Climate change is happening within us [book review]

Kelly, an acupuncturist and Taichi student, draws on cases from his clinical practice in Chinese medicine and a solid comprehension of key scientific findings about anthropomorphic global warming to come to a diagnosis of climate change as a symptom of Yin-deficient heat.

My Taichi teacher, Wolfe Lowenthal, asked me to write a book review for our school’s newsletter,  Taichi Thoughts, so I read Brendan Kelly’s book with an eye to implications for practicing Tai Chi.

In The Yin and Yang of Climate Crisis: Healing Personal, Cultural and Ecological Imbalance with Chinese Medicine (2015), Brendon Kelly, an acupuncturist and Taichi student, draws on cases from his clinical practice based in Chinese medicine, and a solid comprehension of key scientific findings about anthropomorphic global warming, to come to a diagnosis of climate change as a symptom of Yin-deficient heat. “Heat,” he explains, “is an excess of warmth and a state of overstimulation, which can eventually cause our internal fluids, or coolant, to evaporate.” Kelly jumps back and forth between the levels of an individual human body, majority US culture, and planetary environmental conditions. This logic is legitimate from a Chinese medicine point of view, which holds that “the microcosm and the macrocosm reflect the same conditions and tendencies, with the only significant difference being scale.” Accepting this premise and Kelly’s diagnosis means most of us are operating with too much Yang, generating too much heat and thus contributing via our very bodies to the ecological processes of climate change.

Kelly spends time detailing both the ways in which too much heat is generated and ways in which cooling systems are failing, hence the specific designation of Yin-deficient heat. Water is the element mainly responsible for cooling, in our bodies as well as for the planet. Critiquing the rapid pace and consumer-orientation of our culture, Kelly argues that “stimulation is not strength; it’s heat.” This got me thinking about the sensations of practicing Tai Chi, especially Wolfe’s frequent instructions about how we are to engage the air: “caress the air;” “treat the air as if it had the substance and weight of water;” “feel the water-like air.” What if, in addition to sensing the air as an element in physical contact with our hands, we considered the air as literally cooling the excessive Yang in our bodies?  A new mantra might be, “feel the air like cool water.”

“Climate change is not just happening in the world around us;
climate change is also happening within us.”

As an introduction to Chinese medicine, I found the book compelling. In particular, Kelly’s description of the interaction of the “Five Phases” (or “Five Elements”) with the Sheng and K’o cycles was instructive. “The Sheng or Nourishing cycle is what allows organs and phases to feed what comes next. While the K’o cycle creates balance by limiting and controlling things, the Sheng cycle is the relationship among the different aspects of who we are that promotes growth – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually” (136). If you want to learn the major symptoms of climate change without perusing the scientific literature, Kelly provides a fair and specific representation. His lessons about the Yin and Yang are familiar, e.g., “By itself, the Yang of doing things won’t lead us to the Yin of understanding our lives.” The unique contribution of his book in Tai Chi terms is his articulation of parallels and successful treatments that will help us “to know within us what climate stability would look and feel like” so that we can help to bring about climate stability “in the world around us.”

Brendan Kelly: “The Yin and Yang of Climate Crisis“, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA.

Republished with permission, includes minor revisions. Originally published in Taichi Thoughts, Volume 16, No. 3, November 4, 2015.

Subscribe to Taichi Thoughts Internet Journal.

tweaking the turns: resilience is systemic

Resilience requires, among other things, “distinguish[ing] between those catastrophes we can repair and those that require us to face a new reality” (p.35). I’m interested that “resilience” is typically invoked as a counterpart to crisis, as if it only emerges spontaneously in the face of a sudden unexpected event rather than persisting as a durable property of a system. Resilience is also most commonly described as a characteristic of individuals rather than groups. How we comport ourselves when wounded, however, is a matter of relationship that is fundamentally inseparable from the co-occurring internal psychological struggle.

Excerpts from Resilience
by Elizabeth Edwards

Sixty pages in to this Christmas gift, I found myself enjoying it more than I at first anticipated.  Some malicious news/gossip drifted within the realm of my awareness some months or a year or two ago about Elizabeth Edwards selling out some part of her soul either by publishing this book or – maybe it was going on a talk show circuit afterwards or… I don’t recall the details. It was a reflection of one of those distasteful, distressing tendencies of the media spotlight to grind away at character, seeking and exploiting flaws of integrity, as if there are so many of us who could withstand such scrutiny well.

Context: Whiteness

The back cover sports a quote from pp.37-38, in which Edwards admits a preference for avoiding difficult things in life while reconciling herself to the fact that they are going to happen, no matter what. By this point, she has already painted the picture of herself as a person living a dream and believing it could continue unabated. She had noticed tarnish, but not allowed it to dim the glow of her idealized vision, such as (among other things) recognizing “that the color of your skin gave you a whole different, less hospitable country” (p. 15).  Edwards attributes most of her fantasy to growing up in a magical-military lifestyle framed by Armed Services Radio. Seems like a classic example of how lives become meaningful within a context shaped by media.

