|obverse Chapter 19·||Turning Signs (Contents)||References||blog|
This webpage is the current version of rePatch ·19 (the reverse side of Chapter 1·) of Turning Signs, as of 17 December 2022. Each point is independent but some terms are hyperlinked to their definitions or to related contexts elsewhere.
To save your place when reading this page, click the [next] at the end of any section and then save a bookmark with your browser.
Tip: You can also search this page or the whole netbook or the gnoxic blog for any term.
Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist. [The world is all that is the case.]— Wittgenstein (Tractatus 1)
Creation itself was the fall, a burst into the thorny beauty of the real.— Annie Dillard (1974, 209)
Original sin was committed by God. It is simply the act of creation.— theological axiom of Finnegans Wake, as summarized by Atherton (1959, 53)
O foenix culprit! Ex nickylow malo comes mickelmassed bonum.[next]— Finnegans Wake, 23
‘As a lamp, a cataract, a star in spaceEach point in the space serves only to provide context for the other points. Each point in itself is pointless, signless. Likewise each ‘created thing’ is temporary, its identity composed by its relations to the others for the time being. [next]
an illusion, a dewdrop, a bubble
a dream, a cloud, a flash of lightning
view all created things like this.’— closing gatha of the Diamond Sutra as translated by Red Pine (2001, 27)
Everybody knows the use of the useful, but nobody knows the use of the useless!In the late 20th century it was customary to divide the functions of the mass media into information and entertainment (with ‘infotainment’ as a sort of bastard child of the two). The information media were supposed to feed us facts, while the entertainment media fed us fictions and artistic performances – which were “recreational,” meaning “of no practical value” (other than profits for its owners and sponsors). Our use of the terms ‘recreate’ and ‘recreation’ in connection with turning signs is quite different, and we might ask how it relates to “entertainment.”— Zhuangzi 4
We all need diversion to clean out the clutter of habits that cling to daily life. Or rather, we need ways to shuffle off the coil of distractions that cling to us. Entertainment is one way of turning ourselves over to new patterns, new messages. It can even improve our practice just by interrupting it. “The pause that refreshes” is a phenomenon detectable even down to the neuronal level (Austin 1998, Chapter 83). At the basic level, a pause of the right length in any routine or procedure will generally refresh the routine. (This is one of the uses of the useless.) But entertainment can also be used to “kill time,” or to drown out messages not wanted by the owners of the media. This has turned out to be a more effective means of “thought control” than overt censorship (Herman and Chomsky 1988).
Another word for it is amusement, from the old French word amuser, meaning to cause someone to muser, ‘to stare stupidly’ (OED). The usual sense of the word in the 17th-18th century was ‘to divert the attention of anyone from the facts at issue; to beguile, delude, cheat, deceive … to divert in order to gain or waste time.’ (But then Charles Peirce's musement is a very different practice!)
As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.Thoreau's contemporary Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in 1835 of the ‘peculiar weariness and depression of spirits which is felt after a day wasted in turning over a magazine or other light miscellany, different from the state of the mind after severe study; because there has been no excitement, no difficulties to be overcome, but the spirits have evaporated insensibly’ (American Notebooks, 11).— Thoreau, Walden
After a century and a half of technological development had vastly increased the addictive and dissipative power of entertainment, Gregory Bateson took this observation a bit further:
… in art, as opposed to entertainment, it is always uphill in a certain sense, so the effort precedes the reward rather than the reward being spooned out. One of the things that is important in depression is not to get caught in the notion that entertainment will relieve it. It will, you know, briefly, but it will not banish it. As reassurance is the food of anxiety, so entertainment is the food of depression.Chögyam Trungpa said much the same about what he called ‘the art of the setting sun’:— Bateson and Bateson (1987, 132)
We have a lot of examples of setting-sun art. Some of them are based on the principle of entertainment. Since you feel so uncheerful and solemn, you try to create artificial humor, manufactured wit. But that tends to bring a tremendous sense of depression, actually. There might be a comic relief effect for a few seconds, but apart from that there is a constant black cloud, the black air of tormenting depression. As a consequence, if you are rich, you try to spend more money to cheer yourself up – but you find that the more you do, the less it helps. There is no respect for life in the setting-sun world.— Trungpa (1999, 29)
Life-respecting art, on the other hand (Trungpa's ‘art of the Great Eastern Sun’) furnishes us with experiences that renew and reshape the patterns of our perceptions and conceptions. So the question to ask of every recreational experience is: Does it make a difference? Is it transformative or addictive? We ask this of the experience of reading the artistic sign, which depends on the interbeing of reader, text and context – although we sometimes pretend that the text is responsible, as when we say This story is interesting or This story is boring. Any text, regardless of its origin, can become a turning sign if it is consecrated in the act of reading to the transformation and recreation of life. The spiritual life then is the one which takes re-creation seriously, and takes the serious joyfully.
