(Copyright © 2010)

I am ever the hero of my own little drama as I act it out in my head. It can’t be otherwise because I am the author and sole interpreter of the script as it is revealed to me (that is, as I make it up minute by minute). My life is a performance of my story, first concocted in my head, then performed on the virtual (from my point of view) stage of the unknowable world. Picture me behind the door of my mind—the one with the star—posing in my dressing gown before a full-length mirror, mouthing the words I am rehearsing for the grand performance I’m to give in a few moments. If you were lucky, you’d be in the audience. Too bad you can’t make the show because you are rehearsing your own performance before your own full-length mirror in a different dressing room, also with a star on the door.

We are heroes to ourselves because we can do no wrong. Even when we commit stupid or cruel acts, we are automatically off the hook because, no matter how others see us, we appear blameless to ourselves. Self-interest is our only motive, so by definition we have to be right because we can always justify what we do. It is they, those others, who are at fault—they just don’t understand.

Each a hero in her own eyes; what a wonderful system. Perfection itself on two legs, facing the world, looking about for yet more heroic labors worthy of our talents and strengths. Whatever feats others may perform, we can do better. Why waste time pretending to be modest if in all honesty we’re the greatest? I mean, what-is-the-point? Wink, wink; nudge, nudge. If corporations ever got on to the power of categorization so they were able to set the terms in which we all see the world, there’d be hell to pay.

If we manage to do no harm by living our span to the fullest, then a self-assertive life such as I have described in those first three paragraphs amounts to a comedy. But despite our good intentions, we are never as innocent as we claim. Others do without basic necessities so that we may live higher on the hog than they can imagine. Eyes straight ahead, we are only dimly aware of the ruin in our wake. With an automobile, I have killed pheasants, dogs, cats, frogs, salamanders, butterflies, dragonflies, and thousands of others. I have been trained as a killer by the U.S. Army; I don’t doubt that my training was successful on occasion, even well after the fact. But there I go again, blaming my training, while the true killer is the self that I am whose hungers demand to be fed.

Our myopic perspectives and insatiable appetites render life more tragic than comic. Think of the innocents slaughtered in our name (beef cattle, chickens, pigs, goats, and thousands of plants, many of which bear genes similar to our own). We live at far greater expense than we know or choose to bother ourselves about.

All because we categorize and sort the world for personal gain as we imagine it, without consulting others in advance. Selfish and glib, that’s what we are. I know, I am one who has shaped the world to his advantage as long as he can remember. Not deliberately or knowingly, perhaps, but effectively that is how I have lived my life. Following my nose, which means following the dictates of self-interest and personal advantage. The difference between me following my nose and Bernie Madoff following his is he’s in prison and I’m not. Or if I am in fact behind bars, those bars are the steely cage around my consciousness, armoring the very wits by which I survive.

I use such imagery to describe the categorizing aspect of consciousness because we cannot avoid casting our most self-serving concepts upon sensory patterns representing what we can know of the world. With the exception of messages from great corporations, those phenomenal patterns do not come to us presorted and pre-categorized; it is we who bend them to our purposes by seeing them from our unique points of view as recorded in our personal histories of concept formation, cleaned and gutted of telling details, hollowed-out for general utility later on, leaving only husks, not the essence. Categorization—recognizing the “true” nature of things—is not an impartial act; we are invested in what uses we can make of a thing for our personal advancement, so bestow categories on it that will serve us well later on. A spade is not just a spade nor a rose simply a rose; in each case they are functionally what we make them out to be. A spade can kill, a rose ingratiate us with others who will owe future favors.

Machiavelli didn’t come out of the blue; he was the product of his own urge to survive. So, too, de Sade. And Sun Tzu, author of The Art of War, who wrote, “All warfare is based on deception.” I say all survival is based on deception, particularly of the self. To us, our miscategorizations always appear fair and just. The self is in full command of its resources and does not submit to casual scrutiny. You have to infer its self-deceptions from its actual deeds. That makes it all the easier to confound its dictates with truth or reality, subject of my last post (Reflection 197: Backing Off).

Our entire neural apparatus intercedes between the self and its grasp of the world. Our senses don’t deliver the world-as-it-is to our doorstep, they bring us images transduced and reformulated by our sensory system—the world being at least once removed as translated into the neural language of action potentials and flowing neurotransmitters. Which memory scans for familiar patterns in order to categorize what we hear (see, touch, taste, smell) in terms of concepts made meaningful by prior experience. At every step of our life journey we reinvent ourselves and the situation we’re faced with based on patterns we’ve encountered before and the concepts we’ve derived from them. The world as-it-is-in-itself never enters our minds.

No matter how subtle, most categorizations are heroic distortions for personal gain in being consistent with biological values inherent in the self—namely you and me. Our meanings lie ready, waiting to seize on familiar neural signals. The perceptual side of consciousness is concerned with sensory patterns and relationships, and so is more cordial in being ruled by curiosity about, and interest in, what’s out there than by survival at any cost. Categorization answers questions raised by curiosity about the world, but personal aesthetics first decide what’s relevant and what isn’t. I don’t mean aesthetics focused solely on beauty; I mean picking up on sensory patterns and relationships apart from any meaning they may have for us. That is, sensory signals as not yet—but soon to be—recognized and categorized. Such as the tonal makeup and rhythms of a familiar voice or piece of music; the shape, size, color, and motion of a familiar bird; the feel of our fingers wrapping around the steering wheel of our family car; the scent of Spanish rice as Mother used to make it.

The mapping of categories onto sensory patterns, and vice versa, are two of the major achievements of consciousness. Experience and awareness meet in constituting a current moment of engagement with our world. The salience or relevance of the signal can be in attention or memory, but categorizing a sensory episode as a meaningful experience is our doing in either case. We are fulfilled in being simultaneous pattern detectors and categorizers in that moment. When our personal histories coincide with the sensory now, we are on familiar ground and know our options for making an appropriate response to the situation we’re in. The past claims the now, moving our heroic-aesthetic self one notch toward the future.

We are so quick to draw categories from our quiver, we come to think sensory patterns come to us with meanings attached to them, as if they were meaningful in and of themselves. But even if we are in our everyday mode of categorization, we are the ones responsible for bringing sensory inputs and conceptual meanings together. The meaning isn’t in the music or the image, it is in us. Always in us. If the sounds of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony pour out of the radio and there’s no one to hear it, then the sounds go unrecognized, and the radio may be turned on, but Beethoven’s Fifth is not playing. If the sensory-pattern recognizer and categorizer is absent, then for all practical purposes the moment is lost. Think of a car skidding off the road, hitting a tree, killing the driver, with the radio playing relentlessly to his unhearing ears and lifeless body. Is the radio still playing? To one discovering the scene, perhaps, but not to the late driver.

Categorization takes time—on the order of a few tenths of a second. It is possible to live in the gap between pattern reception and the act of recognition that fits it to a category. We can prolong that gap as long as we please by focusing solely on sensory patterns and their internal relationships, dispensing with conceptual meanings as irrelevant—as we often do in listening to music without words, scanning the surface of a painting, savoring scents on a damp day in fall, and walking in woods or along the shore—giving ourselves to our surroundings instead of claiming to know them in advance.

As a photographer for the Information Service at Iowa State University in 1960, I used to photograph boxing matches and basketball games, giving my total attention to the action in the ring or under the basket. I was so engaged in my personal zone, I lived to anticipate what was about to happen because if I waited to find out, it was too late to click the shutter. Peering at the scene through the viewfinder of my camera, living in that space, when the match or game was over, I had to ask to find out who’d won.

