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The Art Historian and the Neurobiologist:
A Conversation About Proprioception, the "I-function", Body Art, and ... Story Telling?

Kristine Stiles and Paul Grobstein

I have tried to find other references to the relationship between proprioception and this term - "I-Function" ... Kristine Stiles (KS), 16 October 2005

I coined the term "I-function" for what I still think were some very good reasons but for some equally good subsequent ones I've tended to more recently use the term "story teller" in its stead ... Curious to hear more about your interest in this subject ... Paul Grobstein (PG), 16 October 2005

I wanted to use the idea of "I-Function" because it is descriptive of proprioception as an aspect of what happens in Body Art ... Kristine Stiles, 16 October 2005

[putting some of this] on the web would document your contribution to the development of ideas in neurobiology in the same sense that reference to me and the student papers in your essay would show some impact of neurobiology on art history ... I'm intrigued as well by the interdisciplinary and trans-platform (traditional and web publishing) aspects of a joint project of this kind, and would be pleased if you were as well ... Paul Grobstein, 22 October 2005

As for posting aspects of our dialogue on serendip, I would be honored ... The idea that art, art history, and neurobiology have something to say to one another is marvelous and certainly most welcome in the interdisciplinary climate of Duke, as well as, I suspect, Bryn Mawr ... Kristine Stiles, 22 October 2005

Follow the continuing dialogue excerpted from an ongoing email exchange

Join the conversation yourself in the On-line forum or email us.

KS to PG, 16 October 2005

I read a paper by one of your students - Eliza Windsor - online entitled "The I-function and Alzheimer's Disease: Where is the Person?" The article was particularly intriguing regarding proprioception and the notion of the "I-Function." I have tried to find other references to the relationship between proprioception and this term - "I-Function" - but her only footnote is to a lecture that you gave at Bryn Mawr. Is this a concept that you developed, or does it come from psychology? Could you please suggest a source for further reading?

PG to KS, 16 October 2005

Thanks for your interest. I'm afraid you would indeed have trouble finding other references to the "I-function". Its an idiosyncratic term that I developed in the course of teaching and have used for a number of years. There are a number of references to it on our Serendip website but the only "traditional" publication in which I'm sure it is used is a chapter of mine in a collection of philosophy essays. A version of that essay is available on Serendip.

I coined the term "I-function" for what I still think were some very good reasons but for some equally good subsequent ones I've tended to more recently use the term "story teller" in its stead (cf an essay on psychotherapy and the brain and a conversation on the brain and literature). In both contexts, what is being referred to is those aspects of brain function that support/create "consciousness" (as opposed to the much larger sphere of brain function that supports behavior without consciousness). In this regard, what's interesting about proprioception (to me at least) is that it represents an enormous and continual barrage of incoming information that greatly influences our behavior but that we (the I-function/story teller) has little or no direct access to.

Curious to hear more about your interest in this subject and happy to help if I can with additional less idiosyncratic references. There is some nice older stuff on the relation between proprioceptive input and consciousness, and probably some newer stuff too.

KS to PG, 16 October 2005

Thanks so very much for getting back to me so quickly. I did consult all your students' papers on the web at Serendip and realized that it must be something you were developing, which is why I wrote to you. I wanted to use the idea of "I-Function" because it is absolutely descriptive of proprioception as an aspect of what happens in Body Art (both in terms of the viewer and the artist). I will excerpt a section of an essay I am writing on the very well-known (well, infamous) performance artist Chris Burden. I'd love to have your thoughts.

In White Light/White Heat (February 8-March 1, 1975), Burden remained invisible on an elevated platform in the Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York for twenty-two days in 1975, neither seeing nor speaking to anyone and not coming down. Based on the title of John Cale's 1967 song about heroin addiction sung by the Velvet Underground, Burden's own title obliquely referred to the physical and visual effects of heroin, including sensory deprivation and physical isolation, as the drug slows respiration and heart rhythms, lowers the body's temperature, constricts the pupils, and also makes one indifferent to pain, grief, fear, hunger, and cold. Eating nothing and drinking only 6 oz of celery juice a day (known for its utility in lowering and maintaining blood pressure and for its calming effects), Burden achieved a similar, although non-toxic state. Read through the normative conditions for seeing art, White Light/White Heat rendered the viewer effectively blind, submitting sight to the contemplation of that which could not be seen. Burden's inaccessibility in visual terms required viewers to experience art through other means than mere looking, and to connect visibility to invisibility conceptually. Denying his public the opportunity to view anything but the architectural and institutional setting, Burden left visitors with a stark minimalist sculpture saturated with light, and the very important pledge that he inhabited the space. Significantly, by removing himself from view, Burden strategically refused to accede to what Frank Perrin has called "the egotistical desires of artists and American society in general".

By restricting what spectators may witness and validate as the truth, Burden expanded viewers' ability to attend to other corporeal possibilities and heightened their senses, aiming for them to discern his presence in the gallery and "feel that something was wrong." Such "feelings" were enhanced by Burden's body art, emphasizing physiological methods of perception over those of vision and activating viewer proprioception, or what neurobiologist Paul Grobstein has referred to as the "I-function." Proprioception is a mechanism of the central nervous system that governs one's awareness of self, most significantly through determining which senses identify environmental stimuli and the enable decision-making that is necessary not only for wellbeing but also for survival. A familiar example of the operations of proprioception is how the mind produces the sensation of pain in an absent limb. In a parallel way, Burden produced an experience akin to that of the phantom limb by making himself visually unavailable and leaving viewers feeling that something was amiss in the gallery. The mild psychological disturbance, described by one critic (Robert Horvitz) as the feeling that the room was "haunted ... by the vacuum of his withheld presence," is precisely the kind of proprioceptive experience that supports survival mechanisms of the body.