When you read pulp fiction, or pulp fact such as “the news,” you expect it all to fit comfortably into the framework of your familiar description of the world – the usual disasters, crimes, conflicts, maneuvers, gestures on the public stage and other external events. In other words you don't expect it to call for deep attention or to transform your life; that is not what “entertainment” is for. But something may reach you through these media nevertheless, precisely because you are uncritically and unintentionally open to it while you submit to being entertained. You never know where the next revelation may come from, and it may be all the more effective for coming when you least expect it. It's just a matter of shifting into deep reading mode when you hear the wake-up call. [next]
For to perceive, the beholder must create his own experience. And his creation must include relations comparable to those which the original producer underwent. They are not the same in any literal sense. But with the perceiver, as with the artist, there must be an ordering of the elements of the whole that is in form, although not in details, the same as the process of organization the creator of the work consciously experienced. Without an act of recreation the object is not perceived as a work of art.Dewey contrasts this act of ‘recreation’ with the ‘recognition’ which dismisses the object perceived as something already known and not worthy of the more active attention it would take to learn something new about it. Regarding the work of art as a sign, its object is the ‘form’ in which the ‘elements of the whole’ are ordered. Its interpretant, as the recreation of the beholder, is another sign of that object, though it will differ in other respects from the creator's experience.— Dewey 1934, 56
If we consider the percept as a sign, we can regard its immediate interpretant as the beginning of a creative process; but this interpretant is not under conscious control. It ‘forces itself’ upon the perceiver/interpreter, according to Peirce:
We know nothing about the percept otherwise than by testimony of the perceptual judgment, excepting that we feel the blow of it, the reaction of it against us, and we see the contents of it arranged into an object, in its totality,— excepting also, of course, what the psychologists are able to make out inferentially. But the moment we fix our minds upon it and think the least thing about the percept, it is the perceptual judgment that tells us what we so “perceive.” For this and other reasons, I propose to consider the percept as it is immediately interpreted in the perceptual judgment, under the name of the “percipuum.” The percipuum, then, is what forces itself upon your acknowledgment, without any why or wherefore, so that if anybody asks you why you should regard it as appearing so and so, all you can say is, ‘I can't help it. That is how I see it.’[next]— Peirce, CP 7.643 (c. 1903)
The First presents itself as original, immediate, fresh, unsubjected to anything that went before or stands behind, and is therefore spontaneous and free.… The instant that freshness is distinctly asserted, it has lost its characteristic innocence. The idea of prime precedes all assertion, all differentiation. There is no synthetical unity in it, no wholeness nor consistency; it is the sheer wonder and manifold of first impressions. In itself, however, it is not manifold; it has no parts; but because it has no wholeness nor consistency, the understanding analyzes it into an infinitely varied manifold. Kant talks inaccurately of the manifold of sense; in fact the first impression has no parts, any more than it has unity or wholeness; yet it may be allowed to be potentially a manifold, if we say that all that the intellect evolves from it lies involved within it. The pure First is essentially vivid, present, and conscious; for that which is dead or remote is as it is only for him who may perceive it. What the world was to Adam on the day he opened his eyes to it, before he had drawn any distinctions, or had become conscious of his own existence,—that is first.— Peirce, W5:299 (1886)
This ‘first impression’ appears to be the Firstness of the phaneron (to use the term that Peirce invented later). However, we can have no distinct idea of what Adam's world was like ‘before he had drawn any distinctions,’ or what the phaneron is before ‘the intellect evolves from it’ the myriad things that lie ‘involved within it.’ The intellect which does this ‘evolving’ makes perceptual judgments by means of abstraction. ‘The most ordinary fact of perception, such as “it is light,” involves precisive abstraction, or prescission,’ which is ‘that operation of the mind by which we pay attention to one feature of a percept to the disregard of others’ (CP 4.235, 1902).
Experience is first forced upon us in the form of a flow of images. Thereupon thought makes certain assertions. It professes to pick the image into pieces and to detect in it certain characters. This is not literally true. The image has no parts, least of all predicates. Thus predication involves precisive abstraction. Precisive abstraction creates predicates. Subjectal abstraction creates subjects. Both predicates and subjects are creations of thought. But this is hardly more than a phrase; for creation and thought have different meanings as applied to the two.[next]— Peirce, letter to E.H. Moore, 1904 (NEM3, 917-18)
All natural classification is then essentially, we may almost say, an attempt to find out the true genesis of the objects classified. But by genesis must be understood, not the efficient action which produces the whole by producing the parts, but the final action which produces the parts because they are needed to make the whole. Genesis is production from ideas. It may be difficult to understand how this is true in the biological world, though there is proof enough that it is so. But in regard to science it is a proposition easily enough intelligible. A science is defined by its problem; and its problem is clearly formulated on the basis of abstracter science.In biology, the genetic ‘idea’ is more recently called the genotype, and we now have a better understanding of its role in producing organisms classified by phenotype. But many biologists still do not see these as types in the Peircean sense, which here he calls ‘ideas’:— Peirce, CP 1.227 (1902)
All classification, whether artificial or natural, is the arrangement of objects according to ideas. A natural classification is the arrangement of them according to those ideas from which their existence results. No greater merit can a taxonomist have than that of having his eyes open to the ideas in nature; no more deplorable blindness can afflict him than that of not seeing that there are ideas in nature which determine the existence of objects.[next]— Peirce, CP 1.231 (1902)
Manifold appearances and myriad forms, and all spoken words, each should be turned and returned to oneself and made to turn freely.[next]— Pai Chang, cited in Blue Cliff Record Case 39 (Cleary and Cleary 1977, 241)
God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the cattle according to their kinds, and everything that creeps along the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.Genesis 1:25
If the Creator could follow up an act of creation by observing ‘that it was good,’ then it must have been possible for it to be not good. Who knows how many drafts of the universe God might have produced and rejected before the final version? — assuming that there was a final version, that creation is in the past. If the universe is a work in progress, on the other hand, specific parts (rather than the whole) are being judged “good” by proving worthy of continued existence. The Creator then is the process behind the origin of species: ‘speciation, like other creative work, involves a variety-generating process followed by a choosing mechanism’ (Odum 2007, 240).
That ‘mechanism’ is called ‘natural selection’ – or, in the ‘creative work’ of science, the conscious testing of the hypothesis generated by the abductive process. In the biosphere, each species is itself a process, and it is ‘chosen’ for its ability to co-operate with the other systems internal and external to it. When its role in the holarchy becomes unplayable, it is selected for extinction. [next]
The highest good is like water.The same text translated by Red Pine:
Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive.
