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Thursday, January 3, 2019

Embracing synaesthesia in a world of "fake news"

In his remarkable book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Noah Harari, writes:

A cursory look at history reveals that propaganda and disinformation are nothing new, and even the habit of denying entire nations and creating fake countries has a long pedigree. In 1931, the Japanese army staged  mock attacks on itself to justify its invasion of China, and then created the fake country of Manchukuo to legitimate its conquests. China itself has long denied that Tibet ever existed as an independent country. British settlement in Australia was justified by the legal doctrine of terra nullis (nobody’s land in Latin), which effectively erased fifty thousand years of Aboriginal history.

In the twentieth century, a favourite Zionist slogan spoke of the return of “a people without a land (the Jews) to a land without a people (Palestine). The existence of the local Arab population was conveniently ignored. In 1969 Israeli prime minister Golda Meir famously said that there is no Palestinian people and never was. Such views are still very common in Israel even today, despite decades of armed conflicts against something that doesn’t exist. For example, in February 2016 Knesset member Anat Berko gave a speech to her fellow parliamentarians, in which she doubted the reality of the Palestinian people. Her Proof? The letter p does not even exist in Arabic. So how can there be a Palestinian people? (In Arabic, f stands for what in other languages is pronounced p, and the Arabic name for Palestine is Falastin.)

And then he also writes:

So if you blame Facebook Trump or Putin for ushering in a new and frightening era of post-truth, remind yourself that centuries ago millions of Christians locked themselves inside a self-reinforcing mythological bubble, never daring to question the factual veracity of the Bible, while millions of Muslims put their unquestioning faith in the Quran. For millennia, much of what passed for “news” and “facts” in human social networks were stories about miracles, angels demons, and witches, with bold reporters giving live coverage straight from the deepest pits of the underworld. We have zero scientific evidence that Eve was tempted by the serpent, that the souls of all infidels burn in hell after they die, or that the creator of the universe doesn’t like it when a Brahmin marries a Dalit—yet billions of people have believed in these stories for thousand of years. Some fake news lasts forever. (p.237-238)

Harari goes on to defend the use of mythology and its extensive repetition over centuries as a significant and highly instrumental approach for the purpose of inculcating a faith by bringing large numbers of people together.

It is his discernment of the literalism from the mythic, that merits serious and deep reflection in a world in which the west seems bound by obsession to the nano-second, and the most base and literal “reading” of all language. Instant gratification, no matter the theatre in which it operates, remains a dangerous and self-sabotaging perspective. And yet, that is where we seem to be living.

The reduction of language to the most base expression exclusively of “facts” that are either “believable” or “lies” not only ignores the many other levels of language, but reduces the culture to a battle of “he said”-“she said” in each and every situation. The kind of highly nuanced and sensitive decision, and ethical value, demonstrated by Queen Elizabeth II, by permitting the Churchill family to enter Westminster Abbey after the royal party, (an authentic sign of deference to Sir Winston Churchill, her first Prime Minster, and also her mentor) would likely go unnoticed or unappreciated today.*

Even the word “believe” has to be addressed today, as to whether or not it too has been reduced apply only to a kind of “legal, empirical, verifiable, extrinsic piece of information” as opposed to a piece of philosophical, spiritual or theological reflection. This separation between the categories of “legal evidence” and something else, like poetry, or song lyrics, or speculations, or provocative ideas, reducing the media and the public to a stringent, unforgiving and relentless moral and ethical critical parent of every word uttered, of every action in all situations, inevitably takes un on the road to an unsustainable and non-existent universe.

In his highly sensitive and provocative book, The Spell of the Sensuous, David Adam, details the kind of separation from nature that occurred with the advent of the alphabet. He writes:

Without a formal writing system, the language of an oral culture cannot be objectified as a separable entity by those who speak it, and this lack of objectification influence not only8 the way in which oral cultures experience the field of discursive meanings, but also the very character and structure of that field. In the absence of any written analogue to speech, the sensible, natural environment  remains the primary visual counterpart of spoken utterance, the visible accompaniment of all spoken meaning.

The land, in other words, is the sensible site or matrix wherein meaning occurs and proliferates. In the absence of writing, we find ourselves situated in the field of discourse as we are embedded in the natural landscape; indeed the two matrices are not separable. We can no more stabilize the langauge and render its meanings determinate than we can freeze all motion and metamorphosis within the land. (p.139-140)
If, as David Adam posits, we live in an animate environment, and deploy language that imitates the sounds and deep character of that natural universe, we are, by definition, then in an intimate and even conjoined relationship with that environment.

Acknowledging that most of us, raised as we have been, in a “culture that asks us to distrust our immediate sensory experience and to orient ourselves instead on the basis of an abstract “objective” reality known only through quantitative measurement, technological instrumentation and other exclusively human involvements. But for those indigenous cultures still participant with the more-than-human life-world, for those peoples that have no yet shifted their synaesthetic# focus from the animate earth to a purely human set of signs, the riddles of the under-the-ground and beyond-the-horizon (the inside of things and the other side of things) are felt as vast and powerful mysteries, the principal realms from whence beings enter the animate world, and into which they depart.

For instance, among most native tribes of the American Southwest, where I live,--the people believe that they came into the world from  under the ground.” (Adam, p. 217)
Clearly, there is a wide and potentially permanent chasm between the tight, anal, and restrictive literalism of the world of “fake news” and the judgemental energies that cling to that world view and the more liberating, inclusive, connective and fulsome energies that attend a world view encompassing synaesthesia.

And rather than adopt a perspective that rejects either perspective, we would hope to embrace both in our imaginations, first, and then in through expanding our tolerance and wonder and awe at the complexity not only of the universe, but also of the human species of which we are a part. Refusing to reduce our perspective in any way could well turn out to be a sine qua non of our full embrace of our responsibility, individually and collectively, for the future of the planet that provides the essential elements for our life.

The full embrace of science includes and embraces the full engagement with the poetic, the mystic and the synaesthetic, as well as the embrace of the plethora of exciting and varied cultures, ethnicities, faiths, academies and traditions. We live in a veritable garden of world views, each with their unique and scintillating ways of mimicking the natural world. And, we are also the only gardeners in that garden, charged with attending to its perpetuity.

Are we really up to the task and the hope and the dream the task incarnates?
*The protocol for state funerals, also historically reserved for the royal family, and not for parliamentarians, required the monarch to be the last to enter the funeral.

#synaesthesia: Although contemporary neuroscientists study “synaesthesia-the overlap and blending of the senses, as though it were a rare or pathological experience to which only certain persons are prone (those who report “seeing sounds,” “hearing colors,” and the like), our primordial, preconceptual experience…in inherently synaesthetic. The intertwining of sensory modalities seems unusual to us only to the extent that we have become estranged from our direct experience. (Adam, p. 60)

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