28 February, 2009

Death and the Maiden

I'm up in New England again doing a bit of work, tending the shop really. Nothing too strenuous - a new roof on one of the commercial spaces (installed during what has been a very cold and snowy winter) needs approving, some tax issues need reviewing, mostly I needed a little rural recharging.

One of the tax issues has to do with a case of fraud (for which I was the mark) wherein the culprit made off with a few tens of thousands deposited on an excavation job. He cashed the check, bolted, and promptly bought a spendy ride (fully chopped custom bike) to propel an intoxicated romp across Maritime Canada.

So it goes sometimes.

Being a good American I sued, and after a year or so (during which the defendant reliably failed to answer subpoenas) I won, which of course means nothing if the defendant's address, income and assets are now part of his cell chemistry (the expensive ride was wrecked in northern Maine, I believe - the subject of somebody else's suit. This is a popular guy). So I'm figuring out how to deduct the losses from the company taxes - this one of my companies is in a fortunate position given the state of the economy; we're making money so some deductions are not altogether unwelcome, but I can think of better ways to come by them. As I sat running numbers I ruminated on what quantity of recreational pharmaceuticals such numbers might buy. The amount I arrived at was considerable.

Still, getting thoroughly fucked up is not altogether an ignoble pursuit. Maybe grand larceny, fraud, vehicular mayhem and treble damages are all worth it.

I was reminded that Plato was want to wander the hills over Athens for days on end in springtime with his philosophical confrères in search of ergot, a mycorrhizal fungus that favors certain early grasses and contains the chemical analogs to LSD. They took a lot of trouble, those ancients, to get high. My defrauder committed a great deal of energy to his mood alteration as well, and if things work out the way Colchester deputies think they should, he will continue to expend energy for a long time in memory of his Bacchanalia.

I do not have Plato's philosophical consciousness, a hustler's lack of it, or the devout interest of either to alter its contours dramatically. I'm more of a plodding voluptuary, and my greatest pleasures can be the smallest - especially if they're elastic or show up with some regularity. I'm with Plato on the fungus, however. It's about this time of year that I start to look forward to the snows thinning and the pines lifting and the chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius) popping up. It's too early yet, but I took a hike upland with Ben to have a look for likely new prospecting areas, to check the old favorite and secret sites, and to see if I could remember my favorite recipes, such as Pfifferlingen in Rahmsauce - the Germans treat the arrival of der Pfifferling with a kind of reverence reserved otherwise for the likes of Elvis and David Hasselhof.

Last year I wrote of the morel hunt out in Oregon's piney woods. This year I'll be sticking close to the North Country oaks and focusing my vision softly for the tell-tale venting of the decoupaged and decaying ground cover where chanterelles and other root-bound symbionts do their work with the dead.

It was late afternoon as I walked, like Plato, in the hills, my thoughts full of fungus. The shadows were already long and I considered that the deer would be coming out soon - always an issue with Ben. Still, the low-angled light, the brittleness of the air and the bracing effect of climbing through north woods in winter had me in an excellent mood.

As I wandered among the oaks, maples, hickories and beeches, beneath my feet invisible tendrils of massive, acre-wide organisms pulsed with purpose, intent on inserting their fruiting bodies into my realm in coming months. Their purpose, biological or otherwise, apparently no one really knows; the fruiting body of the chanterelle is extraneous to its position in the great chain of being. The business of mushrooms takes place in mystery - to attempt to look at it is to destroy it. The part of any mushroom we can see, and the part of certain mushrooms we treasure, is the potentially lethal part of the ones we don't. It takes strong medicine to disassemble nature's complexity into discrete and again-useful elements, and some of it would just as soon dissolve your liver as it does deer spoor.

