Friday, February 29, 2008

IV. A Specific Example of Truth and Lies: André Breton’s Mad Love

On the issue of truth and lies as elucidated in the previous section, Breton’s novel Mad Love becomes problematic on two levels. First, it is unclear just how fictional Mad Love really is. Much of it is straight autobiography, and a good portion of this book appears essayistic. One could perhaps argue that it is being true without being a lie. But other sections appear more “traditionally” novelistic, which is to say, fiction – thus, a lie. For this reason, I think we can consider it, in full, a novel, and thus a work of art.

The second problem with Mad Love is Breton’s use of photographs. The novel as a genre creates visual imagery through words (the lies of metaphors), but the use of photographs in Mad Love appears to subvert the language-created imagery in some places in the novel. The photographs show us what photographs can show us – they create, at least in this novel, “true” images. The images in Mad Love appear primarily to act as illustrations to the text. For example, on pg. 16, Breton describes how he uses cards as a way of reading his own fortune. But on pg. 17, we get a photograph by Man Ray showing what Breton has just described (though the black, artificial hand in the picture does make the image strange). Also, after discussing crystals on pg. 11, we see a photograph of crystals on pg. 12. These illustrations – and certainly this latter one – do not appear to add to the text, but appear more to only show us what we have already imagined, or, worse, make it obvious the author does not trust us to imagine the imagery he created in the text in the right way. He appears to be pushing truth rather than allowing his lies to create truth. If this is the case, one could argue that this novel is inartistic. His use of images is much different from the way Carole Maso uses images in her novel the art lover. Aside from the fact that she uses the repetition of many of her images to create meaning (we are reminded of the image each time it is repeated, making us recognize the image as meaningful, since memory makes meaning), she uses images effectively as text (creating a novelistic example of Derrida’s dictum that “everything is text”). For example, Maso has a section titled “The Message on the Machine” (129), which I will quote in its entirety:

“Hi. It’s Steven. Guess what? We’re neighbors. I’ve checked into St. Vincent’s. Doctor’s orders. My number is 427-4410. Give me a call, darling. Bye.”

This is followed by an illustrative image showing a sectional view of HIV. This is one of the most powerful, effective sections I have read in a novel. It works because it says, with the image, something that could not have been said as effectively any other way. It is an effective lie. This conjunction of image with text says something that could not be said any other way, and thus serves the lie, making it more true. I have seen similar illustrations of HIV in textbooks, magazines, newspapers, etc. – but none had the impact it has in Maso’s book. Her use of the image created a complex of emotions that could not have been created if Maso had just come out and said the caller had AIDS.

Breton does not approach this level in the pictures he uses in his novel, though the illustration on pg. 20 of what he means by saying convulsive beauty must be “fixed-explosive” (19) does clarify this phrase in a more helpful way than does the illustrations illustrating what he has already described. One could argue that he gave us the truth that served the lie. However, this method could also be justified as a way by which Breton draws our attention to the disparity between what he was imagining when he was writing (which the photographs supposedly illustrate), and what we are imagining as we are reading. In this novel Breton could be showing us the disparity between the author’s imagination and the reader’s imagination (no matter how well-guided by the author), drawing our attention to the existential space of the novel itself, as the space where two dreams are brought together, the same, and yet different. This, then, brings us to the definition of beauty I have been using: “uniformity amongst variety.” Breton makes disparity in vision (perspectivism) beautiful. He is showing us the lies of our truths – through the use of two styles of art: the novel and photography.

But this novel is not just (or primarily) a collection of photographs illustrating text. Breton also makes wonderful use of metaphor to break up our conceptual categories. If we take a look at an unillustrated scene toward the beginning of the novel (6), we find the following situation: a man enters, who has, Breton believes, loved the women Breton sees seated on a bench. Breton then goes on to describe the man:

He scarcely is at all, this living man who would hoist himself up on this treacherous trapeze of time. He would be unable even to exist without forgetfulness, that ferocious beast with its larva-like features. The wonderful little diamond slipper was headed off in several directions.

What do we have in this section? The narrator first comments that the man has a certain unreality and transience about him (to the narrator): “He scarcely is at all,” and “He would be unable even to exist without forgetfulness.” Is this meant to be understood objectively or subjectively? It is unclear, due to the presence of the first person narrator – but one whose style appears to create distance. There is a shadowiness to this man the narrator sees; but we do not know if the shadowiness is real, or if it is only because the narrator perceives him as shadowy. Or is the shadowiness real because the narrator perceives it?

There is also an ambiguity in who the “diamond slipper” is: is it the man, or is it perhaps some woman the narrator is after? It is difficult to tell from the text at this point in the story, but the fact that the “diamond slipper” is separated by forgetfulness being described as a beast, suggests the slipper could be someone else (the diamond slipper is suggestive of Cinderella). Either way, the narrator’s bringing these three metaphoric descriptions together needs explaining. What does it say about the narrator that these things are brought together this way? Is the narrator mad (as per the title)? Perhaps not. The man on the trapeze of time would swing back and forth in time (from past to present), but he only scarcely exists, even if forgetting were not a problem. Breton shows us with these descriptions just how transient we are to others: we barely register with them, and would barely register with them even if forgetting were not an issue. Breton captures, in this small space, the situation we all find ourselves in amongst anonymous strangers within the modern world, which is filled with anonymous strangers. We each pass in and out of people’s vision, barely registering with them (we get a level of irony here in Breton, since he says the man “scarcely is,” yet is able to register the fact that the man barely registers with him), while hoping we will continue to exist in memory (the “trapeze of time”). But if we are only noticed by someone for a moment, we will be forgotten: forgetfulness will eat away at memory as a maggot does a carcass – forgetfulness, “that ferocious beast with its larva-like features.” Breton metaphorically creates in this scene the situation of non-registry with anonymous others. And the diamond slipper? A reference to Cinderella, who was searched after (remembered). There is someone whom the narrator remembers, and is after; but he does not know (any more than Prince Charming does) where she is (since she was heading off in several directions). The three sentences then deal not with the man, but with the situation of remembering and forgetting, brought together in the same way as, in Lautréamont’s famous (and favorite of the surrealists) phrase, “Beautiful as the encounter of a sewing machine with an umbrella on a dissection table” (Mad Love 123n9). We are forgotten – because barely registered – by most people. It takes something special (a diamond slipper) for us to be remembered. This is the situation we find ourselves in with other people. The Romantics believe “that the loved one is a unique being” (7), but Breton not only tells us that “often social conditions of life can destroy such an illusion” (7), he shows us this with how he himself perceives the man he saw. This occurs in the present day.

Breton creates another Lautréamontean metaphorical conjunction when he describes: “Big bright eyes, of dawn or willow, of fern-crozier, of rum or saffron, the most beautiful eyes of museums open so as to see no longer, upon all the branches of the air” (9). How are eyes either of dawn or of willow? One appears to suggest the beginnings of brightness, the flush of color, leading to blue. The other suggests an airiness (willows tend to be open, airy trees), and light green. Fern-crozier is the curled-up top of a young fern leaf – dark green and brown – spiraling in a Fibonacci spiral. Rum tastes brown (this is something I have noticed, and perhaps Breton noticed too – others have confirmed my observation), while saffron is yellow. So why didn’t Breton just say eyes of blue, light green, brown-and-green (hazel), brown, and yellow? Each of Breton’s images also captures further elements these eyes project, beyond mere color. The sense of beauty and awe we feel at the dawn. The airiness of the willow. The feeling of depth and of being pulled in by the spiraling of the fern-crozier. The liquidity of rum (as well as its warmth). And, the delicacy of saffron. Breton draws our attention to the plurality found within the unity of the eyes (reminding us of Hutcheson’s definition of beauty, which suggests why Breton’s Lautréamontean approach is effective) that could not be captured by his merely using the color names. By exploding the difference into such apparently different things (only four in reality: dawn, rum, museum, and various plants – there is, with the plants, “uniformity amongst variety,” creating two such levels, or a fractal depth in his descriptive words), Breton draws our attention to Hutcheson’s definition of beauty, reminding us of it in the strangeness of the objects in his list. This creates the “only beauty which should concern us . . . convulsive beauty” (Breton, 10), by challenging the categories we place things in. He forces us to wonder what connects things like the dawn and willows, forcing us to reshuffle our categories. He draws our attention to the way we create concepts, questioning our conceptual categories, forcing us to imagine others. If beauty in art is, as Kundera says, “the suddenly kindled light of the never-before-said” (AN, 123), then Breton has certainly, in his Lautréamontean descriptions, said “the never-before-said,” which makes his descriptions of the eyes beautiful and, thus, an “unknown segment of existence.” A good deal of work is needed to access what Breton has uncovered – but I think it is worth the effort. So while Breton’s use of “truth,” as facts, in his work does tend to problematize the work, it does so in an artistic way – with lies, lies that tell the truth.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

III. Beauty: Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense

“There can be neither society nor culture without untruth. The tragic conflict. Everything which is good and beautiful depends upon illusion: truth kills – it even kills itself (insofar as it realizes that error is its foundation).” (Nietzsche, PT, 176)

Everything we (think we) know and understand is an illusion. A chair has the appearance of being unchanging – a stone more so. However, these objects are made of atoms, which vibrate and whose electrons orbit; and there are chemical reactions going on – surface oxidation at the very least. In order to maintain a chair in its best condition, it requires constant maintenance. It must be cleaned and polished – changed – in order for it to appear to remain unchanged.

Art and culture are artificial creations of the minds of humans and, in the case of culture, the great apes in general. They are illusions. “Art. Necessary lies and voluntary lies” (Nietzsche, PT, 813). The mind itself is an illusion of the complex brain – in a sense, the “mind” or “minding function of the brain” is nothing more than a system of firing neurons. It is neurons in action, in their interactions with the rest of the body, with its interactions with the environment. Life too is an illusion of certain kinds of organic chemistry, as one could literally understand every single aspect of biology as a series of chemical reactions. And atoms are illusions of energy strings. Some have gone so far as to suggest that the universe as a whole is nothing but a hologram (Jacob D. Bekenstein, “Information in the Holographic Universe” Scientific American, Aug. 2003), an idea supported in part by information theory. Emergent properties are the illusions (perhaps holograms would be a good metaphor overall) of the interacting systems that underlie the emergent systems.

Much has been made of the dissolution of the subject-object distinction. And Sartre shows the dissolution of the object-quality (noun-adjective) distinction in Nausea when Roquentin realizes that “the tree’s root is black” is not a statement of essence, but of quality. We must now dissolve the noun-verb distinction. Only then can we break out of the problem of eternal conceptual categories (Ideas, Forms, essences, and other metaphysical ideas). When we speak of culture, society, or even of art and literature, we are speaking of these things as if they are unchanging categories. When we speak of people, places, things, or ideas as nouns, we are seeing them as unchanging categories. While this may be a useful fiction at times, we must not allow ourselves to believe in the permanency of categories – something we are always in danger of. Culture is not a thing. It is the action of various human minds. As many human minds work together, act together, co-operate, we get the emergence of culture – a culture, not perpetual and unchanging, but itself transient and changing. It has momentary, temporary characteristics we can identify and discuss – remembering those characteristics have passed into the past as soon as we have observed them. This does not preclude repetition – ritual, the arts – but even the styles of the rituals and the arts pass into the past. And the minds too change, are mind-ing, not minds, no objects per se, but emergent of the work done by the neurons in the brain (and the brain itself is the collection of neurons at work). The neurons and all other calls (the body is the body-ing of the cells) are the cell-ing of biochemistry. Chemistry is the chemistry-ing of atoms; atoms are the atom-ing of particle-waves; particle-waves are the particle-waving of energy. And energy is en-ergon, in work, pure object-less action, without essence. Every noun can be understood more properly as verbs, as the actions of other entities, which are themselves actions of other entities, all reducible to object-less, essence-less action, energy, work. With this (deconstructionist) approach, everything becomes reduced to object-less, essence-less action, or becoming.

