Synecdoche (Part Two): Little World

Fool's Cap Map of the World. Unknown origin c.1580-1590

Fool’s Cap Map of the World. Unknown origin c.1580-1590

In the first part of this article, we discussed how each person, in coming to understand how they construct themselves as the self-entity they take themselves to be, must in the process come to understand how all others do too. In other words, self-knowledge is not particular to the individual, because the self – in essence an embedded, accumulating and by graduation morphing narrative and body schema – comes into being by identical means in our species. Each of us remains unique in many ways, such as in our formative experience, our psychological make-up, conditioned traits, genetic inheritance, and in our individuated physicalities. Yet that which we regard as our quintessence, the enduring internalised construct we each unquestioningly hold as the self and the aspect of ourselves which we most intimately cling to, is little more than a formulaic pretence determined and governed solely by means of evolved, unbidden and unconscious processes.

Each character has a given name, societal position, cultural identity and perhaps a hierarchical status; yet all such markers are in part a figure of speech, or synecdoche, denoting an undeniable correlation with countless others. The markers delineate superficial distinctions alone, and the greater the number of them, the more we remove from our understanding the underlying truth of the other’s commonality with us.  In much the same way, in our coming to understand how the worlds we ourselves inhabit are constructed, we see also that same world as a synecdoche for all others. How I relate to my home and environment, my relatives and loved ones, those I engage with out of chance or necessity, and those whom I depend upon or those who depend upon me, human or non-human, all make up my little world. It is a relational world, an interactive adventure forged from myriad connections, surprisingly few of which do I have great control over.

The argument against this is to assert that such correlations are facile, that how can I, a materially secure Westerner living in a largely strife-free state, possibly share any commonality with the oppressed and malnourished other on, say, the Indian sub-continent?  Are these conditions not worlds apart, if only qualitatively? Well, in examining human suffering, we find it has a common genesis, proceeding as it does from the mind. For example, we commonly mistake unpleasant bodily sensations for suffering, failing to distinguish between physical pain and the attendant overlay of mental anguish. Is the suffering of the wealthy financier who contemplates suicide at her portfolio’s decimation greater than that of the homesteader in sub-Saharan Africa facing a crop failure of a few sacksful of grain? Objectively, then yes, these are worlds apart, yet the subjective suffering of each may be qualitatively indistinct, even in their wildly differing experiential settings.

Geography of Twitter. By Eric Fischer, Washington, DC

Geography of Twitter. By Eric Fischer, Washington, DC

And what of care and affection; are we to suppose that our world as comprising love is any the lesser or greater than others? Ought we to suppose the human instinct to loving solicitude is greater than that of our fellow creatures? Who amongst us knows what human love is as distinct from other forms of animal love, and whether it is qualitatively superior? Am I so arrogant as to suggest my altruistic benevolence is any the greater than that of my pet Border Collie, for it seems far from being so? If I am unable to define precisely what constitutes this world aspect, how am I to know that those of other animals are not simulacra of my own, there being no original and authentic love-world other than the one as represented by the many – is this not a truth hard to refute? I may describe a personal world of felt affection, yet in doing so prescribe but a figure of speech alone, a synecdoche for all worlds inhabited perhaps by most beings of sentience.

My little world is forged at the interface between psyche and otherness, between ideas and the world as impressed upon my senses. Those impressions and the precise nature of that otherness differ in every detail from the next person’s, yet the means of forging are identical. This shared action results in distinct narratives of course, and it is these that are held to in our bids to assert the pre-eminence of individuality over commonality. I want to believe I am, if not special, then unique; yet that is only true in the differing stories of what I am and what my little world is. To those without privilege to my narratives of self and world, my assumed mantle of uniqueness is meaningless, and the same is true of theirs to me. We may here be at a cold and sterile juncture, yet it also is a starting point from which we may begin to introduce the binding agents of humankind – our innate qualities of kindness and compassion, of empathic understanding.

