Monday, December 17, 2018

THE STATE OF MY THINKING

On a plain stage in a darkened auditorium, the young woman stood gracefully but electrically, speaking with lyric force and occasional gestures.  The audience was the rest of her acting class as well as some observers who slipped in quietly.  To those few she seemed to be in a garden, wearing something classic.  But she wasn't.  She was just a member of the acting class performing a class assignment, a bit of a play.  The audience was transfixed, her every gesture vaguely echoed in their bodies.  In coming days her words would come back to them and they would think about them.

This was an acting class in 1958 at Northwestern University taught by Alvina Krause, master teacher of "The Method," a way of finding a stage character through sense memories.  In those years I was also taking classes in Philosophy of Religion, World Religions, and Language and Thought.  They seemed relevant.

In 1979 across Chicago, near the campus of the University of Chicago, the small side chapel of a massive stone church was supposed to be divided from the main hall by a fire wall that cranked up and down via some balky mechanism that wouldn't work.  It had been left up but the hall wasn't lit, so the people at vespers in the smaller space were looking at a huge black void where stone echoed dark.  A big mirror was set up in front of the emptiness, reflecting the people.  This vespers was for seminary students at the end of a class week.  They were accustomed to thinking in terms of the Abyss and of self-reflection.  Every word, song, and prayer spoke of these, so that they looked into themselves and saw the Abyss.  A few people wept.

A circle of very old Blackfeet (born in the 1890's) gathered in a house cleared of furniture.  They sat on the floor.  An "orderly" sat by a tub of earth on which a tiny fire was lit, just enough to maintain a smudge and re-light the long-stemmed pipe that traveled the circle.  The door was at the east.  Directly across from the door was a tripod supporting a Bundle of skins that amounted to a hymnal, to be opened as a reminder of songs and dances belonging to each creature.  It was not a quiet nor a solemn occasion, but familiar to these old people who drew great comfort from it.

It's decades since these experiences but I've never stopped thinking about them.  I used to have a "travel sermon" that I presented when invited to preach as a guest.  Called "Honey and Wax," which was the title of an anthology of narratives composed by Richard Stern to be a class text, it talked about moments that were hot and sweet, but came upon us by surprise.  It quoted Heraclitus rather than Plato or Descartes.  The moment that was central was an ordinary moment suddenly struck through by wonder and meaning.  I talked about waiting on the high platform of the elevated train on a sunny afternoon when, unpredicted, it engulfed me.  Nothing remarkable.  Except what I was feeling.  Why?

Every time I gave the sermon, people would come up afterwards and tell me about moments like this.  "What does it mean?" they would ask.  "Were there drugs?  Was it supernatural? Was it God?"  When I told my classmates about it they would ask, "Can a person make such moments happen?  Have you done that?  Can you call the Holy Spirit?"

At the time the Dean of Students just leaving the School of Divinity was opposed to anything that was what he called "phenomenology."  He was devotedly Christian.  That is, he actively suppressed anything that was atheistic, heretical, or secular -- any denial of another world.  What I didn't know and no one told me -- maybe they didn't know either -- was that at the time George Lakoff and Mark Johnson were framing up a new approach to human experience, "The Metaphors We Live By,".which we read but didn't really "get" in terms of implications.  Mihaly Csikszentmihali was doing his research on "flow," which captivated everyone.  Bernie Brown, Dean of Rockefeller Chapel, asked us to read Victor Turner's book "The Ritual Process" and think about liminal time and space, though a few others thought it invited chaos and madness.  All these came to be meaningful.

Luckily, this Divinity School was strongly protective of Comparative Religion, which was a way to access my questions.  The shelves at the Seminary Cooperative Bookstore offered Stephen Toulmin who explained what Enlightenment rationality really was -- warrants for reasoning and so on -- so I could pass the U of Chicago classes which were strictly rational.  And also books by Suzanne Langer who was approaching the questions through art and Felt Meaning.  Then there was Carl Rogers whose clinic was there.  He claimed that if he went and sat with a patient considered unreachable, adopting the person's posture and gradually coming into their emotional space, he could reach understanding and communication.  Often mocked, it seemed as effective as "the talking cure."

I remembered from acting that one could achieve a character from the outside in, taking their stance and voice, or from the inside-out, the Method way.  In the next decades I built up theory and example from experience and the research of others, but it wasn't until the recent revelations about how the brain actually works, which teaches us that we think with our whole bodies ("embodied cognition"), that I could pull together something convincing.  In the guise of an outline for a book, here are most of the bases I touched, the people I thought about.

BEGINNING TO LINK AND SEQUENCE

1.  The need to explore alternative ways of thinking besides the "Western" European white male rationality that has been our mainstream since Greek and Roman thought, as follows:
The Enlightenment
Philosophy precedents that support the academy
Rule of law (written) and bookkeeping
Industrial Revolution
Technology leading to quantum theory, outer space and satellites
Globalization

2.  What is "religion"?  Is it a useful concept?
Theology
Morality
Institutions
Converting life to code and data 
Abandoning the "secular" separation
"Social and Affective cognition"

3.  "Embodied Cognition"  
https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/a-brief-guide- to-embodied-cognition-why-you-are-not-your-brain/
understanding through acting classes and Malvina Hoffman
https://www.youtube.com/watch? time_continue=77&v=COFo_z_x5ZM
Sexual interaction

4.  Framing:  conceptual metaphors that organize everything else
Possibly rooted in dimension/space marked by individual cells
cellular filing of memory using date and place

5.  Sensations held in the body wordlessly as concepts.  Human beings are not paperdolls that remain the same, but interacting processes like flames.
Stages in the process that make lifelong marks:
a.  womb
b.  first years
c.  tension between group and individual
d.  the shape of the world

6.  The brain works by connecting two things, thus figurative metaphor.  The brain can connect any two things without restriction.

7.  Language and grammar as evidence or determining what is known?

8.  Empathy: secondary experience
What actors know about how action interacts with mind

9.  Grounding in liminal time and space.  

10.  Meaning: binding it all together into identity : enacting as liturgy.


Sunday, December 16, 2018

TURNING TO THE EARTH

Valier is about 130 miles south and across the Canadian border from Lethbridge.  We are in the same ecological prairie, once inhabited by related Peoples.  The oil sands are much farther north.  This linked story below is an excellent description of how two different "frames" of assumption inform each other.  Neither is based on resource exploitation, which is a key to the Capitalistic Oligocentric Empire building that came out of Europe and is eating the world.


“As radical as empathy and imagination can be, these qualities exist in the mind. But there is also a poetic language of embodied experience."  Tracy K. Smith, US Poet Laureate.  In her poems, among other things, this means sensory memory.  Here she is.

Maybe POC (Twitter for "People of Color") naturally go to the sensory earth-linked frame of reference, along with their history, vivid as it is.  Of course, it's easier to be the Poet Laureate if you graduate from Harvard and Columbia and your dad worked on the Hubble Telescope.  Now she teaches at Princeton. 

Dan Chiasson is more exactly the sort of person we expect to be the Poet Laureate: white, handsome, New England, elite schools, and somehow managing to pass judgement on POC, which seems to be the entitlement of his sort of person.

"Dan Chiasson writes of another aspect of the collection: "The issues of power and paternalism suggest the deep ways in which this is a book about race. Smith’s deadpan title is itself racially freighted: we can’t think about one set of fifties images, of Martians and sci-fi comics, without conjuring another, of black kids in the segregated South. Those two image files are situated uncannily close to each other in the cultural cortex, but it took this book to connect them."

Sci-Fi writers certainly go to the funky human senses and the evidence found by them, so they can create a new world where they can be political and talk about forbidden topics.  So maybe he's right, though I didn't know before this that there was one sovereign "cultural context."  Maybe he's trying to say "boxes assigned to literary work in university curricula."  He's at Amherst.

My effort (non-academic) is to try to discover the deepest, most inclusive, most unconscious contexts for human meaning.  My problem is that they are unconscious.  As an indicator of how low I can go is my shift in understanding of what a human being is and how it challenges -- potentially destroys -- Christianity.  That context begins with little clay figures modeled by a Supreme Being and repeatedly tested by the effort to be obedient until Jesus came along and showed us what a God would do.

But now that we are sifting the calcium remnants of hominins and finding their DNA code in our own cells, we see humans as self-conscious animals who keep alive the struggle for turf and wealth, just one instance of a recent phenomena that is happening on a time-line so long that it stretches back before the formation of universes.  "What is man that thou art mindful of him?" is the question (at least in translation) of the sexist Psalms with their power-mongering.  Clearly, we are a fleck, a mote, a tiny blip.  

So now another question, "What must we do to be saved?"  Stop burning coal?  And then Kenner's Question:  "What does it mean?"  And mine, "What IS meaning?"  I mean, one can FEEL meaning but no logical reasonable answer can be arrived at that is permanent.  So my idea is to just abandon logic and reason unless doing the things they were meant to address, like math and kinds of science or law.  Otherwise, let's dance.

There can't be just one answer for the meaning of the universe -- it depends on where you ask from.  Some would say it depends upon grammar, the way your language organizes thought.  I would argue that the concepts behind the grammar, the organization of the senses, is even more important, and much lousy confusing writing is due to bad thinking and even failure to perceive the world around one.  That thing about being chained in a cave with your back to the entrance is about limits -- it's not a prescription for navel-gazing.  

Words are not the key despite Whorf.  Today's problem is that there are no words for many things we can see and feel.  (Maybe you read the article about "cute aggression" which has a word all its own in the Philippines.)  The fixation on words and grammar comes from discovering that different "languages" have different words for similar things, never mastering the differences between saying a thing in one language that only roughly means the same thing in another nation that speaks another language.  In fact, nations and languages don't match.  

So Belgium, a nation composed of three different-language-speaking peoples, is an example, but the three languages are still related to the same European Romance roots.  The difficulty is nothing like trying to match antique language worldviews to modern English.  Who knows what Jesus REALLY meant when he said something in Aramaic?  Or even whether that specific Aramaic is accurate copy? What we read has to be at least a translation.

Today's indigenous tribes are earnestly seeking to find and bring to life their own old languages, but how can they when the sensory experiences, the time of the word's use, is gone?  How can they do a ceremonial dance that imitates badgers if they have never lain on a grasslands watching one all day?  Never held one struggling in one's hands?  Never listened to its hissing?  Never made it laugh at human hi-jinks, nodding its head and showing its teeth?  It doesn't matter what one's word for badger might be.  It matters that one's senses have recorded it and how it moves, what it does all day.  This is not philosophy.  You can't get it from a library.  You can still go on the prairie and watch a badger.

Metaphor is powerful and useful when you have no word for one thing, but must borrow it from somewhere else -- say compare a badger to a coal miner.  Or something more radical, emotional, political.  I'll try it.  (I thought the poem would be about race, but it turned out to be about drugs and "the life.")

"The badger loves the underworld.
Muscled and powered he digs the dirt.
So charming with his invitation to play.
He is in fact a small bear with powerful claws
And teeth that lock on your throat
Until you can't breathe. 
To him the dark down deep
Is where the nourishment of blood is curled,
Where the hole is safety."

Saturday, December 15, 2018

METAPHORICAL COMPUTER JARGON


Bump
Then: “to encounter something that is an obstacle or hindrance.” (source)
Now: “to move an online post or thread to the top of the reverse chronological list by adding a new comment or post to the thread.” (source)

Block
Then: “to be placed in front of something, such as a road or path, so that people or things cannot pass through.” (source)
Now: to prevent someone from contacting you on a social network like Twitter, or from viewing your profile. (source)

Canoe
Then: “a long narrow boat that is pointed at both ends and that is moved by a paddle with one blade.” (source)
Now: “a Twitter conversation that has picked up too many usernames for an actual conversation to take place.” (source)

Catfish
Then: “a freshwater or marine fish with whiskerlike barbels around the mouth, typically bottom-dwelling.” (source)
Now: “a person who sets up a false personal profile on a social networking site for fraudulent or deceptive purposes.” (source)

Cloud
Then: “a visible mass of particles of condensed vapor (as water or ice) suspended in the atmosphere of a planet (as the earth) or moon.” (source)
Now: “any of several parts of the Internet that allow online processing and storage of documents and data as well as electronic access to software and other resources.” (source)

Firehose
Then: “a large-diameter hose used in extinguishing fires.” (source)
Now: “a very large stream of data.” (source)

Footprint
Then: “a track or mark left by a foot or shoe.” (source)
Now: “a unique set of characteristics, actions, etc., that leave a trace and serve as a means of identification.” (source)

Friend
Then: “one attached to another by affection or esteem.” (source)
Now: “to add a person to one’s list of contacts on a social-networking website.” (source)

Follow
Then: “to go or come after or behind someone or something; to pursue in an effort to overtake.” (source)
Now: to subscribe to someone’s updates on social media.

Handle
Then: “a part of something that is designed to be held by your hand.” (source)
Now: your screen name; the name you go by on the Internet. (source)

Like
Then: “to be suitable or agreeable to.” (source)
Now: “to indicate one’s enjoyment of, agreement with, or interest in website content, especially in social media.” (source)

Meme
Then: “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.” (source)
Now: “a cultural item in the form of an image, video, phrase, etc., that is spread via the Internet and often altered in a creative or humorous way.” (source)

Ping
Then: “a sharp sound like that of a striking bullet.” (source)
Now: “to make contact with someone by sending a brief electronic message, as a text message.” (source)

Profile
Then: “a representation of something in outline; a concise biographical sketch.” (source)
Now: “the personal details, images, user statistics, social-media timeline, etc., that an individual creates and associates with a username or online account.” (source)

Sandbox
Then: “a low box filled with sand that children can play in.” (source)
Now: “an environment in which software developers or editors can create and test new content, separate from other content in the project.” (source)

Swipe
Then: “a criticism or insult that is directed toward a particular person or group; a swinging movement of a person’s hand, an animal’s paw, etc.” (source)
Now: “to move the fingers across a touchscreen.” (source)

Tablet
Then: “a flat piece of stone, clay, or wood that has writing on it.” (source)
Now: “a general-purpose computer contained in a touchscreen panel.” (source)

Tag
Then: “to supply with an identifying marker or price; to attach as an addition.” (source)
Now: to link to someone else’s profile in a social media post, commonly a photo or status update. (source)

Text
Then: “a book or other piece of writing; especially : one that is studied.” (source)
Now: “to send a text message.” (source)

Timeline
Then: “a table listing important events for successive years within a particular historical period.” (source)
Now: “a collection of online posts or updates associated with a specific social-media account, in reverse chronological order.” (source)

Troll
Then: “a dwarf or giant in Scandinavian folklore inhabiting caves or hills.” (source)
Now: “a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people.” (source)

Tweet
Then: “a chirping note.” (source)
Now: “a very short message posted on the Twitter website.” (source)

Unplug
Then: “to disconnect something, such as a lamp or television from an electrical source or another device by removing its plug.” (source)
Now: “to refrain from using digital or electronic devices for a period of time.” (source)

Viral
Then: “of, relating to, or caused by a virus.” (source)

Now: “becoming very popular by circulating quickly from person to person, especially through the Internet.” (source)

"SACRED", a PBS video

On PBS.org, quoted below:

SACRED
12/10/2018 | 1h 23m 35s
Embark on a global journey of spirituality. Directed by Thomas Lennon and shot by more than 40 filmmaking teams worldwide, Sacred examines faith as a primary human experience and the role of ritual and prayer in the highs and lows of our lives.
Aired: 12/10/18
Expires: 01/07/19
Rating: NR
Closed Captioning
Video has closed captioning.

This montage of practices from many places, some connected to ancient times, is very much in the style of Ninian Smart's classic series, "The Long Search", exemplifying secular religious studies, which is the formal subject of my MA.  Sometimes it's called comparative religion, pioneered by Smart, and his earlier video series takes that approach, showing all the aspects listed below.  (From Wikipedia -- worth reading though, being a wiki, we don't know who wrote it.)  Like most people, Smart focused on institutions, their systems and names.  

"Sacred" sticks mostly to the first aspect on the list and so do I in my way of thinking.  This means the recent PBS series includes death, prison, and freefrom examples.  In the end Smart, included the little ceremony of silently making tea.  He was, after all, a Scot and steaming tea was part of a fog-wet chilly life. Shafts of sudden sunlight through the window struck through both fog and steam as epiphany.  I recommend both of these vids, even better, seeing them together.

This list is well-known, but nothing at all like the UUA list of principles, which is about the same length.

