13 December 2011

Body #1: Insides, Outsides, Passivity and Activity in a Visit to the Dentist

Today I had to go to the dentist, mostly for a checkup and cleaning of teeth. My main attitude in this situation is to relax and sort of take a nap while I'm being worked on. I don't usually get opportunities to lie down in a comfy chair mid-day, so why not, and this makes some of the unpleasantness of the dentist go away. Of course, this usually opens room for thinking, and then reflections on being made an object, i.e., on me being taken up not as a lived body (as Merleau-Ponty would put it) but as a thing.

This is especially so when I pay attention to and am appreciative of just what the dentist or hygienist is doing , which is scraping away toughly impacted tartar with great finesse and nuance without injuring me, and when I note how doing this requires the dentist or hygienist planting fingers on my jaw with a fair bit of force so as to give a firm platform for fine tool work. All this makes me experience myself not just as an object being operated on, but as a sort of ground or firmament for someone else's work, as if I were not just a thing being worked on by a carpenter, but the carpenter's bench as well.

Today I noticed something further on these lines, when the hygienist's use of my lower jaw as stabilizing platform led to my head being pushed back and forth. This made me realize how weak my neck is at holding my head against these forces. And then when the hygienist shift to my upper jaw, all of a sudden my head became more stable.

What was really interesting was at just this point I became aware of my body as if from the inside. I felt my neck bones holding up my skull, and my skull levered off the front of this neck post, and my lower jaw hinging down from my head. The feeling was somewhat kin to feeling, in the dark of a hotel room, how a cupboard you are trying to open is in fact a folding according door and thereby feeling how solids are hinged together, or again, feeling the flexibility of different thickness and kinds of rope in flopping them about. Only in this case, the feeling was for the insides of my own body, insides that I don't usually feel as material objects at all. I inhabit the world from the position of my head, I don't feel the bony scaffold that holds it up inside. But in this moment I did.

What is notable here is that feeling arose through my being passive to the hygienist's manipulations. It was someone else manipulating me as object who gave me for a feel for these inside articulations. To feel things we need to be passive to them. But we are not often passive to our own bodies, or the deep passivity one might have to the heft and workings of one's body is overwritten with living one's body toward the world.

07 December 2011

Art #2: Statuary & Statutory Animacy

In which the author learns about animacy from a statue.

Phenomenon: The strike by support staff at McGill is now over, so I've resumed my usual walk to work through McGill campus. It was nice to be back on old turf, and as I was walking through I found a familiar fellow catching my eye and then my whole attention, pulling me round to give a gander as I passed him by:

This is a statue of James McGill. What really caught me (and what my absence from campus let come to the fore, I hadn't quite noticed it before, it was all too familiar) is the flapping of his coat tails in the wind (not so much the gentle clapping of hand to head to keep his hat in place). This flapping isn't as noticeable in the photo; it's much more compelling when you're walking by on equal footing with him, in the round. (I noticed that right way: my iPhone screen caught him dead, took the wind right out of his sails.) [You should know that McGill himself is reported on various website to be a slave owner; this is also stated in the book James McGill of Montreal (search for slave/slaves). My affection here is for the statue, not for the fellow himself.]

Wonder: How is that I am caught by and see: coat tails blowing in the wind, not just a solid, fixed piece of bronze? How is that I perceive animacy in a statue? (Two related phenomena that I ran into many years ago in a Merleau-Ponty reading group that met at the Green Room in Toronto: I walk into meet the group and find myself skirting around a person so as not to have him step into me, only to realize the person is in fact a mannequin; and then I find the group, and think there are some more mannequins behind them, but it turns out they are real people, actors practicing freezes. This is a true story, with witnesses; the coincidences are explained by the fact that the Green Room wasan actors hangout with the mannequins as a deliberately theatrical prop.)  

Insights and answers after the jump...

23 January 2010

Phenomenon #2: Pears, Pairing and Thinking Symbols in the Body

In which the author learns about the bodily nature of symbols shopping for pears.

Description: I am at Segal's (aka 4001 St. Laurent), doing shopping, for the first time in too long a time. I see some pears (Bosc) and reach for them. Their sense for me in this reaching is not: pear-as-biological-fruit or even pear-as-produce, but pear-as-something-my-partner-particularly-likes-in-a-special-kind-of-way. I.e., I am not reaching for them as mere fruit, but as connecting me up with home, my partner, love, my life. The reaching is not mere motor-perceptual-movement here in this store, but emotional and futurally expansive (already involved in something far beyond this-here-moment, with that something beyond, its futurity, itself a theme, vs. the kind of extension beyond the moment inherent in any ongoing moment).

In this very reaching, something else appears. This is Vito Corleone's gesture (beautifully and compellingly acted by Robert de Niro in Godfather: Part II)  of taking a pear (carefully wrapped in protective newspaper) from his pocket, unwrapping it and proudly, tenderly, concentratedly, affirmatively, and gently setting it on the kitchen table to surprise his wife with a gift, as if this pear, or this pear as enabling this giving gesture, is the centre of the world, or something on which a shared life can be centred. (This is after Vito has unjustly lost his job to Don Fanucci's nephew.)

