Monday, November 12, 2012

Unity of Being: Conflict and the Self

In the process of formulating a pluralist approach to literary criticism I introduced the notion of unity of being (Unity of Being and Ethical Criticism) and said a few things about it with regard to literature. Now I want to generalize the idea.

The term itself is not at all new, though I have no idea when and where I first encountered it much less how old it is. Nor, of course, is the idea, though just what THAT idea is in THIS context, that’s not obvious. That’s what I want to explore.

In context of literary criticism I had two things in mind: the direct experience of literature and the world as constructed in a given text. The first concerns what it feels like to experience a given text, moment by moment, from beginning to end. The second is how one lives one’s life outside and beyond the text, but in its shadow. That is, the world view embodied in the text. In doing so I simply indicated that those things are what I meant by unity of being.

And that’s how I’m going to proceed, inductively rather than deductively. I could, abstractly considered, proceed by defining being and consequent to that defining unity and disunity of being. Maybe I’ll eventually end up there, but not now. In particular, I may figure out the relationship between “being” in this context and “being” in the general context of pluralist ontology: Are they the same thing or not?

Another Case: Music

So, unity of being and the literary text.

What about, not a verbal text, but instrumental music, or dance? There we have the moment by moment experience, but there is no reference to, construction of, the world? Here unity of being can exist only in the expressive act, for there is no expression of nor reference to a world outside the expressive act.

The case is an important one because I believe it to be fundamental to the evolutionary, psychological, social, and psychological transition from clever ape to proto-human. In making that argument, as I did at some length in Beethoven’s Anvil, I argued that rhythm, not melody much less harmony, is the foundation. And synchronization to a simple beat is the most basic form of rhythmic organization in a group. Fireflies have been observed to synchronize their blinking, certain audiences will synchronize their clapping. And almost all forms of music require that the players synchronize around a single repetitive beat.

Now, following an illustrious line of predecessors including Darwin and Rousseau, what I actually argue in Beethoven’s Anvil (2001) is not that music, as we know it, made us human, but that proto-music, if you will, made us human. This proto-music preceded the differentiation of vocal activity into singing and speaking and, for that matter, it preceded the differentiation between music and dance. It is ancient stuff.

It might have happened like this (Beethoven’s Anvil, pp. 177-178):
So now we have bands of proto-humans using their animal calls, and their animal moves as well. Group musicking would surely be common. I can imagine it starting more or less spontaneously around significant events. A lion is beaten off, a female comes back from the bush with a new infant, a death, a fresh kill, a water hole is found after a two-day search, a quarrel breaks out and is resolved. I'm imagining a group of folks going about their business and then something dramatic happens that captures the attention of more and more individuals; they begin milling around while chattering and gesturing. Then gestures, footfalls, and cries begin intersecting one another, creating ever denser patterns of sonic and gestural coincidence—the dynamics might have been a bit like those of the clapping we examined at the end of chapter 3. That, I believe, is how group musicking emerged.

For generations upon generations, this musicking may have been opportunistic and haphazard. But the particular patterns of group interaction became easier and easier to trigger, the catalytic requirements less and less, and somehow the activity began happening without any particular catalyst at all. It just happened that on this or that occasion enough individuals gathered together in a small space, one of them began a rhythmic stomp and the joined in, for the fun of it. In this context, every once in awhile—and, over time, more and more frequently—magic could happen. People would have fun and, perhaps, anxiety would be dissipated as well.
I will now assert, if only provisionally, that it is in this context that humans began to seek unity of being. The experience of synchronized group activity felt good and that feeling became the goal and end of the action. Individuals lost in the dancing and music-making group, that’s one face of unity of being, the subjective experience of flow.

There is another face. In Beethoven’s Anvil I go on to argue that proto-music brought about a uniquely human social space (Chapter 9, “Musicking the World,” pp. 195 ff.). As language emerged the emerging humans inscribed the world within this space through ritual and story-telling, through myth. And that reveals the other face of unity of being.

Neural Coherence and Trickster

Let us step back from music and myth for a moment and think about memory, autobiography, and the self. We assume, without giving it much thought, that we can recall most of the important events in our life, at least those that happened after four or five years of age. While recognizing that memory is not complete or infallible, we assume that we more or less have our life history at our command, that we can recall the past at will.

I don’t wish to question that assumption. Rather, I want to point out that such recall as we do have is, given the biochemical nature of the nervous system, rather remarkable. Consider this passage from an old post, Emotion Recollected in Tranquility, in which I lay the ground for an account of the adaptive value of story-telling:
I now have another proposal to offer, one based in a line of thinking I began entertaining in the mid-1970s when I learned about state-dependent memory. I first learned about state dependence when I read a review of the literature on altered states of consciousness in which Roland Fischer reported an experiment originally performed by D. Goodwin (“The Cartography of Inner Space” in Hallucinations, Siegel and West, eds. 1975, p. 199). Subjects were first made drunk and then asked to memorize nonsense syllables. When their recall was tested while sober they performed poorly. Their recall dramatically improved, however, if they once again became drunk. More recently, Daniel L. Schacter has written of mood-congruent memory retrieval: “Experiments have shown that sad moods make it easier to remember negative experiences, like failure and rejection, whereas happy moods make it easier to remember pleasant experiences, like success and acceptance” (Searching for Memory, 1996, p. 211). Recall of experience is best when the one’s brain is in the same state it was in when one had that experience. That is what is meant by state dependence.

