(Copyright © 2010)

Great Seal State of MaineSome years ago, Farmer and Sailor met at a bar in Augusta. After downin’ applejack and rum for couple hours, they went separate ways.

Seems to me,” said Farmer as they parted, “if you’d drop some seed in that furrow you plow out to China, you’d have something to show for it on the way back.”

Maybe so,” said Sailor, “and if you’d hoist some canvas on that rig of yours, add helm and rudder, you’d make better headway than plowin’ back and forth in that field every day.”

Our lives—what we do in the world—flow from our biological values mapped onto events, and in turn our categorizations of events flow from the lives we have led up till now. That is, a (sometimes winding) path runs between our values and categorizations (how we see the world), and that path is the life we have led. Or what personal memory draws from walking that path, and consciousness maps onto here-and-now awareness through acts of in-formed categorization.

There is no particular logic that applies to the course of our lives other than the ad hoc logic of salient events we actually witness and participate in. In that sense, we keep casting the same old categories onto the world, and the world keeps making the same old response—giving us back more of what we already have in mind. The world does not so much turn in orderly fashion as that we who turn with it are set in our ways of looking at the world. So when unique events occur before our eyes—such as a new Congress wrestling with what a national health plan might look like—we see it as a variation on a theme and treat it as if we’ve been there and tried that, with no forward motion whatsoever. We are stuck because we hold tight to the same tried-and-true categorizations we’ve always projected onto such situations—even if what’s on offer has never been tried before.

The world keeps moving ahead, and we keep pulling it backwards in conformity with formative events in our lives drawn from yesteryear. Resulting in change without progress. We spend most of our energy spinning our wheels because we are unable to step off our customary route and see the current situation with new eyes. The star at the top of the Maine State Seal is the North Star by which landsmen and seamen steered their way through woods and across dark oceans in the early nineteenth century. Dirigo, the state motto, translates from Latin as “I lead.” That is, the State of Maine depicts itself as leading the nation. Thus do we all see ourselves on the forefront of experience, when in fact we attire ourselves in the traditional garb of farmers and sailors of long ago. We lead by clinging to our traditional image of ourselves, not by freeing our bodies of such baggage and stepping unburdened ahead.

Another example is the granting of “personhood” to corpora-tions as if they had individual rights guaranteed in the Constitution as amended. While it is perfectly evident that, though corporations may be steered by people, in themselves as chartered by the several states they are fictional entities given a certain legal standing to make profits for investors having a monetary stake in their operations. Corporate bodies are invariably collectives made up of individuals; as such, they are never of one mind. One person, one mind, that is the law of consciousness. If a corporation claims to be of one mind, that can only be if one mind—the CEO’s, say, or chairman of the board’s—asserts itself and comes to dominate the thinking of corporate employees as if they were clones—which they aren’t—and worked in single-minded harmony. Granting personhood to corporate bodies empowers those at the top to manipulate events to their liking.

CEO salaries and bonuses in the field of financial services provide all the evidence we need to prove that corporate leaders act and present themselves as unique individuals, not corporate leaders. Corporate consciousness is an oxymoron, as is categorizing corporations in legal jargon as “persons” in their own right. Corporations present themselves collectively as persons when it suits them, as deserving individuals at other times. Corporation law lets them have their cake whole, and to enjoy slicing it into pieces for unequal distribution at the same time. If the top-to-bottom salary ratio within a corporate body is, say, 400 to 1, then the personhood of corporations is clearly a myth.

The law of the land is a fairy story corporate lobbyists and legislators keep telling us to keep us asleep, while they sack the treasury. Corporate personhood is a fundamental category error. Yet the Supreme Court cast it in bronze in a recent 5-4 decision removing restrictions on how the good fairies can insert money into political campaigns on behalf of issues and concerns as seen from very specific points of view. The majority opinion sides with corporations as if they were persons speaking with one voice to express a personal concern arising within a personal mind—magically backed by corporate funding and legal expertise. The funding gives the lie to all claims of personhood.

When I dig into my pockets, I do not dig into yours, and yours, and yours. Each digs for her- or himself. Money is money, not speech, just as language seen as a medium of exchange is not speech. There is confusion in making such claims, confounding the capacity for speech in general with individual speech acts exemplifying such a capacity on a specific occasion within a limited situation involving particular individuals. Corporations do not speak for themselves qua corporations. They make noises soothing to the ears of the powers-that-be behind doors that are shut. Corporate speech is not free, it is crafted to a particular end—the making of profits for a band of investors.