13 November 2009

Art#1: Spatial Music, the Music of Space

Description: There's a new art work (or at least new to me) installed outdoors in the Place des Arts in Montreal. It's on the side of the building on the north west corner of St Urbain and Ste Catherine. The building is one of those well, let's say, kind of ugly, probably late 60s vintage buildings, when concrete was the new thing, and blocky cubiness was good. The concrete in the outer walls is vertically ribbed and textured. For the installation thin vertical strips of what look to be LEDs are placed in the crevices between the ribs, on the wall running along St. Catherine and up St. Urbain. They are illuminated in rhythmed patterns, that involve all the strips, both turning them off and on, and dim and brighten them in what look to be a relatively large number of levels. Sometimes the strips flash in simple alternation, but then more complex patterns develop. In the small time I watched, one thing seemed to be that there weren't any traveling patterns, i.e., successive strips lighting up in successively different positions, so there were no effects like lights appearing to circle around a theatre marquee. (I couldn't find anything about this installation on the web.)

What was striking about this phenomenon is that after about a minute of watching this, I clearly experienced it as music. Music without sound, but clearly having the sort of rhythmed countour of a bunch of people playing jazz with one another, or perhaps drumming together, playing a minimalist piece like Terry Riley's In C, or playing in hocket style, as in the polyphonic music tradition of the Banda, in which music a group of players who are playing instruments that can only play a small number of notes, throw their few notes back and forth, create complex polyphonic patterns.

Question: So, first: interesting to experience light as music. But second: I've watched many animated films that aspire to manifest music in visual form, e.g., the work of Oskar Fischinger, but inevitably experience this as an effort to translate music into something else, that doesn't work. Perhaps this is because such films typically have the music playing along with the visuals.

But I wonder if this might be because of the spatial layout and breadth of the installation. When watching an animated film that aspires to visually show music, one grasps one picture that is internally articulating and morphing. The experience of this sculpture is more like watching independent things in the world resonating rhythmically with one another, synching, desynching, lagging, splaying spatially and temporally. I wonder if this might have to do with the phenomenon. If there's anything right to this, I wonder what this might say about music. Does music catch us because synched up spatially distributed movements of the world--the leaves blowing and pulsing across the orchard, the grass swaying and ruffling, the kids playing, the dancers dancing, the dogs circling, the gazelles stotting and bouncing, the horses galloping with legs in counterpoint--also catch us? Might there be a music of space, a way in which we sense our way through it because of its cross rhythms? This might be conceptualized as an elaboration of the sort of affordance offered by vection of the visual field in Gibson's accounts. And something like this might be at play in the visual rhythm of the colonnade, and so on.

24 October 2009

Phenomenon #1: Digits vs. the Visual Expanse they Occupy

In brief: The legibility of digits in a crossed out or highlighted series appears to block quick location of the next digit in the series to cross out.

Description: Today I was helping a friend do a manual tally of her teaching evaluations. To do this I set up a Word document with a table. In the table there was a row for each question we were to tally, with blank boxes in the row for each score on the rating scale (Excellent, Very good, etc.--lots of excellents in fact!). The plan was to record, in each box, the number of evaluations with a given score, as she read the scores aloud. Specifically, the plan was to use the tallying strategy where you make a vertical stroke for each item, up to four strokes, and then make a horizontal stroke through the group, to count five. I thought this would make for easier totalling at the end.

But it turns out that when you're doing multiple counts in different boxes, and looking from box to box, it's hard to quickly see whether there are four strokes in the group, i.e., whether a horizontal stroke is called for. (It's very different if you're doing just one count, in which case the four vertical strokes, then one horizontal, system works well.)

18 October 2009

Experiment #1: Bilingualism & Biworldism

Experimental Result: For a while now, psychologists have known that being bilingual correlates with improved performance in certain perceptual situations.

Consider a situation where you are asked to indicate whether the arrow in the centre of the following two arrays is pointing to the left or right: 1) »»»»» 2) ««»««. Results show that bilingual people are better at this task; they aren't as thrown off, we could say, by the arrows pointing in incongruent directions.

A recent article, "On the Bilingual Advantage in Conflict Processing: Now You See It, Now You Don't" (Cognition 113(2009) 135-149), probes this "bilingual advantage" in more detail, with experimental results that indicate that the relative advantage of bilinguals over monolinguals is apparent when tasks of the sort illustrated in 1) and 2) are presented in relatively rapid alternation ( vs. when blocks of the 1) task are followed by blocks of the 2) task). Also the advantage is more in response time than ability to perform the task. The discussion focuses on why this is the case: why does bilingualism confer this advantage? Is it based in some better ability to resolve conflicting information, or in better ability to attentively monitor situations, so as to apply the right kind of attention to it? The authors incline to the latter, although they can't settle the issue.

On their view, bilinguals who are able to switch between one language and another quickly, sometimes even within a conversation, need to develop an ability to monitor their linguistic/auditory context and attend to it in the right way, e.g., not listen to conversations in other languages that are going on in the background, listen to this conversation as in language X, not Y.

Discussion: This raises interesting questions about the relation between language, perception, and inhabiting the world in different ways. Putting aside questions of underlying mechanisms, this result and the phenomenon are interesting for several reasons.

17 October 2009

Animal #1: In the Sway of Light: Animal Machines and Activity-Passivity

"Bad Memories Written With Lasers" (BBC News) describes a technique wherein memories are written into fly brains with lasers. An article in the most recent Wired, "Powered By Photons" (not online yet) describes what I presume is some of the background to this sort of manipulation. Genes from an algae are introduced into the brain via viral vector, in anatomically selective regions, with selective uptake by various kinds of neurons. This allows fine targeting of the neurons that will take up the gene. The gene produces proteins that open channels in cells walls when photons hit them; another variety of such a gene-protein, responsive to a different light wavelength, closes channels. The upshot is neural firings can be controlled by light. (This area of exploration now has its own name: optogenetics.)