Metaphor & mind

In a recent New Yorker article about the trial of Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof, Jelani Cobb reports that during the lead prosecutor’s presentation

Roof’s mother sank down on the bench as he delivered his opening statement, which contained details of the crime that had previously been withheld from the press. At a certain point, she slumped over. It seemed for a moment that she had fainted, but she was taken to a hospital, and it was later learned that she had suffered a heart attack. She survived, but did not return for the remainder of the trial.

In her situation, I might have had the same response. How metaphorical: the heart revolts from within–an embodied reaction. When I read about this incident, I thought of cognitive scientist/philosophers George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, who have been pioneering the concept that the mind and body evolved together and cannot be separated through the literal, analytical, categorical approaches of classic Western thought.

Languages the world over use body-based metaphors and gestures that reinforce how our  minds are integrated with and connected to our human bodies–we intuit from the gut; a situation makes our skin crawl; we place hands over hearts to demonstrate love, loyalty, compassion. Medical science confirms what people have long understood, in a “folk physiology” way, for years: emotional and intellectual stress has physical expressions and repercussions.

Lakoff and Johnson have been investigating such universal human phenomena since the 1970s. Their work has implications for a wide range of endeavors from artificial intelligence to brain trauma. In 1999, when Philosophy in the Flesh was published, they said Western philosophy needs to retool its thinking from the ground up, the ground being the body itself.

Reason, they assert, is as embodied as emotion; and their argument that intellectual functioning arises metaphorically through the physiological experiences of the (human) body is persuasive and extensively documented through research, particularly neurological research. Exactly where what we term “consciousness” arises may never be determined, but phenomenology, Taoism, and empirical science converge with what we are learning about synapses, cells, hormones, and the neural network to suggest there may be an answer as to how consciousness emerges; and that answer is likely to be biological.

brain

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The brain, the heart, the entire bodily system under emotional, mental, psychological duress, the conflicting moods of love, grief, anger, fear, and a chasm of misunderstanding; the terrible awe of disbelief–an embodied self might well collapse, physically, literally, under the metaphorical strain.

 

 

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To endure

I have been contemplating the word endure, particularly in relation to my continuing curiosity about consciousness and in relation to physical enduring when the body is in pain.

Reading an excerpt from Husserl (the first proponent of transcendental phenomenology) that–admittedly, taken out of context–places consciousness in relation to time, I realize endure implies the concept of time itself even though time doesn’t make an appearance in its etymology (see below). Husserl writes:

Every temporal object has a duration…but in the type that is duration we have a distinction between the expanding, flowing duration and the momentary durations.

He suggests that there are “filling-in” types of duration, or time-phases, that arise to create “a continuous consciousness of unity whose correlate is an unbroken unity,” giving us the impression of sensuous unity in time. I wonder if our sensations of  physical pain operate in the synapses of the brain in somewhat the same way: momentary (acute), and filling in over time or flowing (chronic).

When we suffer, we call upon endurance to sustain ourselves. The verb form connotes the negative more commonly, such as to endure oppression, abuse, harassment, pain, humiliation. It is an active verb.

etymology: late 14c., “to undergo or suffer” (especially without breaking); also “to continue in existence,” from Old French endurer (12c.) “make hard, harden; bear, tolerate; keep up, maintain,” from Latin indurare “make hard,” in Late Latin “harden (the heart) against,” from in- (see in- (2)) + durare “to harden,” from durus “hard,” from PIE *dru-ro-, from root *deru- “be firm, solid, steadfast”

Nonetheless, strength is also implied, a resilient firmness that people tend to value. What is the current perspective on being steadfast? Is it to harden (become stubborn and inflexible) or to be solid? Don’t we admire the person who has endured much and yet, one way or another, lived life as it presented itself however hard the circumstances? And are those positive or negative traits, as our culture views them? Customs endure. Prejudices endure. When we call someone a “hard person,” it is seldom a compliment. Yet being steadfast is generally considered a virtue.

