where he is also a member of the Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences and the Center for New Media. For the last decade or so his philosophical practice has concerned perception and consciousness. His current research focus is art and human nature.

Before coming to Berkeley in 2003, Noë taught in the department of philosophy at UC Santa Cruz. He received a PhD in philosophy from Harvard University in 1995; he has a BA from Columbia (1986) and a BPhil from Oxford Universiy (1986). He has been a fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (2007-2008). He is a research associate of the CNRS laboratory Institut Jean-Nicod in Paris.

With this view, I don’t see you; I just see movement or color. To me that type of construction, which rejects the possibility of an encounter, is one that presents us as a kind of aliens who view that world. As if the only thing we can do is say, “It is blue and it is plastic, well, then, maybe it is a cup.” When, in fact, a cup is a prop in our skillful flowing life, it is something I use, and I never stand in that detached relationship to the cup. I reject this traditional entrenched view in the cognitive sciences, in which the only thing each of us knows is the contents of our initial states, and we can only make inferences about or guesses about everything else. As if our relationships to the world around us are that of anthropologists or spies. This is the notion of alienation that I want to reject.

AM: There is a passage in Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics in which he describes a boy continually throwing stones into a slowly moving stream to see the ripples that will form.4 Hegel suggests that the boy is doing this to make a beautiful moment appear. And this act for Hegel lifts the stone thrower’s “inner and outer world into their spiritual consciousness as an object in which they recognize their own self.”5 In other words, this action is an act of creation that in turn produces an embodied self-realization. So there is a direct relationship that Hegel is implying here between the individual and the world through the production of a transformative action, which we judge or admire because it is beautiful.

In “Estranged Labor” (from Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts), Marx seems to be drawing from Hegel when he describes the phenomena of species being—that people are connected to the world through its objects, elements, and materials, which we need for our survival, but which we also take care of so that we can utilize them for our survival.6 We understand the world by understanding our connections or dependences on these elements. In a sense, we are therefore in and of the world through these elements, which become part of or extensions of us.

But when we are separated from both the material and results through industrialized labor, we become estranged or alienated from the greater world around us, and this prevents us from seeing ourselves in the world. I feel this is similar to your critique of neuroscience’s internalized view. By transforming the things in our world, which we can then contemplate and see ourselves in, we transform how we both see and experience the world.

AN: That is interesting. I had not actually thought about my remarks in relationship with those ideas. One difference is that of ideology, because I say we are not alienated, but somehow we have accepted an ideology according to what we are. People are capable of great intimacy with each other, and yet according to a cognitive scientist’s description of the human predicament, all I ever hear are the noises that you emit. I never really hear your words. I never really encounter your meaning. I just see the movements and emissions that you make, which I interpret. But if I have the right skill and background, I can directly perceive and understand you, which is not a theoretical relationship.

There is this kind of hyper-theorizing, over-intellectualizing everything. Philosophy happens when you are trying to get a sense of where you are. Remarkably, when we get lost in this particular domain we start telling stories, in which we, or our brains, are vats constructing the world. And we lose sight of such fundamental phenomena as: I can know you, I can touch you, and I can make contact with the wall. How do I do that?

My father is an artist and when I was in college studying psychological theories of vision, I told him that the real problem facing a vision scientist is “How do we see so much, given how little information is actually encoded on the retina?” And my father replied, “The question isn’t how do we see so much; the question is why we don’t see anything.”

So why do we make one move and not the other? Why does the natural sciences find it so attractive to think about how we construct this fantastically detailed world, rather than, as my father suggested, the world is there and we are often blind and shockingly indifferent to it.

AM: I would like to talk about your recent collaborations with dancers and choreographers, which is quite interesting and perhaps somewhat unusual for a philosopher and cognitive scientist, although I can see parallels between some of the issues in dance and your research. How did this start?

AN: The hallmark idea of my first book, Action in Perception, is that we have a kind of mastery of the ways our own movement produces sensory change, and therefore our perception of the world depends on our bodies, skills, and familiarity with what happens when we negotiate the world.7 The book was noticed by people in the dance world—not millions of people but it had a history of reception in that community, which was completely unplanned by me.

A couple of different choreographers reached out to me at different times. In 2007, William Forsythe, who directs a rather large company, contacted me. Forsythe was very concerned with how to make his work available to people. He wanted to start a dialogue around creating objects, scores or context in which people could cultivate the knowledge to appreciate what dancers were up to. One of his ideas was that dancers are doing very difficult work that often involves—certainly in his practice and in that of the very best choreographers—various forms of problem solving. It is not just stand here, stand there, do this, do that. It is a kind of intellectual work. But your average audience member doesn’t have a clue about what that landscape for ideas and problems is. Forsythe has put together a whole team of people to work on issues related to that, and he initially approached me in that context. But we quickly came to the point where I recognized that I was way beyond that. I was interested in thinking of choreography as a form of philosophical research practice. We have been having a series of dialogs and conversations since. I am now officially the philosopher-in-residence with his company. We are going to develop a series of lecture performances, which are thought of as conversations and documentations of our shared interests, but also as works of art and genuine collaborations.