The opposite approach to deconstruction is emergence – whcih leads to the appearance of objects (we get the nouning of verbs). Dissipative structures theory shows us how actions give us the appearance of objects (object-appearance). It also shows these objects to be the appearance created by action. We have to understand each object is action, in action – object-action (also subject-action, or subject-object-action, as we are in action ourselves). In a sense, to merely verb the noun (to exchange minding for mind, as Fraser has suggested, and I have adopted) is not enough. It would be better to have a combination word for each noun that expresses both the appearance and the action. Instead of mind or minding, a third, mind(ing). An intervention which works well when written, but hardly workable when spoken. And there is always the danger that old metaphysical habits die hard, and that we will try to turn the new words, or constructions, into their own columbaria (to use Nietzsche’s metaphor). In the meantime, allow me to suggest that the universe as it becomes has so far appeared to have become as: Energy particle-wave(ing)s atom(ing)s chemistry(ing)s cell(ing)s body(ing)s-brain(ing)s mind(ing)s culture(ing)s. This embedded noun-verb grammatical construction may help us see object emergence from actions, but realistically it is impractical (impracticeable) in everyday writing and speech. In order to have this understanding enter and deconstruct our metaphysics of language, it will be up to those artists who understand the world this way to nudge the language toward this understanding, and nudge it in a way where it can easily and understandably enter the way we speak of and about the world. The type of intervention I have done is clearly insufficient for the job at hand. Other ways of speaking this understanding will have to be uncovered by the language arts – in works people will want to read. This is how literature will be able to speak the truth of appearance in action. We need a language which enacts emergence from action, which enacts dissipative structure. Or maybe we cannot, due to the grammatical structure of our language, and we will continue to always forget.

Of course, art does speak truth in the form of lies in a different way, in the way our language works. It works to speak human truth in the form of artistic lies. And this works in other ways of knowing as well. Consider an example from biology. The following is an extremely shortened and imprecise explanation of what would happen in the following situation. Suppose we have some mobile bacteria in solution and we put a drop of toxin into the solution on one side of the container. What would happen in purely chemical terms is the following:

The chemical would dissipate from the point of origin through the liquid. Several toxin molecules would bind to areas on folded polypeptide molecules embedded in a phospholipid bubble. This would generate a change in the geometrical configuration of the polypeptide, resulting in a chemical reaction on the inside of the bubble (let us say, for the sake of argument, that the specific chemical reaction is the addition of water to guanosine triphosphate (GTP) – which is a composite molecule consisting of the purine guanine, which is attached to the 1'-carbon of a ribose molecule, which has a chain of three phosphates attached to its 5'-carbon – to create the molecule cyclic guanosine monophosphate (cGMP), and a diphosphate). The product of this reaction would build up so long as the toxin kept the polypeptide properly configured, until there was enough of the product (cGMP) to bind another polypeptide to create another chemical reaction. This chain of reactions would culminate in a configuration change in a polypeptide close to the highest concentration of the toxin, so the chemicals adenosine triphosphate and water could attach to it and react together to create adenosine diphosphate and a phosphoric acid molecule, along with a change in the geometry of the polypeptide, which makes it rotate a polypeptide connected to a chain of polypeptides. Continued chemical reactions of ATP and water result in more rotations of the chain of polypeptides. This entire chain of chemical-physical events continues until the toxin is at low enough concentrations to decouple from the initial polypeptide and thus interrupt the cascade at its origin.

And now for a biological explanation:

The bacterium senses the toxin, and swims away to a safe distance.

One will notice that the purely biological explanation is much simpler than the chemical one. That simple biological explanation is an illusion masking the chemical complexity (and I gave a shortened version of that) underlying what happens biologically. Does the fact that this is a lie make it any less real (or “true”) because what happens can be explained in chemical terms alone? The biological lie of organic chemistry becomes a new truth. And this new truth is good (it promotes life – in this case, is life) and beautiful (as a unification of the diversity of chemistry). We can then see what Nietzsche means by “truth kills – it even kills itself”: if we consider the truth (the constituent parts) as more important than, or superseding the lie (the emergent system), then we will increasingly see the world as meaningless, as the underlying truths (which are themselves lies) become increasingly meaningless. By focusing on these “lower” truths, we miss the “higher” truths. This is why and how truth kills itself – through deconstruction (in leaving the world only deconstructed).

One gets out of this trap through affirming the lies. At the human level, that means culture and art. “Art treats illusion as illusion; therefore it does not wish to deceive; it is true” (Nietzsche, PT 184). If we recall the differentiation I made between truth and facts in chapter 1, we can see that facts are the truths underlying lies, while what we call truths are those lies themselves. In other words, from strings to humans, we speak of facts – while art, religion, and culture are the lies we make to tell us truths about ourselves. This is why Nietzsche says

The truest things in this world are love, religion, and art. The former sees through all dissimulations and masquerades; it penetrates to the core, to the suffering individual, suffers with him, pities him; the latter, as practical love, consoles the sufferer for his sufferings by telling him about another world order and teaching him to disdain this one. These are the three illogical powers, which acknowledge themselves as such. (PT, 177)

The truest things are love, religion, and art – these are the realms of truth, not of facts. The correspondence theory of truth is only applicable to umwelts below humans, to things knowable through science – or, facts. Facts which are lies covering other facts, etc. Love, religion, and art are the emergent properties-lies-products of humans which speak the truth. “When truth sets itself into the work, it appears. Appearance – as this being of truth in the work and as work – is beauty. Thus the beautiful belongs to the advent of truth, truth’s taking of its place” (Heidegger, PLT, 81). The pleasure we find in beauty (the unifying lie of pluralistic truth) is the pleasure of lying: “The pleasure of lying is an artistic pleasure; otherwise, only truth would possess any pleasure in itself. Artistic pleasure is the greatest kind of pleasure, because it speaks the truth quite generally in the form of lies” (Nietzsche, PT, 183). The bright colors of the goby are a lie – no goby has ever been as healthy as the male goby advertises itself to be. Which is itself a lie – since the goby obviously was fit enough to sport such colors and thus mate successfully. And each work of great art or literature is a lie – insofar as the work is better and more intelligent and wiser than the artist could ever be. Does this in any way denigrate the artist? Of course not:

man has an invincible inclination to allow himself to be deceived and is, as it were, enchanted with happiness when the rhapsodist tells him epic fables as if they were true, or when the actor in the theater acts more royally than any real king. So long as it is able to deceive without injuring, that master of deception, the intellect, is free; it is released from its former slavery and celebrates its Saturnalia. It is never more luxuriant, richer, prouder, more clever and more daring. With creative pleasure it throws metaphors into confusion and displaces the boundary stones of abstractions. (Nietzsche, PT, “TCNS” 2)

We wish to be lied to. And the artist, because (s)he can create things better, smarter, and wiser than (s)he is, is able to best lie to us and for us.

A good example of this desire to be deceived – and thus the desire to deceive – can be seen in the way we dress and act to sexually attract someone. A person who dresses fashionably rather than comfortably (or how they would prefer to dress when not trying to attract or keep someone’s interest) will attract far more (wo)men. They are in a sense lying with their clothes about who they are (regarding style, money, etc.). But it is an effective lie – as all advertising must be – and insofar as it serves life, it is beautiful. Someone who is well-dressed is in a sense beautiful – certainly more beautiful than a slob. A more extreme example could be used to illustrate this point. The most effective way to be so attractive to someone they would have sex with you right away (sooner rather than later) is to expand the lies beyond the clothes. A person who extensively (and confidently) lies about themselves will attract more people more strongly than someone who gives an honest portrayal of themselves. It is far more difficult to attract someone without lies – and one wonders exactly what kind of person one could attract without them, if one were honest (if that were possible) about the different masks one wears. At the same time, lies tend to fall apart over the long term. It is initial attraction which depends on lies – or exterior forms of beauty. However, if one wants to maintain a long-term relationship, one has to transition those we are attracted to into accepting the truths about ourselves our lies have covered. It seems those who are most effective at maintaining long-term relationships would be those who could create the lies that tell the truth about themselves, so the transition to their truths is built into their lies. This is part of the connection between acting and action. To “act” is to both do something, and to pretend to do something. So, if we act a certain way, after a while those actions can become actual. As Hamlet said to his mother, we should

“Assume a virtue if you have it not.
That monster custom, who all sense doth eat,
Of habits devil, is angel yet in this,
That to the use of actions fair and good
He likewise gives a frock or livery
That aptly is put on. Refrain [to-]night,
And that shall lend a kind of easiness
To the next abstinence, the next more easy;
For use almost can change the stamp of nature,
And either [curse?] the devil or throw him out
With wondrous potency.” (Act 3, Scene 4)

The same can be applied to the realm of art. Works of art and literature which only “tell the truth” (if that were even possible) would be inferior insofar as such works would be overly-detailed and thus not interesting – or they would show the utter meaninglessness underlying everything. No painting could ever tell the truth in this way, as the only way such detail could be achieved would be to fully recreate the object to be represented (but that too is impossible, since each object is in its full materiality unique). A fully “truthful” work of art is impossible. “Truth, as the clearing and concealing of what is, happens in being composed, as a poet composes a poem” (Heidegger, PLT, 72). Heidegger is here saying that truth is the lie that conceals (while simultaneously exposes) what is (the facts). In other words, art covers up what is. It adds an extra layer of lies over the lies of the original system, insofar as art represents something. In doing so, it uncovers truth. The uncovering of truths covers other truths – each unmasking is a masking. “The setting-into-work of truth thrusts up the unfamiliar and extraordinary and at the same time thrusts down the ordinary and what we believe to be such. The truth that discloses itself in the work can never be proved or derived from what went before. What went before is refuted in its exclusive reality by the work” (Heidegger, 75). On the other hand, the lie that is only a lie is also impossible. “Art is: the creative preserving of truth in the work. Art then is the becoming and happening of truth” (Heidegger, 71). We have tried to get at it with various forms of abstract art, which are attempts to create in paint “pure” concepts of abstractions (lies), but in the end such abstract works end up representing something to us.