It is my interpretation to lay her idyll at the feet of whiteness – not the simplistic version of white skin privilege, but the attitudes and assumptions of whiteness – which can be embedded in any human body of any ethnicity, given enough socioeconomic privilege and cultural conditioning.  You may consider the evidence sketchy, but when Edwards describes how she is changed after the infidelity of her husband (coming very soon after a diagnosis of breast cancer, and some years after the life-altering death of her teenage son), I thought to myself, this is what whiteness shields you from:

“I was not wounded, not afraid, not uncertain before, and

now I always will be.”

Many pages later, discussing a transformation in her Christian faith necessitated by the death of her son, she writes:

“I had believed that God would intervene to protect the innocent. How, at forty-six, having seen what I had of the world, having walked around the site of the children’s hospital at Hiroshima, near the epi-center of the atomic bomb, having seen injustice and misery reposed among the innocent across the globe, I still believed this, I cannot say. I only know that I did…” (p 110).

Whiteness enables this kind of magical thinking.

“What we know is apparently no match for what we need” (p. 70)

Faith is a kind of map that orders a belief structure, enabling coping mechanisms and strategies for survival and – if accompanied by luck – individual and social thriving. “In my life,” Edwards admits, “the map has almost always been wrong.” She is referring to a saying of her friend Gordon Livingston: “When the map does not comport with the ground, the map is wrong” (p. 32). In lieu of a god who protects the innocent and guards the righteous from random trauma, Edwards comes to believe in a God who “promises only salvation and enlightenment,” continuing:

“This is our world, a gift from God, and we make it what it is. If it is unjust, we have made it so. If there is boundless misery, we have permitted it. If there is suffering, it came from man’s own action or inaction” (p. 111).

Later, she adds:

“I remind myself: This is the world we made; its flaws are our flaws; its shortcomings are our shortcomings; and the degree to which there is injustice or unprovoked suffering is just a reflection of our failures…God gave me this world, and He gave me free will. It is my world, and now, if I am able, I have to fix it” (p. 119).

Resilience requires, among other things, “distinguish[ing] between those catastrophes we can repair and those that require us to face a new reality” (p.35). I’m interested that “resilience” is typically invoked as a counterpart to crisis, as if it only emerges spontaneously in the face of a sudden unexpected event rather than persisting as a durable property of a system. Resilience is also most commonly described as a characteristic of individuals rather than groups. How we comport ourselves when wounded, however, is a matter of relationship that is fundamentally inseparable from the co-occurring internal psychological struggle.

a small slice of the middle (or, in-between the turns)

In the subfield of Communication that studies language and social interaction, one of the things we pay attention to are turns at talking: who talks when, how much, after who, about what, how often, and so on and so forth. Turn-taking is a particularly intriguing subject of study because transitions require a rather complex coordination (rarely thought about because the norms for how to do it are so internalized). Edwards quotes a line from Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem, Interim, about turning the world back a click or two, “just a turn and…” this or that would not have happened, “just a turn and…” we would be living some other reality. Living in the wishfulness of turning something back, however, is not resilient.

“In time, I learned that I was starting a new story. I write these words as if that is the beginning and the end of what I did, but it is only a small slice of the middle, a place that is hard to reach and, in reaching it, only a stepping-off place for finding or creating a new life with our new reality…” (p. 31-32)

Perfection is not a requirement (p. 9)

Effective systems have safeguards and backups in case of normal accidents. It seems like an oxymoron, but accidents do happen. Accidents occur with enough irregularity that they cannot be predicted and controlled, thus any comprehensive system assumes a certain “normalcy” to the fact that accidents will need to be managed. If one adopts the stance that, loosely, accidents are normal, one’s map is already prefigured to minimize damage by building resiliency in. One adapts as best one can, as soon as one can, in the best ways one knows how given the circumstances. This includes recovering from shock, such as Edwards describes:

“The Greatest Generation from World War II was not simply too humble to take credit for their accomplishments in battle (though they were often that), they were also good men too stunned that what they had seen was now part of their own life story” (p. 27).

We are all living our own life stories, and to varying degrees – depending upon exposure and attention – aware of unspeakable inhumanities being done by human beings to other human beings. We need to be resilient, not just in our own self-centered orbits but as persons in relation with the people whose lives we interact with daily, whether through the products of their work or because of direct contact.

the fullest breath (p. 17)

“The only contest we have,” Edwards concludes, “is with ourselves” (p. 212). She is mainly referring to how a parent finds the way to go on after losing a child, but she also means how a spouse recovers from the infidelity of their partner, and how one chooses to glean the most from every moment in the face of a terminal illness. Her answers, she emphasizes repeatedly, are hers alone, and every one must find their own ways to continue living in the face of pain and challenge. Resilience, however, is not only a feature of the the solo, noble human spirit, but of the community and relationships and ways of talking that guide and nurture the spirit through.  Yes, so much rides on single moments, and yet, with each breath, there is a new moment imbued with new possibilities, new paths leading to new and different places.  A friend just taught me this Albanian saying:

The minute does not determine the year.

