American dreamtime

Before and Beyond Language

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Before and Beyond Language:

Cultural Anthropology, Quantum Mechanics, and Cosmology
The affinity between the cultural productions of human societies/minds and so-called natural systems such as subatomic particles, black holes, clouds, blood vessels, plants, and neural networks is the theoretical foundation of this work. It is a view I have come to after years of reflection, and from a very great conceptual distance. For anthropologists of a “symbolic” persuasion like myself, that is, those of us who spend much of our time studying myth and ritual rather than “realistic” topics like subsistence practices and kinship relations, generally try to avoid what we consider the shortcomings of a “scientific,” positivist approach. Symbolic anthropologists tend to reject (rather vigorously!) suggestions that their esoteric craft has much in common with the natural and physical sciences, people presumably being so much more compli­cated and interesting than photons, weather systems, or (God forbid) bugs (such as ants). In the brief four or five decades that symbolic anthropology, which is really synonymous with “cultural anthropology” in this regard, may be said to have existed as a subdiscipline, its practitioners have tended to associate their work with that of linguists, literary critics, and philosophers. It is from this peculiar alliance of eccentrics (one of the better definitions of the field of anthropology is “the study of the exotic by the eccentric”) that the doctrine or perspective of interpretivism was forged. The watchword of this orientation in cultural anthropology is the call for a “postmodern” anthro­pology that rejects a supposedly simplistic objective analysis of culture in favor of a literary notion of cultures as “texts” that are infinitely interpreted and reinterpreted by everyone under the sun, from the individuals directly involved (the “natives”) to a theoretician in a university office thousands of miles and decades removed from the events shaping those individuals’ lives.

Productive as this view has been (and I have done my own small part to foster it), I now believe that it actually impedes cultural analysis by drawing back, even turning away from the fundamental nature of culture (and its current host, humanity) as a creative, generative system that does far more than endlessly stir its ashes by interpreting and reinterpreting itself. As a generative system, culture makes things, and also makes things happen. Most importantly, those made things, from australopithecine pebble choppers and Acheulian hand axes to James Bond’s lethal gadgets and Luke Skywalker’s droids, are not inert objects that plop into our lives and, once arrived, just sit around until we are ready to pick them up and use them in some unthinking, routine task. Those objects — the machines in our lives — are interactive beings themselves, and in conjunction with our own activity focused on them they create a new presence and force in the world, what Gregory Bateson called an “ecology of mind.” And when I say that culture “makes things happen,” I refer to our most powerful sentiments and the acts, sometimes beautiful but too often horrible, they inspire. The heroic sacrifice of one’s life to save another and the hateful taking of another’s life because he embraced the wrong ideal or was the wrong color, are both unintelligible outside an encompassing framework of beliefs and values that is culture.1

If we reject the usual view that myth and cultural productions generally are somehow derived from language, that is, if we beg to differ with Philip Lieberman about what is “uniquely human,” then where do we look for an appropriate framework for the daunting tasks of cultural analysis, for something that might begin to lend credence to my upstart suggestion that the human mind and its attendant cultural productions are a kind of holographic engine? Remarkably, a powerful theoretical framework that fuses sentient behavior and a spatiotemporal world of randomness, uncertainty, and multiple realities (the attributes I was ascribing to myth earlier) has existed for decades, since the mid-twenties to be precise, and flourishes on the same university campuses, a couple of buildings over or across the quad, where cultural anthropologists proclaim the ascendancy of postmodernism and the decline of a scientific worldview. I refer to quantum mechanics, or rather to that small and predigested portion of it I have managed to pick up without the requisite training or mathematical ability. The essential point here is that, despite its vastly different subject matter (subatomic particles versus human beings and their productions) and approach (rigorously mathematical versus anthropolo­gists’ prosaic ramblings), quantum mechanics appears to emphasize some of the very things I have been saying about the nature of myth and the symboli­zation processes of culture. A critical affinity is the phenomenon of virtuality and its corollary, the coexistence of very different, mutually exclusive arrangements of a system, what may be described by the terms multiple reali­ties or intersystems.

These preliminary remarks about the spatiotemporal nature of myth and culture are not quite the place to engage the reader in the details of the correspondence I see among cultural analysis, quantum mechanics, and recent work in cosmology. For now I merely wish to make two general but, I think, highly telling points.

