In this section I want to talk briefly about science and the background of physics and biology from which we, as apparently thinking feeling beings, have emerged. Then I’ll be moving on to a discussion of more recent histories when it becomes more valid to talk about things like psychology, language, feeling, understanding, knowledge and thought. What I will be arguing is that these cognitive phenomena, which are perhaps most closely associated with the being of human, have their origins and take their forms from the inanimate and impersonal matter of the world.
To paraphrase Stephen Pinker, the stuff of thought is the stuff of physics.
We are, as Richard Dawkins memorably put it, ‘Middle sized objects moving at middle speed’ (2003:19) and this size and speed is an important part of what makes us what we are and how we think. The scales at which all of creation operates stretches in size from the Planck length to the horizon of visible space, a scale of some 40 or so powers of magnitude, and as Joel Primack and Nancy Abrams relate in ‘The View from the Centre of the Universe’ , we occupy a tiny proportion of this scale somewhere in the middle; a place on the continuum of being with its own local interpretations of universal laws; its own biological customs and practices. From an evolutionary perspective we have been middle sized objects for a very long time, since before we had an opposable thumb, since before we had language, since before we had consciousness, since before we had the complex non-conscious processes we have today. We were middle sized objects moving at middle speed when our entire psychophysiological repertoire was limited to flight or fight, breeding and eating. It is as middle sized objects that our being asserted itself such that our physiology, and indeed our psychology has designed itself to function within that particular range and scale of operation, to solve problems and exploit opportunities offered within that range and scale. Driven by the attractions of pleasure (nature’s reward for survival-enhancing behaviour) and the distress of pain (the stick that nature holds in her other hand), those of our ancestors who were best able to respond to these coaxings would be those who survived the longest, and therefore were most likely to leave their imprint in the genetic record.
The processes of evolution are contingent and conservative, and there is no place within its mechanism for wild experimentation and flights of fancy. Should nature occasionally have the urge to assert herself as avant garde artist, the beautiful mutants that would result from such bohemianism, less well equipped to solve the problems of medium sized objects moving at medium speed, would never make it into the museum of natural history we carry in our genome. For this reason we have never evolved eyes capable of seeing into the heart of the atom, or into the reaches of outer space; our hands bypassed the evolutionary pathway that led to their being able to feel x-rays or the gusting of the solar wind. in survival terms we have nothing to lose and nothing to gain from such extended sight and surreal touch. We can hear the roar of a lion and the wimpering of a potential next meal, but not the background hum of the universe. We can hold apples in our hands, and we can hold the hand of a lover, but have never had need to grasp a quark.
The fact that we live in a world of quarks and x-rays, and that the ability to sense these entities directly (or at least as direct as embodiment allows) might be useful is, unfortunately, irrelevant. The glacial speed of evolutionary development means that whilst we may think thoughts appropriate to the 21st century, we think these thoughts with ancient brains. We are Fred and Wilma Flintstones living in the universe of George and Judy Jetson. That we do seem to be able operate beyond the realm of our stone age senses is the mystery that Einstein spoke about. Our unique ability to think senselessly gives the lie to Haldane’s pessimism at the queerness of quarks and the inexpressibility of x-rays.
What I will want to move onto later is a discussion about the nature of these thoughts, which seem so adaptively perverse, and how it is that we do seem to be able to unproblematically entertain them (even if we don’t always understand them). I will also want to consider how we are able to entertain thoughts and ideas which have no physical referents in the material world at all, the abstractions not only of physics but of politics, society, culture and ‘the self’. Before we go there though I want to stay with Fred and Wilma, or at least with Lucy and the Hobbit for a while, to consider what might be going on in their heads. What kind of thinking might have taken place in the brains of these great (to the power of 10 thousand) grandparents of ours, housed in those squat brown bodies walking the plains of what is now West Africa.
On youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WcQVTAZbQkI
Dawkins, R. and L. Menon (2003). A devil’s chaplain: selected essays. London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Primack, Joel R. & Abrams, Nancy Ellen. (2006). The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos. Riverhead Books.