There are, of course, minutes that do change years, moments whose occurrence changes lifepaths irrevocably and forever. Moments that teach “what it means to scream” (p. 17). But any moment, even those that require years from which to heal, does not have to foreclose the future. It may not be the future one dreamed, but it can still be worthy, happy, and whole. In a recent talk on Resilience: Talking, Resisting, and Imagining New Normalicies into Being (Journal of Communication 60, 2010), Patrice M. Buzzanell argues that “resilience is developed, sustained, and grown through discourse, interaction, and material considerations,” and lists five specific communication processes, all of which are evident in Edwards personal story.

Social relations and ways of talking contribute to individual resiliency but it is still, in the end, the individual who has to learn breathe deeply – either again, or perhaps for the first time.  If Elizabeth Edwards’ life had played out along her original fantasy script, she admits:

“I don’t know..if…it would have occurred to me that I had never taken the fullest breath I could. It had been diaphragmatic breathing, matching my inhaling and exhaling to some rhythm I wanted, some song that fit my life at the time, or I thought did. I had never had to find my own rhythm, never needed to search for my own cadence…For all of the times that followed those carefree days…for all of the pain I endured, at least I learned … what it meant to breathe for myself.”

Dedicated to Alec Kent
and the family who survives him

Laughter is Important

United in Hope:
Celebrating Literacy through a Community Voice

Springfield, MA
14 November 2010

Wally Lamb emphasized the significance of humor responding to a question from an audience member about his new book, Wishin’ and Hopin.’ The United in Hope community event promoting literacy sparkled with humor, inspiration and poignancy. The program was anchored by the words of women prisoners writing about their lives. Lamb was introduced by Tim Black, who explained a process of selective attention:

“We don’t see the signs of pain and suffering…

We don’t understand the consequences of pain and suffering.”

Tim acknowledged that everyone encounters and experiences pain, asserting: “We’re all experts of our own lives.”  Tim made it clear that he is not discounting anyone’s pain – still, he suggested that we usually “don’t understand pain and suffering” (emphasis added).

Breaking the Wall of Mistrust

Wally Lamb spends a day a week leading writing workshops for women in prison.  These are women who know the meaning of “doing time”  (something I learned while reading Tim Black’s book, When A Heart Turns Rock Solid).  I wonder how much the acute awareness of time and space feeds Lamb’s motivations for establishing and maintaining his weekly routine and its associated relationships. Relevant relationships include (not only) the women writers but also the prison guards, other prisoners who aren’t writing, and his own sphere of friends and family who are effected (to greater or lesser degrees) by his commitment. He shared with us the story of “Natasha,” who insisted (at first) on a pen name and refused to allow her work to be shared. Then – suddenly – she decided she wanted to read her own work out loud, and began to claim authorship using her real name, Diane. Diane’s act of courage signaled a momentous shift in the early days of Lamb’s work at the York Prison: in his words, “the women’s writing started to flow.”

Lamb read us several short works or excerpts of the women’s writing. I was not able to catch all of the titles or author’s names, but here are some:

  • Dancing in Leg Irons,
  • something by Shannon Roche describing herself as an “inmate” and “a woman of the world,”
  • Under-Where? by Lynne M Friend, and
  • Flight of the Bumblebee, by Kathleen Wyatt.

As I told Tim afterwards, my eyes teared up about seven times. “Their words must have touched you,” he said. Yes, and it is the timing – the juxtaposition of their words now, the invocation of images from their lives intersecting with memories and current realities of my own interacting to generate the heartfelt response.

A Second Start

My emotions were more than personal, however – they were inspired by the context and setting. Lamb read Robin Ledbetter’s work about her grandmother and forgiveness.  The topic of starting over (or otherwise finding ways to carry on) was fitting in this high school auditorium full of young people, their parents, grandparents and other family members, and a diverse range of community activists and committed citizens.  The collective effort to remain open and hopeful toward all the possibilities yet to come, to refuse to surrender to whatever grim goblins of despair haunt dreams of healing and wholeness – for individuals, communities, even the entire city – requires energy, dedication, and focused effort.

“…the heartache it surrounds…”

This phrase floats in my notebook, unattached.  The “it” has lost its referent, becoming ’empty’ – ready to be filled by whatever I might put there.  What shall it be?  Does the City of Springfield embrace the heartache of its residents? I bet Springfield Public Schools Superintendent Alan Ingram thinks so! “Get involved in schools in a meaningful way,” he exhorted us. “Challenge the naysayers, see Springfield’s glass as half-full – not half-empty.” Hampden County Sheriff Michael Ashe spoke in compelling terms about law “enforcement with decency.”  I (unfortunately) arrived late and missed the opening talk by Springfield  Mayor  Domenic Sarno and also Gianna Allentuck, the United In Hope founder and key promoter of this particular event. The program itself is testimony to her passion. I enjoyed several student performances, as well as a reading from audience member Lisa Wood.  Then I went downstairs to check out the Community Resource Tables.

“Seeing a question mark, [then] trying to understand the question”

I had a series of terrific conversations with half-a-dozen awesome people who are trying to surround the heartache. It was great to see a few familiar faces and touch base. The conversations I had with people I met for the first time also got me buzzing.  Irene from the Community Accountability Board filled me in on some of the infrastructure  under Sheriff Ashe, complementing information I learned from Stephanie (of the awesome name) from Dunbar Community Center about the Shannon Project. The hands-down winner, though, in terms of making a connection and cutting to the chase, was with Emmy from Teatro V!da.  We had a conversation about communicating across language difference. Emmy said:

“The real language is the language of the soul.

