Category Archives: metastuff

Equinoctal meta-tation


It’s been a busy fortnight of explorations:

And then yesterday along comes email from John the Son with this challenge:

On the subject of cats in Sarawak, have you read [Paolo Bacigalupi’s] ‘the windup girl‘ it’s very evocative and the GMO cats are everpresent. I’m very curious of your perspective on this vision of southeast Asia in the somewhat near future. And of the tensions between the Malay and Chinese immigrants that are cited as a brutal(future) history in the book.
I remember you saying that each of the four groups thought the others were disgusting for different reasons: the Muslims, the Chinese, the Malay and the westerners…

into the answer of which is packed a vast morass of entangled Information. I did read The Windup Girl when it first came out, then passed the book along to my (much-missed since 2016) friend Hutch (whose Thai connections were deep), so I snagged it via Kindle and am reading it again to see what I might have thought before and what I think now.


John’s question dropped me right into Professor mode, to wrangling what I “know” and/or what I have thought I knew over a broad canvas, thinking about what I’d have to weave into any …explication… of the dimensions of a satisfying answer to the question. That’s great sport, in which I’ve lived for a good 55+ years—and which I should have lived in those 60 years ago days of Harvard /opportunities/, but needed then to (a) invent for myself, and (b) develop the requisite background to begin to practise. And of course I’m still learning how to do those things, and how to think about them.


That’s true for all of my Entanglements with subject matter

  • photography
  • music
  • geography/landscape
  • words
  • The Computer
  • food
  • curiosity [about things not already listed…]

…and so I’ve been exploring the Southeast Asia territory of my mental and bibliographic Catalog, to figure out how to set about providing enough of the relevant background to make a sensible answer (i.e., to Inform the Others Against Their Will). There’s a sequence to the exposition, starting with physical geography, ecology, at least a millennium of human demography, and then finally history… covering the whole of what JOM Broek has summarized as

an area of transit and transition … [with a long history of] foreign intrusions … culturally a low-pressure area … recipients rather than donors of culture … ethnic and political fragmentation—a kind of Asian Balkans.

There’s plenty to quibble over in that summary, but it serves to indicate the diversity that has to be accounted for, understood, and fairly characterized.


That’s a term-long class to even contemplate. But wouldn’t it be fun to … no, it wouldn’t, or rather YES it would but only in the imagination. No names, no pack drill, no papers to write and read, no grades to turn in.

So here’s the first page I wrote:

The first thing I’d say is how arbitrary the national boundaries of Southeast Asia are [essentially colonial legacy] and how complex ethnic identities are within each of the current-day nations. Labels like ‘Chinese’, ‘Malay’, ‘Thai’, ‘Burmese’, ‘Indonesian’ project an image of homogeneity within the labels that is at best false-by-oversimplification. There’s an interesting analogy to explore in the shadow theatre so widespread across Southeast Asia; another is the music of gongs, present everywhere as shimmering sound, but in both cases built on illusion: the shadows of the puppets are insubstantial, flickering, turned into narrative by the words of the puppet-master storytellers; the striking of gongs rendered musical and comprehensible as evanescent layers each of which is a pretty simple repetition of a pattern. Somewhere under those visual and aural realizations is a profound syncretism of … Hindu and Buddhist influences, Muslim notions, a Western European and Colonial imposition of “order”, bits of Chinese high and low traditions … and all of that overlaid on a persisting base of indigenous animisms—enormously complex worlds of spirits and ghosts and shamanic manipulations. Add a murky history of trade and gene flows, and natural and anthropogenic ecologies, and human entanglement with plant and animal life, and rising falling seas. And make it equatorial, and subject to annual monsoon/dry cycles…


And there you have the stage set. For next class, please read………

(at least two classes on rice… and there’s rubber… and oil palm… and and and)

Max Havelaar: Or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company

Agricultural Involution: The Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia

and so on.

early April

4iv2159x2adj

It’s been quite a month of photographic explorations on the St. George peninsula, with a gallery of Charming Manifestations (constructed near the end of March) and then several more Flickr Albums in the fortnight since.

The sands continue to fascinate:

3iv21015

Rapunzel:
3iv21016

two marvelously lissome dancers
with a portly Easter Bunny supporting:
4iv2108x2adj

and headgear reminiscent of Tenniel’s Duchess:
4iv2110x2adj


I am not much closer to an understanding of the meaning or significance of such legerdemain, but it seems to keep happening will-I-nill-I.

