NETFUTURE Technology and Human Responsibility -------------------------------------------------------------------------- Issue #169 May 10, 2007 -------------------------------------------------------------------------- A Publication of The Nature Institute Editor: Stephen L. Talbott (firstname.lastname@example.org) On the Web: http://netfuture.org You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes. To read this on the web: http://netfuture.org/2007/May1007_169.html CONTENTS -------- Editor’s Note The Language of Nature (Part III) (Stephen L. Talbott) Does nature rejoice in the morning? DEPARTMENTS About this newsletter
The book based on my writings in this newsletter -- Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines -- has just been released by O’Reilly Media. You’ll find a description of it on the O'Reilly website. It’s worth going there just to see the cover; O’Reilly did a very nice job on it. Also, you can read the introduction here
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The following is the concluding part of a three-part essay. It rests solidly upon the earlier two parts, and is not intended to be read as a standalone piece. You will find the earlier parts of the essay here:
Part I: http://netfuture.org/2007/Mar1507_167.html
Part II: http://netfuture.org/2007/Apr1307_168.html.
You will always find the latest version of the complete essay at
We are creatures of the word, inhabiting a world that can be understood only as speech or text - even if we prefer to notice only its blank, unspeaking grammar (which, nevertheless, presupposes the speech). Our own communication depends upon the word-like character of the world; if we did not find word-stuff all around us, we would have no material for our own words. Nature presents us, not with blank, mute, disconnected objects, but with expressive images, and such images are the native elements of story, song, and poetry. Even at the level of "mere" sound we can say: only because every sound has its own gestural and significant form - only because it speaks with its own qualities - can we recognize it as a distinctive element and employ it for our own speech.
Further, even where we have reduced speech to the high abstraction of alphabetic text and have rendered the connection between word-signs and their meanings perfectly arbitrary, a speaking quality of the signs themselves is prerequisite to our apprehension of them as words. If we did not perceive and feel the different qualities of a horizontal and vertical stroke, and again of a vertical and circular stroke, we would be unable to distinguish one alphabetic character from another.
This last point, humble as it may be, sums up everything I’ve been saying
in this essay. It is also extremely difficult for people of our day to
grasp, and is worth a great deal of reflection.
Gestures of the Morning
If we were given a set of mathematical coordinates defining the pixels, or points, of a pen stroke, these coordinates would remain meaningless; we could not recognize them as any sort of unity or as any specific thing - not until, with the aid of our knowledge of coordinate systems, we pictured the points as constituting a significant form. What is hard to appreciate is that we cannot recognize anything except by recognizing it as a particular kind of thing, having some sort of apprehensible character. There is always an aesthetic judgment at work. We can distinguish a horizontal from a vertical line only because, in an objective and cognitive sense, we can feel the difference between them - we can experience the difference rather in the way we experience the difference between our own arm held first horizontal and then vertical, and in the way both actor and audience experience the dramatic contrast between an outstretched and an upraised arm; in every specific context they speak differently. The two gestures have different expressive potentials (Rozentuller and Talbott 2005).
The natural world is nothing but such gesturing, even if at a vastly more profound level than our own gesturing - a level where the gesturing is at the same time a power of physical manifestation. We can know that something is there only so far as we find ourselves "gestured at" in a recognizable way. It may be worthwhile to take a brief look at one or two of the countless "alphabetic strokes" of nature with which any qualitative science is likely to have to reckon. I will not speak here of any body of science, but merely of possible elements belonging to a language of scientific description.
Not so long ago, soon after awakening on a cool morning, I stepped out of my darkened home into the radiant and golden warmth of the newly risen sun. Having had nothing particular in mind, I was suddenly and unexpectedly moved by a feeling I can describe (inadequately) only as one of expansion - as if, in a spirit of rejoicing, my arms and my entire being were opening outward to embrace the fullness of the world. Not being one to live at all vividly in his perceptions, I was struck by the force of the sensation, and began to wonder whether it spoke in any objective way about the morning and sunrise. Was I experiencing a significant element in the language of nature, or just the incidental noise of my own body and psyche? Does nature speak forth the dawn of a new day in a unified language of aesthetic gesture? Is there, for example, any possible justification for the common sentiment that nature in some way rejoices in the dawn?
Over the following weeks I focused on a few simple gestures - for example, the expansive opening to the world I had experienced, and the ascending movement we see in the rising sun. And it proved useful to contrast these with more or less opposite movements.
