Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The End of my Visit to Putnam Valley, NY, and The Order of Things Revisited

So, tonight is the last night that I will be in Putnam Valley, NY. I am waking up tomorrow at 6:15 AM and will get this show on the road. It is about a five hour drive. I really enjoy the drive, actually. I listen to my music, I think about different things. It is very nice when my mind has time to just wander. And the car. What a great time to let the mind wander. I always end up thinking about all sorts of things. And I have made this drive to NY and back so many times that I can pretty much autopilot the whole thing. Seems like the weather might be nice enough to let me drive with my windows down. That will be nice.

So, I originally came to PV to accomplish a couple of things. First and foremost, relax and escape College Park for a little while. I definitely accomplished that goal. Second, I wanted to expand a paper I had written at the end of undergrad from 7 pages to 30 pages. I also accomplished that goal and I feel very pleased with myself. The paper was for a class called 'Science and Literature in the nineteenth century.' Very nice young smart teacher. Very good class. I ended up writing a paper on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the teacher received it very well. I think it's the only A+ I got in undergrad. More importantly, she told me that if I expanded it I might be able to publish it. So that quickly became an ambition of mine. The paper is titled "Articulation and Ineffability: Science, Language, and Modern Identity in Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." It is essentially about the way that science/industrialism has given rise to a culture of articulation, a culture that favors words and reason over everything else. And how this culture of articulation began to dominate individual's identities, especially those involved in science etc. Furthermore, how an identity that is based entirely on things that can be articulated is bound to be inadequate, since 1. the mind is far too complex to be articulated to the level demanded by the sciences and 2. we are essentially animals, and clearly the bulk of our brain operates beyond the realm of language. In short, we value language way too much even though it is only one of our abilities, and humans have clearly existed without its help for the bulk of evolutionary history.

This is actually one of my favorite ideas. Period. I think about things like this all the time. Mainly because I have always been so damn emotional. Crying is easy. Feeling emotions is easy. Funny thing, I also have an intense inclination to articulate. WORDS WORDS WORDS. I love them. My best friend Rob once nicknamed me 'words man.' It was a very intense day, very weird experience. But that day put me firmly in touch with the ineffability of my life. How overwhelming and exciting perception is without the help of words. And how words are basically a desperate attempt to express the intensity and excitement of subjective experience. Words are nothing compared to experience. I don't suggest we give up on words. I just suggest we recognize that they fall short of the things that they are trying to communicate.

This doesn't mean that you can just give up by saying 'OH WELL I GUESS MY SUBJECTIVE EXPERIENCE IS JUST TOO DIFFICULT TO COMMUNICATE SO I WON'T EVEN TRY.' I reject that statement flat out, 100%. I reject it with gusto. I detest it.

Words can almost certainly provide a meaningful understanding of experience, especially one that can be personally useful, and more importantly, socially useful. When we use words we can open ourselves up to the minds and feelings of so many different people. That's why books are so very exciting. Don't you see what you can access? You can access so very much, the thoughts of so many people who are already dead. The thoughts and feelings of people you will never meet. The thoughts and feelings of things that your life could never give you.

Especially in America, and especially where I come from (Columbia, MD, a small isolated community often called the Columbubble), it is so important to extend yourself beyond your own views. And sure, traveling can do this too, and I have actually been quite taken aback/shook up/excited by all my recent traveling. But what if you want to experience things from the past? What is it that surreal fiction can provide us with? I have read some surreal fiction that has made me feel such strong emotions. They have made me so excited and worked up about things that aren't even real, or aren't even close to possible. But somehow it gives me a perspective beyond what I already know.

This is why metaphor and imagery are such exciting things. Soon I am gonna write a blog called "Using imagery to conceptualize a balanced view of freedom and determinism." Or some ridiculous title like that. But I do find imagery quite exciting. It opens us up to cross-modal associations, and lets our mind experience the same thought in different ways. OOOOOH. Yeah, I dig imagery and metaphor.

So, as for my reading of Michel Foucault's The Order of Things, I am close to finished with it. I have about 90 pages left. Given that the whole thing is 386, I feel good about being this close. Although I know the last 90 will also be a challenge. That is okay.

