Posts filed under ‘metaphorical concepts’
I just finished reading Mary Oliver’s book of poems titled Thirst. I was prompted to write about it here after reading the epigraph, quoted from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers:
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”
The least I would do, I thought, would be to post this quote. Perhaps it could speak for itself! But it’s so beautiful, I will try to explain what about these words is appealing to me.
Just as an aside, I always thought Oliver was a Unitarian Universalist, because she is so often quoted during UU services. For example, I recited her poem “Summer Day” during my friend Reverend Tony Lorenzen‘s ordination ceremony when he became a UU minister. But after reading Thirst, which details her discovery of faith while or after dealing with her partner’s death, I don’t think so anymore, for there is direct reference to the bread and the cup of Christian ritual. While the deep reverence for nature still shines through these poems (“My work,” she says in the opening line of the opening poem, “is loving the world.”), she now overtly uses religious language to express the awe and gratitude that her poems have always so wonderfully expressed. Whereas before she wrote, “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is” (in “Summer Day”), she now prays directly to God in the poems themselves. Some of the poem titles indicate this: “Making the House Ready for the Lord,” “Coming to God: First Days,” “The Vast Ocean Begins Just Outside Our Church: The Eucharist,” “Six Recognitions of the Lord,” “On Thy Wondrous Works I Will Meditate” and so on). One poem, titled “Praying,” is instructions on how to pray:
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
The power of her poetry is not at all diminished as a result of this turn toward the holy and the explicit language of reverence, and I don’t find it distracting as I might in the work of others with less skill and sensitivity. You can see that she still maintains the beautiful simplicity and humility of her previous books.
So, anyway, back to the epigraph. As a good number of this blogs’ entries indicate, I like to read and write about energy–the science of it, not the vague new-age mysticism that is popular these days. But I think that poetic expressions of energetics as seen in this quote above are not far from truth understood (conceptual-)metaphorically (see entries in my category “metaphorical concepts” for more detail on conceptual metaphors). In the quote, a very spiritual man asks what he can do beyond praying, meditating, etc–all of the common and recognizable forms of spiritual practice. He is told to “become all flame.”
One purpose of my focus on energy studies–I’ve been calling it “energonomics” to suggest a new field of study that can unify many disciplines across the academy–is to try to better understand energy flow and to identify how we can use energy more efficiently at all levels: from our own, personal management of energy (caloric intake, exercise regimes, emotional control) to a broader application of the concept to global concerns about climate change, deforestation, and resource management in general. I believe that it is possible to “burn more brightly,” to become more energetic and active in changing the world for the better, to live more reverently and awe-fully and enthusiastically (enthusiasmos in Greek meaning “to be inspired as if by a God”), to sustain a high-energy fully-engaged “spirituality in action” (as Parker Palmer writes in The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity, and Caring).
If the word “spirituality” turns you off, think of it in its etymological sense meaning “breath”: in this sense, spirituality in action would translate to “breath in action,” or, simply, just being alive–but being alive in the fullest sense of the word, in the way that all life is alive on this planet. In the words of Francois Jullien, writing in Vital Nourishment, “‘spirit’ does not mean an entity opposed to the body but refers to an endless unfolding of one’s abilities by way of refinement” (115). For Jullien, “The question then becomes how best to prolong one’s life, since the possibility of doing so depends entirely on how we manage things” (121).
And how can we best prolong our lives? By learning to “live like climax ecosystems” (Schneider & Sagan, Into the Cool p. 296); by taking care of our bodies, exercising regularly, and living optimally; by joining with others in purposeful activity; by avoiding fear and other destructive emotions; by “feeding our breath-energy” in the words of Jullien: “Thus it is not my ‘soul’ or even my ‘body’ that I ‘nourish’ but my ‘breath-energy.’ In the end, my internal dynamism is the most important thing to nourish” (Vital Nourishment 80).
And so it is that we can become all flame–to be filled with an energy that can light up others, to burn like a sun in the sky, to let the energy that comes to us flow through us and beyond us, unimpeded, to do the work of creating ever-more complex thoughts in the noosphere.
Just a quick post to note that the Boston Globe ran a story today on “Embodied Cognition” titled “Don’t Just Stand There, Think.” It mentions George Lakoff and Raphael Nunez’s book Where Mathematics Comes From, which I’ve blogged on before.
When I read about “the role that movement seems to play even in abstract thinking,” it made me think of my presentation for the Imaging Place Conference last February, the PowerPoint slides for which are available at slideshare.net (there are two parts). In that talk I asked about how we might think differently given the use of 3-D virtual worlds. Now I’m thinking that I should have said how we can enhance or engage our embodied cognition by thinking in 3-D worlds.
