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Archive for June, 2009

I took a walk around the Jupiter Artland garden at Bonnington House last Saturday. Take a look……

In the gallery next to the ticket office amongst other exhibits there’s this
Mesostic Remedy
This is a collection of bottles of Bach flower remedies where each label has a vertical inscription of the name of the flower used to make the remedy and a haiku-like poem of one word per line, where each word contains one letter of the flower’s name. What an amazing piece of work! You can, if you want, buy a book of the poems. The work, by Alec Finlay, is called Mesostic Remedy and there are a pair of poems for each of the 38 flower remedies.

Once outside, the artland is a trail weaving through a wood. The day I was there it was raining intermittently but the forest was dense enough to stop me getting wet. The sound of the rain on the forest roof was beautiful.
The first work along the path is Suck, by Anish Kapoor
Suck
From here it looks like the cage is floating above the ground. Inside the cage is……
Suck
….a hole in the ground!

A little further on is Firmament by my favourite sculptor, Antony Gormley.

Firmament
Firmament

As you walk around and under it, it feels alive, like a giant iron shapeshifter!

Firmament

Only connect, by Ian Hamilton Finlay is the first of three of his works.
Only connect

Walking over this subtle little bridge flagged on each side by a simple stone plaque inscribed with the words “only connect”, you see, along the path, Andy Goldsworthy’s Stone House

Stone House

Inside this pleasingly simple little dwelling is a rough rock floor

Stone House

Next along the woodland path is easily the creepiest and most disturbing of all the works, Weeping Girls, by Laura Ford

Weeping Girls
Weeping Girls
Weeping Girls
Weeping Girls
Weeping Girls

Then the second and third of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s works, Temple of Apollo, and Xth Muse

Temple of Apollo
Temple of Apollo
Xth Muse

The next work could well have been my favourite, Over Here, by Shane Waltener, a huge thread web spun between the trees…

Over here
Over here
Over here

It’s then a longer walk round to the edge of the forest which opens out onto Charles Jenks amazing earthworks, Life Mounds.

Life Mounds
Life Mounds
Life Mounds
Life Mounds

It took me two hours to walk around and take these photos, and as I was booked into the last session of the day, I had to leave then. I didn’t see everything and I wouldn’t mind going back again soon!

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In the Aymara language (a high Andean Indian language) the future and the past are in exactly the opposite positions from where they are to English speakers. You and I say that the future lies before us, and the past somewhere behind us. In Aymara, it’s the exact opposite.

But the Aymara call the future qhipa pacha/timpu, meaning back or behind time, and the past nayra pacha/timpu, meaning front time. And they gesture ahead of them when remembering things past, and backward when talking about the future.

…….the Aymara speakers see the difference between what is known and not known as paramount, and what is known is what you see in front of you, with your own eyes. The past is known, so it lies ahead of you. (Nayra, or “past,” literally means eye and sight, as well as front.) The future is unknown, so it lies behind you, where you can’t see.

(this according to research published in “Cognitive Science”)

Just pause for a moment and wonder what difference that would make to the way you understand life, or, at least, how you understand how to move through the flow of time.

Lera Boroditsky of Stanford University gives us even more food for thought on this subject in an article in the Edge. Look at this example she gives –

Suppose you want to say, “Bush read Chomsky’s latest book.” Let’s focus on just the verb, “read.” To say this sentence in English, we have to mark the verb for tense; in this case, we have to pronounce it like “red” and not like “reed.” In Indonesian you need not (in fact, you can’t) alter the verb to mark tense. In Russian you would have to alter the verb to indicate tense and gender. So if it was Laura Bush who did the reading, you’d use a different form of the verb than if it was George. In Russian you’d also have to include in the verb information about completion. If George read only part of the book, you’d use a different form of the verb than if he’d diligently plowed through the whole thing. In Turkish you’d have to include in the verb how you acquired this information: if you had witnessed this unlikely event with your own two eyes, you’d use one verb form, but if you had simply read or heard about it, or inferred it from something Bush said, you’d use a different verb form.

She asks if this means that the speakers of these different languages end up remembering their experiences differently from each other, and if so, does that mean they actually see and understand the world differently?

How does this relate to the fact that we all live on different planets?

She gives us quite a mind boggling example of how we orientate ourselves physically in the world through our use of language by telling us about an Aboriginal tribe from northern Australia, the Kuuk Thaayorre.

Instead of words like “right,” “left,” “forward,” and “back,” which, as commonly used in English, define space relative to an observer, the Kuuk Thaayorre, like many other Aboriginal groups, use cardinal-direction terms — north, south, east, and west — to define space.1 This is done at all scales, which means you have to say things like “There’s an ant on your southeast leg” or “Move the cup to the north northwest a little bit.” One obvious consequence of speaking such a language is that you have to stay oriented at all times, or else you cannot speak properly. The normal greeting in Kuuk Thaayorre is “Where are you going?” and the answer should be something like ” Southsoutheast, in the middle distance.” If you don’t know which way you’re facing, you can’t even get past “Hello.”