What we have in the great work of art or literature is the lie that tells the truth. There are several ways in which lies can tell the truth, from “photorealism” to surrealism to various kinds of abstractions – and everything in between and among them. In literature, we see some of the biggest failures in beginning writing students when they try to tell a story the way it “really happened.” These stories are failures because they attempt to tell the truth as truth, or fact. There is no art – no artifice – to the stories. The most extreme version of this emphasis on multiplicity at the expense of unity is in the so-called Language Poets. These poets too are attempting to get at the truth at the expense of the truth-telling lie. Thus, they fail. Further, one sees similar problems when beginning writers are too abstract. There is unity without multiplicity – there is a lie without truth. And the work, again, collapses. The problem is that each of these kinds of writers do not realize the importance of truth and lies – of multiplicity and unity – to art and literature. They either reject the lies outright as immoral, or reject the truth as inconvenient for the lies they want to believe. The important thing is that the lie serve life. Any lie that does not serve life is an immoral lie. To the extend it does serve life, it is true. This is the role which art must take – to create emergent realities – to create true lies.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

II. Beauty as Complementarity: The Agonal Unification of Opposites

For Nietzsche, tragic beauty comes about through the agonal unification of the Apollonian and the Dionysian aspects of physis. Each is of equal importance (see BT) – if Nietzsche later emphasized Dionysus, it was to counterbalance the overly Apollonian-Socratic culture he was living in. After the 2oth Century, it is Apollo that is most necessary. Or, more accurately, a true balance between the two. Ernst Fischer goes further and says that all beauty has inherent in it an agonal unification of opposites, where “each contains the germ of its opposite, as expressed in the yin-yang symbol” (167). Each is complementary; one is not above another, they are equal in importance, and each requires the other for existence. Thus, Fisher lists the following agonally unified opposites as constituting beauty:

Native – Foreign
Light – Shadow
Logos – Eros
Emotion – Intellect (Reason)
Conscious – Unconscious
Soul – Technology
Feeling – Thinking
General – Specific
Universal – Particular

Some of these are more applicable to humans than to other animals (the agonal unification of Soul – Technology in particular) – meaning humans, having more agonal elements, have a deeper understanding of beauty. Humans perceive beauty because beauty itself merges “a (mental) interior and a (sensorially grasped) exterior to make cognition aesthetically possible” (135). Through this, beauty “generates truth simply by a fusion of the mental and the sensual” (Joseph Brodsky, quoted by Fischer, 135). Thus Fischer concludes that “it is by perceiving with our senses and recognizing beauty that we come to regard a thing as valuable and worth preserving” (159).

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Chapter 7: On Beauty: I. The Birth of the Arts From the Spirit of Ritual

Ritual is how vertebrates attempt to reorganize the world when faced with conflicts having to do with their perception of that world. As Lorenz points out in On Aggression, the most common conflict among vertebrates is between the aggressive protection of territory and the needs of sexual reproduction. For animals such as schooling fish, this is not a problem. Herring are simple in both their coloration and in their behavior. Why spend energy on potentially dangerous bright colors to attract mates when everyone releases their eggs and sperm all at once, collectively? And why develop complex behaviors if there is no reason to, if there is no conflict, since there is no need to defend territory if you are a schooling fish in the open ocean? The beauty of herring is expressed only at the level of the golden mean – the simplest fractal form – in their shape, reproduction, and behavior.

Conflict creates greater feedback processes, transforming simple golden mean ratios into more complex fractal forms. An example would be the brightly-colored gobies, which are very territorial. “For many vertebrates, a clearly defined territory for offspring rearing seems to be fundamental. This involves aggressive behavior of a great variety on the part of the male (and sometimes the female too), usually of a ritual nature, but effective in defending an area” (Bonner, 86). The bright colors serve two purposes – to warn and to attract. The warning is for members of the same sex. The attraction is for the opposite sex. In both cases the bright colors advertise health: brightly-colored fish are strong, well-fed, healthy fish. The conflict comes about in the need to aggressively defend territory versus the need to sexually reproduce. If one just defends, one runs off potential mates. But passive gobies lose territory – and thus, ironically, cannot attract mates. What develops from the conflict between these straightforward actions of defense and sex is the mating ritual, a nonlinear feedback behavior designed to allow members of the opposite sex to enter one’s private space. It is a dance. It is a dance wherein linear elements conflict to create nonlinear systems, which reorganize the chaos created by the conflict into a sort of disorderly order. Ritual is the emergent system created out of the conflicting elements. It is a safe space in which the participants play out the conflicts, to ensure mating can occur. One effect of this is the development of the ability in gobies to differentiate between individuals. Territoriality (notions of private property) created individuality through the need to ritualize sex. In more social animals, including pair-bonding animals, this resulted in the development of personal relationships, including love. None of which could be possible without a complex neural system to allow for the creation of such complex behavior.

Complex ritualistic behavior resulted in more complex brains, as more complex rituals more effectively attract females. This is how vertebrates evolved more complex brains, leading to the complexity of mammalian behavior. Social mammals have strong social bonds even among those who are not mates. These bonds were generated through the elaboration of mating rituals into things like grooming rituals. Primates in particular have strong grooming rituals, which have elaborated into such things as sexual pleasure leading to recreational sex in humans and bonobos, and massage in humans. We can see this behavior in the fact that “the human neurotransmitter vasopressin, which is closely associated with aggression, is also deeply implicated in the drive to stay with and cherish one’s mate and protect one’s offspring. Without the resistance to strangers there could be no individuality and love” (Turner, Hope, 170). The conflict is found even at the neurotransmitter level.

If we understand ritual as the attempt to create a new recursive order from the disorder created by the conflict between two or more linear orders, we can begin to understand the origins of a large number of human behaviors. As I pointed out in the previous chapter, we could get athletic sports out of the ritualization of combat/conflict. This would allow very large numbers of people to live together, and could help maintain unity both within and among communities. It also allows us to ritualize our xenophobia – it is better to ritually dislike Philadelphia because the Eagles are playing the Cowboys than it is to actually dislike someone because of their race, color, religion, gender, etc. One may object that it would be better if we did not dislike anybody at all. But as a territorial species, that is not an option – and without it we would have neither individuality nor love. To have love, including love of one’s own, love of one’s community, etc., one must have hate. Each of the things that is best about humans comes with what is worst about us. This is a shameful situation we can deal with through ritual transference – in the case of love of one’s community, to athletic sports. Ritual, beauty, is how we get beyond this sense of good and evil, of the wya good and evil are entangled with each other, to help us to become better and to make a better, more complex game.

I have introduced an idea developed at great length by Frederick Turner in Beauty and in The Culture of Hope, which is the issue of shame. Rituals “accept, frame, organize, and elaborate the chaotic shame inherent in death, life-crisis, birth, sexual awakening, and pollution, in such a way that we recognize the beauty that also attends those moments of embarrassing emergence and self-reference” (Hope, 48). Turner connects the feeling of shame to the feeling of beauty – there is a certain beauty in the ways in which we try to deal with our shame, when we deal with it through ritual, and we feel some shame at the very experience of beauty:

The traditional pan-human artistic genres are keyed to our neurophysiological makeup in such a way as to remind us of our materiality, our mortality, the automatism of our delight, as well as the strange reflexivity of our awareness. We are embarrassed by our pleasure in rhyme, by the sweetness of melody, by stories with neat endings, by gorgeous color combinations, and by the great natural genre of representation in general. (Hope, 49)

We feel shame because these elements of the arts make us aware we are materially part of the universe. The arts are the rituals we use to deal with the conflict between this material awareness and our feelings that we are, or should be, more than our material being – which is to say, they ritualize the conflict between life and death, of our awareness of our own immanent deaths, which came with our fullest self-awareness. The moment we became more fully aware we were alive – and of the connection between sex and reproduction – we became equally aware that we would also die. Philosophy, religion, and the arts are how we have dealt with this awareness.

The internal conflicts we as humans feel we feel as shame. Ritual – beauty – is how we deal with this shame. However, there are those who try to deny shame, who wish to avoid dealing with our shameful feelings. One way to deny shame is through transference to an Other – resulting in hatred of that Other: racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. These Others represent aspects of ourselves we wish to deny – and denigrating, or outright eliminating, the Other can appear to be an effective way to get rid of these feelings. But shame denial does not have to be relegated to those we feel ashamed at feeling superior to (and we should feel ashamed at that, while at the same time, we should not deny that we do feel that way toward some people, as denial only prevents us from properly dealing with those feelings). We feel ashamed of our material connection to the rest of the world. Body-soul dualism is the denial of this shameful feeling. We feel ashamed of our genetic connection to animals and other “lower” life forms. Creationism is the denial of this shame. We feel ashamed that we are more complex than other animals, that we are “special.” The hatred of humans – especially the best of and in us, of our art, literature, culture, technology, etc. – is the denial of this shame. We feel shame at receiving gifts. How can we ever “pay someone back” for the gifts they give us from the heart? Gifts create obligation (that is a gift’s cost), and obligation creates shame. For many, this is bad enough – but what if that gift is inherited? Intelligence is a gift from nature, from the particular genes we were born with, combined with the fortune of the parents a person is born to. It is a gift freely given, without the recipients having earned it (though education is the gift one can give one’s children, and to oneself, to make good use of that intelligence). So many intelligent people attempt to dumb themselves down through drink or drugs because they feel ashamed at being more intelligent than most other people. They do this to punish themselves, to try to deny the shame at receiving such a wonderful gift without having earned it. The attempt to deny their shame is an attempt to deny the gift they have received and to deny the obligation that comes with that gift. Instead, intelligent people should gratefully accept the gift they have been given, and use it to create gifts to give to everyone else. That is the proper use of a gift (be that gift intelligence, knowledge, wealth, or wisdom) – to create more gifts. To create the gift of beauty for others. But then, we feel shame at the very feeling of beauty. The postmodernists’ rejection of traditional artistic forms is the denial of this shame. It is here where we see that the rejection of shame is the rejection of beauty. Since beauty connects the (meta)physical world, epistemology, and ethics, we can also understand the postmodernists’ rejection of (meta)physics, knowledge, and any sort of universal ethics. When Milan Kundera admits to a distaste for rhythmic poetry because the steady rhythms remind him of his beating heart, which reminds him of his own future death (AN), we see the denial of shame in the denial of death itself – and, thus, the distaste for rhythmical form in poetry. Finally, we find in the rejection of the author (in Barthes’ death of the author) an attempt to deny the shame inherent in having someone (an authority) tell you a story, or how to think, what to know, or how to see the world.

The postmodernists’ denial of knowledge comes from the denial of their shame at realizing they cannot know anything with 100% certainty. The postmodernists are correct when they say we cannot know with 100% certainty what an author meant when (s)he wrote a work, as we cannot know their exact thoughts, emotions, state(s) of mind, attitude, etc.. Nor can we know with 100% certainty the cultural, historical, economic, etc. situation within which a work was written. Further, psychologists such as Jung and Lacan say the authors themselves cannot know exactly how and why their works are the way they are. All of which is true. But then the postmodernists go on to say that since we cannot know these or any other things with 100% certainty, we cannot know them at all – so we should not try. Thus Barthes’ call for the death of the Author. Why must we have this all-or-nothing approach? Why insist on knowledge-as-equivalence when knowledge-as-synonymity will do? As Eisendrath points out,

the reader’s difficulty in understanding the author’s intention, as the author’s difficulty in understanding his or her own, cannot argue away the residual usefulness of understanding the writer’s intentions and world. Whatever the difficulties, it seems worth attempting, even if full understanding is only an approachable limit, just as it is worth attempting to connect subjective experiences with neurophysiology, and, in real social relations, it is worth attempting to understand another person, or gain what is called “accurate sympathy”. (214)

The postmodernists see the difficulties before them and have given up – thus the source of contemporary apathy. But this too is a shameful position – so they try to convince others to join them in denying the possibility of knowledge. But this is just the denial of the shame we feel in realizing we will never be able to know anything with 100% certainty (other than those truths “of limited value” Nietzsche talks about in “Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense”). We should not join them in this exercise of shame denial. Even if we cannot know anything with 100% certainty, even if we cannot understand something someone else has experienced with 100% certainty (since there are no equivalent experiences), we can know things to an “approachable limit,” through synonymous experiences.

