Meat and symbols

Often, in the moments between sleeping and waking, ideas become visceral, almost literally. This can include things like 'oh my God, Sarah Palin might be one heartbeat away from leader of the free world' or 'oh my Christ, we really are managing the fuck the one planet we have.' That last one is often accompanied by the 93 million miles between the Earth and sun shrinking so that the heavenly bodies are almost within mental grasp, almost in the same room. There really is a star blasting at us, churning our water and atmosphere.

More recently, there's been a few occasions when it's been more corporeal: yanked back from sleep and plopped into a vast dark room of consciousness, so I can have some stark fact about my physical form klaxoned at me. For some reason, my spine got that treatment (probably because of a bad back); a keen sense of bone and gristle holding my centre line together. More recently (probably after some film or other) my brain decided to get all 'aaargh' at the idea of a bullet going through it. Quite reasonable thing for it to do, one might think. The fact that usually it doesn't says something about our ability to just get on with what the world presents us with. But right then, my brain wasn't having any of it: so, here's a bullet, right? It goes through and me, this person - suddenly I'm goo, I'm all over the place.

Stephen o'regan's amazing take on Terry Bisson's short story (hat-tip: idiolect) nails this weirdness, managing to turn things upside down with the aid of a supernaturally perfect bit of saxophone and some gentle panning. We are, in fact, made out of meat. One might argue it's a rubbish system. It's usually movie villains caught making that case out loud, often when they're monologuing about how they're going to use your children as vehicles for their immortal soul or encode themselves in lightbeams using the president of the US as a fuel source or somesuch. But in the middle of the night when my mind is, in its gut, utterly horrified at its own gooeyness, I find it hard to disagree. It seems like we're an evolutionary aberration. Terrence Deacon's the Symbolic Species makes a case for our minds - once following behind - now being hitched to the evolutionary cart, and driving it. Now we find ourselves in a strange place:

We are not just a species who uses symbols. The symbolic universe has ensnared us in an inescapable web. Like a 'mind' virus, the symbolic adaptation has infected us, and now by virtue of the irresistable urge it has instilled in us to turn everything we encounter and everyone we meet into symbols, we have become the means by which it unceremoniously propogates itself through the world.

I'm reminded of a species of fish on David Attenborough's latest: they mate by throwing themselves onto the shore. The eggs and sperm fertilise in a last, dying fish orgy and are swept out to sea. If ever you needed a personification of the gene, it's here: thanks for the propogation guys - now just flap about on the beach and die, gasping for breath alongside the rest of your kind, in a puddle of your own sex juices. Much obliged.

That got a bit dark; wasn't quite where I meant to go with that. I had two things in mind; having just read some Symbolic Species that I haven't looked at in yonks, I can't do better than end with a long quote from it I just found. But the first thing first: the more I consider the role of language and symbol I discussed a while back, the more I read theorists like economics nobel winner Elinor Ostrom, the less clear the boundaries seem between being human and being in the world. In discussing the idea of 'adaptive landscapes' I mentioned a desire to avoid a 'narrow functionalism'; that stuff is no more narrowly functional for being in part about production than writing about death is narrowly functional. I'm taken by the idea that our symbolic nature might be more closely threaded with two key things: everyone around us, and the world and landscape we live on. That seems somewhat obvious, but (borrowing from Stuart Kaufmann) it's less obvious that self-organisation should be so at home in our symbolic nature rather than, as perhaps Hayek would have it, very occasionally producing random flukes.

Back to the cheery stuff, though. Maybe all this started when a loved one of a love one died a few years back. They asked for a glass of water, and then moments later they were gone. We all experience more of this the older we get; my step-mum has noted the alarming increase in peers popping off. In Waking Life, two people mull over the ageing paradox -

While, technically, I'm closer to the end of my life than I've ever been, I actually feel more than ever that I have all the time in the world. When I was younger, there was a desperation, a desire for certainty, like there was an end to the path, and I had to get there.

I look forward to that; currently it seems to me it's now possible to see what the shape of a life is. I've come far enough to sense how the past trails behind, what ten, twenty years ago feels like, and that the old cliche about not having much time is a cliche for a reason. And the unconscionable thing, the impossible thing: every moment now passing, once I'm gone, will be nowhere and nothing, as if it never happened. Perhaps as I carry on I'll be kind to myself, let things be wrapped more warmly in some symbolic structure about continuity, about my place in nature. I'll save that one for another post. For now, over to Deacon (pp.436):

One of the essentially universal attributes of human culture is what might be called the mystical or religious inclination. There is no culture I know of that lacks a rich, mystical and religious tradition. And there is no culture that doesn't devote much of this intense interpretive enterprise to struggling with the very personal mystery of mortality. Knowledge of death, of the inconceivable possibility that the experiences of life will end, is a datum that only symbolic representation can impart. Other species may experience loss, and the pain of separation, and the difficulty of abandoning a dead companion; yet without the ability to represent this abstract counterfactual relationship, there can be no emotional connection to one's own future death.

But this news, which all children eventually discover as they develop their symbolic abilities, provides an unbidden opportunity to turn the naturally evolved social instinct of loss and separation in on itself to create a foreboding sense of fear, sorrow, and impending loss with respect to our own lives, as if looking back from an impossible future. No feature of the limbic system has evolved to handle this ubiquitous virtual sense of loss. Indeed, I wonder if it isn't one of the most maladapative of the serendipitous consequences of the evolution of symbolic abilities. What great efforts we exert trying to forget our future fate by submerging the constant angst with innumerable distractions, or trying to convince ourselves that the end isn't really what it seems by weaving marvelous alternative interpretations of what will happen in 'the undiscovered country' on the other side of death.

... The interaction of symbolic cultural evolution and un-prepared biology has created some of the most influential and virulent systems of symbols the world has ever known. Few if any societies have ever escaped the grip of powerful beliefs that cloak the impenetrable mystery of human life and death in a cocoon of symbolism and meaning. // Perhaps this is because the savant-like compulsion to see symbols in everything reaches its most irresistable expression when it comes to the symbolisation of our own life's end. We inevitably imagine ourselves as symbols, as the tokens of a deeper discourse of the world.

Almost certainly this is one of the other defining features of the human mentality: an ever present virtual experience of our own loss. And yet we know so little about what it is that we fear to lose. Perhaps if we understood this symbolic compulsion, and the consciousness it brings with it, we might find this emptiness at the centre a bit less disturbing.


aka the existential heebeejeebies

Great quote!

Your discussion reminds me of


And here's Johnny 5 coming to the same realisation.