3iv21025x2adj

3iv21032x2adj

Addendum:
This just rolled in and I thought… well, why not? the Veil Nebula as imaged by the Hubble Telescope. I snipped out a portion and did the copy-flip-join thing to produce

Veil Nebula detail mirrored
which clearly shows a red-eyed Elemental (none too pleased, I think) in the center of the image.

Earlier today John-the-son sent a link to a Scientific American article Confirmed! We Live in a Simulation: We must never doubt Elon Musk again (Fouad Khan). The date is April 1, which may or may not be relevant, but here’s a bit of its bite:

Pretty much since the dawn of philosophy we have been asking the question: Why do we need consciousness? What purpose does it serve? Well, the purpose is easy to extrapolate once we concede the simulation hypothesis. Consciousness is an integrated (combining five senses) subjective interface between the self and the rest of the universe. The only reasonable explanation for its existence is that it is there to be an “experience.” That’s its primary raison d’être. Parts of it may or may not provide any kind of evolutionary advantage or other utility. But the sum total of it exists as an experience and hence must have the primary function of being an experience. An experience by itself as a whole is too energy-expensive and information-restrictive to have evolved as an evolutionary advantage.

…There is nothing in philosophy or science, no postulates, theories or laws, that would predict the emergence of this experience we call consciousness. Natural laws do not call for its existence, and it certainly does not seem to offer us any evolutionary advantages. There can only be two explanations for its existence. First is that there are evolutionary forces at work that we don’t know of or haven’t theorized yet that select for the emergence of the experience called consciousness. The second is that the experience is a function we serve, a product that we create, an experience we generate as human beings. Who do we create this product for? How do they receive the output of the qualia generating algorithms that we are? We don’t know. But one thing’s for sure, we do create it. We know it exists. That’s the only thing we can be certain about. And that we don’t have a dominant theory to explain why we need it.

So here we are generating this product called consciousness that we apparently don’t have a use for, that is an experience and hence must serve as an experience. The only logical next step is to surmise that this product serves someone else… The simplest explanation for the existence of consciousness is that it is an experience being created, by our bodies, but not for us. We are qualia-generating machines.

And John’s reply to my querulousness about qualia:

…why dismiss the grindings of imagination? when you tear things apart with symmetry or other challenging art, all kinds of interpretive possibilities suddenly spring up in the observer’s strained mind as it grasps for meaning and sees (for me) a vulture, a jackal, and a beetle stacked totem-wise gazing expectantly. You’ve become expert at tearing apart an image just so that it creates the most potential of interpretation, and another degree or so it would again collapse into baffling noise that is torment to the mind that seeks to grasp at meaning everywhere. And if we’re in a simulation, the possibility that that meaning created might indicate something greater or hidden significance being revealed seems all the more tempting, no? Rather than just flecks of mica rearranged by water.

verbal and visual

A week or so ago, in response to my pants people post, John-the-son asked this question, which I’ve been contemplating ever since:

I’m curious how you observe your thoughts… Like for a complex thought do you have to struggle to transpose it into words because it’s fundamentally an image?

I don’t have the answer to this, but it got me thinking about various domains I have elaborated and how the mind navigates them. How do my thoughts about music, for instance, realize themselves? How much of my anthropological thought is or has been geographic/ecological, couched in terms of numbers and distributions (which seem fundamentally imagistic). And then what of the familiar experience of waking up with words that need to be written down, and that then unfold into texts (these days often on yellow pads, then transferred into .txt files). The process of writing out my wordly thoughts is an essential part of clarifying and then making them distributable: the old “How can I know what I think until I see what I say?” keeps coming back, but with that verb see at the core. Evidence again for the visual? But much of my thinking does seem to be verbal, a cascade of words, rather than images that require to be translated into the medium of words in order for them to be expressed, recorded, transmitted, distributed.

My presumption has been that thinking is verbal, and trying to imagine what visual thinking would be like calls upon pattern and form in their visual plumage. And is perhaps exactly what I’m employing as I stalk the spaces at Drift Inn and Marshall Point. There’s little there that seems to express itself verbally—rather, a recognition of a flow of imagery punctuated by non-verbal recognition of creatures, faces, personalities that I can collect without needing to name. A pattern recognized: eyes, noses, mouths, even in their splayed and warped Cubist configuration. And the more I practise, the more easily I resolve the patterns into versions of the face, often calling upon remembered images to help to parse what’s before me.

Surely I do see things in other things; Broot has said that my photographs “make something out of nothing” where hers are more abstractive, and “make nothing out of something.” I spend a lot of every day seeing things that then reside in my imagination, as readings of sensory input.

