Wednesday, 31 March 2010

713 - Nature/ Nurture

I think these three quotes all say the same thing. Do you?

Now here's the pivotal point: the neurology and functioning of the brain create a mercurial type of human consciousness that is universal. And the ways in which that consciousness can be accommodated in daily life by human beings are not infinite, as world ethnography, spanning a multitude of cultures, indeed shows.
David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce (2005), Inside the Neolithic Mind, p.9

[Our perception of aliens] is to do with the ambivalent nature of consciousness and our uneasy sense of being both within the world and outside it. This is, in part, a commentary on modernity, but also it is about an eternal aspect of the human predicament that has been massively amplified but not created by modernity.... For now, I need simply say that I start from the undoubted reality of aliens. they may or may not exist but they are all around us and they are trying to tell us something, possibly about themselves, but certainly about us. In order to understand what they are saying it is necessary to abandon the usual barriers between fiction and reality. There are many important connections between the aliens in Star Trek, H. G. Wells' Martians, the abductors of Betty and Barney Hill, the cattle mutilators in Montana and the committee of beings known as the Nine who speak through the Florida medium Phyllis V. Schlemmer. These connections form an enormous mirror of ourselves and of our age, through which, like Alice, we can pass and find ourselves in a different world.
Bryan Appleyard (2005), Aliens: Why They Are Here, p.9

What is The Filth?
The Filth contains the active ingredient metaphor.
Metaphor is one of a group of problem-solving medicines known as figures of speech which are normally used to treat literal thinking and other diseases. Metaphor combines two or more seemingly unrelated concepts in a way that stimulates lateral thought processes and creativity...
What is The Filth used for?
This comic book is used to treat all manner of disorders including Internet pornography addiction, insomnia, grief, "mid-life" crisis, schizophrenia, the ignorance of samsara and the 21st century blues, especially in patients whose millennial anxiety and general paranoia has not yet responded to normal treatments.
When must The Filth not be used?
If your doctor has advised you to avoid the use of metaphor.
If you refuse to acknowledge the mocking laughter of the Abyss.
If you cannot face the fact that your entire immediate environment is a seething battlefield of microscopic predators, prey and excreta and, simultaneously, a rich and complex metaphor.
Grant Morrison (2004), The Filth, opening pages.

I think each of these is saying that culture is by definition fiction, because we make it up. And nature is by definition reality. And to be human, we have to hold the two in tandem. We can't avoid it. It's what we do.

I think what we do, what all of us do with this tension, is make church.

Friday, 26 March 2010

714 - Greenbelt Festival, Cheltenham, 2009, 3/3

Lots of reinvention goes on. This is a focus for meditation produced by an emerging church from, I think, London. Frozen inside a block of ice were hundreds of kitsch Christian images, plastic bangles, crosses, 'Jesus and Mary's. The block was always surrounded by a crowd of teens, till it had gone. Brilliant.

715 - Greenbelt Festival, Cheltenham, 2009, 2/3

Big Bad Top.

716 - Greenbelt Festival, Cheltenham, 2009 1/3

Greenbelt is described by Mona Siddiqi as Radio 4 in tents. It's an arts festival, run primarily by (and it has to be said, for) Christians, but with a commendably open and searching approach. I feel at home there. I had plans to draw a massive doodle, but ran out of time. Here's the first of three thumbnail sketches, inside a tent, with a panel discussion, possibly about psychogeography, going on. There were more than three other people present!

Thursday, 25 March 2010

717 - Memory, Nostalgia and Civil Rights

Imagine if the memories of Whitley Bay submitted by you and I to Francis Frith were manipulable, erasable, through targeted pill use or disruptive stimulation. We could forget the Dome ever was, our trip to the seaside having been prevented from forming. That kiss-me-quick under the wurlitzers? The dodgy B&B we stayed in? Gone. Or last week's return trip - how downbeat, compared to the childhood memory, how disappointing. You could lift it, replace it with happier times (though the physical buildings, and our bodies, would still degrade).

Well, they are, just about. A report on Radio 4 this morning described one recent experiment where memories of traumatic images from old public information films were prevented from 'developing' - it takes six hours for them to set in place, it seems - by having viewers play Tetris after watching (the cognitive processes used are so similar, the brain 'forgets' to remember the film images). The Today programme interviewed Anders Sandberg and AC Grayling afterwards. Both agreed that such technologies are useful for dealing with disfunctional memories - induced, for example, by post traumatic stress - but they raise profound questions about what it means to be human.

