Saturday, 30 March 2013

Dancing withe Daffodils


I now see that, yes, consciousness as self-defined “I” is a necessary illusion. The patriarchal God of monotheist religions is an outward projection of this illusion. Or at least it is a clumsy-complex method of trying to shoehorn spirituality or loss of self into a self-centred universe. This idea of consciousness turns the human body into a kind of armoured vehicle out of which the “individual” data processing machine peers as it trundles through life. Our civilised culture is based on separation. My own frustration is that I have always found this process of viewing life as a separation a rather non-intuitive act that I have non the less persevered with rather too diligently out of duty to the monotheist God that was indoctrinated into my data processing system by table thumping RE teachers. Self-awareness is not an integral part of being human but it strikes me that books such as "I am a Strange Loop" discuss it as if it were. The idea of individual self became more defined and focused as enlightenment progressed and knowledge needed more and more categorisation. The wider and cheaper accessibility of the mirror to artists led to a proliferation of self-portraits and this melancholic self-reflection became the template for exploring an individual identity. Navel gazing? Where did I come from? It seems clear then that individual alienation comes from the all-pervasive emphasis our “culture” places on separation. Thus removing the far more natural option to be connected “ Then my heart with pleasure fills
And dances with the daffodils”.
This euphoric joined-up attitude of Wordsworth is regarded by the predominant separationist culture as something of a sideshow.
There is indeed a strange loop or paradox present in that the longing that haunts the Hamlet figure (existential angst anyone?) is a mourning for the passing of a time when we were not implicitly self-aware as humans – a time before separation took a hold of our consciousness and allowed it to be defined by this individual literary conundrum solving. Medieval man did not naturally think of him/herself as separate from others because the language of separation as not yet part of the invisible environment. Literacy and the printed word are key tools for reinforcing separation and they were available only to an elite body of people. The alphabet made of individually meaningless symbols did not shape culture as a whole. And so yes this idea of individual consciousness is an illusion but equally it is an invisible framework that defines our sense of being. One only needs to see how the conflict between the indigenous people of Australia and Captain Cook arose over the notion of possessions to see how civilised separation gives rise to an infinite swathe of moral dilemmas. There is a rather satisfying irony in his decision to name the point of landing Botany Bay after the samples that his botanist discovered there and no doubt carefully catalogued and ordered into separate categories.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Consciousness - Marcus du Sautoy at the Barbican



Marcus du Sautoy's interactive lecture at the Barbican started with a brief and playful conjecture illustrating the absurdity of the search for consciousness. He joked about the idea of cutting off his hand and whether consciousness might be found residing therein. In terms of "self" exploration it seemed clear that we seem to have remained in flat earth territory since Kant posited that consciousness was located in the pituitary gland. I have written several times (I think) about the obsession with dissecting as path to knowledge that the artists and scholars of the Renaissance rapidly developed and once more I find my self thinking that expecting to find the self by physically chopping up and analyzing the brain in smaller and smaller pieces will not lead to a deeper understanding. We need to make a leap of faith in order to cross disciplines or like children at a party in celebration of our own intelligence we will be left having unwrapped the pass the parcel frantically looking for the prize that dropped out but we somehow missed. Later on in the lecture he spoke about how the stomach has as many pathways as the brain but that these pathways are never seen to be electronically active. The brain in sleep he noted is similarly inactive or at least activity is reduced to a far smaller localized area. Does this mean that consciousness disappears in sleep? Or that consciousness is just as likely to reside in the stomach? It's a hunch. You see the language of chopping up takes us to the threshhold but doesn't open the door. This is fine if you are happy to look at the door as symbol of what it hides but if you want to go through then you need to engage some other kind of language. A language that is not symbolic. This clearly is why the lecture rather abruptly ended with an audio visual feast of trance music but the lecture and the music remained separate as if to illustrate the futility of trying to define consciousness within the context of modern scientific terminology alone.

