Saturday, July 05, 2014

Darrell Kipp and Jesse DesRosier

Native Americans value their language because there are things they can say in those words that can’t be said in English.  The reason I had to pass a French test in order to earn an MA in Religious Studies was the same -- there are words in French that say things that can’t be said in English without a lot of explanation and even then it might not be clear.  More than this, to realize that ANY language doesn’t have a lock on meanings, is not the only way to interpret the world, is to begin to work toward a future we all want -- one of understanding.  I should reread S.I. Hayakawa.

This much is pretty clear.  But what has remained unexplored are the concepts UNDER the words, the concepts that come from living a certain way in a certain place and time.  Those FELT MEANINGS are the real content and they are usually unconscious.  Getting into the unconscious is a key to understanding the world in a deeper and more intense way than otherwise possible.  It’s what the poets touch with words, if the metaphors and rhythms are right.  But most purely it’s found with the other arts: movement, color, shape, music, and maybe touch.  Even eye contact.

People are trying to understand consciousness, esp. self-consciousness, the knowledge that one is oneself, in charge of oneself.  But dreams come to tell us that there’s a lot more to being a person than being conscious, a lot more to what you know and what you do than what you can remember or plan.  It’s a puzzle how a Viennese doctor in uptight Victorian times could figure out what every shaman, guru, and other meddler in the metaphysical already knew -- the subconscious is far more vast and powerful than the conscious.  The problem is figuring out what’s in it.

Photo by Tony Bynum

This is where the enviro thinkers meet George Lakoff -- where the metaphor meets the map“Life is a desert but we once had a garden.”  “Life is a dream and suffering means nothing.”  “Life is a horseback ride and my horse has wings.”  “Life is hard work.”   “Life is a battle won by strategy.” Lakoff and Johnson have a whole book of these “Metaphors to Live By.”  The trick is knowing which one -- or complex -- has been guiding you without you knowing it.

Consciousness is a tricky phenomenon.  People like to speculate and theorize about it and science is now investigating in the most delicate and specific ways, using filaments of light and amplified DNA, finding membranes and special neurons and connectomes beyond anything the philosophers imagined.  At the same time, from the inside, it all seems so real.  Being several people. Walking in a silver landscape of sand.  Fighting through a living jungle that writhes like pythons against one’s body.  Or maybe it’s not scary or negative.  Maybe waltzing on a polished floor.  Maybe Aladdin’s jeweled and glittering cave.

It’s a little bit like the way I understand “rhetoric”.  I was trying to explain to someone with classic Ph.D. training that a friend’s world sphere is more or less the idea that “life is a sordid bordello” but that I loved his poetry.  “Oh,” she said, “then the workmanship is so well done: the lapidary construction.”  I explained that wasn’t it either, but was hard-pressed to convey what it was.  Why would I respond to such a thing?  I don’t want to live a sordid life.  Something about primary experience, the iridescence, the bitter persistence, the defiance of death, the friction and frisson and fantasy of bodies.  The persuasion didn’t work.  A word person only recognizes words, not the underlying tectonics that generate the words.

Why isn't she honored the way we privilege 19th century North American romantic Indians?

Such an education is a horizontal separation that often signals privilege.  The usefulness is less important than the shared class conviction of what is important.  But what does it mean to a Guatemalan peasant whose husband was killed for nothing?  We can address her statistically, but can we “feel” her?  What she eats, what she wears, what she sings to her baby, what she tells her boy who is almost old enough to be forced into a gang?  What comforts her?  Where does she get hope?  What is the wind against her skin?  Does she know it or is it only in her deep mind where her heart beats?

An imagined creature

Under even the sensorium is the steady commotion of existence within the skin, the maintenance of life that means survival.  The cilia in the lungs carry out particles.  The cilia in the inner ear respond to vibrations of the air.  The intestines untangle molecules and ooze them through their walls into the traffic of the blood.  The chemical factory organs of liver and pancreas respond to those molecules, secreting additions or subtractions or combinations.  In the sea of lymph that bathes all cells, the white blood cells patrol with their rings of keys, trying them on the skins of every cell so that if they fit, the cell will be entered and eliminated as an intruder.

A technological image

This business is recorded in the brain, even sometimes controlled in the brain, but more than that it controls the brain, for the neuron cells are even more dependent on oxygen and glycogen than the other cells, and the secretions of the brain organs -- pituitary, amygdala, hippocampus and all those other clever bits -- are what finally by their interaction create the connectomes, the great chords of the symphony of the mind, the melodies of personality.  (“The brain is an orchestra.”)

An imagined sea creature

So now I’m obliged to add another level to the “brain” -- which I’ll put on the beginning of the sequence, number one of five.  The deepest level of unconscious is cellular function.  “The body is a sea of specialized planktons that give rise to more specialized creatures and eventually the flashing schools of fish that are thought.”  Swimming at various levels.  One thought consuming another, salty and bitter, the bright sharp gills sucking oxygen out of the water . . .

STOP!  You’re having a runaway!  

The brain is not a pyramid, it’s not a hierarchy, it’s an evolved and increasing complexity that interacts to create new functions.  The blob in the skull is only the most specialized part of running a body and only the dashboard for everything right down to plasmolizing unwanted substances through the walls of the kidneys.  It’s only when it gets to the level of having to pee that it becomes conscious and some of us leak without the brain’s permission, just with its awareness of wet.

A real sea creature

I was astounded to hear that there are tens of thousands of kinds of specialized neurons in the brain, capable of quite different duties.  VENN cells, spindle cells.  It’s a proliferation full of possibility for consciousness, all created by the accumulated proliferation of DNA codes, both producing proteins and turning them on and off.  Get the level of glucose not-quite-right and some cells of the eye’s macula will stop functioning.  Get the level of serotonin circulating in a greater concentration than usual and you’ll be on a “high” your brain will mark and try to return to and  -- if you fail to do so -- mourn with punishing withdrawal symptoms.  Behavior is at the mercy of such switchboard binaries.

The brain is a sub-animal that runs on metaphor (the filing system) and mapping (the drawers).  In synchrony with fractal theory, my mind is as stacked and sliding with ideas just as all my tables are piled up with paper.  I’m scribbling as fast as I can.  “Life is writing a book.”

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