Yes, sounds dumb, and it was because I had no use for speech and meaning. Just as when I visit galleries and avoid reading what the artist says about a painting or photograph, or even the label of what I am looking at. I don’t want titles or grand ideas, I want the visual experience, which the title or blurb takes away from me so that I know about the image without experiencing it for myself. In such a case, words are not the issue. They are someone else’s categorizations, and I have no interest in them. Later, perhaps, but not now. Not till I’ve pushed the experience as far as I can take it, exploring the image, noting the colors and their relationships, textures, shapes, angles, brushstrokes, making the image live in me so that I have a personal acquaintance with it. That way, I still see the world through my own eyes. Maybe later, I’ll bother to read what someone else has to say about it.

I still recall being disappointed when I led a group of eleventh graders on an excursion through woods where I wanted them to learn about their natural surroundings by touch, smell, sound—any way but sight (see Reflection 149: Blind Walk). Pairing up, one partner was to assure the safety of the other who, blindfolded, explored her surroundings by hand, ear, and nose. But despite my instructions, everyone made a guessing game of the exercise, the presumed object being to shout out the name of each object encountered. For them, the name said it all; sensory experience was beside the point. Which, I realized sadly, was the result of the schooling we run our children through in making them dutiful inductees into our culture. The label—the right answer—is of the essence; personal experience is not part of the curriculum. I was trying to awaken my students to sensory details they could use to enliven their writing, but had to work harder than I planned to get that message across.

Listening to music without words is one of the best ways I know of to experience the pre-categorical, sensory aspect of consciousness. Jazz and classical music work equally well; ballads less well because the words steal the show. The trick is to give yourself to the notes themselves as they rise and fall in time, noticing their duration, their tonal relationships, the quality of the different notes, the interacting voices of the instruments, echoes and repetitions, larger or smaller leaps than you expect, comparing where you think the music is going to where it actually leads, and so on. That way, you make each piece your own because you have lived inside it in your own consciousness, not merely followed along at a distance.

Abstract painting is a great medium for exploring visual relationships between different shapes, hues, values, textures,  sizes, and orientations of patches of color. It is such Thank you, Franz Klinerelationships that turn different patches into patterns of visual stimulation, elevating discrete sensory differences into an overall design which holds together because its internal workings add to something larger than themselves. Faced with an abstract by Franz Kline, for instance, seen from the right distance, the eye never stops ricocheting around the surface, darting to every corner in search of the next salient feature, knitting the parts into a stimulating and satisfying whole. Don’t take my word for it, words are irrelevant. Just give of yourself in free exploration and see what you find.

If we don’t explore sensory patterns before we categorize them as this or that, we may lose the opportunity because habit is apt to take over and short-circuit fresh perception altogether. I have mentioned in an earlier post the distinguished historian of science who put a print of Picasso’s Guernica over his desk—and never saw it again. We have to make a deliberate effort to notice sensory patterns when we have the chance, or they may well disappear as so much cultural wallpaper. I remember staying home from school as a kid because I was sick, and getting so tired of hearing the same old chestnuts favored by radio stations in Syracuse—in those days The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Rhapsody in Blue—that I still associate them with canned chicken soup and ginger ale. Try to really listen to Ravel’s Bolero and see how long you last.

No frill to me, aesthetics is the high art of noticing. Of really paying attention to sensory details wherever I find them. Of giving myself to life in order that life will give itself to me. When I don’t make the effort, life glides right past me like so many telephone poles by the side of the road. This is what I mean by “being there,” putting my values where my body is so that I engage what is truly going on from my personal perspective. Sensory exploration is essential to getting the most out of life instead of glossing it prematurely with a dismissive categorization. Seen one, seen ‘em all. No, each individual being or event is unique in the world, and must be experienced to be appreciated. If we are bored with life, we are bored with ourselves for not taking the initiative to first give of ourselves to our surroundings in order to elicit their response.

At the dentist’s office in Bangor yesterday, I read in Time Magazine the news that great things were coming to the so-called third world in the form of first-world TV shows finally getting the global audience they so richly deserve. I put the magazine down and though about the benefits of pre-packaged experiences going by so fast that they amount to missed opportunities for doing something personally significant on the local scene. 

Mass media are the enemy of human consciousness because they are meant to overwhelm us, not engage us. We can’t ask questions or say how we feel. Try writing a letter to Time or Newsweek about their opinionated coverage of world events and you’ll get back a form letter much like the one you get from your Representative or Senator saying how much your letters mean to them. As if words and categorizations were reality itself. In truth, the corporate mass media are dumbing down the world, separating persons from their individual opportunities to have local experiences.

It’s not that, as the voice of corporate America, the media pre-package experience so much as that they pre-digest it for us, too, so there’s nothing else for us to do but sit and watch flat screens the evening through after working all day in a cubicle watching other flat screens. We should be out raising flowers and vegetables; watching birds, spiders, and insects; milking cows; hiking or swimming in the wilds with our kids; using our minds to make something of ourselves instead of letting the corporate media remake us to suit their agendas. For-profit corporate personhood is an assault on the Earth and all forms of life. Corporations are not alive, and know nothing about living beings. Their sole purpose is to make money for their owners, which they do at the expense of not only their owners themselves, but of all living beings.

Heroic conceptual categorizations laid on us by corporations doing our thinking for us, coupled to lazy sensory-pattern detection on our part, is leading us all down the primrose path to global catastrophe. The solution is to reclaim personhood for those who are still individuals among us, destroying the very idea of mass media in the process. The only media that work are intended for individuals, not the masses. We will never do better than face-to-face conversations, personal letters, or phone conversations. That way, we reserve categorization to ourselves as called forth by the aesthetic patterns we discover in daily experience. Once we forget how to do that, the end is not only near, it is behind us, leaving nobody to listen as the pretty music plays on.

Squash blossom soon to unfurl

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(Copyright © 2010)

Categorization is a neural process connecting a concept in memory with a percept or sensory pattern; the pattern serves as an example of the category, and so takes its name. Perhaps “connecting” is the wrong word to use in describing what happens when concepts and patterns become linked in the mind; maybe “mapping” makes a better fit with the facts, the concept being mapped onto the pattern, or the pattern onto the concept. Either way, one topologically fulfills the other in some fashion, and the category label gets transferred to the pattern itself as an instance of the category. That is a coffee mug; this is a pencil; where are my glasses?; an unusual insect just landed on my sleeve. However it happens in the brain, we can’t get very far in today’s world without resorting to categorizations of the new in terms of the old, the strange in terms of the familiar, the concrete in terms of the abstract.

Think of the names we have for various things, items, objects, entities, articles, doodads, whatchamacallits, thingammies, thingamajigs, thingamabobs, etc. All floating around in our brains, waiting to be called to action when a suitable sensory pattern appears on the phenomenal horizon. Some such pattern may be familiar, but the name escapes us, so we use a term that suggests as much, like thingamajig. But such general categories are appropriate on only an extremely low level of discernment, so are on the vague end of categorizations. At the opposite extreme are categorical phrases such as “the stoneware mug with iron oxide glaze that Carole gave me on my 77th birthday,” which I can apply to only one object on Earth. Between these extremes, we have a continuum of concepts of greater or lesser specificity, including the binomial names used in classifying the biological world down to the species or varietal level (eg. Zostera marina, eelgrass), stopping short of colonies, communities, or particular organisms singled out by individual observers.