The starting point for this section of the project might be framed by two quotations from scientists at the heart of the empirical tradition. The first is from the biologist JBS Haldane who famously remarked that ‘The universe is not only queerer than we suppose but queerer than we can suppose’ (Haldane, 1927). By this he meant that the physical makeup of human bodies and human minds is inevitably limited and the result of this limitation is that much of the physical world is outside of the grasp not only of our hands but also of our minds. An overwhelming amount of the universe is composed of entities that are too small to see, to fast to keep up with, too enduring to outlive, too brief to glimpse, too vast to hold in a single thought and too far away to spend the same moment of time with. The world that our senses both construct and construe, both limit and give birth to, is a tiny subset of the entirety of what happens, a small island of sensitive human supposition in an ocean of queerness and insensibility. We approach this ocean clutching the mental equivalent of stone axes and flint arrowheads; what hope do we have of seriously navigating these seas and mapping the lands beyond the horizon?
Standing in paradoxical parallel to this expression are the words of Albert Einstein, who is reputed to have said that ‘The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility…The fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle. ‘ (Einstein in Calaprice, 1996: 272). There is no sense here of our ever reaching a point in scientific enquiry at which we are confronted by a world beyond our ken; the point that Haldane seems to find inevitable. Instead there is the sense of a looking back and a looking around, at seeing how far we have come and the incomparable queerness that we have miraculously found the means to suppose.
The rest of this section of the project might be thought of as an exploration of the terms in which these ideas come to operate; the queerness of the world and the strange and poetic devices through which the eternal mystery is made comprehensible.
On youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l2GpeM-2QGg
Haldane, J. B. S. (1927). Possible Worlds: And Other Essays. London, Chatto and Windus.
Calaprice, Alice, The Quotable Einstein (Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1996).
Although the structure of this project is inevitably going to be revised during the course of its construction, this is the current map I have in my mind of how it will proceed.
Part One – Coming to one’s Senses (Making Sense)
This first part will introduce the background of ideas through which we might begin to understand what the term ‘poetics of thought’ might mean. I will be tracing a philosophical and scientific trajectory out of evolutionary theory, particularly understandings concerning the evolution of mind. This will be extended mainly through the philosophical traditions of phenomenology and into cognitive science, Central to this will be the proposition that the cerebral activity we call ‘thought’ was originally no more than a set of cognitive and sensory mechanisms for negotiating the physical environment in which our ancestors were embedded. Then I will be addressing the question of how it is that a middle-sized social biped with this limited and contingent cognitive system can begin to think not only of the concrete and perceivable stuff of lived experience; the trees, and tigers, and potential mates that its mind evolved to recognise and engage with, but also the abstract ideas that dominate the thoughts of modern humans; love, science, art, politics, religion, all concepts that make no impact on the senses whatsoever and yet make the greatest of sense and are what modern human life is all about. This making sense, this meaningful sense-making, I will argue, is best understood as poetry. This theme will be developed with reference to psychoanalysis, particularly to the work of James Hillman; to the various poetics of Gaston Bachelard and others, and to recent explorations within cognitive linguistics and experiential philosophy, particularly the seminal work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, and others. By the end of this section I want the groundwork to be laid for an understanding perhaps best summed up by Mark Johnson when he writes that “Meaning and thought emerge from our capacity for perception, object manipulation, and bodily movement”.
Part Two – Empirical Knowledge and other kinds of Poetry
In this part of the project I want to begin to distinguish different forms of thought and the poetic devices which are used to allow these distinctions to operate. Although a number of different types of mental content will be considered; fantasy, belief, hope, desire, hypothesis; a central concern will be the idea of ‘knowledge’, particularly rational empirical knowledge or science, which, I will claim, utilises conceptual and expressive devices to assert its status as ‘the poetry of reality’. This will be followed by a consideration of the various sub-categories of knowledge; occult knowledge, religious knowledge, situated knowledge, carnal knowledge, and I will be trying to advance a claim that these various ‘types of knowledge’ share a common poetic framework; that each of these draws on a set of metaphors and figures of speech and thought which serve to organise our understanding of these different forms. I should state at this point that I will not be claiming that all knowledge is relative and that because empirical knowledge is expressed poetically that it has an equivalence with other forms of knowledge or other forms of thought. On the contrary, I will also be asserting here that this mobilisation of a common poetic framework for different types of knowing inevitably and accurately leads to a hierarchy in which some kinds of knowledge are understood as more valuable than others. I will be saying that the particular space that empirical knowledge occupies within its genre of poetic cognition and expression is unique, and reflects its unique status within the social life of thought. As a complement to this I will be proposing that the other conceptual content I mentioned; the fantasies, beliefs, hopes and desires which thread through human life, have different values and are perhaps best rendered in their own poetic terms.