However much I might have been inclined to dismiss my own sense of enlargement on meeting the sunrise, I could hardly dismiss the fact that nature was going through something analogous. In a literal, physical sense, nearly all substances - rocks, lakes, plants, the earth itself - expand under the heating effects of the sun, and they contract again as the environment cools at sundown. The atmosphere, too, dilates under the sun’s influence, which also sets in motion rising currents of air. We often see a morning mist rising from sun-lit ponds. And if there is a cloud type most characteristic of the day, surely it is the expanding, upward-billowing cumulus cloud. At night the cooling atmosphere "settles down", and we may find a layer of fog pressing against the earth. Cyclonic storm systems, which tend to contract and lose intensity at night, begin to grow again in geographic extent in the morning.
Living things exhibit similar gestures. Perhaps most noticeably, many flowers and leaves open outward in the morning and close in upon themselves at night. In herbs and trees, the morning sun draws the sap upward; water, too, ascends from the roots, engorges the leaves, and then evaporates outward and upward into the atmosphere. We ourselves greet the day by stretching ourselves: our chests swell and we extend our arms toward the periphery as we prepare to meet the world again. At the moment when we awake and look out upon a sun-lit world, it is easy to experience how our psyche is transformed, gaining a certain outward-oriented solidity and spaciousness as we are enlarged by our surroundings.
And the sun itself? It radiates. Here I am not referring to the falsely imagined "rays" supposedly traced by particles of light. I am speaking of the gesture of light - a gesture we can perceive directly. At dusk, let your eyes rest for a while upon the darkness of a valley and wooded hillside, then raise your gaze to a remaining patch of light sky. Once you have learned to still your thoughts about what you are seeing and instead to use the perceptive capacities of your entire organism, you can experience the radiating gesture of this light - sometimes almost explosively. Light that is too bright strikes us so forcefully as to make us recoil and shield ourselves from injury.
I remember hearing people talk, earlier in my life, about the two different expressive characters of sunrise and sunset. At the time this struck me as misguided: "The two occurrences are exactly symmetrical, with the sun shining from one horizon or the other through the thickness of the atmosphere. The difference between east and west can hardly be crucial. You can have beautiful red sunrises just as you can have beautiful red sunsets. Where is any essential difference between them?"
This was unutterably foolish of me. I was thinking in terms of static snapshots, entirely forgetting their context. In reality the two events are polar opposites. Leaving aside the fact that the constitution of the morning atmosphere tends to differ considerably from that of the evening atmosphere (for example, there is typically more haze or dust in the evening), there remain the most obvious features: the morning sun is rising while the evening sun is setting; the day is brightening and warming, or else it is darkening and cooling.
Try a simple exercise. Stand upright with your arms at your side. With your consciousness as quiet as possible, attending only to the inner qualities of your movement, very slowly swing your arms in front of you, palms upward, as if you were following the rising sun with your hands. Then pause, turn your palms downward, and let your arms slowly perform the reverse movement, descending to the starting position. (You will be forgiven if you find something almost reverential in the exercise.) With any attention at all, it is not hard to experience the very different character of these two motions. With the one we easily feel (among many other things we might pay attention to) a sense of anticipation, of beginning, of active engagement, perhaps even of celebration. With the other there is a calming, a coming to rest, a sense of completion - and again, it may be, celebration, only now it is celebration of fulfillment more than expectation. At the very least, we have to say that a sunrise and sunset are as different as these two expressive movements.
It’s important to avoid a kind of wooden oversimplification, as if we were dealing with fixed elements of logic rather than living gestures of the world. Every slightest alteration in the overall constellation of a gesture makes for a different gesture. In fact, it’s probably impossible ever to perform exactly the same gesture twice. If, instead of asking you to let your arms descend directly in front of you as you followed the movement of a sunset, I had instead suggested that you position your arms a little more widely apart, perhaps bending them more at the elbow, then the restful and calming aspect of the gesture would have been accentuated. If I had told you to relax your arms completely, letting them fall limply under the influence of gravity, the descent would have spoken more of heaviness than of rest. And if I had asked you to hold your arms rigidly straight during the downward movement, with elbows locked, the sense of rest would again largely have been lost.