Often, we are in too great a rush to spare the time and effort required to categorize the blur of phenomena we move through in daily life, so settle for the appearance of things without feeling a need to sort them into conceptual bins. In my apartment, for instance, I am accustomed to looking at my books and papers according to their location and spatial relationships without bothering to identify them or give them a name. I know them perceptually but not conceptually. That works most of the time, until I have to look for a particular notebook or paper, when I visualize the appearance of what I’m after, and fit it with a name and conceptual meaning on a level of discernment that meets my need at the moment.

Artists typically don’t think about patterns (unless they are conceptual artists), they make and enjoy them for their dynamic sensory qualities. Sometimes critics find meaning in paintings or pieces of music, but often it is a side trip, not the heart of the piece. Sensory relationships need no conceptual explanation to justify their existence. Nothing matters but spatial and temporal interactions between elements of sensory perception as they develop in the mind of the viewer or listener. It is sensory experience in itself that counts, not rational understanding of what it might mean if it were categorized one way or another. The same is true of food, which may indeed be nutritious, but it is the relationships between, and combinations of, shapes, sheens, colors, textures, flavors, and aromas that make a dish or a meal. To some, sex may mean the making of babies, but most partners take care so that is precisely not the issue, which is, rather, a mix of pleasure, closeness, intimacy, caring, love, desire, attraction, curiosity, and a host of other ingredients that draw people together in ways without referential or categorical meaning. A huge part of life is lived aside from any formal quest to lay conceptual meanings on perceptual events.

Take numbers, for example. Numbers don’t mean anything, they just are. Perhaps whatever units are attached to them (grams per cubic centimeter, or people per square mile) calibrate numbers in order to convey meaning, but that meaning is overlaid on them and is not a property of the numbers themselves. By definition, numbers are pure gestures stripped of all meaning. You can use them to count apples or sheep, but the counting itself is inherent in the situation upon which gestures are made, so the totals are significant in relation to shopping or falling asleep, not the tally of gestures.

Mathematics can be applied to anything that can be quantified, but in itself it is a collection of abstract operations performed on meaningless gestures, such as numbers arrayed in a column, row, or matrix. That is, numbers in relationship. But the essence of number is the gesture behind it, the noticing and the act of pointing at one thing after another, giving equal attention in turn to each one, then moving on. I frequently catch myself counting footsteps as I cross the street, treads on a stairway, telephone poles along a road, clouds in the sky—not for any reason other than the business of counting, of making repetitive gestures in my mind simply because I can do it. Do I know what I am talking about? No, haven’t a clue. My conscious mind makes me do it. My motive is innocence itself, I swear.

Numbers are as natural as categorizing sensory patterns in conceptual bins is natural. Categorization is a sign I’ve seen this before, I recognize it, so I know what it is. Numbers are a sign I’ve never been in precisely this situation before, so it’s important I pace it out, or register my engagement in some way. Numbers are a way of reaching out to the world on a human scale. Think how many gestures it takes a bumblebee or a chicken to cross the road. Counting accepts that things exist in themselves as noticeable phenomena; categorization recognizes that things can have meanings bestowed upon them. We have metronomes, and we have dictionaries, each reflecting different aspects of mind.

When I worked in the photo lab at Harvard College Observatory in the 1960s, I worked out a filing system for negatives based on the date a particular work order was received for which photographs were taken. A number such as 651123-6-19 would identify the 19th negative taken for the 6th work order received on November 23, 1965. If each negative was properly labeled and filed, then, knowing the date of the order, I could retrieve it almost immediately. The system worked because I usually had a sense of when I worked on a particular job, and could either browse through the negative file, or refer to the work-order book where each job was listed by date. This is a system for categorizing photographic negatives on five levels of discernment: by year, month, day, job, and individual negative. The system had meaning mainly for workers in the photo lab, and indirectly for the scientists we served, but it proved extremely useful and efficient in identifying a particular photographic image out of thousands which, in their 4×5-inch negative envelopes, all looked alike.

On a much grander scale, the Dewey Decimal System allows librarians to categorize books by subject matter and author’s last name. This system, like Roget’s original Thesaurus, is based on the 19th century ideal of fitting everything into 1,000 categories. In 1876, Melvil Dewey divided all books into 10 subject classes, each class into 10 divisions, and each division into 10 sections, providing 1,000 bins into which books were to be sorted according to their subject matter. Since Dewey’s system is difficult to adapt to new fields of knowledge that have emerged since his day, the Library of Congress uses a different system based on 21 primary categories, and relies on experts to adapt the system to the needs of new fields as they emerge. For end users, a computer search by title or author will produce the catalogue number, which points to stacks where books are shelved in numerical order. It is a library staff’s job to replace returned books in correct order along the shelves.

Such systems of categorizations are product of the human mind—usually, of one mind in particular, after whom the system is often named. The same is true of the periodic table of the 118 known chemical elements, in a previous arrangement called Mendeleev’s periodic table after an early categorizer of chemical elements by their properties, Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev (1834-1907). Arrayed in two dimensions, the periodic table ranks the elements horizontally by the number of electrons in the outermost shell of electrons, vertically by the number of electron shells they contain. In terms of their elemental properties, rows are referred to as periods, columns as groups or families. What holds the system together is the fact that the chemical properties of each element can be predicted from its position in the table. That is, each element bears a family resemblance to those above and below it, while sharing a periodic gradient of different properties with those along the same row. It was Mendeleev who first predicted the properties of elements not yet discovered, represented in his array by gaps between elements then known. This example demonstrates the power of systematic categorization, enabling us, if we’ve got it right, to anticipate what we don’t already know.

Imagine such systems of categorization emerging from human consciousness, calibrating the world we live in in terms we’ve acquired through prior experience. Once established, such systems allow subtle variations. There’s literal language, figurative language, nonsense (funny) language, the language of numbers, the language of relationships, the language of love, and so on, all conveying different kinds of meaning in different ways. There’s exaggeration, understatement, emphasis, excitement, and all the rhetorical shadings we can achieving by deliberately modifying how we choose to categorize a thing in the bin of our choosing. English is a mix of words derived from Anglo-Saxon and from French. Many of our curse words stem from Anglo-Saxon, our romantic terms from the French. We get to select which idiom suits our needs at the moment. What’ll it be, gents, liquor or schnapps? Or perhaps a bit of whiskey (Scottish Gaelic uisge beatha, water of life).

Categorization fits identifiable sensory patterns in perception with an overlay of conceptual meaning, creating phenomenal units that seem to be meaningful in themselves. When we look out on the world, we see it largely in terms of the meaningful patterns we are familiar with, not recognizing that it is organized according to a system we carry with us in our heads and project outward on the world. That is, looking onto the world, the view we take in reflects the system of categorization we carry in our heads, making it uniquely our world. The person standing next to us does exactly the same, living in the world she makes for herself.

We give Dmitri Mendeleev credit for inventing the periodic table of the elements as a system of categorization, and Melvil Dewey credit for inventing the Dewey Decimal System of library classification—but we stop short of crediting ourselves with the invention of the worlds we have devised for ourselves according to systems based on our prior experience. We say the world is the world, as if it were the same for everyone, while all evidence points to the fact that the worlds we inhabit are highly subjective and are clearly of our own making.

