Category Archives: convivial

Oughts

This week’s Convivium Question came to me in this form:

? Where do YOUR ideas of how people ought to be come from ?

I think the foundations are laid well before adolescence, though surely influences and examples in teenage and after-years are significant as refinements and augmentations, and some people may experience basic changes at inflection points in later life–Road to Damascus conversion, or the discovery of Ayn Rand (ew…) … But the foundations are laid in ways that may be behind the conscious memories, and still be recoverable by thinking about, by examining evidence (for me that’s bookshelves and family photographs), some of which may be so well-buried as to remain inaccessible.

For some people it’s a matter of “learn from the teachers by negative example” as Mao said (“I’m NEVER going to be like her/him…”); for some it’s something that grows out of admiration, out of positive example. The child of mercurial parents, of a household suffused by anger, develops different expectations and coping mechanisms than the child whose early life is calm and nurturing. Imagine how somebody whose basic experience is being bullied would respond –say Donald Trump, or Prince Charles– or consider Queen Elizabeth, who learned DUTY from a very early age (this in the context of watching The Crown and The Windsors). And if Michael Apted’s ‘7 Up’ series isn’t in your repertoire, it SHOULD be: 7-63 Up.

And consider this from today’s Guardian:

Biographers have told how he was raised by his father to be a “killer” and regard losing as a sign of unforgivable weakness. The family attended a church whose pastor, Norman Vincent Peale, wrote the bestseller The Power of Positive Thinking with advice to “stamp indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself as succeeding.”

I assume that we build our own personalities on notions of ‘how people ought to be’, though perhaps not very consciously. And I do wonder if ‘ought to be’ is different from ‘expect to be’, and how. We might read the Question as seeking the origins of a personal set of desirable virtues: “How people ought to be” is really asking how one ought to be oneself, since (however much we might deplore it) mostly others aren’t going to be how I think they ought. But the point of the Question is to recognize the models and inspirations of one’s own life, to acknowledge from whom one has learned to be.

I look forward to how you may unpack your own experiences. Here are some of mine:

How the Mind works when left to Its Own Devices

I awoke thinking about Material and Immaterial Touchstones, and about Touchstones as property, as fungible, as shareable.

Becoming slightly more lucid, after first sips of coffee, I wondered why would it occur to my semi-waking mind to even consider Touchstones as legal entities, as assignable property? Aren’t they imagine-ary? Creations/creatures of the mind?

And by then fully awake, I realized that Touchstones are ways that the mind notes and labels Significance, such that one can make a mental map of things that matter, tantamount to personal wampeters

Reminder from Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (1963):
a wampeter is the pivot of a karass,
“a central element around which a karass
is formed, which can be practically anything:
a tree, a rock, an animal, an idea,
a book, a melody, the Holy Grail”

And just to remind anyone not with the Program already,

a karass is “a network or group of people
linked in a cosmically significant manner,
even when superficial linkages are
not evident”

A quick Google search for ‘karass’ gets 225,000 results, of which the third is my own 2004 explication, which is a subpart of something I wrote 16 years ago to the bloody DAY, and still find a clear and relevant summary, despite a few rotten hyperlinks! YCMTSU, folks.

Touchstones, Paragons, Epitomes, Archetypes: the Talismanic and Paradigmatic

warmed rock 2

‘Touchstone’ has come up a few times in our Convivial conversations, in the context of things/ideas [material/immaterial] of great personal significance. The term’s literal meaning refers to assaying and purity-testing of ore samples (“gold and silver was rubbed, or touched against black quartz — the touchstone — to determine the purity of the metals. This was done by looking at the color of the streaks left on the stone.” [Vocabulary.com]), and by extension “a basis for comparison; a reference point against which other things can be evaluated” [WordNet.com]). By still further extension, “A touchstone can be a short passage from recognized masters’ works used in assaying the relative merit of poetry and literature. This sense was coined by Matthew Arnold in his essay “The Study of Poetry”, where he gives Hamlet’s dying words to Horatio as an example of a touchstone.” [Wikipedia]). Thoreau takes it still further, and into territory we’ve traversed:

