Forget it

I really enjoy forgetting. When I first come to a place, I notice all the little details. I notice the way the sky looks. The color of white paper. The way people walk. Doorknobs. Everything. Then I get used to the place and I don’t notice those things anymore. So only by forgetting can I see the place again as it really is.

— David Byrne, True Stories (1986)

Looking back through my old notebooks, I find that many of the thoughts sketched in them are forgotten for years, and then revived and reworked as new. I suspect that such forgettings occur for everyone, and they may be especially common in those who write or paint or compose, for creativity may require such forgettings, in order that one’s memories and ideas can be born again and seen in new contexts and perspectives.

— Oliver Sacks, The River of Consciousness (Kindle Locations 1243-1246)

Sex, life and logic

Merleau-Ponty speaks of perception as the ‘coition, so to speak, of our body with things’. The phrase ‘so to speak’ marks this as a metaphor, but there’s more here than superficial wordplay: in English the idea of coition is linked to verbal as well as sexual ‘communication’ because we can use intercourse as a synonym for either one. The link between communication and communion is even more obvious. There is also a link between knowing and coition in the English of the King James Bible – ‘And Adam knew his wife…’ – which link is also implicit in the original Hebrew (Scholem 1946, 235). Likewise the reader’s intercourse with the sacred text can generate enlightenment, and the conversation with nature as scientific inquiry can lead us toward the truth about the universe. But as Charles Peirce observed, the problem of finding a sound method of inquiry can be difficult. In a 1906 essay, he used the metaphor of the two sexes and their intercourse to explain the Aristotelian concept of growth as a fruitful key to this problem:

The idea of growth,— the stately tree springing from the tiny grain,— was the key that Aristotle brought to be tried upon this intricate grim lock. In such trials he came upon those wonderful conceptions, δύναμις and ἐνέργεια, ὕλη and μορφή or εἶδος, or, as he might still better have said, τύπος, the blow, the coup.

— Peirce, EP2:373

The terms δύναμις and ἐνέργεια are typically translated as “potentiality” and “actuality” respectively; ὕλη is the term for matter, μορφή and εἶδος terms for form, in this distinction between two kinds of beings (which was basic to Aristotle’s ontology). But why does Peirce suggest that ‘τύπος, the blow, the coup’ might be a better term for the form side of this duality? The history of the word (including the English word “type”) is outlined in this 2018 blog post; but the Peirce essay quoted here uses the metaphor of sexuality to explain how τύπος is related to the key concept of ‘growth.’

Peirce does not mention here the Aristotelian term which he is translating as ‘Growth’, but probably it would be ἐντελέχεια, entelechy, meaning something like “full realization of potential.” This is an organic kind of growth, not merely increase in size or amount of anything. Peirce refers to it as ‘perfecting growth’ in his further development of the idea:

Let us lose sight of no side of it; Growth,—the idea,— the act,— the lifegiving principle.

One special feature of growth has always received great attention; yet its lessons are far from having today been completely learned. It is that growth cannot proceed very far until those elements of it which constitute the functions of the two sexes get well separated. The female function, the function of the seed, has always been recognized as the δύναμις. The female is the general and essential sex; the male merely executes a hunch, the τύπος of the μορφή. It is the principle of unrest. But do not forget that the seed needs to be left to itself to grow as far as it can alone, before the coup of fertilization disturbs it. In order that it could so have grown alone, and indeed, in low organisms have reached the height of their attained potentiality, the female must have had an admixture of the restless. Pure femininity is not to be found even in the nucleus of the crystal of alum quietly growing out of its evaporating solution. Pure femininity can be conceived in a general way, but it cannot be realized even in consistent imagination. As for pure masculinity, it is an absurdity and nonsense, vox et praeterea nihil.

Besides those two requisites of perfecting growth, there is a third, not implied in either of them, nor in both together. It is the congress of those two. It is something demonstrably additional to them. When this comes a new life begins.

Now apply these ideas to knowledge. Observe that this will itself [be] an act of copulation. There is nothing in the feminine conception of knowledge, nor in the masculine conception of sexuality, to prove that there will be any fruit for philosophy in bringing them together. An incomprehensible instinct urges us to it; nothing else.

The seed of knowledge is the mind, the field of available consciousness,— all that is present or that can be called up. The rude τύπος is experience. He who may not have felt quite sure of understanding why the entrance of the element of Form should be called [experience] will find enlightenment in thinking of the matter from this point of view.