Similarly, we find great meaning in numbers, not thinking that the significance we find is the significance we project onto numbers in the very act of looking upon them. In themselves they are neutral, empty, ameaningful. Numbers do not convey the meaning of the universe, as scientists claim; they are vehicles for the systems of mind by which we broadcast meaning onto the universe. When we die, the nature of the universe will die with us. The ability to predict the properties of chemical elements is built into the periodic table by the mind that built it in conformity with his own knowledge and observations. Interpolation is not discovery; it is filling a gap between points in an orderly system. Properties revealed by the system are dependent on the gradients we have built into the system by devising it as we did.

A squirrel’s periodic table would account for where the most and best acorns are to be found in the woods. A heron’s system of categorization will map the direction and distance it has to fly to reach the most reliable supply of frogs and small fish. Creatures of all species lay their biological needs on the world, and plot the coordinates of sites that hold interest for them. Mendeleev had a feel for chemical properties; Dewey was interested in locating books on a wide variety of subjects. We categorize our worlds according to our vital interests, because those are the interests that, by definition, have meaning for us. Consciousness is the highly adaptable system that allows each of us to map her concerns onto the world so that she can find what she needs in order to keep going.

Lies are deliberate miscategorizations meant to mislead others. If we don’t want our rivals to discover what we know, we will distort our true categorizations to lead them astray. Metaphors—and figurative language in general—are deliberate miscategorizations for the purpose of emphasizing the true character of a thing as we see it at the moment. I love chocolate ice cream. Well, no, not as I love my children or my partner; I don’t mean that kind of love. I mean that on the scale of how much I like different kinds of ice cream, chocolate is at the top. I didn’t tell an untruth, I was merely exaggerating to give you an indication of how I feel about chocolate ice cream.

Categorizations are a means for laying our values onto the world around us. For seeing the world in terms of who we are at the core. Every act of categorization declares who we are as systematic bestowers of meaning. We make our worlds to suit ourselves, then live in those worlds. When Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina blurted out, “You lie!” as Obama told a joint session of Congress his health care bill didn’t cover undocumented immigrants at no cost, Wilson called Obama a liar because, by his system of categorization, illegal aliens would be eligible for subsidized coverage. That was his understanding, and hearing Obama publically declare otherwise, he suffered an episode of cognitive dissonance on the spot. Wilson later apologized for (in my terms) getting his worlds crossed.

This almost trivial episode points to why the world is in the sorry state that it is. Basically, in laying our meanings upon the world, we find ourselves at cross purposes with other layers of meaning on what seems to be the same world. Inevitably, we are the truth seekers, they are the liars. Creating situations that can lead to disagreements, angry gestures, bloodshed, and even to war.

Given the subjective nature of our categorizations, and the serious consequences which false or erroneous categorizations often have, I wonder why meaning-making isn’t at the core of the curriculum in every public and private school on Earth. Our basic assumption—that the home team always represents the good guys who stand for family, justice, and truth—lacks humility at best, and is frequently grounds for perpetrating all manner of skullduggery. At base, the problem comes down to different individuals taking excessive pride in how they cast meaning upon their respective worlds. But teachers don’t deal with that problem any more than parents or influential corporate bodies deal with it. With the result that throughout the world it remains the problem of all problems. Walking in one another’s shoes is no solution because it can’t be done. Our genes, ontogeny, childhoods, rearing, education, jobs, and life experience give us the eyes we turn toward the world. To see through another’s eyes we must become another person. That is the challenge our respective categorizations present to the world.

The only solution I can think of is to pull back from excessive categorizations in order to let glorious sensory patterns rule the day. It is a beautiful world, don’t you think? If we don’t speak the same language, we can at least dance together to the same music. Why must our personal meanings always have the last say? Again, I see this sensory approach leading to a radically different system of education based more on appreciative aesthetics than always being right. Just a thought, but I think it  worth pursuing.

The stuff of which categorizations are made. Periodic table of the elements showing where the various elements that make up Earth and ourselves originated in the universe. Image courtesy of NASA.

Reflection 182: Intelligence

February 18, 2010

(Copyright © 2010)

I was born asking questions. That’s the kind of person I am. Still damp from the womb, I looked around and asked, “Where am I?” Then, looking at the doctor, “Who are you?” Then at my mother, “What’s for supper?” Much later, I remember riding in the back of a pickup truck from Seattle to Nespelum, Washington, asking the archaeology grad student next to me one question after another the whole way. I exhausted him well before I knew as much as I wanted to about the dig we were heading for. Inquisitive to the point of annoyment, that’s me. Is annoyment a word? Annoyance, that’s what I mean.

Asking questions is somehow related to intelligence. My American Heritage Dictionary says intelligence is “The capacity to acquire and apply knowledge,” but that’s not what I mean. I’m not talking about a mental capacity, or knowledge in general. More, as the CIA uses the word to refer to that which is known about one thing or another. But I don’t mean mere scraps of data—I mean getting the big picture: intelligence on a nontrivial scale referring to the interrelatedness of things in a particular system. In other words, building an aesthetic model in my mind of a system outside my body. Intelligence, for me, is a process of gathering experiences about relationships—how things fit and act with one another—into a coherent picture in the mind. Excuse me, in my mind. That’s the only mind I have access to or can talk knowingly about, or expand by asking further questions.

Intelligence tests claim to measure a human capacity—as if learning is independent of interest, curiosity, subject matter, or personal experience. That usage suggests a person is equally intelligent regarding anything that can be known, that intelligence is some kind of virtue or trait, which I don’t think is true. There’s no such thing as an intelligent person; there are only people who know a lot about a small number of things in relation to one another—and little about everything else. An evening spent playing Trivial Pursuit should tell us that much, at least. I’ll give you an example from my personal experience.

I’ve been studying Taunton Bay, an estuary in Maine, for a number of years. I would have said I was checking it from an inquiring point of view because it interested me, but in hindsight I see I was paying attention to it every chance I got, so I guess I really was studying it, expanding my experience of the bay holistically without reference to “information” or “data.” That way, I slowly built up an understanding of some of the workings of the bay in my head, which collectively added to “intelligence” about the bay as a  biological system. This is related to this is connected to this is tied-in with this is balanced with this. Building to a broad, qualitative under-standing of what is going on in one place in Maine. That’s what I mean by intelligence. I didn’t learn about other bays because each one is different and I wasn’t—my body wasn’t—there. And I didn’t learn about bays in general because my acquaintance was up-close and personal. Let me illustrate my wordy illustration of aesthetic intelligence by showing a picture suggesting the relationships between blue mussels and eight other aspects of Taunton Bay.

species-interactions_mussels

That’s a picture of a small portion of my aesthetic—of my coherent intelligence about the bay. Blue mussels are connected to sea stars (which eat them), to eelgrass (which shares their habitats), to Canada geese (which eat eelgrass), to diving ducks (such as common goldeneyes which eat mussels), to eagles (which eat goldeneyes), to marine worms (which eat food particles that mussels discard), to hunters (who shoot mussel-eating ducks), to horseshoe crabs (which mussels often attach themselves to), and to human (who harvest mussels by diving, dragging, or hand-raking). They are also connected to me because I take pictures of them in relation to other features of Taunton Bay.

That’s a snapshot of what I mean by big-picture intelligence. Getting things together in my mind to reveal their relationships and interactions. In a very real sense, that is a portrait of one corner of my conscious mind. Which is the real topic of this blog: getting my mind together about consciousness. Since reading books by Gerald M. Edelman about human con-sciousness, wrestling with his theoretical ideas, my under-standing of my own conscious processes has made a quantum leap to the next higher level. After slogging through one post after another, Edelman helped tie things together for me—at least as I interpret his writings. So today I want to write about my experience of consciousness as a whole, not just this aspect or that.