Here’s an example. For a particularly abstract and complicated theory, we create an allegorical space in Second Life that allows the user to use his or her avatar to move through the space and thereby allow the engagement of embodied cognition (via mirror neurons) to facilitate comprehension of the subject.
I just returned from a trip to Gainesville, FL, where my sons just graduated from high school, a trip which always requires, whenever possible, a stop at Goering’s Bookstore, where this time I bought Eric Alliez’s The Signature of the World: What is Deleuze and Guattari’s Philosophy? The translator’s preface invokes “the passage to a materialist phenomenology of the concept” (xx), which made me think of my own “concept” (if we can call it that) of energonomics. Now it’s likely or probable that I’m yanking this out of a very specific context—not to mention my need to study up on the philosophical tradition of phenomenology—but when I read this phrase it makes me think of my goal of discovering the material basis of thought, the energy-flow through the mind-brain and how this makes thought possible.
Since returning from the Imaging Place conference in Gainesville in February 2007, I have been thinking about thinking, wondering “what is thought?” I came to this after trying to ask the question of how a 3-D space like Second Life can change the way we think, insofar as the movement through space is a kind of thinking both for aborigines (think about the “storylines” of Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines) and for Greeks (moving through the 3-D space of a memory palace as a way of making an argument). One of the anecdotes Greg Ulmer offered in his keynote speech told of his inability to use a doorknob to move from one space to another, and this made me think of Lakoff and Johnson’s “metaphorical concepts” and how the abstractions of thought are based on conceptual metaphors developed from being a physical body moving through a three-dimensional space. When I think hard enough about all of this, I continue to come back to the question of what thinking is (which might be different than asking “what is thought?”) and this needs to be answered to some extent before we can think about how moving through physical space and interacting with objects in that space becomes the foundation of abstract thought.
It’s easy to think that a question like “What is thought?” is too simple, but I am reminded of a quote from somewhere saying that an artist (or in this case, a philosopher) is “the great simplifier,” as well as another quote: “A thing is simple or complex depending upon how much attention is paid to it.” So when I read the following at the end of the preface to the Alliez book, I was re-affirmed:
But what is perhaps most significant about Alliez’s operation… is the absolute centrality he accords to the question of *thought*, which he places at the very heart of Deleuze and Guattari’s recasting of materialism for the twenty-first century as a materialism of the concept. For *What is Philosophy?* clearly shows that it is impossible to answer the question without also expanding it to “What is Thought?”. . . (xxiii)
It’s a lot to think about….
I’ve gotten through the first section of Eric D. Beinhocker’s The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics. This book introduces the emerging field of “complexity economics,” which applies the recent advances in the science of nonlinear dynamics to “the dismal science” of economics, making it far more interesting in my mind. He argues convincingly that traditional economics is based on a partial comparison to physics (a “misused metaphor”) in which only the first law of thermodynamics is recognized but not the second. . . . This yields the false assumption that the economy is a closed equilibrium system whereas, in reality, it is an open, far-from-equilibrium system that displays emergent properties: “this borrowing of equilibrium from physics was a crucial scientific misstep that has had lasting consequences for the field” (32). That is, mainstream theory (such as the “market fundamentalist” ideology that neo-conservatives rely upon) is, to put it bluntly, “wrong, or, at best, only approximately right” (19).
As Beinhocker explains that he himself is not merely relying upon a shaky scientific metaphor, he speaks of the materiality of energy in a way that makes me think of my concept of energonomics:
We have to remember that social systems . . . are real physical systems made of matter, energy, and information; they are made up of people and all of that stuff outside your window, and they are just as subject to the laws of physics as any other phenomenon. Real, physical economies have enormous amounts of real, physical energy pouring into them every day–that is what makes them tick. . . . Economies are not just metaphorically like open systems; they literally and physically are a member of the universal class of open systems. (71)
I’m looking forward to making my way through this extremely interesting book.
As a result of my return to my academic research program (more on this later), I recently picked up Lakoff and Nunez’s Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics Into Being and was reading about the what a point is. Having studied math through differential equations (when I stopped the formal study of math–as a freshman in college), I thought I knew what a point was. . . . But it turns out that there are two approaches to math which envisions the point as a completely different phenomenon: one involves viewing space as continuous and comes naturally to us, given our experience of 3-D space with an embodied mind. The other involves the “discretizing” program that started in the 19th century and has determined the direction of mathematics ever since. This latter approach actually comes about by means of metaphoric blends whereby two differing “image schemas” are blended together to allow for a completely new understanding.