From a draft of an essay in progress. Titled "Burden of Light" the final version of the essay by Kristine Stiles will appear in the forthcoming (2006) Chris Burden by Merrel and Locus Plus, Newcastle, England.

PG to KS, 20 October 2005

I enjoyed reading your essay, agree that there is indeed an interesting "brain" issue here, and understand much better the source of your interest in the notions of "proprioception" and the "I-function". All that in turn encouraged me to try and clarify in my own mind a set of related issues. Which unfortunately puts me at risk of the proverbial "I never ask him questions because he always tells me more than I want to hear" problem. I'll trust you to winnow to what is useful to you, ask further questions should there not be enough on particular points, and redirect based on your own perspectives and understandings so I can continue to learn from your work too.

The "I-function"

Since the "I-function" is my own neologism, I can legitimately claim that it means what I want it to mean. Which, however, doesn't mean the meaning mightn't change over time. Nor, of course, that I shouldn't be as clear as possible about what I actually mean by it (at any given time at least). The term originated in my mind from a set of observations to the effect that people with certain forms of brain damage were able, under certain circumstances, to point to objects in the world that they reported themselves being unable to see ("blindsight"). My inference was that what was damaged in such cases related to the particular and specific capability of saying "I saw that" while sparing an underlying and more general capability of acquiring and acting on information about things in the world. Hence, a disturbed "I-function", and an operational distinction between two kinds of brain function that corresponds roughly to "unconscious" and "conscious" processing (terms I chose not to use because they carry all sorts of ancillary baggage).

Related phenomena occur in all sensory modalities, and don't at all depend on brain damage (we get and act on lots of sensory input without noticing either). An important further insight into them derives from some additional particularities of brain organization. All incoming sensory information goes first to the "unconscious" part of the nervous system and only subsequently and after processing there does it reach the "I-function". The important point here is that our conscious experience is necessarily and always an interpretation of signals received from the unconscious; we (our I-functions) have no direct information about what is "out there". What we experience (and hence what we are capable of reporting to others through the "I-function") is inevitably an interpretation involving prior processes in the nervous system of which we are unaware (and hence what we experience, and in some cases report, might in principle always be experienced/reported in some other way).

From the "I-function" to "the story teller"

In recent years, I've tended to replace the term "I-function" with the term "story teller". In part, this is to give increased emphasis to the point that the interpretation "might in principle always be ... other", ie that there is an arbitrariness, and potentially a creative/discretionary element, inherent in the process that produces what we are aware of. In addition, it has become clear to me that not all awarenesses are centered around "I"; the story may be one not of "self", as it often is for many of us in modern western culture, but can also be about ... communities or other less individualized, egocentric actors. Thirdly, the original I-function concept seemed to make the process equivalent to verbal report/language usage, and it is clearly not. It is a process on which language depends but one that exists prior to language (see Polanyi on "Tacit Knowledge"). Perhaps most importantly, in the context of your interests, the story (our awareness, what we experience and are capable of reporting to others) is not actually as tightly bound to what one sees (ie to signals received from things "out there") as one tends to presume (and is implied by the original motivations of the term "I-function"). There is a substantial capacity of the nervous system to generate signals inside itself and these can/do play a substantial role in generating the signals from the unconscious that are the grist from which what we experience arises Hence, what I originally thought of as the "I-function" I now usually write/talk about as the "story teller", referring to a subset of brain activity that has the properties described (including the originally focused on ability to support "I saw that") but may also to varying degrees be relatively independent of sensory input.


Proprioception" is, of course, not my neologism and, like all commonly used terms, has a variety of meanings. None of them are co-extensive with what I mean by I-function/story teller (nor, I suspect, are they actually quite what you are reaching for) but many of them intersect with both in interesting ways that I think are quite relevant to your concerns. In its most general sense, which I think is the one you are partly (but not completely) interested in,"proprioception" refers to one's sense of one's own body as opposed to one's sense of things outside oneself ("exteroreception"). This distinction is a little muddy in some ways (is the sense of being upside down a sense of one's body alone or a sense of one's body in relation to something outside?) but useful in others (the sense of one's arm as being perpendicular to one's body as opposed to being parallel to it; the sense of one's knee as bent or straight, etc etc). Perhaps the most important use of the distinction is that it calls attention to a large class of inputs to the nervous system which tend otherwise to be ignored: the inputs from "proprioceptors", a very large group of sensory neurons that are designed (by evolution of course) to report to the nervous system information about the state of muscles, joints, and other body parts (in contrast to "exteroreceptors" that have evolved more to report information on things outside the body; these include those of the eye, ear, nose, etc etc). Here too, there is some fuzzy ground (the eyes, a classic "exteroreceptive" system turn out to play a major role in "proprioception"; this is why one can get dizzy in a movie theater), but also some usefulness in the distinction. To a not bad first approximation, proprioceptors provide the input that influences proprioception and exteroreceptors provide the input that influences exteroreception. And what's interesting (and I hope relevant) about that is that what I said earlier about "seeing" (and other examples of exteroception) is even more so for propriception.

