Wednesday, July 27, 2016


Michael K. Williams as Omar Little

“YOU FEEL ME?” was the query by everyone’s favorite assassin on “The Wire,” Omar Little. (Michael K. Williams)  It’s a very apt phrase for those working out embodiment meaning in terms of the brain.  

When we say the word “grasp,” there is a faint sensory echo in the brain of actually grasping something.  That’s embodiment — that little ghost in there, in the body.  You FEEL grasping, actually and electrochemically.  This is NOT about the pre-frontal orbital abstracting abilities behind the forehead.  In fact, on brain monitors it might not even show up in one spot in the rest of the brain but be distributed around the connectome according to how the act of grasping was first recorded — maybe your baby bottle.

The first surface, the first muscle pattern, the first stress on the wrist bones, all processed into electrochemical traces in brain cells.  After that, the concept is there.  The word doesn’t come until much later.  Using it to denote an abstraction (grasping the truth) comes even later.

We’ve thought that words were the pinnacle and container of thoughts.  That was wrong.  The experience is recorded from the sensory qualities of the act, then it is somehow associated with others that are similar but indexed by the sensory qualities of each instance.  Finally a word might be assigned.  Then there is a cloud of associations around each word, where it was rhymed, when used in a poem, who often used the word, and so on.  None of this is in the famous pre-frontal cortex, but in an image of a page, an echo of a conversation, seen on some billboard passed during a long drive.

“Grasp” of vocabulary and abstract concepts depends on being exposed to them — words and categories — but more than that -- and earlier -- it depends on the original experience.  A person who has never grasped something (no hands?) will have to rely on watching and empathizing with the person who grasps, from his first crayon to the concept of “the end.”  It’s subconscious, not intentional, not a product of education — particularly the Germanic factory fodder kind of education many people get.
Or did you use fibertips to color?

Sometimes I talk to a Blackfeet kid who’s never left town and as I talk, I see his brain behind his eyes shutteringfluttering as he tries to “grasp” what I say about things he's never experienced.  Elevator?  Bookstore?  I said to a young woman in uniform back on her first leave, “But 9/11 was not planned by Iraq — most of the terrorists were Saudi.”  She was paralyzed for a moment while her brain went in and out of hearing what I said.  She couldn’t “feel” me.  She walked away.  

The same thing happened with the small town white kids.  Their life schema did not include what I said, it included only black and white and I was gray.  Their faces said, “Does not compute.”  They tried to feel as little as possible.  “Grasping” means your fingers get pinched and burned.  New ideas are dangerous.

Insisting that words are the same as “knowing” and that knowing lots of words means you are "smart" is a common delusion, esp in a 19th century rural culture that was largely immigrant and illiterate until world wars made reading important.  That was a short time ago.

The pre-existing culture where I am, the indigenous peoples, were an oral culture, who did everything face-to-face and — because of that — “felt” each other.  They had time, they grasped what they did even if it hurt, and when the Napi Yahki’s didn’t have time to listen to explanations, they just withdrew to wait it out.  There were lots of old tribal words and they were famously punished for using them, as though they were unpatriotic, the way the Euro-immigrants were punished for speaking Ukraine or Celtic or Spanish. It wasn't just the indigenous who were being pounded into a mold.

But the old feelings weren’t in the sounds — they were in the grasp of things, the tipi poles, the arrow shafts, the buffalo hide, the horse’s jaw, and the grasp of each other’s hands, “feeling” each other. Not just the things, but the motions of throwing or scraping or skinning.  There’s no use in learning words for things one has never experienced.  Unless it causes one to go looking for the experience, to recognize it when it appears.  The loss isn’t the words so much as the experiences, because those are contacts that access sensory memory.  To get back the vocabulary, one must live the lost life.  But it is gone.  Now we have new lives and words.  But it still feels the same to have a horse under you.

There’s a Blackfeet gesture meaning “everything you say, I take to my heart” which has come to be a sort of “amen” when attending an event with speaking.  The gesture is holding out one’s hands to the speaker, then pulling them back to one’s heart.  The neotraditionalists use it a lot.  So I taught it to UU congregations but then one day a man said, “I want to add to that.”  He gestured the opposite direction, from his hands on his heart to stretching them out.  “All that is in my heart I give back to you.”  We grasped it.  We always used both after that.  By now there need be no words so long as one can feel the message and respond to it.

Because I was curious about where “Saving Grace” came from, I googled the person, Nancy Miller, who was behind this series before Holly Hunter made it hers.  This is Nancy:  She’s talking about not just grasping something, but feeling that it is so important that it must be conveyed to others — so they can “feel” it.  Then arranging a forceful enough plot that the actors can form it into a kind of piston that pushes meaning into actions.  That’s what I mean by “designing ceremonies” — building that force into feeling that can be shared.  No noodling around in the soft familiar, no empty repetitions, no blurry dispersals of images. 

Nancy Miller

It’s a tall order and not something that be thrown together on a Saturday night, but it can be done by a group.  (Just don’t call them a committee, which is by now a crippling idea.)  Figuring out some exercises that will bond a small group together would be good.  Easy stuff like the trick of finding something in the environment, a rock or a flower or a scrap, studying it closely and then explaining it to someone.  More powerful for bonding than you might expect.  

Most of the theory of embodiment is still unfolding.  There are two kinds of structure involved: the brain cells and connections that come from sensory experience and the metaphorical abstract concepts that interact with each other.  Probably there are more confusions like those two.  Long ago when I said I was going to wait until computers were a little more easy to understand before I got into them, some wise person said,  “No, start now and grow with the computers.”  I didn’t do it quite soon enough.  But you've already got a headstart with feeling.  We all do.

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