It flows in places people reject and so is like the Tao.— Tao Te Ching 8 (Feng/English)
The best are like waterA comment on this text by Wang Pi (included in Red Pine's edition, p. 17):
bringing help to all
The Tao does not exist, but water does. Hence, it only approaches the Tao.Charles S. Peirce would agree that the highest good (or God) does not exist, but is real, because it ‘determines the suchness of that which may come into existence, when it does come into existence’ (Peirce, EP2:269). [next]
One meaning of the English word, marked ‘obsolete’ in the OED, is ‘Leisure for, or devoted to, some special purpose; hence, occupation, business.’ The earliest example of this sense cited in the OED is from a c. 1450 translation of De Imitatione Christi of Thomas á Kempis (3.53): ‘Put þe vacacion of god before all oþer þinges.’ The original Latin puts the words in the mouth of Christ: Totum mundum nihil exstima, Dei vacationem omnibus exterioribus antepone.
Esteem thou the whole world as nothing; prefer attendance upon God before all outward things.A 19th-Century translation by William Benham renders it thusly: ‘Count the whole world as nought; seek to be alone with God before all outward things.’ The vacacion of god, it seems, is a vacation from everything and anyone else that could distract your attention from the practice of the presence of God (as Brother Lawrence might have put it). [next]— The Imitation of Christ (Moody Classics) (p. 245). Kindle Edition.
A practical attitude of mind concerns itself primarily with the living future, and pays no regard to the dead past or even the present except so far as it may indicate what the future will be. Thus, the pragmaticist is obliged to hold that whatever means anything means that something will happen (provided certain conditions are fulfilled), and to hold that the future alone has primary reality.— Peirce, CP 8.194 (c. 1904)
… signs are alive and all selves, human and nonhuman, are semiotic. What a self is, in the most minimal sense, is a locus—however ephemeral—for sign interpretation. That is, it is a locus for the production of a novel sign (termed an “interpretant”) that also stands in continuity with those signs that have come before it. Selves, human or nonhuman, simple or complex, are waypoints in a semiotic process. They are outcomes of semiosis as well as the starting points for new sign interpretation whose outcome will be a future self. Selves don’t exist firmly in the present; they are “just coming into life in the flow of time” (Peirce, CP 5.421) by virtue of their dependence on future loci of interpretance—future semiotic selves—that will come to interpret them.All semiosis, then, creates future. This is something distinctive about self. Being a semiotic self—whether human or nonhuman—involves what Peirce calls “being in futuro” (CP 2.86). That is, in the realm of selves, as opposed to in the inanimate world, it is not just the past that comes to affect the present. The future, as I discussed in this chapter’s introduction, as it is re-presented, also comes to affect the present (CP 1.325; see also CP 6.127 and 6.70), and this is central to what a self is. The future, and how it is brought into the present, is not reducible to the cause-and-effect dynamic by which the past affects the present. Signs, as “guesses,” re-present a future possible, and through this mediation they bring the future to bear on the present. The future’s influence on the present has its own kind of reality (see CP 8.330). And it is one that makes selves what they are as unique entities in the world.— Kohn 2013, 206-7
That guessing ploy is of profound importance. It provides the common currency that binds perception, action, emotion, and the exploitation of environmental structure into a functional whole. In contemporary cognitive scientific parlance, this ploy turns upon the acquisition and deployment of a ‘multilayer probabilistic generative model’.Clark's book Surfing Uncertainty explains in neuroscientific detail how ‘hierarchical predictive coding’ or ‘predictive processing’ works in perception (at a rate much faster than conscious attention can handle). In this kind of process, ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ signals work simultaneously within the nervous system to create percepts via ‘circular causality.’ In visual experience, for instance, the ‘predictive’ part of the process plays a role analogous to that of blended retroduction-and-deduction in scientific method. [next]— Andy Clark (2015, 3-4)
No Evangelist has the slightest interest in writing a biography of Jesus. The Jesus about whom a biography can be written is dead and gone, and survives only as Antichrist. The Evangelists tell us not how Christ came, but how he comes: they are concerned not with a vanished past but with the imagination's ‘Eternal Now.’ The timid will protest that we are here in danger of dissolving the reality of Christianity into a vaporous allegory; Blake's answer is that the core of reality is mental and present, not physical and past. Past events do not necessarily dissolve in time, but their existence in the eternal present depends on imaginative recreation.[next]— Northrop Frye (1947, 343)
A pretty wild play of the imagination is, it cannot be doubted, an inevitable and probably even a useful prelude to science proper.— Peirce, CP 1.235 (1902)
Blake: The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom (MHH). Peirce:
Conservatism—in the sense of a dread of consequences—is altogether out of place in science—which has on the contrary always been forwarded by radicals and radicalism, in the sense of the eagerness to carry consequences to their extremes. Not the radicalism that is cocksure, however, but the radicalism that tries experiments.Gregory Bateson observed that for the members of a typical culture,CP 1.148 (c. 1897)
Their ideas about nature, however fantastic, are supported by their social system; conversely, the social system is supported by their ideas of nature. It thus becomes very difficult for the people, so doubly guided, to change their view either of nature or of the social system. For the benefits of stability, they pay the price of rigidity, living, as all human beings must, in an enormously complex network of mutually supporting presuppositions. The converse of this statement is that change will require various sorts of relaxation or contradiction within the system of presuppositions.[next]— Bateson (1979, 158-9)
Tolerance for creative minds as potentially prophetic, even without ready-made standards and certainly without any belief in their infallibility, seems to be a mark of the most mature societies. In the modern world, therefore, what corresponds to prophetic authority is the growth of what we called earlier a cultural pluralism, where, for example, a scientist or historian or artist may find that his subject has its own inner authority, that he makes discoveries within it that may conflict with social concern, and that he owes a loyalty to that authority even in the face of social opposition.On that last point, Peirce was more vociferous, especially when it comes to philosophical investigations:— Northrop Frye (1982, 128)