My big learning up to now is that understanding is a matter of developing an aesthetic sense of how things go together in relationship. That’s actually what the word consciousness means. Con- refers to a collective joining-together, sciousness (as in science) refers to splitting things apart into particles or elements—that is, discernment of relationships, which is commonly called knowledge. Taking splintered parts together in relationship produces consciousness—the “withness” of all aspects of mind. In this case, the withness of the different sensory arrays spread throughout the sensory brain, which Gerald M. Edelman and other neuroscientists refer to as “maps.” The parts of the brain devoted to vision contain some thirty or forty such maps, each tracking two-dimensional relationships in one aspect of visual perception—movement, color, location, direction, texture, and so on. Consciousness, then, consists of mapping events in the brain in ever-changing relationship to one another, creating an overall sense of the dynamics of the current situation.

Think of the George Gibson Quartet—guitar, organ, saxophone, percussion—in aesthetic relation to one another, or a cut by the Henry Threadgill Sextet in the 1970s. Or the Boston Symphony Orchestra playing Berlioz’ Symphony Fantastique. Or the Boston Red Sox when they get their act together and each player gives his all in exquisite relationship to the others. Or all the parts of Picasso’s Guernica telling the story of the Nazi bombing of a small town in the Pyrenees during the Spanish Civil War. Which is not unlike Albert Einstein spending his last days in search of a unified theory of everything that would tell the story of the universe. Many scientists, mathematicians, and theologians engage in similar quests having spiritual overtones in relating the individual mind to the larger whole as they picture it. On a more mundane level, aesthetic coherence is what a chef strives for in balancing the flavors, textures, color, and nutrients in his soup of the day. Or me in my peapod rowing across Taunton Bay at low tide, trying to fit everything I see into a coherent appreciation of what’s going on at that time in that place.

The point of the exercise being, then, to act appropriately in the situation we are engaged with as we discern its different parts and assemble them in consciousness as a coherent life event. If we can do that, then we derive a survival advantage from understanding what’s going on around us compared to others acting out of a less nuanced understanding. It’s always an aesthetic judgment call based on how we see aspects of the situation fitting together into a coherent unity—or not, as in the 2000 presidential election, the Haitian earthquake, or the global instability of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Regarding consciousness, what are the parts I am talking about? Sensory perception as annotated by memory of concepts and prior experiences. Attention, salience, and expectancy reflecting personal or biological values, motives, and interests. A sense of oneself, with feelings, hopes, fears, anxieties, pains, pleasures, and ethical preferences. Judgment of how to weigh each part, what to emphasize, what to leave out. The valance or attractiveness of one option for action compared to others. What the larger culture would recommend through the medium of tradition, habit, training, or instruction. Ongoing categorizations and interpretations modeling a scenario of the current situation as it is likely to develop in the future. These and other aspects coming together in consciousness, evaluated in relation one to another, fed forward to decision-making, advance planning, and execution, culminating in more-or-less decisive action in the world. And motivated attention to what the world does in response as told by the myriad maps keeping track of what’s happening from one’s situated point of view at the moment. All parts playing into the great loop of engagement coursing through our minds, constituting consciousness itself—the withness of such separate parts in coherent relationship with these and other parts in addition to those I have mentioned.

Without the ongoing governance provided by the contemporary loop of engagement between self and non-self, we are left in a state of autonomous dreaming disconnected from any adjustment imposed by culture, others, or the great world beyond. When flying blind in the sensory vacuum of dream-land, consciousness is entirely on its own, doing the best it can to find coherence based wholly on internal evidence of ongoing concerns. In dreams, we can see the separate items being shuffled again and again in a vain attempt to find the most apt relationship between them. What comes through is not the order of the world but the persistent order of the self as imposed on that world. In some circles, this counts as a spiritual more than a rational or cognitive take on events. The subject of dreams is always the same—yours truly, the dreamer, chief of operations in all matters concerning consciousness when the mysterious world has no say in the matter. That is, when all intelligence is internal, without curiosity about or regard for what might be happening in the great world of Beyond.

This, then, is a miniature portrait of consciousness as I understand it right now and write these words to post to my blog. If you ask me tomorrow, I’ll tell you something different because my mind will have moved on from where it is now. But this gives you an overview of the kinds of thoughts I have in gathering intelligence about my personal stream of con-sciousness. Here is an assessment in keeping with the aesthetic highlights of today’s line of thinking. My subsequent experience will unfold differently than ever before, and my dreams tonight will be unlike any I have had previously. Who can tell what tsunami will surge, what volcano erupt, what star explode, what earthquake turn the terra firma of my little world to heaving jelly? Stay tuned to this station for further bulletins as my mind delivers them to me.

In the meantime, to end as I began—with a question—how is it with you on your trek through the universe? Do the seconds, months, and decades of your mental journey add to a larger whole? Whatever your experience, I’d be happy to receive a brief summary of what intelligence you’ve picked up along your route. I invite you to leave a comment in the space provided below.

Governor

 

Reflection 166: In the Loop

December 21, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

To extract ourselves from, say, the economic way of being on Earth, the military or consumptive way, we need to break free from the looping engagements that hold us where we find ourselves, and then enter into engagements based on wholly new loops of attachment. The loops I speak of are artifacts of how consciousness reaches out through expectancy and action, and takes in feedback from the world through the senses. That’s where we live, in that loop. The point of personal consciousness is to engage the world in an effectively adaptive manner, and to monitor the progress of that engagement by opening the senses to the world’s response. But consciousness itself is changed through any such consistent patterns of engagement. Once we learn the lingo, the customs, the routines, the tools, we become creatures of the worlds we inhabit.

Veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, for instance, bring their wars home with them, where those wars leap from their dreams, a wailing siren, or the sound of a kid’s stick clacking against a picket fence. Once a continuous loop is established, a way of being in the world, it is hard to extinguish. Forsaken lovers suffer longings well after the possibility of fulfillment is shut away. A great many poems and songs flow from that psychic wound. To be between engagement means trying to transform old ways of reaching out to the world into new ones. Sorrow, regret, fear, and sometimes anger stem from knowing things will never be the same.

Consciousness is participatory. It involves giving oneself to the world, and opening to what the world offers in response. Or the world might initiate the process, with consciousness rising to the occasion by sending a tentative gesture of acknowl-edgement. Once opening moves have established the flow, it can run either way. Creatures of habit, we expect more of the same. And if biological values are released, we actively crave more and more. Once our appetites for sex, food, drink, comfort, protection, companionship, and excitement are aroused, the loop becomes part of our history as recorded in neuronal patterns in our brains. Looping engagements with the world are the stuff of memory, and memory is the stuff of both consciousness and the altered synapses which make it possible.

In restoring our sense of connectedness to the natural world that supports us, it is up to us to send Earth a message saying we are willing to negotiate. Having evolved while we were rising up on two legs and working out our relationship with the savannahs of Africa, our brains are predisposed to the idea. Which is reinforced by the aesthetic sense of beauty, rightness, or approval we feel in places we find scenic and appealing. We recognize a productive habitat when we see one because that judgment is stamped into the primal being that makes us human. Aesthetics are a modern code for what satisfies the biological yearning to realize our most fundamental values. Without that yearning, we would not have survived as long as we have. And having lost sight of its biological underpinnings—thinking it cultural merely—we forget that our future survival depends on finding ways to excite that same sense.