Dreams are the touchstones of our characters. We are scarcely less afflicted when we remember some unworthiness in our conduct in a dream, than if it had been actual, and the intensity of our grief, which is our atonement, measures inversely the degree by which this is separated from an actual unworthiness. For in dreams we but act a part which must have been learned and rehearsed in our waking hours, and no doubt could discover some waking consent thereto. If this meanness has not its foundation in us, why are we grieved at it? (from A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers)

The Question du jour arose while reading about books in two Guardian pieces, one by Philip Pullman and the other by Neil Gaiman. (I’ve snagged both texts, just in case they disappear from Guardian accessibility), and here’s what I wrote as a note-to-self:

There are books which seize us, to which we may return again and again to relive the pleasures and insights they provided, and often enough to discover previously unnoticed depths and messages. How many times have I read Tolkien, or Jan De Hartog’s Spiral Road, or Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles (still awaiting the unpublished third volume of the trilogy) or Trollope’s Barsetshire novels, or Delderfield, or Eric Ambler, or Manning Coles… and how many authors have I read pretty much everything by and kept in expectation of reading again (Pratchett, Gaiman, William Gibson, etc. …)

And here’s the Question as spawned:

=====

What are your TOUCHSTONE books? [and/or images, films, music… whatever]

  • by which you’ve been especially influenced
  • which mark turning points in life/understanding
  • to which you’ve returned repeatedly
  • which you would press on others

And more generally, what’s a TOUCHSTONE to and/or for you? (book or otherwise, point being to explore the meaning/significance of ‘Touchstone’ in your life).

=====

Here’s a nice elaboration of the term, placing it directly in Convivium territory:

The word touchstone has several meanings. In times past, a touchstone was a dark stone, such as basalt or jasper that was used to test the quality of gold or silver. From that came the more common meaning, that of a reference point from which to evaluate the quality or excellence of something.

A touchstone can be a personal symbol or emblem that represents your dream and that helps you to stay on track and stay true to your vision. Throughout the centuries, indigenous people on every continent have used ‘medicine bags’ in a similar way. … The term ‘medicine’ in this context refers to anything related to the spirit world, Medicine bags provide guidance, healing and protection for their owners. The bags or pouches can be leather, are often decorated with beads, and contain items such as quartz crystals, feathers, plants, or shells. The items in a medicine bag represent the wearer and are often gathered as part of a vision quest.

Your own touchstone or ‘medicine’ should be something meaningful to you, something that has special significance or resonates with you. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of finding a small item, perhaps a rock, leaf, flower or shell that seemed to be just waiting for you to pick it up and carry it home. Then when you get it there you have no idea what to do with it. Such a finding might become your touchstone.

(from Future Pull)

Speaking for myself, I recognize a pretty broad array of literal and metaphorical Touchstones—the literal ones in actual rocks collected for their personalities and beauty, and the metaphorical ones being some sort of epitome, some sort of representation of an ideal or crystallization of value or memory. This reading might be easiest to convey in photographs that seem to operate as personal Touchstones, as epitomes of what I most value in the medium, to which I’ve returned again and again. Some are completed thoughts, as in Paul Caponigro’s “there’s a horse in that one” (his comment when I told him that the image had changed my life)




while others relate more to the puzzles and uncertainties, as in Imogen Cunningham’s Leaf Pattern

or Minor White’s abstract Moenkopi rocks
These are Touchstones for me because they stick firmly in the mind and embody some insight that I gained when I first saw them, some undertanding of photographic design. But transitivity isn’t necessarily a part of this: one person’s Touchstone is another’s enigma, or ho-hum. A Touchstone is intensely personal, something that comes alive in the mind of a person and might be shared with others, or not.

I also have a wide-and-deep array of musical Touchstones, some going back to my youth and others discovered only yesterday. The earliest seems to be the first Allegro from Bach’s Concerto for 3 harpsichords, strings and continuo (BWV 1064), which I remember hearing while lying under the piano, via a 78RPM record. And then just yesterday I heard Pat Conte’s Half Shaved for the first time, and it immediately joined the Canon.

