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January 2021, Little Current, Ontario, Planet Earth. January, month of Janus, is a traditional time for looking back and looking ahead. For over a year now i've been blogging about the transition. Some have called this time ‘the Great Unravelling,’ which is less forward-looking, and indeed the future seems less predictable than ever. I had vaguely foreseen this in the first chapter of Turning Signs as published in 2015:
Although very little space is given here to the author's biography, placing it in historical context might begin to explain why beginning is here entangled with apocalypse. I was born exactly one month after The Day the World Ended. That was Kurt Vonnegut's name (in his novel Cat's Cradle) for August 6, 1945 – the day when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. So you might say that mine has been a post-apocalyptic life.The next five years seemed even more apocalyptic to those of us living through them, with the raging wildfires, storms, floods and droughts brought on by global heating, the rise of surveillance capitalism, the outrages of the Trump presidency and other political pathologies, and then the pandemic of 2020. Richard Heinberg referred to 2020 as the year consensus reality fractured. But if we look through the cracks and read the signs, we might discern a deeper reality. This crack of doom can be a wake-up call. Apocalypse (ἀποκάλυψις) is Greek for discovery. What we discover may not be a solid consensus or a “sustainable future” but a fluid and living Presence.
40 years later Paul Ehrlich (author of The Population Bomb), speaking at the local university, told us that we humans had a choice: we could render the Earth unfit for human habitation in 50 minutes, by using nuclear weapons; or we could achieve the same result in 50 years by simply carrying on with ‘business as usual,’ that is, with trashing the planet. – Or we could change the way we live.
Skip another score of years, into the 21st century CE, and things have changed, as usual. For one thing, the world has been taken over by alien beings from another dimension – we call them corporations. Meanwhile it's projected that the human population of the planet will peak (at around 10 billion) within this century, and then start to decline. (If it doesn't collapse more suddenly, that is.) I suppose the rest of the biosphere, or whatever is left of it, will breathe a sigh of relief at that point, though i can hardly imagine what the place will be like by then. Indeed it's getting hard to imagine with any confidence what the place will be like next week.
This chapter was originally addressed to you, dear Reader, in 2015. The five years that followed made a difference to the context in which you are now reading it, whenever that now is in history. Even in 2021, the context of my own ‘mission’ as a writer is changing, along with my notion of what that mission might be. So it's a good time to
Suppose you've been selected for a secret mission. For all you know, it could be a sacred mission; but it's secret even from your own awareness. You can't tell what it is, or what its purpose is, yet it drives what you do as much as ‘the force that through the green fuse drives the flower’ (Dylan Thomas). It's also the preconscious ground of your attention to everything else, including your conscious choices and purposes.
You are asked to suppose all this – not to know it, or take it for granted, but to imagine that it could be true and follow up on its implications. Consider what it would mean to have a mission without being conscious of it. Maybe it would be better to say that it has you. After all, you do things all the time with no thought of why you are doing them. Chapter 3 of this book will argue that you have developed an inner guidance system which mostly works unconsciously. What would it mean to be mindful of that system and its common ground with other living systems (Chapter 4)?
Your mission is secret because only you inhabit this mission, live through it, see your world from within it. In that sense you are unique – just like everybody else. But the sense in which you are unique must be a common sense: how else could we speak a common language (Chapter 8)? Our private paths can cross because they differ. Where they cross arises the common sense of a path. Communicating in this way, we can collaborate (Chapter 14) in asking what any purpose is, what it can have in common with others, and how it can differ from yours.
Here we enter into the Great Conversation, the dialogue (Chapter 2), the circulation of signs that makes up the continuous flow of meaning in the universe. C.S. Peirce, who gave us a suitable set of terms for exploring the nature of sign systems, called it semiosis. You can think of it as the thought of the Creator, or of Nature if you prefer. Your own thinking is one channel of it, and the language you speak is a channel you share with other channels like yourself (Chapter 17). (Yes, we are all sign-processes too.)
All thought is in signs, linguistic or not. Thoughts are signs turning into other signs, or into acts, performances which may make a difference to other actors or authors. This book is a sign, and you are the one here to read it now. If you read it as a musician reads music (or “plays it by ear”), turning the text into a performance, you might mean something new by these words. Or you might find something true.
