One animal has completely rewritten both evolution and organismal development on Earth — but not through biology — through a game involving methods, tokens, and definitions. The destiny of nearly every complexly evolved organism on this planet depends upon the character and outcomes of this creature’s representational paradigms.
But representation is a lie.
It is the kind of lie that will gladly compete with its own host for survival. In some cases, its desperate hunger to survive and elaborate itself knows neither boundary nor law.
Homo Sapiens Sapiens is a creature capable of profound representational intelligence but whose nature seems to render us innately vulnerable to a series of related dangers that emerge from specific representational habits and strategies common to our form of intelligence.
A brief examination of our history reveals that the specific form of intelligence we’ve gotten hold of too often mimics a heuristic asset while actually being primarily concerned with its own survival and elaboration — at any cost. Of course, this language is metaphoric — or is it?
Though thoughts are not ‘concerned’ as they are not beings, within humans thoughts become beings — us. The basic structure of our relationship with cognition sets this up, and although it is avoidable, it is also extremely uncommon to encounter anyone who is even aware of this, nevermind endowed with the almost miraculous capacity of doing something about it.
Were we not so hell-bent on converting every living thing into the peculiar species of representations we depend upon the capacities thus co-opted might return to our current experience as available assets. For the moment, however, we remain trapped in the crystal cavern of our own genius; our intelligence has rendered our species omnicidal, and at the scale of nations and the species this problem has become virulently contagious.
This is not a survivable outcome.
How did we get here?
Some of the most important answers are hidden in peculiar corners of human cognitive evolution, and their character is profoundly influenced by the metaphors and tools which were popular at each of the landmark turning points in our histories. I therefore believe that preparing to understand this problem requires that we reconstruct the maps that would allow us to visualize the basic shape of the history of our relationship representational strategies in general, and particularly the histories of our relationships to both language and knowledge.
These reconstructions will help prepare us to comprehend our position in relation to language and knowledge, and empower us to work directly with the otherwise intractable dangers these habits bring in the wake of their necessary integration into our lives as extensions of our human and local cultures.
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be able to cache memory, experience, relationships or expressions
— we first need to have a vehicle that empowers us to preserve tokens of sensed, felt, or intergrated experience. A potter is familiar with vessels; but their more crucial intimacy is with the tools, resources, skills and media used to construct and evaluate them. So, too, must we acquire intimacy with the unusual and invisible ‘medium’ with which we sustain relationships with departed circumstances — our representational heritage.
Unbeknownst to us, many unique kinds of this necessary precursor to memory are accessible to us, but one of the first kinds our species got hold of was
sticky, predatory, and overly self-interested. Once ensconced in human agents, this extremely aggressive ‘substrate’ managed to either exterminate or subjugate nearly all of its contenders.
The outcome of this process continues to result in a crippling impoverishment of our relationship with our own intelligence. Tangentially, we are destroying our lives, societies and planet due specifically to the ongoing extension of these circumstances.
thousands of years we’ve been trapped in a backwater of our
own innate relational opportunities. Yet we can equip ourselves with clearer and more accurate understandings of the onset and character of our relationship with representational awareness, and in so doing we shall illuminate the histories of these circumstances, empowering us to radically improve
the results of the human relationship with knowledge itself.
What awaits us is a set of lost cognitive and relational birthrights more astounding than anything we’ve
ever been able to model — a form of transentient prodigy
which expands explosively whenever contacted.
In order to have access to these potentials, we need to take a closer look at a very important question:
What does it mean to be a representational animal?
An angelFish named Sarin:
Someone I once knew had an angelFish named Sarin. As I
would often inquire after the well-being of her pets, I was once privy to
an episode which took place at night, in relative darkness. As her owner returned home, Sarin
was floating happily in the bubbles from the aerator, ostensibly engaged
in a meditative ‘bubble bath’ in the literal sense.
When Sarin’s owner turned the light on, the angelFish darted hysterically
around in the tank for a bit, then wedged herself between the filter-pipe
and the glass — on the bottom of the tank — burying her
head in the gravel.
The significance of this behavior was initially lost
on both of us, in part because her owner had at first been concerned that illness
or injury was involved — yet Sarin appeared to recover quickly,
and soon passed the common checks for health and emotional well-being. Although it sounds obvious in description, it’s easy to get sidetracked by one’s biases during an event like this.
The next morning, while showering, I found myself pondering
the necessity of the many doors, windows, filters and dolls that stand
between us and understanding — masquerading as ‘knowledge’.