In philosophy, touching as it does upon matters which are, and ought to be, sacred to us, the investigator who does not stand aloof from all intent to make practical applications will not only obstruct the advance of the pure science, but, what is infinitely worse, he will endanger his own moral integrity and that of his readers.The ‘moral integrity’ which respects the authority of experience ‘may conflict with social concern’: another example of the creative tention that keeps the meaning cycle turning. [next]CP 1.619, RLT 107 (1898)
All this is for habitation by the Lord.When our habits are transformed by a turning sign, we commit the act of meaning by recreating it in continuous practice. [next]— Isha Upanishad (Aurobindo 1996, 19)
However, when a text is institutionalized , it tends to get buried under layers of interpretation serving the interests of the institution, and has to be resurrected by recreation to serve as a turning sign. Then the presence of the Author is renewed, and the authority of the institution fades into the context. Otherwise the powers vested in the institution can become an instrument of domination by its officers. This robs the rest of us of opportunities for self-control, as we are reduced to obedience instead: the Eternal Author becomes ‘a tyrant crowned,’ as William Blake observed. This is the genesis of the ‘mystery religions’ against which Blake waged a lifelong struggle. It is also the cause of conflict between the Prophet and the Priest: the Prophet speaks from the human experience of Eternity, while the Priest speaks for a remote and inscrutable God, ‘old Nobodaddy’ as Blake called him. Blake's inscription to Milton is appropriate here: ‘Would to God that all the Lords people were Prophets’ (Numbers 11:29). [next]
When a man desires ardently to know the truth, his first effort will be to imagine what that truth can be. He cannot prosecute his pursuit long without finding that imagination unbridled is sure to carry him off the track. Yet nevertheless, it remains true that there is, after all, nothing but imagination that can ever supply him an inkling of the truth. He can stare stupidly at phenomena; but in the absence of imagination they will not connect themselves together in any rational way.[next]— Peirce (CP 1.46, c. 1896)
I never understand anything until I have written about it.— Horace Walpole
Another kind of artist might say ‘I haven't really seen anything until I have drawn it.’ For writers, Annie Dillard offers a more detailed view of the process in The Writing Life (1989). Eugene Gendlin's focusing is a technique for dipping into the ‘implicit intricacy’ which is the creative source of understanding, as illustrated in Chapter 4 by the experience of writing a poem. From this point of view, Walpole's observation is that writing is a way of exploring the implicit intricacy by trying to make it explicit – even though simplexity (Chapter 11) guarantees that consciousness can never match the intricacy of the unconscious processes which it aims to explicate. The drawing is always simpler than its subject. Ray Jackendoff puts the point in linguistic terms:
Language use continually involves unconscious processes, both prior to and during conscious phases. So, although some unconscious processes (such as sensory processing) must precede awareness, not all do. In addition, unconscious representations if anything must be more highly articulated than those that appear in consciousness, not more ‘primitive’: compare the elaboration of unconscious linguistic structure with the degree of awareness one has of this structure.We use our knowledge of the language – or any semiotic system – without being conscious of that knowledge; and by using it in practice, we renew our acquaintance with the objects of our signs, even though the symbols we generate do not convey that acquaintance. At best they can give us hints for consciously directing our attention, just as semiosis directs our intentions. [next]— Jackendoff (1994, 90)
The work of the poet or novelist is not so utterly different from that of the scientific man. The artist introduces a fiction; but it is not an arbitrary one; it exhibits affinities to which the mind accords a certain approval in pronouncing them beautiful, which if it is not exactly the same as saying that the synthesis is true, is something of the same general kind.The poet Keats, in the final stanza of his ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, seems to say that beauty and truth are exactly the same:Peirce, EP1:261
O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with bredeA comment by Arthur Koestler bridges the gap between Peirce and Keats on the relation of beauty to truth:
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
Beauty is a function of truth, truth a function of beauty. They can be separated by analysis, but in the lived experience of the creative act— and of its re-creative echo in the beholder— they are inseparable as thought is inseparable from emotion.— Koestler (1964, 331)
Considered as art forms, the above three quotations do not compete with one another as hypotheses often do in science.
No work of art claims to be more than one of an infinity of mental syntheses. It includes no solid body of impersonal truth; it suspends judgment on the inherent truth of all creeds and regards all explanatory and dogmatic systems as art-forms.Belief systems (such as religions) which do claim ‘inherent truth’ disqualify themselves as works of art. Explanatory systems (such as sciences) differ from art forms mainly in the testability and fallibility of their truth-claims. They don't exactly suspend judgment, but they do postpone a final judgment indefinitely. [next]— Northrop Frye (1947, 88)
In the Kabbalistic view, the Torah existed before the physical world, which was created by means of the Word. The Qur'án has been likewise regarded by Muslims as ‘uncreated,’ giving it metaphysical priority over the created world. For Sufis such as Baha al-Din (father of Jalal al-Din Rumi), ‘all creation came into being with God's command, “Be,” so that the universe is speech, created by a single word’ (Lewis 2000, 90). Consequently it makes sense to organize one's whole life around reading and meditating on the Qur'án or Torah, as the case may be. ‘Always busy yourself with the word of the Koran and know that the meaning of the whole world is in that one word of the Koran,’ advised Baha al-Din (Lewis 2000, 87). Kabbalists like Abraham Abulafia took the compression of meaning even further, ‘focusing on the pure forms of the letters of the alphabet, or on the name of God’ (Matt 1995, 12). This for them was the way of renewal or recreation, of reunion with the creative power.