How to account for the differences in how Broot and I see the contents of my photographs? She ‘sees’ as I do probably less than 1/4 of the time—the creatures are REAL for me, in my imagination, but often they need to be elucidated, in effect drawn out, for her to ‘see’ them. Is this just a matter of practise on my part, or ‘just’ a manifestation of the Blackmer gene for whimsy? And is whimsy a matter of manipulating, of turning up previously hidden/unobserved facets, of turning things inside out, of treating analogies/homologies as if they could be manipulated to have other readings… and is that somehow a visual/imagistic transformation?

And what of Broot’s and Kate’s highly-developed puzzle-making skills (in which I scarcely participate), an exercise in pattern-matching, a quintessence of the visual? The notions of pattern and form have very strong visual components, and are at the core of Broot’s own photography.

It’s interesting that I sometimes have to revolve an image (while processing it) in order to ‘see’ what it contains, which I might or might not have discerned in the original ‘seeing’ that prompted the digital capture/shutter release. And the process of making mirrorings and tessellations is almost entirely a post-processing activity. The thing about mirrorings is that the beings in them don’t exactly exist, but they are nascent and potential in their seed images, and once created they take on a sort of life and identity that arises in the viewer’s imagination: they are synthetic and imaginary, but recognizable as other-dimensional beings who exude personality. And they are mostly looking right at the viewer, daring the viewer to assign character and identity. The paradox that they really are unliving rock (or ice or dead wood, etc.), while appearing to radiate personality or at least personhood, is a conundrum. Mere figments? Or emergent potentials of being?

10iii2133x2adj

The viewer assigns features: that depression is an eye because it looks one of the ways eyes can look. If there’s an eye there may also be a mouth, or an abstraction of mouth-ness; likewise a nose, an ear, a facial contour. The viewer reads the image as if those might-bes really are. There’s so much might-be and could-be, all of it exercises in fitting the perceived with handy templates, many of which are stored-up visual algorithms from a lifetime of image viewing. But how to fit Kian’s 7 1/2 year old view into the calculus? He has the beginnings of image knowledge, and he knows the fundamental eyes-noses-mouth face formula and can apply it wittingly, but he doesn’t have the images of Queen Victoria

5916detail
or Haydn/Bach
10iii2104
or the various Cubist unconstructions, not yet. So his “that’s like…” is in the early stages of accumulative development, and coming along very nicely.

My own highly-elaborated visual memory is a resource for naming images (often whimsically) with what I see, viz: the ‘nesting pair’ of long-billed creatures in this image:

11iii21011


Or consider the Cheshire Cat, in several manifestations:

7iii2158

10iii2140

23ii2104

DriftInn30xii48

Driveway ice

A skim of morning ice is the acme of ephemerality, catch it while you can. Here’s what I found soon after sunrise today:


28ii2105

My first thought was a mirroring, and it’s a nice enough image,
with the expected array of creatures:

28ii2105x2adj

And then I saw the familiar illusion in the northwest corner:

28ii2105crop



So how did it get there? Or was it even ever there, or was it just in my Mind’s Eye? Where did it go? Non-trivial questions.

And a bit later I discovered this in the southern end of the original image:

28ii2105crop2

The jury is still out on what it is, though I’m tempted to see it as a 1950s hood ornament.

Updates and evolutions

I just remembered another verse of Ken Stallcup’s wonderful anthropologist/linguist song, cited in a post last April and now updated with the missing bits included.


*****

But today’s post really has to do with a succession of images emerging from an original capture yesterday at Drift Inn. The raw version as it came from the camera (a broken fragment of sea ice floating above sand):

and as adjusted (vibrancy, clarity, sharpness) and uploaded to Flickr:
12ii21045

and then I saw a figure within the original, and cropped and rotated:

and eventually with minor adjustments it resolved to this:
5209cropadj

And then I wondered about that baleful yellow eye at the top, and did the by-now-familiar copy-flip-join to produce a mirror image:

13ii2104

And while we’re considering the experimental, a new perspective arrived yesterday in the form of a 10 mm fisheye lens that has no very serious purpose (or not yet, anyway) but does that thing of making me think differently about what I see via the medium of the camera. Among the experiments I tried was this:

meta

Now, that’s all very meta: a photograph of a photograph, and probably of no consequence… but another example of where the feet wander as one stumbles from thing to thing.