The result is a profound difference in navigational ability and spatial knowledge between speakers of languages that rely primarily on absolute reference frames (like Kuuk Thaayorre) and languages that rely on relative reference frames (like English).2 Simply put, speakers of languages like Kuuk Thaayorre are much better than English speakers at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes or inside unfamiliar buildings. What enables them — in fact, forces them — to do this is their language. Having their attention trained in this way equips them to perform navigational feats once thought beyond human capabilities.

This is not just an amazing skill but it’s a skill English speakers just don’t have. There is a complete synthesis of language and physical orientation that makes a huge practical difference to the skills needed to find their way around. These are fascinating pieces of evidence that supports Lakoff and Johnson’s theories about the basic conceptual metaphors we use being related to how we experience our physical existence. But she goes on to give other examples, such as how Mandarin speakers talk of time vertically where English speakers talk of it horizontally (“Point to a spot which represents tomorrow” leads English speakers to point in front of them, and Mandarin speakers to point vertically upwards)

What does this mean for someone who learns another language? In Lera Boroditsky’s work, she investigated this –

In our lab, we’ve taught English speakers different ways of talking about time. In one such study, English speakers were taught to use size metaphors (as in Greek) to describe duration (e.g., a movie is larger than a sneeze), or vertical metaphors (as in Mandarin) to describe event order. Once the English speakers had learned to talk about time in these new ways, their cognitive performance began to resemble that of Greek or Mandarin speakers. This suggests that patterns in a language can indeed play a causal role in constructing how we think. In practical terms, it means that when you’re learning a new language, you’re not simply learning a new way of talking, you are also inadvertently learning a new way of thinking.

That confirms what you probably suspected already….that learning a new language doesn’t just let you communicate with people who speak that language, but it provokes you to see and understand the world differently.

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there he was basking in the hot Provencal sun on the bonnet of the hire car……

sunbathing

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The contemporary French philosopher, Luc Ferry’s book, “What is The Good Life?” (ISBN 978-0226244532), is an interesting but quite difficult read. I’m not sure I’ve really grasped the whole of his argument, but it seems to involve developing awareness of the “singularities” in life, by which he means the unique, particular events, which draw our consciousness out to farther horizons so we see the transcendent in the immanent.
I won’t rehearse the detail of his arguments here, but the final section of the book considers the idea of two “modernities” as (apparently) described by Ulrich Beck in his “Risk Society” (ISBN 978-0803983465) (another one for the reading list). I haven’t come across this before and I think it was a particularly interesting take on the progress of science and society.
Ferry describes three ages of science, with only the latter two covering “modernity”. The First age was a time where the “contemplation of the order of the world and comprehension of the structure of the cosmos” were linked. The consequence of this link was that knowledge and values were intrinsically connected, “in the sense that, in itself, the discovery of the intimate character of the universe implies an emphasis on certain practical aims for human existence.” The Second age began with the Enlightenment, and, he says, was characterised by an indifference to values – “science describes what is, it does not speak of what should be”. This age, says Ferry, has only begun to decline in the last few years of the twentieth century. I’ve certainly read a perspective like this before, but the next stage is where it gets especially interesting. If you read my post about “Metaphors we live by”, the contrasting of an “objectivist” position with a “subjectivist” one (this latter exemplified by the Romantic focus on feelings and passions) does, I think, describe these two contrasting worldviews. In fact, as Luc Ferry also points out, there is a reaction against science from people who are still more attracted to the agenda of the Romantics. The point he goes on to make is one I haven’t read anywhere else. It is that the Third age (or second “modernity”) is characterised by self-criticism or self-reflection.
His argument is this – in the Enlightenment thinking scientific rationalism –

….promised to free people from the religious obscurantism of centuries past and at the same time to provide them with the means to make themselves, in Descartes’ famous phrase, into the “masters and possessors” of a universe that they could use and exploit at will in order to realise their material well-being.

This way of thinking easily contributed to the politics of democracy and nation-states –

The chief business of the new scientifico-democratic nation-states was the production and distribution of wealth. However, we are now witnessing a significant change because –

Today it is no longer nature that engenders the major risks for humankind, but scientific investigation; thus it is no longer nature that we have to tame, but rather science. For the first time in history, science furnishes the human species with the means for its own destruction

Even if we don’t feel threatened by the potential harms of nuclear and chemical technologies, we are afraid of what might happen if they were to fall into the hands of terrorists. “Control of the uses and effects of modern science is slipping out of our hands, and its unbridled power is worrisome.”