Today we could read this practice as metaphorically affirming the semiotic nature of the universe. Spirit is significance itself; and as Peirce put it, matter is ‘effete mind’ – a portion of original Minding which has fallen so far into habitual patterns that its original spontaneity is almost completely exhausted. Human conscious mentality, with its symbolic media and extensions enabling foresight, planning and conscious decision-making, is a specific refinement in concentrated form of more universal (larger-scale, slower, vaguer) mental processes such as evolution (Bateson 1979) or development (Salthe 1993).
The cosmic mind impersonates itself in each of us, and we return the favor by personifying it as God, who is Author of the universe just as we author our own conceptions. The danger here is that we may wrap ourselves up in our own creations, be they conceptual or technological, and thus cut ourselves off from the more-than-human reality around us. The glories of the biosphere itself may come to seem a mere distraction, which we shut out with an artificial cocoon – an ‘Abominable Corruption’ of our nature, as Thomas Traherne put it (First Century, 31).
Leaving the cocoon is becoming homeless in the sense honored by religious traditions (especially Buddhism: Snyder 1990, 103 ff.) – leaving behind the temptations and complications of social life, especially urban life, and thus becoming free to venture into the more-than-human world. ‘“Homeless” is here coming to mean “being at home in the whole universe”’ (Snyder 1990, 104).
Can such a metamorphosis take place at the higher scale of a human community? Elisabet Sahtouris argued in EarthDance that the process is already under way, as bioregionalism begins to replace the global culture of extractive capitalism:
Bioregionalism is consistent with grassroots democratic movements that are cropping up all over the world, creating new local self-sufficiency systems with their own currencies. From huge housewives cooperatives in Japan to sustainability movements in the hi-tech Silicon Valley world, ordinary people are taking control over their lives into their own hands and practicing local democracy.[next]Many people wonder how long we have to turn things around. It is really not a question of some critical turning point, but of nurturing more viable systems even as the old ones decay. One metaphor for our changing world is Norie Huddle's story of a caterpillar’s metamorphosis into a butterfly. After consuming hundreds of times its own weight daily as it munches its way through its ecosystem, the bloated caterpillar forms its chrysalis. Inside its body, new biological entities called imaginal discs arise, at first destroyed by its immune system. But as they grow more in number and begin to link up, they begin to survive. Eventually the caterpillar's immune system fails, its body goes into meltdown and the imaginal discs become the cells that build the butterfly from the spent materials that had held the blueprint for the butterfly all along. In just this way, a healthy new world, based on the principles of living systems, can emerge through today's chaotic transformation.— Sahtouris 1999 (Kindle edition)
The word flies, ascending and descending, and is transformed into a heaven. So each and every word of wisdom is transformed into a heaven, existing enduringly in the presence of the Ancient of Days. He calls them new heavens, newly created heavens, hidden mysteries of supernal wisdom. As for all other innovated words of Torah, they stand before the blessed Holy One, then ascend and are transformed into earths of the living (Psalms 116:9). Then they descend, crowning themselves upon one earth, which is renewed and transformed into a new earth through that renewed word of Torah. Concerning this is written: As the new heavens and new earth that I am making endure before Me.… (Isaiah 66:22). The verse does not read I have made, but rather I am making, for he makes them continually out of those innovations and mysteries of Torah.It seems that ‘one engaged in Torah’ participates in continuous creation, as his interpretive practice renews the procedure of the original Creator: ‘He gazed upon her [Torah] once, twice, three and four times, then spoke, creating through her’ (Zohar 1.5a). [next]— Zohar 1.4b-5a (Pritzker edition)
Usually we assume that time is something that is flowing from the past, through the present, and toward the future, and that we live within time. However, if we think about this in terms of raw life-experience, we realize that this is not at all so. The past has already gone by and doesn’t exist, and the future hasn’t come yet, so it doesn’t exist, either. Actually, there is just this one moment of the present; our ideas of past and future are nothing but the scenery that floats into our minds within this momentary present. One might be tempted to say that this isn’t true, since “old” things like buildings and books are right here and now. However, as the reality of life, these buildings and books exist only in the present, and thinking that they are “old” is nothing but the present thought in my head. In other words, my currently existing head gives the attribute of “old” to the buildings and books that exist right now. In terms of raw life-experience we are always living out the present that is only the present, the now that is only now.[next]— Uchiyama 2004, Chapter 7
The inscription on the bath-tub of King T'ang read, ‘If you can renovate yourself one day, then you can do so every day, and keep doing so day after day.’ In the ‘Announcement of K'ang,’ it is said, ‘Arouse people to become new.’ The Book of Odes says, ‘Although Chou is an ancient state, the mandate it has received from Heaven is new.’ Therefore, the superior man tries at all times to do his utmost [in renovating himself and others].(Chan 1963, 87)
Even the most conservative guidance systems require periodic renewal; a wholly predictable life would hardly be worth living. This is the price we pay for being adaptive systems: in order to realize our nature, we require a constant infusion of new circumstances to which we can adapt, or else new ways of adapting (even though the old ways might serve their old purposes well enough). This is the psychological aspect of the ‘fresh energy’ feeding the ‘perfect sign’ as Peirce describes it.
