Cosmogenic questioning & play

“We may note in passing that the cosmogenic question as to how the world came about is one of the prime pre-occupations of the human mind…a large part of the questions put by a six-year-old are actually of a cosmogenic nature, as for instance: What makes water run? Where does the wind come from? What is dead?” (Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens, p. 107)

We have, for many such questions, science-as-answer; but scientific answers do not always satisfy the ontological inquiry of the child. I recall hearing adult answers to my own questions–similar to these–and feeling that I was now supposed to consider the matter closed, the problem solved.

But it wasn’t. Not to my mind. I just was not able to express my dissatisfaction in a way that grownups would understand, and perhaps they would have been unable to respond to me at any rate. It was so frustrating, the problem of communicating perspective.

Rather like a riddle.

Which is what Huizinga gets to in this book: riddles, games, play, and how these activities grow into and perhaps structure (or underpin) culture. If humans are the story-telling animal, it’s also possible we are the questioning animal, that play turns into contest through the practice of making riddles.

Creating our own problems, as it were. “Just throwing that out there,” as a friend of mind says when playing Devils’ advocate. (Note in that common phrase: “playing…”) (See the etymology, literally “thing put forward,” below!)

We question origins, and we pose problematic questions–and we do these things as soon as we can speak!

πρόβλημα

Online Etymology Dictionary says: late 14c., “a difficult question proposed for solution,” from Old French problème (14c.) and directly from Latin problema, from Greek problema “a task, that which is proposed, a question;” also “anything projecting, headland, promontory; fence, barrier;” also “a problem in geometry,” literally “thing put forward,” from proballein “propose,” from pro “forward” (from PIE root *per- (1) “forward”) + ballein “to throw” (from PIE root *gwele- “to throw, reach”)…Meaning “a difficulty” is mid-15c. Mathematical sense is from 1560s in English.

Philosophy, Huizinga posits–and religion–developed out of this human need to structure language into language games, to pose problems, thus creating space for wordplay and riddle or secret-knowledge contests. *

Poetry soon grabbed onto wordplay because poetry has a way of taking on all of culture, incorporating and resisting social norms and practices, reflecting society back to itself, asking cosmogenic and problematic questions. Indeed, do a brief scan of anthropology or history and it’s easy to find cultures in which poetry features in the games of noblemen and warriors and gods. (See Huizinga’s book, which enumerates many).

Also, wordplay, puns, connotations and allusions are fun.

This weekend, I want to get back to playing with words.words-from-letters-magnetic-poetry-kit-geek-words-letters-for-refrigerators-words-with-letters-maker

 

 

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* ie, Descartes, boy, did he have problems! Both mathematical and mind-body problems, though he was better at the former. (Sorry for the silliness).

 

 

 

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Words for pain

On Wednesday, I spent a long time in conversation with an anxious dear one who was despondent over US election results. I am not the only person who engaged in such dialogues that day, but what stays with me is the way I described the conversation later–to another friend. The phrase I used was “talking her down off a ledge.” It was, thankfully, just a harmless metaphor, an exaggeration (she was not suicidal, merely distressed). Nonetheless, having recently considered the ways we express pain linguistically and how hard it is to express pain of any kind in a manner that conveys anything to other people [see blog on Scarry], I stopped to think about the figure of speech I had employed.

Emotional pain hurts, after all, as much as physical pain. What else might I have said?

I could have said, “I spent 20 minutes calming her down.” Not as vivid, but less violent. Yet isn’t that what poets and writers want–vividness? Some sort of language that elicits visceral response…and the metaphors or war, violence, and harm are the default phrases and symbols to which we turn.spinal-cord-injury-pain

We learn these word-images when we are very young, often before we understand the violent origin of the metaphor. So I wonder whether the connection is as clear as some theorists suspect. But there’s no denying that pain = harming imagery, because pain is harm. Stabbing, throbbing, pounding. That’s pain. Emotionally, too: we feel wounded, we feel broken, damaged, hurt. Anxiety feels painful; stress feels painful– “The stress is killing me!” Pretty clear connections there.

I have been challenging myself to write poems about pain (physical, existential, mental, emotional) and to discover whether I can make the sense of pain come through in words as something other than self- or other-harm; whether I can use non-violent images to convey pain, and to reframe it in the body and in the consciousness.