So what, why should I care about such ideas when I have altogether more pressing concerns? What is the point in abstracting notions such as these from the warp and weft of daily living, the place where I earn my crust, feed my children, and work on my betterment as a means of personal fulfilment? Perhaps the answer lies somewhat starkly in the evidence, and which seems to me to be in a state of constant deterioration. We live in a polarised world, where theists fight theists and atheists argue against both, where the wealthy seldom flinch in their impoverishment of others, and where power-hungry and psychopathic leaders crush the potential of all they have dominion over.  Is it not time to find our common humanity, or even our common animality? We humans are destroying our sole environment; we are chasing down the darkening corridors of economic systems at the point of failure. Can we not rest awhile so as to perceive our little worlds as one?

Synecdoche (Part One): Little Person

 

New Zealand, air hostesses from 1965. Courtesy NZ governement archives

I am just a little person, one person in a sea of many little people who are not aware of me, yet each potentially a simultaneous understanding of the other; each, in a sense, a simulacrum or synecdoche for all others: if I understand myself sufficiently deeply, then in that moment I understand the other, however remote my presence to them. This is not to say I can appreciate their specific complexities, of course, and the detail, the true intricacy of any given life, remains forever removed from that quota of awareness I am privileged to. Each little person, tagged with their own unique package of characteristics, is still a synecdoche though, potentially at least, for all the little people out in the sea of otherness. The word means literally ‘take with something else’, so conveying the idea that even a partial representation alone is sufficient to apprehend the whole, or vice versa.

This sounds rather fanciful to the contemporary mind, conditioned as it is in a belief as to the total, inarguable individuality of each little person. What an appealing belief this is too, for this same little person here finds a seemingly plausible counter to a reluctantly intuited sense of homogeneity, which word itself derives from the Greek ‘homogene’, meaning ‘of the same kind’: Homo Sapiens. Even though each of the little person’s internal organs are replaceable with those fished from the sea of many little people, even though their blood, hair, bones, limbs, eyes and hands can be substituted with biological or manufactured alternatives, still the little person resists the evidence, demanding their status as a uniquely enduring entity. It is of course the mind itself that insists upon countering the intuited and actual homogeneity, and the mind, so the little person believes, belongs to them.

New Zealand, air hostesses from 1959. Courtesy NZ governement archives

This raises a problem, for if the little person’s physicality is all but totally interchangeable, then at what point during this theoretical process does the supposed possessor of the mind cease to exist? When does the point arrive at which we can no longer claim the mind belongs to any little person? If we hold to Physicalism, or Hard Materialism, we assert the mind belongs, if not to the little person, then to the organ of the brain. Should we be an Eliminative Materialist, we say there is no mind, and so no such question arises. I resist these philosophical perspectives, for to me there is a non-locality of awareness, meaning it arises both within as well as about what we think of as the little person, and whilst we call this aware experience ‘mind’, I do not adhere to any Cranialism; it’s not exclusively headstuff. In accepting this, we logically must ask whether the mind is under ownership.

Ownership implies agency, or self-determination, and it is belief in this that makes the little person feel unique and autonomous, directing their life just as all others would theirs. Yet this owning agent is never verifiable other than as consciousness, for it is only ever a belief that resides within and as that consciousness. Now, all conscious displays are themselves non-local simulacra, representations of otherness that are neither the little person nor any owning agent, and which clearly may never be evidenced outside of consciousness. This means the little person is always a thought-construct, a put-up job forged by mind and subsisting in otherness but never in essence itself. Should this hypothesis obtain, then the little person is a synecdoche for the entirety of others in kind; this is because every little person, being a fabrication of mind, comes into apparent existence in an identical manner.

New Zealand, air hostesses from 1970. Courtesy NZ governement archives

Where are we? We heard that the mind persists in countering a reluctantly intuited homogeneity of all the little persons. Further, we said the mind forges each little person as a thought-construct, and that the little person does not exist as an enduringly instantiated entity – just like a house, a car, or a computer, its parts are interchangeable. Beyond this, we learned the mind produces only conscious effects as verification of its own fabrications, and that these subsist universally for all the apparent little persons, being as they are culled from the same sea of otherness. And lastly, we found that the hypothesis as a whole demonstrates that each apparent little person is a synecdoche for the sea of many little people. So, in understanding myself sufficiently deeply, then in that moment I understand the other, which was the assertion of the opening paragraph and a challenge to the curious mind.

