Reflection 331: The Situated Self

October 12, 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin.     [Including 7 photos.]

The question is, who controls our primary engagements? Do we defer to the customs of our social world and lend (or give away) our power of self-determination to those who are stronger than we are? Or do we keep a tight grip on the helm and steer our own course? Probably a mixture of the two, sharing power when it is to our advantage, and holding it tight when we are sure of the direction we want to head.

We get good at what we actually do over-and-over again, so we develop our engagement skills incrementally, improving them bit by bit through deliberate concentration, attention to detail, practice, and perseverance. It is one thing to attend to our strengths, relying on what we do best in almost every situation. That way we are apt to typecast ourselves in order to bull our way through. It is something else again to admit to weaknesses or a lack of finesse in many of our engagements, and face into (rather than ignore) them as integral parts of our personal identity.

No one excels at every sort of engagement. Quarterbacks are good at what they do best, but are likely to fall short as concert pianists, fashion designers, or aestheticians—which causes them no pain whatsoever. But when they lose the strength, speed, and stamina of youth, they have to face up to some of the less-well developed parts or dimensions of their makeup in deciding what to do for the rest of their lives.

Me, I’m a visual person. I make photographic images. Others are musicians, dancers, mathematicians, holy men or women, dog trainers, philosophers. We are all situated in the lives we live and have lived, but each of us comes with a unique set of baggage. We are fraught (freighted, loaded, burdened) with our histories because those histories are lodged in networks in our brains where they broadcast bulletins from our memories of where we have been and what we have done. Each of us is a unique, situated self. We make ourselves happen according to the dictates of who we are. I do it my way, you do it your way. Taken all together, we make up the world of humanity. Which reflects our strengths and weaknesses without flinching. We are, after all, who we are.

Yet we are bombarded by messages telling us to do this or do that because it would suit someone else’s desires. Vote for V; Buy W; Support X; Give to Y; Avoid Z at all cost. Pleas which I generally ignore as having no impact on my personal situation. I am in charge here, I keep telling myself, I’ll do the deciding. When I have no choices worthy of consideration, I pull back and, from the world’s perspective, go into hiding. But, no, I’m not hiding, I’m consulting myself—my memories, my dreams, my values, my feelings—my life situation—in deciding what to do.

After all, if I don’t steer my own engagements, who am I engaging for? Or more importantly, why am I here if not to be wholly myself? If I’m not myself, who am I, then?

I’ll tell you who I am, at least for this minute, today. I’ve been turning over everything in my apartment, looking for a receipt for a flight I made from Hancock County Airport back in June. Books are being audited, and I’m accountable for that invoice. I’ve looked at every scrap of paper in the place, cluttering the floor and my table with useless bits of paper, the residue of living my life over the course of several months. Ransacking my personal space, without success. One aspect of my situation just now is that I live amid clutter, which I confront in just lifting my eyes from the cursor on my computer screen.

Another aspect is I’m trying to learn not to get angry and take my frustrations out on others who I convert into victims in order to defend myself from blame. When I can’t engage a project as I wish, I sometimes get exasperated and blow up, throw a tantrum, rant and rage—instead of calmly saying, “Houston, we have a problem,” then going about fixing that particular problem. “Take no hostages” may be good advice, but not if it means abusing those around me. Better, I try to treat everyone with kindness and respect, and ask them for help in dealing with the upsetting situations I frequently get myself into. As I asked the clerk when I found my post office box so stuffed with papers, letters, catalogues, magazines, that I had no choice but to rip great gashes in them in pulling them out of the box past the hinges of the open door. I waited in line at the desk, wondering how I could put it so the clerk could hear me. “I’m going to tell you something you already know,” I would begin, “but when my mailbox is stuffed, I can’t get at my mail without shredding it,” would that work? When I got the clerk’s attention, that’s basically what I said. And we ended up laughing together at the image of me tugging on my mail, turning it into sauerkraut, steam gushing from my eye sockets. The essential thing is that he got the message.

A big part of my situation is missing my sons when I don’t see them for long periods of time. That’s part of the background of much of my life these days, that longing for something I can’t have. So this week I was overjoyed to have Jesse come from Boston to celebrate my birthday with my other son Ken at his house. That and my 80th birthday are a big part of my situation this week.