It occurred to me then that inside — in the emotional assembly-place
of ourselves and our cultures — there is an essential brightness
too fast and frightening to face directly, and thus before we can
relate with it, we first establish reductive and seemingly sophisticated
Later still, while examining some maps — it
hit me like lightning: Sarin has no eyelids! When
the sudden flash of unnatural light first blinded her and then started
pain — she acted ‘instinctively’ — and quickly buried her
eyes in the gravel!
The significance of such an event as it relates to the onset of our representational intelligence cannot be overstated.
Our cartoons involving lightbulbs in picture-bubbles hovering over someone who suddenly exceeds their previous limitations of mind are not merely cute; they are the caricature of an experience so shocking that some who experience it die of the experience.
We use this cliché to represent having sudden insight, and it is a decent simile of such moments as well, but the source of that trope is more like an atomic explosion than it is like a light bulb — and so are its results in our lives and world. Most of us have never experienced anything like it — at least, not since infancy; and that stage of our lives is frustratingly difficult to retrieve to memory.
Why might that be?
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From my own experience and observation I am led to
suspect that many organisms interpret the ‘sudden onset of
impossible brightness’ as
the sudden onset of death (which might be paraphrased as ‘the sudden appearance of everything-at-once’). Outside of catastrophe, or the presence of an extremely destructive phenomenon (e.g. lightning), the only common exposure to such brightness occurs rarely; such as when one is caught unexpectedly in powerful reflection of the Sun.
Though not an absolute, I think this
is a generally universal organismal response and I further suspect that it may well have
do with memory of former
experiences with dying. These need not necessarily be memories unique to some specific person or individual — whether or not that is possible is not my interest here — but could instead exist as, for example, standing patterns in a field-effect of organismal awareness as it exists and is sustained on Earth.
Whether or not this position has any merit, of this much I am nearly convinced: in the inward dimensions
of self, relation, thought and imagination — we cannot close
our eyes. In the kingdom where we assemble meaning from experience — we ‘have
no eyelids’. The sudden onset of internal brightness is also shocking, and often terrifying — in part because it is not easily interpreted or recognized. It defies categorization by its nature. It cannot be named.
It is incomparable.
For Sarin, these dimensions are not distinct, and thus ‘ordinary’ light suffices to set off the response. There is no ‘representation’ of light — no metaphor (literally: ‘after-vehicle’) or token to contrast or conflict with the direct experience of light, as there is for us. This is more complex than it appears, because we must understand that adding cognitive dimensions within ourselves has repercussions which are counterintuitive. Consciousness is often metaphied in terms of light, and we know from experiment that representing light often interferes with its transmission — consciousness may share this feature, in fact, this may be the original source of the connotation.
This is much more startling than it appears, because the meaning is not merely mechanical. ‘Adding’ human values to light, such as position, polarization, velocity — causes it to stop acting like light, and start acting like something we are pretending it is. This is more than merely suspicious, it implies feedback.
For human beings, a strange living dimension inside us is ‘populated’, and our metaphors regarding light refer (in our time, only indirectly) to this. Should what they represent appear in waking consciousness for even a moment, the results would be far more dramatic than Sarin’s head-burying. It may well turn out that much of the history of the development of human consciousness as we know and understand it has been driven by the conflicts required to silence and manage these superficially inchoate inner domains — which, rather than being rare, delusional, or pathological, can be found thriving and accessible in nearly any human child, and, I will argue, should be a part of our healthy experience as human beings of any age.
Over evolutionary history
we have painstakingly accrued a set of habits that allow us to assemble ‘false
eyelids’ from little bits of cached experience, definition
and circumstance. We now employ this habit partly as a coping-strategy. We don’t have to physically bury our heads, because, after all, the light is relational — it is the light of consciousness, so putting dirt in our eyes won’t help. Thus, we adopt a similar habit internally, where its practice is invisible.
As we create and sustain myriads of forms of
conceptual ‘dolls’ (and their interrelationships) before our inner eye, the essential brightness of our sources,
and our intelligence is slowly and actively obscured.
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“Getting ahead of oneself involves a certain kind of projection which, basically, can’t happen without representation.”
3 steps — fall down
Somewhere in the early cognitive
development of our species we acquired the capability of assembling figurative
‘records’ from extreme reductions (abstractions) of relational experience. Initially simple, this skill developed and ramified rapidly. There are a wide variety of inputs to this development, from the inherent physical intelligence of the embodied biosphere to the obvious linkages between language and movement.