Bird and wildlife watching strike me as variations on the ancient art of stalking game. It’s still in us; we just put it to new uses by establishing novel loops to fulfill it. On the island I mentioned in my last post, I paid particular attention to wildlife in winter. Every day I would snowshoe out looking for black-backed and pileated woodpeckers, red squirrels, mink, otters, white-tailed deer, harbor seals (there was one in the bay), eagles—even dead gulls, geese, ducks, and jellyfish. It is no accident this exercise was so important to me. In earlier times, my life would have depended on it. I was particularly fascinated by the many different kinds of ducks on the bay. I worked out strategies for getting as near them as I could. My justification was taking photographs, where once it would have been hunting in order to eat. Greater scaup, goldeneye, bufflehead, red-breasted merganser, eider, black duck, surf scoter—I loved them all. I got close enough to one Canada goose to read the numbered band on its neck, which I relayed to Maine Fish and Wildlife. I later received word that that particular goose was shot near Lake Ontario in western New York State.

I took thousands of slides during the two-and-a-half years of my stay, collecting them into slideshows, which I presented everywhere I could from suburban Boston to Calais, Maine. When I was paid an honorarium, I went to the grocery and converted it to food. Such fulfillment is more elaborate now than it once was, but it satisfies exactly the same urge. When I worked for the National Park Service, I tapped into the same primal dynamic, using a computer instead of a spear. Over the years, my fascination with various forms of wildlife has morphed into a concern for the ecosystems that feed and shelter them. That particular dynamic organizes the food web, so I systematically identify the primary producers in any habitat—plants and algae that convert sunlight into carbohydrates—then find out what vegetarian species are in the neighborhood, what carnivores, up to top predators such as owls, hawks, sea mammals, and mink, all the way to the arch-predator, namely We the People.

No, in a couple million years, the apple hasn’t fallen very far from the tree. We still hunt as of old, just in new looping patterns of engagement with our surroundings; now it’s called shopping. Even our cultural interests and drives haven’t changed all that much. Our values are still much the same, only now we buy jogging strollers and plastic toys instead of chipping arrowheads and scrapers by hand out of rocks. One thing for sure, modern consciousness is no more advanced than it was when ice-age hunters painted bison on the walls of caves in what we now call southern France. We can still activate the same old loops, and reactivate those we have neglected once we moved from the plains to the village, and on to the city.

If our cultural ways are decimating our home planet—as they surely are—we can do something about it. Where formerly we would have started walking to find new territories, now we know there’s no place to go where we can avoid trashing our environment by exercising all those bad habits we have only recently picked up—say, within the past three hundred years. The conspicuous alternatives are to reduce our population, or change our ways of consuming and polluting our place on this Earth.

It’s that simple—and that hard. For starters, we need to include planet Earth in our loop of engagement with our surroundings. The culture we think of as supporting us is maladaptive in being a mere illusion. Even dressed in modern clothes and housed in gated communities, we are still cave-dwellers at heart and in mind. Our priority values still center on sex, food, drink, safety, comfort, companionship, and excitement. That is, we haven’t lost the biological edge we developed in Africa. Or, more accurately, Africa developed in us. If we look for a modern-day version of that primal savannah, we will find it not far away. That special place will feature no automobiles, no mega-corporations, no coal-fired power plants, no bulldozing of mountaintops, no supermarket shelves crammed with prepackaged foods, and so on. No, it will offer a natural, back-to-basics kind of life. At least more so than the lifestyles we trap ourselves in today. As Michael Renner, writing in the current World Watch, describes the effects of those lifestyles on the Earth in terms of the so-called natural disasters they inflict:

The number of natural disasters (excluding geological events such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions) has risen from 233 per decade in the 1950s to more than 3,800 in the decade 2000-2009. Though there are considerable variations year-to-year, the number of people affected by such disasters has grown from less than 20 million to 2 billion during the same time frame.

The pace is likely to accelerate as climate change translates into more intense storms, flooding, and heat waves. In addition to sudden disasters, there is also the “slow-onset” degradation of ecosystems through drought and desertification processes, which in some cases is sufficiently extreme to compromise habitability (“Climate of Risk,” pages 19-20).

Two billion people is almost a third of the current human population, not to mention the other species affected by our collective carelessness and extravagance. That is one indicator of the price someone is paying so we can be privileged to turn our backs on our native habitat by hiding out in the confines of our culture and economy. It doesn’t have to be that way. Indeed, it cannot stay that way. The good news is that we are just as well equipped to live the old way as the new. We are much the same people, with the same consciousness and looping connection to wherever we live. Knowing what we know now, the challenge is to figure out how to dial back to, say, 1932. Height of a depression then, height of a depression now—only with five billion fewer people on Earth. That’s the span of my lifetime; I liked it much better then, with cornfields across the street, a few cattle back of the barn, and neighbors who spoke with one another when they met on the street. It shouldn’t be that hard to rebuild a decent world to that scale.

And if we don’t change our habits, they will be ruthlessly changed for us as we are overtaken and overcome by events. There’s no doubt in my mind the human population will be cut drastically one way or another. I am not voicing doom here, I am talking common sense. If we have any imagination at all, we already know how this is going to turn out. Take a look at the folks overcome by fumes and pumice in Pompeii. Those are our writhing bodies. Except it will be like a slow-motion movie with us. The effect will be much the same.

If consciousness is not up to planning ahead in an emergency, then I’d say it’s doesn’t set an example for others to emulate. Maybe that’s how the end will go. Good riddance, then. We never found the owner’s manual, so didn’t really understand what we were doing all along. The fact is, the modern way doesn’t work, and we haven’t hit on a better one. We’re between engagements, neither here nor there, so suffer from a profound sense of loss with no new prospects in sight. Pitiful, really, to have so much potential, yet be too dense to learn to apply our own gifts. This is the stuff of sad songs.

Quagmire

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

First drafts reveal a writer’s mind at work in real time. Subsequent edits lessen the integrity of that first record even if they might improve its orderliness. It is risky taking polished writing as evidence of a writer’s creative process. In Thoreau’s case, he frequently reworked his journal entries, and perhaps made changes suggested by others. So in trying to reconstruct his mental state from evidence provided by a paragraph in Walden, I am in danger of skidding on black ice. Upfront I am forced to admit that the Thoreauvian mind I point to may be a pure fiction, or at best a hybrid of my consciousness mixed with his.

 

For starters, I offer this single sentence from the section on shelter in the first chapter of Walden where Thoreau recounts gathering materials and preparing the site for his famous cabin in the woods: “The house is still but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow.” The reference to all houses—the very idea of a house—is the heart of the sentence. “A sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow” is the arrow Thoreau aims at that heart to show how he intends it to be experienced. But without any supporting context, it seems farfetched and anything but clear. Some might claim this to be metaphor, but if it is, it is failed or ersatz metaphor because it lacks the setting necessary to allow interpretation.