Last evening I watched the first presidential debate of this year’s campaign, and was dismayed to hear Mitt Romney try to shape the discussion according to hollow claims about how many jobs he’d create and not by his record of actual deeds. He seemed to be making his words up on the spot to suit the situation he was in (a high-stakes debate on TV) more than on what he had actually accomplished in his life. But that’s how it is with challengers to incumbents. Incumbents have a record of what they have done during four years in office; challengers run in opposition to that record, so they’ll say anything to paint it as a failure. Obama and Romney seem to be in the same race, but they are speaking from two very different situations, so their strategies truly reflect that disparity. What struck me from the perspective of a voter was the difference between a retelling of history and an imaginative prophecy of the future. I had to read between the lines to hear what each candidate was trying to say from the depths of his personal situation.

When listening to a political speech, ask yourself what is the situation the candidate is facing, and what the strategy he or she has adopted in speaking out of that situation, so accounting for the specific flow of words you are hearing. One thing is clear: candidates for political office speak from very different situations before election campaigns, during party primary races, and again during face-offs between parties, only to end up either winning or losing the campaign, leading to two additional situations—those of the officeholder and the also-ran.

All candidates change their tunes as they progress through the phases of the campaign because they are addressing entirely different constituencies at each stage, each posing a different situation than those addressed before. In their political lives both Obama and Romney have used different voices representing the different placements of their minds at each stage. The ultimate shocker is the voice that rises upon assuming the Presidency, the stern voice issuing from the Oval Office in Washington, D.C., the ultimate locus of power, and the most rigidly constrained by the complex, overlapping situations the President must deal with.

In presidential debate number one, President Obama was shocked because his opponent spoke with a different voice than any he had used up to that day. But that was because the campaign had entered the final stretch, placing each candidate in a different situation, the incumbent playing up his record of accomplishment, his opponent trashing that record while playing up what he hoped to do once he himself assumed office, leaving his personal record of deeds out of the picture entirely.

But getting back to minor details of my current, personal situation, a nagging dimension of my situation at this minute is the rash I get from something in my gluten-free diet I have been unable to identify. No, it isn’t from chocolate made in a dedicated, allergen-free facility, which I have lately tried and given up on. Maybe it’s the salicylates in green leafy vegetables, which I believe would be good for me if I could eat them, but which seem to bring on the rash. Anyway, the rash brings an undercurrent of annoyance and distraction to my situation, which leaves me somewhat dazed and frazzled when it gets really bad.

And so on. That is a fast sketch of my situated self as I sit here trying to write a coherent post on that very topic to my blog. Situations are complicated because at any given moment they tend to be composed of unrelated dimensions which make life more complicated than I’d like it to be—but nothing turns out to be simple. A lot is going on in the network of a hundred billion neurons that host our dreams, thoughts, feelings, values, and perspectives. Each instant of life is more a maze than a tableau, which may change with the next thought and the one after that.

Here are seven images of how I depict my situated self in graphic terms. 1) The first is me having my picture taken with my two sons, Jesse and Ken, at the birthday dinner they gave me this week. The photographer (my partner, Carole) structured the situation by saying, “Use your hands.” We dutifully responded, with this result (below).


2) The schematic diagrams in the next five slides build to a depiction of a loop of engagement centered on the yellow circle representing the situated self at the heart of all consciousness. The blue circle represents sensory impressions, the yellow circle represents personal situations, the pink circle represents bodily actions, each circle answering a pointed question relative to the situated self (below).


3) This second diagram depicts the loop of engagement connecting the situated self with both the natural and cultural worlds through an exchange of energy directed outward through bodily actions and inward through sensory impressions in an unbroken cycle through both external physical and internal neural media of transmission (below).

SituatedSelf-24) Formation of sensory impressions (blue circle) requires arousal, directed attention, and expectancy within a given situation, at a given level of sensory discrimination or discernment, leading to recognition if a given pattern is found familiar, and to fear or curiosity if thought strange or novel. Development of personal situations (yellow circle) entails creative imagination, thought, feelings, values, understanding, and dreams—all centered on the situated self or observer.  On the basis of personal judgment, the situated self makes a bodily response (pink circle) to a situation as construed in the light of personal experience, deciding how best to proceed, setting goals, selecting means, relying on relationships, working on projects, then acting appropriately to answer the tensions posed by the operative situation (below).

