Excerpts from Alva Nöe’s Strange Tools

“Tools are useful only against the background of our needs and capacities. Let’s return to the doorknob. A simple bit of technology, yes, but one that presupposes a vast and remarkable social background. Doorknobs exist in the context of a whole form of life, a whole biology—the existence of doors, and buildings, and passages, the human body, the hand, and so on. A designer of doorknobs makes a simple artifact, but does so with an eye to its mesh with this larger cognitive and anthropological framework.” (99)
“Art that is very old—or from a remote culture—sometimes no longer shows up for us as challenging and difficult. This may be because it falls under the category “important art” and is brought to our attention under glass in the art archives. Or it may be that the work is unfamiliar and we don’t get what it is doing. In both cases, the works don’t engage, challenge, or affect us, which is just to say they don’t show up for us as art. Very often we find ourselves admiring old masters, for example, more or less solely for their decorative aspects, or because of their supposed historical significance or monetary value, or perhaps because they exhibit virtuosity in craftsmanship. And so of course it seems implausible that we admire works of this sort because of the way they subvert or undercut or abrogate the authority of what is normally taken for granted. After all, that’s just not what these works do for us, at least most of the time. They have expired. Or stopped being artworks. Until we learn to look again, that is.” (104)

“To get clear about this, let’s return, once again, to writing in the case of written language. We can gain insight if we consider what might seem like a fringe and esoteric graphical practice, score keeping in baseball. 

A baseball game lasts about three hours and consists of a messy and complicated stream of activity. Players move about on the field; others warm up on the sidelines. The managers and coaches send signals back and forth to each other and to the players on the field. Given the fact that there are an open-ended number of ways to individuate events, there is a practical infinity of movements, actions, and events that can occur in a baseball game. But there is a special activity known as keeping score. Every baseball game has an official scorekeeper, and fans and enthusiasts may also keep score. Keeping score at the simplest level is keeping track of who’s winning. But at a more sophisticated level it means keeping track of what happens more broadly. A half inning is over after three outs. Players bat one after the other, in a specified order, until there are three outs, and then it’s the other team’s turn. When a batter is at the plate, he faces the pitcher. Some pitches are good to hit; if he doesn’t hit them, they are strikes. Others aren’t good to hit, and if the batter “takes” them, they are balls, and they count in his favor. Four balls give him a base. Sometimes he hits the ball out of play; this may or may not count as a strike. But other times he puts the ball in play. This will be an out or an opportunity to run. To keep score is to record what happens. A well-kept “scorecard” allows you to know, for every batter, what happened when he was at bat, and for every inning, what took place. It allows you to “replay the game.” 

Two interesting points immediately come up. 

First, it isn’t easy to keep a scorecard. You need to understand what is going on and make judgments about, say, whether the runner advanced on a fielder’s choice, a stolen base, or whatever. People will disagree how to score a play. 

Second, when you score baseball, you can’t score everything that happens. Most scorekeepers notate every pitch: Is it a ball or a strike? Was it put into play? But I don’t think most scorekeepers notate the exact location of every pitch (high and inside? low and down the middle?), nor do they indicate the amount of time between pitches, or whether the pitcher scratched his ear or some other part of his body before throwing. As a result, the score doesn’t give you the resources to actually replay the game; it’s not like a videotape. It is, rather, a list, a digital encoding, of what happened, relative to a specific taxonomy for thinking about what happened and relative to one’s interests. The scorecard will indicate that the runner beat out the second baseman’s throw at first base, getting an infield single, but not, say, that the runner slid headfirst into the base. Sliding into first base headfirst for a single is, we might say, not a category that matters when keeping score. 

Of course it might matter for certain purposes! You might care very much about the health and safety of the runner; in almost every situation it is foolish to slide headfirst into first coming from home. So if I were the bench coach, I might very well want to note this sort of detail. But for more general purposes, there’d be no need to do this. It doesn’t particularly add to your understanding of what happened. 

This brings us to a third point: there is no one way to notate the game. How we notate depends on our interests. Some notate pitch locations. Some use colored pencils. Some use one kind of chart, others another. This said, there are shared, communal interests, there are conventions, and so, relative to the shared goals of a community, we can speak of doing a better or worse job. So now let’s ask: What is the point of scoring? What are we doing? What is this all about? One answer—it’s a way of recording what happened—is right, but superficial. A better answer is that keeping score is a way of thinking about and organizing our understanding of the play. It is a meaning-making activity. It is a kind of research. We write the game down to think about the game. 

With that said, we come to a telling further point. 

Keeping score is not, in fact, an activity external to the game. Very literally, how a game is scored defines what is going on in the game and so it matters to the players. 

Crucially, whether you take the trouble actually to keep score, playing baseball requires that you have a scorekeeper’s mentality, that you think of what is going on around you in the same terms as the scorekeeper would. How we score the game affects how a player feels or thinks about what he is doing, what situation he finds himself in, and so on. Players live in the scorekeeper’s reality.” (38)

— Alva Nöe, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature

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