Nietzsche too noticed an increasing trend in shame-denial in the use of foreign words to designate something that could just as easily have been said in one’s native language:

When I say “wisdom” and “love of wisdom,” I certainly feel something more familiar and powerful than when I say “philosophy.” . . . the trick is sometimes precisely not to let things draw too near; for there often lies so much that is shameful in the familiar words. For who would not be ashamed to call himself a “wise man” or even merely “one who is becoming wise”! But a “philosopher”? This easily passes anyone’s lips . . . Is what we call “philosophy” today actually the love of wisdom? Does wisdom have any true friends at all today? Let us fearlessly replace the word “philosophy” with “love of wisdom”: then it will become clear whether they are the same thing. (PT, 47)

One could ask the postmodernists these same questions. But the postmodernists have gone a step further. For them, the word “philosophy” has become a shameful word. Wisdom is so foreign to postmodernism that “philosophy” has been abandoned for “theory.” There are fewer friends of philosophy – let alone wisdom – today than there were in Nietzsche’s day. It seems most have given up on the very idea of wisdom, exchanging the pursuit of wisdom for the pursuit of knowledge alone – which has also since been abandoned.

Ritual – including sacrifice, religion, and the arts – are how we deal with shame in an accepting and acceptable way. Sacrifice is a transference – a transmutation – of shame onto something of value. It is a commuted punishment. One form of this is the creation of the sacrificial scapegoat. But this scapegoating can be ritualized – through the artform of tragedy (goat-song). By turning scapegoating into tragedy, we show how shameful scapegoating itself is, through ritual, while allowing us to deal with that shame in the safe play-space of the tragic play. As all art provides a ritualistic scapegoat for all our shameful feelings in a safe-play space, all art has, as Fraser suggests, its origin in tragedy – even if it was only in the West where tragedy was purified.

These rituals all originated in the original mating rituals – which were dances. As Fraser suggests, the arts do originate in dance – as every ritual is a dance. Music is the dance of sounds (thus, the birth of tragedy from the spirit of music). And, as we have seen previously, language likely has its origins in music – thus, in ritual. Meaning our very awareness of death comes from ritual (mating ritual), which we have had to ritualize. Philosophy, religion, and the arts are how we ritualize our self-awareness of sex and death. Painting is at minimum the dance of arms, hands, and fingers, captured in the strokes of color. Jackson Pollock went so far as to turn painting into the capturing of the full body’s dance in color. And, as rituals have their origins in territorial species needing to mate, we can see the connection of beauty to reproduction. Beauty wishes to reproduce itself (Scarry) – which is why the universe is scalarly self-similar as it hierarchically emerges into new, more complex levels. Which is why art and literature are scalarly self-similar to the universe, though more complex than their creators – as we can see in the fact that readings of literature give rise to as many interpretations as there are readings (readers, plus re-readings), though good readings will be self-similar.

Monday, February 25, 2008

III. From Deconstruction to Reconstruction

Now that I have deconstructed the human cultural universals to show their evolutionary origins, we are left with the question of where this leaves us. If we can trace religion, and all the constituent parts of religion, to our extended sense of time, created by the recursive narrative-grammar structure of language, and the combination of these with various instincts we inherited from our ape ancestors, does that mean that is all there is to religion? No more than organic chemistry is all there is to biology. In the same way certain kinds of organic chemicals combine to create life, an emergent reality with properties unpredictable from mere knowledge of organic chemistry, religion is an emergent reality with properties unpredictable from mere knowledge of its constituent parts. Deconstructing religion the way I have allows us to see it has naturalistic, evolutionary origins in the same way biochemistry allows us to see how biology is related to organic chemistry. But if we want to study religion as religion, we must turn to theology, not to biology (or psychology); and if we are to study organisms as organisms, we must turn to biology, not chemistry. Biochemistry is one perspective on biology. One must look at many perspectives on an organism – its biochemistry, molecular biology, genetics, population dynamics, anatomy, physiology, sociobiology, ecology, etc. – if we want to approach understanding the organism as a whole. But we must not deceive ourselves regarding the naturalistic origins of religion any more than we should deny our need for religion, or that its existence creates a reality any less real for being an emergent system constructed of parts having naturalistic origins (is biology less real for being an emergent system of certain kinds of chemistry? – to allow ourselves an anthropomorphic moment, biology has the same unreal reality to an amino acid as religion has to a human being). What it does allow us to do is be fully conscious of what religion is: a game (as all complex systems are in this sense games) with rules we can and do change. It can allow us to be more self-aware, to better know ourselves, so we can more actively select those emergent social realities that allow for greater complexity – remembering that knowledge of and about the constituents of a system does not allow us to predict the emergent properties of that system. As it turns out, we do have several religion-systems we can look at and compare. We can use comparative theology to compare the emergent religion-systems, and look at the parts of each of these systems, to understand the relationship between the parts and the system which emerges from their interactions, including the people through which they interact. We could then continue to evolve our religions, as they have evolved in the past, only more self-consciously, with more self-awareness. If we managed to create better religions, or better versions of already-existing religions, they would be naturally selected for, while failures would be naturally selected against. The important thing for any reformer to remember is that any change should be for greater complexity – any system requiring the elimination of a group of people for it to succeed is one that goes against the very purpose of religion, which is to create a more complex, more moral society. At the same time, we have to remember that the very fact religions are complex systems suggests they are in many ways similar to organisms. Like organisms, religions have typically fought each other to protect their territory (some have even fought such things as science, mistaking it for another religion). This is perhaps because they are too similar – those of the same species fight for territory. Dissimilar species tend to live together, creating an emergent (eco)system. We need to learn the various religions can be understood as ways to understand God – but which do not negate the claim of any one religion to understand God – in a way that gives an emergent system from the constituent parts, the current religious systems.

Another option is to embrace the naturalistic view, rejecting eschatology, divination, and luck superstitions in favor of understanding that the future is inherently unknowable, incalculable, undetermined, as chaos theory shows. As naturalistic explanations proliferate, we can do away with magic, and as we understand that permanency is an illusion of becoming through dissipative structures, we can do away with soul concepts too (not to mention all notions of permanency, of Being). While understanding the world through the naturalistic chaos-complexity theory espoused here could lead to these conclusions, I am not certain that most people would be willing to embrace such conclusions, since it goes against our instincts. We need certain falsehoods.

The falseness of a judgement is not for us necessarily an objection to a judgement; in this respect our new language may sound strangest. The question is to what extent is it life-promoting, life-preserving, species-preserving, perhaps even species-cultivating. And we are fundamentally inclined to claim that the falsest judgements (which include the synthetic judgements a priori) are the most indispensable for us; that without accepting the fictions of logic, without measuring reality against the purely invested world of the unconditional and self-identical, without a constant falsification of the world by means of numbers, man could not live—that renouncing false judgements would mean renouncing life and a denial of life. To recognize untruth as a condition of life— that certainly means resisting accustomed value feelings in a dangerous way; and a philosophy that risks this would by that token alone place itself beyond good and evil. (Nietzsche, BGE 4)

The other problem with this approach is that it is merely reductionist, deconstructionist – which means it cannot show us the value of having these instincts leading to religion. It cannot show us the emergent properties of the religion-systems that develop, it cannot show us their beauty.

Perhaps we can have a third option in an artistic understanding, one that allows for a world we now know to be in constant flux. In discussing the kinds of changes our landscapes are undergoing – including our relationships to those landscapes, from an idea that nature is unchanging to an idea that it constantly evolves, Frederick Turner, in “The Landscape of Disturbance,” explains the differences between the old view of nature, and the new, evolutionary one, which is also a new cosmological view and, potentially, a new religious view as well:

We are undergoing a major transition in our basic cultural model of the human relationship with the rest of nature. To sum it up in a sentence, it is a transition from a heroic, linear, industrial, power-based, entropic-thermodynamic, goal-oriented model, to a tragicomic, nonlinear, horticultural, influence-based, synergetic, evolutionary-emergentist, process-oriented model. The heroic model postulates a human struggle with nature culminating in human victory, while the tragicomic model postulates an ongoing engagement within nature, between the relatively swift and self-reflective part of nature that is human, and the rest. The linear model imagines one-way causes and effects; the nonlinear model imagines turbulent interactions in which the initiating event has been lost or is at least irrelevant. The industrial model requires a burning; the horticultural model requires a growing. The power-based model's bottom line is coercion; the influence-based model's is persuasion and mutual interest. The entropic-thermodynamic model involves an inevitable and irretrievable expense of free energy in the universe and an increase of disorder when any work is performed; the synergetic-evolutionary model seeks economies whereby every stakeholder gains and new forms of order can emerge out of far-from-equilibrium regimes. The goal-oriented model imagines a perfect fixed or harmonious state as its end product, and tends paradoxically to like immortal, open-ended narratives; the process-oriented model knows that the function of an ending is to open up new possibilities, and it prefers beginning-middle-end narrative structures; it knows that nothing in the universe is ever perfect and immortal, and that death comes to everything.

This evolutionary, artistic understanding is what we need in this case. We need unity combined with the plurality created by deconstruction. An artistic understanding helps us see the system as both unified and having parts that themselves can be understood. An evolutionary understanding helps us see these things are in time, and change, and have emergent properties as they combine. For any religion to survive, it will have to do away with eschatologies and teleologies containing notions of an unchanging reality, so the religions can better help us deal with the knowledge that there are no unchanging realities, only the appearance of permanence in dissipative structures.

Nonetheless, we can now see why we associate religion with wisdom: religion is the unified system whose parts are the individual people of that system, who are themselves bringing together various instincts to create the system. Religion is unified relative to us, the parts of the religion-system, and wisdom is seeing the world as unified. Religion (as well as philosophy) is associated with wisdom – it is one of wisdom’s primary domains. This is why art and literature were, until (post)modern times, associated with wisdom. And it explains the attraction of cultural explanations in that culture resembles religion. Each culture is an emergent system of the particular manifestations of the cultural universals, and as such can resemble a religion in its overarching ability to explain a variety of things. To this extent, culture is a religion for those who insist we are completely culturally determined. If we want a truly beautiful religion (or philosophy, or culture, or work of art or literature), it needs to deal with the connection between knowledge and wisdom, and the appearance of being in change.

Friday, February 22, 2008

II. Some Other Human Instincts: A Short Summary

We have already seen that Frederick Turner adds combat, gifts, mime, friendship, lying, love, storytelling, and murder taboos to the list of sixty-seven human cultural universals; and I have included such neurocharms as narrative, selecting, classification, musical meter, tempo, rhythm, tone, melody, harmony, pattern recognition, giving meaning to certain color combinations, hypothesis, metaphysical synthesis, collecting, metaphor, syntactical organization, gymnastics, the martial arts, mapping, the capacity for geometry and ideography, poetic meter, cuisine, and massage. Many of these instincts are not uniquely human, though we have retained them: combat, gifts, mime, friendship, lying, love, narrative, selecting, classification, musical meter, tempo, rhythm, tone, melody, harmony, and pattern recognition can be found in other animals, including chimpanzees, gibbons, and, particularly the music neurocharms, in birds. But let us consider the possible origins of some of the uniquely human universals.