First, even my amateurish acquaintance with quantum mechanics, gained over a lifetime of being a kind of “science groupie” and reading lots of Scientific American articles and books written for the lay (meaning mathematically ignorant) public, has instilled in me a deep sense of awe (as close as I come, actually, to a religious sensibility) at the pervasive mystery of the physical world. Particles, or rather particle pairs, can just appear from nothing in a vacuum — the “oscillation of the void” — and then annihilate each other. A particle, through its wave function, can be in two places at once, perhaps light years apart. Particles separated, again perhaps by light years, can instan­taneously affect each other if an intrusive measurement is made on one of them. Elementary particles such as quarks, gluons, mesons and the rest are not just out there, bouncing off one another in the time-honored tradition of those junior high school ping-pong models, but rather are surrounded by and interact with a menagerie of ghostly characters like virtual quarks, virtual antiquarks, virtual gluons, etc., so that what is actually observed of “the particle” is the woolly cloud of virtuality surrounding it. Of such nebulous stuff are the “building blocks” of matter composed! Francis Bacon, the late-sixteenth-century philosopher often credited with promulgating the modern scientific method, would not be happy with this turn of events.

Perhaps most appositely here, the simplest physical system, say a few particles confined within a magnetic field, exists between intrusive measure­ments as countless virtual systems — a “quantum linear superposition” of states — in which all the innumerable combinations of locations of individual particles are equally possible, equally real, existing in what some (but not all by any means) physicists describe as the particles’ being “smeared” across space. These tantalizing, mysterious features of physical reality as described by quantum mechanics have prompted theoretical physicists and cosmologists most involved in this research to remark on the eerie, mystical nature of their subject. Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics, Paul Davies’ search for The Mind of God, Stephen Hawking’s description of an “anthropic universe” in A Brief History of Time, and Roger Penrose’s lengthy discussion of “quantum magic and quantum mystery” in The Emperor’s New Mind exemplify the keen awaRenéss these prominent thinkers have of the intrinsic strangeness and complexity of physical reality.2

The second general point I would like to make about the proposed fit between quantum mechanics, cosmology, and cultural anthropology is that developing the analogy offers a way out of the language-centered theories of myth and culture that have dominated anthropological thought for so long. I find the image of the mind and culture as a holographic engine so appealing because it unites the world of human experience with the complex and dy­namic, sentience-infused physical world of spacetime described by quantum mechanics and cosmology. Long before its recent retooling for a linguistic capability, the (for the time being) human mind/brain was “hardwired” to produce convincing, compelling experiences of a life lived in a web of interlinked spatial and temporal dimensions. Life is lived somewhere, and that somewhere is the thoroughly cognitized surround — Sebeok and Schutz’s Umwelt again — of a social world. Because this world generated by the holographic engine of the mind is both infused with meaning and spatio­temporal, I would like to call it a semiospace. “Culture,” as conceptualized in the present work, is semiospace, and since the former term has acquired some very weighty and unwelcome baggage during the brief century of anthro­pology’s existence as a field of study, I would happily see it replaced by the latter, or, not to be too proprietary here, by some term that would capture the unique fusion of meaningfulness, generativity, and dimensionality that is the signature of human existence.3 The Dreamtime world of virtual experience and multiple reality is a (very large) domain of semiospace, and as such is inherently dimensional. That domain’s semiotic dimensions are composed of the opposing concepts that generate culture, as described in the following sections, rather than of the familiar physical opposites of up/down, right/left, earlier/later, etc.

Conceptualizing the mind/brain and its cultural productions as a tremen­dously intricate, self-generating holograph opens the way for a cultural analysis based on a notion of culture as a fundamentally spatial and dynamic system, again, as a semiospace. The notion that culture possesses a fun­damentally spatial nature or dimensionality is a minor, regrettably neglected theme in anthropology. Over thirty years ago, however, the brilliant anthro­pologist Edmund Leach (who was originally trained as an engineer) proposed, in a work fittingly entitled Rethinking Anthropology, that his prominent colleagues stop typologizing (“butterfly collecting”) and psychologizing indigenous societies and begin applying a mathematically-inspired struc­turalism to them.

My problem is simple. How can a modern social anthropologist, with all the work of Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown and their suc­cessors at his elbow, embark upon generalization with any hope of arriving at a satisfying conclusion? My answer is quite simple too; it is this: By thinking of the organizational ideas that are present in any society as constituting a mathematical pattern. . . .

I don’t want to turn anthropology into a branch of mathematics, but I believe we can learn a lot by starting to think about society in a mathematical way.

Considered mathematically society is not an assemblage of things [i.e., not a butterfly collection] but an assemblage of variables. A good analogy would be with that branch of mathematics known as topology, which may crudely be described as the geometry of elastic rubber sheeting.

If I have a piece of rubber sheet and draw a series of lines on it to symbolize the functional interconnections of some set of social phe­nomena and I then start stretching the rubber about, I can change the manifest shape of my original geometrical figure out of all recognition and yet clearly there is a sense in which it is the same figure all the time. The constancy of pattern is not manifest as an objective empirical fact but it is there as a mathematical generalization. . . .

The trouble with Ptolemaic astronomy [with its endless typologies of cycles and epicycles] was not that it was wrong but that it was sterile — there could be no real development until Galileo was prepared to aban­don the basic premiss that celestial bodies must of necessity move in perfect circles with the earth at the centre of the universe.

We anthropologists likewise must re-examine basic premises and realize that English language patterns of thought are not a necessary model for the whole of human society. (2—27, emphasis in original)

Oddly, after making this bold call for a mathematical-logical basis for anthropology, Leach did not pursue it vigorously in his later work.4 His ideas, though not developed explicitly, run through the structuralist literature associated with Claude Lévi-Strauss, with its extensive use of “structural models” that display relationships in cultural systems in terms of spatial arrays. For some reason, and I have never been sure just why, cultural anthropologists have largely ignored the manifestly spatial, geometrical nature of Lévi-Strauss’s models, which attempt to pose the elemental features of a cultural system in a framework of linked oppositions, situated in (semio)space and connected by algebraic (+/-) signs. Encouraged by Lévi-Strauss himself, who was greatly impressed by advances in structural linguistics in the forties and fifties, anthropologists have chosen to regard the manifestly spatial orientation of structural models as merely a heuristic device, a convenient means of displaying what are held to be essentially linguistic relations (binary opposites) produced by a language-dominated intelligence. The possibility that Leach’s and Lévi-Strauss’s profound and original analyses of myth, which rely heavily on their pioneering use of structural models, are so powerful because they invoke a semiospace, a dimensionality inherent in the mind and culture, has, again for reasons largely unexplained, been dismissed by anthropologists committed, like their colleague Philip Lieberman, to the notion of a humanity dominated and defined by its faculty of language.

Metaphor, Quality Space, and Semiospace
Perhaps every science must start with metaphor and end with algebra; and perhaps without the metaphor there would never have been any algebra.

— Max Black, Models and Metaphors: Studies in Language and Philosophy

Another cultural anthropologist who has explicitly based a theory of symbolization/conceptualization on a spatial model of culture is James Fernandez, whose essay “Persuasions and Performances: Of the Beast in Every Body . . . And the Metaphors of Everyman” has become a modern classic. Fernandez advances a theory of metaphor conceived as “a strategic predication upon an inchoate pronoun (an I, a you, a we, a they) which makes a movement and leads to performance.” Metaphor, a supremely important concept in cultural anthropology, is here given a unique interpretation as a vectorial, semantic operation, not upon known objects but upon the intrinsically un­known and ultimately fascinating beings in the experiential world: ourselves and those with whom we interact.
In the intellectual sense the movement accomplished by these meta­phors is from the inchoate in the pronomial subject to the concrete in the predicate. These are basic if not kernel predications in social life which enable us to escape the privacy of experience. For what is more inchoate and in need of a concrete predication than a pronoun! Per­sonal experience and social life cries out to us, to me, to you, to predicate some identity upon “others” and “selves.” We need to become objects to ourselves, and others need to become objects to us as well. (45 —46)
The matrix within which these strategic predications make their movements is what Fernandez calls the “quality space” of culture.

Behind this discussion, as the reader will have perceived, lies a topographic model of society and culture. I am inordinately attracted to it, but it may be useful. Culture from this view is a quality space of “n” dimensions or continua, and society is a movement about of pronouns within this space. (47)
In this statement is the cornerstone of the present work. What follows is my attempt to describe the continua within that quality space identified by Fernandez, to specify the extremities of those continua (what are the names/
values of the semiotic axes or variables?), and to explore in detail the semiotic processes through which particular movies, by creating a world of myth/meta­phor, manage to predicate identities on the inchoateness of existence.

Forward-looking as I find Fernandez’s essay to be, however, it is also an unfortunate example of the tenacity of the linguistic model in contemporary cultural anthropology. While Fernandez advances the idea that culture is “a quality space of `n’ dimensions or continua,” he needlessly restricts that model to movements of metaphors acting on pronouns through predications: his tentative foray into semiospace keeps to the safe confines of a language-dominated mind and world. What I have in mind here is a less confining vision of a multidimensional quality (semio)space that began to develop, to construct an Umwelt, long before hominids acquired a functional grammar and polite vocabulary, and will likely continue to develop long after Word and Word­Perfect versions 5000.1 have utterly transformed the nature of our present language.