 

Language, like consciousness itself, is situational. Its use and meaning depend on the setting in which it occurs. Without a grasp of that setting, words seem to tumble from the sky into minds ill prepared to receive them in the spirit the writer intends. This one sentence is not a metaphor at all—it is gibberish—because it is stripped from any situation which might make it meaningful. To remedy that deficiency, I here provide the relevant paragraph within which it is set. After telling how he got the planks and nails for his cabin, he goes on to describe in concrete detail his digging of the cellar hole:

 

I dug my cellar in the side of a hill sloping to the south, where a woodchuck had formerly dug his burrow, down through sumach and blackberry roots, and the lowest stain of vegetation, six feet square by seven deep, to a fine sand where potatoes would not freeze in any winter. The sides were left shelving, and not stoned; but the sun having never shone on them, the sand still keeps its place. It was but two hours’ work. I took particular pleasure in this breaking of ground, for in almost all latitudes men dig into the earth for an equable temperature. Under the most splendid house in the city is still to be found the cellar where they store their roots as of old, and long after the superstructure has disappeared posterity remark its dent in the earth. The house is still but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow.

 

Here in a single paragraph are five of the chief ingredients of consciousness: motivation, perceptual details, feeling, conceptual meaning, and sense of order and progression (verging on the aesthetic). Motivation: need to store winter food in a year-round dwelling. Sensory details: side of hill, sloping south, woodchuck hole, sumach [we now do without the h] and blackberry roots, organic soil, size of hole, down to a layer of fine sand, shelving sides, dampness, two hours time. Feeling: pleasure in doing the job right, that is, in the traditional manner for the practical reason. Meaning: in hot climes or cold, in rural areas and cities, food preservation depends on root cellars with an equable temperature. Aesthetics: the recounting of the experience from details through feelings and understanding to grand consummation.

 

Only on that carefully laid foundation does Thoreau lay down the metaphor tying his experience together in one image: The house is still but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow. Without proper build-up, that sentence is merely a puzzle driving us to wonder what it means. Coming at the conclusion of the paragraph, we don’t have to wonder because we have been with Thoreau all the way as he shaped the image in his mind. It immediately explodes into our minds as a revelation or culmination on three fronts at once: his conscious experience of digging a root cellar, his writing about that experience, and our effort to share that experience through his writing.

 

The essence of creativity is to unite key dimensions of human consciousness into a coherent experience in which others can participate. When sensory patterns, feelings, and meanings combine, they can reach a critical mass that releases a burst of energy—not just in our brains—but throughout our bodies. Nerve signals and hormones confirm something of life importance has just occurred and is continuing to resonate here and now. Writing can convey that sense, as can music, art, dance, film, and other media of conscious excitation.

 

The paragraph quoted from Walden illustrates how aspects of consciousness can be brought to bear on one another in relationship to incite experiences larger and more meaningful than the sum of their parts. This is more than a matter of delight and entertainment. This is how we make sense of the world from our unique points of view. When the pieces fit, we feel we understand what is happening as participants in the event. Group energy and order are conveyed to us, and we reciprocate as best we can.

 

There is more to metaphor than meets ear or eye. It is an invitation to make meaning in new ways. This keeps the process of making meaning in sharp focus, where it cannot be taken for granted. As participants, we must do our part to keep the making of meaning in new ways alive in our experience. This alertness prevents meanings from becoming permanent fixtures of language—much as the dead are permanently dead, never to rise again. Dead languages fixed for all time kill the drive of their speakers to make meaning on their own.

 

If all has been said and written before, what’s the point of saying anything new or original? Of going beyond where we are now? Those who cling to past ways and expressions do not live in this world—the world of today. To claim that all wisdom is contained in the works of Plato or Aristotle, say, or the Qur’an, Torah, or Christian Testament is a denial of personal participation in the ongoing challenge of conscious life. When speech loses its novel, figurative quality, it ossifies into a literal form in which words are taken to mean exactly what they say and nothing more, as if the ancients had thought everything through for all time.

 

If that should happen to be true, how can anyone alive today hope to contribute to solving the problems yesterday has bequeathed to us? How can we direct our creative energies to undoing the mess people have made to now of living on planet Earth? No, if global warming, energy, poverty, healthcare, economics, and militarism are to be dealt with, it is up to those of us alive today to focus consciously and deliberately on the problems of today. In his time, Plato had his turn, followed by Aristotle, Jesus, Mohammed, Thoreau, and all the rest. Now it is Barack Obama’s turn to unify the diverse constituents of modern-day consciousness, and so confront them. Not for us, but with us all the way.

 

¦

 

 

 

 

Reflection 56: Beauty Day

January 28, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Saturday, it snows all day. Leaving about a foot on the ground. Carole and I plan to take a hike after Quaker Meeting next day. Where should we go? The south ridge of Norumbega Mountain is close-by, that seems a clear choice. We park by Lower Hadlock Pond. Across the white pond, the wooded slope of Norumbega looms like a smooth iceberg. We’re the first ones out. Snowshoes on, we cross the outlet and head up the Brown Mountain Trail (Norumbega used to be called Brown Mountain). As the ground rises, Carole’s snowshoes slip and slide; she decides to do without. I have crampons on mine, so I break trail. We’ve both hiked this ridge many times, but this time is different. The landscape is frosted with snow. Everything is smooth, soft, white. Except for a few fringes of forest green, and gray-brown stems of spruce. We’ve never seen it like this—stripped of all conventions as if pared down to basics. Like a line drawing. Everything is clear and clean. Winding between trees, we both agree it’s the most beautiful place we’ve ever been in. It’s more than the snow. These sloping woods. Low angle of light. Brisk air. Fresh scent. Stillness unto silence. “A beauty day,” I say, quoting my friend Gene Franck. Up and back, we are both in its spell, as if this were the first day of the world. The old and worn are new again. Past thoughts don’t apply. Wholly engaged in the present moment, we are new to ourselves.

 

Beauty and newness are often closely related. With novelty and freshness not far removed. Think babies, sweet sixteens, fresh laundry, hot dinners on the table. Character comes later, on the downhill slide. The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show were freshness personified. America loved them. They were so youthful—just boys. As men, they proved more challenging. Innocence is an asset not to be wasted.

 

Is that it? All that can be said on the subject of beauty? Hardly. Trying to come to terms with beauty, I have taken two courses in aesthetics. Irwin Edman could say the same thing five different ways, and invariably ran through them all. Marx Wartofsky said he could declaim endlessly on the similarities and differences between a pencil and a stick of chalk. Beauty, I found, is not a matter of words. Words can be beautiful, particularly when pithy and pared to the core. But philosophizing about beauty tends to be un-beautiful.

 

Beauty is not something to be talked about. It is experiential, involving any or all of the senses. Beauty is an intuitive judgment in which strong feelings have a say. It is not something you can capture in words but something you feel. A kind of attraction that gets your attention. Captures you. Makes you want more. Awe and respect are often involved, or deepest respect—unto devotion.

 

But of course the beholder (hearer, scenter, toucher) in the case of beauty is judge and jury, not the beheld. Beauty is as much given as received. It is something you participate in, for yourself as well as others. What’s new is what is new to you, beguiling to you, seems fresh to you. Others may or may not concur with your taste.

 

Beauty is active, a way of seizing the world. It is always a discovery. Sought, but never fully anticipated. You have to be there, present, to feel the effect.

 

Some art tries to project or preserve beauty, as if it were an insect in amber. As if it were solely a matter of sensory proportions and relationships. But such features can fall on deaf ears or blind eyes. Beauty requires an audience open to its charms. And beyond that, an audience ready to reach toward those charms, welcoming and embracing the presence of something wonderful beyond itself. Beauty is performance and audience engaging, working together in mutual affirmation. Carole and I affirmed Norumbega that day as much as it affirmed us. Such a place is worthy of status as part of a national park, which it is—Acadia National Park.