Table IV

Age Grading — this could have come from our extended sense of time, which we get from the recursive narrative structure of language + counting (which one could imagine coming from something like musical meter or tempo combining with language, or naming) + social hierarchy

Athletic Sports — this could have come from ritual + combat

Calendar — this could have come from our extended sense of time + counting + our recognition that there is a cyclical aspect to nature (an eternal return of the seasons, of the moon phases, of star patterns)

Cooking — discovery of fire + eating rituals + family feasting

Cosmology — need to explain everything to ourselves and each other, from langauge

Cuisine — instinct for beauty applied to taste + cooking

Dancing — ritualizing body movements to make more orderly + sexual display + music

Dream Interp. — our theory of mind + language + our instinct to create meaning

Ethnobotany — selecting + classification (as applied to plants)

Etiquette — ritualizing body movements to make more orderly + (for specifically dining etiquette) eating rituals + family feasting

Fire-Making — discovery of fire (from extended notions of what a “tool” could be)

Folklore — a kind of storytelling

Food Taboos — this could have come from our extended sense of time, leading to an awareness that certain foods can cause illness (later extended to taboos such as the American one against eating horse, following the close personal relationship Americans developed with the horse, due to our history – showing such instincts can be expanded to include emotional concerns)

Funeral Rites — this could have come from our extended sense of time, leading to an awareness of our own immanent deaths + ritual (to make meaning of the person’s death)

Hair Styles — bodily adornment + cleanliness training + hygiene (orderly hair = clean)

Hospitality — this could have come from our extended sense of time, leading to extended notions of kin groups + gift-giving + family feasting + greetings + visiting

Gymnastics — ritualizing body movements to make more orderly + strength-sexual display

Inheritance — property rights + knowledge of paternity (developed as we became increasingly monogamous) + extended sense of time; this could have come about from the following equation: Property Z belongs to A, child B belongs to A, therefore property Z belongs to B

Joking — language + ritual bonding

Kinship Naming — language + knowledge of paternity

Law — community organization + cooperation + division of labor + ethics + games + government + property rights + ritual + status differentiation + language

Marriage — ritual + sexual display + need for knowledge of paternity (by both male and female)

Martial Arts — ritualizing body movements to make more orderly + combat

Mealtimes — ritualization of family feasting on a daily schedule + cooking

Obstetrics — medicine + childbirthing

Penal Sanctions — ethics + law + government

Personal Names — language + theory of mind (theory of self-consciousness/identity of others)

Population Policy— this could have come from our extended sense of time, leading to a more fully-developed awareness of the connection between sex and reproduction

Pregnancy Usages— ritual + pregnancy (awareness that pregnancy = immanent birth, from our extended sense of time, leading to a more fully-developed awareness of the connection between sex and reproduction)

Puberty Customs — this could have come from our extended sense of time, leading to a more fully-developed awareness of the connection between the physical development of a child, sex, and reproduction, with sex becoming associated with becoming an adult

Residence Rules — a variation of property rights

Sexual Restrictions – this could have come from our extended sense of time, leading to a more fully-developed awareness of the connection between sex and reproduction

Surgery — tool usage + medicine

Weather Control— ritual to attempt to make chaos into order, applied to weather

Weaving — extension of tool usage + fine manipulation of fingers

I have left out some of these, as I have been and/or will be dealing with them in much greater detail throughout this work. But these should give us a good idea of how combinations of instincts could have given rise to new instincts, while retaining the old instincts. The combinations I have suggested are not beyond question. Further investigation and research into these instincts should result in additions, subtractions, or recombinations for at least some of these. What I have done here is show how each of these unique human instincts could have easily developed out of the instincts of the common ancestor of humans, chimpanzees, and bonobos. Every one of our actions, every one of our instincts, have evolutionary origins.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Chapter 6: On the Evolution of Cultural Universals: I. A Bad Story

Adam came downstairs, dressed in his suit, briefcase in hand. Bacon, scrambled eggs, toast, and grits made a blend of aromas that pulled him into the kitchen. His wife, Lily, placed the last glass on the table as Adam walked in. Both worked full time, and today was Lily’s turn to make breakfast,. She smiled at Adam as he came in and sat at his place at the table. The conversation they’d had the previous night was still on his mind.

“I don’t know why you’re smiling. I haven’t changed my mind,” Adam said.

Lily frowned.

“Do you want me to quit my job? Do you just want a housewife?” Lily asked.

“Why does having kids mean you’ll have to quit your job and become a housewife? Lots of women have kids and careers,” Adam said.

“Not my sister,” Lily said. She poured them both milk.

“That’s your sister’s choice,” Adam said.

Lily put the milk in the refrigerator and grabbed the plate of bacon and the bowl of grits and placed them on the table. Without a word, she grabbed the bowl of scrambled eggs and the plate of buttered toast and placed them in front of Adam.

The two ate in silence. Adam thought of his assistant at work, a tall blonde who was always eating fruit. She had been talking recently of how much she wanted to get married and have children. Eva was a good woman.

Adam shook his head and took a bite of bacon. He shouldn’t think things like that. Thoughts like that could get a man in trouble.

After they finished eating, Adam helped Lily clear the table and fill the dishwasher. Each kissed the other goodbye, finished getting together what they needed for work, got into their separate cars, and headed in opposite directions to their jobs. Adam continued thinking of the situation with Lily. Why didn’t she want children? What was the real reason? He didn’t buy for a minute her excuse. Now Eva . . . No. No. He mustn’t think that.

Adam shook his head to dispel this last thought, and failed to notice the red light. As he ran it, a semi truck hit his driver’s side, killing Adam instantly.

* * * * *

The above is a bad story because it leaves the reader unfulfilled. We are supposed to learn more about this developing conflict, not be left with such a stupid ending. But for the vast majority of us, our lives end exactly this way: stupidly. If it is not death by an accident, it is by cancer, heart attack, or any of a number of ways that deprive our deaths of meaning. Few of us get glorious ends, culminating our lives in any sort of meaningful ways. Faced with the practical certainty of meeting such a stupid end, we have all, every culture, set out like Don Quixote, determined to come up with a better end to the story, whether that end be heaven, a longer life granted by God/the gods to give you more time to create a better end for yourself, an afterlife state of bliss, elimination of suffering (in nirvana, for example), or earthly utopias.

Thus is born various teleologies, eschatologies and soul concepts. The way we get to them is through and because of language. We have, through and because of language, narrated our own lives beyond the present, through various futures, to our own certain deaths, and discovered that we inevitably end up with terrible, meaningless, stupid endings. So we narrate the story beyond our lives, to afterlives, including material afterlives (Communist utopias, for example). Or we fashion our own glorious endings (in suicide bombings, etc.). Every time we work for the future, for our children, for a future society we will never see, it is from the same eschatalogical drive that creates and created the world’s religions. Because we have recursive narrative (grammatical) language, we have created the need for religion, to make the future meaningful. So we can see, then, that for religion, in the beginning (arche) was the word (logos). Without it, one cannot get religion at all. Thus, Nietzsche’s statement that “I fear we are not getting rid of God because we still believe in grammar . . . “ (Twilight of the Idols, 5) is quite profound in its insight.

All of the human cultural universals that constitute the various elements of our religions have this same origin in (recursive, grammatical) language leading to an extended sense of time: divination, funeral rites, luck superstitions, magic, propitiation of supernatural beings, religious ritual, soul concepts, and eschatologies. Our extended sense of time allows us to project into an increasingly uncertain future. It makes good evolutionary sense to have a fear of what is unknown – since what is unknown could be a predator. Our extended sense of time creates an increasingly unknown and unknowable future, meaning our fear of the known “out there” in a spatial sense gets applied to time, as it becomes increasingly unknown. At the same time we, as all the great apes (and perhaps all animals), have a sense of causality: in the past A resulted in B several times; therefore, A causes B. And it is important in an evolutionary sense for a species, such as chimpanzees, bonobos, and humans, which develop much of their understanding of the world through learning, to have evolved a sense of causality – if you do not figure out that the leopard or something like that leopard is the cause of the death of a fellow troop member, then you will probably end up becoming leopard (lion, etc.) food yourself. But our extended notion of time makes us realize predictability breaks down over time. Faced with the contradiction of belief in causality and long-term unpredictability, we developed divination. Divination is the attempt to make the unknowns of the future “known” through applying causality to the far future, beyond when reasonable predictions can be made. Luck superstitions would be the attempt to explain in a causal way why good things happen to some people, but not to others – it is a variation on the sense of justice (also felt by chimpanzees), applied to that part of the world not within our control. It is in a sense related to the idea of magic, which is how we attempt to make sense of the unknown and unfamiliar in the absence of causal explanations. All of these are possible only with language. They require being put into words and being discussed. The discussions about “that strange thing that just happened” lead to causal explanations because we need causal explanations, even if the cause is magic (which makes more sense to most people than there being no cause, or no cause that can be discovered – and what is technology to one is magic to another), of which miracles for this discussion are a part. Miracles in this sense are magic performed by supernatural beings, by those supernatural beings, or through people chosen by those supernatural beings.

These universals arise because they are how we can explain the unexplainable to each other, and they served us so well, they became instincts. This is why so many people have problems with scientific, naturalistic explanations. Science shows us everything has a naturalistic explanation – magic is not needed. But we need magic as an explanation. It is part of our need to have faith in something beyond ourselves, beyond our understanding. This is the source of faith healing, and it is also why faith healing in a sense works. Having a hopeful outlook helps us heal more quickly. If you have two people in the same health who receive the same surgical procedure, but one believes it will work while the other does not, the one who believes in the procedure will recover faster and more completely than the one who does not. At the same time, you can give placebos to people who think they are receiving real medicine, and some will react to the placebo as if it were real medicine. This explains both why there is some success rate among witch doctors and other faith healers, and why modern medicine is not always the best it could be. While we should not give up on the real advancements made in medicine, medicine could be served by combining it with some form of faith healing – modern medicine would supply biological benefits, while faith healing would supply psychological benefits. This would give us a more fully human medicine, by reuniting physical health with the holy. Modern medicine all too often feels dehumanizing to the patients. To the extent it deals with body parts without acknowledging those parts belong to a human being whose needs extend to a very powerful, creative, body-influencing psychological element, including deep instincts that sometimes – as in the case of magic, faith healing, luck superstitions, and divination – do not stand up in the face of contemporary scientific knowledge, it is dehumanizing. And until we either gain full faith in science (a danger too, in that it can suppress scientific innovation, as people have faith in the current or traditional scientific findings, as people did and still do with Newton’s physics – Laplace’s calculator is scientific divination), or evolve beyond the need for faith (as Nietzsche wishes we could do) so we can accept facts as facts (and not as truth) in naturalistic explanations, there will continue to be rebellion against purely naturalistic explanations for and approaches to everything. People prefer Laplace’s calculator over chaos and complex systems theory, as the former says the world is eminently knowable and the future calculable, if we could only have enough information, while the latter says the world is inherently incalculable, even if we had all the information in the world. Wolfram, in his recent work A New Kind of Science, attempts to bring a form of Laplace’s calculator back into complex systems theory, making it deterministic – showing how strong the drive is for divination.

