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GIF Minutes for April 30, 2004

Prepared by Roland Stahl

Antonio Damasio. The Feeling of What Happens.

Attending: Paul Grobstein; Anne Dalke; Corey Shdaimah; Roland Stahl; Cheryl Selah; Judie McCoyd; Sam Glazier; Tom Young; Xenia Morin

Corey and Cheryl told us that they were going to have a Teaching Explorations meeting to plan for the next academic years. They asked the members of the GIF book group to provide suggestions for readings and presenters for next years Teaching Explorations seminars.

Anne started the discussion on "The Feeling of What Happens" by pointing to an apparent inconsistency in Damasio's argument. She argued that it seemed that Damasio provided two different conceptualizations of the difference between the 'core-consciousness' and the 'extended consciousness' at the beginning (p16) and toward the end of the book (217). We spent the first part of the meeting trying to understand the descriptions of Damasio's core concepts (the 'proto-self', the core-self, and the extended consciousness, for an overview see p. 310). The discussion focused mainly on the function of change in Damasio's theory. Paul explained that he didn't think that Damasio does mean to say that the core consciousness is not changing over time.

We then spent quite some time discussing an alternative 'theory of consciousness' which Paul offered. Paul's conceptualization of consciousness distinguishes two basic parts in the human brain: the unconsciousness and the I-Function. Damasio's proto-self is situated at the transition between the unconsciousness and the I-function in Paul's model, and Paul's I-function collapses Damasio's core-consciousness and extended consciousness.

Following Paul's description of his theory of consciousness we spend considerable time discussing the ontological state of memory and its function in theorizing consciousness. "Where does memory come from?" and "what role does memory play in terms of changing the Self" were the questions at the core of the debate. Paul argued that "memories are created on the fly" by which he meant that it is not possible to actually 'remember' something in the traditional sense of remembering. It is not the case that we can reach back into the depth of our stored memories and re-discover something that over time has become unconsciousness. Rather, the function of memories is to create stories when inconsistencies exist between the unconsciousness and the I-function. In that sense, no real temporal stability exists for memories. Repression is another way to attend to inconsistencies between the unconsciousness and the I-function but this leads to all the problems that psychologists describe when talking about repression. Corey and Anne then asked that - given that this postulate was true - how the unconsciousness could ever change. Corey argued that

"to say that memory really does not exist or that it is solely a creation of the moment we ostensibly recall seemed to me to be too extreme a position. It seems to me that we remember "something" i.e. that "something" actually happened that might be verifiable (to the extent that we can verify anything, if we agree for argumentation purposes that we aren't brains in a vat) through some form of corroboration by others or by physical artifacts or whatever. This thing or event is somehow stored in our brain and serves as something that we can then "work on" somehow, and to lose this is to lose part of our stability and sense of self. We will of course see whatever it is that is the subject of memory from our own perspective, and thus will enter that place of storage not untouched by us. I do agree with Paul that memory is also created when we draw on this event/thought/thing to the extent that we do so for particular reasons and we use it not so much for the past value but for the way it helps us understand and make sense of the present or further our current agenda, whatever that is. It's much like the kind of argument that Michel-Rolph Trouillot makes in "Silencing the Past" (and I'm sure lots of other historians make it too), which is that we select our memories, include and exclude selectively as well, color and shape them not only from our unique perspective taking them in but that we do so in drawing on them and using them. What he talks about is the way they are used for political purposes and the way nations tell stories, but I think we can draw similar parallels to the way that we as individuals draw on memory". (This part of the discussion notes was written by Corey).

We spent the rest of the meeting debating the memory problem and eventually decided to further discuss it in our next meeting.

The next meeting is June, 4th 2004, 1-3pm at the GSSWSR.

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