So, can I explicate these ideas with any accuracy? Let me try. The major question: How is it that certain forms of thought became possible? What happened that let people conceive of biology, philology, and economics? Clearly people did not just start paying more attention, they didn't just one day look more closely at the world and realize that this is how things were ordered. Nor was it just that certain individual geniuses came along and elevated thought to another level.

Foucault posits that modern thought enters the space of possibility because the systems of language that people had access to grew in complexity, and allowed them to think about things in other ways. In short, it was impossible for evolution to be discovered in the 16th century because people were still operating with a linguistic system that did not let that enter the space of possible thought. Language itself, it's growing complexity, and in particular it's relationship with representation and the sign facilitated the growth of modern disciplines.

Now, he has the whole book periodized into three chunks: the Renaissance period, the Classical period, and the Modern period. Renaissance is roughly 1400-1650. Classical is roughly 1650- 1775-1800, thereabouts. And the Modern period is roughly 1775-present.

What were the systems of language available to all these periods? Well, the Renaissance system of language was founded mainly on similitudes. All classification was about finding how different things related to one another, comparing faces to the stars, trees to humans, animals to water. Basically, everything could be compared to everything else in similar degrees. So, there basically exists an infinity of ways that things can be compared. Further, things were thought to have an essential nature. It is as if the natural world were a text being read, and we could literally uncover the words that everything contained within it. This allowed thought to exists of comparisons of essential natures that were infinitely related to one another. If language, order, and classification function in this way, then clearly it would be impossible for evolution, economics, biology, or philology to be conceived of. Those things all rest on a certain relationship with language, classification, and representation.

In the Classical period, we have the rise of representation. Things are thought no longer to have the words for them resting inside of them. Rather, men need to assign order to things for themselves. The growing complexity of language allows people to realize that they are in fact representing the world. The birth of discourse, I think he says, happens in this era. Because we are now presenting straight forward, elaborate, linear explications of the natural world. Representations of the world now only function in relation to other representations of the world. Meaning, I think, that it is impossible to talk about things without drawing on the ways in which other people have represented it. He talks a lot about representation representing itself as representation. Or something. I think that is what he means. Things have been discussed enough that representation takes on a life of its own, it becomes disassociated from the actual things it is discussing.

Now the Modern period, (I haven't finished the book and it ends with this section), as I understand so far, marks the age of History (with a capital H). Not history in terms of the mapping of past human affairs. But History in the sense that these disciplines are now aware that their own thinking has a historicity. He refers to the fact that philosophy becomes turned inward upon its own development. Meaning that men are no longer just philosophizing about the world, but they are discussing the historical development of their philosophical ideas. Philosophy becomes concerned with its own development, its own historicity. Just think about how we cant talk about any philosophy without thinking about it historically, without taking into account the already established discourses of the discipline. We can't philosophize anymore without considering the historicity of philosophy. Similarly, other disciplines are not able to function as autonomous from their own historicity. Those who study natural beings (biology), Labor (economics), and language (philology), are not longer able to consider their disciplines without noting the historical development of organic beings, individuals and their relationship to need and work, or the historical development of different languages.

I really don't have a grasp on what Foucault is saying about the Modern period yet. But like I said, I haven't finished the section/book yet. I will in the next few days.

I am still working on my huge post. "Simulation, Synthetic Experience, and Modifying the Unconscious: My Thoughts on History, Fiction, and Empathy in Light of Mirror Neurons." It is getting really long and weird for me. But, I think it is fairly coherent. And if you really really really want to know what I have been thinking about for the last 2-3 years (you mysterious, non-existent readers, you) then this upcoming post will give you a good idea. It is funny, cause it really is the synthesis of so many of the things I have been thinking about for quite a while. Exciting stuff. I hope to finish it soon. Maybe tomorrow. I have been working on it daily for the past 5 or 6 days or so.

Glad I started doing this more free flow posts while I prepared it though. Snap dizzle damn. Tomorrow I will drive back to Maryland. And the adventure that is life after college continues with more obscurity than ever before.

But I have some ideas. And I ain't scared.

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