One more image from that lens, which has pretty startling quality for not much $$:

13ii2101
(click on that image to zoom in, and then click again…)

self/no-self

“I” (me, my, etc.) figures prominently in this blog and in the thinking that precedes the construction of an entry. This seems a fact to acknowledge, rather than a failing to expunge or an error to vitiate, and reflects the personal nature of its contents, which emerge as a catalog of mental states and doings and projects, mostly quotidian and only occasionally nudging into territory of the sublime or transcendent. The author is no Bodhisattva:

no Bodhisattva who is a real Bodhisattva cherishes the idea of an ego-identity, a personality, a being, or a separated individuality

as Dr. W.Y. Evans-Wentz puts it in his Foreword to the Shambhala 1969 version of The Diamond Sutra.

My citation of Minor White’s dictum

The photographer projects himself
into everything he sees,
identifying himself with
everything
in order to know and feel it better

All photographs are
self-portraits.

(which ended a post that followed a post on the Dude abiding, which itself harked back to discussion of the Convivial question of the previous week…) evinced this response from one of my Convivial interlocutors:

Which raises the question of the “self” if every _______ is a self-portrait. Assuming, of course, that there is a self. Or are there more than one “selves?” Nobody seems to agree on any of these possibilities.

Hm. I thought. Well, I’m a self, conscious of constructing myself over a lifetime, in continuing inner dialog that continues to be constructive, and aware that sometime it will all cease. But meanwhile it’s not an illusion, but rather a performance space in which various plays are enacted, alone and with others. I can be self-critical, self-absorbed, self-centered, self-involved… but those are choices made. I can also attend to the broader performances outside my own little theater of the mind, and choose to participate, or not. Choose to display and communicate, or not. Have close alliances with others, or not. Engage with external stimuli and events, or not. That choosing is done from within the wheelhouse of the mind, where attention may be directed as I choose.

And what’s the point of it all? It’s continuously interesting as a story with episodic complexities and pleasures/gratifications. My own performance space is happy, untrammeled, little bothered by slings and arrows of tragedy, suffering, dissatisfaction. In short, felicitous. Just why and how I’m not sure, perhaps more by “luck” and ultimately chance of the initial draw than by any inherent virtue, or any karmic head start.

I am at home in the Sensorium, attentive to Umwelt. The Dude abides.

I can imagine that there might not be “an ego identity, a personality, a being, or a separated individuality” just as I can imagine breathing into my toes, shoulder blades, etc., or that the rocks are peopled. It’s the imagining in which I take refuge.

All of that stuff emerges in the contemporaneous context of reading Madeleine Thien’s Poems Without an ‘I’ in the October 8th issue of NYRB, a review of 3 books on classical Chinese poetry, a subject in which I didn’t know I was interested. She avers that “The essential experience of Chinese poetry is all but untranslatable” (which set off a kerfuffle among linguists) and continues

the dimensionality of the Chinese writing system itself is akin to a forest we walk through (where the trees keep grouping and regrouping as we move among them), rather than a series of twigs arranged on a surface. Cheng observes that the writing system “has refused to be simply a support for the spoken language: its development has been characterized by a constant struggle to assure for itself both autonomy and freedom of combination.” To add to the constellations of meaning within any given poem, the disciplines of poetry, calligraphy, and painting are not considered distinct but rather facets of a single complete art.

Hinton notes that the Chinese language is not constructed around “a center of identity”; each time we see an “I” in a translation of Tang poetry, it was almost certainly not in the original text. Chinese grammar—a genderless and verb-tense-less system in which past, present, and future are inferred by context—allows for a complex blurring of subjectivities, which is not just a side effect but a fundamental aspect of the language. In Chinese poetry, fiction, and philosophy, the “I” is not the nerve center from which thought and knowledge begin.

The whole business of translation has amused me ever since high school Latin, and Thien’s characterization of David Hinton’s approach is elegant:

Hinton’s translations have always gone against the grain. He has been building, translation by translation, an English language for a Chinese conceptual world. His versions get closest to what makes Du Fu sublime for Chinese readers. He isn’t afraid to baffle us; the gaps remind us that we are only guests here, and that the poems do—indeed should—hover a bit beyond our grasp.

