Reflection 199: Fool’s Errand

April 19, 2010

(Copyright © 2010)

What we call the beginning is often the end

And to make an end is to make a beginning.

        T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets, Little Gidding, part 5

Is there no forward motion, then? Only the same round  again and again? Must I travel in circles? By different routes, I keep coming back to the same thing. Winding down this blog, I am not far from the mental state I was in twenty-eight years ago. I find myself making similar discoveries, or perhaps rehashing the same intuitions in different terms. What I then called “a resonant synthesis of meaning and being,” I now refer to as “the categorization of sensory patterns.”  Unhappy with either phrase because not expressed in plain English, I wonder if it has been worth it—trying to get a grip on the inner workings of my own mind. Am I in any better position to understand—so to remedy—the problems of my time? Or am I on a fool’s errand?

Words, being a social medium, impose the history of their use on the choice of any particular word to express a private thought. I despise the word categorization as sounding so pretentious, so academic, so foreign, so Greek. It is not a word I would normally use, but these days I use it in almost every post, as if repetition would somehow make it more acceptable. I think of it as Aristotle’s word, or Immanuel Kant’s. It doesn’t feel like my word. I have failed to come up with a better word for describing a big part of my personal consciousness.

To categorize is to describe the world in terms that are personally meaningful. That’s why I use it—it says what I mean. But it doesn’t sound like me in my own ears. So I cringe every time I ask my fingers to type that dread sequence of letters. The interesting thing, though, is what kategorein means in Greek—to publically accuse or assert (kata- down, egor- to speak in public). We use it in the sense (via Latin) of to declare or proclaim, that is, to state the nature or character of a person, thing, or event. To categorize something is to make public a claim it is as I see it. Categorization, then, is the outward expression of a mental notion, of a concept or an idea.

How else could I say that to be less formal or academic? The word mapping sounds more friendly to me. Categorization is the mapping of a concept from consciousness onto something in our phenomenal world. It is the categorizer who does the mapping, so responsibility for what he does is solely his. Naming is another friendly term for what we do when we categorize. One problem with names, however, is we often think of them as properties of persons or objects themselves, not as labels or designations applied by others. As if a spade (object) were strictly a spade (name) and not a shovel, digging implement, or trowel. What’s in a name? I find I am bothered by mail addressed to Steven Perrin instead of to Steve or Stephen Perrin. It’s an easy mistake, and there is no way to know if Steve is short for Steven or Stephen. What troubles me is that, without thinking, people lay their assumptions on how I spell my own name, which I take as a slight. Sensitive? You bet! But there it is. Names matter. Categorizations matter.

Historically, they have changed over time as Latin replaced Greek as an international language, then evolved into French, which merged with Anglo-Saxon into Old English, then became modern English. With the result that we forget what terms once meant, and bring in new terms of our own, replacing simple old names with verbal concoctions. In Words and Places (Everyman’s Library, originally published 1864), Isaac Taylor gives examples of concatenated place names made up of bits and pieces contributed by different cultures:

In the name of Brindon Hill, in Somersetshire, we have first the Cymric bryn, a hill. To this was added dun, a Saxonised Celtic word, nearly synonymous with bryn; and the English word hill was added when neither bryn nor dun were any longer significant words.

Pen-dle-hill, in Lancashire, is similarly compounded of three synonymous words—the Cymric pen, the Norse holl, and the English hill. In Pen-tlow Hill, in Essex, we have the Celtic pen, the Anglo-Saxon hlaw, and the English hill. Shar-pen-hoe-knoll, in Bedfordshire, contains four nearly synonymous elements.

Why use four syllables when the meaning of each is the same, and one of them would do? These terms are monuments to human forgetfulness, reminding us that categorizations are projections of the human mind, not labels of things as what they are in themselves.

Name-calling is a clear example of characterization conveying an attitude: you turkey, you imbecile, you darling, you angel, you pig. It is a very different act to apply the name pig to a pig or a person. But thinking about it, a pig isn’t a pig on its own; it takes a person to dub a pig a pig, cochon, Schwein, cerdo, or maiale, depending on whether that person speaks English, French, German, Spanish, or Italian. The pigness of a pig is clearly in the ear of the categorizer.

