THE SINUOUS CALLIGRAPHY OF RIVERS

Writing, like human language, is engendered not only within the human community but between the human community and the animate landscape, born of the interplay and contact between the human and the more-than-human world. The earthly terrain in which we find ourselves, and upon which we depend for all our nourishment, is shot through with suggestive scrawls and traces, from the sinuous calligraphy of rivers winding across the land, inscribing arroyos and canyons into the parched earth of the desert, to the black slash burned by lightning into the trunk of an old elm. The swooping flight of birds is a kind of cursive script written on the wind; it is this script that was studied by the ancient augurs, who could read therein the course of the future. Leaf-miner insects make strange hieroglyphic tabloids of the leaves they consume. Wolves urinate on specific stumps and stones to mark off their territory. And today you read these printed words as tribal hunters once read the tracks of deer, moose, and bear printed in the soil of the forest floor. Archaeological evidence suggests that for more than a million years the subsistence of humankind has depended upon the acuity of such hunters, upon their ability to read the traces-a bit of scat here, a broken twig there-of these animal Others. These letters print across the page, the scratches and scrawls you now focus upon, trailing off across the white surface, are hardly different from the footprints of prey left in the snow. We read these traces with organs honed over millennia by our tribal ancestors, moving instinctively from one track to the next, picking up the trail afresh whenever it leaves off, hunting the meaning, which would be the meeting with the Other. Continue reading “THE SINUOUS CALLIGRAPHY OF RIVERS”

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PERCEPTION IS PARTICIPATION

Our most immediate experience of things is necessarily an experience of reciprocal encounter- of tension , communication , and commingling. From within the depths of this encounter, we know the thing or phenomenon only as our interlocutor- as a dynamic presence that confronts us and draws us into relation . We conceptually immobilize or objectify the phenomenon only by mentally absenting ourselves from this relation , by forgetting or repressing our sensuous involvement. To define another being as an inert or passive object is to deny its ability to actively engage us and to provoke our senses; we thus block our perceptual reciprocity with that being. By linguistically defining the surrounding world as a determinate set of objects, we cut our conscious, speaking selves off from the spontaneous life of our sensing bodies.

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Conventional scientific discourse privileges the sensible field in abstraction from sensory experience, and commonly maintains that subjective experience is “Caused” by an objectifiable set of processes in the mechanically determined field of the sensible. Meanwhile, New Age spiritualism regularly privileges pure sentience, or subjectivity, in abstraction from sensible matter, and often maintains that material reality is itself an illusory effect caused by an immaterial mind or spirit. Although commonly seen as opposed worldviews, both of these positions assume a qualitative difference between the sentient and the sensed; by prioritizing one or the other, both of these views perpetuate the distinction between human “subjects ” and natural “objects,” and hence neither threatens the common conception of sensible nature as a purely passive dimension suitable for human manipulation and use. While both of these views are unstable, each bolsters the other; by bouncing from one to the other- from scientific determinism to spiritual idealism and back again- contemporary discourse easily avoids the possibility that both the perceiving being and the perceived being are of the same stuff, that the perceiver and the perceived are interdependent and in some sense even reversible aspects of a common animate element, that is at once both sensible and sensitive. We readily experience this paradox in relation to other persons; this stranger who stands before me and is an object for my gaze suddenly opens his mouth and speaks to me, forcing me to acknowledge that he is a sentient subject like myself, and that I , too, am an object for his gaze. Each of us, in relation to the other, is both subject and object, sensible and sentient . Why, then, might this not also be the case in relation to another, nonhuman entity- a mountain lion, for instance, that I unexpectedly encounter in the northern forest? Indeed, such a meeting brings home to me even more forcefully that I am not just a sentient subject but also a sensible object, even an edible object, in the eyes (and nose) of the other. Even an ant crawling along my arm, visible to my eyes and tactile to my skin, displays at the same time its own sentience, responding immediately to my movements, even to the chemical changes of my mood. In relation to the ant I feel myself as a dense and material object, as capricious in my actions as the undulating earth itself. Finally, then, why might not this “reversibility ” of subject and object extend to every entity that I experience? Once I acknowledge that my own sentience, or subjectivity, does not preclude my visible, tactile, objective existence for others, I find myself forced to acknowledge that any visible, tangible form that meets my gaze may also be an experiencing subject, sensitive and responsive to the beings around it, and to me.