Categorizations are invariably thrust onto the world from a particular standpoint or perspective. They are first-person singular acts, not motions moved, seconded, voted, and enacted by corporate bodies. When farmers and sailors come together in a bar, they think and speak for themselves, guided by personal habits and experience. When boards of directors come together in a board room, they conduct business in a disciplined manner according to Roberts’ Rules of Order. Members can be recognized or not by the chair. The secretary records comments in the minutes—or not—as he so decides. Speaking out in a meeting is a political act. Submitting to majority opinion, members will, if they want to keep their jobs, abandon the right to free speech. Much as members of Congress surrender to the will of their party for the sake of speaking with one voice, thereby stifling their personal take on things to stay in the good graces of those having control over committee appointments and distribution of party funds.

Friction between different ways of looking at things wears us all down in the end. That is the nature of corporate decision- making and governance. Frustration smoothes our rough edges as we seek the lowest common denominator we can all agree to. Alternatively, if nobody speaks up or does anything—like the farmer and sailor standing mute on the Maine seal—we can pretend we are all of one mind. To know my own thoughts in writing this blog, I must keep to myself much of the time in order to preserve the integrity of my personal consciousness and the ideas which flit through it from one instant to the next. On my own authority, I can say anything I want without glancing at faces around me. As a result, I now write words I could not have put together a few months ago because, in remaining true to my conscious thought processes, I essentially pull myself up by my own bootstraps (a figure Gerald M. Edelman keeps using to describe our efforts in achieving consciousness for ourselves).

Detailed communication between unique minds is always a challenge. Initially, our differences excite and draw us together; but on second thought, they compel us to retreat to avoid surrendering more than we bargained for. We thrust our categories back and forth as in a duel, seeing whether the other nods or shakes her head. Thrust together in a marriage, say, or a foxhole, we quickly discover how much work it takes to stick together instead of withdrawing to respective positions of safety. The chief danger is overlooking our differences for the sake of family or community. My own upbringing consisted in large degree to being told, “Don’t be conspicuous!” meaning, don’t draw attention to yourself. That is, don’t be original. Such is the challenge many New Englanders face in growing up in families with deep roots.  Knowing from personal experience that over-concern for what neighbors might say is the kiss of death for honesty, transparency, and integrity, I seem to have turned out otherwise.

More commonly, we cease to be conscious for ourselves and become conscious for the larger group, surrendering individuality for the sake of living in a state of oblivious peace. If Sailor did as Farmer suggests, he would be dead, and vice versa. We must be our own selves, yet cannot admit it out loud. Which is the human dilemma, the corporate dilemma, the Congressional dilemma. Are we to shout with Billy Budd, “Farewell, Rights of Man!” every time we enter the public or corporate arena? Is life without a personal voice worth living? As a people, we seem to have decided in the affirmative. Or might it be that the Supreme Court has made that decision in our name, and we are too stunned to object?

Seeing the moose lying beneath the pine tree on the Great Seal of the State of Maine at the head of this post, I am reminded of Ferdinand retiring from the bull ring to seek a life of content-ment in a flowering meadow. Neither farmer nor fisherman, that moose is what we seem to have become, happy to take the world lying down in the shade of a tree.

Moose and Pine

 

 

(Copyright © 2010)

When I made a cribbage board as a present for my partner some years ago, I used the hand drill I bought at The Tool Barn in Hulls Cove, a place that sells recycled tools. I know the feel of that drill, its weight in my hand, its balance, the snug mesh of the gears. I’ve made it my drill now, an extension of my hands when I use it to engage the world by drilling a hole in a piece of driftwood (such as I used for the cribbage board). Tools are specific, precise, useful—in several senses, handy. As a kid I liked tools a lot. I still do. I remember my grandfather teaching me tools are not toys. I even sensed some of the difference before he firmly taught me that lesson when he caught me at his workbench in his shop in the barn.

I also have a hammer from The Tool Barn, hand brace, two sorts of pliers, and different sized clamps. I get a kick out of just citing those names as I did in that sentence. Familiar tools are parts of my body I keep ready for special projects. It is their feel and their use that makes them distinctive. Tools are sensory objects with, beyond heft, size, and utility, a certain intimate acquaintance. I know their curves and angles, the sounds they make, the smells they give off, the materials they are made of—and what they will do for me when I need them. Tools extend my consciousness beyond what I can do on my own. They solve problems, each in its particular way. They have character and temperaments, like some people I know.

