Speaking of difficult books…and I know I told myself to read more poetry (and I am, really, most recently Michael Burkard’s Fictions from the Self)…I am entranced and overawed by Barbara Cassin’s amazing Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon. Here’s a thorough and intelligent review by Michael Kinnucan, going into more depth than I have time to post on this blog. What I want to mention about the text is its beauty and its acknowledgment of ambiguity, a quality that translates (ha!) into every aspect of human existence: our ambiguous relationships with our environments, with other humans, with our foods and our governments, our psyches, our cosmos.


We cannot write about the act of translation without encountering ambiguity. We cannot really address philosophy without acknowledging that differing perspectives [context, culture, era, psychology, and of course, language] pose serious complications to understanding across languages and cultures. And even within a culture! For jargon and specialized terms can make understanding by even the most educated layman very, very difficult indeed.

While Cassin’s tome–and it is a collaborative work, with many brilliant people as contributors–presents itself as a philosophical lexicon, the connections with other disciplines (psychoanalysis, for example, with Freud’s famous coinages, and certainly poetry) are unavoidable. It may be challenging to translate the German Schicksal, a Kantian form of the idea we call in English fate, but in such cases the reader is generally going to be familiar with Kant and perhaps aware that the subtle connotations may vary. Take the word sign, however, and each reader–even those who have linguistics or anthropology or philosophy as a background–brings his or her own connotations to the definition and to the problem of translating what any individual author means by the use of the word.

Maybe this doesn’t sound fascinating to you. I relish it! And who knew (I sure didn’t) that even the word reality is a neologism, “coined by Duns Scotus” in the 13th century?

At 1200 pages of small type, this text is a tool, not a beach read. What a find, though. I have no doubt I will be referring to it for years to come, and that it will keep me wallowing in marvelous ambiguities.


What does a woman want?

In the medieval poem “The Marriage of Sir Gawain,” the knight gallantly agrees to marry a hag-like witch who has helped King Arthur by giving him the answer to his enemy’s riddle, which is “What does a woman want?” One of several ballad-like story poems of the Arthurian legend, this one appears in Eleven Romances of Sir Gawain (an online scholarly edition is here).

For contemporary intellectual types, however, the person who famously posed that question is Sigmund Freud. He spent many years refining the theory we now refer to as “penis envy” and arguing the displacement theory was at work subconsciously. Far too many casual references to Freud have simplified this idea as suggesting that women want to be anatomically arranged like men.

Um, not exactly…nope.

But back to Sir Gawain, agreeing to marry the hag in order to free his king from the evil baron’s grip. According to the poem, Arthur gives Gawain the secret he has learned from the witch herself. Depending upon the version or translation, the answer is: what a woman wants is her way (or her will, or to have her own way). She wants to be free to decide things that affect her and to make her own choices. Because Gawain is not only gallant and loyal and noble but also no dummy, he remembers Arthur’s secret. When the witch reveals herself as a gorgeous woman and asks him whether he’d prefer to see her lovely by day (when others can see her) or lovely by night (when her husband is abed with her), he defers to her. He says she should choose.

Delighted, she chooses to be lovely all the time (she now knows he will never forget that she has a will of her own).

So, if the medieval hag is correct, Freud was right, at least symbolically. Freud dwelt in a culture where men had authority, power, and self-agency, probably also true of medieval European culture, though I’d argue the Victorians were even more constrained. Anyway, women want those things, too–if possessing a penis as part of one’s anatomy could get you those things, one can understand envying the man, if not the organ itself. Indeed, Freud uses a bunch of lengthy theorizing to offer intellectual ballast to what he initially mentioned was an issue of power. Penis=power, in a male-dominated culture. It is almost too simple an idea, and almost too obvious, so he probably felt he had to pack it with a lot of other ideas. Transference and displacement theory have proven useful in other ways, but penis envy just suggests that females too often lack power to make personal choices within a social milieu.

As a feminist who yearns for balance and equality among human beings, I think it is crucial to point out that, despite the stories with which I’ve framed this post, wanting one’s way is not just what women want. It is also what men want.