SituatedSelf-3 5) It comes as no surprise that consciousness flows from looping cycles of behavior and perception, which is entirely consistent with other organic exchanges such as those conducted by the digestive system, cardiovascular system, reproductive system, pulmonary system, and integumentary (skin) system as listed in the lower right corner of the gray rectangle representing the embodied or incarnated brain. Proprioception (sense of the body in space) and interoception (internal sensations such as feelings of satisfaction or dissatisfaction, aches, pains, etc.) both contribute to the makeup of the situated self. The dotted arrow on the left indicates that speech arises directly and efficiently from the self-as-situated without requiring the detailed planning and rehearsal of more fully developed behaviors (below).SituatedSelf-46) Bypassing the fully conscious, situated self, reflex arcs are loops connecting sensory input directly to behavioral output without having to pass through the complex realm of full consciousness where the many dimensions might slow them down. This is also true of rote or habitual routines and ideologies expressing the foregone conclusions of trained or set minds. In these cases, the situation is more intuited or assumed than explored, allowing for an immediate response. The comparison of current patterns of experience against those derived from the past is what drives the loop forward. Memory, then, is here represented in a central position turning momentary patterns into life experiences in the history of the situated self (below).

SituatedSelf-5Every mind, that is, comes equipped with a variety of options for connecting sensory impressions to the motor system generating more-or-less appropriate behavior. We are all capable of being impulsive as well as thoughtful or considerate. Practice and rehearsal assure gradual refinement of slow and awkward responses into fluent and modulated expressions of deep concern. In my own cluttered life, I often discover moments of great beauty coming upon me for a few seconds amid the chaos and confusion I generally endure. Walking to the post office this week, I saw a monarch butterfly land on a cluster of purple asters next to the sidewalk. Instantly, I was there with that butterfly and those flowers. Short-lived though it may be, that is also part of the situation out of which I make myself happen this week. What could I do but whip my camera from its case on my belt and take this picture (below).


It is sometimes difficult to believe how elaborate the situations are that we develop on the basis of sensory impressions twisted into bizarre shapes—largely our own doing by way of selecting and emphasizing the patterns that our senses make available to us. Since we have no meaning detector, the significance of a pattern is our own addition to the mix. We can scrutinize that pattern, but the meaning we lay upon it is strictly ours through our ability to compare new patterns with others recalled from former occasions, the earlier situations serving as our hold on the new, giving it meaning. So the meaningful world is the understanding we lay on the patterns revealed by our senses. Which is why two people side-by-side can live in such different perceptual worlds—each tailoring it to his or her own needs, fears, and desires. The black newspaper reporter holding a microphone up to his interviewee by the side of the road on Cape Cod was seen by passing motorists as holding a knife at his throat. Same pattern, different meanings. We are captives of the situations we fashion for ourselves.

Which is why I am spending all this time and effort writing about consciousness—to help calm my desperate illusions for one thing, to see how corporations and institutions are putting so much energy into capturing our (my and your) minds for their benefit for another, and so on, in hopes you and I will remain sane, set adrift as we are in this riled and riling world.

If we don’t seek therapy to help us endure, we can help heal ourselves by looking inward to discover where we’re coming from in a given situation, so better to understand the world by understanding ourselves through deliberate acts of self-reflection or introspection. If we feel trapped in our lives and yearn to break free, the same approach applies. The traps often turn out to be self-traps that bear our own patents and trademarks. If we can advance our understanding of ourselves as unique individuals, that is a solid contribution to the human world coming to understand itself, no mean accomplishment. Engaging ourselves, we improve our engagements with our immediate world, so contributing to the larger world beyond.

On that note, I now plan to explore other ways of presenting these views shaped through self-reflection in hopes of engaging a wider audience. Recently, I’ve made this blog my primary workspace, but now feel ready—and even obliged—to reach beyond myself to interact with more than the eighty or a hundred people who follow these posts. At age eighty, I find my life situation is rapidly changing, and I am trying to keep up with my situated self.

So, yes, I’ll be letting go of this blog in turning to other ways of being myself, returning now and then to share moments of beauty or discovery such as that monarch landing on those asters. I hope you will stay well, curious, and active.

In the meantime, I remain y’r devoted friend, –Steve from this one and only Planet Earth


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