— Peirce, EP2:373-4

To retrace Peirce’s steps, the process of cognitive Growth (i.e. learning by experience) requires the duality of Matter and Form. Matter is the female function, the potential, the capacity of mind to be determined (as the sign is determined by its object). Form is the male function, the experience impinging on the mind from the outside (the unknown), as the sperm enters the egg, to disturb and fertilize it (generating an interpretant). This ‘congress’ (conversation, copulation, coitus) of the two leads to conception of a new life as the disturbance is integrated into the sense-making mind. Semiotically, the ‘rude blow’ of experience determines the mind to a new interpretant, transforming the subject’s prior knowledge and thus inForming it.

This scenario for the process of inquiry maps easily onto our meaning cycle diagram, and has roots in Aristotle’s De Anima (412a 6-9):

We describe one class of existing things [ὄντων] as substance [οὐσίαν], and this we subdivide into three: (1) matter, which in itself is not an individual thing; (2) shape or form, in virtue of which individuality is directly attributed; and (3) the compound of the two.

(W. S. Hett translation)

This suggests Peirce’s three ‘elements of the phaneron,’ but in Peirce’s account of the cognitive process above, the brute blow of experience plays the role of Secondness, which thus corresponds to ‘the entrance of the element of Form’ (into Matter) rather than Form itself. Also, if we identify Form and the male function with Secondness, and the ‘congress’ of the sexes with Thirdness, that leaves the female (Matter) as corresponding to Firstness, which seems rather odd. These correspondences are neither complete nor exact, as Peirce reminds us by warning (above) that the functions of the ‘sexes’ cannot be completely separated, just as the elements of all phenomena are always intermixed to some degree.

Growth as a ‘lifegiving principle’ is implied in Aristotle’s definition of ‘life’ as ‘the capacity for self-sustenance, growth and decay’ (τὴν δι’ αὑτοῦ τροφήν τε καὶ αὔξησιν καὶ φθίσιν, 412b 14). Peirce frequently attributes both life and growth to symbols, which grow from the copulation of predicates with subjects, but rarely mentions decay in this connection. Perhaps semiotic or cognitive growth, for Peirce, shares the autotrophic or self-organizing characteristic of organisms, but the progressive nature of ‘heuretic’ science (inquiry) makes it oblivious to decay: members of the community of inquiry have to hope that the ‘perfecting growth’ of their knowledge will continue indefinitely rather than succumbing to decay or death as they themselves will. Why else would they devote their own lives to it?

Perhaps nothing but an incomprehensible instinct urges them to comprehend reality, or to die trying.

Invitation to Immanence

Last week, blogger and cultural critic Adrian Ivakhiv responded to my post on ‘Holocenoscopy’ with a post on his own Immanence blog which takes my own thoughts on the “Anthropocene” a few steps further. Since then most of my prime reading time has gone into his new book Shadowing the Anthropocene, which i bought and downloaded (PDF) from punctum books. It offers some fascinating insights, both theoretical and practical, on how we can live through these trying times. Also, being a lover of cinema, I’m delving into his earlier book Ecologies of the Moving Image.

Besides thought-provoking movies and the “AnthropoScene,”Adrian and I have several interests in common, including Peircean and process-oriented philosophy and an ecological perspective on things. His work strikes me as complementary to mine in that he is much more broadly acquainted with recent theorizing in the “social sciences” and “humanities” than I am, while my sources in Turning Signs incline more toward the “natural sciences” of biology, psychology, neuroscience etc. I don’t know how he will feel about my characterization of him above as a “cultural critic,” but it seems clear that we are both boundary-crossers in terms of the traditional disciplines, although (unlike me) he’s employed as an academic (University of Vermont). Anyway i find his work very refreshing and i’ll be exploring it for some time to come. I would recommend that readers of Turning Signs take a close look at his blog, at least.


And they leap so looply, looply, as they link to light.

Finnegans Wake 226

Symbols (and even natural or non-symbolic dicisigns as self-representing signs) are the semiotic equivalent, or mental manifestation, of the brain processes that appear as consciousness. This self-representation is a feedforward-feedback cycle like the meaning cycle. Thomas Metzinger explains:

In conscious visual processing, for example, high-level information is dynamically mapped back to low-level information, but it all refers to the same retinal image. Each time your eyes land on a scene (remember, your eye makes about three saccades per second), there is a feedforward-feedback cycle about the current image, and that cycle gives you the detailed conscious percept of that scene. You continuously make conscious snapshots of the world via these feedforward-feedback cycles. In a more general sense, the principle is that the almost continuous feedback-loops from higher to lower areas create an ongoing cycle, a circular nested flow of information, in which what happened a few milliseconds ago is dynamically mapped back to what is coming in right now. In this way, the immediate past continuously creates a context for the present— it filters what can be experienced right now. We see how an old philosophical idea is refined and spelled out by modern neuroscience on the nuts-and-bolts level. A standing context-loop is created. And this may be a deeper insight into the essence of the world-creating function of conscious experience: Conscious information seems to be integrated and unified precisely because the underlying physical process is mapped back onto itself and becomes its own context. If we apply this idea not to single representations, such as the visual experience of an apple in your hand, but to the brain’s unified portrait of the world as a whole, then the dynamic flow of conscious experience appears as the result of a continuous large-scale application of the brain’s prior knowledge to the current situation. If you are conscious, the overall process of perceiving, learning, and living creates a context for itself— and that is how your reality turns into a lived reality.

— Metzinger 2009, 31-32


My wife Pam and i recently visited the Art Gallery of Ontario to take in the Anthropocene exhibit. Anthropocene is the name proposed for the geological epoch in which we are now living, and though it has not yet been officially adopted by the international commission which has the power to do so, it’s becoming a household word. I’ve posted about it twice in the past year (you can use the search box on this blog to find those posts), but words can’t evoke the feeling of the Anthropocene as powerfully as the images in the exhibit and the feature film bearing the name. In this post i’ll focus on the name.

Infographic by Barr Gilmore, AGO: Anthropocene, p.39

The graphic above, taken from the book published by the AGO to document the exhibit, shows the Anthropocene as the epoch following the Holocene. But some sources use it as another name for the Holocene, or a subdivision of it. This makes a kind of sense because the Holocene is defined as beginning about 11,700 years ago, with the retreat of the glaciers from the last ice age, which was also around the time when humanity began to make its mark on the biosphere, especially with the new technology called agriculture. But why was this most recent geological epoch called the Holocene? It’s hard to see anything “holistic” about it, with all these humans messing up the planet.

According to Wikipedia, ‘the name Holocene comes from the Ancient Greek words ὅλος (holos, whole or entire) and καινός (kainos, new), meaning “entirely recent.”’ So the concept of “wholeness” is applied here adverbially, to modify the ‘-cene’ suffix which (with its Latinized Greek root) is etymologically related to recent. The habit of adding that suffix to the names of ‘recent’ geological periods was introduced by Sir Charles Lyell, who called the preceding epoch the Pleistocene, from the Greek superlative pleistos meaning ‘most.’ But when you have an epoch named ‘most recent,’ how do you name one that is even more recent? Lyell’s choice was Holocene, or ‘entirely recent.’

That pretty well exhausts the possibilities for naming a new geological period according to how recent it is. Anthropocene (‘humanly recent’?) is more informative than Holocene because it names the current epoch after its most remarkable characteristic: the collective impact of humans on their home planet. The idea is that geologists (of whatever species) studying the rock strata of the Earth hundreds of thousands of years hence will find a layer full of ‘technofossils’ and other traces of the human rearrangements of nature we are now making.

But there is another side to this ‘human epoch’: the same technology that is causing mass extinction of other species is giving us more, and more useful, information about our planet, its history, and its predictable future than we’ve ever had. With this predictability comes a new sense of responsibility. Now that we are aware of the unintended consequences of our past actions, it’s our global mission to revise our intentions and observe more carefully what happens when we try to carry them out. This is the only way we can harmonize and integrate anthropomorphic systems with the more inclusive natural systems of the planet.

The challenge is not so much technological as political, even spiritual. For instance, we have the technology to halt or possibly even reverse anthropogenic climate change, but so far lack the global common sense to make it a priority. It seems we’d rather put our energy into petty squabbles and paranoid schemes, judging from the leaders we’ve following lately. But if we could overcome this tendency and unify human practices for the common good of all life on Earth, maybe the Holocene could turn more holistic after all.

Speaking of the common, there is another Greek root Latinized as -cen- which is highly relevant in the Anthropocene. This one is derived not from καινός (“new”) but from κοινός (“common”). It’s the root idea of Cenoscopy, which bases itself on experiences common to all, and is closely allied to what Peirce called ‘critical common-sensism.’ Common sense in our time sees that philosophy, and even religion, ought to be working hand in hand with globally-based sciences such as ecology and climate science. Ironically, it’s the so-called “populist” politicians of our time, with their hate speech and antiscientific disinformation, who are working against the common sense that could save us from ourselves.


… and animals, both wild and tame, feeding in the air or on the earth or in the water, all are born and come to their prime and decay in obedience to the ordinances of God; for, in the words of Heraclitus, ‘every creeping thing grazes at the blow of God’s goad’.