Once we get beyond the standoffish (to us) quality of foreign words, the idea of categorization (recognition, mapping, naming) is clear enough. After casting our concepts outward, the hard part is accepting that the world as we perceive it is a phenomenal version of the world, a rendition by our sensory apparatus, different for each one of us, depending on our motivation at the time, our interest, arousal, attention, level of discrimination, and other aspects of consciousness. The world in itself is other than we can see, hear, touch, smell, taste, or intuit. Imagine the world of a bird that can detect Earth’s magnetic field with sensors in its eyes; imagine the world of a shark, skate, or ray that can read electrical signals sent out by the nervous system of prey species buried in sand, gravel, or mud. Like ants, moles, worms, and bumblebees, such species, too, would claim to see the world “as it is,” but theirs would be a very different world from the one we claim to know.

Within our own species, individuals see the world differently. For example, here is something I read this morning in Harper’s Magazine of Jan. 2010, from a piece by Charles Bowden,  “The Wisdom of Rats”:

Laws are passed, uniforms designed, theories float like butterflies over the mountains and valleys and deserts. Things are Mexican or things are American or people are settlers or pioneers or savages or aliens, men are outlaws or lawmen, boundaries are violated or secured, armies sweep through, order is insisted upon, revolutions come and go and succeed or fail and it is all under control at all times whether there is control or not.

Different observers, different worlds, that is the law of consciousness. Not that there’s nothing “out there,” it’s that each of us renders it to suit himself in the moment. If I am hungry, I notice food; if I am wet, I look for shelter; if I am cold, I seek warmth; if I am lonely, I wish for company; if I am frazzled, I retire into solitude. Narrowing the search, we find what we look for, but that’s only the beginning. Our personal worlds are functions of our size, sensory acuteness, ability to discriminate one thing from another, prior experience, genetic makeup, chemical environment in the womb, childhood development, rearing, schooling, training, job history, higher education, and on and on. The one world may be out there, but the phenomenal worlds we entertain in consciousness are different for each individual. Consequently, we respond in different ways to those phenomenal worlds, so behave as uniquely ourselves.

There is no known standard for any so-called objective world. We do not perceive material objects directly as they “are,” but construe them from the energy they emit, reflect, block, or diffract (as voyagers in the Pacific could navigate in relation to wave fronts in the lee of an island they could not see). Kicking an object (such as a tire on a used car or a cardboard box at the side of the road) is as good a way as any to check on the solidity of an object, but it says little about what that object might be.

In earlier posts I have mentioned apparent motions of sun, moon, planets, and stars, apparent colors, apparent sounds (such as speech or music)—none of which is the same in the world of objects as it appears in phenomenal consciousness. Things seem to grow smaller as they move away from us, and we accept that illusion as natural, even though we know that a locomotive does not actually grow in size as it approaches or smaller as it passes us by. Looking down from the upper floors of a tall building, we remark how small people on the street are, even though we know that on their level they are probably of average size.

People categorize their phenomenal worlds in order to act more-or-less appropriately in situations they can construe but cannot directly engage beyond consciousness. Consciousness, that is, enables an ongoing loop of engagement between  individual actors and their surroundings by which specific gestures are traded for sensory input, followed by a series of adjusted gestures and revised inputs, mediated by personal judgments, values, goals, and prior experience. In two sentences, that is the gist of the 199 posts to this blog. We the people are motivated categorizers of sensory impressions. The worlds we live in are parallel universes rendered by our brains in creating personal consciousness.

Which may be true for individuals (personal consciousness being the topic of this blog), but what about the collective consciousness of people acting in groups? After 199 posts, that is the new beginning I am faced with, the flip side of individual consciousness that can be known through introspection. Corporate personhood and the “right” to bear arms are two examples of beliefs held in common by groups made up of disparate individuals. Beliefs may be hatched in individual consciousness, but as items on a group’s agenda, they become aggrandized as issues, principles, rights, or policies, and so become larger than notions, concepts, or ideas in individual minds. Trying to grasp individual consciousness is daunting enough, but collective or corporate consciousness adds layer-upon-layer of difficulty on top of that. The issue then becomes the mental underpinnings of behavior exhibited by people acting in groups, not the relatively simpler matter of individual consciousness in relation to one person’s independent acts.

Mixing levels of consciousness, seen from my personal point of view, corporate personhood becomes an out-and-out oxymoron. For corporations to be considered persons, they would have to have brains and some semblance of consciousness. But corporations are entities chartered by the various states, not living beings. Though they may have members and employees who have brains and are conscious for themselves, corporations as such are demonstrably both brainless and mindless. Ask a corporation to categorize some aspect of its world and it will refer the job to an attorney who does have both a brain and a mind; the corporation as an entity chartered on paper is not up to the task.