David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World

LIBER SCRIPTUS PROFERETUR

VV: What have you learned from science?

EC: Only one thing: that one ought to wash one’s hands before touching nature.

VV: You want to imply that most scientists don’t deserve science?

EC: Yes. But they have made science into something that they deserve.

VV: What is the remedy?

EC: There is no remedy.

VV: At the place where you are now it is not for you to blow the trumpet of the Apocalypsis. Another tuba will spread its miraculous sound. I repeat my question.

EC: The first step would have to be to make science small again and to disengage it from technology and from the pursuit of power.

VV: How would you do this?

EC: I don’t think it can be done according to a blueprint, and it will not take place without a series of catastrophes of a dimension that would make mankind stop and look. Our kind of science has become a disease of the Western mind. We were taught that by digging deeper and deeper we should reach the center of our world. But all we find is rock and fire. So we take the stone as our heart and the flame as our hope.

VV: Is that all that has been found?

EC: We have been lured into a search for the ever-diminishing dimensions. Each new decimal opens a new grotto of delights. Drowning in precision, drunk with controls of controls, we lose ourselves in the quick and dead sands of eternity. It will be too late when we finally become aware of our error. The center of our world is not where we have been looking for it.

Erwin Chargaff, Liber Scriptus Proferetur (from Heraclitean Fire: Sketches from a Life before Nature).

THE SILENCE OF THE HEAVENS

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I CAME TO BIOCHEMISTRY through chemistry; I came to chemistry, partly by the labyrinthine routes that I have related, and partly through the youthfully romantic notion that the natural sciences had something to do with nature. What I liked about chemistry was its clarity surrounded by darkness; what attracted me, slowly and hesitatingly, to biology was its darkness surrounded by the brightness of the givenness of nature, the holiness of life. And so I have always oscillated between the brightness of reality and the darkness of the unknowable. When Pascal speaks of God in hiding, Deus absconditus, we hear not only the profound existential thinker, but also the great searcher for the reality of the world. I consider this unquenchable resonance as the greatest gift that can be bestowed on a naturalist.

When I look back on my early way in science, on the problems I studied, on the papers I published-and even more, perhaps, on those things that never got into print- I notice a freedom of movement, a lack of guild-imposed narrowness, whose existence in my youth I myself, as I write this, had almost forgotten. The world of science was open before us to a degree that has become inconceivable now, when pages and pages of application papers must justify the plan of investigating, “in depth,” the thirty-fifth foot of the centipede; and one is judged by a jury of one’s peers who are all centipedists or molecular podiatrists. I would say that most of the great scientists of the past could not have arisen, that, in fact, most sciences could not have been founded, if the present utility-drunk and goaldirected
attitude had prevailed.

It is clear that to meditate on the whole of nature, or even on the whole of living nature, is not a road that the natural sciences could long have traveled. This is the way of the poet, the philosopher, the seer. A division of labor had to take place. But the overfragmentation of the vision of nature- or actually its complete disappearance among the majority of scientists-has created a Humpty-Dumpty world that must become increasingly unmanageable as more and tinier pieces are broken off, “for closer inspection,” from the continuum of nature. The consequence of the excessive specialization, which often brings us news that nobody cares to hear, has been that in revisiting a field with which one had been very familiar, say, ten or twenty years earlier, one feels like an intruder in one’s own bathroom, with twenty-four grim experts sharing the tub.

Profounder men than I have failed to diagnose, let alone cure, the disease that has infected us all, and I should say that the ostensible goals have obliterated the real origins of our search. Without a firm center we flounder. The wonderful, inconceivably intricate tapestry is being taken apart strand by strand; each thread is being pulled out, torn up, and analyzed; and at the end even the memory of the design is lost and can no longer be recalled. What has become of an enterprise that started as an exploration of the gesta Dei per naturam?

To follow the acts of God by way of nature is itself an act that can never be completed. Kepler knew this and so did many others, but it is now being forgotten. In general, it is hoped that our road will lead to understanding; mostly it leads only to explanations. The difference between these two terms is also being forgotten: a sleight of hand that I have considered in a recent essay, Einstein is somewhere quoted as having said: “The ununderstandable about nature is that it is understandable.” I think he should have said: “that it is explainable.” These are two very different things, for we understand very little about nature. Even the most exact of our exact sciences float above axiomatic abysses that cannot be explored. It is true, when one’s reason runs a fever, one believes, as in a dream, that this understanding can be grasped; but when one wakes up and the fever is gone, all one is left with are litanies of shallowness.