This book was not written by an expert or intended for experts in any specialized field of inquiry. Nor does it offer a soaring eagle's-eye view of life, the universe and everything. It's more like a chickadee's view. Chickadees are not so much flyers as flitters. On their little trips to and from the feeder outside my winter window, they take off with a flurry of wingflaps, coast for half a second or so, then flap again to regain lost momentum, but no more than necessary to stay aloft. Among humans, Laurie Anderson saw the same pattern in ‘Walking and Falling’:
With each step you fall forward slightly.I think the chickadees enjoy the free fall more than the altitude …
And then catch yourself
The whole Reverse side of this book-sign, which provided most of the content of the author's blog from 2015 to 2020, as well as the Point of it all, is a more or less miscellaneous collection of chickadee-flits, or points, or thoughts. But the front or Obverse side of Turning Signs (beginning with this first chapter) is another story, or rather essay – a philosophical essay, not by a professor but by a beginner.
The philosopher, says Merleau-Ponty, ‘is a perpetual beginner, which means that he takes for granted nothing that men, learned or otherwise, believe they know.’ We can't even ask a question without taking something for granted – but the deeper layers of that something are not contained in the cognitive bubble (Chapter 5) of beliefs or things we think we know. We find them, if at all, in what Michael Polanyi called the tacit dimension. The positive side of this not-taking-for-granted is ‘beginner's mind,’ as Dogen and Shunryu Suzuki called it – the mind that does not pretend to know Eternal Truth but is always wondering and willing to learn. The philosopher tries to learn something from experience (Chapter 7) while sustaining the continuous practice (Chapter 16) of beginner's mind.
The philosopher may also be driven to say something significant, and to do it systematically, as Merleau-Ponty did in his Phenomenology of Perception. He or she is generally expected to methodically construct an argument for the reader to follow in some kind of logical order, each part building on (taking for granted?) the previous part. How does a perpetual beginner manage that? It's more like the migration flight of a wild goose than the flits of a chickadee. But it's possible if, as Merleau-Ponty says in his avant-propos, ‘philosophy is not the reflection of a prior truth, but rather, like art, the actualization of a truth.’ You can practice an art discontinuously, in fits and starts, hoping the result will somehow come together. You can say something true without pretending to know it. In my case the process took 15 years of learning and writing and revising, with many breaks of blessed vacation.
I “completed” the Obverse essay in September 2015, and published it in paperback the following year, never knowing whether anybody would be fool enough to chase this wild goose. After looking through it all in the years following, making a few revisions here and there on both sides, I still don't know. So i decided to
Certainly, in philosophy what a man does not think out for himself he never understands at all. Nothing can be learned out of books or lectures. They have to be treated not as oracles but simply as facts to be studied like any other facts.Studying facts is very different from taking them for granted. Studying a book is also very different from taking for granted that your reading of it is all it has to say, or that what it tells you is true. The book factually exists, as a record of somebody's (factual or fictional) thoughts about some universe at some time. To study it is to believe that those thoughts can be translated into your thoughts at this time, and then to explore the relations between these thoughts and your experience of the time you are living. This is what Peirce calls thinking it out for yourself.
By the way, even if you are not philosophically inclined, you may still find this book amusing if you enjoy reading about sciences, religions, arts and cultures. The author has woven facts and ideas from many different sources into this work, noticing many connections between them. We call a book like this a ‘text’ because it consists of sign-threads woven into a texture which is itself woven into a much greater sign, its context (Chapter 15) – which includes your life as well as the weaver's. ‘If any signs are connected, no matter how, the resulting system constitutes one sign’ (Peirce, R 1476:36). But bear in mind that
Nobody lives everywhere; everybody lives somewhere. Nothing is connected to everything; everything is connected to something.— Haraway 2016, 31
Your mission in reading this book – should you choose to accept it – is to explore some of the qualities common to all sign-readers, sign-makers, sense-makers, “sentient beings.” We ask them all: How do you mean?