Not every change is an improvement, but every intended improvement is first of all a change, motivated by dissatisfaction with the status quo. As Polanyi (1962, 18) puts it, ‘time and again men have become exasperated with the loose ends of current thought and have changed over to another system, heedless of similar deficiencies within that new system.’ N.O. Brown's last book, Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis, begins with the following inscription:
And be not conformed to this world [be nonconformists]; but be ye transformed [metamorphose yourselves] by the renewing of your mind.[next]— Brown's translation [with his glosses] of Romans 12.2
Life imitates art. We shape our tools and thereafter they shape us.— John M. Culkin, “A Schoolman’s Guide to Marshall McLuhan” (Saturday Review, 1967)
Every time we introduce a new tool, it always leads to new and unexpected discoveries, because Nature's imagination is richer than ours.[next]— Freeman Dyson, ‘The Scientist as Rebel’, in Cornwell (ed.), Nature's Imagination
After the initial basis of a rational life, with a civilized language, has been laid, all productive thought has proceeded either by the poetic insight of artists, or by the imaginative elaboration of schemes of thought capable of utilization as logical premises. In some measure or other, progress is always a transcendence of what is obvious.— Whitehead (1929, 9)
‘Productive thought’ then is bound to be imaginative. But it is an imaginative response to (or anticipation of) actual experience – not imaginary experience – that is most productive, in science, art and religion.
Our conceptual imagination, like its artistic counterpart, draws inspiration from contacts with experience. And like the works of imaginative art, the constructions of mathematics will tend therefore to disclose those hidden principles of the experienced world of which some scattered traces had first stimulated the imaginative process by which these constructions were conceived.— Polanyi (1962, 46)
… a fact or datum, by itself, is essentially meaningless; it is only the interpretation assigned to it that has significance. Thus, for example, one can literally see the rotation of the earth on any starry night; it has always been patently visible, but for millennia human beings did not know how to understand or interpret what they were seeing. Examples of such misinterpretation, which have retarded the development of science by centuries, can be multiplied without end in the history of science; in all these cases, it was the absence, not of data, but of imagination that created difficulty.Robert Rosen's point is clear: neither science nor understanding in general can proceed without that element of imagination which carries interpretation beyond conventional habits to recreate the significance of factual data and actual experience. It is part of the loop (cycle, recursive process, hermeneutic circle, ..... ) which constitutes practice as opposed to undirected activity: perception guides imagination, imagination guides modeling, modelling guides expectation, expectation guides attention, attention guides perception, and the closure of the whole loop guides the bodymind on its way in the world.— Rosen (1991, 17)
Action can be guided by a much shorter circuit, such as a reflex arc, but we don't generally speak of such actions as guided, or even as acts. The attempt to reduce all mentality to “reflexes,” and the behaviorist campaign to banish mind and consciousness from our models of ourselves, appear ludicrous to us now – yet it dominated psychology (at least in the US) through most of the 20th century (Baars 2003). It took imagination to move beyond behaviorism.
But Rosen's comments (above) also invite some questions. In what sense can you ‘literally see the rotation of the earth’ on a starry night? What you can detect visually on a single night – if you are more patient than most people, and far enough from urban light pollution to see the stars at all – is that the whole field of stars revolves around a central point, which in the northern hemisphere is approximately Polaris, the North Star. You could infer from this that you are standing on a planet which is revolving on an axis which points toward that central point – and then the apparent motion of the stars is visible as the rotation of the earth.
If you make a different inference – like the one implied by the words sunrise and sunset, that the sun is moving around your standpoint – then what you “literally” see at night is the turning of the stars, not the rotation of the earth. Even this turning is too slow for human vision to perceive in “real time”; we have to call upon memory in order to “see” the movement of the stars. Between literal and figurative, or between reading and interpretation, the line is often difficult to draw. Indeed it takes imagination to draw such a distinction, just as it takes hypostatic abstraction to ‘regard a thought as a thing, make an interpretant sign the object of a sign’ (Peirce, EP2:394).
And what of the ‘difficulty’ which Rosen blames on the absence of imagination? Was the development of science really ‘retarded’ before science showed us all that we stood upon a turning planet? Or is this like saying that the development of a human embryo is ‘retarded’ before the eyes are functional or the fingers articulated? Perhaps we cannot say; all we can do is live the time by our tacit models, and meanwhile carry them forward through constant renovation. What makes this difficult in the 21st century – and lies behind the current mass extinction on planet Earth – is the absence of ecological imagination in this stage of the Anthropocene. [next]
So it is with the seeker and the object of the mythic Quest, according to Joseph Campbell:
The cosmogonic cycle is presented with astonishing consistency in the sacred writings of all the continents, and it gives to the adventure of the hero a new and interesting turn; for now it appears that the perilous journey was a labor not of attainment but of reattainment, not discovery but rediscovery. The godly powers sought and dangerously won are revealed to have been within the heart of the hero all the time. He is ‘the king's son’ who has come to know who he is and therewith has entered into the exercise of his proper power—‘God's son,’ who has learned to know how much that title means. From this point of view the hero is symbolical of that divine creative and redemptive image which is hidden within us all, only waiting to be known and rendered into life.
The two—the hero and his ultimate god, the seeker and the found—are thus understood as the outside and inside of a single, self-mirrored mystery, which is identical with the mystery of the manifest world. The great deed of the supreme hero is to come to the knowledge of this unity in multiplicity and then to make it known.— Joseph Campbell (1949, 39-40)
Charles Peirce, in an essay called ‘New Elements’, adresses the ‘mystery of the manifest world’ in a way that reflects both the ‘knowing’ of the mystic and the ‘cosmogonic cycle.’ But his cosmogony is strictly logical. What he aims to explain is why the universe is intelligible at all. ‘That is logical which it is necessary to admit in order to render the universe intelligible’ (EP2:324). And since all knowledge is in signs, logic is essentially semiotic.
