Monthly Archives: January 2010

Once upon a Nietzsche…

In a haunting story that has always remained with me, Friedrich Nietzsche tells:
Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of “world history,” but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die.
One might invent such a fable, and yet he still would not have adequately illustrated how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature. There were eternities during which it did not exist. And when it is all over with the human intellect, nothing will have happened. For this intellect has no additional mission which would lead it beyond human life. Rather, it is human, and only its possessor and begetter takes it so solemnly – as though the world’s axis turned within it…
Has Nietzsche described our fate? What do we really know? How do we come to know it? What knowledge is of the most worth (and for what or for whose purposes)? What are the tensions between the knower, known and the unknown? Where does knowledge reside? To what extent is human knowledge made rather than uncovered? My cluster of questions, and subsequent return to Nietzsche’s story, is provoked by a colleague urging me to read Deleuze’s doctoral thesis, in which I’m struck by/stuck on this passage:
How else can one write but of those things which one doesn’t know, or knows badly? It is precisely there that we imagine having something to say. We write only at the frontiers of our knowledge, at the border which separates our knowledge from our ignorance and transforms the one into the other. Only in this manner are we resolved to write. To satisfy ignorance is to put off writing until tomorrow – or rather, to make it impossible.
Nietzsche’s storyline in “Truth & Lies In a Nonmoral Sense” reveals that “knowing” does not proceed logically in any case, suggesting that all the material within and with which we build our beings, our stories and our truths are derived from what Nietzsche calls “never-never land.” According to Nietzsche, knowledge is most certainly not derived from the essence of things as everything arises “from the equation of unequal things.”
The margins of my mind are blurring as I find myself trapped in a perpetuating purgatory of knowing, but not knowing… with no easy way out of my boundlessly boundaried state of being between “knowing that I don’t know” and “unknowing that which I know.” Proud, promiscuous words are tempting, but not telling… Help!!

Totally like whatever, you know?

A poem by Taylor Mali:

In case you hadn’t noticed,
it has somehow become uncool
to sound like you know what you’re talking about?
Or believe strongly in what you’re saying?
Invisible question marks and parenthetical (you know?)’s
have been attaching themselves to the ends of our sentences?
Even when those sentences aren’t, like, questions? You know?

Declarative sentences – so-called
because they used to, like, DECLARE things to be true
as opposed to other things which were, like, not –
have been infected by a totally hip
and tragically cool interrogative tone? You know?
Like, don’t think I’m uncool just because I’ve noticed this;
this is just like the word on the street, you know?
It’s like what I’ve heard?
I have nothing personally invested in my own opinions, okay?
I’m just inviting you to join me in my uncertainty?

What has happened to our conviction?
Where are the limbs out on which we once walked?
Have they been, like, chopped down
with the rest of the rain forest?
Or do we have, like, nothing to say?
Has society become so, like, totally . . .
I mean absolutely . . . You know?
That we’ve just gotten to the point where it’s just, like . . .

And so actually our disarticulation . . . ness
is just a clever sort of . . . thing
to disguise the fact that we’ve become
the most aggressively inarticulate generation
to come along since . . .
you know, a long, long time ago!

I entreat you, I implore you, I exhort you,
I challenge you: To speak with conviction.
To say what you believe in a manner that bespeaks
the determination with which you believe it.
Because contrary to the wisdom of the bumper sticker,
it is not enough these days to simply QUESTION AUTHORITY.
You have to speak with it, too.

Biology of Knowledge… Biology of Love?

How is life related to the mind?
Is mind continuous with life?
How do we know what we know?
What’s love got to do with it?

Maturana & Varela bring forth these questions in The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding (1987). They believe that “living is sense making” and that “all life is cognitive.” While these phrases don’t have the popular power of “cogito ergo sum,” they are good reminders that cognition and life are co-emergent and inseparable. All experiences change the brain and in turn, our level of brain functioning shapes the content of daily experiences.

If you are curious about the mind and the way that it works, The Tree of Knowledge is very readable. “Knowing how we know,” is the main subject of this book, which outlines a unified scientific conception of mind, matter and life. Maturana & Varela’s view of cognition has important social and ethical implications as they assert the only world humans can have is the one that we create together through the actions of our coexistence (p. 248):

“We have only the world that we bring forth with others, and only love helps us bring it forth. If we have succeeded in bringing the reader around to this reflection, this book will have achieved its second purpose.”