The failure to recognize the multivalent potentials of every abstractly understood movement ("descent") - and also of every other kind of gesture, such as that of a color or a sound - has resulted in a great deal of nonsense being written about the lack of any universal or objective language of qualities. Every gesture is concrete and contextualized, and therefore unique, but contextualization is not the same thing as arbitrariness. Anyone who has worked with gestures - the sculptor, for example, and painter - knows that she is working with a language not only of boundless expressive potential but also of great definiteness and consistency. While qualities are fluid and interpenetrating, modifying one another and lacking any fixed and static identity, they nevertheless have a vivid character that we can enter into and work with.
Returning, then, to our theme: clearly, whatever coherent "morning conversation" may take place among stone, flower, cloud, and the rising, radiating sun, the language of this conversation is not in any primary sense the language of universal physical laws, in the usual mechanistic and mathematical sense. Whatever expressive unity may exist between the expansion of a stone and the opening of a flower, we cannot portray it merely by citing particular mechanical principles they happen to share. Yet the question remains: while speaking in the distinctive language of their particular substances and organization, are they contributing their own harmonies to an integral symphony of the morning we can recognize throughout nature?
Of course, if we attend only to mechanical principles, then the various gestures I have cited can never even occur to us as a challenge for our understanding. However, as I have tried to point out, all our science is grounded in one way or another in our experience of just such gestures. Even the world’s basic materiality, grounding the scientific concept of mass, gains content for us only by virtue of a certain inner movement expressing something like denseness or compaction, and also resistance. Without this inner experience, we would have no content for the concept. It wouldn’t mean anything; we would not know how to go about exploring its mathematical grammar because we would have no "it" to guide us in picking out what to measure.
Once we have recognized the real content of our scientific language, we can hardly turn away from the kind of question I am raising here, however unfamiliar it may seem. The question is not, "Do the stone and flower make expansive gestures under the influence of the sun?" This is simply given and cannot be doubted. Rather, what we want to know is to what degree the collection of gestures I have cited can, when united with a great deal more understanding of morning and evening contexts, speak in a coherent, aesthetically unified way.
Don’t think this is a simple or obvious matter. I may have selected my examples very clumsily, just as my report of a conversation with a friend might miss the central point by collating some more or less incidental remarks based on an external or merely grammatical resemblance. And, in fact, my references to opening, radiating, expanding, and ascending movements have been rather abstract and general, without much reference to the concrete and varying qualities of the movements, and without extension to the broad range of phenomena needing consideration. I earn the right to generalize only to the degree I have penetrated the specific phenomena from which I am generalizing.
Of course, if I keep my comments as observationally faithful as possible, they are likely to contain at least some truth, just as a person uneducated in art can, if conscientious and careful in observation, say something more or less valid about a painting. But we need to keep in mind that the distance from some truth to profound truth is likely to be huge. To speak as I did about an "integral symphony of the morning" places a huge burden on me to understand in depth, not only this flower, but almost everything else in and under the sky. I have not even begun carrying out such a task here, having done no more than suggest a few things one might attend to.
There is, however, one consolation in all this. While it’s true that
talking about "the character of the morning" raises almost impossibly high
expectations, the fact is that we are making the same kind of
judgment when we come to appreciate the expressive qualities of one
particular flower - and even, in however minimal and unconscious a way,
when we recognize from its expressive character that the flower is of this
species rather than that (Brady 2002). Moreover, because we are always
dealing with interpenetrating unities, we find our understanding of the
flower leading us in ever-expanding contextual circles to the qualities of
the largest whole we can encompass with our perception and thought. It is
one of the features of integral wholes that every part is an expression
and revelation of the whole (Bortoft 1996, part 1). This helps us to
understand how a person of profound artistic intuition might apprehend the
world in a single grain of sand - or the song of the morning in a flower.
Light, Conversation, and Joy
I hope now that two brief, additional thoughts about the morning will not seem unduly strange. A sunrise is often felt, not only as a glorious, radiant event, but also as the occasion for an outburst of joy. If you consider the ascending, radiating and expansive gestures mentioned above, you will recognize that they are somehow resonant with human joy. All you need to do to verify this is to pronounce twice and in a heart-felt way, the sentence, "I am so happy!" - once while swelling your chest, letting your arms expand upward and outward, and moving with your gaze into the surrounding environment, and once while contracting your limbs, body, and consciousness toward your center. In the latter case you will immediately recognize the grotesque inappropriateness of the movement, while in the other the movement seems perfectly natural, if not inevitable.