We are our memories, bad as well as good. Or is that actually true? Perhaps we can 'dress up' in fresh memories, the way you'd wear a smarter dress if you had the choice. Why, in a meritocracy, let a shoddy past hold you back?

This is why, in a blog dedicated to Whitley Bay, I've spent so much time getting my thoughts straight about communal and personal identity. It really does impact on the real world. Whitley, a nostalgia-buff's wet dream, has a stronger identity than most, and one, perhaps, more often let down. The seaside town's journey to find a new identity offers a perfect case study for reflection on the kinds of questions raised by neuroscientific and biotechnological research into identity formation. (Perhaps a bid could be prepared for some of the new seaside town regeneration money, also announced today on the programme, to fund a research project into nostalgia and its cure.)

I call the creative use of fresh and manipulated identities storying, because I believe stories, in all their beauty, are both the outcome, and the best tools by which we may get a handle on our identies. The potential is huge, but scary, and I suspect attempts will be made to control such technologies, not always for the best of reasons.

I reckon I'm pretty much on the money, too. The joke in the interview was that our grandchildren will look back at us as Neanderthals, exclaiming, as James Naughtie put it, 'They didn't know what pill to take!'. More pertinently, Sandberg explained, our right to control what goes on cognitively in our own heads should be "considered one of our basic liberal freedoms".

Storying is a civil rights movement.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

718 - Whitley Bay Memories

"But kindly lower your gaze to the lone car. It is a Vauxhall 14 and it is parked outside 7 The Links, my old home. Despite being 16 years old it was the coveted company car of my dad, Eric, works manager for a firm that made concrete lamp standards at the old Cramlington Airship Shed." (Colin Henderson)

From a short collection of Whitley Bay memories submitted by users of the Francis Frith website - worth a read!

Monday, 22 March 2010

719 - Personality and Consciousness

Geoffrey Miller, in Spent, documents research into five key personality traits, and concludes that, together with General Intelligence (or IQ), they give us pretty much all we need to know about the inner life of the people we meet. The traits are openness, conscientiousness, agreeability, stability and extroversion. Broadly speaking, populations are distributed in a bell-curve across every trait, and also across IQ. There are few correlations between trait scores, although openness correlates fairly positively with IQ.

Miller suggests IQ is a measure of the healthy functioning of our nervous system, and the personality traits reflect survival and reproduction strategies adopted by our earliest ancestors. Daniel Nettle, in Personality, suggests that openness is a measure of the breadth of connections we make amongst concepts and sensory stimuli. Although there is no moral value attached either to high or low scores in any trait, different communities have favoured traits differently at different times.

Openness carries with it the benefits of creativity, but the risks of psychosis. Nettle argues that openness evolved as the ability to manipulate symbols became increasingly valuable in early human communities. Miller wonders whether displays of extreme openness amongst the young reflect a strategy for demonstrating the essential soundness of their minds.

Openness is linked to artistic creativity, as well as receptivity to unusual experiences, and as such, one might hypothesize, is important to any consideration of spirituality and religion, though a high score would not predict religiosity, which has frequently a conservative bias.

But David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce, in Inside The Neolithic Mind, offer an alternative measure by which the religious content of a community might be explained. They locate the source of religious imagery in experiences of altered states of consciousness. Our minds function across a spectrum of consciousness, from attentiveness to waking reality, through periods of reflectivity, to daydreaming, hypnagogic states, and finally, in sleep, our normal dreamlife. The modern west, they suggest, values the wide awake, rational state, where earlier cultures favoured the various dream states. Therefore, earlier cultures developed concepts of dream wisdom and spiritual realms, which we abandon (perhaps legitimately) for logic and empiricism.

It is certainly very pleasing to correlate religious concepts of the immanence and transcendance of spiritual powers with, respectively, attentiveness to the details of reality, and dreaming swoons. It is also intriguing to ask whether measures of openness and of consciousness correlate. If they do, one might ask whether they are interdependent, or in fact facets of a single trait. If they don't, it might be fair to ask that consciousness be accorded value as a mental trait in its own right.