And needless to say there’s been a long succession of touchstone films, The Big Lebowski prominent among them.

And so it goes. Whaddya got?

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.

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?

Convivial Question

Almost the first thing I saw this morning was this poem (via Amanda Palmer, who got it by email from Maria Popova):

THE BIG PICTURE
by Ellen Bass

I try to look at the big picture.
The sun, ardent tongue
licking us like a mother besotted

with her new cub, will wear itself out.
Everything is transitory.
Think of the meteor

that annihilated the dinosaurs.
And before that, the volcanoes
of the Permian period—all those burnt ferns

and reptiles, sharks and bony fish—
that was extinction on a scale
that makes our losses look like a bad day at the slots.

And perhaps we’re slated to ascend
to some kind of intelligence
that doesn’t need bodies, or clean water, or even air.

But I can’t shake my longing
for the last six hundred
Iberian lynx with their tufted ears,

Brazilian guitarfish, the 4
percent of them still cruising
the seafloor, eyes staring straight up.

And all the newborn marsupials—
red kangaroos, joeys the size of honeybees— steelhead trout, river dolphins,
all we can save

so many species of frogs
breathing through their
damp permeable membranes.

Today on the bus, a woman
in a sweater the exact shade of cardinals,
and her cardinal-colored bra strap, exposed

on her pale shoulder, makes me ache
for those bright flashes in the snow.
And polar bears, the cream and amber

of their fur, the long, hollow
hairs through which sun slips,
swallowed into their dark skin. When I get home,

my son has a headache and, though he’s
almost grown, asks me to sing him a song.
We lie together on the lumpy couch

and I warble out the old show tunes, “Night and Day” . . .
“They Can’t Take That Away from Me” . . . A cheap
silver chain shimmers across his throat

rising and falling with his pulse. There never was
anything else. Only these excruciatingly
insignificant creatures we love.

*****

YES, I thought, the Big Picture. Step away from the personal, from the “wee little whimpering…” Ego, from the ephemerality of one’s own existence and Point of View… Imagine the ultimate, try to PICTURE it. Is it OUT there? Is it IN there?


Where does your understanding of the Big Picture find itself?
You may experience proddings that bear somehow upon this Question
but aren’t primarily visual.
You may even be inspired to cast that understanding
into a poem or a pointer to something lately read or seen…

Because I’ve been so engaged with images as we prepare to hang our joint show, my own imagining arrived as a set of photographs (mostly from the last few months) which exemplify my own conceptions of the Big Picture. They await your engagement below.


Shubenacadie sediment

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21ix2040

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29viii2011

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6i202011

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Addendum: my morning notes on those 14 images


Senses

Here’s a book I should have encountered years ago (first published in 2013) but only read (well, listened to via Audible) this last week:

On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes by Alexandra Horowitz

Two more ways in to its content: a posting by Maria Popova gives a typically excellent entrée:

…and there’s a video of Horowitz talking at the New York Society Library:

The book is a narration of city walks with 11 different expert sensers:

  • toddler
  • flaneuse
  • typographer
  • geologist
  • field naturalist
  • wildlife scientist
  • diagnostician
  • physiotherapist
  • blind person
  • sound designer
  • dog

The book is wonderful for the detailed and ruminative descriptions of the perceptions and discoveries of the differently-abled lookers/sensers, and for focusing attention on the vastnesses we don’t notice, don’t sense.

Yesterday morning I was looking up at the barn’s roof boards, scanning as usual for faces. I’d seen and photographed this one before, but it was only yesterday that I saw it as a slightly cross-eyed or perhaps Cubist-rendered alpaca:

perhaps alpaca

My eyes are accustomed to seeing, sensing, faces where an objective observer would say there is no face, just a random pattern of light and dark that an over-fertile imagination reads as a physiognomy, a personality, a face-like rendering. But for me the sense of a presence is undeniable.

