The Coronavirus Shutdown
In Teaneck, NJ, we are all being told to self-quarantine and all but necessary businesses are closed. Scary stuff. After Teaneck shut down, I was going out of my mind obsessing about the virus. I still am. However, when I severely limit my daily intake of news and articles about the news — which is hard to do — I feel better. So that is what I am doing.
It is important to follow all the advice and instructions that experts are giving us. Once we make the decision to try to get used to this, it probably gets easier. The hard part is emotional.
After a tooth infection that started in October sent me into 93 days of pain and weakness, I started getting back in shape. During the time of this pandemic, I will continue to exercise, each week increasing my daily quotient. You should too. Now is the time to build up your health in every way you know how — while practicing social isolation, of course! For example, last summer I was walking five miles a day, This summer I want to work my way up to seven miles a day. This is in addition to other kinds of exercise.
I have also set other goals for myself which I will be working on during this time.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Ecophenomenology
For one, I will be working my way slowly through the Merleau-Ponty corpus as part of a larger attempt to grasp ecophenomenology. At the heart of this is my quest to understand something which I am intuiting about reality about reality, which I am naming pantheism. This is a quest rooted in my love of the divine (in the grammatical second person).
A week ago, I finished reading Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s The Structure of Behavior in English. The book was originally published in French in 1942. It was later translated by Alden L. Fisher and published in English in 1963. I must say, it was very difficult for me to read, especiallly its first half, though it became increasingly comprehensible the more I worked my way through it.
Along with it (before and again after reading The Structure of Behavior), I read the first chapter of Ted Toadvine’s Merleau-Ponty’s Philosophy of Nature, which is about the book, Merleau-Ponty’s first, to help clarify the little that I thought I understood.
The problem with a theist god is that it exists in consciousness as a signification that is independent of perceptions, iterable and trans-temporal. Therefore it is an idealist construction that logically stands on its own; it can neither be proved nor disproved, only shown to be more or less self-consistent. This is not the same as an apophatic mystical awareness which can neither be captured in words nor in concepts. Converting this awareness into the concept of a theistic god, which is something virtual, creates a representation that is detached from perceptual experience and therefore from the whole of a life that is lived. It is therefore not tenable and therefore subject to question Its claim is simply an assertion.
In the conclusion of his book (page 223-224), Merleau-Ponty writes:
The conversion of seeing which transforms the life of consciousness into a pure dialectic of subject and object, [and] which reduces the thing in its sensible density to a bundle of significations … — does this conversion make explicit [something eternal] or does it bring about the appearance of a new structure of consciousness? It is a problem to know what happens, for example, when consciousness disassociates itself from time, from this uninterrupted gushing forth at the center of itself, in order to apprehend it as an intellectual and manipulable signification. Does it lay bare only what was implicit? Or, on the contrary, does it not enter as into a lucid dream in which indeed it encounters no opaqueness, not because it has clarified the existence of things and its own existence, but because it lives at the surface of things and on the envelope of things? Is the reflective passage to intellectual consciousness an adequation of our knowing to our being or only a way for consciousness to create for itself a separated existence — a quietism? These questions express no empiricist demand, no complaisance for “experiences” which would not have to account for themselves. On the contrary, we want to make consciousness equal with the whole of experience, to gather into consciousness for-itself (pour soi) all the life of consciousness in-itself (en soi).
… all the problems which we have just touched on are reducible to the problem of perception.
I have taken upon myself the task of reading and learning to understand Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy so that I can have a firm grasp of ecophenomenology as a spiritual framework and discipline. I can see from here that competency in Merleau-Ponty’s thought will take me several years.
The next book I will be reading is Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception on the primacy of perception. It was published in French in 1945. However, I will be reading the English version, translated by Colin Smith, which was published in 1962.
It would not surprise me if this budding interest in ecophenomenology opens into a totally unexpected blossom. To allow this to happen, I want to keep an open mind. For example, I might find that I need to grasp more fully the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead so that I can entertain a dialogue between these two thinkers to see where it leads. We will see.
What Am I Looking For
I am looking for a grasp of nature (and humanity in its natural aspect) that is immediate, direct and authentic, rather than a “new structure of consciousness” that “lives on the surface of things,” which would be an intellectual construct with a “separate existence.”
Along this line, I am suspecting that a hidden theism lurks in the “beyond” of panentheism. This is perhaps why it won’t take the full plunge into pantheism. This seems to be the direction that Whitehead goes, at least according to his Christian interpreters. I’d like to see if I am wrong.
This summary from the Wikipedia article on Merleau-Ponty describes that which I am trying to grasp:
David Abram explains Merleau-Ponty’s concept of “flesh” … as “the mysterious tissue or matrix that underlies and gives rise to both the perceiver and the perceived as interdependent aspects of its spontaneous activity,” and he identifies this elemental matrix with the interdependent web of earthly life. This concept unites subject and object dialectically as determinations within a more primordial reality, which Merleau-Ponty calls ‘the flesh,’ and which Abram refers to variously as “the animate earth,” “the breathing biosphere,” or “the more-than-human natural world.” Yet this is not nature or the biosphere conceived as a complex set of objects and objective processes, but rather “the biosphere as it is experienced and lived from within by the intelligent body — by the attentive human animal who is entirely a part of the world that he, or she, experiences. Merleau-Ponty’s ecophenemonology with its emphasis on holistic dialog within the larger-than-human world also has implications for the ontogenesis and phylogenesis of language, indeed he states that “language is the very voice of the trees, the waves and the forest.”