Yet corporations exist and are considered legal persons under the law, allowing a group of people to act within certain specified limits as a corporate individual. This legal fiction confounds true and make-believe entities, magically bestowing rights and qualities of living persons upon chartered bodies (orchestras, alliances, unions, partnerships, companies, corporations) as if they were mortal beings and not so many origami tigers without wits or judgment. But, looking around, I see many similar fictions alive and well in the culture I live in. There is a trend in corporate thinking to allow for convenient fictions that fail any test of reality beyond the fact that it pleases us to act as if we believed in them. I have written in this blog about The Wizard of Oz, who is as real to me as Barack Obama, Dick Cheney, or Isaac Newton.

Does it matter that we have a hard time differentiating fiction from truth? Considering the wealth concentrated in modern multinational corporations, and the legal expertise in their employ, yes, it becomes a serious question because of the influence and leverage such impersonal entities wield in the affairs of natural persons. Corporate persons have vastly greater powers to control the media, lobby Congress, sway the Supreme Court, and determine election results than ordinary citizens do. Corporate personhood mocks the principle of one person, one vote, which underlies our democratic form of government. Does that matter? Is pitting corporate versus individual resources likely to lead to a fair contest? Is democracy itself just a myth?

No slope is slipperier than corporate personhood because the combination of corporate policy, expertise, and funding trumps hard-won, mere-mortal judgments every time. We the people are disheartened: the courts have stolen our nation out from under us. The struggle for independence never ends.

Miscategorizing a corporation as a person is contrary to any system of law that claims to be reasoned and compassionate. If corporations can play at being persons, why not dogs and cats? Pigeons? Rats? Which brings me back to Charles Bowden’s piece in Harper’s:

The rats came out in the night and moved right here where I sit, a continuous thread of rats reaching far back with love and anger and lust and dreams and reaching past any place my world will ever attain, and the rats know but will not say what they know and so we must find out, experience the fantasy of power and control, and finally we will go under like every one of our kind they have ever seen and still they will come out in the night and move around, not making a sound, not a single sound, but move around and thrive as the creek purls along in the black love of the night. We must not play it safe if we wish to share the wisdom of the rats.

Our idea of history is the end of history, of tracking a concentration of power that finally reaches critical mass, and by an explosion of force solves all problems and ends all change forever, amen.

No rat has ever believed our history.

Categorizations such as corporate personhood are creations of what Gerald Edelman calls higher-order consciousness. Rats are endowed with primary consciousness, which deals with a phenomenal world interpreted in light, not of concepts, but of innate biological values—sex, food, drink, and more sex, food, and drink. It is not corporate personhood itself that will prove our undoing, but our helpless putting-up with it. If our higher-order consciousness allows us to categorize it as a crazy, irrational, illegal power-grab, that leaves us helpless because these are not arguments admissible in a court of law, which is where the problem lies. On a social level, courts are the deciders of which categorizations are legal and which are not. For now, while rats and judges creep among us in the dark, it’s OK for corporations to act as if they were persons, which everybody knows they are not, but if the Supreme Court rules it’s OK, then it must be OK.

Leaving me to wonder, is there any such thing as higher-order social consciousness? Have we reached the point in our evolution where that might emerge? As it is, court decisions serve the interests of those who write legislation and the judges who back them up. Corporate personhood is alive and well in our age, as is the right to bear arms, so I feel I am ahead of my time. And I don’t see higher-order social consciousness emerging anytime soon. The trend, in fact, appears to be running the other way. How long can the right to be a fully conscious, independent person last before being declared unconstitutional?

To end this post, I will return to the beginning of the rule of law in this nation, to the Preamble of the Constitution, which, in case you might have forgotten, reads as follows:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The thirty-nine signers of the Constitution in 1787 were all able-bodied categorizers and witnesses to the sensory phenomena kindled within them in their time. They had not yet surrendered the right to keep and exercise their independent consciousness. What they left out of the document was a provision for protecting the people once the checks and balances they provided were ignored or subverted by, for example, a President who makes his own law, a Congress that can be bought by lobbyists, or a Supreme Court with tenure “during good behavior” (no matter how obliquely it categorizes the law of the land).

 Ouroboros: End as beginning

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