Part Three – Code is Poetry
I want to use the final part of this project to explore different modes of writing and speaking and being expressive, perhaps suggesting different modes of thinking that might align with these other poetic constructions. I am particularly interested in the possibilities inherent in the kinds of writing and speaking practices that we here on youtube, and those on twitter and facebook, and on blogs and wikis, might find themselves somehow giving voice to. What kinds of poetry is at work in the grammar of cascading style sheets and semantic databases? How might the protocols of the network be understood as creating figures of collective speech, and to what extent are we able to embody these figurations in the tissues of our own understanding? Is there a place in the wires for other kinds of thinking, or for the thinking of other thoughts? Knowledge and belief, fantasy and desire. The needle skips back to the beginning of the record, and as the car accelerates down the sliproad and merges with the traffic on the motorway we can look out of the windows of our car at the people in the cars in the adjacent lane, their lips moving, smiling. He is making a joke and she is pretending she hasn’t heard it before. In the back, the children are singing along with the radio.
A note on structure:
Because the material on this site is being developed on youtube I imagine it will be inevitable that the way that youtube works will affect the shape and style of this overall project. For example, the restriction on the length of videos to 10 minutes for each one means that the content I develop will have to be articulated in short sections. I don’t know yet what this means in terms of remediating that content into written form in this blog but I would be surprised if there weren’t huge compositional problems ahead.
On youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ySPKxOD9r-Q
This blog accompanies the youtube channel ‘Poetics of Thought’ and is a space for the development of some ideas concerning consciousness, experience, thought, and related themes. It emerges out of another youtube channel I have developed called ‘The Conference Report’ which takes the form of fairly undirected ramblings through a much broader field of ideas that I am presenting here. Links to both these channels can be found in the sidebar. The other point of origin for some of the content of this site is another blog, also called ‘The Conference Report’, which again can be visited via the accompanying link.
By way of entering the writing on this blog, the Poetics of Thought, I would like to say a few things about it; how it came about, how it gets written, what gets left out, and how it works (if it works).
Most morning I take my dogs, Phoebe and Guy, for a walk along the canal. We cut up and go along the Salt Line, which is the old disused railway line where the trains used to take the salt from Northwich and Middlewich to the Potteries. Then we cross a field that has an old white horse in it. The horse was owned by a young girl who died tragically, and the girl’s mother couldn’t bear to part with it. Sometimes the horse stands facing the wall, its head inches away. There is an oak tree in the field that I take a picture of whenever I pass; I take it from the same spot each time.
On these walks I usually talk to myself, usually silently but sometimes out loud. Occasionally I find myself gesturing while I am thinking aloud, and sometimes passers-by look at me in a funny way. I keep doing it though because the gesturing makes it easier for me to put the thoughts together in satisfying ways.
For a while I took notebooks with me and would stop occasionally to write down what I was thinking, but I kept losing the notebooks, and anyway, the dogs didn’t like it when I stopped. They liked the steady, three miles per hour rambling that accompanied their sniffing, and digging, and barking.
When I got home I would sit by the laptop with a cup of coffee and write down whatever I had been thinking about, but detached from the walk, and the horse, and the canal, and the oak tree, it didn’t make much sense, so I started thinking about horses, and water, and trees, and writing about those things.
Then I started to worry that if my laptop crashed I would lose everything, like I lost my notebooks, so I started a blog where everything would be safe. The internet is everywhere so anything you put on the internet is everywhere. Everything I thought about I put on the blog, and that seemed to be mostly about trees, and space, and walking, and occasionally about dogs. And all this time I was taking my dogs for walks, talking to myself and gesturing at no-one.
I got a new phone around this time, and I wanted to try out its camera, so I filmed myself walking the dogs and talking, and the talking to one kind of no-one became talking to that other no-one; the public nobody that is made up of everybody. The full-face Youtube everybodies that face the screens, all of us looking at one another from behind glass and all of us behind glass ourselves. So here I am, five hundred videos and a thousand miles later. I still walk the dogs along the canal, and will still use that time to think and probably make videos of those ramblings. I also feel like I want to stop and take a breath, let the air come in and go out, and see what shape the breath has made in its passing. If anyone is reading this – is anyone reading this? – this is the coils of breath moving in atoms and molecules and sounds and words and pixels and zeros and ones.