Friday, December 04, 2015


A woman on her way out to Heart Butte to interview for a position as an arts coordinator and artist-in-residence, stopped by in Valier to say hello, since in researching Heart Butte we had chatted on the phone and gotten a little acquainted.  She is an experienced teacher who has her own studio.  I had made muffins, cautioning her that my muffins are loaded with berries and nuts but contain no sugar or salt.  She was game for that and arrived just as the muffins had come out of the oven and were cool enough to put on a plate.  The knife I was using to lift them made the muffin tin slide around the stovetop.  She put her hand out to hold it still and I reflexively snatched it aside from her.  She didn’t say anything for a minute, watching to see whether there might be more to it.  Maybe I got burned?  “I was just going to hold it still,” she said.  I scowled and grumbled.  

I live alone.  I didn’t know this woman.  I didn’t interpret what she was doing as helpful but rather as interfering.  It’s a thing we all do once in a while, but she was shocked and I was chagrined.  It was so little, but it’s a clue to a new theory of how humans began to become themselves, a new species.

Bob in his studio

On a pleasanter occasion, I stopped by Scriver Studio to visit for a while on my way to somewhere else.  Even after our divorce, Bob and I remained friends and even after a couple of years after the divorce, living elsewhere, the materials and their handling were deep in my senses and muscles.  He was at his work table, mixing plaster, mold-making, moving things around in the clutter as they were needed.  I watched, then without thinking, I reached out to get the next step ready, to keep things from tipping, knowing what he would do next and how the materials would act.  He just accepted me as though it were natural, which it was.

When I wrote Bob’s biography, “Bronze Inside and Out,” I based the whole book on the steps of casting bronze -- what it FELT like to work with the sequence of materials: plastilene, blue plaster, white hydrocal, Koroseal, wax, investment, bronze, patina.  Our relationship was still anchored by having done so much together, sharing non-verbal understanding of what to do.  But we were better with objects than the subjective emotional element.

About communication long before there was language.

In “Origins and Revolutions: Human Identity in Earliest Prehistory,” Clive Gamble proposes that the first concepts were wordless, simply the sensory elements of objects handled and known.  He suggests that there are two basic human concepts:  container and instrument.  What “goes into” what and what happens if you do something with maybe a twig -- poke, bite, wave, strike.  His convincing premise is that the first thinking hominins (not quite human yet, but close) were in small groups doing something, each one watching both the object and the others hunkered around.  As they understood, they began to interact, reaching out to participate or intervene, then checking the reaction in the others.  This was real and effective communication but language came later.  At this point the early human mouth and pharynx were not capable of making sounds with precision enough for language, except maybe yabba-dabba-do.

Looking at evidence like this comes into the Cartesian thought world like a little dust devil, making trouble, not really solid.  But I find it very welcome indeed, because it feeds into a line of understanding that I’ve been following since seminary at the end of the Seventies, the idea of sensory information as the origin of concepts, silent underneath our words and shaped by our grammar.  Suzanne Langer was exploring it.  Benjamin Whorf and his idea of Hopi being a process-based language (not a chair, but chairing), first proposed this at the end of the Fifties. 

Feminist studies pointed out that when two biologists went to study a herd of antelope, the woman’s observations were all about birthing, caring for the babies, and finding food.   The man’s notes were full of fights with predators, rivalry over the females, and scouting territory.  Everyone, according to his or her culture and experience, sees his or her own reality and ignores the rest.  This challenges the Cartesian idea of reality as something independent and “real”.

Awareness, taking everything into account; language, being able to interpret it in words; and reasoning, which is always in words, are privileged in our Western culture.  Writing is more potent than speech.  Declarations, law, business, treaties are all in written words.  Maybe it is the computer and internet that have begun to make it clear that even technical and legal language is shaped by culture, expectation, goals.

Recently, the major overturning of our understanding of consciousness rests on the ideas above, but some of it is neurological research.  We have not allowed for the autonomic nervous system, which maintains the homeostasis of the viscera, which is the basis of a kind of feeling/consciousness. Mark Solms talks about the unconscious conscious which sounds like something Gertrude Stein would write, but what he means is this phenomenon of the body guiding itself along without our attention unless something is going wrong that requires some kind of action.

Mark Solms

And we CERTAINLY never thought that one’s gut biota had anything to do with thinking, but experiments show that they have an influence on one’s mood, “feelings” that influence one’s ability to think. 

That’s not all.  The brain can only handle about seven different concepts at once.  If there are more than that, the brain chooses the most important ones and the lesser matters are “repressed,” or “denied,” or just ignored.  This allows enough metaphorical “elbow room” to deal effectively with matters at hand.  Sub-concepts can be “bundled.” One way to do that is to use a metaphor.  Metaphors are at the heart of language, letting sounds or marks stand for concepts learned by the body through experience with objects and other people.

But different groups of people form their own little cultures with their own ideas about what you should eat or wear, what crimes deserve punishment and so on.  Their language will reflect this.  Their awareness will be shaped by it in very subtle ways.  I once took a college make-up test where several classes came into a large auditorium and chose their own seats.  Strikingly, the Euro-whites spaced themselves out, each claiming as much space as they could.  The Middle Eastern and Asian people sat in a group, not so that they could cheat but because to them that seemed “right.”  Even in the hallway they stood close to each other while the whites left as much space around themselves as they could.

I find that all this is clumsy to talk about, almost too “poetic,” and indeed poets deal with these matters.  But what I’m labeling here as “Cartesians,” meaning those who want a geometric inevitable world that we all share, have a strong emotional resistance to the idea of subjectivity.  Cartesian, supposedly objective thought, enables science, math, technology, and for that reason alone has pushed aside everything else for centuries.  Since it is the basis of prestige and status, esp. among those who claim male-gender-roles, there is a lot at stake.

The way the world looks at itself is changing, trying to achieve the reconciliation of differences that result from the media showing us the worlds of the other and a shrinking supply of resources.  Some people, you could say, are “violently opposed.”  This process is just beginning, but no doubt the issues were always there.  We must teach ourselves not to snatch away the muffins.  That’s a metaphor.

I realize that muffins and cupcakes are gender assigned, but don't tell your mom.

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