Tag Archives: Attention

On walking and mediated embodied experience in ethnographic map making

Girl walking in a beach. Porto Covo, Portugal.

Image via Wikipedia

Recently I’ve been thinking about my spatial experience of my contextual environment and about what I have learned over the years in consciously encountering space as a user of space, a creator of space, and a participant in community through space.  I am thinking about this as I am getting ready to do some tutoring on domain mapping in ethnographic research.  Here is a summary of my spatial experience.

As a child most of my experience with space was either moving through it on foot or by being driven around in a car.  Toss in the stroller, occasional plane ride, boating, crutches, sledding, riding a bicycle, but by and large WALKING and RIDING dominated my childhood experience of space.

As an adult I would live in cities like Chicago and Honolulu, places where the infrastructure encouraged walking.  This changed my understanding of terrain, and walking became my primary vantage point for my movement through space, although each place did have new modes of movement; Chicago had a train, Honolulu had surf boards.

Doing fieldwork in West Africa I would never drive; I saw most of sub-Saharan Africa in a van, or a Volkswagen, or a Renault, but I was always the passenger.  At least I could stare out the window and imagine what it was like at a walking pace.

Where I live now has a walkability score of 25 out of 100.  Where I lived in Chicago had a score of 98, Hawai’i had a score of 78; clearly my current 25 is pitiful in comparison.

To be fair, where I live now there are some residents with a score of 82, so, it is not like walking is precluded by living here, just that it is not easy for everyone (like me).  I walked home from work once and it took me three hours.

This has restricted my daily routine movement to driving.  These days I experience my landscape from a vehicle (much like my Africa passenger days), but this time I don’t even get to look around and pay attention to what zooms past my face; no, I only pay attention to that which is necessary to avoid collisions.

Driving has seriously hindered my sense of place.  I used to spend a lot of time walking, exploring, noticing things at street level, at a pace that let me participate and observe; being a car driver has forced me to give up participation with a place in favor of being a consumer of that place, the road is just a conduit.

Instead of participating with the place I now participate with my driving peers as we consume the street on our way to our various destinations.  The interactive dynamic is not with the people who reside in a place, but with people who routinely pass through the place.  This is like the boat that is moored to the riverbank, the boat might not move but the river has certainly changed.

Compared to the speed with which I now drive through my neighborhoods, walking is practically standing still.  Walking is being the boat moored to the bank; driving is the rushing river.  And the places I drive through do not really change either, but I have nothing to do with the neighborhoods which I zoom through, not the shops, not the landscape, not the people.

I need to stop driving so much.

I need to learn to walk, again.

I need to experience the physical crust of earth and to encounter a place with my feet, unmediated by round rubber tires and a gas pedal.

Being a driver has abstracted my encounter with a place by removing the minutia and patient tiny details made visible to the walking man.  I say “man” because I speak of myself; I was a walking man, like James Taylor, but now, where I live, if you walk expect to be stared at, honked at, yelled at by crazy fun-loving child-drivers, and occasionally the target of someone’s empty sodacan/coffeecup/waterbottle hurled out the window with an insult.  I am serious; walking is stigmatizing, and dangerous.

This is partly why I drive places.

My level of attention to place as a driver does not decompose into lower level experiences with place like it does on a stroll where those small experiences gradiently build up to become a walking journey, instead I pay more attention to how many red lights have impeded my progress.

Walking for me does more than serve the function of travel between places; I walk to know a place.

When I move somewhere new (or even visit from out of town), the first thing I do is walk around a place, in an ever widening gyre, a scroll stroll uncurling through a city emanating away from my apartment or hotel room.  I walk around and I get a feel for what surrounds me.  I don’t even look at a map until I have learned the map through my feet.  By doing this I start to learn my place in the broader context, and this is where you encounter the joys of a place, its people, its vitality, its curiosities; by walking you learn the identity of a place.

