I’m writing this from paradise, more or less.
Puerto Escondido, on the Pacific coast of the Mexican state of Oaxaca, is banana trees and pale teal water on powdery sands: surfers, wrinkled hippies, vacationing locals, friendly dogs, and sunsets. I’ve met with a particular challenge while here, one with which I’m sure the reader can empathize, no matter if they be in Mexico or Minnesota. In attempting the pinch-me maneuver, the psychic gesture that will make more real the incredible present, that will induce the proper sensation of this-is-happening and of gratitude for a continuously unfolding miracle, one attempts to juxtapose mis-en-scenes; Look at this, one silently admonishes oneself. Two weeks ago, I was in [Phoenix/Beijing/hell]. Now, look at where I am: this is [amazing/depressing/shocking]! But this task—projecting a memory of place onto the present environment so as to observe and appreciate the difference—is fraught. Our brains, for one thing, are ill-equipped for the task. Excerption, one of the primary, automatic, and invisible conditions of consciousness, means that our memories are radically incomplete, or rather, selective. We cannot recall the totality of a moment, much less the full effect of a location, by volition. Yet the proverbial madeleine glows with an inner light of possibility, of significance. It is a portal, a wormhole that tugs at our faculties with such overwhelming insistence as to instantly immerse us in a reconstituted scene from our past. And this motion occurs with such force that it displaces the present moment entirely; this recollection is the same shape and size as our perception, and so we are swept away and into the past, cue ripple effect in the video. We cannot, though, experience the present moment and a relived memory simultaneously; there just isn’t the room.
Herein lies the problem with our attempted in situ comparison, here lies the challenge to gaining that sought-after perspective in the moment. It is possible to compare two experiences, but to compare a past experience with a presently occurring experience is impossible. It is making a comparison between two incompatible objects: the global and transient totality of the present-moment-experience with the highly excerpted, static, and concentrated object of the memory. Any attempt to simultaneously experience a memory and the present is bound for frustration. It is precisely this frustration for which we are prescribed by the thousands meditation classes and retreats and books. Their advice, if reduced to the title of a paperback, would be Be Here Now. In other words, don’t impose, or attempt to impose, the material of memory onto the material of present experience. Once the present is past, only then can comparisons between experiences obtain.
We reduce memory to a tractable package, one subject to spatial metaphor, the generation of which is our lone faculty enabling comparative understanding. Comparative understanding is an attempt to comprehend our subjective experiences empirically. Because consciously or unconsciously we determine the contours of our memories through selective reduction/excerption, memories can be made compatible with a system of assimilation and comparison. Experience, on the other hand, is unruly. Its contours too great to be fully susceptible to spatial metaphorization, it is either reduced to specifics or experienced without the context of an ostensibly empirical and comparative system of organization; in other words, an unmediated experience. Experience remains stubbornly and proudly subjective; memory is experience’s proxy, a tractable substitute.
How much is lost in this translation? The Enlightenment, and rationalist thinkers since then, confused the signifier of memory with the reality signified. Memory submits to rationalism; experience is perversely resistant. Memory is analyzed, the analyses are consolidated into a worldview, perhaps into a theory that gives rise to a philosophy. But subjective reality (the only naturally-occurring kind; that is, the only reality which has an existence that is autonomous, constant, and independent of the limits of our consciousness) is slippery—it is too big, too manifold, and too complex to be rationalized.
The collective consciousness of any given group is built upon a shared mythic foundation; science provides a particular kind of mythology. Four hundred years ago, a radical scientist insisted that the Earth orbited the sun. The avant-garde astronomer was out of step with his time; Galileo’s contemporaries believed that they lived in a world located at the center of the universe, that the stars were fixed to a series of concentric spheres proceeding from this center, and that the movement of the stars in these spheres produced a celestial music. God had arranged it as such. Their understanding of themselves as individuals and as a members of a group was built upon a foundational understanding of the universe as such. That is to say, the metaphors to which they had access were based upon and limited to their understanding of how and why objects and events operated in space and time. The challenge to this structure represented by the radicalism of Galileo was therefore not simply a challenge to science, or even of systems of belief. It challenged the very structure of their cognition.
Human brains make meaning of subjective experience by reducing it to packets of recollection and describing to themselves and others those packets through spatial metaphors so as to obtain a means of analysis and assimilation. We say, I need to think through this, but we are not thinking through anything. The action which we will perform upon the thought is like the action of going “through” something. Through is a spatial metaphor. If I “lay it out as clearly as possible,” I am serving up a array of metaphors: “lay it out” and “clearly,” even “possible” (which to define one must resort to a spatial instance) and of course, ‘serving up.’ All of language, in fact, is metaphor; it is therefore language that grants us the means of consciousness.