Not English.

Not Spanish.

My soul speaks for me.”

I’m like, go grrl go! There are so many different ways that understanding can cut – according to this or that “language.” The language might be spoken or signed (think American Sign Language), fluent or not so much, written according to all applicable grammar rules or not.  Maybe the language is the same but the field or context is different – I’m from the West, you’re from the East, I study Communication, you study Biology, you excel in music and pop culture, I think maybe I heard of that band!

What matters is that moment when, in Tim Black’s words, you “see the question mark.” Oftentimes, in this crazy-with-going-fast world, there’s no time to even register the presence of a question, let alone slow down enough to try and figure out where the other person is coming from, what they are wondering about, what ‘gap’ is being made visible which could – in that moment, with a little attention and a bit of care – become a bridge for connection rather than a chasm of separation.

All around me, those few hours at the High School for Commerce in Springfield, MA, I was surrounded by people who were willing to take the time to notice. Not only that, they’re willing to work with what they notice in order to turn it into something good.


Read women’s writings from prison in “Couldn’t Keep It To Myself: Wally Lamb and the Women of York Correctional Institution” and “I’ll Fly Away: Further Testimonies from the women at York Prison.”

“Dare to Know” (Kant)

This post distills a series of thoughts from reading three different texts: The Heroic Model of Science (Chapter 1, Telling the Truth about History by Appleby, Hunt & Jacob, 1991); The Talmud and the Internet by Jonathan Rosen (2000), and an Interview with Ilan Stavans by Richard Birnbaum (@ 2003).
Three threads are primary: language, interaction, and science. “Language” is engaged theoretically and in practice, particularly the practices of interpretation. Although the references in the three selected texts refer mainly to written translations, I extrapolate ‘down’ to in-the-moment generation of understanding in everyday talking with each other, based on cooperation or agreement between people about meaning. I also extrapolate ‘up’ – or at least ‘over’ – to the interlinguistic skills that are most obviously evident in simultaneous interpretation. As to interaction, there are numerous levels from the microsocial to the macrosocial and the temporal to the ephemeral. The history of science is significant because of its influence on how people in western countries learn.
Why these three texts, beyond the coincidence of reading them more-or-less at the same time? Appleby, Hunt & Jacob (hereafter AH&J) investigate “what sorts of political circumstances foster critical inquiry” (p. 9). They write specifically in regard to the discipline of history by “examin[ing] critically the relevance of scientific models to the craft of history” (p. 9). I borrow their analysis as a way to explore the relevance of scientific models to other disciplines, particularly communication and the intersection of communication with political economy (especially governance), management (the organization of business), and culture (identity, ritual, and social relations).
AH&J challenge relativists and skeptics, sometimes lumping them together as postmodernists, arguing that in some ways they can “leav[e] the impression that the linguistic conventions of science have less to do with nature and more to do with the sociology of the scientists…in this way they have confused the social nature of all knowledge construction with the self-interest of the constructors, forgetting that all social beings participate in the search for knowledge and sometimes do so successfully” (emphasis added, p. 8-9). AH&J offer definitions for “skepticism” and “relativism,” showing how these attitudes form the substance of conflict with another historical attitude, that of religious absolutism. Tensions among these attitudes form the roots of the culture wars we see in the U.S. today.

“We view skepticism,” write AH&J, ” as an approach to learning as well as a philosophical stance…skepticism can encourage people to learn more and remain open to the possibility of their own errors” (p. 6-7).

Relativism, a modern corollary to skepticism, is the belief that truth is relative to the position of the person making the statement” (p. 7). There is an important nuance to this definition: truth is not directly relative to the person, rather, it is relative to “the position of the person.” (Note: “modern” means the idea of relativism wasn’t around when the initial fight took place between the skeptics and the religious. “Relativism” is an outgrowth of that fight.)

Religious absolutism is “the conviction that transcendent and absolute truth can be known” (p. 15).

All of these stances can be overdone, hence AH&J propose a standard for knowledge, i.e., for what we believe to be true:

“Success comes when the
found knowledge can be understood, verified, or
appreciated by people who
in no sense share the same self-interest” (p. 9).