Part of being human is believing in the supernatural. Even when we try to “get rid” of religion, all we do is replace one religion with another. Take Marxism. Its eschatology is the inevitable Communist anarchic utopia at the end of history. Its divination (divined by the prophet Marx) is the Marxist theory of history – the immanent (historically determined) triumph of the proletariat over the bourgeois. In this sense, luck will ultimately be with the proletariat, as it was with the bourgeois against the aristocracy. Anyone familiar with Lysenko’s biological theories knows the Soviet Communists at least (and, I would argue, anyone who believes reality is completely socially constructed to the extent that we can do things like grow wheat in the tundra) believed in magic. The proletariat had a deep, fundamental identity clearly separable from the bourgeois’ that is readily identifiable as different kinds of collective “souls.” Lenin and Stalin (at least while Stalin was alive) and other Communist heroes were treated as if they were supernatural (one could go so far as to say that in a sense all our heroes are “supernatural” in that they go beyond what the average human does in their thoughts and actions – thus our need for heroes). The universal belief in supernatural beings comes from the combination of eschatology from our extended sense of time, and the application of status differentiation into this realm (meaning beings have to exist in this realm for status to apply there), as well as relating this realm to kin groups (until Judaism, (the) God(s) in the Middle East were local, meaning they were coupled to property rights in a loose sense; until Christianity, God(s) were associated with kin groups, and were related – often literally – to those who worshiped them, all of which suggests we have been developing an extended sense of who belongs to our tribe for millennia). Religious ritual comes out of the combination of chimpanzee meat-eating rituals, where head male chimpanzees distribute meat the troop caught in such a way as to provide unity in the troop through fair distribution of the meat, as well as emphasizing the troop hierarchy, with the collection of behaviors that gave rise to religion in general – which suggests why religious rituals so often involve ritualized eating and drinking, including sacrificing food and drink.

This mixing of instincts makes sense if our brains generalized as they evolved, making specialized regions (for recognizing kin, for status differentiation, for narrative, and for communication) overlap or otherwise become connected in places – allowing for the retention of instincts while others developed from the overlaps and connections. The hierarchically nested brain evolved hierarchically nested instincts, so that “each integrative level subsumes the functions and structures of the one or ones beneath it, and each adds to the potentialities of its predecessors certain new degrees of freedom” (Fraser, TOC 10). Instincts follow the same pattern as I (and Fraser, Argyros, F. Turner, et al) have suggested the rest of the universe follows: an agonal relationship among parts that gives rise to new integrative levels that are scalarly self-similar. The new instincts are similar to the ones they develop out of, but at the same time, those new instincts give us new emergent properties, giving us more freedom. In this theory of the development of more instincts in humans, we see a parallel with chaos theory, which shows how a universal gives rise to a plurality with a family resemblance, with these cultural universals giving rise to endless variations of those universals. The fact that the extended sense of time created by the recursive narrative structure of language leads to divination, eschatology, funeral rites, luck superstitions, magic, the propitiation of supernatural beings, religious rituals (how we give meaning to religion), and soul concepts explains why these became combined into the various religions of the world, past and present. So when Turner says humans and animals both ritualize “mating, aggression, territory, home-building, bonding, ranking, sexual maturity, birth” while only humans ritualize “time and death” (NC, 9), we can see he is in effect saying that only humans have religious ritual.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

V. A Likely Story III – From Strings to Language

The universe appears to have fractal geometry, to have self-similarity on several levels, regardless of scale. The complexity of each level appears to be connected to the recursive linearity of certain levels in the universe.

In quantum string theory – which presently seems the best candidate for unifying gravitation with the strong nuclear, weak nuclear, and electromagnetic forces – everything in the universe is ultimately made up of tiny vibrating strings that “play the familiar medley of particles as if they were musical notes” (Amanda Gefter, Scientific American, Dec. 2002, 40). These strings may be either linear or circular – or both. How both? There are two possibilities. Circular strings could give rise to one form of particle-wave (photons, perhaps? – this would work well with my proposition in chapter 2 that time for photons is circular, resulting in t=0 at the speed of light), while linear strings could give rise to electrons, neutrons, and protons, which can interact in more complex ways. The other possibility (and it may contain the first one in it, and vice versa) is that there is a recursive element to strings – that they are simultaneously linear and circular (we saw this idea in chapter 2, with Nietzsche’s eternal return). Recursive linear strings vibrate and interact (provide information to each other) to give rise to more complex atomic systems, which includes chemical systems.

Another form of recursive linearity giving rise to complexity is in the genetic material of organisms. Prokaryotic cells have circular strands of DNA, while the more complex eukaryotic cells have linear strands of DNA. And DNA itself looks linear (but wavy) from the side, but circular from the top, due to its helical structure. This suggests, if there is scalar similarity, my first theory of strings. But both forms of DNA are recursive in their cellular interactions, suggesting the second. This scalar similarity at the organismal level suggests how understanding organisms can help us to understand strings. Allow me to suggest the following metaphor: relative to a “3-D”cell, DNA is a “1-D” string. This string interacts with itself through other kinds of strings (RNA, proteins) to give rise to a higher-dimension reality – life. Naturally, these “strings” are in one sense 3-D; but in another sense, they have far more dimensions – in the number of genes, regulatory sites, etc., in the DNA. A strand of DNA can have hundreds to tens of thousands of dimensions – which interact to give rise to cells more complex than is the DNA itself. In the same way, strings are 1-D relative to the “4-D” universe, but also 10- or 11-D systems giving rise to the poly-dimensional universe. Recursive linearity gives rise to higher-order complex systems.

Language is simultaneously linear and recursive. Grammatical and syntactical structure and vocabulary are the many dimensions found in a given language. These linear structures become transformed into complex culture and literature – which have many more dimensions than does language. The ambiguities and ironies found in novels is a prime example of how greater complexity can rise from linear narrative. This also suggests that it is through certain forms of linear narrative – the recursive linear narrative – that we get the greatest amounts of complexity. This shows us why attempts to eliminate such things as plot and linear narrative by some postmodern writers were failures, insofar as they were overly simple, lacking in complexity (which is not to say they were not often complicated – which only works to emphasize the difference between the complex and the complicated). It may have been fashionable among some intellectual elites to read the poems by the so-called “language poets,” but history will show these poets to have been miserable failures, since analysis of their poems will show their complicated poems to have had little, if any, meaning. The work put into the poems are not worth what we get out of the poems – they are like engines that put out far less work than is put into them, as opposed to narrative works that produce more work than is put into them by the readers. If we say “I got a lot out of that,” it is a compliment to the work. If we say, “I didn’t get a lot out of that,” it is an insult. One doesn’t get a lot out of the language poets – especially for the work put into them. In the end, such works fade away and end up having little effect on long-term culture. The great recursive linear narratives have had significant effects on culture, including the arts and literature. And if we consider the short story to be a circular narrative (the end must come back to the beginning in some fashion), while longer, and necessarily more complex, narratives, such as novels, novellas, and epic poems, to be linear narratives, we can see, again, the correlation between less complex circularity giving rise to more complex linearity (or, to be more accurate, circularity giving rise to less complexity than can linearity). However, both are recursive in nature, and, as we have seen, are thus narrative fractals. Further, human culture is carried on language – and on ritual, which also sequentializes actions into recursive linear forms. There is a sense in which language does indeed create our reality – but only in the same sense that DNA creates biological reality, without negating the quantum physical-chemical world created by strings.

It seems there is an element to the universe that makes recursive linear systems give rise to more complex systems. This element may be the string-foundation of the universe, which was scalarly projected into higher levels of complexity. Information-containing strings interact with themselves in complex ways to give rise to complex systems. Linear strings gave rise to complex quantum physics, including chemistry; certain forms of chemistry gave rise to linear strings of genetic material which gave rise to complex organisms; certain organisms with complex brains gave rise to linear strings of words, which gave rise to the full flowering of human culture, including art and literature and technology. This is a universe which is fractally self-similar to at least three scales of recursive linear systems giving rise to complex nonlinear systems.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

IV. Some Notes on Language and Literature

We have seen how new instincts can emerge from older ones due to the neotenous development of the human brain. Thus poetics could have arisen from a combination of the music, language, narrative, and beauty instincts, in combination with the requirements of our short-term memory. It may appear odd to repeat narrative after having shown its importance for the evolution of language, but I do so because the increased repetition of narrative at newer, higher levels has been a hallmark of literary development. We have already seen how a sentence is a narrative. But a scene (found in lyric poetry and some short stories), which has two or more characters interacting, is also a narrative. An episode (found in some short stories and in novellas), consisting of two or more scenes, is also a narrative. And a plot (found in novels and plays), consisting of two or more episodes, is also a narrative. Thus a novel is a narrative fractal to at least four levels of self-similarity. A short story would be less complex, having only two to three levels of self-similarity. Boccacio’s Decameron would be an example of a form between the short story (it is practically a series of short stories) and the novel (they are practically unified), leading to the novel in complexity. A novel (and epic poems and some plays, including Shakespeare’s plays, are equivalents in this case) is a narrative consisting of narratives consisting of narratives consisting of narratives, the highest narrative fractal. One could project, perhaps, the further development of narrative into a five-level narrative fractal, a genre consisting of two or more plots – which may already be in development in the use of subplots and the multiple plots found in series. Since the latter could be seen as just one long plot, a better example of two plots in parallel may be Faulkner’s If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, a novel composed of two apparently unrelated (they are not unrelated, as we will see in the chapter on tragedy), unconnected plots, which are approximately equal in length, and alternating. We seem to see an emergent art, entering into new levels of complexity that appears to be related to the evolution of culture and to its relative complexity.

So literature, at least on the level of narrative, is necessarily fractal. With the addition of other fractal levels of character, description, theme, sentence rhythms, word repetitions, etc., we get increasing complexity – a complexity resembling the fractal complexity of nature, since nature too is not complex on only one level, but is complex on several levels simultaneously. The recognition of this complexity, and the pleasure we feel at this recognition, is what we call beauty. The creation of this fractal complexity on several levels by humans is what we call art.

But why would humans evolve pleasure at recognizing the deep complex fractal structures of nature? James Watson, appearing on the PBS show Charlie Rose April 25, 2002, said that “Happiness is a reward for doing things that you should do.” He tied this to our pleasure receptors, pointing out that even fish have opiate receptors and, therefore, have some sort of emotion, or happiness as “a reward for doing things that [they] should do.” Our brain rewards itself for properly recognizing the structures of nature. Individuals unable to recognize these structures were less adaptive on two levels. One, those who could not understand the actual nature of nature soon found themselves killed by those who could (including predators who undoubtedly found those organisms walking around aimlessly, as would happen if we could not sufficiently recognize things in the world), and two, those who received pleasure from this recognition were, then, doubly rewarded. Death provided the stick, pleasure and happiness at the recognition of the nature of nature provided the carrot. Both made for a highly adaptive species. Any species that found pleasure in seeing nature’s patterns would naturally be more adaptive. And humans were hardly the first to do this. Any animal that uses ritual recognizes beauty, since ritual acts as a way to highlight nature’s repetitions, bringing them into full relief. We also create similar repetitions in our art – it is the very highlighting of nature’s repetitions in movement, language, sound, and lines and colors that we call art. Anything that highlighted nature’s repetitions would, naturally, be selected for, since those who could better pick up on nature’s repetitions would be better able to adapt to the environment, avoid predators and find and hunt for food. When we combine this with Pinker’s explanation of how and why a behavior (and recognition of repetitions is certainly a behavior) becomes an instinct, we can see that the recognition of beauty is as much an instinct as language – and with deeper roots, since any animal that engages in ritual is programmed to recognize these same heightened repetitions we call beauty. The difference is that we take these rituals and play with them – art is, as Storey points out, both play and ritual, since “ritual rarely relaxes its ties with the narrativically familiar and the sacred” (106), and play is ever-changing. Art is sacred play and living ritual. Art evolved out of our (ancestors’) instincts to both play and to ritualize. Poetics has both components. Here is a typical ritual of literature: boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy loses girl, boy kills self. The play of literature has given rise to various forms of this ritual, including Romeo and Juliet and The Sorrows of Young Werther. Both of these works are ritualistically identical. What differs is the way the authors played with them.