People, no matter the gender, want to be able to say “No” and to be listened to and heeded. People want to direct their own lives, make their own decisions–and their own mistakes. I work with college students who are 17-22 years old, and I can assure you that they desperately want to make their own choices. Though they often also desperately want to blame someone else for the unfortunate consequences of certain ill-considered choices, they mature once they realize that sort of behavior limits them to the role of the naughty child–a dependent–not a responsible, independent person. If you want to be respected as an adult, I tell my students, you have to be willing to own up to your own poor decisions. And that’s just for starters.

Each young person I teach, tutor, or counsel wants some control over his or her life. Some try to get it by seeking to control other people, others by trying to control their environment, others by endeavoring to control the social situation they find themselves in…the list goes on. Human beings cannot really control as much as we think we can. But we can exert our will and speak up for our way. We can offer respect and seek respect. We ought to be able to make our own decisions as long as we are mature enough to deal with the results for good or ill. That goes for people of any sex.

Yet when a woman asserts that she wants her way, our society tends to judge her as a whiner or a bitch, a ball-breaker or a manipulator. Even now, many years into politically-correct language and Title IX and women as Supreme Court justices, I hear this sort of language bandied about, often “in jest.” Sure, it can be jesting; but it’s also pretty close to jousting–with words. Be a little more careful, my friends. Or as the terminology goes these days, more mindful. Perhaps, given the freedom to exercise our will, more of us will choose to be lovely all the time.

Awareness, openness, & … magic mushrooms?

In a recent New Yorker article about potential medical uses for psilocybin (“The Trip Treatment”), science, culture, and food writer Michael Pollan interviewed researchers in neuroscience, medicine, and psychology. The medical potential of psychedelic drugs is not something I can comment on from reading just one article; what intrigued me most about this piece is how these drug studies overlap with studies on cognition, metacognition, consciousness, and spirituality. The medically-controlled “tripping” that volunteers have undergone overwhelmingly resulted in some form of what we term mystical or spiritual (for lack of a scientific term) feeling.

It’s almost impossible to consider these realms of experience without questioning concepts such as “soul” or “self-awareness.” Pollan writes:

Roland Griffiths is willing to consider the challenge that the mystical experience poses to the prevailing scientific paradigm. He conceded that “authenticity is a scientific question not yet answered” and that all that scientists have to go by is what people tell them about their experiences. But he pointed out that the same is true for much more familiar mental phenomena.

“What about the miracle that we are conscious? Just think about that for a second, that we are aware we’re aware!”

A man after my own heart. It is amazing, a kind of miracle. And we get consciousness and metacognition without any drug intervention at all. It just springs into our beings at some point, as we create ourselves from lived events and construct speculative worlds and an understanding (though often flawed) of other minds.

Here is another fascinating result from the psilocybin studies that may make us revise our ideas of interpersonal relationships, personhood, and creating a self. Pollan writes:

A follow-up study by Katherine MacLean, a psychologist in Griffiths’s lab, found that the psilocybin experience also had a positive and lasting effect on the personality of most participants. This is a striking result, since the conventional wisdom in psychology holds that personality is usually fixed by age thirty and thereafter is unlikely to substantially change. But more than a year after their psilocybin sessions volunteers who had had the most complete mystical experiences showed significant increases in their “openness,” one of the five domains that psychologists look at in assessing personality traits. (The others are conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.) Openness, which encompasses aesthetic appreciation, imagination, and tolerance of others’ viewpoints, is a good predictor of creativity.   [italics mine]

Openness, aesthetic appreciation, imagination, tolerance, creativity…and one researcher in neuropsychopharmacology suggests that this sort of un-boundaried openness signifies a temporary regression to an infantile state, very much as Freud hypothesized. I thought instead of Bachelard and the childhood reverie state.

Intriguing, that pharmacological work of this sort makes neuroscientists resort to citing William James and Sigmund Freud on mystical experience and the subconscious!

