Thursday, January 02, 2014


Originally I bought Elaine Scarry’s book, “The Body in Pain,” to add to a small set (not quite a dozen) of books I'd accumulated that I thought would be about the physiology and psychology of pain.  I didn’t expect a political book, but that’s what this is.  It is the problem of the autodidact that when one acquires knowledge by cruising bookshelves, there is no particular order and labels are misleading.  But the privilege of the autodidact is interpreting things in independent and idiosyncratic ways, so that’s what I’m doing now.  (Degrees mean nothing -- one either learns for oneself or not, regardless of what the institutions certify.)

Scarry talks about injuring and destroying, relates them to people doing damage to other people in order to control them and extinguish their thinking, then uses Christian (actually quite a bit of OT Jewish thought) and Marxist systems to argue in the other direction: that wounding can be a motivation for making.  She proposes God as an artifact -- art, created by humans, and fact, a context for power.  And God is an artifact which controls the creation of other artifacts, mostly religious, in a desert context.  This means the allocation of scarce resources, and that’s where Marx comes in.

It’s all too fancy for me.  I’m going to go to Blackfeet on the prairie in the buffalo days, which was a context of plenty.  My sequence here is going to be eye, hand, and idea and I’ll borrow Bob Scriver’s book title:  “The Blackfeet: Artists of the Northern Plains.”  The artist’s first task is to see, the second is to take materials in hand and the third is to create an idea, whether an imitation or a derivation or a contradiction.

The extension of seeing through the use of lenses and technology, which lets us look back to the beginning of time (as we can conceive of it) and into the hearts of the virus and beyond to the subatomic world, are enlargements of the same thing as prairie distant horizon and movement across on the cloud chamber of grass and dust.  The technological sensory world is metal knobs and complex wiring, but the images we take away are still those of the sensory world of the person drawing, carving, sewing, splashing and smearing.  

The impulse to create ideas-made-objects is damaged by our collapse of time.  Instead of “making” a home, we go to some big box store and buy table-chair-bed, coffeemaker-cup-spoon, and a pixel screen controlled by a fingertip.  If a job makes us move or something ejects us from one place, we leave it all behind and go to whatever big box store is where we land to buy replacements.  There’s no time to make a chair, no time to attach to a specific cup.  Therefore no time to worry about whether the figure huddled in a blanket at the edge of the sidewalk needs a chair or anything more than the cup he holds out.  The attachment to things is dissolved.  Including God-the-Artifact.  We see only what we want to see, what we expect to see.

Much of my reading about the brain emphasizes that we can’t know the reality of the world outside our skin except as interpreted by the patterns of the thinking systems inside our skins.  There is one place that we have access to the realities of other people, which is through the action of spindle cells in our frontal cerebral cortex which use observation to create empathy, “feeling with” other people.  But there is another place that we interact with the world and that is through our hands, as though lovers.  

I first met the word “haptic” when I was writing about sculpture.  It means “pertaining to the sense of touch and comes from the Greek verb ἅπτεσθαι haptesthai, meaning to contact or to touch.”  To press ourselves against the world even though it means risking wounding: punctures, bruises, cuts.  When I was working in the Scriver Studio, I always had torn skin, esp. on my hands.  Now there is even “haptic” computer technology to supply information to the body through something like a vibrating “rumble pack” or air puffs.

“Haptic technology has made it possible to investigate how the human sense of touch works by allowing the creation of carefully controlled haptic virtual objects. These objects are used to systematically probe human haptic capabilities, which would otherwise be difficult to achieve. These research tools contribute to the understanding of how touch and its underlying brain functions work.”

So far I haven’t found any of the reports of findings, haven’t known there was anything to look for, but I do recognize that this relates to the issue of practice, of learning skills -- which amounts in large part to moving actions from conscious effort -- whether hitting the keys of a piano or balancing a bicycle -- to unconscious effort, so that when the sculptor works he or she doesn’t have to worry about how to make the shape wanted but can simply do it, with consciousness focused on the results.  So far, haptic technologies are crude, not quite “unconscious” yet.

My grandfathers were both carpenters and the neighbor men on both sides of us when I was growing up were also makers.  Their tools were extensions of their hands and one man was especially inclined to respond to human need.  Mr. Otto made for my mother a nursing rocker without arms that might hit a baby’s soft head and a tip-out flour bin because she baked bread every second day. (It was war-time.  It was a haptic thing to do in those days.)  He made us a sandbox with a sunshade, made a small-but-tall chair for a transition between high-chair with a tray and adult chair.  When we went to my mother’s grandparents’ home in an emergency that didn’t allow for packing, I took no doll along.  My grandfather had me draw one on a plywood scrap and cut it out with a coping saw.  (A grandmother would have sewn one.)  These were haptic responds to simple needs.

When I see the refugees in camps, my eye goes to what it in their hands: vessels of every sort, usually tin cans and plastic bowls: tools for receiving.  Eye, hand, thought, empathy -- what system can address basic hunger around the planet?  I think of feeding babies or sick people and then the difficulty of spooning water into my dying mother and then to the deliberate sacrament of a designed worship at UU Leadership School where we fed each other strawberries, watching closely to see that the receiver was pleased instead of choked.

It’s backwards to think that it’s “God” who is “made,” and who then treats humans as artifacts, unfeeling collectibles.  That god is discardable.  The world may not be entirely sentient, self-conscious, capable of pain, but life itself IS interaction that creates, whether it is a galactic star nursery or a batch of oatmeal.  “Wounding,” in the Jungian cosmos, is a possibly painful way of opening up a mouth in the flesh that can speak to us about what needs to be made conscious again.  If you can bear it.  There is always plenty, as the old Blackfeet knew, if you study the terrain and the creatures in it.  We need our hands “on” those who need.  Rather than theory, unguarded empathy is the source of effective new systems.  Scarry goes back on the shelf.  Too scribbled up to sell.

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