Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Borders on my Mind

Not the closing bookstore, or the  political boundaries around a state, but the larger concept; that thing which defines the inside and the outside of me, or the sense and the nonsense of constructed narratives. Sanity, insanity, sensory deprivation, the supernatural and the natural. Fiction and history That kind of thing.

If I neglect diligence in locking my doors, I'm a fool. If you open them, you're still a criminal regardless of how hard it was to do so. If a nation succeeds in the internalization of walls, the way the Chinese have, or the way that each of us individually does when we inhabit the fiction of our unitary, authentic self, then the walls can dissolve again to the level of symbolic. I belong, therefore I am.

Walls as tourist attractions, like the great wall of China, or the sexy skin of one of Charlie Sheen's porn star buddies, refocus the self on the inside as one who wants to conform and lay claim to pride of place. The perceived need to build robust real walls, or to buff out or to clothe the physical self, announce the invisibility or transparency of any and all shared definition. To be willingly naked is to trust in consciously shared boundaries, maybe. Let's not be silly.

Graffiti, or punk-style, or, once upon a time, rock and roll, define these boundaries by challenging them to make them visible and opaque. I can punk my way into your screen, and I might become an anonymous superstar, and then because you know me too well, I will no longer know myself. No wonder superstars take drugs. Alternate between sunglasses and outrageous designer statements.

We need walls along the border with Mexico because we are ambivalent in almost all of our collective actions about who should be in and out. Rhetorically, we agree, but in practice, build the wall since we can't contain ourselves! Clothe the naked body, and if necessary make it uniform which makes it hot for some people. Weird!

F-bombs bleeped out routinely on public channels (although I thought I'd paid for them) announce some walls I just can't find, and when they joke freely about threesomes and the actors act without shame I'm thinking maybe we've already been transported back to the border-less world of Eden, but nobody told me. It just doesn't feel like paradise.

Who was the nutjob who thought we could contain nuclear reactions anyhow, or is it simply our Grand Narrative which also allows no real distinction between truth and fiction if you spread it on a timeline. That center of opinion has been swinging wildly even in my own mind, if I can call that "in."

Have you ever experienced a muscle twitch, acting all on its own without your conscious intervention intention? Just now, it felt as though someone was poking me in the side, but no-one was. Rebellion, like Charlie Sheen in need of help, feels dangerous if it gets out of hand. Bring in the tanks, the tranquilizers, the muscle relaxants.

Oh, how I do envy those of you who inhabit your life's mission and are glad for it. If you stick to it, you'll accomplish something. You have a mission as a scholar or a musician or a dancer or a worker-bee, but you have a mission and you've found a way to pay for it.

I have a string of jobs. My mission is hopeless.

Meanwhile, I continue to navigate the divide between literate culture in China and over here. What I find most interesting at the moment is how differently the Chinese written form mediates between machine and human forms.

Machines represent strict cause and effect and therefore exclude serendipity except by design. Once they build themselves as 'games of life' from mathematical primitives, they will be proper life forms, but not so useful for that. Well, I mean not so immediately trustworthy, the way that machines are as perfect slaves.

The Chinese written form encodes radically fewer sound morphemes than does English, for example. Although by the laws linguistics as I understand them, it must be, in principle, possible to speak the written language with full fidelity, in practice there is just so much more history to the visual forms than is the case with alphabetic and phonetically transcribed languages.

Sure, our spelling "system" (unsystem?) preserves much of a word's history, but there is a certain kind of compactness to written Chinese which pretty much reserves full literacy to those who have mastered great bodies of textual context. You can look up words in dictionaries, but you are much more likely to require an index of actual usage.

Because each written graph can be represented by no more than one vowel sound  (although the number of distinct vowel sounds is enhanced by meaningfully different intonations), plus perhaps a leading consonant, a string of opening sounds can be sufficient for the computer to render up an entire multi-graph word or phrase.

Using the sounds of the characters, plus a computer tabulation of the likely combinations, one can get radically more complexity from rather fewer keystrokes. I imagine it's about like what a court reporter can get from essentializing the sounds of English to some set of single-impact keystroke combinations.

The more one relies on the computer to interpret phonetic references, the more faded-memory distance one develops from the "original" calligraphic form. (I use quotes since the calligraphic form was itself an elaboration or simplification of earlier forms, whether made by stylus or knife or something else)

It seems uncontroversial that written language is the sine-qua-non for consciousness. OK, it's controversial, but I take it as settled fact. For sure, it's the sine-qua-non for civilization and what Foucault calls the entry into history of humanity.

It's also common place enough to understand that thought (if there is such a thing) is the innering of dialogic habits accomplished between and among minds, but also mediated through texts. Reading was once done aloud, and neurological experiments demonstrate that those regions of our brain are still exercised while reading to oneself.