It’s interesting to note that the adjective form of endure has a more positive connotation–

enduring (adj.) Look up enduring at Dictionary.com

“lasting,” 1530s, present participle adjective from endure.

An enduring work of art; an enduring love. Something that defies time by lasting through those temporary durations and through the fillings-in. We human beings wonder whether our consciousness, what many have called our souls, are enduring in the sense of expanding over time and past the demise of our corporeal selves. But great literature, great music, great art suggests there are many ways to endure.

In the New Year, my hope is to become attentive to what endures; to extend compassion and love more widely and more deeply; to read good books and take in good works of art; to be good at what I do reasonably well, tending to myself and to others with as much grace as I can muster. Some years challenge us more than other years. Let us choose to endure.

Love is all you need

 

Synthesis & coincidence

&&001“and per se and”

Ah, synthesis! The conjoining and combining of objects, ideas, theories, values and systems, arts, media, experiments, research, disciplines, metaphors, symbols, rhythms, patterns, DNA, et (“&”) cetera.

Synthesis can be planned, hypothesized, purposeful–and it can be spontaneous, unexpected, coincidental. There are times when I feel as though the overlapping and intertwining of experiences seems to have been somehow “planned by the cosmos” (or some higher power); but coincidences occur more often than we think, especially when our consciousness is primed to make connections.

I have primed my own brain, recently, to synthesize thinking about aesthetics, neuroscience, the arts, philosophy and consciousness. So it should not surprise me–though it does!–that the books I have recently been reading connect many threads of my thought, including other recent readings. For example, Martha Reineke’s Intimate Domain: Desire, Trauma, and Mimetic Theory is an exploration of family “romance” in psychoanalytic theory that draws on Freud and Girard; but because Reineke uses Girard’s early writings as her basis, she cites Merleau-Ponty and phenomenology quite often. Furthermore, mirror neurons and the place and operations of consciousness appear in her claims and explorations in this (difficult) text. Mirrors and mimesis, minds and spirits…Gabrielle Starr’s Feeling Beauty, which I’ve mentioned in recent posts, examines the art-body-mind connections in neurological domains and mentions, more than in passing, the phenomenological aspects of the experience we term “art.” Arthur Danto’s The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art (1983, though I read it last month) also wove itself into my thinking as I read Starr’s more current book. In addition (oh, there’s always an “in addition” with synthesis), I am re-reading Csikszentmihalyi’s classic, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. The states humans experience when we work hard at challenges we enjoy, such as art-making, are deeply connected to our brains and also rooted in our bodies.

So there is a coming-together, a process not unlike chemical bonding, that all of these texts and ideas produce in my mind. This post is one outcome, I suppose. But there will be others.

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From Carl Sandburg’s “Tentative (First Model) Definitions of Poetry” (1928): “Poetry is the achievement of the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits.”

387236_10201085579685937_1062169370_n

 

Consciousness as multiple drafts

Daniel C. Dennett’s 1991 book, Consciousness Explained, has kept me entertained and interested for a couple of days now. How could I refuse a book with that title? And Dennett–whose conversational writing style appears to toss off one idea after another in quick succession–actually stays mostly true to classic philosophical reasoning in his arguments as he endeavors to make claims for what consciousness is. He begins with phenomenology as one way to initiate the concatenation of empirical science (physics, biology, neurological research) with logic. He dispenses with Husserl and the early Phenomenologists but invents his own form–hyperphenomenology–breaking phenomena into three divisions and exploring each until he arrives at a way to destroy the long-held concept of the mind, hence consciousness, as “Cartesian Theatre,” and replace that model with a construction more biologically sound.

The book is far too complex to summarize, but the concept he develops that most appeals to me is what he calls the multiple drafts theory of consciousness. Dennett draws upon neurological and psychological research as well as past and current philosophical thinking to propose that what we term consciousness may consist of multiple narratives created through physical input, memory processing, and other processes that result in fraction-of-a-second “revisions” in thinking. Narratives! Revisions! As a writer, I can certainly relate to this idea. The theory of multiple drafts consciousness would explain many phenomena, such as the unreliability of eyewitnesses, the repression and re-constructing of traumatic experiences, the embellishment of stories (as Dennett puts it, “What I should have said at the party becomes what I said at the party”)…and it has examples in the way we “tell” fiction, movies, and family stories.