In his essay in Time, Order, Chaos, Thomas Weissert points out that narrative helps us separate what is important out from the noise, and helps us turn the noise into meaning. Especially when we engage in ritual. Look at the story-ritual just given above: boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, tragedy ensues; it is the noise surrounding this ritual that makes it into Romeo and Juliet versus The Sorrows of Young Werther. This is because

we use filtering and preconceived structures to obtain the narrative identity. We use the identity to recognize subsequent changes in the identity and, depending on the level of nature we describe, the changes define the meaning we can attribute to the narrative. The changes come from the background noise that to some degree obscures our view of the repetition of the pattern. So it is from the noise that we ultimately get meaning. (171)

Noise also “drowns out the possibility of divining meaning precisely, if at all. But without noise there can be no meaning. This noise represents a level of fuzziness beyond which we cannot see” (172). The ritual of boy meets girl, etc. gives information, but it does not give meaning. But each specific example given does carry meaning (though the meaning of each is ambiguous). One could apply this too to searching for chaotic patterns (noise) in word distribution. If one found such a pattern of words in a long work of literature, it would make that work more, not less, ambiguous. At the same time, it makes it more meaningful. Thus, we have a specific way in which language gives meaning in a work of literature by using pattern recognition and information theory.

Art and literature are highly complex ways we store and communicate social information. They both act as “institutional forms which persist across generations and shape past experiences that date back beyond the life of any particular individual.” These “authoritative resources can be stored across time-space distances. Storage of authoritative resources involves the retention and control of knowledge” (Fuchs, 15), meaning artists and authors help determine what knowledge will be passed on to future generations by retaining the knowledge in their works, while controlling how that knowledge is transmitted, understood, and perceived by future viewers/readers/listeners. This is not a judgement – it is an observation regarding what it is artists and writers do. And it helps to understand too the great responsibility the artist and the writer has. “In non-literate societies the only “container” storing knowledge were human memory, tradition and myths. Writing and notation have allowed a certain time-space distanciation of social relationships.” And ritual objects, wall paintings, building and tools allowed this to occur even before the advent of written langauge. What we now know can potentially be passed on hundreds, or thousands, of years. Oedipus seems timely – but Oedipus tyrannus is over 2400 years old. The American Civil War occurred about 150 years ago. The American and French Revolutions occurred over 200 years ago. Columbus discovered the New World for Europe over 500 years ago. Jesus was born and lived 2000 years ago. And Oedipus is older still. But Oedipus tyrannus was written down and passed down and performed and discussed through the ages. Through Oedipus and all the other writings from ancient Greece, the ancient Greeks are still with us, contemporaneous with us. We are richer, more complex for it. Because of them, “the basics of acting socially do not have to be formed in every situation” (Fuchs, 15). They – which includes all information passed down to the present day – serve “as a durable foundation for social actions” (Fuchs, 15), even if we do understand that this foundation is, as Nietzsche says, a foundation built on running water (TL), due to the fluidity of interpretation. Any given culture “can be seen as the subsystem of society in which ideas, knowledge, social norms, and social values are defined within the framework of habits, ways of life, traditions, and social practice” (Fuchs, 16). Culture is kept dynamic because it “encompasses a dual process of defining the rules and being legitimised by observing the rules” (Fuchs, 17). It shows us where we are going by reminding us of where we are and have been – preventing us from getting lost. This is important if art and literature – or any sort of information at all – is to be effective. In other words,

a message that does nothing but confirm the prior knowledge of a receiver will not change its structure or behavior. Thus, with confirmation up to 100%, a message gives no pragmatic information. On the other hand, a message providing only original/novel material completely unrelated to any prior knowledge also will not change structure or behaviour of the receiver, because the receiver will not understand this message. Thus, with firstness up to 100%, a message gives no pragmatic information. Only a relevant mixture of firstness and confirmation allows the receiver to get pragmatic information from the message. (Burgin, 61)

All good art and literature should be able to do precisely this – with each new reader and each new reading.

The combination of the instincts for language, beauty, and narrative give us the instincts of poetics and storytelling. What does literature do? It draws attention to our language, improving our use and understanding of it. It highlights the repetitions in the language, whether those repetitions are on the level of phoneme (drawing our attention to the musicality of the language – yet another fractaline level), word, phrase, or sentence, and it is in this highlighting that our attention is drawn to our language, to consider and reconsider how we use it. Repetition creates intensification, and it is the intensification of reality which we call art, with beauty the experience we feel from this intensification (Dissanayake, 83-5). Such repetitions too extend to various forms of storytelling, which draws our attention to narrative itself, helping us to make more and better narratives, so that we can project ourselves into the future, to try out various futures in a safe play-space before we try them out in real life. Any creature which could not only project itself further out into the future, but create alternative, “fictional” futures it could try out, would have a selective advantage over those creatures – especially those of its own species – which could not.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

III. From Words to Meaning

Many consider the word to be the smallest fundamental, meaningful unit of language. It is not. Laughingly. Market. Glass. Twirl. None of these words have meaning. All they have are associations, or references – they are metaphors which transfer from one mind to another the idea of an image, object, agent, or action. If I simply said to someone, “Laughingly.” I would get quizzical looks. What could he mean by that? To simply say “Laughingly” is to utter nonsense.

So what is a word? Why name things?

Naming something makes it stand out: The eighteenth-century philosophers Kant and Hegel were the first to make something of the effect words have on our perceptions of the world, a vein of thought still enthusiastically pursued today by philosophical schools such as structuralism and semiotics. . . . The tendency has often been to go too far and argue that our words effectively create the world we perceive. Some sobering research, such as a test of New Guinea tribesmen who have no words for colors yet can still tell two shades of red apart as readily as any Westerner, shows the danger of mistaking words to be more than handy labels for the perceptions themselves. (McCrone, 273)

Words only have meaning within language, which is to say, within a sentence or within a series of sentences – within narrative. Words get meaning when placed in a narrative. The rejection of narrative is the rejection of meaning (and of language). Extreme versions of deconstruction get into the quandary of meaninglessness precisely because they end up considering words outside of their contexts in the sentences. Meaning emerges only as words are patterned into narratives, with emergent meaning arising with emergent, more complex narratives. This is how and why words gain more meaning in and through literature.

Søren Brier goes a step further, saying that

language is a part of the socio-communicative system, but it does not really acquire meaning before it interpenetrates with the psychic system and gets to indicate differences of emotions, volitions and perceptions “putting words” on our silent inner being. But our cognitive, emotional and volitional qualities would only have a weak connection to reality if they were not connected to the survival of the living systems’ organization as a body in its interaction with the environment’s differences in the development of a signification sphere in the evolution of the species. (86)

There is no meaning without cognition, emotion, volition, and perception working together to create meaning from the sentence(s).

Carstairs-McCarthy, in The Origins of Complex Language, points out that only human language makes meaning from meaninglessness (13), and that the meaningless level consists of sounds and syllables, while the meaningful level consists of words and phrases. However, meaning only comes about as a referent is repeated and metaphorized within the context of other referents. So it seems he is confusing reference with meaning – an important distinction for our purposes, especially as meaning does not have to be linguistic, but can be found in music and the visual arts.

Let us take a particular example: the word “unbelievable.” “Unbelievable” consists of the following (meaningless) phonemes: un + be + lee + va + bl. Combinations of these result in the following morphemes:


If we look at the word “unbelievable,” we find that each of its constituent morphemes have reference. “To believe” is to perform an action, while the word “able” refers to a quality. If something is “believable,” it is able to be believed (by the person doing the believing). “Believable” is a quality a person gives an object. The prefix “un” acts as a negator. Does “un” mean negation? Or does it perform negation? One cannot use “un” in a sentence and have it make sense, so it cannot mean negation. “Un” performs negation insofar as it transforms “believable” into its opposite. As we saw in chapter 3, not all actions/performances are necessarily meaningful, and this would include the performative actions of a negator such as “un.” The “un” transforms “believable” into its opposite, “unbelievable,” which is a word with a referent of its own, the quality of being unable to be believed by someone. In this case the “un” is a morpheme that performs an action – but in words like “under” it is merely a phoneme, “un” + “der.”

One may object that we make meaningful use of the “un” in such words as “unbelievable,” and therefore the use of “un” must be meaningful. But is the use really meaningful, just because it is not meaningless? I have already suggested that one could place “referential” between “meaningless” and “meaningful.” While “Reference is a kind of meaning” (Carstairs-McCarthy, 45), we must notice that Carstairs-McCarthy uses the word “kind.” Reference is not meaning, though one could see it as a kind of meaning, as how meaning emerges from meaninglessness, through reference. As Nietzsche points out, words are calcified metaphors – they have calcified into referential words. One gets renewed and expanded meaning through their use in sentences and especially in their use in new metaphors. This is why I have momentarily drawn the meaning-reference distinction, to emphasize how meaning increases within a (con)text.

While words, morphemes, and the use of particular performative prefixes and suffixes are arbitrary, their referents are not. Words do not equate to things, they refer to things, and it is in our association of words with those things that our use of words begins to make sense. The use of the specific word “up” to refer to the idea of “upness,” of casting one’s glance above one’s head, is not necessary. Certainly, other languages have put together other phonemes to refer to this concept. But once we have associated this sound with this concept, it becomes embedded in the language, as a calcified metaphor, making it possible for us to say that “things are looking up” to mean that things are getting better for us. We have related “upness” with “goodness,” and the metaphor has become calcified in our language (for much more on this, in much greater depth, see Lakoff and Johnson’s The Metaphors We Live By, which begins to connect word-metaphors to our physical environment, and develops Nietzsche’s language theory from Philosophy and Truth). Thus, words get associated with truth.