Proprioception and the "I-function/story teller"

By and large, activation of exteroreceptors is associated with an internal experience that, among other things, includes an association with the particular kind of exteroreceptors activated ("seeing" is different from smelling, tasting, hearing, etc). To put it differently, in the case of exteroreceptors the I-function/story teller gets from the unconscious (which, as you'll remember, is where all sensory signals go originally) some indication of the origin of the signals it has processed to generate the signals it sends on to the story teller. For proprioceptive signals these seems largely to be not so. In fact, for most people at most times, proprioceptive signals provide a perfect parallel in the intact nervous system to the phenomena of blindsight mentioned above. The signals play an enormous role in our behavior but we (our I-function/story tellers) are for the most part oblivious to their existence (this is the origin of the notion of "five senses", which persists in most textbooks despite the modern understanding that proprioception is a major input path to the nervous system). We may know (have the experience/story) that we are upside down but we have no information about how we know that.

Its for this reason that "proprioception" is sometimes referred to as "body knowledge", with the implication that it is somehow outside of or otherwise different from what goes on in the brain/nervous system. It isn't actually outside the nervous system nor is it in fact qualitatively different from exteroreception in its engagement with the unconscious. Our sense of what is outside ourselves as well as of our own bodies are equally rooted in processing occurring within the unconscious. The difference between the two has to do instead with the nature of the signals sent from there to the I-function/story teller (and, probably, vice versa). There is lots of information about the body that is being used by the unconscious to control behavior without it being transmitted to the I-function/story teller in any form that makes it apparent in the story as a distinct kind of information. Without our being "conscious" of it.

To say though that "proprioception" itself is "unconscious" (as many textooks and dictionaries do) is, however, seriously misleading. Just as it would be misleading to say that seeing is conscious. We may reposition our arm relative to our body without being aware of it but we may also have a clear experience of repositioning our arm relative to our body. Just as we may point to a visual input without being aware of it OR have an experience of doing so. Both exteroreception AND proprioception may but need not play a role in the story which is conscious experience. The only difference is that the story teller seems to have (or thinks it has) a little more information about what signals the unconscious got in the exteroreceptive case than it does in the proprioceptive case.

What makes this all worth wading through I hope (for you; for my part, it has already helped me to sort some things out I needed to sort out) is that it establishes that there is not a simple one to one relationship between "proprioception" and "I-function/story teller" (which both the existing term and my older neologism perhaps might have been heard as suggesting). There are interesting differences between one's sense of one's own body (and its relation to other things) and one's sense of the world but they are not exactly or simply parallel to an unconscious/"I-function" distinction either, which is the one I started with. Proprioception, as that term is most generally used, may be either unconscious or conscious, and distinguishes not quite "self " from other but rather one's own body from things outside one's body, which is an interestingly different thing. On the other hand, my sense is that what you are reaching for may actually have less to do with "proprioception", as that term is generally understood (contra "exteroreception"), and may instead be quite parallel to the unconscious/story teller distinction as it has evolved in my own thinking.

The story teller as more general than "proprioception" and its relation to Burden/contemporary art

For both of us (I think) what we are intrigued by isn't so much proprioception as "body", but rather proprioception as what the etymology of the term makes it seem to be: that which we as individuals uniquely possess, that which is "our own", our "self", and the relation of that to what is outside our self (which can, it turns out include, among other things, the body). The story teller (which I suggest is/creates that) "thinks it has ... a little more information" about one thing than another). Working along the same lines is your interest in phantom limbs, and in the "mild psychological disturbance" that you (I think correctly) see as produced when Burden "supplanted viewersÕ knowledge-by-sight, awakening psychophysical felt relations to presence in place, space, and time". It is the nature of this "mild psychological disturbance" (which can be common to experiences either of the outside world or of the body) that you suggest is at the core of the Burden performance piece and that, following you, I would tend to argue, is actually at the center of not only much of performance art but of much of contemporary art generally.

Let me focus a bit on the phantom limb phenomenon to try and reinforce my sense of the important differences between "self" and "body" (as generally understood in the term "proprioception") and, in so doing, to try and better characterize the "mild psychological disturbance" that is applicable both vis a vis body and vis a vis other things. The first and perhaps most important general difference is that the body can affect the nervous system (via proprioceptors) with or without awareness of it, ie with or without any experience of the body, with or without any change in the "sense of the body". A "sense of the body", on the other hand, is (normally) part of consciousness, ie it is an aspect of the what is created by the "I-function"/story teller" as part of its story. The phantom limb is clear evidence of this. One "experiences" a missing limb not only in the absence of the ability to see it but also in the absence of any proprioceptive sensory input from it (which is destroyed by the same amputation that precludes seeing it). To put it differently, the phantom limb is a creation of the story-teller based on input from the unconscious in the complete absence of any sensory signals at all about or originating in the limb. Without the creation of a story of a self with a limb, there wouldn't BE a "phantom limb". The existence of a phantom limb is inextricably bound up with the creation of a story . Because there is a story, there is a "self" that has a "body" with a "limb". Notice that this is not only a quite different "limb" than would be so identified by an external observer, it is also a quite different "body" AND "self". To an external observer, the terms refer to things they see. Here all three terms refer to story telling elements.

From this perspective, what is really interesting to a neurobiologist and, I'm suggesting, in this case, to an art historian as well, is not the narrower question of where a "body" comes from, nor even the broader question of where a "self" comes from, but rather the still broader question of where "story telling elements" of ALL kinds come from, a question that perhaps significantly also recently arose in the mind of a novelist ("How does ... unconscious impulse create ... metaphor?"). I can't fully answer that question, but do think its an important one to be asking in a lot of contexts (including neurobiology) and one on which at this point new progress can be made (cf and by thinking more about, among other things, story telling, modern art, and "mild psychological disturbances".