In my view, the basic “predications” Fernandez identifies — how the in­choate I, you, we, they are given form — have a powerfully visceral, sensory nature that overwhelms or circumvents language even as they are given meta­phoric expression. One is speechless before beauty or speechless with rage precisely because physical and aesthetic attraction or a flash of anger is a perceptual operation, a nearly instantaneous event within a multidimensional neural organization, which occurs without the prompting of language. If you happen to be a male heterosexual (from a bygone era), do you remember what it was like asking a girl out on your very first date? In that bewildering mix of emotions, I would wager that the vaunted dominance of language was not much in evidence, even though you were engaged in a specifically linguistic task. If I am strongly attracted or repelled by someone, it is not because the associative areas of my cerebral cortex have obligingly provided an apposite metaphor to start things off — gem, doll, pig, dog, fox — and then proceeded to interpret my experience for me in terms of that metaphor. Quite the contrary: my visual, visceral reaction (which stood my hominid ancestors in good stead for hundreds of thousands of years before they became adroit with metaphor) is primary, and provides a metaphorical interpretation only after the fact. When you first glimpse a dear friend you haven’t seen in years, when a gourmet first tastes a sumptuous dish, when a bigot first spots someone of the wrong color, religion, or nationality on “his” street, the reaction is immediate, powerful, and, I would claim, essentially non-linguistic. The primacy of this kind of perception, borrowing on Merleau-Ponty, is also the primacy of myth: it is the creation and organization of experience within the multidimensional world of a quality (semio)space that I, solidly with Fernandez here, would call culture.

An excellent example of what I mean by the “primacy of myth” comes from another source anthropologists have scrupulously avoided (and I am definitely not alluding here to quantum mechanics and cosmology): the novels of William Burroughs. Perhaps the most anti-linguistic of modern writers, Burroughs (who was an anthropology graduate student at Harvard!) describes language and the society built on it as an enormous con game that sucks us in and dupes us with its false promise of meaning in a fundamentally enigmatic, meaningless world.

In his early work, Naked Lunch, Burroughs proposes what is an impossible task: to clearly see what is on the end of your fork. The substance on the end of your fork, although seemingly just-what-it-is in its physical immediacy, is already, even in its lowly inert state, imbued with a mythic significance: it is food, or, horribly, some revolting, inedible non-food thing that has become impaled on your fork. The distinction between food and non-food, elemental and alimental as it seems, is not given in the substance itself; it emerges from other mental constructs of the world that differentiate types of living things and associate particular human behaviors with those types. If I can work my way one forkful at a time through a medium-rare sirloin steak, the bleeding flesh of a fellow mammal that died horribly to accommodate my appetite, it is because I have previously “ingested,” in the process of becoming a human being, a particular holographic image or arrangement of the edible and in­edible things in the world — a dietary system in the anthropological parlance, which, in this example, happens to be loosely and generically “American.”

Note that I proceed happily through my meal, without a conscious thought that my actions are situated in something as abstruse and bloodless (unlike my steak) as an “American dietary system,” unless, that is, you tell me, even jokingly, that the substance on the end of my fork is actually cat meat or rat meat, cleverly disguised to resemble beefsteak. Then things come to a jarring halt; I throw down the now offensive fork, push the plate away, and perhaps even run gagging from the table (make the offensive substance human flesh and you will definitely get the latter reaction). A little tinkering with the holographic arrangement, however, a few pushes and pulls of some vectors in semiospace, and you might obtain a dietary system, as exists in a number of places (including neighborhoods of American cities), in which cat or rat meat makes quite a palatable dish. In such a context, my immediate “natural” revulsion would be bizarre and unseemly, rather like that of a flu-wracked president from Texas being presented with a plate of sushi delicacies at a Japanese state dinner.

The important point here is that my instant revulsion, whether appropriate or inappropriate given the context, would seize me without benefit of an interceding metaphor supplied by a language-dominated intelligence. Horrible things, like beautiful things, issue from a consciousness, a semiospace, that is not primarily built up from linguistic operations. They possess a powerful immediacy that is the wholly consuming sensory and visceral primacy of myth, which originates in the movements, not of metaphors, but of semiotic fields twisting and turning through the semiotic dimensions of the quality (semio)­space of culture.

Another basic difficulty with Fernandez’s emphasis on metaphor and his implicit identification of language with culture is its ignoring the principal topic of this work: machines and their emerging ascendancy in the semiospace of an American Dreamtime. If you are fortunate enough to climb behind the wheel of that ‘57 Chevy convertible evoked earlier and pull out onto Palm Canyon Drive one Saturday night, or even if you just crank up the Hoover for the weekly run over the Berber carpet and around the potted ferns, the little action systems of person-machine-environment thus created (Bateson’s ecologies of mind again) owe very little to metaphor or any other operation of language. For if you are at all experienced at driving or vacuuming, then your actions are a vibrant synthesis of your motor skills and the components of the machine as both respond to the elements of a particular environment. The finest irony, which captures exactly the spirt of this work, is that we often say of the experience of our human flesh bonding with machine parts — a wheel, a joystick, a pair of skis, a baseball bat, or Ms. Howard’s bowling ball (see Chapter 4) — that it is a delightfully natural feeling, meaning that our plodding, language-shackled consciousness is temporarily liberated by the primal rush, the mythic exhilaration of an unmediated, hands-on mastery of the machine.

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