So does all this sort out the self/no-self question? Um, no, but it surely puts me on one side of the chasm.

the wind that obliterates

Now and again I discover something on my shelves that I’d forgotten about, or never really assimilated when I acquired it, and Light is Cast upon current concerns in unexpected and even downright magical ways. Today’s case-in-point is a strange and altogether marvelous book with two CDs: steve roden’s …i listen to the wind that obliterates my traces: music in vernacular photographs (1880-1955) (2011). The sort of thing that one acquires sensing its talismanic power and knowing it will never be seen again. The photographs are deliciously chosen and arrayed:



…and the sparse (and all-lower-case) text is incisive. The two CDs contain a very eclectic menu of remastered 78 RPM disks, many of which are new to me, and which complement the photographs brilliantly. And sure enough, YouTube comes through with a tantalizing peek:


But it was a chunk of text that really brought me up short, being a perfect distillation of things I’ve been thinking about collections, collecting, and collectors. Here it is, just as set down, lower-case and all:

*****

if you have this love of inconsiderable things and seek quite simply, as one who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: then everything will become easier, more coherent and somehow more conciliatory for you, not in your intellect, perhaps, which lags marveling behind, but in your inmost consciousness, waking and cognizance.

ranier maria rilke
letters to a young poet

of course, i too have sat alone many a night amongst a pile of books, a stack of records or a box of old photographs: conversing, organizing, arranging, connecting, disconnecting and listening to the voices of these inconsiderable things. in such moments i begin to form a world, seeing (or hearing) each thing shift from an individual star towards part of a larger constellation. when new paths between things are revealed, new images are formed, and the relationship of single objects to each other becomes more complex, more overwhelming and less defined.

as long as one is able to interpret and re-interpret the relationship between the objects on the table, the collection remains alive in one’s inmost consciousness, enabling the collector to make deep intuitive connections that leave the intellect to lag marveling behind, a collection should not have to conform to some overbearing logical and finite sense of completion, as much as it should have the potential to exist in a state of flux and evolution, a collection guided by openness is not afraid of imperfection, for an imperfect collection necessitates deeper questions than one which simply attempts to complete a checklist.

certainly one must have determined criteria for addition and inclusion, but th[ose] criteria should also be shifting and changing as old rules are allowed to be broken and new rules are allowed to be born. previously unsought discoveries should have permission to shift things, allowing the collection to be a conversation whose guiding principles can be built up and taken apart in the service of both expansion and contraction (as well as rigor, focus, obsession, passion and vision). building a collection should be a personal endeavor, where value is determined by the gatherer rather than by the marketplace.

the painter arthur dove said that everything an artist makes is a self-portrait, and i tend to think that most collections reflect a similar view. the best collections and the most visionary collectors bring objects together that do not necessarily seem comfortable with each other at first glance, yet upon deeper inspection there seemingly disparate parts reveal a consistency of thought rather than a consistency of form. such cases have the potential to reveal the complex inner workings of the gatherer.

*****

He’s got my number, sure enough. As has Minor White:

The photographer projects himself
into everything he sees,
identifying himself with
everything
in order to know and feel it better

All photographs are
self-portraits.

Lebowskiana

This post may be tl;dr for some, but seems a necessary attempt at summary for me, and may be useful to other Convivium participants who might still be puzzling over things I invoked in last week’s bout


Yesterday Betsy asked what did I mean in citing “the Dude abides” in answer to her “no-self” citation of the Diamond Sutra, in the continuing discussion over personal response to the question of how we severally think about The Big Picture. I fumbled an explanation along the lines of Here I am, I’m doing what I do and further cited the Kurt Vonnegut tagline “and so it goes…”. Unsatisfactory, and ever since I’ve been thinking about how to explain more fully.

Here’s how one explicator of the Vonnegut quote puts it: “the inexorable universe doesn’t care one whit about our lives and it’s up to us to make of them what we will… it’s just me and my mind making things up.”

(“And so it goes” appears more than 100 times in Slaughterhouse 5, each a reflection on a death observed.)

My impulse to make light of serious things, to resort to the cynical and sardonic, to voice extreme sentiments that exaggerate what I actually believe … is sometimes baffling and even hurtful to others, or at least confusing. This wants explication.