What then is truth? A moveable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions; they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are considered as metal and no longer as coins. (Nietzsche, PT 84)

Nietzsche here equates words with truth. One could just as easily rephrase the above “What then is a word?” Or we could go as far as Carstairs-McCarthy (and I would) and further reduce the distinction between truth and reference, as people are
predisposed to think that the distinction between truth and reference is necessary . . . simply because they are native speakers of some human language and are therefore naturally inclined towards thinking that the sentence/NP distinction . . . must reflect something fundamental outside of language. (39)

This is due to the fact that

syntactic units called noun phrases are typically combined with other units called verb phrases to form sentences, one of whose functions is to make statements about the objects or events referred to. [These] statements can be true or false, according to whether they fit the world or not, and that reference too can be either successful or unsuccessful, according to whether the would-be referent exists or not. (27)

But truth and falsity “are objects to which sentences refer. Even a false sentence has a reference – namely, falsity” (40). We have truth/reference regardless of scale: words, noun (and verb) phrases, sentences, paragraphs, etc. We have forgotten that words refer, and that we made up the words. Based on the theory of language Nietzsche develops in Philosophy and Truth, it seems that Nietzsche would reject, as I do, the idea, propagated by many postmodern linguists, that words have no referent. Without reference, communication is impossible. It is obvious to most people that if there is one chair in a room filled with other objects, and you told a fellow English-speaker to get you a chair, that there would be no confusion as to what object you wished brought to you. And even if there were no chair per se in the room, that the person would come back to you with an object that could be used as a chair, as Wittgenstein points out in his idea of family resemblances, and you (and that person) would still be understood. If one is a Platonist, who believes concepts (words) precede reality, it begins to make sense why one would believe words have no referent. But this is to get the world backwards.

Huizinga too recognizes that:

Language allows (humans) to distinguish, to establish, to state things; in short, to name them and by naming them to raise them into the domain of the spirit. In the making of speech and language the spirit is continually “sparking” between matter and mind, as it were, playing with this wondrous nominative faculty. Behind every abstract expression there lie the boldest metaphors, and every metaphor is a play upon words. Thus in giving expression to life man creates a second, poetic world alongside the world of nature. (4)

The problem of whether or not words signify even arises with Jared Diamond who, in The Third Chimpanzee, asks “how do you explain the meaning of “by,” “because,” “the,” and “did” to someone who understands no English? How could our ancestors have stumbled on such grammatical terms?” (153), implying that each of these words have no referent. Some, such as Austin, suggest that words that somehow do something also have no referent, and that since all words technically do things, they appear not to have a referent either. However, Farb starts us off on the right foot by refuting this idea: “all languages possess pronouns, methods of counting, ways to deal with space and time, a vocabulary that includes abstract words, and the capacity for full esthetic and intellectual expression” (12). Each of these are referents. Every word makes either a direct reference, where I can point to an actual object the word refers to, or it fits into Farbs’ categories, which are themselves ways of referring to the world. Any word that is definable is referential, and if a collection of sounds is not definable, it is not a word.

We can show that any of the words Diamond lists has a referent. But first, we need to define what we mean by “referent.” This is where much of the problem of thinking of words as referring to something other than themselves comes from, because a referent does not necessarily have to be an object. A referent can be a person, place, thing, or idea (the corresponding words we call nouns), the traits of these things (adjectives), actions (verbs), or the traits of those actions (adverbs). These are the obvious divisions. But what about articles, like the word “the”? This example is the easiest, since articles are adjectives, and “the” is referring to a trait of any given noun we are placing “the” in front of. By saying “I watered the plant,” we are saying “I watered a particular single plant that, by my use of the word “the” implies the plant in question to be the only one either in the house or that you were talking about.” The plant has all the above stated traits, without all this necessary baggage. “The” is shorthand, and makes reference to all this that is understood by the person being spoken to. Just because we have been able to play with the language until we were able to come up with such shorthand as articles and “to be” verbs does not negate the referentiality of such words, or of words in general. Nor does the lack of articles in other languages imply the lack of referentiality in languages such as English, German and French, which do. The word “because” is a way of dealing with space and time, and refers to causality, which throughout most of human history was assumed to be a feature of the universe. Causality, things having a cause, or the idea of things having a cause, can be seen as a way of connecting two things. That is why “because”, from Middle English “bi cause” for “by the cause”, is a conjunction. It is part of the narrative structuring of thinking. To use a word Diamond does not suggest, but that easily falls into the trap of being considered without referent, is the word “if.” “If” has a referent, because “if” is an idea; it projects the idea of a future and the idea of possibility. “If” says, “let me posit the possibility that . . .” and is a necessary word (in its various forms as found throughout the world) for any language in that it allows for the projection of possible scenarios. These possible scenarios have in a sense a “reality” which “if” and other words can refer to, since one could easily define ideas as being imagined scenarios to test alternatives before trying them out in the real world (one could also define much fiction this way), and the ability to create alternative scenarios before taking actions (which would necessarily give any group that did this a selective advantage) requires the creation of words that could aid in the communication of those alternate scenarios, or ideas.

The question may then arise as to why the exact word “if” was chosen. Another way of asking this is: does language accurately reflect the natural world? The answer to this is, in a sense, no. Why should any particular sound or group of sounds necessarily represent any particular object? This is obviously not the case, since all languages do not share the same words (or else there would be just one language). It is clear the initial association of any given sound with any given object was initially arbitrary. After this initial arbitrary association of sound with object, however, you must have a family of users who “agree” to associate that particular word with that particular referent for language to work as language. From that point on, the users of that particular language, who, by definition, know of the associations being made between the words and their referents (not necessarily consciously, though, since one does not necessarily have to be conscious of the rules of one’s game in order to nonetheless abide by them), will recall the associations between word and referent when they hear the groups of sounds. So the choice of the sound “if” to refer to what the word “if” refers to was arbitrary (keeping in mind that the need for a word like “if” was not arbitrary), which does not necessarily mean the word “if” does not have referentiality for users of the English language.

Nietzsche further points out in “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” that everything in the world is unique, that each object in a real sense shares nothing in common with any other, but that we treat many unlike things as though they are alike, creating concepts, which are words, which are metaphors. To categorize, conceptualize, we erase the differences we see (or smell, taste, hear, feel). Then we designate them with words, which are all always metaphors (which we forgot were metaphors). These words we see as truth – or as facts – forgetting they can change, that we can change them. It is in our power to change our categories, our concepts, our words, our metaphors. This is what art is about, and why it is needed and necessary – it keeps our languages alive, allows us to see and hear. If we stare at the same image long enough, without blinking or looking away, our neurons will fatigue, and we will cease to see. The image will vanish. We need to renew our images, our language, if we are to see and hear, if our eyes and our tongues are to remain alive.

This is not to say that there are not similarities among unique objects. There is a reason why we can find family resemblances among unique things. It is because these objects fall into patterns pulled together by strange attractors – they are self-similar, complex systems – and we, being self-similar, complex systems ourselves imbedded in a field of such systems, are capable of noticing such patterns. We associate the recognition of such patterns with beauty. Beauty is the ability to see the uniqueness of each individual thing within it created categories. It is to see variety in unity, unity in variety. That is why the creation of new categories, of new metaphors, is beautiful. A new metaphor creates a new set of varieties in unity – it makes us see new unities. We are surprised, saying, “Oh! I never saw it that way before. I never realized those things could go together.” We get a delight from this feeling of insight, from putting a new puzzle together, from seeing pieces put together that shows us something new in the world. It is the joy in becoming, the becoming which gives rise to the appearance of being.

The mistake made by most postmodernist, deconstructionist linguists is in the leap they make by suggetsing that if one can change a word’s meaning, what it refers to, then the word must not have any referent – thus, it must not have any meaning. They want a world of Ideas, which they associate with meaning. Faced with fluidity, they conclude the world has no meaning, that everything is just power-structures. The problem is that they are considering words outside their context – narrative. It is in a narrative, in a sentence, where words get meaning. And it is in the continued use of words in sentences where words have their meaning(s) expanded or contracted. The problem with deconstruction is deconstructionists see language in the same way quantum physicists would if they incorrectly thought the world was only quantum physics, without the emergent properties of chemistry, biology, etc. A word is only an atom within a larger, emergent system. If we extend this metaphor, the point can be made even clearer, particularly in light of the theory of emergent systems. One could see a word gaining meaning in the same way as emergent complex systems gain complexity. Indeed, increasing complexity of narrative would result in increasing complexity of meaning.

Table III

Phoneme — pure energy (no meaning at all)
Word — quantum physics (phonemes interacting to “solidify” into referential morphemes and words)
Phrase — chemistry (some meaningful word combinations)
Sentence — single-celled life
Paragraph — multicellular sexually reproducing life
Scene — Social animals
Episode — Human-type intelligence
Plot — Advanced culture

Carstairs-McCarthy points out that Wittgenstein

equates his own views of names and propositions with Frege’s view that a word has meaning only as part of a sentence. But, whatever exactly Frege meant by that, clearly he did not mean that every time a word appears outside the context of a sentence (say, in a shopping list) it is being redefined or relearned. (47)

Aside from the fact that a shopping list has a narrative context, giving it the kind of meaning one gets by having words in sentences, certainly neither Frege nor Wittgenstein suggest anything of the sort. Words get redefined only within sentences (narratives), not outside of them – it is this which gives them meaning. Words get increasing meaning within a text as they get used at each of the narrative levels shown above. One gets increased meaning with increased narrative complexity. Milan Kundera discusses the idea of novels having “theme-words,” the meanings of which the novelist investigates, expands, contracts, etc. through and in the novel (The Art of the Novel). And such meanings get developed not only in art, but also in our everyday conversations. Deconstruction can tell us as much about words’ meanings as quantum physics can tell us about human morality. Only within narrative structures do words have meaning. Outside of them, they only have referents.

Since words only gain meaning in sentences, we should take a moment to consider sentences in more detail, beyond their narrative form. I have equated the evolution of complexity to the evolution of meaning; let me now suggest that sentences themselves reflect Fraser’s “hierarchically nested integrative levels of nature” (TCHV, 10). Fraser points out that

the hierarchical theory of time recognizes five stable, hierarchically nested integrative levels of nature. By hierarchically nested is meant that each integrative level subsumes the functions and structures of the one or ones beneath it, and each adds to the potentialities of its predecessors certain new degrees of freedom. (10)

This also shows us how new instincts can arise from the combination of other instincts, but let us for a moment stick to the question of language working on various degrees of freedom. Language is a uniquely human instinct, and “It is not possible to make predictions about human conduct in the service of concrete or symbolic causes without allowing for biological intentionality, as well as for deterministic, probabilistic and chaotic contributions” (Fraser, 13), from the levels of macro-physics, quantum physics, and pure energy, respectively, for the last three. Looking at language as containing each of these levels is a good way of understanding the various elements of any given language as exhibiting the feedthrough of earlier states of nature “into the evolutionarily more recent levels of nature” (Fraser, 13). In English the adverb can be placed almost anywhere, meaning it acts randomly chaotic. English exhibits probabilistic behavior in that if you have a noun and a verb, there is a strong probability there will be a direct object (actually, to the extent that there is always an implied direct object, the direct object is in fact determined in each sentence). If there is a direct object, there is a probability that there will be an indirect object. English is deterministic in that if you have an adjective, you must have a noun following it (and if you have an indirect object, there must be a direct object – even if it is only implied). The only apparent exceptions are structures where we turn adjectives into direct objects – but now we are treating these adjectives as nouns. In French, however, adjectives are typically probablistic, since they usually come after the noun. But verbs deterministically follow subject-nouns in all sentences. Also, sentences have intention in that they are intended by the speaker to convey information or to do something. And, on the human level, language is symbolic in that the word “rock” symbolizes the actual object, and is concrete through performative speech, as “I hereby . . . ” and “I promise . . . ” are both concrete actions. Here we see Fraser’s feedthrough occurring in language.