[Robin] Carhart-Harris believes that people suffering from other mental disorders characterized by excessively rigid patterns of thinking, such as addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorder, could benefit from psychedelics, which “disrupt stereotyped patterns of thought and behavior.” In his view, all these disorders are, in a sense, ailments of the ego. He also thinks that this disruption could promote more creative thinking. It may be that some brains could benefit from a little less order.    [italics mine]

I wonder if the aesthetic experience itself, when wholly engaged, can sometimes act like a drug on the art-viewer’s or art-maker’s being. When one reads the poem that rearranges one’s world, doesn’t it disrupt stereotyped, familiar, habitual patterns of thought? That’s what happens for me when I encounter great art of any kind. It is close to mystical.



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.


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



Mere philosophical speculation

I have been reading more of Daniel Dennett. One of his earlier books, Brainstorms, consists of essays and talks and thus, being available to read in short bursts, has served as my intellectual entertainment in between the busy social events of this particular June.

I liked three of his essays better than the others. The first one in the book describes, explains, and argues for “intentional systems;” the author also does a fairly good job of asserting that philosophers and psychologists ought to study computer models of intelligence as a means of leaning more about human intelligence. He does not make lots of mechanistic claims, however–he does not suggest human beings are mere soft machines, and he gives a good argument in Chapter 11 as to why we cannot make a computer that feels pain. But he does separate, by degrees, the differences between basic consciousness states and consciousness that exhibits intentionality, and he separates basic consciousness from simple instinct–something that confuses many people when they are posed difficult questions about non-human animal “minds”.

His essay “How to Change Your Mind” offers terrific, logical insights about human “feelings,” “intuitions,” and opinions. Dennett shifts the perspective on the psychological question of why it is so difficult for human beings to “change their minds” and to give genuinely rational (or mechanistic) reasons for doing so.

The book’s final chapter, “Where Am I?” is available as a PDF at this link, and here Dennett offers a much more entertaining and readable philosophical thought experiment on personhood (and consciousness/mind) than Derek Parfit posits in his book Reasons and Persons. Those readers who are interested in how a thought experiment can argue for the existence of a person-as-consciousness-state without embodiment-in-carbon-based-materiality, without the usually-required religious or spiritual crutch, but also without the dense counterarguments of Parfit’s approach, may wish to check out this chapter.

Granted, I understand that many people feel thought experiments are a monumental waste of time, tantamount to navel-gazing; others feel sure that teleportation out of fleshly bodies is the stuff of science fiction (emphasis on the fiction). But as our inventions permit us to test out theories that once were “mere philosophical speculation,” all kinds of surprises may await us. Quantum physics was an imagined idea, for example, that scientists have been able to revise and explore in a more machine-based way…Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions does, often, operate historically as he envisioned the process. The recent excitement over teleportation of coded data provides an example of mechanical testing of theories (here is a good basic article on the experiment for the layperson, with graphics and a Star Trek image, and here is the scientist-written article).

All of which is fascinating, yet none of which decreases my enjoyment of a run of perfect June summer days. Incarnate, I attempt meditation. There is honeysuckle on the breeze. Insects whir and buzz around me; sun warms my left shoulder. Time for consciousness. Time to be here, among the things of this world.



Psychobiology & art

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


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.


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?

Curiosities & stories

Here’s James Delbourgo’s recent article in Chronicle of Higher Education (I read the Chronicle regularly, if that’s not already obvious) about collections of oddities. While the article itself is sometimes a bit maddening (what is his main idea here?), it put me in mind of Mantel’s The Giant, O’Brien and of collections my friends have accrued. Toshio Odate, for example, has some fascinating accumulations he keeps in clear acrylic boxes, and some of his art constructions feature curious things: a favorite of mine is a large frame displaying every pair of sneakers his son wore as a child.