This is not to say that we should naively ascribe our human joys to nature. Nothing could be more foolish. But there is an objective, demonstrable connection between our joy and certain physical gestures, and this can be the case only because the physical gestures have an inner, speaking content.
My second observation has to do with that morning chorus of birds contributing so powerfully to our sense of joy. A friend of mine once remarked, "The sun rises, and the birds feel compelled to sing the light". This puzzled me until I understood a certain gesture characteristic of all meaningful sound. Sound moves outward, like ripples from a stone thrown into a pond. But, again, I’m not referring primarily to the physical movement of air waves.
Often, if we’re wondering about the qualities of something, we can find initial guidance by turning our attention to the wisdom inherent in our everyday language. We are frequently struck by someone’s words; even when spoken softly, words may slap us in the face or hit us in the gut. In other cases, the words may more subtly penetrate us, insinuating themselves into our subconscious. The cartoonist, with typical exaggeration, depicts someone being "blown over" by a shout, or he might indicate speech (or the song of a bird) by drawing lines radiating from the creature’s mouth just as a child draws lines radiating from the sun. If you try to imagine a movement in the opposite direction, you will immediately recognize that it does not fit.
Speech is undeniably an expansive and radiating, light-like phenomenon. Without light, the world is not there for us with any clarity. But without the conceptual illumination of the word, the world is also not there. We cannot see what we have not learned to discriminate through the conceptual power of the word. The word, perhaps we could say, is the inner being or essential meaning of the light - an idea, I imagine, that might prove fruitful for the physics of the future. Even now the physicist investigating light at the quantum level is inclined to say that the experimenter’s conversation with the light somehow shapes its manifestation.
Just as speech is light-like, so, too, the raying light has from ancient times been understood as speech-like. In the Upanishads it is recorded that "the Sun is sound; therefore they say of the Sun, ’He proceeds resounding’". Coomaraswamy, drawing on the ancient texts of the east, summarizes the matter this way: "The shining of the Supernal Sun is then as much an ’utterance’ as a ’raying’; he, indeed ’speaks’", and "the Sun himself ’sings’ as much as he ’shines’" (1977, pp. 153n, 193).
Again, our routine language is suggestive of the intimate relation between light and speech. We refer to "bright" ideas and "brilliant" sayings, and we respond "I see" when we have understood someone’s words. If we attend with any sensitivity to our actual meaning when we say these things - meaning that often arises from genuine perception at some level of our being - we can begin to appreciate the delicate interweaving of light and speech. Goethe seems to have been honoring this intimate connection when he wrote the following bit of dialogue in his fairy tale, "The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily":
"What is more glorious than gold?" asked the king.
"Light", answered the snake.
"What is more refreshing than light"? asked the former.
"Conversation", replied the latter.
I hope all this not only suggests a possible truth in my friend’s characterization of the birds as "singing the light", but also may save us from the kind of arrogance at work when, hearing the poet or prophet or nature-lover say,
Heaviness may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morningwe dismiss these words as unscientific, merely subjective sentiment. Certainly our experience of joy may commonly be combined with purely personal elements, but this leaves open the question whether there is an objective character of joy not only at the root of our own experience but also displayed in nature herself.
There is a well-known school of acting, first articulated by the Russian actor and director Michael Chekhov in the first half of the twentieth century, based on the objective character of physical forms and movements. The actor, faced with the need to express, say, pride or mortification or joy, does not attempt to summon from memory a prideful or mortifying or joyful episode from his own past so as to re-enter that earlier personal context and psychological condition. Rather, he finds gestures in the world from which he can draw directly the inner expressive character he is looking for. I have seen an actor, purely as an exercise, almost instantaneously transform his eyes into an expression of profoundest, tearful grief, while disavowing any sort of merely personal feeling. If, as I suggested earlier, the experience of joy naturally embodies itself in a certain expansive gesture, so, too, the outward gesture naturally takes form inwardly as an experience of joy. Through this experience we come to know something about the world. As Slava Rozentuller has written,
To move your hand toward an object in a certain hesitating and faltering way is (for the actor whose powers of perception and attention have been trained) to experience in the quality of the movement a feeling of distracted worry or anxiety. The feeling is objective in the sense that it belongs to the physical movement itself; the actor need not recall or imagine any purely personal anxiety. But, at the same time, the feeling does become his feeling. We could say that the experience has a subjective-objective character: the actor makes of his personal consciousness a stage onto which he invites this or that feeling from the objective world. (Rozentuller and Talbott 2005)
The actor onstage cannot help realizing that the world is word-like; every outer form corresponds to an inner content, and every inner imagination can be given its most natural outer form. A gesture can be grotesquely inapt or powerfully revealing - a simple fact that testifies to the significance, or speaking quality, of the world’s forms. The kind of training undergone by actors of the Chekhov school strikes me as very like one kind of training required by the practitioners of a new, qualitative science. The only way to recognize the wholeness of nature in all its expressive power is to perceive it with the full range of expressive powers of the human being. The instrument of perception must be equal to its object. We will never develop a truly holistic science as long as the scientist must paralyze or imprison major human capacities - for example, the capacity to recognize the very real unity of a great work of art.