The mailbox I wrote about in Reflection 174 is just a place where a very limited range of things can occur. I don’t much care about my mailbox, it’s more the contents that interest me. Hand tools affect me more strongly. When I grasp them, for instance, they grasp me right back. Working together, we make a good team. I’m talking hand tools, not power tools. Physical, personal engagement, not a bunch of hired electrons doing my work for me. My tools are friends and companions, colleagues and helpmeets, not robots.

As I’ve said, the point of consciousness is effective action in the world. That’s what evolution has tailored our Paleolithic minds and bodies to accomplish in the cause of survival. Artificial intelligence can’t do that job in our stead; it is still up to us. And hand tools can help. Spears, boomerangs, axes, pencils, chopsticks, even paperclips. They help shape us to a world that was built without people, primates, or even tree shrews in mind. The energy behind them has to come from us—from our physical bodies—as directed by consciousness with aid from careful attention and skilled physical effort. Nothing is more satisfying than doing the job right. It involves every part of our bodies and minds, our hearts and our souls. Because in making things, what we do matters in relation to our biological values. Old men sitting around whittling totems—deer, ducks, and chickadees—are doing what matters to them, as making hamburgers and cookies matters to boys and girls learning to feed themselves. Oh, I forget, these are things of the past. You can always eat out. And buy plastic toys made in China.

As tools, computers and cell phones are a different story in that we haven’t a clue how they work; just click or push a button and they do their thing, not ours. The same for computer games, CDs, and videos. Slight skill is involved, which meets no innate survival need. Everything now is cut and paste, which any preschooler can do. You can learn to use electronic gadgets in a few minutes, not months of patient practice spent schooling your body to work with and across the grain. And if these electronic wonders break, you can’t fix them. When the last battery runs down, or the power goes out, you are sunk.

Everything now is pre-packaged, even gift platters and salads at the supermarket. No preparation required, all you have to do is rip open the package and eat. No wonder we’re restless; we don’t know how to do anything with our hands guided by consciousness anymore. That is, our consciousness is on cruise-control pretty much all the time. We just keep whizzing ahead with no need to pay attention to how we whiz. With the result Google does it all for us—flicking insistent ads in front of our eyes so we’ll know what to buy. I went through that bit in my last post (Reflection 176: Heart Rot). We used to know how to make model airplanes out of tissue and balsawood, and build ships in bottles. Those days are gone. But they’ll be back; wait till the grid fails and the power goes out.

In the mailbox story, I started from the abstract end and worked toward the concrete, like boring a tunnel from one side of a mountain. Now I’m working my way around to the concrete, sensory side, boring in the other direction, hoping both tunnels will connect in the middle. Today it’s tools as hands-on aids to existential, sensory experience, not mailboxes as empty placeholders or containers. OK, I’m mixing my metaphors. Never the twain shall meet in the middle. But say I ordered a wood plane or set of carving chisels from The Tool Barn and they sent them by mail. Now my expectancy can picture both mailbox and tools in the same image, mailbox as placeholder being fulfilled in this instance by a box containing tools so sharp you can cut your finger and draw blood if not careful. I intend that sort of image to illustrate what happens when concepts and percepts come together in mutual fulfillment, memory reaching from one side of the mountain, perception from the other, the two coming together in the middle of the mountain, uniting, forming a single item in consciousness—a coupling of both sensory and conceptual aspects of meaning. Ta-da, lived experience as we know and love it every day of our lives!

I know what I mean, even though I can’t say it without resorting to imagery and metaphor. You know what I mean, too, because the two aspects of consciousness come together in mutual fulfillment in your mind as surely as mine. I didn’t make this up, I merely take pains to keep track of the workings of my own mind. Here is categorization in action, recognizing things as what we know them to be, even though they are no such thing in and of themselves—it’s just that for us they go together so naturally we think of them as one. Think of an animal—say, sheep. A sheep is an animal; an animal can be a sheep, an ostrich, or a kangaroo. We know which one when we see it, even though it doesn’t bear a label. The label is in our conceptual memory, tied to an empty (uninstantiated) placeholder, both ready to leap out when perception presents us with a suitable pattern. We put the two together so naturally, we don’t even appreciate the wonder of it all. Or that we are responsible for making it happen. Where we see a flock of sheep, others might recognize die Schafen (Germany), les moutons (France), le pecore (Italy), or las ovejas (Spain). Different category labels, same animals. In childhood, we learn to put them together by imitating what others in our language group do.