Perhaps I should be asking: whom do I really Respect and why and how? Kurt Vonnegut would be pretty high on the list, and his Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons would be a primary text, hot stuff from its very first pages and a distillation of his thoughts on self and writings. If you’re not already familiar with the titular terminology, Vonnegut explains:

A wampeter is an object around which the lives of many otherwise unrelated people may revolve. The Holy Grail would be a case in point. Foma are harmless untruths, intended to comfort simple souls. An example: “Prosperity is just around the corner.” A granfalloon is a proud and meaningless association of human beings… [a college class, viz. Harvard 1965, would exemplify]

I have a long history of wee-hours pondering, in which I’m awake at 3 AM, thinking in words and phrases that evaporate like dreams unless I arise and write them down. This morning’s iteration was spawned by the “the Dude abides” showstopper from this week’s Convivium—in which I said something that the others found Delphic, impenetrable, completely off the wall… being, as they were, unfamiliar with the allusion to The Big Lebowski, and thus completely at a loss to know what I meant. The 3 AM phrase that got me up and writing was a characterization of my state of mind in alluding to “the Dude abides” as my take on the Big Picture and how to characterize it:

frivolous, flippant, profane

and I soon added ‘transgressive’ to those three.

So now, a few hours later, I’m trying to unpack all of that, explain it to myself and perhaps to others, and make sense of the incident… which will take us pretty far afield, for who knows what constructive purpose.

The Wednesday evening Convivium sessions (these days conducted over Zoom) are, so it seems to me, opportunities for 4-5-6 of us to explore how we see, interrogate, and experience the world… which may not be what my interlocutors think/perceive/wish. Generally they seem to me to be of the Spirit and the spiritual to a greater degree than I think I am. I have a pretty agnostic view of Spirit and spiritual for myself, but am thoroughly willing (I hope, or maybe wish) to cut others slack in their own conceptions and practices.

As I’ve said rather tiresomely, I take refuge in projects and explorations, defined by a lifetime of exploring edges and interstices, of finding the joke and exploring the significance of the preposterous. There: ‘exploring’ 3 times in one sentence. It’s what I do. Why, and whither, and whence I only barely understand. Occasionally I encounter others of similar proclivities, and some of those have been lifelong friends.

For many years (at least since the late 1960s) I’ve considered that I was engaged in Nacirema and Naidanac studies, which specialty is ultimately inspired by Horace Miner’s Body Ritual among the Nacirema (American Anthropologist 1956).

…According to Nacirema mythology, their nation was originated by a culture hero, Notgnihsaw, who is otherwise known for two great feats of strength – the throwing of a piece of wampum across the river Pa-To-Mac and the chopping down of a cherry tree in which the Spirit of Truth resided…

The documents of this backwater of anthropology include many films that could only be American (there are films that could only be English, or Swedish, or French, etc.—that have contents and characters that simply are not thinkable as American). Translation across cultural boundaries is perilous, as exemplified by [perhaps] well-meaning efforts to translate dialog. Yesterday I watched The Big Lebowski with French subtitles, which obscured about 90% of the humor as it would be appreciated by a native speaker. “Dude” is glossed as “Mec”, for example…

So the immediate problem is to explicate what I see in The Big Lebowski, why I regard it as “one of the best…”, why I’m gobsmacked that everybody doesn’t know it for the cultural icon I believe it to be, and so eventually to arrive at why I cited “the Dude abides” as my own take on elements of The Big Picture. I do have to recognize that some of this is, as we say, non-transitive—it may not be explicable/understandable to others, and my take may reduce in their perception to another example of oook’s frivolous, flippant, profane stance toward the sublime and numinous, toward what really matters. So it goes, to invoke Vonnegut again.

I think a substantial element in my Umwelt (“self-centered world”—a coinage of Jakob von Uexcüll [1909]: “the small subset of the world that an animal is able to detect“) arose from/in California 1956-1961. Just how might be discoverable via introspection, but the details are for another time. The notion that fictional characters in literature, in films, in songs, in visual imagery can encode and express verities is surely at the core of what California taught me in those years, and is obviously the bedrock of the movie industry. The Sam Elliott character who NARRATES The Big Lebowski is obviously a necessary/essential fabrication; and the Dude may be, as Sam Elliott says, “a man for his time and place”… We enter a world of total fantasy, populated by preposterous characters who nonetheless REFLECT realities we recognize as possible, plausible. Walter Sobchak is a Type; Maudie and the Big Lebowski himself and the other goofballs who populate the film are not without some relation to reality. Or Reality. Julianne Moore [Maude Lebowski] puts it thus:

I feel like we all kind of know people like the Dude, or have known people like the Dude in our lives, this whole idea that the Dude abides. He’s always there, always doing his thing. There is something about him that is straightforward and honest, and he is who he is. And he’s hung onto that, you know? He hasn’t been deterred by time changing.
(I’m a Lebowski, You’re a Lebowski: Life, The Big Lebowski, and what have you, pg 40)

It’s the preposterous that makes the film memorable, that captures our attention in every scene. NB other books: The Abide Guide: Living Like Lebowski, The Dude De Ching: New Annotated Edition, and The Tao of the Dude: Awesome Insights of Deep Dudes from Lao Tzu to Lebowski, all by by Oliver Benjamin…

But would I read the film in that way if I hadn’t been transported from New England sensibilities in 1956, at age 13, and immersed in Southern California for the next 5 years? And if I hadn’t spent another formative 5 years in the Bay Area, 1967-1972?