The working body of a wild mushroom is the mycelia that interdigitate with the roots of trees as symbionts, issuing a variety of nutrients as byproducts of metabolizing dead stuff and receiving sugars the tree produces from photosynthesizing. The whole arrangement is an exemplary shorthand for the cycle of carbon, indeed, the cycle of life. The tree reaches for and gathers to itself the energy of the sun, with it elaborating carbohydrates for acres of subterranean organisms which do the dark work of breaking apart dead tissues into useful molecules for the living. Too much light and a mushroom withers, dig it up and it tears apart. Thus are their chthonian powers associated with night and the moon, and, not incidentally, with lunacy, for among the many powers assigned to the kingdom Fungi, the many fancy alkaloid compounds they pack can have a profound effect on humans who ingest them; profound to the point of death.

Andrew Weil, in his trippy and rollicking The Marriage of the Sun and Moon: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Consciousness suggests that mushrooms collect and concentrate the powers of the moon in much the way the plant kingdom collects and concentrates the power of the sun, and the animal kingdom collects and concentrates the power of the other two, only in the end to be molecularly returned to the use of both. I like this idea as it has about it the whiff of a certain mystical sophistication, comports itself well to symmetry (justice?) and thereby gross scientific understanding, while in the same move thumbing its nose at problems of method. Perhaps Weil would say other kingdoms have other methods inscrutable to the animal mind, but there is about the whole flow-and-concentration-of-powers-idea something analogous to SM and therefore to me intuitively agreeable.

While crunching through the old snow, I found myself presently in the throes of a small reverie concerning the eerie parallels between the beautiful, mysterious, inscrutable, earthy, meaty, delicious and potentially deadly mushroom and that other great betokening of lunar wisdom, capital-W Woman. That Woman is associated with the cyclicality of the moon seems almost trivial in comparison to a moment's reckoning with her deeper mysteries, the collective genius of which governs the subtle substructures of all apparent being, penetrates all things and delivers the most refined products of its endeavors invisibly to striving humanity, mostly quietly, sometimes dramatically, all for the low, low price of being Dionysus' emmisary (Dionysus, the god of altered states, whose priests claimed sole rights to the hallucinogenic scarlet mushroom amanita muscaria, by means of which they communed with their master) and romping in the messy and necessary fields of destruction so that life may cycle through yet again.

I broke out of the Mile Around Wood onto a pasture in the far corner of which Ben was nose down to the frozen earth, blowing powdery snow up around his face and pawing excitedly. I was a good 25 yards from him. As I stopped to enjoy his pique a rabbit leaped in a small explosion of frost out of the ground not more than 20 feet from Ben, racing immediately toward the center of the field. Ben was after it before his nose was entirely out of the hole.

The rabbit, apparently realizing the error of its first trajectory, abruptly changed course 90 degrees for the cover of Bucket Wood opposite where I was emerging onto the scene. By that time Ben was very close and the rabbit's instinct to make for cover was its undoing. With a very small tack Ben placed his maul right in the rabbit's new path and with a plowing of snow and a quick jerk of the head it was all over. In all not more than 5 seconds had elapsed.

The rabbit was limp - clearly dead, but I called to Ben sternly just the same. Ideally he's not supposed to kill things on his constitutionals. When he gets a quarry in his sights often he remembers his shock collar and the situation is defused before it gets started. This time there was blood on the snow before my hand got anywhere near the sending unit. He stood a moment like a trophied show dog, head high, square of shoulder and absolutely at attention, ready to be judged by anyone who dared. As my voice faded into the woods he relaxed and sat down in the snow, pointedly not dropping his prize, defiant of my challenge to the taste of blood on his tongue.

I crossed the pocketed tundra intent to make my point with him, but, despite my thoughtful intentions, proud of his canine skill. His tail told me that he was wise to my ambivalence and he suffered no misgivings that I was either going to punish him or deprive him of his spoils. He looked very pleased with himself, tail twitching expectedly, and even put his prey gently down as I got close. His eyes were more twinkly than wild when I patted his shoulders and said "go ahead".