In our time, so-called laws of nature are being fabricated on the assembly line. But how often is the regularity of these “laws of nature” only the reflection of the regularity of the method employed in their formulation! Lately, many tricks have been discovered about nature; but these tricks seem to have been specially produced by nature for the imbeciles to find out; and there is no Maimonides to guide them out of their confusion. In other words, science is still faced with the age-old predicament, the lack of ultimate verification. It is written in the Analects of Confucius (XII, 19): “The Master said, Heaven does not speak.”

Erwin Chargaff, The Silence of the Heavens (from Heraclitean Fire: Sketches from a Life before Nature).

THE FOREST AND ITS TREES

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Language, that most mysterious gift of humanity, is usually singled out as the one faculty that distinguishes man from animal. I could think of other less flattering differences; but at any rate it is true that language separates man from man, that it is the most faithful mirror of growth and decline. For instance, it has often occurred to me that as inconspicuous an event as the disappearance from English usage of the nominative pronoun of the second person singular, i.e., of “thou,” may have represented a greater upheaval for those concerned than many more famous revolutions. God, lovers, and letter-carriers are addressed in the same manner; the majesty of intimacy has given place to a polite remoteness; the indispensable ritual of changing from vous to tu has become the victim of a grammatical egalitarianism that has corroded the poetic core of the language.

Its lyrical labyrinths have been filled up and made useful for all purposes. After this happened, only the greatest of poets have been able to break through the utility barriers of a tired vocabulary.

There must, of course, have been reasons why this happened, but I am not eager to give, or ask for, an explanation. My long life in the midst of the explanatory sciences has made me tired of explanations. They are, except in the most trivial instances, a placebo for our reason, dulling us to the mysteries surrounding us, without which we could not live. Great as is my admiration for the modern concept of “biological information,” I do not, for instance, believe that it is some form of genetic change-the loss of a few purines from English DNA-that has caused the disappearance of the invaluable pronoun.

For this reason, and for many others, I look with great diffidence on the struggles between the various schools of modern linguistics: between what one could call molecular or Cartesian linguistics on the one hand and behaviorist linguistics on the other. Those who assume that the ability to form syntactic structures is born with us are probably correct. Does this mean that there are certain regions in our DNA that “program” us for the ability or, better, for the compulsion? I doubt it. Life is the continual intervention of the inexplicable. It is likely that we could learn more about the initiation of language from following the creation of a lyrical poem than from studying sentence structures. If the abrupt throwing of bridges above the dark abyss of the onset of human life, if the explosive formation of associations, in which sense and sound become undistinguishahle, make the great poet or the great wit, then the young child is probably both.

Although I have often said that, were I given a second life of learning, I should take up the study of language, I must say that I have always learned more about language from great writers than from textbooks. Unfortunately, few poets have spoken about words, since they very rightly did not consider them as tools. But there exist a few passages of great interest.

It is not accidental that in following the numerous hypotheses on the origin of language, which have been put forward in the last 200 years or so, one is constantly reminded of the more recent, and equally fruitless, discussions on the origin of life. The substitution of the experimentally provable “could-havebeen” for the experimentally inaccessible “has-been” is an old trick of pseudo-scientific prestidigitation that usually ends in calling “life” what is not life and “language” what is not language.

The attempt to define the undefinable, to achieve a retrogression into the origin of origins, will always end in the banal recognition that the experimental sciences are not historical ones and that they are even less philosophical than is presentday philosophy. Goethe, so often maligned by idiots in his capacity of thinker about nature, has said it once for all. It is the highest bliss for the thinking man to have explored what can be explored and quietly to worship what cannot. Even in this simple instance, there appears the predicament of the translator-traitor. All languages are equally rich, but not in convertible currency.

In the evening and at night, my friend Albert Fuchs and I often walked through the beautiful streets of Vienna, and we talked endlessly about writing: what made a text genuine, what caused a poem to be good. We distinguished between Aussage (statement) and Ausdruck (expression), and we concluded that only the genius could “express,” whereas any talent could “state.” Something of this distinction has remained with me, and I would still say that only what is “stated” can be translated, but not what is “expressed.” That is why Thomas Mann is eminently translatable and Stifter or Rimbaud are not.