So far?

Not a lot of success, but some interesting drafts that sound slightly surreal or hallucinatory. There is a bonus here, though, in that I have created a difficult writing prompt and, at the same time, given myself some insights into the connections between mind and body (Descartes, you old rascal) and language.

 

Painfully conscious

I’ve just finished reading Melanie Thernstrom’s 2011 book The Pain Chronicles, a journalist’s inquiry into the concepts that “define” pain and the medical discoveries concerning chronic pain, in addition to a bit of memoir as a narrative device. Although I have experience with chronic pain myself, the part of the text that most interested me comes in her concluding chapters, in which she gathers the variously-disciplined evidence of her enterprise to suggest that pain is the ultimate test of the mind-body problem (thank you, René Descartes). The experts Thernstrom interviews disagree on how much we do know or can know about the human brain and how it processes anything, let alone such a complicated psycho-physiological event as pain. Some of them believe human beings will make enormous technological discoveries to unlock our brains’ workings, but the majority seem to have learned from research that each “a-ha!” leads only to further complications. Discussing the outlook for future fMRI scanning in brain research, Dr. John Keltner tells the author:

[N]obody has come up with a rich and complicated enough model to analyze the complexity of the distributed patterns of neural  networks and deduce anything like underlying rules…We’re literally grappling with the fundamental aspects of human beings. We naively believed that pain is simple–it hurts or it doesn’t hurt–so there should be a single brain state we could see every time someone is in pain. But what we’ve stumbled into is the discovery that there’s a relative universe of hurt–that hurting is an immense, rich, and varied human experience associated with an unknown number of possible brain states.

I find some of these analogies, and some of this language, appealing–I can think of poems that express “a universe of hurt.” I embrace the idea that hurting is immense, rich, varied, and human–we are aware (conscious) that we hurt, that others hurt, that hurt can be painful even when it is not caused by a toothache but through loss of a friend or lover…the beloved other, the pain in ourselves. Isn’t compassion born of this awareness? Does art have a place here, too? I wonder.

Thernstrom concludes with the agreement of several expert researchers: “pain and suffering are properties of the mind” [my italics]. That means pain is, at least in part, a property of that elusive thing we generally call consciousness. Scott Fishman of UC Davis explains that “[t]he mind is like a virtual organ–it doesn’t  have a physical address that we know of.” Consciousness, these researchers imply, is not merely the sum of firing neurons, a process that can be considered on some level mechanical. Thernstrom asks, “Do we need to understand consciousness itself in order to understand pain?”

If so, that is a tall order, one the author posits is analogous to understanding aesthetics (what is beauty?). But though the task appears daunting, the discoveries en route make the trek valuable.

Even if we never understand the answer.

neural matrix fiber topography, Johns Hopkins University

neural matrix fiber topography, Johns Hopkins University

Online reading, online learning

I blog, therefore I am part of the digi-technological consciousness.

Here’s a situation Descartes might have had fun imagining…have we invented our own “evil genius” in Boolean or algorithmic forms? I won’t venture there, as I am not tech-savvy or social-media savvy enough to philosophize around tech aspects of modern culture; though, yes, I do use portal systems when I teach; I do use (limited) forms of social media for communication and to publicize my work; I do take part in the networks community online; my poems and essays appear in online journals; I read blogs and online journals although in general I prefer paper, especially for book-length works.

It isn’t as if I don’t consider the intellectual challenges these communication platforms offer. It would be silly to ignore them. They are not going to go away any time soon. One question is, however, to what extent should I employ or embrace them?

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Recently, I’ve had a poem published in Carbon Culture Review, an online and print journal that states, as part of its mission, that the publication “advocates a creative, thoughtful and visually appealing dialogue about our complex relationship to technology. We strive to promote the work of those who employ technology and utilize technological designs and terms in art and literature.” The Intersection of Technology + Literature + Art, says the masthead; interdisciplinary in scope–that’s something I find fascinating, so I’m happy to report a rather atypical poem of mine has found a place in the new issue (“21st Century Research”).