— Pseudo-Aristotle, De Mundo (Περὶ Κόσμου), tr. E.S. Forster (Oxford, 1914)

In the original Greek of Heraclitus, as quoted here by the author of On the Cosmos, there is no “God” and no “goad”. A more literal translation of πᾶν ἑρπετὸν πληγῇ νέμεται would be “All beasts [πᾶν ἑρπετὸν] are driven [νέμεται] by blows [πληγῇ].” But the verb νέμεται was ordinarily used with reference to herdsmen “tending” their flocks or herds; driving the beasts to a pasture where they could ‘graze’ was a regular part of this “tending,” and this was often done with a stick like the one in the picture.

This explains the grazing and the ‘goad’ in Forster’s translation. But the Greek does not specify who is delivering these benevolent ‘blows’ to the beasts. The context indicates that the class of “creeping things” includes not only domestic cattle but all animals throughout their life cycles, including wild and human animals as well (Kahn 1979, 194). Who or what drives the deer to their pasture? What kind of “blows” compel us to carry our own lives forward?

“Pseudo-Aristotle” tells us that all life cycles proceed according to ‘the ordinances of God,’ who is metaphorically the “pastor” driving us all to “pasture.” Others might substitute for those ordinances the laws of nature, governing everything impersonally. But if all animals are guided from within and powered by their own metabolism, it would seem that we are driven by internal “blows” or “motivations” rather than external forces, whether divine or natural. We are “driven” to dinner by the same “force” that drives the deer to their pasture, namely hunger.

But this is not the whole story either. We are all shaped, physically and mentally, by the same sacred laws of nature that formed the worlds we inhabit and the habits that inform our relations with the world and one another. These Laws have made us all anticipatory systems, and the “blows” driving us are the blows of experience, which happens to us as some kind of collision between our guidance systems and our circumstances. An experience feels real here and now because of the difference, the Secondness, between our own needs and the necessities of external world. But what really determines the kind of experience that strikes us at the moment is the Laws in their Thirdness.

For reality is compulsive. But the compulsiveness is absolutely hic et nunc. It is for an instant and it is gone. Let it be no more and it is absolutely nothing. The reality only exists as an element of the regularity. And the regularity is the symbol. Reality, therefore, can only be regarded as the limit of the endless series of symbols.

— Peirce, EP2:323

Our lack of control over existing things and actual events, their way of forcing themselves on our attention, is what makes them real to us at the moment. But the laws governing these things are equally real – or more real, considering that they will continue to determine what form the future will take long after the immediate past and present are gone. To the extent that we have self-control – that is, control over the form and the enforcement of our inner “laws” or habits – we can participate in this determination of the future. We never break the laws of nature, but we have ways of co-operating with it to realize imagined possibilities; and these may include our ways of responding to the “blows” of experience.

Life cycles, like meaning cycles, are governed by the reciprocity of practice and perception. They are driven by the “blows” of experience just as inquiries are set in motion by surprises. This is a law of nature which we can only symbolize in some kind of diagram. We can’t make a photograph of it as we can an existing ‘goad’ or an actual ‘blow.’ The image of ‘God’s goad’ confuses the regularity of law with the the force of law. A law (natural, human or divine) has a general form but can’t be adequately represented by any specific image – unless that image is read as a metaphor. Metaphors, in their aspiration to the generality of symbols, reveal those realities which images conceal by their very presence to our sense perception. Only symbols can express the Law turning the wheel of life.

to be continued


The stiff and unbending is the disciple of death. The gentle and yielding is the disciple of life.

Tao Te Ching 76 (Feng/English)

Life is the art of drawing sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises.

— Samuel Butler, Note-Books

Life teaches us who we are.

— Salman Rushdie (quoted in Ledoux 2002)

My life has a superb cast but I can’t figure out the plot.

— Ashleigh Brilliant

All the charictures in the drame!

Finnegans Wake, 302

Who knows whether the present speaker is awake or dreaming?

Chuang-tzu 6 (Cleary)

How bootifull and how truetowife of her, when strengly forebidden, to steal our historic presents from the past postpropheticals so as will make us all lordyheirs and ladymaidesses of a pretty nice kettle of fruit. She is livving in our midst of debt and laffing through all plores for us (her birth is uncontrollable!), with a naperon made to mask and her sabboes hikkikking arias (so sair! so solly!) if yous ask me and I saack you. Hou! Hou! Gricks may rise and Troysirs fall (there being two sights for ever a picture) for in the byways of high improvidence that’s what makes lifework leaving and the world’s a cell for citters to cit in.