Now I know many people’s eyes glaze over when one mentions mathematics, but it should come as some comfort to know that we draw upon our “embodied mind” to understand these concepts and that we actually have no other choice than to do so! Knowing how our minds work with these fundamental metaphors could help us learn how to be more creative in the future: by playing with these metaphors, we can create new metaphorical blends which can lead to new insights and fresh perspectives. This is one point of deconstruction as a philosophical approach, at least how I understand it and had it presented to me during various graduate courses at the University of Florida in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This leads to my reason for looking at this book at the moment: I’m investigating mathematical conceptions of space to see if there might be a way to re-think the 3-D world of virtual reality, which, of course, relies in an analogical way upon our “continuous” and natural understanding of space but which doesn’t have to be confined to the limitations of real space. This might lead to new insights into how to store information in such spaces.
I have taken a hiatus from Deleuze to delve into cosmology–been reading Brian Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos and am 4/5 of the way through. I got through the punishing introductions to relativity and quantum mechanics (punishing NOT because of his explanations–though I've read better, Lincoln Barnett's The Universe and Doctor Einstein comes to mind–but because of the complicated concepts of space and time), paying my dues to get to the stuff on superstring theory and brane theory. Man, is it fascinating! Aside from the claims that superstring theory will provide a GUT (Grand Unified Theory) encompassing general relativity and quantum mechanics, I was stunned by the connection to metaphor as I've developed it in previous posts. On p. 390, Greene provides a diagram of "open strings with endpoints attached to two-dimensional branes, or two-branes" as well as "strings stretching from one two-brane to another." One diagram shows a plane with strings jumping off of the surface, as if representing the trajectories of jumping fish, and another shows two similar planes (i.e. branes), facing eachother, with some of the strings leaping across the space inbetween to connect to the other brane/plane.
Now I'm not sure what the implications of such a connection between (a theory of the fundamental nature of) the cosmos and the workings of poetic language (which, according to Lakoff and Johnson, underlie our very thinking processes), but at the moment I'm stuck on the sense of implication, the implication of implication, since this whole superstring theory is about hidden dimensions "folded" or curled out of our site. This also makes me think of the first time I truly encountered this word, in Deleuze's work on Leibniz and the Fold (i.e. the "pli," French for fold), and the string/metaphor/brane crossings makes me think of Deleuze and Guattari's concept of the rhizome, the "between," and the notion of plateaus, that come across, metaphorically, as branes in a multidimensional universe.
Then I think of the what explicate might mean given all of the above implications. As I saw the strings bouncing around on the surface of the brane and saw some of them leap off across the space between to another brane, I thought of them being "explicated," a kind of dimensional explication. It's all almost. . . . inexplicable.
Ever since reading about the metaphorical concept “Love is a Physical Force” in Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By, I have tuned in (there’s another one!) to the use of physics in the (supposedly) dead metaphors of our language. The examples that Lakoff and Johnson offer include “I could feel the electricity between us”, “I was magnetically drawn to her”, “They are attracted to each other” and the like. As I have suggested in previous posts, my exploration into “energonomics” points to there being something more to such usage than mere comparison. I want to suggest that there is actual energy transferred among individuals, and I’m interested in any science that tries to identify and trace such energy transfer. While it is possible that some of the more speculative new-age concepts of “energy healing” and “energy fields” surrounding the body are actual phenomena unmeasurable with current scientific instrumentation, I am interested in what can actually be said to be scientifically true, given what we know via current science.
What prompted this entry today is a book I’m reading today by a famous Japanese novelist, Shusaku Endo. The book is actually a non-fiction account of Christ titled A Life of Jesus. Something about the book (can’t find the passage right now) made me think of Jesus as a magnetic personality, and I remembered some basic science project whereby when you coil electrical wire and run electricity through it, the coil generates a magnetic field, creating an electromagnet. So my question becomes this: how is it that Jesus was “wired” such that the energy flowing through him creates a “magnetic” personality which attracted so many followers?
If the mention of Jesus and therefore the invocation of religion is distracting for you, think of any “magnetic” personality who led a movement: Hitler, M.L. King, whoever.
Endo mentions other phrases that I tuned in to: he speaks of how the death of John the Baptist “generates waves” which were to “affect his favorite disciple Jesus” (36) and how despite his death the rebellious “sentiments of the common people. . . remained in force like burning coals” (40).
If you start to pay attention, you’ll begin to see this language everywhere. I’m hoping that the concept of energonomics leads us to consider what is actually, scientifically happening within and among people when such social phenomena occur.
