Saturday, April 12, 2014

A Summary of "Lost in the Cosmos" by Walker Percy

Walker Percy's Lost in the Cosmos notes

Covering the ways of trying to understand the self since one no longer has a framework (such as existed in Medieval Christendom or Judaism) to understand their self within and the self is the one thing unattainable by the knower.

Understanding Self: (There are 17 views people subconsciously develop to understand the self. There is a large aside after number 13 on language, and an aside after number 14 on "re-entry")

1.Amnesiac Self: wishing to forget so as to start anew and build again, or to leave and avoid the meaningless life you now have.

2.Self as Nought: No idea of self and thus seeking to portray a self or find meaning by seeking the unique in one's possessions so as to recapture the thing, things used in new strange ways since their old essence is rendered meaningless nad empty.

3.Self as Nought II: Living by fashion to find a self, When you are told “that dress is you”, this is true, you are the dress since you lack any knowledge of your self, it is filled by fashion.

4.Self identifying with place: Is one so surprised and elated when their hometown is mentioned in a public national event because one is dislocated from the real world around them. Why did GI's in Pacific put up signs “New York, 3000 miles” even if they were bored in NY and had always wished to leave.

5.Fearful Self: Animals do not fear being in front of a crowd. Self as a mask, being in front of others a chance that the mask may be found out.

6.Fearful Self II: Afraid of one-on-one with another, the self unable to express itself and therefore afraid others will find out they are a nothing if there is conversation, but without conversation, there is terrible silence, and the self may still be discovered as a nothing with nothing to say. Why is it hard to talk to another human on the bus or at a party, but less so after a natural disaster and you are both lying under the rubble of the highway overpass?

7.Misplaced Self: Thinking other selves have it better, such as movie stars, or “the rich”, and these opposite selves looking at the lowly and unknown and seeing them as luckier, all selves feeling misplaced and envious in some way of others that are mistakenly perceived as better off.

8.Promiscuous Self: The self is seen as merely another animal by current scientific theory, thus genital relation becomes the underlying basis below all other relations. The self in the technological age must have sex to reassure ones self they can still be part of reality in a solid and tangible (raw) way.

9.Envious Self: Why one prefers bad news although one usually outwardly says they like peace and harmony. Why it makes the self happy to hear of misfortunes of their neighbors and co-workers. The self is so empty that good news of others makes one feel even more empty and so it makes one sad to hear good news.

10.Bored Self: No other animal gets bored. The self has access to multitude of ways to entertain itself, more than ever before in history, but none fill the empty self, so one just gets more bored the more things are sought to fill the self. Entertaining things (such as trip to Disneyland) are emptied of meaning by being marketed and held up as fulfilling, but never living up to the brochure.

11.Depressed Self: Whether something is wrong with the depressed person, or is it normal to be depressed in such a deranged world in which we do not understand the self. One would be odd if confronting the empty self in today's world he did not get depressed. Drugs as means to overcome, but only emptying further. Considered suicide as an honest option in order to regain some sense of appreciating being alive.

12.Impoverished Self: Why material goods only bring out more clearly the emptiness of self, and the poor are happier.

13.Transcending Self: How the self places itself against the world, by modes of Immanence and Transcendence. Explained in a long Semiotic Primer of the Self -
Since the beginning of the cosmos and for the vast majority of its life, there has been only one kind of event, a dyadic (A <====> B ) a relation or interaction of two elements. This includes particles hitting particle, chemical reactions, energy exchanges, gravity, forces, all understood as dyadic events, each influencing the other. The organic life appeared, a thing that was quite different form all else, but was still a series of dyadic events. It related to others whether predatory, or sexual, by dyadic interaction. Complex DNA and the brain and neurons and synapses are dyadic interactions. Even the way animals communicate is dyadic, including trained primates that use sign language only express dyadic relations between the symbol they make and its result.

But recently in the cosmos (possibly around 100,000 years ago) there appeared an event that was for the first time not dyadic. This phenomenon has been called a triadic event, or Delta factor (Δ), or discovery of the use of signs (which includes language and art, etc). We do not know if this occurrence is the only one in the cosmos or not, but we do know that at some point man developed the Delta factor.