This afternoon I thought about how walking is natural for me as an ethnographer; in fact, walking is essential.  And one of the reasons it is so important is that it helps in making maps of a place, in mapping the domains and the various spatial relations found in that place.  Sure, you can sit somewhere and draw a map of everything you see, but I promise you, if you walk around a place and look first with your feet, your map will be more detailed, more accurate, and more relevant as you come to capture the reality which each participant experiences as they use that space.

I might have seen a lot of sub-Saharan West Africa, but it doesn’t mean too much to me, and I certainly could only attempt to map it out from an approximation of the various landmarks I happened to have noticed from the window.  This is because the dynamic and progressive movement of a vehicle is that your sense of figure-ground organization is constantly shifting, and it goes as fast as the driver feels is necessary.  But when you walk around, if something becomes figural in your field of vision, and you feel it is important, you get to pause for a moment and reflect on the significance of what you have seen.  This kind of intentional embodied experience is vital for making sense of a place.

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SWEET! My paper made a Top Ten Download List!

I checked my email this morning and received a message telling me that my recently distributed paper “Figure-Ground Organization in Attention and Construal” made it on a top ten list for downloads yesterday from both the Cognition & the Arts eJournal and the Cognitive Linguistics: Cognition, Language, Gesture eJournal…Awesome!

I hope you check it out! http://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=1714063.

 

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Ground-before-Figure in Dramatic Dialogue: Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia

As a feature of figure-ground organization, there is inherent flexibility in how the figure is aligned with the ground.  In light of evidence that permits a ground to precede a figure in the flow of information, it is appropriate to view this patterning happening in discourse and to ask how it enhances or disrupts communication.  Recall Chen’s model of Ground-before-Figure:

 

“There are times when a speaker wants her hearer to locate and/or pay attention to an entity (figure) in a location (ground), but the hearer does not know the existence of that figure in the ground.  So the speaker presents the ground first by anchoring it with a landmark that is established most often in the previous linguistic context and sometimes in the discourse context.  This order of figure/ground presentation invites the hearer to search the ground in order to locate and/or to focus on the figure.” [48, Chen, 2003] (Italics in original)

 

In light of Chen’s definition, consider this interchange in 1809 between two characters: Thomasina (age 13), and her tutor Septimus, (age 17) in Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia:

 

Thomasina: Septimus, do you think God is a Newtonian?

Septimus: An Etonian? Almost certainly, I’m afraid.  We must ask your brother to make it his first enquiry.

Thomasina: No, Septimus, a Newtonian.  Septimus! Am I the first person to have thought of this?

Septimus: No.

Thomasina: I have not said yet.

Septimus: ‘If everything from the furthest planet to the smallest atom of our brain acts according to Newton’s law of motion, what becomes of free will?’

Thomasina: No.

Septimus: God’s will.

Thomasina: No.

Septimus: Sin.

Thomasina:(Derisively) No!

Septimus: Very well.

Thomasina: If you could stop every atom in its position and direction, and if your mind could comprehend all the actions thus suspended, then if you were really, really good at algebra you could write the formula for all the future; and although nobody can be so clever as to do it, the formula must exist just as if one could.

Septimus: (Pause) Yes. (Pause.) Yes, as far as I know, you are the first person to have thought of this.

 

Thomasina wants Septimus to consider whether or not what she is about to say has ever been thought of before.  Rather than burdening Septimus with a heavily preposed tag question, she presents first the question and intends to immediately follow the question with her assertion.  This initial question cataphorically references the assertion she is yet to make.  Septimus, not recognizing the attempt at conserving cognitive energy interprets the cataphora as anaphora and proceeds to respond according to his construal of anaphora.

Thomasina’s goal is to invite Septimus to search the ground by accessing the question frame (that content questions have some marker which indicates interrogativity plus some content that is unsolved for whatever is indicated by interrogativity).  Septimus is not yet aware of the existence of the figure (the content in question) within the ground (the framing of the question).  The confusion between the construed referent of the deictic “this” in “Septimus! Am I the first person to have thought of this?” results from the differences in anchoring the deictic: Septimus anchors it anaphorically, which Thomasina intends to be anchored as cataphora, noted by her exclamation “I have not said yet.”