The story teller and "mild psychological disturbances" as an art form

Let's take it as a given that there is a part of the brain (the story teller) whose organization is such that it takes a cacaphony of signals from the unconscious and does the best it can to shape a single coherent story to account for them (a presumption that is consistent with neurobiological observations but the specifics of which require further clarification in terms of neurobiological detail; see ). Let's further take it as a given that the cacaphony of signals coming from the unconscious may itself by influenced by things outside the nervous system (both the world and the body) but can also reflect signals originating inside the nervous system itself (that signals can originate within the nervous system is well supported neurobiologically; cf Now let's imagine that in the construction of story elements and, ultimately, the story itself (the currently experienced "who I am/what I see/feel/think/am doing"), the story teller looks repeatedly compares candidate stories with the unconscious inputs, looking for consensus support for particular elements of the story. Those elements with lots of consensus support are solid/firm/"real" and those with less support are less so and, in turn, make less stable the overall story of which they are a part. Bingo, a "mild psychological disturbance", ie some instability in the overall story, when some unconscious signals support "Burden is on the platform" and others ("seeing") don't.

"Mild psychological disturbances" of exactly this kind are associated with both motion sickness and jet lag, other cases in which it is difficult for the story teller to achieve easy consensus across signals coming from the unconscious. In those cases, of course, there tends to be less "artistic" benefit. But one might well imagine that contemporary artists are discovering that the fact that "mild psychological disturbances" of related kinds can in fact create somewhat unstable stories that have more appeal, that viewers are attracted to for a variety of reasons, including, perhaps, their function, a stimulus for new kinds of thoughts/explorations that in turn lead on to an improved story telling capability overall. Much of surrealism makes sense, it seems to me, in these terms. As does a significant amount of both performance and installation art? I was at MOMA last weekend, and there is a piece there in the contemporary galleries (I didn't get its name or that of the artist) that involved entering a dark space within which there was a blue .... something. Much of the power of the piece (for me at least) related to the fact that one was unable to determine with any certainty exactly what its shape was or where it was located with respect to one, and so the "story" of it was highly (and intriguingly) unstable.

This "story" of mine built on yours is, of course, itself of uncertain stability but, in going back to the fragment of the essay you sent, I'm struck by "Burden's own title obliquely referred to the physical and visual effects of heroin, including sensory deprivation ...". Clearly the degree of stability of "story" and the destabilizing effects on story of reduction of sensory input (this is in fact one of the strongest lines of evidence for signals being generated inside the nervous system: reduction of signals coming from the outside enhances rather than diminishes story production) was a major consideration on Burden's mind. So, perhaps another bit of support enhancing the stability of this particular jointly constructed story?

KS to PG, 22 October 2005

On the contrary, you have not given me too much. Your response is terrific and just what I needed. Far too few scholars share their time, work, or thought processes as generously as you have and I am very grateful.

I'm glad my effort to understand and apply proprioception to the conditions set up by Burden's performance "White Light White Heat" prompted you to want to clarify your idea of what I still want to call your concept of the "I-function." Moreover, I think you should publish this material and I'd be happy to think that our conversation nudged you toward that end. Second, while I understand why you shifted to the term "story teller," I think it is too soft to support the rigorous import of your observations and argument and, moreover, pushes the concept of the "I-function" toward myth, folklore, and territories of experience that must by definition remain vague, open, and fluid. Whereas it seems to me that you (and certainly I) are seeking to describe aspects of behavior and cognition that have been far too long unexplained, or left at the edge of explanation, which makes them vulnerable to colonization by the occult or merely considered as extreme anomalies (such as, for example, the whole question of the phantom limb, which you address so well below and which I thoroughly understand, but which I disagree with you is better understood through the word "story teller" as opposed to "I-function").

More to the point, there is an intriguing overlap between the brain-damaged, "blindsighted" person you describe and Burden's sight-deprived viewers in terms of the operations of consciousness and unconscious (even bearing in mind the baggage to which you refer, as well as your point that, "All incoming sensory information goes first to the 'unconscious' part of the nervous system and only subsequently and after processing there does it reach the 'I-function'"). But as Alain Berthoz writes in The Brain's Sense of Movement (Harvard, 2000), "[K]inesthesia's [namely aspects of proprioception] characteristic feature is that it makes use of many receptors, but remarkably it has been forgotten in the count of the senses." One "plausible explanation," for this, he adds, "is that it is not identified by consciousness, and its receptors are concealed (25)." Thus, clearly Berthoz and you (as well as I in the context of art) are attempting to discuss a phenomenon that is itself invisible and its markers - unlike the other senses - are also invisible. On this point you write, " we (our I-functions) have no direct information about what is 'out there'." So what I am suggesting is that what may be happening in the body of viewers, in Burden's body, in the blindsighted people, in proprioceptive aspects of kinesthesia, is unknown but related, which is very different from suggesting that it is unconscious.

In addition, I'm not sure that what one reports about experience should be called only "interpretation" (even if it literally is) since it would be the same for anything one would say about the body's sensations, perceptions, and senses. As we do not speak in terms of brain functions, synapses, or the operations of the nervous system when we report on experience, it seems dismissive to call what we are able to say "interpretation," thereby diminishing the authority one has over describing one's experiences. Therefore, I don't think it's useful to talk about the "I-function" as "interpretation." OK. I know this is odd - to have someone (especially in the humanities) arguing with you about your own concept, but here we are.