Perhaps the consciousness spectrum will be found to equate to IQ, instead, except that high alertness might exist in dream states as well as maths tests, but some might prefer to operate in the former, whilst others are predisposed to the latter. If you choose one rather than the other strategy for obtaining survival tips, this may fairly be described as an aspect of your personality, rather than a measure, like IQ, of general health. In any case, whatever the analysis, one might expect preferences to be distributed in a bell-curve across the human population, in much the same way as other traits.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

720 - Art; Cosmologies; Bill Thompson

All at Cafe Culture Newcastle last night.

Bill Thompson is a new media critic, a self-described early adopter and technology addict - from last night, quote, 'the way I'm addicted to breathing'. On-line he bases himself here and among other places, here.

He was talking about the digital revolution as one of only a handful of civilization-changing events in human history. It's on a par, he says, with the discoveries of fire and agriculture. As with learning to read (he plugged Proust and the Squid heavily) it is an event which requires the brain to be rewired in new ways. So it raises profound questions about the ways we perceive and structure our identity.

This resonates with controversial works by Rita Carter and Susan Greenfield, which I've blogged about here and here. Not to say that Bill Thompson would agree with them (he would find Susan Greenfield, I suspect, unnecessarily alarmist). But he would find them rather interesting.

Bill sees himself, as an early adopter of technology, as one of a small but significant group of people who define their identities, in part at least, through their life on the web. He defines identity as a loose and provisional 'make-do' response to the essentially random experience of human existence. If the building of this identity should come to include networks of friends on-line, at the expense of those off-line, and if it should include multiple or single avatars, and a growing sense of what is normative, socially, for behaviour on-line, then that's just evolution. It's exciting, anyway.

I asked him what kind of art we might expect to see created through this and other identity-shifting technologies. I've a few ideas already (storying: life-story manipulation as an artform in its own right). He had his own insights.

He could see, he said, in five years' time, interactive user-generated art displays on every surface in the cityscape. Some kind of crowd-sourced imagery, some expression of bottom-up, swarm intelligence, perhaps. He defined art as a manipulation of the technology, to see how far it might go, what beauty could be made from it. I liked that - and it chimes with ideas from evolutionary psychology about art being a demonstration of one's mastery of symbolic thinking, or a demonstration of one's personality, one's openness, for example, and one's intelligence. (More on this another time.)

This was his second answer, however. I liked his first, too, offered provocatively and not pursued. He suggested we should see the network as the artform - the shimmering artform, he called it. The technology to be the artform, and as such, appreciated, untouched, for what it is.

This resonates with me for two related reasons. First, I suspect that if by network he means not just the technology, but the identity shift that accommodating the technology requires, he is providing an image by which I can expand my thinking on storying. Having considered how one can begin to manipulate one's own identity, I now want to explore questions of shared identity. Few stories, after all, concern just one person. Bill Thompson's 'network' will include his friendship network, as well as the hard/soft ware that supports it. Perhaps it can be demonstrated that the proper way to think about networks (including even the inorganic ones) is through narrative.

Second, my ears pricked up at his use of the word shimmering. This is the language of spirit and transcendence. It is religious. Only holy things are pristine. Stars shimmer in the night sky. I remembered the way Steven Johnson started his book, Emergence:
Certain shapes and patterns hover over different moments in time, haunting and inspiring the individuals living through those periods.... These shapes are... a way of evoking an era and its peculiar obsessions. For individuals living within these periods, the shapes are cognitive building blocks, tools for thought.

I suspect that for Bill Thompson, the network is such a shape. And if so (and the word was used last night), perhaps he is engaged in building a network-shaped cosmology.

David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce are archaeologists with an interest in what ancient cultures can tell us about the generation of cosmologies. Their book Inside the Neolithic Mind argues that it is a fundamental of human consciousness that new technologies arise alongside imaginative conceptions of the world and humanity's place in it. Sometimes it appears that the cosmology drives the technological advance, in contrast to materialist theories which have argued that new cosmologies come about only as a response to environmental and technological change. If religion's supernatural accretions are separated from its basis in human consciousness, they argue, it can be harnessed by science as a cradle for technological advance. The book focuses on the Neolithic or agricultural revolution - in other words, it is about the second civilization-changing event in human history. To reiterate, Bill Thompson holds that we are witnessing in the digital revolution a third.