This “process without a subject” in a globalised world of technology that no worldwide governance has yet managed to control makes the framework of the nation-state and, along with it, the traditional forms of parliamentary democracy seem strangely cramped. No republican miracle caused the clouds of Chernobyl to stop at the frontiers of France. For their part, the processes that govern economic growth and the financial markets no longer obey the dictates of the people’s representatives, who now struggle to keep the promises they have made to the electorate.

It’s interesting that he wrote this about seven years ago, before we experienced the current crisis in the world economic system.
What does he advocate, in terms of the project to spread the good life amongst human beings?

A re-integration of values and knowledge, and, especially a renewed focus on what’s special about human life as a part of nature, not apart from it. This strikes me as very true.
There’s definitely a part of me drawn to the Romantic values of the subject, to a respect for feelings and a belief that a life without passion is a life only half lived (at best!), but there’s also a part of me keenly drawn to science. (It’s just that I find the current flavour of materialistic scientism desperately empty and unsatisfying). I think that’s why I’m drawn both to the Lakoff and Johnson “experientialist” idea, and this idea in Luc Ferry’s book about the scientific method developing through self-criticism and self-reflection. Both are attempts to understand what it is to be human, fully immanent within nature, but with a constant capacity for transcendence.

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Here’s an interesting study published in the journal, “Brain, Behaviour and Immunity”. In a nutshell, they’ve found a relationship between personality traits of extraversion and the levels of an inflammatory chemical in the blood (Interleukin-6). The more extraverted, the lower the levels of this chemical. Why’s that a good thing? Well, the higher levels are indicative of increased inflammatory activity (in aging women the difference between high and low levels can result in a two fold increase in mortality over five years). Many serious chronic conditions are thought to result from increased inflammatory activity.

There’s a reassuring increase in studies of this type (in PNI – “Psychoneuroimmunology”) and they’re beginning to give us a better scientific understanding of the interconnectedness of all our body systems, and to break down the rather naive idea that the body and the mind are separate.

This particular study has hooked my attention because of its focus on extraversion. I suppose neither extraversion, nor intraversion, seem, on the face of it, to be healthy characteristics, so I was keen to understand exactly what the psychologists were interpreting as extraversion. Apparently Karl Jung described extraverts as focused on the world around them and happiest in the presence of others. Psychological models of character have come a long way since his day and this particular group of researchers worked with a model known as the “Five Factor Model” of personality. The five factors are –

  1. Extraversion
  2. Emotional Stability
  3. Agreeableness
  4. Conscientiousness
  5. Openness to Experience

Here’s one definition of extraversion

Extraversion is marked by pronounced engagement with the external world. Extraverts enjoy being with people, are full of energy, and often experience positive emotions. They tend to be enthusiastic, action-oriented, individuals who are likely to say “Yes!” or “Let’s go!” to opportunities for excitement. In groups they like to talk, assert themselves, and draw attention to themselves.

The particular element of extraversion associated with the lower inflammatory markers is “dispositional activity” – which the researchers are also dubbing “life force” (its the extent to which you wholeheartedly engage with life really)

I think that’s fascinating. As you know, my three key characteristics of health are adaptability, creativity and ENGAGEMENT, and my palette of factors for a good life includes a sense of wonder in the everyday (“emerviellement” in the “quotidien”)

I was intruiged to learn more about the Five Factor model. Wikipedia, as usual, has a good entry. But if you want to find out what the five factor analysis says about your own personality, try here where they have an excellent, free online, instrument.


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This blog is called heroes not zombies because I believe we all tend to sleepwalk through life (in a kind of zombie way), but that we have the opportunity to wake up and be the heroes of our own stories. So, I was especially struck by the following passage in “Metaphors we live by” –

Self-understanding requires unending negotiation and renegotiation of the meaning of your experiences to yourself……It involves the constant construction of new coherences in your life, coherences that give new meaning to old experiences. The process of self-understanding is the continual development of new life stories for yourself.

I think this is SO on the button. It grasps the dynamic, creative, ever-changing, ever-growing process of understanding which comes about through telling, editing, revising and re-telling our life stories. These stories are not fantasy of course. Rather they are the process of creating meaning from our experiences. They do this by developing coherences. We continuously strive to make sense of our experiences, and making sense means building on the existing coherent stories we tell about ourselves to make them more coherent in the light of our newest experiences. Additionally, this passage hits the nail on the head by pointing out that the new coherences cast a new light on older experiences. This is the healing potential of understanding.

Myths are the key stories which create our lifeworlds. Myths are not false stories. They are our most fundamental ones.  As Lakoff and Johnson say

Myths provide ways of comprehending experience; they give order to our lives. Like metaphors, myths are necessary for making sense of what goes on around us. All cultures have myths, and people cannot function without myth any more than they can function without metaphor.