Edmund de Waal wrote movingly about objects and collections in his book The Hare with Amber Eyes. Several months ago I promised myself I’d get back to the topic of objects and their stories, but it has taken me awhile to resume my meditations on the subject. As a child, I loved wandering slowly through the world, stopping and dawdling and picking  up acorns, buttons, marbles, leaves, whatnot. Sometimes I would arrange these found objects into tiny houses, or float them on puddles, or arrange them on my windowsill. I might imagine stories around them, drawing on Andersen’s “Thumbelina” or the song “Froggie Went A-Courting.”

"Swiss Shoot the Chutes" by Joseph Cornell

“Swiss Shoot the Chutes” by Joseph Cornell

Not too many years later, when I encountered Joseph Cornell’s work, I was enchanted. His boxes contained mysteries, stories, possibilities, and fears; and they were achingly beautiful to me. Not unsurprisingly, Cornell’s work gets a mention in Delbourgo’s piece, which is partly a review of Brian Dillon’s book Curiosity: Art and the Pleasures of Knowing.

From the Chronicle essay:

Curiosity, Dillon proposes, is a way of knowing that looks askance. It draws attention to the unexplained or overlooked fragment, to invite us, if possible, to look sideways and look closely at the same time. As such, its promise of knowledge is ambiguous. Does curiosity seek to unmask the strangeness that absorbs its attention, or is it an invitation to luxuriate in that strangeness? Does it carry an inherent Baconian injunction to go further and illuminate, or does it recommend the alternative pleasures of not knowing?

I like those inquiries and feel they may inspire some poetry. Later, while considering the way some collectors, particularly wealthy or scientifically-minded ones, made detailed lists of the oddities, Delbourgo notes that

Dillon suggests that such lists also constituted “a kind of story,” but do they? The list is an open form, not a closed and completed one. Curiosity collections could absorb countless new objects precisely because they didn’t propose a coherent narrative about them. Unlike spoils that tell of conquest, curiosities don’t preach and don’t teach. What makes them curious is their oblique relation to the world in which they’re embedded. And yet, as a matter of historical fact, early-modern Europeans accumulated curiosities in no small part through trade, colonization, and war…

The 18th-2oth century ascendancy of science and the current trend of interdisciplinary art-tech-science aesthetics gets a mention in the article, too:

Curiosity and wonder—distinct terms but often used interchangeably—turned out to be interwoven with theology, civility, craftsmanship, nature’s playfulness…Curiosity thus helped dethrone the modern fact from its hegemony over the history of science.

Again a connection with de Waal, and also with the work my brother has been doing in reconsidering the skull collection of Samuel Morton (and other early modern anthropological collectors). In the case of many people who collect ‘curiosities,’ there are thorny questions of ethics vs. the ‘value’ of extending knowledge or awareness. The political, the legal, the ethical–these can conflict with curiosity in many forms it can take, from the problematic Rauschenberg  sculptural combine “Canyon” which features a stuffed bald eagle, to the superficial thrill that gets us to sit through an adventure movie even if we can guess the ending.

Curiosity is basically an exploratory response, as psychologists term it, which covers a vast arena of animal and human perceptions of the environment to orient us to potential situations and to prepare us for behavior/action. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, D.E. Berlyne studied what I call curiosity quite extensively, including some exploration into art and aesthetics though mainly concentrating on the reactive responses that make us susceptible to enjoyment or evaluation of art, humor, literature. (He published, in 1954, A Theory of Human Curiosity, which I think I must read after I read Dillon’s book).

But now I am drifting far from my topic of stories and objects. Probably that’s Delbourgo’s influence, as his essay wanders a bit, though the author cites some books I plan to add to my to-read list; for that, I am grateful, but I would prefer to look at how objects inspire stories, or make the need for stories. There’s the sun in the sky each day, and it leaves each night. We make up a story about that, or about why the leopard has spots or why there are stars in the sky.

Here’s something from my own collection of curiosities, a wooden ampersand from an antique type magazine. &&001And there’s a story I could tell about it which would be more or less ‘true,’ but there are better stories yet to be invented.

Or, tell the story of Cornell’s “Observatory Box.”


“Observatory Box,” Joseph Cornell