Ben picked up the rabbit, bounded about with it a few times, then put a paw on its broken back and tore a conservative rend in its middle, managing the gore with his tongue. Once the rabbit was splintered open he quartered it with Jacques Pepin - like flourish and made a clean job of devouring every bit, bloodied snow and all. I watched him relish his essential nature and worried only a moment about the possibility for worms, deciding that was simply not going to happen (just because) and thought finally that in a few hours, perhaps on the walk before bedtime, this rabbit, only a few minutes ago hibernating underground unmolested by either mycelia or Ben, would be transformed into to the sort of organic matter any mushroom would probably find useful.

I looked around to see if any oaks were nearby.

22 February, 2009

Onesies and Twosies

When, in the 19th century, William James considered the question of how the world must look to a newborn infant he said it could only be "one great blooming, buzzing confusion." Thus could an infant have nothing like a world view, however rudimentarily formed - it was one of the very earliest arguments concerning what we now call the "nature verses nurture" debate. As The Economist reports recently, one thing that appears natural to newborns even less than a day old is the concept of number.

Discerning changes in the world is among our principle means of learning about it, and a key signal of change is numerical distinction. When an infant perceives the status of a thing changing from one to two, apparently a cascade of interesting mental functions are taking place, including rudimentary forms of addition and multiplication.

The experiments recounted in The Economist have been going on for decades and have been replicated widely enough for researchers to now say with confidence that people are born with an innate sense of relatively how many items are in small collections. The basic experiment puts a card with one or two dots on it before the eyes of a newborn until she fixes her gaze on it. The card is then replaced with the dot or dots repositioned; their spacial relation changes, but the number is unchanged. Quickly the infant looses interest. When the card is numerically changed (one dot becomes two, two dots become three, etc.) her interest is rekindled. In some experiments it has been demonstrated that babies take note of the removal of one or more dots, which is the beginning of an understanding of negative numbers. This effect is just as reliable between senses, with groupings of three sounds becoming interesting upon loss of interest in two.

We humans are not unique in this way. There are animals that also perceive and understand small numbers. Ravens, for example, can be observed recognizing numerical signifiers to determine which container holds food, and chimpanzees are able to match numerically identical groupings of dissimilar items in anticipation of a food reward. While these effects are trained responses indicating ability, lions in the wild apparently can understand the numerical superiority or inferiority of their pride verses a maurauding group by counting the roars from a distance of the advancing pride. They will stand their ground or retreat based on this rudimentary calculation.

Such observation has led thinkers on the subject to postulate that the human brain is hardwired for numbers, with dedicated brain circuits that can work with small groups of things. From this basic ability to deal with one, two, then maybe one and two to make three, we have a base from which to elaborate a very complex but consistently testable tool for parsing the world and creating from James' "blooming, buzzing confusion" catagories and an orderly universe. As soon as we're able, we establish other bases upon which to perform increasingly complex arithmetic operations, such as base-10 (apparent by our fingers), base-20 (fingers and toes), bases -12, 24 and 60 (time functions, which have a richer factor set than base-10), and so forth. Known uses of positive integers predates an understanding of zero, which is numerically an abstraction (the absence of number).

As always, it's fair to ask of what interest this may be on a blog ostensibly dedicated to bondage and other of the BDSM arts. As I've noted before, binding and being bound are their own forms of signifier, and I've made cases for their utility in revisiting known precincts in experience and memory that have about them the noetic qualities of mystical consciousness. Being bound resembles nothing so much as the restriction of the womb, and in the womb, as I've noted, 1 is the only quantity intelligible to inchoate consciousness.

As noted in The Economist article, the history of philosophy and anthropology is shot through with theories of how humans are induced to count. One of the oldest is the use of two arms. Even the word for a single number, digit, is derivative of base-10 calculating as it refers to a finger (and, in meaning any single number designating any quantity, say, a single instance of the number 374, digit is already a meta-signifier, a very complex mental leap). Some researchers, having observed that babies move easily to three from two (adding one) have assumed that innate brain circuits pattern after at least the number two based on an innate feeling for the presence of two arms, or two legs. The brain wires itself with respect to our bilateral symmetry and thus we emerge into the world with at least an arithmetic 2-base.