The triadic event includes the (A) signifier/word, (B) the organism or knower, and (C) signified/thing. These have a triangular relation and AB, BC, and AC cannot be explained by dyadic relations. In consideration of this unique event we could say there is more likeness between a living organism without triadic behavior and a rock, than there is between a triadic living organism and a dyadic living organism, even if they look very similar.

Triadic behavior is social in essence for signs require an utterer and a receiver. A triadic organism has an interior life, an understanding of “is” and existence by which signs are linked in phrases. Their surrounding environment is not longer just surroundings that are reacted to, but becomes a “world” that is named. Signal users (animals) have an environment, sign users (humans) have a world. They are a Self. A Self with a world of signs, signifying and being signified interpenetrate all the Self does.

Signifying starts Edenic, as joyful celebration of the “world”, as children (or Helen Keller after her breakthrough), but devolves into “mere” signification, and by the dry sign the thing becomes lost to the Self. But the greatest flaw is that the Self, or sign-user, cannot grasp the sign-user itself by conjoining signifier and signified (word and thing). The Self is literally unspeakable to itself. You cannot hear a word which signifies oneself in the same way you can hear the word “apple”. The Self has no sign of itself. No signifier applies. All signifiers apply. So after 15 billion years of life of the cosmos, a being appears that is a misunderstanding of itself, is ashamed, is bored, is a liar, is always acting and feeling the opposite way that an organism in a positive environment should act of feel. Semiotically the “Exile from Eden” is the banishment of the Self from its own world of signs. The history of this organism can be seen as a series of attempts, both heroic and absurd, to find some sort of permanent signification of itself to itself, usually by trying to identify itself with something else. Some examples:

1.Totemism is one way. Identifying with another animal in ones world. Indian were bears or birds in spirit. Current astrology.
2.Eastern Pantheistic: God is everything and everywhere, thus the Self is God and there is no difference.
3.Theistic: The Self is a creature created by God, wounded but loved, with this relation that transcends the “world” of the Self. Christians, Jews, Muslims.

In our current technological, post-religious society, with science the new doctrine giver, these past options are no longer available to many. Only two choices remain now.

1.Immanent Self – as consumer and benefiter of the science and technology. Two ends of a continuum.

A. The anonymous “one” holding a meaningless job and watching meaningless TV and buying the latest meaningless stuff that is promoted to make one happy.

B. At the other end the “discriminating consumer”, who sees themselves as above it all, picking and choosing from the latest and greatest, seeking “human advancement”, activism, joining groups, etc. Both are staking their self-explanation on others. The first assumes in this age “they” (scientists) know all the right things about my Self, so I have no need to concern myself or worry about it. The second seeks Self-explanation by being properly aligned in the right groups, going to the right schools, having the correct credentials, etc.

2.Self as Transcendent – Without religion only self-transcendence is available. In our age two ways to separate oneself from the world, rise above, seek meaning or explanation, are open, science and art.

A. Science. The scientist as price and most honored of our current society. A true self transcendence, entering into a position of objectivity over against the world, which to him is a series of dyadic events. In this position he is in “orbit around” the world, he transcends it. Some brilliant scientists remain this way, lesser men without religion encounter problems with “reentry” into ordinary world. E.g men living in a theoretical world of study, with horrid problems at home, lack of moral concern.

The layman can participate in escaping the self by joining in the scientific mindset, but with bad results. They think they understand and have the joy of looking down on the world around them and pretending to be elite with regard to “regular” folk – the immanent self types. E.g. The lay Freudian saying, “What you say is not what you mean, whether you know it or not, what you really were saying was...” Considering themselves privy to info more or less “secret” to regular people. A genuine scientist is generally amazed at how little we really know about the cosmos, a layman scientist wanna-be is prone to assign near omniscience to the scientific field.

B. Art. The artist can act as a rescuer to the predicament of self by naming the problem. Like the scientist he stands apart and above the ordinary world and looks at it, is in orbit around it. But his transcendence is from looking at the self and naming or expressing its problem of alienation from itself, as opposed to the scientist that escapes it by analyzing the cosmos (including the self) as an object. So an artist find some rescue in facing the problematic self head on and trying to name it. In a age of understanding of self this can result in Beethoven and Michelangelo, in our time it results in Kafka, Dostoevsky, and Hemingway.