The last phrase, it seems to me, is most crucial. If we are interested in democracy and social justice – meaning a fairness for groups of people of varying types – then we must find ways of producing and valuing broad social, political, and economic structures that are acceptable to everyone, even those whose self-interests differ from our own.
Jonathan Rosen, in a section about the ways Judaism and Christianity have borrowed from and influenced each other through the ages, writes about “open fearlessness, that willingness to assimilate outside cultures into your own without worrying that they will corrupt your beliefs” (p. 83-84). One of the anchors he poses for the Jewish religion is the collective realization, a very, very long time ago “that only words were durable” (p. 79). The Talmud, he argues, “is a sort of cathedral built across the ages and spanning all the earth – or perhaps I should say it’s a Temple, or at least a translation of one, built out of words and laws and stories” (p. 81).
I want to make three points simultaneously: language as a power with literal force; the “extraordinary religiosity” (according to AH&J, p. 50) of early (and at least some contemporary) scientists; and the inescapable fact that scientists today are the inheritors, intellectual descendants, and cultural products of the heroic science born of the Enlightenment. Certainly I am. I want to both rescue and continue the project of “truth with a purpose: the reform of existing institutions” (AH&J, p. 41), while seeking to escape or alter additional repeat performances of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth century culture wars.
Power of Interpretation:
Language is key. Rosen’s parallel between the Internet and the Talmud speaks to a proliferation of heterogeneous meanings that suggests an antidote to “the nature of books never to be quite right and of words always to elude our grasp” (p. 54). The refusal of words to mean one thing only, and to mean only that one thing always and forever, is precisely the juncture where understandings are forged or splattered. Words are durable while truth about what the words mean remains elusive. Rosen’s desire “to embrace contradictory traditions” (p. i) seems similar to AH&J’s focus on “the interplay between certainty and doubt” (p. 10). This enables Rosen to keep faith with “the business of life [which] is to learn, not to know” (p. 33). For AH&J that interplay “keeps faith with the expansive quality of democracy” (p. 10). Learning, democracy, science, and faith are inextricably intertwined: language is their confluent expression.
This is why Ilan Stavans can assert with conviction: “I find translators, in many ways, to be the real protagonists of culture . . . Translators are the underpaid heroes of culture.” Translators – and interpreters – are always in between. Rosen explains how the Talmud “devised a culture intended to be a kind of middle term between extremes – between destruction and new creation, between the dead and the living, between God and man, between home and exile, between doubt and faith, between outward behavior and inner inclination” (p. 131).
Interpretation is a form of communication that has to work within and between “the chaotic contemporary forms of communication that,” Rosen explains, “are so often accused of diverting us from what is true. The chaos and the incongruities, it turns out, are part of the truth” (p. 119). On that basis he compares the “interrupting, jumbled culture of the Internet” (p. 10) with “a page of the Talmud” (p. 19): “all those texts tucked intimately and intrusively onto the same page, like immigrant children sharing a single bed” (p. 10). “Those portions and their accompanying readings,” he continues, “swim in a sea of commentary . . . so large that it seems at times to expand [like the Internet] to include everything” (p. 30).
Language in History:
Before elaborating on Stavan’s thesis, let me summarize the discussion of language and its role in history provided by Appleby, Hunt & Jacob, because they present the discipline of linguistics in the creation of heroic science as an equal partner to the discipline of science. “The Enlightenment,” said to begin in 1690, “set the terms of the modern cultural project: the individual’s attempt to understand nature and humankind through scientific as well as linguistic means” (p. 39). Concurrent with the emergence of sciences and history as disciplines, “the European philosophes also developed new approaches toward old languages and texts. Reading old documents, indeed reading any document, is never as simple as it looks. Even picking up the local newspaper you ask, well, why did they run that story? Or, I wonder what party that journalist has joined?” (p. 37)
The discipline of linguistics began with criticism of written texts, called hermeneutics. It didn’t take long before “the language in a text, the words on the page, became too important to be left to clerical interpreters” (AB&J, p. 38). The Christian Bible was, at the time, the standard of absolute knowledge; it came under particular scrutiny. Ironically, clergy had originally invented hermeneutics, using the Bible as the reference point for all kinds of statements of absolute truth concerning the world and time. Now, AB&J continue, “The words had to be enlisted in the enterprise of creating wholly secular and scientific learning, but with consequences for … the present generation” (p. 38).
Stavans says, “Using language as a category is a way to say who we are in front of a mirror.” He goes on to illustrate how words change meanings over time, illustrating how the evolution of meaningfulness is what goes on socially, among and between people. When you, or I, use language – when we talk or write – we are “saying who we are” to ourselves.
When I wrote earlier that I am cut in the vein of heroic science, it is because I recognize how I think and talk in those terms. AH&J present a range of descriptions:

“Diderot described the follower of the Enlightenment as an eclectic, a skeptic and investigator who ‘trampling underfoot prejudice, tradition, venerability, universal assent, authority – in a word, everything that overawes the crowd – dares to think for himself, to ascend to the clearest general principles, to examine them, to discuss them, to admit nothing save on the testimony of his own reason and experience'” (citing Diderot’s article on eclecticsm in the Encyclopedie (1751), p. 39).

I am not an ideal type, but there is certainly a resemblance. How about this: “a new kind of person…hard to govern, suspicious of authority, more interested in personal authenticity and material progress than in the preservation of traditions, a reader of new literature, novels, newspapers, clandestine manuscripts, even pornography, all especially produced for an urban market” (p. 40). This description hardly marks me special, rather it describes today’s average western person. To wit, “a new cultural type who could be a pundit, prophet, fighter against tyranny and oppression, original thinker, elegant writer, sometimes pornographer, reader of science, host of salons, or occasional freemason” (p. 35).
The average western person today, as well as trained scientists and elites, however, is also subject to the culture wars that are the legacy of the original, historical figures of the Enlightenment who “battled with clergy and churches and at moments risked martyrdom” (p. 18). “In the culture wars of the present generation, language, with the many uses and abuses that can be attributed to it, has figured prominently in the arsenal of weapons” (p. 38). Today, continuing the trend of the Enlightenment when secular hermeneutics turned the scientific method on the Bible, all words are related to other words.

