Thursday, October 27, 2011


One thing folds out of another, thus all the “post” philosophers: post-structuralism, post-colonial, post-what-have-you-got? that have dominated a lot of thought. Here’s what the wikipedia volunteer authority (unnamed) has to say: “a tendency in contemporary culture characterized by the problem of objective truth and inherent suspicion towards global cultural narrative or meta-narrative. It involves the belief that many, if not all, apparent realities are only social constructs, as they are subject to change inherent to time and place. It emphasizes the role of language, power relations, and motivations; in particular it attacks the use of sharp classifications such as male versus female, straight versus gay, white versus black, and imperial versus colonial. Rather, it holds realities to be plural and relative, and dependent on who the interested parties are and what their interests consist of. It upholds the belief that there is no absolute truth and the way in which different people perceive the world is subjective.”

These guys wear those sweatshirts that say on the front, “Question authority!” Some looked at the back (“Listen carefully to the answers.” Note plural.) Some authorities (!) said that it wasn’t a rebellion against what came before so much as it was an extension of the thinking of some people who came before, and about all you can do is name the people mostly in France (Derrida, Foucault, et al) but also in Italy and even a few elsewhere. In 1982 when I left seminary, they were just beginning to hit their peak.

I wasn’t ready for the shift, unless you count Thomas Kuhn, who defined paradigm shift (the point when the evidence against the standing order has accumulated so convincingly that everyone goes to a new understanding -- like the shift from theism to science, which is not quite finished). I was forty, my reality was challenged, but I loved both structuralism and narrativity. Now, thirty years later, I’ve found Deleuze and Guattari who turn out to be an excellent entry point for me.

For instance, Nick Lane’s understanding of what he calls “Ascending Life.” I’ll go finish the book as soon as I finish this post. I have two chapters left. Notice that he converts the noun in the “Ascent of Man” to “Ascending” and is not anthropocentric. In fact, his account of evolution is largely about the invention of life itself and most of the evolving is done at the single cell level, where things reverse, hop sideways, fuse, gobble each other in an orgy of change that continues on without much attention from us until now. He describes an entity that has 28,000 “sexes” -- meaning they can copulate in various combinations to create entirely new creatures with unique genetic scripts -- at which point he suggests maybe we need a new word for the category. Humans are limited to maybe a double-dozen variations, including people with XY chromosomes, XX chromosomes, YY chromosomes (they die), XXY, YYX, upside-down versions, partial versions, etc. Post-binary but not unlimited because if the plan gets too far away from the norm, it’s erased. That erasure is as important to evolution as is war or competition for resources, but only with instruments can we see it. It’s all based on electrons and we still aren’t sure exactly how to describe them except by their behavior.

Because so many people in my family have had head injuries (you can include Bob Scriver) and because I’m old enough to see the consequences play out, I’m aware that the identity of people is dependent on their frontal lobes. Disease or stroke can do the same kind of damage as a blow or a fall. Yet sometimes only the people closest to the damaged person can really “see” the change unless it’s major. Now I’m reading Michael Gazzaniga and

thinking about Leda Cosmides’s work, trying to understand exactly how it is that identity arises from not just the brain but the whole body. Long ago I converted to the idea that identity is not from a “soul” residing in the brain, which is mostly what we can get to through introspection, and that identity changes all the time, which leads to problems with relationships -- or does it solve them?

My trusty guides are largely at, the same folks I loved in young adulthood. I still protect my worn “Whole Earth Catalogue.” It’s remarkable that people my age and much younger still continue the back-to-the-land communal practices of those times, except that now many of them are on-line. They have gone from being "social fossils" (which they never were anyway) to self-confident networks, rhizomatous, as DeleuzeGuattarian thought would have it. They preserve the boundary between the hunter/gatherers and the ten-thousand-year-old experiment with agriculture and cities that sometimes burdens us. In the beginning much of civilization depended upon the expanding and protecting of population because of granaries and walls: a lot of people with time and safe space for thinking. Now the biggest "cities" are “virtual.” The online “cities” are bigger than any resource-bound city can ever be and more assorted as well, which means richer, deeper, more complex thought explorations. I have better access to more brilliant people now than I had on the campus of the University of Chicago.

So now I can return to the task I set myself there, which is something like “the re-enchantment of the world.” That is, the most basic level of reconciliation and rejoicing between the planet and the human body/brain. I’ll close with this quote from Art Durkee, which he posted as a comment to yesterday’s blog.

Shamanism is the single most rhizomatic spiritual technology, or set of practices for dealing with the spirit world. It's an utterly pragmatic, local system. Yet it turns up in literally every culture, in every era, in some form or another. Often it takes on the local language and cosmology without really changing its essence.

“That's partly because it's rooted in earth, in sky, in the land, in the people. The organized religions are smart when they adopt the local practice and try to subsume it into their own systems. That works better in some places than others. In native North America, the Jesuit presence among the early explorers was a political policy, part of the policy of conquering a new land for Europe. It's interesting to note how some native groups, who nominally converted to Catholicism, still practice their old ways anyway. Rhizomes, growing up and spreading invisibly below-ground.”

I do not want to be a shaman. I do not want to join any organization. I do not want to convert people. I want to read books and write about them. On to Michael Winklelman. But first I’ve got to get tarps on the roofs of the bunkhouse and garage. After I finish reading Lane’s book and copying his bibliography. Busy day. Every day is a birth-day.

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