On a personal note, I've already expressed my wish to work within a natural world view, this despite personal experiences it is hard not to label supernatural. I'd rather be scientifically rigorous about interrogating such experiences. Any supernatural conception of Love worth supporting has, in my book, to allow us the experience of a totally natural universe, however much else could be going on. If something unscientific, unnatural, happens, then I'd rather redefine science to include it than create a second domain that science cannot touch. That statement might mean my own position is hopelessly untenable (time will tell, I guess), but it does at least allow me to advocate the conclusions of Lewis-Williams and Pearce as a scientifically-literate way forward into the digital age.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

722 - Playing With Identities

Still trying to get my head around whether storying will work as a concept, and if so how. That's the deliberate creation of and dwelling in one's own story-world, as an artform the time for which, with growing technological focus on identity manipulation, has come.

Choice of identity must be key. I'm looking for evidence that people are manipulating their identities as a form of self-expression. Alongside the growth of interest in improvisation courses, burlesque, role-playing games, and Second-Life, I've noticed people getting increasingly creative with their social-networking site images. It's no longer just yourself aged sixteen, or manga-tized, or Legolas instead, but paintings, photographs of look-alike stars, images snatched from all eras of popular culture.

Hmm. Are we just having a laugh, or are we trying these personas on for size? And given that facebook is about realtime-life as well as online game-playing, are we taking these personas out into the world with us when we switch the computer off?

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

723 - Family Silver

I suppose that if any Government seriously thought that everything in this country should be understood by its monetary value, they'd sell it all and invest the money in China or India or another boom country.

Just saying...

Monday, 8 March 2010

724 - Wrestling

In February I turned thirty nine (or as E helpfully, and forward-thinkingly put it, I am in my fortieth year).

Thirty nine is the same number of years as the Church of England has Articles, which is enough to give anyone a midlife crisis. Mine is brewing and bubbling around the nature of my vocation.

Here's the thing: if I'm voluntarily placing myself outside the institutional church, and deliberately identifying with its anarchic expression instead, does it actually mean anything to speak of a vocation? I realise this will be of extremely limited interest to most people, except that vocation is a very common word.

Teachers, nurses, artists, doctors, soldiers, sportspeople, all are said to have one, in the sense, at the very least, that it explains why they take the rough (and I know it gets very rough) as well as the smooth. If, like my dad, the mid-thirties bring to someone a career change, especially one that results in greater social engagement, they're often described approvingly (and with relief) as finding their vocation.

It was suggested to me at twenty five, with my parents present, by somebody I deeply respect, that I'd be a vicar. Then I left church. When I re-engaged, eight years later, I felt experienced enough to make a claim on this insight, but content enough outside the institution not to want to jump through any church hoops in order to have it endorsed. But something new is happening.

Ten days ago E and I met with our good friends, a couple who, though they cherish their years inside the church, are now on a quest beyond its walls. They had been staunchly evangelical youth workers. He became a vicar. She began work promoting a spiritual approach to teaching. Currently they are resting, reassessing. So I told them that I wanted to take my vocation further. The act of asking their advice felt like stepping off the 'V' of the word, and onto the 'O'.

They suggested I attend a meeting of the forum Spirituality in Mental Health North East (simhne), where I could connect with a friend of theirs who operates as a kind of non-aligned spiritual director and celebrant. Perhaps we could arrange to meet up later - which is what, in fact, we will be doing, in, her suggestion, a coffee-shop.

Anyway, at simhne, last Thursday, I also met an academic with a specialisation in the theology of emotion. The idea she challenges is that a spiritual being, as God is envisaged to be, would somehow be unable to identify with emotions. She uses current philosophy to suggest the opposite. As random meetings do, the chat we had has precipitated a fantastic 'penny drop' moment: what's been missing, what I've been avoiding in my vocation, is that it's about the whole of me, body, mind, emotion, whatever, engaging with the whole of the person I meet. I don't know how at ease an academic would feel about their PhD ministering to someone, but I'm absolutely sure that this is what has happened.

There's something, in particular, about the insight as it relates to anarchy and institution, that removes the distinction between the two. I think it's that once you admit your whole body to the kind of wrestling that you are called to - as human being, never mind the vicar label - there is simply nothing more that you can give. How a given society chooses to frame you, and whether you choose to accept that frame, or hold to a more holistic idea of your place (loaded word!) within humankind, is altogether secondary - outside, entirely, the process of call and answer that the experience of vocation embodies.

Randomly I bought, this morning, a cultural history of Boxing, fantastically reduced in a sale at Blackwells. If Jacob's whole-body experience of angel-wrestling is really where I'm at, this book will be a comfort to me!