The artist transcends the self for extended periods of time while working, but the salvation is fleeting for the viewer/reader. The viewer sees themselves portrayed in the art and find solace in some understanding, but it fades fast. A great work of art provides maybe 20 minutes of exhilaration. reentry problems  from orbit are frequent and damaging for artists more so than for scientist, hence the number of spectacular and bizarre suicides and flameouts of artists.

So in the post religious world both the immanent and transcendent self are impoverished. The immanent self has lost its sovereignty to “them” and is reduced to a cycle of work, fun, work, fun and consuming the goods and services of society. It sees itself as an organism in an environment, a dyadic event, but is meant to be a triadic self in a world and thus cannot understand why it feel bad even though its environment is fine (house, car, wife, job, food, etc). The transcending artist or scientist or lay participant  escapes the self partially, but must reenter, often problematically.

Imagine a scene of a Taos Indian traditional corn dance in NM to seek rain. Several people are in attendance, each approaching their world (the dance in the great Kiva) from a position of immanence or transcendence. A scientist watches, feels transcendent since he has studied corn dances and know all about them and this one is not that great. His assistant feels transcendent since she participates in his learning by being his student. A old Indian dancer transcends since he has always lived in the village and believes the rain dance. A young Indian dancer goes to the university and does not believe the old myths but participates out of respect for his elders and to make some money selling dance photos to the tourists. A writer feels he transcends since he has written about the ways people seek to transcend and feels he can name what the above characters are experiencing, sizing them up in a glance. A divorced women who came to NM to escape NY and knows the dance well and enjoys feeling she is the one who lives there and is not a tourist. The Catholic priest of the village who sees the dance as sort of nothing, just another village activity, wondering about how many will be at Mass the next day. A radio repairman making a delivery in the town, has seen the dance many times and cares less, just wants to go home and have a beer and watch football. A Marxist philosopher/psychologist who feels he transcends since to him everyone else there is a puppet controlled by deterministic string which they can't see. A tourist from Chicago who doesn't know if he transcends or not since he is too busy taking pictures with his state of the art camera, the worth of his trip will depend on if he got good pictures.

14.The Orbiting Self: The problem of reentry and living in the ordinary world. Only the greatest of scientists in an age of great respect for science can sustain a type of near permanent transcendence and avoid problems. The artists must always come back. The best and brightest movie of the year ends at 9pm, what to do at 10pm? How to have a normal Wednesday afternoon after finishing writing Brothers Karamazov? Hence the artist inclination for alcohol, drugs, odd sexual lives, mental illness, depression and suicide.

Options for a reentry are the following:

1.Uneventful and intact reentry: Possible for a few, e.g. A sculptor on the 12th century cathedral of Cologne going home for dinner with the family, to whom it never occurs to sign his name on the statue he has finished above the north portico, and who has lived his whole life in the same community.

2.By anesthesia: simply to render intolerable reentry tolerable by wiping out the brain.

3.By geographical travel: Leave home since one has rendered home meaningless since it has been sucked into the emptiness of the self. Travel to new places, which in time are digested as well and one must move on. Some time the places run out before life does... travel is often from North to South, from Protestant to Catholic area (regarding culture only, not religion) since the Catholic (Mediterranean and Hispanic areas) have a visual festival culture that fills the self easier.

4.By sexual travel: Moving from lover to lover, heterosexual works for most, but the severely estranged self sometimes cannot reenter by regular means and a woman demands a relation which may expose the emptiness of the self, better to go with ones own sex and not worry about the relation demanded beyond the sex.

5.By return home after exile/travel: not usually successful, but sometime after being gone long enough the hometown can regain meaning and is no longer empty – for a while.

6.By disguise/costume: Role playing, becoming a cowboy, or a farm worker to escape self, although one really knows nothing of cowboying or farming. Or with a behavioral costume, such as “being” a womanizer, a clubber party boy, a goth, a lie about a fake illness or fake past.

7.By Eastern 'New Age”: denial of reentry since singular self is really cosmic self, out of linear time into cyclical. Denial of self is attractive since the self is not perceptible to itself.

8.By not reentering and exiting forever (suicide): The direst of options but maybe the most honest in the sense that all other options are failed attempts, what is logically left as a way to escape the emptiness of self?

9.By continually putting off reentry: Withdrawal into solitude, refusal to even try to live a normal life anymore.