Bibliography:

Chen, Rong (2003) English inversion, a ground-before-figure construction, Berlin: Mouton De Gruyter

Stoppard, Tom (1994) Arcadia, Faber and Faber

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Figure-Ground Reference and Indexicals in “The Life Aquatic”

First of all, this is not a critical interpretation of this film, it is not a hermeneutical analysis of the form of this script, I am merely using a snippet of discourse in order to demonstrate that a particular linguistic phenomena (figure-ground as a reference strategy) depends on more than truth and more than just shared attention; it requires a priori shared knowledge of the referent in a general context.  Secondly, I don’t even know if this is correct as an analysis, so I am not trying to make any major claims about any theory – I am trying to apply somethings I know about discourse to a piece of discourse, that is all.

Take some time and view the trailer for this film if you are unfamiliar with this scene, the scene is in the trailer and it is worth seeing.

Consider this fragment of discourse between Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) and Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) in the script of Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic”:

Steve: Can you hear the jack whales singing?

[fog horn sound in the background]

Ned: Beautiful. I wonder what they’re saying.

Steve: Well that was the sludge tanker over there, but…

[the sound of whales singing in the background]

Steve: There you go!

In the film sequence for this scene there are numerous figure-ground organizations that occur, linguistically, visually, audibly; these converge to make sense out of the scene, and a complete analysis would need to consider this complete picture.

Roberts’ text discusses a similar type of situation in which a speaker directs the attention of a listener to a figure in the scene by selecting descriptions in the predicates of two different sentences.  He argues that this direction of attention does not rely upon the truthfulness of the predicate (as a predicate model would assert), but that it relies on other factors in the figure-ground relation, namely, that the figure is given to the hearer in the predicate description which points out the referent against the background (Roberts: 24). Continue reading

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Ground Before Figure Orientation and Divergent Activation in Bruno Mars & B.O.B.’s “Nothin’ On You” Lyrics

Driving home tonight I heard a song on the radio, on the local hip-hop and R&B station, and while the song kind of annoys me, I kind of like it too.  Anyway, this song exhibits a characteristic of a marked figure-ground organization for normal American English constructions, and I wanted to point it out.

“beautiful girls all over the world
i could be chasing but my time would be wasted
they got nothin’ on you baby
nothin’ on you baby
they might say hi and i might say hey
but you shouldn’t worry about what they say
cause they got nothin’ on you baby
nothin’ on you baby”

Did you catch that?  That heavy preposed object NP?  “beautiful girls all over the world I could be chasing…”

This marked form is meant to stand out.  You are supposed to want to think about the beautiful girls before he gets to the verb phrase…and then, when he gets to the verb phrase, you realize that he is trying to draw attention to the salient recipient of the song; his woman. Continue reading

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Cognitive Mindfulness #16

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Image via Wikipedia

I am rereading a book that I have been rereading on a consistent basis for the last twelve years, this time I am thinking more about consciousness than I have in previous readings; accordingly this passage stuck out in a more dynamic way than I remember from times past:

Self-consciousness, however, does not hinder the experience of the present.  It is the one instrument that unplugs all the rest.  So long as I lose myself in a tree, say, I can scent its leafy breath or estimate its board feet of lumber, I can draw its fruits or boil tea on its branches, and the tree stays tree.  But the second I become aware of myself at any of these activities – looking over my own shoulder, as it were – the tree vanishes, uprooted from the spot and flung out of sight as if it had never grown.  And time, which had flowed down into the tree bearing new revelations like floating leaves at every moment, ceases.  It dams, stills, stagnates. [82, Dillard]

I am aiming to be more at home in the present, but I am trying not to think too much about it since, paradoxically, the very effort of focusing on the present relegates it to an artifact of the past and a moment to which I become an outside observer who does not belong.

Bibliography

Dillard, A. (1974).  Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Harper Perennial

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