Question continued

I’m finding Sheldrake’s Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures to be another of those mind-bending immersive reads, right up there with Powers’ Overstory and Pollan’s How To Change Your Mind and Popova’s Figuring and Macfarlane’s Underland in sheer power as a mind expander. I’m reading and listening both (Kindle and Audacity), and finding the two modes of access to the text to be synergistic. Yesterday I read the chapter about lichens, and wrote down some thoughts not-irrelevant to the Question of Questions that Puzzle and Inspire:

We habitually take some things to be stable, to be established fact: the Big Dipper is a Structure in the Firmament, a north-pointing icon for humanity throughout the northern hemisphere … and likewise we have the conviction (from high school biology) that a lichen is “a fungus and an alga” in simple symbiosis. These are both ‘true’ and ‘untrue’ when examined/questioned beyond the simple versions.

The Big Dipper is only a “structure” in our collective Mind’s Eye, as viewed from our terrestrial perspective. The component Stars (Alioth, Dubhe, Merak, Alkaid, Phecda, Megrez, and Mizar) are vast 3-D and 4-D distances apart, and are, as we experience their placement, only temporarily conjoined as a part of the “constellation” we name as Ursa Major (in a few million years they will seem to drift off in different directions).

And research in the last 5 years or so has established that lichens are far more complex than that cartoon of a ‘simple’ fungus/alga symbiosis, and involve co-symbiont bacteria and viruses as essential components. “We have yet to find any lichen that matches the traditional definition of one fungus and one alga” is how one lichenologist summarizes the current thinking.

This shouldn’t be a surprise, given the common knowledge that our own bodies contain symbiont bacteria (and viruses, come to that), and the insight usually ascribed to Lynn Margulis [who was married to Carl Sagan, once upon a time (1957-1964)] that eukaryotic cells are the evolutionary product of symbiotic mergers of bacteria (“…the theory that cell organelles such as mitochondria and chloroplasts were once independent bacteria…”). Once a Heresy (“Your research is crap, do not bother to apply again”), this idea is now regarded as Fundamental, having been conclusively demonstrated in the early 1980s via DNA evidence.

Some highlighted passages from Sheldrake:

Page 93
LICHENS ARE PLACES where an organism unravels into an ecosystem and where an ecosystem congeals into an organism. They flicker between “wholes” and “collections of parts.” …
Lichens are a product less of their parts than of the exchanges between those parts. Lichens are stabilized networks of relationships; they never stop lichenizing; they are verbs as well as nouns …
lichens don’t contain microbiomes. They are microbiomes, packed with fungi and bacteria besides the two established players.

Page 95
“The human binary view has made it difficult to ask questions that aren’t binary,” he explained. “Our strictures about sexuality make it difficult to ask questions about sexuality , and so on. We ask questions from the perspective of our cultural context. And this makes it extremely difficult to ask questions about complex symbioses like lichens because we think of ourselves as autonomous individuals and so find it hard to relate .”

…it is no longer possible to conceive of any organism—humans included—as distinct from the microbial communities they share a body with. The biological identity of most organisms can’t be pried apart from the life of their microbial symbionts.

Page 109
the study of symbiosis reveals that life is full of hybrid life-forms, such as lichens, which are composed of several different organisms Indeed, all plants, fungi, and animals, including ourselves, are composite beings to some extent : Eukaryotic cells are hybrids, and we all inhabit bodies that we share with a multitude of microbes without which we could not grow, behave, and reproduce as we do.

Continuing some of those thoughts, and encountering others:

The world with which we are entangled is not and has never been STABLE, nor has it been on some Whiggish trajectory toward improvement, let alone progressing toward any goal that we can conceive. And we are not the “Crown of Creation” except in our own Narcissistic reflected vision. So how shall we come to see ourselves as part of, as actors within, the vast terrestrial webs of Life? Our prime relationship to that complexity seems to be HUBRIS, acting on the basis of a tacit conviction that we are the Crown of Creation, and that the rest of Life is somehow our servant, subject to our command.