A general fallacy still has currency that Chinese is written with "ideographs" which would mean, essentially, that there is no mediation by the as-if sounds of spoken language. In its extreme manifestations, this fallacy would have it that the "idea" of a word's meaning makes it directly into the mind of the reader. I take it that neurological testing, while uncovering interesting differences in the precise regions of the brain activated, affirms the commonality among all written languages, graphic or phonetic.

Readers of Chinese also internalize at least pseudo soundings-out. I say pseudo, since one of the attractions of the notion of ideographs is that the same written system has been used by mutually unintelligible natural languages. If one is in the habit of supposing abstraction to be a method to resolve differences in particulars, then one naturally supposes that what's "meant" is what is read, rather than the sound of the word.

But it would seem that abstraction of that sort takes place outside the brain, at least, if not outside the mind. The meaning is a communal creation, shared by sense-makers and never quite abstract-able from spoken language.

Until early in the twentieth century, Chinese of whatever dialectical origin always used a highly formalized written language which would itself be recognized as distinct from the normal manner of speaking of any language group. Self-consciousness of this distinction is long-standing in China, and was crescendo-ing for some time leading up to the adoption of more natural spoken forms to writing.

Naturally, there is a tendency to join the formal written language to the spoken language as used by mandarins in the capital. Priests to Rome conversing in Latin, one might analogize. Where Italian pronunciation feels as though it comes the closest to that language not actually spoken any longer.

Abstractions take meaning out of time and of course it's tempting to give them historical origins or to remove them from time altogether. When, in fact, they exist with the same sort of precision as my mind does, located somewhere that you can identify as me, but amalgamated from those various times in my life when you might have known me. Including me in the future according to your imaginings or mine, and based on misgivings as much as on aspirations. Trust and confidence. Predictability.

I am foretold, though accident might intervene. Machines are always the same for all time, and only wear down. Their future state is given by their present disposition, apart from breakdown or unforeseen environmental impacts.

Operator failure caused the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island. There was insufficient training and drilling and understanding about how to read the instruments, which were doing their reporting in ways counter-intuitive and misleading. Anyone who's ever done mechanical systems troubleshooting (including computer systems) understands not just the tendency, but the necessity to be stuck in ruts. In order to solve problems, you have to settle first on an interpretation of the basics, and if there is a mistake at that level, then the solution will never be found.

When time is of the essence, catastrophe can result as it did at Three Mile Island, which was a more robust (pressurized water) reactor design than the ones now melting down  in Japan (boiling water Mark I GE designs).

In the case of Three Mile Island, the man-machine interface broke down. In the case of Japan now, there was an environmentally induced catastrophe which requires that the human operators operate within a much more slim margin for error. One hopes that the man-machine interface has been improved. One hopes that the instruments present their readings in properly intuitive fashion. One hopes that the drills have gotten better, and that economics hasn't whittled them down to complacency.

A writer of Chinese might be utterly lost without the machine now. A writer of English would likely be able to carry on, even though, as in the case of my handwriting, the resulting forms would not be pretty. The complexity of Chinese written forms moves in the direction of machine constructs, which, like any kind of fancy printing, take more talent than one might like to exercise to bother forming them by hand.

So on the one hand, the computer provides more leverage for the efficient writing of Chinese. On the other, it removes more of the human from the process of deploying the tools of writing. Though the machine can find them and render up a virtual concordance, must it not be mind which hears the echoes of writing now in writing then. Computers can only write poetry, to be construed as such by mind. They don't do so well at making sense.

Dispositionally, I confess to a preference to hand tools over the power kind. They are easier to control, they make less noise, and although they may require more practice to master, it seems as though there's much less prospect for disaster in their operation.

I suppose that there is an analogous difference between handwriting and word-processing, and that the boundary would be placed differently for Chinese writers as compared with writers in English.

I don't propose that this distinction be tested, but only that it provides a kind of conceptual scaffolding for what I consider to be the more important assumption that there is less temptation by abstract concepts among those within the Chinese linguistic sphere of influence.

We're the ones who posit God, and we're the ones who, borrowing from the Japanese who nearly use them that way, mistake Chinese written forms for ideographic representations of raw ideas. I think that for the Chinese, written forms were much more thing-like, and that what they excited "in" the mind was not so much the abstracted referents of truth and beauty as the more concrete transformation of the world about one, according to received wisdom about what one might see if one is educated.

And thus in place of dreams of scientific law to enforce agreement among intellectuals, or political law to enforce civilized and civilizing behaviors, the Chinese have traditionally emphasized shared reading. The mind changes not so much by contact with new "ideas" as by innering the privileged point of view of poets: makers who put the written words together in ways actually to heighten the raw stuff of nature; which is built of yin-yang interactions. Couplets dancing on the page move the mind in apprehension of life as it gets lived.