Let me tell you then why I like your term "I-function." It directly indexes the source of proprioceptive experience as it belongs properly to the body/person, or we could also say "a person's body." As far as proprioception (or the I-function) being "creative, arbitrary, discretionary," non-verbal but language-dependent, my thought would be "of course." But whereas for me as an art historian/theorist that does not pose a problem, for you as a scientist/theorist it poses the usual problem of the worn out scientific method, which cannot answer anomalies or the unexplained. You seem to be approaching those territories when you want to extend proprioception to whole "communities or other less individualized, egocentric actors." While I believe that such communal senses can and do occur, at least for the purpose of locating a place for discussing the conditions of proprioception in the brain, I'd rather stay in a more confined (controlled?) frame of reference. Lest I appear to be throwing Polyani back at you by pointing out that science itself is not value free, etc, let me just say that I'm trying only to stay closer to the topic of the I-function, which seems to me to wander too much when it becomes "story-teller." And of course what one reports is infused with all kinds of extraneous - or not - experiences and perceptions. Still, we have to say something in order to communicate.

What I was trying to get at is that "something" took place between Burden's absent body and the bodies of his blindsighted viewers, and that it had something to do with proprioception. Moreover, what I am most interested in is that proprioception has something to do with survival. On that point Berthoz made a very provocative, but truncated observation: "A muscle actually contracts very slowly. It attains its maximum force about 80 milliseconds after a neural command. Eighty milliseconds is a very long time ifc you are trying to get away from a predator (28)." Berthoz did not emphasis the sentence about predators, I did. The problem of proprioception, as I see it, is its relationship to survival - or as you put it (not intending the question of survival): "There is lots of information about the body that is being used by the unconscious to control behavior without it being transmitted to the I-function/story teller in any form that makes it apparent in the story as a distinct kind of information. Without our being 'conscious' of it [even as to say that we are unconscious is equally wrong]." I understand this tension. But the point for me is not "story telling," again it is survival; and how the body is calibrated to do just that, how we have lost connection to that calibration - I ride horses and see their proprioception/survival efforts vividly all the time. (By the way, I do understand that proprioception refers to the "very large group of sensory neurons to the nervous system information about the state of muscles, joints... etc)," as you write; indeed, my first brush with proprioception was in the dentist office when my bite needed to be recalibrated.)

As an historian of contemporary art, I would have to argue that only some kinds of art - in particular body art, action art (I actually hate the term "performance" for its connection to theater, which the best of body art decidedly is not) - access this primitive survival function. Your term "I-function" resonates just on that point - primitive/survival - so broadly for me and relates directly to Burden's work. Furthermore, the "psychological disturbances" to which I have referred are also related to survival mechanisms, which I do not recognize as related to what you describe as "the instability in the overall story." On the contrary, they ARE the story and it is not unstable at all, but rather demanding, threatening, and necessary. (Tangentally, Surrealism has some areas of cross-over in so far as there would be no body/action art without its effort to get into the unconscious, without Abstract Expressionism further interpretation of autonomatism, without Happening artists further reinterpretation of Pollock's automatic painting as body-centered and therefore an action that rendered painting unnecessary altogether.)

So I come to the end of my response. Are we in this long exchange at an impasse? I've arrived at survival and you are telling stories about the stories we tell ourselves neurobiologically/socially. Perhaps we can agree that this is the broader territory of proprioception?

PG to KS, 30 October 2005

What might under some circumstances be "impasse" is, in this case, as intriguing and promising a challenge as I could ask for. From this end too, "your response is terrific and just what I needed ... Far too few scholars share ... as generously as you have and I am very grateful." Too. And so I too "keenly look forward to continuing this dialogue" and to the various things we might make of it. Hence, without further ado ....

I really was/am/continue to be very gratified that the "I-function" concept resonates with/seems useful to you. And I think I now have a still better understanding of why. Moreover, you have taught me something useful about my own neologism. I won't give up what is, for my purposes, a needed adjustment/extension of the original idea signalled by my tendency to shift to "story teller", but have already found myself sensitized to the point where I think twice before using "story teller" (and often end up, not particularly elegantly, using "I-function"/"story teller", cf. Let me try and walk through why this is so, certainly for my benefit and perhaps (hopefully) for yours as well.

If I'm reading your latest correctly, there are three features of proprioception and the "I-function" that are very compelling to you and that link them importantly. One is that "it belongs properly to the body/person", a second is that it "has something to do with survival", and the third is that it is "primitive". The upshot, if I'm understanding, is an argument that Burden's performance and the audience reactions to it constitute a form of art in which the exchange between artist and audience is at least quantitatively and perhaps qualitatively different from the much more mediated/interpretation-dependent exchange characteristic of many other forms of more "traditional" art. Assuming I've got this right, I agree with your conclusion, and am quite happy to have my neologism contribute to your argument.

More than that, I am pleased and grateful to have you point out aspects of the neologism that were implicit in it but are very much worth making more explicit. That the "I-function" has "something to do with survival" is a characteristic that is so assumed by me as a biologist that it would never have occurred to me to flag it as distinctive, but I now recognize the desirability of doing so in contexts where one is talking about things for which that presumption may not be automatic. In such contexts, I can readily see a usefulness in drawing attention to a distinction between things that may have more "to do with survival" and things that have more to do with .... something else (cultural norms? personal display? "aesthetics"? commercial return?).