      Blogging is a stream of consciousness. Isn’t it? Or is it a means of cataloguing one’s ever expanding collection of obsessions and references in order to get clicks from other people who are in an overlap on a Venn diagram somewhere in cyberspace? I’m not doing myself any favours here. I mean I have some hot shit to discuss. I’m typing as fast as I can in the hope that I will catch this hot shit before it disappears down the pan forever.
It all started (well okay there was no start as such but starting helps with explanations –is there no end to my pontifications?) with an article on how what made humans beings so inventive was the length of time it took for us to become adults. The length of human childhood was always longer than that of their Neanderthal cousins. This meant that they grew up having experimented and played in various ways. Neanderthals lacked the power of make believing which leads to visionary thinking. This got me thinking about what we are doing to our children now and by extension our species. We are making them grow up fast. Not in a nicotine villainous kind of way but in a “here is your training for adult life” kind of way. Schools know this is fucked up and use lots of phrases like ‘learning through play” to help us turn a blind eye to the fact that we are slowly but surely driving into a dead end. The point of school now is to prepare children for success in the adult system. End of. It’s interesting how we can look back thirty thousand years and think “boy we were great!” “The way we had such long childhoods that enabled us to experiment and rehearse the problem solving we would need to become a successful species!” But now things are different it’s as if all the ground work has been done so lets get on and enjoy how successful we are and forget about extending childhood. Let’s just treat childhood as a means of generating cash (telegraph reading parent’s child spends two grand on I-pad game appendages!!!) forgetting that in the mean time we are allowing machines and systems to shape our species and our sense of consciousness.
 This article is tucked away in the latest new Scientist (you’ll need to but it because it is viewable to subscribers only) and yet I think it has far reaching significance in terms of how we see ourselves and what we can do to like “make the world a better habitation”. We need to look to the long term. Let’s nurture a generation of problem solving socially interconnected children by allowing them to have a truly extended childhood instead of a target based odyssey where “playing’ is the spell check done right at the end when all the boxes are ticked. Now here is the part where my thoughts are swirling like tea leaves on the scum of a recently poured cuppa. I got thinking about loss of innocence. My conclusion was that this loss of innocence was no the eating of the apple but the turning of the apple into an idea of an apple. The other aspect of human culture that advantageous and missing almost entirely from Neanderthal culture was symbol-based creation. Right from our earliest times we have been a symbol based culture. We externalise ideas through objects. I tried to put this in the context of my own childhood. I have been told that as a small child I would unhesitatingly pick up grass snakes, frogs and all manner of garden wildlife. At some point these un-named things became ideas of things that represented danger and repulsion. Once things become ideas and symbols of things it is impossible to return to the prelapsarian state, rather one must devise strategies to enter a similar and agreeable state of being.
 So part of what makes us such a dynamic (deliberately neutral phrase) species is our symbol based culture. We seem to have sensed the poisoned chalice this offers from the beginning. The Garden of Eden myth is to my mind a symbol based projection of this dichotomy. Writers and thinkers have been mulling the limiting and potentially harmful side effects of allowing this to define us for centuries. Just off the top of my head I think of McLuhan, Wittgenstein, De Bord and Pirsig. In Pirsig’s case he is writing a fictitious account of a frighteningly scary university lecturer who rationally concludes that rationality alone cannot define the essence of being. There are divine passages in the book where we are introduced to the idea that all facts are subjectively arrived at through judicious selection. A scientist is never completely objective. The observer alters the results (google double slit test). I am inclined to satisfy myself with Mcluhan’s solution to all of this. He seems to say that rather than seeing the dilemma as either or we must content ourselves with having awareness of the problem and to submit to the vortex and allow it to carry us to the surface. Iain McGilchrist’s brilliant book The master and his emissary similarly suggests that the emissary (symbol based re-presented culture) needs to remember that there is a master (pre-intellectual holistic awareness).