When we accept the human being as the primary instrument of scientific understanding - when we realize that we must discover within our own powers of speech what speaks in the world - then the need for uncommon inner discipline becomes apparent. This is what Owen Barfield had in mind when he wondered (1977, p. 139) why there is any need "to make quite such a song and dance" about objectivity in the more usual sense. After all, it shouldn’t be so hard to get rid of personal bias if there is no genuine personal connection between ourselves and the things we’re investigating. "To put it rudely", Barfield expostulated, "any reasonably honest fool can be objective about objects". But it’s altogether different when we must attend
not alone to matter, but to spirit; when a man would have to practice distinguishing what in himself comes solely from his private personality - memories, for instance, and all the horseplay, of the Freudian subconscious - from what comes also from elsewhere. Then indeed objectivity is not something that was handed us on a plate once and for all by Descartes, but something that would really have to be achieved, and which must require for its achievement, not only exceptional mental concentration but other efforts and qualities, including moral ones, as well.
Indeed, the task may have been too great for humankind to attempt at the dawn of modern science. We can imagine there was a deep, unconscious wisdom in the resolve to shackle the greater part of the human instrument and subject ourselves to the discipline of mathematics, where a certain kind of rigor and objectivity are almost "handed us on a plate". Without that preliminary training, it would have been nearly impossible to subdue the disorderly babel of voices still reigning in the human soul - voices of magic and superstition, of myth and legend, of religion and irreligion, of ethnic pride and prejudice - voices still capable of disrupting in childish ways the sober, geometric imaginations of Kepler, Galileo, and even Newton.
But we have completed this training - more than completed it, for we have carried our mathematization of reality to the unhappy point were the world begins to disappear behind a ghostly veil of abstraction. This veil conceals the perceptible, testable world from us as effectively as the old metaphysics ever did. Today, if we would test the phenomena around us, we have the opportunity to bring to them not only our measuring rods and mechanical instruments, but our full-fleshed capacity to speak the living language of the phenomena, a capacity now chastened by our awareness that "even where we do not venture to apply mathematics we must always work as though we had to satisfy the strictest of geometricians" (Goethe 1995, pp. 11-17).
We do not, after all, have to accept a science lacking in rigor. We only need to realize that there are two different, almost opposite ways to seek ideal clarity and precision. One is by following the path we traced earlier, admitting into our science only what we can grasp unambiguously, only what we can lay hold of, immobilize, and tie down, only what can be isolated as a separate thing and analyzed strictly in terms of its external or mechanical relations with other isolated things. In such a spirit (rudely disturbed by the discoveries of the past century), physicists have always sought for "fundamental particles" - particles lacking in qualities and accounting for the world’s phenomena solely through their aggregate configurations, that is, solely through their clean, mathematically describable, external relations.
We gain a very different kind of clarity, not by minimizing the qualitative, phenomenal content of our scientific descriptions, but by maximizing it. We illuminate a phenomenon from every possible side, in every different light, exploring its contextual relations and potential for transformation as fully as we can. This clarity is not attained by stripping reality down to a formal grammar. It’s the clarity produced by fullness of understanding rather than ease or simplicity of understanding. Instead of obscuring phenomena with the blinding white light of abstraction, and so reducing them to a kind of black-and-white skeletal syntax, we open ourselves to receive the phenomena in all their full-throated color.
Then, perhaps, it will not be too much to hope that we as scientists may
learn to "sing the light" of creation - not as voyeurs staring at a cold
and alien world disconnected from our own life, but as participants in a
new morning of creation when, if we make ourselves worthy instruments, the
Word will rise up in us as a song of understanding.
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Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #169 :: May 10, 2007
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