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K 6-1 Anthropological Affordances

Page history last edited by roy williams 2 years, 3 months ago



back to page 1, here ...



Tim Ingold's Anthropological Affordances takes the notion of affordances another few, crucial, steps forward ...


The definition of affordances resonates with the De Saussurian definition of the sign –  which is neither the signifier nor signified, but the (dynamic) relationship between them.  This relationship depends on the (dynamically changing) user of the sign - as well as the community of users who accept, reject, modify, etc, all these relationships - as life proceeds with each interaction, and each iteration of these relationships.


So describing a sign is to describe dynamic relationships between changing aspects of the micro socio-ecology. 


Similarly, an affordance is neither ‘in’ the agent nor 'in' the micro-ecology, but is, rather, a product of the (dynamic) interaction between them. And, similarly to the sign, both the relationship and the elements within an affordance may change, dynamically – within the relationship as well as independently of each other.  


A kind of poly-variate calculus, perhaps – across two articulations (to borrow from applied linguistics). This forms a base-line of layers of dynamic, mutually influencing relationships, which establishes a useful socio-ecological framework to work with/in.


It also situates both sign and affordances within events ‘on the ground’ – in both material and social ecologies, and within ‘embodied’ interactions.  


For the purposes of my own practice, I also try to link and integrate all these elements with/in a larger, cyclical, descriptive framework, including new/established uses, innovation and inventions, technical capacity, capability, power, identity, etc, (see here ...), but that’s another story. 


However, Ingold adds even more ... (note: added emphases are my own):


1. Affordances, he writes, are things in the environment which “afford openings along which social life can proceed.”  This resonates with his ideas on ‘lines’ and also with the notion of affordances as competencies you might carry around, figuratively, in your back pocket, and seldom use, but you know that you can use them if the need arises. This in turn is useful, for example, to describe a recent confrontation in Central Park: 


A (white) dog walker confronted a (black) bird watcher, and when they got into a heated disagreement (about dogs off leads) she tried to make a spurious charge of attempted rape against him, because she thought she would be the one to be believed. Thankfully she was wrong – that (supposed) affordance, (that legal ‘opening’ for her racism), was denied to her by the courts. 


2. “Social relations [are] ... but a subfield of environmental relations .. [to] escape the endless back and forth between nature and culture.”


3. Attunement is alignment with an affordance, or a potential affordance. 


Attunement and perception are “carried out in public”, so there is a commonality between the two which “precedes and facilitates, rather than depends upon, representation and interpretation.”  


4. Therefore ... there can be meaning without signification (to paraphrase) - and definitely, there can be (ironic) meaning, contra to signification, which rather proves the point. In other words: “we perceive things as they come forward into immediate presence and impinge on our activity ... [but] … perception takes work.” 


Aside: Incidentally, Kohn (whom Ingold discusses) doesn’t seem to ‘get’ the semiotic principle that signs often signify more about what is ‘cut out’ than what is ‘cut in’ – artists like Jackson Pollack (and others before him) produced many artworks which played with this idea. As Umberto Eco writes in his very pertinent definition of the sign, it is simply “something that can be used to lie.” Absences / inversions signify too.


5. Exposure

“The primary condition of life is not solidity, but flux … not so much an understanding as an undergoing, [or, elsewhere, "wayfaring"] which strips away the veneer of certainty … and opens to pure possibility.”


Ingold goes on to say:


"There’s no doubt that to embark on any activity, be it to hunt and fish, to farm, to set sail, indeed to carry on almost any kind of livelihood ... means putting one’s existence on the line. The safe course would be to stay put. To live, however, we have to get moving, to push the boat out into the current of a world-in-formation. Thus, all undergoing begins in exposure.


"But as it proceeds, skills of perception and action, born of practice and experience, begin to kick in. When walking, for example, we place ourselves at risk with every step, falling forwards on one foot, tumbling into the void, only to regain our poise, albeit temporarily, as the other foot comes to land on the ground ahead. What commences with the vulnerability of exposure ends in the mastery of attunement, providing in turn the ground from which the walker can once again submit to the hazard of exposure, in an alternation that continues for as long as the walk goes on. [This is most vividly, and almost painfully, obvious when we watch young children taking their first steps].


"This alternation ... is fundamental to all life., [and] unidirectional. That is to say, in real life, submission leads and mastery follows; never the reverse (Ingold 2015: 38-42). Where submission casts off into a world in becoming, setting us loose to fall, mastery restores our grip so we can keep going.


"... As submission gives way to mastery, ... anticipation to perception, and exposure to attunement, there comes a turning point at which a tentative opening matures into a firm sense of direction. The Ancient Greeks had a word for this, namely kairos, denoting not just the moment that must be seized, but the attention and responsiveness necessary to do so.  It is the point when the archer, having bent his bow, releases the arrow towards its target ... The ability to catch this moment, and not to let it pass, is perhaps the greatest part of any craft skill. 


"... Aspiration and anticipation: Both call for some explanation. Literally, to aspire is to draw breath. Like breathing in to breathe out, aspiration gathers up the past in order to cast it forward, along a line of attention. Brimming with as yet undirected potential, aspiration anticipates the future, but does not predict it. Far from predetermining the final forms of things, or fixing their ultimate destinations, anticipation opens up a path and improvises a passage ... 


"Thus, where anticipation and aspiration lead (in exposure), perception follows (in attunement). There is, however, one further term to be considered, and that is ‘imagination’. Where, in the alternation of exposure and attunement, do we place imagination?  Between anticipation and perception, or between aspiration and prehension, is there any space for imagination at all? ...


"Gibson (1979: 255-6) lists imagining as one of a number of forms of awareness that ‘are not strictly perceptual’; others include dreaming and wishful thinking. There is, he says, a simple test for telling the perceptual and the non-perceptual apart. Reality is inexhaustible; the more you subject it to scrutiny, the more you will discover. Not so, however, with the image. For try as you might, you will never find in it more than the mind has already placed there [1]. 


[1] Footnote: In an essay first published in 1940, Jean-Paul Sartre had made an identical point: ‘No matter how long I may look at an image, I shall never find anything in it but what I put there’. Herein, he continued, lies the essential difference between an image and a perception, for in the latter ‘there is always, at each and every moment, infinitely more than we see’ (Sartre 1972: 7-8).


"All you can do is add to it, by way of interpretation. Perceiving is to imagining, then, as discovery is to interpretation (Ingold 2022: 32). But do the real and the imaginary have to be thus split apart? Might we rather bring them together, in a single creative movement? To do so means thinking of the imagination not as a power of mental representation, but more fundamentally as a way of living creatively in a world that is not already created, already formed, but is itself crescent, always running ahead of itself. And in the excess of the crescent world over the objects left in its wake, affordance gives way to pure possibility. To inhabit this world, in perception and imagination, is to participate from within in the process of its self-making, its autopoiesis. And that, to my mind, is the calling of anthropology." 


See the example of the MEDIATE interactive environment, for children on the autistic spectrum, in: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/271518811_Synesthesia_From_Cross-Modal_to_Modality-Free_Learning_and_Knowledge.




If  'philosophy' consists of creating concepts, Ingold 'does' philosophy, in spades, in this article.




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