So are sheep the same as die Schafen and les moutons? Yes, and no. The same, but different. It all depends on who is putting percept and concept together in a particular instance of categorization. In each case, the concept with the best fit might differ a little, or a lot. Even if we use the same term, that does not necessarily mean our concepts are identical. That depends on our cumulative life experience with sheep, whether we know them only from books, saw a movie about them once, or perhaps grew up on a sheep ranch and herded them with our father in the mountains. But I stray from the tools I began with. That’s easy to do with concepts, one keeps leading on to others. I don’t know how sheep got into the picture, but there they are—purebred conceptual sheep out of nowhere. That is, out of my conceptual memory. No, not nowhere. In North Blue Hill, Maine. The last animals I took pictures of were sheep on a farm that had a lot of farm tools and machinery lying around. Which reminded me of my grandfather’s farm in Vermont. Not farm, really, but house in farm country where he had an old barn. That, I believe, is the connecting link between tools and sheep in my mind. You had to have been there, to have lived my little life.

Tricky, this mind of ours. Hard to keep up with. But easy, once you put in your ten-thousand hours of self-study. If, every time we put a sentence together, we are balancing concepts with percepts, percepts with concepts, you’d think after a time we’d get a sense of what we were doing and develop a sense of responsibility so we could do the job better, that is, more truthfully. Not so with the mind. It likes to keep us dumb and happy. Or, more accurately, we like to keep ourselves dumb and happy precisely so we can avoid being responsible for what we say and do. With results such as that politicians, say, along with economists, lawyers, and priests are all irrepressible liars. To be a pro is to lie the party line. That is, to commit category errors as a matter of principle. Because talking nonsense is safe: you can say anything to anybody at all, and they will hear your words and almost believe you if you keep a straight face. Words, too, are tools, mouth tools if not hand tools.

I will end this post by quoting the letter I wrote today to the editor of Newsweek in response to the January 25 issue on the earthquake in Haiti. I never saw so much categorical gibberish as is packed between the covers of that issue. Here Haiti lies in ruins after a devastating earthquake, and the media—together with the president himself—fumble for a conceptual or rhetorical framework within which to make it all seem fitting that so many people lie concretely and demonstrably dead or dying in the streets. This underscores the importance of categorization—giving character to a given situation—in deciding how to make an appropriate response:

Is it me, or these times? Newsweek, your cloying smugness astounds me. First I read Jon Meacham cynically reducing Haiti to a character in a historical novel. Then Lisa Miller resorts to the will of a stock God in attempting to explain a natural disaster. And Obama himself gets up on his high horse to proclaim the greatness of a country that for years supported a series of dictators in Haiti, as if we were caring beyond any other nation. “Life can be unimaginably cruel,” he intones, as if life, like Miller’s God, were a bad actor. When I got to David Rothkopf’s “I told you this was going to happen” piece, I wanted to throw my shoe at you. As Gertrude said to Polonius, “More matter, less art.” And if it isn’t matter but personal opinion, then chuck it, get the facts, and start over.

 Sheep, pecora, mouton?

 

  

(Copyright © 2009)

Before I explain the title of this post, I have to provide enough background to make it meaningful.

 

The two most important words in the English language are the articles “a” (or “an”) and “the.” These little words distinguish between general categories of conscious experience (concepts such as a word, an apple, a dragonfly) and sensory phenomena or percepts specifically representing one category or another (the word “word” itself, the apple I ate for lunch, the dragonfly zipping back and forth over the still pond). The indefinite article “a” directs attention toward a class of things known for their shared resemblance within consciousness; the definite article “the” directs attention toward a unique member worthy of consideration apart from other members of any such class.

 

Put that way, the distinction between individual things and things that are members of a class of things seems merely a way of talking about things that are significant in themselves and things that are significant because they share characteristics common to a group of things. Which may seem a trivial distinction. What difference does it make whether I say, “I ate an apple for lunch,” or “I ate the apple on my plate”? An apple could be big or small, red or yellow, ripe or unripe, sweet or sour, whole or cut into pieces, tangy or bland, and so on. The apple is not a matter of serial either/or distinctions but is what it is and nothing else. We may not know all of the details, but we know its character derives from its exhibiting one specific combination of sensible details which are mere possibilities within the overall category.

 

The question is, why draw the distinction? And the answer must be, because it makes a significant difference to me, and if you will only listen to my story as it unfolds, you will come to understand the difference been an apple as a vague category of experience and the role this one apple plays on a particular occasion in my life.