Given that motivation and emotion are mediated by over a hundred neurotransmitters and neuromodulators (Panksepp, Affective Neuroscience, 1998), the state dependent nature of memory has profound implications for our ability to recall our personal experience. As I have previously argued [The Evolution of Narrative and the Self]:
If records of personal experience are [biochemically biased], especially in the case of strongly emotionally charged experience, then how can we get a coherent view of ourselves and of our world? The world of a person who is ravenously hungry is different from the world of that same person when he or she is consumed with sexual desire. Yet it is the same person in both cases. And the apple, which was so insignificant when sexually hungry—to the point where that apple wasn't part of the world at all—becomes a central object in the world once sexual desire has been satisfied and hunger asserts itself. Regardless of the person's [biochemical state], it is still the same apple.
If this is how the nervous system works, then how does one achieve a state of mind in which one can as easily remember an apple as a sexual object? That is to say, how does the brain achieve a biochemically “neutral” state of mind from which one can recall or imagine any kind of experience?
Think about that for awhile. To use a crude metaphor, each memory is in a box that’s biochemically locked. To open the box and retrieve the memory you need the right biochemical key. When you were chased by that bear, you were afraid. That memory is locked by fear. When you first met your new-born niece, that memory is locked by affection. When, a year later, she bit your finger and drew blood, that memory is locked by anger. And when the sun came out after the story, that memory is locked by joy. Where do you keep the keys to these locks so you can open any lock at any time? For without such a key chain your own memory is, at best, only sporadically accessible for reflection.

Here’s what I said in the Tranquility post:
I suggest that story-telling is a way of accomplishing this. Parents tell stories to children in a setting that is comfortable and safe and those stories are generally calibrated with a sense of what interests and pleases the child, but is not too frightening. Children hear stories in which characters are hungry or thirsty, but eventually find food and water, in which characters are lost and frightened, but then found, in which important relationships are imperiled, but restored, in which new relationships are formed and, in time, in which important relationships may be lost forever. They are allowed to experience a wide range of emotional behavior in a context where they are safe.
With this is mind, let’s consider the figure of the Trickster, which is known in a wide variety of the world’s mythologies and is perhaps best known through the Winnebago Trickster stories as collected by Paul Radin (The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology, Schocken 1972). The tales form a mythical encyclopedia of Winnebago culture. Radin remarks in his introductory essay (p. xxiii) that
Trickster is at one and the same time creator and destroyer, giver and negator, he who dupes others and who is always duped himself. He wills nothing consciously. At all times he is constrained to behave as he does from impulses over which he has no control. He knows neither good nor evil yet he is responsible for both. He possesses no values, moral or social, is at the mercy of his passions and appetites, yet though his actions all values come into being.
That is to say, Trickster is dominated by those biochemically coded å in many posts. They are all in display in the stories of the cycle. That cycle is thus the chain on which hang the keys to all the biochemical locks to our memory boxes. Here’s a brief characterization of the cycle from my essay on narrative evolution:
The basic action of the story is simple. Trickster, the tribal chief, is preparing for war. This preparation violates tribal tradition, for the tribal chief is not permitted to go to war. While there is no explicit retribution for this, no character who says something like, "Because you have failed to observe the proper rituals, you are going to be punished," the preparations fail and Trickster ends up in the wilderness, completely stripped of culture. He then undergoes a series of adventures in which, in effect, he learns how to operate his body and his culture. These episodes are a catalog of behavioral modes, with hunger and sexuality being prominent. For example, there is one incident (Episodes 12, 13, and 14) where Trickster learns that his anus is part of his body. He had killed some ducks and started roasting them overnight. When he went to sleep, he instructed his anus to ward off any intruders. Some foxes came and his anus did the best it could, but the foxes ignored the flatulence and ate the ducks anyhow. So, to punish his anus he burns it with a piece of burning wood. Naturally he feels pain. Only then does he realize that his anus is a part of himself.
As that particular example indicates, there is nothing polite or sanitized about these tales, and that’s just one instance. The Trickster cycle knows no shame.

Which is the point. No Winnebago would talk about such things in polite society, nor would a Victorian matron, but the telling of the Trickster stories is a public occasion in which all in the band are present. Everyone feels Trickster’s pain, and knows that everyone feels it. And everyone laughs, in the presence of everyone else. That’s how the keychain of memory locks is formed, in public, and so it has public approval.

