Sunday, January 13, 2019

"KEEL KISSING BOTTOM" by Elizabeth de Freitas

Elizabeth de Freitas is a mathematician.  I don't know where she lives, but this book is set in Halifax, where a famous massive explosion in the harbour  has become central to the heroine's mother's disaster-focused life.  She makes a living salvaging "wrack" which is what falls off boats or is left of boats after a wreck.  The father is a marine biologist who studies what lives on the bottom of the sea.  This story is as symbolic as Sara Teasdale on LSD, that is, the metaphors might overwhelm Lakoff.  In this strange time it seems to fit a surreal atmosphere between our primal/primordial origins and our butt-struck fundaments.  A keel is a boat's spine.  Kissing is often seen as sexual, but not always.

The book is in three parts.  The first part is the heroine growing up with a too-powerful mother and a not-powerful-enough father, three louts of brothers, and a beautiful smart cousin who always succeeds.  The second part is a traditional "road story" except that it's taken on a horse with a bottom as big as the heroine's.  She's headed for the big city which looked like it might be Montreal but then is Toronto's stock exchange.  The adventures are like stories out of The Enquirer or The Police Gazette as written by the Grimm brothers and acted out by aged survivors of an acid rock band.  The third story is in the big city where the smart ass cousin has a job as a big boobed mermaid.

The effect of all this is at first a kind of wild glee but then settles to a desperate ache that life is not better than all this decay, this constant sinking back to the blob-slime of life so vulnerable that it needs a shell to survive.  In the end the mother's steely confrontation with disaster seems the right way to go.   I was the 72nd person to watch this lecture by de Freitas and it lasts one and a half hours.  I recommend the subtitles.  This is HARD to follow.  She's plain and thin and talks fast.  When the subtext says Effect, it means Affect, which is emotion.

I think that what she's really about is trying to understand people and entities who don't fit our expectations and provoke us to oppress them.  She's part of a movement trying to get past convention to new ways of looking at people without privileging biology -- "Oh, that's the way they are."

She's trying to understand the use of data/digital information and to form a bioethic that controls the misuse of these materials.  She talks about wearable detectors of emotional signs, sort of cyber-empathy.  What do we do with the data?  What if it's used to control (like white rats) or to torture (Like James Bond)?

I don't understand what she's saying about the environment being the creator of epigenetic change of the genome, although I understand that it happens.  I think what I'm missing is the argument that digital biosensors plug into a worldly sensibility {whatever that is] and the gadgets are accessing "primordial sensibility" and "enjoy a sensory domain all their own."  I guess this is what she means her novel to demonstrate.

The idea seems to be that instead of our technology giving us "Borg-like" robot abilities, it gives us access to how a person can enlarge their ability to extend their own potentials.  it's a little like people learning to moderate their own heart beats after they are made perceptible on a screen so the person can see what they're doing, what thoughts "look like."

Basically, the fancy sensor bracelet is a portable truth-monitoring gizmo.  That is, it reports the stuff that the police investigator gets on a graph.  But it can show whether a kid is learning something and pleased or whether another might be approaching an epileptic siege.  It also can show whether anger or confusion are preventing learning.

Electrodermal is another new composite word to talk about how the skin shows what the whole body is doing.  (These ideas are welcome to the embodiment cognisence movement.)  Knowing this data can be useful in a human way to understand learning.  In a way it's monitoring serotonin, but that must be interpreted as human -- not a mechanical recording.

I'm not quite sure what a "phantasmatic substance" is nor can I really grasp the difference between "organic thought" and "biological unconscious" but I do understand that "the bounded individual is always being broken down, disassembled, remade, intensified, charged. . ."  I'm not sure she understands how much our culture opposes and attacks that.

"The quivering periphery" -- what a great phrase!  The philosophy of technology -- eeks!  The concept of "virtual" -- I've tried and tried. . .Hit my biological body capacity.  I had no idea whatsoever that a book I bought in Saskatoon decades ago would be so relevant to now.  At least for me.

Gathering new experience, either through events as in this novel, or from nearly-imperceptible data accumulated by a device, can change a person and break up ideas that had been taken for granted.  I have another article here that's about the amazing realization that individual cells have the capacity to perceive the environment.  This was in Nature magazine and was by Alison Abbott.  Three kinds of brain cells were studied:  grid cells, place cells and head-direction cells.  The scientists were using "a technique called deep learning -- a type of AI inspired by the structures in the brain -- to train a computer-simulated rat to track its position in a virtual environment."  It's a little technical but the "rats" learned to be like real rats using those cells.

So, going back to this boat keel that kisses the bottom of the ocean, a primal source of life, this book is a narrative thread along which are strung experiences richly described and often menacing.  The reader, that rat, is "learning" how it is to see life that way.  No need for a high-tech bracelet to know that you are reacting.  Even quivering.  DeFreitas knows what she's talking about.

By the way, the video claims she lives in Manchester, the location of the studios that have given us some of the most chilling stories ever on PBS.

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