 

The apple on my plate was put before me. I didn’t select it, it was presented to me. In my family we had to eat what we were given—the specific servings. We couldn’t pick and choose. If the starving children in China couldn’t pick and choose, neither could we. If the apple turned out to be wormy, sour, or bitter, we ate it nonetheless. An apple is an abstract idea; we didn’t deal with abstractions. We ate our dinners. Without hesitation, without question, without complaint. Abstractions don’t nourish the body, only specific apples on specific plates at specific times in specific places can do that. I am made of such apples. Without them I wouldn’t be here today. I am living proof of the distinction between an apple as an idea or category of experience and the apple on my plate. Both are apples in my mind, but in wholly different ways. One is both in my mind and my stomach; the other remains a dim phantom. Viva la [Burp.] difference!

 

All of which goes to explain the title of this post: The Cloud That Looks Like a Dog. Take note: the cloud; a dog. Cloud as sensory phenomenon, dog as concept or idea—both in consciousness, but playing different roles. The distinction is crucial. If it was, The Cloud That Is a Dog, that would be a metaphor, not a simile. But the principle is exactly the same: a concrete aspect of experience bears on and informs an abstract or ideational aspect of consciousness, the two together building an edifice in the mind much larger than either structure taken by itself.

 

What set me off on this rather tortuous journey was a quote from The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes (Houghton Mifflin, Mariner Books, 2000, first published 1977). The second chapter ends with this thought:

 

For if consciousness is based on language, then it follows that it is of a much more recent origin than has heretofore been supposed. Consciousness come after language! The implications of such a position are extremely serious (page 66).

 

Consciousness based on language requires language to come first, as the foundation must precede the house. In my mind, given the rate at which life has evolved, that’s a mighty big “if.” From my perspective, consciousness must embrace both the concrete and abstract aspects of language such as I have taken pains to illustrate in this post so far—if language and metaphor are to be possible. Language is only one aspect of consciousness. I have looked at humor, how we name things, metaphor, seeing one thing as another, not seeing what is in front of us, pain—all involving various combinations of concrete and abstract ramifications within consciousness. If I can point to a single example of consciousness without words, then Jaynes’ contention, no matter how erudite, is open to question. Think sight gags, Picasso’s Guernica, the concluding movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the championship-deciding game in the World Series, Mozart’s The Magic Flute (sung in German), the ballet Swan Lake.

 

But no, I will offer only The Cloud That Looks Like a Dog. Not in so many words, but as a photograph of the actual event when it happened. Before I get to the drum roll, first think what that might imply: seeing a cloud as a dog. It is an act of perception and an act of cognition engaging each other, not in the world, but in the mind. My mind. Wholly without words. The mental representation of a cloud becoming mutually engaged with the idea—the very essence—of doggishness. This is not an example of language itself but of what makes language possible: the coupling of sensory phenomena with conceptual ideas so that words—whether spoken, heard, written, read, signed, or seen—take on meanings and convey them to other minds.

 

Drum roll. Expectant hush. A flash of brilliance. I give you, preverbally: The Cloud That Looks Like a Dog. 

 

DogCloud, 7-2008

 

In his Afterword, Jaynes allows, “Consciousness is not all language, but it is generated by it and accessed by it. . . . Consciousness then becomes embedded in language and so is learned easily by children. The general rule is: there is no operation in consciousness that did not occur in behavior first” (page 449). Which to me sounds like he’s hedging or preparing way for a cop-out. He claims solving problems, like driving, requires no consciousness—but to me solving novel problems is the essence of goal-directed consciousness which we must do on our own, in our own minds, in light of our own skills and judgment. Even driving, I skillfully access my progress through brief glimpses between and during cogitations. Bringing the crew of Apollo 13 back safely to Earth is Exhibit A of the conscious mind’s deliberate, informed, hands-on, preverbal, problem-solving ability.

 

For myself, I am content to inhabit a conscious world that allows me to visualize phenomenal clouds in the guise of idealized dogs, engaging my environment through a metaphor more fundamental and much older than speech. I spend much of my time in nature attending to speechless creatures of one sort or another (see Pix at the head of this blog). As I have written, there is no language per se in nature, yet there is consciousness of every sort—including my own. I keep my ears, eyes, nostrils open, mouth shut. Yet still I form concepts based on what I find, and my mind grows in every dimension. I have wordless feelings, expectancies, insights, and memories. Much of what I know today I have learned through personal, first hand interactions with nature more basic than language.

 

As an encore, I give you The Great Seal of the United States of America. It may look like the representation of an Eagle to you, but check out the carrot and stick in those talons—this is the representation of an eagle in the process of representing a nation’s ideals. Here is a visual metaphor cloaked in our national identity, no small trick for a bird, or for consciousness either, and all without words.

Great Seal of the U.S.

 

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