Given this keychain, individuals can master their own stories, remember and reflect on events in their own lives. That is to say, they can create for themselves a unified life history and, for the group, a unified history as well. That, I believe, is the biological function of these fictions that so enthrall us, whether in the form of myths and folktales, epic cycles, triple-decker novels, or movies and cartoons. They forge the biosocial links that support chains and nets of individual and collective narrative.

Religious Ritual and Hurricane Sandy

Let us consider one more example, this from my own immediate personal history.

I live in Jersey City, New Jersey, which is on the West bank of the Hudson River, across from lower Manhattan and at the head of New York Bay. When hurricane Sandy blew through two weeks ago Jersey City was hit hard. I was without electrical power for four-and-a-half days; that, in turn, meant no heat, no hot water, no television, and no internet. Some of my neighbors were flooded out and a near-by dry dock for small boats was trashed.



On the Sunday after Sandy, which hit on a Monday evening, I went to church. Though I hold no conventional religious belief I wanted to be with my neighbors on this day. The church is Christian and so is based on stories going back three-thousand years.

I won’t attempt to recount the entire service, which had many parts in addition to the sermon, which was the second half of the almost two-hour service. The service is clearly designed to support maximum participation from a wide variety of church members, deacons, ushers, choir members, and ordinary congregants in addition to the pastor, his wife, and assistant ministers. Thus at one point early in the service one woman in the congregation spoke up and asked to testify. A hymn had touched her heart and she wanted to talk about what had happened when she was gravely ill and some had given her up for dead. And thus was that particular experience made the common property of those in attendance.

As I said in an earlier post, the general tenor of the service was that God has shown His power, that He is in control, that He has given us a wake-up call. From a logical point of view that implies the God is responsible for all that damage and all the misery. But there was no attempt to blame God for Sandy’s destruction nor, despite the repeated assertion that He has given us a wake-up call, was there any attempt to make us feel guilty for our sins. A wake-up call is NOT a punishment, not in the logic of liturgical practice in this particular Christian tradition. Rather, we should be grateful for this opportunity to experience God’s majesty and to show Him our love and devotion. We should be kind to one another and help one another.

Clearly the aim of this service was to bring peace of mind to the congregants and energize us to face the days ahead. The Biblical passages quoted throughout the service situate our current experience and aspirations in the context of an account of how the world is, assuring us that, despite the destruction we’ve just been through, and which we will have to face once we leave the church, the world is still the world. And we are still loved by God.

Unity of Being in Many Forms

The goal of that church service, then, was unity of being. That is to say, I am proposing that as another example of unity of being, along with the tellings of the Trickster tales and the original proto-music through which clever apes made themselves into human beings. I could offer many more examples, and I suppose I should consider an example from among the many meditation traditions.

But I won’t. I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader. What does one do during meditation? Of what do you become aware? How does it give you control over your mind? That is to say, how does it contribute to unity of being?

In terms of the pluralist metaphysics I have been proposing and exploring, we each live our lives in various Realms of Being. Each society affords its members various Realms of Being, various ways of acting in the world, whether alone or through interacting with others. Unity of Being is the capacity to move fluidly among these realms.

One the one hand we have those Realms of ritual, play, and performance that are designed to move us through simulacra of other realms, and though facilitate the development of unity among them. The pleasurable and fluid experience of these Realms is one face of Unity of Being. The other face is the content of the stories themselves, and the beliefs elaborated upon those stories. Those are the stories of what we are as human beings.

In this sense Unity of Being is NOT that all Realms are one and the same, but rather that we can move among them and ourselves remain one and the same.

Do I believe this? How should I know, I just made it up. Maybe I’ll understand these things better tomorrow, or the next day, or a week from now. Until then I have to say something in order to get there.


  1. With regard to story telling and children.

    "They are allowed to experience a wide range of emotional behavior in a context where they are safe."

    I agree fully with that point but " is not too frightening"

    Ethnography won't support that statement and I can also run with personal experience here(which is very typical in Ireland, Scotland, Northern England and repeated consistently as a feature of such traditions from at least the 17th cen.)

    It can be a deeply terrifying experience.

    "Children hear stories in which characters are hungry or thirsty"

    Found this one interesting in regard to you're comments on the apple. The small groups of tales I spent the most time examining were ones in which the people in the story were well fed.
    Those telling and listening on the other hand were starving.

    Particular attention paid to well filled tables and detail of all that was eaten. Not why I was looking at them, but this was something that was offered as a reason by those performing them why they found them so appealing and one of the main childhood memories they had in regard to them. These are traveling families, often reviled by the settled community and lived in serious poverty.

    Minor nit picking on the fear issue. Apple ones interesting. It is a rather context sensitive activity.

    The context I am most familiar with is very different from you're own.

    1. Well, of course, children DO like scary stories. I suppose the question is how scary is TOO scary.

      I've heard tales of theatrical showing of Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in which the theater is left with many wet seats where children lost bladder control. I know that I was unable to sit through it when my mother took me at the age of four or so. The witch was just too scary for me.