I read Chronicle of Higher Education online and have linked to several of its essays in past posts. Lately, I find much of interest in Hybrid Pedagogy, a fairly new digital source about technology, teaching, radical re-thinking of the educational framework, and exploring the possibility of intentional, compassionate connections between teachers and students–even in the digital world. Here’s a recent essay that appeals to me: “Teaching as Wayfinding.” I am still wrestling with the challenges of how to create a genuinely interactive and personal learning space in the classroom, let alone via distance education. There is so much to learn, and welcoming interdisciplinary synthesis into the discourse of the humanities offers intriguing potential.

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Speaking of the interdisciplinary: I am pleased to report that The College of Physicians of Philadelphia chose one of my poems, “How the Body Works” as an honorable mention in its Poetry Month contest celebrating medical/health themes in poetry. [You can also check my Events page for information and tickets.]

The College, a professional medical organization founded in 1787 (same age as the U.S. Constitution), is also the site of the Mütter Museum, which has a terrific slogan: “Are you ready to be disturbingly informed?” The College boasts a library of historic significance.

It’s a great venue for a reading, and if you are in the area, please join us. My brother says the food is really good, too–the ticket price includes a dinner. How festive is that!?

Ontologies and inquiries

{ ? }

 

This week, amidst the whirl of returning students, I have accidentally paired my reading of Douglas Hofstadter’s book I Am a Strange Loop with Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist?

How did all of this get started? In the most concrete and specific scenario, I had been slowly savoring Hofstadter–and, let’s face it, trying to “get” the math he occasionally employs–and happened across a copy of Holt’s book, which is a faster read, when I didn’t have Strange Loop to hand. Next thing I know, I’m deep into both texts which, naturally, overlap in several ways. Now, I find myself pondering the beginnings of abstract things like consciousness, which may not be abstract if you think along the lines of E. O. Wilson but which Hofstadter suggests exists as both a top-level abstract “thing” that pushes around its foundational, physical “things” such as synapses, neurons, molecules. And I think about Descartes and the mind-body problem and, oh, while I’m at it, the Big Bang theory and the “what was there before the big bang?” question.

Holt’s book turns to the metaphysical inquiry, “Why is there something instead of nothing?” It’s a question I asked myself when I was about 6 years old. Hofstadter deals mostly with the (perhaps metaphysical) concern: “What is consciousness?” That’s a question I asked a bit later in life, though certainly I asked it before I was in my twenties.

Both authors employ philosophy and math in the service of trying to make sense of these inquiries; and while Holt’s investigation is a bit more physical-cosmological in nature, it may not be necessarily so–lots of the theories floating around out there sound pretty metaphysical to me! Hofstadter employs many analogies, as is his wont (see, in particular, his 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach). Hofstadter also gets a bit more into neurology, of course–we are talking about consciousness, after all, and it may reside in our brains–and slightly into the arena of psychology. Holt takes a more journalistic approach, using interviews and readings to cite past and current thinking on the topic of existence. The subtitle of his book is “An Existential Detective Story.”

So far, I enjoy both books, though they differ in significant respects.

Meanwhile, at work I am mainly dealing with adjusting-to-updated-software issues and helping-students-with-advising questions and explaining drop-add and pass-fail and comp-rhet and the difference between Elementary Spanish I and II. Keeps my brain flexible and gets those neurons firing. {Right??}

I haven’t finished reading either book yet. I may have more to say about the synthesis of these two books after I’ve let my brain settle down.

Exhaustion & bloom

Isak Dinesen: “I write a little every day, without hope and without despair.”

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Some days, the little is…quite little. I am not exactly taking a break from reading and writing, but a great deal of my reading these days is student-written work; and the writing tends to be corrective.

There are also events in one’s life that tend to push back against the time needed to dwell on creative things.

Kurt Vonnegut: “So it goes.”

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I’m re-reading Descartes. The best part of his philosophical writing, in my opinion, deals with his conscious desire to remove all prejudicial thinking from his mind. I have my doubts as to his success in that regard, but I love the splendidness of trying to attain the mental tabula rasa. Open-mindedness, a virtue more human beings should strive to embrace.

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And there is also exhaustion, pure and simple. Some days, I need my rest.

February: awaiting the snowdrops’ blooms. (They’re nearing…the white tips are visible, enclosed in the deep green spathes.) Meanwhile, fragrant yellow winterhazel.

corylopsis

winter hazel