Small Demon
Jul 032010
 

1. It is gratifying that whaling regulations have not been eased at the recent meeting of the international commission that oversees the “harvest” of marine mammals, but beyond that news & its egregious metaphor, I was fascinated by some of the information about cetaceans in this NY Times article; specifically, I was struck by the way the scientists quoted were defining personhood, if that’s the right term. Dolphins (& presumably whales) are interested in seeing themselves in a mirror, checking out parts of their bodies they can’t ordinarily see. The mirror test is presumed to to demonstrate self-consciousness, fair enough. My terriers will look at themselves in a mirror, but it’s hard to tell whether they see themselves or an image of another dog. They don’t behave as if they are seeing another dog, so perhaps they recognize themselves.  Birds will peck at their own image in a mirror & the behavior seems pretty complex. How about fish? I don’t know, but I know some fish are territorial & might react as if another fish were horning in on their territory. I’m not trying to find fault with the mirror test, just noting that it is the human observer who views the animal’s interaction with a mirror & makes a determination. We know what consciousness looks like, or personhood. This is more interesting to me than whether this or that animal reacts to a mirror in a certain way, as interesting as that is.

2. The vocalizations of cetaceans is often compared to music, or song, and somewhat less often (& less directly), to speech. They have tribal dialects, apparently, which suggests language & since they can both learn & teach what they have learned, it appears that it might be something we would recognize as a real language, not just a highly elaborate system of communication. And here we get back to the issue of self-recognition. Language, too, is a mirror. I’m far from expert, but in addition to their vocal communications, don’t at least some species of cetaceans produce & repeat long “symphonic” vocalizations and then work changes on them? If so, this would suggest a sense of the aesthetic in whales & dolphins, though perhaps it is only an elaborate kind of birdsong. [Need further information.]

3. Living in the country, Carole & I take delight in seeing & naming: birds (many species, including jays, woodpeckers, nuthatches, hawks, vultures, ducks, geese, several kinds of finches, bluebirds, thrushes. . .), turtles (painted, snapping), frogs & toads, beavers, skunks, porcupines, deer, and occasionally coyotes & bears. What is the source of our delight? Merely a privilege of the bourgeois, or something deeper?

4. Portrayals of damaged humans, usually children, in fact & fiction: Kasper Hauser, Victor (the Wild Child from 18 c. France; various accounts by Truffaut, T.C. Boyle, etc.), Malcolm (from Marisa Silver’s novel The God of War), Christopher (from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime). By looking at what these damaged humans possess, as well as what they lack, we highlight the cluster of qualities that allow a person to create & recognize a self. And connected to these accounts, there is the much more abstract set of arguments in Marilynne Robinson’s Absence of Mind that seem to suggest a special place in the universe for human consciousness. Not sure if I can accept the “fine tuning” of physical laws Robinson suggests (but does not assert), but that is not necessary to appreciate her devastating response to “parascientists” like Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett, and the other reductionists who believe that, because the brain is a physical organ, mind & consciousness are epiphenomena, easily dismissed as ontologically inferior the the various tissues and juices of the brain.

5. Mind as extension in the Cartesian sense. Richard P. Bentall’s Madness Explained: Psychosis and Human Nature argues persuasively that “madness” is not one thing and is not separated by a bright line from other “normal” states of mind; in this vein, he sees mental complaints rather than a discrete set of mental illnesses that can be assigned a particular diagnosis. He also brings forward an impressive amount of evidence that strongly suggests mental illness is a bio-social phenomenon.

Further thoughts a couple of days later: 1. Yesterday evening I was watching Jett, our seven year old Jack Russell as he stood on the deck looking down the road toward the river. There were some kids swimming down there & the other two dogs had been barking in that direction, but Jett was focused, his mouth a little open, his nose moving to sense the air almost as a human would feel a piece of fabric to get the sense of it. The other two dogs were excited, but he was calm, completely self-possessed. I’ve watched all the dogs over the years of course & each has his/her ways of focusing on the world & at the same time being themselves. In fact those two things go together — focusing intently on the world and being an animal self. This goes beyond Santayana’s notion of “animal faith,” which is a kind of confidence that the world will be, perhaps roughly, supportive of our being. For the philosopher, “animal faith” is a common ground for animals & humans, something we humans share with animals but also then surpass in all the usually enumerated ways: reason, language, technology & so on.

2.Over the years I’ve had many encounters with animals that have gone beyond mere observation into something more profound and, I believe, reciprocal, though I don’t want to sentimentalize the notion of reciprocity– I understand that the heron I saw 25 years ago on an estuary near the Pacific “understood” our encounter in the same way I understood it, but the bird did look back at me and allowed me to come quite close & was clearly conscious of me. Wild animals are one thing & domesticated animals another. I freely admit to sentimentalizing our dogs, but I also spend a good deal of time just watching them, trying to understand something about the way they understand the world. Their sensory organs filter the world for them in a way different from mine, of course, but there is enough overlap — we’re all mammals – that we can make sense of each others’ sensory worlds. Also, we share a social world of complex personal interactions that allow us to communicate our sense of the world. And of course we observe each other in action and draw conclusions, seeing the world, in imaginative reconstruction, “through each others’ eyes.”

3.So what kind of cross-species identification does it take to get on a jet ski in the Antarctic Ocean to attack a Japanese whaling vessel & through acid at its crew?

 Posted by at 6:00 pm
Jun 252010
 

I mentioned the Salton Sea in my previous post about Marisa Silver’s novel and I’ve just run across a documentary about the sea, Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea, produced and directed by Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer and narrated by John Waters. It is not a particularly innovative piece of documentary film making, but it presents a portrait of the place and its people that may be of interest even to people who haven’t been there. There is a political undertone having to do with the allocation of water from the Colorado River, but the film doesn’t do much more than mention it. I’ve also begun reading William Vollmann’s massive study, Imperial, which undertakes an exhaustive description of its eponymous California county, in which the Salton Sea figures prominently. Vollman’s 1000 page book was published with a companion volume of the author’s photographs, which I have also now got on hand. Going back to my roots, you might say — however parched and salt-encrusted they may be. Some people find Vollmann’s meandering prose irritating, but so far I am charmed by it. Give me another six or seven hundered pages & we’ll see!

 Posted by at 5:52 pm
Sep 162009
 

1. Ed Mycue has a new chapbook I’m looking forward to reading, I Am a Fact, Not a Fiction.

2. I have just received my copy of Visiting Wallace, an anthology of poems inspired by the life and work of Wallace Stevens, and in which I have a poem. I am particularly gratified by this inclusion since the poem in the anthology is from my second book, Static, which disappeared without a trace on the day it was published. I’m fairly sure that most of the copies are still sitting in boxes in a basement in the northwest.

3. Your good news here.

Aug 232009
 

I had never heard of Adrien DeWind until I read his obituary in the NY Times this morning. (The older I get, the more I am drawn to the obits, with fear of personal extinction prompting me to recall the motto Samuel Johnson is said to have written on his watch dial: Work for the night is coming.) DeWind lived a long time and accomplished a great deal. I especially admire him as one of the founders of Human Rights Watch. Whatever one believes about rights — whether they are universal standards or arise only within specific social and cultural contexts — it seems indubitable that working to protect other people’s basic humanity is an admirable thing to do. What I find most moving about an obituary of this sort is that it marks the only kind of immortality I can believe in, that what one does in one’s life continues to ripple outward even after one is dead. For good or ill. In the memories of others, in the institutions one creates or shapes, in the written record one leaves behind. It’s little enough, of course, but it’s something, not nothing. Our lives are much longer than we imagine.