…and this brings into focus for tonight’s Question the Senses (seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, smelling… via eyes, ears, skin, nose, and mouth, the canonical “5 senses”). But it’s common to find extensions of the 5 (add proprioception, add emotions, add ratiocination, add imagination, perhaps others?). Arguably, all living things have “senses” that convey information about the environment—Horowitz’ example of the dog’s-nose view of the urban block is eloquent and immediately accessible: every tree and fire plug alive with messages.

And I look out the window to see several deer under the apple tree.

??what is the consciousness, the sensate state, of a deer eating apples?? Visually and aurally, in a state of extreme vigilance, alert for any movement; but drawn by the bouquet; entranced by the taste, returning day after day until the last apple has fallen, then moving on to the crab apple trees…

We each have a lifetime of sensory input stored somehow (holographically? fractally? in networks of synapses?) in our brains; our sensory apparatus AND that storage is a large part of what we know and who we are as individuals. But as Horowitz’s book shows so clearly, we miss so much of what happens in the world through which we move. We tune and hone for what we think important, and can develop fine discrimination; and we can shift attention between senses situationally. Indeed, we do it all the time.

An aesthetic sense finds pleasure in *the smell of bacon cooking, *the taste of a well-prepared dish, *the sight of a visual marvel (viz. the alpaca in barnwood), *the unique sound of a favorite piece of music… “aesthetic” is a vastly complex word: ‘sensitive, sentient, pertaining to the sense perception’.

And some pleasures come from the synaesthetic combination of senses, *the sound and feel of a plucked string, *the swirl of clouds with thunder in the distance, *the green smell just after a shower, any number of others one might name.


25viii2002

We live through our Senses, as do deer and dogs and butterflies and ants and anything else with processing capabilities… very likely plants as well. We are IN the world, participants with other living things in a vast dance, and, as Carl Sagan put it, our “star stuff” is recycled when its processing capabilities cease.

Each of the Senses has complexities that seem almost fractal—the further in you go, the more detail seems to manifest. Thus, with Taste we learned in high school biology that the tongue has receptors for salt, sweet, sour, and bitter… and, as it turns out, for umami (‘delicious taste’ in Japanese, receptors for glutamates first described by Kikunae Ikeda in 1908). But what’s a ‘receptor’? …a sensor for specific molecules …but how does that work? And with Sight, we know that there are rods and cones in our retinas, and black-and-white and color vision in different species, differential sensitivity to areas of the spectrum, and mechanics for focus, and multiple evolutionary versions of sensor systems (spiders, squid, vertebrates… though all involve opsins, “a family of photo-sensitive proteins”). For Touch there are specialized neurons for pressure, heat, vibration, proximity (think of the whiskers of cats and rats…). For Sound, sensitivity to different sectors of the audio spectrum for different creatures, ultra- and infra-. For Smell, vast differences in number of receptors—dogs have something like 50 times the number of olfactory receptors we have. And so on, for Senses beyond the first 5.

But where’s the Question in this?

I’m still working on it.

Ah. I think I’ve got it:

what would you wish to do with your senses? Which to augment? How?

Two examples inspire me in my response to this question, one very current and only available for the next few days:

a PBS documentary on Ursula K. LeGuin (https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/worlds-of-ursula-k-le-guin-full-film/11632/) that I’m in the middle of watching

and the freedom and inventiveness of Thelonious Monk:

contra Sherlock

Today I was listening to Stephen Fry’s reading of Sherlock Holmes as I walked, and was diverted by this bit of Holmes’ practical philosophy:

I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.
(from A Study in Scarlet)

This is just about the diametrical opposite to what I’ve thought all these years, the antithesis to my patron saint Hugh of St. Victor’s dictum:

Omnia disce,
videbus postea nihil esse superfluum

(Learn everything,
you will see later that nothing is superfluous)

(and see my Goals and Methods of Teaching as summarized 25 years ago)

It’s the curation of stuff that makes the difference between the lumber-filled brain-attic and the well-oiled engines of synthesis and retrieval to which one aspires. I (seem to have to) learn this lesson anew whenever I try to make sense of one of my collections, and each pass reveals new interrelations I hadn’t noticed or fully appreciated before.