To ask How do you mean? is to open up the question of how you read the world. You read it one sign at a time, whether it's a book like this one, or a sacred scripture, a song, a film, a face, the tracks of an unseen animal, the fossil record in the rocks, an idea, a memory. But to read it is to connect it with others, to feel how it fits in the network of signs.
When [Zen master] Baizhang gave teachings to the assembly, an old man would often appear and listen to his dharma talks. The old man usually left after the talks, but one day he remained behind.A ‘turning word’ (轉語, tengo) leads to liberation because it is connected with other signs, and more intimately connected with the experience of the one who hears and actualizes its truth. Words can have this effect because they participate in a continuous stream of semiosis as deep and broad as life itself. Dogen's own explication goes like this:
Baizhang asked, “Who are you?”
The old man said, “I am not actually a human being. In ancient times, at the time of Kashyapa Buddha, I lived and taught on this mountain. One day a student asked, ‘Does a person who has cultivated great practice still fall into cause and effect?’ I said to him, ‘No, such a person does not fall into cause and effect.’ Because of this I was reborn as a wild fox for five hundred lifetimes. Venerable Master, please say a turning word and free me from this body of a wild fox.” Then he asked Baizhang, “Does a person who has cultivated great practice still fall into cause and effect?”
Baizhang said, “Do not ignore cause and effect.”
Immediately the old man had great realization. Bowing, he said to Baizhang, “I am now liberated from the body of a wild fox. Master, will you perform for me a funeral service for a deceased monk? You will find the body of a dead fox in the mountain behind the monastery.”— Dogen, SBGZ ‘Dai shugyo’ (Tanahashi 2010, 705); for a key to abbreviations used in this book, see the reference list.
The story states that because of the turning word of the current Baizhang, the former Baizhang—an old fox for five hundred lifetimes—immediately became liberated from the body of a fox. Understand the meaning of this story. If you assert that a turning word by an outsider can liberate a wild fox, then there must be innumerable turning words by mountains, rivers, and the great earth from the incalculable past. However, to say that there had never been the liberation from a wild fox body in the past, but the current Baizhang’s turning words alone liberated the wild fox, is to deny the way of the ancestors. To say that mountains, rivers, and the great earth have never uttered a single turning word is to say that there is no place for the current Baizhang to even open his mouth.For ten years the working title for this essay was Turning Words. The change to Turning Signs reflects what the author was learning about semiosis, mainly from Charles S. Peirce (pronounced purse; 1839-1914) and later workers in semiotics (the study of semiosis as named and pioneered by Peirce). However, the present author is not a Professor of Semiotics either and has not been “trained” in that discipline. Indeed no special training or equipment is required for this kind of inquiry, because everyone is engaged in semiosis all the time. It's the process of signs doing what they do, which is to affect the actions (and passions) of one being (or subject, or system) by mediating its relations with others, or with other possibilities.— Dogen, SBGZ ‘Dai shugyo’ (Tanahashi 2010, 708)
We might crudely define a sign as anything that means something to somebody – except that the ‘somebody’ is not necessarily a ‘person’ in the usual sense of that word, and the sign is not really a thing. The mediating role of the sign may be vested in a perceptible sign-vehicle, but really consists in its triadic relation with the other two roles involved. One is called the object of the sign, which is whatever it directs your attention to and informs you about. The other – the effect of the sign upon the subject/system affected by it – is called its interpretant. A few other semiotic terms will be introduced and clarified as needed, along with relevant gleanings from other arts and sciences. The author has documented these ‘sources’ and provided a reference list, and included hyperlinks that you can follow or ignore according to your inclinations. I've spread the net of testimony broadly in order that some of the deeper patterns can appear through various idioms and expressions without getting caught in any one of them. But the patterns themselves are those of our common experience.
From moment to moment, day to day, year to year, generation to generation, we humans make choices – some consciously and carefully, some not – according to which we live this time. As we navigate the world, a myriad courses fan out before us, even when only one (or none) looks viable. We are blessed, and burdened, with an ability to alter and adjust our courses spontaneously, systematically and recursively. We form and reform habits of doing, being, seeing and saying because we are complex adaptive systems (Chapter 11) implicated with larger systems (cultures, ecosystems) and composed of smaller systems (organs, cells, routines). We are formed, constrained, informed and guided by systems within us and without us, our lifeways involved with myriad others.