Currently, I am engaged in the work of revising dozens and dozens of poems. Many drafts. Many narratives, many layers. Subtle shifts in perspective or story or language or style–which version is the real me? All of them, across a continuum.

Derek Parfit’s Reasons & Persons suggests some of the same conclusions through a more traditional philosophical approach (harder to read than Dennett’s often-humorous prose which is geared more toward the non-philosopher and which employs considerable neurological and psychological research as part of its rational evidence).

Although these texts intrigue, and are convincing, they remain speculative. For me, the science aspects of the inquiry remove none of the mystery or delight I experience in terms of my own consciousness. Nor do they negate my sense of myself as individual, unique as to perspective, or whole in myself and in the cosmos. I know that many people resist the idea that consciousness is not soul, who feel that scientific research somehow diminishes human beings into–what? Fancy hardware for intelligent software? Automatons with the illusion of free will? Purposeless life forms? Robotic zombies with no moral bearings?

continuum

A continuum version of tao

Apparently, we desire awe; but knowledge doesn’t have to kill awe.

I find myself fascinated with the ideas posed by Douglas Hofstadter wherein he theorizes consciousness-as-continuum (see this post). People love to default to a black & white way of analysis, thinking, and judging, but everything in nature contradicts that concept. No doubt our brains, wired to make quick decisions using the simplest shortcuts, sieve out a great deal of content and then justify later (Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow covers this process in fascinating depth). It’s simply easier to think of balance as tao, perfectly harmonious black and white, or to sort people or objects or ideas into yes-or-no categories. But the distinctions are seldom so clear–there’s a continuum that stretches from the black to the white, as in the spectrum, as in the fringes of a forest or a meadow, as in the so-called races of human beings, as in places where societies and cultures meet and often intermingle, as in the coastline of the sea or a riparian environment. And all of those things are awesome, even miraculous.

In Dennett’s Chapter Five, “Multiple Drafts vs. the Cartesian Theater,” he offers this diagram:

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dennett003It’s a proposed version of what happens when we think.

You will have to read the book to decipher this illustration; but I recognize in it the way I tell a story, think about a story, remember an event, record an experience, and the narrative method of the many kinds of stories (many genres, many media) that I love.

One thing it is not is straightforward. We have all those revisions to make, to layer our experiences with, to explore along the fringes of, and to find deeply miraculously awesome. Wading among my drafts now, I feel revitalized. These reflections and revisions are part of my Self as a conscious being in a physical and wonderful world.

 

 

 

Psychobiology & art

Greg Dunn’s gold-leaf neuroscience art: “Gold Cortex”

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Howard Gardner once said aesthetics is considered the “dismal branch of philosophy” and that psychobiology, the scientific examination of art, might therefore be called the “dismal psychology.” This view derives from the difficulty of pinning down what qualifies as art, the artistic process, the artistic personality, and the like–especially the challenge of trying to categorize, measure, and in any genuine way evaluate art. Psychobiology as a discipline is new to me; is it merely an earlier form of behavioral neuroscience? How does aesthetics play a role? I went looking.

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Here is an excerpt from D.E. Berlyne’s abstract of his exploration into stimulus behavior and art (including humor), Conflict, Arousal, and Curiosity, written in 1960:

The highly variegated human activities that are classed as art form a unique testing ground for hypotheses about stimulus selection. They consist of operations through which certain stimulus patterns are made available, and so they must unhesitatingly be placed in the category of exploratory behavior. The creative artist originates these patterns, the performing artist reproduces them, and the spectator, listener, or reader secures access to them and performs the perceptual and intellectual activities that will enable him to experience their full impact.