If you’ve ever learned a new concept in a single word, you’ve experienced the gift and the curse of consciousness and its dependence upon language as superstructure. Take, for instance, the word/concept of heterotopia, an autonomous, discrete space that operates within a system of logic independent of the logic of its greater context. Heterotopia, of course, is a linguistically-enabled metaphor: hetero, other; topia, place. To deploy this word, this concept, is to discover the door to a new room of thought. (“Door”, “room of thought”—yes, I’m doing this intentionally, but the use of metaphor is what we’re all doing whenever we communicate.) The language makes possible the dialogue; the form makes possible the content, or rather, they are mutually productive, as without one, the other has no embodiment.
Galileo’s discoveries necessitated a new model, a new structure of mythology, new shapes and new elemental forces that would reconfigure and replace the most basic levels of spatial understanding, first for scientists, then eventually for all people connected, willingly or not, to Eurocentric thought. This understanding of the universe, of its laws as finite, determinable, and singular, is what enabled Descartes, Leibniz, Newton, Kant, and others to develop mechanisms for making meaning which utilized this kind of spatial understanding. The world as rational, the world as determinate: as Robert Bly says, a single clear idea, well-fed and well-communicated, can spread like a virus. It took hundreds of years, but the revolution in spatial understanding initiated by astronomical discoveries in the late 1500s spread like arsenic into the groundwater of human consciousness.
Why “consciousness”? Why not just philosophy? A rationalist mentality deserves to be understood as the result of a certain repertoire of spatial metaphors. And this repertoire of spatial metaphors is the very material from which is spun, woven, or welded our consciousness, our ability to think—and that repertoire’s limitations are the limits of that ability. Each time our spatial understanding shifts, our ability to cogitate shifts as well: in form, which enables new content: the formerly unthinkable.
We look to the vanguard of science today to glimpse tomorrow’s consciousness. What we see: radical subjectivity. Uncertainty principles. The near-mystical complexity of nature’s algorithms. Quantum mechanics, in which observation interpolates itself in into what were supposedly hermetic experiments, exposing objectivity as a joke. The true nature of time as a fourth dimension, subject to gravity. Dark matter, beyond the scope of our perceptual apparatus, yet unaccountably real. What do these radically divergent spatial conceptions offer us as new vehicles of metaphor? The return of subjectivity is assumed, phenomenology vindicated. The negation of subject to object causality as has been understood for hundreds of years. Binaries and essentialism subverted, complicated, exploded.
The way that we understand ourselves as individuals and as part of a group or groups is shifting rapidly. Does radical autonomy, free agency, mean political anarchy, direct democracy? It’s clear that a neoliberal, uber-capitalist top-down strategy is operating on exhausted logic, and the meme that is this revelation has on its side new mythology. The Arab Spring, Los Indignados in Spain and in Mexico, Occupy movements worldwide; these show that the virus has reached pandemic proportions, penetrating through class strata, traditional demographics, and political geographies. The Internet (one of the best examples of a mutually-productive language and dialogue; form as content) serves as both a means by which to communicate and as inspiration unto itself, providing content and facilitating its transmission.
As science penetrates further into the mysteries of subjectivity and the nature of reality, so its findings penetrate quietly and thoroughly into a global consciousness.
The Mayans predicted 2012 to mark the end of the world as we know it. How they seem to have got the timing right, I have no idea. For all of the predictable apocalyptic posturing, the point seems to me to be in an emphasis on the latter half of that statement: as we know it. It is not the world, but we who are changing: our ways of knowing, of making meaning of our experiences, are changing, enabled by a new set of spatial metaphors that are as subversive to today’s prevailing systems of logic and hegemony as Galileo’s were to his. Expect resistance. Expect vindication. Do not be afraid.
 A reference to Proust’s madeleines.
 As noted in Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.
 Frustratingly, while the Internet provides a structuring metaphor for the distribution of agency, it leaves us wanting a corresponding metaphor for the distribution of responsibility.
Ben Gansky is a maker and thinker creating performance-based events that invite participants to reconsider habits of relating and making meaning. He’s worked with collaborators in Minneapolis, Baltimore, Chicago, Prague, Oaxaca, & NYC, and will tour with a body of work to the left coast this summer with The Wild Plan, a practice-based research initiative in its second year of exploring and exploding models of performance development and presentation. He recently developed work in residence at Elsewhere in Greensboro, NC and is currently working with 3 Sticks Theatre in Brooklyn.
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