Via science, we’ve sought to unravel the complexities, to learn how Life works. And the further into the mysteries we proceed, the greater are the complexities we encounter. And the greater are the consequences of our hubris.

Sometimes Life deals out corrective lessons, and COVID-19 is a current example, the personal and societal and global consequences of which are only beginning to unfold—and it’s just a dress rehersal for The Big One, which will surely arrive but in what guise we can only guess.

So a perennial question for me concerns Entanglement, its complexities, dimensions, opportunities: how to map, engage with, appreciate, enjoy, traverse…

With respect to activities of the moment, but metaphorically extendable: we put seeds into the ground and await germination, but really it’s much more than that. The plant has to develop relationships with mycorrhizal fungi IN the soil in order to thrive. Mutualisms emerge which we neither see nor control.

Convivial Question

What are the Questions that puzzle and inspire?

This doesn’t need an answer so much as it focuses one’s attention on what the Mind is doing, is working upon in the background of consciousness. Thus, it makes a good Question for each of us to consider and perhaps respond to in the familiar idiosyncratic and free-associative fashion. Consciousness is always busy processing sensory input, appreciating the seen and heard and felt and tasted. But what’s going on beneath? Are the three wonderments described below the SAME in some sense? Are they all entangled in the perennial Question of how complexity and dynamical systems work, perhaps? We are clearly off the fairway, into the weeds, the rough, the unknown. Where I love to be wandering, if the truth be told.

So here’s a sketch of my own current state, made up of Questions emerging from the stimuli that have drifted across the bow in the last few days. We can begin with the observation of many many thousands of tiny orange ants in the soil I’ve been sifting from the sod that was stripped from the garden space. What, we wonder, are they doing? Where do they fit in? Is there some mutualism with the co-occurring worms, and/or with unseen other somethings? How could we learn more? [partial answer: a soon-to-arrive Field Guide to the Ants of New England].

A second element is this video of “7 levels of jazz harmony”:

which may at first blush seem to have nothing to do with orange ants, but addresses elegantly and most provocatively a [very] long-running puzzlement over just what happens in jazz, and spawns various hatchings of plans to explore further.

And a third element in temporal conjunction with the two above is the just-published and just-arrived (via Kindle and Audible) Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake [who is, remarkably and synchronistically enough, the son of Rupert Sheldrake, of Morphic Resonance fame], which I started to read this morning.

Here are the passages I highlighted as I read the Introduction, to illustrate my habitual process of collecting bits of aide mémoire, breadcrumbs along the pathway:

Introduction: What Is It Like to Be a Fungus?

Page 10
…[mycelia] weave themselves through the gaps between plant cells in an intimate brocade and help to defend plants against disease .

Page 11
Mushrooms are a fungus’s way to entreat the more-than-fungal world, from wind to squirrel, to assist with the dispersal of spores, or to prevent it from interfering with this process.

Page 12
Mycelium describes the most common of fungal habits, better thought of not as a thing but as a process: an exploratory, irregular tendency.

Page 14
Unsustainable agricultural practices reduce the ability of plants to form relationships with the beneficial fungi on which they depend. The widespread use of antifungal chemicals has led to an unprecedented rise in new fungal superbugs that threaten both human and plant health. As humans disperse disease-causing fungi , we create new opportunities for their evolution.

Page 18
…many fungi can live within the roots of a single plant, and many plants can connect with a single fungal network. In this way a variety of substances , from nutrients to signaling compounds, can pass between plants via fungal connections.

Page 20
Tricked out of our expectations, we fall back on our senses. What’s astonishing is the gulf between what we expect to find and what we find when we actually look.

Page 23
Many scientific concepts—from time to chemical bonds to genes to species—lack stable definitions but remain helpful categories to think with.

Page 25
There was something embarrassing about admitting that the tangle of our unfounded conjectures, fantasies, and metaphors might have helped shape our research. Regardless, imagination forms part of the everyday business of inquiring.

Page 27
…wondered what it was like to be a fungus. I found myself underground, surrounded by growing tips surging across one another. Schools of globular animals grazing—plant roots and their hustle—the Wild West of the soil—all those bandits, brigands, loners, crapshooters. The soil was a horizonless external gut—digestion and salvage everywhere—flocks of bacteria surfing on waves of electrical charge—chemical weather systems—subterranean highways—slimy infective embrace—seething intimate contact on all sides.

I’ll also point to an article in this week’s New Yorker, The Secret Lives of Fungi by Hua Hsu, which references Sheldrake and also Anna Haupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, which I read with great pleasure last summer.