I am also teaching workshops with Nicole Peisl, a dancer in his company, at a few different venues in Europe. We are very interested in the kinds of problems that are constitutive of the problem of human consciousness: how we skillfully bring the world into focus, and how that way of thinking about ourselves can actually provide interesting compositional tools for a choreographer or dance-maker. We are trying to put artists—primarily dancers, but also scholars and theoreticians—together in a single room to think about what happens when a dancer and a philosopher try to create a common ground for consciousness and artistic composition.

AM: These lecture/performances sound like a fruitful way of engaging theory and practice around the manifestation of consciousness in our physical relationships with space. I was speaking with a good friend who is a dancer about Merce Cunningham, whose work my friend doesn’t really like to watch, as he finds it extremely dense and impenetrable. But he said his experience of learning and performing some Cunningham pieces was completely incredible. It took months and months of training, but afterwards, when he was walking down the street, his sense of direction had completely changed and become more ingrained. He felt grounded instead of lost. To think that a dance form, which is produced for and takes place in a theater on a stage, can change your relationship to a city, street, or even a forest, is quite remarkable and points to a number of the issues you are concerned with in Out of Our Heads.

AN: Yes, that is just one example. Cunningham is a very special case because of the very precise and rigorous vocabulary that he has to think about the body’s alignments and geometries. I can imagine that it would change your feeling about yourself to internalize and learn that.

There is tremendous opportunity for interesting conversation, learning, and experimentation, in which you can find ways of bringing those different styles of thinking and practices together. That is really what I am doing with Bill and Nicole. I am looking at whether their tools and their skills can take me someplace where I could not go otherwise and vice versa.

I find that artists are very hungry for ideas as a population. And maybe that’s partly because they look at everything as material. They are interested in finding the next place where their inspiration will come from. That is a silly way of putting it, perhaps, but I certainly find that some of the most engaged audiences I ever encounter are art audiences.

AM: Have you ever participated as a performer in one of these classes and if so, has your theory shifted as a result?

AN: Absolutely, I have. In the case of Forsythe’s company, the dancers are people whose bodies are cultivated in ways that I can’t even imagine. They are so advanced, so cultivated in the spaces that they are occupying and the things that they do. But that said, I do move in these workshops. In these ones that Nicole and I will be giving, there will be movement parts of the workshop that she will be leading and there will be thinking parts of the workshop that I will be leading.

AM: Has the experience of understanding space through dance and consciousness through dance shifted your thinking in terms of consciousness? Or is it too early to say?

AN: It may be too early to say. Certainly my idea all along has been that consciousness is something we perform in our stage setting of the world, so in some sense I already come to dance with a conception of experience that is dancelike. This is one of the things that I would say about Out of Our Heads; if the core idea is that consciousness is something that we do, achieve or perform—not something that happens to us or in us, or that can be understood in isolation from how we are situated—then dance is a working model of what an experience is.

A further connection is that aesthetic criticism—like the aesthetic challenge of comprehending a dance, making sense of it—is a model of phenomenology, in the particular sense that it is the task of understanding our experience. Phenomenology has often presented puzzles, and philosophers have always worried about the capacity to study and reflect on experience. Philosophers will say that introspection is unreliable and there are no objective criteria for whether you are introspecting adequately. But one of the ideas I am developing in this work is that actually we have a paradigm of what it would be like to investigate one’s own experience and it is aesthetic criticism.






1.  Alva Noë, Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness, (New York: Hill and Wang, 2010).

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Aesthetics, Lectures on Fine Art, translated by T.M. Knox (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975). §4, 107

5. Hegel, Ibid.

6. Marx, Karl, "Estranged Labor", in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (New York: International Publishers 1964). 114 “It is just in his work upon the objective world, therefore, that man first really proves himself to be a species being. This production is his active species life. Through and because of this production, nature appears as his work and his reality. The object of labor is, therefore, the objectification of man's species life: for he duplicates himself not only, as in consciousness, intellectually, but also actively, in reality, and therefore he contemplates himself in a world that he has created. In tearing away from man the object of his production, therefore, estranged labor tears from him his species life, his real objectivity as a member of the species and transforms his advantage over animals into the disadvantage that his inorganic body, nature, is taken away from him.”

7. Alva Noë, Action in Perception (Representation and Mind), (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006).

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