Convivium: Attachment

This week I think I’ll try a different approach to posing a Question for Convivial consideration, stating it in its general form and then providing a backstory to how it arose and what I think about it. Here goes:

We’re told that Attachment is a fons et origo of Suffering, with the implication that we shouldn’t BE Attached, or should shed Attachments. Of course there can be Attachment to immaterial as well as material, to notions as easily as to stuff.

So on the one hand one might Ask: how to be/become NOT Attached?

But perhaps the more useful question to mull is: what are one’s own Attachments, what’s their history, how does one understand their importance in one’s life?

Personally, my consideration of this Question has led to the realization that I don’t wish to shed Attachments, but that I enjoy the active engagement with their curation, with the working out for myself of those Attachments’ designs and architectures. This won’t surprise anybody who has been following along, nor will the scope of convolutions and serendipities that are the background to its posing.

Here’s how the Convivial Question-making seems to unfold: I’m reading in one or more books, attending to their main threads, and up pops a Relation to something we’ve discussed before—often quite tangential, but pointed enough to get written down, and thus to provoke further wondering. Other books come off the shelves, google searches may ensue, bits of summary of findings and thoughts get written down, and so it goes.

The impetus for today’s Question was a story from the New Yorker’s Annals of Gastronomy, 2 August: How a Cheese Goes Extinct, By Ruby Tandoh

…By July of that year, the farm ceased production, and Holbrook’s cheeses—Old Ford, Cardo, Sleightlett, and Tymsboro—slipped out of the living tradition and into the pages of history. A cheese is just one small piece of the world—one lump of microbe-riddled milk curds—but each is an endpoint of centuries of tradition. Some disappear for months or years; others never return. The cheesemonger and writer Ned Palmer told me that, when a cheese is lost, “Your grief reaches back into the past—into decades and centuries and millennia of culture. You feel all of that.”

When you talk with cheese aficionados, it doesn’t usually take long for the conversation to veer this way: away from curds, whey, and mold, and toward matters of life and death. With the zeal of nineteenth-century naturalists, they discuss great lineages and endangered species, painstakingly cataloguing those cheeses that are thriving and those that are lost to history. In his classic The Great British Cheese Book, from 1982, Major Patrick Rance—a monocled founding father of modern British cheese—intersperses his tales of surviving regional cheeses with obituaries for those that never made it so far, going as far as to describe their disappearance as extinction. Under “Extinct cheeses of the Midlands and East Anglia,” Rance pays his respects to a lost Newmarket cheese, “a 40lb marigold-coloured cheese,” pressed under cloth and rubbed with salt and cream, the recipe for which was unearthed in a 1774 housekeeping manual.

The cheese story ties in with ongoing reading of Alexander Langlands’ Craeft: An Inquiry Into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts, one aspect of which is (on my part) a rather romantic engagement with (indeed, an Attachment to) technologies and lexicons of the past, and with the mysteries of Mastery of materials and processes, which may be (at least for me) anchors to windward against the storms of the Modern that perpetually threaten to swamp us. Among other books in this ilk are Robert Persig’s perennial and always-worth-revisiting Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values (which first appeared in 1974) and Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (2010). And Glassman and Fields Instructions to the Cook: A Zen Master’s Lessons in Living a Life That Matters traverses much of the same territory.

I have a 50+ year engagement with the history (well, histories) of technology, broadly defined and ranging from poky sticks and string and rock-smashing through all manner of materials and mechanisms and clevernesses, all the way to today’s frontiers with nano-scale materials. All of this territory is of the mind, and wanders through human proclivities and imagination and dexterity and inventiveness, and not excepting mistakes and unforeseen consequences. A lot of territory, and spangled throughout with the by-now-familiar assemblage of this-and-that from reading and chance encounter and excavations of past enthusuasms and lines of inquiry… it’s what I do. Two extended examples from the past:

  • At the behest of this line of inquiry, yesterday I quarried a 1991 project from the archives, a design for “A Reference Collection for the Executive Offices of the Society for the History of Technology” that I produced for a Library School course taught by Jay Lucker, who was MIT’s Librarian. The first 10 pages read well even 29 years later and after a vast upheaval in the library world, and Jay Lucker’s comments warm the heart. The 434 items listed and annotated would provide several lifetimes of reading…

  • See also my Technology weblet, built before there were blogs and illustrating my approach to distributable digital note-making of 20+ years ago: the 1998/1999 scheme for a History of Technology course at Washington and Lee. See also electronic version of the Syllabus and notes for my presentation on the course to the Virginia Collegiate Honors Council, September 1998. There’s probably a lot of linkrot, but the implicit method is clear enough.

