Research - 'Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature' by Alva Noe - Chapter 1 / by Ally McGinn

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Notes from audio book. I listen to books in the car and I became a bit obsessed with the ideas in this one. I am listening to each chapter twice (once in the car, and then later when able to take a few quotes) so half the writing below is my thoughts after the drive, which are then fleshed out on the second listen.

Listening to the first chapter

The book supposes three ideas

  • ‘that art is not a technological practice but it presupposes the existence of those practices.’
  • Art is a philosophical practice. And the author argues that the opposite is also true. Because art and philosophy work in similar ways to study our organisation and potentially change the way we organise ourselves. This isn't necessarily the subject of an artist's practice (although it is for some) but the author suggests it is their method, or at least part of it.

  • Art and philosophy depend on the existence of language and discourse around it.

    The things that stick out for me from the first chapter are the following;

  • Organised activities (“exhibit structure in time”) - which have 6 features that define them;

    • That they are;

      • Naturally rooted

      • Cognitively demanding

      • temporally/rhythmically structured

      • Emergent from endogenous dynamics

      • Functional

      • Potentially pleasurable

  • Seeing as an activity - it is not something achieved passively, it requires an active involvement. The science of looking involves the processing of data in the brain, but it can only describe what is being seen. Any reading of that information requires an element of active consciousness (although this can be subconscious)

    • Seeing is making contact with what there is and we can fail to see.

    • “It is not brains that perceive but active animals or people.”

      • It's is an activity more akin to driving a car, reading a book or cooking a meal (active) than digesting food or even tasting it (passive).

    • Art is often philosophied as a deified subject/object but that forgets it's basic origins.

    • Art can be a way to exploring the act of seeing.

  • Art is at heart, a human activity. This seems like it should be an obvious point but it's not something i have explored in my practice. There is only art when humans are involved, which I am going to try to bring further into my work. Upon reflection the person in my work has been the participant (either artist or viewer, often both) I am unsure what a more direct reference to the human element would bring to the work but it would be an interesting exercise.

  • Organisations - we are organisms (‘organised wholes’) and we only have to look at the etymology of the words to realise the link. (“To be alive is to be organised”) We are a complex system of interconnected elements, and we understand far less about ourselves than many other subjects. We are obsessed with ourselves, and devote countless lifetimes to the study of humans. Which I have to admit fits the modernist ideology - something studying itself with itself. Art is part of that study, I believe, and many others have argued, explored and exemplified.

    • The chapter begins with an exploration of the act of breastfeeding (and I would highly recommend anyone read it, it is a wonderful text that highlights the broad subject of communication and how far it goes beyond organised language.) it helped cement in me an understanding of the ways we interact with each other. Art is a form of that interaction, we might make work in solitude but the audience is always a presence.

    • Communication is a negotiation.

    • Shared activities help organise us.

    • Organised activities often happen without control.

    • “It is our nature to acquire second natures” Humans naturally turn activities into habitual responses, we have the ability to ‘lose ourselves in the flow.’ Habit is biological, to achieve skill or expertise we need habits.

  • The author argues that art is always concerned with itself, simply because humans create it (physically and conceptually).

    • This implies that art, like seeing, is an active activity, when considered as humans studying themselves and their relationships with the world around them. Again this seems like an obvious statement but it would begin an argument that all art fulfils modernist ideology at a philosophical level.

  • Perception is many things. Perceiving is related to acting.

  • None of this can be explained at a chemical or neurobiological level, it is more than the quantifiable examination of our biology (at least st this time).

    • We are organised at an intermediate level - roboticist Dana Ballard calls - the embodiment level. Not subpersonal, not about what's happening inside us but of the activity and the nature of it.

    • Embodiment level - as we move around the environment it changes with us. We mostly aren't aware of this, the author uses the example of the change in colour of things when seen in different lights, we don't see this as the colour changing.(Perceptual constancy)

    • “Seeing is a temporarily extended dynamic exchange with the world around us.”

    • Seeing is an organised activity, (‘of achieving access to the world around us’)

    • ‘Basic and natural but consciously organised.’

    • These organisations are not of our own making, but neither are we slave to them. They are a function of our being.

“We make art out of organised activities.”

Skills, knowledge, situation and environment - I have often tried to articulate the external factors in reading art. Noe uses these four labels, which seem to cover the meaning well.

Personally interesting - the author discusses the difference between communicating with someone in person and someone remotely (on the phone). They are different activities when speaking to someone in a remote activity we use different elements of our consciousness, which conflicts with other activities we are undertaking (which the author argues is why it is so dangerous to speak on the phone while driving, which use similar activities). Speaking in person with someone creates a collaborative environment, which is not achieved remotely.

I struggle to speak to people remotely and this may begin some research for me to figure out why.

There is a fascinating study here...for someone who understands more about psychology and brain function than I do.


Noe, A (2016) ‘Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature.’ Narrated by Tom Perkins. Avaliable at: (Downloaded: 24/10/17).