Imago, by Octavia E. Butler

The trilogy, billed first as Xenogenesis and then as Lilith’s Brood, closes with more insight on the human condition from the vantage point of maturity. (Am I a grown-up, now?)

“Humans said one thing with their bodies and another with their mouths and everyone had to spend time and energy figuring out what they really meant. And once we did understand them, the Humans got angry and acted as though we had stolen thoughts from their minds.” (p. 548)

Why are we so reluctant to be known? And what is the crime of understanding?

“…the ooloi perceived all that a living being said – all words, all gestures, and a vast array of other internal and external bodily responses. Ooloi absorbed everything and acted according to whatever consensus they discovered. Thus ooloi treated individuals as they treated groups of beings. They sought a consensus. If there was none, it meant the being was confused, ignorant, frightened, or in some other way not yet able to see its own best interests. The ooloi gave information and perhaps calmness until the could perceive a consensus. Then they acted.” (p. 553)

Jodahs is another child of Lilith, Tino and Nikanj, Dichaan and Ahajas. Jodahs has exceeded the limits of genetic engineering designed to ensure only male and female children, instead becoming ooloi, an ungendered being. “Not being able to go to anyone for comfort…can make you like the lightening – mindless and perhaps deadly” (p. 558).
I have acted “like the lightening” sometimes, in past events and instances I’d rather not remember. Quick anger and deep hurt spark words that leap unbidden from the tongue even before my mind has wrapped itself around them. Then come the rationalizations: the excuses and reasons why, the justifications. None suffice.
Some things, however, must be said.

“There are easier ways to say these things,” it admitted.
“But some things shouldn’t be said easily.” (p. 565)

Jodahs is afraid of causing harm. “Give yourself time. you’re a new kind of being. There’s never been anyone like you before. But there’s no flaw in you. You just need time to find out more about yourself.” (p. 571)
The hard things Nikanj had to say were about killing in self-defense – if absolutely necessary. Such an action is a horror to the Oankali, whose reverence for life exceeds all other imperatives. “Nothing is more tenacious than the life we are made of.” (p. 663)
That is the Oankali religion in a nutshell: “A world of life from apparent death, from dissolution.” (p. 663) I am reminded of Alvin the Maker and quantum physics.
If one accepts the fact of quantum indeterminacy, however unlikely the probability, there remains chance – for life, for change, for health, for happiness, for any good thing (just as equally as, to be fair, any bad thing). One can never predict when, where, how, or why one may discover – in themselves and others –

“the tiny positioning movements of independent life”

Book Two: Adulthood Rites
Book One: Dawn

Adulthood Rites

The second volume in Octavia E. Butler’s classic series on the Human Contradiction refers to coming-of-age. Everything about the series has been either nurturing or thought-provoking as I live an intervention within my family. Near the conclusion of the first book (Dawn), the human protagonist insists that the alien Oankali give her a taste (p. 226) of their expansive perception – what, she wants to know, is death to them?

It gave her . . . a new color. A totally alien, unique, nameless thing, half seen, half felt or . . . tasted. A blaze of something frightening, yet overwhelming, compelling.
A half known mystery beautiful and complex. A deep, impossibly sensuous promise.

I was asked a few times over the past week and a half if I had a plan. No, not more than hopeful intention seeking openings. “My perception isn’t what it will be eventually.” (p. 501)
Even if Humans lack the extraordinary multidimensional perception of the Oankali, I still believe we are more connected, more collective, than we usually acknowledge. I can align myself with “Akin…[who] had learned an important lesson: he would share any pain he caused. Best, then, to be careful and not cause pain . . . . he shifted his attention from the frustration of what he could not perceive to the fascination of what he could find.” (p. 257)
What are the things I find, the things I perceive? I yearn for Akin’s Oankali perception: “[Akin] investigated the DNA that made up the genes, the nucleotides of the DNA. There was something beyond the nucleotides that he could not perceive – a world of smaller particles that he could not cross into. He did not understand why he could not make this final crossing – if it were the final one….he came to think of it as a horizon, always receding when he approached it.” (p. 257) But I also know my own horizon in/within/of communication – the ways we talk with, to, and about each other; the words and phrases of daily interaction; the patterns of meaning we weave together, reinforcing them with regular repetition and resisting the unknown new relationships that change might bring.
I suppose it is fantastic to imagine that I sense the ways we co-create each other – how your actions toward or against me invoke my actions about/involving you. My intellect (such as it is) could be reducible to the years of marijuana-induced sensory thought bleeding over, somehow, into the regular firing of neurons in the cognitive structure of my mind. My personal hypothesis is that the pot-smoking era of my youth showed my brain another way to function, but it has taken years of intensive effort to develop the particular pathways that constitute my contemporary mode of thinking. I had to, first, gain a window of perception onto myself from the outside; second, evaluate myself through the juxtaposition of my internal sense-of-self with the projections other people give back to me about myself; third, recognize the elements that could be changed; fourth, learn more about so many things …. the coursework in Communication has provided me with the conceptual tools to understand the ramifications of different skill sets and ethical commitments.
There is an intimacy humans share that we tend not to acknowledge beyond a recognizable preference for similarity and the politics of identity. We – each “one” of us – are inextricably bound to groups. Even if we are not with the people who compose these groups – be it the family who raised us, the friends who embrace us, or the demographic groups we align with and/or are stereotyped into by others. Even hermits are defined as such by their (lack of) relationship with others. Despite an adolescent embrace of Simon and Garfunkel, none of us is irrevocably alone.