In addition to their beautiful conclusion, Maturana & Varela (p. 246-247) express how:

This [love] is the biological foundation of social phenomena: without love, without acceptance of others living beside us, there is no social process and, therefore, no humanness... To dismiss love as the biologic basis of social life, as also the ethical implications of love, would be to turn our back on a history as living beings that is more than 3.5 billion years old. We may resist the notion of love in a scientific reflection because we fear for the objectivity of our rational approach. Yet from what we have said in this book it should be apparent that such fear is unfounded. Love is a biological dynamic with deep roots.

So, to live as human is not simply to know and feel, but also to love. Life and cognition are inseparable, you can’t have one without the other, and love brings forth all of the diverse possibilities for our tender true humanity to be.


Ways of Being-In-The-World


[similes of being]

BLOCKHEADS: Like letters carved in rock

Blockheads are rigid in thought and action, accepting only their way, unable to see beyond their impenetrable blocked ego. Blockheads live a hard life on the wrong side of the metaphorical door, shutting them out of privilege, opportunity, awareness, softening and feeling. They freeze feelings and turn ideas into stone with their dogmatic ideals that require absolute obedience. Their one-sided ways, the Buddha says, are like letters carved in rock, for they cannot see beyond the blocked entrance. They cannot move beyond their blocked ego so when they act, they act out blindly and cruelly.

These characters live among us today in the form of White supremacists, political terrorists, rapists, gay bashers, hate mongers, and at times: me and you. How do we unfreeze our blockheaded habits and drill our stubborn consciousness? These are not heady acts: too many of us live inside our heads, far too often. How do we see and hear a trickling of the sand through the rock of unexamined and habituated beliefs?

SPLITHEADS: Like letters written in sand

Splitheads do not open the metaphorical door to more awakened paths, however, they have glimpses into alternative sides of themselves. While not impenetrable, they allow “the social self” to take the place of “the authentic self” until the difference between the two is blurred. Splitheads are playing a part in a script written by their social roles and habits, living according to others’ expectations, forgetting who they are, sleepwalking through life, and not looking for cracks of awareness in the rock..

FOUNTAINHEADS: Like letters written in running water

Fountainheads are neither this nor that, but coming and going, like Bakhtin’s mode of linguistic homelessness (where no one ideal is grasped). Fountainheads do not retain their passing thoughts and their minds are always clear: the fluid self, freely moving, living energy, with mental alertness, inner strength and mindfulness.

The Teaching of Buddha (Tokyo: Kosaido Printing, 1990)
Like Letters in Running Water: A Mythopoetics of Curriculum (Mary Aswell Doll, 2000)

Maturana & Varela on Knowledge & Cabbages

What cabbages do you insist upon carrying with you?

Perhaps this question will make more sense if you read a Sufi story told by Maturana & Varela:

A story is told of an island somewhere and its inhabitants. The people longed to move to another land where they could have a healthier and better life. The problem was that the practical arts of swimming and sailing had never been developed – or may have been lost long before. For that reason, there were some people who simply refused to think of alternatives to life on the island, whereas others intended to seek a solution to thier problems locally, without any thought of crossing the waters. From time to time, some islanders reinvented the arts of swimming and sailing. Also from time to time a student would come up to them, and the following exchange would take place:

“I want to swin to another land.”

“for that you have to learn how to swim. Are you ready to learn?”

“Yes, but I want to take with me my ton of cabbages.”

“What cabbages?”

“The food I’ll need on the other side or wherever it is.”

“But what if there’s food on the other side?”

“I don’t know what you mean. I’m not sure. I have to bring my cabbages with me.”

“But you won’t be able to swim with a ton of cabbages. It’s too much weight.”

“Then I can’t learn how to swim. you call my cabbages weight. I call them my basic food.”

“Suppose this were an allegory and, instead of talking about cabbages we talked about fixed ideas, presuppositions, or certainties?”

“Hummm… I’m going to bring my cabbages to someone who understands my needs.”

Maturana, H. & Varela, F. (1998). The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications. [p. 249-250]

Shah, I. (1971). The Sufis. New York: Anchor Books. [p. 2-15]