Are you aware of the metaphors, the myths, the stories which you use to comprehend your experience?

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“Metaphors we live by” written by Lakoff and Johnson. (ISBN 0-226-46801-1) ……..
I often muse about what makes a human being, human? Or what makes a human being fully human? Consciousness is clearly one of the characteristics. Language is another. And imagination is a third. Perhaps it’s because I’m interested in these phenomena that some time back I bought “Metaphors we live by”. Our ability to handle metaphors and symbols intrigues me, and I wanted to understand better how we use metaphors so the title caught my eye. However, when I flicked through it, it struck me as a bit technical and even dry. I thought it was a book about linguistics, an area of study which does interest me, but one which I find can be difficult to grasp. So I put the book aside in my giant collection of “interesting books to get round to reading one day”. I’m not quite sure I pulled it off the shelf recently. Oh, yes, actually I do remember why, but the explanation is going to have to wait till another post. (cryptic, huh?) I guess that old adage of there being a right time for everything must apply to books, because this time, I started into it and couldn’t stop. I’ve marked it up. I read and re-read chapters. I’ve skipped to the back, delved into the middle, read it from cover to cover. I find it compelling and convincing. And I can’t figure out why I didn’t take to it first time round.
It’s actually an incredibly difficult book to summarise. Usually when I write a review like this I paste in a few passages from the book to illustrate what it’s like. But I’ve collected so many passages I find it hard to pick only a few!
Here’s the gist of their argument. By studying human communication they claim to have discovered that metaphors are not simply a word or language game, but much more fundamentally, they are conceptual. By that they mean we think in metaphors, we understand using metaphors, and, indeed we understand the world and our place in it through metaphors. I didn’t need convinced about that. I already thought that metaphors were the basis of thought. However, they take the whole project to an entirely different level by studying the types of metaphors which are most prevalent in our thinking and communicating. With way too many examples to share here, they illustrate clearly and convincingly that the basic, fundamental metaphors we use haven’t appeared randomly, but are developed out of our interactions with the physical and the cultural worlds in which we exist. In other words, they are develop from our interactions with time and space, and our interactions with other people and creatures. This, I think, is the key. It allows them to develop an argument they call “the experientialist myth”, proposing it as a better way to understand life than the opposing myths of “objectivism” and “subjectivism”. (Time for a quote or two from the book)

The myth of objectivism reflects the human need to understand the external world in order to be able to function successfully in it. The myth of subjectivism is focused on internal aspects of understanding – what the individual finds meaningful and what makes his life worth living. The experientialist myth suggests that these are not opposing concerns.

Within the myth of objectivism, the concern for truth grows out of a concern for successful functioning. Given a view of man as separate from his environment, successful functioning is conceived of as mastery over the environment. Hence the objectivist metaphors KNOWLEDGE IS POWER and SCIENCE PROVIDES CONTROL OVER NATURE.

The principal theme of the myth of subjectivism is the attempt to overcome the alienation that results from viewing man as separate from his environment and from other men. This involves an embracing of the self – of individuality and reliance upon personal feelings, intuition, and values. The Romanticist version involves reveling in the senses and feelings and attempting to gain union with nature through passive appreciation of it.

The old myths share a common perspective: man as separate from his environment.

The experientialist myth takes the perspective of man as part of his environment, not as separate from it. It focuses on constant interaction with the physical environment and with other people. It views this interaction with the environment as involving mutual change. You cannot function within the environment without changing it or being changed by it.

Do you get the idea? It’s a kind of division between the rationalists and the Romantics, with the claim that metaphor builds a bridge between reason and the imagination and gives us a third way. One which neither denies objective reality, not gets lost in subjective relativism. In the process, this “experientialist” way, shows how there are no Absolute truths out there discoverable without an understanding based on cultural systems, but keeps the project of the imagination and feelings grounded in our interactions with the world.

Objectivism takes as its allies scientific truth, rationality, precision, fairness, and impartiality. Subjectivism takes as its allies the emotions, intuitive insight, imagination, humaneness, art, and a “higher” truth.
The proportions of our lives governed by objectivism and subjectivism vary greatly from person to person and culture and culture. Some of us even attempt to live our entire lives totally by one myth of the other.

How do you think it is for you? Are you more drawn to objectivism’s allies, or subjectivism’s?

I find both main strands of their case very convincing. The more you look for it, the more you become aware of the pervasiveness of metaphor, and the more you study it, the clearer it becomes that conceptual metaphors are grounded in our experiences and interactions. Their experientialist myth appeals to me much more than either of the other two older myths. It strikes me as more true. I also think it allows a much more robust defence against scientism than romanticism ever did.

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