Another example of a newly developed conceptual metaphor based on modern science can be seen in Wai Chee Dimock’s PMLA essay titled “A Theory of Resonance,” which won the first annual Dactyl Foundation award for literary theory/criticism (see the October 1997 issue, pp. 1060-1071). She suggests that “The semantic fabric of the text, like the fabric of the universe, can be theorized as a space-time continuum. . .” She wants to account for the passage of time and its effect on the meanings of words and texts, to privilege this as a reality and a beneficial effect of contextual change over time. Such an approach would treat texts as a “diachronic objects: objects that extend across time” and would be called “diachronic historicism,” the key concept of which is resonance:
“This primarily aural and primarily interactive concept offers a helpful analogy for the phenomenon of semantic change. Modeled on the traveling frequencies of sound, it suggests a way to think about what. . . I call the traveling frequencies of literary texts: frequencies received and amplified across time, moving farther and farther away from their points of origin, causing unexpected vibrations in unexpected places”
Dimock wants literary critics to “draw inspiration from modern physicists: from their subtle analysis of motion in terms of space-time continuum” and invokes Einstein “to articulate something like a ‘kinematics’ of the text, theorizing the text’s continuous movement through time.”
Given my previous posts, it is obvious why this essay fascinates me. Dimock’s essay presents an organizing metaphor for the various movements in late 20th century literary criticism: reader-response theory, deconstruction, textual analysis. This becomes obvious when you see the ways that she characterizes the “text”: “its tendency to fall apart, to pick up noise, to break out in a riot of tongues”; “each text becomes different from itself, suffers a semantic sea change, acquires a freight of new meaning”; “[s]emantically elastic, stretched by a growing web of cross-references, often to the point of unrecognizability, a text cannot and will not remain forever the same object”; “I want to argue that noise is beneficial. . . .”
DeLanda explicates a phrase from Deleuze which speaks of an “anexact yet rigorous style of thought.” This comes after a clear explanation of the key concepts from Darwinism and traces the “philosophical consequences” of such a new conception of species (see ch. 2 pp. 56-63). It is intended to distinguish the exactitude of biologists from that of physicists:
“A good example would be the way Edelman approaches his cell collectives, where the exact number of members or their exact position is immaterial. Thsi attitude towards quantitative exactitude is not a sign that biologists, unlike physicists, are less careful or disciplined. It indicates, on the contrary, the presence of a more sophisticated topological style of thought” (63, emphasis mine).
This just struck me as appropriate after my entry of January 12th suggesting that new metaphorical concepts could be derived from higher order math and science. In fact, this is what attracts me so much to Deleuze and Guattari: they invoke the focus of contemporary physics on process and unfolding (nonlinearity, fractal geometry, complexity theory), with “plateaus” in geology, botany (rhizomes), set theory, music theory, non-Euclidean geometries, and so on. As DeLanda writes, “This theme of the disguising of process under product is key to Deleuze’s philosophy since his philosophical method is, at least in part, designed to overcome the objective illusion fostered by this concealment” (68-69).
I introduced Lakoff and Johnson’s idea of the “metaphorical concept” in a previous post and want to suggest that–if we accept Deleuze and Guattari’s conception of the role of philosophy as “the invention of concepts” as they put forth in What is Philosophy?–philosophy should look to contemporary physics as a “matrix” (i.e. womb) of conceptual generation. For what Lakoff and Johnson–and Mark Turner as well, in his work Reading Minds: The Study of English in the Age of Cognitive Science–suggest in their recent work on “cognitive linguistics” is that our philosophical concepts are based in large part on our experience of being a body in a three-dimensional space (e.g. “Thinking is Moving”). But contemporary science and mathematics have taken us beyond a Euclidean 3D space off into bizarre 11-dimensional quivering superstrings. (note to self: read Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos!!), and quantum physics completely undermines our common-sense notions of presence and absence. Imagine a philosophy whose metaphorical concepts, whose conceptual inventions, kept abreast of contemporary science and math, such that new concepts were derived from the latest speculations on the nature of the universe and of reality.
This inspires me to introduce a simple idea that I’ve been brewing for 20 or so years. It is to follow in the footsteps of the presocratic philosophers insofar as they derive whole philosophies from their observation of the four elements earth, air, water and fire. But I would mix these elements together (to better reflect twenty-first century understandings of flow and process and ontological uncertainty: think of Luce Irigaray’s riff on “fluid dynamics” in This Sex Which Is Not One) in order to start from a different place: mud (earth + water), bubble (water + air), dust (earth + air), lava (earth + fire). Since most of the contemporary philosophy that I’ve read of late tries to get out from under the “classic Greek gang of three” (i.e. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; the phrase is Edward de Bono’s from Water Logic)–Deleuze and Guattari, Derrida, and Lakoff and Johnson (whose Philosophy in the Flesh asks us to scrap all of western philosophy given that it is based entirely on problematic distinctions of mind vs. body)–returning to presocratic methods makes some sense! (Deleuze’s Logic of Sense too resurrects the Stoic philosophers as a way of getting away from the “gang of three”). Enough for now: more on this later.