Logic is a science little removed from pure mathematics. It cannot be said to make any positive phenomena known, although it takes account and rests upon phenomena of daily and hourly experience, which it so analyzes as to bring out recondite truths about them. One might think that a pure mathematician might assume these things as an initial hypothesis and deduce logic from these; but this turns out, upon trial, not to be the case. The logician has to be recurring to reexamination of the phenomena all along the course of his investigations. But logic is all but as far remote from psychology as is pure mathematics. Logic is the study of the essential nature of signs.(EP2:311)
The main subject of Peirce's essay is the nature of the proposition, which has to be a symbol or ‘genuine sign’ (EP2:307). ‘A symbol is defined as a sign which is fit to serve as such simply because it will be so interpreted’ – that is, because ‘it determines the interpretant sign’ (EP2:308). This definition is much simpler than the one given in Peirce's 1903 classification of signs (EP2:292); but he also adds here that symbols ‘have a great power’: ‘They alone express laws. Nor are they limited to this theoretical use. They serve to bring about reasonableness and law’ (EP2:308). That is, they are essential for both Theory and Practice.
Moreover, a ‘symbol is something which has the power of reproducing itself’ (EP2:322), i.e. generating interpretants which are also symbols. Taken together, these ‘powers’ explain why Peirce's semiotic cosmology turns out to be cyclic. Symbols harness the semiotic energy which drives the meaning cycle to make the universe intelligible. They ‘cause real facts’ (EP2:322) by determining things both cognitively and conatively.
According to this logic, the universe must have begun with nothing at all – but this Nothing is a symbol.
If we are to explain the universe, we must assume that there was in the beginning a state of things in which there was nothing, no reaction and no quality, no matter, no consciousness, no space and no time, but just nothing at all. Not determinately nothing. For that which is determinately not A supposes the being of A in some mode. Utter indetermination. But a symbol alone is indeterminate. Therefore, Nothing, the indeterminate of the absolute beginning, is a symbol.Presumably the symbol is indeterminate (by definition) because exactly what interpretant it determines is not predetermined. But where does the semiotic or ‘logical energy’ come from that enables a sign to determine or ‘cause’ anything? This is like asking a physicist what caused the Big Bang.(EP2:322)
There can, it is true, be no positive information about what antedated the entire Universe of being; because, to begin with, there was nothing to have information about. But the universe is intelligible; and therefore it is possible to give a general account of it and its origin. This general account is a symbol; and from the nature of a symbol, it must begin with the formal assertion that there was an indeterminate nothing of the nature of a symbol.Peirce's wholly indeterminate universe, it seems, is already alive with the spontaneous initiative he ascribed to ‘the absolutely First’ in his 1888 ‘Guess at the Riddle.’ There is no explicit mention of Peirce's phenomenology in ‘New Elements,’ but his universe of ‘nothing at all’ seems to contain elements of Secondness (‘reaction’) and Thirdness (‘mediation,’ ‘representation’) along with its Firstness:(EP2:323)
A chaos of reactions utterly without any approach to law is absolutely nothing; and therefore pure nothing was such a chaos. Then pure indeterminacy having developed determinate possibilities, creation consisted in mediating between the lawless reactions and the general possibilities by the influx of a symbol. This symbol was the purpose of creation. Its object was the entelechy of being which is the ultimate representation.If that ‘ultimate representation’ was already the object of the symbol which was ‘the purpose of creation,’ then creation itself is a cyclic process, and it is only the directionality of time that turns it into a continuous process of devlopment or evolution, from pure chaos through an ‘infinite series of interpretants’ (EP2:323) to the ultimate self-representation.(EP2:324 )
Mystical or mysterious as this account may seem (EP2:324), it bears some resemblance to the biological account of cognition given a century later by Walter Freeman, not only in its circular causality but also in the role of ‘chaotic activity’ at the beginning of a cognitive cycle. This chaos is the neural substrate of the undifferentiated feeling carved up by the process of perception (or practiception). Neural populations (cell assemblies, modules, ..... ) create form, or rather form emerges from the chaos of neural activity as attractors in the state space of the brain. But the ongoing activity ‘cannot stay at a point attractor, because that can occur only when the neurons are silent, and inactive neurons atrophy and die’ (Freeman 1999a, 115-16).
The brain cannot rest with a static percept or concept because life itself is a continual quest for equilibrium which is made unattainable by its own dynamic. Thus the human mind is notoriously restless; if there is not enough action in the scene before us, we call on imagination to supply some, just as our eye muscles supply saccades to induce some difference in the visual field. This happens involuntarily, of course, but the tendency has an effect on the conceptual structures underlying our conscious use of symbols.
In cognitive linguistics, Leonard Talmy's study of ‘fictive motion’ finds a ‘cognitive bias toward dynamism’ in the full spectrum of ‘ception’ (from perceiving to conceiving). Becoming conscious of regular patterns in this underlying dynamism, or perceiving a static pattern in events, is therefore felt to be ‘a special and valued achievement.’