    “…just for an instant, they showed him, brought him into that incredible unity. He could not even manage terror until the moment had ended.
    How did they not lose themselves? How was it possible to break apart again? It was as though two containers of water had been poured together, then separated – each molecule was returned to its original container.” (p. 454)

Emotions are treasure; and they are supremely dangerous. Akin’s terror at group merger is dismissed: “The Akjai responded. Even at your stage of growth, Eka, you can perceive molecules. We perceive subatomic particles. Making and breaking this contact is no more difficult for us than clasping and releasing hands is for Humans.” (p. 454) What if we accept the evidence of chemistry, biology, and especially physics – shaking hands is not only a moment of skin-to-skin contact: it is an instance of literal interaction. So many people discouraged me from this endeavor. So much fear that “it won’t work” or that “things could get worse” – so easily do we accept awful situations, convincing ourselves that slow, inexorable dying is preferable to bursts of engaged life and presence.
Is this a competition? I dearly hope not. I have been un-whole for so long, bereft of those most-loved. I want my family to take part in calling me and each other into new being. Still, Butler’s incisive insight cautions, because everywhere one looks, there it is:

“The Human Contradiction again. The Contradiction, it was more often called among the Oankali. Intelligence and hierarchical behavior. It was fascinating, seductive, and lethal. It had brought Humans to their final war.” (p. 442)

“[The Oankali say] that you can’t grow out of it, can’t resolve it in favor of intelligence. That hierarchical behavior selects for hierarchical behavior, whether it should or not. That not even Mars will be enough of a challenge to change you.” He paused. “That to give you a new world and let you procreate again would . . . would be like breeding intelligent beings for the solve purpose of having them kill one another.”
“That wouldn’t be our purpose,” she protested.
He thought about that for a moment, wondered what he should say. The truth or nothing. The truth. “Yori, Human purpose isn’t what you say it is or what I say it is. It’s what your biology says it is – what your genes say it is.”
“Do you believe that?”
” . . . yes.”
“Then why – [help?]”
Chance exists. Mutation. Unexpected effects of the new environment. Things no one has thought of.” (p. 501-502)

Book One: Dawn
Book Three: Imago

adequacy conditions (cognition and morality)

George Lakoff’s important book, Moral Politics, describes the root metaphor at the base of conservative and liberal worldviews. “Cognitive studies,” Lakoff explains, have concluded “that moral thinking is imaginative and that it depends fundamentally on metaphorical thinking” (p. 41). The explanatory metaphor for both conservatives and liberals extends a notion of the family/parent to the nation/government. “The resulting moral systems, put together out of the same elements, but in different order, are radically opposed” (p. 35).
One of the interesting challenges of Lakoff’s book (i.e., another finding of cognitive science) is the myth of being conscious of one’s own worldview, and “that all one has to do to find out about people’s views of the world is to ask them” (36). Lakoff describes realizing the myth of transparent belief as “the most fundamental result of cognitive science” (p. 36).

“What people will tell you about their worldview does not necessarily accurately reflect how they reason, how they categorize, how they speak, and how they act” (p. 36).

Lakoff is careful not to tell us what our politics or our morality should be; he is not preaching or giving a prescription. Instead, he is describing the two logics composing the deep split in political thinking between conservatives and liberals in the United States. This is not philosophy; this is description. It is up to us to understand the descriptions and then figure out how to talk and reason based on the reality of these starkly different moralities.

“Our public discourse about the nature of morality and its relation to politics [is] sadly impoverished. We must find a way to talk about alternative moral systems and how they give rise to alternative forms of politics. Journalists – including the most intelligent and insightful of journalists – have been at a loss. They have to rely on existing forms of public discourse, and since those forms are not adequate to the task, even the most thoughtful and honest journalists need help. Public discourse has to be enriched so that the media can do its job better.” (2nd edition, 2002, p. 32)

Lakoff goes much further and deeper than merely slapping labels on certain brands of politics. “Classification in itself,” writes Lakoff, “is relatively boring” (p. 17). What we need – what Lakoff provides – are models. Models do much more than mere categorization, they

  • analyze modes of reasoning
  • show how modes of reasoning about different issues fit together
  • show how different forms of reasoning are related to each in other in such a way that they are all understood to be instances of the same thing (in this case, politics)
  • show links between forms of political reasoning and forms of moral reasoning
  • show how moral reasoning in politics is ultimately based on models of the family

Lakoff’s hope – and mine in reading his book and trying to understand the basic point – is that by understanding how our minds work, and especially how our words give clues to how our minds work we can address political dilemmas more effectively.