Because of all this, the one thing we can never do is to know precisely what we are doing. We can only guess what effects our individual decisions will have on our common future. All we know for sure is that our actions will change the situation at some scale so that future decisions will be made in different circumstances. Without knowing the ultimate result, though, we can still be guided by our expectations; and our expectations in turn are informed by the observed results of what we've done before. Sometimes the results can surprise you, and thus can exceed and recreate your expectations (Chapter 19).
Everything you do is part of a dialogue with mystery, a conversation between your island of familiar habits and the vastly shifting seas of an unknown reality (Chapter 12). This dialogue inhabits a collective conversation between humanity and the mystery out there, in which we are sustained by our faith that we can learn a little of how the sea changes by reading the signs it leaves lying about. The human side of this dialogue is only one part of what Thomas Berry (1999, 82) called the ‘communion of subjects’ – the internal dialogue of universe. Your part in it, however small, is a microcosm of this vast conversation. The whole quality of your life, its wholeness, its health, depend on the intimacy of that conversation.
The common root of ‘universe’ and ‘conversation’ is turning. A change of direction is a turning; seen from within the changed path (or mission), it appears as a new direction, a beginning. A sign that can trigger such a turn – a trans-mission – may be called a revelation by ‘people of the Book,’ or a turning word between one buddha and another (Chapter 18). This book is about the deep grounding of such ‘turning words’ in natural signs and semiosic cycles (Chapter 10) in the mind of the Creator. The spiritual quest and the method of scientific inquiry spring from the same deep source.
Since life goes on within and without us, we have no choice but to simplify our lives with metaphors and models (Chapter 9), reducing a fluid process to an interplay of recognizable forms. The ‘island’ of habit and the ‘sea’ surrounding it are metaphors; so is ‘navigating the world,’ a variation on the ‘path’ metaphor which we all use to represent our course through the lifeworld. But that course is not just a line along which one moves from point A to point B, as in plane geometry, or a trajectory in the 3-dimensional space of classical and folk physics. The path we actually inhabit is a reiterative practice in a space of innumerable dimensions (Chapter 13). The navigator in this complex space needs a metaphorical map, and needs to read not only the map but the difference between map and world. Otherwise there could be neither expectation nor surprise – nor life as we know it.
You must have done all this reading and mapping fairly well up to now, or you wouldn't be here to read the text before you. So you might well wonder whether it serves any practical purpose to think about thinking, or know about knowing, or read about reading. And while you're at it, you might wonder what makes any purpose practical. As author of the present interlude in the ‘Great Conversation,’ i can identify with that. All i can say is that whatever matters, matters to somebody. After several decades of living a human life, i'm still wondering how it's done. Now i've left the tracks of my wondering where you can find them. You never know what can happen when you cross paths with another beginner – you might even
(1) Jesus said, “The person old in days will not hesitate to ask a little child seven days old about the place of life, and that person will live. (2) For many of the first will be last (3) and will become a single one.”The Gospel of Thomas, a treasury of turning words from the early days of Christianity, is one of the sources deeply embedded in this book. Like the atomic bomb, it burst upon the world's attention toward the end of 1945 when a collection of books, written in Coptic and hidden in a large jar in the fourth century C.E., was discoved near Nag Hammadi in Egypt. But like my own emergence at the same time, it did not make much of an impression on the world. It was an information bomb on a slow fuse, yet more deeply apocalyptic than The Bomb which haunted my generation.— Gospel of Thomas 4 (NHS)
(1) The disciples said to Jesus, “Tell us how our end will be.”
(2) Jesus said, “Have you discovered the beginning, then, so that you are seeking the end? For where the beginning is the end will be. (3) Blessed is one who stands at the beginning: that one will know the end and will not taste death.”— Thomas 18 (NHS)
The world as we thought we knew it is coming to an end: apocalypse, blowing the lid off, revealing the secrets inside the tomb (resurrection), inside the womb of the world (new life, new heaven, new earth). The resurrection of the body (Chapter 4 again), bringing forth a world turned inside out (Chapter 5 again). Waking from a living death to reveal the secrets of mission and transmission (Chapter 6).