"belongs properly to the body/person" is even more certainly an intended feature of the "I-function" neologism. In this case, though, I suspect my failure to adequately emphasize this particular feature has the opposite relation to context. Until quite recently, the notion of a meaningful "self" (something to which one might reasonably and productively attribute ownership) was not something within the professional vocabulary of very many neurobiologists/biologists/scientists (and its still probably not for very many). So I was looking for a term that finessed this particular issue. As it happens, one of the things that I have found most useful about the term is that it has given me a new (for me at least) way to think about the meaning of "self" (and ownership). For this reason, I am more than content at this point to have it made clearer that the neologism helps to make distinctions between things that more have the characteristic "belongs properly to the body/person" and things that less have that characteristic.

You may have detected a certain carefulness in the wording of that last sentence. Yes, I'm being deliberate/cautious here, for reasons I'll discuss more fully below. And I want to be even more so with regard to "primitive". The issue is not the question of possible value judgements associated with that word. I assume that you, like I, use "primitive" not as a pejorative term but rather as a neutral (or perhaps even positive) one (cf "'Primitivism' in 20th Century Art") to distinguish things that are in some sense more "basic" or "fundamental" from things that are less so.

Its here where the differences in the contexts within which you and I are working may be most obvious and relevant. In the context in which you are working, I'm more than happy, even pleased, to have attention drawn to the "primitiveness" of the "I-function". It is indeed something on top of which other things that are of interest in the context of art history (as well as many other contexts) are built and so is, in this sense, more "basic" or "foundational". The problem in my context is that the I-function is in turn built of still more "basic" or "foundational" things at a series of successively smaller scales (functionally distinct brain regions, circuits of neurons, neurons themselves), that things at these levels have in general been much better studied and so are better understood, and hence that the "I-function" is, from this perspective, not at all "primitive" but instead a highly organized arrangement of still more primitive elements.

In short, there is a matter of reference perspective here, what is more "primitive" from one location is less so from another. And part of the reason for creating the "I-function" neologism was to assert for people more familiar with more "primitive" things, the existence/significance of a less "primitive" one. That having been said, it has been, and will continue to be useful, even in my context, to emphasize more than I did originally, the "primitiveness" of the "I-function" relative to some other things. Among these, as I'll come to below, is "self".

The upshot, at this point, is that I accept and acknowledge with appreciation your highlighting three features of the "I-function" that I placed less stress on than I perhaps should have: it is more "primitive" than some other things, has more to do "with survival" than some other things, and is more something that "belongs properly to the body/person" than some other things. And I share your sense that we are both "seeking to describe aspects of behavior and cognition that have been far too long unexplained, or left at the edge of explanation". And I like a lot your notion that "what may be happening in the body of viewers, in Burden's body, in the blindsighted people, in proprioceptive aspects of kinesthesia is unknown but related". So where do we see things differently? There is clearly a difference of audience and reference perspective but is there something more? Anything else that we (and our respective audiences) might both learn from? Anything that might account for my inclination to continue transforming "I-function" into "story teller" despite all of the above?

I think there actually is, and that it doesn't actually involve any difference of opinion about whether science is "value free" nor any problem "of the worn out scientific method, which cannot answer anomalies or the unexplained". (I don't believe science is, could be, or should be "value free", and think "anomalies or the unexplained" are in fact the grist without which science wouldn't live; see and link from there to On the other hand, I do think we are in fact to some extent wrestling with a typical science/humanities difference but, interestingly, with each of us adopting the posture more stereotypically associated with the other's community. "too soft to support the rigorous import", "vulnerable to colonization by the occult or merely considered as extreme anomalies", "I'd rather stay in a more confined (controlled) frame of reference" are the sorts of things one might expect a scientist to say to a humanist (or a more cautious/less expansive scientist to a more less cautious/more expansive one; perhaps the same interaction occurs within the humanities and art history communities? see It would be interesting if there was some relation between that and our more specific differences about story telling and how to characterize "what may be happening in the body of viewers, in Burden's body, in the blindsighted people, in proprioceptive aspects of kinesthesia". Let's look more closely at those differences and then see if ...

Yes, it is indeed odd (and another part of our inverted postures) to have you (as a humanist) be resistant to talking about what the "I-function" does as "interpretation". I do though very clearly understand your concern that in doing so, one risks being heard as "dismissive" of the thing being talked about, as in "oh, that's only an interpretation; so I can ignore it in favor of something else". I assure you I don't at all intend to convey with "story teller" a justification for being dismissive in this way (or any other). The point here is not only that what the "I-function" does in this case is "literally" interpretation but, more generally, that EVERYTHING the "I-function" does is interpretation, so saying that a particular thing is interpretation CANNOT be dismissive. There simply isn't anything else to ignore it in favor of. All "experience", things in awareness/consciousness, are indeed "interpretations" in a very important sense: they reflect interactions of neurons/synapses/etc occurring in a way that is "itself invisible" and that could occur in other ways that would yield alternate interpretations/experiences.

I share your notion that it is important to avoid "diminishing the authority one has over describing one's experiences" but think one gets into several kinds of avoidable troubles if one tries to do it by denying that the thing one is interested in shares with other things an important common property of resulting from interpretation. And yes, one would like to avoid the mishmash of "infused with all kinds of extraneous" things but here too I think there are better ways. What one wants, from my perspective (and perhaps yours as well) is not to make a distinction between not interpreted and interpreted but rather to recognize a distinction between self and other that acknowledges some degree of interpretation as an element of both but yields more "authoritativeness" in the case of self .... without getting into a mishmash.

On the route to that (perhaps), let me raise an issue about "what may be happening in the body of viewers, in Burden's body, in the blindsighted people, in proprioceptive aspects of kinesthesia, is unknown but related, which is very different from suggesting that it is unconscious". If you heard/read me as suggesting that the similarity among these things was that they are all unconscious, then, given how well you've made sense of other things,I was not communicating well on that particular point. In fact, the similarity that I was trying to draw attention to (and that I think is quite close to what you are interested in) to is a similarity in consciousness, in experience.