“The same mind that we study for scientific reasons creates moral and political systems of thought and uses them every day. For this reason, the findings of conceptual systems research will eventually come to matter more and more in understanding moral and political life” (p. 17).

“try to show up somewhere”

Jose was in town for graduation. Yes, that’s Dr. Jose.
Several folk did, in fact, gather in his honor. Stories were told, memories recounted, teasing ensued, plans were postulated…
I learned of the first event by hook & by crook, via the grapevine – altering my departure date just so I could see The Man himself. (Actually, I confess, it was a relief to have the extra few days to get myself and the apartment more ready for what’s to come.) After receiving my replacement phone, I discovered that he had called, with few specific details and cryptic instructions. Is this what collaboration is going to be like?!?
Meanwhile, I’ve just finished re-reading Dawn, by Octavia E. Butler. “The twilight before sunrise” seems an apt metaphor for my lifephase.
Humanity, having destroyed earth in a nuclear holocaust, is rescued by an alien species whose life purpose is to acquire and trade genetic material – constantly and consciously morphing into new species. Humans are a fascination to the Oankali because we have “two incompatible characteristics… [Lilith asks] what are they?”

Jdahya made a rustling noise that could have been a sigh, but that did not seem to come from his mouth or throat. “You are intelligent,” he said. “That’s the newer of the two characteristics, and the one you might have to put to work to save yourselves. You are potentially one of the most intelligent species we’ve found, though your focus is different from ours. Still, you’ve a good start in the life sciences, and even in genetics.”
“What’s the second characteristic?”
“You are hierarchical. That’s the older and more entrenched characteristic. We saw it in your closest animal relatives and in your most distant ones. It’s a terrestrial characteristic. When human intelligence served it instead of guiding it, when human intelligence did not even acknowledge it as a problem, but took pride in it or did not notice it at all . . .” The rattling sounded again. “That was like ignoring cancer. I think your people did not realize what a dangerous thing they were doing.” (p. 39, Lilith’s Brood)

Book Two: Adulthood Rites
Book Three: Imago

soon to be sailing

“The space was really what this sailing thing was all about.” (p. 7)

“Everything was so quiet now. The dawn was still so early the turn of the creek in the distance was barely visible…a dawn mystery took hold…” (22)

Last year August was my maiden trip. Just a few days of real sailing but enough of a taste to know I wanted to do it again. A second, shorter outing in October did not dispel my enthusiasm.

“After awhile he heard the putt-putting of a small boat approaching. An early fisherman, probably, heading down the creek. Soon the entire cabin rocked gently and the lamp swung a little from the boat’s wake. After a while the sound passed and it became quiet again. . . .” (77)

“Now, above deck, his attention was given to sail shape and wind direction and river current, and to the chart on the deck beside him folded to correspond to landmarks and day beacons and the progression of red and green buoys showing the way to the ocean….Somehow he’d gotten the idea that a sailboat provided isolation and peace and tranquility, in which thoughts could proceed freely and calmly without outside interference. It never happened. A sailboat underway means one hazard after another with little time to think about anything but its needs.” (94-95)

“Now that he was quiet he noticed that the boat’s motion wasn’t so much a rocking as a surge, a very faint, very slow, lift and drop accompanying the waves. He wondered if that could be a surge coming in from the ocean…” (233)

Robert Pirsig

linguistic custom (out with the old…?)

One of the points raised by an audience member during the talk on Pain and Embodiment last Friday was to replace the term essence [of pain] with the neuroscientific phrase describing the mechanism of pain perception in the body. With the following quote, I am not making the point that “essence” and some chain reaction of proprioceptors (or whatever words describe the actual biochemical mechanism) are somehow equivalent to the substitution of ‘value’ for ’cause,’ but I am in agreement that the phrases we use – while they do not change the fact, do enable conversation and may, on that basis, lead to new conceptions.

“To say that ‘A causes B’ or to say that ‘B values preconditions A’ is to say the same thing. The difference is one of words only. Instead of saying, ‘A magnet causes iron filings to move toward it,’ you can say, ‘Iron filings value movement toward a magnet.’ Scientifically speaking neither statement is more true than the other. It may sound a little awkward, but that’s a matter of linguistic custom, not science. The language used to describe the data is changed but the scientific data itself is unchanged. The same is true in every other scientific observation…you can always substitute ‘B values precondition A’ for ‘A causes B’ without changing any facts of science at all. . . .
“The only difference between causation and value is that the word ’cause’ implies absolute certainty whereas the implied meaning of ‘value’ is one of preference. In classical science it was supposed that the world always works in terms of absolute certainty and that ’cause’ is the more appropriate word to describe it. But in modern quantum physics all that is changed. Particles ‘prefer’ to do what they do. an individual particle is not absolutely committed to one predictable behavior. What appears to be an absolute cause is just a very consistent pattern of preferences.” ( p 119)

“The greatest benefit of this substitution of ‘value’ for ‘causation’ and ‘substance’ is that it allows an integration of physical science with other areas of experience that have been traditionally considered outside the scope of scientific thought.” (p. 121)

from Lila: An Inquiry into Morals
Robert M. Pirsig 1991