Tuesday, February 18, 2020


This phase of my little project about the nature of the Holy -- what happens when one feels it, and whether and how a person might be able to "call" it -- is much helped by Damasio's newest book (2018) "The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling and the Making of Cultures."  First, I will pretentiously say that this blog creates a "hallowed ground" between you and me.  At least it's a "frame of expression" that Fred Rogers would approve.

Fred Rogers Quote:
"The older I get, the more convinced I am that the space between people who are trying their best to understand each other is hallowed ground."

Antonio Damasio has become a guide to a whole circle of people doing the work of creating a new space that erases the wall-like division between science and the humanities, a distinction that has brought us a long way but is now an interference.  He gives us a bibliography of great value and lays out a line of thought from the radical beginning of existence before the "Big Bang." (If indeed that turns out to be a valid theory.)  But some of these ideas have been around a long time and I have my own "bag" of favorites.  I'm only an old lady on the east slope prairie writing while kittens bite my toes, but good ideas can come from anywhere.

In the first chapter of reading Damasio I need to pull in these old ideas of mine.  One of the earliest I want to mention is Damasio's neglect of the importance of "skin" as part of the beginning of life.  We've known for a while what elements are involved in the first little molecular minuets toward DNA and even what shocks (electricity?) might make them "live," meaning take in food, throw out refuse, and motivate around.  But everyone gets so interested in the division between the eukaryotes and the prokaryotes, which is that the "euks" have a nucleus which is the first sex (!), that they ignore the skin of the cell, the bubble that keeps it together and keeps intruders out.  They forget that even the nucleus has a skin.  In fact, the most basic concept of "cell" comes from that division between inside and outside.  The even more basic concept of "definition" (defining) is about making a distinction that is a difference.  This carries through into geology (the Rockies divide the quite different east side from the west side) and politics (the entirely virtual, rational 49th parallel divides the US from Canada).  Since I'm next to both, I think about those borders. Lots more to think about.

Damasio is happy to talk about the human body as a composite of a zillion little cells living in cooperation.  I haven't been able to find any definitive thinker who reflects deeply on the persistence of the one-celled animal within the human body, particularly the one-celled sensing cells that perceive walls, drop-offs, head end, magnetic directions.  But there is a great deal on the structure of cells inside the skin, how and why they let new molecules come in, sometimes even whole new skin-enclosed entities like mitochondria, and what and how they do things.  These functions are the beginning of the homeostasis that defines a creature.  We can actually see the structures thanks to new technology.

Ray Rappaport, cell scientist, and Roy Rappaport, anthropologist, both made a big impression on me.  I think it was Ray who talked about homeostasis, that the cell has to stay between two shores of a stream, one shore being "too much" and the other being "too little."  Damasio adds the forward impetus of the stream itself between the banks, which is made necessary by the banks on either side.  I need to think about this a lot more and disentangle the two Rappaports.

Susanne Langer was a favorite of mine in seminary but wasn't reinforced. Her version of feeling was neglected because of two prejudices, one because she was humanities-focused and two, she was female.  U of C Div School at the time forbade papers about women, except for Hannah Arendt.  (I turn to her for a different project, one about evil.)  Langer said, "I believe that in this physical, space-time world of our experience there are things which do not fit the grammatical scheme of expression, but they are not necessarily blind, inconceivable, mystical affairs; they are simply matters which require to be conceived through some symbolistic schema other than discursive language."  I've still got the books.  I'll go back to them.

Steven Porges is the newest of thinkers that have gripped me, and the only one I'm mentioning this time who is in Damasio's index.  Porges' wife, Sue Carter, is not, though she was involved in the prairie/mountain distinction that revealed that a small gene variation distinguishes faithful voles from Don Juan voles. I've ordered " Attachment. and Bonding, a New Synthesis." There's a double problem here because she is female and because she heads the Kinsey Institute which makes male scientists nervous.  (Sex!)

Porges version of emotion vs. feeling is like Damasio's and makes a distinction that would be useful to all of us.  There is agreement that "emotion" is the physical states of tissues, what they are doing, which becomes known to the brain through molecular hormone "code" traveling via neurons or in hormones floated in body fluids. The brain then translates them to "brain knowledge" according to the systems there.  These are the conscious "feelings", virtual representations that we name and have ideas about, guides for our homeostasis.  The importance of the myelinated vagus nerve 13, which Porges found, is the crucial connection.  The body is the emotion, the brain is the dashboard.

Eliade's version of "felt sacred" in "The Sacred and the Profane", notes the real presence of something that seems near-mystical in certain places, like doorways.

Victor Turner in "The Ritual Process" goes on to define the doorway or limen/threshold of liminal or sacred space, which is an entry point for an experience of safe shared openness to all of existence.  Winnicott explains how this "space" is created after birth during the process of caring for an infant and continues through life, when it becomes one way to achieve empathy -- as Porges describes -- with other people.  It is not material, can't be seen, but is vital to human wholeness.

What remains for me to learn in this Damasio book is the material about feeling and cultures, which are human, distinctions arising out of the unity of our cell-assemblages gathered within our skins, but then reaching out, understanding each other on hallowed ground.

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