The Seven Dimensions of Religion (Ninian Smart)
Ritual: Forms and orders of ceremonies (private and/or public) (often regarded as revealed)
Narrative and Mythic: stories (often regarded as revealed) that work on several levels. Sometimes narratives fit together into a fairly complete and systematic interpretation of the universe and human's place in it.
Experiential and emotional: dread, guilt, awe, mystery, devotion, liberation, ecstasy, inner peace, bliss (private)
Social and Institutional: belief system is shared and attitudes practiced by a group. Often rules for identifying community membership and participation (public)
Ethical and legal: Rules about human behavior (often regarded as revealed from supernatural realm)
Doctrinal and philosophical: systematic formulation of religious teachings in an intellectually coherent form
Material: ordinary objects or places that symbolize or manifest the sacred or supernatural

In case no one makes "Sacred" available for download on line or as a CD, I recommend that you mark your calendar and not let January 7 slip by without watching it.  Instead of all the argybargy about the Theos, and the enormous time and effort that can be spent tracing out philosophical precedents, this line of approach is much more satisfying (to me) and much less predetermined by Western thought.  No one points out right and wrong, just presents the phenomena.  

My similar approach is particularly aware of what we are learning about how human thought works as a whole body -- not just a brain.  My undergrad classes at Northwestern University ('57-'61) have returned to my thought, proving to be a valid beginning-again.  I took "World Religion" classes at the same time as "Method Acting" classes and "Language and Thought" classes.  Today's added element is the startling research on the neurology of the brain and body.

It appears that what we have not understood -- and therefore attributed to near mystical other-world forces -- are the subtle electromagnetic and chemical interactions within and between cells that are ourselves alive.  Our minds are all quite "this world" and not the work of angels after all.  Since we are animals, more than ninety per cent of what goes on is not managed by the newest lobe of the brain behind our foreheads, the part that contains many of religious concerns such as morality and executive decisions about what to do.  

Modern Western religion has not taught us how to manage our physical animal lives in this troublesome world.  We think about it too much and not enough at the same time.  Religious institutions, based on a specific economy and ecology, can be an excellent guide if you stay there.  But now so many of us are displaced, especially by time, that we need to know how to rebuild a guidance system that uses poetry as much as rationality.

Lakoff tells us, and is able to demonstrate, that we think in metaphors, but what does that mean?.  The next step up seems to be the framing or context, which can be too scary or just unintelligible.  Often our deepest assumptions don't seem open to challenge.  They are what we call "reality" and we don't know they are just premises.  We don't know we believe them.  I hang on to the question, "how can a conscious person affect their own unconscious mind"?  

We are so focused on the old Greek/Roman rationality and reasonable argument that it keeps us from seeing anything else.  Apart from science and math, we have little respect for the humanities, to the point of denying they are anything but trivial hobbies -- and include religion in that as well.  Many of the practices in "Sacred" reinforce what we already know, confirmed by the senses that can rock us free from "conditioning," which is a rational control-aimed strategy that works on our domestic animals -- and us.  The appeal of it is that it seems a rational and effective way to get at emotion and individual motives, that slippery stuff.

At a website called "ribbon farm," which is a particular way of arranging land in a long strip, like along a river, I found an entry about the metaphorical and humanities-based (rooted in land use) way of managing thought labeled "refactored perception,"and described as "Sapir-Whorf, Lakoff, Metaphor and Thought".
https://www.ribbonfarm.com/2007/12/16/sapir-whorf-lakoff-metaphor-and-thought/

In Martin Marty's University of Chicago classes about American religion, he explained that the notorious plantations down South were "ribbon farms" so that Christianity was dependent on privileged authority and gathering for Communion meant having to travel to meet.  But it was a two-level world, owners and slaves, and slaves could not travel, so their version of Christianity included bits of Africa.

Up North the people gathered for warmth and defense behind fort walls, going out to fields for a day's work, then returning to safety.  Of course, the church was safe behind the walls.  When the division came, it was on abstract philosophical terms, the split that set the Protestants free, and potent enough that the defiant resisted punishment.  These patterns of living amounted to religion acted out in ritual.


I just found "ribbonfarm" and some of it is too fancy for me to understand, but it means a way forward, valuing the vivid ideas of "Sacred" that are mostly shown, not told.  More coming.