In the ‘Ship of Theseus’ paradox, a parallel question is raised: in replacing a wooden ship plank by plank, are the ongoing resultants still the original ship?  In point of fact, only the conception itself endures across the constant transitioning. The ship, as known, is not a wooden construct; it is a thought-construct, a fixed conception presenting to any observing little person, all of whom create each the other in identical fashion. Each parallel the ship in that their structure constantly mutates whilst a sense of enduring selfhood smears out across the whole, forged in mind in homogeneous ways. Now, if the little person turns the mind in on itself reflectively, they in time realise that they must be more than a thought-construct, a belief. They see that the little person whom they believed they existed as was a synecdoche: a motif in play which in its perfectly clear seeing brings knowledge of all of its kind.

 

Images courtesy of New Zealand government archives: http://archway.archives.govt.nz/ViewFullItem.do?code=14847710

Gang culture

Photography: Stephan Rebernik, Vienna

Photography: Stephan Rebernik, Vienna

I am sipping tea in the library, gazing with a mild, disengaged curiosity through a large timber framed window which is set into a limestone Gothic arch. The manicured monastery gardens exhibit a balance of the feminine sense of profusion with masculine order and precision. A path formed of naturally riven and misshapen local stone winds through the middle and leads down to the water gardens below. Two blackbirds dance erratically across it, as if pretending not to follow each the other.

My attention turns to the collective chatter that permeates the room with a respectfully suppressed energy, and a thought arises that I really ought to engage with someone. Such is the done thing here; the accepted etiquette that one signs up for when electing to participate in communities such as this. A moment of resistance comes as I anticipate a contrivance of dull intercourse with my chosen victim. A groupthink mentality persists, healthily so perhaps; it’s just Buddhist gang culture.

None of this sat well with me; I’m not a sequacious sort; I incline not to follow, being something of an autocrat for the most part. Forcing myself to exchange verbal notes of agreement with other gang members felt, to me, a painfully deadening trial. Ensconced in meditation cells as a habituated retreatant, I mercifully escaped the worst. Still, this lengthy period of my life, now long since having passed, was invaluable and taught me a great deal about myself, not all of which overly flattered.

So, being a gang member can have its uses, even to loners of my ilk who may once have inclined to trust guidance by their own dim lights alone. What an arrogant notion! Though how to break free of it? Rarely does escape come through an initial seeing of one’s own misguided assumptions of correctness. Quite often the approach is more tangential; connections mysteriously attract us; we may sense a bruising battle, yet intuit an awaiting victory. As gloved pugilists, we warily enter the ring.

Now we are gang members, in earnest pursuit of knowledge, or inner tranquillity, or perhaps a little saintliness to nourish our delicate ego. We’ve joined a yoga gang, a Jesus gang, a Flying Spaghetti Monster gang – all offer a supportive sense of communal endeavour. Buddhists regard such gangs as one of three vital refuges, along with the doctrine and its apotheosis. And yet whichever spiritual gang we join, variants of these three refuges manifest as necessary aids for the spiritual aspirant.

If we’re fortunate, then the gang we first choose may have the potential to facilitate fulfilment of our innermost callings; they may ultimately help deliver the knowledge or tranquillity we sought. For most though, a self-imposed probationary spell ends as new allegiances are forged with some more suitable gang. It may be that our bodies finally rebel at more torturous Ashtanga postures, or we sense that dead teachers can’t truly speak to us, or that Pastafarianism was our spiritual hors d’oeuvre.

Our gangs may offer up a mirror to our psyche; certainly, an authentic teacher will do so. In the immediate presence of a truly clear mind, our shadow nature is reflected back at us with unerring accuracy and, if necessary, with an excoriating compassion. The authentic teacher will only ever do this if the student is capable of absorbing such a blow; and until this point of maturation is reached, the gang member will be left choreographing their egoic dance to the strains of Leonard Bernstein.

It’s time to find a partner who will dance with me in mimicking the coyly playful birds outside on the lawns. Turning, my eyes, seemingly of their own accord, fix upon the piercing gaze of a figure on the far side of the library, one seemingly intent on a visual embrace. Now facing each other, our words sound eccentrically melodious, like those of blackbirds. Smiles form upon two ownerless faces in an unbounded awareness; the books are talking; the room is seeing me; the Gothic arch listens intently.