Thus, an individual who suddenly ceives all the components of a conceptual domain as concurrently co-present in a static pattern of interrelationships is said to have an ‘aha experience.’ And an individual that ceives a succession of one consequent event after another through time as a simultaneous static pattern of relationships is sometimes thought to have had a visionary experience.Or a revelation. [next]— Talmy (2000, I.172)
All mythology is studded with symbols, veiled in allegory; the parables of Christ pose riddles which the audience must solve. The intention is not to obscure the message, but to make it more luminous by compelling the recipient to work it out by himself—to re-create it. Hence the message must be handed to him in implied form—and implied means ‘folded in.’ To make it unfold, he must fill in the gaps, complete the hint, see through the symbolic disguise.— Arthur Koestler (1964, 337-8)
There are no foolproof methods or methodologies for unfolding the message of a myth or mythology. Peirce (in Baldwin's Dictionary) defined Methodology (or Methodeutic) as ‘a branch of logic which teaches the general principles which ought to guide an inquiry,’ which is a quest for some part of the Truth. But what guides the quest for the wholeness of Truth, for “the source” of it all? As Peirce went on to say, ‘owing to general causes, logic always must be far behind the practice of leading minds.’ Our intimations of that practice consist mostly of ‘hides and hints and misses in prints,’ often in the metaphoric or parabolic form of a ‘difficult text’ or a mythic symbol. [next]
For the sake of a single poem, you must see many cities, many people and Things, you must understand animals, must feel how birds fly, and know the gesture which small flowers make when they open in the morning. You must be able to think back …
And it is not yet enough to have memories. You must be able to forget them when they are many, and you must have the immense patience to wait until they return. For the memories themselves are not important. Only when they have changed into our very blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves—only then can it happen that in some very rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them.from The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (tr. Mitchell 1982, 91)
If we turn from the creation of a poem to the creation of the cosmos, turning the act of creation inside out (as it were), we get the concept of cosmic memory or karma. This is epitomized in Bhagavad-Gita 8.3, as translated by Gandhi (1926/2000, 136-7): ‘The Supreme, the Imperishable is Brahman. Its manifestation is adhyatma. The creative process whereby all beings are created is called karma.’ Gandhi's comment on this verse personalizes the process into an act: ‘Creating all beings and keeping them in existence is an act of renunciation and is known as karma.’ In the act of creation, Brahman renounces His Supremacy and Imperishability.
This seems to resonate with the Joycean idea that creation was the fall and the sin of the All-Father. Joyce would not have described creation as an act of renunciation, but Alan Watts (1966) comes close in his version of the Vedic story: the One Subject of experience disguises himself as myriad sentient beings, each of which forgets his identity with the cosmos and takes his individual role to be his real self. The object of this differentiation game is to remember the cosmic self – which cannot be truly remembered (experienced) unless it has been forgotten! So here too we have the One renouncing its omniscience in order to rediscover it. The equivalent in the Joycean myth is the felix culpa, ‘fortunate fall’ or ‘happy fault.’
I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of my covenant between me and the earth.… the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.There can be no rainbow without the rain (as well as the sun), no covenant (and no Ark) without the Flood. The bow is the sign of creative tention. [next]— Genesis 9.13-15 (KJV)
As often in psychology, anomalous cases may give us the crucial clues to the laws behind familiar phenomena. Neurologist V.S. Ramachandran cites the case of a woman born with no arms, who nevertheless experienced arms all her life, often gesturing with them as she talked (Ramachandran and Blakeslee 1998) – just as amputees usually experience ‘phantom limbs,’ except that her physical limbs had never existed. Her arms were mythic: she could not show them to anyone, yet she could not deny their existence. Possibly the brain is “wired” to complete the human body image internally even when parts are missing from the external body. And possibly these mythic images are not limited to the body image but extend to our model of the world beyond the body, including basic features of the Umwelt common to the species.
It is also likely that we “fill in” our fragmentary knowledge of the world just as the visual system “fills in” the blind spot, automatically and unconsciously. This filling-in process is part of our habitual sense-making process – which is eminently fallible, as retroduction always is. Hirstein (2005, 175) remarks that confabulation and ‘filling in’ of memories may arise from this same process in the brain. It may also “run away” to produce what we call apophenia. [next]
So long as the magnitudes of perturbations remain within certain bounds, however, and occur on a more-or-less regular basis, ecosystems will develop. That is, their ascendencies tend to increase through the pruning of their less efficient, less cooperative elements. But when a system is confronted by a novel or extremely infrequent challenge, something that under normal circumstances had been a liability suddenly takes on a potential for strength-in-reserve. It is from the reservoir of sundry and unfit processes that comprise its overhead that the system draws to create an adaptive response to the new threat.At the psychological level, Arthur Koestler pointed out that ‘displacement of attention,’ which is often a factor in humour, can also be a factor in art and discovery, when the attention is displaced ‘from a dominant to a previously neglected aspect of the whole, showing it in a new light’ (Koestler 1964, 77). A similar role is played by the ‘slipnet’ in the computer models of human analogy-making devised by Douglas Hofstadter and associates (Chapter 11). [next]This glimpse into the origins of creativity in the natural world highlights an often unappreciated facet of human creativity. We correctly assume that to be creative a person requires a given amount of the right mental ‘machinery’ or intellectual capacity – but it happens all too often that the brightest individuals are not that creative. Many (I am prone to argue all) acts of human creation involve mistakes, chance happenings, or misconceptions that occur at or prior to the moment of creativity.— Ulanowicz (1997, 92-93)
All the world's a stage, and we all play our parts – this is the presentation of self in everyday life (Goffman 1959). Children learn to do this by ‘implicitly modeling the larger social structure’ in their play (Donald 1991, 174). Science too is a special kind of performance learned by emulation of mentors (Polanyi 1962). Even prophecy and martyrdom have performance elements (Lawson 1998). Sacred play is autotelic, and the player is the universal self.
Life is a game whose purpose is to discover the rules, which rules are always changing and always undiscoverable. For purposes of recreation, renewal and discovery, we play games of which the objects and rules are well and explicitly defined. Within these self-imposed limits, consensus is not a distant or unattainable goal but a present, pragmatic reality. Even competitive games are unplayable unless the opponents collaborate on applying the rules and pursuing the object of the game. True, like any artistic endeavor, such games can be used for entertainment, or used for external ends like fame or gain. But a game in its purity encloses its purpose and object: it is useless as the universe. To play with perfect concentration is to realize the use of the useless (Zhuangzi).
Next rePatch: Symbols Turning →
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
|Turning Signs Contents||References||SourceNet||Obverse (Chapter 19·)|