This “elementary matrix” (from matris, the genitive of Latin mater, “mother”) — rather than a deity which is transcendent to or beyond (i.e., more than) this — is the only “divine” I have ever really known. I feel as if I have spent my life — or some forty-five years of it — distracted from life, separated from reality, inside a construction on the surface of consciousness rather than in the integration of the whole of life lived as an authentic human being. I have a longing to return “home,” to return to my earliest intuitions of the “divine.”
How Can We Account for This Civilizational Alienation?
David Abram, the ecophenomenologist who opened my eyes and continues to inspire me — who made himself a student of perception in pre-literate indigenous cultures — traces our alienation from nature to the invention of the phonetic alphabet, in particular, when the Greeks added vowels to the Semitic alphabet (which, though phonetic, had no vowels). This innovation enabled words to be lifted out of lived speech and made to stand on their own, apart from time and a lived context. Their embeddedness in what Merleau-Ponty calls “flesh” was severed. We might think of Plato’s forms. Forms were fixed and eternal, and therefore real. Matter was chaotic and transient, and therefore less real.
I agree with Abram about this. However, I also think of a much earlier break that took place when tillage agriculture gave rise to accumulation and “private property,” which then gave rise to strongman-warrior cultures and patriarchy. I do not mean that it was determined, like cause and effect. However, I do think that tillage agriculture, especially the invention of the plow, created an opportunity for this to happen. Climate change probably provided the “logical necessity” and therefore the motivation, though this shift was still a choice, however unconscious. What was formerly women’s work became men’s work, and the ability to store large quantities of goods created an opportunity for hoarding and the amassing of power and slaves. A shift in organization optimized competition for land and therefore raiding and conquest. Gerder Lerner, a respected feminist anthropologist, wrote about this. Something like this led to the great civilizations of the fertile crescent and China, though like any generalization, history resists descriptive neatness. The bifurcation of reality into binaries in which one element is always arranged hierarchically over the other took place during this time.
After that, the alienation that defines civilization took place in steps. The invention of the phonetic alphabet, like the invention of the codex, and later the invention of the index, and the conceptual dualism of Rene Descartes, are pivotal moments.
Eventually we became an imperialist settler-colonialist civilization based on ecocide, plunder and genocide and the theft of land for plantations, and built up by the exploited labor of whoever it could subject, whether women, slaves, or the wage laborer. This led to late stage capitalism and its culture of consumption, and the final plunder of the planet by kleptocrats, before the collapse of the human biosphere. The most prominent god worshipped by this civilization, whether explicit or not, or acknowledged or not, is essentially a “white dude in the sky” who inspires and justifies empire, settler-colonialism, slavery, capitalism and, of course, ecocide (however mitigated).
Our civilization creates a system of feedback loops (etc.) from which it is hard for anyone to escape. Our “world” forces categories and grammatical structures of thinking from which it is hard for anyone to escape without tremendous critique and self-examination.
Learning About Indigenous People
In light of this, in addition to exploring spirituality with a pantheistic understanding of the divine through the lens of ecophenomenology, I am studying the indigenous people of the Americas with several foci. I am focusing on indigenous history, culture, art, and worldviews; girls and women and women leaders; and, generally, the indigenous people of the Northeast (where I live).
I think it would help me (like it helped David Abram with regard to preliterate indigenous people) to understand their traditional ways of being (this has called to me my whole life). I also want to understand indigenous contemporary culture, their struggles against settler-colonialism, and their active attempts to decolonize and achieve sovereignty. I want to respect them and be in solidarity with all their struggles while also recognizing my “privilege” and what I represent historically to them. I do not want to unwittingly act like a cultural colonist because of who I am, my socialization and my education.
Also I want to pursue this study because I think it can help me understand how I have been appropriated by my own culture, the culture of settler-colonialism with all its assumptions. I want to understand how I can dis-appropriate myself from all this, from what it is. I want to understand how I can be decolonize myself (but not by arrogating to myself someone else’s culture). This begins with an ongoing, thorough and deep critique and deconstruction of my own assumptions and my larger culture. This is a moral and spiritual priority for me.
Learning an Indigenous Language
Because language structures the way we think and therefore affects our worldview, I have chosen to begin teaching myself Anishinaabemowin — with humility and respect towards those whose language it is.
Learning More About Nature
If I want to become more aware of the animacy of the earth and the breathing biosphere, then I need to become more sensitive to the languages and interrelationships of the more-than-human natural environment. So I am continuing to study nature, its creatures and ecology. I especially want to learn from people who not only appreciate science but also understand that the earth, her ecosystems, and all of nature’s creatures, are animate (i.e, possessed of a perceptual and responsive soul, i.e., of awareness and agency). One such scientist that I am in love with is Robbin Wall Kimmerer.
This time of enforced social isolation might be an opportune time to work on becoming more creative and letting my creativity be an expression of my authenticity. Now that I have a sewing machine, I want to start to teach myself to sew. Later, when I can enlist a teacher, I can add other fabric arts to my equipment, like knitting, crocheting, weaving, and beading. I would also like to get back to writing fiction, and maybe writing an essay or two.
All of this seems daunting in view of day-to-day realities and emotional disturbance. It will take some discipline to balance it all out and to persist. The point of it all is to bring healing to the damage that my choices — and the harmful effects of civilization — have inflicted on me.
There is also much work to do around the house and in preparation for the summer and fall. We want to sell the house; there’s that. We also want to homestead, which means lots of dreaming and learning and planning.
I suggest that you too might want to come up with projects that you can do at home for the next six weeks or the next eighteen months to keep from going crazy with worry and fear. As you can see, my projects are all things that can keep me occupied for many years.
I wish you all peace and good health