It’s this, what happens when things don’t map – or fail to correspond – seamlessly that I think deserves more attention. It’s actually not such a new problem. About a century before scientists were awarded a Nobel prize for discovering our “inner GPS,” Charles Sander Peirce, who always gives me a headache reading him, as if I were Athena painfully emerging from Zeus’s head, was paving the way for such thinking. In my error-prone interpretation of him, his triadic logic of signs locates possible tension between first (iconic), second (indexical), and third (symbolic) positions. Mediating that tension brings authentic change. We, however, I fear tend to be afraid of such authentic mediation in our blind faith to index (or map) our personal (first-person) sensations according to standard symbolic representations (or generalized knowledge) about things.
A relative of mine, in the fictive world of kin, once studied motion sickness as an index of sensory conflict, which always makes me think of Sartre’s Nausea. Yet, what that work, if I understand it correctly, demonstrates is that those who are diagnosed as psychotic are more sensitive to conflicts between their sensations of actual physical phenomena and the way they are socially mapped, that is cognitively categorized and recognized. In other words, psychosis, whether affective as in the case mostly of young women, or non-affective as often in the case of even younger boys, may make complete logical sense as Deleuze points out.
It’s like so many of Shakespeare’s kings: they go mad before they come to their better senses. They don’t do as they ought until they comprehend that what is was not what they thought it must be. And perhaps that is why there are some neuroscientists advocating we listen to anthropologists, like some of those who influenced me most as an undergraduate, such as Mary Douglas interested in myth (belief structures) and Victor Turner ritual (cultural performances).
Not that I think anthropology is devoid of complicity in our current state of affairs, and I don’t think that is just because I’m still covering painful scars and bruises under my turtlenecks. The anxious turn in 1986 to the “crisis of representation” fails at the end to do more than lock us within the Pandora’s box of Frankenstein, that carefully constructed science fiction of the deconstruction of liberty framed within a representational republic, layer after layer of someone else narrating the actual monstrous events of a scientist trying to reanimate the dead.
It’s as if they swallowed Vine Deloria, Jr., and found their belly hurting so badly, they felt they must regurgitate him, and his peers, as the source of authentic native advocacy, avoiding the fact his sources were often more modern than their own, whether it be John G. Neihardt mangling Black Elk, his father’s Episcopalian ministry, the Lutheranism of his theology degree, or his education in Liberalism from the law school that taught Byron White (and my grandfather, not that this matters to anyone but me as I never knew him). True, anthropologists have since turned the corner, maybe now from acquired acid reflux, and celebrate such hybridity, almost as if it’s the sole entry into becoming a cosmopolitan elite, for good or bad, for let’s not forget “Jihadi John” was educated in London from the time he was six until he earned a degree in information systems with business management.
Perhaps I am a bit bitter having stumbled on recent community health reports of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation while revisiting my love of ethnopoetics, for a comparative poetry course was the one thing that kept me from dropping out of grad school. Despite the infusion of a Freire-inspired community mobilization process, deaths from chronic liver disease and cirrhosis continue to increase dramatically. What struck me most in these reports though was the stress on rights and personal responsibility. One elder, Aurelia Stacona, is quoted as saying in 2012:
“We grew up on dried salmon; the heads had the most vitamins. We drank water. Mom cooked roots, dad went hunting and fishing; no fried food. Today we have to take care of ourselves. No one else will do it for us … it’s our choice and right to be healthy.”
Yet, they have plenty of people coming in telling them how to be healthy. These same people are applauding their small successes: an annual ritual cited in the Healthy Nations report as a success is a Halloween party, for although once “this party ended with 300 people in jail because of drunkenness and disorderly conduct,” now it is a “healthier tribal gathering,” because positive messages are conveyed “about lifestyle choice, relationships, and interpersonal respect.”
It’s as if I’m reading Iris Young about how those affected by structural violence have the greatest personal responsibility to do something about it. It is a Henry James or Edith Wharton novel moralizing against the dinginess of life rather than a Baudelaire poem rejected by James for living it. I don’t want to read another ethnography in the fashion of James or Wharton. I want an anthropology that explains, among other things, that stress of finding oneself all alone subject to the Kafkaian trial of responding to one’s compromised position, as humanist scientists want to sample you, from your stories, kin networks, to your DNA, to understand the disparity, and politicians want to examine in excruciating detail your every response to determine whether it’s appropriate or not. What exactly does that do to one’s body?
And, no, I don’t want the answer served to me on a continental menu that would subject the body to some objective like its freedom, for although Foucault tried to invert Kant, in the end he held his same ends. Not that I’m against freedom, mind you, but I find, it’s like what economists found about happiness, the greater it’s valued, the more we set a hierarchy of limits to its attainment, and the more we find ourselves unhappy struggling against those limits ruling us in some probably Freudian-like-analyzed way.
Indeed, we are fluttering at this crux I cannot fully articulate, but at which point I keep turning to a Sahaptin story recorded by Virginia Hymes with Hazel Suppah. It is the story of Basket-Woman and Raven’s children.
Act I. Raven, returning each day from digging roots, asks her children to fetch her water. After they have ignored her request for five days, she flies away as a raven. Left alone, the children wander crying and are captured by Basket-Woman.