Returning to the womb I don't doubt that during our tenancy there our brains align by lobe and hemisphere and structure, which often enough are bifurcated across a medial line. But many important brain structures are limited to one occurrence, such as the structures that interface between discrete brain bodies, for instance the corpus callosum. As far as bilateral symmetry is concerned, 1 is structurally and numerically just as important as 2.

Even if consciousness had the ability to "construct" (a la Jean Piaget) the number two out of some dim perception of two arms or legs, there is no enframing device in which to perform any function to distinguish the number two from the number one. Furthermore there is no basis to believe that non- or pre-arithmetic abilities, such as a crude logic, endow us with the ability to predicate "and" of the womb situation. We do not see "this hand" and "this hand" any more than a goose counts two "sides" to the sky while flying. Stereoptic vision, even unfocused, provides us with a unique singular vector along which depth is given to perception, thus furthering the case for perception in the womb being more of a fusion field than an environment where elements are intelligible as discrete.

It's clear that brand-newborns get the difference between numbers and that the structures of the brain align themselves bilaterally in gestation. What's also clear is that we have no basis for assuming that, just because babies can differentiate numbers within an hour of having been born, the same proclivity exists in them a priori. The case for understanding number is divided across the birth event, for within the womb the number two is beyond "irrational", it's non-rational - it does not come up in consciousness.

The event precipitating babies' performing the big leap into numerical complexity is birth. From the monad of the womb, the trip down the birth canal into bright light, cold air and near instant hunger is the bringing of, first, a simple logical predicate, and (as in, this and then this - before and after - which is the touching down of an anchor into a linear concept of time, itself arithmetic). In a very short instant we are thrust from one state (and a state of oneness) into something completely different. Time and number begin.

It has often been said to me by people - partners - whose experience I have witnessed and whose ability to speak of their feelings is liberal and intelligent, that being bound is to step out of time. A long stretch can pass, an entire afternoon of rigorous restraint, and it will be recounted to me as if a dream (or sometimes the timeless feeling is recounted as more real than the realm of time in which the feeling is being described). In any event, the moment of being loosened from bondage is often likened to the re-nascence of normal, conceptual time and space, something in which one touches down, in which one gets up and walks around, which one puzzles over and figures out.

Out of the womb and into the head.

Time and number are very useful for either navigating a world or constructing a world view, but they are also the crystallization of the many stones that will accrete to drag on us as we pass this life. The effects of time are additive, numerically and ontologically, while the number one remains factorable by only itself; it is, in other words, ontologically self-referential - monadic. Even with the onset of number, time, and the passing of life across various arithmetic bases by which we would detail its splendor, we always return to the idea and the feeling of one -ness. As I have written here on numerous occasions, the forgetting of differentiation is the impetus to intimacy and its very sweet function. The number one is what we know before 2 and 10 and 24 and primes and irrationals and all the other divisions become apparent, and this we never forget - because it's what we are.

I will further suggest that we have a suspicion about elaborated numbers in the same way we wonder whether the apparent world is not just a mask, "einer Welt vor der Welt", the veil of Maya, as it were. We trust integrity, we suspect duplicity. We have formed mass social movements around peoples' innate trust of the principle of unity and called them religions. We have formed tiny social movements around peoples' innate trust of the principle of unity and called it love. The former, while motivated from exactly the same precondition as the latter, proceeds on the faulty assumption that the apparent is real, that the number two is innate, and that thereby man can be ontologically distinguished from God. The latter proceeds from the logically and arithmetically tenable assumption that the number one is, despite the infinite calculability of the apparent world, still the primary and only ontologically meaningful factor.

15 February, 2009

Fine Art 104

This summary is not available. Please click here to view the post.