What is common in all these cases is not at all that they are all unconscious. If fact, they all must have aspects of consciousness.. If they didn't, they wouldn't be reportable as experiences and we wouldn't be talking about them, much less intrigued by possible similarities among them. Nor is there any reason to think the similarities relate primarily to what is going on in the unconscious (the neurobiology implies they involve quite different neuronal systems doing quite different things). Hence the similarities among these things must have to do with similarities in the conscious realm. The similarities are not actually similarities "in the body of viewers" and in "Burden's body" nor in the unconscious of viewers and in Burdens' unconscious but rather in the experiences viewers have of (perhaps) their bodies, in the experiences Burden has of his body, the experiences those with phantom limbs have of their bodies, the experiences you have of your body when riding a horse (or having your jaw reset), and the experiences blindsighted people have of the world. To put it differently, the similarities are similarities at the level of the more interpreted thing (conscious experience) that are not present at the less interpreted one (things happening in the unconscious; this is one reason I want to emphasize the interpreted character of the I-function). They are similarities in the "story telling" elements rather than in the materials from which the stories are constructed.

In most of these situations, the story telling element which is relevant is the "body", and in this sense your use of "proprioceptive" to name the common thing is appropriate. Note though that it is not Berthoz "invisible" but rather the sense made of the invisible made by the "I-function"/"story teller" that is similar. The similarity is in what is EXPERIENCED in relation to the "body", and hence in the more interpreted realm (consciousness) rather than in the less interpreted one (the unconscious, with which Berthoz, following common usage, links proprioception). Another way to say the same thing is there is actually no "body" unless/until some significant interpretation has occurred. I think its also relevant that while many of the things on our list clearly involve experiences referred to one's own "body", some are less so and at least one (blindsighted people) may not be at all. What IS common to all of them is some referring of experiences to "self", a slightly broader story telling element that includes but is not entirely restricted to "body". In this case too its important to recognize the interpretive step: "self" doesn't exist either unless/until significant interpretation (of what is in the invisible unconscious) has occurred.

The issue here is not solely technical or "semantic". What I'd like to persuade you of (or have you dissuade me of) is not only that one can accept this particular interpretive step without cost (either to a sense of "authority" or by getting lost in the "mishmash") but that it opens things up a bit in some positive ways. One is NECESSARILY the "authority" with regard to one's sense of one's body or one's sense of one's self precisely BECAUSE it is an interpretation. It derives from things no one else can see and from an act of interpretation that no one else can duplicate. Hence one is the only authentic reporter of what one experiences with regard to body/self.

One is, of course, the only "authentic" reporter of what one experiences oneself with regard to "other", the large additional class of story telling elements that includes things like chairs, tables, paintings, body art, Chris Burden, art historian, neurobiologist, and so forth). These though are consensual story telling elements, aspects of the interpretive activity in going form the unconscious to consciousness that we (most of us, to varying degrees) have collectively agreed relate not to "us" but to commonly observable "others" and so are subject to continual negotiation and renegotiation by interpersonal story comparison. Hence the "mishmash", which actually results not from the interpretive character of story telling elements in general but rather from an additional ingredient of some of them: the potential usefulness of trying to achieve consensus among a group of story tellers. In talking about one's own body/self, the mishmash is (doctors and parents notwithstanding) irrelevant; one is, for these particular story telling elements, the authority. They may also be more primitive or foundational in an additional sense. Antonio Damasio (a neurobiologist who you might be interested in reading if you haven't) has written extensively about the origins of a sense of body/self and makes a strong case that these story telling elements reflect a distinction between a "proto-self" and other that originates in the unconscious.

At the same time, since body/self ARE story telling elements and hence interpretations, they are not fixed and unchallengeable. One's sense of body/self can and does change (with input from other people not being completely irrelevant), and one can conceive of bodies/selves other than the one one has and use one's alternate conceptions to change one's own sense of one's body/self (trans-sexuality is a particularly dramatic case in point; see This might seem to undercut the argument made above for the absence of mishmash and resulting "authority" in the case of body/self as story telling elements. In fact, I don't think it does. These elements are MORE "foundational" and "primitive" than others but not entirely fixed, and it is because of their lability that we have some control over ourselves (which I take as, at least potentially, a good thing). One can have MORE primitive, MORE "belongs properly", MORE "has to do with survival" without having to give up the potential for self-directed change that comes from being an interpretive outcome, a story telling element.

Does this work better? What I'm offering you as a way out of the "impasse" isn't exactly your "broader territory of proprioception" but instead a more nuanced account of "story telling" (and consciousness), one in which it would be possible (indeed necessary) to distinguish multiple levels of "interpretation". A sense of body/self, though an interpretation, has more of those things you want to emphasize (and I am happy to do so as well) than other levels of interpretation/story telling while retaining some desirable (to me at least, maybe to you too?) fluidity. For my part, I've been vaguely aware for some time that the "story telling" neologism was going to need to be elaborated along these lines, and your challenge has clarified this need and begun to move me along a needed path. In these terms, I'm delighted to keep "I-function" in play, with its meaning elaborated by your thoughts/concerns about body/self/proprioception as a "primitive" in a story that is necessarily continuing to develop/evolve.