There exist mysterious links between language and the human brain; and the heartless and brutal way in which language is used in our times, as if it were only a power tool in public relations, a shortcut from sly producer to gullible consumer, has always seemed to me the most threatening portent of incipient bestialization. It is frightening to observe that a progressive aphasia, not organically determined, appears to overtake large numbers of people who seem to be unable to express themselves except by hoarse barks and (undeleted) expletives.

Erwin Chargaff, The Forest and its Trees (from Heraclitean Fire: Sketches from a Life before Nature).

PHILOSOPHICAL IMPLICATIONS OF COGNITIVE LINGUISTICS

We experience objects as colored in themselves, even though it is now known that they are not. The neural system responsible for the internal structure of our color categories also creates for us the experience of color.

We experience space as structured by image schemas (as having bounded regions, paths, centers and peripheries, objects with fronts and backs, regions above, below, and beside things). Yet we now know that space in itself has no such structure. The topographic maps of the visual field, the orientation-sensitive cells, and other highly structured neural systems in our brains not only create image-schematic concepts for us but also create the experience of space as structured according those image schemas.

We experience time in terms of motion and resources, even though neither of those is inherent in time itself. Our metaphors for conceptualizing time in terms of motion not only create a way to comprehend and reason about time in terms of motion but also lead us to experience time as flowing by, or ourselves as moving with respect to time.

We experience the imbalance of an unrighted wrong. Yet the notion of justice as Balance is not part of an objective universe. The Moral Accounting metaphor not only provides us a way to conceptualize justice in terms of balance but permits us to experience unrighted wrongs as imbalance and the righting of wrongs as recovery of balance.

Our experience of the world is not separate from our conceptualization of the world. Indeed, in many cases (by no means all!), the same hidden mechanisms that characterize our unconscious system of concepts also play a central role in creating our experience. This does not mean that all experience is conceptual (far from it!); nor does it mean that all concepts are created by hidden mechanisms that shape experience. However, there is an extensive and important overlap between those mechanisms that shape our concepts and those that shape our experience.

There is an extremely important consequence of this. For the most part, it is our hidden conceptual mechanisms, including image schemas, metaphors, and other embodied imaginative structures, that make it possible for us to experience things the way we do. In other words, our cognitive unconscious plays a central role not only in conceptualization but in creating our world as we experience it. It was an important empirical discovery that this is true, and it is an equally important area for future research to discover just how extensive this phenomenon is.

We have evolved so that the hidden mechanisms of meaning produce a global experience for us that allows us to function well in the world. Our preponderance of commonplace basic experiences-with basic-level objects, basic spatial relations, basic colors, and basic actions leads us to the commonsense theory of meaning and truth, that the world really, objectively is as we experience it and conceptualize it to be. As we have seen, the commonsense theory works very well in ordinary simple cases precisely because of the nature of our embodiment and our imaginative capacities. It fails in cases where there are conflicting conceptualizations or worldviews, and such cases are quite common.

Because the mechanisms of conceptualization are hidden from us, those mechanisms are not included in our commonplace understanding of truth. But truth for a language user, in fact, is relative to our hidden mechanisms of embodied understanding.

A person takes a sentence as “true” of a situation if what he or she understands the sentence as expressing accords with what he or she understands the situation to be.

What the classical correspondence theory of truth misses is the role of human beings in producing the human notion of truth. Truth doesn’t exist without (1) beings with minds who conceptualize situations and (2) a language conventionally used by those beings to express conceptualizations of situations. Those conceptualizations required to produce the very notion of truth are themselves produced by the hidden mechanisms of mind. To understand truth for a language user, one must make those mechanisms of conceptualization visible. That is one of the central enterprises of cognitive science and cognitive linguistics.

This becomes especially clear in the case of metaphorical thought. The embodied correspondence theory of truth for language users allows us to understand what we ordinarily mean by truth in cases where metaphorical thought or a particular framing is used to conceptualize a situation. As we saw, when we conceptualize time as a resource-and live by this metaphor-then we experience time as limited resource that can be wasted or saved or squandered or used wisely. If we conceptualize a situation in terms of Time As A Resource, then it might be true that I wasted a lot of your time or that you squander your time, even though time independent of the metaphor is not in itself a resource.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the flesh : the embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought.