"Action is not done under the full control of consciousness;
action should be felt as a node, a knot, and conglomerate
of many surprising sets of agencies"
Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern
"So who is pulling the strings?
Well, the puppets do in addition to their puppeteers”
Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social
Some might call it being able to "multi-task" but that move shuts down what I feel to be a complicated and important ability we have to fragment our minds to be able to process different tasks simultaneously or switch from task to task without needing to start again from step 1.
Moving into application season, at the same time as term papers, while managing a list of other professional and personal works, I have become more and more aware that I've needed to be more than one person to get it all done at once.
As often as I have the benefit to do so, or when something receives the whole of my attention, I can use the fragmented abilities of my mind to receive, organize, and respond to multiple things at once to get the best visual picture of the situation that I can. When listening to a colleague make an astute point, it is helpful to be able to listen to their language (physical and verbal), imagine what they are saying, connect it with past experiences and conversations, then initiate numerous responses at once:
- listening with an initial head-nod,
- a probing question for the next pause in the conversation,
- what is their expected response to that question,
- the beginnings of a contribution for several minutes later when a more developed response will be expected,
- potential counter-points to that contribution,
- an off-topic joke or personal comment to ease tensions just in case they seem to be anxious about the matter at hand,
- some way to incorporate the other person at the table, who has been giving subtle signals of being bored and disengaged but not at a level which requires this task to be raised to a higher level of urgency (yet),
- what meeting do I have next?,
- did I remember to call my mother back?,
- this sitting position is uncomfortable, please shift it.
We all do it. Also, I might add I left out the other subtle dips we might take which can include many of the auto-responses of the body. This was listed in an order which somewhat suggests a hierarchy of thought, with the most attention being given to the higher and less engaged parts of the mind working over the lower. Within a moment however all that can change and it is not a perfect spectrum. Nonetheless, this gives the impression of the powers of the mind when most of it can be put on a single task.
When work piles up, however, which is the usual state of affairs, I find that I am able to designate parts of my thinking to specific tasks and use additional prostheses to my mental work that allow me to "wear many hats at once." The goal of this frame of mind is to give multiple things the benefit of my "100%" effort or my "full attention." The paradox is of course that in fragmenting my mind, it is no longer at 100% in the sense of being one whole thing. But the task still gets the 100% insofar as it gets a whole mind to focus on it. True, usually one mind is at the forefront, able to sit at a computer or work station and get the benefit of being "what I am doing right now." Still the other processes are going on. Even while one task is being worked on, my mind may look like this:
- ...the grant proposal needs to have language that better reflects the specific backgrounds of the participants and the institution. I made a draft of that earlier, where are my notes...
- ...the paper on Thomas Coryate needs to address his relations to language more in depth, but so far it has focused on his materiality. Derrida might be useful but might pose some problems...
- ....the seminar tomorrow has been trending towards disease, but has avoided discussing issues of how bodies might be read as normative versus diseased, or how disease may have been normalized...
- ... in the meeting tonight will probably end up reviving questions about the impact on the community, be good to look through my notes from two weeks ago to make sure we don't spend time simply regurgitating the same cycle of thought...
The effect of this from the outside is of course the appearance of some disorder, because the multiple notes, tools, computer files that I have open may seem like they are not connected and are just taking up space, but what is going on is the externalization of the thinking process using material aids so as to expand what I can think through by giving some of the tasks of memory or organization to paper or computer agents.
Likewise, I have had it often pointed out to me, mostly by room-mates who get to see me in the midst of my writing projects, that I have a tendency to return to topics in the conversation or start new ones with little or no transition (something I of course avoid in public speaking or writing). This post is in fact inspired by one room-mate who informed me about myself by explaining one such topic shift to a friend as "oh, yeah, conversations with M during term paper time is often more like juggling topics than moving through them."
So, scattered brained and absent minded? I don't think so. Usually my brain is pretty organized and pretty present, its just fragmented. I admit it can be a bit jarring at times to jump from thing to thing, and there can be conflicts. I never understood it when people asked "well, okay, but which one of these options do you REALLY want?" I want both AND another AND another option! Parts of my thought push me in one direction while others compete with them. Sometimes there can be a consensus made or a new piece of information brought to light that can subordinate others, but often a decisions means some thought processes win out over others. There is joy, and disappointment, as well as mild-amusement and other reactions from parts of my thought which were less engaged.
Perhaps this came from listening to music, reading, and watching TV all at once as a student, but I doubt most of the people I meet can get through their day and get all their work done without in some way fragmenting their minds. Of course, there are limits for how many times you can divide yourself before things, well, fall apart.
"Defragging: the Art of the Oceanic Mind"
"Defragging: the Art of the Oceanic Mind"