One can easily image a route across high branches which is remembered by a sequence of shape-based landmarks, reducing such landmarks to shorthand (tokens) and stringing them together to form a sequence with a meaning: good escape route. The memoried transit includes planes, curves and angular accelerations and decelerations not entirely unlike flying, except that it utilizes branchings, swings, momentary balance, and tightly coupled improvisations which all occur with a rhythmical quality. This doesn’t really require complex representation, but this kind of activity, coupled with time to reflect upon it and a few other peculiar developmental tendencies make a fair evolution-based model of how such capacities might be acquired.
It is easy to see how such memoried transits — meaningful in themselves — could be broken into segments which are connotated by experience, and finally, become letters millennia later, with each one referring to a memoried transit, or mode. In fact, although this is a birdwalk, our own letters have a lot in common with body movements, and are more probably linked to those than we modernly imagine. Even our speech rhythms seem, upon examination, the ghosts of glorious movements previously expressed during the childhood of our species — in the wild, immersed amongst myriad of other forms and examples of life, intelligence, and above all: movement. [I should note, however, that there is also excellent evidence for the relationship of letters to arrangements of stars…]
In any case, the tokens we acquire rapidly comprise a linked cache, which, in turn, slowly becomes a filtering capacity operant in directly shaping the substrates of waking consciousness. Once established, this capacity fades into dominance, disappearing into the fog of its own narrative certainty about things, beings, relationships and identities in general.
Within this linked cache, order of arisal has a significant impact on the character and function of the associated elements, methods and heuristics. Early additions take on characteristically hyperbolic significance as the cache grows, in a way analogous to the ever-amplifying human admiration of pioneers, but in this case with more effect than fanfare; the early additions are more significantly ramified throughout the cache itself — in every member and link.
The ‘filtering’ capacity functions in a peculiar fashion; it empowers us to uniquely refine our representations of experience by selectively discarding enough of ‘possible experience’ to give us an actual experience, and from here, to conserve tokenizations of
it — the necessary precursors to conscious memory and
thought. The significance of this is easy to miss: it selects for experiences that are more easily represented.
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The resultant imaginal involution established a new universe of animalian experience. Characterized by storms of semi-poetic figuration and invisible dances of relation and meaning, this ‘strange living mirror’ within us would become for us a kind of vehicle — but one fraught with unexpected consequence. The vehicle is not alive and yet acts as though it has a mind contrary to that of its human sources. This rapidly becomes a kind of curse. In fact, in the same way that cognition leads to recognition when represented, this sort of curse leads to — recursion.
Leaving our ancestral comforts and our home (the body), we founded an abstract metaposition (the representational mind) which could act, in a manner of speaking, as a vehicle. It was a way of travel in an inward landscape, whose features could not be mapped, but whose terrains — like those of the world — revealed traps and treasures awaiting the intrepid explorers who would expand the then relatively humble and definitely dangerous boundaries of this new environment.
The game of representational consciousness, then, was the mapping between the inward domains established by our caches, (given their almost self-interested internal development), their functions, and the world they became first the filters and later the arbiters of.
Problematically, our sentient character is inclined to eventually literalize or ‘believe’ maps. That is, we come to credential the position that the terrain and its features are merely those recorded or ‘properly represented’ by our abstractions of them. It is in precisely this way that we acquire absurd ideas such as ‘the brain is a computer’; our metaphors exert such a powerful gravitic force on our awareness that we often find ourselves in the embarrassing and later inexplicable position of having reality re-rendered to us in their image, including, recursively, ourselves.
By creating and sustaining ‘sketches’ of experience,
our distant ancestors ‘inwardly vented’ a new domain of awareness and experience largely
concerned with the acquisition, organization, definition, classification, evaluation and comparison of representations.
The inception of the word lay many generations in the future; the first attempts at formal languaging probably took the form of common aural signals and gestures. What was happening in the beginning was an experiment, and I am certain there were modes and functions of ‘causing the imagination to dance’ which we in our modern circumstances have long lost access to.
Although we often imagine a language as a static collection of discrete elements (terms) and methods (grammars), the universes in which our languaging activities arise and find expression have little in common with our models. Within our minds a library of profoundly relational elements and symmetries literally seethes with unnoticed auto-elaborative activity: a change in any element, no matter how insignificant, affects all or nearly all other elements. Of course, this local dance is but the tiniest leaf on the tree of the human cogniscium itself — an unthinkably vast and diverse living pool of minds, cultures, habits and history — and all of its associated artifacts, real and imaginal.
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