"From Blank to Blank":

Excerpts from a Work in Regress


Being No One

"Nobody ever was or had a self. All that ever existed were conscious self-models that could not be recognized as models. The phenomenal self is not a thing, but a process—and the subjective experience of being someone emerges if a conscious information-processing system operates under a transparent self-model. You are such a system right now, as you read these sentences. Because you cannot recognize your self-model as a model, it is transparent: you look right through it. You don't see it. But you see with it."
         —Thomas Metzinger,
          Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity

Posted on Saturday, February 2, 2008 at 08:58PM by Registered CommenterMark Forrester | CommentsPost a Comment

Bread Givers

My Amazon Review:

Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers is, in a sense, two overlapping stories. The first half of the book is the melodramatic tale of an impoverished Jewish immigrant family living in the New York ghetto, a family suffering under the tyrannical and hypocritical piousness of the father. At times the foolishness and ineptitude of the father is almost comic, but the suffering inflicted on his family is harrowingly poignant. The second half is a psychologically and sociologically astute feminist coming-of-age tale, as the youngest daughter breaks from her family to re-define herself as an Americanerin, leaving for college and eventually becoming a teacher in her old neighborhood. The broader strokes of the novel's opening give way to provocative considerations of the difficulties inherent in the narrator's at times ambivalent desires for assimilation within an alien culture and for a self-respecting independence from her own patriarchal family.

Posted on Friday, March 17, 2006 at 05:30PM by Registered CommenterMark Forrester | CommentsPost a Comment

Objectivity and Subjectivity (3)

A while back I posted an entry about Basho's observation that poetry should be neither objective nor subjective. David Walker offers a clear and valuable explanation of this position:

"Poems whose imaginative center is the rela­tionship between the self and the world, the psychic ties which bind them, have to maintain a precarious balance. When they are controlled too much either by the mind or by the object, they risk on the one hand solipsistic distortion, and mindless passivity on the other. Only those poems which manage this tightrope, satisfying the demands of both inner and outer worlds, create the simultaneous surprise and instinctive rightness we associate with genuine vision."

Walker identifies this desired state as "sympathetic consciousness," though I might prefer to call it "empathetic consciousness." He uses as an example one of my favorite poems by Charles Simic:


Go inside a stone
That would be my way.
Let somebody else become a dove
Or gnash with a tiger's tooth.
I am happy to be a stone.

From the outside the stone is a riddle:
No one knows how to answer it.
Yet within, it must be cool and quiet
Even though a cow steps on it full weight,
Even though a child throws it in a river;
The stone sinks, slow, unperturbed
To the river bottom
Where the fishes come to knock on it
And listen.

I have seen sparks fly out
When two stones are rubbed,
So perhaps it is not dark inside after all;
Perhaps there is a moon shining
From somewhere, as though behind a hill—
Just enough light to make out
The strange writings, the star-charts
On the inner walls.

Walker comments: "This poem is extraordinarily successful in its treatment of the relationship between self and object, primarily because it establishes convincing imaginative sympathy without then losing self-consciousness. . . . Not content to build the whole poem on a single effect, he mirrors the jumpy electricity of the imagination, constantly darting into and then away from the stone, surprising us with every move. . . . And through all this shifting focus runs the thread of the second line, the musing, inventive self-consciousness that keeps reminding us in complex ways that the stone both is and is not a metaphor for the self."

Posted on Friday, March 10, 2006 at 10:21PM by Registered CommenterMark Forrester | CommentsPost a Comment

Poetry and Self

"Let me suggest that there are two basic directions in which the current of a poem may flow: toward the ego and its concerns, or away from the individual self and toward the existence of things beyond it, be they other people, animals, plants, stones or water. In the first case the ego ingests and incorporates the world, colonizing, as it were, rattlesnakes and rivers; the world becomes the self. In the second, the opposite happens; the outward flow, the 'negative capability' that obliterates self-concern, allows the self to become the world. It's easy to see how the two experiences can appear to be identical: world equals self on the one hand, self equals world on the other. Isn't that saying the same thing? But the difference is surely crucial. One kind of poem is selfish , receding into a childish and fearful ignorance. The other is selfless, moving toward maturity, acceptance, understanding. If this difference is valid, then it helps to explain the unease one feels with poetry in which the concerns and demands of the self are exalted, even idealized. It looks like poetry, but it is an inversion, even a parody, of the real thing."
                   —David Young, "The Bite of the Muskrat: Judging Contemporary
                   Poetry," in A Field Guide to Contemporary Poetry and Poetics

I believe there is a good deal of truth in this, but it is (I think) spoken from a position of privilege. There is a substantial and important body of poetry, often written by members of marginalized communities, that seeks to inscribe and claim the self.

Consider, for example, this short poem by Shirley Kaufman, based on the Biblical tale of Lot's wife, who was turned into a pillar of salt for turning to look back upon the destruction of Sodom:

                   His Wife

                   But it was right that she
                   looked back.  Not to be
                   curious, some lumpy
                   reaching of the mind
                   that turns all shapes to pillars.
                   But to be only who she was
                   apart from them, the place
                   exploding, and herself
                   defined. Seeing them melt
                   to slag heaps and the flames
                   slide into their mouths.
                   Testing her own lips then,
                   the coolness, till
                   she could taste the salt.

The movement in this poem is decidedly toward "the individual self" and away from "the existence of things beyond it," but it is the very opposite of colonizing. In fact, Kaufman specifically rejects this parasitic, reductive way of looking at the world ("Not to be / curious, some lumpy / reaching of the mind / that turns all shapes to pillars.") in favor of a constructively defining focus on Self ("to be only who she was / apart from them"). From the very title, Kaufman's poem decries the possessiveness that denies individuality, while rejecting its claims by leaving Lot himself unnamed. The taste of salt is not presented as a just punishment for denying others, but as the bitter price she pays for seeking Self (and, of course, for disobeying a patriarchal God).

This acclamation of Self should not be seen (or, worse, judged) as a matter of degrees of "development" or enlightenment (i.e., you must have a secure sense of selfhood before you can move past it, to the next level), but simply as the current and specific needs of a particular individual. Because my perspective, too, is from a position of privilege, a position in which the legitimacy of my claims to selfhood have never been challenged, these are things that I [believe I] understand but which I struggle to realize .

Posted on Saturday, March 4, 2006 at 10:31AM by Registered CommenterMark Forrester | CommentsPost a Comment

On Education

"Once learners understand the learning process as a matter of constructing their own meaning, acquiring knowledge becomes a fundamentally different process. At present, students experience school as a situation in which they try to incorporate someone else's ideas into their existing understanding by means of memory. This is hard and tedious, and for some students, implicitly humiliating work. As individuals construct their own understanding, instead of accepting the understandings provided by authorities, they find themselves in dialogue with all texts, all ideas, all experience, all of reality. This is empowering, exciting, invigorating work."
                   —Michael Strong,
                   The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice

Posted on Saturday, February 25, 2006 at 09:12AM by Registered CommenterMark Forrester | Comments1 Comment