 

Beauty, in other words, is situational. That is, it emerges within consciousness as one aspect of the ongoing relationship between self and world. It is neither a property of that world nor of the self, but is an aspect of the flow between them, the perceptual give and take forming the basis of the primal loop of experience. Experience arises from expectations cast onto the world through active behaviors, and from the feedback those expectant behaviors stir up and redirect from the world to the actor-become-perceiver. Consciousness is privy to the flow coursing through itself, which betokens a world without being of such a world.

 

Like beauty, consciousness itself is situational, emerging from the interaction between perceiver and the perceived. Either self or world may incite the interaction, but once begun, both are active participants. As long as the engagement lasts, beauty endures, rekindling itself. Here is long-term stimulation of cells in the hippocampus, enabling memory of the occasion to be laid down. That is beauty’s power, and why we have such a hard time defining it. It is that which enables memory, right up there with fear, anger, and jubilation. All of which set nerve cells firing in concert and brain waves humming, integrating consciousness so it is not at sixes and sevens as it often is in lives full of distractions.

 

Yes, that sounds right: beauty is memorable because it enables the process of laying down memories. That’s why I remember one figure standing next to me on a subway platform in Times Square 56 years ago (see Reflection 41: Christmas Tree). And hiking Norumbega with Carole one winter Sunday seven years ago. My brain is made to remember such events. Memory is not incidental to beauty, it is its essence. Unmemorable experiences fall away like chaff from the wheat. Beauty discovered deserves better. And sees to its own preservation. Just as other strong feelings do.

 

This is beautiful! Better remember it, it may have survival applications. The future is built on what we retain from the past. All else is unworthy of retention. Beauty is no frill. A life lived in search of beauty is an exemplary life.

 

¦

 

Reflection 50: Cleavage

January 16, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

 

I am walking up Holland Avenue in the middle of the road because the sidewalks have not been plowed since the last storm. A strong northwest wind is bringing arctic air down from Canada. I watch my footing because the road is so icy. Looking up briefly, I see a man’s back as he scrapes the side of the house at the end of the street, moving side to side, pressing his body against whatever tool he holds in both hands. I’ve done that when sanding. Cold day for that kind of work. Looking down, I pick my way between patches of ice. Fifty feet farther on, I look up again. The man is gone, replaced by a man-sized cedar tree blowing back and forth in the wind. It even has shoulders where its spire spreads out into branches.

 

From November through April, I love Bar Harbor. Just another small village on the edge of the bay. No cars to speak of, hardly any walkers. Schools and banks are open, the library, post office, and two movie theaters, but most stores and restaurants are closed. A few fly the snowflake flag declaring themselves open for business, but there are even fewer tourists to take them up on the offer. It’s just us locals, happy to have our town to ourselves for the duration.

 

The other half of the year is a different story. That’s when cars and buses and RVs and cruise ships flock to town. Everyone wears shorts, even people who shouldn’t even dream of wearing shorts. Varicose veins on parade. Pink, hammy thighs, Venus-of-Willendorf bottoms stretching the limits of modesty. And, too, breasts of all sizes, belly buttons, and cleavage come to town. Not only do they spill onto the streets, but they are displayed for maximum visibility. Guys tend to all look the same, cut from the same brownish-gray fabric, outfitted with sneakers, baseball cap, shades, ill-fitting T-shirt. Their function is to carry the money. The gals’ job is to make themselves attractive while they spend it.

 

But back to cleavage. What is it about cleavage that so sticks in my mind for a couple of seconds until the next candidate comes into view? My personal consciousness has special sections for wildlife, books on the brain, and cleavage. My mother had her cleavage, my partner has hers, as, to one degree or another, does every female of the species once her hormones start flowing. You’d think by now I’d have gotten used to it so my brain cells could move on to philosophy, say, or aesthetics. Which is the study of beauty, and that brings me right back to cleavage. There’s no getting away from it.

 

Cleavage is an outward and visible sign of vaginas, ovaries, and eggs—in a word, fertility. Cleavage, I learned in school, is a secondary sex characteristic. Seen that way, it is just another physical attribute, subject to a wide range of variation. But an attribute with a difference. Men don’t have cleavage, unless you count the gap between well-developed pectoral muscles. Men do have nipples of a sort, useless ones, proving they are a variation on the female body plan rather than vice versa. But men don’t have cleavage per se, up front and personal.

 

What men have is—no, not cleavage envy—but a lust for cleavage. Let me rephrase that: I can’t speak for anyone but myself. I have a deep appreciation for cleavage. Cleavage is a way station to babies. I don’t have a lust to go that far, but I do enjoy the way station. A little bell goes off in my head when there’s cleavage in the neighborhood. I don’t see it so much as just know it’s there. By a kind of sixth sense. Which is reassuring. Beyond admiration, nothing is expected of me, much less required. I go about my business, the cleavage bearers about theirs. It’s a great arrangement with no strings attached.

 

Sexist writing is politically incorrect these days, but I’m here to declare there are fundamental differences between men and women that need to be talked about since we have to live with them every day. Cleavage, cleavage, cleavage. There, I’ve said it. Long may it wave! Long may breasts wave, vaginas, ovaries, and eggs. Without them there’s be no babies because word would get out how much work, time, and money it takes to raise them to adulthood. As long as there is cleavage, however, there will be reproductive sex, and babies will be born. That’s one of consciousness’ main jobs. If it wasn’t, none of us would be here today.

 

In some cultures, women are hidden under wraps so their cleavage may be inferred but is never explicitly on view. Until it’s too late, that is—until the bearer is undressed and sex is precisely the issue. That creates a different form of consciousness, consciousness that must make the most of very few clues—such as an exposed toe or ankle, or a burqa pressed by the wind against the lithe body within. And leads to customs such as allowing temporary marriages for dalliances and on-the-job training.

 

Regarding sex, consciousness handles the aesthetics while unconsciousness tends to arousal and the details of execution. Just as, in the case of nourishment, consciousness enjoys colors and flavors while unconsciousness makes sure that food gets properly digested. Consciousness makes both food and sex appealing, setting the stage for unconsciousness to see to the biology of making babies and maintaining metabolisms. Centerfolds and cookbook photography appeal directly to the conscious mind: Doesn’t that look tempting! But it takes the unconscious mind to get bodily processes past mere enticement to the reproductive payoff that vertebrate genes have achieved so successfully for over 300 million years.

 

Consciousness is just the surface of a pond whose depths remain hidden and mysterious. Once allurement leads us to take the plunge, consciousness gives way to unconscious processes that accomplish deeds far beyond what we may have in mind. Which suggests that we belong to consciousness more than it belongs to us. The art of living is largely a matter of deciding how readily to do the mind’s bidding. Beyond that, connoisseurship (enjoying the view for its own sake with a certain detachment) requires learning how to stop short of taking that fateful plunge into the depths of the unconscious.

 

I’ve never heard it said, but any time of year, Bar Harbor is a great place for the human mind to witness its own consciousness in action. But so is every other town. Look at what Sherwood Anderson found in Winesburg, Ohio. There goes Doc, writing great thoughts on pieces of paper, stuffing them into his pockets, where he rolls them between his fingers into little balls as he makes his rounds, only to dispense them onto the side of the road like so many paper pills. Life is the story consciousness tells us as we make our rounds. It’s worth paying attention to else we might think we have to get somewhere special while the entire spectacle is within us the whole time right where we are.

 

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