It’s intriguing to note the different ways a social scientist (Berlyne was a psychobiologist) uses language to write about a generally-considered subjective subject: art. Different in tone and terminology than the language a philosopher or artist would employ, the description characterizes yet another inquiry into the ontology and the exercise of art and the artistic process:

The content of art can range over virtually the whole scope of human communication. It may be used as a source of information about the appearances of objects, the course of historical events, the workings of human nature, as a means of effecting moral improvement, as a vehicle for propagating religious, political, or philosophical ideologies. Art is, however, distinguished from other forms of communication by …the communication of evaluation. While human beings may produce art and expose themselves to it for an endless variety of reasons, collative variables must play their part, as they do in all forms of exploratory behavior. They underlie, in fact, what is commonly called the “formal” or “structural” aspect of art.

The author is interested in whether psychosocial behaviors, culture-building, and communication all derive from exploratory behavior and stimulus-response and what role evaluation plays in the assessment of art, its social or moral value, artistic merit, “timeless” art, and to some extent the very making of art.

The psychology of aesthetics offers intriguing insights–if one can get past the jargon. From the little I have read about it so far, the science seems to share a few points with phenomenology: its task, according to Dr. William Blizer, is to “describe observable phenomena and to note associations and correlations among them which enable such phenomena to be predicted, controlled, and explained.” In psychobiology, the “observable phenomena” are “the behavior of the creative…artist and the appreciator.” Philosophy and psychology are strange bedfellows, though; throw aesthetics into the mix and the entire project begins to seem suspect. I am not at all sure that these inquiries end up explaining–certainly not predicting or controlling–anything about art.

I admit I prefer to read such musings when the makers themselves are doing the exploring. Nonetheless, this little intellectual excursion led to my discovery of Greg Dunn‘s amazing neuroscience designs, one of which appears above. Who knew the brain was so gorgeous?

Hail and Heidegger

hail and roses

Another freakish, brief summer storm swept through–this time bringing wind, fog, downpours, and hail. Not a gardener’s favorite weather system under any circumstances. Some years ago, a June 9 hailstorm literally decimated (reduced by 10%…though I think it was more like 25%) my gardens and produced the mammatus cloudforms that show up on my “About” page. Yesterday’s hailstorm was–thankfully–not as damaging. Most of the plants will recover fairly rapidly, I think.

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Meanwhile, I’m trying to educate myself a bit more on the history of phenomenology as it relates to poetry, art, and poetics by reading a bit of Martin Heidegger. This is a backwards chronology, but I’m not feeling ready to take up Husserl yet. Heidegger’s also problematic because of his early embrace of the Nazi party (he resigned early, too, in 1938, but never made a full repudiation). I understand that great thinkers can nonetheless be very flawed human beings. Michael Wheeler’s thorough essay in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy touches on some of the contradictions and covers Heidegger’s major work. But I am reading Hofstadter’s translation of “Poetry, Language, Thought” and six other shorter essays, such as “What Are Poets For?” and “The Origin of a Work of Art.” Actually, it is hard to consider the first text as an essay. It’s more like a poem in aphorisms. An excerpt:

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When through a rent in the rain-clouded
sky a ray of sun suddenly glides
over the gloom of the meadows .  .  .  .

We never come to thoughts. They come
to us.

That is the proper hour of discourse.

Discourse cheers us to companionable
reflection. Such reflection neither
parades polemical opinions nor does it
tolerate complaisant agreement. The sail
of thinking keeps trimmed hard to the
wind of the matter.

From such companionship a few perhaps
may rise to be journeymen in the
craft of thinking. So that one of them,
unforeseen, may become a master.

~

Almost Confucian, no?

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Later in his life, Heidegger moved on from his earlier philosophizing on the ontology of being (he pointed out the need to define “exist” as a premise in any such inquiry) and began to suggest that art exists within the materials/tools of the artist as well as within the artist’s being and abilities, all in a perhaps simultaneous collection of conditions. Wheeler says, “poiesis is to be understood as a process of gathering together and fashioning natural materials in such a way that the human project in which they figure is in a deep harmony with, indeed reveals—or as Heidegger sometimes says when discussing poiesis, brings forth—the essence of those materials and any natural environment in which they are set.”