Whether it works for you is of course your story rather than mine (and I'm very much looking forward to finding out). Let me though return briefly to Burden and "mild psychological disturbances", and my own understanding of them (informed by your article). I fully agree with you that those the to Burden's work are MORE "related to survival mechanisms" than are many of the more traditional responses to many more traditional kinds of art. And that they "ARE the story .... rather demanding, threatening, and necessary". My point is not only that they are indeed "story" (ie experiences of which viewers are aware, and hence interpreted) but fundamentally dependent on story in an interesting way. Viewers would not, I'm suggesting, have had "mild psychological disturbances" UNLESS there was a story that could not be quite squared with the signals coming from the unconscious ("He IS there, but ... Isn't he?). That's what I meant "an instability in the overall story". Not that the story wasn't "demanding/threatening/necessary" but rather that that those characteristics of the experience derived from a difficulty in the viewer's ability to settle on a single coherent story about the situation. That, in turn, is VERY "demanding, threatening", in much the same way that motion sickness is. Indeed, for humans an inability to be certain of a story may be the most threatening thing there is (even if it isn't actually a threat to "survival" in many cases). And can/does itself trigger new signals from the unconscious that may get added to the story as signals referred to the body (nausea in the case of motion sickness, "tension" and "edginess" in other cases). Did something "take place between Burden's body and the bodies of his blindsighted viewers"? Not directly, so far as I know (as a neurobiologist), but it certainly did via the mediating influence of at least one set of story tellers (those of engaged audience participants) and probably two (Burden himself).

Enough for now? Almost certainly more than. But I can't resist looping self-reflectively back to our differing contexts, to our oddly inverted postures, to "too soft to support ... vulnerable to colonization", and to "rather stay in a more confined (controlled) frame of reference". With perhaps a dose of Pollock as well. Perhaps this might be relevant to something you might do for the Society for Literature, Science, and Art? In any case, I'm intrigued by "reinterpretation of Pollock's painting as body-centered and therefore an action that rendered painting unnecessary altogether". Pollock (and the surrealists before him) were indeed interested in what could be produced by action alone as opposed to deliberation/thought directed action. And I can understand that as "body-centered" though I'd be inclined to emphasize in this case not so much the body as the unconscious. All action is necessarily through the body and both from and via the unconscious; the issue is the extent to which it is or isn't informed as well by passage through the story teller on the way to outward expression. Western culture, and academic culture in particular, tends to put great pressure on people to constrain outward expression to that which has been passed through and edited by the story teller and often through multiple story tellers (reviewers, editors, and the like). There are, of course, benefits to running things through story tellers so I'm not inclined to feel that action "has rendered painting unnecessary altogether" (a concern of my daughter's, a senior with a combined major in art and philosophy who is herself a painter). Pollack, at least to me, got boring after a while. And its nice to have some winnowing of what would otherwise be an overwhelming amount of acting out. And thought/reflection/story telling/craft skill helps to avoid some of the hazards of being colonized by weird people or even being classified as weird oneself.

On the other hand, there are also downsides to thought/reflection/story telling/craft skill. As Pollock and the surrealists (among others) realized, there is lots of interesting and potentially productive stuff that might not make the various cuts represented by various testing and validating mechanisms and so would never see the light of day. One's own story teller makes some of these cuts; the academic world encourages that kind of cutting and of course does more of it itself. In addition, the academic world tends to restrict the flow of stories, largely channeling them within particular disciplinary communities. Maybe, as per our own exchange, there is something to be said for reducing the domination of the story telling process? Or at least creating avenues for less mediated/interpreted exchange? Yes, it puts one at risk of having to wade through more stuff, discriminating among things oneself rather than having it down for one. And yes, the lessened rigor might make one more challengeable, and perhaps even open the conversation to .... kooks. On the other hand, maybe even kooks have useful stories and perhaps the price overall isn't too high given the potential benefits? We don't seem to me to be doing too badly.

KS to PG, 30 October 2005

I have dashed through your amazing letter below and cannot give it my serious attention just now because I am leaving the country Wednesday ... I promise to get back to our challenging and engaging discussion when I return.

But I couldn't miss the chance to say that, of course, I agree with you about the word "primitive" and most heartily enjoyed the debate over MOMA's inappropriate use of the term ... Back to the word primitive, which I'd like to replace for our conversation with the word "animal." Is it possible that proprioception is a sense like the appendix is an organ that has mostly outworn its purpose for survival? Could we say this about so-called "psychic" phenomena and its relation to human animality and our survival?

You are right to say that we have both adopted the stereotypical mode of each other's disciplines in our "oddly inverted postures." I read your reason for doing so as exactly the same as mine, but opposite. I do so (probably defensively) because the material I work on is so fraught (for most people), especially scientists. After all, I work on the "craziest" of artists (Performance and Conceptual Art); on animal studies (especially horses); and, I'm not afraid to tell you that I also research such anomalies as psychic ability, about which I have written, lectured, and argued that it has something to do with survival/trauma/our "left-over" animality, to say nothing of the weird areas of quantum physics where electrons in super position act just the same way that the local psychic operates. OK - that's out of the closet. Now you may better understand the interest/overlap in my thinking about the cluster that includes body art/survival/animality (our "primitive" being)/anomalies of behavior and modes of knowing.

Can't close without also fessing up that you have unearthed something in my unconscious that I wasn't quite aware of until I met up with the phrase "story telling." Maybe I called it "soft" because I have an irrationally negative response to the notion of "story telling." ... So I want to ... think about about your letter carefully so that I may respond from the conscious self.

As for Pollock becoming boring: Check out "Portrait and a Dream," done just three years before he died. You won't be bored by it.

To be continued ...

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