Act II. Trapped in Basket-Woman’s basket, the children make and put in effect a plan. They escape as she is carrying them home to feed to her own children. Discovering they are gone, she pursues them to where Crane has helped them across the river. His advice to her as to how to cross leads to her drowning.
Crane’s advice to Basket-Woman was to stuff her dress with rocks, thereby “predicting” her. Whenever I think about this story, I see Virginia Wolfe, mistress of the stream of consciousness, stuffing her pockets with rocks and slowly walking into the River Ouse to her death, not long after writing “The Death of the Moth.”
Yet, at this very moment we celebrate such consciousness as Wolfe’s. There are those like Stuart Kauffman who are again trying to reconcile Leibnitz’ calculus, whose symbolic notation system prevailed, with Newton’s, whose functional system of motion was foundational in natural law and history, and in doing so discover that consciousness does indeed stream, that it flows like an embodied spirit, or is a mode of ever-emergent being in a quantum network. In this they celebrate its improvisational creativity, its jazz. We can self-generate, be self-autonomous, we are indeed free, we are not dependent on our environment, or a physics dominated by the force of gravity, perhaps borrowed by Hobbes for his conception of sovereignty, and by Darwin for natural selection.
I, however, am wary of denying gravity, cutting off the sovereign’s head, and failing to adapt to our habitats, in our efforts to program autonomous selves capable of their own mediation or transformation at critical structural nodes regulated by some network-recognized formal logic. Maybe that is because of what I and those I work with do: read schemas and make sure structured texts validate against it, or write regular expressions or other scripts to transform those texts to meet the requirements of different schemas, or to conform to the requirements of new applications. All of that happens under the executioner’s hood and few are aware of it, leaving its magical power to those capable of consciously automating it.
Anthropologists’ current love affair with Latour falls in this trap. Latour seems to follow Spinoza to model phenomena in schemas, preferring to use attributes, or modes of being, rather than elements, or beings-in-themselves, to make his theory more elegantly scripted. Those schemas are the formal logic regulating the possibilities at any node in a social network. In other words, the social scientist’s job is to trace a being through the network and observe what happens – or emerges – at any given node so that we may adapt the network as necessary to regulate it according to our principled, and cost-benefit calculated, requirements, understanding that any being is capable of become self-aware of all of this too, and may try to manipulate it to its own ends, thus necessitating the erection of costly barriers to gaining such expertise.
What happens then in time is that complexity ensues leading to unpredictable environments that depend more and more on automated algorithms – or set of automatic rules granted sovereignty – whose power is limited to fewer and fewer experts.
In turn our once ritualized rites of passages into a sovereign body have shifted to our bodies becoming playfully disciplined by a long-dead sovereign to choose among simulations limiting our possibilities.
Far from prevailing dogma that we are freer this way, Foucault was right, as those following him like Agamben, in understanding, we are more governed and controlled and surveilled than ever, precisely because of that fear someone may hijack a network, leading to our rush of moral panics. Ultimately, because of Raven’s and Basket-Woman’s difficulties caring for their children, we are controlled by Crane, predictably ready to tell someone to go drown themselves if they go against his revitalized – reprogrammed – rules, called by some tradition, others justice, and yet others revolution or the word of God.
I don’t think the answer though is to continue to obsessively understand the history or workings of this problem, to self-consciously trace its formations, for ultimately it will lead, as Georg Lukács foresaw, in “The Problems of a Philosophy of the History of Forms,” to a profound loneliness, of losing, like Hölderlin, attachment to time and space, of becoming absolutely distrustful upon becoming but a problem onto itself. That state of isolated being is also too easily prone to being taken advantage of by scammers.
I’m not quite sure how, but as I said before myself falling at risk of drowning myself in my own monologue, we need to look outside of ourselves again, to βίος (bios) rather than ζωή (zoe), as Arendt described in “The Concept of History: Ancient and Modern.” Like Bernard Williams, she turns to the ancient Greeks’ sense of mortality, of a person’s rectilinear path ζωή (zoe) through the cyclical movement of biological life βίος (bios), in contrast to Christianity’s inversion of this, in which the only way to experience this is through the sacrificed immortal body of Christ.
Rather than this later intensionality, we need, I feel, to return to extensionality, and to contradict myself, to the substance of our shared materiality. We need to turn to those like Wittgenstein, whom I was spoon fed in college by his friends without my realizing it, and who, although ironically diagnosed with Asperger’s, was committed to defending the external properties of bodies rather than just the shared internal definitions and particular logic of their being. For example, he denied the possibility of any “private language” by fact that all language is social and thus capable of being learned. He recognized though the tension between, as he put it in On Certainty, what you can count on, or rely on, and what you know. One can only show the former, by pointing it, for instance, at the latter, or by struggling to poetically describe it. Still, those external factual things exist, and according to the rules of one’s society, may or may not be named. Some things must be shown and others often fall by ignored.
Our focus ought return again on how our bodies are adapting – or are failing to adapt – to such external stresses of our ecology rather than our mind’s ability to willfully – intentionally – transform it or spiritually endure it through our work and play. Only then will we be able to really discover our bodies again, and not have our immune systems attack themselves, or our bodily sensations invalidated by our formal schemas, or our differences – our natural diversity – strained by artificial constraints – usually the cultural legacy of the winners of our past conflicts. History, it is said, is something written after the fact by its winners. Myth, on the other hand, flows from those present in time and place.