Posted by: Harold Knight | 08/05/2011

We don’t have our ideas and bring our bodies along with them*

Interpretation of sign: to save the nestlings

Interpretation of sign: to save the nestlings

*Ann Milliken Pederson

I’m thinking a lot about my connection (our connections) to my (our) body (bodies) lately. For many reasons. I’ve moved back into mine after several years of neglect.

Teleology is the study of the study of the evidences of design or purpose in nature. No, I’m not about to engage in some sort of evolutionist/ creationist/ intelligent design argument. What could be more boring or less fruitful? Ethology is the study of animal behavior with emphasis on the behavioral patterns that occur in natural environments. Since I don’t experience any natural environment or know anyone who does, that seems a pretty fruitless kind of discussion.

As I’ve said often, finding “design or purpose in nature” is difficult for me at this juncture. Cancer. It is a horrible thing. Its purpose is totally obscure, unknowable, crazy-making, infuriating. Aging. Not quite as infuriating as cancer because it is a “natural” process we all experience if we live long enough.

Human life depends only marginally on processes of conscious interpretation. By far the majority of all human choices depend on subconscious decisions based on the tacit interpretations of cues . . . such as for instance the specter of pheromones emitted by persons of the opposite sex that apparently deeply influence how attractive we find such persons. We know fairly well today that rational decisions and emotional states are deeply interconnected (2).

Rational decisions. Emotional states.

No science studies embodiment more directly than that of human anatomy. Christine Montrose. . . remarks: “The human body harbors mysteries that are not solved by text books or studying, and, as I have been confronted with them, I have found myself amazed, humbled, and unnerved” (3).

Our decisions are embodied. At the very least, our physical makeup is a determinate in every decision we make. Hoffmeyer says interpretation of signs

[A sign is neither a thing nor a concept; it is a pure relation whereby a receptive system orders its world. But this kind of existence—existence as a relation, or relative being—is usually dismissed by science as not really real (4)]

is basic not only to human existence, but to all forms of life. He offers the example of a bird who feigns injury to lure a fox away from her nestlings. The bird interprets the sign of the fox’s approach, and the fox interprets the sign of the bird’s weakness. Hoffmeyer’s extrapolation from this process to the evolution of meaning in existence is too complex to repeat here. Suffice it to say (hopefully interpreting Hoffmeyer correctly) that the ability to—the need to—interpret signs is basic to our human existence, and it is based in our bodies.

Donna Haraway, Professor Emerita in the History of Consciousness at the University of California at Santa Cruz, has written a study of the relationship between mankind and dogs. She asserts that questions of the how and why of this millennia-old close relationship can be answered only

. . . in emergent practices; i.e., in vulnerable, on-the-ground work that cobbles together non-harmonious agencies and ways of living that are accountable both to their disparate inherited histories and to their barely possible but absolutely necessary joint futures. For me, that is what significant otherness means (5) .

“Emergent” in this instance is a term used in philosophical writing (I didn’t know, so I assume other lay persons don’t) signifying “the arising of novel and coherent structures, patterns and properties during the process of self-organization in complex systems” (6).

The “disparate inherited histories” of people and dogs surely begin with their (our) bodies. Ethology (the study of animal behavior with emphasis on the behavioral patterns that occur in natural environments) seems conflated with teleology (the study of the evidences of design or purpose in nature) here. I haven’t read Haraway’s book. I am only musing.

Our decisions are embodied. At the very least, our physical makeup is a determinate in every decision we make.

Living entities became intentional systems—subjects, in a sense—because they had established channels for an integration of other-reference. . . with self-reference. At first they were only marginally intentional, but this new dynamic principle, semiosis [the making and use of “signs”], would have a self-perpetuating logic to it. . . (7).

I can sense whatever logic was guiding this writing falling apart. I wanted desperately to show that our bodies—and our ability to understand them and live completely in them—create our dependence on semiosis, on the making and sharing of the “signs” of our lives together, even our lives with, for example, dogs. They are the basis of our “self-organization in complex systems.”

I’ve lost track of the path I was taking to get to “establish[ing] channels for an integration of other-reference. . . with self-reference.” In my reading, I zeroed in on Donna Haraway’s assertion that understanding comes from work “that cobbles together non-harmonious agencies and ways of living that are accountable both to their disparate inherited histories and to their barely possible but absolutely necessary joint futures. . .”

Cobbling together ways of living that are accountable. Establishing channels for an integration of other-reference with self-reference. Surely that applies to human to human relationships as well human to dog relationships.

We cobble together a way of living that accounts for our disparate histories. Our histories begin with our bodies. Our aging, cancerous, sign-making bodies. We are much more (shall I use the incendiary word?) evolved than the bird feigning injury to save her nestlings. We live together in complex systems, and we know fairly well today that rational decisions and emotional states are deeply interconnected.

I guess what I’m trying to say is I think we need to find a way to move back into our bodies—to find, each of us, how to be accountable to our disparate histories so we can have a basis for living in complex systems, deeply interconnected.

Hoffmeyer begins his essay with a question from the philosopher Thomas Nagel. “How can it be the case that one of the ‘people in the world’ is me?” Hoffmeyer suggests that the first attempt to answer

. . .  must be that we can somehow explain the existence of “me”ness in the world. . . [A] theory that fails to give us tools to meaningfully confront this leaves us as objectified biological robots, or zombies. I firmly believe that I am not such a zombie, and neither is the reader. A decent biology must search for the evolutionary root forms of what it is to be an “I,” a first-person singularis (9).

“We don’t have our ideas and bring our bodies along with them.” I assume Ann Milliken Pederson thinks it’s the other way around.
_______________
(1) Hoffmeyer, Jesper.  “A Biosemiotic Approach to the Question of Meaning.” Zygon  45.2 (June 2010): 367-390.
(2) Montrose, Christine. Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab. New York: Penguin (2007). Quoted in Pederson, Ann Milliken.  “The Nature of Embodiment: Religion and Science in Dialogue.”  Zygon 45.1 (March 2010): 264-272.
(3) Hoffmeyer, ibid.
(4) Haraway, Donna. The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm (2003). Quoted in Pederson.
(5) Corning, Peter A. “The Re-Emergence of ‘Emergence’: A Venerable Concept in Search of a Theory.” Complexity 7.6 (2003): 18–30.
(6) Hoffmeyer, op. cit.
(7) Nagel, Thomas. 1986. The View from Nowhere. Oxford and New York: Oxford Univ. Press (1986).
(8) Hoffmeyer, op. cit.

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