Such are spiritual experiences – transient, paradoxical, mystical yet mundane, holding a perfect ordinariness as demanded by unrelenting sentience. They occur in the intimate embrace of the unknown, in solitude as well as in company. For some, gang membership may conduce, if not to such experiences, then at least to a stripping away of the monoculture of egoical becoming. The collective endeavour, with gentle guidance from noble friends, may share in the birth of great gifts.

Inexplicable tensions in family life

Photography: Alex E. Proimos, Sydney

Photography: Alex E. Proimos, Sydney

Have you noticed how family life can sometimes appear irrationally conflicted? What I mean by this is a recurrence of largely inexplicable tensions between particular members of the clan that remain an enigma even to close observers. Experiences within my own family once led me to ponder this awkwardness, yet the problem’s ubiquity is indisputable. Within other families I’ve known in the past, there’s frequently been some seemingly unresolvable conflict gnawing away through the years and which seldom appeared reducible to any clearly justifiable cause.

The realisation of a natural harmony within family life appears widely elusive; naïve received notions and childhood conditionings perhaps having led us to err in our assumptions. We invariably pursue this chimera of familial amity in the early years of partnerships, believing that harmony will surely prevail amongst our projected future family. Any other approach would be odd in any case, leading to frictions between procreative urges and any realistic appraisal of our future emotional disturbances. But what’s the rationale for this leap of faith?

We might say that it’s no more than the same biological impulsion that serves as our surrogate reasoning – a natural ordering of priorities in which our psychological well-being is subordinated to the overriding procreative desire. This then, is a satisfactory enough explanation for later tensions between partners – maybe we weren’t as compatible with our beloved as we once convinced ourselves we were. The stress of proximity now creates conflict where once there was none; we’ve laid bare the painful truth, no longer able to deny the loosening ties of love.

Yet what of those situations that seem not at all uncommon, in which non-spousal family pairings appear irrationally conflicted? We needn’t presuppose any particular harmony between say, mother and son, or between siblings – there could instead simply be an indifference. And yet time and again we see an inexplicable tension between such pairings, one which rarely finds a resolution. Whilst both involved express their justifications for the conflict with a passion (and often an inconsistency), they invariably appear illogical to any witness – it just doesn’t stack up.

These irrational displays of conflict often have their genesis in childhood rivalries, when attempts are made to assert individuality, and hence particular needs. There’s an aggressive effort to establish the significance of our personal identity, to impose our unique (and needy), self-construct. Elder siblings typically initiate aggressive postures with new arrivals, a pattern which endures for decades once established. These attention-seeking strategies adopted in childhood continue to be used in maturity yet purely as the egocentric validations of the elder siblings.

These same strategies can also spill out into the wider family dynamics as the first born in particular continues to assert their needs. Not content with establishing their dominance over younger sister(s) and/or brother(s), the eldest offspring may also impose their self-centredness by asserting superiority over the parents too. They may for example claim to occupy ground not held by them – a broader intellectual terrain, a variety of life experience never accessible to the parents, or the moral high ground. This all creates suppressed tensions and conflict of course.

So whilst these problems arise from childhood conditioning, the sense of self is equally causal. The attention-seeking child develops a strong sense of their autonomy in which later they come to disregard their familial inter-dependence. They see the world and those who occupy it, including their own families, as resources whose worth or relevance requires calculation. Because of this, they may then unwittingly accommodate an insensitive judgementalism towards other family members, having deemed them largely superfluous to their needs.

Unsurprisingly, any family member acting in such a self-centred way will subject the rest to unwelcome stresses, and inevitably this leads to conflict. The aggression borne of childhood rivalries turns full circle and rebounds on itself. The self-centred adult, who first imposed their aggressions on family in childhood, now reaps the consequences in maturity. The effect is that everyone feels uncertain about the psychological terrain of the family; there’s an absence of trust that even mundane differences won’t give rise to suppressed or overt tensions.