Heidegger writes, for example, that “a true cabinetmaker…makes himself answer and respond above all to the different kinds of wood and to the shapes slumbering within wood—to wood as it enters into man’s dwelling with all the hidden riches of its essence. In fact, this relatedness to wood is what maintains the whole craft. Without that relatedness, the craft will never be anything but empty busywork…” Wheeler calls this manifestation of the art within the materials (which the artist must understand in order to use her talents and tools to bring forth) a “process of revealing.” Kin, I suppose, to the words often attributed to Michelangelo: I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.

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Art, gardens, weather, poetry, the craft of thinking…all processes of revealing and transformation. “We never come to thoughts. They come to us.”ann e. michael hail foot

Beauty & awe–briefly

I have been reading lately (currently Leonard Shlain’s Art & Physics and Donald Revell’s The Art of Attention: A Poet’s Eye), but not much inspired to write. Instead, I work in the garden or sit on the porch and listen to birdsong.

I muse upon beauty. Partly such musing falls under the pursuit of aesthetics: the world of my garden becomes especially beautiful in spring. The sounds birds make seem beautiful to my ears. Water droplets on emerging leaves appear beautiful in the morning light.

japanese mapleThese are phenomena. The world of things I can take in with my senses, process through my body and brain, and create–out of whatever “mind” may be–a concept of the beautiful. The phenomena are not physically affected by my categorization. It is I who am changed, I suppose, by virtue of my aesthetic appreciation of the beautiful.

I am reminded of Kierkegaard:

“Love does not alter the beloved, it alters itself.”

Aesthetic appreciation does not alter the thing-in-itself, it alters the person who finds beauty in the thing-in-itself. If this is so, I am altered by my love of what I deem beautiful.

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While I was searching the web to find the quote above–I couldn’t quite recall it exactly–I found the Kierkegaard quote on the blog of pastor Jonathan Martin, whose theology I can’t completely get my mind around but whose words (below) reminded me of the Bhagavad Gita:

The most beautiful thing a person will ever see may well also be the most terrifying.

Is this not the nature of true beauty? To not just be soft and delicate, but to be so powerful, so overwhelming, so altogether other from ourselves as to threaten? Beauty does not intimidate, but it can overpower. Beauty is a coup to our senses. It holds an unruly power over us. Beauty can move us, haunt us, carry us, compel us. To feel ourselves beholden to the raw power of something beautiful is to be upended, not just inspired but assaulted.

On the lines of such thinking, we might find beauty in a tsunami, hurricane, earthquake, meteor strike the same way Arjuna feels paralyzed by the awesome beauty of the revealed godhead Krishna.

Perhaps that is why we often find ourselves fascinated by photos of natural disasters. Having lived for a couple of years along the northern end of Tornado Alley in the USA, I fear tornadoes. But they possess a kind of beauty in their awesomeness, if we can remove ourselves from the anguish we feel for people whose livelihoods, homes, and lives are destroyed by the big winds.

I wonder if human beings can ever bear that kind of awe; Martin says it transfigures us, Kierkegaard implies something similar, the Mahabharata and other sacred literature suggest that our bodies and our minds can withstand such revelation but cannot describe or truly comprehend it. It seems to me a kind of spiritual post-traumatic stress disorder! This is the “fear and trembling” of the psyche, whether the mind decides the experience is physical, mental, spiritual, or religious.

And that manner of beauty is not aesthetic.

Martin later writes, “Objectively speaking, the beauty of God is already present in our beloved, whether we recognize it or not. Rather, when we encounter beauty in another person, we are changed–we are transfigured…[those we love] do not become beautiful because we recognize their beauty; rather their beauty makes us beautiful.”

Is this experience awesome or aesthetic? Does the beauty of the azalea, the lilac, make me beautiful because I recognize it as such? Am I altered, fundamentally, in my admiration for an artist’s work, a poet’s words?

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