10.By sponsorship of God: Transparency before one's creator as the means to recover an idea of self and allow for living life again as a self that understands itself somewhat – as a wounded creature in relation to a saving diety. Hard for modern man due to God (if believed in at all) has become just another part of the cosmos, a force. Also due to the fact that many that say “Lord, Lord” are obnoxious and do not seem to have any type of grasp on their self better than anyone else.

11.By assault: Becoming a violent activist, taking on the world, promoting revolution, seeking to get arrested. This rarely works since no one cares about the guy standing in front of the White House screaming obscenities about the “fascist state” and “trampling of rights”. The President, staff and all passerbys ignore them.

15. The Exempted Self: Scientists simply ignore the fact of themselves and other selves. The existence of homo sapiens sapiens is disliked. The sudden appearance of the peculiar characteristics of of man is bothersome and their factual existence is explained away by including man in Darwin's theory. But the opposite extreme – literal six day creationism does not appear likely based on the facts either. The problem is when triadic creatures (men) try to explain everything through exclusive dyadic events. The theory excludes the triadic person thinking up the theory.

16. The Lonely Self: Why the Self feels alone and seeks to somehow communicate with Chimps, Gorillas, or Dolphins. After extreme effort to teach animals language, raise them as humans, etc, after glorious first reports, it turns out that they never acquire sign usage, only responses. They have communication, but not language. Why the effort? Is it since man was progressively dethroned the last few hundred years so as to be nothing special in the cosmos, and if animals can learn language, the dethronement will be complete. Or is it because we feel special somehow, yet seem inferior to animals since we are often torn, empty, hateful and irrational, stupid and self destructive?

Also the search for aliens as well falls into this. People will believe any strange claim of extraterrestrial intelligence by any odd guru in order to believe we are not alone and left with ourselves without explanation.

17. The Demoniac Self: Violence and a related spirit of erotic violence as popular. Work is disappointing, a few may like it, but for most it is dull. Home is disappointing, proven by the fact or the number of hours of TV watched. School is disappointing, one can only wrench a good education out a school by force and in spite of the school. You will not encounter Shakespeare in lit class, you must recover Shakespeare in spite of the lit class. Politics and church are disappointing, the first as totally shallow, the second since attendees are either boring, or preachers are over styled and blow-dried for TV. Social life is boring, all the effort and discussion to try to reestablish community and festival reveal the loss of both. Recreation is the only hope for the disappointed self, and falls into a few groups:
A. Travel, going to new geographical places.

B. Sports, quasi community and territory, an us against them identification that gives a small amount of meaning to the self.

C. Media escape, such as music, TV, reading, etc.

D. Drugs, trying to forget the unspeakable self.

E. Sex, the cheapest and most readily available way for a self to have some sort of guaranteed relation with another self.

Recreation is considered authentic or inauthentic based on subjective rules the self has to allow or disallow its experiences. E.g.:

If one needs to get away to become a new person, there is a burden on the travel that it may not live up to the ideal. Three people take a bus tour of Mexico and the bus breaks down. One is upset, they paid for special accommodations and expects them, and does not want to have to spend the night in a rustic old convent waiting for repairs. The second is delighted, the trip was routine with anglicized condos and boring tourist companions, but is now feeling like the have left the “beaten path” and will have a better story to tell. The third is neutral and understands both the sadness and joy of the other two travelers and even knows some tours break down on purpose to liven things up for tourists. The third is more interested in watching the other two watch Mexicans than watching Mexicans.

In the media, when travel is portrayed on TV it shifts to erotic (Soap Operas, Love Boat, Fantasy Island, reality TV). Violence in sport (Football, Boxing, even Baseball is watched for the possible fight) and in movies.

Sex is a recreational mainstay, whether romantic encounters and courting, or one night hook-ups without names being exchanged. Sex is the last resort of entertainment when others fail. If this is the last resort, what happens with the completion of the sexual revolution and sex becomes devalued so far like everything else that it to looses its ability to inform the self and becomes just another technique and need-satisfaction of an organism in an environment, and self is left with nothing more... this could be the tie between sex and violence. Or why the reentry of distantly transcended selves such as scientists often crash in violence or extreme sex.

Conclusion: If we traveled into space and found a planet with intelligent life, meaning they too have sign use and triadic existence, but assuming they had not undergone the loss of self and immanent transcendent problems of the unspeakable self that we have, would they allow us to land, or would we be considered dangerous creatures that do not understand ourselves and end up destroying most everything we come into contact with.