The one who stands at the beginning may be called beginner's mind or ‘the philosopher’. In one of his lectures, Peirce identified three ‘mental operations concerned in reasoning’ which also play key roles in reading as thinking through: Observation, Experimentation and Habituation. This last is ‘the power of readily taking habits and of readily throwing them off’ (RLT, 189). As he explains,
Perfect readiness to assimilate new associations implies perfect readiness to drop old ones.… To be a philosopher, or a scientific man, you must be as a little child, with all the sincerity and simple-mindedness of the child's vision, with all the plasticity of the child's mental habits.— Peirce (RLT, 192)
This is essentially the same point made by Jesus in Thomas 4 above. The scientific, philosophical and spiritual views here converge in affirming the value of plasticity in a habit-system. Without it there's no way to
— or change course, or even to continue on any course in a constantly changing universe. Of course you can only start (or continue) if you have some definite sense, based on current habits, of where you are now. You can't get that from a specialist. But you might get it from the practice of philosophy – or more specifically, cenoscopy – which according to Peirce is the least specialized of all sciences, ‘a science which rests on no special observations, made by special observational means, but on phenomena which lie open to the observation of every man, every day and hour’ (CP 7.526). If we can call this a book of philosophy, then, your task as its reader is to test what it says against your own observations – which you alone can do, by recreating this public inquiry in your own image, weaving its various threads together in your own way.
Philosophy ought to imitate the successful sciences in its methods, so far as to proceed only from tangible premisses which can be subjected to careful scrutiny, and to trust rather to the multitude and variety of its arguments than to the conclusiveness of any one. Its reasoning should not form a chain which is no stronger than its weakest link, but a cable whose fibers may be ever so slender, provided they are sufficiently numerous and intimately connected.But this cable-making is more of a challenge now than in 1945, because the technology of the time since then (the Great Acceleration) has flooded the world with information in which many a mind is drowning, lacking the common sense to sort it all out. The social media of 2020 are hyperactive with mis- and disinformation, while the sciences have become hyperspecialized. The author sometimes wonders whether yet another book, even by a professed nonspecialist, can make any difference in these days of the Anthropocene.— Peirce (EP1:29, CP 5.265)
People have always felt (more or less) that they were living in times of crisis, but until recently they could assume at least that civilization would go on somehow, for better or worse. Now it seems bent on self- (and other-) destruction. The Millenium Ecosystem Assessment of 2005, to cite one example, said that ‘human activity is putting such strain on the natural functions of Earth that the ability of the planet's ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.’ Many species of our fellow earthlings have already been driven to extinction since homo sapiens arrived, and the pace has only accelerated since 1945. Our personal, social and cultural lives are no less precarious, like bubbles held together by surface tension.
Still, one thing hasn't changed: every choice you make while you live could make some difference for future Earthlings. In the meantime, we carry on with our various recreative missions, each of them unique.
A man cannot receive a heritage of ideas without transforming it by the very fact that he comes to know it, without injecting his own and always different way of being into it.That's as true of you as it is of me. What you will make of Turning Signs is your own. If you are topologically minded, you may find that the shape of this book resembles a Klein bottle, or a tesseract, and thus embodies its central theme … but let's not give away the ending.— Merleau-Ponty (1960, 224)
— As if i could say what the book says, get straight to the point without going through it! The train that can be expressed is not the express train, it can at best be a turning sign, a signal to
Sometimes, fellow startlings, lightning strikes and we know that what's now revealed was hidden only by our very immersion in it, by vision buried in the habit of seeing.
His disciples said to him: ‘When will the <resurrection> of the dead take place, and when will the new world come?’
He said to them: ‘That (resurrection) which you are awaiting has (already) come, but you do not recognize it.’— Thomas 51 (5G)
(1) His disciples said to him, “When will the kingdom come?”
(2) “It will not come by watching for it. (3) It will not be said, ‘Look, here it is,’ or ‘Look, there it is.’ (4) Rather, the Father’s kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it.”— Thomas 113 (NHS)
After two thousand years, there's still time to stop waiting. Eternity now!
Next chapter: Dialogue and Human Nature →
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