As these subtle and hidden dynamics play out through the family over time, accommodations are often made so as to limit the frequency of the conflict. If not this, then the entire situation implodes and the chief culprit is largely exiled – tolerated at a distance but no more than that. The accommodations, when made, are largely suffered in silence by those making them – they tolerate the self-centred attention-seeker up to a point. This appeasing approach is useful only in that it maintains a superficial harmony; as an alternative, we can engage in open dialogue.

This is a risky strategy, yet one which occasionally may have to be made. It’s best done forcefully and unambiguously, as the main protagonist will deny any complicity in the problem. Following the denial, they may then progressively take the message on board, yet only sub-consciously. On the surface, the denial is sustained, with an over-weaning and disingenuous reasonableness being displayed in attempts to assure others of innocence. Yet all the while a slow absorption of the message occurs, and to which any truly mature adult must eventually respond.

A friend seeks contentment the hard way

Photo: Jorge Royan, Argentina

Photography: Jorge Royan, Argentina

He was born into an assured middle class comfort, a guarantee of a private education and career to follow. His future classmates would go on to become cabinet ministers in government, bankers and CEO’s. A few became artists with no real need even to sell their work. Like him, their future would be cushioned with inheritances, trust funds, contacts.

By his mid-teens, these privileges had begun to jar with his sense of individuality. He felt he was being led along a path of someone else’s choosing – his father, his teachers, what used to be called ‘the establishment’. There was a feeling of an enforced cronyism which he felt deeply reluctant to conform to. So he decided he had to rebel.

And what does a privately educated, rebellious British schoolboy do in the 1960’s? – he becomes a communist. Attaching to an ideology which fed his youthful contrarianism made him feel he was charting his own course in life. He was wrong-footed by the Czech invasion, but his thinking was by then set. He would be a grafting wage-earner.

Being both an idealist and a romantic, he set sail for Ireland where he would sell his labour working on a travelling fair. Never quite feeling accepted and a little hurt for all that, he returned to England, toiling shifts in factories. His political ideology became more sophisticated. He cultivated the speech of his co-workers. But he was still a posh boy.

And he couldn’t shake it off. There was an irrepressible haughtiness to him, still that exaggerated springing gait that his kind affected during their elite schooling. Still he fought it; still he believed that only by conforming to his absurdly fake self-image would he find contentment and feel comfortable in himself. He sought authenticity in play-acting.

‘Why do I always seem to provoke people? No matter how hard I try to befriend them, they always end up wanting to attack me in some way’. I had to be honest; it was a sincere question from a very dear old friend. I told him it was his fake image that was being attacked. Hard as he tried, people saw right through the pretence; they were offended by it.

Of course, we all have a self-image that we nurture and project. In that sense, my friend was only doing what we all do. We inhabit a narrative of our personal identity, an epic tale of what and who we are. We cling to this so dearly such that it becomes embedded as belief – we believe the story correlates to reality. And if we believe it, why shouldn’t others?

This on-going narration is largely responsible for sustaining our sense of selfhood. We keep the thing knitted together with the flow of our thoughts and perceptions, and all that those mental phenomena give rise to in action. Along with our bodily feelings, our running analysis of our situation and our undeniable sense of being, this narration feeds the self.

But this sense of self is not identical to our authentic being; it doesn’t correlate to the actuality of our being. It is, for the most part, merely this mental creation of the narrative. We can manipulate the narrative as much as we like, we can be as extreme as my friend and fabricate a new story; but it’ll never authentically disclose our being to itself or to others.

There was nothing wrong with being born into privilege. My friend had no need to disown all that entailed. It’s incredibly hard work fictionalising a life. It took my friend most of his adulthood to realise the futility of attempting this. All the while, he believed his authentic self truly was a fairground worker, a night-shift operator, a revolutionary.

He exhausted himself in attempting to inhabit these fake identities. He offended and disturbed so many people in his clumsy, transparent masquerading. And when people were provoked into attacking him in some way because of it, he tried even harder to deceive by manipulating the attackers’ own feelings. This cleverness only made matters worse.

Our authentic identity isn’t a narrative creation. It doesn’t need working at with story-telling and charades. We don’t need to create an acceptable self to project to the world, let alone an unacceptable one. Such manipulations are only ever mutations of inauthentic selfhood in any case. In seeing through this great deception, our authenticity is realised.