Uncertainty

Last night’s Convivium question, posed by John McIlwaine: how do you deal with Uncertainty?

I didn’t have a very coherent response, but did sputter out something about trying to learn more to reduce uncertainty, seeking to understand factors in play, and I referenced a New York Times story on Argentinian weather extremes which offered this condensation of factors in the uncertainty of giant storms:

Every storm is composed of the same fundamental DNA — in this case, moisture, unstable air and something to ignite the two skyward, often heat. When the earth warms in the spring and summer months, hot wet air rushes upward in columns, where it collides with cool dry air, forming volatile cumulus clouds that can begin to swell against the top of the troposphere, at times carrying as much as a million tons of water. If one of these budding cells manages to punch through the tropopause, as the boundary between the troposphere and stratosphere is called, the storm mushrooms, feeding on the energy-rich air of the upper atmosphere. As it continues to grow, inhaling up more moisture and breathing it back down as rain and hail, this vast vertical lung can sprout into a self-sustaining system that takes on many different forms. Predicting exactly what form this DNA will arrange itself into, however, turns out to be a puzzle on par with biological diversity. Composed of millions of micro air currents, electrical pulses and unfathomably complex networks of ice crystals, every storm is a singular creature, growing and behaving differently based on its geography and climate.

With so many variables at play, it became apparent to modern meteorologists that predicting storms required sampling as many as possible. The perfect repository, as it turned out, existed in the Great Plains, where many of the world’s most dangerous storms are born. Here, in the spring and summer months, moist air off the Gulf of Mexico pools with dry air from the Arctic and southwestern deserts, which is all then corralled by the Rocky Mountains, forming a massive eddy. For meteorologists, this sustained volatility has made the plains the de facto national laboratory, where about 30 National Weather Service offices, tens of thousands of private radars and weather stations and hundreds of airports are sampling the air conditions before, during and after storms. Each sample, whether taken by radar or wind gauge, is a snapshot of that particular storm’s behavior and composition — such as air density, pressure, temperature, humidity and wind velocity — providing meteorologists a profile to look for in the future.

As often happens, I awoke this morning with a conversation in mindspace, this one having to do with the dynamics of Complex Systems, and the phrase

limn contingencies

floated to the surface. And that’s what I often find myself trying to do: sketching causations, incorporating stochasticities, tracking implications, assessing dependencies, always with an eye to the random, but rarely with a sense of arriving at a final solution. More an ever-growing appreciation for the ineffabilities of real-world complexity, with a soupçon of Micawberian “Something Will Turn Up!” … but I have to confess that another reflexive response to uncertainty is to make light, seeking irony or other embedded humor —the sardonic, the cynical, the parodic. Such responses are amusing, but hardly constructive.

Wende mentioned a heightened sense of perception (in a side conversation re: cataract surgery and other eye things), which fitted well with another set of thoughts that had been in the background recently, in the context of rediscovery of old favorites in the vinyl archive, and a consequent engagement in the vastnesses of my digital music files. The phenomenon of enhancement by new affordances (an upgrade to the viewing experience via a new monitor, or to ear quality via better speakers, or the effect on visual perception of new glasses) is familiar, as is the rapidity with which the heightened acuity becomes simply normal, until the next upgrade…

And so another Question spawned:

how can one revive the wonder once it becomes quotidian?

I think it’s largely a matter of direction of one’s Attention: the wonders are still there, e.g., the glories of the Milky Way when noticed on a clear night are pretty much eternal, but one’s mind may be otherwise employed. How is the mind to be reined in? In the words of H. Dumpty:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”