Friday, 18 December 2009

750 - Loving Cancer

Four and a half years ago I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. So now when I walk a tightrope I carry a marble in my right hand.

There's cancer in my family history too. More serious stuff. Sometimes I mull, on both accounts, because it makes good sense to mull. I don't think that's hyperchondria, just provisional planning.

Given my spirituality, which is that everything is interconnected, and everything is love, I've been wondering how to love cancer. Mine, and the stuff in general. What works, I think, is this.

I know it's usual to think of myself as a discrete (meaning separate) being. We speciate, over millenia, become unique and unmingleable creatures. We also speciate within ourselves: stem-cells become bone-cells or neurons or blood-cells, which occupy a particular niche in the body, and no other. Geoffrey Miller, in Spent, introduces this thought eloquently. He's far less than convinced that we speciate psychologically, developing personality traits that equip us for particular roles, which are not, then, readily transferable to other cultural or biological situations. However, insofar as it doesn't make sense to be a wise man at fifteen, or a flirt at a funeral, and insofar as there are distinct personality dimensions which vary, admittedly on a bell-curve, from person to person, I think that a case could be made for this, too.

Cancer is about cells mutating to do what they are not equipped to do (chiefly to grow, unstoppably). Cancer cells breakdance when they should be brokering deals. They offend our sense that we are sacrosanct, every cell with a purpose, every intrusion guarded against.

But there's enough biology out here to argue the opposite. Endosymbiotic theory, for example, argues that our cells contain fragments of viruses and other living matter: our mitochondria existed as creatures in their own right before our distant ancestor cells absorbed or were invaded by them. Now they power our cells. As fast as we consolidate our uniqueness from other creatures by breeding amongst ourselves, random mutation and other environmental factors acting upon us compel new variations of form. These have resulted in our present appearance, but biologists say our present appearance is far from perfect, inevitable, or 'finished'. Psychologically, culturally, our world shifts and blends, sharing words and ideas: that's what culture means.

I feel my spirituality has to embrace this, and if it does, I can no longer make the blanket declaration that I, in pristine form, am unintrudable upon, or that mutation is, by definition, bad. If it's all natural, in a loving world, then it's all loving.

There is a force to this, to drive me from complacency. But in this sense it is the drive from innocence to experience to, as mystics call it, second innocence. I am forced beyond the limits of my body to consider greater permeability, greater interconnectedness. Physically, I lose a part of myself, perhaps, but that part feeds a bacterium that feeds, or acts upon, the environment near it, and the food-chain is recharged (my ball entering a food-chain is admittedly a bit icky). Or psychologically, my surgeon gains self-esteem, a lift which augurs well for his or her family's well-being. Why not consider this a result of the cancer? If it is not accounted for, of course all that remains to be said is bad press. It depends where you draw your lines, and I draw wider lines now than I did before.

The interconnectedness feeds in the other direction, too. If illness can raise a medical institution (I've been well-served by the Northern Cancer Care Trust), it is also true that an institution can raise an illness, as builders and engineers with asbestosis testify. And finally, that institutions can become cancerous (mentioning, in one instance, no financial names, and, by implication, demanding of myself that perhaps the bankers are not morally reprehensible, and doing no more than their brief part in our vast cosmological interconnection.)

I've rambled. Better get back on the tightrope.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

751 - Quote From 'Spent' Supportive Of Storying

Spent by Geoffrey Miller is providing me with some valuable insight into the evolutionary psychology behind pop culture and consumerism. The quote that follows sums up, in a flourish, our long history of role-playing: where, evolutionarily, it comes from, and where, technologically, it may be going.

This is just the kind of scientific perspective my arguments about the art of storying need to build on if they are to amount to anything, so it is encouraging to catch in Miller's writing such joie de vivre, such engagement with the imagination. The paragraph follows a discussion of avatars in the role-playing game World of Warcraft:

Most animals have very little behavioral control over their physical appearance. They can groom themselves to keep feathers or fur clean, but they cannot select a different species, sex, age, shape, color, or body texture. Ever since humans invented body ornamentation at least a hundred thousand years ago, however, we have been able to transform our bodies in ever more dramatic ways. Tribal peoples wear animal masks; British civil servants cross-dress; children play dress-up; the Florida elderly don toddler-bright colors. As people do more of their socializing through virtual-reality worlds such as World of Warcraft and Second Life, their visual appearance is becoming less constrained by their true physical characteristics, and more constrained by their psychological traits, such as aesthetic preferences and idealized self-images. Virtual-reality users will soon be able to create avatars that resemble a mini-Mao, a Botox syringe, a mantis-legged cantaloupe, a pearl necklace, Nigella Lawson, or the evil Archimandrite Luseferous from the Iain M. Banks novel The Algebraist. Such customized avatars will reveal nothing about the physical appearance of the users, but a lot about their psychology. They will demonstrate more forcefully than ever before that consumerism is not about owning material objects, but about displaying [the "Central Six" individual differences that distinguish human minds from one another]. [pp. 142-3]

I particularly note the mixing of fact and fiction, literary allusions, and reference to idealized self-images. The Storying argument is that the opportunities laid before us in virtual-reality function because they are already radically present in true-reality. Storying is about winkling out and expanding these opportunities in first as well as second life. It is music played on the strings Geoffrey Miller and others have analyzed.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

752 - Hairy Toe

Dug this out: a rough for a storyboard for use in schools, illustrating a Halloween poem about an old woman who finds a hairy toe in her vegetable patch. Come night-time, the owner of the toe creeps into her house to get it back...

I don't know if anything ever came of the project. The idea was to use images of the bones (no pun intended...) of the poem's plot to inspire children to write their own verse. They'd then be presented with the original poem to read alongside their own.

I like the egalitarian approach, and the focus on pre-word inspiration. I'd hate to think the idea disappeared...

Thursday, 3 December 2009

753 - As A Left-Leaning Guardian Reader, Why I'm Looking Forward To A Tory Government

It's about ideals.

I can remember discussing the merits or otherwise of Maggie Thatcher coming to power in 1979 with my friend, James Goodman, aged eight. And I can remember reading about the Falklands in my parents' paper of choice, the Telegraph, before they switched to the (namby-pamby) Times.

But in the eighties, as a teenager, Channel 4 grabbed me, and Channel 4 was the Tube, and Friday Night Live, and late night movies with a triangle in one corner to guarantee something shocking (sex rather than violence, I hoped). And the role-models Channel 4 revealed to me were arty and left-wing.

While the Tories were dying in the early- to mid-nineties, I was discovering and starting to express my ideals. Love, freedom, social progress, tolerance, integrity. The Left gave me a ready language for this, and the Right seemed hell-bent, at least through the media I consumed, on despoiling every ideal I aspired to.

It was pretty tough to discover, post 9/11 (I'm a late developer), that the Left are as capable as the Right of trashing an ideal. Their (our?) response to the Anti-War march in London did it for me.

So now I'm starting to grasp that you don't actually get your ideals, they come and get you. Moreover, they are never trashed: you only ever trash the image you have of them. My ideals are intact: it's just the culture I learnt to express them in that is (for the moment) broken.

I could retreat, bruised. I could try ditching my ideals, for the nastiness in the Nasty Party. But the third option is to make the effort to discover and learn the language by which those ideals are expressed by the Tories.

Short-term pain: accusations of sell-out. Medium-term gain: idealistic bilingualism. Long-term vision: the fulfilment of Labour's vision, by Labour or Tory - I'm really not bothered. But I'd quite like to see the expression in my Tory friends' eyes when they realise the New Jerusalem they've built has Bevan's name on it.