Qualities of Altered Consciousness: Positive Side Effects?

I’ve recently, like most cancer patients, been concerned with the effects & side effects of medication. Side effects, the way we usually use the term, are unwanted, negative. But over the last couple of weeks, being treated for the crack in my pelvis with morphine & steroids & a bone strengthener, I have noticed periods of the day when I feel . . . good. Not high, just good mentally. Sometimes this is just the spacy sort of consciousness good for watching YouTube science videos, but sometimes, as this evening, the state of mind gave rise to a poem. Often, my poems begin with an idea, but this just began with a couple of images from today’s NY Times online Science section, one about the voicebox of a prehistoric bird, the other about a Saturn-like object somewhere 400 light years away. The rest was just a matter of constructing language as it constructed itself around a philosophical question–series of questions–I’d discussed with my friend Chris. It’s not that the insights are out of the ordinary, but, doing what a poet is supposed to do, I may have helped find some language to refract off the ideas in a useful way. I like the notion of refraction becauses it confuses the tendency toward making binary oppositions. I have no idea which drugs might be tweaking which neurons, or whether that matters.

Process Philosophy at SEP

I have been reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy‘s article on Process Philosophy & am finding it quite useful, especially in terms of vocabulary & context. That is, the article provides a vocabulary & a context for using that vocabulary as it applies to Whitehead & those thinkers who have been touched by his work.

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Problems & Adventures

Stengers writes that an adventure can only begin in response to a problem. Thus the old father’s perverse decision to set his sons a problem by disposing of his property 1/2, 1/4 & 1/6. The problem being that when you feed three sons, eleven camels & those particular fractions into your problem-solving machine you do not get a solution, but rather an “adventure.” Presumably, one is supposed, when confronted with a problem in this way, to go along with the adventure, as opposed to giving the machine a whack with a hammer. To do this requires a certain kind of humility that is shown admirably by the boys in the parable. Instead of escalating from giving the machine a whack to whacking each other, they seek ot the village elder. In seeking out the elder they recognize the fundamentally social nature of their problem. It cannot be solved alone, or even within the family; instead the sons must resort to the wisdom of their community (embodied in the figure of the elder) in order to sustain their adventure long enough to solve their problem. Of course, this is not a one-off proposition, but an ongoing prescription for leading an adventurous life. Still, the boys were lucky, too. They had a community to whose wisdom they could appeal; they had a problem to which the “necessary fiction” of the twelfth camel could be applied; & they were themselves humble enough to seek the community’s help in the first place. At no point along the way is the hearer of the parable asked to take anything on faith; instead, he/she is merely asked to look at the “cash value” of various possible solutions, such as killing & eating one of the camels. Not very many of these alternatives are addressed in the parable, but they are implied. It is further implied that none of them would have the value of the elder’s fiction–they would not have been adventures. Looked at in this way, an adventurous solution to a problem may be preferable to a non-adventurous one even if it lies, i.e., tells a lie by creating a necessary fiction such as the boys owning a twelfth camel, or the existence of God. (Spinoza’s god rather than Descartes’.) The elder is a pragmatist.

Bruno Latour’s Foreword to Thinking with Whitehead

Latour is one of our most prolific philosophers of science & and obvious choice to write a foreword to Stengers’ book. Stengers is, after all, trying to clear a space for thinking that falls outside the heavily guarded walls of science. Latour has been criticized by working scientists for attempting a similar undertaking in his many books.

Latour begins by placing Whitehead ahead of Wittgenstein among 20th century philosophers, an assertion that will certainly get a rise out of the vast army of Anglo-American intellectuals who have made Wittgenstein a touchstone, if not a cornerstone, of their thinking. Here at the beginning of this adventure, I remain unconvinced.

Latour notes that Whitehead has been relegated to a kind of back corner of the classroom because he has “indulged in metaphysics” and pursued a speculative mode of thinking, practices supposedly ruled out by the analytical philosophy that has so dominated 20th century thinking–at least among the small number of people who pay attention to such things. Latour focuses on the way in which science, in order to assure its objectivity has ruled out values as illusions, as part of something “secondary” to the primary work science has set for itself. Stengers is not trying, so far as I can see, to diminish the work scientists actually do, but to clear space for “illusions.” Stengers go to some pains in her introduction to not reignite the science wars & to not diminish the work of science, which she values as simply another kind of adventure, while at the same time insisting on the reality of things that science rules out.

Noted later: Doesn’t my talk in the first paragraphs above of inside & outside, of ahead & behind, immediately plunge us into the kind of dualism(s) Stengers is trying so very hard to avoid–dualism(s) very deeply embedded in our language & thought? Noted yet later: This strikes me as not a very profound insight on my part. Certainly, the way we have been conditioned to talk about science limits our ability to think completely about it. This is true of any subject, whether science or dentistry, say, because science has relegated unto itself the sole power to judge truth claims. That’s where the whole thing goes belly up.

Along came a spider and sat down beside her . . .

Having a Breezy Day

Sunny, warm, breezy. Sitting on the deck with the dogs & wondering if they enjoy the feeling of the breeze ruffling their fur as much as I enjoy feeling it on my neck & the back of my head. Maybe it’s a little ozone coming off the river & the maple leaves, but it can feel almost transcendent.

I’ve always like the word breeze as well as the phenomenon it denotes–quasi-otomattopoetic, I’d have thought it of fairly recent origin, but the first entry in the OED tells me it goes back to Anglo-Saxon. What’s more, the first definition, though now marks archaic, is entirely unrelated to any kind of wind: “. . . a name given to various dipterous insects, esp. of the genera Œstrus (botfly n.) and Tabanus, which annoy horses and cattle.” Not very nice, that. It’s only in the 16th century that the second definition emerges, and it is more specific that the sense in which we now use the word: “A north or north-east wind; spec. applied within the tropics to the NE. trade-wind.” A quite specific sort of wind. In fact, my “breeze” today is blowing from the north-east to the south-west.

Favorite Poems: “Gnostics On Trial”

Even if Linda Gregg had not written many other fine poems, “Gnostics on Trial” would assure her a place among the poets who have written seriously about our moral dilemmas. Technically, it is hard to imagine a better put-together poem, its compact form packing a terrific moral & aesthetic (which the poem argues are the same) wallop. Gregg’s poem is a faultless example of the short lyric as practiced since the mid-twentieth century. And there is not much on the horizon, I think, likely to take the place of this now venerable form, or mode, of poetry. The short lyric remains essential even as new & hybrid forms proliferate around it & it seems to be holding its own, occupying the place–the evolutionary niche–formerly occupied by the sonnet.