So why all this shorthand, shorn of adequate reference and proper scholarly apparatus? Why the rush?

Well, because it still is that man-machine interface which is doing us in. It is dreams of immortality, or machine-based consciousness as though our human consciousness is the same as it ever was and will be. As though by the time that we can design a machine on which to host consciousness our human consciousness will have remained the same but for its better apprehension of more elaborated scientific principles.

This dream, by deferring what we need to do right now, is killing us. It is past time already to acknowledge that there is no set reality apart from our interpretation of it. There is no discoverable political or economic system which can handle our collective responsibility not to destroy the ground on which we stand.

Or rather, there is no way that we will find it for so long as we continue to defer our responsibilty until the proper laws are discovered or promulgated which will either force or entice is to live, collectively, within our means. Each of us must act as the co-creators that we are, and not throw up some prayer to abstraction.

And though there is and should be much resistance to acknowledging it, there does exist already a natural turning point in the discoverable laws of natural science.

Starting with Einstein's testable and fully demonstrated positing that the speed of light is a universal constant, not relative to the motion of any observer, and followed on by the discovery of the quantum quality of matter and energy (as previously equated by that famous mass-energy formula E=mc²) whereby energy is always exchanged in discreet packets or particles, and mass is always propagated wave-like, as if unlimited by restrictions of location or momentum . . . Starting with Einstein, it was already apparent that there was required a further change to our common ways of describing reality.

This further change has proven to be the most difficult; the one we are all most reluctant to accept (as if it was easy to get our heads around the changes urged post-Einstein!). It requires that we abandon the expectation that all of reality will ever be describable in terms of natural and discoverable principle. It requires that we finally do abandon any notion of our innocence, as though we are the random byproducts of some natural processes which have led to life on earth.

We have to stop thinking that we are as entitled as any other species to fight for our all. We are, in fact the responsible species, and the only one whatever you might like to argue about what other species laugh or talk or make emotive expressions of their faces.

OK, so this feels pretty far afield from where I started, right? Why all that talk about differences between Chinese and Western written forms. And borders, and natural law?

First because my own mind would not have cracked without the study of Chinese having done it to me; the realization that there isn't only one way to read the world, and that many sensible statements in English, such as "there is a God" simply don't work in Chinese.

And in physics I felt the paradoxes of the Standard Theory to be a slap in the face. Matter couldn't travel faster than the speed of light, but apparently information had to. So for some thirty years now I've been running around like Chicken Little trying to get at least one other person to understand that it makes no sense to talk as though "mind" were only a human quality, evolved with us from chaos.

It makes no sense to dismiss emotion as some sort of charming epiphenomenon of human consciousness, or icing on the cake of thought. Emotion gets in the way of scientific understandings. It's that process which provides the most clear and present danger to rational thinking, and leads nuclear power-plant operators to make fateful mistakes in their behaviors.

But while there have been attempts to develop theories of emotion and to build them in to designs for Artificial Intelligence, to my knowledge - and I've been looking really really hard - there has never been a statement which has been other than silliness, that emotion is also a cosmological constant which, like mind, was not awaiting humanity's evolution to be manifest.

Emotion is simply that configuration of mind which knows before it happens that there will be a perceptual impingement - an energy implication - between "things" which are only conceptual before they make contact. Concepts, in other words, are things held only "in mind."

And so why all this verbiage now? Well, it's nothing new. It's a reiteration of what I've been saying all along here. But the trouble is that I've run out of time and living space (which means I've run out of money). I'm hopeful now that I'll gain employment within the week. All the stars seem aligned.

But it will cut sharply into my writing time, which might provide some relief to you, gentle reader, but it won't do a thing for this rather desperate need that I've had for all these years now to find someone to "get" what the hell I'm talking about.

Of course it is possible that far from learning how to write better, I've actually gotten worse and worse and that nothing will do more for my expository style than to let it rest. But for the fact that my mind and body age, right along with the course of our fine Earth as we send it to hell in a handbasket.

Or I could learn how to tell stories better. The trouble is that they always end up being about Howie. Plus it may just be that story tellers are born and not made.

Well anyhow, please wish me well as I make my crossing to that great beyond, over the border from freedom to employment, where my time will be my own no longer, as though it ever was!

and, and, and, don't you think it's really really silly the way that we all act as though life here on Earth in a solar system in a galaxy in a universe in a cosmos all somehow descended from a Big Bang is all there was and ever will be? Don't you think that there's something rather more interesting than that going on? We act as if normal has been disrupted! But what could possibly be normal about our very human existence? The Earth is being gentle with us still for but a moment longer.

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